Nature Endorses Obama

Via Sean Carroll, Nature (yes, Nature!) endorses Obama (via Sean Carroll):

[S]cience is bound by, and committed to, a set of normative values — values that have application to political questions. Placing a disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be; recognizing that ideas should be tested in as systematic a way as possible; appreciating that there are experts whose views and criticisms need to be taken seriously: these are all attributes of good science that can be usefully applied when making decisions about the world of which science is but a part. Writ larger, the core values of science are those of open debate within a free society that have come down to us from the Enlightenment in many forms, not the least of which is the constitution of the United States.

On a range of topics, science included, Obama has surrounded himself with a wider and more able cadre of advisers than McCain. This is not a panacea. Some of the policies Obama supports — continued subsidies for corn ethanol, for example — seem misguided. The advice of experts is all the more valuable when it is diverse: ‘groupthink’ is a problem in any job. Obama seems to understands this. He tends to seek a range of opinions and analyses to ensure that his own opinion, when reached, has been well considered and exposed to alternatives. He also exhibits pragmatism — for example in his proposals for health-care reform — that suggests a keen sense for the tests reality can bring to bear on policy.

Show Solidarity with Khalidi

Ezra Klein has a good suggestion:

Okay, one more quick Khalidi comment. Over at the Motherblog, Tim Fernholz analyzes the controversy and concludes, “no one knows who Khalidi is outside of the media and high information voters, and an even smaller universe of people cares. The attacks by McCain are reprehensible…but ultimately this is not an election about small stuff. This is a big stuff election.” If you want a one-line summary of why John McCain’s Distract-O-Tron 3000 strategy has failed to connect, you can’t do much better than that.

Meanwhile, Khalidi is, as everyone keeps telling you, a well-respected and incisive scholar of the Middle East in general, and the Palestinian struggle for nationhood in particular…

Presumably, this experience has not been a pleasant one for Khalidi. But it would be nice if some good emerged from it in the form of broader familiarity with his important works. So next time you hear Hannity explain how Rashid Khalidi urinates on a Haggadah during full moons, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Its an important book on its own terms, and its purchase is a worthy counter-statement to this type of anti-Arab fearmongering.

And, as Henry Farrell suggests, if you prefer a unionized book seller, you can buy it here at Powell’s.

How Will Mobilization for Obama Affect the Vote on Proposition 8?

Edge_viewimage_storyphp Scott Stiffler in Edge (Miami):

One of the largely unasked questions of the election is how the turnout by African Americans in California will affect Proposition 8. Will increased numbers of African American voters who arrive at California polls in support of Barack Obama play a decisive role in eliminating the state’s recent same sex marriage advances?

Several veteran human rights activists are working hard within the community to convince African Americans that defeating Proposition 8 is part of the logical continuation of gains made in the civil rights era and beyond.

Their work serves a s a rebuttal to a contentious New York Times article that speculated, “Black voters, enthused by Mr. Obama’s candidacy but traditionally conservative on issues involving homosexuality, could pour into voting stations in record numbers to punch the Obama ticket – and then cast a vote for Proposition 8.”

Proposition 8, a result of last year’s state Supreme Court decision allowing for same sex marriage, asks voters to decide, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.” As each side spends millions to bend the hearts and minds of voters to their side, the latest polls from this past weekend show a statistical dead heat after adjustments are made for the margin of error. The first poll, sponsored by No on 8 and conducted by Lake Research, shows 47 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. A Survey USA poll shows 47 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

But is the link between conservative voting patterns and skepticism among African Americans towards gay rights legitimate, or is it just another attempt to box a diverse population into a convenient label?

Lisa Anderson

Lisaanderson In Egypt Today, a profile of the new provost of the American University in Cairo:

After 20 years at Columbia, the move to Cairo and AUC is a big shift for Anderson, whose name became publicly associated with the Middle East when she invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the Columbia World Leaders Forum in 2006. The controversial invitation — heavily criticized in the US and later rescinded by the university because of “security concerns” — illustrates Anderson’s forthright personality as a leader who is not afraid of challenges.

Anderson’s relationship with Egypt began approximately 30 years ago when she was a student at AUC’s Center for Arabic Study Abroad.

“The current state of my Arabic does not reflect well on the program,” she laughs, “but I had a really wonderful time. It was just one of those experiences that begins to change what you aspire to do. I ended up being a political scientist who works a lot in the Middle East.”

In September 2007, Anderson was appointed to AUC’s Board of Trustees along with Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and former US Assistant Secretary of State Dina Habib Powell.

“All along, I had been following AUC’s ambitious fundraising efforts for the new campus. I remember coming to Cairo last February and walking around the new campus for the first time. I thought it was just breathtaking. So when I was given the opportunity to come out and put the intellectual and academic meat on the bones of this campus, it was just too irresistible to pass up,” says Anderson. “The fact that AUC is undergoing this dramatic transformation was very much a part of the appeal for me.”

is it over?


This is the 13th presidential campaign I have followed, as a teenager and as an adult, and the only previous campaign that generated anything like the same passion and enthusiasm was the first of those: John Kennedy’s in 1960. For many people, including myself, the excitement of this campaign is the prospect of an African-American president who could change the direction of his country, and perhaps the world, after the barren Bush years.

However, we should not allow excitement to mask reality. The Obama-McCain contest has generated a number of myths about America’s electorate – and it has also generated the polling evidence to extinguish those myths. What is that evidence? And how far can we trust the polls that tell us that Obama is heading for an emphatic victory?

more from The New Statesman here.

money monster


The enormous growth of the financial sector is one of the wonders of our age. In the 1960s the business of banking, broking and insuring accounted for just 10 per cent of total corporate profits in most developed economies. By 2005, this proportion had swelled to nearly 35 per cent in the US and roughly the same in Britain—the two countries that host the world’s largest financial centres. Last year a staggering one in five Britons earned their living in finance.

Of course, the profitability of the financial sector is declining on account of the credit crisis. But the politicians and financial authorities have felt obliged to plug the holes that have appeared in a deflating system with vast public support, and now even direct capital injections. Finance is now not only big, but worryingly unstable. Moreover, embedded in this growth is a mystery. Whereas companies such as Microsoft and Google have risen by devising products that have added to the productive capacity of the economy, finance provides no such final good or product. It is a utilitarian mechanism for bringing together savers and borrowers, and this has not changed markedly since the 1960s (although, as we shall see it has become considerably more complex). So what explains its relentless expansion?

more from Prospect Magazine here.

an american story


A year ago, no one here would have predicted that a black candidate would become the nominee of a major party and have a more than realistic chance of winning the White House on 4 November. And it’s a testament to Obama’s considerable skill that he has largely managed to make his race an afterthought. America is on the verge of something historic and it almost seems anticlimactic.

But black Americans are still pinching themselves, still not quite able to believe what has been achieved. And all Americans should pause from the heated political rhetoric and reflect on the sense of accomplishment, win or lose, that his candidacy represents – an affirmation of that American ideal.

I think back to my father, who suffered terrible racism in the south, still believing for his son: ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ That means any little boy can even dream of being President. And that really is only in America.

more from The Guardian here.

Trapped in the New ‘You’re on Your Own’ World

In the NYRB, Robert Solow reviews Peter Gosselin’s High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families:

Statistical [income] volatility is an abstract fact. Gosselin humanizes it by choosing as his basic indicator the chance that a person or family will experience a year-to-year drop in income of more than 50 percent. Sure enough, this probability almost doubled between the decades of the 1970s and the 2000s, from one in twenty to about one in eleven. (The probability of a 50+ percent rise in income also increased from about one in nine to one in seven. Volatility works both ways, but it is the bad surprises that hurt.)

Then Gosselin does an interesting thing. What sorts of contingencies would lead to such a drastic and sudden reduction in a family’s income? The obvious suspects are major unemployment, illness, retirement or disability, divorce or separation, death of a spouse, even birth of a child leading to one parent’s withdrawal from a job. Adding all these together, Gosselin finds that their combined incidence was somewhat lower in the decade between 1994 and 2003 than it had been between 1974 and 1983. If one of them happens, however, the chance that it leads to a 50 percent drop in income was much higher in the later period than in the earlier one. So it is the financial risk that has jumped, not the generic hard luck. This sounds suspiciously like the tearing of a safety net. Welcome to the world of Individual Responsibility—the approach to economic security that has been advocated by government and the private sector in recent years.

No on Proposition 8 in California: Fighting Legally Enshrined Discrimination

The California proposition amounts to state sanctioned discrimination. Consider contributing to the fight against it.

Marriage is the institution that conveys dignity and respect to the lifetime commitment of any couple.  PROPOSITION 8 WOULD DENY LESBIAN AND GAY COUPLES that same DIGNITY AND RESPECT.

That’s why Proposition 8 is wrong for California.

Regardless of how you feel about this issue, the freedom to marry is fundamental to our society, just like the freedoms of religion and speech.


Friday Poem

Lunar Eclipse
by Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-1060)

A maid comes running into the house
talking about things beyond belief,

about the sky all turned to blue glass,
the moon to a crystal of black quartz.

It rose a full ten parts round tonight,
but now it’s just a bare sliver of light.

My wife hurries off to fry roundcakes,
and my son starts banging on mirrors:

it’s awfully shallow thinking, I know,
but that urge to restore is beautiful.

The night deepens. The moon emerges,
then goes on shepherding stars west.

translated from the Chinese by David Hinton
From Mountain Home: The Wilderness

Scientists prove it really is a thin line between love and hate

From The Independent:

Hate Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study that has discovered the biological basis for the two most intense emotions. Scientists studying the physical nature of hate have found that some of the nervous circuits in the brain responsible for it are the same as those that are used during the feeling of romantic love – although love and hate appear to be polar opposites. A study using a brain scanner to investigate the neural circuits that become active when people look at a photograph of someone they say they hate has found that the “hate circuit” shares something in common with the love circuit.

The findings could explain why both hate and romantic love can result in similar acts of extreme behaviour – both heroic and evil – said Professor Semir Zeki of University College London, who led the study published in the on-line journal PloS ONE. “Hate is often considered to be an evil passion that should, in a better world, be tamed, controlled and eradicated. Yet to the biologist, hate is a passion that is of equal interest to love,” Professor Zeki said. “Like love, it is often seemingly irrational and can lead individual to heroic and evil deeds. How can two opposite sentiments lead to the same behaviour?”

The study advertised for volunteers to take part in the study and 17 people were chosen who professed a deep hatred for one individual. Most chose an ex-lover or a competitor at work, although one woman expressed an intense hatred for a famous political figure.

(Picture: Michael Douglas and KathleenTurner played a couple with a stormy relationship in the 1989 film War Of The Roses).

More here.


From Edge:

Sendhil_04g594020small A Talk By Sendhil MullainathanHe is a Professor of Economics at Harvard, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”, conducts research on development economics, behavioral economics, and corporate finance. His work concerns creating a psychology of people to improve poverty alleviation programs in developing countries. He is Executive Director of Ideas 42, Institute of Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University.

I want to close a loop, which I’m calling “The Irony of Poverty.” On the one hand, lack of slack tells us the poor must make higher quality decisions because they don’t have slack to help buffer them with things. But even though they have to supply higher quality decisions, they’re in a worse position to supply them because they’re depleted. That is the ultimate irony of poverty. You’re getting cut twice. You are in an environment where the decisions have to be better, but you’re in an environment that by the very nature of that makes it harder for you apply better decisions. 

More here.

Does Nature Break the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

From Scientific American:

Hand Science has given humanity more than its share of letdowns. It has set limits to our technology, such as the impossibility of reaching the speed of light; failed to overcome our vulnerabilities to cancer and other diseases; and confronted us with inconvenient truths, as with global climate change. But of all the comedowns, the second law of thermodynamics might well be the biggest. It says we live in a universe that is becoming ever more disordered and that there is nothing we can do about it. The mere act of living contributes to the inexorable degeneration of the world. No matter how advanced our machines become, they can never completely avoid wasting some energy and running down. Not only does the second law squash the dream of a perpetual-motion machine, it suggests that the cosmos will eventually exhaust its available energy and nod off into an eternal stasis known as heat death.

Ironically, the science of thermodynamics, of which the second law is only one part, dates to an era of technological optimism, the mid-19th century, when steam engines were transforming the world and physicists such as Rudolf Clausius, Nicolas Sadi Carnot, James Joule and Lord Kelvin developed a theory of energy and heat to understand how they work and what limited their efficiency. From these nitty-gritty beginnings, thermodynamics has become one of the most important branches of physics and engineering. It is a general theory of the collective properties of complex systems, not just steam engines but also bacterial colonies, computer memory, even black holes in the cosmos. In deep ways, all these systems behave the same. All are running down, in accordance with the second law.

More here.

How Simon Cowell saved American democracy

Alan H. Fleischmann in The New Republic:

SimoncowellgqannualhollywoodissuepaThere’s actually every indication that young people will flock to the polls. But the pundits still have it all wrong. If high school seniors, college kids, and twenty-somethings flood the electorate this season, it will have a lot to do with Barack Obama for sure. Of course, he’s inspiring them. But there is another man who is as important in their development as citizens and has significantly less faith in the power of idealism and hope: I’m speaking of Simon Cowell.

Cowell is that acerbic Englishman who serves on the panel that judges “American Idol,” the hit singing competition on Fox. For nearly the entirety of the Bush administration, “Idol” has dominated the Nielsens and occupied far too large a space in the collective mind of the nation. The reasons for “Idol’s” appeal are readily apparent: It is about young people performing under enormous pressure and being subjected to Cowell’s acidic wit. But the show also owes its success to its interactivity. That is, the public gets to dial 1-800 numbers and text message the votes that determine which contestants succeed (or fail). The success of “Idol” has spawned a raft of other reality shows where the public votes to determine the outcome.

There are important differences between “American Idol” and our constitutional American system. “Idol” is a direct democracy, for one. (And, like in Chicago of yore, “Idol” watchers can vote as often as they desire.) But, at the end of the day, they are both about voting. And as much as some might scoff at the deleterious effects of “Idol” on our culture, it has created a culture of voting among our young people.

More here.