Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Reading

Liar, Liar — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on the “factual statements” from the right wing.

“If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood. And that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” – Sen Jon Kyl, (R-AZ), April 8, 2011

“[The statistic Kyl used] was not intended to be a factual statement…” – Statement from Kyl’s office to CNN, later that day.

Actually, about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion-related. The overwhelming majority of the organization’s work involves cancer screenings, contraception, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Granted, the 3 percent figure is self-reported and Politifact, the non-partisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website, suggests it could nudge higher depending on how you crunch the numbers. But it also rules that Kyl “vastly overstated” the organization’s involvement in abortions. In other words, he lied.

Conservatives seem to do that an awful lot.

No, the capacity for mendacity is not exclusive to any party or ideology. Yes, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid have all, at one point or another, been at variance with the truth. But when it comes to serial lying, to the biggest, most brazen, most audacious lies, the lies repeated ad nauseam until people mistake them for truth, when it comes to the most absolute contempt for the facts and for the necessity of honest debate, it’s not even close. Conservatives have no equal.

Consider: Politifact has six categories for judging veracity. A statement is either true, mostly true, half true, barely true, false, or “Pants On Fire,” after the old schoolyard taunt that begins “Liar! Liar!” Politifact uses this designation for statements that are not only untrue but also make some “ridiculous claim.”

I reviewed 100 such statements on Politifact’s web site. By my count, of the 70 that originated with an identifiable individual or group (as opposed to a chain email or miscellaneous source), 61 were from the political right. That includes Rush Limbaugh saying President Obama is going to take away your right to fish, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer saying beheaded bodies are being found in the desert, Sarah Palin claiming death panels will stalk the elderly — 90 percent of the most audacious lies coming from conservatives.

And that word is used advisedly here. There is little that is truly conservative about what we are seeing.

No, this is extremism, true believers so rigidly committed to their ideological crusades that they feel justified in vandalizing reason and sacrificing integrity in furtherance of their cause. The end justifies any means. So, as was the case with Jon Kyl, if you can’t prove your point with the facts at hand, make up some facts and prove it with those.

It says much about the intellectual state of what passes for conservatism and the intellectual state of the union itself that this sort of behavior has become business as usual, just another day in the Zeitgeist.

This cannot end well. To continue down this path is to carve out a future of intellectual incoherence and international irrelevance, to doom ourselves to yet more of a fractured political discourse that is loud, ignorant and incapable of reason, much less resolution.

And maybe Sen. Kyl’s claim was “not intended to be a factual statement,” but just so you know?

Mine is.

More below the fold.

Catching Some Z’s — How much sleep do you need?

We all know that we don’t get enough sleep. But how much sleep do we really need? Until about 15 years ago, one common theory was that if you slept at least four or five hours a night, your cognitive performance remained intact; your body simply adapted to less sleep. But that idea was based on studies in which researchers sent sleepy subjects home during the day — where they may have sneaked in naps and downed coffee.

Enter David Dinges, the head of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania, who has the distinction of depriving more people of sleep than perhaps anyone in the world.

In what was the longest sleep-restriction study of its kind, Dinges and his lead author, Hans Van Dongen, assigned dozens of subjects to three different groups for their 2003 study: some slept four hours, others six hours and others, for the lucky control group, eight hours — for two weeks in the lab.

Every two hours during the day, the researchers tested the subjects’ ability to sustain attention with what’s known as the psychomotor vigilance task, or P.V.T., considered a gold standard of sleepiness measures. During the P.V.T., the men and women sat in front of computer screens for 10-minute periods, pressing the space bar as soon as they saw a flash of numbers at random intervals. Even a half-second response delay suggests a lapse into sleepiness, known as a microsleep.

The P.V.T. is tedious but simple if you’ve been sleeping well. It measures the sustained attention that is vital for pilots, truck drivers, astronauts. Attention is also key for focusing during long meetings; for reading a paragraph just once, instead of five times; for driving a car. It takes the equivalent of only a two-second lapse for a driver to veer into oncoming traffic.

Not surprisingly, those who had eight hours of sleep hardly had any attention lapses and no cognitive declines over the 14 days of the study. What was interesting was that those in the four- and six-hour groups had P.V.T. results that declined steadily with almost each passing day. Though the four-hour subjects performed far worse, the six-hour group also consistently fell off-task. By the sixth day, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer. And at the end of the study, they were lapsing fives times as much as they did the first day.

The six-hour subjects fared no better — steadily declining over the two weeks — on a test of working memory in which they had to remember numbers and symbols and substitute one for the other. The same was true for an addition-subtraction task that measures speed and accuracy. All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.

A Touch of the Grape — Why is Manischewitz so popular at Passover?

“A seder without sweet Manischewitz,” the comedian Jackie Mason once said, “would be like horseradish without tears, like a cantor without a voice, like a shul without a complaint, like a yenta without a big mouth, like Passover without Jews.” To the uninitiated, Passover wine is an ethnic curiosity, or a culinary ordeal on a par with lutefisk. Those who grew up drinking it, though, find in Concord grape wine the taste of Jewish tradition. And that’s ironic, because there may be no more thoroughly American beverage.

The central ritual of Passover is the seder, a recounting of the Exodus over four cups of wine. Jewish law stipulates that kosher wine be produced and handled only by Jews, a requirement that initially proved difficult to meet in North America. Early cultivars of native grape species were poorly adapted for viticulture, and imported grape vines succumbed to cold, mildew, and fungi. The few who could afford it imported wine from Europe. Others relied on a stipulation that, in exigencies, allowed other premium beverages to be substituted for wine. So Jews filled their seder cups with everything from hard cider to clear Jamaican rum.

Horace Greeley named the Concord the best grape for general cultivation in 1866, awarding it a $100 prize and declaring it “the grape for millions.”

The most popular solution, though, was adapted from a common custom of the old country. Immigrants soaked raisins in water and boiled down the liquid, producing an ersatz wine. It was thicker and sweeter than wine from grapes. Most raisin wine was non-alcoholic, either because American Jews mistakenly conflated fermentation with leavening, which was proscribed on Passover, or because this left it exempt from excise taxes. Some made the wine at home, but production also migrated to small shops and basement wineries. By 1890, the six leading vendors in New York alone sold 40,000 gallons of this Passover wine.

Enter the Concord grape. It was developed by an eccentric Yankee named Ephraim Wales Bull, who was determined to breed a grape hardy enough to thrive in New England by planting the seeds of native vines. In 1849, after six years of labor, he plucked a bunch from an early-ripening vine, and declared success. The Concord grape went on sale in 1854, and rapidly spread throughout the country. Horace Greeley named it the best grape for general cultivation in 1866, awarding it a $100 prize and declaring it “the grape for millions.” Bull was immensely proud of having developed the leading “native grape.”

In that, Bull was only partially correct. The Concord was “probably the result of at least two generations of mixed breeding,” one scholar recently concluded. But if, as the hybrid offspring of immigrant and native stock, it failed to meet Bull’s goal of national purity, it nevertheless perfectly embodies our more modern understanding of our national character.

The Concord helped create the category of table grape, and proved well-adapted to jellying. In New Jersey, a Methodist dentist named Thomas Welch decided to pasteurize its juice, to produce a non-alcoholic beverage for sacramental use. Churches friendly to the temperance movement soon embraced Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice, which was also touted for its health benefits.

Much to the dismay of its early backers, though, the Concord produced disappointing wines. In 1869, one reviewer observed that “some were of incredible nastiness, while others, made from perfectly ripe grapes with the addition of sugar, were comparatively palatable, although by no means of great merit.” And that was the verdict of an enthusiast.

But to Jewish immigrants, the Concord grape promised an attractive alternative to Passover raisin wine. It was fairly cheap, abundant, and most important of all, local. Controversy raged over California wines arriving in eastern markets, with some influential rabbis questioning whether they could really be trusted. Concord grapes could be harvested, and turned into wine, under local rabbinical supervision. The wine also had another key advantage: shelf-life. “[W]hen I was a little girl,” one former denizen of the Lower East Side recalled, “…my father used to buy a gallon and have it for a whole year.”

Doonesbury — Trump this.