Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"A Look to the Heavens"

“Described as a "dusty curtain" or "ghostly apparition", mysterious reflection nebula VdB 152 really is very faint. Far from your neighborhood on this Halloween Night, the cosmic phantom is nearly 1,400 light-years away. Also catalogued as Ced 201, it lies along the northern Milky Way in the royal constellation Cepheus. 
Click image for larger size.
Near the edge of a large molecular cloud, pockets of interstellar dust in the region block light from background stars or scatter light from the embedded bright star giving parts of the nebula a characteristic blue color. Ultraviolet light from the star is also thought to cause a dim reddish luminescence in the nebular dust. Though stars do form in molecular clouds, this star seems to have only accidentally wandered into the area, as its measured velocity through space is very different from the cloud's velocity. This deep telescopic image of the region spans about 7 light-years.”

"The Essential Thing..."

"The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. 
The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
- Pierre de Courbertin

The Daily "Near You?"

Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire, United Kingdom.
Thanks for stopping by.

Psychology: "How the Brain Stops Time"

"How the Brain Stops Time"
by Jeff Wise

"One of the strangest side-effects of intense fear is time dilation, the apparent slowing-down of time. It's a common trope in movies and TV shows, like the memorable scene from "The Matrix" in which time slows down so dramatically that bullets fired at the hero seem to move at a walking pace. In real life, our perceptions aren't keyed up quite that dramatically, but survivors of life-and-death situations often report that things seem to take longer to happen, objects fall more slowly, and they're capable of complex thoughts in what would normally be the blink of an eye.

Now a research team from Israel reports that not only does time slow down, but that it slows down more for some than for others. Anxious people, they found, experience greater time dilation in response to the same threat stimuli. An intriguing result, and one that raises a more fundamental question: how, exactly, does the brain carry out this remarkable feat?

Researcher David Eagleman has tackled his very issue in a very clever way. He reasoned that when time seems to slow down in real life, our senses and cognition must somehow speed up-either that, or time dilation is merely an illusion. This is the riddle he set out to solve. "Does the experience of slow motion really happen," Eagleman says, "or does it only seem to have happened in retrospect?" To find out, he first needed a way to generate fear of sufficient intensity in his experimental subjects. Instead of skydiving, he found a thrill ride near the university campus called Suspended Catch Air Device, an open-air tower from which participants are dropped, upside down, into a net 150 feet below. There are no harnesses, no safety lines. Subject plummet in free fall for three seconds, then hit the net at 70 miles per hour.

Was it scary enough to generate a sense of time dilation? To see, Eagleman asked subjects who'd already taken the plunge to estimate how long it took them to fall, using a stopwatch to tick off what they felt to be an equivalent amount of time. Then he asked them to watch someone else fall and then estimate the elapsed time for their plunge in the same way. On average, participants felt that their own experience had taken 36 percent longer. Time dilation was in effect.

Next, Eagleman outfitted his test subjects with a special device that he and his students had constructed. They called it the perceptual chronometer. It's a simple numeric display that straps to a user's wrist, with a knob on the side let the researchers adjust the rate at which the numbers flash. The idea was to dial up the speed of the flashing until it was just a bit too quick for the subject to read while looking at it in a non-stressed mental state. Eagleman reasoned that, if fear really does speed up our rate of perception, then once his subjects were in the terror of freefall, they should be able to make out the numbers on the display. As it turned out, they couldn't. That means that fear does not actually speed up our rate of perception or mental processing. Instead, it allows us to remember what we do experience in greater detail. Since our perception of time is based on the number of things we remember, fearful experiences thus seem to unfold more slowly.

Eagleman's findings are important not just for understanding the experience of fear, but for the very nature of consciousness. After all, the test subjects who fell from the SCAD tower certainly believed, as they accelerated through freefall, that they knew what the experience was like at that very moment. They thought that it seemed to be moving slowly. Yet Eaglemen's findings suggest that that sensation could only have been superimposed after the fact. The implication is that we don't really have a direct experience of what we're feeling ‘right now,' but only a memory - an unreliable memory - of what we thought it felt like some seconds or milliseconds ago. The vivid present tense we all think we inhabit might itself be a retroactive illusion."

Chet Raymo, “The Universe Becomes Conscious of Itself”

“The Universe Becomes Conscious of Itself”
by Chet Raymo

"By now most of us will have seen this spectacular photograph of a dusty star-birthing region of the Carina Nebula, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. I offer a slightly different cropping from what you may have seen in the media or on APOD. Please click the image to see it it all of its glory.


Let me add some context. The image shows an area of the sky that you could cover with the intersection of two crossed sewing pins held at arms length. Think about that for a minute. Hold two imaginary crossed pins up against the sky and think of the area covered by their intersection, what a tiny part of the visible universe you are looking at. The photo shows a nebulosity that is invisible to the naked eye, in the midst of the southern-hemisphere Milky Way. Where is this object? Our Sun is on the inside edge of an arm of our spiral galaxy, about two-thirds of the way - 30,000 light-years - out from the center. The Carina Nebula is in the same spiral arm, trailing along 7500 light-years behind us as we make our languorous 200-million-year rotation about the galactic axis. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, including the ones you see aborning here. And the Milky Way Galaxy is just one of tens of billions of galaxies we could potentially see with present telescopes.

Now, in my usual mischievous way, let me juxtapose two images of the heavens (please click to fill your screen). On the left is Gustave Dore's rendering of Dante and Beatrice looking upon the heavenly realm, the choirs of angels attendant upon the Diety, the anthropomorphic Empyrean Fields where the souls of the Blessed find everlasting life, just up there beyond the spheres of air and aether. And on the right, the new image from the Hubble.


I'm confident that anyone who visits here, and probably most educated people, will agree that the image on the right, and my description above, is the truer representation of the universe we live in. But which universe do we psychologically inhabit? I would maintain that the great majority of educated people today have not yet assimilated the picture on the right, and continue to live as if they were contemporaries of Dante. I know I have a hard time grasping the scale of the universe as revealed by modern astronomy - and I have been studying and teaching this stuff for a lifetime. Coming to terms with the vast size and apparent indifference of the universe is not easy when the tug of culture continually pulls us back into the cozy human-centered cosmos of our ancestors.

Where is our contemporary Beatrice who will take us by the hand and lead us into the swirling star-birthing vortex of the Carina Nebula, and say to us, "See, all this is the gift of the human intellect - human ingenuity and human daring - all this is contained in those convolutions of mortal flesh that sit at the top of your spine"?

"How It Really Is"


The Economy: "AMT: Uncle Sam Wants YOU…to Pay Up!"

"AMT: Uncle Sam Wants YOU…to Pay Up!"
by Byron King

"In September, we discussed the looming U.S. tax increases (what we dubbed “taxaggedon”) scheduled by law to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Absent new legislation over the next couple of months, your taxes WILL increase at the beginning of 2013. It’s going to be a tax avalanche! As I stated in the article, “If you earn income in the U.S., or otherwise have ties to U.S. income… you’re in the cross hairs. If nothing else, the tax collector cometh, and he knoweth your name. If you’re a taxpayer, you’re not going to like it.”

Many of my readers wrote in, asking for more details. Thus, I’ll expand on the point, with this standard disclaimer: Everything I’m about to describe is general guidance. For specific, personal tax questions, you MUST consult your own attorney or accountant. However, if this article motivates you to do some perfectly legal and proper tax planning, then so much the better. You’ve got less than three months before the tax asteroid hits.

Alternative Minimum Tax: Many readers requested details about what the impending 2013 tax increases will mean if you’re subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The short answer is that it’ll be brutal. But first, let’s back up. What is the AMT? Well, you may be surprised to learn that the U.S. has two tax codes. The AMT is a stand-alone system, paralleling the one with which most wage-earning Americans are familiar. That is, the usual way to pay tax is for a wage earner to receive a form W-2 and/or 1099 at the end of the year and then calculate total income on a Form 1040. Then you apply deductions to which you’re entitled. You pay tax based on the adjustments.

But in 1969, Congress created a different tax system — the AMT. Back then, a small number of wealthy people used all manner of deductions, shelters and loopholes to avoid paying any income tax at all. Eventually, it hit the media. For example, in the late 1960s, some “millionaires” paid zero tax, which seemed unfair compared with most other working-stiff wage earners. Plus, zero tax deprived the U.S. Treasury of revenues to pay the costs of government — including the Vietnam War — and we can’t have that, right? So since 1969, every taxpayer is responsible for paying the higher amount of “regular” income tax, or AMT.

Here’s how it works. You (or, more likely, your accountant) calculate your tax, using the IRS Form 1040. Then you calculate your AMT obligation under a less well-known form, IRS 6251. If the AMT number is larger, then the difference applies to your overall tax calculation. In other words, it’s a new spin on that old Uncle Sam poster, “I Want You!”

When you prepare your taxes, you can take all the deductions you want. The deductions might be perfectly legal and proper. But then along comes AMT with a different set of calculations than the regular tax. You’re busted. The bottom line is that AMT doesn’t allow the standard deduction, personal exemptions or many itemized deductions — like those for state taxes, children, medical expenses, etc. Also some income that’s not otherwise subject to regular tax gets added back for AMT purposes.

An Unkind, Wartime Tax — Still With Us: The AMT isn’t meant to be kind to taxpayers. It was a Vietnam-era wartime tax. The goal was to raise revenue for the government. The cynic might say that AMT treats high-income taxpayers as a class to be taxed hard — if not punished — for raking in the dough. Still, when all is said and done, AMT is, in most cases, much higher than the normal tax under regular rules. That’s the intent. Pay up.

At first, AMT touched a very small number of taxpayers. In fact, in 1970, only about 20,000 people were subject to AMT, out of a U.S. population of just over 200 million. Few people even knew that AMT existed. Few cared. AMT is only for “rich people,” right? But last year, in 2011, over 4 million taxpayers were subject to AMT, out of a U.S. population over 311 million. That’s a significant number of taxpayers, and represents an explosive growth rate of over 200 times, during a period when overall national population rose by 55%. So now, AMT is much better known.

Looking Ahead: What’s in store for next year? According to the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution, more than 31 million Americans will be subject to AMT in 2013. That is, the tax base for AMT will skyrocket from 4 million to 31 million in just one year — not quite an eightfold increase! There are two main reasons that AMT will reach out and touch more and more taxpayers. First, unlike the case with the regular income tax, AMT is not indexed for inflation. Thus, in general, as wages and other income sources increase with inflation over the years, AMT reaches relatively deeper down into the taxpayer base. In that sense, AMT is a tax on inflation — rather fitting, since it was created during the Vietnam War, the granddaddy of modern inflation. Second, the famous “Bush tax cuts” of 2001–06 reduced tax liability for regular income (the 1040 kind), without any permanent adjustment to the parallel AMT rates.

Whoa! Wait! What does that last item mean? Well, as I discussed above, AMT originally targeted high-income taxpayers. So over the years, as inflation pushed more and more people into higher brackets, Congress passed temporary “patches” to the rates to keep AMT from impacting millions of otherwise middle-income individuals each year. Guess what? The tax patches all expire on Dec. 31, 2012. Actually, it’s more like ripping the bandage off a bloody wound. So all of the otherwise deferred inflation built into the AMT rates over many years will come roaring back with a tax collector’s vengeance with the new year. Your withholding will instantly have to go up if you want to stay legal.

As of Jan. 1, 2013, AMT is moving way down the income levels — down the food chain, so to speak. Last year, in 2011, about half of taxpayers with incomes between $200,000–500,000 paid AMT. Under 4% of taxpayers with incomes between $100,000–200,000 took the hit. And less than 1% of those with incomes below $100,000 paid AMT.

As of 2013 — absent a major overhaul by Congress — about 94% of those with incomes between $200,000–500,000 will pay the tax, way up from 50%. About 80% of those with income between $100,000–200,000 will also feel the wrath of AMT. For households earning under $100,000? It’s hard to say, but it’s a safe bet that AMT will whack more than last year’s 1%.

If you live in a state with a high state income tax? Then the AMT will hit you harder than if you were in a low-tax state, due to the inability fully to deduct your state taxes. If you have children? AMT will reduce that deduction as well. Indeed, the more children you have, the worse the hit, percentagewise. If you have significant medical deductions? It doesn’t matter under AMT. You get to pay more tax. And so it goes.

Solutions? What’s the answer? Congress should just meet and pass another AMT patch, right? Well, not so fast. First, Congress has adjourned for the year and won’t come back into session until after the elections on Nov. 6. By then, who knows what the political agenda will include? Tax reform by a lame-duck Congress in a hurry-up mode? Right away, I cringe at the thought. Also, consider that extending the AMT for another year is a revenue item that could, in the first year, “cost” the government north of $100 billion — although in truth, nobody really knows how the accounting will play out. Right away, a new AMT patch is a huge hit to anticipated federal revenues, with all the political screaming and gnashing of teeth that comes with things like that. Or suppose that AMT just went away? According to the Congressional Budget Office, repealing AMT would reduce federal revenues by over $2.7 trillion between 2012 and 2022. Again, it’s a massive hit to anticipated federal revenues. Overall, it would have severe consequences for perceptions of national solvency, the value of the dollar, interest rates on bonds and much more.

Clearly, the U.S. — and its taxpayers — are in a heap of trouble. There’s a tax avalanche coming. The most economically productive citizens are about to get slammed by a tax that was, originally, about “fairness” during the Vietnam War. Yet Congress is in a complete bind over how to deal with it. I suspect that things will get worse before they get better.”

The Economy: Dr. Marc Faber, "Disaster Area"

"Disaster Area"
by Dr. Marc Faber

"In order to exercise control over the population, governments throughout history have made people dependent on government largess. A government can make an increasing number of people dependent on its generosity by providing more and more benefits to a larger and larger share of the population.
Social Security Disability Insurance vs. Employment Since 2009:
Because of these “freebies,” people will go along with the government’s enlargement as a percent of the economy. The masses believe in their free lunch and because the business elite knows it can profit from the growth in government. However, there comes a point at which the “nanny state” becomes unviable. Raising taxes to pay for the freebies become problematic. Fortunately for the governments, they have a Treasury and/or a central bank that can print money and monetize the government’s debts.

As Ludwig von Mises observed in "Human Action": "Credit expansion is the government’s foremost tool in their struggle against the market economy. In their hands is the magic wand designed to conjure away the scarcity of capital goods, to lower the rate of interest or to abolish it altogether, to finance lavish government spending, to expropriate the capitalists, to contrive everlasting booms, and to make everybody prosperous. Therefore, the broad population, whose attention will be distracted by the media, won’t realize the negative consequences of large fiscal deficits. They will hardly notice their declining standard of living due to the loss of purchasing power of the currency. In the meantime, the media will bombard them with further immaterial news, such as which Hollywood star is divorcing whom, which team will win the Super Bowl, and abortion rights and gay marriage issues.

The government will also become involved in larger distractions, such as arguing for the need to eliminate continuously new (usually invented) threats or foes arising from ethnic or religious minorities, communists, socialists, terrorists, spies, or, as is now the case in the US, the “vicious” 1% of the population that lives well. A political system controlled by an ignorant electorate that is manipulated by a dishonest and controlled media that dispenses propaganda on behalf of a corrupt political establishment can hardly be the path to lasting prosperity."
Percentage of Americans Receiving Some Kind of Government Benefit:
In fact, I am surprised that economists continue to discuss GDP growth (usually in real terms), when they should be focusing on sustainable growth. Let me explain. Since 2000, US government debt has increased from US$5 trillion to over US$16 trillion. Over the same period, nominal GDP is up from approximately US$9.5 trillion to US$15.5 trillion.

Median Household Income Index Over the Last Decade:
In my opinion, an adjustment to GDP should be made for the increase in government as well as household debt, because both inflate GDP figures, but are not sustainable in the long run, as we now know from some peripheral European countries. I mention this because Eric Fry, writing for The Daily Reckoning, points out the following: "During the last four years, the number of Americans on food stamps has soared by more than 17 million, while the number of employed Americans has dropped by more than 3 million. In percentage terms, the number of Americans on food stamps has soared 60% in four years!… In fact, according to the “Outreach” section of the USDA [US Department of Agriculture] website, the soaring number of food stamp recipients is an absolutely fantastic success story: “SNAP (i.e. food stamps) is the only public benefit program which also serves as an economic stimulus, creating an economic boost that ripples throughout the economy when new SNAP benefits are redeemed. By generating business at local grocery stores, new SNAP benefits trigger labor and production demand, ultimately increasing household income and triggering additional spending.”

There you have it. The government increases its borrowings (through fiscal deficits) in order to pay for, among other things, food stamps. In turn, the food stamp recipients go and spend the money in stores (mostly at Wal-Mart), which boosts GDP. But is this real, sustainable GDP growth?

So, not only do fiscal deficits allow the government to expand useless and unproductive programs and expenditures that artificially boost GDP, but they also increase the number of bureaucrats who implement the new regulations that stifle business. To the neo-Keynesians, I can only say: “Well done.”

"Missteps In The Bunker"

"Missteps In The Bunker"
by The Washington Post

"The greatest fears of nuclear terrorism came true on August 29, 2007, and it occurred within the United States, not an Islamic country. The shocking story was shelved from the beginning and wasn’t even reported until September 23, 2007. Under the careful watch of the Bush and Cheney administration, 6 thermo-nuclear 150 kilo-ton nuclear warheads went missing. What role these weapons in question would have played in the planned nuclear terror attack in Dallas, Texas, on February 6, 2011, is unknown, but Barksdale Air Force Base, where the nukes were last seen, is roughly 100 miles from Dallas, Texas. Although the Air Force has stated that the nuclear weapons were recovered, the deaths of at least (10) U.S. Air Force servicemen surrounding the incident makes it impossible to confirm the recovery of the weapons.

Abstract: Just after 9 a.m. on Aug. 29, a group of U.S. airmen entered a sod-covered bunker on North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base with orders to collect a set of unarmed cruise missiles bound for a weapons graveyard. They quickly pulled out a dozen cylinders, all of which appeared identical from a cursory glance, and hauled them along Bomber Boulevard to a waiting B-52 bomber. The airmen attached the gray missiles to the plane's wings, six on each side. After eyeballing the missiles on the right side, a flight officer signed a manifest that listed a dozen unarmed AGM-129 missiles. The officer did not notice that the six on the left contained nuclear warheads, each with the destructive power of up to 10 Hiroshima bombs.

That detail would escape notice for an astounding 36 hours, during which the missiles were flown across the country to a Louisiana air base that had no idea nuclear warheads were coming. It was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over U.S. airspace, without special high-level authorization, in nearly 40 years. The episode, serious enough to trigger a rare "Bent Spear" nuclear incident report that raced through the chain of command to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Bush, provoked new questions inside and outside the Pentagon about the adequacy of U.S. nuclear weapons safeguards while the military's attention and resources are devoted to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Three weeks after word of the incident leaked to the public, new details obtained by The Washington Post point to security failures at multiple levels in North Dakota and Louisiana, according to interviews with current and former U.S. officials briefed on the initial results of an Air Force investigation of the incident.

The warheads were attached to the plane in Minot without special guard for more than 15 hours, and they remained on the plane in Louisiana for nearly nine hours more before being discovered. In total, the warheads slipped from the Air Force's nuclear safety net for more than a day without anyone's knowledge. "I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing," retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, who served as U.S. Strategic Command chief from 1996 to 1998, said in an interview.

A simple error in a missile storage room led to missteps at every turn, as ground crews failed to notice the warheads, and as security teams and flight crew members failed to provide adequate oversight and check the cargo thoroughly. An elaborate nuclear safeguard system, nurtured during the Cold War and infused with rigorous accounting and command procedures, was utterly debased, the investigation's early results show.

The incident came on the heels of multiple warnings - some of which went to the highest levels of the Bush administration, including the National Security Council - of security problems at Air Force installations where nuclear weapons are kept. The risks are not that warheads might be accidentally detonated, but that sloppy procedures could leave room for theft or damage to a warhead, disseminating its toxic nuclear materials. A former National Security Council staff member with detailed knowledge described the event as something that people in the White House "have been assured never could happen." What occurred on Aug. 29-30, the former official said, was "a breakdown at a number of levels involving flight crew, munitions, storage and tracking procedures - faults that never were to line up on a single day."

Missteps in the Bunker: The air base where the incident took place is one of the most remote and, for much of the year, coldest military posts in the continental United States. Veterans of Minot typically describe their assignments by counting the winters passed in the flat, treeless region where January temperatures sometimes reach 30 below zero. In airman-speak, a three-year assignment becomes "three winters" at Minot.

The daily routine for many of Minot's crews is a cycle of scheduled maintenance for the base's 35 aging B-52H Stratofortress bombers - mammoth, eight-engine workhorses, the newest of which left the assembly line more than 45 years ago. Workers also tend to 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles kept at the ready in silos scattered across neighboring cornfields, as well as hundreds of smaller nuclear bombs, warheads and vehicles stored in sod-covered bunkers called igloos. "We had a continuous workload in maintaining" warheads, said Scott Vest, a former Air Force captain who spent time in Minot's bunkers in the 1990s. "We had a stockpile of more than 400... and some of them were always coming due" for service.

Among the many weapons and airframes, the AGM-129 cruise missile was well known at the base as a nuclear warhead delivery system carried by B-52s. With its unique shape and design, it is easily distinguished from the older AGM-86, which can be fitted with either a nuclear or a conventional warhead. After 17 years in the U.S. arsenal, the Air Force's more than 400 AGM-129s were ordered into retirement by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Minot was told to begin shipping out the unarmed missiles in small groups to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., for storage. By Aug. 29, its crews had already sent more than 200 missiles to Barksdale and knew the drill by heart.

The Air Force's account of what happened that day and the next was provided by multiple sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the government's investigation is continuing and classified.

At 9:12 a.m. local time on Aug. 29, according to the account, ground crews in two trucks entered a gated compound at Minot known as the Weapons Storage Area and drove to an igloo where the cruise missiles were stored. The 21-foot missiles were already mounted on pylons, six apiece in clusters of three, for quick mounting to the wings of a B-52. The AGM-129 is designed to carry silver W-80-1 nuclear warheads, which have a variable yield of between 5 and 150 kilotons. (A kiloton is equal to the explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT.) The warheads were meant to have been removed from the missiles before shipment. In their place, crews were supposed to insert metal dummies of the same size and weight, but a different color, so the missiles could still be properly attached under the bomber's wings.

A munitions custodian officer is supposed to keep track of the nuclear warheads. In the case of cruise missiles, a stamp-size window on the missile's frame allows workers to peer inside to check whether the warheads within are silver. In many cases, a red ribbon or marker attached to the missile serves as an additional warning. Finally, before the missiles are moved, two-man teams are supposed to look at check sheets, bar codes and serial numbers denoting whether the missiles are armed. Why the warheads were not noticed in this case is not publicly known. But once the missiles were certified as unarmed, a requirement for unique security precautions when nuclear warheads are moved - such as the presence of specially armed security police, the approval of a senior base commander and a special tracking system - evaporated.

The trucks hauled the missile pylons from the bunker into the bustle of normal air base traffic, onto Bomber Boulevard and M Street, before turning onto a tarmac apron where the missiles were loaded onto the B-52. The loading took eight hours because of unusual trouble attaching the pylon on the right side of the plane - the one with the dummy warheads. By 5:12 p.m., the B-52 was fully loaded. The plane then sat on the tarmac overnight without special guards, protected for 15 hours by only the base's exterior chain-link fence and roving security patrols.

Air Force rules required members of the jet's flight crew to examine all of the missiles and warheads before the plane took off. But in this instance, just one person examined only the six unarmed missiles and inexplicably skipped the armed missiles on the left, according to officials familiar with the probe. "If they're not expecting a live warhead it may be a very casual thing - there's no need to set up the security system and play the whole nuclear game," said Vest, the former Minot airman. "As for the air crew, they're bus drivers at this point, as far as they know."
 
The plane, which had flown to Minot for the mission and was not certified to carry nuclear weapons, departed the next morning for Louisiana. When the bomber landed at Barksdale at 11:23 a.m., the air crew signed out and left for lunch, according to the probe. It would be another nine hours - until 8:30 p.m. - before a Barksdale ground crew turned up at the parked aircraft to begin removing the missiles. At 8:45, 15 minutes into the task, a separate missile transport crew arrived in trucks. One of these airmen noticed something unusual about the missiles. Within an hour, a skeptical supervisor had examined them and ordered them secured. By then it was 10 p.m., more than 36 hours after the warheads left their secure bunker in Minot.

Once the errant warheads were discovered, Air Force officers in Louisiana were alarmed enough to immediately notify the National Military Command Center, a highly secure area of the Pentagon that serves as the nerve center for U.S. nuclear war planning. Such "Bent Spear" events are ranked second in seriousness only to "Broken Arrow" incidents, which involve the loss, destruction or accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon. The Air Force decided at first to keep the mishap under wraps, in part because of policies that prohibit the confirmation of any details about the storage or movement of nuclear weapons. No public acknowledgment was made until service members leaked the story to the Military Times, which published a brief account Sept. 5. Officials familiar with the Bent Spear report say Air Force officials apparently did not anticipate that the episode would cause public concern. One passage in the report contains these four words: "No press interest anticipated."

'What the Hell Happened Here?' The news, when it did leak, provoked a reaction within the defense and national security communities that bordered on disbelief: How could so many safeguards, drilled into generations of nuclear weapons officers and crews, break down at once? Military officers, nuclear weapons analysts and lawmakers have expressed concern that it was not just a fluke, but a symptom of deeper problems in the handling of nuclear weapons now that Cold War anxieties have abated. "It is more significant than people first realized, and the more you look at it, the stranger it is," said Joseph Cirincione, director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress think tank and the author of a history of nuclear weapons. "These weapons - the equivalent of 60 Hiroshimas - were out of authorized command and control for more than a day."

The Air Force has sought to offer assurances that its security system is working. Within days, the service relieved one Minot officer of his command and disciplined several airmen, while assigning a major general to head an investigation that has already been extended for extra weeks. At the same time, Defense Department officials have announced that a Pentagon-appointed scientific advisory board will study the mishap as part of a larger review of procedures for handling nuclear weapons. "Clearly this incident was unacceptable on many levels," said an Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Edward Thomas. "Our response has been swift and focused - and it has really just begun. We will spend many months at the air staff and at our commands and bases ensuring that the root causes are addressed."
 
While Air Force officials see the Minot event as serious, they also note that it was harmless, since the six nuclear warheads never left the military's control. Even if the bomber had crashed, or if someone had stolen the warheads, fail-safe devices would have prevented a nuclear detonation. But independent experts warn that whenever nuclear weapons are not properly safeguarded, their fissile materials are at risk of theft and diversion. Moreover, if the plane had crashed and the warheads' casings cracked, these highly toxic materials could have been widely dispersed. "When what were multiple layers of tight nuclear weapon control internal procedures break down, some bad guy may eventually come along and take advantage of them," said a former senior administration official who had responsibility for nuclear security.

Some Air Force veterans say the base's officers made an egregious mistake in allowing nuclear-warhead-equipped missiles and unarmed missiles to be stored in the same bunker, a practice that a spokesman last week confirmed is routine. Charles Curtis, a former deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said, "We always relied on segregation of nuclear weapons from conventional ones."

Former nuclear weapons officials have noted that the weapons transfer at the heart of the incident coincides with deep cuts in deployed nuclear forces that will bring the total number of warheads to as few as 1,700 by the year 2012 - a reduction of more than 50 percent from 2001 levels. But the downsizing has created new accounting and logistical challenges, since U.S. policy is to keep thousands more warheads in storage, some as a strategic reserve and others awaiting dismantling.

A secret 1998 history of the Air Combat Command warned of "diminished attention for even 'the minimum standards' of nuclear weapons' maintenance, support and security" once such arms became less vital, according to a declassified copy obtained by Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' nuclear information project. The Air Force's inspector general in 2003 found that half of the "nuclear surety" inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades - the worst performance since inspections of weapons-handling began. Minot's 5th Bomb Wing was among the units that failed, and the Louisiana-based 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale garnered an unsatisfactory rating in 2005.

Both units passed subsequent nuclear inspections, and Minot was given high marks in a 2006 inspection. The 2003 report on the 5th Bomb Wing attributed its poor performance to the demands of supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wartime stresses had "resulted in a lack of time to focus and practice nuclear operations," the report stated.

Last year, the Air Force eliminated a separate nuclear-operations directorate known informally as the N Staff, which closely tracked the maintenance and security of nuclear weapons in the United States and other NATO countries. Currently, nuclear and space operations are combined in a single directorate. Air Force officials say the change was part of a service-wide reorganization and did not reflect diminished importance of nuclear operations. "Where nuclear weapons have receded into the background is at the senior policy level, where there are other things people have to worry about," said Linton F. Brooks, who resigned in January as director of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Brooks, who oversaw billions of dollars in U.S. spending to help Russia secure its nuclear stockpile, said the mishandling of U.S. warheads indicates that "something went seriously wrong."

A similar refrain has been voiced hundreds of times in blogs and chat rooms popular with former and current military members. On a Web site run by the Military Times, a former B-52 crew chief who did not give his name wrote: "What the hell happened here?" A former Air Force senior master sergeant wrote separately that "mistakes were made at the lowest level of supervision and this snowballed into the one of the biggest mistakes in USAF history. I am still scratching my head wondering how this could [have] happened" (Washington Post, 2007)."

“The Mystery of Minot: Loose Nukes, Dead Airmen”

“The Mystery of Minot:
 Loose Nukes, Dead Airmen”
by Dave Lindorff

Wed, 11/21/2007— "The unauthorized Aug. 29 cross-country flight of a B-52H Stratofortress armed with six nuclear-tipped AGM-29 Advanced Cruise missiles, which saw these 150-kiloton warheads go missing for 36 hours, has all the elements of two Hollywood movies. One would be a thriller about the theft from an armed weapons bunker of six nukes for some dark and murky purpose. The lead might be played by Matt Damon. The other movie would be a slapstick comedy about a bunch of bozos who couldn’t tell the difference between a nuclear weapon and a pile of dummy warheads. The lead might be played by Adam Sandler, backed by the cast of “Police Academy III.”

So far, the Pentagon, which has launched two separate investigations into the incident, seems to be assuming that it is dealing with the comedy version, saying that some incredible “mistake” led to nuclear weapons being taken inadvertently from a weapons-storage bunker, loaded into launch position on a bomber, and flown from North Dakota to Louisiana.

To date, more than a month after the incident, Pentagon investigators have completely ignored a peculiar cluster of six deaths, during the weeks immediately preceding and following the flight, of personnel at the two Air Force bases involved in the incident and Air Force Commando Operations headquarters.

The operative assumption of the investigations appears to be that an Air Force decision to store nuclear, conventional, and dummy warheads in the same bunker and one mistake by weapons handlers initiated a chain of errors and oversights that led to the flight.

On Sept. 23, the Washington Post, in a story based upon interviews with military officials, many of them unidentified, suggested that the first known case of nuclear warheads leaving a weapons-storage area improperly was the result of two mistakes. The first, the article suggested, was a decision by the Air Force to permit the storing of nuclear weapons in the same highly secure and constantly guarded sod-covered bunkers—known as “igloos”—as non-nuclear weapons and dummy warheads (something that had never been allowed in the past). The second was some as yet unidentified mistake by weapons handlers at Minot to mount six nuclear warheads onto six of the 12 Advanced Cruise Missiles that had been slated to be flown to Barksdale AFB for destruction. Those missiles and the six others, part of a group of 400 such missiles slated for retirement and disassembly, should have been fitted with dummy warheads also. The Post article quotes military sources as saying that once the mistake was made, a cascade of errors followed as weapons handlers, ground crews, and the B-52 crew dkipped all nuclear protocols, assuming they were dealing with dummy warheads.

The problem with this theory is that dummy warheads don’t look the same as the real thing. The real warheads, called W80-1’s, are shiny silver, which is clearly visible through postage-stamp-sized windows on the nosecone covers that protect them on the missiles. In addition, the mounted warheads are encased in a red covering as a second precaution.

Apparently the nukes (which can be set to explode at between 5 kilotons and 150 kilotons) were easily spotted by a Barksdale AFB ground crew when they went out to the plane on the tarmac hours after it landed. If the barksdale ground crew, which had no reason to suspect it was looking at nuclear-tipped missiles, easily spotted the “error,” why did everyone at Minot miss it, as claimed?

Clearly, whoever loaded the six nukes on one B-52 wing pod, and whoever mounted that pod on the wing, knew or should have known that they were dealing with nukes—and absend an order from the highest authority in Washington, loading such nukes on a bomber was against all policy. The odds of randomly putting six nukes all on one pod, and six dummies on the other, are 1:924. And how curious that the pilot, who is supposed to check all 12 missiles before flying, checked only the pod containing the dummy warheads.

Various experts familiar with nuclear-weapons-handling protocols express astonishment at what happened on Aug. 29 and 30. After all, over the course of more than six decades, the protocols for handling nuclear arms have called for at least two people at every step, with paper trails, bar codes, and real-time computer tracking of every warhead in the arsenal. Nothing like this has been known to have happened before. Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, who served as US Strategic Command chief from 1996 to 1998, told the Post, “I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing.”

Philip Coyle, a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, calls the iincident “astonishing” and “unbelievable.” He says, “This wasn’t just a mistake. I’ve counted, and at least 20 things had to have gone wrong for this to have occurred.”

Bruce Blair, a former Air Force nuclear launch officer who is now president of the World Security Institute, says that the explanation of the incident as laid out in the Washington Post, and in the limited statements from the Air Force and Department of Defense, which call it a “mistake,” are “incomplete.” He notes that no mention has been made as to whether the nukes in question, which had been pre-mounted on a pylon for attachment to the B-52 wing, had their PAL (permiswsion action link) codes unlocked to make them operational, or whether a system on board the plane that would ordinarily prevent an unauthorized launch had been activated. “For all we know, these missiles could have been fully operational,” he says.

The Air Force and Department of Defense are refusing to answer any questions about such matters.

Meanwhile, there are those six deaths. On July 20, 1st Lt. Weston Kissel, a 28-year-old B-52 pilot from Minot, died in a motorcycle accident while on home leave in Tennessee.

Another Minot B-52 pilot, 20-year-old Adam Barrs, died on July 5 in Minot when a car he was riding in, driven by another Minot airman, Stephen Garrett, went off the road, hit a tree, and caught fire. Airman Garrett was brought to the hospital in critical condition and has since been charged with negligent homicide.

Two more Air Force personnel, Senior Airman Clint Huff, 29, of Barksdale AFB, and his wife Linda died on Sept. 15 in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana, when Huff reportedly attempted to pass a van in a no-passing zone on his motorcycle, and the van made a left-hand turn, striking them.

Then there are two reported suicides, which both occurred within days of the flight. One involved Todd Blue, a 20-year-old airman who was in a unit that guarded weapons at Minot. He reportedly shot himself in the head on Sept. 11 while on a visit to his family in Wytheville, Virginia. Local police investigators termed his death a suicide.

The second suicide, on Aug. 30, was John Frueh, a special forces weather commando at the Air Force’s Special Operations command headquartered at Hurlburt AFB in Florida. Hurlburt’s website says, “Every night, as millions of Americans sleep peacefully under the blanket of freedom,” Air Force special Operations commandos work “in deep dark places, far away from home, risking their lives to keep that blanket safe.”

Frueh, 33, a married father of two who had just received approval for promotion from captain to major, reportedly flew from Florida to Portland, Oregon, for a friend’s wedding. He never showed up. Instead, he called on Aug. 29, the day the missiles were loaded, from an interstate pull-off just outside Portland to say he was going for a hike in a park nearby. (It is not clear why he was at a highway rest stop as he had no car.) A day later, back in Portland, he rented a car at the airport, again calling his family. After he failed to appear at the wedding, his family filed a missing person’s report with the Portland police. The Sheriff’s Department in remote Skamania County, Washington, found Frueh’s rental car ten days later on the side of a road nearly 120 miles from the airport in a remote area of Badger Peak. Search dogs found his body in the woods. His death was ruled a suicide, though neither the sheriff’s investigator nor the medical examiner would give details. What makes this alleged suicide odd, however, is that the sheriff reports that Frueh had with him a knapsack containing a GPS locator and a videocam—odd equipment for someone intent on ending his life.

Of course, it could be that all six of these deaths are coincidences—all just accidents and personal tragedies. But when they occur around the time six nuclear-tipped missiles go missing in a bizarre incident, the likes of which the Pentagon hasn’t seen before, one would think investigators would be on those cases like vultures on carrion. In fact, police and medical examiners in the Frueh and Blue cases say no federal investigators, whether from DOD or FBI, have called them. Worse still, because the B-52 incident got so little media attention—no coverage in most local news—none of those investigating the accidents and suicides even knew about it or about the other deaths.

“It would have been interesting to know all that when I was examining Mr. Blue’s body,” says coroner Mike Stoker, “but no one told me about any of it or asked me about him.” “If we had known that several people had died under questionable circumstances, it might have affected how we’d look at a body,” says Don Phillips, the sheriff’s deputy who investigated the Frueh death. “But nobody from the federal government has ever contacted us about this.” “Certainly, in a case like this, the suicides should be a red flag,” says Hans Kristensen, a nuclear-affairs expert with the Federation of American Scientists. It’s wild speculation to think that there might be some connection between the deaths and the incident, but it certainly should be investigated.”

"Looking Beyond Election Day: The Issues That Threaten to Derail the Nation"

"Looking Beyond Election Day: 
The Issues That Threaten to Derail the Nation"
By John W. Whitehead

"While it may be months before the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy can be fully resolved, Americans cannot afford to lose sight of the very real and pressing issues that threaten to derail the nation. What follows is an overview of the major issues that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, despite their respective billion dollar war chests, have failed to mention during their extensive campaign trail stumping and televised debates. These are issues that aren’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, unless we take a proactive approach to the problems that loom large before us, especially as they relate to America’s ongoing transformation into a police state, we may find that they are here to stay.

Militarized police. Thanks to federal grant programs allowing the Pentagon to transfer surplus military supplies and weapons to local law enforcement agencies without charge, police forces are being transformed from peace officers to heavily armed extensions of the military, complete with jackboots, helmets, shields, batons, pepper-spray, stun guns, assault rifles, body armor, miniature tanks and weaponized drones. As Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, observed, “Today, 17,000 local police forces are equipped with such military equipment as Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, battering rams, explosives, chemical sprays, body armor, night vision, rappelling gear and armored vehicles. Some have tanks.” In other words, what we are witnessing is an inversion of the police-civilian relationship.

Drones. As mandated by Congress, there will be 30,000 drones crisscrossing the skies of America by 2020, all part of an industry that could be worth as much as $30 billion per year. These machines will be able to record all activities, using video feeds, heat sensors and radar. Some drones are capable of hijacking Wi-Fi networks and intercepting electronic communications such as text messages.

SWAT team raids. With more than 50,000 SWAT team raids carried out every year on unsuspecting Americans for relatively routine police matters and federal agencies laying claim to their own law enforcement divisions, the incidence of botched raids and related casualties is on the rise. Nationwide, SWAT teams have been employed to address an astonishingly trivial array of criminal activity or mere community nuisances including angry dogs, domestic disputes, improper paperwork filed by an orchid farmer, and misdemeanor marijuana possession, to give a brief sampling.

Suspect society. Due in large part to rapid advances in technology and a heightened surveillance culture, the burden of proof has been shifted so that the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty has been usurped by a new norm in which all citizens are suspects. This is exemplified by police practices of stopping and frisking people who are merely walking down the street and where there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Making matters worse are Terrorism Liaison Officers (firefighters, police officers, and even corporate employees) who have been trained to spy on their fellow citizens and report “suspicious activity,” which includes taking pictures with no apparent aesthetic value, making measurements and drawings, taking notes, conversing in code, espousing radical beliefs and buying items in bulk. TLOs report back to “fusion centers,” which are a driving force behind the government’s quest to collect, analyze, and disseminate information on American citizens.

VIPR Strikes. Under the pretext of protecting the nation’s infrastructure (roads, mass transit systems, water and power supplies, telecommunications systems and so on) against criminal or terrorist attacks, VIPR task forces (comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams) are being deployed to do random security sweeps of nexuses of transportation, including ports, railway and bus stations, airports, ferries and subways. VIPR teams are also being deployed to elevate the security presence at certain special events such as political conventions, baseball games and music concerts. Sweep tactics include the use of x-ray technology, pat-downs and drug-sniffing dogs, among other things. These stings inculcate and condition citizens to a culture of submissiveness towards authority and regularize intrusive, suspicionless searches as a facet of everyday life.

Invasive surveillance technology. Police have been outfitted with a litany of surveillance gear, from license plate readers and cell phone tracking devices to biometric data recorders. Technology now makes it possible for the police to scan passersby in order to detect the contents of their pockets, purses, briefcases, etc. Full-body scanners, which perform virtual strip-searches of Americans traveling by plane, have gone mobile, with roving police vans that peer into vehicles and buildings alike—including homes. Coupled with the nation’s growing network of real-time surveillance cameras and facial recognition software, soon there really will be nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

USA Patriot Act, NDAA. America’s so-called war on terror, which it has relentlessly pursued since 9/11, has chipped away at our freedoms, unraveled our Constitution and transformed our nation into a battlefield, thanks in large part to such subversive legislation as the USA Patriot Act and National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. These laws completely circumvent the rule of law and the constitutional rights of American citizens, re-orienting our legal landscape in such a way as to ensure that martial law, rather than the rule of law—our U.S. Constitution—becomes the map by which we navigate life in the United States.

Schoolhouse to jailhouse track. The paradigm of abject compliance to the state is being taught by example in the schools, through school lockdowns where police and drug-sniffing dogs enter the classroom, and zero tolerance policies that punish all offenses equally and result in young people being expelled for childish behavior. As a consequence, school districts are increasingly teaming up with law enforcement to create what some are calling the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track” by imposing a “double dose” of punishment: suspension or expulsion from school, accompanied by an arrest by the police and a trip to juvenile court. In this way, young people find themselves in an environment where they have no true rights and government authorities have near total power over them and can violate their constitutional rights whenever they see fit.

Overcriminalization. In the face of a government bureaucracy consumed with churning out laws, statutes, codes and regulations that reinforce its powers and value systems and those of the police state and its corporate allies, we are all petty criminals, guilty of violating some minor law. In fact, the average American now unknowingly commits three felonies a day, thanks to an overabundance of vague laws that render otherwise innocent activity illegal and an inclination on the part of prosecutors to reject the idea that there can’t be a crime without criminal intent. Consequently, we now find ourselves operating in a strange new world where small farmers who dare to make unpasteurized goat cheese and share it with members of their community are finding their farms raided, while home gardeners face jail time for daring to cultivate their own varieties of orchids without having completed sufficient paperwork. This frightening state of affairs—where a person can actually be arrested and incarcerated for the most innocent and inane activities, including feeding a whale and collecting rainwater on their own property—is due to what law scholars refer to as overcriminalization.

Privatized Prisons. At one time, the American penal system operated under the idea that dangerous criminals needed to be put under lock and key in order to protect society. Today, as states attempt to save money by outsourcing prisons to private corporations, imprisoning Americans in private prisons run by mega-corporations has turned into a cash cow for big business. In exchange for corporations buying and managing public prisons across the country at a supposed savings to the states, the states have to agree to maintain a 90% occupancy rate in the privately run prisons for at least 20 years. Such a scheme simply encourages incarceration for the sake of profits, while causing millions of Americans, most of them minor, nonviolent criminals, to be handed over to corporations for lengthy prison sentences which do nothing to protect society or prevent recidivism.

Endless wars. Having been co-opted by greedy defense contractors, corrupt politicians and incompetent government officials, America’s expanding military empire is bleeding the country dry at a rate of more than $15 billion a month (or $20 million an hour)—and that’s just what the government spends on foreign wars. That does not include the cost of maintaining and staffing the 1000-plus U.S. military bases spread around the globe. Incredibly, although the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the world's population, America boasts almost 50% of the world's total military expenditure, spending more on the military than the next 19 biggest spending nations combined. In fact, the Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety. Yet what most Americans fail to recognize is that these ongoing wars have little to do with keeping the country safe and everything to do with enriching the military industrial complex at taxpayer expense.

Rise of the Imperial President. During his two terms in office, George W. Bush stepped outside the boundaries of the Constitution and assembled an amazing toolbox of powers that greatly increased the authority of the Executive branch and the reach of the federal government. Bush expanded presidential power to, among other things, allow government agents to secretly open the private mail of American citizens; authorize government agents to secretly, and illegally, listen in on the phone calls of American citizens and read our e-mails; assume control of the federal government following a “catastrophic event”; and declare martial law. Thus, the groundwork was laid for an imperial presidency, a state of affairs that continued after Barack Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office and one that will likely not improve, no matter who wins on Election Day, unless something is done to restore the balance between government and its citizens.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Déjà Vu: Fascism on the Rise"

"Déjà Vu: Fascism on the Rise"
by Justin Raimondo

"As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air- however slight- lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."
- Justice William O. Douglas

"Here in America we have only just begun to feel the social and political effects of the worldwide economic crisis: rising unemployment, a wave of bankruptcies and foreclosures, and a general contraction in economic activity. State and local governments are imposing austerity measures, and the federal government faces a “fiscal cliff” that may be much steeper than anyone now imagines.

In the United States, we have yet to see the rise of a mass movement that limns the historic themes and forms of fascism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Anti-“foreigner” appeals in American politics are nothing new, but we see it increasingly in these times of economic uncertainty: indeed, both major parties have made China-bashing a consistent theme in this presidential election year, with Mitt Romney trying to blame our trade deficit on Chinese “currency manipulators”— an Asiatic version of the “Jewish bankers” invoked by Jobbik and Golden Dawn. One of the greatest ironies is that we have the first African-American President and his party going after the Republicans for supposedly shipping “our” jobs to China— feeding into the economically illiterate and outright racist idea that those strange little yellow people are the root cause of our economic problems.

The American right-wing is rife with these kinds of sentiments, which find expression in the “birther” movement, and the charge that the President isn’t really an American— he’s a secret Muslim imbued with a “Kenyan anti-colonialist” mindset. Taking their cues from their ideological blood brothers in Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the neoconservative right targets Muslims as the scapegoat on which to blame all our problems, invoking the supposedly looming threat of “sharia law” (and the phony specter of Iranian nukes) to demonize a minority group. Although the actual “problem” of illegal immigration has recently been cut in half due to the economic downturn— the jobs these migrants are supposedly “stealing” from us having evaporated— it’s interesting that the rhetoric of the anti-immigrationists has only gotten louder and more extreme. In bad times, many look for a scapegoat— whether it’s immigrants, Jews, gays, or Gypsies is due to local circumstances and the relative powerlessness of such groups.

All the themes of incipient fascism are present, to some degree, in our present-day political culture: the fear of the Other, the need for a (powerless) scapegoat, including the theme of expansionism. Not that anyone is calling for a “Greater America,” but militarism and the idea of America’s “manifest destiny” as the guardian and instrument of “world order” suffuse ostensibly “conservative” pronouncements on foreign policy. Indeed, in the 1990s one of the prime proponents of today’s “sensible centrism,” David Brooks, co-authored a series of articles in the neoconservative Weekly Standard extolling the concept of “national greatness,” and during that era “national greatness conservatism” was a major conceit of the American right-wing. It’s no accident that the same decade— and the same magazine— saw explicit calls for an “American empire,” an oxymoronic concept if ever there was one.

It wouldn’t take much to mix and magnify these implicit themes into a much more explicit, consistent— and dangerous— toxic cocktail, one that an increasingly panicked American public would willingly quaff. Another economic “event,” such as the crash of ’08, another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, or perhaps some combination of both— it isn’t alarmism but rather realism to observe these trends with trepidation.”

"Just What Suits Our Purpose..."

 "No experience is a cause of success or failure. 
We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences, 
so-called trauma- but we make out of them just what suits our purposes."
- Alfred Adler

"A Look to the Heavens"

"Is this what will become of our Sun? Quite possibly. The bubble of expanding gas pictured below is the planetary nebula PK 164 +31.1, the remnants of the atmosphere of a Sun-like star expelled as its supply of fusion-able core hydrogen became depleted. Visible near the center of the nebula is what remains of the core itself- a blue-hot white dwarf star. This particularly photogenic planetary nebula shows intricate shells of gas likely expelled at different times toward the end the star's demise, and whose structure is not fully understood. 
Click image for larger size.
This deep image of PK 164 +31.1 from the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain shows many other stars from our own Milky Way Galaxy as well as several galaxies far in the distance. PK 164 +31, also known as Jones-Emberson 1, lies about 1,600 light years away toward the constellation of the Wildcat (Lynx). Due to its faintness (magnitude 17) and low surface brightness, the object is only visible with a good-sized telescope. Although the expanding nebula will fade away over the next few thousand years, the central white dwarf may well survive for billions of years- to when our universe may be a very different place.”

The Poet: David Wagoner, "Getting There"

 "Getting There"

"You take a final step and, look, suddenly
You're there. You've arrived
At the one place all your drudgery was aimed for:
This common ground
Where you stretch out, pressing your cheek to sandstone.

What did you want to be? 
You'll remember soon.
 You feel like tinder under a burning glass,
A luminous point of change.
 The sky is pulsing against the cracked horizon,
Holding it firm till the arrival of stars
In time with your heartbeats.
Like wind etching rock, you've made a lasting impression
On the self you were,
By having come all this way through all this welter
Under your own power,
Though your traces on a map would make an unpromising
Meandering lifeline.

What have you learned so far? You'll find out later,
Telling it haltingly like a dream,
 That lost traveler's dream under the last hill
Where through the night you'll take your time out of mind
To unburden yourself
Of elements along elementary paths
By the break of morning.

You've earned this worn-down, hard, incredible sight
Called Here and Now.
Now, what you make of it means everything,
Means starting over:
The life in your hands is neither here nor there
But getting there,
So you're standing again and breathing, beginning another
Journey without regret
Forever, being your own unpeaceable kingdom,
The end of endings."

~ David Wagoner

Chet Raymo, "Born That Way?"

"Born That Way?"
by Chet Raymo

"Before I leave behind the special issue of "Science on the Genetics of Behavior" (November 7, 2008), let me take note of one more article, "Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature," by James H. Fowler and Darren Schreiber. Do genes affect the way we vote? A twin-based study published in the "American Political Science Review" in 2005 suggested that liberal and conservative tendencies are heritable. Most evidence, however, shows that choice of a political party is primarily determined by parental socialization, that is, nurture. One might have guessed as much from a red-state-blue-state political map.
What does seem to be strongly heritable is political activism.

Click image for larger size.

Here is a diagram from Fowler and Schreiber's article, showing the results of three twin studies on political participation. The vertices of the diagrams represent respectively shared genes, shared environment, and unshared environment; that is, the studies considered identical and non-identical twins, and twins raised together and raised apart. The correlations suggest that genetics and environment both play a role in political activism, with genes being the dominant factor. The next step is to find the genes that determine our level of political engagement. Genes that affect the regulation of neurotransmitters have been most closely scrutinized. Three genes mentioned by Fowler and Schreiber- MAOA (monoamine oxidase A), 5HTT (serotonin transporter) and DRD2 (dopamine receptor)- have been linked to political behavior.

Aristotle said that we are by nature political animals. We are surely animals. Some of us are apparently more political than others."

Yasser Hareb, "The Desert"

"The Desert"
by Yasser Hareb

"The sandstorm was so severe that his footprint was erased before he could lift his other foot. The sun had disappeared, and the place was engulfed in a maze of eternal dust. The only thing that gave him a little peace in his heart was the halter of his camel, which he held on to tightly, as if it was his lifeline. Despite the sound of the wind howling like a pack of wolves, the breathing of his camel gave him some comfort.

He thought of making his camel sit down so he could take cover behind her body, as the Bedouins do during storms, but he remembered what his father had once told him: storms are the desert’s message to people crossing that they must carry on. The only thing that worried him was losing his camel – not only because he wouldn’t be able to cross the desert without her, but also because she was the only creature that never got bored of listening to him all night long.

He closed his eyes, opened his heart and walked on, listening to the sound of the wind as it grew louder and louder, as if someone wanted to tell him something. He struggled to open his eyes but couldn’t, so he decided to stop and shelter behind his camel just for a short while in order to clear the sand that filled his eyes. He managed to clear the sand away, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw a faraway light that penetrated the dust. He gazed at it for a while, trying to memorize its location, and then he closed his eyes and headed towards it, pulling his camel.

As he got closer to the source of the light, he felt warmth quietly passing through his body, and eventually he found a small oasis circled by a few shy palm trees. The moment he entered the oasis, the sound of the wind stopped. It was as if the universe had suddenly stopped breathing. He saw an old man with his eyes closed, resting his head against one of the palm trees. He approached the old man and noticed he was smiling, as if he had been expecting him.

The old man slowly opened his eyes and said: “Welcome, son! You’ve finally arrived.” The boy looked around fearing it was an ambush set up for him. The old man smiled and said: “Don’t worry! There’s no one here. Sit for a while.”

The boy sat, his eyes riveted on the old man, who said: “I know you want to cross the desert. We’re all trying to do so. Some of us do it without even realizing it. The desert is the destiny of any Arabian, my son. It bears us inside her more than we bear her inside us. Yet, some of us forget she exists. They think she’s the cause of their misery.”
 
“Isn’t she? I mean, why is the desert so cruel to us?” “The desert is not cruel. It’s we who don’t understand her. The desert is a sacred place, like temples, churches and mosques, all of which have their own rules and yet don’t belong to a certain group of people. Those of us who don’t abide by the rules feel the cruelty.”

“What are these rules?” “Alright! To understand the desert, you have to be silent and listen more. The desert doesn’t speak to the talkative. Also, you have to keep your eyes open all the time. Don’t be afraid of storms. The desert might fill up your eyes with sand, but she will fill your mind with wisdom. Finally, you have to know that the desert will listen to you only if you speak to her at night, because she’s busy during the day.”

“Doing what?” “Guiding the crossing caravans. Don’t think, son, that caravans manage to get through thanks to the guides travelling with them; they get through because the desert allows them to cross. The guide is simply a person who knows how to speak to the desert and who understands her signs. That’s why he remembers the routes well. A caravan’s guide listens all the time in order to learn the right directions. All voices can be heard except the voice of truth; it is seen.”

“And how can I cross the desert?” The old man stood up and so did the boy. He looked afar, out at the storm surrounding the oasis, and then he pointed at the dustiest area and said: “The desert respects knights and allows them to cross, but she doesn’t respect the selfish who seek heroism for themselves.”

“I don’t understand.” “The best of knighthood is when a knight helps whoever is walking beside him. When knights fight as a group in battle, they never lose, even if all of them are killed, because then they become legends. Legends are important for people to get inspired.To die with a friend is better than to win alone. Enter into that hurricane, and you’ll understand what I mean.”

The boy’s sweaty fingers were playing with the camel halter. He took a deep breath as he looked in the direction the old man was pointing. After a moment of silence that was only interrupted by the sound of his camel, he decided to enter into the twister and to keep his eyes open, as the old man had advised him. He walked for an hour until his face was completely covered in sand. He looked like a mummy that had just walked out of a tomb. In the midst of that hurricane, he remembered the words of his father: “Storms are the desert’s message.”

Camels understand the language of the desert, the boy thought. But what is the language of the desert? Then he remembered what the old man had said: “The best of knighthood is when a knight helps whoever is walking beside him.” When he looked at his camel, he saw that her eyes and nose were full of sand and that she was almost falling down with fatigue. “How have I forgotten to wipe out the sand off her face?” the boy said to himself. He removed his turban from the top of his head and started cleaning her face with it until she was able to breathe comfortably. When the camel’s eyes were cleared and she could see again, she realized the right direction. She took off with the boy at her side to protect him from the sand. The more they walked, the more the storm battered their bodies with sand, until eventually they had to stop and let the sand build up against them, as if they were one great mountain.

After the storm had died away, the boy opened his eyes slowly. The sand fell down on his cheeks like a waterfall. He looked around and saw the old man approaching him with a smile. The old man said: "To cross the desert, you have to face your fears before they face you. In order to overcome your fears, you need a friend who cares about you more than you care about yourself. When fear is shared by two, it becomes less frightening. My congratulations to both of you! You have crossed the desert.”

“How so? We’re still in the middle of the desert!” “Exactly! You’re in her heart, in the warmest place a human being could ever be. Head north and you’ll reach the town in half a day.”

“Before you go, tell me how I can cross the desert again.” The old man smiled. Waving goodbye, he said: “You’ll cross the desert when you find a friend whom you can share the same dream with.”

Psychology: "Does TV Help Make Americans Passive and Accepting of Authority?"

 "Does TV Help Make Americans Passive
 and Accepting of Authority?"
By Bruce E. Levine
 
"Historically, television viewing has been used by various authorities to quiet potentially disruptive people— from kids, to psychiatric inpatients, to prison inmates. In 1992, Newsweek (“Hooking Up at the Big House”) reported, “Faced with severe overcrowding and limited budgets for rehabilitation and counseling, more and more prison officials are using TV to keep inmates quiet.” Joe Corpier, a convicted murderer, was quoted, “If there’s a good movie, it’s usually pretty quiet through the whole institution.” Both public and private-enterprise prisons have recognized that providing inmates with cable television can be a more economical method to keep them quiet and subdued than it would be to hire more guards.

 Just as I have not emptied my refrigerator of beer, I have not gotten rid of my television, but I recognize the effects of beer and TV. During some dismal periods of my life, TV has been my “drug of choice,” and I’ve watched thousands of hours of TV sports and escapist crap. When I don’t need to take the edge off, I have watched Bill Moyers, Frontline, and other “good television.” But I don’t kid myself— the research show that the more TV of any kind we watch, the more passive most of us become.

American TV Viewing: Sociologist Robert Putnam in "Bowling Alone" (2000) reported that in 1950, about 10 percent of American homes had television sets, but this had grown to more than 99 percent. Putnam also reported that the number of TVs in the average U.S. household had grown to 2.24 sets, with 66 percent of households having three or more sets; the TV set is turned on in the average U.S. home for seven hours a day; two-thirds of Americans regularly watch TV during dinner; and about 40 percent of Americans’ leisure time is spent on television. And Putnam also reported that spouses spend three to four times more time watching television together than they do talking to each other.

In 2009, the  Nielsen Company  reported that U.S. TV viewing is at an all-time high, the average American viewing television 151 hours per month if one includes the following “three screens”: a television set, a laptop/personal computer, and a cell phone. This increase, according to Nielson, is part of a long-term trend attributable to not only greater availability of screens, increased variety of different viewing methods, more digital recorders, DVR, and TiVo devices but also a tanking economy creating the need for low-cost diversions. And in 2011, the  New York Times  reported, “Americans watched more television than ever in 2010, according to the Nielsen Company. Total viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1 percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.”

In February 2012, the  New York Times  reported that young people were watching slightly less television in 2011 than the record highs in 2010. In 2011, as compared to 2010, those 25-34 and 12-17 years of age were watching 9 minutes less a day, and 18-24 year olds were watching television 6 fewer minutes a day. Those 35 and older are spending slightly more time watching TV. However, there is some controversy about trends here, as the New York Times also reported: “According to data for the first nine months of 2011, children spent as much time in front of the television set as they did in 2010, and in some cases spent more. But the proportion of live viewing is shrinking while time-shifted viewing is expanding.”

Online television viewing is increasingly significant, especially so for young people. In one  marketing survey of 1,000 Americans reported in 2010, 64% of said they watched at least some TV online. Among those younger than 25 in this survey, 83% watched at least some of their TV online, with 23% of this younger group watching “most” of their TV online, and 6% watching “all” of their TV online.

How does the United States compare to the rest of the world in TV viewing? There aren’t many cross-national studies, and precise comparisons are difficult because of different measurements and different time periods. NOP World, a market research organization, interviewed more than thirty thousand people in thirty countries in a study released in 2005, and reported that the United States was one of the highest TV-viewing nations. NationMaster.com, more than a decade ago, reporting on only the United States, Australia, and eleven European countries, found the following: the United States and the United Kingdom were the highest-viewing nations at 28 hours per week, with the lowest-viewing nations being Finland, Norway, and Sweden at 18 hours per week.

The majority of what Americans view on television— whether on the TV, lap top, or smart phone screen—is through channels owned by six corporations: General Electric (NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, and SciFi); Walt Disney (ABC, the Disney Channel, A&E, and Lifetime); Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (Fox, Fox Business Channel, National Geographic, and FX); Time Warner (CNN, CW, HBO, Cinemax, Cartoon Network, TBS, TNT); Viacom (MTV, Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite, VH1, BET, Comedy Central); and CBS (CBS Television Network, CBS Television Distribution Group, Showtime, and CW, a joint venture with Time Warner). In addition to their television holdings, these media giants have vast holdings in radio, movie studios, and publishing. However, while progressives lament the concentrated corporate control of the media, there is evidence that the mere act of watching TV— regardless of the content— may well have a primary pacifying effect.

How TV Viewing Can Make Us Passive: Who among us hasn’t spent time watching a show that we didn’t actually like, or found ourselves flipping through the channels long after we’ve concluded that there isn’t anything worth watching? Jerry Mander is a “reformed sinner” of sorts who left his job in advertising to publish "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" in 1978. He explains how viewers are mesmerized by what TV insiders call “technical events”— quick cuts, zoom-ins, zoom-outs, rolls, pans, animation, music, graphics, and voice-overs, all of which lure viewers to continue watching even though they have no interest in the content. TV insiders know that it’s these technical events— in which viewers see and hear things that real life does not present— that spellbind people to continue watching.

The “hold on us” of TV technical events, according to Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 2002 Scientific American article “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” is due to our “orienting response”— our instinctive reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus. They report that:In 1986 Byron Reeves of Stanford University, Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri and their colleagues began to study whether the simple formal features of television—cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises—activate the orienting response, thereby keeping attention on the screen. By watching how brain waves were affected by formal features, the researchers concluded that these stylistic tricks can indeed trigger involuntary responses and “derive their attentional value through the evolutionary significance of detecting movement. It is the form, not the content, of television that is unique.” Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi claim that TV addiction is “no mere metaphor” but is, at least psychologically, similar to drug addiction.

Utilizing their Experience Sampling Method (in which participants carried a beeper and were signaled six to eight times a day at random to report their activity), Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi found that almost immediately after turning on the TV, subjects reported feeling more relaxed, and because this occurs so quickly and the tension returns so rapidly after the TV is turned off, people are conditioned to associate TV viewing with a lack of tension. They concluded: habit-forming drugs work in similar ways. A tranquilizer that leaves the body rapidly is much more likely to cause dependence than one that leaves the body slowly, precisely because the user is more aware that the drug’s effects are wearing off. Similarly, viewers’ vague learned sense that they will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in not turning the set off. 

Mander documents research showing that regardless of the programming, viewers’ brainwaves slow down, transforming them to a more passive, nonresistant state. In one study that Mander reports comparing brainwave activity in reading versus television watching, it was found the brain’s response to reading is more active, unlike the passive response to television—this no matter what the TV content. Comparing  the brain effects of TV viewing to reading, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi report similar EEG results as measured by alpha brain-wave production. Maybe that’s why when I view a fantastic Bill Moyers interview on TV, I can recall almost nothing except that I enjoyed it; this in contrast to how many content specifics I can remember when I read a transcript of a Moyers interview. 

Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi’s survey also revealed that: the sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue. Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted. They say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before. In contrast, they rarely indicate such difficulty after reading. Mander strongly disagrees with the idea that TV is merely a window through which any perception, any argument, or reality may pass. Instead, he claims TV is inherently biased by its technology. For a variety of technical reasons, including TV’s need for sharp contrast to maintain interest, Mander explains that authoritarian-based programming is more technically interesting to viewers than democracy-based programming. War and violence may be unpleasant in real life; however, peace and cooperation make for “boring television.” And charismatic authority figures are more “interesting” on TV than are ordinary citizens debating issues.

In a truly democratic society, one is gaining knowledge directly through one’s own experience with the world, not through the filter of an authority or what Mander calls a mediated experience. TV-dominated people ultimately accept others’ mediated version of the world rather than discovering their own version based on their own experiences. Robert Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo in the long-running children’s program, was critical of television— including so-called “good television”— in a manner rarely heard from those who work in it: when you are spending time in front of the television, you are not doing other things. 

The young child of three or four years is in the stage of the greatest emotional development that human beings undergo. And we only develop when we experience things, real-life things: a conversation with Mother, touching Father, going places, doing things, relating to others. This kind of experience is critical to a young child, and when the child spends thirty-five hours per week in front of the TV set, it is impossible to have the full range of real-life experience that a young child must have. Even if we had an overabundance of good television programs, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Whatever the content of the program, television watching is an isolating experience. Most people are watching alone, but even when watching it with others, they are routinely glued to the TV rather than interacting with one another. TV keeps us indoors, and it keeps us from mixing it up in real life. People who are watching TV are isolated from other people, from the natural world—even from their own thoughts and senses. TV creates isolation, and because it also reduces our awareness of our own feelings, when we start to feel lonely we are tempted to watch more so as to dull the ache of isolation. 

Television is a “dream come true” for an authoritarian society. Those with the most money own most of what people see. Fear-based TV programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for an authoritarian society depending on a “divide and conquer” strategy. Television isolates people so they are not joining together to govern themselves. Viewing television puts one in a brain state that makes it difficult to think critically, and it quiets and subdues a population. And spending one’s free time isolated and watching TV interferes with the connection to one’s own humanity, and thus makes it easier to accept an authority’s version of society and life. Whether it is in American penitentiaries or homes, TV is a staple of American pacification. When there’s no beer in our refrigerators, when our pot hookup has been busted, and when we can’t score a psychotropic drug prescription, there is always TV to take off the edge and chill us.”
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Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His latest book is "Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite." His Web site is  www.brucelevine.net