Obama, Netanyahu, and Israel's Bomb

The daily White House press briefing on Monday was dominated by questions about President Obama's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Did Obama squeeze any concessions out of Bibi on settlements and a two-state solution? Who got more out of the encounter? Is there any reason for Obama to be hopeful about the Middle East other than that he's a hopeful guy? Was it significant that Obama talked tough about Iran after the session?

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, per his job description, said nothing in response to any of this that could be deemed newsworthy. He offered no details about the talks, other than to say they were "warm" and "constructive." He did say that the one-on-one portion of the meeting ran about half an hour longer than had been scheduled.

But here's one question Gibbs didn't have to field: Given President Obama's stated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, did he talk to the Israeli prime minister about Israel's nuclear arsenal and about its refusal to join the Nonproliferation Treaty? Does Obama believe this is an important matter that warrants his direct involvement?

That topic just didn't come up in the press room. I was there, but. alas, Gibbs didn't call on me. And the Israeli bomb seemed to be on nobody else's mind.

New Evolution: 100 Proofs

Genes have long been considered the only way biological traits are passed down through generations of organisms. Now we know that non-genetic variations acquired during the lifespan of a plant or animal can be passed along to its offspring.

The phenomenon is known as epigenetic inheritance. We don't yet know how prolific this mechanism is. But a new study in The Quarterly Review of Biology lists more than 100 well-documented cases of epigenetic inheritance between generations of organisms.

In other words, non-DNA inheritance happens a lot more than we thought. For example:

  • Fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes—bristly outgrowths on their eyes—down at least 13 generations.
  • Exposing a pregnant rat to a chemical that alters reproductive hormones leads to generations of sick offspring.


In these and 97 other cases the changes in subsequent generations were not from changes in DNA but from epigenetics.

There are four known mechanisms for epigenetic inheritance. The best known involves on-off switches (sort of) that render genes active or inactive—without actually changing the DNA. The revelations of epigenetics are rewriting the study of evolution. And no, epigentics does not make creationism right.

The rewrite is a vindication of sorts for 18th-century naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, whose writings predated Charles Darwin's and who believed that evolution was driven in part by the inheritance of acquired traits.

His wonkiest supposition: Giraffe ancestors reached with their necks to munch leaves high in trees, stretching their necks to become slightly longer—a trait passed on to descendants.
 

More accurate: All the stuff we're synthesizing and creating from plastics to nanomaterials is going to live in our bodies and take its toll down the generations for a long, long time.

In this quickie video, Media Matters for America asks whether Nancy Pelosi's attackers would be talking this way about a man. They've got a point.

The SAT's (Not-for-Profit) Revenue Machine

The Big Money's Chadwick Matlin has a great look in to the not-for-profit, yet very flush, world of the College Board, the group that administers the SAT. Read the entire thing if you have the time, but here's the money quote in case you don't:

To keep its nonprofit status, an organization must pass an IRS review every five years, which means it needs to execute its charitable mission appropriately. The College Board's charitable mission was summed up by its president in 2006: "to connect students to access and opportunity, to prepare more and more students to be ready to go to college and succeed." The quote's logic is circular. In order "to go to college and succeed," you have to get into college. And to do that, you have to prepare for and take the SAT. Certainly, the College Board can help you do that. But if the College Board didn't exist, there would be no need for it to happen in the first place.

Emphasis mine. I wouldn't say the College Board doesn't have an economic monopoly over the college testing business (service?), though they have something close to it considering they only have one major competitor in ACT, Inc., which administers the ACT.

What the College Board does have is something I'd call a psycho-cultural monopoly on college testing: The SAT has become synonymous with getting in to college, even though dozens, maybe hundreds, of schools, including my alma mater, don't require it for admission. But I took it anyway, along with millions of other students, probably because so many of us have come to think of it as a prerequisite for college. I actually took the SAT twice, which is very common, except that the first time I took the test I was in middle school. Our school district administered the SAT to a few dozen students in gifted programs. I still can't remember why they did it, but I remember it made me and my friends—many of whom did not take the test then—associate taking the SAT with an achievement rather than an afternoon of basic trigonometry and speed reading.

I can remember a thought similar to the one I emphasized above crossing my mind when I began applying to law schools last winter. Every ABA-approved law school requires the LSAT ($132), which is administered by the not-for-profit Law School Admissions Council. I don't think it's ridiculous for prospective law students to take an admissions test, but what I did find ridiculous were the other fees LSAC charged for their other services: $117 for the Law School Data Assembly Service (something else required by virtually every law school), which collected my transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other academic information in to a candidate report. Then, every time I applied to a law school, LSAC charged me $12 to send that report to the law school to which I applied.

I'll concede charging someone for a service like assembling an applicants' credentials is not outrageous per se; it's the amount of the fee. I doubt it even cost LSAC $2 to fax or email my report to each law school. But, thanks to the nature of a monopoly, I had no other choice but to pay the fee.

Generals Take Aim at Fossil Fuels

President Obama’s plans to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels face a thicket of political obstacles, but he may soon receive help from an unexpected quarter: the military. On Monday a group of retired generals gathered in Washington to urge the government to radically overhaul its energy policy. Their motivation wasn't purely environmental (although their presentation was punctuated by disapproving remarks about the overly chilly winds blasting from the air conditioning system), but was prompted by a stark assessment of the menace that climate change poses to the nation's safety. "America’s current energy posture constitutes a serious and urgent threat to our national security," said Gen. Charles Wald, a former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command. "We need diversification of energy sources and a serious commitment to renewable energy." 

A gathering of top military brass singing the praises of the smart grid might sound like a curiosity, but it shouldn't. The Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of energy in the U.S., and in 2008 its oil bill hit $20 billion (up from $13 billion in 2006.) Once you take into account the costs of guarding fuel sources and getting it to the battlefield, the true price the DOD pays for oil climbs to hundreds of dollars per gallon, the generals said. In Afghanistan, 70 percent of U.S. convoys carry fuel or water, so if the military uses less oil, it will put fewer troops in harm's way. As a result of these facts, even during the Bush administration's long years of inaction on global warming, the Pentagon forged ahead with initiatives to insulate tents and deploy solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal energy and hybrid vehicles on selected military bases.

The Campaign Against 'Naked' TSA Scans

When TSA introduced full-body scans of passengers back in 2007 as an alternative to pat-downs, privacy advocates cried foul. Two years later, there are 19 airports with body scanners and the possibility that these machines (which reveal every fold of your body) will become mandatory instead of optional. Today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says it will launch a national campaign against the TSA's scanning machines, gathering signatures in hopes of creating a "viral" consumer movement.

Having followed these machines for some time, I agree with EPIC's concerns. I do give the TSA props for improving their "privacy algorithm": Though nicknamed "the Peeper," millimeter wave scanners are definitely less graphic than the backscatter machines previously used by the TSA. But as you can see on the agency's site by the one, small picture of a scan they provide, the millimeter wave machines still reveal clear outlines of breasts and genetalia. And despite what's shown on the TSA's brief informational videos, not all travelers are 40-something men. The bodies of children and women and the elderly are also being scanned. I think if a news channel showed a child in the scanning machine, it would increase public concern about the machines. Few parents, I would wager, are happy to have a total stranger see a scan of their child's naked body. That said, it's a hard choice between having your daughter patted down in front of you, or having her nude image seen by some random person 100 yards away.

Although a TSA spokeswoman told CNN that staffers viewing images "aren't allowed to bring cameras, cell phones, or any recording device into the room," I just don't trust that an image won't be recorded or leaked. After all, the TSA is not particularly known for its respect for passenger privacy. (Remember that 2005 data dump lawsuit?) In fact, as the GAO found out in an investigation, TSA staffers will hassle you over your prescription shampoo, but totally miss the bomb parts you just brought through security in your carry-on. All the technology in the world ain't gonna fix human error. For my tax-payer dollar, I'd prefer that the government spend less on expensive technology that treats all passengers, even infants, as possible terrorists, and spend more on intelligence-gathering that prevents the real terrorists from making it to the airport in the first place.

(p.s. For an informative 60 Minutes look inside the TSA, click here.)

 

Good News on CAFE

Some good news on mileage standards:

President Obama will announce as early as Tuesday that he will combine California’s tough new auto-emissions rules with the existing corporate average fuel economy standard to create a single new national standard, the officials said....Under the new standard, the national fleet mileage rule for cars would be roughly 42 miles a gallon in 2016. Light trucks would have to meet a fleet average of slightly more than 26.2 miles a gallon by 2016.

....The current standards are 27.5 miles a gallon for cars and about 24 miles a gallon for trucks. The new mileage and emissions rules will gradually tighten, beginning with 2011 models, until they reach the 2016 standards.

The auto industry is not expected to challenge the rule, which provides two things they have long asked for: certainty on a timetable and a single national standard.

This is really important stuff.  Cap-and-trade is the centerpiece of the Waxman-Markey energy bill, and it's a critical part of any global warming plan.  (Krugman's column today strikes the right tone on Waxman-Markey, by the way.)  As important as it is, though, I think of it as sort of like a headwind, something that helps get all the ships moving in the right direction.  But that's not enough.  There are plenty of other currents and eddies and storm systems that, individually, aren't as important as pricing carbon, but put together are actually far more important.  Mileage standards for cars are one of them: pricing carbon can help motivate people to drive less and buy stingier cars, but federal CAFE standards can do it a lot faster and a lot more efficiently.  Cap-and-trade is no substitute.

This, of course, is why Waxman-Markey itself is about a lot more than just cap-and-trade.  Over at Climate Progress, Daniel Weiss has a guest post that explains.

The PowerPoint and the Glory

GQ has gotten its manicured hands on the top sheets from the top-secret intel briefings Donald Rumseld delivered to the White House in early 2003, and—holy hand grenades! Each one is adorned with a biblical verse and a thematically appropriate photo. For example, an American tank under a verse referring to "the full armor of God," or an image of Saddam under 1 Peter 2:15: "It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men." Now if only someone had put an eye-catching verse on that August 2001 daily briefing given to George W. Bush in Crawford...

The Obama administration infuriated liberals and civil libertarians last Friday by extending the Bush administration's military commissions for terrorism suspects. But on Monday, when top officials from human rights organizations met with the Obama administration task force charged with rethinking detainee treatment, they heard a different message about the administration's ultimate plans for the tribunals.

In a conference call with reporters following the sit-down, Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, said that officials from the Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition told him that the administration's announcement on Friday was only prompted by the fact that it was bumping up against the 120-day suspension of the commissions that Obama ordered in January. According to Rona, administration officials worried that if they didn't act before the deadline passed, they could lose the option to use the commissions. To prevent that from happening, Rona explained, the White House will notify Congress of its proposed changes and seek another four-month delay in the proceedings that are already underway. Later, Rona told Mother Jones that he doubted the task force officials would have sought the input of the human rights groups—or tried to feed them the deadline excuse—if revised commissions were already "a fait accompli." "The administration was testing the water" on Friday, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who also attended the meeting. "I don't know how surprised it was by the outrage that resulted."

The Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition was created by executive order in January. Its report, which will "identify options" for changing detainee treatment, is due in late July. Roth said the task force seemed to be weighing whether to "stick with ordinary courts or move towards commissions. A "national security court," proposed by some law professors, "didn't seem to be the direction things were going," he said. According to Roth, the task force worries that trying terrorism suspects in ordinary courts might allow suspects to claim that they had Miranda rights that had been violated or to demand access to classified information used by the prosecution.

It's possible that the human rights officials are engaging in wishful thinking, hoping that Obama's decision on military tribunals is not as firm as it seems. In a statement on Friday, Obama said that (reformed) commissions are "the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values." That doesn't leave the White House much wiggle room.

Until last Friday, press secretary Robert Gibbs countered questions about detainee treatment by claiming that he didn't want to prejudge the reports of various commissions and task forces, including the interagency group. "I think what's best is to let that happen and see what happens when they come back," Gibbs said on January 22. On February 23, Gibbs deflected a question by referring to the "ongoing" process of "evaluating the detainees" at Guantanamo Bay. On May 5, he said it "wouldn't be wise to prejudge the review [of military tribunals] the president laid out." But on Friday, Obama announced his decision. The deadline for the completion of the review that was once so crucial was still more than two months away. So far, the White House has not publicly explained why it rendered a decision before the task force finished its work.

When it's not Dick Cheney in the media defending Dick Cheney and the Bush administration, it's Liz Cheney.

The elder daughter of Dick Cheney, who was a State Department deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Bush-Cheney years, appeared on ABC News' This Week on Sunday and, no surprise, repeatedly justified her father's actions as veep, especially his support of torture--or, as she called it, "these policies." Liz Cheney also called President Barack Obama "un-American" for even considering the prosecution of any former Bush administration officials. She claimed her father's recent public interviews have postively influenced public opinion and the Obama White House--and that these media appearances have helped the Republican Party.

Well, every daughter is entitled to her opinion. And every network is entitled to a new talking head. But Cheney's appearance reminded me of a forum she attended a year ago, when she demonstrated what seems to be a family trait: putting belief above facts.