Month: August 2013

What will you name your Brain-in-a-Jar(TM)?

 

Abby?

Lab-Grown Model Brains

In an Austrian laboratory, a team of scientists has grown three-dimensional models of embryonic human brains. These “cerebral organoids” are made from stem cells, which are simply bathed in the right cocktail of nutrients and grown in a spinning chamber. Over a few weeks, they arrange themselves into pea-sized balls of white tissue, which recapitulate some of the complex features of a growing brain, including distinct layers and regions.

On the one hand, awesome! On the other hand, what if *coughsplutterahem* consciousness emerges from the brain once it reaches a certain degree physical maturity?

Babies Learn to Recognize Words in the Womb

[P]regnant mothers listened to a recording that included a nonsensical word several times a week. By the time the babies were born, they had heard the word over 25,000 times. After birth, brain activity of infants who had heard the made up word showed signs of recognition upon hearing it again, while the control group did not.

If researchers eventually grow a brain to sufficient maturity, would they be able to expose it via SCIENCE! (TBA) to language in such a way that they could test the brain for recognition? Could you teach such a brain enough language for it to understand when you tell it, “just btw, you’re a brain in a jar. You’ve never actually been a person.” For that matter, would you be ethically obligated to inform it of its peculiar circumstances?

Would you give it a name? “Specimen X23CQ42M” is just so awkward.

Could it develop a personality?

Would one need to go through IRB to conduct experiments on it?

Do you want this brain upset at you if you’re using it in brain-to-brain body control and/or brain-to-machine  control research?

I’m no Luddite, but I think one really does have to wonder about the ramifications here. We can hope and wish for all scientists to be pillars of virtue, but it hasn’t been that long since human vivisection was an issue. Dr. Mengele is within the living memory of a great many. Animal vivisection is still a thing.  It seems that nearly every day, there’s a new reason to believe that there’s more than a handful of scientists willing to generate whatever research results their corporate and/or governmental sponsors demand of them. At what point will we absolutely have to answer these apparently frivolous questions? To what degree do we need to be concerned about unethical research transgressing boundaries we can’t even imagine yet?

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Image credit: Kazarelth @ flikr.com . Licensed under Creative Commons.

Prediction: President Obama announces NSA panel on…

If you caught my article about President Obama’s picks for the NSA review panel somewhere in the last 24 hours, or if you’ve spotted other posts on the subject elsewhere (a mixed bag, that), you might have noticed that the whole messy story is predicated on an unnamed source/single source blog post from ABC News.  A quick review of a great many websites today has yet to reveal a single confirmation.  By all means, please correct me if I’m mistaken.

Even stranger is the occasional silence surrounding the story.  Who has had nothing to say (that I could find)?

CBS
NBC
CNN
Rush Limbaugh
Rachel Maddow
Glenn Beck
Chris Matthews
Drudge Report
Chris Hayes

Surely that motley crew can’t be in cahoots, right?

Who else has been silent?  President Obama, as far as I can tell.  ABC’s Levine indicated the announcement would come today.  Today came and went with nary a word from the White House.  Again, correct me if I missed the announcement for which I searched high and low.  Now, why might we be waiting with baited breath for the real deal?  Well, Obama, savvy political chess player that he is, has a well-developed habit of making unsavory announcements on Friday, so that we can all get distracted with all things weekend.  Surely he’ll make his announcement tomorrow, right?

No, I don’t think so.  I could be wrong (like that would be a first!), but there’s another Friday coming up that would be absolutely ideal, being both really, really close to today and leading right into a lovely three day vacation weekend of barbecues and a dire lack of giving shits.  Naturally, I mean Labor Day.

Prediction: President Obama will announce the composition of his all insider outsider panel on August 30.  Don’t worry, right as Cass Sunstein gets his uber-creepy day in the sun, we’ll be distracted from giving shits once again by something truly momentous like a drunken celebrity, or maybe even pictures of cats.

Who needs that annoying fourth amendment, anyway?

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Image credit: Spixey @ flikr.com.  Licensed under Creative Commons.

Obama’s picks for “outsider” NSA review — looks like the fix is in

Spy vs. Spy
Spy vs. Spy

This just in via ABC News blogger Mike Levine:

White House Picks Panel to Review NSA Programs

I don’t know whether ABC’s Mike Levine just rubber-stamped brief bios of the panel picks or if there were any degree of research done, but here’s what I’ve come up with regarding what President Obama refers to as “outside experts.”

Right off the bat, let’s look at one detail fairly well buried in Levine’s blog post at ABC.

In 60 days, the review panel will provide an interim report to the director of national intelligence, who will then brief the president on the panel’s findings.

Note how Levine fails to mention James Clapper by name. Isn’t that just a touch odd in an article about such a momentous occasion, especially an article rife with names, especially when the name omitted is that of someone folks on both the left and right would like to see, by respectable majorities, prosecuted for perjury? That James Clapper will receive the interim report and brief the President. Feel better yet?

So let’s take a closer look at these “outsider” panel picks.

Michael Morrell

ABC/Levine:

Morrell was acting director of the CIA until March, when John Brennan was sworn in as director.

Morrell has worked at the CIA since 1980, holding a variety of senior positions, according to the CIA. In fact, he was serving as President George W. Bush’s intelligence briefer on the day of the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks.

Independent citizen “journalist” (read: me):

Morrell’s bio at allgov.com had this to say:

Morell served as a presidential briefer, i.e., chief of the staff who presents the President’s Daily Brief, for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and he was with President Bush on September 11, 2001. After serving as executive assistant to CIA Director George J. Tenet, from 2003 to 2006, during which time the CIA was engaged in torture [emphasis added], Morell took a secret assignment overseas, including in London, UK.

Just peachy.

Things really start to get interesting at Wikipedia, though.  The Wikipedia article shows that Morrell only just recently retired from his post as Deputy Director of the CIA, and that he served as Acting Director twice. Why did her retire? According to Wikipedia, “to devote more time to his family and to pursue other professional opportunities.”

I did say that things only start to get interesting there, right?  What did The Atlantic Wire have to say about Morrell’s resignation? Oh, nothing much, certainly nothing to suggest that he resigned because of his role in deleting mentions of terrorism in the Benghazi talking points. Oh, wait. I lie. That’s exactly what the article is about.

My takeaway? This “outsider” was an insider to no less than three presidents and their intelligence apparatus. Those presidents can be fairly classified as “neoliberal,” “neoconservative,” and “neoliberal” respectively. Take that how you list. Oh, and torture! And Benghazi! I managed to collect this much less flattering info in a matter of minutes. I dread to think what I might find if I actually had a massive media outlet’s resources at my disposal.

Richard Clarke

ABC/Levine:

Richard Clarke served the last three presidents as a senior White House adviser, including as national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, according to his private security firm’s website. He became a vocal critic of the Bush administration, causing consternation in some Republican circles.

He has been an on-air consultant on terrorism for ABC News.

Citizen “journalist”:

Really, Levine?  That’s all you could come up with?  According to Wikipedia, Clarke is “the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism for the United States.” He served under Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush. ABC’s blogger apparently loses track after three. To Clarke’s credit, he was critical of the Bush 43 administration for their approach to counter-terrorism and the war on Iraq. In all reality, Clarke may just be a bright spot on this panel. Then again, did he or did he not play a role in letting the bin Laden family out of the US on September 20, 2001? Would that matter? Does Clarke’s endorsement of President Obama for his second run at the White House compromise his impartiality? In any event, there’s a ton of information on Clarke, both laudatory and damning. ABC’s Levine doesn’t seem to think any of that relevant. Chalk this one up as another inside “outsider.”

Peter Swire

ABC/Levine:

Swire recently became a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. At the start of the Obama administration, he served as a special assistant to the president for economic policy and, during the Clinton administration, he served as the chief counselor for privacy.

Citizen “journalist”:

Swire, like Clarke, appears to be a good, if apparently unlikely, Obama pick for a place on the panel. Yet again, however, a not insignificant point here is Levine’s failure to do more by way of reportage. Another quick search on Wikipedia reveals more relevant information than ABC’s blogger does. Swire has served under two presidents, Clinton and Obama, sure. He’s an internationally recognized expert on privacy. He was instrumental in the creation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. He’s actively involved in the development of the World Wide Web Consortium’s effort to mediate a global Do Not Track standard.

Further, Swire is actively antagonistic to NSA abuses of section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. According to Indiana University News Room, Peter Swire is a co-signer of an amicus brief urging SCOTUS to overturn the FISC authorization for the NSA to collect “”all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon,” including calls wholly within the U.S. and calls between the U.S. and abroad.” If President Obama is trying to create a stacked deck, he’s got a funny way of going about it.  Nevertheless, this outsider is still an inside job, and that keeps me leery.

Cass Sunstein

ABC/Levine:

Sunstein left the White House a year ago as President Obama’s so-called “regulatory czar,” returning to Harvard Law School, according to the Center for American Progress, where Sunstein is also a senior fellow. As President Obama’s administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Sunstein’s post was considered one of the most powerful in Washington, given its ability to shape how laws were implemented.

Again, this is all ABC’s Levine can come up with? Your friendly neighborhood citizen “journalist,” relying once again on the most cursory attempts at fact-finding, and doing so mainly via Wikipedia (a big no-no, right?) still managed to find this out…

“Some view him as liberal, despite Sunstein’s public support for George W. Bush’s judicial nominees Michael W. McConnell and John G. Roberts…”

Now hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. Would that be THE Chief Justice John Roberts, who single-handedly, and with no oversight or confirmation process, picks all the FISA judges until he dies or retires? THAT John Roberts?

This is the same Sunstein that has said:

There is no reason to believe that in the face of statutory ambiguity, the meaning of federal law should be settled by the inclinations and predispositions of federal judges. The outcome should instead depend on the commitments and beliefs of the President and those who operate under him.

Can you say, “Unitary Executive?” Can you say, “Cheney?”

This is the same Sunstein who thinks that thinks, “in light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.” That’s right.  Our free speech needs fiddling and tweaking, and he’s just the guy to do it.

Straight from good ol’ Wikipedia, Sunstein thinks that:

“[T]here is a need to reformulate First Amendment law. He thinks that the current formulation, based on Justice Holmes’conception of free speech as a marketplace “disserves the aspirations of those who wrote America’s founding document.” The purpose of this reformulation would be to “reinvigorate processes of democratic deliberation, by ensuring greater attention [emphasis added] to public issues and greater diversity of views.”

Given some of his other views, I dread to think what Sunstein means by “ensuring greater attention.” A Clockwork Orange comes to mind. Oh, we don’t have to guess much. He just wants to nudge us, because what we need is more alternately neoconservative/neoliberal paternalism.

Last, but not least, (and remember, I barely even got my muckraking shovel dirty) Sunstein also thinks the government should “cognitively infiltrate” anti-government groups. That’s right, this guy, in a time of IRS ham-fisted SNAFUs, will have a say in the reports that go through the Official Liar Clapper before landing in Obama’s Chicago School lap.

My count?  Four insiders and one that’s so inside he could Tweet pictures of Obama’s appendix.  My gut instincts?  2 for the NSA programs, 2 against, and a ref who guarantees the fix is in.

Now, lest I show up to the choir only singing in my bitchy, whiny voice, I’d like to propose a completely different solution to this really tough problem of picking real outsiders in a way that might actually cause citizens to trust the government a bit more.  You know, exactly in a way that President Obama fails to do.  It’s simple.

We’ve got 50 states.  We’ve got 50 governors.  Each governor vets and nominates a candidate for the panel.  The governors then have a meeting (teleconference using AT&T would be AWESOME, right?) to vote on six.  The US House gets to pick one.  The US Senate gets to pick one.  These eight, if qualified, get the necessary clearances.  POTUS gets one.  Whatever comes out of such a group would almost necessarily be bi-partisan.  At the very least, it would create a tremendous appearance of genuine accountability to the people.

So what about it, ABC? You guys hiring? I know a guy who at least knows where the hell to find Wikipedia and Google when doing a quick and dirty takedown on a topic.

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Image credit: Spy vs. Spy by tr.robinson @ flikr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Transparency. See also: opacity. Obama admin puts hit out on meaning of antonym.

Neon sign,
Here’s your big red neon warning sign.

Friday morning, TechDirt had this insightful little snippet of pithy analysis to share.

Read that again. This is the same White House that has been saying that they want to be as transparent as possible and to rebuild trust. And yet, here they are trying to block the Post from using an interview — an interview they suggested in the first place — and then to replace it with a bland and bogus “statement.”

To what does that refer? This, from the WashPo article cited.:

The Obama administration referred all questions for this article to John DeLong, the NSA’s director of compliance, who answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview. DeLong and members of the NSA communications staff said he could be quoted “by name and title” on some of his answers after an unspecified internal review. The Post said it would not permit the editing of quotes. Two days later, White House and NSA spokesmen said that none of DeLong’s comments could be quoted on the record and sent instead a prepared statement in his name. The Post declines to accept the substitute language as quotations from DeLong.

Seriously, truly, we all, every last one of us, need to hold elected officials to a far higher standard. I don’t care which party is in. I don’t care which base is being appealed to. Lies, distortions, obfuscation, and the outright trash talk that are our daily fare are beneath us. We can and must do better.

I offer these few humble words for your consideration not just because I’m increasingly against this administration in particular, but because its behavior and TechDirt’s analysis in brief are instructive going forward, regardless of which party is in power in which branch of government.

If in one breath one tries to calm the jitters of a disillusioned electorate with lip service to transparency, one should simply not get away with this kind of overt and blisteringly incompetent interference in the next.

Enough platitudes and equivocations. The buck stops in the Oval Office. Heads need to roll, figuratively, of course, or we have zero reason for faith in the way the duties of the office are being discharged.

Like I said, we can and must do better. Or maybe we should just stop calling ourselves Americans if this is what we’re willing to stoop to and settle for.

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Image credit: Adapted from original photo by grisei @ flikr.com.  Licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s SchadenFriday! Who really got theirs this week?

You want to get away with this? Then be this guy. Otherwise, stop.

Sadly, nobody really.  Surprising no one, I’m sure, it can be terribly difficult to find tales of people who actually get the full spectrum what’s coming to them. That’s the degree of trouble that causes me the most perverse dance-a-jig-on-a-grave glee. Failing that, I’ll gladly accept for my prurient amusement any troubles at all for folks and institutions that, in my estimation, deserve that and so much more. This week we’ve got six stories that detail people who are at least feeling the heat for one kind of asshattery or another, or should be sometime soon.

Christian family home after ill-fated Pacific voyage to escape US tyranny

First up, we’ve got the Gastonguay family. This would be a real rib-tickler if not for one key point…children were endangered. I’ll settle for a round of hoots and jeers. Why is it even remotely amusing? Well, while I do give Ma and Pa props for having the courage of their convictions, I have a huge problem with a) inflicting those ill-informed convictions on children when b) such courage puts the lives of those children in jeopardy.

For one thing, these miscreants (if reckless endangerment of children isn’t a crime, it damned well should be) have the problem ass-backward. Government isn’t interfering with religion. Proponents of one particular religion, particularly the faithful in an especially virulent strain of that religion are interfering with government. Facts matter.

Ma feels deeply wronged because they have to pay taxes for things they don’t agree with, specifically, abortion provided for by Obamacare. Funny thing about that, there’s no truth in it.

For that matter, cry me a river when it comes to paying taxes for things you don’t agree with.  Maybe those of us who are against wars of aggression rife with “conflict of interest,” dare I say greed, should be exempted from paying taxes because that’s just not fair? After all, we have a bit of a history of killing hundreds of thousands of people for trumped up reasons, and those people happen to include civilians, women, children.

And puh-lease!  The state is controlling religion?  News flash:  nobody forces churches to file for tax exempt status to keep them however ineffectually, out of the political arena.  Smarter churches have even realized that the tax exemption is basically the government bribe to shut the hell up.  I don’t think you get to collect the bribe and still complain about being regulated.  Want to talk about having real government intrusions into your faith?  First, consider the Navajo.

Poor dear also feels, “”The Bible is pretty clear.” Really, now? Is that why the history of Christianity is a history of bloody schism and war resulting in no less than 200 denominations? Clear as mother’s milk, it seems. So clear, for that matter, that Skeptic’s Annotated Bible has a heyday with all that crystal clarity.  The Bible may deserve praise for a number of reasons, but clarity just isn’t one of them.

The just desserts? Poor Pa Cretin will now have to get a job to pay back the government to the tune of $10,000. Now if only someone would bring criminal charges against them for endangering their children and see to it that those kids are raised in a safe home, regardless of the religion (or lack of) espoused by the foster parents.

Tenn. judge changes infant’s name from ‘Messiah’

Next up, we have a judge who is actually either stupid enough or genuinely corrupt enough to say out loud that her ruling boils down to, “because Jesus.” For now, I hope she’s squirming from all the attention. I’ll be much happier when her ruling is overturned. I will be ecstatic if she never gets to darken the bench again with her oppressive bigotry. Bonus points? There’s some indication that this is an issue where the left and libertarians have a chance of reaching agreement.

Charges: W.Va. judge tried to frame ex-mistress’ husband

For now we’re still stuck at the stage of allegations and accusations. Should it turn out this poor schmo has been unjustly targeted and that he’s really a nice, upstanding guy, I’ll feel bad for feeling good. I won’t hold my breath. Should it turn out that this man actually is a feculent lump of injustice disgracing his robe, I really hope he has to spend some time behind bars.  This story makes Newt Gingrich and Anthony Wiener look like ardent defenders of the sanctity of marriage by comparison.

Rick Santorum accused of soliciting illegal campaign contributions

This story should surprise nobody that already suspects Santorum of schmuckitude in the first dregree. It really would just be a matter of time that this walking conflation of stupidity and malice would cross a line where money is concerned. Oh, please, please, please let there be evidence that would grace a prison with his presence.

NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds

I really want to be clear here. It’s not the difficulties of some nebulous “NSA” (as though it doesn’t comprise flesh and blood people), or even of people I’m mostly willing to give the benefit of the doubt to when it comes to good intentions and service to country, that make me merry when doused in sunlight. It’s the death throes of misbegotten policy that hit the sweet spot as far as I’m concerned. The more that comes out about NSA overreach and outright incompetence, the closer we get (I hope!) to drawing some clear and proper boundaries around their actions and those of the government in general. Just don’t bank on it coming from empty (or worse, misdirecting) posturing from the POTUS. After all, only three days after announcing that he wants an independent body to provide some oversight he suggests that known liar and policy apologist Clapper would be just the guy to set up that “independent” body. I can’t wait until the next Snowden release. Eventually we’ll hit a tipping point where we must do something adequate to remedy these violations of our constitutional rights.

Photo: Hooters Restaurants in San Diego Won’t Serve Bob Filner

Finally, SOMEBODY has to pay a pound of flesh now, sort of.  Pa Gastonguay’s $10k bill is ultimately far more satisfying, but it lacks a certain immediacy.  Right now, America’s new poster boy for misogynistic douchebaggery, Filner, is barred from America’s most mainstream meatmarket’s locations in San Diego. I’m sure he would have gone just for the sliders, right? Oh, wait, I guess that depends on whether that’s a euphemism. Seriously, when you get called out by Hooters for disrespecting women, you’re doing it terribly wrong.

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Image credit: twm1340 @ flikr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons.

All of my wut

Forty-five years, and this happened.

So, I’m sitting outside on the steps, as I’m prone to do, having a cigarette and talking with someone, when I hear a male voice behind me and to the left saying something in a way that sounds like it might be addressed to me, but I can’t tell what he said.  So I turn to see who it is, and there’s a young white male maybe 18-20something years old, swaggering in my direction, all by his lonesome.  Yup, likely addressed to me, then.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“I said, ‘Yo, dude, vote for me,’”

“Okay,” I reply, with some curiosity, “for whom am I voting, and why?”

“For coolest kid in America.  It’s us against the girls.  They have boobs.  It’s not fair.”

“Ahhh, I see.” I didn’t.  “Well, you’ve already lost points with me.”

“Why?” says Swinging Dick, more than a little defensively.

“Sexism.”  I didn’t see the point in wasting big words or real effort.  This was going nowhere.

“Huh?”

“You’ll read about it someday, and maybe you’ll understand.”

“You serious?”

“Yup.”

Consternation crossed his face, though I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t know to call it that.  With a bit of awkward delay, he reaches deep down inside and comes up with, “You’re a tool!”  He turned heel and started swaggering away.

“Hey, what are your parents’ names?”

“Huh?” Doppler effect probably helped him sound dumber, but I’m not sure how possible that was.  “Doesn’t matter,” he replied.  I think my question confused him.

Even though he was now swaggerstalkstomping away in a pronounced and aggravated fashion, I asked, amid a wave of bemusement coursing through my brain, “you in high school?”

His diminishing voice, among other things, I’m sure, threw back, “[unintelligible yup/nope]. I’m twenty-one.”

I sat there, somewhat stunned, and looked at my friend.

“That gets all of my wut.”

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Image credit: gurdonark @ flikr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s SchadenFriday: Vatican gets punked on VSEL’s

Whatever good The Church(TM) has managed to do over the years, and aside from skeptics’ observations that no good done by religion absolutely requires religion to be done, it’s a simple statement of fact that the Vatican has a sorry legacy when it comes to supporting science.  This week, NBC news contributor Arthur Caplan, Ph.D. highlights an uncomfortable reality:  when the church does support something that looks like science, it has more to do with orthodox wishful thinking and less to do with, you know, science.

With four studies in, to date, that cannot replicate the original “science,” it might be nice to wish for VSEL research to be substantiated, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Image credit: Rodriguez-Porcel, M., Wu, J.C., and Gambhir, S.S.  Licensed under Creative Commons.