Mirror, mirror on the wall

A few weeks ago I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker about the neurobiology of itching.  Among the more interesting aspects of the article were the medical uses of mirrors to essentially cure persons of unexplainable, chronic itches, as well as phantom limb problems.  Yesterday's Science Times likewise had a fascinating article on mirrors and human perception.  Some of the more interesting tidbits:

Other researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect
human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in
a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful
and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups
performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V.
Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror
were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social
stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

?When
people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think
about what they are doing,? Dr. Bodenhausen said. ?A byproduct of that
awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more
desirable ways of behaving.? Physical self-reflection, in other words,
encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the
Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you
know yourself.

This finding is just really great.  You are not as attractive as you think:

For that matter, humans do not necessarily see the face in the mirror
either. In a report titled ?Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in
Self-Recognition,? which appears online in The Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described
experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of
themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified
their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were
computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also
likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier,
homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine,
unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the
result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to
identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing,
participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

And here's something that Kim refuses to believe (and, she's not alone):

When we look in the mirror, our relative beauty is not the only
thing we misjudge. In a series of studies, Dr. Bertamini and his
colleagues have interviewed scores of people about what they think the
mirror shows them. They have asked questions like, Imagine you are
standing in front of a bathroom mirror; how big do you think the image
of your face is on the surface? And what would happen to the size of
that image if you were to step steadily backward, away from the glass?

People
overwhelmingly give the same answers. To the first question they say,
well, the outline of my face on the mirror would be pretty much the
size of my face. As for the second question, that?s obvious: if I move
away from the mirror, the size of my image will shrink with each step.

Both
answers, it turns out, are wrong. Outline your face on a mirror, and
you will find it to be exactly half the size of your real face. Step
back as much as you please, and the size of that outlined oval will not
change: it will remain half the size of your face (or half the size of
whatever part of your body you are looking at), even as the background
scene reflected in the mirror steadily changes. Importantly, this
half-size rule does not apply to the image of someone else moving about
the room. If you sit still by the mirror, and a friend approaches or
moves away, the size of the person?s image in the mirror will grow or
shrink as our innate sense says it should.

There's a few more interesting tidbits in the full article.  

About that surge

I know I've posted before on the topic of the Surge, and how all this “Surge is working” talking points really misses the big picture about what the surge was actually supposed to accomplish.  Given, that the McCain response this week to Obama's big Middle-East success is to basically whine, “but he didn't support the surge and he's not smart enough to realize it's working” it seems necessary to revisit the issue.  As Matt Yglesias is much smarter on the issue than me, I'll outsource:

After a couple of days worth of chaotic retreat, the right wing
seems to have settled on a fallback position, namely that it's only
possible to now contemplate withdrawing from Iraq because things have
gotten so much better and all improvements in conditions — including things that happened before the surge began
— are due to the surge. Thus, despite Obama apparently having shown
good judgment on the question of invading Iraq and seeming to have the
best policy moving forward, “really” McCain is vindicated.

In addition to the somewhat magical thinking in which things like
the “awakening,” the Sadrist cease fire, and the natural reduction in
violence that comes with a completed process of ethnic cleansing become
consequences of the surge, this misses the larger point of the surge
debate. Surge opponents said the surge was pointless — a tactical
smokescreen to obscure the fact that hawks have an unworkable strategy.
And now, over 18 months after the 2006 midterms showed that the voters
want an end to this war, the hawks still can't explain what's been accomplished
in exchange for the hundreds of dead and hundreds of billions spent
over what, say, following the Baker-Hamilton recommendations would have
cost us. The basic shape of the Middle East is the same, our posture in
Iraq is still unsustainable, we're still getting nowhere with Iran, and
things are worse than ever in Afghanistan. Probably, but not certainly,
the surge has helped save some Iraqi lives. But fundamentally, we're
still going to have to leave Iraq and it's still the case — just as it
was before the war — that Iraq might muddle along okay or might turn
into a disaster all depending on what choices Iraqi leaders make.

“Dumb as a sock”

I did my best to try and explain the Iraq War to David yesterday.  He wanted to know why we didn't just use the atomic bomb since that had worked out okay in WWII.  In fact, he yelled out to me while trying to fall asleep to explain why it had been okay to drop the bomb on Japan (that's right, my 8 year old gets insomnia worrying about history).  Anyway, after explaining the Iraq War in a thoroughly objective and non-partisan manner, David responds, “George Bush is dumb as a sock.”  Believe it or not, I really have been teaching respect for the president all these years, but mostly I was pleased to see David come up with a put-down I would have used myself.

The double standard

I was simply going to blog about McCain's latest gaffe– discussing the non-existent border between Iraq and Pakistan.  It is pretty clear, though, that McCain actually did mean to say Afghanistan and that this is a genuine misstatement, rather than an actual lack of knowledge (Sunni-Shia?) masquerading as misstatement.  That's never really stopped the press corps before, though.  What really bothers me about this is the double standard.  Yeah, John McCain has certainly been passionate about foreign affairs for a long time, but I remain unconvinced that he actually understands the way the world works all that well or is particularly knowledgeable on the subject.  Yet, the “liberal media” seems to unfailingly give McCain a pass on these things, no matter what idiocy or “misstatement” leaves his lips. 

Media critic extraordinaire, Eric Bohelert (“The Press vs. Al Gore” is a classic of what is wrong with contemporary political journalism), has a nice column at Media Matters comparing the media's coverage of the silly sideshow of Jesse Jackson calling for Obama's “nuts” in comparison to McCain grabbing the third rail of American politics and hanging on, by calling Social Security “a disgrace.”  Given the media's love for McCain, he escaped unscathed.  Some highlights:

Journalism, by nature, is not difficult. It really
isn't. Most of the
key attributes for solid reporting and editing come naturally to most people;
fairness, hard work, and — most
important — common
sense.

News judgment, for instance, consists mostly of editors and
producers using common sense to determine, based on the limited resources at
hand, which breaking events and stories should be covered, and which ones can
be set aside as less important…

…the Beltway press corps has become so borderline
dysfunctional that even the simplest tasks, such as selecting which stories to
cover — such as using common sense — now escape most of the major players at
the mainstream news organizations.

Two events in recent days reaffirmed that sad conclusion,
when entire news organizations opted to throw all sorts of time and attention
at what was essentially a pointless campaign-related sideshow, while simultaneously
displaying blanket indifference to what should have been the campaign story of
the week, if not the month or possibly the entire summer.

Last week, after being hyped by Matt Drudge and Fox News,
the Beltway press unanimously decided that Rev. Jesse Jackson's whispered comments, picked up on a live television set mic,
in which he expressed anger with Sen. Barack Obama and used some crude language
to convey his sentiments (i.e. he wanted to cut off Obama's
“nuts”), represented a hugely important event. It was the most-covered
campaign story of the week.

By contrast, McCain
said
at a campaign appearance in Denver on July 7 that the Social Security
system as structured in America,
in which younger people
pay taxes to support the benefits of retirees, is an “absolute disgrace” — but his proclamation was
mostly passed over as being irrelevant. The disconnect between the coverage was
astounding.

As of Sunday morning, only 17 major metropolitan newspapers
in America had reported on McCain's “disgraceful” remark, in a
total of 20 articles and columns, according to search of Nexis.

By contrast, more than 50 major U.S.
dailies published a total of 126 articles and columns about the Jackson story. Several
influential newspapers went back to the story ad nauseam.
Combined, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Times published 39 different
articles and columns that referenced the Jackson-Obama controversy.

My earlier (and inferior) take on the “disgrace” here.  

The best news story I read yesterday

From the BBC:

An Australian woman has been saved by a pet dog
which leapt to her aid after she was attacked by a large kangaroo, her
son has said.

The marsupial assaulted Rosemary Neal, 65, at her farm near
Mudgee in New South Wales, 265km (160 miles) north-west of Sydney, her
son, Darren, said.

“The kangaroo just jumped up and launched straight at her,” he said.

“My dog heard her screaming and bolted down and chased him off. If it wasn't for the dog, she'd probably be dead.”

The solution to overagressive kangaroos?  Sharks

A kangaroo met an unlikely death after it bounded into the
surf in southern Australia
and was mauled by a shark, according to eyewitnesses.

Maybe they'll have an reenactment of that some day on one of the nature specials I watch with David.

Maliki endorses Obama

It is absolutely huge news that Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki quite clearly endorsed Obama's withdrawal plan in an interview with a German magazine.  The “liberal media,” however, seems to have given this perfunctory attention at best, however.  It seems to me that had Maliki publicly repudiated Obama's plan, this would have been big headlines everywhere, not the subtle subheadlines garnered in the Post and the Times, e.g., “Obama Gets Look At Afghan War Zone: Iraqi Leader Backs 16-Month Pullout Plan, Magazine Reports.”  This is a really big deal.  First Jon Chait:

The fact that Iraq's prime Minister has
endorsed, by name, Barack Obama's plan to withdraw most U.S. troops
from his country in 16 months is a huge, huge deal. Most commentary has
focused on the political repercussions — as a GOP strategist
succinctly put it to Marc Ambinder,
“We're f***ed” — and that certainly seems to be the case. How can John
McCain paint Obama's plan as wildly naive or irresponsible when the
Iraqi government favors it too?

The Bush administration and the McCain campaign have replied by
suggesting that Maliki doesn't really want an American withdrawal, he's
just saying it for domestic political purposes. Maybe so. But that just
underscores the point. If Maliki has to publicly favor American
withdrawal, this shows that the Iraqi polity is not going to stand for
an extended occupation. President Bush may not have been sincere either
when he came out for a prescription drug benefit and campaign finance
reform, but he signed those measures because he had to. That's the
nature of democracy. If Iraq is going to be a democracy, then we're not
going to stay there forever. So the bigger story, beyond the
presidential ramifications, is that we know how the Iraq occupation is
going to end.

Meanwhile, the paucity of coverage of these remarks is inexplicable.
The big newspapers have given this story a paragraph at most.
Unbelievably, The Page gave this headline to Maliki's walkback: “Maliki Clarifies Seemingly Pro-Obama Remarks.”

Seemingly? It was a direct endorsement of the idea. And, for that
matter, Clarifies? There was no attempt to clarify, only to muddy the
waters to minimize the embarassment to President Bush and his allies.

And Ezra Klein:

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is going to have some trouble worming away from this 2004 Council on Foreign Relations transcript.
In it, McCain is asked, ?What would or should we do if, in the
post-June 30th period, a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us
to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there?”
He answered:

Well, if that scenario evolves than I think it?s
obvious that we would have to leave because ? if it was an elected
government of Iraq, and we?ve been asked to leave other places in the
world. If it were an extremist government then I think we would have
other challenges, but I don?t see how we could stay when our whole
emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over
to the Iraqi people.?

Ezra's full post also nicely deconstructs McCain's ridiculous response, if you are curious.  I should hope that this will actually begin to generate the level of coverage it deserves, but hey, why report on things like this when important things are happening like Jesse Jackson getting caught threatening to castrate Obama.

Dick Cheny: war criminal

The New Yorker's Jane Mayer has a new book out this week on Bush's ill-conceived War on Terror– The Dark Side.  I've read a number of reviews and caught a great interview with Mayer on Fresh Air.  For those of us who've been paying attention these past few years, there's not a lot of new information, but clearly Mayer puts it all together in a fairly amazing indictment of the current administration.  At the center of the all the most immoral and most wrong-headed decisions sit Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington.  Not that anything will ever come of it, but actually, the truth is that by virtually all agreed upon international standards, Dick Cheney is a war criminal.  Cheney and Addington were clearly responsible for torture policies that undoubtedly violated the Geneva conventions and U.S. Law.  Mayer points out that they thought they were doing their best to protect the country, but what is also amazing is just how dumb they were about it.  The torture methods that they turned to were used by the North Koreans to elicit false confessions from captured Americans.  Basically, they engineered a policy they knew was quite successful at gathering false confessions and went with it.  Amazing.

Over at Salon, Louis Bayard has a nice review:

The very first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick
Cheney descended like a cloud on “Meet the Press” to outline the Bush
administration's response. “We'll have to work sort of the dark side,
if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence
world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done
quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are
available to our intelligence agencies — if we are going to be
successful. That's the world these folks operate in. And, uh, so it's
going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to
achieve our objectives.”

Around the nation, one presumes, numbed heads were nodding in approval. Whatever it takes to get those bastards.
The true nature of our Faustian bargain would not become clear until
later, and maybe it needed a journalist as steely and tenacious as Jane
Mayer to give us the full picture. “The Dark Side”
is about how the war on terror became “a war on American ideals,” and
Mayer gives this story all the weight and sorrow it deserves. Many
books get tagged with the word “essential”; hers actually is…

And so we must ask ourselves at last if terror is the best answer
to terror. Mayer has her doubts. “Torture works in several ways,” she
summarizes. “It can intimidate enemies, it can elicit false
confessions, and it can produce true confessions. Setting aside the
moral issues, the problem is recognizing what's true.” Mohammed
“confessed” to planning the assassinations of Presidents Clinton and
Carter, as well as Pope John Paul II. Zubayda, under assault, spun
outlandish tales of “plots to blow up American banks, supermarkets,
malls, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn
Bridge, and nuclear power plants,” sending law-enforcement officials
scurrying down any number of blind alleys.

The greatest damage came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Chief of an
al-Qaida training camp, he was captured by Pakistanis shortly after
9/11 and handed over to Egyptian interrogators, who pressed him for
damaging information on Saddam Hussein. Al-Libi didn't even understand
what “biological weapons” were, and at first he was so confused by the
line of questioning he couldn't come up with a story. Soon enough, he
figured out what his interrogators wanted, and the tale he fabricated
— WMD flowing in an unbroken line from Saddam to al-Qaida — became a
decisive factor in the decision to go to war. When asked later why he
had lied, al-Libi had a simple explanation: “They were killing me. I
had to tell them something.”

My ultimate liberal fantasy is for Dick Cheney to go on trial for war crimes.  Just as bad as the immorality of torturing persons, many of whom were innocent, is the immorality of degrading America's ideals for a demonstrably stupid policy.  Not likely, but one can dream.

Better schools? Fire more teachers

Recently in Slate, John Fisman wrote about the great difficulty in predicting who will be a good teacher and who will not be.  Unfortunately, it seems almost impossible to predict whether one will be a quality teacher based on information prior to any actual teaching experience.  Thus, the only way to separate out good from bad teachers is to fire the bad ones after that point has been made manifest from their actual teaching.  Alas, teachers unions generally don't approve of bad teachers (alright, any teachers) being fired.  Hence a problem.  Fisman profiles a New York City school which saw dramatic improvement when the principal ran off all the bad teachers– but the teachers were not fired, just transferred to other schools. 

The proffered solution: teacher apprenticeship:

What if there were a way to screen out the bad teachers before
they get entrenched? Currently, New York City teachers get their union
cards their first day on the job. In theory they're on probation for
three years after that, but in practice very few are forced out.
Lombardi suggests replacing this system with an apprenticeship program.
Rather than requiring teaching degrees (which don't seem to improve
value-added all that much), new recruits would have a couple of years
of in-school training. There would then come a day of reckoning, when
teachers-to-be would face a serious evaluation before securing union
membership and a job for life.

Lombardi's proposal isn't without its problems and complications: What
would the effect be on the morale of older teachers? Would the teachers
unions ever agree to such a system? But none seems insurmountable.
Researchers Kane and Staiger, together with coauthor Robert Gordon, have also suggested an apprenticelike system and have put forth a detailed proposal on how to implement it.

Sound fair to me.  I got six years to prove to NC State that I was worth keeping my job.  Though, in all honestly, I don't know that I necessarily deserve lifetime job security based on those six years.  Not that I'm complaining.  Anyway, I digress.  Fisman sums up with why this really matters:

We live in an age of increasing inequality. While it's not fair to park
the problem of global inequities at the doorstep of teachers unions,
the continued floundering of public education in America is at least
partly to blame: Education is an awfully good predictor of future earnings,
and keeping bad teachers in classrooms filled with kids from poor
families certainly helps to reinforce the cycle of poverty. The
difference between a teacher in the 25th percentile (a very good teacher) and one at the 75th
percentile (a not very good teacher) translates into a 10 percentile
point difference in their students' test scores. (As a frame of
reference, on the SAT, 10 percentile points translates into an 80 or so
point difference in raw test score.) After a string of good teachers or
bad teachers, it's easy to see how you can end up with very wide gaps
in student achievement. And this is all the more tragic since at least
part of the answer?doing a better job of evaluating and selecting
teachers?is readily at hand.

The whole article (it's pretty brief) is really worth your time.

The New Yorker cover

Wow.  I'm really shocked by the hysterical, overheated reaction to this week's New Yorker cover.

Fortunately, some cooler heads at Slate and Salon have prevailed and deconstructed how ridiculous all this overreaction is.  First, Salon's Gary Kamiya:

It's official: The Bush era has made liberals so terrified of
right-wing smears it has caused them to completely lose their sense of
humor.

Much as I hate to repeat one of Rush Limbaugh's flat, stale and
unprofitable applause lines, that's the only conclusion I can draw
after witnessing the left-wing blogosphere's bizarre reaction to the
New Yorker cover depicting Barack Obama in the Oval Office as a
dishdasha-clad Muslim terrorist, exchanging a “terrorist fist jab” with
Michelle Obama, who is dressed like a latter-day Angela Davis with huge
'fro, combat boots, assault rifle and bandolier of bullets — while
Osama bin Laden looks approvingly on from a picture frame and an
American flag burns merrily in the presidential fireplace. To judge
from the reaction of much of the left, you'd think that New Yorker
editor David Remnick had morphed into some kind of hideous hybrid of
Roger Ailes and Roland Barthes and was waging an insidious Semiotic War
against Obama.

 I don't know what lugubrious planet these people are on, but I
definitely don't want any of them writing material for Jon Stewart.

and Slate's Jack Shafer:

Although every critic of the New Yorker understood the
simple satire of the cover, the most fretful of them worried that the
illustration would be misread by the ignorant masses who don't
subscribe to the magazine. Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm wrote,
“That's the problem with satire. A lot of people won't get the joke. Or
won't want to. And will use it for non-humorous purposes, which isn't
the New Yorker's fault.” Malcolm continues in this vein,
calling it a “problem” that “there's no caption on the cover to ensure
that everyone” will understand the punch line.

Here's ABC News' Jake Tapper singing the harmony line:

Intent
factors into these matters, of course, but no Upper East Side
liberal?no matter how superior they feel their intellect is?should
assume that just because they're mocking such ridiculousness, the
illustration won't feed into the same beast in emails and other media.
It's a recruitment poster for the right-wing.

Calling
on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions
of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to
give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker's
detractors desire. I don't know whether to be crushed by that
realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals
in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture
for himself…

Only weak thinkers fear strong images. The
publication that convenes itself as a polite dinner party, serving only
strained polenta and pureed peas, need not invite me to sup.

Not much too add beyond what these two have said, but I honestly feel like the liberal blogosphere– a place I have come to rely upon for the smartest political analysis out there– really embarrassed itself on this one.

Math and Editorials

The Washington Post took a look at McCain's budget plan, and surprise, surprise, the numbers don't come close to matching up with reality and are intentionally and profoundly misleading.  Of course, there's been all sorts of “he said, she said” articles written about how both candidates are fudging their numbers, but whereas Obama's numbers may be unrealistically optimistic, they are not that far off, and certainly bear a passing relationship to reality.  McCain's– not so much. 

In an editorial, the Post simply sums it up, thusly: “The plan is not credible.”  The editorial goes on to deconstruct the political impossibility and fundamental dishonesty of McCain's budget plan.  One thing that I found quite interesting about this, though, is that it appears as an editorial  The truth is, though, there's no reason it should not run as an A1 news story.  Any way you look at it, McCain's numbers do not add up, and this editorial is based on researched facts, not speculative opinions.  It is a shame the Post did not have the courage to simply run this as a news story and chose to pretend this damning, fact-based criticism of McCain is opinion.

The internets

Talk about being out of touch with ordinary Americans– John McCain has never even used the internet.  Your typical trash collector these days is probably more internet-literate than John McCain.  This video wonderfully satirizes McCain's ignorance. 

I'll just borrow Ezra's smart commentary on the matter:

Meanwhile, McCain's confession that he soon hopes to be able to use a computer to access the internet all by himself
really throws Gore's enthusiastic promotion of his own role in helping
the internet into sharper relief, doesn't it? Gore may have been
infelicitous in the phrasing of his comment (which was then
substantially distorted to look even worse), but he truthfully revealed
himself to have been decades ahead of the political system, and indeed
the country, in understanding the single most transformative technology
of our times. Eight years later — eight years in which the internet
only became more important, mind you — McCain is admitting that he's
decades behind the political system, and the country, in
learning to use the interwebs. Yet McCain's admission is seen as sort
of cute, in a doddering oh-Grandpa-Simpson sort of way, while Gore's
comments apparently revealed him as unfit to be president.

Waterboarding

Christopher Hitchens actually volunteered himself to be waterboarded and then write about it for Vaity Fair.  You can watch the rather disturbing video here and read about it here.  No matter how much the Bush administration wants to call it “harsh interrogation,” it is torture, plain and simple. Waterboarding is not “simulated drowning,” rather it is drowning that stops before it kills the victim.  Here is some of Hitchens' firsthand description:

You may have read by now the official lie about
this treatment, which is that it ?simulates? the feeling of drowning.
This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are
drowning?or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled
conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying
the pressure. The ?board? is the instrument, not the method.
You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly
brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few
flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers
of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head
downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of
water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of
my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my
breath for a while and then had to exhale and?as you might
expect?inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight
against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and
annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was
breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere
water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable
relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling
layers pulled off me. I find I don?t want to tell you how little time I
lasted.

It disgusts me that many Americans, and worse, our leaders would like to define American morality downward– “but the terrorists behead people.”  So long as we look to terrorists for our moral and ethical principles, we might as well hang it up as a nation.

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