2009 - %3, June

Will the Uighurs Be Released?

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:42 PM EDT

Here's a peculiar story from Bloomberg:

Some of the 17 Chinese Uighur Muslims being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will likely be released in the U.S. in an effort to convince other countries to accept prisoners from the detention facility, according to current and former American officials.

Why peculiar?  Because there's not even a smidgen of backup for this claim in the rest of the story, which runs to over a thousand words.  There's one speculative quote from a Bush-era legal advisor and that's it.  Nothing from current American officials at all.  All in all, the story gives no reason to believe that the Obama administration is any closer to releasing any of the Uighurs into the U.S. than it was a month ago.

Still, I'd like it to be true.  So here's hoping there's more to this piece than meets the eye.

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Does AF 447 Reveal the Safety Risks of Plastic Aircraft?

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:37 PM EDT

It is conceivable that the materials used to construct parts of the Airbus 330 might have been a factor in the loss of Air France 447. While we may never know for sure whether structural issues contributed to the plane’s plunge into the Atlantic, the crash raises urgent questions that reach beyond even the untimely deaths of 228 people: Composite aircraft parts figure more and more in the future of commerical aviation, with the two biggest manufacturers preparing to roll out high-composite-content jets next year.

These carbon-fiber composites–basically, a form of plastic–are lighter than the aluminum they replace, which stands to cut down signficantly on fuel costs. But any weaknesses in parts built of composite may be impossible to detect during routine ground inspections–at least without costly testing methods that the manufacturers insist are unnecessary. 

If critics of the new high-composite-content aircraft are right about their risks, then we may once again be facing a situation where the corporate profits of the aerospace and airline industries are placed before public safety, while the government declines to intervene.

This is not the stuff of conspiracy theories. Warnings about the possible safety risks of composite materials in aircraft construction have been issued by a number of engineers and experts, and by no less reliable a source than the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (CTSB). A 2007 article in the New Scientist discusses a report by the CTSB that reveals problems with composite materials used in the Airbus, and their role in a 2005 midair crisis. Most troubling is the report’s conclusion that such structural problems often remain undetected using current methods of safety testing.

How to Game the College Rankings: Tips From Clemson

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:09 PM EDT

Over at Inside Higher Ed, there's a fascinating account of how in 2008 Clemson University climbed from 38 to 22 in U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings. The post quotes Catherine Watt, Clemson's director of institutional research, who was surprisingly forthcoming at the annual forum of the Association for Institutional Research in Atlanta, noting that "We have gotten really good press. We have walked the fine line between illegal, unethical, and really interesting.”

According to Watt, Clemson raised its ranking with the following ethically murky tactics:

 

Lessig's Change Congress Targets Dem Senator

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 1:17 PM EDT

Last week, copyright guru Lawrence Lessig's Change Congress organization, which hopes to reduce the influence of money in politics, accused Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) of undermining Americans' faith in politics by creating the appearance of corruption.

What exactly did the Senator do wrong? Well, Nelson accepted over $2 million in campaign cash from the insurance industry. He also happened to embrace the industry's position on health care reform, declaring his opposition to giving Americans the option of a government-run health care plan. (Nelson has since hedged a bit.)

Democratic Love for Reagan

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 1:06 PM EDT

There's been a lot of Ronald Reagan worshipping going on in Washington this week--among Democrats. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed a bill that will create a commission to plan events to celebrate what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday in 2011. Launching the commission, Obama said,

President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country -- a spirit that transcended politics, that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day. It was this optimism that the American people sorely needed during a difficult period -- a period of economic and global challenges that tested us in unprecedented ways.

New Cartoon Low: Sotomayor as Pinata

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

We've all seen the monkey cartoon, and now, a new low in satirical racism. Sure, cartoons are meant to be provocative and controversy is bound to arise, but this is absurd:

Some Oklahomans are outraged, if you are too give The Oklahoman a call: (405) 475-3311.

Spotted on Feministing.

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Twitter v. Real Life

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

According to some new research out of the Harvard Business School, 10% of Twitter users account for 90% of all tweets, and the median number of tweets per day is 0.01.  That makes me above average!  Barely.  I think my last tweet was sometime in April.

What's more, in news that should surprise no one, men who tweet generally pay more attention to other men.  Even though women outnumber men on Twitter, and even though men and women tweet at about the same rate, men still have more followers.  Why?  Gender solidarity, apparently:

Although men and women follow a similar number of Twitter users, men have 15% more followers than women. Men also have more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other....Even more interesting is who follows whom. We found that an average man is almost twice more likely to follow another man than a woman. Similarly, an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman. Finally, an average man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman.

However, it turns out that the researchers are suprised by this because apparently it's unusual: "On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women — men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know."  Maybe so, though I suspect this might have to do with a massive bias toward teenagers in most social networks.  Certainly these results seem to match similar patterns in Usenet, chat groups, the blogosphere, and real life.  Frankly, I would have been surprised if men hadn't turned out to be pigs.

(Via Tyler Cowen.)

Rule of Thumb of the Day

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:08 PM EDT

Via Alex Tabarrok, a pair of researchers asked people how big the economy would be if it grew 5% a year for 25 years:

Only around 10–15% of the participants gave estimations between 50% less and 100% more than the true value...furthermore, the majority of the false estimations were systematically below the true value ...which was underestimated by 88.9–92.1% of the participants.

Of course, this is actually a fairly tough calculation even if you're mathematically inclined and understand the whole compound interest thing.  I guessed vaguely that 5% growth would produce a doubling in about 12 years, so the economy would quadruple in 25 years.  Wrong!  Turns out that doubling takes 14 years, so the answer isn't 300%, it's 238%.  But Alex made this worth my time by teaching me a new rule of thumb I hadn't heard of before:

A good way of approximating is to use the rule of 70.  If x is the growth rate then the doubling time is approximately 70/x.  Thus, with a growth rate of 5% we expect a doubling (100% increase) in 14 years and a quadrupling in 28 years so a bit more than a tripling in 25 years (200% increase) is a good guess.

I love good rules of thumb, and this one makes me slightly more knowledgable than I was five minutes ago.  Thanks, blogosphere!

The Missing Abu Ghraib Photos

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 11:54 AM EDT

Back in 2006, Salon published 279 photos and 19 videos depicting detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But the website was quick to warn readers of the images' "limitations"—the Army's Criminal Investigation Command [CID] had produced two reports, one in Tikrit, Iraq on June 6, 2004, and one a month later in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The Tikrit CID report analyzed some 1,300 images and over 90 videos of possible detainee abuse. But only around 280 videos and 19 videos were analyzed in the second report—numbers that correspond to the images Salon published. "It remains unclear," Salon warned in 2006, "why and how the CID narrowed its set of forensic evidence to the 279 images and 19 videos that we reproduce here." But if the Pentagon ever had more images of Abu Ghraib abuse, it doesn't have them now. "The Department of Defense is unaware of any images or video of potential abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib that have not already been made public," a Pentagon spokesman tells Mother Jones, echoing earlier statements.

I speculated yesterday that the discrepancy might stem from the Pentagon's claim that many (separate) images that the ACLU is seeking in a lawsuit depict what at first glance appears to be abuse but was determined not to be—pre-existing bruises or injuries to detainees, for example. That could still be the case. I've asked Salon's Mark Benjamin, who first asked the Pentagon about whether there were more Abu Ghraib photos and got a similar response, if he can help me figure out what happened to the images from the first CID report. I haven't heard back yet, but I'll post his response if and when I get one. I'm also following up with the Pentagon.

Obama and the Muslim World

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

From Barack Obama, explaining the value of diplomacy and talk:

“What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us....And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”

This is exactly the right formulation, and gives the lie to the endless cavalcade of right-wingers who like to pretend that Obama is some kind of foreign policy naif who's convinced he can persuade the world's terrorists and despots into laying down their arms by the power of sweet talk alone.  As he's made clear many times before, though, he's not.  He knows perfectly well that what he's doing will take a lot of time and will work, at best, "at the margins."  It will reduce the recruiting power of terrorists a bit, it will reduce the intransigence of Middle Eastern governments a bit, and it will reduce the general hatred of American foreign policy a bit.  But add up the bits over several years, and they can make a real difference.

Still, there's no question it's a long-term project.  A recent PIPA poll, for example, shows that the Egyptian public is way more enthusiastic about Obama than about Bush.  But click the link for more and you'll see that their view of U.S. goals in the Middle East is every bit as negative as it's ever been.  This is going to be the work of many, many years.