Techs and the city

Lab by lab in and around San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO conjures up images of hippies and of free love, the psychedelic 60s and leftist politics. A member of Jefferson Airplane, a rock band, described it as “49 square miles surrounded by reality”. It has always had that air. In a letter written in 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote of “a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.”

But as someone who writes about science (and in the interests of full disclosure, practices it for a living), I see a different side of San Francisco and the broader Bay Area around it. I don’t see a region full of people looking to escape reality; I see scientists and engineers at universities, companies, and national labs probing and investigating that reality on a daily basis. Instead of mind-altering drugs, I see the world-altering technology that flows out of Silicon Valley.

A city built on science

Plutonium was first discovered in a Berkeley lab (as were the aptly-named berkelium and californium). The Bay Area is the birthplace of “big science” and of the atom smashers that have told us so much about the fundamental building blocks of matter. Quarks were first discovered just down the peninsula at the Stanford linear accelerator.

In the 1970s, two professors from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) figured out how to use bacteria to clone segments of DNA. In the process, they gave birth to genetic engineering and the modern biotechnology industry. South of the city, Silicon Valley gave us the personal computer, the mouse, and the verbs “to google” and “to tweet”. Sit down in any local coffeeshop and you’re just as likely to end up next to someone nursing a startup as you are someone nursing a cappuccino. Now, the Valley’s venture capitalists are hoping that their magic will work just as well on the clean-technology industry.

The Bay Area hosts the world’s biggest laser (at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore), the world’s most intense X-ray source (at the LCLS at Stanford’s national lab) and an institute devoted exclusively to the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (the SETI Institute in Mountain View). NASA’s outpost here just launched a probe that will slam into the lunar surface in search of water.

Between them, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF employ some 50 Nobel laureates spanning the full range of scientific disciplines. True, a handful of these are for economics, but we’ll cut the dismal science some slack.

Science and technology are to the Bay Area what finance is to New York and what cars are (or were) to Detroit. They underpin the region’s economy, influence its culture and shape the very character of this region as much as its notoriously active seismic geography does.

Over the next four days, I intend to explore a few of the different faces that science and technology present to residents here. From the stem cell research that promises to revolutionise medicine, to the science of growing and making the best wine, to the science-fiction sounding search for extraterrestrials, we’ll be taking a scientific road trip around the San Francisco Bay Area. Think Thelma and Louise meets Watson and Crick.


I WAKE up slightly disoriented at 5:45am. Waking in darkness makes me feel more like a farmer than a scientist, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the task at hand today. I’m on my way to the University of California, Davis for their annual RAVE conference, a gathering of scientists, winegrowers and winemakers meant to share the most recent advances in the disciplines of viticulture and oenology.

Gulping down a large coffee, I head east on I-80 across the Bay Bridge and through the sprawl of the East Bay. I pass the exit for Highway 37, which winds its way north and west to Napa and Sonoma, the heart of California’s wine country. In Napa alone, over 40,000 acres of vines produce an annual crop of grapes worth $400m. I manage to resist the pull of the wineries and instead follow I-80 east into the brightening dawn.

The wine before the bottle

You may not realise it when you pop the cork on a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon, but many scientists spend their lives studying every facet of wine, from the best pruning and watering techniques for growing the tastiest grapes to the genetics of the bacteria used in their fermentation. And UC-Davis is one of the world’s great centres for wine science.

Its Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, founded with a donation of $25m from the father of California’s wine industry, boasts 75,000 square feet of state-of-the art labs, kitchens, and sensory-testing equipment. Inside, the halls literally smell of wine and the researchers seem to be having a lot more fun than the typical science PhDs.

Studying wine seems like a far cry from curing cancer or weaning the world off of fossil fuels, but the scientists who do so are no slouches. They make use of the latest techniques in biochemistry and biotechnology. Their analyses are sprinkled with complex mathematics and multivariate statistics.

As I learn later in the morning, “whole genome shotgun sequencing”, originally developed for the Human Genome Project, was put to work on pinot noir in 2007. Besides shedding light on fundamental issues of plant evolution, wine scientists hope the grapevine genome will reveal some of the pathways that control wine flavour and resistance to various pests.

The packed program includes lectures on viticultural practices, techniques for drying grapes into raisins, the perils of something called “berry shrivel” and how microbes contribute to flavour during fermentation. We hear about genomics, proteomics, and the “wired vine”, where all aspects of growing are monitored and controlled by sensors. Terpenes, norisoprenoids, oak lactones—the biochemical jargon comes thick and fast and eventually overwhelms me.

But what comes through is a sense, as one speaker puts it, that wine is truly “chemistry in a glass”. Wine contains hundreds of complex chemical compounds, some of which are active in startlingly small amounts. Methoxypyrazine, which gives sauvignon blanc a slight bell-pepper odour, can be detected by the nose at less than two billionths of a gram in an entire bottle.

To the purist, all of this measuring and quantifying might destroy the beauty of a perfectly balanced bottle paired with a delicious meal. But I think of the child who looks up at the night sky and grows up to become an astronomer. Science begins with and returns to beauty and wonder.

As I hit the road back to the city, I think about the theory that it’s better to give grapes slightly less water than they want in order to stress them and to concentrate their intense flavours. Out of great struggle comes great wine—and great science.


TONIGHT I’ve got two of the hottest tickets in town. As the bouncer checks my ID, I can hear the low bass emanating from the DJ’s turntables inside the glass doors. The crowd is dressed in slinky skirts, tight jeans, and sport coats. This is not the hippest new club in the city, but the normally staid halls of the California Academy of Sciences. My girlfriend and I head off for a stiff gin and tonic at one of the many bars (though not the one sitting beneath the watchful eye of Tyrannosaurus rex).

To most people, the words “science” and “nightlife” don’t usually go together. This spring, however, the Academy opened its doors for a series of boozy evenings intended to give the residents of this young, tech-savvy city another view of the science museum. “NightLife”, as the event is called, has been selling out, with more than 3,000 people attending each week.

It was only last September that the Academy returned to its home in Golden Gate Park. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the aquarium here, the Academy undertook a complete rebuilding project that took $488m and the better part of a decade. Designed by Renzo Piano, the museum is now the largest public building in the world to have a LEED Platinum rating. Its design, which melds modern glass and steel with the classical architecture of the original building, reminds me of science itself—a combination of the new and modern with the solid, tested principles of the past.

Inside, an exhibit demonstrates some of the building’s environmentally friendly features. Recycled blue jeans are stuffed into the walls to serve as insulation (which seems fitting, as San Francisco is home to both Levi’s and The Gap). Half of the building’s cement was made with recycled waste products from coal combustion and steel production, and the glass canopy outside houses 60,000 photovoltaic cells. Instead of using treated freshwater for the aquariums, water is pumped in directly from the Pacific at the other end of the park.

We continue our stroll past the 90-foot diameter glass dome that houses a living rainforest. Next to the DJ, people are gaping through a glass window at scientists in white coats working on specimens—perhaps a nod to the traditional view of scientists in a museum.

Downstairs, the Steinhart Aquarium is packed and people are noticeably tipsier. An alligator drifts towards the thick glass, having recently sent its albino tankmate Claude to the hospital with a nasty bite on the toe. A scantily clad girl sticks her tongue out at a lizard in its tank. It responds in kind and then lazily drops off its branch.

We head back upstairs and onto the museum’s “living roof”, which is planted with native Californian grasses and flowers. They help reduce runoff and, from a distance, cause the building to mirror the hilly landscape of the city around it. A line is patiently snaking its way to a docent with a telescope trained on Saturn’s rings and the moon Titan.

After we’ve had our fill of stargazing, we spill out into the beautiful evening and stroll out of the park. I’m left with the inescapable feeling that this taste of the nightlife has been high on style but a little light on the scientific substance. But that’s no terrible thing. Science will survive and grow, as this museum has.


IT IS a classic San Francisco morning. The downtown skyline is shrouded in a blanket of fog. By noon the sun has finally burned its way through, but the fog will likely roll back in with the cool evening breeze. It’s a bit like scientific progress, actually—an endless ebb and flow from haziness to clarity and back again.

Today I’m downtown to cover a town hall meeting hosted by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). From the subway I head to one of the Palace Hotel’s elegant chandeliered ballrooms. It holds around 300, and eventually fills to standing capacity.

Though it seems like a euphemism, “regenerative medicine” does not refer to plastic surgery (that is, dare I say, an Angeleno rather than a San Franciscan pastime). From its office in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, CIRM oversees California’s $3 billion investment in stem cell research.

Soldiers awaiting orders

In November 2004, California voters passed Proposition 71, a ballot measure allowing the state to fund research into human embryonic stem cells. Overnight, California became one of the largest backers of stem-cell research in the world. At a time when the federal government was unwilling to invest in regenerative medicine, the message from the state’s voters was clear: the incredible therapeutic promise of stem cells outweighs the moral objections to using them.

That therapeutic promise, the meeting’s three panellists explain to us, comes from stem cells’ chameleon-like ability to turn into any of the cells that make up the body’s tissues and organs. Most cells are tailored to perform a particular function. Heart cells are good at beating, neurons transmit electrical signals and pancreatic islet cells produce insulin. While they all contain the full set of instructions of the human genome, each uses only the small subset that directs its particular task.

A stem cell, on the other hand, is a cellular jack-of-all-trades. Given the right signals, it can become a brand new heart cell or neuron or insulin-producing cell. Bruce Conklin, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and the second speaker of the evening, plays us a dramatic video of 2,000 human heart cells that had been derived from embryonic stem cells. Sitting in their Petri dish, they wriggle and beat, just like a human heart.

Embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, and since then the pace of progress has been furious. Much work has gone into figuring out how to reliably and efficiently generate the different cell types that doctors would like to use in patients. In addition, as the speakers emphasise, understanding exactly when and how implanted stem cells can go awry and cause tumours remains an essential research task that confronts all potential therapies.

Such therapies are slowly, but surely, making their way towards the clinic. In January, Geron, a biotechnology giant, got FDA approval to conduct the first clinical trial testing the safety of an embryonic stem cell therapy. It will work with patients with severe spinal cord injuries. For its part, CIRM is hoping to get ten to 12 human stem cell trials going in the next four years. In December, it will award $20m to researchers and their corporate partners with that goal in mind.

After the speakers finish their presentations, the moderator opens the floor to questions from the audience. From the front row, a young girl raises her hand. In a high-pitched, slightly faltering voice, she asks a deeply personal question: “I was burned very badly in August 2008. How might this help me, and how can I help in your research?”

After the dry PowerPoints and data-filled charts, the scientists seem slightly taken aback by the raw emotion. They stammer through some answers, but none seems satisfying. Despite stem cells’ promise, the science just isn’t quite there yet. This moment brings home both the deep hopes and the urgent desperation that surround what are undoubtedly the early days of regenerative medicine.


ONCE again I’m braving the early morning traffic on I-80, heading out of the city past Oakland and Berkeley. But just before I reach Davis, I veer north onto Interstate 5. It’s not the earthly delights of carefully cultivated varietals and nuanced terroir that concern me today. I’m heading into the mountains to get a tour of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a collection of 42 large telescopes that have just begun scanning the heavens for radio transmissions from intelligent extraterrestrials. Yes, you read that right—aliens.

Three hours later, my small Toyota begins the climb into the mountains of Lassen National Park. Eureka, Whiskeytown, Old Oregon Trail—the road signs here recall the miners and pioneers who trudged through during California’s mid-19th century gold rush. The two-lane road I’m driving on used to be a trail for rattling stagecoaches.

The San Francisco radio stations faded hours ago, and now only a few talk stations break through the static. Maybe I’ve lived in Haight-Ashbury for too long, but as I make a right turn into the observatory, Timothy Leary is in my head: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Here in Hat Creek, which is nearly devoid of manmade sounds, the ATA just turned on for science operations in May. For many years to come, it will tune into the radio sky to study the evolution of galaxies, the properties of black holes, and one of the most profound questions of all—whether we’re alone in the universe.

My tour guide this afternoon is Garrett Keating, a former cop turned astronomer. We walk out towards one of the 42 telescopes, a gleaming aluminium dish six metres in diameter. Mr Keating opens a trap door and we poke our heads inside. The main dish reflects incoming radio waves onto a smaller dish off to our left. That in turn bounces them onto the telescope’s main receiver, a long pyramid with different sized antennas poking off of it.

The antennas pick up an extremely wide range of frequencies, from those used for broadcast television on the low end up through the ones that transmit satellite television. In between is the emission frequency of hydrogen gas—the most common element in the universe and the raw material for the formation of stars and galaxies.

Off in the distance, we hear the rumbles of an approaching storm, and several lightning bolts streak across the sky. Mr Keating insists we return to the lab. The antennae, he reassures me, are well grounded. I don’t tell him that it wasn’t the antennae I was worried about.

Inside, fibre-optic cables carry the signals from the dishes to enormous racks of computers. By using the computers to combine data from each individual dish, the ATA is able to mimic a much larger telescope for a fraction of the cost. An initial donation of $25m from Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and $25m from other sources financed these first 42 dishes. Eventually, the team hopes to collect enough funding to get up to 350.

Operating together, the telescopes are quite sensitive. And they need to be, since a single mobile phone located on the moon would give off a much stronger signal than almost every astronomical object in the radio sky. In addition to its sensitivity, the ATA also views a large patch of the sky all at once. Most other radio telescopes are like telephoto lenses, zooming into a tiny region of space. The ATA, however, is the first that can take snapshots with a wide-angle lens.

Just outside the sliding glass door to the control room, I notice a doormat with a bug-eyed alien and the caption “welcome all species”, a reminder of the ATA’s second mission. This telescope array represents a great leap forward for the enterprise known as SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In the past, SETI has had to squeeze precious observation time out of existing telescopes around the world. With the ATA, the search for signals from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will be carried out constantly, right alongside the astrophysics.

So what exactly is SETI looking for? Essentially, something that seems not to belong—an odd man out in the cosmic radio haze. One possibility is a very powerful signal confined to a tiny frequency band, like the manmade transmissions that are continually leaking off of earth. As Mr Keating explains, “nature doesn’t produce pure tones”. In addition, if the signal really is extraterrestrial, its broadcast frequency should drift, as the alien planet orbits its own star.

Over its lifetime, the ATA hopes to survey 1m promising candidate stars within a thousand light years of earth, and ten billion more in the central region of our own Milky Way galaxy. And as computers and algorithms improve, so will SETI’s ability to look for more complex alien transmissions in this mountain of data.

Black holes, exploding stars, clouds of swirling hydrogen gas light-years across the galaxy—this is hallucinatory stuff. Yet if the little green men finally arrive, San Francisco—built as it is on science, tolerance and the counterculture—would seem like a natural first port-of-call.


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A taste of the Taliban

An Islamist insurgency in the north of Nigeria comes on top of another in the Delta

VIOLENCE has often disfigured religion in Nigeria. Usually, it has been a matter of bloody confrontation between Muslims and Christians in the middle of the country, where the largely Muslim north rubs up against the mainly Christian south. This week, however, Nigeria experienced its most serious outbreak of another kind of religious violence, provoked by Islamic fundamentalists who take their inspiration from the Taliban of Afghanistan. At least 180 people were killed in five days of clashes between militants and the police.

The fighting started on July 26th in Bauchi state after the police arrested several suspected leaders of an Islamist sect called Boko Haram, a local Hausa term that means “education is prohibited”. In particular, the group is against Western education and influence. It wants to impose a pure Muslim caliphate on Nigeria. In retaliation for the arrest of their leaders, militants went on the rampage in several northern states, attacking the police with anything that came to hand, from machetes to bows and poison arrows.

The police fought back, killing, so they claimed, 39 militants in Bauchi. Fierce fighting took place in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, where the sect has its headquarters. On July 28th the army was called in to shell the compound where the sect’s leader, Muhammad Yusuf, has been based. As well as killing scores of Boko Haram fighters, the police arrested hundreds of suspected members of the group. Mr Yusuf himself was arrested on July 30th reportedly while hiding in a goat pen at a relative’s house. He was taken into custody and promptly shot dead, according to police as he “tried to escape”.

The “Black Taliban”, as such groups are dubbed in Nigeria’s northern states, have carried out isolated attacks for several years. This time the violence has been more widespread and prolonged. Muslim sharia law was introduced in 12 northern states after general elections in 1999, but the states’ Muslim rulers have usually been cautious in applying it. This has prompted the militants to demand a more extreme form of Islamist rule and for sharia to be extended to the whole of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s federal government, along with Western intelligence agencies, has long worried that extremist groups in the north may link up with Islamist terrorist groups elsewhere in Africa, in particular with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. This outfit grew out of the blood-soaked struggle by Islamists to overthrow Algeria’s government in the 1990s. Such connections raise the spectre of a concerted Islamist threat against Nigeria, a close ally of America and a large oil exporter. But the links have not been proved and little is known about groups such as Boko Haram.

On this occasion Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, acted swiftly. But it was the exception to his presidential rule. Now halfway through his four-year term, the former governor of the northern state of Katsina has achieved little. His administration is beset by indecision and drift.

This week’s violence in the north comes on top of unceasing violence in the southern Niger Delta region, where an insurgency by militants demanding a bigger share of the country’s oil wealth continues to disrupt oil exports. By some estimates, Nigeria now exports only half of what it should: Angola has taken over as sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest producer.

Despite floating various well-meaning plans to pacify the Delta, the government has failed to stop the region’s unrest. The fall in tax revenues, as a result of illegal bunkering and the sabotage of pipelines, means that Mr Yar’Adua has even less chance of tackling his country’s other problems, such as a chronic lack of electricity. The insurgency in the Delta has thrived on the back of dire poverty and high unemployment in what should be a relatively wealthy region, were it not so poorly governed. Some fear the Islamist militants in the north may profit from the same lack of opportunities, which saps the morale of young Nigerians and makes so many of them prey to extremists.

The Economist


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Are We What We Search?

Ancient Greece had the Oracle at Delphi. The Shang dynasty had oracle bones. Contemporary America has Google.

Earlier this month, Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s top economic adviser, unveiled a new class of tea leaf to gauge the direction of the American economy: Google searches. The number of queries for “Great Depression,” which surged earlier in the year, had declined sharply, Mr. Summers noted. Economic anxiety is abating. The economy is probably turning the corner.

It was not the first time Google was invoked to show us the way. The company has a tool to track the path of the flu virus by looking at geographic trends in Internet queries for related terms. A study by Google researchers suggested search patterns could be used to track everything from home sales to the popularity of tourist destinations, and add to the accuracy of forecasts for new-home starts and car sales.

Polling has long been used by marketers and politicians to detect shifts in fashion and policy. Surveys of consumer confidence play a major role in economic forecasting. Economists have also tried to marshal collective wisdom with “prediction markets,” where people’s bets on all sorts of things are distilled into a remarkably accurate forecast. (Punters on, by the way, think there is a 75 percent chance that the economy will grow in the third quarter, but only a 12 percent chance that it grew in the second.)

Still, there is something new and mysterious about the high-tech oracle. Polls are a useful indicator of people’s tastes because they ask people what they like. Prediction markets require players to forecast. Google searches offer a roundabout impression of the world: what people want, what they fear, what they expect. It’s harder to tell what they mean.

What was going on when searches for terms related to suicide jumped fivefold last November? Was it the recession? Were people looking for techniques? Maybe it was the proximity of Christmas.

The number of searches for terms about depression in the economics category peaked in February, but so did searches about recovery. Anxiety about a Great Depression has abated since then, as Mr. Summers suggested. So has interest in the term “dead cat bounce.” But in June and July people became very interested in a “double dip” recession.

For all the uncertainty about the meaning of Google’s statistics, using them to help make the case that the economy is turning the corner might be a shrewd move. We might not know exactly what they signify, but they can provide any economic forecast with a populist cover.

Eduardo Porter, New York Times


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Why Vampires Never Die


TONIGHT, you or someone you love will likely be visited by a vampire — on cable television or the big screen, or in the bookstore. Our own novel describes a modern-day epidemic that spreads across New York City.

It all started nearly 200 years ago. It was the “Year Without a Summer” of 1816, when ash from volcanic eruptions lowered temperatures around the globe, giving rise to widespread famine. A few friends gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva and decided to engage in a small competition to see who could come up with the most terrifying tale — and the two great monsters of the modern age were born.

One was created by Mary Godwin, soon to become Mary Shelley, whose Dr. Frankenstein gave life to a desolate creature. The other monster was less created than fused. John William Polidori stitched together folklore, personal resentment and erotic anxieties into “The Vampyre,” a story that is the basis for vampires as they are understood today.

With “The Vampyre,” Polidori gave birth to the two main branches of vampiric fiction: the vampire as romantic hero, and the vampire as undead monster. This ambivalence may reflect Polidori’s own, as it is widely accepted that Lord Ruthven, the titular creature, was based upon Lord Byron — literary superstar of the era and another resident of the lakeside villa that fateful summer. Polidori tended to Byron day and night, both as his doctor and most devoted groupie. But Polidori resented him as well: Byron was dashing and brilliant, while the poor doctor had a rather drab talent and unremarkable physique.

But this was just a new twist to a very old idea. The myth, established well before the invention of the word “vampire,” seems to cross every culture, language and era. The Indian Baital, the Ch’ing Shih in China, and the Romanian Strigoi are but a few of its names. The creature seems to be as old as Babylonia and Sumer. Or even older.

The vampire may originate from a repressed memory we had as primates. Perhaps at some point we were — out of necessity — cannibalistic. As soon as we became sedentary, agricultural tribes with social boundaries, one seminal myth might have featured our ancestors as primitive beasts who slept in the cold loam of the earth and fed off the salty blood of the living.

Monsters, like angels, are invoked by our individual and collective needs. Today, much as during that gloomy summer in 1816, we feel the need to seek their cold embrace.

Herein lies an important clue: in contrast to timeless creatures like the dragon, the vampire does not seek to obliterate us, but instead offers a peculiar brand of blood alchemy. For as his contagion bestows its nocturnal gift, the vampire transforms our vile, mortal selves into the gold of eternal youth, and instills in us something that every social construct seeks to quash: primal lust. If youth is desire married with unending possibility, then vampire lust creates within us a delicious void, one we long to fulfill.

In other words, whereas other monsters emphasize what is mortal in us, the vampire emphasizes the eternal in us. Through the panacea of its blood it turns the lead of our toxic flesh into golden matter.

In a society that moves as fast as ours, where every week a new “blockbuster” must be enthroned at the box office, or where idols are fabricated by consensus every new television season, the promise of something everlasting, something truly eternal, holds a special allure. As a seductive figure, the vampire is as flexible and polyvalent as ever. Witness its slow mutation from the pansexual, decadent Anne Rice creatures to the current permutations — promising anything from chaste eternal love to wild nocturnal escapades — and there you will find the true essence of immortality: adaptability.

Vampires find their niche and mutate at an accelerated rate now — in the past one would see, for decades, the same variety of fiend, repeated in multiple storylines. Now, vampires simultaneously occur in all forms and tap into our every need: soap opera storylines, sexual liberation, noir detective fiction, etc. The myth seems to be twittering promiscuously to serve all avenues of life, from cereal boxes to romantic fiction. The fast pace of technology accelerates its viral dispersion in our culture.

But if Polidori remains the roots in the genealogy of our creature, the most widely known vampire was birthed by Bram Stoker in 1897.

Part of the reason for the great success of his “Dracula” is generally acknowledged to be its appearance at a time of great technological revolution. The narrative is full of new gadgets (telegraphs, typing machines), various forms of communication (diaries, ship logs), and cutting-edge science (blood transfusions) — a mash-up of ancient myth in conflict with the world of the present.

Today as well, we stand at the rich uncertain dawn of a new level of scientific innovation. The wireless technology we carry in our pockets today was the stuff of the science fiction in our youth. Our technological arrogance mirrors more and more the Wellsian dystopia of dissatisfaction, while allowing us to feel safe and connected at all times. We can call, see or hear almost anything and anyone no matter where we are. For most people then, the only remote place remains within. “Know thyself” we do not.

Despite our obsessive harnessing of information, we are still ultimately vulnerable to our fates and our nightmares. We enthrone the deadly virus in the very same way that “Dracula” allowed the British public to believe in monsters: through science. Science becomes the modern man’s superstition. It allows him to experience fear and awe again, and to believe in the things he cannot see.

And through awe, we once again regain spiritual humility. The current vampire pandemic serves to remind us that we have no true jurisdiction over our bodies, our climate or our very souls. Monsters will always provide the possibility of mystery in our mundane “reality show” lives, hinting at a larger spiritual world; for if there are demons in our midst, there surely must be angels lurking nearby as well. In the vampire we find Eros and Thanatos fused together in archetypal embrace, spiraling through the ages, undying.


Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and Chuck Hogan are the authors of “The Strain,” a novel.


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Today’s papers – July 31, 2009

In Afghanistan, U.S. May Shift Strategy

The Washington Post leads with word that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has written an assessment report that proposes to make several changes to the way U.S. and NATO troops operate in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to help fight against the Taliban through a more local approach that relies on building trust with the Afghan people and vastly increasing the number of Afghan security forces.

McChrystal is waiting to hear back from advisers who are currently reviewing his assessment report before making any final recommendations to the White House, particularly on the sensitive issue of troop requests. It’s not clear exactly how many more troops McChrystal thinks are needed in Afghanistan, but it’s likely that a request of that nature would “receive a chilly reception at the White House,” as the Post puts it. Administration officials say the president wants to first see how the additional troops that were sent in the spring are used before even thinking about approving more. Other items in McChrystal’s assessment aren’t exactly surprising, seeing as though they continue on the same theme that has been talked about for a while now. He wants to make changes to how the troops operate so that they’re living in the middle of population centers, carrying out foot patrols, and working with local power brokers. McChrystal wants more attention paid to fighting corruption in the government while also almost doubling the size of Afghan security forces.


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Thousands Mourn In Tehran

The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with, while the WP and Los Angeles Times front, the Iranians who took to the streets to publicly mourn those who were killed in the post-election violence. Thousands gathered at Tehran’s main cemetery to mark the religiously significant 40th day since the most violent clashes took place, including the shooting of 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan.

Iran’s security forces prevented opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi from visiting the cemetery in Tehran and fiercely tried to disperse the demonstrators, who had not been given permission to gather. The WP is the only paper to have a staffer inside Tehran—the LAT has a special correspondent—and paints the most dramatic picture of yesterday’s clashes, noting that protesters often fought back, for example by beating members of the Basij militia with their own batons and breaking the windows of a van to free demonstrators who had been arrested. The WP describes unhinged security forces that smashed cars when their drivers dared to honk in support of the protesters. The LAT notes that the size of the protests seemed to catch security forces off guard and says that at certain points they “appeared divided” over whether they should beat demonstrators. Coming almost 50 days since the election, the protests showed there is still widespread anger at the results and virtually guarantees there will be more confrontations next week when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is inaugurated for a second term.


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Big Banks Paid Billions in Bonuses Amid Wall St. Crisis

The New York Times leads with a report by the New York attorney general’s office that reveals nine big banks that received government bailout money paid almost $33 billion in bonuses last year. About 5,000 of their employees received bonuses of more than $1 million each.

Releasing the new report on Wall Street bonuses, Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general, said last year’s hefty bonuses were particularly insulting considering the companies got billions of dollars from taxpayers in order to survive. “When the banks did well, their employees were paid well,” the report said. “When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well.”

While the new numbers are almost certain to reignite outrage in Washington and beyond, those in Wall Street defend the practice saying that bonuses are usually based more on individual performance rather than the company’s overall results. In a display of how important the bonus culture is in Wall Street, the WSJ points out that six of the nine banks paid out more in bonuses than they received in profit. Cuomo highlighted that if bonuses had any relation to overall performance, the pay levels should have declined in 2007 and 2008. But that wasn’t the case, and several banks continued to increase their compensation even as revenue dropped.


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‘Cash for clunkers’ program runs out of gas

The Los Angeles Times leads with, and everyone fronts, news that the $1 billion Congress appropriated for the “cash for clunkers” program may have run out in less than a week. The program was designed to increase auto sales by offering vouchers of up to $4,500 to consumers who traded in gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient new trucks or cars.

There was lots of confusion last night over whether the “cash for clunkers” program would be suspended. The WP says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called lawmakers yesterday to warn that the program would end at midnight. USAT confirmed the suspension with the legislative director for the National Automobile Dealers Association. But then, administration officials came out to say that the program was not being suspended. Yet it’s unlikely that dealers will continue to honor the deal until they get assurances from the government that more money is available since they don’t want to get stuck holding the bag. Congress could decide to appropriate more money for the program, but obviously nothing in Washington is that simple, and passing funding bills is often a challenge. Two senators said yesterday that if lawmakers are going to approve more money, they should do so under the condition that the new cars get better fuel economy than required by the original program.


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Routine GI health needs not met

USA Today leads with Army records that show the number of Army medical centers and clinics that can’t provide timely access to routine medical care is the highest in five years, and around 16 percent of patients end up being sent to doctors off-base. Twenty-six of the Army’s medical centers can’t meet the Pentagon standard that requires 90 percent of patients get appointments for routine car within seven days.


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Key Senate Panel Won’t Vote Till Fall

In the continuing fight over health care reform, Sen. Max Baucus said that the finance committee wouldn’t be voting on any legislation before the August recess. Baucus, the committee’s chairman, said he would continue working on the bill next week but couldn’t promise that a draft would be made public before the recess. The NYT notes that two of the top Republican negotiators in the committee vehemently disagree that they’re anywhere near reaching a deal. Republicans have apparently been warning their party’s negotiators in the committee that they might be compromising leadership posts in the future if they make too many concessions to Democrats. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats in the House expressed their anger at the concessions their party leaders have made and threatened to vote against the bill if the public health plan isn’t strengthened in the final version of the legislation.


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Industry Is Generous To Influential Bloc

The WP fronts an analysis of campaign-finance data that shows conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs typically receive about 25 percent more donations from the health care and insurance sectors than other Democrats. Their pivotal role in shaping legislation has been good to their coffers, as their political action committee has raised more than $1.1 million this year through June, more than half of that money came from health care, insurance, and financial-services industries.


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Health Reform’s Taboo Topic

In the WP‘s op-ed page, Philip Howard, chairman of a legal reform coalition, writes that as lawmakers look for waste in the nation’s health care system, they’re refusing to look at “the erratic, expensive and time-consuming jury-by-jury malpractice system” thanks to the influential trial-lawyers lobby. Pilot programs could be set up to test whether “expert health courts” should replace the system, but lawmakers won’t even consider it even though it could help cut down on “defensive medicine,” a far-too-common practice of ordering unneeded tests and procedures as lawsuit protection. Debating health care without addressing defensive medicine “would be a scandal,” writes Howard, “a willful refusal by Congress to deal with one of the causes of skyrocketing health-care costs.”


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Over Beers, No Apologies, but Plans to Have Lunch

All the papers front a picture of the hotly anticipated “beer summit” with President Obama, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley. At the last minute, the White House decided to include Vice President Joe Biden, which, as the NYT points out, allowed the administration to “add balance to the photo op that the White House presented: two black guys, two white guys, sitting around a table.” Obama and Biden were dressed “in exaggerated casual attire,” as the WSJ puts it, in order to highlight that this was supposed to be a friendly, happy hour conversation. But the two guests wore ties and dark jackets, despite the heat. A small group of reporters and photographers were allowed to watch the exciting action for only 30 seconds from about 50 feet away. What happened? Not surprisingly, nothing really. They talked, exchanged pleasantries, and no one apologized. But Gates and Crowley did apparently agree to have lunch together soon.


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The Gifts of Gaffes

In the Post‘s op-ed page, Michael Kinsley writes that Obama’s “rhetorical goofs” are different from the standard political “gaffe,” which usually involves a politician accidentally telling the truth. Obama’s “goofs” usually are a result of talking before he thinks through everything he wants to say. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t say it. “The more concerned you are to avoid saying anything wrong or offensive,” writes Kinsley, “the less likely you are to say anything inspiring or true.”

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The Gifts of Gaffes

Isn’t it great to have a president who says something foolish or impolitic from time to time?

With his remark that the Cambridge, Mass., police acted “stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Obama managed to extend the story by a week or more and to turn a nice little summer amusement for the political opinion industry into a “teachable moment,” which means something everyone must get serious about. Obama also solidified his reputation as a foot-in-mouther almost as accomplished as his vice president. Before Gates and the police, there was his joke about Nancy Reagan conducting séances in the White House, and then an unfortunate (though very common) use of the Special Olympics as a punch line, and so on.

But Obama’s rhetorical goofs usually are different from Joe Biden’s momentum-mouth, just as they are different from the empty-headed nonsense of George W. Bush and the bizarre country-club-bar chatter of Bush’s father. They are also different from the standard political “gaffe,” which, as we know, is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Obama’s goofs are generally not a result of speaking the truth. They come from thinking things through incompletely. It turns out that the police officer who arrested Skip Gates was not necessarily acting “stupidly” and that Gates might have been doing just that. The president ultimately came up with a typically elegant formulation, describing the episode as a misunderstanding between “two good men.” Wouldn’t it have been better if he had just kept quiet until all the facts were in and all his thoughts were in order?

No, it would not have been better. The media, in their ill-fitting role as guardians of civility, now lecture the president on the special responsibilities of his office. His own aides no doubt shake their heads and tell one another that this is what happens when the man goes “off the reservation” — that is, when he fails to follow the script they have written for him. And of course the Limbaughs and Gingriches of the world are so upset that they can barely contain their delight at having this stick to beat Obama with.

The rituals of umbrage that have become so big a part of our political narrative aren’t just tedious. They do real harm. Very often the offense taken is completely phony, such as during last fall’s campaign when Obama stood accused of insulting Sarah Palin and all of womankind by using the phrase “lipstick on a pig.” Three problems here. First, the whole fuss was stagey and false. Second, it consumed valuable attention when citizens had more important subjects they should have been thinking and talking about. And third, it encouraged further fancied slights.

But even when the remark at issue is genuinely unfortunate and the offense taken isn’t completely imaginary, the fuss is usually excessive and damaging. The people who declare that a president has a special responsibility not to say anything offensive have it wrong. The president has a special responsibility to address important topics and to say important things. That can’t be done in a thin-skinned political culture obsessed with gaffes, and with a citizenry overly quick to take offense.

The more concerned you are to avoid saying anything wrong or offensive, the less likely you are to say anything inspiring or true. We have elected a president with a speculative mind. He wrote a book worth reading — wrote it himself! — even before running for president. It’s interesting to hear what he thinks about various subjects — even those that don’t immediately affect his own presidency. But every teachable episode we put him through teaches him that speculation is risky. And the riskier we make it, the less of it we’re likely to get.

Jokes are a slightly different category, but the dynamic is the same. The more we punish jokes that fall flat, the fewer good ones we’re likely to get. Just as presidents start by chafing at the Secret Service and end up enjoying life inside the cocoon, they start by speaking their minds and gradually learn that it’s safer and easier to live by the Teleprompter.

We complain about politicians who talk in pre-tested and rehearsed sound bites, but we punish anyone who strays too far into his or her own thinking.

Michael Kinsley, Washington Post


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What’s Wrong With a Single-Payer System?

pelosi august

In late May, dozens of health care reform activists staged a protest outside the San Francisco Federal Building while waiting to deliver petitions to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Gail Collins: David, your writing on health care has been incredibly thoughtful, so I’m going to take this opportunity to poke you a little. Then I’ll shut up so you can talk.

The other week I said I agreed with you about the critical importance of cost controls. Then I asked — O.K., I sort of demanded — that you denounce the Republican leaders in the Senate who were flinging around proposals to make it illegal to investigate cost controls at all. You basically said that was a stupid thing to do, but that the Republicans weren’t really the problem since they aren’t in charge. 

But actually, they are. And so are we. The reason the country can’t solve the health care mess is because the people with the biggest bullhorns don’t speak honestly and clearly about it. Nobody understands the Democratic plan, and that scares the public. The irresponsible Republicans are just waiting to make whatever comes out sound terrible. The responsible Republicans are working to come up with a compromise that’s going to be even more incoherent than the Democratic version.

My version of reality is that:

A.) Since something like a third of the cost of health care is in administration, and the problem with reorganizing health care has to do with all the multitudinous plans and policies, a single-payer system would be far and away the most cost effective answer. We don’t talk much about it because it isn’t politically possible. But it isn’t politically possible because we don’t talk about it. The opponents of a public plan are afraid that people would all gradually migrate toward it, causing the insurance industry as we know it to wither away. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

B.) There have to be limits on what doctors can prescribe. The president pretends the only limit will be on useless tests and drugs that have an equally good, cheaper alternative. But useless and equally good are in the eye of the beholder.

There are already limits unless you have a really, really good insurance plan, but a lot of the country either has very good coverage or imagines their coverage is good because they haven’t really tested it. They’re afraid of change. Yelling “rationing” every three seconds totally poisons the discussion. And that is no little matter.

I’ve already gone on longer than I promised, so there’s no C.

David Brooks: Gail, as you know, I begin and end my days by reciting Congressional Budget Office reports. I even put on tefillin, just to make it seem holy. So let me begin my reply with the sentence from the latest report. It’s from a section in which the C.B.O. analyzes what the House plan, with the strong public program and all the rest, would do to health care inflation:

The net cost of the coverage provisions would be growing at a rate of more than 8 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; we would anticipate a similar trend in the subsequent decade.

This is devastating. The plan was sold as a way to bend the cost curve, to reduce the rate of health care cost growth. Instead, the cost of the plan to the federal budget would rise by 8 percent a year, and there wouldn’t be anything close to offsetting revenues to pay for it.

This is a loud trumpet for all health care reformers. Start over. Get serious about costs. We can either pass this kind of reform and bankrupt the country or we can pass another kind of reform. End of story.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let me say I admire your get-serious list (though my sixth grade teacher once said that if you have an A and B, you should also have a C).

I’m not crazy about the public plan. I dislike the idea of the government competing in a marketplace it regulates. I think the temptation to subsidize the public entity will be overwhelming. But I’m not vociferously against it either. That’s because:

A.) I’m not that thrilled with the insurance companies.

B.) I think it will save money, but not that much (the C.B.O. agrees).

C.) (!) I think it will produce small administrative efficiencies.

Democratic politicians throw around statistics claiming that Medicare has much, much lower administrative costs than private insurers. I’ve been told by various economists that this claim is three-quarters trickery. It’s a lot cheaper to administer a targeted population that uses a lot of care than it is to administer a large population that uses little care per capita. Plus you can save a lot of administrative costs if you don’t actually regulate treatments that much.

As for your second point, that there should be limits on what doctors can prescribe, I say: “Amen to that.”

If I had to add a few other items to the list, I’d say putting a serious cap on the tax exemption is the way to measure the seriousness of a reform proposal. Without that, it’s not serious. And finally, I’d say that there have to be cost conscious consumers within a closely regulated market. Unless you get proper incentives for both providers and consumers, I doubt you’re going to get very far. In the current plans, all the emphasis is on the providers.

There’s a group called the Fresh Thinking Project, which has a sensible list of reform ideas.

I’d only add in closing that the health care system is as big as the entire British economy. There is no way something that big and complex and dynamic can be run out of Washington. We have to try to set up a dynamic system, not trying to establish a set of rules to be imposed by fiat. The smart reformers at the Office of Management and Budget are aware of this. I’m not sure the congressional staffs are.

Gail Collins and David Brooks, New York Times


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It’s Crunch Time for Israel on Iran

After years of failed diplomacy no one will be able to call an attack precipitous.

Legions of senior American officials have descended on Jerusalem recently, but the most important of them has been Defense Secretary Robert Gates. His central objective was to dissuade Israel from carrying out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Under the guise of counseling “patience,” Mr. Gates again conveyed President Barack Obama’s emphatic thumbs down on military force.

The public outcome of Mr. Gates’s visit appeared polite but inconclusive. Yet Iran’s progress with nuclear weapons and air defenses means Israel’s military option is declining over time. It will have to make a decision soon, and it will be no surprise if Israel strikes by year’s end. Israel’s choice could determine whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Obama’s approach to Tehran has been his “open hand,” yet his gesture has not only been ignored by Iran but deemed irrelevant as the country looks inward to resolve the aftermath of its fraudulent election. The hardliner “winner” of that election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was recently forced to fire a deputy who once said something vaguely soothing about Israel. Clearly, negotiations with the White House are not exactly topping the Iranian agenda.

Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s negotiation strategy faces insuperable time pressure. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed that Iran must re-start negotiations with the West by September’s G-20 summit. But this means little when, with each passing day, Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile laboratories, production facilities and military bases are all churning. Israel is focused on these facts, not the illusion of “tough” diplomacy.

Israel rejects another feature of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic stance. The Israelis do not believe that progress with the Palestinians will facilitate a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Though Mr. Gates and others have pressed this fanciful analysis, Israel will not be moved.

Worse, Mr. Obama has no new strategic thinking on Iran. He vaguely promises to offer the country the carrot of diplomacy—followed by an empty threat of sanctions down the road if Iran does not comply with the U.S.’s requests. This is precisely the European Union’s approach, which has failed for over six years.

There’s no reason Iran would suddenly now bow to Mr. Obama’s diplomatic efforts, especially after its embarrassing election in June. So with diplomacy out the door, how will Iran be tamed?

Mr. Gates’ mission had extraordinary significance. Israel sees the political and military landscape in a very inauspicious light. It also worries that, once ensnared in negotiations, the Obama administration will find it very hard to extricate itself. The Israelis are probably right. To prove the success of his “open hand,” Mr. Obama will declare victory for “diplomacy” even if it means little to no gains on Iran’s nuclear program.

Under the worst-case scenario, Iran will continue improving its nuclear facilities and Mr. Obama will become the first U.S. president to tie the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities into negotiations about Iran’s.

Israel understands that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent commitment to extend the U.S. “defense umbrella” to Israel is not a guarantee of nuclear retaliation, and that it is wholly insufficient to deter Iran from obliterating Israel if it so decides. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s comment tacitly concedes that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, exactly the wrong message. Since Israel, like the U.S., is well aware its missile defense system is imperfect, whatever Mr. Gates said about the “defense umbrella” will be politely ignored.

Relations between the U.S. and Israel are more strained now than at any time since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Mr. Gates’s message for Israel not to act on Iran, and the U.S. pressure he brought to bear, highlight the weight of Israel’s lonely burden.

Striking Iran’s nuclear program will not be precipitous or poorly thought out. Israel’s attack, if it happens, will have followed enormously difficult deliberation over terrible imponderables, and years of patiently waiting on innumerable failed diplomatic efforts. Absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran.

Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).


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What if Washington Were a Ghost Town?

What FDR and Nixon might say to their partisan heirs.

If Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States through the Great Depression and World War II—if FDR, that canny old political operator, that shrewd judger of men, that merry spinner (“First thing we do is deny we were in Philadelphia!”) that cold calculator (he put Joe Kennedy to head the first Securities and Exchange Commission, setting the fox among the foxes), that patient and knowing waiter-outer of events—if FDR were advising President Obama right now, what would he say?

He might look at the lay of the land and tell Mr. Obama something like this:

“My friend, you’re in a bit of a fix. Falling polls, decreasing support for health care. Beyond that, you’re stuck in a bit of a lose-lose. If you don’t get a bill along the lines you’ve announced, you’ll look ineffective and weak—a loser. If, on the other hand, you win, if you get what you asked for, it will all be a mess and all be on you. The system will be overwhelmed, the government won’t be able to execute properly, the costs will be huge. The new regime will thoroughly discombobulate things just in time for everyone’s complaints to reach a crescendo by Election Day 2010.

“But I have an idea, and hear me out. You already have Medicare, a single-payer national health-care system for those 65 and older. Little Harry Truman was the first American to get a Medicare card in 1965, did you know that? LBJ hauled him in for a ceremony. Anyway, Americans like Medicare. So here’s the plan. From here on in, every day, start talking about it: ‘Medicare this, Medicare that, Medicare.’ Get your people in Congress to focus on making the system ‘healthier.’ It’s rife with waste, fraud and abuse, everyone knows that. And there’s the demographic time bomb. Come together in a great show of bipartisan feeling with our Republican friends and announce some serious cost-saving measures that are both legitimate and farsighted. Be Dr. Save the System. On thorny issues like end-of-life care, put together a bipartisan commission, show you’re open to Republican suggestions.

“Then, at the end, get your Democratic majorities to make one little change in the program—it’s now open to all. You don’t have to be 65. The uninsured can enroll. Do it in the dead of night if you have to, you’ve got the votes.

“And then, and only because you’ve all made so many institutional and structural changes, you’ll have to give Medicare a new name. I’d suggest ‘The National Health Service.’

“Voilà. You now have the single-payer system you wanted.

“Everybody wins. You get expansion, Republicans get cost control, the system is made more secure, and the public for once isn’t terrified.

“Republicans of course will say they won—they defeated a brand new boondoggle nationalized health system. Fine. But people will start referring to the National Health Service every day, and they’ll believe they have one, and they’ll believe you gave it to them. And you can run in ’12 saying you did. That’s what I’d do!”

Before departing in a cloud of cigarette smoke and martini fumes, FDR just might add, “A second option, though lacking that special spark of deviousness, is the Wyden-Bennett bill. it’s cost-neutral, it’s not single-payer, but everyone gets coverage. And that was the point, wasn’t it? You can brag about health care for all and fiscal prudence. Not bad!”


If Richard Nixon—one of the great vote counters, a man who loved policy more than politics but was very good at the latter until he wasn’t anymore, a man who acted so very tough because his heart had been broken, not only by Watergate but by other things (he was right about Alger Hiss and still they wouldn’t honor him; he gave liberals everything in terms of domestic programs and still they wouldn’t love him)—if he met in Washington with the national Republicans of 2009, he might, just might, say something like this:

“Men, and a few ladies, and it’s wonderful to have you here, you’re in a good position and a bad one. Good: The American people are peeling off from nationalized medicine or socialized medicine or whatever you call it. Bad: I’m not sure the peeling off has anything to do with you. There’s something going on that I never foresaw, and it’s the fact that you don’t seem anymore to be the face of the party or of the movements within it. People with TV and radio shows do. Media people! There’s a plus to this but a minus, too. They’re sucking all the oxygen out of the room. You think they’re supporting you, but they’re really supplanting you! You’ve got to figure out how to come to the fore more and break through. But that’s small beer. Big thing is the current debate.

“You still haven’t given the American people coherent alternatives and arguments, or not so the people have noticed. You’ve got to have a strategy, and you’ve got to be serious. Put all internal jockeying aside and remember your philosophy, the thing that made you be a Republican and not a Dem.

They’re calling you all Dr. No, but that’s not really taking off, so don’t worry about it. But they are tagging you as guys who think this is all just about politics. Remember, the majority of the American people don’t care at all about your political prospects. Why should they? Unlike everyone in Washington and the media, they’re not political obsessives. They actually have lives. They care about what happens to them when they’re sick. So stop the ‘Obama’s Waterloo’ stuff—what a mistake that was, to make yourselves look cynical and purely partisan!—and refocus. Come back to first principles and prudent warnings, but always within a context of clear patriotism. At the end of the day, America needs a successful president. It’s dangerous to have a wounded duck six months into a presidency in a dangerous world. So help him by gently instructing him. He’ll hate that, because in his mind he’s the teacher and you’re the student. Point out that there’s a lot the president doesn’t understand, come forward every day with your ideas, talk them up, get them out there.

“For instance: As you know, doctors keep fees up and order expensive tests because they’re afraid of malpractice suits. They pay terrible insurance premiums. We have to reform that. Stop calling it “tort reform”; normal people think a tort is something you eat for dessert. Call it the Limiting Lawyers’ Windfalls bill. No one likes lawyers anymore, Perry Mason’s dead. And make it real when you talk. Here you can pinpoints an Obama weakness that you’re not even exploiting. He won’t go near legal reform because his biggest backers and contributors are the trial lawyer’s lobby. He talks about the common good—give me a break. As Jack Kennedy used to say, and so eloquently, here you can really stick it to him and break it off.

And speaking of JFK, try to seize back a bit of the issue of health in general. Remember physical fitness and vigor and 50 mile hikes on the C&O Canal? Completely captured the public imagination. JFK himself didn’t do it, he wasn’t insane, and he had the bad back. He sent Bobby and that fat Pierre Salinger. Anyway, go with that: personal responsibility, strength, health. Steal it from the Dems. But don’t imitate their censorious tone: ‘Ya can’t smoke, put down that doughnut.’ Let me tell you, doughnut eaters are the largest growing demographic in America. Don’t get crossways with them!”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Obamacare’s Tactical Retreat

Yesterday, Barack Obama was God. Today, he’s fallen from grace, the magic gone, his health-care reform dead. If you believed the first idiocy — and half the mainstream media did — you’ll believe the second. Don’t believe either.

Conventional wisdom always makes straight-line projections. They are always wrong. Yes, Obama’s aura has diminished, in part because of overweening overexposure. But by year’s end he will emerge with something he can call health-care reform. The Democrats in Congress will pass it because they must. Otherwise, they’ll have slain their own savior in his first year in office.

But that bill will look nothing like the massive reform Obama originally intended. The beginning of the retreat was signaled by Obama’s curious reference — made five times — to “health-insurance reform” during his July 22 news conference.

Reforming the health-care system is dead. Cause of death? Blunt trauma administered not by Republicans, not even by Blue Dog Democrats, but by the green eyeshades at the Congressional Budget Office.

Three blows:

— On June 16, the CBO determined that the Senate Finance Committee bill would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years, delivering a sticker shock that was near fatal.

— Five weeks later, the CBO gave its verdict on the Independent Medicare Advisory Council, Dr. Obama’s latest miracle cure, conjured up at the last minute to save Obamacare from fiscal ruin, and consisting of a committee of medical experts highly empowered to make Medicare cuts.

The CBO said that IMAC would do nothing, trimming costs by perhaps 0.2 percent. A 0.2 percent cut is not a solution; it’s a punch line.

— The final blow came last Sunday when the CBO euthanized the Obama “out years” myth. The administration’s argument had been: Sure, Obamacare will initially increase costs and deficits. But it pays for itself in the long run because it bends the curve downward in coming decades.

The CBO put in writing the obvious: In its second decade, Obamacare significantly bends the curve upward — increasing deficits even more than in the first decade.

This is obvious because Obama’s own first-decade numbers were built on arithmetic trickery. New taxes to support the health-care plan begin in 2011, but the benefits part of the program doesn’t fully kick in until 2015. That excess revenue is, of course, one time only. It makes the first decade numbers look artificially low, but once you pass 2015, the yearly deficits become larger and eternal.

Three CBO strikes, and you’re out cold. Though it must be admitted that the White House itself added to the farcical nature of its frantic and futile cost-cutting when budget director Peter Orszag held a three-hour brainstorming session with Senate Finance Committee aides trying to find ways to save. “At one point,” reports the Wall Street Journal, “they flipped through the tax code, looking for ideas.” Looking for ideas? Months into the president’s health-care drive and just days before his deadline for Congress to pass real legislation? You gonna give this gang the power to remake one-sixth of the U.S. economy?

Not likely. Whatever structural reforms dribble out of Congress before the August recess will probably not survive the year. In the end, Obama will have to settle for something very modest. And indeed it will be health-insurance reform.

To win back the vast constituency that has insurance, is happy with it, and is mightily resisting the fatal lures of Obamacare, the president will in the end simply impose heavy regulations on the insurance companies that will make what you already have secure, portable and imperishable: no policy cancellations, no preexisting condition requirements, perhaps even a cap on out-of-pocket expenses.

Nirvana. But wouldn’t this bankrupt the insurance companies? Of course it would. There will be only one way to make this work: Impose an individual mandate. Force the 18 million Americans between 18 and 34 who (often quite rationally) forgo health insurance to buy it. This will create a huge new pool of customers who rarely get sick but will be paying premiums every month. And those premiums will subsidize nirvana health insurance for older folks.

Net result? Another huge transfer of wealth from the young to the old, the now-routine specialty of the baby boomers; an end to the dream of imposing European-style health care on the United States; and a president who before Christmas will wave his pen, proclaim victory and watch as the newest conventional wisdom reaffirms his divinity.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Today in History – July 30

Today is Thursday, July 30, the 211th day of 2009. There are 154 days left in the year.

Today’s Highlight in History

On July 30, 1945, during World War II, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis, which had just delivered components for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine; only 316 out of some 1,200 men survived the sinking and shark-infested waters.

On this date:

In 1419, the first Prague defenestration: supporters of the reformer Johannes Huss stormed Prague City Hall and threw the Catholic councillors out of the window. As a result, Huss was burnt at the stake in Constance. The preacher had many supporters and 400 aristocrats wrote a letter of protest to the Constance authorities. The popular belief at the time that the world would end was fuelled by King Wenceslas IV, who was an inept ruler.

In 1540, Lutheran clergyman Robert Barnes was burned as a heretic after being used by Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII to gain European support for their antipapal movement in England.

In 1619, the first representative assembly in America convened in Jamestown in the Virginia Colony.

In 1729, Baltimore, Md., was founded.

In 1792, the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was first sung in Paris by troops arriving from Marseille.

In 1863, Henry Ford, the American automobile manufacturer who founded the Ford Motor Company, was born.

In 1864, during the Civil War, Union forces tried to take Petersburg, Va., by exploding a gunpowder-filled mine under Confederate defense lines; the attack failed.

In 1898, Otto von Bismarck—who, as prime minister of Prussia (1862–73, 1873–90), used ruthlessness and moderation to unify Germany, founding the German Empire (1871) and serving as its first chancellor (1871–90)—died.

In 1908, the first round-the-world automobile race, which had begun in New York in February, ended in Paris with the drivers of the American car, a Thomas Flyer, declared the winners over teams from Germany and Italy.

In 1918, poet Joyce Kilmer, a sergeant in the 165th U.S. Infantry Regiment, was killed during the Second Battle of the Marne in World War I. (Kilmer is perhaps best remembered for his poem “Trees.”)

In 1932, the Summer Olympic Games opened in Los Angeles.

In 1935, the first Penguin paperback book is published, an early step in the paperback revolution that would take off after World War II.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill creating a women’s auxiliary agency in the Navy known as “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” — WAVES for short.

In 1956, the phrase “In God we trust” legally became the national motto of the United States.

In 1963, the Soviet news service reports that British intelligence officer Kim Philby, recently revealed as a longtime Soviet spy, has defected to the USSR.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Medicare bill, which went into effect the following year.

In 1971, Apollo 15 astronauts David R. Scott and James B. Irwin landed on the moon.

In 1974, Greek, Turkish and UK foreign ministers sign a peace agreement for Cyprus. 

In 1975, former Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in suburban Detroit; although presumed dead, his remains have never been found.

In 1996, Actress Claudette Colbert died at age 92.

In 1999, ten years ago, Republicans pushed their $792 billion tax cut through the Senate.

In 1999. Linda Tripp, whose secretly recorded phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, was charged in Maryland with illegal wiretapping. (Prosecutors later dropped the charges.)

In 1999, the leaders of some 40 nations gathered in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, pledging to push economic and democratic reforms for the war-ravaged Balkans.

In 2002, expelled from Congress a week earlier, an unrepentant James A. Traficant Jr. was sentenced to eight years behind bars for corruption.

In 2002, WNBA player Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks became the first woman to dunk in a professional game during her team’s 82-73 loss to the Miami Sol.

In 2002, in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, President George W. Bush signs a bill imposing the most sweeping regulation of U.S. businesses since the 1930s.

In 2003, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley, died at age 80.

In 2004, five years ago, leaders of the September 11th commission urged senators to embrace their proposals for massive changes to the nation’s intelligence structure.

In 2004, Mike Tyson was knocked out in the fourth round of a fight in Louisville, Ky., by British heavyweight Danny Williams.

In 2007, Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman died at age 87.

In 2007, Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh died at age 75.

In 2008, one year ago, President George W. Bush quietly signed a housing bill he had once threatened to veto; it was intended to rescue some cash-strapped homeowners in fear of foreclosure.

In 2008, amid corruption allegations and his own plummeting popularity, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would resign.

In 2008, ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was extradited to The Hague to face genocide charges after nearly 13 years on the run.

In 2008, Republican Party stalwart and one-time U.S. ambassador to Britain Anne Armstrong died in Houston at age 80.

Today’s Birthdays

Actor Richard Johnson is 82. Actor Edd “Kookie” Byrnes is 76. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is 75. Blues musician Buddy Guy is 73. Movie director Peter Bogdanovich is 70. Feminist activist Eleanor Smeal is 70. Former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., is 69. Singer Paul Anka is 68. Jazz musician David Sanborn is 64. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is 62. Actor William Atherton is 62. Actor Jean Reno is 61. Blues singer-musician Otis Taylor is 61. Actor Frank Stallone is 59. Actor Ken Olin is 55. Actress Delta Burke is 53. Singer-songwriter Kate Bush is 51. Country singer Neal McCoy is 51. Actor Richard Burgi is 51. Movie director Richard Linklater is 49. Actor Laurence Fishburne is 48. Actress Lisa Kudrow is 46. Bluegrass musician Danny Roberts (The Grascals) is 46. Country musician Dwayne O’Brien is 45. Actress Vivica A. Fox is 45. Actor Terry Crews (“Everybody Hates Chris”) is 41. Actor Simon Baker is 40. Former NFL player Robert Porcher is 40. Movie director Christopher Nolan is 39. Actor Tom Green is 38. Rock musician Brad Hargreaves (Third Eye Blind) is 38. Actress Christine Taylor is 38. Actor-comedian Dean Edwards is 36. Actress Hilary Swank is 35. Beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor is 32. Actress Jaime Pressly is 32. Alt-country singer-musician Seth Avett is 29. Actress Yvonne Strahovski (TV: “Chuck”) is 27.

Today’s Historic Birthdays

Giorgio Vasari
7/30/1511 – 6/27/1574
Italian painter, architect, historian and writer

Emily Bronte
7/30/1818 – 12/19/1848
English novelist and poet; wrote “Wuthering Heights”

Richard Burdon Haldane
7/30/1856 – 8/19/1928
Scottish lawyer, philosopher, and statesman

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), American economist and social scientist, notable for his historical investigation of the economic structure of society and for his analysis of the contemporary economic system.

Henry Ford
7/30/1863 – 4/7/1947
American industrialist who changed production with his assembly line methods

Robert McCormick
7/30/1880 – 4/1/1955
American newspaper editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune

Vladimir Zworykin
7/30/1889 – 7/29/1982
Russian-born American inventor and the father of television

Casey Stengel
7/30/1890 – 9/29/1975
American professional baseball player and manager

Henry Moore
7/30/1898 – 8/31/1986
English sculptor; one of the greatest of the 20th century

C. Northcote Parkinson
7/30/1909 – 3/9/1993
English historian, author, and formulator of “Parkinson’s Law”

Michael Morris Killanin
7/30/1914 – 4/25/1999
Irish author and president of the International Olympic Committee

Thought for Today

“In politics people give you what they think you deserve and deny you what they think you want.” — Cyril Northcote Parkinson, British historian and author (born this date in 1909, died 1993).


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Today’s papers – July 30, 2009

New Poll Finds Growing Unease on Health Plan

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal‘s world-wide newsbox lead with new polls that show the American public is growing increasingly concerned that an overhaul of health care would have a negative impact in their own lives.

The NYT highlights that the percentage of Americans who describe health care costs as a threat to the economy has gone down in the past month, suggesting that the public isn’t buying one of President Obama’s central arguments for the plan.

The WSJ points out that last month respondents were evenly divided on the merits of the overhaul but now support has declined, particularly among those who are already insured.

The NYT highlights that it seems opponents of health reform have managed to make their portrayal of the plan as a government takeover that would limit choice stick in the minds of the public. And with advertising against the plan set to increase now that lawmakers will head home for their summer break, these ideas are likely to increase. The WSJ notes that administration officials agree they may have misfired a bit by focusing so much on the difficult-to-understand issue of medical costs. Now, Obama is making more of an effort to talk up the consumer-protection rules for insurance companies in order to appeal to those who already have coverage but are afraid of losing it for an arbitrary reason. In the WSJ poll, only 20 percent said they would have better care after the overhaul.

As usual with complicated issues, though, it’s not clear the public really knows what it wants. The WSJ notes that when poll respondents were given details of the proposal, 56 percent said they favored it, while 38 percent opposed it. And the NYT points out that President Obama still has the advantage in winning public support for an overhaul since 49 percent say they support fundamental changes to the system and 66 percent are concerned about losing their own insurance. Respondents also overwhelmingingly—55 percent to 26 percent—think Obama has better ideas on health care than Republicans and is making more of an effort to work in a bipartisan manner.


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Lawmakers Cut Health Bills’ Price Tag

The Washington Post leads with, and the Los Angeles Times off-leads, House Democrats reaching an agreement with conservative members of their party that could help health care legislation pass the energy and commerce committee. The agreement seeks to cut more than $100 billion from the bill and would maintain the government-run insurance plan but change the way it operates.

The deal reached between key conservative Democrats and Rep. Henry Waxman would exclude more small businesses from the requirement that they provide health insurance by extending the exemption to companies that have an annual payroll of $500,000 rather than $250,000. The Blue Dog Democrats agreed to maintain a government-run insurance program but only if it’s de-linked from Medicare because of concern that the government would have such a competitive advantage that it would end up driving private insurers out of business. That means the government insurance program would have to negotiate separately with providers. Many Democrats expressed their displeasure at this compromise, particularly since a Blue Dog leader made it clear it was no guarantee that the majority of his caucus would support the legislation. Meanwhile, the Senate’s group of six continues to negotiate, and Sen. Max Baucus said a draft of their reform package would cost $900 billion over a decade, which is slightly less expensive and comes under the psychologically important $1 trillion mark.


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Texas Hospital Flexing Muscle in Health Fight

The NYT takes a look at how the physician-owned hospital that became famous when it was featured in a not-so-positive light in a much talked-about New Yorker piece is a key donor to Democratic lawmakers. People affiliated with the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance have been donating big sums to candidates on both sides of the aisle and, so far, seem to be getting pretty much everything they wanted out of the health care debate. It’s a minor issue in a huge piece of legislation, but the question is whether, as the New Yorker article claims, physician-owned hospitals make health care more expensive because doctors are motivated to order unnecessary tests and procedures since they get a share of the hospital’s profits. While it looks like some limits will be imposed on physician-owned hospitals, existing facilities are likely to be allowed to continue as they are.


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Would Tax on Benefits Rein In Spending?

In a front-page piece, the WP takes a look at the question of whether Americans spend more on health care because the insurance they get through their employer isn’t taxed. Many have said yes, and taxing at least some health benefits has received broad support. But what the Post calls a “vocal minority” has been eager to say that the ability of taxes to decrease costs has been overstated because consumers mostly just do what their doctors tell them. To these skeptics, “the dispute is a classic clash between economic abstractions and real-world practice,” notes the paper. While in theory it should make sense that people spend more if it’s tax-free, the reality is that the vast majority of people don’t actually consume health care that way.


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U.S. shifting drones’ focus to Taliban

The LAT leads with word that the military is shifting some of its Predator drone aircraft away from hunting al-Qaida operatives toward tracking the Taliban and aiding the general war effort in Afghanistan. The scarce drones are one of the military’s “most precious intelligence assets,” and the increased focus on the Taliban shows how U.S. officials now believe that the best way to beat al-Qaida is stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than hunting down individuals, although that will also continue. So more drones will be operated by conventional forces in Afghanistan and focus on tracking movements in insurgent strongholds. “We have been overly counter-terrorism-focused and not counter-insurgency-focused,” said one U.S. official.


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Unpaid property taxes hit localities

USA Today leads with a look at how more Americans are failing to pay their property taxes amid the recession, meaning that many who might have survived the foreclosure wave could eventually lose their homes to tax seizures. There’s no national figure, but many localities have reported a sharp increase in the number of businesses and homeowners who aren’t paying their tax bills at a time when local governments are already strapped for cash.


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Chinese Workers Say Illness Is Real, Not Hysteria

The NYT fronts a fascinating dispatch from an industrial city in northeast China, where more than 1,200 employees at a textile mill have come down with a variety of strange symptoms, including temporary paralysis, convulsions, and vomiting. Workers are convinced they were poisoned by toxic fumes from a nearby factory that produces aniline, a highly toxic chemical. Chinese health officials say this is all just a case of mass hysteria. And when a group of health experts visited a hospital that has been overwhelmed by patients since the factory opened they told bedridden workers to “get a hold of their emotions.” Outside experts say that while it’s possible that panic could lead people to describe symptoms that don’t really exist, it’s exceedingly rare to affect this many people at once. Plus, if this were indeed a case of paranoia to the extreme, the Chinese government is merely fueling the hysteria by being so secretive about everything.


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House Seems To Be Set on Pork-Padded Defense Bill

When the Senate voted to end the F-22 fighter-jet program, many hoped it could signal the beginning of a new era in defense contracting. But today the WP makes it clear that few things have changed as the House gets ready to vote on a military spending bill that includes at least $6.9 billion of equipment that Defense Secretary Robert Gates says is not needed. The White House is urging lawmakers to take a cue from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and grab a huge knife, but both Republicans and Democrats have proven reluctant to cut lucrative programs for contractors that provide jobs and lots of campaign funds. Almost $3 billion of the extra funds would go to financing earmarks—pet projects demanded by individual lawmakers—and around half of that would go to projects specifically requested by private companies. “Members of Congress should not have the ability to award no-bid contracts,” Rep. Jeff. Flake, R-Ariz., who has long been a critic of earmarks, said.


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Iraq in throes of environmental catastrophe, experts say

The LAT takes a look at how the frequent dust storms in Iraq are a sign of how the country is suffering what some are characterizing as “an environmental catastrophe.” Sandstorms are quite common in the region, but a two-year drought, coupled with years of land mismanagement, means there’s dust everywhere, so storms are more frequent and last longer. The problem is so bad that a country once known for its agriculture has to import most of its food, meaning it has less money for reconstruction. “We’re talking about something that’s making the breadbasket of Iraq look like the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century,” one expert said.


Full article:,0,3137832.story


White House ‘Beer Summit’ Becomes Something of a Brouhaha

As Obama prepares to have beers with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley, the police sergeant who arrested Gates, the WSJ takes a look at how some aren’t too happy with what they’ll be drinking. There are those who don’t think the president should be promoting alcohol in the first place. Why not just have a friendly conversation over a glass of lemonade or iced tea? But the biggest outcry is coming from brewers. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested that each of the participant’s favorite beers would be on hand: Red Stripe for Gates and Blue Moon for Crowley. The president will be drinking Bud Light. The problem? They’re all made by foreign companies. “We would hope they would pick a family-owned, American beer to lubricate the conversation,” said a spokesman for the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. The head of Harpoon Brewery wanted to get his beer in the White House but didn’t know how. “I think just showing up at the gate with a case of Harpoon would make them look at us funny.”


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The Pelosi Jobs Tax

Workers will pay for the new health-care payroll levy.

Even many Democrats are revolting against Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 5.4% income surtax to finance ObamaCare, but another tax in her House bill isn’t getting enough attention. To wit, the up to 10-percentage point payroll tax increase on workers and businesses that don’t provide health insurance. This should put to rest the illusion that no one making more than $250,000 in income will pay higher taxes.

To understand why, consider how the Pelosi jobs tax works. Under the House bill, firms with employee payroll of above $250,000 without a company health plan would pay a tax starting at 2% of wages per employee. That rate would quickly rise to 8% on firms with total payroll of $400,000 or more. A tax credit would help very small businesses adjust to the new costs, but even a firm with a handful of workers is likely to be subject to this payroll levy. As we went to press, Blue Dogs were taking credit for pushing those payroll amounts up to $500,000 and $750,0000, but those are still small employers.

So who bears the burden of this tax? The economic research is close to unanimous that a payroll tax is a tax on labor and is thus shouldered mostly if not entirely by workers. Employers merely collect the tax and then pass along its costs in lower wages or benefits. This is the view of the Democratic-controlled Congressional Budget Office, which advised on July 13: “If employers who did not offer health insurance were required to pay a fee, employee’s wages and other forms of compensation would generally decline by the amount of that fee from what they otherwise would have been.”

To put this in actual dollars, a worker earning, say, $70,000 a year could lose some $5,600 in take home pay to cover the costs of ObamaCare. And, by the way, this is in addition to the 2.5% tax that the individual worker would have to pay on gross income, if he doesn’t buy the high-priced health insurance that the government will mandate. In sum, that’s a near 10-percentage point tax on wages and salaries on top of the 15% that already hits workers to finance Medicare and Social Security.

Even Democrats are aware that his tax would come out of the wallets of the very workers they pretend to be helping, so they inserted a provision on page 147 of the bill prohibiting firms from cutting salaries to pay the tax. Thus they figure they can decree that wages cannot fall even as costs rise. Of course, all this means is that businesses would lay off some workers, or hire fewer new ones, or pay lower starting salaries or other benefits to the workers they do hire.

Cornell economists Richard Burkhauser and Kosali Simon predicted in a 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research study that a payroll tax increase of about this magnitude plus the recent minimum wage increase will translate into hundreds of thousands of lost jobs for those with low wages. Pay or play schemes, says Mr. Burkauser, “wind up hurting the very low-wage workers they are supposed to help.” The CBO agrees, arguing that play or pay policies “could reduce the hiring of low-wage workers, whose wages could not fall by the full cost of health insurance or a substantial play-or-pay fee if they were close to the minimum wage.”

To make matters worse, many workers and firms would have to pay the Pelosi tax even if the employer already provides health insurance. That’s because the House bill requires firms to pay at least 72.5% of health-insurance premiums for individual workers and 65% for families in order to avoid the tax. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in 2008 found that about three in five small businesses fail to meet the Pelosi test and will have to pay the tax. In these instances, the businesses will have every incentive simply to drop their coverage.

A new study by Sageworks, Inc., a financial consulting firm, runs the numbers on the income statements of actual companies. It looks at three types of firms with at least $5 million in sales: a retailer, a construction company and a small manufacturer. The companies each have total payroll of between $750,000 and $1 million a year. Assuming the firms absorb the cost of the payroll tax, their net profits fall by one-third on average. That is on top of the 45% income tax and surtax that many small business owners would pay as part of the House tax scheme, so the total reduction in some small business profits would climb to nearly 80%. These lower after-tax profits would mean fewer jobs.

To put it another way, the workers who will gain health insurance from ObamaCare will pay the steepest price for it in either a shrinking pay check, or no job at all.

Wall Street Journal


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The Blue Dogs’ Final Dilemma

Do they work for us, or do we work for them?

With the health-care bill faltering in Congress, the ritual weeping has begun over the death, once again, of “bipartisanship.”

The belief that the answer to any problem lies with “the center” may be the greatest superstition in the ever-magical world of American politics.

Mostly it is journalists and pundits who propagate the notion that crazies on the left and right have neutered the problem-solving center, the moderates, the pragmatists.

In fact, the bipartisan center has been dying every year since Congress passed the Medicare and Medicaid bill of 1965. The people who back then were staffers to the politicians and agencies of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society graduated into the offices they now hold in Congress, the Beltway, many state capitals and academia, taking a second generation into their belief system. That included Barack Obama.

With President Obama’s health-care bill, the forces that across 40 years grew into unbridgeable opposition to each other could not be more plain to see. American politics has arrived at a crossroads.

This struggle over health-care legislation isn’t just another battle between the Democratic and Republican parties. It’s about which force is going to take the United States forward for the next generation: the public sector or the private sector. If by now you haven’t figured out which sector you are in, then you’re a Blue Dog Democrat.

The Blue Dogs and other moderates have been sliding to this final dilemma for years. The issue is not whether one is for or against “government.” The issue is: Do they work for us, or do we work for them?

Mr. Obama has defined the stakes succinctly. The centerpiece of his health-care proposal is the Public Option, a program of federally supplied and administered health insurance. As he has repeatedly stated, anyone is free to remain inside the private health-insurance system. He said yesterday, “Nobody is talking about some government takeover of health care” and to disagree is “scaring everybody.” He is underselling the power of his own idea. That public option is potent competition, a winner-sweep-the-table proposition between the public sector and the private sector.

The clarifying moment in the health-care debate arrived when the Congressional Budget Office said that the legislation lacked adequate financing. After this, the bill’s backers began a search for tax revenue that borders on parody—taxes on soda pop, surtaxes unto eternity on “millionaires,” as if this might actually command the tides to recede of another permanent Medicare/Medicaid-sized entitlement and its flotsam of advisers, measurers and lobbyists.

Washington and the states are now fighting each other to drain revenue out of the same private sector. Back in March, New York’s legislature, amid a deep recession, enacted its own income tax surcharge. These governments are becoming like people from dying planets in “Star Trek,” foraging the galaxy for new sources of whatever life force keeps them alive. A surtax is the ultimate act of public-sector panic.

I don’t think the White House or the Democratic leadership understands the level of despondency in the country now among people who add new wealth—business owners, entrepreneurs or those who invest in new ideas that don’t depend wholly on subsidized choices made by the public sector.

This is all many people in the most dynamic corners of the private sector talk about now. Their beef is not with recession but the feeling that this presidency and Congress have no interest in them. If we get another jobless recovery, we’ll need the job-creating impulses of these people. The do-good but not-for-profit mentality of the current government looks either hostile to or oblivious of these private-sector fast runners.

The Obama approval rating is falling toward 50% and below that for his handling of the economy and even lower on health care. He will be told, probably this weekend by pundits from planet public sector, that this is due to “lies” from the right. But I think this president needs to find a concrete way fast to show he has a real sense of the private sector’s importance. That promise of “green jobs” isn’t it. His line about “sacrifice” is a euphemism for high tax levels to the horizon. Where’s the upside for new, private entrants?

The problem is that in Washington and many states the public sector’s revenue needs have arrived at a point where space for the private economy is more or less beside the point. That is the clear message of the California and New York budget crises and the difficulties of financing the Obama health-care plan.

For centrists in both parties the moment has come to decide which side of the public-private divide they want the U.S. and its future workers to be on. Trying to live in both has brought us, inevitably, to that decision.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Fannie Med

The bipartisan Senate negotiators are leaning toward proposing a health-care Fannie Mae.

The details of the Senate Finance Committee’s hush-hush health talks aren’t fully known, but leaks suggest that one all-but-certain highlight will be new federally created health “cooperatives” to compete against private insurers. The onus is on Republican negotiators Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi to explain why this isn’t merely the House “public option” in a better suit.

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad floated the co-op concept last month, to attract Republicans who oppose President Obama’s state-run plan. According to Mr. Conrad, these nonprofits—modeled on local electricity or rural farm co-ops—fulfill the liberal goal of competing against private insurers, yet avoid “government control,” since they will be member-owned. Presto, a Beltway splitting of the political baby.

And in theory, health-care co-ops needn’t be destructive. Blue Cross and Blue Shield began as nonprofit health insurers, and some state Blues still are. Organizations like the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound are consumer-owned and compete with private plans.

But the Senate is talking about government-sponsored co-ops, and that means multiple devils are in the details. Mr. Conrad confirmed this week that the current plan is to have the feds provide $6 billion in start-up cash, then appoint an “interim” national board to set policies for a network of state or regional co-ops. Mr. Conrad said this new network could attract 12 million people, making it the third-largest health insurer in the country.

Here’s where the trouble starts. At least with the public option, Washington acknowledges that taxpayers are subsidizing public plans. With co-ops, the government role is more subtle, if nearly as corrosive. Start with Mr. Conrad’s $6 billion in “seed money,” which is more than the total annual revenue of all but 20 of the nation’s private plans. This would provide a lower cost of capital than private firms and an implicit claim on any other money the co-ops need. The feds may also exempt co-ops from the taxes that private insurers pay, which average about 1.2% of premiums. This would let co-ops offer lower prices and poach customers with government-subsidized premiums.

The Senators may also exempt co-ops from the state mandates that now drive up the cost of private policies. We’ve long wanted the feds to let individuals or groups (such as the National Federation of Independent Business) form risk pools and buy insurance across state lines free of these costly requirements. But liberals have killed attempts at such Association Health Plans, which suggests their goal in exempting these “government-sponsored health enterprises” from state mandates is merely to give them another pricing edge.

Mr. Conrad suggests the federal board overseeing this network would be temporary, meaning at some point government appointees would be replaced by elected private directors. Mr. Grassley is said to be resisting federal control, but even if he succeeds for now, neither he nor Mr. Conrad can bind a future Congress. When was the last time government supervision became less onerous over time, especially in health care?

All of which makes these co-ops sound a lot like a health-care Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which Congress created because there was supposedly no secondary mortgage market. The duo proceeded to use their government subsidy to dominate the market and drive out private competitors.

And all of this is before Congressional liberals get their hands on these co-ops. “We’re going to have some type of public option, call it ‘co-op,’ call it what you want,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said earlier this month. New York’s Chuck Schumer wants $10 billion to seed a single, nationwide co-op that will be governed by a federal board and have the authority to impose price controls. At the very least, liberals will demand to load up co-ops with the minimum-coverage mandates they’ve already included in the House and rival Senate legislation—from maternity care to government-funded abortion.

Messrs. Grassley and Enzi and Maine’s Olympia Snowe are under great pressure to agree to a deal, as Democrats grow more desperate to get political cover for reform that is sinking fast in the polls. The co-op idea might have begun as a benign proposal, but it is likely to become a mini-me public option. Senate Republicans can best serve the cause of bipartisan reform and fiscal sanity by opposing any form of new government health care, and urging Mr. Baucus to turn to the Plan B of helping the uninsured with tax credits.

Wall Street Journal


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Banishing Our Friends

The State Department revokes the visas of Honduran officials.

The State Department announced Tuesday that it revoked the diplomatic visas of four Honduran officials because the U.S. doesn’t recognize the interim government of Roberto Micheletti. Hondurans can be forgiven if they recall the bitter Vietnam-era joke that while it can be dangerous to be America’s enemy, it can be fatal to be its friend.

The U.S. didn’t release the names of the banished, but the Honduran daily El Heraldo said they included the Supreme Court judge who signed the arrest warrant of former president Manuel Zelaya, as well as the president of the National Congress. Honduras is now in the fifth week of a constitutional crisis that was provoked when then-president Zelaya violated the Honduran constitution. He was warned by the attorney general but he persisted and, with support from Hondurans of all political parties, he was arrested and deported on June 28.

Both sides are now in the middle of negotiations mediated by Costa Rican Oscar Arias, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has been lobbying the U.S. to help his friend, Mr. Zelaya, by pressuring Mr. Micheletti to step down. Perhaps State figured the visa revocations were a way to deliver that pressure, but such one-sided bullying is more likely to build resentment and make it harder to reach a diplomatic solution.

Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Great Health Scare

The president resorts to the politics of fear.

On the campaign trail last year, Barack Obama promised to end the “politics of fear and cynicism.” Yet he is now trying to sell his health-care proposals on fear.

At his news conference last week, he said “Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage, or lose their job. . . . If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day. These are the consequences of inaction.”

A Fox News Poll from last week shows that 84% of Americans who have health insurance are happy with their coverage. And because 91% of all Americans have insurance, that means that 76% of all Americans will be concerned about anything that threatens their current coverage. By a 2-1 margin, according to the Fox Poll, Americans want coverage from a private provider rather than the government.

Facing numbers like these, Mr. Obama is dropping his high-minded rhetoric and instead trying to scare voters. During last week’s news conference, for example, he said that doctors routinely perform unnecessary tonsillectomies on children simply to fatten their wallets. All that was missing was the suggestion that the operations were conducted without anesthesia.

This is not a healthy way to wage a policy debate. It also risks making the president look desperate at a time when his proposals are looking increasingly too expensive for Americans to accept.

Last weekend, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) demolished Mr. Obama’s claims that his plan cuts the growth of future health spending and won’t add to the deficit. Responding to a White House proposal to create an independent panel to recommend Medicare cuts, the CBO said on Saturday that “The probability is high that no savings would be realized” in the next decade, while entitlement spending would rise $1.042 trillion. The CBO did say there might be $2 billion in savings in the second decade of the program—a pittance.

White House Budget Director Peter Orszag shot back at the CBO with a blog posting on the White House’s Web site arguing, “the point of the proposal . . . was never to generate savings over the next decade.” Really? The White House rolled out the proposal hoping to give cover to Blue Dog Democrats in Congress barking about the cost of overhauling health care.

The House version of ObamaCare adds to the deficit even though the new taxes to pay for part of it begin two years before the program itself kicks in. That head start puts ObamaCare in the black through 2013. But net new spending after that overwhelms future revenue to add to the deficit each year.

Keith Hennessey, who was a National Economic Council director for George W. Bush, estimates the annual deficits in Mr. Obama’s plan will grow to $64 billion a year by 2019. And this assumes that Mr. Obama gets all the tax increases and Medicare cuts he wants.

On Sunday, the CBO released another torpedo at the burning hull of USS ObamaCare. Responding to an inquiry by Rep. David Camp (R., Mich.) about whether the House bill would run a deficit in its second decade, the CBO reported it would “probably generate substantial increases in federal budget deficits during the decade beyond the current 10-year budget window.” The CBO does not believe that Mr. Obama’s proposal “bends” health-care spending down, as the president has repeatedly claimed it would. The CBO says it escalates above today’s rate.

By 2029, Mr. Hennessey estimates that new taxes will bring in $143 billion a year, while net new health spending will have increased by $348 billion a year.

Damaging reports from the CBO had earlier provoked some Chicago-style intimidation, with the president summoning CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf to the Oval Office. It’s safe to assume that they didn’t talk about the Chicago White Sox. Imagine if Mr. Bush had done that after the CBO released numbers that undercut the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. “White House thuggery” and “intimidation” would have been the theme of nearly every editorial writer in the country.

Team Obama’s pressure, however, might have caused the CBO to release its latest missives on a weekend, when fewer people are paying attention to the news.

Mr. Obama’s problem is that nine out of 10 Americans would likely get worse health care if ObamaCare goes through. Of those who do not have insurance—and who therefore might be better off—approximately one-fifth are illegal aliens, nearly three-fifths make $50,000 or more a year and can afford insurance, and just under a third are probably eligible for Medicaid or other government programs already.

For the slice of the uninsured that is left—perhaps about 2% of all American citizens—Team Obama would dismantle the world’s greatest health-care system. That’s a losing proposition, which is why Mr. Obama is increasingly resorting to fear and misleading claims. It’s all the candidate of hope has left.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.


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Today in History – July 29

Today is Wednesday, July 29, the 210th day of 2009. There are 155 days left in the year.

Today’s Highlight in History

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA.

On this date:

In 1030, the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II, was killed in battle.

In 1588, the English soundly defeated the Spanish Armada in the Battle of Gravelines.

In 1848, during the Potato Famine in Ireland, a nationalist rebellion led by William Smith O’Brien is crushed, and O’Brien arrested.

In 1858, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (the Harris Treaty). Townsend Harris, the first U.S. diplomatic representative to Japan, negotiated the arrangement, which became effective July 4, 1859. A New York merchant with experience in Asia, Townsend was appointed consul general to Japan in August 1856 and began his assignment shortly thereafter. Harris was not welcomed and was ignored by the Japanese authorities for more than a year. He operated in diplomatic isolation out of the Gyokusenji Buddhist temple in Shimoda.

In 1857 the Japanese government approved Harris’ move to Edo (Tokyo); he used the Zenfukuji Temple in Azabu as the U.S. legation. His negotiations with the Tokugawa regime were aided by concessions that the British had already wrought in China. Harris convinced the Japanese that a voluntary treaty with the United States was more advantageous than a forced treaty with the Europeans.

Harris is credited with opening the Japanese Empire to foreign trade and culture. In addition to Shimoda and Hokadote, which already traded with the U.S., the Harris Treaty opened new ports to U.S. trade; granted U.S. citizens extraterritorial rights (exempting them from the jurisdiction of Japanese law); and permitted Americans their religious freedom. The tariff rates attached to the treaty favored the United States over Japan, but the treaty provided an opportunity to renegotiate in 1872. The Japanese Government also was allowed to “…purchase or construct in the United States ship-of-war, steamers, merchant ships, whale ships, cannot, munitions of war, and arms of all kinds … [as well as] to engage in the United States scientific, naval, and military men, artisans of all kind, and mariners to enter into its service…”

The Harris Treaty made reciprocal diplomatic representation possible. In 1860, a delegation of more than seventy Japanese traveled to the United States. Congress appropriated $50,000 for the visitors, who spent seven weeks touring the United States. Another trip was made twelve years later when, in accordance with the Harris Treaty, the Japanese attempted to gain concessions from the U.S. These visits are credited with helping to dispel cultural stereotypes and furthering diplomatic ties between the two countries.

In 1890, artist Vincent van Gogh, 37, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.

In 1900, Italian King Humbert I was assassinated by an anarchist; he was succeeded by his son, Victor Emmanuel III.

In 1905, Dag Hammarskjold, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish statesman and secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, was born.

In 1913, Albania was formally recognized by the major European powers as an independent principality following the issuance of the Vlorë proclamation.

In 1914, transcontinental telephone service began with the first test phone conversation between New York and San Francisco.

In 1925, German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, published a theory stating that variables that could only be observed in principal could be used to measure physical states. These quantum mechanics processes only take place in microcosms, where macrocosmic laws do not apply. Yet, relativity is the basis of Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics theory.

In 1948, Britain’s King George VI opened the Olympic Games in London.

In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency was established.

In 1957, Jack Paar made his debut as host of NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

In 1958, criticized for allowing the Soviet Union to launch the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth (Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957), U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation this day in 1958 that created NASA.

In 1966, rock musician Bob Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident near Woodstock, N.Y.

In 1967, an accidental rocket launch aboard the supercarrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin resulted in a fire and explosions that killed 134 servicemen.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s stance against artificial methods of birth control.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford became the first U.S. president to visit the site of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland as he paid tribute to the victims.

In 1981, Britain’s Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. (The couple divorced in 1996.)

In 1992, former East German leader Erich Honecker returns to Berlin to face charges in the deaths of people attempting to cross the Berlin Wall during his time in office. The charges are later dropped.

In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court acquitted retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk of being Nazi death camp guard “Ivan the Terrible” and threw out his death sentence. (Demjanjuk was deported in May 2009 to Germany to face similar charges.)

In 1999, ten years ago, a day trader, apparently upset over stock losses, opened fire in two Atlanta brokerage offices, killing nine people and wounding 13 before shooting himself to death; authorities say Mark O. Barton also killed his wife and two children.

In 1999, California Gov. Gray Davis abandoned the state’s effort to preserve Proposition 187, a divisive voter-approved ban on schooling and other public benefits for illegal immigrants.

In 2003, Boston Red Sox batter Bill Mueller became the first player in major league history to hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in a single game in a 14-7 win at Texas.

In 2004, five years ago, Sen. John Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s convention in Boston with a military salute and the declaration: “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”

In 2008, one year ago, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was indicted on seven felony counts of concealing more than a quarter of a million dollars in house renovations and gifts from a powerful oil contractor. (A jury later found the longtime Republican lawmaker guilty of lying on financial disclosure forms, but a judge subsequently dismissed the case, saying prosecutors had withheld evidence.)

In 2008, disgraced ex-NBA official Tim Donaghy admitted that he had brought shame on his profession as a federal judge sentenced him to 15 months behind bars for a gambling scandal.

In 2008, Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins, 62, named as a top suspect in anthrax mailing attacks in 2001, died at a hospital in Frederick, Md., after deliberately overdosing on Tylenol.

Today’s Birthdays

Comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey is 95. Actor Robert Horton is 85. Former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, R-Kan., is 77. Actor Robert Fuller is 75. Former Sen. Elizabeth H. Dole, R-N.C., is 73. Actor David Warner is 68. Rock musician Neal Doughty (REO Speedwagon) is 63. Marilyn Tucker Quayle, wife of former Vice President Dan Quayle, is 60. Actor Mike Starr is 59. Documentary maker Ken Burns is 56. Style guru Tim Gunn (TV: “Project Runway”) is 56. Rock singer-musician Geddy Lee (Rush) is 56. Rock singer Patti Scialfa (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) is 56. Actress Alexandra Paul is 46. Country singer Martina McBride is 43. Rock musician Chris Gorman is 42. Actor Rodney Allen Rippy is 41. Actor Tim Omundson is 40. Actor Wil Wheaton is 37. R&B singer Wanya Morris (Boyz II Men) is 36. Country singer-songwriter James Otto is 36. Actor Stephen Dorff is 36. Actor Josh Radnor is 35. Hip-hop DJ/music producer Danger Mouse is 32. Actress Rachel Miner is 29. Actress Allison Mack is 27. Actor Matt Prokop is 19.

Today’s Historic Birthdays

Alexis Tocqueville
7/29/1805 – 4/16/1859
French political scientist, historian, and politician

George Pendleton
7/29/1825 – 11/24/1889
American legislator and sponsor of the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883

Max Nordau
7/29/1849 – 1/23/1923
Hungarian -French physician, writer, and Jewish nationalist

Booth Tarkington
7/29/1869 – 5/19/1946
American novelist and dramatist

Don Marquis
7/29/1878 – 12/29/1937
American newspaperman, poet, and playwright

Benito Mussolini
7/29/1883 – 4/28/1945
Italian prime minister and Hitler’s ally during W.W. II

Theda Bara
7/29/1885 – 4/7/1955
American silent-film actress

Sigmund Romberg
7/29/1887 – 11/9/1951
Hungarian-born American composer, conductor, and violinist

Owen Lattimore
7/29/1900 – 5/31/1989
American writer, lecturer, sinologist; and victim of McCarthyism

Clara Bow
7/29/1905 – 9/27/1965
American film actress known as the “it girl”

Dag Hammarskjold
7/29/1905 – 9/18/1961
Swedish Nobel Prize-winning 2nd secretary-general of the U. N.

‘America Is Rarely This Softspoken’

High-level negotiations in Washington between the US and China reflect a growing sense that the two powers are on top of the world. But for the first time in decades, the US is taking a remarkably conciliatory tone with its Asian rival.

In an ambitious two-day summit in Washington, top officials from the United States and China met this week to discuss a wide range of issues. Everything from the climbing US deficit to North Korean missile programs was on the agenda as the two countries worked to put their relationship on a more solid footing.

The meeting’s tone was a change from past US-China summits, when the US has been the one to level accusations and make demands of its Asian rival. With China holding massive amounts of American debt in the form of Treasury securities — up to $1.5 trillion, by some estimates — Washington has been scrambling to reassure the Chinese that the US economy is stable and the dollar will hold its value.

At the same time, the two countries discussed foreign policy issues, including China’s increasingly belligerent client and neighbor, North Korea.

German commentators watched the proceedings warily, wondering where China’s interests lie and whether Europe will be pushed to the political margins if Washington pushes ahead with a kind of G-2 with Beijing.

Spiegel Online‘s Washington correspondent writes:

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has really gotten the diplomatic routines down pat in the last six months. But right now she’s laying things on especially thick. Clinton stands before the assembled journalists, next to the head of the 100-person strong Chinese delegation that’s come to Washington for two days of talks, and really lets it fly. ‘Thorough, comprehensive, very open’ are the words she uses to describe the two days of talks. She throws in ‘direct’ and ‘very useful’ for good measure.”

“Enthusiastic words, even for a top diplomat who’s practically obliged to be welcoming. And Clinton wasn’t alone with her praise. … President Barack Obama sounded like a visionary in his address: ‘Cooperation, not confrontation,’ he said, should be the goal with China. The US-Chinese relationship would shape the 21st century.”

“That’s perhaps the most important message of this meeting, which many experts see as carving a sort of ‘G-2’ alliance in stone. A new world order, where the US and China will set the tone.”

Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

“America and China are talking with each other. The word ‘partner’ comes up a lot. China is certainly cautious that no one puts one over on them, especially not a competitor. This is especially true when it comes to raw materials, something a growing economy like China’s is naturally very interested in. But Beijing is also following a strategy that uses negotiation and cooperation as waystations on the road to control and dominance.”

“This alone is a good reason America should be wary of adopting partnership with China as a model for the future. Not all of its neighbors are thrilled that China is accumulating so much power — including a number of US allies. Even when great powers decide to sacrifice the interests of their smaller clients, Washington should remember that it needs all the friends it can get at this point. And China shouldn’t talk about responsibility but instead act on it — for example, in the case of North Korea, and in the case of Iran.”

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“America is rarely this softspoken. They’re not quite kowtowing, but bowing quite low to greet the dignitaries from China who have traveled to Washington for a two day bilateral strategy and economic summit. Gone are the days when US politicians made long (and honest) speeches about human rights to the powers that be in the Middle Kingdom. Likewise, they’ve abandoned the old ritual of criticizing the way China subsidizes its exports through artificially low exchange rates.”

“Instead, it is exercising humility. Washington knows what it owes Beijing: The Chinese hold US bonds worth at least $800 billion in their hands. No other nation in the world is in as much debt at America.”

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praises this dialogue as a new beginning. And Barack Obama says the two nations will lead the world into the 21st century. Those are big words — but the relationship the two powers find with each other remains an open question. Still, Americans — like the Chinese — are smart enough not to waste time thinking about a third party. And no one at this summit will be talking about Europe, the Old World.”

Der Spiegel


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Doubled up

G2: twice as big, no more productive

ADDING a conjunction to the name of a diplomatic forum may not sound like much, but America and China insist it is significant. On July 27th the two countries will hold their first Strategic and Economic Dialogue attended, unlike previous conjunctionless ones, by America’s secretary of state. Both hope the upgrade will help them deal with everything from climate change to global economic imbalances. It may not.

China, ever worried about the impact of its rising power on American political opinion, has been pleased that Barack Obama’s campaign slogan “change” does not seem to apply to America’s dealings with China itself. The new forum merely tweaks the Strategic Economic Dialogue launched by President Bush in 2006 which was led on the American side by the treasury secretary. It also absorbs a security-focused forum called the Senior Dialogue which began in 2005. Hillary Clinton’s involvement, alongside her treasury counterpart, Timothy Geithner, raises the status of America’s participation, which, the Americans hope, will encourage more progress on issues—especially climate change—that straddled the remits of the forum’s precursors.

On the global economy, the two sides are already broadly in agreement. Both have big stimulus programmes. Both think China’s consumers need to spend more, America’s to save more. China mutters about moving away from the dollar as a reserve currency but in May, its holding of US Treasury debt rose by $38 billion, to more than $801.5 billion—its highest level ever. Climate change, on the other hand, is producing posturing. The topic has been a prominent one in recent visits to Beijing by American officials, including Mrs Clinton, Mr Geithner and the commerce secretary, Gary Locke. In a speech to businessmen, Mr Locke said pointedly that 50 years from now, China “does not want the world community to lay blame for environmental catastrophe at its feet.”

Despite the approach of UN-sponsored climate-change talks in Copenhagen in December, America and China—the world’s biggest contributors to global warming—show little sign of consensus. A visit by Mr Obama himself to China, which is likely to take place not long before the Copenhagen conference, may help focus minds. A conjunction of them is harder to imagine.

The Economist


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Dropping the shopping

Can America wean itself off consumption? The first of a series on how the world’s four biggest economies must change to ensure sustainable global growth

GENERAL ELECTRIC has historically been a manufacturer, but in the long boom leading up to the financial crisis it became more like a bank. Half its profit came from its finance arm, GE Capital, which among other things had a lucrative business issuing mortgages and credit cards to American consumers. GE’s chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, now talks like a man chastened. With GE Capital acting as a drag on the company, he vows that in the future finance will be a smaller part of the company. In its place GE touts its manufacturing and exporting prowess. Mr Immelt boasts of record aircraft engine orders at the Paris Air Show in June, none of them to American airlines.

Like GE, the entire American economy is at an inflection point. For decades, its growth has been led by consumer spending. Thanks to rising asset prices and ever easier access to credit, Americans went on a seemingly unstoppable spending binge, fuelling the global economy as they bought ever bigger houses and filled them with ever more stuff. Consumer spending and residential investment rose from 67% of GDP in 1980 to 75% in 2007 (see chart 1, left-hand side). The household saving rate fell from 10% of disposable income in 1980 to close to zero in 2007; household indebtedness raced from 67% of disposable income to 132%. As Americans spent more than they produced, the country’s current-account balance went from a surplus of 0.4% of GDP in 1980 to a deficit of almost 6% in 2006 (see chart 1, right-hand side).

consumption 1

Economists had hoped that these imbalances would unwind gradually as Americans saved more and the rest of the world spent more. But they had long fretted that the process would end in tears. Most worried about a dollar crash, as investors balked at America’s rising foreign borrowing. Instead the financial crisis felled America’s consumers. The destruction of more than $13 trillion of consumer wealth and the implosion of the shadow banking system, a once plentiful source of credit, has triggered a shift to thrift, which in turn has plunged the economy into its deepest recession in decades. Americans now save more than 5% of their after-tax income, still well below the post-war average but hugely up from only a year ago. The current-account deficit has shrunk dramatically: the IMF projects that it will shrivel to less than 3% of GDP this year and next as Americans spend and invest less.

The collapse in consumption has dramatically changed the composition of America’s economy. A huge increase in private saving has been offset by a leap in the budget deficit. The combination of Barack Obama’s big fiscal stimulus package, as well as the natural consequence of declining tax revenues, means that the federal budget deficit this year is likely to be 13% of GDP, about 12 percentage points more than in 2007. That has cushioned the slump. GE is among those taking advantage. It is aggressively pursuing stimulus-related sales, while tapping federal, state and local incentives. In June the company said that it would create 400 jobs at a plant in Louisville, Kentucky, making a low-energy water heater that is now made in China and that it would hire 1,100 people to staff a software research centre on the site of an auto plant in Van Buren, Michigan. Both investments were helped along by government incentives.

But despite the government’s largesse, America’s recession has been deep and its impact on the rest of the world profound. Though America is still a source of demand for the rest of the world, its waning appetite has been a hefty drag on world economic growth. In the years before the financial crisis kicked in, American demand contributed to global growth. This year it will subtract from it.

As the boost from fiscal stimulus takes effect there are signs that America’s economy is stabilising. An index of leading indicators compiled by the Conference Board, a research group, rose for the third consecutive month in June. In testimony to Congress on July 21st, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, struck an undeniably upbeat tone about the state of the economy. But the bigger issue—for America and for the world—is where growth will come from in the medium term. The answer is not entirely in America’s hands—in the coming weeks, our series will also look at whether the world’s big surplus economies, China, Germany and Japan, will boost their domestic demand. But as the world’s biggest economy America is the right place to start. Three questions stand out. Can America continue to rely on government stimulus to drive growth? Will the consumer recover? Or can exports take up the slack?

The answer to the first question is “not for ever”. In the short term, policymakers are committed to using a mixture of fiscal stimulus and aggressive monetary policy to hasten the end of the recession and prevent inflation from turning into deflation. But the contribution of the stimulus is due to start ebbing in 2010. The lesson of Japan in the 1990s is that the after-effects of a bubble suppress demand for longer than most expect, necessitating extended government stimulus. Unlike Japan, though, America is already in hock to the foreigners. Mohamed El-Erian of Pimco, a fund manager, predicts that policymakers will be reluctant to stimulate any further for fear of feeding suspicions that America will inflate away its debts, which could push long-term interest rates much higher. Even if they do not withdraw the stimulus next year, they must at some point if the federal debt, projected to double to 82% of GDP by 2019, is to stop rising.

The prospect of a withdrawal of government support need not spell disaster. As America looked forward to the end of the second world war, policymakers were deeply anxious that as war spending shrank, the economy would slip back into 1930s-like stagnation. “All alike expect and fear a post-war collapse,” Alvin Hansen of Harvard University, a leading economist of the time, wrote in 1942. Yet the collapse never came. Thanks to rising productivity and rapid recovery in Europe and Japan, the post-war years witnessed strong, balanced growth. From 1946 until 1980, American households saved 8-10% of their disposable income and the country usually ran small trade surpluses.

An historic challenge

Perhaps productivity can accelerate again, boosting incomes enough to support robust spending as well as more saving. But an obvious difference from the post-war period is the need for American consumers to reduce their debts. Richard Berner of Morgan Stanley notes that in the past decade the proportion of income that American households devoted to servicing debt rose from 12% to 14%. He calculates that it would have risen to only around 12.5% but for a dramatic loosening of lending standards during the recent bubble. He thinks the ratio will revert to around 12% through a combination of lower interest rates, debt repayments and write-offs. That can be done, he says, with consumer spending growing at just over 2% a year, still far below its average of 3.4% from 1993 to 2007.

The implication is that demand from abroad must take the place of a splurging domestic consumer and a free-spending government. As Larry Summers, Mr Obama’s chief economic adviser, said on July 17th: “The rebuilt American economy must be more export-oriented and less consumption-oriented.”

Take California, where the consumption and housing bubbles were especially pronounced. The shortage of land on the coasts drove many first-time homebuyers inland, fuelling a huge building boom. According to Jerry Nickelsburg of the Anderson Forecast at the University of California, Los Angeles, home-building permits tripled between the 1990s and 2005. The growth of new housing developments triggered a boom in new retail stores, lured by local government incentives. Meanwhile, America’s ravenous appetite for imports from Asia fuelled business at the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland and their supporting infrastructure of railroads, transport and warehouses.

California’s disproportionate exposure to the boom explains why its bust has been especially painful. Mr Nickelsburg says home-building permits have plunged by 85% since 2005 and that the value of new retail-construction permits has fallen by half. Import volumes have dropped sharply. Most big subprime lenders have gone bankrupt or left the business.

The first glimmers of an export-led revival are apparent. The state’s manufacturing employment has shrunk by less than in most of the big manufacturing states, reflecting less dependence on carmakers and greater exposure to Asia. The seasonally adjusted number of containers loaded at its ports for export, many with agricultural products and other raw materials, has risen from the lows of earlier this year.

But it is one thing for exports to grow (and imports to fall) but another entirely for trade to compensate for the retrenchment of the much larger consumer sector. A cheaper currency may help. The trade deficit narrowed sharply in the late 1980s with the help of a dramatic fall in the dollar against the currencies of America’s largest trading partners. The dollar has come down considerably since 2002 but has rallied over the past 12 months as investors have repatriated money from abroad. Its decline is likely to resume but its contribution to rebalanced growth will be constrained if China does not let the yuan appreciate against the dollar.

Turning circle

consumption 2

Nor is it clear how quickly America can shift resources into tradable products. Its economy is adept at moving workers and capital from dying to growing industries. But the scale of the adaptation needed now is daunting. Robert DiClemente, an economist at Citigroup, estimates that credit-sensitive industries—housing, finance and cars—have shed 2m jobs, or one-third of all those lost, since the recession began (see chart 2). It is not clear how quickly mortgage brokers and structured-finance whizzes can retrain in more productive industries. The fact that so many homeowners are sunk in negative equity will also constrain mobility.

The American economy is like a supertanker that, even in calm waters, changes direction very slowly. It is now being forced to do so in a gale. With the help of still sturdy growth in emerging markets America should be able to reorient itself. But come what may, changing direction means losing speed. On the demand side foreign spending is unlikely to compensate for the freewheeling American consumer. On the supply side investment has slumped and will take time to right its course. Pimco’s Mr El-Erian reckons that the transition from consumption to export-oriented expansion will lead to prolonged subpar growth and high unemployment.

That will heighten political risks such as protectionism. The House of Representatives, for example, has passed a bill aimed at capping American carbon emissions that would slap tariffs on countries that do not do likewise. The steelworkers’ union has attacked Mr Immelt as a hypocrite for touting GE’s new focus on manufacturing while opposing “Buy American” provisions in the stimulus package. Mr Obama’s support for free trade remains lukewarm, a failing that could yet undermine hopes for export-led growth.

Writing America off is always a dangerous thing to do. Most probably, however, it faces years of painfully high unemployment and sluggish growth. GE’s union at its plant in Louisville had to agree to a wage freeze until 2011 and to let new employees start for just $13 an hour. Like GE’s workers, Americans will find the new, export-driven model of growth much less comfortable than the old one.


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Arrest that plaque!

How to detected hardened arteries before they cause a heart attack

HEART disease is usually the consequence of years of poor health. The endothelial cells that line a healthy person’s blood vessels secrete substances that not only assist blood flow but also prevent the build-up of plaques—dangerous clumps of protein that, if dislodged, can cause a heart attack by blocking the coronary arteries that feed blood to heart muscle. If the endothelial cells become damaged, however, plaque can build up. In fact, some doctors reckon the true illness is the narrowing and hardening of the arteries that accompanies this plaque build-up, and that heart attacks are merely the most obvious result.

Fortunately arteriosclerosis, as this narrowing and hardening is known, is entirely reversible by good diet, exercise and (if necessary) drugs, if it is detected early enough. Unfortunately, detecting it is difficult. Doctors can get an inkling by questioning people about their age, diet, infrequency of exercise and smoking habits—but it is only an inkling, not a direct measurement. Now, however, an Israeli company called Itamar Medical has developed a hand-held device that can directly measure the extent to which arteries have hardened. The Endo-Pat, as the device is called, is able to detect whether a person’s arteries are losing their elasticity.

The Endo-Pat has two small probes, which are attached to the patient’s index fingers. A standard blood-pressure cuff is placed on one arm and inflated for a few minutes, restricting the flow of blood to the arteries of the fingertip. When the cuff is deflated, blood rushes to the fingertips. The probe records how the volume of blood in the arteries changes with each subsequent heartbeat. Large fluctuations indicate springy arteries; small ones, hardening. The second arm, uninhibited by any cuff, acts as a control against which to assess the first. The effects of changes to the body caused by anything other than the cuff can thus be eliminated.

The test takes 15 minutes and can be carried out almost anywhere, from a hospital bedside to an outpatient clinic, with the patient either sitting or lying down. A display allows the doctor in charge to see the results as they are collected, and the signals are also recorded for subsequent review and analysis.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, have used the device to test 270 patients aged between 42 and 66. They found that those classified as “low risk” by their answers to standard questions about weight and diet, but whose Endo-Pat test indicated poor endothelial function, had significantly higher rates of angina (chest pain associated with arteriosclerosis), heart attacks and death from cardiac arrest. Direct measurement, they conclude, is a more accurate predictor of trouble.


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Death of a Doctrine

Obama Discovers Engagement’s Limits

The Obama administration lacks a foreign policy ideology as a matter of ideology. Speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted, “Rigid ideologies and old formulas don’t apply.” The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — tempered by pragmatism, proud of its ad hockery and willing to consider everything on a case-by-case basis.

But even lacking an ideology, the administration does have a doctrine. The defining principle of President Obama’s foreign policy is engagement with America’s adversaries. Much of the president’s public diplomacy has been designed to clear a path for such talks — expressing respect for legitimate grievances, apologizing for past wrongs and offering dialogue without preconditions.

Six months on, how fares the Obama doctrine? Concerning North Korea and Iran, the doctrine is on its deathbed.

North Korea responded to administration outreach by testing a nuclear weapon, firing missiles toward U.S. allies, resuming plutonium reprocessing and threatening the United States with a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation.” During congressional testimony, Clinton admitted, “At this point [it] seems implausible, if not impossible, the North Koreans will return to the six-party talks and begin to disable their nuclear capacity again.”

The Iranian regime’s reaction to engagement was to cut the ribbon on a nuclear enrichment facility, add centrifuges, conduct a fraudulent election, and kill and imprison a variety of political opponents. Regarding administration overtures, Clinton recently told the BBC,”We haven’t had any response. We’ve certainly reached out and made it clear that’s what we’d be willing to do . . . but I don’t think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now.”

The problem is not engagement itself — which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration. The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement — which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations.

During the 2008 campaign, for example, Obama adviser P.J. Crowley (now State Department spokesman) argued, “Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation.” But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran — or with North Korea — now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama’s diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.

Such regimes are often internally preoccupied. Precisely because they lack genuine legitimacy, they spend large amounts of time and effort maintaining their fragile authority, consolidating power and managing undemocratic transitions. North Korea confronts a succession crisis. Iran deals with growing dissent and clerical division. Both tend to make calculations based on internal power struggles, not some rational calculation of their external image and interests. They are so inwardly focused that they do not have, as Clinton said, “any capacity” to respond to engagement. It is questionable in these cases whether we currently have any serious negotiating partners at all.

And the inherent instability of oppressive regimes also leads them to tighten control by invoking threats from abroad — particularly from the United States. Because anti-Americanism is a central commitment of North Korean and Iranian ideologies, any softening of this resentment requires a kind of voluntary regime change. Pyongyang and Tehran would need to find a new source of legitimacy — a new prop for their power — other than hatred for America. Not easy or likely.

The Obama administration’s public campaign of engaging enemies is headed toward an entirely unintended consequence. Eventually it will raise expectations for action. As the extended hand is slapped again and again, the goals of North Korea and Iran will be fully revealed and the cost to American credibility will rise. Already the administration has given Iran a September deadline to respond to the offer of talks and has threatened “crippling action” if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Congress is preparing sanctions on Iranian refined petroleum, which would escalate tensions significantly.

This is the paradox of the Obama doctrine. By attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is dramatically exposing the limits of engagement — and building the case for confrontation.

Michael Gerson, Washington Post


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Microsoft and Yahoo Reach Deal on Search Partnership


Microsoft and Yahoo announced a partnership in Internet search and advertising on Wednesday morning intended to create a stronger rival to the industry powerhouse Google.

The Microsoft-Yahoo pact is a measured step that represents a pragmatic division of duties between the two companies instead of the blockbuster deal Microsoft initiated last year, when it bid $47.5 billion to buy Yahoo. That hostile offer was ultimately withdrawn by Microsoft, and its collapse and the uncertain aftermath for the Web company led to a management change and the replacement of its co-founder Jerry Yang by Carol Bartz, an outsider who is now Yahoo’s chief executive.

Under the pact, Microsoft will provide the underlying search technology on Yahoo’s popular Web sites. The deal provides a lift for Microsoft’s recent overhaul of its search engine, renamed Bing, which has won praise and favorable reviews, after years of falling further and further behind Google.

Running such a search system proves expensive, and Microsoft can now filter more searches through the Bing technology infrastructure. It expects to deliver better answers to search queries over time as well by learning from more peoples’ queries.

For Yahoo, the move furthers the strategy under Ms. Bartz to focus the company on its strengths as a producer of Web media sites, from finance to sports, as a marketer and a leader in on-line display advertising that accompanies published Web sites.

The terms of the 10-year agreement call for Microsoft to license some of Yahoo’s search technologies, and Yahoo will initially receive a lucrative 88 percent of search-generated ad revenue from Yahoo sites.

The advertising work will be split. Yahoo will be the exclusive ad force for premium search advertisers who bargain to negotiate rates and deals. But the Microsoft Ad Center automated search market will be used for smaller customers, whose prices for search advertising are set by the automated auction process.

Together, Microsoft, the No. 3 provider of search, and Yahoo, No. 2, will have about 28 percent of search traffic in the United States. Even so, the partnership will still trail well behind Google, which holds about two-thirds of the market.

In a statement before a morning conference call, Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, said, “Through this agreement with Yahoo, we will create more innovation in search, better value for advertisers and real consumer choice in a market currently dominated by a single company.”

Wednesday’s agreement also ends one of the longest and most tumultuous courtships in the technology industry, finally giving Microsoft a prize it has coveted for more than three years. It forced Mr. Ballmer into a sometimes frustrating wooing of three of his counterparts at Yahoo.

Mr. Ballmer began wooing Yahoo as early as 2006 when Terry Semel was that company’s chief executive. Unable to get Yahoo interested, early last year Microsoft made a hostile $47.5 billion bid to take over Yahoo, which by then was under the leadership of its co-founder Jerry Yang.

After tense, months-long negotiations, the deal was derailed, in part by Mr. Yang’s reticence, and in part by the intervention of Microsoft’s arch-rival Google, which offered Yahoo an alternative advertising partnership. But the Google-Yahoo alliance itself fell apart in November when Google abandoned it in the face of opposition from the Department of Justice.

That left Yahoo jilted and opened the door again for Microsoft to renew its courtship, with Mr. Ballmer this time playing suitor to Ms. Bartz.

During that time, Google has continued to race ahead, gaining share in the search business, which is worth $12 billion a year in the United States alone, at the expense of both Yahoo and Microsoft.

Although Yahoo and Microsoft will continue to be dwarfed by Google in search, the combination of the two companies creates a far more powerful counterweight to Google, one that will be welcomed by many in the advertising industry, who have watched Google rapidly become the world’s largest seller of advertising with a mix of fascination and foreboding,

For Microsoft, the combination with Yahoo is the quickest way to increase use of its newly revamped and rechristened search engine, Bing. While the new service has received good reviews, and advertisers have long said that Microsoft’s search advertising system is effective, many do not bother to advertise on it because the traffic they receive from that effort is too small.

By tripling its usage through the alliance with Yahoo, Microsoft has a better shot at luring more advertisers, which, in turn, helps the company increase the revenue it earns from searches.

“This should give Bing the ability to serve up more relevant ads to consumers, and that powers paid search,” said Christopher Lien, chief executive of Marin Software, whose technology helps search marketers manage their campaigns.

Yahoo has resisted a deal with Microsoft, in part for fear of giving up control of a business that brings in roughly half of the company’s revenue. But Yahoo has also said that search is essential to its future because it provides valuable data about users’ habits, and gives the company the ability to offer marketers packages that include search and display ads, the two pillars of online advertising.


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Today’s papers – July 29, 2009

Recovery Signs in Housing Market Stir Some Hope

The New York Times leads, while the Wall Street Journal and USA Today go high, with new data that suggest there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for the housing market. Eight cities saw increases in real estate prices in May, and an index that tracks home prices in 20 metropolitan areas increased 0.5 percent in May from April. When adjusted for seasonal factors, the index was “virtually flat,” rather than down. These surprisingly strong numbers joined a slew of other indicators that have also shown positive signs in recent months and raised hopes that the housing market has hit bottom.

The positive signs from the residential real estate market hardly mean that everything is great. The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller index rose for the first time in 34 months, but home prices are still down around 17 percent from a year earlier. Prices are still plunging in some of the worst-hit cities, including Las Vegas and San Francisco, and pessimists insist it’s only a matter of time before the upward trend reverses itself, mostly due to rising unemployment. But most economists agree the new data show there has been a “significant change in direction,” as the WSJ puts it. The NYT says buyers are taking advantage of good deals and getting the opportunity to examine properties methodically before finalizing a purchase. But the WSJ says that those in the market for heavily discounted properties frequently find themselves in bidding wars.


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Sotomayor Moves Closer to High Court

The WSJ leads its world-wide newsbox with the Senate judiciary committee voting 13-6 to send Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate. Only one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, voted for the nomination.

No one doubts that the Senate will confirm Sotomayor, but, if yesterday’s committee vote is any indication, it won’t be with any help from Republicans. The LAT highlights that the partisan opposition to Sotomayor shows that any future Obama nominees are unlikely to get Republican support “even if they have solid legal credentials and moderate records” and illustrates how filling the high court’s seats has become “a test of party solidarity.”


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Senators Close to Health Accord

The Washington Post leads with an overview of where health care legislation stands. The Senate finance committee is expected to finish negotiations in the next few days and vote on a plan before the recess that begins Aug. 7. Assuming the group of six bipartisan senators who are negotiating in the committee can agree on a plan, it will likely end up abandoning many of President Obama’s priorities. And while it may anger most Democrats, it could also make it more difficult for Republicans to resist.


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Industry donates to drug plan foes

USAT leads with campaign-finance records showing that the lawmakers who are leading the fight against allowing generic drugs to compete sooner with expensive biotechnology drugs list pharmaceutical companies as one of their biggest contributors. President Obama has proposed that drug companies should have seven years of exclusive rights, but several lawmakers are pushing for 12 years. Cutting the period of exclusivity could save the government billions of dollars in health care costs.


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Schwarzenegger cuts $500 million more as he signs budget

The Los Angeles Times leads with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally signing a budget to close California’s huge deficit, but not before using his line-item veto power to cut $500 million more that will affect children’s health care, AIDS treatment and prevention programs, and the elderly, to name a few programs. Democrats expressed anger over the move, but Schwarzenegger said he had no choice because lawmakers failed to completely close the budget deficit.


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Iraq Raids Camp of Exiles From Iran

The WP is alone in fronting news that Iraqi forces stormed a camp of an Iranian dissident group that had long been protected by the U.S. military. The raid of the camp that housed more than 3,000 people is seen as a stark example of how U.S. influence in Iraq is on the way down while Iranian clout is growing. Analysts say the raid seemed to be a clear attempt by Iraqi officials to assert their independence. The Iranian government had been demanding action for a while, but the United States long protected the group, which has supplied information about Iran’s nuclear program. The raid was violent, and members of the group say Iraqi forces killed four residents. The raid took U.S. officials completely by surprise, particularly since it coincided with a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.


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Reports of Prison Abuse and Deaths Anger Iranians

The NYT fronts, and everyone else goes inside with, the Iranian government releasing 140 prisoners at a time when a growing number of accounts of abuse and torture in the country’s prisons have outraged many. Relatives of the imprisoned are speaking out, as are some of the protesters who have been released in the past few weeks. Independent human rights organizations say more than 1,000 people have been arrested and almost 100 killed in the postelection violence. More violence is expected Thursday as the government refused permission for the opposition to hold a ceremony in honor of those killed. But opposition supporters quickly began circulating plans to commemorate the symbolically important 40 days since the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, among others who were killed in the June 20 demonstrations.


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Iran hard-liners warn Ahmadinejad he could be deposed

The LAT highlights more evidence of divisions within Iran’s conservative circles after a group of hard-liners warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he could be deposed.

The full article reads:

Iran hard-liners warn Ahmadinejad he could be deposed

The warning over the president’s defiance highlights the rift among Iran’s conservatives. Meanwhile, the government says Mousavi supporters can’t gather at a mosque Thursday to honor protest victims.

Political hard-liners warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday that he could be deposed like past Iranian leaders if he continued to defy the country’s supreme religious leader.

The implied threat was the latest evidence of the rift within Iran’s conservative camp and could serve to further sap the authority of a president already considered illegitimate by reformists.

The Islamic Society of Engineers, a political group close to parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, warned in an open letter to Ahmadinejad that he could suffer the same fate as Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was deposed in 1953 in a CIA-backed coup with the acquiescence of the clergy.

The letter also cites the experience of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was ousted in 1981 and fled the country after he fell out with the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Both leaders had been elected by huge margins.

“It seems you want to be the sole speaker and do not want to hear other voices,” the group’s letter says, noting that recent actions by Ahmadinejad have frustrated his own supporters. “Therefore it is our duty to convey to you the voice of the people.”

Meanwhile, Iranians braced for another round of clashes between protesters and security personnel after the Interior Ministry rejected a request to allow supporters of opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi to gather at a large Tehran mosque on Thursday. The protest is meant to commemorate those slain in the unrest that followed Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection victory over Mousavi and two other challengers in June 12 balloting.

In response to the permit denial, Mousavi’s supporters began circulating routes for unauthorized marches and candlelight vigils to mark the religiously significant 40th day after the deaths of those killed at June 20 demonstrations, including Neda Agha-Soltan, whose slaying, captured on videotape, drew worldwide condemnation.

Dozens have been killed since the election and hundreds arrested, most recently including Ali Maqami, a campaigner for reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who was arrested at his home Monday and taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison, news websites reported.

Lawmaker Kazem Jalali said 140 prisoners arrested during the unrest had since been released and that only 200 remained in Evin, far below the number estimated by international observers.

“Those who were released had committed lighter offenses,” he said, according to the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency.

Human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr was freed Tuesday on $500,000 bail, according to reformist websites.

But other well-known Iranian political figures remained behind bars.

Officials said supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday ordered the closure of the Kahrizak detention center, described by some as Iran’s Guantanamo because it was not under the control of the State Prisons Organization. According to a reformist website, it has been supervised by deputy national police chief and former Revolutionary Guard commander Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Radan. Witnesses told that the facility lacked proper ventilation and that prisoners were beaten by ruthless interrogators.

“The closure of Kahrizak detention center had been decided before the election, but postelection events made it necessary to keep it open,” Iran’s prosecutor-general, Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, told local news media. “Finally, the supreme leader was informed of poor sanitation and other problems for detainees, and he ordered its closure.”

Amid the uproar, Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to the judiciary demanding “maximum Muslim leniency” toward those detained, acknowledging that the “duration of the detentions has been more than normal,” a striking departure from the government’s insistence all along that detainees were well treated.

While Ahmadinejad’s reelection has angered supporters of the opposition, his postelection actions have also enraged fellow conservatives, in particular his attempts to buck Khamenei’s order to dump a controversial vice president and his firing of Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei. “His reckless actions indicate quite well that the president does not understand what security challenges we are grappling with,” lawmaker Parviz Sorouri told the Mehr news agency.

Conservatives are also bothered by Ahmadinejad’s push to broadcast the confessions of detainees, local media reported.

His supporters see airing the confessions as a way to discredit and silence reformists and protesters, a tactic used extensively by hard-liners in the early 1980s.

But conservatives say televised confessions could prove politically explosive and appear dangerously out of step with the national mood. Several local news outlets said Mohseni-Ejei, along with state television chief Ezatollah Zarghami, clergy and judiciary officials, has been locked in a backroom fight with Ahmadinejad over the airing of such confessions.

Over the weekend, one lawmaker sternly warned authorities not to broadcast confessions obtained in prison.

“Broadcasting confessions can only add to public awareness if they are made under normal conditions, not if they are extracted under irregular circumstances,” Ali Motahari told Press TV, according to an article on the website of the state-owned broadcaster. “The arrests may have been legal, but the important thing is how individuals were treated during interrogation, whether Islamic code was maintained, and whether they suffered any emotional, psychological or physical pressure or not.”

Human rights groups and former prisoners say authorities typically extract the videotaped confessions after holding detainees in solitary confinement or following grueling interrogations that sometimes include physical abuse. The prisoners are often told what to read. In recent years, many said during the interrogations that they were foreign dupes, only to disavow the remarks later.


Full article:,0,484157.story


How Firms Wooed a U.S. Agency With Billions to Invest

The NYT got a look at internal documents, including e-mails, that show how BlackRock and Goldman Sachs were so eager to get a piece of the action from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that they may have broken contracting rules. When Charles Millard became the head of the agency that oversees the retirement funds of bankrupt companies, Goldman and BlackRock began working their lobbying skills. Millard also used his position to set up meetings and interviews that could help him land a job once he left public service. The agency revoked the contracts last week due to questions surrounding the bidding process. The records reviewed by the paper “illustrate the clash between Washington’s by-the-letter rules on contracting and the culture of Wall Street, where deals are often struck over expensive meals,” notes the paper. “Both sides should have known better,” said a contracting expert. “What happened here is wrong, stupid and probably illegal.”


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Microsoft, Yahoo Near Search Deal

At long last, Microsoft and Yahoo appear on the brink of joining forces on a major Internet search alliance, thinking two is better than one if they are to challenge the mighty Google. The business press is united in declaring Microsoft the clear victor in this deal. As the Wall Street Journal writes, “Microsoft, which last year made a failed $47.5 billion takeover bid for Yahoo, would finally win what it wanted most from the Internet pioneer—huge volumes of queries that run through Yahoo’s search engine.” Business Week puts it more bluntly, writing Yahoo “gives up on search” by falling into Microsoft’s arms. Giving a nod to the WSJ‘s scoop on the imminent deal, Business Week provides the following analysis (or is it an obituary?) on the once-dominant Yahoo’s long fall from the top: “In a deal that presages its departure from a market it once dominated, Yahoo will essentially scrap its own efforts to best Google in search and instead rely on Microsoft’s recently debuted Bing search engine,” the magazine writes. Meanwhile, Kara Swisher in the WSJ’s “All Things Digital” blog writes that the Microsoft-Yahoo deal will be announced as soon as today. She explains the division of labor as such: Microsoft’s search technology will be featured on its sites and on Yahoo’s, while Yahoo’s ad sales team will sell the space to advertisers.


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At Worlds, ‘It’s Not About the Swimmer’

German Paul Biedermann rocked the swimming world yesterday when he beat Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1 minute 42 seconds, 0.89 under Phelps’ world record. He beat Phelps by 1.22 yesterday. But the big focus wasn’t on Biedermann, who had earlier broken a seven-year-old record by 0.01 of a second, but his swimsuit. Biedermann even acknowledged that he was helped by his speedsuit but said it wasn’t his problem because the sport’s governing body, FINA, had allowed it. FINA has been working on implementing guidelines but yesterday said they may not go into effect until next spring. Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, practically went ballistic and threw a diva-sized rant. “Well, then, they can probably expect Michael not to swim until they’ve implemented it,” he said. “The sport is in shambles right now, and they better do something or they’re going to lose their guy who fills these seats.”


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Cheers: ‘True Blood,’ the Beverage

In terrible news for anyone who has trouble distinguishing between reality and a fantasy world where sexy vampires roam the streets of New Orleans, but potentially exciting news for anyone living who would want to consume a beverage intended for the undead, a carbonated drink based on the HBO series “True Blood” is to go on sale in September. In a news release on Monday, Omni Consumer Products said that it had struck a deal with HBO’s licensing division to produce Tru Blood, inspired by the drink that the program’s vampires consume for sustenance (when they’re not feeding on the living). In a statement, the company said that its Tru Blood drink would have “a crisp, slightly tart and lightly sweet tang,” and come in a bottle similar to the one featured on the HBO series.


The full article:


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Aging: Eating Fish May Ward Off Dementia

Many studies have suggested that a diet rich in fish is good for the heart. Now there is new evidence that such a diet may ward off dementia as well. One of the largest efforts to document a connection — and the first such study undertaken in the developing world — has found that older adults in Asia and Latin America were less likely to develop dementia if they regularly consumed fish.

And the more fish they ate, the lower their risk, the report found. The findings appear in the August issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study, which included 15,000 people 65 and older in China, India, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic, found that those who ate fish nearly every day were almost 20 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who ate fish just a few days a week. Adults who ate fish a few days a week were almost 20 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who ate no fish at all.

“There is a gradient effect, so the more fish you eat, the less likely you are to get dementia,” said Dr. Emiliano Albanese, a clinical epidemiologist at King’s College London and the senior author of the study. “Exactly the opposite is true for meat,” he added. “The more meat you eat, the more likely you are to have dementia.” Other studies have shown that red meat in particular may be bad for the brain.

Observational studies in the West also have indicated fish may reduce dementia risk, but there is little evidence as yet from randomized, controlled clinical trials.


See also:

Dietary fish and meat intake and dementia in Latin America, China, and India: a 10/66 Dementia Research Group population-based study


Full article:

In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable

hunch 1

Jennifer Murphy, a psychologist at the Army Research Institute, demonstrated a test used to determine the characteristics of service members who might have exceptional abilities at detecting roadside bombs.

The sight was not that unusual, at least not for Mosul, Iraq, on a summer morning: a car parked on the sidewalk, facing opposite traffic, its windows rolled up tight. Two young boys stared out the back window, kindergarten age maybe, their faces leaning together as if to share a whisper.

The soldier patrolling closest to the car stopped. It had to be hot in there; it was 120 degrees outside. “Permission to approach, sir, to give them some water,” the soldier said to Sgt. First Class Edward Tierney, who led the nine-man patrol that morning.

“I said no — no,” Sergeant Tierney said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan. He said he had an urge to move back before he knew why: “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling.”

The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, the roadside bombs that have proved to be the greatest threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, where Sergeant Tierney is training soldiers to foil bomb attacks.

Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and, like Sergeant Tierney, they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.

Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do.

Experience matters, of course: if you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that something else is at work, too.

Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.

Studies of members of the Army Green Berets and Navy Seals, for example, have found that in threatening situations they experience about the same rush of the stress hormone cortisol as any other soldier does. But their levels typically drop off faster than less well-trained troops, much faster in some cases.

In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in mock exercises.

The study complements a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.

“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”

Seeing What Others Miss

The patrol through Mosul’s main marketplace never became routine, not once, not after the 10th time or the 40th. A divot in the gravel, a slight shadow in a ditch, a pile of discarded cans; any one could be deadly; every one raised the same question: Is there something — anything — out of place here?

Clearing a road of bombs is one of the least glamorous and most dangerous jobs on the planet. It is also one of the most important. In May, coalition forces found 465 of them in Afghanistan and 333 in Iraq. The troops foiled more than half the traps over all — but about 10 percent of the bombs killed or maimed a soldier or a Marine.

“We had indicators we’d look for, but you’d really have to be aware of everything, every detail,” said Sergeant Tierney, whose unit was working with the Iraqi police in that summer of 2004.

In recent years, the bombs have become more powerful, the hiding places ever more devious. Bombs in fake rocks. Bombs in poured concrete, built into curbs. Bombs triggered by decoy bombs.

“On one route sweep mission, there was a noticeable I.E.D. in the middle of the road, but it was a decoy,” said Lt. Donovan Campbell, who in 2004 led a Marine platoon for seven months of heavy fighting in Ramadi and wrote a vivid book, “Joker One,” about the experience. “The real bomb was encased in concrete, a hundred meters away, in the midst of rubble. One of my Marines spotted it. He said, ‘That block looks too symmetrical, too perfect.’ ”

Lieutenant Campbell had the area cleared and the bomb destroyed.

“Unless you know what rubble in that part of Iraq looks like, there’s no way you’d see that,” he said. “I had two guys, one we called Hound Dog, who were really good at spotting things that didn’t fit.”

The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.

“Some of these things cannot be trained, obviously,” said Jennifer Murphy, a psychologist at the Army Research Institute and the principal author of the I.E.D. study. “But some may be; these are fighters who become very sensitive to small changes in the environment. They’ll clear the same road every day and notice ridiculously subtle things: this rock was not here yesterday.”

In a study that appeared last month, neuroscientists at Princeton University demonstrated just how sensitive this visual ability is — and how a gut feeling may arise before a person becomes conscious of what the brain has registered.

They had students try to pick out figures — people or cars — in a series of photos that flashed by on a computer screen. The pictures flashed by four at a time, and the participants were told to scan only two of them, either those above and below the center point, or those to the left and right. Eye-tracking confirmed that they did just that.

But brain scans showed that the students’ brains registered the presence of people or cars even when the figures appeared in photos that they were not paying attention to. They got better at it, too, with training.

Some people’s brains were almost twice as fast at detecting the figures as others’. “It appears that the brain primes the whole visual system to be strongly sensitive to categories of visual input,” kinds of things to look for, said Marius V. Peelen, a neuroscientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study with Li Fei-Fei and Sabine Kastner. “And apparently some people’s visual system processes things much faster than others’.”

Something in the Air

A soldier or Marine could have X-ray vision and never see most I.E.D.’s, however. Veterans say that those who are most sensitive to the presence of the bombs not only pick up small details but also have the ability to step back and observe the bigger picture: extra tension in the air, unusual rhythms in Iraqi daily life, oddities in behavior.

“One afternoon I remember turning down a road in Baghdad we were very familiar with, and there’s no one out — very creepy for that time of day,” said Sgt. Don Gomez, a spokesman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who took part in the invasion and later, in 2005, drove a general in and around Baghdad.

Trash was heaped in a spot along the street where Sergeant Gomez and other drivers in the convoy had not seen it before, so they gave it a wide berth.

“We later called it in to an explosives team and, sure enough, they found one and detonated it — the thing left a huge crater,” he said.

As the brain tallies cues, big and small, consciously and not, it may send out an alarm before a person fully understands why.

In a landmark experiment in 1997, researchers at the University of Iowa had people gamble on a simple card game. Each participant was spotted $2,000 and had to choose cards from any of four decks. The cards offered immediate rewards, of $50 or $100, and the occasional card carried a penalty. But the game was rigged: the penalties in two of the decks were modest and in the other two decks were large.

The pattern was unpredictable, but on average the players reported “liking” some decks better than others by the 50th card to the 80th card drawn before they could fully explain why. Their bodies usually tensed up — subtly, but significantly, according to careful measures of sweat — in a few people as early as about the 10th card drawn, according to the authors, Dr. Damasio; his wife, Dr. Hanna Damasio; Dr. Antoine Bechara; and Dr. Daniel Tranel.

In a study published in May, researchers at King’s College in London did brain scans of people playing the gambling game used in the University of Iowa study. Several brain regions were particularly active, including the orbitofrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making, and the insula, where the brain is thought to register the diverse sensations coming from around the body and interpret them as a cohesive feeling — that cooling sensation of danger. In some brains, the alarm appears to sound earlier, and perhaps more intensely, than average.

Gut feelings about potential threats or opportunities are not always correct, and neuroscientists debate the conditions under which the feeling precedes the conscious awareness of the clues themselves. But the system evolved for survival, and, in some people, is apparently exquisitely sensitive, the findings suggest.

Mastering the Fear

One thing did not quite fit on the morning of Sergeant Tierney’s patrol in Mosul. The nine soldiers left the police station around 9 a.m., but they did not get their usual greeting. No one shot at them or fired a rocket-propelled grenade. Minutes passed, and nothing.

The soldiers walked the road in an odd silence, scanning the landscape for evidence of I.E.D.’s and trying to stay alert for an attack from insurgents. In war, anxiety can run as high as the Iraqi heat, and neuroscientists say that the most perceptive, observant brain on earth will not pick up subtle clues if it is overwhelmed by stress.

In the Army study of I.E.D. detection, researchers found that troops who were good at spotting bombs in simulations tended to think of themselves as predators, not prey. That frame of mind by itself may work to reduce anxiety, experts say.

The brains of elite troops also appear to register perceived threats in a different way from the average enlistee, said Dr. Martin P. Paulus, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, and the V.A. San Diego Healthcare System. At the sight of angry faces, members of the Navy Seals show significantly higher activation in the insula than regular soldiers, according to a just-completed study.

“The big question is whether these differences perceiving threat are natural, or due to training,” Dr. Paulus said.

That morning in Mosul, Sergeant Tierney gave the command to fall back. The soldier who had asked to approach the car had just time enough to turn before the bomb exploded. Shrapnel clawed the side of his face; the shock wave threw the others to the ground. The two young boys were gone: killed in the blast, almost certainly, he said.

Since then, Sergeant Tierney has often run back the tape in his head, looking for the detail that tipped him off. Maybe it was the angle of the car, or the location; maybe the absence of an attack, the sleepiness in the market: perhaps the sum of all of the above.

“I can’t point to one thing,” he said. “I just had that feeling you have when you walk out of the house and know you forgot something — you got your keys, it’s not that — and need a few moments to figure out what it is.”

He added, “I feel very fortunate none of my men were killed or badly wounded.”


Full article and photo:

The Gates of Political Distraction

Obama’s mistake was falling for a culture war diversion.

The essential point about Gates-gate, or the tempest over last week’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., is this: Most liberal commentary on the subject has taken race as its theme. Conservative commentators, by contrast, have furiously hit the class button.

Liberals, by and large, immediately plugged the event into their unfair-racial-profiling template, and proceeded to call for blacks and whites to “listen to each other’s narratives” and other such anodyne niceties even after it started to seem that police racism was probably not what caused the incident.

Conservatives, meanwhile, were following their own “narrative,” the one in which racism is often exaggerated and the real victim is the unassuming common man scorned by the deference-demanding “liberal elite.” Commentators on the right zeroed in on the fact that Mr. Gates is an “Ivy League big shot,” a “limousine liberal,” and a star professor at Harvard, an institution they regard with special loathing. They pointed out that Mr. Gates allegedly addressed the cop with that deathless snob phrase, “you don’t know who you’re messing with”; they reminded us that Cambridge, Mass., is home to a particularly obnoxious combination of left-wing orthodoxy and upper-class entitlement; and they boiled over Mr. Gates’s demand that the officer “beg my forgiveness.”

“Don’t you just love a rich guy who summers on the Vineyard asking a working-class cop to ‘beg’? How perfectly Cambridge,” wrote the right-wing radio talker Michael Graham in the Boston Herald.

Conservatives won this round in the culture wars, not merely because most of the facts broke their way, but because their grievance is one that a certain species of liberal never seems to grasp. Whether the issue is abortion, evolution or recycling, these liberal patricians are forever astonished to discover that the professions and institutions and attitudes that they revere are seen by others as arrogance and affectation.

The “elitism” narrative routinely blind-sides them, takes them by surprise again and again. There they are, feeling good about their solidarity with the coffee-growers of Guatemala, and then they find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from, say, the plumbers of Ohio.

The Gates incident was a trap that could not have been better crafted to ensnare President Barack Obama, who is himself a loyal son of academia’s most prestigious reaches, and to whom it was immediately obvious, even without benefit of the facts, that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in the situation.

Mr. Obama’s way of backing out of his gaffe was just as telling: He invited Mr. Gates and the policeman who arrested him to the White House for a beer, the beverage so often a gauge of a politician’s blue-collar bona fides. One symbolic gesture, hopefully, can exorcise another.

Class is always an ironic issue in American politics, and the irony this time is particularly poignant. We are in the midst of a great national debate about how to make health care affordable; almost nothing is more important to working-class Americans. “For the health of the nation, both physically and economically, we need a system with a public option,” Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, wrote recently in the Huffington Post. “And we need it now.”

But whether working families get it now depends to a large degree on Mr. Obama’s personal popularity. And now comes Gates-gate, this latest burst of fake populism from the right. Waving the banner of the long-suffering working class, the tax-cutting friends of the top 2% have managed to dent the president’s credibility, to momentarily halt his forward movement on the health-care issue.

Umbrage at a Harvard professor’s class snobbery, in other words, might derail this generation’s greatest hope for actually mitigating the class divide.

Another irony: Long before he became a hostage to the culture wars, Henry Louis Gates had another career as a pithy commentator on the culture wars. The false appeal of victimization was something he understood well. In “Loose Canons,” his 1992 book on the subject, he joked that his colleagues should “award a prize at the end [of a conference] for the panelist, respondent, or contestant most oppressed.”

But when he sits down for that can of beer in the White House, it is another passage from his book that I hope Mr. Gates remembers. Speaking for liberal academics, he wrote in 1992 that “success has spoiled us; the right has robbed us of our dyspepsia; and the routinized production of righteous indignation is allowed to substitute for critical rigor.”

Today the cranking out of righteous indignation is a robust growth industry, and it threatens to do far worse than cloud our critical faculties. Help us to put the culture wars aside, Professor Gates. Too much is on the line these days.

Thomas Frank, Wall Street Journal


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The Birds of America

Nyctea scandiaca  Harfang des Neiges  /  Snowy Owl  

birdsofamerica 121

Québec’s emblematic bird, the Snowy Owl, is the largest owl in North America. A daytime and night-time hunter, its binocular vision is unique, allowing it to judge distances and its prey equally well! It feeds mainly on lemmings in the summer and on other small mammals and birds in the winter. It voraciously swallows its prey whole. While the Ungava region is its main territory, it is also found in southern Canada in the winter, where it nests in prairies, fields, and along shores. Although it is not a bird protected by the Migratory Birds Convention Act, some provincial and territorial by-laws forbid its being hunted throughout the country. Despite all this, it remains threatened by electrical wires, barbed-wire fences, automobiles, and other human factors. The Snowy Owl can reach 56 to 69 cm in length and 150 cm in wingspan.

Oiseau emblématique du Québec, le harfang des neiges est le plus gros hibou de l’Amérique du Nord. Chasseur diurne et nocturne, il a une vision binoculaire sans pareil, lui permettant de bien juger les distances et les proies! Il se nourrit principalement l’été de lemmings et s’alimente d’autres petits mammifères et d’oiseaux en hiver. Vorace, il avale ses proies toutes entières. Alors que l’Ungava est son territoire principal, on le retrouve dans le sud du Canada en hiver, où il niche dans les prairies, les marécages, les champs et les rivages. Bien qu’il ne soit pas un oiseau protégé par la Loi sur la Convention concernant les oiseaux migrateurs, des règlements provinciaux et territoriaux interdisent sa chasse dans tout le pays. Malgré tout, il demeure menacé par les lignes électriques, les clôtures de fil barbelé, les automobiles et autres facteurs humains. Le harfang des neiges peut atteindre 56 à 69 cm de longueur et 150 cm d’envergure.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
Guiraca caerulea  Guiraca bleu ou Passerin bleu (mâle et femelle)  /  Blue Grosbeak (male and female)  
birdsofamerica 122

The Blue Grosbeak is found just about everywhere in the United States and rarely in the southern and eastern parts of Canada. Its preferred habitat is along the edges of woods, but it will easily nest in suburban yards as well as in scrubland fields, in hedges and along riverbanks. It avidly pecks at the seeds of weeds and wild fruits fallen on the ground. It is about 17 cm in length.

On retrouve le guiraca bleu un peu partout aux États-Unis et rarement dans le sud et l’est du Canada. Il fait de l’orée des bois son habitat préféré mais il peut facilement se nicher dans les cours de banlieues aussi bien que dans les champs buissonneux, les haies et le long des cours d’eau. Il picore avec appétit les graines de mauvaises herbes et les fruits sauvages tombés sur le sol. Il mesure environ 17 cm de longueur.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
Dendroica magnolia  Paruline à tête cendrée (immature) /  Magnolia Warbler (young)  
birdsofamerica 123

The Magnolia Warbler nests mainly in the Maritimes and in southern Quebec. Absent during the winter, it leaves Canada and the eastern United States to migrate toward southern Mexico, Central America and the West Indies, where it can maintain its diet made up of various insects, weevils, ants, and lepidopterous insects. Although it appreciates fir and spruce trees, it can also be found in boreal and mixed forests. Its length is 10 to 13 cm.

La paruline à tête cendrée niche principalement dans les Maritimes et dans le sud du Québec. Absente en hiver, elle quitte le Canada et l’est des États-Unis pour migrer au sud du Mexique, en Amérique Centrale et aux Antilles, où elle peut poursuivre son régime alimentaire composé de divers insectes, charançons, fourmis et lépidoptères. Bien qu’elle apprécie les sapins et les épinettes, on la trouve également en forêts boréales et mixtes. Sa longueur varie entre 10 et 13 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,

Today in History – July 28

Today is Tuesday, July 28, the 209th day of 2009. There are 156 days left in the year.

Today’s Highlight in History

On July 28, 1609, the English ship Sea Venture, commanded by Admiral Sir George Somers, ran ashore on Bermuda after nearly foundering at sea during a storm. The 140 or so passengers and crew, originally bound for the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, founded a colony on the island.

On this date:

In 1540, King Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was executed.

In 1540, Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

In 1750, composer Johann Sebastian Bach died in Leipzig, Germany, at age 65, after a failed eye operation.

In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, a leading figure of the French Revolution, was sent to the guillotine.

Maximilian François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a great fan of Rousseau’s visions, namely the abolition of social constraints. Individuality is nothing, collectivity is everything. In the recently elected parliament, he represented the Jacobeans, all ultra-radical revolutionaries.

His polished speeches hit a nerve in revolutionary France.
“It is in the nature of things that the path of reason is an arduous path,” Robespierre wrote in “Against war” in 1792. “The most depraved government is supported by the prejudices, the habits and the lack of education of the population. Despotism spoils the human spirit to such an extent that it is idolized and makes freedom appear suspicious and fearful at first glance.”

Freedom, equality and brotherhood are the key words of the revolution. Robespierre also spoke them regularly. His reputable appearance and ascetic change of lifestyle earned him regard and respect. He was soon given the nickname of “The Incorruptible.” He had the vision of destroying the privileges and institutions of the “ancien régime,” and his ideals were high.

“People of all countries are brothers; different nations must support each other as the citizens of one state,” he wrote in “About property” in 1793. “Anyone who suppresses a nation is the enemy of all nations. Anyone who takes a nation to war in order to halt the progress of freedom and eliminate human rights, should be persecuted by all the nations, not as a conventional enemy, but as a wretched murderer.”

But the concept of a brotherhood of nations was soon forgotten. Austria declared war on France. Queen Marie-Antoinette was the daughter of the Austrian Empress who said: “If you or the king touch one hair on her head, Paris will be flattened.”

Robespierre considered the matter and said in “Against war”: “Should we go to war or make peace? Should we attack our enemies or invite them into our homes? I believe that these words do not portray all the many different aspects of the issue. Which side should the nation and its representatives take in the position that we find ourselves in, giving consideration to our domestic and foreign enemies? This is the true perspective from which the issue should be viewed if we are to understand it completely and negotiate with the required precision.”

The negotiations did not last long. Revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries in Paris and seized the king. Robespierre, the idealistic supporter of brotherhood, showed a new face. He pushed through the sentence against King Louis XVI, who was executed in January 1793.

Robespierre was quoted as saying: “Terror is nothing other than justice: prompt, sharp and unwavering. It is therefore an expression of virtue!”

Resistance grew against the arbitrary regime and its spokesman, Robespierre. He responded by stepping up the terror campaign. The guillotine ceaselessly performed its arbitrary executions. It had already taken the lives of his former companions, such as Georges Danton. Moderate members of parliament joined forces. Robespierre and his closest advisors were arrested. And then no time was lost. On the next day, July 28, they sent him to his death, as they had their king.

Tens of thousands of people lost their lives during the Jacobean terror regime and, in the end, so did its creator. One year after Robespierre’s death, France elected a new government headed by five directors. The reign of terror in France had ended.

In 1821, Peru declared its independence from Spain.

In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing due process and the equal protection of the laws to former slaves, was declared in effect.

In 1914, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On June 28, the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo. Serbia missed the July 23 ultimatum and the Russian troops were mobilized. Serbia was conquered in mid-December. Preparations for war had begun long before in Europe, which was split into two blocks: the “Axis powers” and the “Entente powers.”

In 1929, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was born in Southampton, N.Y.

In 1932, federal troops under Gen. Douglas MacArthur drive the so-called Bonus Army, veterans of World War I who sought the payment of a delayed bonus, out of their encampment in Washington, D.C.

In 1945, a U.S. Army bomber crashed into the 79th floor of New York’s Empire State Building, killing 14 people.

In 1945, the U.S. Senate ratified the United Nations Charter by a vote of 89-2.

In 1959, in preparation for statehood, Hawaiians voted to send the first Chinese-American, Republican Hiram L. Fong, to the U.S. Senate and the first Japanese-American, Democrat Daniel K. Inouye, to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he was increasing the number of American troops in South Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000 “almost immediately.”

In 1976, an earthquake devastated northern China, killing at least 242,000 people.

In 1977, Roy Wilkins turned over leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to Benjamin L. Hooks.

In 1995, a jury in Union, S.C., sentenced Susan Smith to life in prison for drowning her two young sons.

In 1998, Bell Atlantic and GTE announced a $52 billion merger that created Verizon.

In 1998, Monica Lewinsky was given blanket immunity from prosecution in exchange for grand jury testimony in the investigation of her relationship with President Bill Clinton.

In 1999, ten years ago, the Senate opened debate on the Republicans’ $792 billion tax cut bill.

In 1999, Surgeon General David Satcher declared suicide a serious national threat, saying, “People should not be afraid or ashamed to seek help.”

In 2002, nine coal miners trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine in Somerset, Pa., were rescued after 77 hours underground.

In 2002, American cyclist Lance Armstrong won his fourth straight Tour de France.

In 2004, five years ago, the Democratic National Convention in Boston nominated John Kerry for president.

In 2004, a car bomb exploded outside a police station used as a recruiting center in Baqouba, Iraq, killing 70 Iraqis.

In 2004, Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who co-discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, died in San Diego at age 88.

In 2005, the Irish Republican Army renounced the use of violence against British rule in Northern Ireland and said it would disarm.

In 2006, actor-director Mel Gibson launched an anti-Semitic tirade as he was arrested in Malibu, Calif., for driving drunk; Gibson later apologized and was sentenced to probation and alcohol treatment.

In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney had surgery to replace an implanted device that was monitoring his heartbeat.

In 2008, one year ago, President Bush received Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, at the White House, praising him as a reliable partner in confronting terrorism.

In 2008, four suicide bombers believed to be women struck a Shiite pilgrimage in Baghdad and a Kurdish protest rally in northern Iraq, killing at least 57 people and wounding nearly 300.

Today’s Birthdays

Movie director Andrew V. McLaglen is 89. Actor Darryl Hickman is 78. Ballet dancer-choreographer Jacques d’Amboise is 75. Art critic Robert Hughes is 71. The former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, is 71. Musical conductor Riccardo Muti is 68. Former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., is 66. “Garfield” creator Jim Davis is 64. Singer Jonathan Edwards is 63. Actress Linda Kelsey is 63. TV producer Dick Ebersol is 62. Actress Sally Struthers is 61. Actress Georgia Engel is 61. Rock musician Simon Kirke (Bad Company) is 60. Rock musician Steve Morse (Deep Purple) is 55. Broadcast journalist Scott Pelley is 52. Alt-country-rock musician Marc Perlman is 48. Actor Michael Hayden is 46. Actress Lori Loughlin is 45. Jazz musician-producer Delfeayo Marsalis is 44. Former hockey player turned general manager Garth Snow is 40. Actress Elizabeth Berkley is 37. Singer Afroman is 35. Country musician Todd Anderson (Heartland) is 34. Rock singer Jacoby Shaddix (Papa Roach) is 33. Washington Redskins tackle Chris Samuels is 32. Detroit Lions linebacker Julian Peterson is 31. Country singer Carly Goodwin is 28. Houston Texan linebacker DeMeco Ryans is 25. New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise is 25. Actor Dustin Milligan is 24. Actor Nolan Gerard Funk is 23. Rapper Soulja Boy is 19.

Today’s Historic Birthdays

Jacopo Sannazzaro
7/28/1456 – 4/24/1530
Italian poet

Judith Leyster
7/28/1609 – 2/10/1660
Dutch painter

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), German philosopher, who substituted religious psychology for orthodox religion and developed one of the first German materialistic philosophies. Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach was born in Landshut and educated in Berlin and Erlangen. In his youth he was a pupil of the eminent German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose philosophical idealism he later rejected. In his chief work, The Essence of Christianity (1841; trans. 1854), Feuerbach stated that the existence of religion is justifiable only in that it satisfies a psychological need; a person’s essential preoccupation is with the self, and the worship of God is actually worship of an idealized self.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), English poet, whose work expresses an intense response to the natural world, and whose innovations in technique produced an intricately woven tapestry of language that embodied this response.

Beatrix Potter
7/28/1866 – 12/22/1943
English author of children’s books

peter rabbit

English writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter created numerous stories about animal characters that have become classic books for children. She illustrated all her books with small but highly detailed watercolors, which are as well loved as the tales themselves. Potter’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1900, is her best-known story.

Charles Dillon Perrine
7/28/1867 – 6/21/1951
American astronomer

Lucy Burns
7/28/1879 – 12/22/1966
American woman suffragist

Marcel Duchamp
7/28/1887 – 10/2/1968
French-born American painter

Harry Bridges
7/28/1901 – 3/30/1990
Australian-born American labor leader

Rudy Vallee
7/28/1901 – 7/3/1986
American singer and bandleader

Karl Popper (July 28, 1902 – September 17, 1994)

Austrian-British philosopher. He gained his doctorate in 1928 and became a schoolteacher in Vienna. His first book was published in 1934. He lived in the UK from 1935 to 1937, and travelled Europe. He was a university professor from 1937 to 1945 in New Zealand and from 1946 in the UK. He believed that truth and scientific findings could only be obtained through experiments.

Earl Tupper
7/28/1907 – 10/5/1983
American inventor of Tupperware plastic containers

Malcolm Lowry
7/28/1909 – 6/27/1957
English novelist, short story writer and poet

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
7/28/1929 – 5/19/1994
American first lady (1961-3)


Jacqueline Bouvier, 1935

Thought for Today

“All youth is bound to be ‘misspent’; there is something in its very nature that makes it so, and that is why all men regret it.” — Thomas Wolfe, American author (1900-1938).


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How Lice Thwarted Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

His invasion of Russia failed miserably, leaving a trail of corpses from Moscow all the way to Paris. In a new book, one historian blames not the wintry march but the spread of “war plague” — typhus — through Napoleon’s Grand Army.


Napoleon’s soldiers faced a deadly march home from the ruins of Moscow, made all the worse by a plague of typhus among the troops. An engraving by L J Pott. Original Publication: The Graphic – On The March From Moscow – pub. 1873.

The fate of Napoleon’s Grand Army was sealed long before the first shot was fired. In the spring of 1812, more than 600,000 men marched towards Russia under the command of the diminutive Corsican — an army larger than the population of Paris at the time.

The massive army was on its way to topple the Russian Czar Alexander I. Yet long before the fighting started, a few soldiers staggered out of the ranks and collapsed at the side of the road. Were the men drunk as skunks, or was something else at work?

Given the sheer numbers of soldiers underway, no one took much notice of a few derelict drunks. Not until 200 years later did it come to light that these first casualites of Napoleon’s long march weren’t hopeless alcoholics but rather marked the beginning of the army’s downfall.

That’s the claim of Stephan Talty, the American author who reconstructs the medical history of Napoleon’s doomed Russian campaign in his new book “The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army.” Talty carefully documents why 400,000 men never made it home. Like few historians before him, he illuminates the critical role of a tiny enemy: the louse.

In the end, the army’s back was broken by neither the Cossacks nor the merciless Russian winter but rather by typhus exanthematicus, spread by crawling parasites. That’s the conclusion of an investigation that began in 2001 with a gruesome discovery: A mass grave containing 2,000 corpses in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

At first, excavators guessed the victims were killed by the KGB, or were Jews killed during the German occupation. But by examining belt buckles and uniform buttons with regimental numbers on them, archaeologists unraveled the mystery. The dead, it turned out, were soldiers of Napoleon’s Grand Army.


March 1814:  Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I) (1769 – 1821) commanding his troops in the defence of Paris after his withdrawal from Russia.

Researchers took DNA samples from the teeth of the dead men. Further lab analysis revealed that many of the hastily-buried bodies carried pathogens consistent with what was known in Napoleon’s era as “war plague.”

In minute detail, Talty explains how a mixture of incompetence, mismanagement and the ignorance of the army’s commander brought down an army that could populate a modern mid-sized German city. In the first week of the campaign alone, 6,000 men a day fell ill. “The numbers of the sick grew in overwhelming numbers, and they crawled along the road where many of them died,” observed Belgian physician J.L.R. de Kerckhove.

“Napoleon doesn’t give a damn how many of his soldiers are collapsing on the road,” Westphalian batallion commander Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg wrote to his wife. The emperor had an unsentimental view of the sick and dying.

His team of physicians, many of whom were ardent believers in the obscure theory that “miasmas” of bad air spread diseases, were overwhelmed by the rapid spread of the plague. They were products of their time: No one had yet proposed the idea of germs, let alone the idea that illness might be spread by body lice. At field hospitals along the route, the seriously ill bedded down with men who were still halfway healthy, insuring that the most recent victims wouldn’t be able to recover.

Miserable hygiene paved the way for widespread outbreaks of lice. Within 10 to 14 days, the first signs of infection — high fever and crippling headaches — began to emerge. Soon chills and exhaustion set in. Victims developed severe rashes and swelling; by the end they were so weak they could barely lift a glass of water.

Today, doctors easily treat the infection with antibiotics. But apart from bloodletting, herbs and a mixture of wine, water and a bit of lemon juice, doctors in Napoleon’s era had no effective remedy for the disease. Napoleon’s chief doctor, Dominique-Jean Larrey, struggled to explain the mass deaths. The best he could come up with was constant rain, physical exhaustion and spoiled schnapps.

By the time Napoleon’s army reached Moscow, his weakened troops were in no shape to conquer the city. On October 19, 1812, Napoleon turned the diseased army around and headed for home.

On the way back, starving, feverish soldiers descended on Vilnius like zombies. Desperate for food, some tried to eat formaldehyde-soaked specimens from the city’s university laboratories.

Shortly before his return to Paris, Napoleon issued a bulletin intended to spread reassuring news all across his empire: “His Majesty’s health has never been better.”


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Crackles of hatred

Silencing murderous messages is not as easy as it sounds

LAST year, as Kenya slid into mayhem, the words that sputtered forth from crude transmitters were cryptic but, to those in the know, horrifying. “People of the milk”, a reference to the cattle-owning Kalenjin people, were urged to “take out the weeds in our midst”— in other words, the Kikuyus. Meanwhile Kikuyu broadcasters inveighed against the peril posed by “animals from the west”: this meant the rival Luo (from which Barack Obama originates) and Kalenjins.

In East Africa this use of radio to incite ethnic slaughter recalled an even darker episode: the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which a station called Radio Mille Collines (Thousand Hills Radio) seemed to be directing the massacres. It not only poisoned the general atmosphere but urged on the killers, with phrases like “cutting the tall trees” and “killing the cockroaches”.

In an era of drones and spy satellites, it may seem odd that crude simple radio transmitters can still make huge mischief. But the scale and sophistication of broadcasting has mutated downwards as well as upwards. In the mid-20th century, totalitarian dictators found national radio stations were a handy way to foment hate and fear; and non-state actors (from communist guerrillas to churches) have been using radio for almost as long. In recent years the medium has been exploited in ever darker ways by petty warlords as well as by big-time tyrants.

Take the war zone on Pakistan’s north-western frontier, where radio’s sinister side has been on stark display. Scores of small FM transmitters—used to propagate extremist ideas and to terrorise local foes—have played a part in shoring up the Taliban’s power. One notorious user of the air waves is Mullah Fazlullah, a Taliban leader in the Swat valley who is known as the “Mullah Radio” because of the threats he issues from an FM transmitter. After claims that he had been wounded, his voice was heard in mid-July for the first time in several months, albeit more subdued in tone than before.

Peacekeeping pundits agree that more must be done to pre-empt and counter the effects of “hate radio”. Nipping conflict in the bud by silencing dark propaganda would do a lot of good. If the problem were simply technical, it would presumably be soluble; an army bristling with space-age gadgetry must be capable of jamming a crude FM transmitter. But as anybody with experience of the problem confirms, neutralising nasty broadcasts is not so simple.

In Pakistan’s war zones, a policy based purely on jamming, and confiscating kit, would upset local Pushtuns, for whom radio is a vital medium. Transmitters, often using batteries from cars or motorcycles, are easy to re-establish, says Mukhtar Khan, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC. He thinks the only antidote to hate radio is rival FM transmissions, run by locals who speak familiar dialects and cater to local interests, from farming to music.

A similar point is made by Eric Rosenbach, a veteran of American military intelligence (with knowledge of the Balkans and Iraq) who is now research director at Harvard University’s Belfer Centre. “You can even further alienate a population if you take away their only source of information—but if you offer something new that’s not obviously artificial, they may grab on to [it].”

American forces in Afghanistan already seem to be following that advice. They are making broadcasts of local interest and handing out wind-up radios.

In the world of journalism, meanwhile, some hard thinking is going on about how to stop abuse of the air waves. Radio Netherlands and Amsterdam University are refining a proposal for an early-warning system that would pick up hate-speech broadcasts, including cryptic ones, and at least mitigate their effects.

But Jan Hoek, who runs the global arm of Radio Netherlands, says he has grown cautious about lavish Western efforts to promote “good” media in places like Rwanda where radio was used for evil ends. It only works, he says, when locals are in the lead; otherwise the whole effort stops as soon as funds dry up. Despite these reservations, some fine courageous stations do now serve the region—such as Radio Okapi, broadcasting from Congo; two of its journalists have been killed.

For analysts of hate radio and its antidotes, the Balkans provide evidence of what works. The “ring around Serbia”, consisting of Serbian-language broadcasts from neighbouring states, which America helped establish, probably helped topple Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

And in 1997, soon after arriving in Bosnia, NATO troops took swift action to seize transmitters and stop broadcasts by hard-line Serbs opposed to the Dayton peace deal. By contrast, during the bombing of Serbia in 1999, NATO lost support when it heavy-handedly hit the state broadcasting building in Belgrade, killing 16 staff. (A Serbian broadcasting boss was later jailed for not passing on NATO’s warnings that the building was a target.)

Richard Holbrooke, the broker of the Dayton accord who is now America’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has named broadcasting as one area where lessons learned in one war zone must be transferred to others. In the Swat valley, he noted in March, “Fazlullah is going round every night broadcasting the names of people they’re going to behead or have beheaded. Any of you who have a recent sense of history will know that that’s exactly what happened with Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda.”


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