Where the soldiers are

EJ Dionne’s Memorial Day column today was about the need to actually remember what the holiday is for.  I’m sympathetic, but it does seem like every year we’re barraged with columns, editorials, etc., telling us to remember what the holiday is for.  Of course, if they really wanted to not have Memorial Day be the unofficial start of summer and all that entails, they could just move it.  In fact, I think most all our holidays are taken over by consumerism, etc., rather than remember what the holiday is for.

Okay, that out of the way, I found this particularly bit pretty interesting:

And, according to a2007 Defense Department report, more than half of our home-based military personnel — 54.5 percent of them — are stationed in only six states: California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Twelve states account for three-quarters of our service members. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a terrible principle when it comes to honoring those who protect us. But is there any doubt that it applies?

If you did this on a per capita basis, surely NC and Virginia would come out on top.  Notable to me, as these are the two states where I have spent the vast majority of my life (32 years in these two, 6 combined in Ohio and Texas).  I’ve never thought too much about it because I’ve pretty much always been around military personnel.  Growing up in Northern VA, I knew lots of people who worked at the Pentagon or similar NoVa environs.  In NC, we’ve got Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune both within a couple of hours, and I’ve seen a fair amount of personnel from there, not to mention a hefty load of future officers in my classes via ROTC.  It’s a common complaint among conservatives that liberals do not respect our military, and although we may complain about particular military missions (e.g., Iraq), I’ve never heard anything but respect for the rank-and-file personnel from my decidedly military colleagues.   On this day, and every day, liberals and conservatives alike, appreciate their service.

In praise of salt

NYT had a really interesting story yesterday about the role of salt in processed foods (cool slide show, too).  With the FDA looking to place limits on this, the industry has responded with a counter-offensive.  Essentially, if you want your foods without salt, here try this:

As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

There is, of course, no doubt, that salt is a contributing factor to high blood pressure, but it is clearly a complicated relationship as plenty of people with high sodium intake (e.g., me) have perfectly healthy blood pressure and low-sodium diets only have a modest impact on blood pressure.  About.com actually has a nice summary of the warring science on the issue.   The simple truth is salt makes food taste way better.  Maybe some day if I have blood pressure problems, I might worry about it (though, I’m planning on exercise to carry me through), but for now, I’ll stick with my salt.

In a quasi-related note, it reminded me of one of my favorite Malcolm Gladwell column’s ever, about ketchup and the power of Umami (I’m all about MSG ever since).

Just for fun

Huffington Post has a pretty funny slideshow of “funniest kids’ test answers.”  Some pretty good stuff.  I particularly liked this one:

False memories

I posted just a brief link last week to a pretty cool Slate feature that tried to see if they could implant false political memories in readers.  In my case, the false item was about a “controversial” Obama handshake with Iran’s nutty leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The feature also contained 3 real items to see if you could pick out which one was false.  In a short quiz, I got a little too smart by half, and thought that one of the details they had about the Terry Shiavo case was false (it was true), and actually semi-guessed that the Ahmainejad handshake was true, despite having no clear memories.  I didn’t make up a new memory, I just figured this was one of the sorts of things they talked about on Fox news for a couple days that had only peripherally invaded my consciousness.

Anyway, Will Saletan has followed that up with a really interesting run-down on the research about how successful psychologists have been in implanting truly false memories.  It only works for a minority of subjects, but its a substantial enough minority that it certainly calls into question “recovered memories” of abuse, so often used in molestation trials.  What I really love about this story is that it shows great social science in action.  Every time Elizabeth Loftus published a false memory experiment and people criticized it for some shortcoming, she came up with a new experiment which successfully addressed the shortcoming.  Here’s a terrific example:

Critics protested that Loftus still hadn’t proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects.  This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn’t abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.

I’ve long been intrigued by the fallibility of memory.  My favorite example concerns an event that happened in my family about 25 years ago.  I’m going to have to be somewhat vague so as to protect the reputation of certain male parental relations, but I’ll simply say that my dad engaged in a particularly memorable negative action in an argument with my sister (okay, he physically expressed displeasure with a Christmas gift).  My mom, my sister, her boyfriend/future husband, and I were all there.  A good 15 years after the even we all shared our reminiscences of it at a family dinner.  The amazing thing was that we all remembered this incredibly memorable event in surprisingly different and clearly incompatible ways.   I wouldn’t say any of had “false memories” but there’s no way more than one of us actually had a fully “accurate memory.”  And, naturally, each of us was convinced that we were right and the others were wrong.

Maybe Democracy is not the key to economic success

There was a really interesting NPR story this week comparing the economic growth in India as compared to China, and the “China envy” experienced in India.  Here’s the rub:

In the middle of the last century, India and China were in the same place economically. Now China is three times richer. Its childhood malnutrition rate is far lower than India’s.

Yes, Indians are free, Thapar says — free to be poor.

Partha Sen, director of the Delhi School of Economics, says that “democracy in an everyday sense, in terms of getting things the poor need, has clearly not functioned. Somehow democracy has failed us.”

Democracy moves slowly. People debate things. Infrastructure — roads, water, power — remains underdeveloped.

The Chinese government doesn’t have endless parliamentary debates and legal battles. It doesn’t ask a lot of questions. It does things — builds roads, trains, power plants.

Here’s the really interesting kicker:

“We economists think that a benevolent dictator — a benevolent dictator with a heart in the right place — could actually do a lot of good,” Prasad says.

The problem, he says, is that the economic record of dictators and single-party states is not very good. China seems to be an exception.

In many ways, the government of China is abhorrent, but when it comes to policies that create economic growth and raise living standards, the government really does function as a benevolent dictator.  And, if you are actually pursuing smart policies, being a dictator is way more efficient. Of course, most dictatorships don’t pursue the right policies, and here’s the genius of China’s leadership– maintaining dictatorial control, while putting the power of markets to work.  Ezra Klein explains:

As I understand the Chinese model, it goes something like this: The failure of central planning was that the people with the power didn’t make very good decisions, at least not when compared with the market. On the other side, the difficulty of democracy is that it’s slow, and the cacophony of voices can lead to paralysis and social breakdown. China’s approach has been to marry market planning with state control. It brings in private companies and then uses the government’s power to build the infrastructure they ask for. It lets private banks purchase up to 20 percent of state banks so that it gets private-sector expertise without relinquishing the public sector’s control. It lets people buy shares of their financial institutions so it can get the oversight of the market, but it doesn’t ever hand the market the reins. It uses the market to help plan, but it uses the state to act on those plans far faster and more decisively than the market ever could.

I don’t think that’s an easy model to emulate, and we should not too lightly gloss over the human rights abuses that come with this type of government, but it is a really fascinating success story.

Political corruption and the decline of local media

Jamelle Bouie, filling in for Yglesias in China, has an interesting post about how there is surely far more corruption in local politics than in national politics.   The biggest reason is a national media keeping our national politicians accountable, whereas state and local media are much less and declining:

Last year, the American Journalism Review reported that “only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at the nation’s state capitols, a 32 percent decrease from just six years ago.” What’s more, the vast majority of statehouses “have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago.” Simply put, it’s stupidly easy to be a corrupt local politician when media scrutiny is minimal or nonexistent.

I really liked this point, because it is something that David Simon, the creator of the Wire, emphasized frequently in interviews given during the media-focused fifth season.   State and local papers are really important for democracy, yet they’re shrinking and less able to do the meaningful part of their job all the time.

Might as well point out that the Compete Wire on DVD is on sale at Amazon for almost half price, just $129.

Which is worse– Jewish or homosexual in the USAF?

You’ve probably heard that the House voted to end DADT.  Smart way to do it, leave the ultimate decision up to the SecDef and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (who will in fact repeal it) for some nice political cover.  Despite all the controversy, this has become a very popular position.  CNN’s latest poll reports an amazingly high 80% support.  Here’s a great Tom Ricks post (Via Big Steve, of course) on the topic.

So, that said, Big Steve also linked to a really interesting story about discrimination in the military (especially against Jews) by right-wing Christians.  They seem to have taken over the Air Force academy, but these problems surely exist throughout the whole military to a degree.  Former Air Force JAG, Mikey Weinstein, is leading the charge against those trying to turn the US Military into a thoroughly evangelical Christian organization.  Here’s the opening:

Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein shares his hate mail with both friends and strangers the way elderly people show off photos of their grandkids. He has plenty of it to share. For the past four years, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been doing battle with a Christian subculture that, he believes, is trying to Christianize the U.S. armed forces with the help of a complicit Pentagon brass. He calls it the “fundamentalist Christian parachurch-military-corporate-proselytizing complex,” a mouthful by which he means holy warriors in contempt of the constitutional barrier between church and state.

“The scary thing about all this,” Weinstein says, “is it’s going on not with the blind eye of the Pentagon but with its full and totally enthusiastic support. And those who are not directly involved are passive about it. As the Talmud says, ‘silence is consent.'”

Obviously, legal discrimination (as it currently is for homosexuals) based on religion in the military will never be the case, but there’s clearly quite a bit of religious discrimination nonetheless.  Here’s to Weinstein’s crusade to end it.

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