Sunday, January 29, 2006

Truthiness and the people's encyclopedia

Oh, and that reference to the pederasty conviction, you might want to change that too—What do Congressional staffers do in their spare time? They go into Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia and alter the entries for their employers to get rid of anything negative. So far, the Lowell Sun reports, more than 1,000 changes in Wikipedia have been traced to Congressional staffers, mostly those working in the House of Representatives. [Click headline or here]. That’s in six months! Wikipedia has had some troubles because it is sort of a people’s encyclopedia: anyone who thinks they are an expert can go in and make entries or changes. The problem, of course, is that there are a lot of people who think they are experts and aren’t, and there are a number of “contributors” whose work cannot be described as for the edification of the masses.

According to the Sun, the staff of Rep. Marty Meehan (D. Mass), erased references to his broken term-limits promise (he promised to serve only eight years maximum but power got too much for him) as well as information about his huge campaign war chest. The Congressman’ chief of staff said he told an intern to go wash the entry.

Before the editing:
Meehan first ran for Congress in 1992 on a platform of reform. As part of that platform Meehan made a pledge to not serve more than four terms, a central part of his campaign. This breaking of the pledge has been a controversial issue in the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts.

After the intern got at the entry:

Meehan was elected to Congress in 1992 on a plan to eliminate the deficit. His fiscally responsible voting record since then has earned him praise from citizen watchdog groups. He was re-elected by a large margin in 2004.
Steven Colbert, on Comedy Central, coined the word “truthiness” to describe the current state of truth in American life. I suspect that word will wind up in the dictionaries.

'L'Etat, c'est moi. I'm just not very good at it—UPDATED. AND AGAIN

Listen, we don’t want to do anything that makes the President look bad. Now stop laughing, you idiot, you’re job depends on it!The New York Times’s redoubtable Andy Revkin, has a killer story today, more evidence that this administration is as evil as it is incompetent. The longtime director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James E. Hansen, one of the country’s most respected climate scientists, says that NASA is trying to muzzle his comments on global warming. He has told them to shove it. NASA political appointees also told the public affairs office (once the paradigm of how government public relations should work) to lean on Hansen and at least one p.i.o. told them to stick it in the same place.

His battles with the administration have not gone unnoticed in the media, but Revkin's story is the most detailed and sourced.

UPDATE—The young bureaucrat responsible for all of this, George Deutsch, resigned on Tuesday, the 7th. The resignation came after Texas Tech announced that contrary to Deutsch's resume, he did not graduate from there. He fell on his sword sometime thereafter. For Deutsch's lamebrained defense, see Revkin here. I guess I'm not the only awed by the fact that a 24-year-old is taken off a college newspaper and put in charge of the public relations operation of NASA.

The trouble began when Hansen, in a speech at the University of Iowa during the last presidential election, said that scientists warning of global warming were being muzzled by the administration and he was going to vote for John Kerry. Things got really hairy in September, he said, because he was discussing the clear-cut dangers of not cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. He also warned that unless something is done, we will leave the earth "a different planet."

Studying long-range climate models is his speciality. He knows as much about it as any human and consequently, the administration wants him to shut up. NASA, of course, denied all of this, but Revkin backed up Hansen’s statement with other sources, including several who were willing to be named, including Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer, who apparently won’t play the game either. She was told by a political appointee that his job was to make the President look good. She said that wasn’t in her job description. Most of the threats have come by telephone, leaving no paper trail. Meanwhile, interviews have been cancelled and now public affairs officers must sit in on interviews, which in my day was sufficient reason for a reporter to walk.

The story fits in with many others of this administration’s attempt to keep more things in secret—except, of course, your telephone calls and library loans and lots of other things. And, the story comes a week after data were released showing 2005 the warmest year in half a century. [We’re not having winter this year in Maryland, by the way.]

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reports this morning that the NSA has spent six years and hundreds of millions of dollars on a computerized system to monitor electronic data that still isn't working. The Sun's Siobhan Gorman reports that the goal was supposed to be a state-of-the-art system to comb through the ocean of data flowing electronically around the world and filter out messages that would help protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks. Called Trailblazer, it was launched in 1999 and was supposed to monitor e-mail, cell phones and IM. Had the system been working before 9/11, it might have spotted messages tipping off the government to the plot. But it wasn't and it didn't. It still isn't running. The NSA is expected to trash the whole thing and start anew from the detritus.

One expert called Trailblazer the "biggest boondoggle going on now in the intelligence community.

As they said in "L'il Abner," the country's in the very best of hands."

[Photo: James Hansen, Washington Post]

Friday, January 27, 2006

Science you can use for scoring in bars

Listen, I have a speech to give and I’m really nervous. Would you go to bed with me?--Social science has finally come up with the ultimate pickup line. There are even data to support it. Sex before giving a speech has a calming effect. And getting laid beats masturbation. I hope they got a government grant for this.

Stuart Brody, a psychologist at the University of Paisley in Scotland, reported that having sex lowered blood pressure for people who were about to undergo a stressful experience. It had to be good-old-fashioned vagina-penile intercourse, and just making out didn’t cut it. He tested 24 women and 22 men and they kept diaries. He noted how often they had sex and then put the volunteers in stressful situations, usually involving public speaking. (Getting laid, putting it in your dairy and having some psychologist read it apparently wasn’t stressful enough for Brody.) The ones who did it the old-fashioned way had lower blood pressure faster than those who did it by hand, and those who didn’t score at all had the most stressful experience. I should think so!

The report is to be published in Biological Psychology. [Subscription only]

Brody says he took into account the notion that people who volunteer for tests like these are different than people who do not. He does not think it is just the orgasm that produces the effect. "The effects are not attributable simply to the short-term relief afforded by orgasm, but rather, endure for at least a week," says Brody. He speculates that release of the "pair-bonding" hormone oxytocin between partners might account for the calming effect.

"A growing body of research shows that it is specifically intercourse, and not other sexual behaviors, whether alone or with a partner, that is associated with a broad range of psychological and physiological benefits.

"And greater frequency of intercourse is associated with greater benefits."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

With heroes like these, we're in trouble--UPDATED

Google the words "hypocrisy.” What, you can’t? It’s been banned? —Before civil libertarians exhaust themselves praising the stand by Google to oppose subpoenas from the Big Brothers in Washington, a note of caution. In the words of W. S. Gilbert, “things are seldom what they seem.” Everyone was agog on learning that the company, born in a Stanford engineering dorm, that has a product almost universally acclaimed as indispensable, refused demands by the Justice Department to turn over search material so it could gather evidence for a court battle over a child pornography law. Three other companies, America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo, negotiated some limits and then handed over the information. Google refused. Everyone cheered. Why?

The government request was for what URLs people were asking for and not who the people were. None of the search engines were asked to identify customers. The government wanted to know how many times you (or rather, your children) put in an innocent URL request and got back filth. It did not ask who put in the request and saw the filth. They also asked for one million randomly selected web addresses. That might help them identify the owners of the sites but not who clicked their way there.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s record on civil liberties is appalling and no one in their right minds trusts them. Clearly, the next subpoena could go further and ask how many people logged on www. and got dirty pictures and who those little devils were. [That actually happened until someone put a stop to it and now you get, well, the White House.] Slippery slope and all that. But that’s a different argument. Moreover, Google’s concerns were less a question of customer privacy than trade secrets. Lots of people would love to know the algorithms Google uses to track down, oh say, the more than 1.84 million references to “Stepford Wives,” in .06 seconds, or the 6.94 million references to naked pictures of Paris Hilton in 011 seconds [I’m not making that up, and don’t bother], and the information demanded in the subpoena would compromise that, Google feared. And what a wonderful public relations position to be in: you look like a hero and our competitors look like schmucks.

Now, it seems, the company that promised it would do no evil [company motto], did agree to some evil. It agreed to ban certain “sensitive” terms from its Chinese search engines, oh, things like Falun Gong, the spiritual movement, and Taiwan independence. According to a Google lawyer [who else?], "In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on in response to local law, regulation or policy. While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission." How about telling the Chinese to bugger off? I thought that was supposed to be consistent with its supposed mission.

Sources in the company said he decision was the result of intense conversation within the company. Apparently, not intense enough. And how did Google report Google: According to the one report at
"The main story on the news site is about the resumption of direct flights between China and Taiwan. There is a lot about a visit by the Saudi King and more discussion of the toxic spill which poisoned a river in north-east China but no, there's no mention of this story about Google. I've been trying all day."

-- Jane Macartney, Beijing correspondent for The Times, finds the first sign of Google's complicity in Chinese censorship -- the omission of any news reporting that complicity
It also won’t do e-mail or blogging in China. Wouldn’t want the officials to get upset and e-mail and blogs are hard to control. Wouldn’t want to tinker with the ridiculous price of its stock either.

[Photo: Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. BBC]

Monday, January 23, 2006

Smoking stacks, murdered heros, and lying politicians--oh my.

We’re number 28! We’re number 28!--A survey of the countries of the world and how they treat the environment places the United States 28th, behind most of Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Chile. But don’t worry, the Russians are worse. Lovely, gentle New Zealand came in first and anyone whose been there is happy with that result. The joint study, by Yale and Columbia Universities, measured things like clean drinking water and low ozone levels, fisheries and greenhouse gas emission. Using the Environmental Performance Index, the survey measured how governments do with what the world has handed them. For instance, the British cut down all their trees 500 years ago and there’s not much the present government can do about that. Air quality rankings generally are higher in undeveloped countries because they are not spewing as much industrial waste into the air, while industrialized countries do better in the index in environmental health--things like lead poisoning.

Just because you love the world doesn’t mean the world will love you back--Joan Root, a conservationist and film maker, was murdered in her Kenya home Jan. 13, probably by poachers pissed at her interference in their commerce. It’s on the same lake outside of Nairobi where George Adamson and his wife Joy of “Born Free” fame, also were killed and probably also by poachers. Root was shoot down by a sniper. Root was trying to keep fishing poachers out of Lake Naivasha, knew she was a target and hired private bodyguards, but they were ineffective. She and her ex-husband made several noted documentaries about Africa and were nominated for an Academy Award.

Of course you can trust me, I’m a politician--A Canadian researcher used an algorithm that detects when politicians are “spinning,” and discovered that yes, they are. We're amazed aren't we? David Skillicom at Queen’s University in Ontario, analyzed the usage patterns of 88 deception-linked words within recent campaign speeches in Canada, which is holding an election today, and then determined the frequency of these patterns and averaged that number over the number of speeches. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin scored higher than his Conservative opponent, Stephen Harper or the New Democratic Party’s Jack Layton. (Canada has three main parties, not counting the Quebec nationalist party--good for them). Martin scored 124, Harper and Layton 73 and 88. One polling expert was not surprised. The Liberals have been in power for the last 14 years and the party in power usually has the toughest time explaining themselves. The algorithm was developed by James Pennebacker at the University of Texas. I know another Texan he can try that on.

P.S. Harper won.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Politics, science and whales--Don't call me Ishmael--And don't call London

I'm sorry. What did you say about the whales? The sonar was so loud I couldn't hear a thing-- A federal scientist who linked navy sonar blasts to the stranding of 37 whales on the North Carolina coast last year, changed her report to eliminate the sonar before it was released. All references to the role the sonar played in the strandings were eliminated from the National Marine Fisheries Service report by the author, Teri Rowles, coordinator of the stranding response program, because, the service said, later investigation showed the early information was "inaccurate," the Washington Post reported. [Click on headline] Not everyone believes that since none of the early information was changed in the report, just the conclusion.

See, the navy wants to build a underwater sonar training range in the North Carolina area and any idea that the sonar might be harmful to marine life, particularly whales and dolphins, would create a public relations problem. So, to hell with science. This is the Bush Administration we're talking about here.

The early draft of the report, released under court order after the National Resources Defense Council sued the fisheries agency, said that injuries to several of the whales "may be indicative" of damage related tot he loud blasts of sound from active sonar. One injury, air bubbles in the liver of a pilot whale, was similar to mass strandings in the Bahamas and Canary Islands associated with sonar. But when the report was actually released, sonar was not mentioned. Rowles said the references were removed because sonar has not been implicated or eliminated. "It remains one of many possible causes." Right. And, she might have added--but didn't--I'd get fired if I left it in.

Meanwhile, a northern bottlenose whale (left) that decided to swim up the Thames and visit London had a bad trip despite heroic efforts by human allies. As it was being lifted into a barge to be brought back to sea, where it belongs, it went into convulsions and died. I wonder if it wasn't trying to flee the U.S. Navy's sonar. Probably not.

[Photos: Washington Post and AP]

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Where is Doc Ricketts when we need him?

Just what we needed, a happy story about global warming--The sardines are back in Monterey Bay and in quantities that approach the heyday of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Besides being an excuse to write about one of my favorite places and favorite books by a favored author, the renaissance of the sardine may be further proof of changing climate. No one knows for sure.

Monterey Bay is a biologic treasure chest. Very cold water from a profoundly deep trench bubbles to the surface bringing with it clouds of food for marine creatures. Until the late 1940s, the bay also teamed with gigantic tides of sardines, which the good denizens of Monterey, caught and put in cans. Steinbeck chronicled their life in what I think is one of the great American comedies. Then, the sardines simply disappeared. No one knows why. The canneries closed and only in the last decade (mostly because of the fabulous aquarium there) has the place come back to something resembling prosperity, even if it is tourist-infested.

Now the sardines are back. In a story by Emily Saarman in the Santa Cruz Sentinal, she writes that warm ocean currents--perhaps the result of global warming--have brought the return of the sardines. Sardines like warmer water and the bay is warming up. Climate change or natural cycle, no one knows for sure. But canneries are again booming, although none on Cannery Row itself. Too many tourists spending too much money. (By the way, do you know of many places in America that are famous for a book--even one few of the people going there have read?). One Salinas plant is canning 10, 000 tons a year. Alas, Americans no longer eat sardines; most are shipped to Asia. I happen to love them. Vinegar, tomato, onion and sardines on rye. Yum. They are even good for you.

Monterey Bay is not alone. Saarman reports the silvery fish now are far more plentiful all along the west coast from Mexico to Canada.

Three other things that come to mind because of the story. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, as I told my students, contains probably the greatest first paragraph in American fiction.
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen" and he would have meant the same thing.
Second, the Stanford library has the original, hand-written manuscript of Cannery Row, which Steinbeck wrote with pencil on yellow legal paper. I saw it when I first got there. Steinbeck made very few corrections or modifications to the text. The whole damned thing--first paragraph and all--flew out of the man's head whole. I get so depressed even thinking about it...

And Ricketts? He was a marine biologist and pal of Steinbeck who had a lab on the Row, which is still there. It’s a bar. He’d approve. The lab is the scene for the great frog escape in the book, and Ricketts is the “Doc” in the many Steinbeck works. Steinbeck (once a biology major at Stanford) and Ricketts, took the famous exploration trip through the Gulf of California in Mexico that Steinbeck wrote about in the Log from the Sea of Cortez. Most editions of Cannery Row or the Log print Steinbeck’s eulogy to Ricketts. He was killed by a train crossing a railroad track going for a six-pack of beer. Steinbeck wrote that he was "a great teacher and a great lecher."

My kind of guy.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

If you screw things in right you'd be surprised what happens

The stardust of yesterday--NASA got this one right. Stardust, a space capsule that spent the last seven years scooping up comet dust, stuff perhaps older than the solar system, made a safe and gentle landing in the Utah desert Sunday morning. The last time they tried it, the Genesis spacecraft’s parachutes didn’t open because someone put a part in backwards. The Stardust space capsule travelled almost 3 million miles (4.7 million kms). It is the first time since 1973 that anything from space has been brought to Earth. Stardust came screaming through the atmosphere at 28,860 mph (46,440 kms), the fastest any human-made object has ever travelled. The comet probed was Wild 2 and the dust was captured by a tennis-racket shaped space probe with containers like ice cube compartments. The comet dust collected is miniscule, about the tenth of the width of a human hair. The dust should be at least 4.5 million years old, as old or older than the solar system.

I’d bet Lindsay Lohan gets pregnant if I knew who Lindsay Lohan was--Most gamblers are men. They bet on football, baseball, basketball, politics, anything that moves. Women generally are supposed to have more sense. But an online betting company says that might be changing. Women are beginning to bet, but not on whether the Colts will beat the Steelers (they won’t). They bet on celebrities. They actually care about celebrities. According to a press release relayed to me by a splendid reader,, reports there has been a 30 percent increase on female betters and the women say they bet on celebrities so they can have a vested interest in the celebrities’ lives. So much for women being more sensible than men. The web site posts odds on Paris Hilton (the temptation to put something really salacious in parenthesis is almost irresistible), Jessica Simpson (I don’t know who she is either), and Tom Cruise (oh, he’s the Scientologist bouncing on the couch). Online gambling, incidentally, is a $7 billion a year business. [Thank you, Jonathan].

Friday, January 13, 2006

How many Jewish mothers does it take to produce the Ashkenazi population? Four, of course.

You never write, you never visit, you never compliment the soup--Apparently, about half of us can trace our ancestry back to four women. We’ll call them Leah, Rachel, Sarah and Rebecca. I made up the names--sort of--but not the genetics.

Researchers in Israel, using mitochondrial DNA analysis, have found that many of the Ashkenazim, Jews mostly of central and eastern European origin, descended from the four matriarchs. mtDNA [do you capitalize the first letter of a lowercase name when it leads a sentence?] is passed through the female line, mother to daughter. If a woman has no daughter, her mtDNA ends with her. Using DNA analysis, Doron Behar of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and Karl Skorecki of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, traced the ancestry of 3.5 million Ashkenzim back to the four. No one knows when they lived, but it was probably within the last 3,000 years, and no one knows where. They could have been contemporary but maybe not. We don’t know who they are at all, only that they produced a line of females that produced 40% of the 8 million living Ashkenazim, including, for all I know, moi.

They are of Middle-Eastern origin and their descendents were apparently most fruitful and multiplied greatly in the last 1,000 years. Is that cool or what? It’s published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Ashkenazim originated, like all Jews except converts, in what is now Israel and surrounds, and with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the failed rebellion against Rome, spread out to Europe, mostly through Italy. They soon found their homes in places like Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia and by World War 2, there were 10 million of us. (After World War 2, there were 4 million of us). Sometime between that diaspora and now (probably earlier than later) the four women began their long line. Ashkenazim represent 8 of the 13 million Jews now alive.

We ought to at least write. And don't forget to compliment the chopped liver.

[Illustration: Mothers of the 12 Tribes, Barbara Mendes, used with the permission of the artist. See]

Thursday, January 12, 2006

How is intelligent design like disco music?--UPDATED

Just when you think you’ve killed it, it comes back--
The next case in the battle between the know-nothings and the Constitution moves to a remote town in the Tehachapi mountains of California. The town is Lebec, population 1,285, which is usually not enough people to have lawsuits--it would mean a large part of the town suing the other part. But someone tried to pull a fast one.

The El Tejon Unified School District approved a “philosophy” course on intelligent design. Not science, folks. That would be illegal. On the advice of attorneys, they called it philosophy. It describes all the things supporters of creationism find problematic about evolution and propounds intelligent design. No debate, no discussion. According to the class syllabus: "the class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological and biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. The class will discuss intelligent design as an alternative response to evolution. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions." Not quite on the level of a symposium on Kant’s Categoric Imperative is it?

The course will run four weeks and is being taught by a gym teacher who just happens to be the wife of a fundamentalist minister. You will note certain lack of training in science.

Eleven families with kids in Frazier Mountain High School brought the suit. One of the plaintiffs is a geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who said the course conflicts with his belief as a scientist. The plaintiff's point out that with one exception, the course relies exclusively on videos that advocate religious perspectives and present religious theories as scientific ones — and because the teacher has no scientific training, students are not provided with any critical analysis of the presentation."

And you all thought the good Judge Jones in Pennsylvania killed it off. The Discovery Institute, the mother church of intelligent design, says that opponents are trying to censor discussion of the theory. Actually, what opponents would favor is an intelligent discussion of intelligent design.

UPDATE--On Wednesday, Jan. 18, in a federal court settlement, the school board promised to drop the class and never be cute again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Eine Kleine Wissenschaftmusik

You are going to sterilize that iPod aren’t you?--Doctors tending to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are using a little of the supernatural to help bring Sharon out of his medically induced coma--Mozart. Sharon, for all his reputation as a paratroop general and the bulldozer of Israeli politics is a pushover for classical music (second only to raising sheep), so the doctors told Sharon’s sons to play his favorite music in the hospital room. Mozart has been going on non-stop. Whether Sharon can actually hear it is not known. He has not reacted, which doesn’t mean much because he doesn’t react much to anything at the moment. I vote that it does, at least in a subconscious way. I hope when--and if--he wakes, they ask him. I’d love to know the answer. When I’m on my death bed I want to go out with Mahler. No point going quietly. The Ninth and the Second please. Mozart would make me cry--unless I’ve been at it for a while.

Which brings us to the science part of this blog--the Mozart skull. First of all, this is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Happy birthday, Wolfgang even if you are dead. Mozart’s musical genius has been the subject of considerable scientific speculation. The fact he could sit at a desk and have gorgeous, perfect music spew from his brain in unstoppable torrents is one subject. Scientists like Einstein adored his music for its beauty and its fearless symmetry. A lot of people could write great music, but one man so much so fast? How is that possible? In “Amadeus,” the great Peter Shaffer play, the Salieri character blames God for being unfair and dumping so much creativity into one brain, but that’s a supernatural answer, not a scientific one. Another question, which actually is important scientifically, is how could such a prodigious genius come from ordinary parents? (Leonardo is another example, by the way, the bastard son of a peasant girl and an insignificant minor nobleman). You get into genetics and statistics. Whatever. Which brings us to the skull.

Mozart died of something or other at the age of 35 in 1791. Rumors speculate he was murdered (Shaffer playfully sugests it was the jealous Antonio Salieri) but we don’t know. He was dumped in a pauper’s grave in St. Mark’s cemetery in Vienna. (Sometime in 1855, the grave-site was supposedly identified and there is a plaque there now.) In 1801, a gravedigger named Rothmayer, uncovered a skull in the grave which he said was Mozart’s. The skull has been in the possession of the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg since 1902. Is it Mozart’s? They decided to test it using DNA sampling and brought the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab into the picture. If it was Mozart's perhaps there might be a clue in the brain pan to how he did it, or maybe a hint of why he died so young. They took samples from thigh bones of skeletons believed to be Mozart’s maternal grandmother and a niece and tested them against a tooth in the skull. The answer--drumroll...

We still don’t know. The thighbones turned out to be totally unrelated and probably unrelated to Mozart as well. Doesn’t matter. The more important scientific question is how the hell did he do it?

[The skull picture is an AP photo. The portait of Mozart is by Edinger, 1790]

Sunday, January 08, 2006

What right does the government have to tell me what to suck--UPDATED.

Hey, that was before the election. Now it’s after the election. Leave that penis alone!--There is no place where the battle between church and state gets nastier than when science and medicine are involved. Remember Ms. Schiavo? A particularly nasty one is going on in New York and the fault is with the politicians. We've reported on it before, but now it is even more interesting. It involves an ancient and widely discredited procedure accompanying the circumcision of Jewish males. The practice is called metzitzah b'peh, and in it, the mohel, the rabbi who performs the circumcision, “cleans” the penis after the slice by sucking on it. [I’m not making this up] It’s an ancient practice, going back to the time before germ theory and antiseptics.

Before we start, I must add that the practice was dropped long ago by most mohels. [mohelim] Liberal jews, which are most of us, likely never heard of such a thing [I hadn't] and are appropriately repelled. We use antiseptics, thank you. Even most Orthodox Jews reject it. It is practice generally restricted to a few Hassidic cults, especially the Satmars, the very extreme right wing of Judaism. You have your right wing nuts; we should have our right wing nuts. It’s only fair. About 4,000 are performed in the city each year, mostly by parents who parked their critical faculties at the synagogue door and forgot to reclaim them.

We move now to New York City, where those cults are alive, well and very noisy. One mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Fischer, came under the scrutiny of the New York City Department of Health when three children came down with herpes. One of them died. It seemed Rabbi Fischer likely had herpes and passed the viruses onto the children during metzitzah b’peh. The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (Jewish), demanded he stop. The small community the mohel served, went ballistic. They insisted the herpes came from the mothers (it didn't, tests showed) but they agreed to keep Fischer from performing more circumcisions. Meanwhile, three more babies were infected, one with brain damage, probably linked to direct sucking. Local rabbis told Fischer to stop using metzitzah b'peh, which they claim, incidentally, is mandated in the Talmud, the rabbinic teachings (written well before Pasteur). Fischer took a blood test but the results have no been made public. Naturally, rumors circulated in the Orthodox community he passed his blood test, but no one outside the community is buying it, including the authorities, who actually know the results.

Now it seems there was a mayoral election coming up, with the incumbent mayor, Michael Bloomberg (Jewish) and he has enjoyed considerable support from the Orthodox community. Bloomberg promised the city would not ban the practice and he would let a rabbinic court decide the issue since Jewish law was involved and it is at least as wise as the laws of the State of New York. Fine, except the court didn’t. In an almost impossible situation, caught between civil law, Jewish law, and some seriously demented proponents who have been known to behave like thugs, the court still has not ruled. One Orthodox expert, a famous bioethicist, denounced the practice and was harassed by advocates.

The election came and went, Bloomberg was reelected and now Frieden has issued an unprecedented warning that practice endangered the lives of Jewish babies, a clear violation of Jewish law [which it is]. And the extremists are in total uproar, claiming the ruling violates the separation of church (or schul) and state [which it doesn't] and accused Bloomberg of reneging on a promise not to obstruct their mohels. They threatened to show up at his inauguration wearing yellow Stars of David, the patch the Nazis made Jews wear, yet another example of Godwin's Law in real life. When that was met with outrage by the rest of the community, they held back. The directive from the health department stands and most Members of the Tribe cringe with embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the city health department, in order to keep track of the problem, is ordering reporting of cases of neonatal herpes.

The point is that if Bloomberg had the courage to tell the thugs to shove in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this jam. But then there was this election.... So babies are endangered. In God’s name, of course. The trick, as Joyce Purnick wrote in the Times, is not to try to finesse your way out of difficult situations, but to do what's right and the hell with it.

And, lest you non-Jews out there cluck at our crazies, did you hear about the three Christian ministers who snuck into the Senate to bless the seats of the hearing where Sam Alito’s confirmation hearings will be held. They applied “holy” oil to help assure his confirmation.

I’m not making up any of this.]
Illustration: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravegio, 1602]

Thursday, January 05, 2006

I'll have a soyburger, a software patch and medium fries to go--UPDATED

What has volume, mass and specific gravity and absolutely no use?--Obviously, tofu, better described by its real name, soy bean curd. The only good thing to say about tofu is that it is at least smart enough to take on the taste of whatever it is sitting in, having no taste of its own either. It is part of what I call the soy cult, the notion that soy is not only a good substitute for things like milk and beef, but it is actually good for you. Soy is the leading ingredient in ersatz food. Think soyburger.Keeping in mind the motto of this blog (you know, “everything causes whatever in mice..”) I am pleased to report the latest from health medicine: no it’s not good for you. Well, maybe not. Unless ou are a male mouse. According to the latest research, mice carrying a certain mutation for heart disease were made worse by a diet of soy. Much worse. The mice carried the gene for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart), the leading cause of the sudden death of athletes, you know, the basketball players who drop dead on the court. It affects one out of 500 people. Female mice were unaffected, but the male mice keeled over dribbling up the backcourt. OK, nevermind.. The research was done at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Which reminds me of the great comment by the comedian Lewis Black, who objects strongly to the presence of soy milk in the dairy section of his supermarket. “You know there is no such thing as soy milk because there are no such things as soy titties.” Not on my plate you don't.

By the way, did you know that tofu shrinks the brain? Really.

[The graphic shows the nutritional value of a soy burger. 500 calories]

Gosh, Mr. Gates, we really appreciate your help but I think we’d rather do it ourselves--Readers of this blog know I tend to like dumping on Microsoft. I do so partly because they are big and it’s fun to pick on the big guys, and partly because, with the exception of marketing and pushing the envelope on anti-trust laws, they are howlingly incompetent. I am not alone. In recent days, yet another major flaw was discovered in their iconic software, this time in Windows Metafile (WMF), the part of the software used to draw graphics. That normally wouldn’t be news but this one is even more serious than usual and Microsoft was very fast in getting out a statement, suggesting they may some day get out a patch, when the time is right. What was news was that some experts are advising everyone to ignore the Microsoft patch when it emerges and to use one already developed by a third party. That hasn’t happened before. They simply no longer trust Microsoft to fix things. They are urging businesses to use a patch developed by a man with the unlikely name of Ilfak Guilfanov, which works and works better than anything likely to fly out of Redmond. The security experts believe Microsoft still doesn’t get it. Duh!

UPDATE: Someone got the message. Microsoft announced today it wouldn' wait to send out the patch but would do so promptly.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Bloviation: The scary attack on the First Amendment

When John Ashcroft has problems you know you’re in trouble-
-The announcement that the Justice Department has launched an investigation into who leaked the President’s NSA eavesdropping program is really scary. While ostensibly it is designed to unearth who revealed classified information to a New York Times reporter, it has a much more serious intent: to scare reporters out of reporting stories that offend the administration. It is a blatant, thoroughly cynical, and very scary attack on the First Amendment.

Here’s how it works: you are, like James Risen of the Times, contacted by someone who wants to leak classified information about something possibly illegal that the government is doing. If you do print it and there is an investigation into who leaked the information, you are likely to be hauled before a grand jury and asked who the source was. If you refuse--as all honorable journalists must--you are threatened with jail. The number of reporters willing to publish such a story is now reduced to those who are willing to go to jail on the principle, which is not many of us. The administration knows that. There is no federal shield law and the administration is blocking any attempt to pass one.

The legality of the NSA program is at best murky. While the Attorney General and White House are sure the President has such power, that is not obvious to everyone; many experts, including Conservatives, doubt it. According to the Times, at least one high official in Justice refused to sign off on the program because of qualms about its legality, and the White House had to go to the hospital to talk to John Ashcroft, who was recovering from surgery. Even Ashcroft, the Times said, had problems and had to be talked into it. If that dingbat is concerned, shouldn’t we all?

Leaking classified information is a crime and ought to be investigated. One Senator suggested that the person or persons who leaked the information could have had but two motivations, either to actually harm the U.S., or to make public what he or she or they thought was an illegal act by the President, the most likely scenario.

The legislative branch, which is under an unprecedented attack by the executive branch, would be much better off at this juncture, investigating the legality of the President’s order. If it is illegal, it would constitute an impeachable offense (a tad more serious than a blow job in the Oval Office, I think). But then that would require some guts wouldn’t it, and we’re talking about Congress here.

What had been just the most incompetent administration in modern history (hi there, Warren Harding) is now also the most dangerous.

End of bloviation.

[Photo from]