Monday, September 1, 2014


I've yet to hear a single Republican apologize for voting to cut the State Department budget for embassy/consulate security.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Open Carry Texas

So a woman driving four children was pulled over in Texas because of a report that someone had been seen driving and displaying a gun?

I thought Texas was an open carry state, so what's the big deal about showing a gun in public?

Silly me for asking: it was a black man...


A pet peeve: when I'm watching a movie or TV program, my involvement in the story and characters is jerked out of the illusion of reality whenever a phone number is mentioned or seen written - it's always a 555 number, which by now we all know is a fictitious number, used in movies etc. because there are no 555 numbers in the real world.  I understand why movie producers use this fictitious number - a random realistic number may belong to someone, who could object to his/her number being broadcast to the world, and who might be harassed if viewers took it on themselves to dial a number heard in a movie just to see what happens.  But I'm annoyed every time I hear 555.

I wouldn't have thought it would be that hard for the Motion Picture Association of America to arrange with phone companies to set aside (for a reasonable fee) ten or twelve completely different numbers that would never be assigned to subscribers, so that when a character in a movie/TV show used a  phone number, one of those numbers would be chosen, and so sound convincing.  (The movie producers could pay a license fee for each number they use in a movie, so financing the operation.) Of course, the same numbers would need to be set aside in every area code so that no phone subscriber's number would be used, but that doesn't seem to me to be a big obstacle.

Yes, the same numbers would be used over and over, but the chance of a realistic number being remembered from one movie to another is slight.  That's why I'm suggesting a dozen or so numbers be available to choose from - it would lessen the chance that phone numbers would be recognized from one movie to another.

Ah - if only they asked me....

Update 9/2/2014

A friend writes:

As to your 555 rant, I have had some personal experience along those lines. You may remember that in The Conversation, much was made of Gene Hackman's character's attempt to track down a specific phone number. Toward the end of the film, he finds it, and it is briefly shown on screen. It was not a 555 number. Around the time the film came out, I was working for KGO.
It was shortly after the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and I was working on that pretty much every day for ABC News. KGO News was a smaller operation then and had only three extension for the news department. This sometimes became a problem for the network people trying to call New York. They decided to have a private line installed in my editing room. Guess which number we got. Often at our busiest moments that phone would ring, and it would be someone who had just seen the film. Their most common reaction was, "ABC News? Far out!"

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Aquatic Ape

A couple of years ago I was videorecording an interview of a very famous professor of physical anthropology, who had led several expeditions to Africa to uncover early humanoid fossils.

In the few moments before he left after the interview, I asked him what he though of the aquatic ape hypothesis.  His answer: "So early humans settled near rivers.  Well, duh!"

I admit I was so taken aback by such an egregious setting up of a straw man that I was speechless for long enough for the professor to leave before I could point out how wrong he was.

For if proponents of the aquatic ape hypothesis did in fact base it purely on patterns of human settlement, then "duh" would be the appropriate response;  it was clear that the good professor had not taken the time to inform himself of the reasoning behind the hypothesis before dismissing it out of hand.  Unfortunately, this ant-intellectual reaction seems all too prevalent in academic circles.

So what is the basis for the hypothesis?  It's twofold - based on differences and on similarities.

Our closest animal relations are the chimpanzee and the bonobo - we share about 99% of the same DNA.  Yet the differences are striking: unlike the chimpanzees and bonobos, humans are almost hairless, walk bipedally, have subcutaneous fat, and communicate with reasoned speech.  Something profound must have happened in our past to have caused such changes from creatures so close to us in our DNA makeup, something that conventional anthropologists have no explanation for.*

It's the aquatic or partially aquatic mammals (whales, dolphins, manatees, dugongs) that are similar to us in being hairless and have subcutaneous fat to insulate themselves from cold water, and  dolphins communicate with what appears to be reasoned speech (as against the instinctual chatter of chimpanzees).

These two observations are the basis for the aquatic ape hypothesis:  that when our early ancestors were somehow cut off from their previous food supply, they took to a shoreside wading and swimming existence, and over a long period adapted to better function as mammals who waded (accounting for our bipedalism**) and swam (accounting for our relative hairlessness and body fat patterns);  the hypothesis has the virtue of being a plausible explanation for the differences and similarities described above. Whether it will turn out to be the true explanation will depend on future research, but one observation I might make is that a fossil record will be hard to find if our ancestors' dead bodies were carried out to sea.

The most persistent proponent of the hypothesis has been British writer Elaine Morgan. You can see her 2009 TED talk on the subject here, where she likens people like the anthropologist I met to a priesthood unable to open their minds to possibilities outside their dogma.  (I get some encouragement from the fact that the TED audience gave her a standing ovation.)

*The "Savannah Theory" (in fact the savannah hypothesis), which held that humans adapted to their present form when they left the jungle trees to live in grasslands, has finally been discarded, and in any event we know how apes adapt when they move into a savannah existence:  they evolve into baboons (with whom we share about 91% of our DNA).
**Bonobos knuckle-walk on land (like chimpanzees), but become bipedal when they wade in water in search of food.

The Rodney King Distortion

Lest readers think that my last post and my 2011 post on the Diallo shooting means that I am anti-police, let me take the opportunity to defend the officers who arrested Rodney King in 1991.

Here's an example of how the press continues to frame that event:

The horrific beating of Rodney King by five police officers in Los Angeles in 1991 -- and the subsequent acquittal of his assailants -- sparked the L.A. riots of 1992, leading to 53 deaths, some at the hands of police. It was also a video introduction to police brutality for those in America who may have doubted its severity.
And the phrase "Rodney King beating" is one that I often hear or read when the event is referred to in radio or print reports.

Let's step back and see what actually happened back in 1991.

Rodney King was driving very fast when he was pursued by the LAPD.  Apparently trying to avoid pursuit, he drove at times in excess of 100mph.  The officers pursuing him considered this driving sufficiently reckless to justify an arrest.  When King finally stopped his car, the police officers arrested his two passengers, who did not resist - no muss, no fuss.

King, however, refused to cooperate in his arrest.  When the officers attempted to gang pile him, he shook them off - think of a wet spaniel shaking off water.  The officers tried their second tool for subduing arrestees, a taser.  The first taser had no effect, so they tasered him a second time - still no effect.

It's at this point that the well known video recording of the event begins.  In the first few seconds, you can see King charging one of the officers*.  It's at this point the batons come out, and the officers attempt to subdue King by baton blows.  It's true that when you see the video recording, the baton blows appear gratuitously violent, but remember - the recording does not include the sound from outside the window through which the camera is pointed.  The officers are calling on King to lie still and put his hands behind his back.  Instead of complying, King continues trying to rise to his feet, and the officers continue to try to keep him on the ground using their batons.  If you watch the video carefully, there's a point where King stays still for a moment, and you can see the officer with his back to the camera begin to reach for his handcuffs before King once again starts up.

I spoke to a police officer about the King arrest a few days after, and he remarked that part of police training in baton use was to break the wrists or ankles of a particularly recalcitrant arrestee. The officers arresting King did not go that far, and testimony at the trial of the officers confirmed that their use of batons was within the guidelines set by the LAPD.**  You may think that the guidelines on baton use are inappropriate - but if so, that was the fault of the LAPD, not the individual officers acting within those guidelines.

I saw the video recording when it was first broadcast, and thought at the time: good - policemen gratuitously beating a man had been caught on videotape, and would be held to account.  It was during the trial, as testimony on the reality of the situation was reported, that I realized my first impression was incorrect.  Unfortunately, the press did not report the thrust of the testimony widely enough, so those who had not made the effort to follow the trial were surprised by the justified acquittals, and riots ensued.  The subsequent federal trial was a purely political effort, sacrificing the officers to assuage uninformed public opinion.  In that trial, two officers were acquitted and two convicted.  One can imagine that the jury in the second trial were too fearful of a second round of riots to acquit all the officers, as they should have.

So the appropriate expression the press should be using is "the Rodney King arrest", not "the Rodney King beating."

(For a full account of the King arrest, the trials, and the riots, I recommend Official Negligence by Lou Cannon.)

*For the first few seconds, the recording is out of focus.  Some video editors, in a misguided attempt to be "professional", cut out the part that is not well focussed - the part that shows King charging the officers.

**The jurors in the original trial were split on the question of whether one of the officers had crossed the line in attempting to subdue King.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Michael Brown shooting

If this account is accurate, the police officer should be charged with murder.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gore and 9/11

If Gore had been president in 2001, the 9/11 attacks  would probably have been averted.

Why do I say this?  Two reasons.

Firstly, it was Clinton's (and following him Gore's) intention to respond to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole by sending special forces into Afghanistan to destroy the Al Qaida camps.  The proposed raid had been put on hold until US intelligence confirmed that Al Qaida was indeed behind the Cole attack - confirmation that only came in January, at the time of the transition to the Bush administration.  Following the principle of disavowing anything that Clinton was for, the Bush team dropped the ball, and there was no response to the Cole attack.

If in a Gore administration the Afghan camps had been destroyed, it's possible that Al Qaida would have been weakened enough to be unable to mount the 9/11 attacks.  And would also have seen the consequences of attacking the US directly. As it was, the lack of any response to the Cole attack could only have emboldened Al Qaida, while leaving their structure intact.

So it's possible that 9/11 would have been averted right at the beginning of a Gore administration.  But it's also possible that the planning for 9/11 would have continued undeterred in Hamburg.

So let's assume that the 9/11 attack preparations continued.  As we later learned, there were a lot of disparate pieces of information available that put together would have been enough for the Gore administration to round up the plotters.  Would that have happened?

I had the opportunity a few years ago to talk to a counterterrorism advisor (now with the Sate Department) who had worked in the Clinton White House.  He told me that yes, in a Gore administration, 9/11 would probably have been averted, using the precedent of the 1999 millennium bomb threat to  explain why.

When in 1999 rumors of an attack on the US scheduled for Jan 1 2000 surfaced, the Clinton White House set up a dedicated situation room to deal with the possible attack, and daily sent out requests to federal agencies for any scrap of information that might be useful, as well as a reminder to be on alert.  And an alert immigration officer did in fact stop the would-be LAX bomber.*  So there was a precedent for what a President Gore** would have done in the months before September 2001, and if all the pieces of information out there (e.g. people taking airliner flight training who didn't seem interested in taking off or landing) had been collated in a Gore White House attack threat situation room - well, as I say, it's probable that 9/11 would have been averted.

And in his book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke said the same.

 *An unanswered, and unanswerable, question:  would the immigration officer have let the bomber pass though without the White House promptings to be on heightened alert?
**The counterterrorism advisor told me that in the Clinton White House, it was Gore who was the one more concerned by, and focussed on, the possibility of terror attacks.