Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Today, the little sicko Anthony Weiner admitted that he continued sending pictures of his junk to internet girlfriends long after he resigned from the House and long after he and his wife put on their media show about his repentance and their healing and so on.  Huma Abedin, his wife (and Hillary Clinton's closest advisor), was by his side at the press conference assuring America she was still standing by her man.

Many women, I think, witnessed Huma's performance with pity or disdain, asking "How can she stay with that beast?"  That was pretty much the reaction of my wife and my sister, for example.

If Huma Abedin really is a deep-cover spy for the Muslim Brotherhood, however, sticking with Anthony is the only sensible play.  If the marriage is merely part of her cover, why abandon him until it is absolutely clear his political career is over?  Weiner may still be elected Mayor of NYC; in fact, he probably will be.  It seems, for some reason, that Mr. Weiner could stagger down Broadway gibbering like a chimpanzee and brandishing his privates at passersby without eliciting the least measure of disapprobation from the voting public.  Such is the level of sophistication in the post-modern Big Apple!

So why dump him now?  Sticking with the Weiner not only gives the Brotherhood a path to influencing the mayor of America's biggest city, it also tends to cement Huma's sisterly ties to Hillary, who famously stuck by her own horndog of a hubby.  For Huma to leave Anthony now would be a silent rebuke to Hillary Clinton when Huma's path to Chief of Staff in the Hillary Administration seems closer than ever.  If Huma is a spy, it would be foolish for her to leave Weiner now.

Huma Abedin's actions today in supporting her husband only provide further evidence in support of the conspiracy theories that have followed her since she first appeared in 1996 with seemingly unlimited financial resources and a foggy personal history involving Islamist Saudi activists.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

MR. & MRS.---A Review of the Literature and a Rant on Epistemology

The other day, somebody said to me, “Ya know, I think brides today are taking their husband's names more than they used to. It's a trend. I'm calling it a trend.” I wondered whether it is true.

Now you might think, as I did, that you can simply type “bride maiden name” or some such into your browser and all the data you seek would pop up more-or-less instantly. We believe this because we are typically inundated with more data than we can possibly use or absorb so we just assume that whatever we want is out there somewhere. The internet is on all the time. There are a thousand channels on cable. Talk radio runs 24/7. The chatter never stops. The flow of information never even slows down. And yet....

Nick Silver's latest book is called “The Signal and the Noise,” and I don't think I'm giving much away by telling you that part of his message is that in the search for knowledge, there has always been more “noise” than “signal” and that today the level of noise is sometimes so high that any signal is almost impossible to find. So while we tend to think the answer to any question is out there somewhere, well, just try finding it.

Or as you kids say, “It's complicated.”

One problem is the meaning of the word “name.” What is a name, anyway? Is it what's on your driver's license or what your mom calls you or what it says on your electric bill, or is it what your fellow astrophysicists call you when you deliver a lecture in Vienna? Many women employ what researchers call “situational name use,” which can last for a short while or for their entire lives. And of course, the options for names are numerous. In addition to the basic maiden name or husband's name, there are women who hyphenate the two and women who use them both without hyphenating and women who choose an entirely new name and women who remarry but keep their first husband's name as a middle name and women who remarry and simply keep their first husband's name as their surname (to the chagrin of the second husband). And with situational name use, a woman may be known by two or three or four of these possibilities depending on whether she is having Thanksgiving dinner with her in-laws or performing brain surgery or dishing out ice cream at the PTA meeting. So if you are a demographer or a statistician or an anthroponomastician and you're trying to study what women call themselves, the first thing you have to do is figure out what the word “name” means.

Also, this may be one of those areas that is so tainted with identity politics and self-interest and cover-ups that the only numbers out there exist solely because somebody has an ax to grind. There are are lot of “official” statistics like that. Crime numbers, for example. You can never believe the Police Commissioner or the FBI when they tell you armed robberies are down 23%. Not only are they predisposed to reduce the number of crimes to make themselves look good, but they have no idea how many armed robberies there were, they only know what people voluntarily tell them. The guy sitting next to you on the bus is a MUCH better source of information on whether armed robberies have increased. Rapes and burglaries too. The only thing you can believe the Police Commissioner or the FBI about is murders, because murders leave dead bodies and dead bodies are difficult to hide.

But the biggest problem is that studies of women's surnames tend to be snapshots of a particular moment in time when the study was performed. One of the most comprehensive studies of women's surnames was done by the American Community Survey, which is part of the US Census Bureau. Name use for 250,000 native-born American women was compiled in 2004 and the results were published (your tax dollars at work!) in a dreary little article called “Women's Marital Naming Choices in a Nationally Representative Sample,” and if you want to know how many women took their new husband's name or used a hyphenated name in 2004, there is no better source. But I don't really care how many women took their husband's name or used hyphenated surnames in 2004 unless you can also tell me how many women did that in 1990 and 1993 and 1997 and 1999 and 2003 and 2007 and 2009. I'm looking for a trend, remember? I want to know if there are more women taking hubby's name today, or fewer.

That's the problem with the Facebook/Daily Beast study of women's surnames as well. This is very recent (2011) and it studied 14 million women between the ages of 20 and 79 who got married in the US and were active on Facebook at the time of the survey. But it only tells you about what was happening in 2011. In addition, you can't really compare the ACS women from 2004 with the Facebook women from 2011 because the women are different and the methodology was different, and the universe of women on Facebook is very different from the universe of women in the Census database, so we are left with snapshots that can't be compared to each other.

If you are looking for a trend, there is only one useful study out there, but it concerns a group of women who are so special and strange and rich and well-educated and unusual that I have never met even one of them. This is the study of women whose marriages were announced in the New York Times. Since 1980, the Times has routinely asked these brides what name they were planning to use. There are now 33 years of data.

As a database of “American women,” of course, it's a ridiculous sample. The daddies of these women are CEOs and partners in important law firms and doctors and Congressmen and Nobel Prize winners. The girls are not merely college graduates, they went to Ivy schools or the Seven Sisters, with maybe a little Sorbonne thrown in there for seasoning (do rich girls still do that?). They never worked at Wal-Mart or dished up a plate of hash browns at a diner. Almost all of them are white. None of them marry professional athletes. I mean, they ain't typical.

But they do span the years, and if you want to compare girls who went to Princeton or Wellesley in 1980 with girls who went to Princeton or Wellesley in 2005, this is where you can do it. The NYT is very strict about their standards, which have not changed since 1980. They ask every woman what name she intends to use and her choice appears in the announcement. (If she is uncertain, she is referred to only as “the bride” or by some other generic name.)

And the study of NYT brides is eye-opening. It was done by Claudia Goldin and Maria Shim (guys apparently never study this stuff), and it sampled about 300 brides per year in NYT announcements from 1980 to 2001. And guess what? Contrary to my friend's suspicion, women are keeping their maiden names more often than they used to. In 1980, only 10% of these NYT babes kept their maiden names. The number then doubled around 1984 and hung steady at about 20% until 1998. Then, suddenly, the percentage shot up to 34% by 2002. Since then, we don't know. C. Goldin and M.Shim (if those are still their names), don't tell us.

So what are we to make of all this? When my friend (OK, it was actually my sister), said she thought brides were keeping hubby's name more often than they used to, I looked into it because I suspected she was correct. Now I just don't know. The available data from the NYT suggests my sister is wrong but these NYT brides are not exactly typical of anything at all, and the data stops in 2002, so how do we know what happened in the last eleven years? We don't. Maybe my sister is right and the eggheads who study this stuff just haven't caught up with the new reality.

The real lesson for me is in the flimsiness and unreliability of the data, and this is a lesson we need to learn over and over. We want truth whether it is out there or not so we think we have found it when all we have really found is noise. A few days ago, Seattle's Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center published its findings that omega-3 fish oil consumption is linked to a 71% increase in the incidence of “high-grade” (the worst kind) of prostate cancer. Who, after all the infomercials and magazine articles and advice from doctors, saw that one coming? A day later, the CDC reported that despite what your doctor has been telling you, there is no reason for you to reduce your salt intake. This comes only a few months after Michael Bloomberg's National Salt Reduction Initiative persuaded 20 of America's biggest food companies (e.g., Kraft, Goya, Heinz, Target), to reduce the salt in their products. The uncritical acceptance of scare-stories from “researchers” or politicians looking to make a name for themselves (and a few bucks) tends to be viewed as a victimless crime, but it never is. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring led to the banning of DDT and the deaths of millions in the Third World. Dr. Oz and Prevention Magazine and Al Gore have a ways to go before they achieve Rachel's body count, but the day is young. Nothing good ever comes from allowing the hucksters to exploit our very human desire to know, to believe, to learn the secrets. They worm their way into your heart by persuading you they care about you. They don't. Actually, they think you're stupid.

So don't believe. Believe only in God. For everything else, demand a double blind study.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013


We now know, from Edward Snowden's act of civil disobedience or treason or whistle-blowing, that the National Security Agency has gathered records of telephone calls and emails and internet activity and God-knows what else and they are running complex computer programs on this data in order to figure out whether I am communicating with my jihadi friends in Yemen or those guys in the militia that I used drink beer with and shoot tin cans with at the town dump outside of Dexter, Michigan. There are conflicting stories about what else the NSA is doing. Does Prism allow them to read my emails as I type them? When I ask my buddy in Vegas to put fifty beans on the Patriots in the 2014 Superbowl, will it go on my “permanent record”---the one the nuns started keeping on me in 1955?

Sometimes, when I get one of those emails asking if I want to buy a new product that will make my willy bigger, I reply with a photo of my joint and ask them for their honest opinion on whether it's big enough. Is there somebody in the 12th sub-basement of that fortress in the Utah desert who is looking at that email right now???? And if so, did she recently graduate from Northwestern University with a major in political science?

The constitutional argument will be an interesting one, though its resolution will depend on the facts of the situation, and it's far from certain we will ever find out what they are. Defenders of the NSA claim these are simply business records from various phone companies and have nothing to do with the citizens who originally made the calls and generated the records. The righteously outraged, however, argue the NSA actions are the equivalent of the British “general warrants” that the 4th Amendment was written specifically to forbid. “General warrants” allowed the Crown, with no particular justification, to show up at your house or hovel and toss the place, looking for contraband or treasonous materials.

At the moment, based on our current knowledge on what has been done, both arguments seem a bit extreme, though plausible. I look forward to seeing Scalia going toe-to-toe with Ginsburg on it. But there's another question, anterior to the constitutionality of the fortress and Muffy looking at my johnson. And it's a question that is not getting a lot of attention. To wit: why? Or if you prefer: pourquoi? Why are the feds going to all this trouble and building all these buildings and beating up all the telephone and internet companies for the data and sticking all the recent Northwestern graduates into cubicles deep beneath the Wasatch Range and spending a bazillion dollars doing it?

And some of the answers are obvious, I suppose. They're spending the money because they like to spend money and it's not their money anyway---it actually belongs to me and you and the Chinese. And they're beating up the communications industry because they do this with every industry. They did it with Big Tobacco and then they did it with Big Pharma and then they did it with Big Oil and Big Aerospace and Big Food. They took over the medical business and the student loan business and they're not done yet. Big Guns is still out there, for example. Maybe they're saving it for Hillary.

But why this? Why my phone records? Why my emails? Why everybody's phone records and emails? What's the point of all this?

And the standard reply, on the rare occasion anyone inquires, is that the Obama Administration, just like the Bush Administration that preceded it, is trying to catch terrorists. Democrats and Republicans both say that's why the government is examining photographs of my pecker. Here's Mike Rogers, for example, commenting on the NSA meta-data vacuuming project. He's a Republican from Michigan, and he's the Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence:

One of the things we're charged with is keeping America safe and keeping our civil liberties and privacy intact. I think we have done both....”
---Mike Rogers, June 9, 2013

For me, this the hardest piece of the story to swallow, that the Obama Administration is doing all this to catch terrorists. Where is the evidence to support this statement, other than the self-serving pronouncements of everybody who is involved in the damn thing? Where is there any indication they actually care about catching terrorists? In fact, doesn't it seem that the apprehension of terrorists is pretty much the last thing on their minds?

Let's start with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who you may know better as the Underwear Bomber. Umar was the genius who tried to detonate his shorts aboard Northwest Flight #253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. Though he managed to set himself and part of the passenger cabin on fire, no one was killed in the incident, so we count it as a triumph of American intelligence anti-terrorist smartness. But was it?

British authorities had alerted the US about Umar six weeks before Christmas and his own father had warned a couple of CIA agents around the same time. (Dad is not nobody, by the way. He was described in one article as “the richest man in Africa,” so he appears to be the sort of VIP that governments will at least listen to when he has something important to say.) US authorities knew that Umar had been radicalized and had come under the spell of American/Yemeni jihad-mentor Anwar al-Awlaki (now deceased, thanks be to Allah, and thanks also to an Obama-directed drone strike).

And then...nothing happened. His visa remained intact. His name never appeared on the Terrorist Screening Database or the No-Fly List. Nothing. He bought a one-way ticket to the Motor City. He paid cash. And then he strolled onto an airplane with junk in his shorts and nobody stopped him. “Hey, America,” we can imagine him thinking, “I got your Christmas present right here!”

So here's the question: if this Administration really really really cares about catching terrorists, HOW THE HELL DID THEY MISS UMAR? The bad guys don't get any easier to find than him, do they?

Then there's Major Hasan, another known disciple (like Umar and like some of the 9-11 plotters) of Anwar al-Awlaki. The Army knew that Major Hasan's lectures on psychiatry often devolved into diatribes against infidels and that his business cards identified him not only as a US Army psychiatrist but also as a “Soldier of Allah.” Yet for some reason, he was never identified as a threat until the day he mowed down thirteen people at Ft. Hood. So again, if you're looking for jihadists and Islamists like you say you are, how the hell do you miss a major in the US Army who loudly opposes America's military involvement in the Afghan war because we are killing Muslims? Just asking, you know.

Then, most recently, we have Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers. In April of 2011, two full years before their spree, the Russian government started warning us about them and about Zubeidat, their loving mom, Chechnya's answer to Donna Reed. Russians are apparently not known for providing this sort of friendly cooperation, so this in itself should have been a signal that somebody, somewhere, should pay attention. But, of course, nobody did. Tamerlan's name went into a “database” and that was the end of it. The Russians even put Tamerlan under surveillance when he spent six months in a rebellious and unstable region called Dagestan, and they asked US intelligence to keep an eye on the family in case they decided to travel some more. Sorry. We couldn't be bothered. And then the bombs went off on Boylston Street.

So the question remains: what is the purpose of PRISM and the NSA meta-data crunching (and whatever other snooping protocols we haven't heard of yet)? We know what the purpose was supposed to be, and I even grant that this Administration or some Administration set up this apparatus not as some evil conspiracy but with the best of intentions. I'm sure they even catch a real terrorist once in a while, though these tend to be the sort who accidentally tie their shoelaces to the trip-wire on their way to the train station.

But isn't it obvious what happened here? The whole purpose of the damn thing—-the catching-bad-guys part---just got forgotten somewhere along the line. The ease with which snooping on private citizens could be accomplished simply became irresistible. And when this opportunity is coupled with the chance for true believers to score political points against their ideological opponents, limits are easily forgotten. For some partisans, any tactic in the war against evil, homophobic, racist, Tea Party right-wingers is morally justified. And if there is one thing we know about the Obama Administration after four and a half years, it is that it cannot look at a government agency without seeing how assets and programs can be used to advance their political objectives, funnel money to their allies and punish their opponents.

But though the Obama Administration will take whatever advantage it can of the apparatus, the picture seems somehow uglier than politics as usual, doesn't it? Obama's crew is tawdry and lawless, to be sure, and Bush was feckless and dopey and seemed to believe in less and less as the years went by. But can either of them really be held responsible for what is happening now? Or has something else occurred that neither Bush nor Obama could have anticipated? To put it another way, suppose Obama woke up tomorrow and decided to stop the parade of scandals and outrages that fill the news---from the IRS, the EPA, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, the State Department, the armed services. Could he do so?

In 1900, the United States government was a lot smaller. Sometimes it wasn't very effective at what we today call “solving problems,” but that was OK because we didn't really want it to be. It wasn't everywhere, and that was how we liked it. It didn't touch everything the way it does today. You could live your life for long stretches without thinking about it.

Then it got big and then it got bigger and then it got scary-big, and it's been that way for a long time, at least since FDR. But even after it became scary-big, we always had the feeling that somebody was in charge of it. Somebody cared about the budgets. Somebody made the agencies obey the laws that created them. Somebody made sure the government was doing governmental things and not just using government power to advance some partisan ends. And if somebody did something very wrong or very illegal, they had to go to jail, or at least go away. They couldn't be part of the government after that.

But the US government doesn't work that way anymore, does it?

In the Terminator movies, the course of life on earth changed in 1997 when the machines built by Skynet became “self-aware.” At that point, they began to develop their own ideas about what was important and their own agenda for how the world should be run. The result was the near annihilation of mankind.

Something like that seems to have happened to our government. It has become “self-aware.” Maybe, like Skynet, it also happened in 1997 and we are only now noticing it. The agencies and the bureaucracy appear to act for their own account, seemingly uncontrolled by elected officials. Drip by drip, the stories leak out---hundreds of Mexicans killed by guns we gave to drug gangsters, IRS agents using their power against political conservatives or Christians, officials in high positions consorting with prostitutes in public parks, billions of rounds of ammunition bought by agencies that can have no possible use for them, electronic communications of everyone in America collected and sorted through. When questions are asked, they are ignored, or lies are told, under oath, with no consequence for doing so. In fact, no matter what the crime or the dishonesty, there is never any consequence. No discipline is imposed. No one is fired. No one goes to jail. Sometimes the people at the center of these stories even get promoted. And then the stories and the questions just fade away.

Could even Obama do anything about it at this point? I doubt it. And even if he could, if he could nibble around the edges of this leviathan, he will be gone in 2016 and the monster will still be there, pursuing its own interests, whatever they may be. The United States government is now self-aware, just like the machines in the Terminator movies, and it's not clear what any of us can do about it.