2011 - %3, January

Obama: Drug Legalization "Worth a Serious Debate"

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 7:20 AM EST

Legalizing recreational drugs in the United States "is an entirely legitimate topic for debate," President Barack Obama said yesterday during an online chat session moderated by YouTube. He was responding to a retired deputy sheriff whose question criticizing the War on Drugs had been voted the most popular during the web video site's "Your Interview With the President" competition. 

While Obama quickly added that he's "not in favor of legalization," his comments went further than those of any past past president in questioning the wisdom of a drug policy based on arrests and incarceration. It was also a significant break from Obama's own rhetoric. During an online address in 2009, he'd dismissed outright a popular question about whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy, chuckling as he said, "No, I don't think that's a good strategy."

Obama's statement will probably to score points with people who favor pot legalization—according to some polls, nearly half of all Americans. In early 2009, he earned kudos from potheads when the Justice Department announced that it would stop raiding medical marijuana dispensaries that complied with state laws. In recent months, however, the IRS has intensified audits of California pot dispensaries, where marijuana is a $14-billion business with ties to venture capitalists and Wall Street (as I document in a recent feature, Weedmart).

Here's Obama yesterday, in his own words: 

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Baby Wildlife: A BBC Top Ten

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 7:01 AM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

For the next couple of months we're going to be reveling in all things living and new. So check out our ten favorite new life photos.

1) Giant Panda

Giant panda cubs aren't so big, and they only start walking after 75 days or so. In the meantime, their mothers occupy them by wrestling and rolling with them, cute!

 

Remembering the Holocaust's Roma (or Not)

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Here's a part of the Holocaust that rarely gets mentioned: "A staggering 95 percent of the Czech-born Romani and Sinti population perished in the war, most through extrajudicial killings." Or that up to a million and a half Gypsies (I'm allowed to call them that, without quotation marks, because my mom is Hungarian Roma) were exterminated during World War II. A chilling article by Brian Kenety at Czech Position (ceskapozice.cz/en) uses yesterday's anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—within which there was a special camp for Roma—as an occasion to give that tragedy its rare due. Though 70 percent (!) of Europe's Romani were killed in the war, no testimony was given by or about the group at Nuremberg.
 
Of course, the Roma continue to be persecuted across Europe, with everything from illegal deportations to assaults by skinheads. For its part, the Czech government is keeping up its end of insulting Gypsies by refusing to memorialize their 66-year-old slaughter. Rather than any sort of commemoration at the site of the biggest Czech concentration camp where Roma were held, there's...a pig farm.

"I think the fact that there is a pig farm is still run on the Lety site shows that, in general, the Roma are still considered to be second-class citizens," says European human rights activist Markus Pape. "Especially when you look at Lidice [the site of the massacre of in reprisal for the assassination of reprisal for the assassination of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich in 1942] and Terezín [the concentration camp known in German as Theresienstadt] and other places of Nazi persecution of the ethnic Czech or Jewish population in this country, it is not understandable…why the Roma victims don’t deserve similar recognition."

The whole article is well worth reading. Warning: some disburbing archival photos accompany it.

Obama's Sputnik Moment

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EST

On Tuesday President Obama said we were entering "our generation's Sputnik moment":

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is only half right. It's true that after the launch of Sputnik science and math education became an American obsession, but that's not what got us to the moon. The scientists and engineers who eventually built the Apollo rockets weren't teenagers, after all. They were grown men and women who'd been educated in the 40s and 50s. The post-Sputnik push for better technical education may or may not have paid off—remember the New Math?—but if it did, it paid off two decades later in the personal computer revolution of the 80s.

So how did we unleash a "wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs"? Obama only touched on that in his speech, but part the answer is: big government. As Fred Kaplan reminds us, when Texas Instruments introduced a newfangled invention called the microchip in 1959, nobody in the private sector had any use for it:

However, these tiny chips would be needed to power the guidance systems in the Minuteman's nose cone—and in the coming Apollo program's space capsule. It was the Pentagon and NASA that bought the first microchips. The demand allowed for economies of scale, driving down costs enough so that private companies started building products that relied on chips. This created further economies of scale. And so came the inventions of the pocket calculator, smaller and faster computers, and, decades later, just about everything that we use in daily life.

The microchip would have found a market eventually even without NASA, but it might have taken years longer. And this same story goes beyond just integrated circuits. The first computer, ENIAC, was originally designed for the United States Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory. The internet was originally funded by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency—which had been created in the wake of Sputnik—and was based on packet switching technology invented by a professor at a public university. And today, rocket technology itself, originally designed and funded by the federal government, is starting to become a thriving private business as well.

It was the private sector that turned these inventions into multi-billion dollar businesses, but it was government that provided either the basic research, the initial market, or both. Acknowledging this isn't an endorsement of socialism or tyranny or government run amok. It's an acknowledgment of the reality of progress in the modern era. Obama was right to focus our attention on education, technology, and infrastructure in his State of the Union address, because that's the seed corn that will provide long-term productivity growth for America and the world. But with apologies to Bill Clinton, if we're really serious about out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building, this means accepting that the era of big government is far from over. When it comes to basic R&D and the infrastructure to exploit it, it's only just begun.

Front page image credit: NASA Images.

Kochs Attempt to Unmask Climate Pranksters

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EST

A few weeks ago, I reported that Koch Industries didn't take too kindly to the anonymous pranksters who spoofed their position on climate change last month with a fake website and press release. The Kochs argued that the fake site that claimed the company had changed its tune on global warming was bad for the bottom line of Koch Industries. Koch has filed suit, accusing the spoofers of "trademark infringement, cybersquatting, and unfair competition." And, in order to do so, Koch wants the names of the folks behind the prank revealed.

But the anonymous defendants in the case—who are calling themselves "Youth for Climate Truth"—now have representation from an attorney, Deepak Gupta of the public interest group Public Citizen. This week, Gupta asked the judge in the US federal district court in Utah to dismiss the case outright. Public Citizen is also asking the court to quash the subpoena issued to the web hosting company that sought to force it to cough up the names of the pranksters and issue a directive to Koch's lawyers barring them from releasing any information about the defendants that they may have already obtained.

The Koch suit also seeks to purse the pranksters for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal offense that is intended to deal with hacking. This one, the defendants' lawyer says, should be a real stretch of the law, since there was no hacking involved in the spoof; it was only a parody of the Koch website and a fake press release.

Revealing the identities of the anonymous people behind the prank and punishing them for it would have a "chilling effect on free speech," Public Citizen argues. "The First Amendment protects anonymous speech and speech on the internet," Gupta tells Mother Jones. Moreover, there is no evidence that the spoof site caused any financial harm to Koch, nor did anyone take the prank seriously, Gupta argues. (See the defendants' filing here.)

This case is pretty similar to the one that the US Chamber of Commerce filed against the Yes Men in 2009 after the pair of notorious pranksters made a mockery of their climate stance as well. There hasn't been any resolution in that case so far.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 28, 2011

Fri Jan. 28, 2011 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Pfc. Corey Vanotegham, left, an infantry radio telephone operator from Victor, Iowa, both of Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, looks over the side of the road outside the town of Tupac, Afghanistan, Jan. 20. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson, Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs Office

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Memo to FCIC: More Transparency, Please

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 6:00 PM EST

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), charged by Congress with investigating the causes of the economic collapse, released its final report (PDF) on Thursday. It also made many of its source documents available, and promised to release others shortly. But on the second page of the preface (PDF), the commissioners warned that "more materials that cannot be released yet for various reasons will eventually be made public through the National Archives and Records Administration." For some of the commission's detractors, that's another sign of trouble from an already troubled body.

[Read Marilyn Snell on the FCIC's failure to interview actual victims of the mortgage crisis.]

Let me explain. Michael Perino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York, has been a fierce critic of the commission. In October, Perino published Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American Finance. The book is a history of Senate staffer Ferdinand Pecora's pathbreaking work investigating the causes of the Great Depression during the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. Pecora's exposure of Wall Street wrongdoing gave fuel to Roosevelt's push for financial reform.

Perino says that the FCIC—an independent, non-congressional commission hamstrung by partisan division and restrictive ground rules—simply couldn't provide the same sort of reforming push that Pecora's investigation did, because it didn't have the power, the heft, or the perfect timing that Pecora did.

But the commissioners can still make a difference. "The most important thing the FCIC can do right now is release all of the documents and all the transcripts of interviews they've collected over the course of their investigation," Perino tells Mother Jones. "Opening up all those materials would allow independent investigators to pore through them and reach their own conclusions." (Perino wrote a piece for Fortune making a similar argument late last year.)

The FCIC's commissioners, for their part, believe that they've done their best to be transparent. But Phil Angelides, the FCIC's chairman, told Mother Jones in a Thursday conference call that the commission simply couldn't release everything. "In the course of doing this kind of inquiry, you look at many documents that are completely irrelevant," Angelides says. In addition, he says, "there are trade secret laws, other laws, federal law that controls the ability of the commission to release documents... It wouldn't be responsible to do a document dump of documents that weren't relevant to the crisis."

Angelides promised that the "predisposition of the commissioners" would be to have a "fairly short period" before the National Archives and Records Administration releases the FCIC documents that won't be released immediately. In the conference call, Angelides and fellow commissioner Brooksley Born refused to quantify what percentage of the commission's documents will be released at what times, but Born claimed that the commissioners "erred on the side of openness." 

Perino, however, has pointed out that today, years after the closure of the 9/11 commission, two-thirds of that body's documents still remain under seal—and there are national security concerns at stake there that do not apply to the FCIC's work.

Dean Baker, the co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, agrees with Perino's call for maximum transparency from the FCIC. "It certainly would be great to release it," Baker says. "In principle there's definitely a lot of stuff there that would require a lot of sifting through to make sense of." Baker's especially curious to see what people at the highest levels of mortgage lenders, securitizers, and bond ratings agencies knew about what they were selling, packaging, and rating. Angelides has promised that interviews with some top executives will be made available to the public. But it's unclear what will and will not be released. 

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, also endorsed Perino's call for transparency. Here's what he told me in a phone interview:

In this case, the commission came to a very frustrating impasse. The report, as I understand it, says [the financial crisis] was a preventable thing and preventable by lots of different measures. The Republican dissent is that this was caused by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That's one of those disputes where it's not just two interpretations of common facts diverging from one another. Those are two different narratives coming out of the same commission, which lead in two different policy directions and really tell two different stories.

There are powerful incentives in certain institutions to just leave it at that. The most obvious one is the "he said/she said" journalism, where you say, "This is what the commission Republicans said, this is what the Democrats said, and really—who can tell." The release of documents provides a way for people to provide a check on that tendency.

Like Rosen, Angelides worries "there's going to be a very conscious, deliberate effort to rewrite history, to wave this away like it was a bump in the road." He can try to fight that tendency by immediately releasing all the documents the commission is not legally required to keep secret. Determining which documents are "relevant" is a task best left to the public, not FCIC staff members and commissioners deliberating behind closed doors.

The Spudnut Moment

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 5:08 PM EST

My sister thinks I should join the movement to declare February a Palin-free month. The logic behind this is unassailable. And yet....it would prevent me from sharing stuff like this:

The first segment is some sort of painfully rehearsed word salad about Obama's mention of a Sputnik moment in his State of the Union address, and it ends with Palin suggesting that what America really needs is a “Spudnut moment,” referring to a small business in Richland, Washington. Tommy Christopher tries to make sense of it all:

Palin never really explains how this is supposed to work, but I think the equation goes something like this: “Sputnik moment” + “Something that sounds like Sputnik but isn’t”=WIN!

For what it's worth, Greta Van Susteren's blank look at the end of Palin's harangue is sort of priceless. Still, it leaves the question open: are we better off taking a month's vacation from this? Or is the entertainment value just too high? Decisions, decisions.....

US Teachers Don't Teach Evolution

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 5:02 PM EST

From tomorrow's issue of Science, a new paper describing the great divide between creationism's court losses (every major US federal court case in the past 40 years) and a paradoxical decline in classroom teaching of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself.

Based on data from the National Survey of High School Biology teachers, the authors estimate that only 28% of all biology teachers consistently teach evolutionary biology, while 13% explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design. The remaining teachers they deem the cautious 60%:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or "teaching the controversy" all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

The authors note that more high school students take general biology than any other science course, and that biology will be the only high school science class for up to a quarter of all US graduates. Yet 72% will get no schooling in evolutionary biology or a wobbly version of it: "absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation."

The authors suggest that scientists and scientific organizations address the problem:

  • By continuing participation in federal law suits, since federal courts effectively limit the ability of state and local governments to endorse nonscientific alternatives to evolution
  • By requiring evolution courses be taught to teachers in training, since those who teach evolutionary biology are more likely to have completed a course in evolution (and feel more confident teaching it) than those who don't teach it at all, or who teach it ambivalently:

They add:

More effectively integrating evolution into the education of preservice biology teachers may also have the indirect effect of encouraging students who cannot accept evolution as a matter of faith to pursue other careers.

The paper:

  • Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer. Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. 2011. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1198902

Palin on Obama's "Hostility" to Oil

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 3:37 PM EST

It's no shocker that Sarah Palin is a big fan of oil. After all, it was Palin who popularized "Drill, baby, drill," back in 2008. And this morning she made it known again in her characteristic mode of communication, Facebook, with a screed protesting the energy plans Obama outlined in his State of the Union address this week:

When it comes to energy issues, we heard more vague promises last night as the President’s rhetoric suggested an all-of-the-above solution to meeting our country’s energy needs. But again, his actions point in a different direction. He offers a vision of a future powered by what he refers to as "clean energy," but how we will get there from here remains a mystery. In the meantime, he continues to stymie the responsible development of our own abundant conventional energy resources – the stuff we actually use right now to fuel our economy. His continued hostility towards domestic drilling means hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs will not be created and millions of Americans will end up paying more at the pump. It also means we’ll continue to transfer hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars to foreign regimes that don’t have America’s interests at heart.

While we're on the subject, see my post this morning on Blue Marble about how it's probably wishful thinking that energy is a "bipartisan" issue.