Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.


Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.

Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

Expanded GUIDE TO SITE PURPOSE AND LAYOUT is in the lower blue section at the bottom of every home page.

Obama’s the One, barring a roadside bomb, or outright theft

New Yorker does fine summary, explaining why Obama is the intelligent choice

McCain self-immolates with desperate anachronisms, Palin’s hotness glows

But have the Republicans guaranteed Obama will fail?

baracknyorkercartoon.jpgSince this blog for so long has been thoroughly distracted by the Election, we venture a quick final post on the topic a week before the climax, primarily to note how a uniquely articulate endorsement of Obama in the New Yorker last week set a high water mark for political journalism in graceful exposition of facts and perceptions which ring true without particular selectivity or axe grinding.

We challenge any reader, even one of those who have seemed so far immune to the virtues of one of the most talented candidates ever to run for President, to come up with any cogent objection to any of the following analysis in its accurate damning of the alternatives past (Bush) and present (McCain/Palin) :

Never in living memory has an election been more critical than the one fast approaching—that’s the quadrennial cliché, as expected as the balloons and the bombast. And yet when has it ever felt so urgently true? When have so many Americans had so clear a sense that a Presidency has—at the levels of competence, vision, and integrity—undermined the country and its ideals?

The incumbent Administration has distinguished itself for the ages. The Presidency of George W. Bush is the worst since Reconstruction, so there is no mystery about why the Republican Party—which has held dominion over the executive branch of the federal government for the past eight years and the legislative branch for most of that time—has little desire to defend its record, domestic or foreign. The only speaker at the Convention in St. Paul who uttered more than a sentence or two in support of the President was his wife, Laura. Meanwhile, the nominee, John McCain, played the part of a vaudeville illusionist, asking to be regarded as an apostle of change after years of embracing the essentials of the Bush agenda with ever-increasing ardor.

migrant_mother_1936__great_depression.jpgThe Republican disaster begins at home. Even before taking into account whatever fantastically expensive plan eventually emerges to help rescue the financial system from Wall Street’s long-running pyramid schemes, the economic and fiscal picture is bleak. During the Bush Administration, the national debt, now approaching ten trillion dollars, has nearly doubled. Next year’s federal budget is projected to run a half-trillion-dollar deficit, a precipitous fall from the seven-hundred-billion-dollar surplus that was projected when Bill Clinton left office. Private-sector job creation has been a sixth of what it was under President Clinton. Five million people have fallen into poverty. The number of Americans without health insurance has grown by seven million, while average premiums have nearly doubled. Meanwhile, the principal domestic achievement of the Bush Administration has been to shift the relative burden of taxation from the rich to the rest. For the top one per cent of us, the Bush tax cuts are worth, on average, about a thousand dollars a week; for the bottom fifth, about a dollar and a half. The unfairness will only increase if the painful, yet necessary, effort to rescue the credit markets ends up preventing the rescue of our health-care system, our environment, and our physical, educational, and industrial infrastructure.

At the same time, a hundred and fifty thousand American troops are in Iraq and thirty-three thousand are in Afghanistan. There is still disagreement about the wisdom of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his horrific regime, but there is no longer the slightest doubt that the Bush Administration manipulated, bullied, and lied the American public into this war and then mismanaged its prosecution in nearly every aspect. The direct costs, besides an expenditure of more than six hundred billion dollars, have included the loss of more than four thousand Americans, the wounding of thirty thousand, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and the displacement of four and a half million men, women, and children. Only now, after American forces have been fighting for a year longer than they did in the Second World War, is there a glimmer of hope that the conflict in Iraq has entered a stage of fragile stability.

The indirect costs, both of the war in particular and of the Administration’s unilateralist approach to foreign policy in general, have also been immense. The torture of prisoners, authorized at the highest level, has been an ethical and a public-diplomacy catastrophe. At a moment when the global environment, the global economy, and global stability all demand a transition to new sources of energy, the United States has been a global retrograde, wasteful in its consumption and heedless in its policy. Strategically and morally, the Bush Administration has squandered the American capacity to counter the example and the swagger of its rivals. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other illiberal states have concluded, each in its own way, that democratic principles and human rights need not be components of a stable, prosperous future. At recent meetings of the United Nations, emboldened despots like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran came to town sneering at our predicament and hailing the “end of the American era.”

globalsmoke.jpgThe election of 2008 is the first in more than half a century in which no incumbent President or Vice-President is on the ballot. There is, however, an incumbent party, and that party has been lucky enough to find itself, apparently against the wishes of its “base,” with a nominee who evidently disliked George W. Bush before it became fashionable to do so. In South Carolina in 2000, Bush crushed John McCain with a sub-rosa primary campaign of such viciousness that McCain lashed out memorably against Bush’s Christian-right allies. So profound was McCain’s anger that in 2004 he flirted with the possibility of joining the Democratic ticket under John Kerry. Bush, who took office as a “compassionate conservative,” governed immediately as a rightist ideologue. During that first term, McCain bolstered his reputation, sometimes deserved, as a “maverick” willing to work with Democrats on such issues as normalizing relations with Vietnam, campaign-finance reform, and immigration reform. He co-sponsored, with John Edwards and Edward Kennedy, a patients’ bill of rights. In 2001 and 2003, he voted against the Bush tax cuts. With John Kerry, he co-sponsored a bill raising auto-fuel efficiency standards and, with Joseph Lieberman, a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was one of a minority of Republicans opposed to unlimited drilling for oil and gas off America’s shores.

Since the 2004 election, however, McCain has moved remorselessly rightward in his quest for the Republican nomination. He paid obeisance to Jerry Falwell and preachers of his ilk. He abandoned immigration reform, eventually coming out against his own bill. Most shocking, McCain, who had repeatedly denounced torture under all circumstances, voted in February against a ban on the very techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that he himself once endured in Vietnam—as long as the torturers were civilians employed by the C.I.A.

On almost every issue, McCain and the Democratic Party’s nominee, Barack Obama, speak the generalized language of “reform,” but only Obama has provided a convincing, rational, and fully developed vision. McCain has abandoned his opposition to the Bush-era tax cuts and has taken up the demagogic call—in the midst of recession and Wall Street calamity, with looming crises in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—for more tax cuts. Bush’s expire in 2011. If McCain, as he has proposed, cuts taxes for corporations and estates, the benefits once more would go disproportionately to the wealthy.

In Washington, the craze for pure market triumphalism is over. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson arrived in town (via Goldman Sachs) a Republican, but it seems that he will leave a Democrat. In other words, he has come to see that the abuses that led to the current financial crisis––not least, excessive speculation on borrowed capital––can be fixed only with government regulation and oversight. McCain, who has never evinced much interest in, or knowledge of, economic questions, has had little of substance to say about the crisis. His most notable gesture of concern—a melodramatic call last month to suspend his campaign and postpone the first Presidential debate until the government bailout plan was ready—soon revealed itself as an empty diversionary tactic.

By contrast, Obama has made a serious study of the mechanics and the history of this economic disaster and of the possibilities of stimulating a recovery. Last March, in New York, in a speech notable for its depth, balance, and foresight, he said, “A complete disdain for pay-as-you-go budgeting, coupled with a generally scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement, allowed far too many to put short-term gain ahead of long-term consequences.” Obama is committed to reforms that value not only the restoration of stability but also the protection of the vast majority of the population, which did not partake of the fruits of the binge years. He has called for greater and more programmatic regulation of the financial system; the creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which would help reverse the decay of our roads, bridges, and mass-transit systems, and create millions of jobs; and a major investment in the green-energy sector.

polarbearcaughtonfloe.jpgIn energy and global warming, Obama offers a set of forceful proposals. He supports a cap-and-trade program to reduce America’s carbon emissions by eighty per cent by 2050—an enormously ambitious goal, but one that many climate scientists say must be met if atmospheric carbon dioxide is to be kept below disastrous levels. Large emitters, like utilities, would acquire carbon allowances, and those which emit less carbon dioxide than their allotment could sell the resulting credits to those which emit more; over time, the available allowances would decline. Significantly, Obama wants to auction off the allowances; this would provide fifteen billion dollars a year for developing alternative-energy sources and creating job-training programs in green technologies. He also wants to raise federal fuel-economy standards and to require that ten per cent of America’s electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2012. Taken together, his proposals represent the most coherent and far-sighted strategy ever offered by a Presidential candidate for reducing the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

There was once reason to hope that McCain and Obama would have a sensible debate about energy and climate policy. McCain was one of the first Republicans in the Senate to support federal limits on carbon dioxide, and he has touted his own support for a less ambitious cap-and-trade program as evidence of his independence from the White House. But, as polls showed Americans growing jittery about gasoline prices, McCain apparently found it expedient in this area, too, to shift course. He took a dubious idea—lifting the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling—and placed it at the very center of his campaign. Opening up America’s coastal waters to drilling would have no impact on gasoline prices in the short term, and, even over the long term, the effect, according to a recent analysis by the Department of Energy, would be “insignificant.” Such inconvenient facts, however, are waved away by a campaign that finally found its voice with the slogan “Drill, baby, drill!”
he contrast between the candidates is even sharper with respect to the third branch of government. A tense equipoise currently prevails among the Justices of the Supreme Court, where four hard-core conservatives face off against four moderate liberals. Anthony M. Kennedy is the swing vote, determining the outcome of case after case.

McCain cites Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, two reliable conservatives, as models for his own prospective appointments. If he means what he says, and if he replaces even one moderate on the current Supreme Court, then Roe v. Wade will be reversed, and states will again be allowed to impose absolute bans on abortion. McCain’s views have hardened on this issue. In 1999, he said he opposed overturning Roe; by 2006, he was saying that its demise “wouldn’t bother me any”; by 2008, he no longer supported adding rape and incest as exceptions to his party’s platform opposing abortion.
But scrapping Roe—which, after all, would leave states as free to permit abortion as to criminalize it—would be just the beginning. Given the ideological agenda that the existing conservative bloc has pursued, it’s safe to predict that affirmative action of all kinds would likely be outlawed by a McCain Court. Efforts to expand executive power, which, in recent years, certain Justices have nobly tried to resist, would likely increase. Barriers between church and state would fall; executions would soar; legal checks on corporate power would wither—all with just one new conservative nominee on the Court. And the next President is likely to make three appointments.

Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, voted against confirming not only Roberts and Alito but also several unqualified lower-court nominees. As an Illinois state senator, he won the support of prosecutors and police organizations for new protections against convicting the innocent in capital cases. While McCain voted to continue to deny habeas-corpus rights to detainees, perpetuating the Bush Administration’s regime of state-sponsored extra-legal detention, Obama took the opposite side, pushing to restore the right of all U.S.-held prisoners to a hearing. The judicial future would be safe in his care.

In the shorthand of political commentary, the Iraq war seems to leave McCain and Obama roughly even. Opposing it before the invasion, Obama had the prescience to warn of a costly and indefinite occupation and rising anti-American radicalism around the world; supporting it, McCain foresaw none of this. More recently, in early 2007 McCain risked his Presidential prospects on the proposition that five additional combat brigades could salvage a war that by then appeared hopeless. Obama, along with most of the country, had decided that it was time to cut American losses. Neither candidate’s calculations on Iraq have been as cheaply political as McCain’s repeated assertion that Obama values his career over his country; both men based their positions, right or wrong, on judgment and principle.

President Bush’s successor will inherit two wars and the realities of limited resources, flagging popular will, and the dwindling possibilities of what can be achieved by American power. McCain’s views on these subjects range from the simplistic to the unknown. In Iraq, he seeks “victory”—a word that General David Petraeus refuses to use, and one that fundamentally misrepresents the messy, open-ended nature of the conflict. As for Afghanistan, on the rare occasions when McCain mentions it he implies that the surge can be transferred directly from Iraq, which suggests that his grasp of counterinsurgency is not as firm as he insisted it was during the first Presidential debate. McCain always displays more faith in force than interest in its strategic consequences. Unlike Obama, McCain has no political strategy for either war, only the dubious hope that greater security will allow things to work out. Obama has long warned of deterioration along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and has a considered grasp of its vital importance. His strategy for both Afghanistan and Iraq shows an understanding of the role that internal politics, economics, corruption, and regional diplomacy play in wars where there is no battlefield victory.

john_mccain-thumbsup.jpgUnimaginably painful personal experience taught McCain that war is above all a test of honor: maintain the will to fight on, be prepared to risk everything, and you will prevail. Asked during the first debate to outline “the lessons of Iraq,” McCain said, “I think the lessons of Iraq are very clear: that you cannot have a failed strategy that will then cause you to nearly lose a conflict.” A soldier’s answer––but a statesman must have a broader view of war and peace. The years ahead will demand not only determination but also diplomacy, flexibility, patience, judiciousness, and intellectual engagement. These are no more McCain’s strong suit than the current President’s. Obama, for his part, seems to know that more will be required than willpower and force to extract some advantage from the wreckage of the Bush years.

Obama is also better suited for the task of renewing the bedrock foundations of American influence. An American restoration in foreign affairs will require a commitment not only to international coöperation but also to international institutions that can address global warming, the dislocations of what will likely be a deepening global economic crisis, disease epidemics, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and other, more traditional security challenges. Many of the Cold War-era vehicles for engagement and negotiation—the United Nations, the World Bank, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—are moribund, tattered, or outdated. Obama has the generational outlook that will be required to revive or reinvent these compacts. He would be the first postwar American President unencumbered by the legacies of either Munich or Vietnam.

The next President must also restore American moral credibility. Closing Guantánamo, banning all torture, and ending the Iraq war as responsibly as possible will provide a start, but only that. The modern Presidency is as much a vehicle for communication as for decision-making, and the relevant audiences are global. Obama has inspired many Americans in part because he holds up a mirror to their own idealism. His election would do no less—and likely more—overseas.

What most distinguishes the candidates, however, is character—and here, contrary to conventional wisdom, Obama is clearly the stronger of the two. Not long ago, Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, said, “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” The view that this election is about personalities leaves out policy, complexity, and accountability. Even so, there’s some truth in what Davis said––but it hardly points to the conclusion that he intended.

Echoing Obama, McCain has made “change” one of his campaign mantras. But the change he has actually provided has been in himself, and it is not just a matter of altering his positions. A willingness to pander and even lie has come to define his Presidential campaign and its televised advertisements. A contemptuous duplicity, a meanness, has entered his talk on the stump—so much so that it seems obvious that, in the drive for victory, he is willing to replicate some of the same underhanded methods that defeated him eight years ago in South Carolina.

sarahpalin.jpgPerhaps nothing revealed McCain’s cynicism more than his choice of Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, who had been governor of that state for twenty-one months, as the Republican nominee for Vice-President. In the interviews she has given since her nomination, she has had difficulty uttering coherent unscripted responses about the most basic issues of the day. We are watching a candidate for Vice-President cram for her ongoing exam in elementary domestic and foreign policy. This is funny as a Tina Fey routine on “Saturday Night Live,” but as a vision of the political future it’s deeply unsettling. Palin has no business being the backup to a President of any age, much less to one who is seventy-two and in imperfect health. In choosing her, McCain committed an act of breathtaking heedlessness and irresponsibility. Obama’s choice, Joe Biden, is not without imperfections. His tongue sometimes runs in advance of his mind, providing his own fodder for late-night comedians, but there is no comparison with Palin. His deep experience in foreign affairs, the judiciary, and social policy makes him an assuring and complementary partner for Obama.

The longer the campaign goes on, the more the issues of personality and character have reflected badly on McCain. Unless appearances are very deceiving, he is impulsive, impatient, self-dramatizing, erratic, and a compulsive risk-taker. These qualities may have contributed to his usefulness as a “maverick” senator. But in a President they would be a menace.
By contrast, Obama’s transformative message is accompanied by a sense of pragmatic calm. A tropism for unity is an essential part of his character and of his campaign. It is part of what allowed him to overcome a Democratic opponent who entered the race with tremendous advantages. It is what helped him forge a political career relying both on the liberals of Hyde Park and on the political regulars of downtown Chicago. His policy preferences are distinctly liberal, but he is determined to speak to a broad range of Americans who do not necessarily share his every value or opinion. For some who oppose him, his equanimity even under the ugliest attack seems like hauteur; for some who support him, his reluctance to counterattack in the same vein seems like self-defeating detachment. Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.

Nowadays, almost every politician who thinks about running for President arranges to become an author. Obama’s books are different: he wrote them. “The Audacity of Hope” (2006) is a set of policy disquisitions loosely structured around an account of his freshman year in the United States Senate. Though a campaign manifesto of sorts, it is superior to that genre’s usual blowsy pastiche of ghostwritten speeches. But it is Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” (1995), that offers an unprecedented glimpse into the mind and heart of a potential President. Obama began writing it in his early thirties, before he was a candidate for anything. Not since Theodore Roosevelt has an American politician this close to the pinnacle of power produced such a sustained, highly personal work of literary merit before being definitively swept up by the tides of political ambition.

votingmachineroberttsullivangetty.jpgA Presidential election is not the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize: we elect a politician and, we hope, a statesman, not an author. But Obama’s first book is valuable in the way that it reveals his fundamental attitudes of mind and spirit. “Dreams from My Father” is an illuminating memoir not only in the substance of Obama’s own peculiarly American story but also in the qualities he brings to the telling: a formidable intelligence, emotional empathy, self-reflection, balance, and a remarkable ability to see life and the world through the eyes of people very different from himself. In common with nearly all other senators and governors of his generation, Obama does not count military service as part of his biography. But his life has been full of tests—personal, spiritual, racial, political—that bear on his preparation for great responsibility.

It is perfectly legitimate to call attention, as McCain has done, to Obama’s lack of conventional national and international policymaking experience. We, too, wish he had more of it. But office-holding is not the only kind of experience relevant to the task of leading a wildly variegated nation. Obama’s immersion in diverse human environments (Hawaii’s racial rainbow, Chicago’s racial cauldron, countercultural New York, middle-class Kansas, predominantly Muslim Indonesia), his years of organizing among the poor, his taste of corporate law and his grounding in public-interest and constitutional law—these, too, are experiences. And his books show that he has wrung from them every drop of insight and breadth of perspective they contained.

The exhaustingly, sometimes infuriatingly long campaign of 2008 (and 2007) has had at least one virtue: it has demonstrated that Obama’s intelligence and steady temperament are not just figments of the writer’s craft. He has made mistakes, to be sure. (His failure to accept McCain’s imaginative proposal for a series of unmediated joint appearances was among them.) But, on the whole, his campaign has been marked by patience, planning, discipline, organization, technological proficiency, and strategic astuteness. Obama has often looked two or three moves ahead, relatively impervious to the permanent hysteria of the hourly news cycle and the cable-news shouters. And when crisis has struck, as it did when the divisive antics of his ex-pastor threatened to bring down his campaign, he has proved equal to the moment, rescuing himself with a speech that not only drew the poison but also demonstrated a profound respect for the electorate. Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.

We cannot expect one man to heal every wound, to solve every major crisis of policy. So much of the Presidency, as they say, is a matter of waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. In the quiet of the Oval Office, the noise of immediate demands can be deafening. And yet Obama has precisely the temperament to shut out the noise when necessary and concentrate on the essential. The election of Obama—a man of mixed ethnicity, at once comfortable in the world and utterly representative of twenty-first-century America—would, at a stroke, reverse our country’s image abroad and refresh its spirit at home. His ascendance to the Presidency would be a symbolic culmination of the civil- and voting-rights acts of the nineteen-sixties and the century-long struggles for equality that preceded them. It could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness, about its fidelity, after all, to the values it proclaims in its textbooks. At a moment of economic calamity, international perplexity, political failure, and battered morale, America needs both uplift and realism, both change and steadiness. It needs a leader temperamentally, intellectually, and emotionally attuned to the complexities of our troubled globe. That leader’s name is Barack Obama.
—The Editors

Of course, there is still a week before the final tally replaces what currently is a surprising 7-15% advantage for Obama in polling, and the arrest of a couple of ignorant white supremacists planning to end a murder rampage with the first African-American President-to-be brings home the threat that violence of one kind or another might disrupt his imminent victory in what looks to be a landslide.

It seems not unlikely to us that Osama Bin Laden might wish to let off a dirty bomb in New York if he can manage to arrange it, since Obama with his notoriously inclusive nature will surely not only bring red and white together in his renewal of 21st Century America but will bring America and the world together again as effectively as the Bush Administration and its neo-con policies have split them apart.

However, it is science and technology and politics which is the topic of this blog so we once again emphasize that one possibility remains the theft of the election by hacking as seems to have happened in 2004, according to the loser John Kerry and everyone else we have met who was involved in the practicalities of the campaign.

Still the unmentionable tiger in the booth

tigerinwater1.jpgThe fact that Obama looks like winning in a landslide makes the threat less likely, presumably, though the level of Republican desperation as embodied by the increasingly dishonorable MacCain and Palin will surely magnify the temptation to plan the tactic. (Click the pic to get a full view of exceptionally nice shot of a tiger in water from the wonderful selection at Bergiota). Coverage by the media seems to stop short of dealing with the possibility, as in the otherwise thorough Time cover story on 7 Things That Could Go Wrong on Election Day last week on Election Fraud which quietly bypassed the issue of purposeful hacking of the machines amid its dense coverage of other problems involving interference with free and fair voting by machine:

4. The Voting-Machine Fiasco
By Michael Scherer
As soon as the last chad was counted in Florida, Congress got to work on a new law that authorized $3.9 billion to buy new, high-tech voting equipment. On the whole, the new machines were an improvement over the old punch cards and levers, but many parts of the country now find themselves yearning for the old problems of paper.

About one-third of voters this fall will use electronic machines, usually touchscreen systems that produce no paper record of the vote. If the machines are miscalibrated, they are known to malfunction, sometimes causing the selection of one candidate to show as a vote for another. But the bigger concern, which has been echoed by computer scientists, is that the machines have no independent paper backup. A memory failure or a corruption of the data leaves no route for a recount. The 2006 congressional election in Florida’s 13th District produced the nightmare scenario. Republican Vern Buchanan won the contest by a margin of 369 votes. But in a single, Democratic-leaning county, more than 18,000 voters mysteriously failed to record a selection in the congressional race, an undervote as much as six times the rate of other counties. There is no way to know for sure what, if anything, went wrong.

Since that election, several states, including Florida and California, have required paper records for all electronic-voting devices. A bill in Congress that would mandate paper records of all machines nationwide has gathered 216 co-sponsors, including 20 Republicans.

Meanwhile, 11 million people live in counties that will use lever machines or punch-card ballots this year, even though the congressional deadline to replace that equipment passed in 2006.

Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008
By Michael Scherer
We can go to the moon, split atoms to power submarines, squeeze profits from a 99 cent hamburger and watch football highlights on cell phones. But the most successful democracy in human history has yet to figure out how to conduct a proper election. As it stands, the American voting system is a worrisome mess, a labyrinth of local, state and federal laws spotted with bewildered volunteers, harried public officials, partisan distortions, misdesigned forms, malfunctioning machines and polling-place confusion. Each time, problems pop up on the margins; if the election is close, these problems matter a great deal. Republicans and Democrats predict record turnouts, perhaps 130 million people, including millions who have never voted before. The vast majority will cast their votes without a hitch. But some voters will find themselves at the mercy of registration rolls that have been poorly maintained or, in some cases, improperly handled. Others will endure long lines, too few voting machines and observers who challenge their identities. Long a prerogative of local government, the patchwork of election rules often defies logic. A convicted felon can vote in Maine, but not in Virginia. A government-issued photo ID is required of all voters at the polls in Indiana, but not in New York. Voting lines are shorter in the suburbs, and the rules governing when provisional ballots count sometimes vary from state to state. As Americans cast their ballots on Nov. 4, here are some problems that threaten to throw this election to the courts again.

1. The Database Dilemma
By Michael Scherer
“Joe the plumber” is not registered to vote. Or at least he is not registered under his own name. The man known to his mother as Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who has become a feature of John McCain’s stump speech, is inscribed in Ohio’s Lucas County registration records as “Worzelbacher,” a problem of penmanship more than anything else. “You can’t read his signature to tell if it is an o or a u,” explains Linda Howe, the local elections director.

Such mistakes riddle the nation’s voting rolls, but they did not matter much before computers digitized records. The misspelled Joes of America still got their ballots. But after the voting debacle in 2000, Congress required each state to create a single voter database, which could then be matched with other data, such as driver’s licenses, to detect false registrations, dead people and those who have moved or become “inactive.” In the marble halls of Congress, this sounded like a great idea — solve old problems with new technology. But in the hands of sometimes inept or partisan state officials, the database matches have become a practical nightmare that experts fear could disenfranchise thousands.

In Wisconsin, an August check of a new voter-registration database against other state records turned up a 22% match-failure rate. Around the time four of the six former judges who oversee state elections could not be matched with state driver’s license data, the board decided to suspend any database purges of new registrants. But database-matching continues elsewhere. In Florida, nearly 9,000 new registrants have been flagged through the state’s “No Match, No Vote” law. (Their votes will not be counted unless they prove their identity to a state worker in the coming weeks.) In Ohio, Republicans have repeatedly gone to court to make public a list of more than 200,000 unmatched registrations, presumably so that those voters can be challenged at the polls, even though most of them, like Joe, are probably legit. “It’s disenfranchisement by typo,” explains Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting issues.

Elsewhere the purges are peremptory. A county official in Georgia this year removed 700 people from voter lists, even though some of those people had never received so much as a parking ticket. Another Georgia voter purge, which seeks to remove illegal immigrants from the rolls, has been challenged by voting-rights groups that say legal voters have been intimidated by repeated requests to prove their citizenship. Back in Mississippi last March, an election official wrongly purged 10,000 people from the voting rolls — including a Republican congressional candidate — while using her home computer. (The names were restored before the primary.)

With just days until the election, the scale of the database-purge problem is unknown. Millions have been stripped from voter rolls in key states, but the legitimacy of those eliminations remains unclear. The sheer volume of state voter checks against the federal Social Security Administration database, however, has raised concerns. Six states that are heavily using the federal database were recently warned by Social Security commissioner Michael Astrue about the danger of improperly blocking legitimate voters. “It is absolutely essential that people entitled to register to vote are allowed to do so,” he said in October.

2. ‘Mickey Mouse’ Registrations And Polling-Place Challenges
By Michael Scherer
Thanks to a few bad apples, ACORN is no longer just an oak-tree nut. McCain blames the group for “maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history.” Members of Congress have demanded investigations. The fbi is asking questions. Republican protesters have started crashing political events in squirrel costumes.

Yet the problem of registration fraud is age-old. For decades, both parties and many other groups have paid people to go out and register new voters. In the case of acorn, a community group that represents low-income and minority communities, this led to a massive registration drive this year, which signed up 1.3 million new people, mostly in swing states. The problem is that a small fraction of those new voters don’t exist. That’s because the 13,000 part-time workers conducting the acorn registration drive were paid on a quota system, providing them a clear incentive to fabricate registrations. Across the country, registrars have flagged thousands of acorn forms as suspect. In Florida, “Mickey Mouse” tried to register with an application stamped with the acorn logo. The starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys signed up to vote in Nevada. But there’s a difference between registration fraud and voter fraud; the latter has not been documented on any significant scale in decades. Phony registrations are difficult to translate into fraudulent votes. Under federal law, new registrants still have to provide election officials with identification before casting their first ballot. Unless Mickey Mouse has an ID, the chance that he’ll vote is slim.

Democrats complain that trumped-up charges of voting fraud could scare people from the polls. On the other hand, the acorn effect makes elections suspect — and that’s bad for everyone. Republicans in several key swing states have argued that the false registrations make it necessary to monitor polls and challenge suspect voters. If that happens on a grand scale, the voting process could become more like running a gauntlet than exercising a right, with polling-place delays and confrontations that could scare people off or just lead them to conclude it’s not worth the time.

3. Bad Forms
By Michael Scherer
Until the palm beach county butterfly ballot had its 15 minutes of fame, few believed that bad design could determine the fate of the world. But then a local election official created a form that confused elderly voters, causing thousands to mark both Al Gore and another candidate on the same form, disqualifying enough votes to put George W. Bush in the White House.

Eight years later, punch-card ballots are mostly a thing of the past, but bad design lives on. This summer, the McCain campaign sent poorly designed absentee-ballot forms to more than 1 million voters in Ohio. The form included a redundant box for voters to check if they were “qualified electors.” Though the box was not required by law, the Democratic secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, rejected thousands of otherwise complete forms with unchecked boxes. Luckily for the voters, the state supreme court stepped in to overrule Brunner’s order, which it noted “served no vital public purpose or interest.” A lawsuit has yet to be filed in a similar case in Colorado, where Republican secretary of state Mike Coffman, who is running for Congress, ruled that more than 6,400 new registrations should be rejected because people failed to check a box before providing the last four digits of their Social Security number. Again, the box was redundant, since new registrants provided all the other required information, yet Coffman has declared the forms incomplete and sent letters alerting voters that they have just a few days to fix the mistakes or be left off the rolls.

4. The Voting-Machine Fiasco
By Michael Scherer
As soon as the last chad was counted in Florida, Congress got to work on a new law that authorized $3.9 billion to buy new, high-tech voting equipment. On the whole, the new machines were an improvement over the old punch cards and levers, but many parts of the country now find themselves yearning for the old problems of paper.

About one-third of voters this fall will use electronic machines, usually touchscreen systems that produce no paper record of the vote. If the machines are miscalibrated, they are known to malfunction, sometimes causing the selection of one candidate to show as a vote for another. But the bigger concern, which has been echoed by computer scientists, is that the machines have no independent paper backup. A memory failure or a corruption of the data leaves no route for a recount. The 2006 congressional election in Florida’s 13th District produced the nightmare scenario. Republican Vern Buchanan won the contest by a margin of 369 votes. But in a single, Democratic-leaning county, more than 18,000 voters mysteriously failed to record a selection in the congressional race, an undervote as much as six times the rate of other counties. There is no way to know for sure what, if anything, went wrong.

Since that election, several states, including Florida and California, have required paper records for all electronic-voting devices. A bill in Congress that would mandate paper records of all machines nationwide has gathered 216 co-sponsors, including 20 Republicans.

Meanwhile, 11 million people live in counties that will use lever machines or punch-card ballots this year, even though the congressional deadline to replace that equipment passed in 2006.

5. Unequal Distribution of Resources
By Michael Scherer
This summer, a local democratic county clerk in Indiana noted a surprising increase in new registrations from the area around Ball State University. He suggested that a new early-voting location be set up on campus. But the county’s Republican chairwoman, Kaye Whitehead, opposed the plan, calling it a “political ploy” that would encourage students to vote in exchange for freebies like hot dogs. “This is a serious election,” she told the local newspaper, before the lone Republican on the election board blocked the site. “You need voters who are informed.”

Partisan squabbles about access occur regularly across the country, often with major effects on Election Day. In 2004 lines in Ohio’s Franklin County led some Democrats to complain that Republicans were using resources to affect the outcome of the vote. While suburban precincts had enough machines so voters didn’t have to wait, largely Democratic precincts in Columbus had lines with four-hour waits — often in the rain. Bipartisan estimates suggested that between 5,000 and 15,000 voters gave up on waiting and never voted. But even the question of which precincts get election machines is a maze: in Wisconsin, one voting machine is required for every 200 voters registered in a precinct. In Virginia, by contrast, the law calls for one machine for every 500 to 750 voters, depending on the size of the precinct. In Colorado, which saw six-hour waits for ballots in 2006, the law simply calls for a “sufficient” number of voting booths.

6. New Burdens of Proof
By Michael Scherer
The sisters of the holy cross in notre Dame, Ind., don’t have much use for driver’s licenses. Or at least that’s what a dozen of the nuns thought on May 6, when they went to vote in the presidential primary. They were each turned away as a result of a recently established ID-check requirement at Indiana polls.

In the intervening months, the elderly sisters have all had a chance to get government identification. But an explosion in voter-identification laws has raised the prospect that thousands will turn up to vote next month and find themselves turned away. Federal law now requires that all first-time voters who register by mail provide some sort of identification either when they register or when they vote. But states have applied that rule in markedly different ways. In Pennsylvania, first-time voters can use a firearm permit or a utility bill to identify themselves, and longtime voters don’t have to show anything at all. In Georgia and Florida, gun permits don’t help; all voters must show a state or federal photo ID at the polls. In Indiana, residents who attend state schools can use their student IDs in many cases, but students who attend private schools cannot. The laws have been established to prevent voter fraud, but some experts worry that voter suppression will result. “There is very little evidence of widespread voter fraud,” says R. Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech/mit Voting Technology Project. “Imposing these additional barriers doesn’t seem terribly justified.”

How big a barrier? A 2001 study found that 6% to 10% of the voting-age population lacks driver’s licenses or other state-issued IDs. The most reasonable worry is that many local ID requirements are not well known to voters, which could lead to significant numbers of people leaving the polls frustrated on Election Day without casting their ballot. That should not happen: in all states, voters without IDs are permitted to cast a provisional ballot. But in many states, for the ballot to count they must bring a valid ID to election officials within days after the election, proving that they are the person they claim to be.

7. Confusing Rules, Bad Information
By Michael Scherer
As election day nears, dirty tricks surface. Flyers are left on cars telling Democrats that they should vote on Wednesday, not Tuesday. Anonymous automated phone calls warn people that they will be arrested at the polls or that their polling places have moved. The impact of such gambits is usually small, and in an increasing number of states, such tricks are punishable by law.

A more insidious type of misinformation starts months earlier with local officials. Last March, the president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs received a letter from the El Paso County clerk, Robert Balink, warning that out-of-state students cannot register to vote if their parents claim them as dependents in another state. This was false. The registrar of elections for the area around Virginia Tech issued other confusing messages to students there, obliquely suggesting that their parents’ tax status could be jeopardized based on vague state-board-of-elections guidelines.

A widely circulated anonymous e-mail warns voters that they will be turned away from polling places if they wear a barack obama button or a john mccain T shirt. This is true in only a minority of states. In Virginia, for instance, wearing a candidate’s T shirt or button can get you tossed from a polling place. After agreeing to the policy, Virginia Board of Elections officials said decisions about what to do will be subject to the interpretation of local poll workers and judges — which is a pretty good metaphor for the controlled electoral chaos that is about to unfold all over America in a few short days.

—with reporting by Marti Covington and Maya Curry / WashingtonThe one man in the country who still seems alert to the danger and willing to talk about it is Mark Crispin-Miller of New York University, but astonishingly in his appearance on Bill Moyers Journal last weekend the issue of outright machine hacking was not dealt with either, though every other angle of the tendency for Republicans to stymie Democratic voting was discussed.

Will Obama be robbed?

alexandralaviadapolarisvoting-machine.jpgThe efforts mounted by the Democrats to guard against fraud were reviewed on Sunday in Voting Machines Problems on Alternet by Steven Rosenfeld and while the planning and organization seems impressive the implementation is apparently less so, with the focus on unplanned glitches which may or may not be caught by checkers, so the chances of professional level purposeful and secret software manipulation seem as yet unchanged.

Certainly if election night sees the same sudden disappointing reversal as in 2004 of the apparently sure victory of Obama this time there will be a good deal longer and more determined outcry and insistence on proper recounts than in John Kerry’s case.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the Republicans inclined to win in this underhand manner may hold off on the instructions of their leaders, whoever they now are, since Bush is handing off the reins of a nation mired in political and economical quicksand so deep it is likely to “test” the resources of even an Obama in keeping his plans and vision for America from being buried forever in the next four years.

With Iraq withdrawal probably impossible in the near future and Afghanistan presenting an even more intractable problem that threatens to blossom into a poisonously Taliban ridden nuclear Pakistan, and the economy in the throes of an epileptic seizure that may keep it in bed for three years, this may spell just the right opportunity for Sarah Palin to win the Presidency in 2012.

7 Responses to “Obama’s the One, barring a roadside bomb, or outright theft”

  1. MacDonald Says:


    I have been looking into your irrational enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and it is now clear to me that you have been victimized by the strong but secret and highly illegal hypnotic techniques employed by Obama to ensnare the weak of mind.


  2. Truthseeker Says:

    Interesting stuff, MacD, and remarkably long. I can believe it – oratory includes hypnotic repetition for sure, especially in African American sermons.

    But what is wrong with that? Persuasion is mostly emotional is it not, with reason holding little sway except possibly in the law courts and not necessarily there either.

    The pictures demonstrate the motivations of the author of this diatribe since they emphasize the black half of Obama’s genetic heritage. Wonder where he got them from, they seem early.

    Hypnosis is an interesting element in religious and political speech which is entirely overlooked. What is hypnosis anyway? It must be something to do with mirror neurons, a route to bringing another person’s mind in line with the speakers by using rhythmic cadences and similar stuff to evoke imitation, and probably has to do with dance and chant before battle as well, I imagine. It places the listener between sleeping and waking, the region where all flying saucer reports come from, in my opinion, and where suggestibility is greatest.

    I have always like Obama’s cadences particularly his habit of joining with a very prolonged “aaaand”, aaaand ending sentences with a little pause before the final word which is then stated flatly by lowering his voice to a note of great finality and certainty, which lends things he says great personal authority. “Aaaand” I like the fill in riff he uses, “y’know”, which is, y’know, one of the most inclusive.

    Obama sounds as if he knows what he is talking about, aaaaand as if he is thinking as he speaks. I find, y’know, this refreshing. It is this kind of thing which is the secret of his success, I believe. Y’know, if it is style rather than substance I don’t object, because it is style that reflects substance, in my view.

    Obama is a man who thinks before he speaks and acts, aaaand talks as if he does. As if he is, y’know, considering something anew each time. Aaaand I believe he is.

    I find it very odd that you have nothing good to say about him. Are you prejudiced in some way by his style? Hard to imagine why. Perhaps you believe he is a fraud and given the extraordinary amount of fund raising he has done in standard ways from questionable sources such as the financial sector this is understandable. You believe he has sold out.

    I believe a democracy elects its representatives and trusts them to do the right thing once elected, and not by constant polling. Obama seems to me that kind of person, however practical his election strategies. Let’s see.

    I like this quote best:

    Obama’s hyper-confidence alone is frightening. He is neither simply confident nor overconfident nor even
    simply arrogant. Obama’s aura almost suggests he believes himself to be Messianic, and his right to the
    Presidency long overdue and unquestionable. Not to mention his right to hypnotize millions to get that
    Presidency absolute. There was a moment during the Clinton primaries, where Bill Clinton made some
    strong statements against Obama, and Obama’s reaction to the former President was clearly one of being
    annoyed. It is questionable what type of psychological g-d complex or other abnormality would make
    Obama look down upon a former President as annoying.

    Apparently the author feels Clinton is to be automatically indulged as a Former President and it is uppity of Obama to be “annoyed” by his “strong statements”. The author find Obama’s level of confidence “frightening”. I find it reassuring.

    Sometimes the Web seems like an open sewer. What an extraordinary window it has opened on the hitherto hidden motivations of the common man.

  3. MacDonald Says:

    It goes to show the desperation of the Right, their self-perception as hapless victims of cunning strangers, their lower than sewer level strategies, and their total inability to admit that people simply aren’t voting for them because they screwed up. It is not enough to complain about Obama’s rhetoric. He employs illegal hynotic methods. It is the only possible explanation to their defeat. That and the imaginary, totally inconsequential ACORN voter fraud obviously.

    Palin is on record expressing her feeling that her 1st Amendment rights have been violated because somebody in the press critizises her for sliming Obama as a communistic best friend of all the world’s terrorist’s

    Victim mentality, victim mentality, victim mentality. Pathetic.

  4. Truthseeker Says:

    Yes, and isn’t the prominent clarity of this desperation partly due not only to the clumsiness of McCain’s campaign of self revealing counter attack but to the cool detached and thoughtful posture of Obama which signals leadership poise and control and eye on the main goal and the future and highlights the 20 Century leftover feel to McCain and Palin retropolitics – a sort of intellectual judo which by not deigning to resist or even acknowledge the last spittings of the limbless knight challenging its foe from the rear allows it to fail of its own accord, as it were, to seem irrelevant and trying to fight battles which are long over and quite beside the point now which is to rescue the situation on all fronts – war, deflation, crumbling infrastructure, energy, environment, race, prisons, diplomacy, housing, education – Republican failures everywhere you look.

    Even the hinterland has picked up on the need for a transformation to the new shared goals of Obama’s politics of the 21st Century, no? The pendulum has swung, leaving the rednecks stranded and the Republicans facing a rout where even many of their leaders are now endorsing Obama. If ever there was an incentive to hack votes, they have it now – and they have had four years to prepare for a very foreseeable need for it. Where is the defense? Only that almost everyone knows what happened in 2004. See the front page of the Times today, where the thought is uttered as just a casual truth by a voter worried about this month’s outcome.

    Times mentions vote stealing on front page

    Almost always, Mr. Downs, 53, ends with Mr. Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, ahead, which should please this confirmed liberal and profound Obama fan. But just as often he feels worried.

    “Look, I have this sense of impending doom; we’ve had a couple of elections stolen already,” Mr. Downs said. “The only thing worse than losing is to think that you’re going to win and then lose.”

    He considers that prospect and mutters, almost involuntarily, “Oh, God.” (Obama Is Up, and Fans Fear That Jinxes It

  5. Baby Pong Says:

    Great, now a big sympathy vote for Obama because he pulled a November surprise — his grandma died on election eve. Wouldn’t surprise me if his CFR/CIA handlers offed the old dame just to seal the big win for their chocolate puppet.

    Obama-Bi(nla)den, here we come!

  6. Cathyvm Says:

    Baby Pong my mother died of cancer a few years ago and my stepfather was murdered in 1981 for being “chocolate”-coloured. I find your comment callous and offensive in the extreme.

  7. Baby Pong Says:


    Aren’t you over-reacting a bit? I don’t get offended if people call me vanilla.

    Still I am sorry to have offended you. You’re one of my favorite posters.

    Sorry to hear about your mother and stepfather.

    But my point is, Obama is an oreo, wholly corrupt and phony, and that will become very apparent in the years to come.

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