Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Surfeit of Donkeys

The blogosphere has been much abuzz of late with, stories about the mainstream media making asses out of themselves, whether it be Time getting owned by Greg Greenwald or the Washington Post frontpaging a story full of scurrilous rumors about Barrack Obama that had been debunked online months earlier.

These incidents called to mind something I'd noticed last month when Robert Redford's film Lions for Lambs opened. The title is drawn from a phrase purportedly used by a German general to describe the brave British soldiers being led by incompetents as: "lions led by lambs". As a number of reviewers in the U.K. (and my brother) have noted, the commonly used phrase is "lions led by donkeys", which seems better for emphasizing incompetence as opposed to meekness.

In checking out what appeared to be a misquote, I found Wikipedia's entry showed that the common attribution is to generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann. There were also earlier usages by the Times of London. In googling the phrase, I did come across this entry on TimesOnline. "While some military archivists credit the author as an anonymous infantryman, others argue that the source was none other than General Max von Gallwitz, Supreme Commander of the German forces. In either case, it’s generally accepted to be a derivation of Alexander the Great’s proclamation, “I am never afraid of an army of Lions led into battle by a Lamb. I fear more the army of Lambs who have a Lion to lead them.”

In looking into this, I could not find even one "archivist" or "expert" who attributed this to either Gallwitz or Alexander the Great.

If you can't trust the MSM to do even such basic fact checking, what else might they get wrong? I know the result is trivial here but I recall seeing somewhere where they suggested Ambien as the indicated treatment for someone suffering manic depression. That's the sort of mistake that could cause someone to spend a long time hospitalized or to take their own life. I'm sure I've got that reference around here somewhere.

The bottom line is don't believe everything you read in the papers and be sure to do your own research. For specialized topics, there are great search engines like scifinder and webofscience but it is truly amazing what, to paraphrase Brian Williams' immortal line, even someone who hasn't left the house in a number of years can accomplish just by using google and wikipedia.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

That which is of most importance

He who attends to his greater self becomes a great man, and he who attends to his smaller self becomes a small man. - Mencius

Saturday, May 12, 2007


By the West Pavilion, on a thousand feet of cliff,
Walking at midnight under my latticed window.
Flying stars pass white along the water,
Transparent beams of moonset flicker on the sand.
At home in its tree,notice the secret bird:
Safe beneath the waves,imagine the great fishes.
From kinsmen and friends at the bounds of heaven and earth
Between weapon and buffcoat, seldom a letter comes.
- Tu Fu

Monday, April 23, 2007

"It's the Rhetoric, Stupid"

The following initially appeared as a comment to a thoughtful and entertaining post by Michael Bérubé highlighting polling results showing that the American public is less willing to vote for someone who is an atheist than for just about any other category descriptor (humorously including the "GEICO caveman" and a "zombie"). In his post, he noted that some on the left side of the spectrum have been calling on atheists to show more respect for religious viewpoints in the political arena and questioned what motivates such critics. As always, he participated extensively in the comment threads of his post which make for good additional reading and, in particular, here is his generous response to my comment.

"It's the rhetoric, stupid"
I never imagined myself as a DLC apologist, but here goes:

I think that the sort of respect that some on the "left" would like us atheists to pay to religion in the public marketplace [of ideas] is illustrated, in its absence, by noted atheist author Sam Harris in an ongoing discussion with Andrew Sullivan, where Harris writes:

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence-prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, "have faith in yourself." There's nothing wrong with that type of "faith."

Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

By construing religious faith as not merely separate from, but also "in conflict" with, reason, not to mention distinguishing it from the kind of faith "[t]here's nothing wrong with," Harris demands devaluing faith by anyone who claims to value reason, which, given the poll data you presented, poses a bit of a problem in the electoral arena. Must we really force people to choose between faith, on the one hand, and reason and science on the other? People also do not generally respond well to arguments that they are engaging in "self-deception," and I expect they will not be thrilled to discover that atheists think that moderation in the opposition of fundamentalism is no virtue.

All well and good, so we shouldn't overtly invalidate the role of faith in moral reasoning or liken belief in a particular religion to false consciousness, but how does one respond to the conversation-stopping religious argumentation in your examples? I suggest that we merely and politely acknowledge the incommensurability of our systems of evaluating the validity of faith-based arguments, leave them our literature on why we support, e.g., abortion rights, shake hands and part ways on those issues while still making use of the valuable, religious concepts we can reach via secular reasoning, such as caritas and agape, of which you have written elsewhere.

Is this the respect that adherents of religion themselves want? No. As Stanley Fish has recently written (from behind the NYT subscription wall), "But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims." We cannot give the religious right any respect that it will value. As for our leftward of the religious right friends who want us to grant religious claims more respect in the political marketplace, I suspect that they have little interest in our souls or even the souls of swing voters, unless souls get votes in addition to the ones bodies get. They just want us atheists to stop offending the rather large number of voters who value both faith and reason--ours is not to reason how--while conceding the hopeless cavemen and zombie voters. For example, if we don't force people to choose between their Catholic faith and supporting access to birth control for all the rational reasons, they might somehow find a way to choose both of the above, and, somehow, they did just that.

I think you may have underestimated the appeal of, and need for repeating, the "usual arguments about competing for swing voters and trying not to piss people off unnecessarily." While trying to gain the votes of the religious right is a hopeless prospect, not losing the votes of the religious middle seems like a valuable goal.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why We Should All Care About the Recent Pet Food Recalls

Yesterday's recall of pet foods containing rice protein concentrate have added to the worries of pet owners who were already concerned over the recalls involving wheat gluten.

As disturbing as the pet food recalls are in themselves, a perhaps even more disturbing story line that is emerging is that we should all be concerned about the use of protein concentrates in the human food supply as well. While there is no evidence yet that any such adulterated products have entered the human food supply, the FDA is taking this possibility seriously:

As an added precaution, however, we have asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use its surveillance network to monitor for signs of human illness, such as increased renal failure, that could indicate contamination of the human food supply.

Protein concentrates such as rice protein concentrate, wheat gluten, soy protein concentrate, etc. are priced largely on the basis of protein content. However, the standards for measuring protein content in the food industry do not measure protein content directly but rather measure nitrogen content, leaving them susceptible to fraudulent introduction of non-food sources of nitrogen such as the Melamine that has been found in recalled pet food. It has already been suggested that the Melamine in wheat gluten imported from China was purposely added to increase protein content measures at reduced price.

This problem of inexpensively priced fraudulent protein content is apparently not a new one. A 2005 web page item on a Chinese food additives exporter's web site warns: (click NEWS button at website)

Recently, we found Rice Protein Concentrate Feed Grade with very low price in market. Its appearance is White, good fineness & good looking. It make some of our customers confused aboutour Rice Protein's appearance and price.

After we searched in the market, we kindly inform everybody,
This kind of product is PSEUDO rice protein, and there are 2 kinds:
1. Inorganic nitrogen and a small part of other vegetable protein mixed together.
2. Biuret (one of the carbamide/urea)

How to know it is PSEUDO RICE PROTEIN: (Based on analysis)
1. Total Nitrogen is Inorganic nitrogen.
2. All proteins have isoelectric point. It has no isoelectric point (pI).

Note: I have no reason to suspect this particular Chinese supplier of any wrongdoing and am pointing to its website merely to indicate that it was warning its customers of this problem in 2005.

While this company was reporting a problem in animal feed additives and the current recalls involve only pet foods, the underlying chemistry and production of human grade protein concentrates is the same and companies would have just as much incentive to inflate protein content numbers at low cost. Moreover, the brand of pet food that was recalled yesterday advertises that it uses uses human grade ingredients.

Canadian author Ann N. Martin, who researched the pet food industry for five years, called Natural Balance's recall "very upsetting." In earlier interviews with, Martin said Natural Balance is one of the few pet foods on the market made with "human grade" ingredients. "These are ingredients that have been inspected and passed for human consumption," says Martin, author of "Food Pets Die For ... Shocking Facts About Pet Food," and "Protect Your Pets ... More Shocking Facts."

For a timely and well written piece on where the blame should fall for much of our current food contamination problems check out this item by Rick Perlstein. Money quote:

George Bush's Food and Drug Administration—and our other major food-inspection arm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan's noble words made flesh. But don't let your family get too close to the flesh. They might get sick and die.

I already cared about this story when I was just worried about my cat but the more I look into it, the more worried I get for all of us.

Update: According to Itchmo, the rice protein concentrate in the recalled products was, in fact, imported from China from Binzhou Futian Biology Technology.

Monday, January 8, 2007

"Let us sell then you and me"

Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh ReefMy friend Bartleby, who prefers not to do his own blogging, shared the following poem with me recently. He says that the text dates back to 1990, not long after the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled oil all over the pristine southern coast of Alaska, and that he remembered the poem when he recently read that the appeals court reduced the damages Exxon Mobil was required to pay. He also sends along his apologies to T.S. Eliot.

The Swan Song of J. Andrew Slackmeyer

Caveat emptor

Let us sell then you and me,
While the oil spreads across the sea
Like a drunkard spilled upon some barroom floor;
Let us go door by door through suburban developments,
Freeway clogged with BMWs and SaabsThe rambling envelopments
Of empty days in time-clocked jobs
Past freeways clogged with BMWs and Saabs:
Developments that follow like no argument at all,
Cancerous, they sprawl,
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, "What in hell?"
Let us go and buy and sell.

On the tube the women come and go talking about Mop-'n'-Glo.

The acid rain that wraps its coils about the evergreens,
The acid rain that sets its fangs upon the evergreens
Trees killed by acid rain in the Great Smoky MountainsDrooled venom upon the corpse that was the land,
Dallied by the toxic waste that fills the drains,
Let drop like scales the soot that rises from smokestacks,
Passed from beneath the trees, hissed a tired sigh,
But hearing time's powerful pipe,
Slithered soundlessly into the water supply.

For indeed will there be time
For the acid rain that lurks among the trees,
Slithering its coils about the evergreens?
Will there be time, will there be time
To prepare new products to seize the markets that one sees?
Will there be time to kill, and time to curse,
And time for all the talk and days of hands
That lift the money from one's purse?
Time for me and time for you,
And time yet for a hundred acquisitions.
And for a thousand missions and admissions,
Before the taking of some coke or brew?

On the tube the women come and go talking about Mop-'n'-Glo.

Mop & Glo bottleYes indeed will there be time
To ponder, "Dare I do?" and, "When?" and, "To who?"
Time to create something ghastly new,
But with, perhaps, a use or two --
[They will say: "How his concept is positively chic!"]
The factories I build will belch and leak,
The waste I dump out will fester and reek --
[They will say: "But how his profits do rise and peak!"]
Dare I do
Such a thing perverse?
In a year is there time
For legislation and litigation that an appeal will reverse?

For I have bought them all already, bought them all --
Have bought the politicians, judges, police,
Have bought the publishers, the union bosses; the lawyers, I lease.
How should I begin to presume?

I should have been a tax free bond trader
flitting across the floors of financial exchanges.

Should not I, after flouting laws and cutting deals have the
wherewithal to make new steals?
But though I have perjured myself and taken the fifth,
Though I have had my subpoenas served to me upon a platter,
I am no financial prophet -- my portfolio no fatter.
I have heard the bonfires of my solvency crackle,
And I have heard the Infernal Revenue Service cackle,
And in short, I was chagrined.

Adam Smith come back from the dead on the cover of Time magazineAnd what would its net worth have been after all?
After the deductions, credits and restructuring write-offs,
After the three-martini lunches, after the private memberships,
After chasing skirts in the secretarial pool.
Would it have been worth my while,
To have squeezed the whole earth into one diversified conglomerate?
To say: "I am Adam Smith, come from the dead,
Come back to sell you all, I shall sell you all" --
It is just impossible to mean what I say!

No! I have no trump to play, no Carnegie was meant to be;
Am a small-time industrialist, one that will do
To carry weight in a county or two,
Buy a few favors; no doubt an easy mark,
Full of great plans, but a bit short on capital;
Almost, at times, a bankrupt.

I grow poor ... I grow poor ...
I shall float a junk bond upon the floor.

Shall I sell off a subsidiary? Do I dare restructure what I own?
Mammon from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire InfernalI shall falsify my records and secure another loan,
I have heard investors ringing, phone to phone.

I do not think that they will ring for me.

We have lingered in the profits of the short term,
By Mammon crowned with man-made green and gold,
'Til earthly debts do break us and we're sold.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

"Why is CBS writing me and what is Medco?"

A little out of focus but she is wearing the Christmas pin we gave her so many years agoMy dear 90 year old grandmother, who spent almost all of her working years assembling light switches for Westinghouse, retired a good many years ago. At least those were different times and her union had been able to negotiate decent pension benefits, including prescription drug coverage for retirees. So, in many ways, she has been one of the fortunate senior citizens who hasn't had to sign up for Medicare part D. However, she is very confused by the ever-changing nature of her current medical coverage. I attempt to capture the substance and flavor of the conversation I had with her over Christmas.

Grandma and Pop back in their working yearsGrandma Kay [GR]: "Why is CBS writing me and what is Medco?"
Hapless Apologist for the American Health Care System [HA]: "What?"
GR: "I got this in the mail." (Hands over an envelope)
HA: (reading) "Hmm. CBS seems to be switching your prescription drug coverage from Express Scripts to Medco and you'll have to transfer your prescriptions to them."
GR: "CBS? What does CBS have to do with it?"
HA: "Well, gee, I don't know. CBS must have bought out Westinghouse or something like that."
CR: "I thought somebody called "Whyacon" wrote me about my benefits last year?"
HA: "That was Viacom, now it's CBS, just don't ask me why it keeps changing."
GR: "Do I have to change?"
HA: "Well, if you want to keep getting benefits, I guess you do. Let's see, we'll have to make sure that you give Walgreen's the new information, that is if Walgreen's is a participating pharmacy with Medco like it was with Express Scripts, and have to get new info to all your doctors so that they don't send in new prescriptions or refills to Express Scripts anymore and we'll need to--"
GR: "That sounds like too much trouble. I've been getting my drugs from Scripts for years now since I retired. Can't I just keep doing what I'm doing?"
HA: "I guess you could keep getting drugs from Express Scripts but then you'd have to pay full price, since CBS wouldn't be subsidizing them--"
GR: "What does CBS have to do with it again?"
HA: "Your Westinghouse pension is with CBS now and they want you to use Medco--"
GR: "Is this something the government is doing?"
HA: "Well, no, CBS has decided they want to change to Medco. I mean, in a sense the government is involved since they haven't created a single payer system for prescription drugs--"
GR: "Why is CBS making me change?"
HA: "I don't know. I guess they think Medco will save them more money than Express Scripts?" Gram's sister Jean and bother-in-law Dom back when they were Democrats
GR: "Will it save me any money?"
HA: "Well, no, but at least it is a pretty good benefit. Your drug costs are capped at $2000/year which is better than your sister Jean who has no cap on her Medicare drug coverage and, since it's through your pension, you pay no premium--"
GR: "But I do pay a premium. I'm paying $125 a month for the supplemental."
HA: "That premium's not for prescription coverage, that's for Medigap coverage."
GR: "What?"
HA: "Well, there's Medicare Part A for hospitalization, and then there's Medicare Part B for doctors visits, but not all of that is covered by Medicare, so that's why you're paying the Medigap premium and then they did add Medicare Part D for prescription coverage, but your pension coverage is better than the Part D so we decided you didn't need to sign up for that. Remember?"
GR: "Why is it so confusing? And why does Dom [her sister Jean's husband and a WWII veteran] get to go to the VA and get all his doctors and drugs from one place?"
HA: "Because Jean and Dom keep voting for Republicans because the health care industry paid for those Harry and Louise ads that scared everyone into thinking that the government was going to create a complex and inefficient health insurance system!"

Gram and her sisters long before they were senior citizensI think that the moment I lost it was when I said that the premium she was paying was for Medigap coverage not for prescription drug coverage, as though these were rational categories that any 90 year old retired factory worker who never even got to go to high school ought to be able to keep straight. It's not like my grandmother is stupid or has dementia. She's quite capable and living on her own, handling her bills and everything, but the complexity of her health insurance situation is so many orders of magnitude beyond anything else with which she has to deal. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law Dom is getting quality, cheaper health care from the VA. Why can't it be as simple for all senior citizens and for the rest of us, for that matter?

The 2007 House Democratic leadership is focusing on one small change that would make it simpler and cheaper for senior citizens who do not have private drug benefits by allowing seniors to choose a prescription drug plan administered directly by Medicare, but even if this passes I still won't be able to answer my grandmother's question about why health insurance in the United States is so confusing when virtually every other major industrial country offers universal health coverage.