Friday, October 24, 2014

Lawsuits Over I.R.S. Targeting Are Dismissed

NYT

A federal judge on Thursday dismissed two lawsuits against the Internal Revenue Service related to the agency’s treatment of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, ruling that no remedy was necessary because the groups’ applications were ultimately approved.
“The allegedly unconstitutional governmental conduct, which delayed the processing of the plaintiff’s tax-exempt application and brought about this litigation, is no longer impacting the plaintiff,” Judge Reggie B. Walton, of the United States District Court in the District of Columbia, wrote in a 23-page decision. He was referring to the lead plaintiff, True the Vote, a Tea Party-affiliated group.
“Unless an actual, ongoing controversy exists in this case, this court is without power to decide it,” Judge Walton added.
The I.R.S. has acknowledged that it acted improperly when it held up tax-exempt applications from True the Vote and dozens of other conservative-leaning groups in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, using search terms like “Tea Party,” “Patriot” and “9/12.”

(More here.)

K-9 ‘Agents’ Lift Spirits of the Secret Service With Heroics at the White House


WASHINGTON — Jordan took a kick to his snout. Hurricane was slammed to the ground and repeatedly punched. Both were rushed to a veterinarian for treatment.
But by stopping a fence jumper from getting into the White House on Wednesday night, the two members of the Secret Service’s K-9 unit accomplished something that humans in the agency have been hard-pressed to do recently: They performed their duties flawlessly and, at least for a day, lifted the morale of a Secret Service that had been rocked by a series of embarrassing incidents.
What the dogs, both Belgian Malinois, did was stop a man who had managed to get over the fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday. The dogs, which can run 25 miles per hour and have a bite that applies hundreds of pounds of pressure per square inch, knocked the man to the ground, and bit him. As the man tried to fend the dogs off, officers moved in and arrested him.
The veterinarian determined that the dogs had sustained only minor injuries.

(More here.)

As Ebola Spreads, So Have Several Fallacies

Carl Zimmer, NYT
Even as American hospitals prepare for new cases of Ebola, they must brace for a more familiar invader. The flu season will arrive soon — although exactly when, scientists cannot say.
Unlike Ebola, the influenza virus is truly airborne. And if recent history is any guide, it will kill thousands in the coming months.
Flu viruses and Ebola viruses take different routes to the same biological goal: to get into new hosts and replicate. Scientists have learned a great deal about the devious ways in which they manage to do it.
Yet misconceptions about how they travel continue to circulate, including the persistent notion that Ebola, like influenza, is airborne. The uncertainty only grows when possible new cases are identified, as happened on Thursday in New York.
Recently on “Fox News Sunday,” the political commentator George F. Will said, “There are now doctors who are saying, ‘We’re not so sure that it can’t be in some instances transmitted by airborne.’

(More here.)

In West, ISIS Finds Women Eager to Enlist

LONDON — The young Western Muslims trying to join radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq now include increasing numbers of young women who are seeking to fight or to become the wives of fighters. It is a new twist on a recruitment effort that has led several thousand men from Europe and beyond to flock to the battlefield.
In the past week alone, the authorities reported two instances of women and girls trying to get to Syria or take part in jihad. On Wednesday, the British police arrested a 25-year-old woman north of London on suspicion of preparing “terrorist acts” related to the fighting in Syria. Over the weekend, three teenage girls from the Denver suburbs — two sisters of Somali descent and a friend of Sudanese descent — were intercepted as they tried to travel to Syria.
Those were the latest in a series of cases of young Muslim women from the West trying to join militant groups like the Nusra Front or the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which is waging a campaign to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The largest numbers of Western recruits have come from France and Britain, but others have come from Austria, Belgium and Spain.
For several months, the Islamic State has been making a concerted effort to enlist women and girls. It is deploying female recruiters, producing new publications and creating online forums.

Ebola Vaccine, Ready for Test, Sat on the Shelf


GALVESTON, Tex. — Almost a decade ago, scientists from Canada and the United States reported that they had created a vaccine that was 100 percent effective in protecting monkeys against the Ebola virus. The results were published in a respected journal, and health officials called them exciting. The researchers said tests in people might start within two years, and a product could potentially be ready for licensing by 2010 or 2011.
It never happened. The vaccine sat on a shelf. Only now is it undergoing the most basic safety tests in humans — with nearly 5,000 people dead from Ebola and an epidemic raging out of control in West Africa.
Its development stalled in part because Ebola is rare, and until now, outbreaks had infected only a few hundred people at a time. But experts also acknowledge that the absence of follow-up on such a promising candidate reflects a broader failure to produce medicines and vaccines for diseases that afflict poor countries. Most drug companies have resisted spending the enormous sums needed to develop products useful mostly to countries with little ability to pay.

(More here.)

Russia and West Grapple With Alternate Realities

It Isn’t Just Opinions That Differ, But Facts Too

The stories Russians are hearing from a media increasingly under state control is fueling the popularity of President Vladimir Putin. 
 
When the chairman and chief executive of Total SA, Christophe de Margerie , was killed this week after his private jet hit a snow-removal truck on takeoff from a Moscow airport, it looked like an accident.

Russian television viewers were treated to a different version. According to a top Russian television channel, a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency couldn’t be ruled out. Mr. de Margerie was, after all, a prominent opponent of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Moscow, and Washington wanted him silenced. This story was relayed not by an outraged nationalist pundit but by a newscaster.

The report illustrates a development that is becoming increasingly evident: Russians and Westerners are talking past each other. It isn’t just that they have different opinions about the same event; it is that they believe in a different set of facts.

It is like “two people in a dark room,” said an American participant at a Valdai Club conference near Sochi this week that brings together Russian officials and academics with Western experts.

(More here.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

As Islamists Seek to Fill Ranks, More Western Women Answer Their Call

By STEVEN ERLANGER, NYT
OCT. 23, 2014

LONDON — The young Western Muslims trying to join radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq now include increasing numbers of young women who are seeking to fight or to become the wives of fighters. It is a new twist on a recruitment effort that has led to several thousand men from Europe and beyond flocking to the battlefield.

In the past week alone, the authorities reported two instances of women and girls trying to get to Syria or take part in jihad. On Wednesday, the British police arrested a 25-year-old woman north of London on suspicion of preparing “terrorist acts” related to the fighting in Syria. Over the weekend, three teenage girls from the Denver suburbs — two sisters of Somali descent and a friend of Sudanese descent — were intercepted as they tried to travel to Syria.

Those were the latest in a series of cases of young Muslim women from the West trying to join militant groups like the Nusra Front or the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which is waging a campaign to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The largest numbers of recruits have come from France and Britain, but others have come from Austria, Belgium and Spain.

For several months, the Islamic State has been making a concerted effort to enlist women and girls. It is deploying female recruiters, producing new publications and creating online forums.

(More here.)

Biased Ideas Presented As Fact In Texas Curriculum Standards

Rebecca Klein, HuffPost
Updated: 10/22/2014 5:59 pm EDT

Proposed Texas social studies textbooks may be flawed, but state standards are likely to blame for the imperfections.

In September, nonprofit organization the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund commissioned a group of history scholars to evaluate proposed social studies textbooks from publishing giants such as Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill Education. The scholars found that several of the textbooks were rife with religious and conservative biases that they said distort history. At the time, the TFN noted that while it was important that inaccuracies be corrected, the root of the problem likely lay with the state's social studies standards, to which the textbooks are expected to cater.

"In all fairness, it's clear that the publishers struggled with these flawed standards and still managed to do a good job in some areas," said Kathy Miller, president of TFN Education Fund, in a September press release. "On the other hand, a number of textbook passages essentially reflect the ideological beliefs of politicians on the state board rather than sound scholarship and factual history."

This week, the TFN Education Fund announced a bit of good news -- that publishers made a number of corrections to the proposed books. While the group said the textbooks, which the Texas State Board of Education will vote whether to adopt in November, were improved, Miller noted, "There remain in the textbooks a number of biases and inaccuracies that should be corrected."

(More here.)

Economists See Limited Gains in G.O.P. Plan

By JACKIE CALMES, NYT
OCT. 22, 2014

WASHINGTON — Anticipating a takeover of Congress, Republicans have assembled an economic agenda that reflects their small-government, antiregulation philosophy, but also suggests internal divisions that could hinder a united front against President Obama — much as happened in the 1990s, when a Republican-led Congress confronted President Bill Clinton.

The proposals would mainly benefit energy industries, reduce taxes and regulations for businesses generally, and continue the attack on the Affordable Care Act. It is a mix that leaves many economists, including several conservatives, underwhelmed.

“Some of those things will help,” Matthew J. Slaughter, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, said after reviewing nearly four dozen measures that House Republicans have labeled “jobs bills.” He cited some business tax cuts, for example, even as he cautioned about the cost of such actions.

“But,” added Mr. Slaughter, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, “it just struck me as sort of a compendium of modest expectations. If you ask me, ‘What’s your ballpark guess for how many jobs are going to be created?,’ it’s just not many.”

(More here.)

Thousands in Iran Protest Acid Attacks on Women

Demonstrators in the historic city of Isfahan on Wednesday shouted slogans against militants. Credit Arya Jafari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By THOMAS ERDBRINK, NYT
OCT. 22, 2014

TEHRAN — Thousands of Iranians took to the streets of the historic city of Isfahan on Wednesday to protest several acid attacks on women. The attacks had coincided with the passage of a law designed to protect those who correct people deemed to be acting in an “un-Islamic” way.

A local official said on Wednesday that “eight to nine” women had been attacked over the past three weeks by men on motorcycles who splashed them with acid in Isfahan, one of Iran’s largest urban centers and the country’s chief tourist destination. Some of the women were blinded or disfigured.

The protesters — more than 2,000, according to the semiofficial news agency Fars — gathered in front of the local judiciary office and shouted slogans against extremists whom the protesters likened to supporters of Islamic State militants. They also called for the city’s Friday Prayer leader and the prosecutor to step down, witnesses said. Critics have long accused the Iranian authorities of playing down episodes that could embarrass leaders rather than investigating the cases.

“We do not want to propagate virtues by acid,” some of the protesters chanted, a reference to the Islamic obligation of “propagating virtue and preventing vice.” Others shouted, “Death to extremists.”

(More here.)

Taliban Are Rising Again in Afghanistan’s North

By AZAM AHMED, NYT, OCT. 22, 2014

CHAHAR DARA, Afghanistan — The last time Afghans in the northern province of Kunduz felt so threatened by the Taliban was in 2009, just before President Obama deployed thousands of troops to push the insurgents back from the outskirts of the province’s capital.

Now the Taliban are back, but the cavalry will not be coming.

With just two months left before the formal end of the 13-year international combat mission, Western officials insist that the Afghan security forces have managed to contain the Taliban’s offensives on their own. But the insurgents’ alarming gains in Kunduz in recent weeks present a different picture.

In an area that has not been a primary front against the Taliban for years, there are now two districts almost entirely under Taliban rule, local officials say. The Taliban are administering legal cases and schools, and even allowing international aid operations to work there, the officials say.

(More here.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?

Credit Photo illustrations by Zachary Scott for The New York Times. Hair and Makeup: Bruce Spaulding Fuller, Aimee Macabeo, Stephanie Daniel. Wardobe: Gillean McLeod. Set and Props: Patrick Muller. Retouching: Electric Art, Amy Dresser.
By BRUCE GRIERSON, NYT, OCT. 22, 2014

One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.

The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.

Langer had already undertaken a couple of studies involving elderly patients. In one, she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself. Gathering the older men together in New Hampshire, for what she would later refer to as a counterclockwise study, would be a way to test this premise.

(More here.)

US ordered to explain withholding of Iraq and Afghanistan torture photos

Obama administration must justify suppression of never-before-seen photographs depicting US military torture of detainees

Spencer Ackerman in New York
theguardian.com, Tuesday 21 October 2014 17.02 EDT

The Obama administration has until early December to detail its reasons for withholding as many as 2,100 graphic photographs depicting US military torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, a federal judge ordered on Tuesday.

By 12 December, Justice Department attorneys will have to list, photograph by photograph, the government’s rationale for keeping redacted versions of the photos unseen by the public, Judge Alvin Hellerstein instructed lawyers. But any actual release of the photographs will come after Hellerstein reviews the government’s reasoning and issues another ruling in the protracted transparency case.

While Hellerstein left unclear how much of the Justice Department’s declaration will itself be public, the government’s submission is likely to be its most detailed argument for secrecy over the imagery in a case that has lasted a decade.

“The only thing that bothers me is that we’re taking a lot of time,” Hellerstein told a nearly empty courtroom.

(More here.)

New Freedoms in Tunisia Drive Support for ISIS

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, NYT
OCT. 21, 2014

TUNIS — Nearly four years after the Arab Spring revolt, Tunisia remains its lone success as chaos engulfs much of the region. But that is not its only distinction: Tunisia has sent more foreign fighters than any other country to Iraq and Syria to join the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State.

And throughout the working-class suburbs of the capital, young men are eager to talk about why.

“Don’t you see it as a source of pride?” challenged Sufian Abbas, 31, a student sitting at a street cafe in the densely packed Ettadhamen district with a half-dozen like-minded friends.

Tunisians have approved a new Constitution by a broad consensus, and a second free election is to take place this month. The country has the advantage of one of the Arab world’s most educated and cosmopolitan populations, numbering just 11 million, and it has some of the most alluring Mediterranean beaches.

(More here.)

Panetta clashed with CIA over memoir, tested agency review process

By Greg Miller, Washington Post

Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta clashed with the agency over the contents of his recently published memoir and allowed his publisher to begin editing and making copies of the book before he had received final approval from the CIA, according to former U.S. officials and others familiar with the project.

Panetta’s decision appears to have put him in violation of the secrecy agreement that all CIA employees are required to sign and came amid a showdown with agency reviewers that could have derailed the release of the book, people involved in the matter said.

The memoir — almost unfailingly complimentary toward the spy service, which he led from 2009 to 2011 — was ultimately approved by the CIA’s Publications Review Board before it reached store shelves this month.

(More here.)

Mormon Church Reveals The Truth Behind 'Magical Underwear' In New Video

| By Brady McCombs
Posted: 10/22/2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church is addressing the mystery that has long surrounded undergarments worn by its faithful with a new video explaining the practice while admonishing ridicule from outsiders about what it considers a symbol of Latter-day Saints' devotion to God.

The four-minute video on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website compares the white, two-piece cotton "temple garments" to holy vestments worn in other religious faiths such as a Catholic nun's habit or a Muslim skullcap.

The footage is part of a recent effort by the Salt Lake City-based religion to explain, expand or clarify on some of the faith's more sensitive beliefs. Articles posted on the church's website in the past two years have addressed the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy; its early history of polygamy; and the misconception that members are taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife.

The latest video dispels the notion that Latter-day Saints believe temple garments have special protective powers, a stereotype perpetuated on the Internet and in popular culture by those who refer to the sacred clothing as "magical Mormon underwear."

(Video here.)

Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip

By PETER BAKER, NYT
OCT. 21, 2014

WASHINGTON — In taking office during two overseas wars and the Great Recession, President Obama set out to restore society’s frayed faith in its public institutions, saying that the question was not whether government was too big or small, “but whether it works.” Six years later, Americans seem more dubious than ever that it really does.

With every passing week or month, it seems, some government agency or another has had a misstep or has been caught up in scandals that have deeply eroded public confidence. The Internal Revenue Service targets political groups, the Border Patrol is overwhelmed by children illegally crossing the Rio Grande, the Department of Veterans Affairs covers up poor service, and the Secret Service fails to guard the president and his White House.

Now public esteem for the long-respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has plummeted with the arrival of Ebola on American shores. A new CBS News poll found that only 37 percent of Americans thought the centers were doing a good job, down from 60 percent last year. In fact, of nine agencies tested, seven that were judged highly by a majority of Americans last year have now fallen below 50 percent. Only one, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was rated well by a majority, and that by just 51 percent.

(More here.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What’s Your Fitness Age?

By Gretchen Reynolds, NYT
October 15, 2014 12:01 am

You already know your chronological age, but do you know your fitness age?

A new study of fitness and lifespan suggests that a person’s so-called fitness age – determined primarily by a measure of cardiovascular endurance – is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age. The good news is that unlike your actual age, your fitness age can decrease.

The concept of fitness age has been developed by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who have studied fitness and how it relates to wellness for years.

Fitness age is determined primarily by your VO2max, which is a measure of your body’s ability to take in and utilize oxygen. VO2max indicates your current cardiovascular endurance.

(Fitness calculator, here)

We are reliving Jim Crow in America. Want proof? Look no further than Texas

Conservatives and the US supreme court like to mess with minorities. But that doesn’t mean we won’t fight for our most basic right.

Cindy Casares in Austin, theguardian.com, Tuesday 21 October 2014

Never has it been more important to vote in Texas than in 2014. Every state office is up for grabs this Election Day, which means that voters have a chance to really change something after the Republican-controlled legislature spent the last session eviscerating women’s reproductive rights – closing at least 30 safe, legal abortion clinics, enacting a 24-hour waiting period and, until last week, leaving only seven clinics open across the state. For good measure, Texas politicians gutted public school funding by billions and carved up voting districts so ridiculous that one – congressional district 35 – is a long, nonsensical sliver that stretches from Austin to San Antonio, 70 miles away.

The only problem is that nearly 700,000 of those voters who could change something ... might not be able to vote.

We are reliving the Jim Crow era in the United States – and nowhere more so than here in Texas. Ever since we became a majority-minority state in 2004, Republicans have passed law after law to stem the tide of demographically-wrought political progress. During the last two legislative sessions, seemingly every major law passed was created to disenfranchise people of color who, despite their numbers, are still two or three times as likely as white Texans to be unemployed, live below the poverty line, lack medical insurance and have low educational attainment. The new laws dismantling minority voting districts, cutting educational funds and closing down safe abortion facilities are being challenged on their constitutionality due to the disproportionate amount of hardship they pose for the economically disadvantaged who – surprise, surprise – are more likely to be Hispanic and African American.

(More here.)

Gamergate is loud, dangerous and a last grasp at cultural dominance by angry white men

The outrage isn’t about ‘ethics’ or even really gaming. It’s about harassing women to protest the movement for female equality.

Jessica Valenti, theguardian.com, Tuesday 21 October 2014 07.30 EDT

As the cultural relevance of angry white men on the internet withers away and ends, their last words – muttered angrily at an empty room – will surely be “Gamer ... gate”.

The recent uproar – said to be over ethics in journalism but focused mostly on targeting outspoken women who aren’t journalists at all – is just the last, desperate gasp of misogynists facing an unwelcoming future. But this particular bitter end, while long overdue, is loud, angry and extremely dangerous.

Female game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn have fled their homes in fear after a terrifying barrage of rape and death threats. Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk last week at Utah State University after the school received an email promising a “Montreal Massacre-style” mass shooting if the “craven little whore” was allowed to speak. And despite assurances from Gamergate supporters that they have no problem with women, their de facto leaders are being outed as violent misogynists. (Sample tweets: “Fat/ugly women seek out dominant men to abuse them” and “Date rape doesn’t exist”.)

It’s tempting to believe that this online row – a toxic combination of misinformation, anger and anxious masculinity – is just about one specific technology industry’s subculture, or that it will blow over. But by labeling Gamergate a “gaming problem” and attaching a hashtag to it, we’re putting unnecessary boundaries around a broader but nebulous issue: threats and harassment are increasingly how straight white men deal with a world that no longer revolves exclusively around them.

(More here.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Neoliberalism means never having to say you're sorry

"What shocks me about neoliberalism in all of its forms is how utterly unapologetic it is about the misery it produces." — Henry Giroux

Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism

By Michael Nevradakis, Truthout | Interview
Sunday, 19 October 2014

Henry Giroux discusses the increasingly negative impact of neoliberalism across the world, politically, socially, economically and in terms of education, and he offers some suggestions for what we must do now.

Michael Nevradakis for Dialogics: Let's begin with a discussion about some topics you've spoken and written extensively about ... neoliberalism and what you have described as "casino capitalism." How have these ideas taken hold politically and intellectually across the world in recent years?

Henry Giroux: I think since the 1970s it's been the predominant ideology, certainly in Western Europe and North America. As is well known, it raised havoc in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Chile and other states. It first gained momentum in Chile as a result of the Chicago Boys. Milton Friedman and that group went down there and basically used the Pinochet regime as a type of petri dish to produce a whole series of policies. But I think if we look at this very specifically, we're talking about a lot of things.

We're talking about an ideology marked by the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; the celebration of profit-making as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship. But even more than that, it upholds the notion that the market serves as a model for structuring all social relations: not just the economy, but the governing of all of social life.

(Continued here.)

Could the best diet be no diet?

The Healthiest Diet 'Proven' by Science

Posted by Ross Pomeroy October 21, 2014 RealClearScience

It's actually happened.

After decades of research filled with millions of meals eaten by hundreds of thousands of subjects, the verdict is in. Science is now ready to proclaim the healthiest way to eat: one diet to rule them all.

So which is it? Atkin's, perhaps? Or Paleo? Low-Carb? Low-Fat? South Beach? Raw? Fruitarian? Veganism?

The answer, my friends, is none of the above. But it could also be all of the above. That's because healthiest diet isn't a specific diet at all. It's the absence of a diet.

This is not a sudden, world-changing, mind-altering finding. It is not well suited to a blaring news headline. It is not share fodder on social media. What it is, however, is a realization that surfaced gradually and methodically: Science will never conclusively prove that a single diet is the best diet.

Author Matt Fitzgerald summarized the finding, or rather, the lack thereof, in his new book Diet Cults

(Continued here.)

What China Means by ‘Rule of Law’

By PAUL GEWIRTZ, NYT, OCT. 19, 2014

NEW HAVEN — Two weeks ago, with the democracy protests in Hong Kong in full swing, China’s official People’s Daily newspaper labeled them “illegal” and called for protecting “the rule of law” in Hong Kong. Such statements left observers with little doubt about a central meaning “the rule of law” has in the People’s Republic: the Communist Party’s use of law to control and regulate society.

Yet there’s plenty of evidence that China sees the rule of law in far more nuanced and complex ways. Today the Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee starts its Fourth Plenum, and the main topic will be the rule of law in China — the first time in party history that a meeting with the authority of a plenary session will focus on the rule of law. And there are reasons for a measure of optimism that the plenum will demonstrate more complex views about the roles law can play and also take meaningful steps to advance new legal reforms.

Of course, legal reform has major limits in China’s one-party authoritarian system. There won’t be true judicial independence. All bets are off whenever the party sees a threat to its continued power; steps toward the rule of law don’t mean steps toward multiparty political democracy, which China’s current leaders totally resist. When the plenum issues its report, it will surely underscore that one central role of law is to maintain social order.

(More here.)

Phone Hackers Dial and Redial to Steal Billions

By NICOLE PERLROTH, NYT
OCT. 19, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Bob Foreman’s architecture firm ran up a $166,000 phone bill in a single weekend last March. But neither Mr. Foreman nor anyone else at his seven-person company was in the office at the time.

“I thought: ‘This is crazy. It must be a mistake,’ ” Mr. Foreman said.

It wasn’t. Hackers had broken into the phone network of the company, Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, and routed $166,000 worth of calls from the firm to premium-rate telephone numbers in Gambia, Somalia and the Maldives. It would have taken 34 years for the firm to run up those charges legitimately, based on its typical phone bill, according to a complaint it filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

The firm, in Norcross, Ga., was the victim of an age-old fraud that has found new life now that most corporate phone lines run over the Internet.

(More here.)

In Tennessee, Time Comes for a Nuclear Plant Four Decades in the Making

By MATTHEW L. WALD, NYT
OCT. 19, 2014

SPRING CITY, Tenn. — When the Tennessee Valley Authority first ordered Watts Bar 2, the nuclear reactor now approaching completion here, demand for electricity was growing at 7 percent a year and coal supplies were uncertain. The mercury, soot and acid rain that coal produced were simply accepted as the way things were, and many of the people who now worry about global warming had not yet been born.

But that was 1970. Today nearly all of that is reversed as Watts Bar 2, the nuclear industry’s version of a time traveler, prepares to begin operations. Now there is barely any growth in electricity demand, and plenty of coal, but most aging coal-burning plants need expensive cleaning or replacement. Thus the reactor, the T.V.A. reasons, is arriving at an opportune moment, even if almost every projection made over the last 44 years has proved wrong. With halting progress amid changing projections, construction has taken longer than that for the Panama Canal or the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

“I do find it as something of great value, maybe not for the reasons we restarted it,” said William D. Johnson, the T.V.A.’s chief executive.

The agency started Watts Bar as part of a campaign to build 17 reactors, but dropped the project in 1988 after spending about $1.7 billion, when it was supposedly 80 percent complete. In 2007, with electricity demand growing again, the T.V.A. board voted to restart work because, consultants said, it could be finished for $2 billion. But by the end of next year, when commercial operation is now expected, the T.V.A. will have spent more than $4 billion.

(More here.)

Putin’s Coup

How the Russian leader used the Ukraine crisis to consolidate his dictatorship

By BEN JUDAH, Politco.com
October 19, 2014

The war in Ukraine is no longer only about Ukraine. The conflict has transformed Russia. This increasingly is what European leaders and diplomats believe: that Vladimir Putin and his security establishment have used the fog of war in Ukraine to shroud the final establishment of his brittle imperialist dictatorship in Moscow.

Among those who believe that this is happening, and that Europe will be facing down a more menacing Russia for a long time to come, is Radek Sikorski, who was Poland’s foreign minister from 2007 until September.

“I think psychologically the regime has been transformed by the annexation of Crimea,” Sikorski told Politico Magazine. “This was the moment that finally convinced all doubters and turned all heads. This was Napoleon after Austerlitz. This was Hitler after the fall of Paris. This was the moment that finally centralized everything into the hands of Vladimir Putin.”

Sikorski is formerly a glamorous figure in Brussels who played a leading role in shaping the European Union strategy toward both Russia and Ukraine. European leaders, intimidated by his charisma and outspoken views on Russia, chose not to appoint him as Europe’s high representative for foreign affairs earlier this year. Today Sikorski is the hawkish speaker of the Polish parliament, and he says that the West has been so distracted by the crisis in Ukraine it has missed the more important developments further east.

(More here.)

Fear of Ebola Closes Schools and Shapes Politics

By JENNIFER STEINHAUER, NYT
OCT. 19, 2014

In the month since a Liberian man infected with Ebola traveled to Dallas, where he later died, the nation has marinated in a murky soup of understandable concern, wild misinformation, political opportunism and garden-variety panic.

Within the escalating debate over how to manage potential threats to public health — muddled by what is widely viewed as a bungled effort by government officials and the Dallas hospital that managed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States — the line between vigilance and hysteria can be as blurry as the edges of a watercolor painting.

A crowd of parents last week pulled their children out of a Mississippi middle school after learning that its principal had traveled to Zambia, an African nation untouched by the disease.

On the eve of midterm elections with control of the United States Senate at stake, politicians from both parties are calling for the end of commercial air traffic between the United States and some African countries, even though most public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a shutdown would compound rather than alleviate the risks.

(More here.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K.

Paul Krugman, NYT
OCT. 19, 2014

Amazon.com, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America.

O.K., I know that was kind of abrupt. But I wanted to get the central point out there right away, because discussions of Amazon tend, all too often, to get lost in side issues.

For example, critics of the company sometimes portray it as a monster about to take over the whole economy. Such claims are over the top — Amazon doesn’t dominate overall online sales, let alone retailing as a whole, and probably never will. But so what? Amazon is still playing a troubling role.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s defenders often digress into paeans to online bookselling, which has indeed been a good thing for many Americans, or testimonials to Amazon customer service — and in case you’re wondering, yes, I have Amazon Prime and use it a lot. But again, so what? The desirability of new technology, or even Amazon’s effective use of that technology, is not the issue. After all, John D. Rockefeller and his associates were pretty good at the oil business, too — but Standard Oil nonetheless had too much power, and public action to curb that power was essential.

And the same is true of Amazon today.

(More here.)

Conspiracy Theorists Need a Pep Talk

Oh, for the golden age of nutty plots: the drama, the mystery. — Nishant Choksi

Joe Queenan is alarmed at the decline in the quality of conspiracy theories—but at least one theorist gives him hope

By Joe Queenan, WSJ
Oct. 16, 2014 12:31 p.m. ET

Recently, I have experienced grave concerns that conspiracy theorists are losing their touch, that their material is losing its sharp, preposterous edge. For example, last Saturday, while I was wandering through a farmers’ market in rural England, an earnest-looking woman came up and asked me if I cared about injustice. It seemed like a trick question. I said, “Yes, why do you ask?”

“Because at this very moment Big Business and the European Union are having a secret meeting in Brussels, giving global corporations the right to sue our governments for passing laws that damage their profits,” she said. “And a secret trade deal is being negotiated right now between the EU and the U.S.A. that will allow Big Business to do whatever it wants.”

“I don’t think that’s a secret,” I wisecracked. “I think it’s called the capitalist system.”

She could see that I was not a team player, so we didn’t get much further with that conversation. Nor did I make much headway a few minutes later with a very sincere woman who thrust a gaudy flier into my hand, reading “Power to the People!” She too was irate about that secret meeting in Brussels.

(More here.)

The Ebola Conspiracy Theories

By ALAN FEUER, NYT
OCT. 18, 2014

THE spread of Ebola from western Africa to suburban Texas has brought with it another strain of contagion: conspiracy theories.

The outbreak began in September, when The Daily Observer, a Liberian newspaper, published an article alleging that the virus was not what it seemed — a medical disaster — but rather a bioweapon designed by the United States military to depopulate the planet. Not long after, accusations appeared online contending that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had patented the virus and was poised to make a fortune from a new vaccine it had created with the pharmaceutical industry. There were even reports that the New World Order, that classic conspiracy bugbear involving global elites, had engineered Ebola in order to impose quarantines, travel bans and eventually martial law.

While most of these theories have so far lingered on the fringes of the Internet, a few stubborn cases have crept into the mainstream. In the last few weeks, conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have floated the idea that President Obama had sent aid to Africa, risking American lives, because of his guilt over slavery and colonialism. And just days ago, the hip-hop artist Chris Brown took to Twitter, announcing to his 13 million followers: “I don’t know ... but I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.”

Conspiracy theories have always moved in tandem with the news, offering shadow explanations for distressing or perplexing events. Though typically dismissed as a destructive mix of mendacity and nonsense, they often reflect societal fears.

(More here.)

Obama Could Reaffirm a Bush-Era Reading of a Treaty on Torture

By CHARLIE SAVAGE, NYT
OCT. 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.

Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty, and now, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

(More here.)

Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says

By Jeff Leen October 17

Jeff Leen is The Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations.

An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America. It is the salient lesson of the Gary Webb affair. It might have saved his journalism career, though it would have precluded his canonization in the new film “Kill the Messenger.”

The Hollywood version of his story — a truth-teller persecuted by the cowardly and craven mainstream media — is pure fiction. But Webb was a real person who wrote a real story, a three-part series called “Dark Alliance,” in August 1996 for the San Jose Mercury News, one of the flagship newspapers of the then-mighty Knight Ridder chain. Webb’s story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America. What he lacked was the extraordinary proof. But at first, the claim was enough. Webb’s story became notable as the first major journalism cause celebre on the newly emerging Internet. The black community roiled in anger at the supposed CIA perfidy.

Then it all began to come apart. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, in a rare show of unanimity, all wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.

(More here.)

Warren in Minnesota: ‘The game is rigged’

By Paul Kane October 18 at 4:15 PM WashPost

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) brought her populist message Saturday to this small college town to rev up the final weeks of Sen. Al Franken's reelection campaign, but also to claim the mantle of the modern liberal movement's political godfather.

Speaking before more than 400 people at Carleton College, Warren repeatedly invoked the spirit of the late Paul Wellstone, the fiery liberal senator who died 12 years ago this month in a plane crash during his reelection campaign. Wellstone remains a revered figure in Minnesota politics, and his brand of populism -- out of step in the Clintonian Democratic Party of the 1990s -- is now mainstream among leading liberal activists. Warren has become the most prominent public face of that movement, and the Wellstone disciples in this town 40 miles south of Minneapolis gave their approval Saturday.

"The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it," Warren said to loud cheers.

(More here.)

Life in Quarantine for Ebola Exposure: 21 Days of Fear and Loathing

By KEVIN SACK, JACK HEALY and FRANCES ROBLES, NYT
OCT. 18, 2014

DALLAS — The refrigerator in Youngor Jallah’s small apartment broke down last week, and it did not take long for the stench of rotting food to grow unbearable. But when she reported the problem to the front office, the complex’s manager said that a repairman would not be sent until Monday.

That is the expiration date for the 21-day, self-imposed quarantine that Ms. Jallah, her partner and her four children have endured since the day her mother’s boyfriend, Thomas Eric Duncan, was hospitalized here with Ebola. Because her mother was at work, it was Ms. Jallah, 35, who last cared for Mr. Duncan, making him tea and handing him a thermometer — but, she said, never touching him — before summoning an ambulance.

The complex’s manager urged Ms. Jallah to move her food to the apartment across the stairwell, which has been empty since a new renter decided against moving in after hearing about the neighbors. When the landlord sent a maintenance man to deliver the key, he arrived wearing two pairs of rubber gloves.

(More here.)

Mexico Finds Many Corpses, but Not Lost 43

By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD, NYT
OCT. 18, 2014

IGUALA, Mexico — With borrowed shovels and pick axes, the farmers drove their battered pickup trucks to a series of suspicious clearings in the countryside, jumped out and started digging.

“Hey, hey, it’s a spine,” one of the men, part of a citizen police patrol, called out last week, fishing out what appeared to be a piece of spinal column. Soon came other fragments — a rib? a knee bone?

Five mass graves have already been discovered in the hunt for 43 students who disappeared last month after clashing with the local police — and another half dozen secret burial sites like this one are being tested to determine the origins of the remains inside.

Even with hundreds of soldiers, federal officers, state personnel and local residents on the trail, the search has still not confirmed what happened to the missing students. Instead, it has turned up something just as chilling: a multitude of clandestine graves with unknown occupants right on the outskirts of town, barely concealing the extensive toll organized crime has taken on this nation.

(More here.)

SarahPAC, Like Palin Herself, Light on Donations to Fellow Republicans

by Viveca Novak on October 16, 2014 OpenSecrets

The involvement of immediate family members in a drunken brawl does little to boost one’s political prospects.

On a different level, the same might be said of a stingy leadership PAC.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC continued to perform underwhelmingly as a source of funds for other candidates in 2014′s third quarter, a report filed with the FEC this week showed. Out of $1.4 million the PAC had available in the third quarter — $978,000 sitting in the bank at the beginning of the July 1-Sept. 30 period, plus another more than $433,000 raised during that time — SarahPAC managed to donate just $45,000 to fellow Republicans running in the midterms. That’s a little more than 3 percent.

For the two-year 2014 cycle, the former Alaska governor’s PAC, a vehicle that helps her stay in the game amid talk that she may run in the 2016 presidential contest, has raised $2.5 million on top of more than $1.1 million that was in the bank at the start of the cycle. It has spent $2.7 million, with about $150,000 — or 5.5 percent — going to candidates.

(More here.)