Archive for July 8th, 2007

Quotes Of The Day

From Mike Lupica, NY Daily News’ ace sportswriter:

In light of the way things have played out for Scooter, you know what Martha Stewart’s real crime was?

Not being Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

Maybe if she’d cooked Cheney a couple of hot meals, she wouldn’t have had to do any time, either.

Ouch. The bit that preceded it wasn’t too bad either:

It figures that even when George Bush steps to the plate for somebody like Scooter Libby, he doesn’t have the guts to go all the way and give his little buddy a full pardon.

But this is the tough guy who keeps sending kids off to die in Iraq as a way of somehow preserving his own pathetic legacy.

Heh heh heh… I guess he’s been reading Frank Rich:

THERE was never any question that President Bush would grant amnesty to Scooter Libby, the man who knows too much about the lies told to sell the war in Iraq. The only questions were when, and how, Mr. Bush would buy Mr. Libby’s silence. Now we have the answers, and they’re at least as incriminating as the act itself. They reveal the continued ferocity of a White House cover-up and expose the true character of a commander in chief whose tough-guy shtick can no longer camouflage his fundamental cowardice.

(…)

The only people clamoring for Mr. Libby’s freedom were the pundits who still believe that Saddam secured uranium in Africa and who still hope that any exoneration of Mr. Libby might make them look less like dupes for aiding and abetting the hyped case for war. That select group is not the Republican base so much as a roster of the past, present and future holders of quasi-academic titles at neocon think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute.

What this crowd never understood is that Mr. Bush’s highest priority is always to protect himself. So he stiffed them too. Had the president wanted to placate the Weekly Standard crowd, he would have given Mr. Libby a full pardon. That he served up a commutation instead is revealing of just how worried the president is about the beans Mr. Libby could spill about his and Dick Cheney’s use of prewar intelligence.

Valerie Wilson still has a civil suit pending. The Democratic inquisitor in the House, Henry Waxman, still has the uranium hoax underlying this case at the top of his agenda as an active investigation. A commutation puts up more roadblocks by keeping Mr. Libby’s appeal of his conviction alive and his Fifth Amendment rights intact. He can’t testify without risking self-incrimination. Meanwhile, we are asked to believe that he has paid his remaining $250,000 debt to society independently of his private $5 million “legal defense fund.”

The president’s presentation of the commutation is more revealing still. Had Mr. Bush really believed he was doing the right and honorable thing, he would not have commuted Mr. Libby’s jail sentence by press release just before the July Fourth holiday without consulting Justice Department lawyers. That’s the behavior of an accountant cooking the books in the dead of night, not the proud act of a patriot standing on principle.

When the furor followed Mr. Bush from Kennebunkport to Washington despite his efforts to duck it, he further underlined his embarrassment by taking his only few questions on the subject during a photo op at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. You know this president is up to no good whenever he hides behind the troops. This instance was particularly shameful, since Mr. Bush also used the occasion to trivialize the scandalous maltreatment of Walter Reed patients on his watch as merely “some bureaucratic red-tape issues.”

Asked last week to explain the president’s poll numbers, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center told NBC News that “when we ask people to summon up one word that comes to mind” to describe Mr. Bush, it’s “incompetence.” But cowardice, the character trait so evident in his furtive handling of the Libby commutation, is as important to understanding Mr. Bush’s cratered presidency as incompetence, cronyism and hubris.

Even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a consistent Bush and Libby defender, had to take notice. Furious that the president had not given Mr. Libby a full pardon (at least not yet), The Journal called the Bush commutation statement a “profile in non-courage.”

Wow, even the WSJ thinks Dubya’s chickenshit. Murdoch’s not the boss of them yet!

…Mr. Bush’s failure to have the courage of his own convictions was apparent early in his history, when he professed support for the Vietnam War yet kept himself out of harm’s way when he had the chance to serve in it. In the White House, he has often repeated the feckless pattern that he set back then and reaffirmed last week in his hide-and-seek bestowing of the Libby commutation. The first fight he conspicuously ran away from as president was in August 2001. Aspiring to halt federal underwriting of embryonic stem-cell research, he didn’t stand up and say so but instead unveiled a bogus “compromise” that promised continued federal research on 60 existing stem-cell lines. Only later would we learn that all but 11 of them did not exist….

Nowhere is this president’s non-courage more evident than in the “signing statements” The Boston Globe exposed last year. As Charlie Savage reported, Mr. Bush “quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.” Rather than veto them in public view, he signed them, waited until after the press and lawmakers left the White House, and then filed statements in the Federal Register asserting that he would ignore laws he (not the courts) judged unconstitutional. This was the extralegal trick Mr. Bush used to bypass the ban on torture. It allowed him to make a coward’s escape from the moral (and legal) responsibility of arguing for so radical a break with American practice.

In the end, it was also this president’s profile in non-courage that greased the skids for the Iraq fiasco. If Mr. Bush had had the guts to put America on a true wartime footing by appealing to his fellow citizens for sacrifice, possibly even a draft if required, then he might have had at least a chance of amassing the resources needed to secure Iraq after we invaded it.

But he never backed up the rhetoric of war with the stand-up action needed to prosecute the war. Instead he relied on fomenting fear, as typified by the false uranium claims whose genesis has been covered up by Mr. Libby’s obstructions of justice. Mr. Bush’s cowardly abdication of the tough responsibilities of wartime leadership ratified Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to go into Iraq with the army he had, ensuring our defeat.

(…)

No one can stop Mr. Bush from freeing a pathetic little fall guy like Scooter Libby. But only those who paid the ultimate price for the avoidable bungling of Iraq have the moral authority to pardon Mr. Bush.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good day for reading New York newspapers.

July 8th, 2007 at 07:49pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Bush,Cheney,Corruption/Cronyism,Libby/Plame,Politics,Quotes

Keeping Up With The Williamses

NYT Magazine has a fascinating feature about a genetic condition called Williams syndrome, which results in unusual gregariousness and verboseness, and a complete lack of “social fear,” in addition to some cognitive and physical impairments (I apologize for the length; there was an awful lot of juicy stuff to try to boil down):

If a person suffers the small genetic accident that creates Williams syndrome, he’ll live with not only some fairly conventional cognitive deficits, like trouble with space and numbers, but also a strange set of traits that researchers call the Williams social phenotype or, less formally, the “Williams personality”: a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition. The combination creates some memorable encounters. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once watched as a particularly charming 8-year-old Williams girl, who was visiting Sacks at his hotel, took a garrulous detour into a wedding ceremony. “I’m afraid she disrupted the flow of this wedding,” Sacks told me. “She also mistook the bride’s mother for the bride. That was an awkward moment. But it very much pleased the mother.”

Another Williams encounter: The mother of twin Williams boys in their late teens opened her door to find on her stoop a leather-clad biker, motorcycle parked at the curb, asking for her sons. The boys had made the biker’s acquaintance via C.B. radio and invited him to come by, but they forgot to tell Mom. The biker visited for a spell. Fascinated with how the twins talked about their condition, the biker asked them to speak at his motorcycle club’s next meeting. They did. They told the group of the genetic accident underlying Williams, the heart and vascular problems that eventually kill many who have it, their intense enjoyment of talk, music and story, their frustration in trying to make friends, the slights and cruelties they suffered growing up, their difficulty understanding the world. When they finished, most of the bikers were in tears.

(…)

The low I.Q., however, ignores two traits that define Williams more distinctly than do its deficits: an exuberant gregariousness and near-normal language skills. Williams people talk a lot, and they talk with pretty much anyone. They appear to truly lack social fear. Indeed, functional brain scans have shown that the brain’s main fear processor, the amygdala, which in most of us shows heightened activity when we see angry or worried faces, shows no reaction when a person with Williams views such faces. It’s as if they see all faces as friendly.

People with Williams tend to lack not just social fear but also social savvy. Lost on them are many meanings, machinations, ideas and intentions that most of us infer from facial expression, body language, context and stock phrasings. If you’re talking with someone with Williams syndrome and look at your watch and say: “Oh, my, look at the time! Well it’s been awfully nice talking with you . . . ,” your conversational partner may well smile brightly, agree that “this is nice” and ask if you’ve ever gone to Disney World. Because of this — and because many of us feel uneasy with people with cognitive disorders, or for that matter with anyone profoundly unlike us — people with Williams can have trouble deepening relationships. This saddens and frustrates them. They know no strangers but can claim few friends.

(…)

[Williams] is “an experiment of nature,” as the title of one paper puts it, perfect for studying not just how genes create intelligence and sociability but also how our powers of thought combine with our desire to bond to create complex social behavior — a huge arena of interaction that largely determines our fates.

(That seems a rather… callous way of putting it.)

[Ursula] Bellugi, who specializes in the neurobiology of language, was drawn to the linguistic strength that many Williamses displayed in the face of serious cognitive problems. The first person with Williams she met, in fact, came by referral from the linguist Noam Chomsky.

“The mother of that Williams teenager later connected me with two more, both in their teens,” Bellugi said. “I didn’t have to talk to them long to realize something special was going on. Here they had these great cognitive deficits. Yet they spoke with the most ardent and delightful animation and color.”

To understand this uneven cognitive profile, Bellugi gave an array of language and cognitive tests to three groups: Williams children and teenagers, Down syndrome kids with similar I.Q.’s and developmentally average peers. “We would do these warm-up interviews to get to know them, ask about their families,” said Bellugi, who, less than five feet tall and with a ready smile and an animated manner, is somewhat elfin and engagingly gregarious herself. “Only, the Williams kids would turn the tables. They’d tell you how pretty you look or ask, ‘Do you like opera?’ They would ornament their answers in a way other kids didn’t. For instance, you’d ask an adolescent, ‘What if you were a bird?’ The Down kids said things like: ‘I’m not a bird. I don’t fly.’ The Williams teens would say: ‘Good question! I’d fly through the air being free. If I saw a boy I’d land on his head and chirp.’ ”

…Having long studied the human capacity for language and its biological basis, Bellugi assumed that some extraordinary urge to use language drove this hypersociability: “The language just seemed to be erupting out of them.”

Then she attended a meeting of Williams families that included infants and toddlers. “That was about a year into my research project,” she says. “The room was full of little ones — babies, toddlers who weren’t speaking yet. And when I came in the room all the young children old enough to walk ran to the door to greet me. No clinging to Mom; they just broke away. And when I would talk to mothers holding infants — literally babes in arms — some of these babies would almost dive out of their mothers’ arms to meet me.

“I knew then I was wrong. The language wasn’t driving the sociability. If anything, it was the other way around.”

The article then takes a very interesting digression into the connection between sociability and cognition:

For 40 years or so, primatologists like Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky have been studying social behavior in chimps, gorillas, macaques, bonobos and baboons. Over the past decade that work has led to a unifying theory that explains not only a huge range of behavior but also why our brains are so big and what their most essential work is. The theory, called the Machiavellian-intelligence or social-brain theory, holds that we rise from a lineage in which both individual and group success hinge on balancing the need to work with others with the need to hold our own — or better — amid the nested groups and subgroups we are part of.

(…)

…Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.

According to Dunbar, no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

The article circles back to the Williamses and their inability to perceive social nuances, particularly negative ones like deception and aggression:

…Generating and detecting deception and veiled meaning requires not just the recognition that people can be bad but a certain level of cognitive power that people with Williams typically lack. In particular it requires what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is a clear concept of what another person is thinking and the recognition that the other person a) may see the world differently than you do and b) may actually be thinking something different from what he’s saying.

(…)

The most significant such finding is a dead connection between the orbitofrontal cortex, an area above the eye sockets and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. The orbitofrontal cortex (or OFC) is associated with (among other things) prioritizing behavior in social contexts, and earlier studies found that damage to the OFC reduces inhibitions and makes it harder to detect faux pas. The Berman team detected a new contribution to social behavior: They found that while in most people the OFC communicated with the amygdala when viewing threatening faces, the OFC in people with Williams did not. This OFC-amygdala connection worked normally, however, when people with Williams viewed nonsocial threats, like pictures of snakes, sharks or car crashes.

This appears to explain the amygdala’s failure in Williams to fire at the sight of frightening faces and suggests a circuit responsible for Williamses’ lack of social caution. If the results hold up, the researchers will have cleanly defined a circuit evolved specifically to warn of threats from other people. This could account not just for the lack of social fear in Williams, but with it the wariness that can motivate deeper understanding….

As usual, I don’t really have a point here, except that I am always fascinated by just how little it takes (Williams is caused by a flaw in the DNA “zipper” that loses about 25 genes out of 30,000) to knock someone’s brain well outside of the normal, and into an entirely different and even alien way of seeing the world. I’m also amazed at the selectiveness of it – that someone with Williams can recognize scary or threatening nonhuman stimuli, but not human ones.

On the other hand, that selectiveness fits with the social-brain theory: If our brains grew large for the specific purpose of managing social interactions, then it makes sense that those human interactions would be on an entirely different set of circuits from the nonhuman ones.

Do check out the full story, and watch the video of a young woman with Williams telling us about herself.

4 comments July 8th, 2007 at 06:21pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

Sunday Softball Blogging

Well, another 5-on-5 game – this time the batting team provided its own pitcher and catcher, and the opposite field was foul, so no rightfielder or second baseman. I went 6-for-8 with 4 runs, 3 RBI and a double, despite getting nailed in the ribs with an errant throw to lead off the game.

Defensively, I caught pretty much everything in left field, and pretty much nothing at first base. And once again, my team was victorious, something like 14-8. Woohoo!

2007 Stats: 6 games, .761 BA (35-46), 1.022 SLG, 4 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 21 runs, 17 RBI.

Career Stats: 53 games, .614 BA (226-368), .834 SLG, 36 2B, 6 3B, 11 HR, 130 runs, 102 RBI.

July 8th, 2007 at 03:57pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Softball

Here’s A Suggestion

So, Fox and the CBC are supposedly desperate to salvage the Democratic debate that Fox is hosting in Detroit:

Only three candidates, mostly lesser-knowns at that, have agreed to show up. The Big Three — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — said several months ago that they would not debate on the network that many Democrats believe tilts far to the right.

But organizers, including prominent members of the black caucus, are not ready to admit defeat. They still hope to entice (or shame) the front-runners into attending and, failing that, to devise an alternate format to add zest to the show beyond the lengthy discourses of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska).

Okay, how about this, then: Let the Democrats choose the moderator and post-debate analysts. Or at least give them veto power over the selections.

This, of course, assumes that Fox views the debate as something other than an opportunity to slime Democrats. So it’ll probably never happen.

July 8th, 2007 at 10:33am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Democrats,Media,Politics,Republicans,TV,Wankers


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