Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Reading

Obama’s LBJ Moment — David Rohde on how Barack Obama’s war on inequality matches the efforts of the war on poverty.

He quoted Jack Kennedy but sounded more like Lyndon Johnson.

In an audacious State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama made sweeping proposals to reduce poverty, revive the middle class and increase taxes on the “well off.” While careful to not declare it outright, an emboldened second-term president laid out an agenda that could be called a “war on inequality.”

“There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead,” Obama declared in a blunt attack one a core conservative credo. “And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson introduced the legislation that became known as the “War on Poverty.” Those laws – along with many others he shepherded – stand today as perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any modern president. Whether or not one agrees with him, Johnson’s laws – from the Civil Rights Act, to Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, to sweeping federal urban renewal and education programs – changed the face of American society.

Obama, of course, is very different from LBJ and governing in a vastly different time. While Johnson excelled at cajoling legislators, Obama reportedly finds it distasteful. Where Johnson could offer new federal programs, Obama must maneuver in an age where the federal government is distrusted. And while Johnson had full government coffers, Obama lives in an era of crushing fiscal constraint.

Those differences, though, make Obama’s second inaugural address and Tuesday’s State of the Union all the more remarkable. As Richard W. Stevenson noted in the New York Times, “he continued trying to define a 21st-century version of liberalism that could outlast his time in office and do for Democrats what Reagan did for Republicans.”

Torture vs. Drones — Jane Mayer at The New Yorker.

There are some disturbing similarities between the Obama white paper and the Bush torture memos. Both use slippery legal language to parse dark government programs. Both have been deliberately hidden from public and even congressional oversight. And both involve the blurring of C.I.A. and military operations, and even include some of the same personnel. John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to direct the C.I.A., is a long-time veteran of the agency who, prior to joining the Obama Administration, served as chief of staff for former C.I.A. director George Tenet, under the Bush Administration during the depths of the torture scandal. Despite this, several human-rights experts have endorsed Brennan’s promotion, and Obama seems to respect him deeply. Whether that trust is well-placed remains to be seen; Brennan’s refusal, during his Senate confirmation hearings last week, to admit that waterboarding—the partial drowning of a prisoner—is a form of torture was a chilling display of institutional loyalty.

Clearly there are plenty of troubling questions surrounding the Obama Administration’s targeted-killing program. But, that said, are Obama’s drones comparable in terms of human-rights violations, to Bush’s Torture program?

Those who argue so miss an important distinction, one that David Cole also has brought up: torture under all our systems of law—including the laws of war—is illegal. This is true without exception, regardless of the circumstances, including national-security emergencies. Torture is also condemned by every major religion. Waterboarding was, and is, a form of torture. This has been established as far back as the Spanish Inquisition, and as recently as the Vietnam War. To argue otherwise is to legalize criminality. That was what the Bush Administration’s torture memos did.

Bark Bark Woof Woof — According to Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, maybe dogs really can talk.

During the day, our dog Mystique is sweet and demure, but at night she becomes a different animal. She guards our house, barking ferociously every time someone comes within earshot. The only problem is that our house is on the main trail where the night staff walk back and forth after dark. Mystique dutifully barks at all passersby whether she has known them for a day or all her life. But if there was really a cause for concern, like a strange man with a gun, I wonder if Mystique would bark in a way that would alert me that there was something dangerous and different about the person approaching the house.

Dog vocalizations may not sound very sophisticated. Raymond Coppinger pointed out that most dog vocalizations consist of barking, and that barking seems to occur indiscriminately. Coppinger reported on a dog whose duty was to guard free-ranging livestock. The dog barked continuously for seven hours, even though no other dogs were within miles. If barking is communicative, dogs would not bark when no one could hear them. It seemed to Coppinger that the dog was simply relieving some inner state of arousal. The arousal model is that dogs do not have much control over their barking. They are not taking into account their audience, and their barks carry little information other than their emotional state.

Perhaps barking is another by-product of domestication. Unlike dogs, wolves rarely bark. Barks make up as little as 3 percent of wolf vocalizations. Meanwhile, the experimental foxes in Russia bark when they see people, while the control foxes do not. Frequent barking when aroused is probably another consequence of selecting against aggression.

However, more recent research indicates that there might be more to barking than we first thought. Dogs have fairly plastic vocal cords, or a “modifiable vocal tract.” Dogs might be able to subtly alter their voices to produce a wide variety of different sounds that could have different meanings. Dogs might even be altering their voices in ways that are clear to other dogs but not to humans. When scientists have taken spectrograms, or pictures, of dog barks, it turns out that not all barks are the same — even from the same dog. Depending on the context, a dog’s barks can vary in timing, pitch and amplitude. Perhaps they have different meanings.

Doonesbury — Anybody can do it.

5 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. My lab Emily is certainly communicative. When my brother shows up, she “sings” one particular way, when my uncle shows up, it’s completely different – what I refer to as “the first seventeen verses of ‘I Love You So Much It Makes My Eyes Bleed.'” My son gets his very own melodic greeting, as does my wife. My wife’s greeting, by the way, is quite different from the way they sing together when I’m in the store. Of course, *I* get the same standard barking as a stranger at the door.

    • I grew up with a Lhasa Apso who knew how to communicate very well. You could tell from her tone what was around the house (friend/family/interloping-animal/prowler [and yes we had some of each]), who was coming down the drive (sometimes by name), etc. Mind you she knew what cars do (they take you places and they’re fun to ride in), what airports and bus stations are for (dropping people off and taking them away), and a number of other things you don’t usually associate with a dog’s awareness.

      It’s good to have scientific investigation into what dogs communicate and how; it helps prove to many in the “dumb animals” Dominionist school of thought that there are reasons we should care for the rest of the planet. But to anyone who’s owned a dog that wasn’t part of some larger alarm/pest-control system or an ornament to some larger lifestyle projection, the basics of canine communication are pretty close to accepted.

  2. The dog next door barks at everything under the sun (and probably the sun too). He knows me but still yells when I go outside. I shush him and he cocks his head sideways as if to say, “What? Me?”

  3. I think dogs do have communicative ways. The Weimier( hope the spelling is close) next door just whines all the time for attention. She’s big as a goat, but lovable;she’s talking now. Russ feeds her biscuits at least once a day; she always tells Russ,” I love you”. And when Russ plays fetch with Izzy, man, Ginger next door just does the high pitch yell; she wants to join in.

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