August 21st, 2012
atomvincent

A Glimpse Inside Syria’s Civil War

Last week, C. J. Chivers spent five days embedded with Syrian rebels in the Aleppo province. For the New York Times, he offers a candid look at operations on the front line of the guerrilla war and the people - farmers, nurses, business men, army defectors - who have taken up arms against President Bashar al-Assad.

Using Skype, Jamal Abu Houran contacted an activist from Tal Rifaat who invited him to desert his post and head to a nearby village, where he would be picked up by a waiting car. Soon he was in a hidden guerrilla office. He told the activists there that he had studied weapons well, and asked to join the rebels’ fight.

An activist phoned Mr. Yasin, who quickly appeared and stood before him. Jamal recalled his new commander’s first words. “You are my brother,” he said. “And your blood is more precious than mine.”

Jamal Abu Houran’s reply set his life on its new course. “I hope God will give me the strength to defend people like you,” he said. This was his oath.

He had switched sides.

Read the full article here.

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August 15th, 2012
atomvincent

Two Girls, One Mind

In something of a follow-up to Monday’s post regarding linguistic conceptualization of the self, I turn to a 2011 feature from New York Times Magazine about conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana Hogan. Susan Dominus writes on the unique connection they share and the complicated nature of self as illuminated by two young girls whose minds are joined by a bridge that is effectively unknown to science.

Twins joined at the head — the medical term is craniopagus — are one in 2.5 million, of which only a fraction survive. The way the girls’ brains formed beneath the surface of their fused skulls, however, makes them beyond rare: their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature. Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

Read the full article here.

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August 15th, 2012
atomvincent

atomvincent:

nytimes:

If you live in Butler or Warren counties in the Republican-leaning suburbs of Cincinnati, you can vote for president beginning in October by going to a polling place in the evening or on weekends. Republican officials in those counties want to make it convenient for their residents to vote early and avoid long lines on Election Day.

But, if you live in Cincinnati, you’re out of luck. Republicans on the county election board are planning to end early voting in the city promptly at 5 p.m., and ban it completely on weekends, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. The convenience, in other words, will not be extended to the city’s working people.

The sleazy politics behind the disparity is obvious. Hamilton County, which contains Cincinnati, is largely Democratic and voted solidly for Barack Obama in 2008. So did the other urban areas of Cleveland, Columbus and Akron, where Republicans, with the assistance of the Ohio secretary of state, Jon Husted, have already eliminated the extended hours for early voting.

County election boards in Ohio, a closely contested swing state, are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. In counties likely to vote for President Obama, Republicans have voted against the extended hours, and Mr. Husted has broken the tie in their favor. (He said the counties couldn’t afford the long hours.) In counties likely to vote for Mitt Romney, Republicans have not objected to the extended hours.

This is just the latest alarming example of how Republicans across the country are trying to manipulate the electoral system by blocking the voting rights of their opponents. These actions have a disproportionate effect on blacks, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities who struggled for so long to participate in American democracy.

Cincinnati, for example, is 45 percent black, and Cleveland 53 percent. Butler County, however, is 8 percent black, and Warren 3.5 percent. This kind of racial disparity is clearly visible wherever Republicans have trampled on voting rights during Mr. Obama’s term.

In Florida, more than half of black voters went to the polls early in 2008 largely to support Mr. Obama. So, last year, Republican lawmakers there severely curtailed the early voting period. In Pennsylvania and other states that have imposed strict voter ID requirements, the impact will be felt hardest by blacks, Hispanics, older citizens and students, all of whom tend to lack government ID cards at a higher rate than the general population. At the trial in Pennsylvania over the constitutionality of the state’s voter ID law, the plaintiffs introduced clear evidence, compiled by a geographic data analysis firm, that registered voters in Philadelphia who lack government ID cards are concentrated in minority and low-income areas.

In Ohio, as in other states, the Republican Party is establishing a reputation for putting short-term political gain ahead of the most fundamental democratic rights.

Reblogged from True Adventures
July 10th, 2012
chasewhiteside

Will Citizens United Doom Obama’s Reelection?

Robert Draper writes for NY Times Magazine about the post-Citizens United Super PAC race for cash, one which Democrats are losing badly:

Two years later, President Obama repeatedly denounced the conservative super PACs that had cropped up in the wake of the Citizens United decision. In so doing, Obama ended up unilaterally disarming Democrats while animating Republicans. “When Obama attacked us by name in the fall of 2010, accusing us of taking money from the Chinese, it was basically the best fund-raising pitch we could’ve made,” says Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, the conservative super PAC conceived by Karl Rove and the Republican consultant Ed Gillespie. “We raised $13 million the week after they attacked us.” Burton and Sweeney watched from the White House — more with rueful admiration than moral outrage — as the Republicans turned the tables, outspending Democratic groups by $100 million and taking back the House….

During the first 10 months of its existence, Priorities USA Action managed to raise only $7 million. (Of this, $2 million was seed money from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the C.E.O. of DreamWorks Animation; another $1 million came from the comedian Bill Maher.) Their travails to some degree reflect the Democratic Party’s greater struggle with its prim self-perception. From the perspective of many Democrats, this year’s foray into post-Citizens United campaigning calls to mind an “Apocalypse Now”-like journey into the maw of something darker than death itself — namely, a morality-free zone in which Republicans alone can thrive. “I think that many Democrats feel that participating in the system would be validating Citizens United, which was a bad and destructive decision,” Geoff Garin says.

A sentiment commonly held by Democrats — so much so that it’s part of the standard Priorities pitch to donors — is that their only motivation to contribute is a moral one, while Republicans like the Koch brothers donate because they stand to make gobs of money if their pro-business candidate is elected. One of Priorities’ big donors told me another reason that conservatives are more suited to a post-Citizens United climate than progressives. “To me, a lot of the super-PAC money on the Republican side comes from hatred,” he said. “We Democrats just don’t hate like that.” 

Read the full article here.

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July 8th, 2012
erickstoll

Did Organic Foods Sell Out? 

Stephanie Strom writes in the New York Times about the corporate domination of the organic food industry and the consequent lowering of organic standards. 

As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002.

The board has 15 members, and a two-thirds majority is required to add a substance to the list. More and more, votes on adding substances break down along corporate-independent lines, with one swing vote. Six board members, for instance, voted in favor of adding ammonium nonanoate, a herbicide, to the accepted organic list in December. Those votes came from General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms, which had two votes at the time.

Read the full article here. 

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May 30th, 2012
atomvincent

Nothing So Beautiful

For most of my life, I have found whales to be utterly fascinating. Their size, grace, and intelligence ignite in me a child-like curiosity and enchantment. I have thus far not indulged this interest on RTNT, but in celebration of our six months in existence, I want to share this small part of myself with you.

Here, I offer a few pieces that illuminate the foundations of my interest in our brothers of the deep, whose minds and lives are at once unknowable and familiar. 

1. Watching Whales Watching Us
A fascinating look at the evolving relationship between man and whale in Baja California Sur, and research into the highly evolved brains of whales.
Charles Siebert, The New York Times, July 2009

2. On the Minds of the Whales
A history of the hunting and scientific investigation of whales across the twentieth century.
Tim Flannery, New York Review of Books, February 2012 

3. The Fall and Rise of the Right Whale
On the (very slowly) increasing population of right whales in the Atlantic and the efforts put forth to protect and study them.
Cornelia Dean, The New York Times, March 2009 

4. Of Man and Whales and Apes
Cetaceans can recognize themselves, use tools, and communicate in structurally complex ways - are they more like us than we have ever considered?
Brandon Keim, Wired, June 2009 

5. The Auditory Life of Sperm Whales
One of Arvind’s early posts from the RTNT vaults, this piece looks at how acoustic imaging is used to investigate the relationship between sperm whales and that other, mythical giant of the deep, the giant squid.
Eric Wagner, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2011 

6. Seeing Whales
A beautiful poem that invokes (among other things) the breathtaking sight of a whale.
Michael Dickman, The New Yorker, January 2008 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on whales (politically, scientifically, spiritually, or otherwise), if you have any to share. At the very least, I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the largest creatures in our world, and perhaps you’ll find yourself as enchanted by those kings of the sea as I find myself.
- Atom Vincent, Managing Editor 

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May 15th, 2012
atomvincent

Child, Psychopath

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, Jennifer Kahn looks at a new road in child psychology, one that hopes to identify early signs of psychopathy in children. How do we discern whether unruly behavior is a sign of an innate disorder or simply the rash actions of a child? Can an early diagnosis of psychopathy actually lead to beneficial treatment, or is it simply a scarlet letter?

Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number ofpsychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)

In some children, C.U. traits manifest in obvious ways. Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who has studied risk factors for psychopathy in children for two decades, described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice. “When we talked about it, he was very straightforward,” Frick recalls. “He said: ‘I want to be a scientist, and I was experimenting. I wanted to see how the cat would react.’ ”

In another famous case, a 9-year-old boy named Jeffrey Bailey pushed a toddler into the deep end of a motel swimming pool in Florida. As the boy struggled and sank to the bottom, Bailey pulled up a chair to watch. Questioned by the police afterward, Bailey explained that he was curious to see someone drown. When he was taken into custody, he seemed untroubled by the prospect of jail but was pleased to be the center of attention.

In many children, though, the signs are subtler. Callous-unemotional children tend to be highly manipulative, Frick notes. They also lie frequently — not just to avoid punishment, as all children will, but for any reason, or none. “Most kids, if you catch them stealing a cookie from the jar before dinner, they’ll look guilty,” Frick says. “They want the cookie, but they also feel bad. Even kids with severe A.D.H.D.: they may have poor impulse control, but they still feel bad when they realize that their mom is mad at them.” Callous-unemotional children are unrepentant. “They don’t care if someone is mad at them,” Frick says. “They don’t care if they hurt someone’s feelings.” Like adult psychopaths, they can seem to lack humanity. “If they can get what they want without being cruel, that’s often easier,” Frick observes. “But at the end of the day, they’ll do whatever works best.”

Read the full article here.

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April 30th, 2012
erickstoll

How Apple Avoids Billions in Taxes

For The New York Times, Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski explain how Apple and other tech companies take advantage of outdated tax codes to avoid paying taxes.

Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies.

Without such tactics, Apple’s federal tax bill in the United States most likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year, according to a recent study by a former Treasury Department economist, Martin A. Sullivan. As it stands, the company paid cash taxes of $3.3 billion around the world on its reported profits of $34.2 billion last year, a tax rate of 9.8 percent. (Apple does not disclose what portion of those payments was in the United States, or what portion is assigned to previous or future years.)

Read the full article here.

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April 25th, 2012
atomvincent

Physics and Philosophy in a World Without Meaning

In this engrossing interview for The Atlantic, Ross Anderson talks with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss about his new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, how people react to the prospect of a meaningless universe, and the growing discord between philosophy and physics, as the latter progressively encroaches on territory once exclusive to the former.

I recommend priming for the interview with Krauss’ op-ed for the L.A. Times that outlines some of the greater points of his book, as well as David Albert’s scathing review for the New York Times. From the interview:

[Anderson:] I think the problem for me, coming at this as a layperson, is that when you’re talking about the explanatory power of science, for every stage where you have a “something,”—-even if it’s just a wisp of something, or even just a set of laws—-there has to be a further question about the origins of that “something.” And so when I read the title of your book, I read it as “questions about origins are over.”

Krauss: Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that you can keep asking “Why?” forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can’t answer, but if we can answer the “How?” questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter. And it may just be an infinite set of questions, but what I point out at the end of the book is that the multiverse may resolve all of those questions. From Aristotle’s prime mover to the Catholic Church’s first cause, we’re always driven to the idea of something eternal. If the multiverse really exists, then you could have an infinite object—-infinite in time and space as opposed to our universe, which is finite. That may beg the question as to where the multiverse came from, but if it’s infinite, it’s infinite. You might not be able to answer that final question, and I try to be honest about that in the book. But if you can show how a set of physical mechanisms can bring about our universe, that itself is an amazing thing and it’s worth celebrating. I don’t ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I’m concerned it’s turtles all the way down. The multiverse could explain it by being eternal, in the same way that God explains it by being eternal, but there’s a huge difference: the multiverse is well motivated and God is just an invention of lazy minds. 

Read the full interview here.

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April 3rd, 2012
arvindsuguness
The Story Behind The Murder Of Trayvon Martin
In this major report, The New York Times brings us the most comprehensive account to date of the Trayvon Martin shooting, delving not only into the events of the shooting itself, but also into the lives of Trayvon and his shooter, George Zimmerman:

Over six feet tall and lanky, Trayvon was interested in girls, computer games, sports and the beat of the rap and hip-hop emanating from the ear buds of his smartphone. Sleeping in Miami Dolphins bedsheets, he was all teenage boy, and more.
…
Easygoing, with a default mood set at “chillin’,” as one schoolmate, Suzannah Charles, put it. The kind of kid who made tiny cakes in an Easy-Bake Oven with his 7-year-old cousin; who spoon-fed a close uncle, Ronald Fulton, who is quadriplegic, when his nurse was unavailable; who was an integral part of a close-knit family — raised properly, family members say, by Mr. Martin and his ex-wife, Sybrina Fulton, who works for Miami-Dade County’s housing agency.
…
George would stick up for a chubby boy in the neighborhood who was being bullied, recalled Austin (who, like Stephanie, asked that his last name not be used). “And if George saw bullies walking by his house, he would pull out his hose and spray them down and tell them they were wasting their time and to go and do something else.”
Mr. Zimmerman was also security-minded, Austin said. “He would knock on people’s doors at night and say that it was late and that ‘You better close your garage door.’ ”
But not everyone saw Mr. Zimmerman as their protector.
A 17-year-old African-American, Teontae Amie, who lives at the Retreat, recalled that Mr. Zimmerman once wrongly accused his friend of stealing a bike. “When you see him, you think automatically that he might try something,” said Teontae, who added that he kept his distance from the neighborhood watch coordinator.

Read the full article here.
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The Story Behind The Murder Of Trayvon Martin

In this major report, The New York Times brings us the most comprehensive account to date of the Trayvon Martin shooting, delving not only into the events of the shooting itself, but also into the lives of Trayvon and his shooter, George Zimmerman:

Over six feet tall and lanky, Trayvon was interested in girls, computer games, sports and the beat of the rap and hip-hop emanating from the ear buds of his smartphone. Sleeping in Miami Dolphins bedsheets, he was all teenage boy, and more.

Easygoing, with a default mood set at “chillin’,” as one schoolmate, Suzannah Charles, put it. The kind of kid who made tiny cakes in an Easy-Bake Oven with his 7-year-old cousin; who spoon-fed a close uncle, Ronald Fulton, who is quadriplegic, when his nurse was unavailable; who was an integral part of a close-knit family — raised properly, family members say, by Mr. Martin and his ex-wife, Sybrina Fulton, who works for Miami-Dade County’s housing agency.

George would stick up for a chubby boy in the neighborhood who was being bullied, recalled Austin (who, like Stephanie, asked that his last name not be used). “And if George saw bullies walking by his house, he would pull out his hose and spray them down and tell them they were wasting their time and to go and do something else.”

Mr. Zimmerman was also security-minded, Austin said. “He would knock on people’s doors at night and say that it was late and that ‘You better close your garage door.’ ”

But not everyone saw Mr. Zimmerman as their protector.

A 17-year-old African-American, Teontae Amie, who lives at the Retreat, recalled that Mr. Zimmerman once wrongly accused his friend of stealing a bike. “When you see him, you think automatically that he might try something,” said Teontae, who added that he kept his distance from the neighborhood watch coordinator.

Read the full article here.

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