Thursday Reads

Hurricane, Bahamas, by Winslow Homer, 1898

Good Afternoon!!

As Hurricane Dorian makes its way up the Atlantic coast, the Dotard continues to insist that he was right when he claimed that Alabama was in the hurricane’s path. He tweeted this morning,

Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. That’s why they’re the Fake News!

If only he would shut the f@ck up! Yesterday, he committed a federal crime by altering a weather map as “proof” for his false statement.

The Washington Post: Trump continues to push erroneous claim about Alabama as Dorian lashes Carolinas.

After the Hurricane, Bahamas, by Winslow Homer, 189In his first tweets of the morning, Trump insisted that what he first said in a Sunday tweet was accurate at the time and attacked the news media.

As Hurricane Dorian unleashed torrential rains on the Carolinas on Thursday morning, President Trump continued to push his erroneous contention from the weekend that Alabama could have been affected by the life-threatening storm.“What I said was accurate! All Fake News in order to demean!” Trump wrote.

In his first tweets of the morning, Trump insisted that what he first said in a Sunday tweet was accurate at the time and attacked the news media.

Trump’s latest tweets on the subject came a day after he attempted to retroactively justify his Sunday tweet by displaying in the Oval Office a modified National Hurricane Center “cone of uncertainty” forecast, dated Aug. 29, indicating Alabama could in fact be affected. The graphic appeared to have been altered with a Sharpie to indicate a risk the storm would move into Alabama from Florida.

The Dotard is loony tunes and he has access to the nuclear codes. He cares more about justifying his silly mistake than about the millions of human beings in the path of the storm.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That diagnosis no longer fits. Trump is a criminal psychopath, IMHO. In other words, he very likely qualifies for a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Here are the DSM IV-TR criteria for ASPD:

A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the
rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three
(or more) of the following: having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from
another.
1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful
behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that
are grounds for arrest.
2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases,
or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated
physical fights or assaults.
5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure
to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial
obligations.
7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or
rationalizing.

B.  The individual is at least age 18 years.
C. There is evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15
years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the
course of Schizophrenia or a Manic Episode.

Aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Artist Unknown

You can read the new DSM V criteria at the above link. That description is longer, so I won’t post it here. Tell me Trump doesn’t qualify as ASPD. The only thing we don’t know for sure is whether Trump had Conduct Disorder in childhood. But it seems like, since he is known to have attacked a teacher as young child and his parents sent him away to military school at age 13, presumably because of his behavior. On top of the ASPD, he likely has ADHD and worsening dementia.

Today’s news is full of Trump’s selfish, destructive, cruel behavior. Here are just three examples:

Politico: Watchdog: Migrant children separated from families experienced intense trauma.

Migrant children in government custody who were separated from their parents experienced intense trauma that shelters were unprepared to handle, according to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general.

The findings echo reports from physicians and mental health advocates about lasting ills stemming from the Trump administration’s family separation policies. They come as the administration is trying to revise the so-called Flores agreement, a long-standing court order that outlines standards of care for migrant children and families.

Many children in HHS custody already faced trauma in their home countries or during their journey to the United States, according to the watchdog report, which was based on visits to 45 shelters operated by the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement in August and September 2018. Children then experienced additional trauma after they were separated from their parents, including intensified fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress.

Shelter staff said that they were unprepared to address the problems because of a lack of resources and ongoing efforts to reunify children with their parents. The share of children under the age of 12 in ORR custody rose to 24 percent from 14 percent from April to May of last year.

Please go read the rest at Politico.

Hurricane Sandy, Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Bess Levin at Vanity Fair: Trump Wanted to Obliterate the U.S. Economy to Get Revenge on China.

One of the scariest aspects of the current national nightmare that is Donald Trump is that for as much of a dystopian hellscape as his presidency has turned out to be, we’re periodically reminded that if he got his way, it would be even worse. Over the past two and a half years we’ve learned that he had to be convinced not to invade Venezuela, or nuke hurricanes, or escalate tensions with Syria by assassinating Bashar al-Assad, or scrap a trade deal with South Korea, the latter of which was avoided when then-National Economic Council director Gary Cohn reportedly swiped a letter from the president’s desk that Trump didn’t even realize had gone missing. According to a new report, the president also wanted to shiv the U.S. economy in a characteristically self-defeating attempt to get back at China—a move that was only prevented by a chorus of staffers and CEOs begging him not to go through with it.

CNBC reports that after China retaliated with $75 billion worth of tariffs last month, the president was so angry—and apparently surprised, despite the fact that China has responded this way every time he’s ratcheted up the trade war—that he wanted to double existing tariffs on Chinese goods. That such a move would have hit the economy even harder than the trade dispute already has, and undoubtedly send the stock market into free fall, apparently did not cross his mind, even though people have tried to sit him down and explain it to him many times. Unable to talk him off the ledge on their own, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer apparently enlisted multiple CEOs to call the president and get it through his seemingly impenetrable skull that the impact of such an action would be, in his own words “not good!” Instead, Trump simply chose to unleash a series of belligerent tweets about how he “hereby ordered” U.S. companies to cease doing business with China “immediately,” sending the Dow plummeting, which he later joked about. (He also settled for a 5% hike in tariffs on $550 billion in Chinese products.)

The news that Trump wanted to go nuclear on China comes days after aides confirmed that the president was lying about Chinese negotiators calling his “top trade people” and saying they wanted to “get back to the table.”

Desaturated – Hurricane Katrina, by El Franco Lee

Reuters: Pentagon pulls funds for military schools, daycare to pay for Trump’s border wall.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday it would pull funding from 127 Defense Department projects, including schools and daycare centers for military families, as it diverts $3.6 billion to fund President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Schools for the children of U.S. military members from Kentucky to Germany to Japan will be affected. A daycare center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland – the home of Air Force One – will also have its funds diverted, the Pentagon said.

Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year to access the funds from the military construction budget. In March, the Pentagon sent to Congress a broad list of projects that could be affected.

A Pentagon official said in a briefing that the department was given a “lawful order” by Trump to divert the funds. She said the Pentagon is working closely with Congress and its allies abroad to find funding to replace money diverted for the wall, but that there are not any guarantees that those funds will come.

More articles on this topic:

PBS: Full list: The 127 defense projects postponed for the border barrier.

HuffPost: GOP Senators Who Backed Trump’s Emergency Declaration Lose Military Funding.

CNN: Lawmakers furious after learning how military will pay for Trump’s wall.

I’m going to wrap this up, because it’s getting really late. Please post your own thoughts and links in the comment thread. 


Lazy Saturday Reads: Just Human Interest Today

rockinghorse2

Good Afternoon!!

I hope you don’t mind if I stay away from politics and other horrors in this post. I’m still feeling very overwhelmed by the Hillary hate, ignorance, and bias in the media, and the horrible tragedies happening in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Feel free to post anything you want in the comment thread, but I’m going to sick to human interest stories for today.

The photo above comes from a Boston Globe article about mysterious hobby horses that have appeared in a field in Lincoln, Massachusetts, over the past several years. The photo above and many of the other photos in this post come from a link in this story.

A Lincoln field, a herd of hobby horses, and a whimsical mystery.

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Stories abound of how a herd of some 30 wooden and plastic rocking horses gradually appeared on a sliver of farmland in the town of Lincoln.

As far as Harold McAleer is concerned, it started some years ago with a lemonade stand, two kids looking to make a quick buck in the summer, and a pair of the antiquated children’s toys.

“The lemonade stand failed, and the kids went away. But the horsies stayed,” says McAleer, who has lived in Lincoln for 30 years. “Gradually over the years, it has grown and grown.”

Megan Kate Nelson, a Lincoln resident who has documented the growth of the hobby horses in videos and pictures, has a different recollection.

It began with a single horse in 2010, she says. Then, a second one arrived. Soon, the trusty steeds proliferated more quickly than the overgrown weeds and wildflowers that surround them. Visit https://houseofcannabis.ca for more information.

Another theory:

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James Pingeon, whose house adjoins the parcel where the plastic horses roam, says the first one was placed there as part of a holiday display.

James Pingeon, whose house adjoins the parcel where the plastic horses roam, says the first one was placed there as part of a holiday display.

“It started out where we had a little Halloween show, and they had a headless horseman in the field, and we didn’t know what to do with the horse afterward,” he said in a message to the Globe. “So we thought, ‘Oh, let’s just leave it in the field.’ ”

Then other horses kept arriving, flying in from everywhere, he said, and gradually the herd expanded.

“It’s a spontaneous art production,” Pingeon said of the dreamlike scene.

Isn’t it wonderful? I love that people in the Lincoln community did this.

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The next story–also from Massachusetts–really shouldn’t be funny because it’s about someone who apparently has psychological problems; but it’s bizarre enough to be sort of darkly humorous. The story played out over a few days.

WCVB Boston (September 3, 2015): Cop who claimed he was targeted by gunman fabricated story, police say.

MILLIS, Mass. —A rookie police officer in Millis who said Wednesday that someone shot his cruiser before it crashed and burst into flames fabricated the story, police said.

The officer, 24, said he was traveling on Forest Road when he saw a red or maroon pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction. He said when the two vehicles met, the driver opened fire on the police cruiser, police say.

“My cruiser’s been shot at. I’m at Forest Road. It’s going to be a dark maroon pickup,” the officer radioed to dispatch at 2:17 p.m.

The officer said he spun around, and in an attempt to avoid the gunfire and seek shelter, he slammed into a tree and the cruiser burst into flames.

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The incident led to a massive manhunt, with schools closed and residents told to stay in their homes.

From WCVB on September 2: Millis schools closed Thursday as hunt for shooting suspect continues. Residents told to shelter in place during manhunt.

Millis public schools will be closed Thursday while investigators continue to hunt for the man who shot a police cruiser, causing it to hit a tree and burst into flames Wednesday afternoon.

At a news conference Wednesday night, Millis police said a cruiser was traveling on Forest Road when an officer noticed a red or maroon pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction, and when the two vehicles met the driver opened fire on the police cruiser.

The officer spun around, and in an attempt to avoid the gunfire and seek shelter he slammed into a tree and the cruiser burst into flames.

The unidentified officer was able to escape the flames and began to return fire as the pickup truck fled south toward Medfield.

Unreal. Finally, from today’s Boston Globe: Millis officer’s story shifted in alleged shooting hoax. Confessed he ‘blacked out,’ police say.

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MILLIS — Less than three weeks ago, Bryan Johnson was beaming in a suit and tie as he stood before town selectmen, who had voted unanimously to make him a permanent police officer on the small force where he had been a part-time officer and dispatcher.

“This is a blessing,” said the 24-year-old Johnson, with the police chief and his parents sitting behind him at the hearing.

On Friday, police officials said he will be fired and face charges for allegedly making a false claim that he had been shot at by a passing driver, a report that triggered a massive response by heavily armed police who cordoned off parts of the town for hours on Wednesday and led authorities to close the public schools.

“I know I speak for the entire department and the police community when I say that we were shocked by what’s happened,” said Sergeant William Dwyer, who has been running the Millis Police Department this week.

I’m very sad for him and his family. At least he didn’t shoot anyone.

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Johnson’s alleged confession to State Police came after he told them several false stories about what happened, according to a Millis police report filed in Wrentham District Court. The report said Johnson will be charged with misleading a criminal investigation, communicating false information to emergency services, malicious destruction of property, and unlawfully firing his gun.

Johnson is in an undisclosed “medical facility’’ and will remain there for the next six to 10 days, Dwyer said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “As soon as he is cleared at the medical facility, we will execute the warrant,’’ he said. He did not say what Johnson was being treated for.

Read more at the link. Apparently, no everyone who knew Johnson is shocked and mystified. The police have no idea why he did this.

What does this story say about human nature?

Fox News: ‘One hell of a pillow fight’ West Point tradition turns violent; 24 concussions.

An annual pillow fight by freshmen cadets at the U.S. Military Academy turned bloody this year when cadets swung pillowcases packed with hard objects, injuring 30 cadets, including 24 who suffered concussions.

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Photos and video have circulated on social media showing the Aug. 20 brawl, which The New York Times reports West Point did not confirm until Thursday.

Lt. Col. Christopher Kasker told the newspaper the annual fight is organized by first-year students as a way to build camaraderie after a grueling summer of training to prepare them for plebe life.

He said upperclassmen overseeing the fight required cadets to wear helmets, but video shows many did not. Some cadets swung pillowcases believed to be packed with their helmets.

The Times noted one freshman posted on Twitter: “4 concussions, 1 broken leg, 2 broken arms, 1 dislocated shoulder, and several broken ribs. That’s one hell of a pillow fight. #USMA19.”

What the hell? So far no one has been disciplined, the administration is “investigating,” and they’re not going to cancel the annual pillow fight.

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British researchers say their study shows that cats are more independent than dogs. Really? No sh*t, Sherlock. The Economic Times reports:

LONDON: Domestic cats do not generally see their owners as a focus of safety and security in the same way that dogs do, according to new research.

The study by animal behaviour specialists at the University of Lincoln, UK, shows that while dogs perceive their owners as a safe base, the relationship between people and their feline friends appears to be quite different.

While it is increasingly recognised that cats are more social and more capable of shared relationships than traditionally thought, the latest research shows that adult cats appear to be more autonomous – even in their social relationships – and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of protection.

OK. I think most people who have provided grain free choices and homes for cats would agree with that finding, but The Daily Mail headline goes too far. Face it, your cat doesn’t care about you: Felines are more independent than dogs and don’t miss you when you’re gone, study reveals.

Um . . . no. If that’s the case, why do rush to the door when they hear their human’s car or footsteps approaching? Why do cats freak out if they figure out you’re going away for a few days–for example, you they see you packing suitcases?

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The researchers based the study on Attachment Theory, and used the Strange Situation (developed by Mary Ainsworth to study relationships between young children and their caregivers), adapted for use with cats and dogs.

The research, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, was led by Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, along with Alice Potter – who studied as a postgraduate at Lincoln and now works with the Companion Animals Science Group at the RSPCA.

Professor Mills said: “The domestic cat has recently passed the dog as the most popular companion animal in Europe, with many seeing a cat as an ideal pet for owners who work long hours. Previous research has suggested that some cats show signs of separation anxiety when left alone by their owners, in the same way that dogs do, but the results of our study show that they are in fact much more independent than canine companions. It seems that what we interpret as might actually be signs of frustration.”

Well, why would cats be frustrated if they don’t care what you do or whether you leave them alone?

From phys.org.

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The study observed the relationships between a number of cats and their owners, placing the pets in an unfamiliar environment together with their owner, with a stranger and also on their own. In varying scenarios, it assessed three different characteristics of attachment; the amount of contact sought by the cat, the level of passive behaviour, and signs of distress caused by the absence of the owner.

“Although our cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left them with the other individual, we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment. This vocalisation might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen. In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent during our research,” said Professor Mills.

That’s interesting, but it sounds like the results demonstrate that cats have a insecure attachment–possibly an avoidant attachment.

In a child, avoidant attachment is demonstrated in the Strange Situation by the child ignoring the caregiver and feigning disinterest when he or she leaves the room. When the caregiver returns, the avoidantly attached child appears not to notice. But studies have shown that these children are internally stress–showing increases in vital signs like heart and pulse rates. They have simply learned not to expect much positive attention from their caregivers.

Is it possible that the cats in the study had caregivers who simply assumed they were independent and autonomous, based on the popular stereo type, and thus formed an insecure attachment with their pet cats? I think it’s an interesting question. Too bad researchers couldn’t interview the cats.

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Here’s another interesting study–this time on big cats. The Christian Science Monitor: Where are all the lions?

When Ian Hatton, a McGill University PhD student, began studying lions and their prey in protected parks in East and Southern Africa, he found himself looking for more lions.

A veritable feast of gazelles bounded around and Zebras trotted freely – easy pickings for a pack of hungry lions. But there were fewer than Mr. Hatton expected.

Upon further research, Hatton and the other scientists discovered that this was a pattern. Prey-crowded areas had fewer lions than expected. More prey did mean a few more lions, but the lions did not increase proportionally to the gazelle population, for example.

When they examined studies on other animals, the researchers saw the same pattern. Large populations of prey did not lead to a significant increase of predators.

This wasn’t limited to carnivores. The same pattern appeared among herbivores and the plants they eat.

Why would that be?

Researchers surmise that this pattern emerges because of prey reproduction rates. In crowded areas, prey reproduce at slower rates. Thus the prey population is made up of many healthy adults.

It’s easiest for predators to capture and kill younger prey or older, weaker prey. As such, a crowded population of prey that is reproducing at slower rates makes getting a meal more difficult for predators to find.

More from the Washington Post:

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By conducting an analysis of more than a thousand studies worldwide, researchers found a common theme in just about every ecosystem across the globe: Predators don’t increase in numbers at the same rate as their prey. In fact, the faster you add prey to an ecosystem, the slower predators’ numbers grow.

“When you double your prey, you also increase your predators, but not to the same extent,” says Ian Hatton, a biologist and the study’s lead author. “Instead they grow at a much diminished rate in comparison to prey.” This was true for large carnivores on the African savanna all the way down to the tiniest microbe-munching fish in the ocean.

Even more intriguing, the researchers noticed that the ratio of predators to prey in all of these ecosystems could be predicted by the same mathematical function — in other words, the way predator and prey numbers relate to each other is the same for different species all over the world.

“That’s what was very surprising to us, to see this same pattern come up over and over,” Hatton says. But what’s actually driving the pattern remains something of a mystery.

Hatton and his colleagues suspect that different aspects of different ecosystems may drive the predator-prey ratio: For example, Hatton says, competition for space might be a major factor controlling animal populations, but changes in the nutrients used and produced by plankton might have more of an effect on some marine ecosystems.

Read more fascinating stuff at the link.

How did this post get so long? I hope you enjoyed reading these stories as much as I did. See you in the comments, and have a great Labor Day Weekend!


Tuesday Reads: Snowstorm, On-line Harassment, Profiling Snowden, and Other News

Alfred Eisenstaedt

Alfred Eisenstaedt

Good Morning!!

Looks like another big snowstorm is headed my way this afternoon. Blizzard warning south of Boston, winter storm warning for most areas.

Overnight the watches were converted to warnings meaning the likelihood of blizzard conditions and snow exceeding 6 inches has increased. The morning commute will be dry and you will see some dim sunshine. The snow begins this afternoon along the coast and the evening commute will be impacted. The storm is most intense overnight and ends during the morning from west to east on Wednesday….There is a blizzard warning up for Cape Cod, coastal Massachusetts south of Boston, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

At least I’m not in the blizzard zone for the moment. This appears to be a really big storm. I saw on Twitter this morning that there were whiteout conditions in St. Louis. You can watch a video update the Weather Channel page.

Intellicast – Current Radar in United States:

NBC News reports: Winter storm set to ‘go bananas’ across Northeast.

With memories of the dreaded polar vortex still fresh, winter deals another blow Tuesday, slamming the Northeast with a blast of cold air and up to a foot of snow.

“They are going to have quite a snowstorm,” said Kevin Roth, a lead meteorologist with theWeather Channel. “By this evening, all four cities from Philadelphia to Boston could face a pretty bad commute home. We’re expecting a good six to 10 inches. It will be snowing pretty hard.”

“Every once in while these little winter storms go bananas and we think this might be the one,” he added.

Yikes! What the heck does that mean? The story doesn’t explain. But meteorologists are begging us not to call it a “polar vortex.”

Temperatures are set to drop again in the Midwest and Northeast starting Sunday, a forecast that already is prompting the return of the phrase “polar vortex” — widely used to describe the blast of cold air that chilled the U.S. earlier this month. But while the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes and the interior Northeast will experience below-average temperatures in the coming week, don’t call it a “polar vortex,” meteorologists say.

The “polar vortex” is a real weather phenomenon, just not one that actually visits the United States, they say. It’s actually a circular weather pattern that has always been stationed above the Arctic, explains weather.com.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the swirling high-altitude system never moves into the U.S., though parts of it can “break off” and push cold air south.

The cold experienced in early January was actually a result of the polar vortex weakening, becoming warmer and therefore releasing its powerful chill beyond its normal reach through the northern climes, NOAA says.

Weather experts at NOAA said the intense cold air the U.S. has experienced is in fact a result of a warming world and increasing climate variability. While researchers cannot yet determine whether the fluctuations are a result of natural patterns or environmental effects, meteorologists can predict that parts of the U.S. will see freezing weather again in the coming days as a result of a polar vortex breakdown.

Anyway, I’m going to have to rush around this morning. I have a package to mail, and I need to get a couple of things at the grocery store. I do have some interesting reads for you today–some of them are pretty long, but well worth reading.

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Yesterday, via Tom Watson at Forbes, I came across an essay by long-time feminist blogger Amanda Hess that Watson says has been “widely discussed” for the past week or so. Somehow I missed it. Hess argues that on-line sexual harassment of women will be “the next civil rights issue.” In the essay, she writes about the frequent on-line attacks she and other female writers have experienced (warning: explicit and violent language)Here are the first few paragraphs.

I was 12 hours into a summer vacation in Palm Springs when my phone hummed to life, buzzing twice next to me in the dark of my hotel room. I squinted at the screen. It was 5:30 a.m., and a friend was texting me from the opposite coast. “Amanda, this twitter account. Freaking out over here,” she wrote. “There is a twitter account that seems to have been set up for the purpose of making death threats to you.”

I dragged myself out of bed and opened my laptop. A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

My fingers paused over the keyboard. I felt disoriented and terrified. Then embarrassed for being scared, and, finally, pissed. On the one hand, it seemed unlikely that I’d soon be defiled and decapitated at the hands of a serial rapist-murderer. On the other hand, headlessfemalepig was clearly a deranged individual with a bizarre fixation on me. I picked up my phone and dialed 911.

Read the rest at the link. A number of women have written about this issue, and particularly about the lack of protection for women who are harassed on-line from law enforcement–even though the threats sometimes lead to real-life actions. A couple more recent examples:

Skepchick wrote in October about being harassed for her participation in the on-line atheist community, Why I Don’t Just Go to the Cops.

Amy Wallace wrote about her experiences in a NYT op-ed over the weekend: Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not?

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Along similar lines, I came across this 2010 article in The Boston Globe that provides some insight into why some people spend so much time and energy writing angry comments on line: Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster. The author got an interview with a frequent commenter to The Boston Globe website. He also discusses the problems newspapers face in dealing with angry and trolling comments from anonymous people. Here’s an excerpt:

On Monday, May 17, at 2 p.m., a breaking news article headlined “Obama’s aunt given OK to stay in United States” hits the home page of Boston.com. In a matter of seconds, the first anonymous online comment appears. A reader with the handle of Peregrinite writes, “of course she can . . . can someone appeal.”

Certain topics never fail to generate a flood of impassioned reactions online: immigration, President Obama, federal taxes, “birthers,” and race. This story about Obama’s Kenyan aunt, who had been exposed as an illegal immigrant living in public housing in Boston and who was now seeking asylum, manages to pull strands from all five of those contentious subjects.

In the next few minutes, several equally innocuous posts follow, including a rare comment in favor of the judge’s decision. Then the name-calling begins. At 2:03 p.m., a commenter with the pseudonym of Craptulous calls the aunt, Zeituni Onyango, a “foreign free-loader.” Seconds later comes the lament from Redzone 300: “Just another reason to hate are [sic] corrupt government.”

News websites from across the country struggle to maintain civility in their online comments forums. But given their anonymous nature and anything-goes ethos, these forums can sometimes feel as ungovernable as the tribal lands of Pakistan.

Read much more at the link.

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Yesterday I also happened upon a fascinating article by national security and tech journalist Dan Verton. In the piece, Verton tries to come up with a psychological profile of NSA leaker Edward snowden: What does the history of insider espionage say about Edward Snowden?

He wasn’t the first and will certainly not be the last member of the U.S. intelligence community to betray the trust of his nation. But what do we really know about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked thousands of documents detailing NSA’s domestic and global eavesdropping programs?

The truth is we know very little about Snowden beyond what the media outlets that have a vested interest in protecting him choose to report. But when viewed through the prism of the last 25 years of insider espionage, the Edward Snowden we do know seems to fit the typical profile of the trusted insider struggling to overcome personal and professional shortcomings, and suffering from a warped sense of moral superiority.

More than a decade worth of studies into the psychological profiles of malicious insiders have revealed several common characteristics that make information technology professionals — particularly system administrators, like Edward Snowden — an “at risk” population for malicious insider activity.

Verton discusses Snowden’s history in the light of a study of IT administrators who eventually sabotaged their employers in some way: Inside the Mind of the Insider, by Eric D. Shaw, Jerrold M. Post, and Keven G. Ruby. These are both fairly long pieces, but if you have any interest in the ongoing Snowden saga, they are must reads! A bit more from Verton:

Born in 1983, Snowden grew up in North Carolina and Maryland. His father was a Coast Guard officer and his mother worked as a court administrator. They divorced in 2001, and Snowden went to live with his mother. His parents claim Snowden was ill as a teenager and failed to graduate high school. He eventually studied at a local community college to obtain a G.E.D.

Snowden was 17 when al-Qaida launched its attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. At that time, he adopted an online persona he called “The One True Hooha” at the website Ars Technica, where he participated in chat forums for gamers and hackers. His studies at a local community college would once again fall short of a degree.

In 2003, Snowden decided to join the Army Reserve, and requested a chance to undergo evaluation training for Special Forces to, in his words, “fight to help free people from oppression.”

Yet again, the young Snowden would fall short. He was dropped from the program and discharged from the Army four months later. Snowden claims to have broken both of his legs during training, but to date has provided no evidence. The Army has confirmed his service, but would not release his service record summary, known as a DD-214.

“He comes from a family that has a high need for achievement, but his experience is one disaster after another,” Stock said.

Lots more educated speculation on Snowden’s motives at the link.

In other news . . .

Here’s a spy story I hadn’t heard about in the mainstream media. Report: Israel Passes U.S. Military Technology to China.

Secret U.S. missile and electro-optics technology was transferred to China recently by Israel, prompting anger from the U.S. and causing a senior Israeli defense official to resign.

The head of defense exports for the Israeli Defense Ministry resigned after a U.S. investigation concluded that technology, including a miniature refrigeration system manufactured by Ricor and used for missiles and in electro-optic equipment, was sent to China, according to the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

Another Israeli news site, Aretz Sheva, reports the U.S. is concerned the technology could ultimately find its way to Iran, which last year sought to buy military equipment from China for its nuclear program.

That sounds scarier than the stuff Glenn Greenwald has been dribbling out.

From The New Statesman, here’s an exhibit I’d love to see if only I were in London: A history of psychology, warts and mysteries and all.

It looks more like an art installation than the remains of a 400-year-old experiment: a life-size image of a man rendered in dark, angry scrawls on a wooden panel. It is, in fact, a human nervous system, painstakingly removed from a corpse by Italian medical students and then varnished on to the dissecting table. Scientists in the 17th century believed that human beings were animated by the “animal spirit” that flowed from the brain down the nerves.

The display is part of the “Mind Maps” exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which explores how people have tried to gain a better understanding of their minds.

That sounds amazing.

Finally, a funny story from CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360: CNN reporter high during Anderson Cooper marijuana TV segment.

Poor Randi Kaye. The CNN reporter was sent to Denver for a week as part of the network’s “Gone to Pot” series, and in one of her later segments investigated dispensary tours that are being compared to Napa Valley wine tastings.

Kaye followed around a 72-year-old woman named Barbara Harvey, who is a huge fan of marijuana, and joined Harvey on a day-long dispensary tour where she spent much of her time in a limo being surrounded by people smoking marijuana with the windows rolled up. The CNN journalist tells Anderson Cooper she accidentally got a contact high after being stuck in a limo with Harvey for so long, though Cooper believes this is her “career highlight.”

At around the 4:30 mark in the above video, viewers can see Kaye in all her stoned glory. Kaye is all giggles and run-on sentences when talking about the cannabis business post-pot legalization in Colorado.

So . . . what are your recommended reads for today? Please post your links on any topic in the comment thread.


Thursday Reads: Psychological Approaches to the Current Political Situation

Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

Good Morning!

Today I’m going to focus on some psychological studies and psychological ideas that relate to the news of the day.

A recent study by two social psychologists at The New School in NYC, found that reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind, or the “ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” as well as the “capacity for empathy.”

From Scientific American:

Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, along with PhD candidate David Kidd conducted five studies in which they divided a varying number of participants (ranging from 86 to 356) and gave them different reading assignments: excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between the literary- and genre-fiction readers.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy. The study was published October 4 in Science….

The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence. The study data couldinform debates over how much fiction should be included in educational curricula and whether reading programs should be implemented in prisons, where reading literary fiction might improve inmates’ social functioning and empathy. Castano also hopes the finding will encourage autistic people to engage in more literary fiction, in the hope it could improve their ability to empathize without the side effects of medication.

There’s a little more detail on the study at the Guardian books blog:

“What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others,” said Kidd.

Kidd and Castano, who have published their paper in Science, make a similar distinction between “writerly” writing and “readerly” writing to that made by Roland Barthes in his book on literary theory, The Pleasure of the Text. Mindful of the difficulties of determining what is literary fiction and what is not, certain of the literary extracts were chosen from the PEN/O Henry prize 2012 winners’ anthology and the US National book awards finalists.

“Some writing is what you call ‘writerly’, you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is ‘readerly’, and you’re entertained. We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way,” Kidd said.

As the authors admit, one problem with this study is determining what is “literary fiction” and what is “genre fiction.” In some cases, there is quite a bit of crossover in the selections they used. For example, they classify Louise Erdrich’s The Round House as “literary,” and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, as “genre” fiction. But The Round House has characteristics of a “thriller,” in that its subject is crime; and Flynn is a fine writer, and Gone Girl is in many ways a “writerly” work with a heavy focus on characters’ thinking processes and internal dialogues.

The Guardian quotes a psychologist who objects to Kidd and Castano’s use of Theory of Mind tests to measure the effects of reading different types of fiction.

Philip Davies, a professor of psychological sciences at Liverpool University, whose work with the Reader Organisation connects prisoners with literature, said they were “a bit odd”.

“Testing people’s ability to read faces is a bit odd. The thing about novels is that they give you a view of an inner world that’s not on show. Often what you learn from novels is to be a bit baffled … a novel tells you not to judge,” Davies said.

“In Great Expectations, Pip is embarrassed by Joe, because he’s crude and Pip is on the way up. Reading it, you ask yourself, what is it like to be Pip and what’s it like to be Joe? Would I behave better than Pip in his situation? It’s the spaces which emerge between the two characters where empathy occurs.”

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting study. Now if we could only get the Tea Party folks and super-rich Wall Street types to read more literary fiction!

Harvard Bookstore, Harvard Square

Harvard Bookstore, Harvard Square

The results of another social psychological study, this one at Duke University, showed that people with “extreme” political views have a sense of superiority over people with different views. From Psych Central:

Duke University investigators examined whether one end of the American political spectrum believes more strongly than the other in the superiority of its principles and positions.

They found both sides have elements of “belief superiority,” depending on the issue.

When asked about nine hot-button issues, conservatives feel most superior about their views on voter identification laws, taxes and affirmative action. Liberals feel most superior about their views on government aid for the needy, torture and not basing laws on religion.

The study is found in the online edition of Psychological Science.

Investigators questioned 527 adults, (289 men, 238 women), ages 18-67, about the issues. They then examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.

The study asked participants to not only report their attitudes on the nine topics, but also how superior they feel about their viewpoint for each issue.

According to Diana Reese at the Washington Post, 

The study was inspired by the 2012 presidential election campaign. “We were looking at things like comments on blogs and pundits and politicians on TV,” Dr. Kaitlin Toner said in a phone interview. “It seemed like there were a lot of people who felt very certain that their views were correct but they contradicted one another and there’s no way that everyone could be 100 percent correct all the time.” Toner, the lead author on the study, did the research while a graduate student at Duke….

Don’t confuse belief superiority with dogmatism, though. The latter is “a personality trait,” Toner explained. “It’s a measure of inflexibility….You’re holding a belief rigidly and won’t change.”

In other words, you can hold “superior” beliefs that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong about a particular issue, but still be able to change your mind, unless you’re dogmatic about your viewpoint.

Previous research has shown that conservatives tend to be more dogmatic, and Toner said their study found the same results, with dogmatism increasing as views moved to the right of the political spectrum.

Another social psychologist from Duke University has a post at HuffPo called The Psychology of Being Online, in which he discusses several studies of the ways in which people react to being in virtual world. You can check them out at the link.

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA

Here’s a fascinating article by Justin Fox at the Harvard Business Review. It’s based on behavioral economics–a sort of combination of economic and psychological theories. Fox attempts to explain our current political/economic impasse using game theory. You should read the whole thing, but here an excerpt:

Some portray it as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. Warren Buffett says it’s “extreme idiocy.” I’d like to recommend another way of looking at the government shutdown and the looming battle over the debt ceiling in Washington. It’s a game, played by flawed-but-not-crazy human beings under confusing circumstances. In other words, it’s an interaction among “agents” who “base their decisions on limited information about actions of other agents in the recent past, and they do not always optimize.”

That quote is from economist H. Peyton Young’s “The Evolution of Conventions,” one of several works of game theory I plowed my way through this week in an attempt to find a way to think about the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling fight that didn’t make me want to bang my head against a wall. My reading made the dynamics at work in Congress and at the White House a bit clearer — and thus slightly less maddening, if not less ominous.

The debt-limit game

There are lots of different games being played in Washington at the moment, but the main one I have in mind pits the Democratic White House and Senate against the Republican House of Representatives over the federal budget. The deadlocked players have already landed us in a partial government shutdown, but it’s the 18th since 1976 and thus really not that big a deal. The far bigger stakes involve the federal borrowing limit that is due to be breached in a couple of weeks if Congress doesn’t approve an increase. Without further borrowing, much higher taxes, or draconian spending cuts — none of which may be possible or even legal on short notice — the government might not be able to service its existing debts, leading to a default. Congress has never allowed this to happen, so the consequences are unknowable, but they could be really bad.

Now go read the rest if you’re interested, and see what you think.

Here’s another interesting article that combines economic and psychological approaches by Douglas T. Kenrick of Psychology Today: Cruzonomics: The Problem of Free Market Psychology,

Senator Ted Cruz is a fan of the classic model of economic decision-making: sometimes called the Rational Man* view.   On this view, every one of your decisions is designed to maximize “utility” – which translates loosely into personal satisfaction.  If it feels good now, or will make you feel good later, choose it!  Advocates of this position believe that we are, in general, pretty facile at processing information, and at coming to shrewd self-serving decisions.  If you read the book Freakonomics, the authors explain how even seemingly senseless decisions, like changing one’s occupation from computer technician to prostitute, or living at home if you are a drug dealer, are well explained by economic incentive structures.  We are all, on this view, continuously operating like the high-roller in the movie Wall Street, who, while considering a shady deal, asks: “What’s in it for moi?”

Ask NOT what you can do for your country…

On this view, selfishness is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it is a virtue.  The intellectual patron saint of free-market economics is Adam Smith, who argued that an “invisible hand” moves us toward mutually beneficial arrangements when everyone pursues his self-interest.  For example, if consumers freely compare different fruit vendors at the market place, they will choose the one who charges the lowest price, but the price will not fall below the farmer’s costs of production, or he will go out of business.

But there are a few problems with the Rational Man view.  One is that people often fail to act in ways that economists regard as perfectly rational.  For example, there is a laboratory game called the Ultimatum Game.  Imagine that an experimenter hands you $100 and instructs you to divide it between yourself and a stranger in the next room.  You can divide it any way you want, but there is one stipulation: If the bloke in the next room doesn’t like your offer, nobody gets anything.  What should you offer?

And if you happen to be the bloke on the receiving end of such an ultimatum, how low an offer should you accept?

Again, I hope you’ll read the whole thing and share your views.

The science fiction section at City Lights Bookstore

The science fiction section at City Lights Bookstore

Finally, check out this sociological/psychological essay at Salon, by Michael Lind: Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the “Newest Right.” Again, I can’t really do the piece justice with an excerpt, but here’s a taste:

To judge from the commentary inspired by the shutdown, most progressives and centrists, and even many non-Tea Party conservatives, do not understand the radical force that has captured the Republican Party and paralyzed the federal government. Having grown up in what is rapidly becoming a Tea Party heartland–Texas–I think I do understand it. Allow me to clear away a few misconceptions about what really should be called, not the Tea Party Right, but the Newest Right.

The first misconception that is widespread in the commentariat is that the Newest Right can be thought of as being simply a group of “extremists” who happen to be further on the same political spectrum on which leftists, liberals, centrists and moderate conservatives find their places. But reducing politics to points on a single line is more confusing than enlightening. Most political movements result from the intersection of several axes—ideology, class, occupation, religion, ethnicity and region—of which abstract ideology is seldom the most important.

The second misconception is that the Newest Right or Tea Party Right is populist. The data, however, show that Tea Party activists and leaders on average are more affluent than the average American. The white working class often votes for the Newest Right, but then the white working class has voted for Republicans ever since Nixon. For all its Jacksonian populist rhetoric, the Newest Right is no more a rebellion of the white working class than was the original faux-populist Jacksonian movement, led by rich slaveowners like Andrew Jackson and agents of New York banks like Martin Van Buren.

The third misconception is that the Newest Right is irrational. The American center-left, whose white social base is among highly-educated, credentialed individuals like professors and professionals, repeatedly has committed political suicide by assuming that anyone who disagrees with its views is an ignorant “Neanderthal.” Progressive snobs to the contrary, the leaders of the Newest Right, including Harvard-educated Ted Cruz, like the leaders of any successful political movement, tend to be highly educated and well-off. The self-described members of the Tea Party tend to be more affluent and educated than the general public.

Read the rest at Salon.

I hope you’ll find something useful and/or enlightening among these psychological approaches to our current crazy political environment. Now what stories are you focusing on today. Please share your ideas and links in the comment thread.


Tuesday Reads: A Trip Down Memory Lane

signs_memory_lane_closed_002

Good Morning!!

I’m going to do something a little different this morning, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

Over the weekend I ran across a story at Slate by Matthew Kirschenbaum that brought back a rush of old memories: The Book-Writing Machine: What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?

The story is about thriller writer Len Deighton, who in 1968 wrote his novel Bomber on an early word processor called the IBM MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter).

It was 1968, and the IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.

A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane.

….

Like many early technologies, the MTST began as a hybrid creation, a kind of mechanical centaur consisting of two separate devices fused to work in conjunction with one another. At the same instant a character was imprinted on the page from the Selectric’s typing mechanism, that keystroke was also recorded as data on a magnetic tape cartridge. There was no screen, but backspacing to correct an error on the page also resulted in the data being corrected on the tape. Unblemished hard copy could then be produced with the push of a button, at the rate of 150 wpm. What’s more, the printing process could be halted while in “playback” mode to allow for the insertion of additional text; sentence spacing, line-lengths, even hyphenated words were all adjusted automatically as revisions were introduced. In the States, the MTST retailed for $10,000…

It was one of the first “word processors,” although that expression had not yet been invented. You can see a photo of the one Deighton used at the link.

Keypunch machines

Keypunch machines

The reason this story triggered my mental way-back machine is that in the late 1960s I worked on a machine like that. When I first moved to Boston in 1967, I landed a job at Harvard University’s Widener Library.

The job was in the library’s shelflist automation project (pdf). The starting pay was $65 per week, a quarter of which went to half of the rent on an apartment one block from Harvard Yard ($165/mo.). Today, if you could get a unit in that building it would cost a rather large fortune. But I digress.

I started out working on a keypunch machine like the one at the right. the punch cards were then processed by an IBM 1401 computer like this one.

IBM 1401 computer

IBM 1401 computer

Here’s a video I found about an IBM 1401 computer purchased in 1959!

News Links

It’s hard to believe that in those days computers took up entire rooms! But I’m probably not the only one her at the Sky Dancing blog who remembers those days. Actually, I had worked in the data processing office when I was in college, beginning in 1965, so I already had some familiarity with computers and keypunch machines.

Pretty soon my office at Widener Library purchased a few more sophisticated data entry machines built by the Dura Business Machines Co. The Dura machine was similar to Deighton’s but much cheaper. It consisted of a modified IBM Selectric typewriter with an attachment that punched holes in paper tape instead of the more expensive magnetic tape in Len Deighton’s machine. You typed normally, and the words were converted to code on the paper tape. The tape was then converted to punch cards, read by the computer, and printed out. The printouts were checked by editors who marked any errors, deletions, or additions and you could make the corrections without retyping everything. You could also backspace over errors as you typed.

Here’s a 1968 photograph and description of the Dura 1401 from the ABA Journal. I’m posting it in large type so you can read the text.

Print ad for the Dura 1401

Print ad for the Dura 1401

Now this is where my trip down memory lane started to feel a little less nostalgic. According to the ad, “your girl” operates this magnificent machine and “your girl’s output goes up as much as 100%.” Were things really that sexist in 1968? Yes, yes they were. Here’s a “help wanted” ad from the Toledo Blade that I came across when I was looking for information on the Dura machine. You’ll notice that only men need apply. In the column to the left are some ads for women’s jobs.

dura employment

I couldn’t get all the text into the screen grab, but you can see the whole thing at the link. The text mentions a couple of times that the job is only available to men.

In the mid-1970s, when I worked at M.I.T., our office purchased a Wang word processor. This was a pretty advanced machine, dedicated only to word processing that was operated pretty much like Microsoft Word. It had a monitor, a printer, and a large CPU, I guess you’d call it.

Wang word processor

Wang word processor

By the mid-1980s I was working in a different department that had rudimentary PCs. By then I was an “administrative assistant.” I left that job in 1986 and swore never to take another office job, and I never have.

The work could be interesting and challenging, but the condescending attitude toward clerical/secretarial workers was just too much to bear. “Women’s work,” you know. Keep in mind that in those days the people I worked for had no understanding whatsoever of the machines we learned to operate.

I went back to college in 1993, and by then there were much more advanced computers available in the university’s computer lab. Very few students had their own PCs or Macs then. I bought a little word processor to write papers on at home. It probably cost a few hundred dollars and could do everything the giant Wang word processor did and more.

I bought my first PC in 1997 when I started graduate school. At the time it was really state of the art. I spend about $1,500 on the computer and a laser printer. I think it had an Intel Pentium processor, 128 mb hard drive and 64 mg RAM–something like that–and ran on Windows 95. Unbelievable! I got hooked up to cable internet and was immediately hooked. So you can see that I’ve spent most of my adult life working with computers. Of course the young kids assume people my age know nothing about technology.

I hope I haven’t bored you stiff with this little nostalgia trip. I know some of you must recall these old machines too, so I hope you enjoyed the pictures anyway. It’s amazing how technology has changed our lives in the past 50 years, isn’t it?

I have some more up-to-date reads for you that I hope you’ll find interesting.

The Washington Post Magazine published a wonderful story about a family’s nightmarish experience of domestic violence, post-traumatic stress, and recovery: After Dad shot Mom, a family deals with the haunting legacy of gun violence The article by Neely Tucker builds on the story of Lynnie Vessels, who was 7 years old at the time of the shooting as well as interviews with her siblings. Lynnie has just published a book about her recovery, To Soften the Blow.

Of course the story is heartbreaking, but I highly recommend reading it as a reminder of what life was like for women and children in the 1960s–when the terms “child abuse” and “domestic violence” were completely unknown and there was no one to turn to when it happened. It was considered private family business and people mostly didn’t interfere even when they heard women screaming and children crying.

How well I remember. I grew up in a violent home–not as extreme as the Lynnie Vessels’ was. My dad was a rage-aholic, and you never knew when he’d lose his temper and lash out: screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting. There was no one to turn to for advice on how to deal with it, and we were taught to keep quiet about anything that happened within the family.

I couldn’t wait to get out, and I left for Boston when I was 19. My other siblings left home early too, but some of them still can’t admit to themselves that our home was violent and abusive. As the eldest, I probably got the brunt of it, I guess. Now I know that my dad probably had PTSD from his experiences in WWII.

Another important and timely read is this piece by Robert Parry: The Neo-Confederate Supreme Court. Here’s a short excerpt:

If white rule in the United States is to be restored and sustained, then an important first step will be the decision of the five Neo-Confederate justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the Voting Rights Act, a move that many court analysts now consider likely.

The Court’s striking down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act will mean that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting – mostly in the Old Confederacy – will be free to impose new obstacles to voting by African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities without first having to submit the changes to a federal court.

This green light to renew Jim Crow laws also would come at a time when Republican legislatures and governors across the country are devising new strategies for diluting the value of votes from minorities and urban dwellers in order to protect GOP power, especially within the federal government.

Check it out if you can.

Ryan Lizza has a new article in the New Yorker about President Obama and sequestration: THE POWERLESS PRESIDENCY. The gist is that Obama has given up on his dream of bipartisanship and accepted that he can’t bring the parties together.

That Obama, who started his Presidency as a true believer, has now given up on the idea that he has any special powers to change the minds of his fiercest critics is probably a good thing. His devotion to post-partisan governance has long fed two mistaken ideas: that the differences between the parties are minor, and that divided government is inherently good for the country.

A fundamental fact of modern political life is that the only way to advance a coherent agenda in Washington is through partisan dominance. When Obama had large Democratic majorities in Congress during his first two years in office, he led one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. After he lost the House, his agenda froze and the current status quo of serial fiscal crises began. Like it or not, for many years, Washington has been most productive when one party controlled both Congress and the White House.

The boring fact of our system is that congressional math is the best predictor of a President’s success. This idea is not nearly as sexy as the notion that great Presidents are great because they twist arms in backrooms and inspire the American people to rise up and force Congress to bend to their will. But even the Presidents who are remembered for their relentless congressional lobbying and socializing were more often than not successful for more mundane reasons—like arithmetic.

I’m not at all sure that Obama has really let go of his dream of unity, although I hope Lizza is right.

I missed Charlie Rose while I was writing this, so I’ll have to try to catch a rerun or watch it on-line. But Joe Weisenthal has published a few excepts of the battle between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough. Weisenthal says Bloomberg with air a repeat tonight at 8PM.

Here’s a piece on the human brain at The Guardian Observer: Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think. I found it fascinating and I hope you will too.

One more psychological article from The New Yorker: Up All Night: The Science of Sleeplessness, by Elizabeth Kolbert. It’s a problem I’m very familiar with.

Science AAAS has a article about a Lost Land Beneath the Waves (Atlantis?)

Geological detectives are piecing together an intriguing seafloor puzzle. The Indian Ocean and some of its islands, scientists say, may lie on top of the remains of an ancient continent pulled apart by plate tectonics between 50 million and 100 million years ago. Painstaking detective work involving gravity mapping, rock analysis, and plate movement reconstruction has led researchers to conclude that several places in the Indian Ocean, now far apart, conceal the remnants of a prehistoric land mass they have named Mauritia. In fact, they say, the Indian Ocean could be “littered” with such continental fragments, now obscured by lava erupted by underwater volcanoes.

The Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands about 1500 kilometers east of Africa, are something of a geological curiosity. Although a few of Earth’s largest islands, such as Greenland, are composed of the same continental crust as the mainland, most islands are made of a denser, chemically distinct oceanic crust, created midocean by magma welling up beneath separating tectonic plates. Geologists think they separated from the Indian subcontinent 80 million to 90 million years ago.

Freaky!

I guess that’s enough to get us started on the day’s discussions. Now it’s your turn. What’s on your reading and blogging list?


Saturday Afternoon Reads: The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan

Good Afternoon!

I decided to focus this post on something other than the debt, deficit, sequester obsession that has taken over American politics, so I’m writing about a book I read in high school that changed my life forever. Feel free to use this as an open thread, and post your links freely in the comments.

This week marked the 50th anniversary of a book that truly changed my life, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. It was first published on February 19, 1963. I read it in paperback when I was a junior in high school, probably in early 1964.

I already knew I didn’t want to be a housewife like my mom, but there weren’t many alternatives for girls in those days. Ideally, you were supposed to get married and have children and forget about having a career or focusing on your own unique interests. You were supposed to enjoy cleaning house and supporting your husband’s career and if you didn’t enjoy it, there was something wrong with you–you weren’t a real woman.

The main reason for girls to go to college was to find a husband. Oh sure, you could study and learn about things that interest you, but that would all go by the wayside once you found a man. After that, it was all about him. If you couldn’t find a husband, then you might have to work. You could be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary–that was about it. Women who insisted on being college professors, doctors, lawyers were few and far between and they had a tough time of it.

Then Betty Friedan’s book came out, and it hit a nerve for millions of American women and girls, including me. Here’s the famous opening paragraph:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”

Friedan called it “the problem with no name.”

First edition of Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (Bauman Rare Books)

First edition of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (Bauman Rare Books)

As I read the book, I began to develop more sympathy for my mother’s plight. During World War II, women had been called upon to go to work to support the war effort and replace men who had been drafted or had enlisted in the military. But when the men came back, they needed the jobs and women were expected to go back to their homes and be satisfied with doing housework, child rearing, decorating, and entertaining for no pay. Friedan wrote about how “experts” had produced reams of propaganda in the effort to get women to find joy and fulfillment in being housewives and mothers. The “feminist mystique” for Friedan said “that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.”

I’ve told this story before, but when I was a senior in high school I wrote an essay for my English class called “Women Are People Too.” My male teacher was somewhat taken aback by my arguments, but he still asked me to read my paper aloud in class. I was jeered and mock for it, of course. Later my economics teacher–a true leftist–found out about the essay and read it in my economic class. Today it seems strange, but most of the other students in my school were horrified by the notion of women being equal to men.

My father, an English professor, had a woman colleague Lucille C.–a full professor who had never married. My mother said that most men would be intimidated by her brilliance and success. Anyway, when I told Lucille about how all the other kids were making fun of me for my essay, she told me to tell them I was a member of FOMA, which stood for “Future Old Maids of America.” I loved it!

Much has changed since 1963. Women now assume they have a right to an education and a career as a well as the right to choose (if they can afford it) whether to stay home with children or work outside the home. But as we have seen in the past four plus years, misogyny is alive and well in the good ol’ USA, and we still have a very long way to go to achieve anything like real gender equality.

Carlene Bauer spoke for me when she wrote at The New York Observer:

When Friedan writes that early feminists “had to prove that women were human,” it is hard not to feel a shock of recognition and indict our own moment as well, especially after the election that just passed. But American women still find themselves struggling against a strangely virulent, insidious misogyny. If our culture truly thought women were human, 19 states would not have enacted provisions to restrict abortion last year. There would be no question whether to renew the Violence Against Women Act. Women would not make 77 cents to every man’s dollar, and make less than our male counterparts even in fields where we dominate. We wouldn’t have terms like “legitimate rape” or “personhood.” Women who decided not to have children would not be called “selfish,” as if they were themselves children who had a problem with sharing. If our culture truly allowed them to have strong, complex, contradictory feelings and believed they were sexual creatures for whom pleasure was a biological right, perhaps adult women would not be escaping en masse into badly written fantasy novels about teenage girls being ravished by vampires.

Bauer also noted that some problems with the book, most notably Friedan’s homophobia.

This book…should seem thrillingly, relievedly quaint. It does not. But it is surprisingly boring in spots—there are many moments where you can see the women’s magazine writer in Friedan giving herself over to breathless exhortation—and astoundingly homophobic. At one point Friedan rails against “the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.” Friedan has been criticized for not being as careful a researcher, or as honest a storyteller, or as civil-rights-minded as she could have been. But perhaps these criticisms are somewhat beside the point. There are numerous passages that, if you did not know their provenance, could be mistaken for sentences written in judgment of the present day.

In looking over The Feminine Mystique recently, I realized that I had forgotten how much scholarship and psychological analysis and scholarship Friedan included in the book. She was a psychology major at Smith College, graduating summa cum laude in 1942. For example, The Feminine Mystique contained a brilliant analysis of Freudian theory and its consequences for women. Friedan argued that education at women’s colleges had been dumbed down between the 1940s and 1960s, with educators limiting courses to “subjects deemed suitable for women” and their future roles as housewives. She suggested that girls were prevented from experiencing the normative identity crisis that was the focus of Erik Erikson’s developmental theory. And she argued that women had been kept at the lower, subsistence levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

How many books truly change society in dramatic ways. Betty Friedan’s book did that. A few more links to articles on the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique.

Michelle Bernard: Betty Friedan and black women: Is it time for a second look?

NYT: Criticisms of a Classic Abound

Mona Gable at BlogHer: How Far Have We Come?

ABC News: ‘Feminine Mystique’: 50 Years Later, Dated But Not Irrelevant

Caryl Rivers: ‘Feminine Mystique’ At 50: If Betty Friedan Could See Us Now

Janet Maslin: Looking Back at a Domestic Cri de Coeur

Alexandra Petri: The Feminist Mystique

Peter Dreier: The Feminine Mystique and Women’s Equality — 50 Years Later

Kathi Wolfe at The Washington Blade: Power of the ‘Feminine Mystique’

A discussion at NPR’s On Point: The Feminine Mystique at 50

This isn’t specifically about The Feminine Mystique, but I think it’s relevant. Allie Grasgreen at Inside Higher Ed: ‘The Rise of Women’ — a “new book explains why women outpace men in higher education.”

Please use this as an open thread, and post anything you like in the comments.


Thursday Reads

Good Morning!!

Last night JJ posted about the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for nearly $120 million. Even Mitt Romney probably couldn’t have afforded it! Somehow I don’t see him as much of an art lover though…

I’ve always been fascinated by the connections between creativity and mental illness. When I took Cognitive Psychology as an undergraduate my professor talked about Munch, saying that the artist felt his mental illness was the source of his creativity and so never wanted to be treated for it. The professor said that once Munch was treated, he did lose much of his creative gift. After seeing the Munch painting in the news last night, I decided to find out a little about Munch’s life.

It turns out my professor’s story was a bit of an oversimplification. Munch did link his artistic talent to his emotional problems, but I’m not sure that he ever really overcame his illness. This fascinating 2006 article from Smithsonian Magazine gives a brief account of Munch’s life and sufferings. The source of Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, was a hallucination he experienced while walking with some friends.

Munch’s The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age—wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. His painting of a sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset. As he later described it, the “air turned to blood” and the “faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white.” Vibrating in his ears he heard “a huge endless scream course through nature.”

Munch was a

restless innovator whose personal tragedies, sicknesses and failures fed his creative work. “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,” he once wrote. “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder….My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” Munch believed that a painter mustn’t merely transcribe external reality but should record the impact a remembered scene had on his own sensibility.

That much of what my professor said was correct. He did make an explicit connection between creativity and his emotional demons. And Munch did suffer. His mother died of Tuberculosis when he was only 5 years old. He adored his sister Sophie who was a year older than he was, and she too died of TB at age 15. Munch’s father was much older then his wife and sounds very authoritarian and forbidding. He was “a doctor imbued with a religiosity that often darkened into gloomy fanaticism.” Munch also had a sister who spent most of her life in a mental institution and a brother who died suddenly when he was only 30.

Munch once wrote in his journal: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity—illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle,” It’s easy to see where that iconic scream painting came from.

As a young man, Munch had a love affair with a dominating older woman, whom he depicted in his painting Vampire

After his father died of a stroke, Munch’s mental illness seems to have grown worse; but in the next few years he produced some of his best work. During this time, he got involved in another difficult romantic relationship with a woman who pursued him relentlessly while he relentlessly resisted.

Munch had been drinking heavily for years and eventually he became an alcoholic. He was most likely trying to self-medicate with alcohol, since he seems to have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations throughout his life. Finally he entered a sanitarium, where he cut back on his drinking and began to feel more mentally stable. This was in 1909. When he was released, he was about 40 years old and would live for 40 more years–he died in 1944.

Munch continued to paint and produced a great deal of work, but critics agree that his best work had been produced prior to his treatment. I’m not sure you could say that his mental illness was cured, though. It seems that he just dealt with it differently. In his later years he isolated himself in his home and avoided going out in public and being part of “the dance of life,” in his words.

And now, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, let’s look at some current news.

Bloomberg evaluates Mitt Romney’s tax plan and finds it wanting:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tax plan rests on a set of principles that, taken together, are difficult to reconcile.

Romney wants to reduce individual income tax rates by 20 percent, keep preferential rates for capital gains and dividends, broaden the tax base to limit revenue loss, and retain the tax-burden distribution across income groups.

Those goals are in conflict and will require that Romney consider limiting or eliminating the tax breaks for charitable deductions and home mortgage interest, said Martin Sullivan, contributing editor at Tax Analysts in Falls Church, Virginia.

“As soon as he gets in, he’s going to have to start backpedaling big-time on all of his promises,” Sullivan said. “It’s just not doable under any conceivable, realistic scenario.”

Well, Romney has a lot of experience with backpedaling, so that shouldn’t be a problem for him. It’s a lengthy article and you may feel like Munch’s The Scream while reading it. I hope no one experiences visual or auditory hallucinations, but Romney’s ideas may have the potential to trigger them in vulnerable people.

Bloomberg also finds Romney is deficient at evocative storytelling, and says this deficiency could explain why the Romney bot can’t seem to connect that well with normal humans. Here’s a “story” Romney tried to tell in Wisconsin:

“I met a guy who worked for the city and he was working, I think, in the landscape division for the city,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said at an April 2 town-hall meeting at an oil company in Milwaukee.

Romney never did get around to giving the name of the man or mention what city he had worked for, or identify the company he said the man founded after leaving his municipal job or say how much gasoline his trucks were burning.

“In today’s politics, it’s all about the narrative,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor and longtime Romney watcher at Boston University. “This has never been part of Romney’s wheelhouse. It’s just not his style.”

Story-telling is an age-old technique in politics. The two modern presidential candidates best-known for mastering the art tailored it to their political times and defeated incumbents. Ronald Reagan, a onetime movie actor, invoked a sense of patriotism and heroism amid economic distress and the Iranian hostage crisis, while Bill Clinton used personal narrative from his modest Arkansas upbringing to show empathy for Americans recovering from the recession of the early 1990s.

Unlike Edvard Munch, Romney lacks both imagination and creativity, and for those reasons, he probably could never even develop a mental illness.

Yesterday a Missouri legislator suddenly came out to his colleagues and begged them to withdraw the “don’t say gay” bill.

A Republican lawmaker in Missouri on Wednesday announced that he was gay and called on his colleagues to revoke their support for a “horrible” bill that would prevent the discussion of homosexuality in schools.

“I will not lie to myself anymore about my own sexuality,” state Rep. Zachary Wyatt said during a press conference at the State Capitol. “It has probably been the hardest thing to come to terms with. I have always ignored it, didn’t even think about it or want to talk about it. I’ve not been immune to it. I hear the comments — usually snide ones — about me.”

“I’m not the first or last Republican to come out. I’ve just gotten tired of the bigotry being shown from both sides of the aisle on gay issues. Being gay has never been a Republican or Democrat issue.”

Wyatt warned that Missouri’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill would make it impossible for LGBT students to speak with teachers and counselors when they were being bullied.

Someone needs to do a psychological study on why there are so many gay Republicans (like Richard Grenell, who just had to resign from the Romney campaign) and at the same time so many Republicans who hate homosexuals.

Maybe this could shed a little light on the problem: A recent study suggested that people who are homophobic are more likely to be repressing attraction to the same sex and to have grown up in authoritarian homes.

Study subjects — four groups of about 160 college students each, in the USA and Germany — also rated the attractiveness of people in same-sex or opposite-sex photos and answered questions about the type of parenting they experienced growing up, from authoritarian to democratic, as well as homophobia at home.

Researchers also measured homophobia — both overt, as expressed in questionnaires on social policy and beliefs, and unconscious, as revealed in word-completion tasks.

The findings suggest participants with accepting parents were more in touch with their innate sexual orientation. But, Ryan says, “if you come from a controlling home where your parents do have negative attitudes toward gays and lesbians, you’re even more likely to suppress same-sex attraction and more likely to have this discrepancy that leads to having homophobia and feeling threatened.”

Ryan says the study may help explain the personal dynamics behind some bullying and hate crimes directed at gays and sheds light on high-profile cases in which public figures who have expressed anti-gay views have been caught engaging in same-sex sexual acts.

In other words these people may be using the defense mechanism Freud called reaction formation, which I’ve written about previously in a post about Michelle Bachmann.

Freud theorized that the ego unconsciously uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from being overwhelmed by anxiety-producing thoughts, feelings, and situations. This is one of Freud’s ideas that has been supported by extensive empirical research.

Reaction formation is a highly neurotic defense mechanism in which a person appears to others to be “protesting too much”–for example, exaggerating how much she loves or hates something to the point that observers wonder if this behavior is a cover for the opposite feeling.

This isn’t the first study that has found a correlation between homophobia and homosexual attraction. In a previous study, some researchers actually measured arousal in homophobic and non-homophobic men.

The men viewed homosexual and heterosexual soft core porn videos and their level of arousal was measured by means of a device attached to their penises. Interviews and psychological tests were used to identify homophobic and non-homophobic men.

Results showed that men who scored as homophobic on the tests and also admitted to having negative feelings toward homosexuals were more likely to be aroused by homosexual stimuli. Not only that, the men rated their own arousal levels as low when they watched homosexual videos. They were denying their own arousal levels. From the abstract:

These data are consistent with response discordance where verbal judgments are not consistent with physiological reactivity, as in the case of homophobic individuals viewing homosexual stimuli. Lang (1994) has noted that the most dramatic response discordance occurs with reports of feeling and physiologic responses. Another possible explanation is found in various psychoanalytic theories, which have generally explained homophobia as a threat to an individual’s own homosexual impulses causing repression, denial, or reaction formation (or all three; West, 1977 ).

That’s got to be a big part of what’s happening with Republicans. Now someone needs to study their woman-hating. It probably has something to do with how they feel about their mothers as well as the kinds of behaviors they observed between their parents.

I’m rambling today, aren’t I? I’d better wrap this up. Just a few more links.

Bill Clinton reviewed the new Robert Caro book on LBJ for the NYT Book Review.

Vanity Fair has an excerpt from a new biography of Barack Obama by David Maraniss (who also wrote a biography of Bill Clinton).

Finally, here are two stories about Hillary’s ongoing adventures in China. I sure hope she can work things out. Right now it doesn’t look good.

From the WaPo: Chinese activist Chen leaves U.S. Embassy for hospital, is surrounded by police

From the NYT: Chinese Dissident Is Released From Embassy, Causing Turmoil for U.S.

What’s on your reading list today?