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[ 24 ] May 30, 2008 |


Friday Cat Blogging… Starbuck and Nelson

…needless to say, on the watch for monkey-cyborgs

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Presidential Statement of the Day

[ 20 ] May 30, 2008 |

Ronald Reagan, remarks on US policy in the Persian Gulf, 29 May 1987

Now, I will not permit the Middle East to become a chokepoint for freedom or a tinderbox of international conflict. Freedom of navigation is not an empty cliche of international law. It is essential to the health and safety of America and the strength of our alliance. Our presence in the Persian Gulf is also essential to preventing wider conflict in the Middle East, and it’s a prerequisite to helping end the brutal and violent 6 1/2-year war between Iran and Iraq. Diplomatically, we’re doing everything we can to obtain an end to this war, and this effort will continue.

. . . Our goal is to seek peace rather than provocation, but our interests and those of our friends must be preserved. We’re in the gulf to protect our national interests and, together with our allies, the interests of the entire Western World. Peace is at stake; our national interest is at stake. And we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Weakness, a lack of resolve and strength, will only encourage those who seek to use the flow of oil as a tool, a weapon, to cause the American people hardship at home, incapacitate us abroad, and promote conflict and violence throughout the Middle East and the world.

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The Impending Attack of the Monkey-Robot Hybrids

[ 23 ] May 29, 2008 |

Rob usually covers the zombie/robot/monkey beat around here — while I content myself with vampires, UFOs and the occasional case of therianthropy — but this is an urgent piece of news, with implications far too important to be left steeping in the obscurity of the New York Times:

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday . . . .

In previous studies, researchers showed that humans who had been paralyzed for years could learn to control a cursor on a computer screen with their brain waves and that nonhuman primates could use their thoughts to move a mechanical arm, a robotic hand or a robot on a treadmill.

The new experiment goes a step further. In it, the monkeys’ brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time. The monkeys had their own arms gently restrained while they learned to use the added one. . . .

After several days, the monkeys needed no help. They sat stationary in a chair, repeatedly manipulating the arm with their brain to reach out and grab grapes, marshmallows and other nuggets dangled in front of them. The snacks reached the mouths about two-thirds of the time — an impressive rate, compared with earlier work.

The monkeys learned to hold the grip open on approaching the food, close it just enough to hold the food and gradually loosen the grip when feeding.

On several occasions, a monkey kept its claw open on the way back, with the food stuck to one finger. At other times, a monkey moved the arm to lick the fingers clean or to push a bit of food into its mouth while ignoring a newly presented morsel.

The animals were apparently freelancing, discovering new uses for the arm, showing “displays of embodiment that would never be seen in a virtual environment,” the researchers wrote.

There being no monkeys in Juneau, I am momentarily comforted by my distance from the peril. When, however, our future simian masters learn to navigate ferries and cruise ships — or to pilot aircraft — even the geographically remote among us will not be spared.

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She Read My Mind

Indexed’s Jessica Hagy read my mind:

via feministing.

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Speaking Of…

Colbert is on fire here.

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A Solid Step, if Small

NY Governor Patterson has directed that NY will recognize out of state same-sex marriages. It’s not totally clear from the NY Times article whether this includes civil unions that are not called “marriage” from other states. I would expect so.

Certainly, this is not a total victory. Total victory would be the state’s decision to grant same-sex marriages. But it’s a solid step, and hopefully a sign of things to come from Gov. Patterson’s administration.

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Great War Memories

[ 24 ] May 29, 2008 |

John Quiggin, riffing off this Edward Lengel column, suggests that the respective experiences of Europe and the United States in World War I may explain cultural differences on the use of force:

In any case, in the long run, the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party. With a historical memory of war dominated by the “Good War” against Hitler and the Axis, it’s unsurprising that Americans have been much more willing than the citizens of other democratic societies to accept war as part of the natural order of things.

In Europe by contrast, the Great War and its consequences are still ever-present, and the Second World War is correctly seen as the inevitable product of the First. With all its faults, the EU is widely supported simply because it has been associated with sixty years of peace. Even in Australia where the Gallipoli campaign has long formed the basis of the official national myth, it has been impossible to avoid the fact that thousands of young Australians suffered and died in the most horrible ways, fighting people of whom we had barely heard and with whom we had no quarrel of our own, in a futile diversion from a futile war. Honouring those who died goes hand in hand with a general recognition that they died for the failures of the world’s leaders and that the only proper lesson from their deaths is to hope that we can avoid war in future.

There’s certainly something to this, although it bears repeating that the World War II experience of Europe and the United States also differ in dramatic ways. The level of raw destruction visited upon Europe during both World Wars is something alien to the US experience, apart from that of the American South during the Civil War. Moreover, I’m not convinced that the immediate reaction to the Great War in the United States was isolationism, and not pacifism; I think that there were some significant strands of pacifist thought that extended across the Atlantic, resulting (among other things) in the Washington Naval Treaty and a series of other interwar agreements designed to prevent future conflict. The Great War did not, for the United States, result in a shift to European levels of military spending and conscription; other than in the naval arena, US military commitments remained proportionately smaller than the European powers. For example, per capita military expenditure in the US during the interwar period ran roughly half that of either the United Kingdom or France.

I think that the detectable divergence in European and US attitudes towards war (and the fundamental shift in how Americans viewed war and military service) came after World War II, when the US began maintaining its first large peacetime standing military forces. Over the weekend I watched Fort Apache (released in 1949) for the first time; my first thought is that it is a less ambitious but in some ways more successful film than either The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. My second thought is that it is, in large part, a paean to military life; its tribute to the United States Army is something that might not have been understandable to pre-war audiences. In part this is because World War II conscripted more American manpower than World War I, and for a longer period, but I think it also reflects a shift in how Americans thought about military service and the military in American life.

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The Backlash Begins!

[ 13 ] May 29, 2008 |

An outraged California populace has reacted to the Outrageous Judicial Activism of their unaccountable unelected state court. As you remember, the court, with only the support of other unrepresentative and undemocratic institutions such as the state legislature and governor but in the teeth of strong opposition from pundits who support social change in theory and always oppose it in practice struck down a ban on same-sex marriage. The response: California is showing if anything more support for same-sex marriage than ever. I have no idea if the initiative will pass, but I certainly don’t see much evidence of the predicted political firestorm here.

This reminds me about Jeffrey Rosen’s latest claims about the backlash that will be created by the court’s decision (via Matt Zeitlin.) My research into the subject has convinced me that claims about unique backlashes created by judicial interventions into social disputes are not supported by the relevant evidence. Admittedly, however, some claims are not easy to test empirically and are not obviously incorrect in theory, so any conclusion has to be tentative. The specific claim advanced by Rosen here, however, is just transparently wrong:

But legal reasoning isn’t irrelevant, as the backlash against Roe v. Wade shows: Because Roe was so poorly reasoned, pro-life activists found it easier to rally undecided voters under the guise of attacking judicial usurpation. On that score, the California decision represents a huge opportunity for gay marriage opponents who are already trying to persuade undecided voters to overturn the decision by popular initiative.

The problem here is obvious. In general terms, the majority of the public knows virtually nothing about appellate courts, let alone the fine points of substantive due process or equal protection analysis. And, moreover, of the small group of specialists who have read and understand Roe, a substantial number believe the outcome of the case to be plausible or correct, even if they find Blackmun’s opinion deficient. After all, anyone knowledgeable enough to analyze Roe is also likely to understand that Supreme Court opinions, written by justices and clerks of varying quality and often constructed to keep divergent coalitions together, do not always give the best defense of plausible outcomes. (Brown v. Board, after all, is now our most celebrated decision although few would call it a masterpiece of legal craftsmanship or confuse Earl Warren with a deep legal mind.) Rosen’s argument is therefore implausible on its face; the evidence is unequivocal that the public evaluates Supreme Court opinions, to the extent it does so at all, on outcomes and not reasoning.

And the specific claims about Roe are no more tenable. If anti-choice activists have used Roe to shift public opinion against abortion rights, this fails to actually show up in public opinion data. Moreover, Roe is at least as popular as the underlying right it protects, while Rosen’s assertions require Roe being much less popular. And finally, I think to restate the assertion that anti-aboriton activists would have had no objection to Roe had the opinion been better crafted is to refute it. Seriously, does anybody think that had, say, the Supreme Court followed Ginsburg’s retrospective advice and grounded abortion rights in gender equality that any significant number of Roe’s opponents would have been mollified? Similarly, approximately 0% of the “Yes” vote in the upcoming referendum will be based on a strong opposition to the court’s suspect classification analysis. (It also seems to me that the majority opinion is at least as plausible and well-crafted as the boilerplate, question-begging paeans to judicial restraint in the dissents; if Rosen disagrees he doesn’t explain why.)

Finally I also note that Rosen does not substantiate his claim that Goodridge hurt Kerry in 2004 — which is not nearly as self-evident as some people think — and ignores the fact that overturning Goodridge could not get the support of even 25% of the legislature less than 5 years later. I very, very strongly doubt that the Caluifornia court damaged the Democrats in California any more than they did in Massachusetts, where supporters of same-sex marriage have fared much better than opponents and support for same-sex marriage has increased.

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My First

[ 0 ] May 29, 2008 |

To join the latest meme, my first ever concert experience was Men At Work at a sold out Stampede Corral, touring behind their lukewarm hit Cargo. The original opening act: Stevie Ray Vaughan. The opening act that appeared after a last-minute cancellation: the Shakin’ Pyramids. You haven’t heard the last of them!

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First Concerts

[ 34 ] May 29, 2008 |

Loomis caught Sir Mix-a-Lot in 1988. He seems to think he’s pretty cool for having done so. I, however, spent money to see Ratt at the Roanoke (Va.) Civic Center in mid-October 1985. At the time, their big hit was a song that inspired one of that decade’s creepiest videos:

Bon Jovi opened that night.

As I have occasionally said, if I could travel back in time to kick my own ass, I would gladly do it.

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Fernandomania!

[ 14 ] May 29, 2008 |

I don’t know what’s worse; Fernando “If 1999 ever comes back, he’ll be one of the best third basemen in baseball!” Tatis hitting sixth, or the fact that he seems to have considerably more life in his bat than Delgado (or about 90% of the Mariners’ roster…)

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Presidential Statement of the Day

[ 3 ] May 28, 2008 |

George H.W. Bush, speaking at a fundraiser for John McCain, 28 May 1992:

I am quietly confident about the election this fall. In sum, I am absolutely convinced as this economy moves back, as we sort out where everybody stands on these highly complex issues, when the country assesses the fact that we are at peace and that our children go to bed at night with less fear of nuclear war — and that is a major accomplishment of which I am very proud to have been a part — and it’s when we get in focus the agenda, see who wants to pass this agenda of hope and opportunity and who wants to stifle it, when we take forward the values that you and I believe in to the American people again this fall on family and faith, I am absolutely convinced we’re going to win this election. We are going to win it.

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