Archive for December, 2009

Sore about Tora Bora

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

The New Republic publishes a must-read account of the battle of Tora Bora where Osama bin Laden reportedly narrowly escaped.

What really happened at Tora Bora? Not long after the battle ended, the answer to that question would become extremely clouded. Americans perceived the Afghan war as a stunning victory, and the failure at Tora Bora seemed like an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise upbeat story. By 2004, with George W. Bush locked in a tough reelection battle, some U.S. officials were even asserting, inaccurately, that bin Laden himself may not have been present at the battle.

The real history of Tora Bora is far more disturbing. Having reconstructed the battle–based on interviews with the top American ground commander, three Afghan commanders, and three CIA officials; accounts by Al Qaeda eyewitnesses that were subsequently published on jihadist websites; recollections of captured survivors who were later questioned by interrogators or reporters; an official history of the Afghan war by the U.S. Special Operations Command; an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and visits to the battle sites themselves–I am convinced that Tora Bora constitutes one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.

Security in America

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

“If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?” – Maureen Dowd

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

Remembering the year (biologist style)

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Olivia Judson adds a new post on different types of memory in honor of the end of the year.

Another year; another 584 million miles traveled on our endless journey ’round the sun; another set of joys and regrets, disasters and triumphs. And sitting here, reflecting on the year, I am also moved to reflect on the nature of memory — and on memory in nature. For the conscious, brain-based memories that we humans set so much store by are not the only memories out there.

She goes on to discuss memory in the immune system in animals and defensive memory in plants such as a wild tobacco.
We tend to think of memory as unique to animals. But it isn’t. Plants also have a form of memory. Yes: they, too, are shaped by what happens to them, and alter their responses to future events based on their experiences in the past.


Tobacco plants attacked for the first time take longer to mount their defense than tobacco plants that have previously experienced an attack. This isn’t because the previously attacked plants keep on producing a higher level of nicotine — they don’t. Nicotine is expensive for a plant to make (it takes a lot of energy and requires large amounts of nitrogen, which the plant might prefer to use for other purposes), so they only do it when necessary. No: the previously attacked plants respond to new leaf damage more quickly. And plants that have been attacked twice are faster to respond than plants that have only been damaged once. Somehow, they remember.
I saw Olivia Judson on a NOVA program today (on Tuesday the 29th) discussing evolution which got me thinking. Just as scientists compare and contrast, say, the genomes and embryos of different forms of life to learn their evolutionary heritage, I wonder if anyone has looked into whether plant and immune system (as well as any possible others) memory are evolutionary precursors to conscience memory. What, if any, are their relationships? I threw that question up in the comments section under her blog post so if anyone responds with anything interesting I’ll share it.

On Solving Questions

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Science and religion approach humanity’s puzzles differently. Take the classic chicken or the egg dilemma. Science answers the egg; religion presupposes chicken.

I just thought of that randomly while in the shower (weird, I know) and wanted to share. Here’s a CNN article I found from 2006 which backs me up a bit.

Put simply, the reason is down to the fact that genetic material does not change during an animal’s life.

Therefore the first bird that evolved into what we would call a chicken, probably in prehistoric times, must have first existed as an embryo inside an egg.
By the way, religion (at least Christianity and Judaism) needs to presume the chicken because why would a God just make an egg first? Also, in Genesis it says that He created fowls not eggs.

Why he’s Not a Christian

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Russell was an intellectual giant whose arguments still hold as much force today as they did 50 years ago.

Putting down the hounds of heaven

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Christopher Hitchens speaks to a group of nonreligious military personal in the latest Vanity Fair. Evangelical Christianity disturbingly is becoming systematic in the military, led of course by the chaplains.

More alarming still is a book called Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel, by an air-force lieutenant colonel named William McCoy, publicity for which describes the separation of church and state as a “twisted idea.” Nor is this the book’s only publicity: it comes—with its direct call for a religion-based military—with an endorsement from General David Petraeus.

James Madison, as I have discussed before, believed that chaplains were unconstitutional. They seem to be leading the proselytizing within and by the military.

The only certain winners would be the death cultists of jihad, who are already marveling at their luck in being proved right about the Americans as “crusaders.” This is as near to mutiny and treason as one could hope to sail and still wear the uniform.

And please do not think for a single second that, if proselytizing in our armed forces is permitted to extremist Christians, the precedent will not be taken up by other fanatics as well. There was a time when a man named Abdurahman Alamoudi was operating freely in this country, and even being deployed as a “moderate” Muslim spokesman by the State Department. More than once received at the White House, he also helped found an outfit with the intriguing name of the Muslim Armed Forces and Veteran Affairs Council, which was used to select Islamic chaplains in the armed services. Mr. Alamoudi’s run of luck ended in 2004, when he was given a long sentence in federal prison for activities related to terrorism.

One often hears conservatives complain about political correctness – and often they are right to complain. But any honest judgement has to conclude that part of the reason Christianism in the military is left unchallenged is due to not wanting to offend. So I’d question whether they really have a principled stand against political correctness or just a fondness for the character of the views which are often “politically incorrect.”

You know it’s bad when…

December 19, 2009 Leave a comment

Bill O’Reilly is now the reasonable one on Fox News.

Liberte, Egalite, Soins de Sante or: Liberty, Equality, Healthcare

December 17, 2009 Leave a comment
Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of pro-capitalist (anti-socialist) libertarian magazine Reason, writes an thought provoking essay on why French healthcare is better than the American alternative.
Those who (like me) oppose ObamaCare, need to understand (also like me, unfortunately) what it’s like to be serially rejected by insurance companies even though you’re perfectly healthy. It’s an enraging, anxiety-inducing, indelible experience, one that both softens the intellectual ground for increased government intervention and produces active resentment toward anyone who argues that the U.S. has “the best health care in the world.”


One of the main attractions of moving from freelance status to a full-time job was the ability to affix a stable price on my health insurance.

This is the exact opposite of the direction in which we should be traveling in a global just-in-time economy, with its ideal of entrepreneurial workers breaking free of corporate command and zipping creatively from project to project. Don’t even get me started on the Kafkaesque ordeal of switching jobs without taking any time off, yet going uncovered by anything except COBRA for nearly two months even though both employers used the same health insurance provider. That incident alone cost me thousands of dollars I wouldn’t have paid if I had controlled my own insurance policy.

Of course, America does not have a free market healthcare system, which I think Welch would prefer above all else. At times it seems America blends most of the worst aspects of all the systems. I think the healthcare plan that I previously wrote about would be best but this article makes me consider the political realities and what that leaves for available options. If it is politically impossible to achieve a more truly free market plan (with national coverage for catastrophe) what is the next best option? Is the perfect getting in the way of the good?

Budding Prospects

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment
Run for the hills! Marijuana legalization may happen in California.

Advocates of the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act say they have gathered more than enough signatures to qualify the initiative for California’s November 2010 ballot.

Does this really scare anyone?

We need less common cents.

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

As I’ve argued before, the penny needs to go. The New Republic makes the case that President Obama should follow through with his campaign promise to consider abolishing the penny.

[T]he other (arguably stronger) case for abolishing the penny–saving time lost to fumbling cashiers–remains as solid as ever. Considering that pennies add 2 to 2.5 seconds to each cash transaction, economist Robert Whaples has calculated this country’s penny-induced productivity loss at $300 million annually. Former Bush economic adviser Gregory Mankiw puts the figure at $1 billion, while anti-penny activist Jeff Gore argues that it’s actually in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

Now that pennies cost more to make than they are worth there is every reason to rid our monetary system of this zinc-plated environmental disaster.
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