AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Thu, 30 Oct 2014 12:00:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “I’m going to die on November 1st, 2014” Thu, 30 Oct 2014 12:00:44 +0000 “I’m going to die on November 1st, 2014.”

That’s Brittany Maynard’s plan, and hope.

If she’s not quite happy about it, she’s at least somewhat relieved — relieved that she’ll have the option to end her life when she wants to and not wait for the route to death to take its toll.

Brittany is a newlywed, and just turning thirty.  Brittany is also terminally ill, suffering from glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant brain tumor that will kill her.

Right now she’s having frequent headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and having seizures.  She’s just completed her bucket list of things she wanted to do before she dies, and she’s preparing to end her own life, surrounded by her husband, other family and her best friend. A doctor legally prescribed her some pills that she’ll self-administer to die.


How did Brittany get to this point?

Earlier this year, Brittany, just a newlywed at that time, had been having headaches for a while.  They intensified and became more frequent.  She went to a doctor and he discovered a brain tumor.  It was later classified as a glioblastoma multiforme.

Glioblastomas are malignant and almost always fatal.  Brittany started treatment, and the doctor thought that she might be able to survive for 2-3 years.  But the tumor wasn’t amenable to therapy.  It began growing rapidly.  It started occupying more and more of her brain, pressure increasing inside her skull, more and worse headaches, then seizures.

Brittany knew what this meant.  She wasn’t going to get a few years.  Doctors downgraded their estimate to a few months.

Knowing what would lie ahead for her, Brittany and her family considered her options.

1. Continue treatment; or not, and let the tumor kill her.  The tumor could possibly cause a stroke first, or some other problem, perhaps leaving her bedfast and not having bowel or bladder control.

2. She could also opt for hospice.  Of course, the same things could still happen to her in hospice as they might at home.

3. Or Brittany could consider ending her life, on her terms, before reaching a point that would be repellant to her, helplessness, incontinence a vegetative state or some other horror.

Brittany and her family opted for death with dignity.

But there was a problem.  They lived in San Francisco, and California doesn’t have such an option for terminally ill patients.  After doing some research on the internet, Brittany and family decided to move to Oregon, where she would have the option of euthanasia. Oregon is one of only 5 states that permit terminally ill patients to die with dignity.


Brittany and her husband Dan.

Having finished her bucket list — her last wish was to visit the Grand Canyon, she and her family were there this past week — Brittany had one more thing left to do: She’s been advocating for other states to allow their terminally ill citizens to choose what she has: accept death on HER terms.

Statistics have shown that more people ask for a suicide medication than actually use it. Brittany has been planning to make the evening of November 1st her last day. Now that’s she’s completed her bucket list, she may go ahead with her plans. Whatever her choice, I wish her painlessness, and peace.

Some additional information on Brittany, her life, her fund and death with dignity, from the Brittany Fund. At the site, you’ll find this personal note from Brittany:

A Note from Brittany

The response from you all has surpassed our wildest expectations. On behalf of my family, thank you for the outpouring of love and support.

This journey has been challenging, to say the least. We’ve uprooted our lives. I take prescription drugs to reduce the swelling in my brain, that have caused my entire body to swell instead. Dan and I have given up our dreams of having a family. My mother is soon to lose her only child. We can all agree that no parent should bury their child.

I didn’t launch this campaign because I wanted attention; in fact, it’s hard for me to process it all. I did this because I want to see a world where everyone has access to death with dignity, as I have had. My journey is easier because of this choice.

I am so lucky to have known the love of an amazing husband (my husband Dan is a hero), a loving, caring mother, and an incredible group of friends and extended family. As my time draws closer, I hope you will all take up my request to carry on this work, and support them as they carry on my legacy. I’m so grateful to you all.

– Brittany Maynard

Here’s a video Brittany made about her story:

And here’s an op ed Brittany penned for CNN.

How do you feel about death with dignity?  Should it be come thing that is available for all in every state? Adults and children, too?  Should doctors need to be involved?  Or should such a program be only run by the individual state?

If you were Brittany, what would you do?

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Benedict Cumberbatch’s audition for The Hobbit (video) Thu, 30 Oct 2014 00:18:22 +0000 Benedict Cumberbatch, of “Sherlock” and Khan (from the new Star Trek films) fame, auditioned for the part of the dragon Smaug in the recent film “The Hobbit.”

I couldn’t stand “The Hobbit,” and I love the book and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, but nonetheless, Cumberbatch was masterful in his audition.

Here it is:

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Costco commies: “Our employees deserve Thanksgiving with their families” Wed, 29 Oct 2014 19:38:19 +0000 Helping to cement its growing reputation as a commie front, Costco announced that it will be giving its 127,000 employees the day off on Thanksgiving.

Costco’s “Black Friday” sales will therefore begin on, you know, Friday.

Costco revealed its un-American plot to ThinkProgress.

costcoIn all seriousness, Costco has long had a reputation for being good to its employees.

Contrast that to Walmart (which discriminated against people with disabilities, cut back employee and spousal health coverage, keeps selling assault weaponssold a book about curing gays, and my personal favorite, was the only store willing to decorate a birthday cake for a child named Adolf Hitler) and Whole Foods (run by a right-wing wacko).

I remember talking to a woman working at Costco during one of my recent visits, and asked her about how employees were treated by the company. She gushed with admiration for her bosses. Then told me she used to work at Walmart, and how they had to work holidays all the time at Walmart. But not at Costco.

The Washington Post has more on what makes Costco such a unique company:

The decision is in keeping with the ethos at Costco, which has long shrugged off Wall Street’s complaints about how well it pays its retail workers (Costco even gave raises during the recession). A 2013 report put the company’s average hourly wage at $20.89, far above the minimum wage. It showers employees with good benefits, from low health-insurance premiums to matching and profit-sharing contributions in their 401(k) plans.

And while longtime CEO James D. Sinegal left the helm in 2012, Costco appears to be sticking with its knitting under his successor, Craig Jelinek. The new CEO has spoken out publicly for an increase in the minimum wage and has pledged to maintain his predecessor’s approach to employees. “If you treat consumers with respect and treat employees with respect, good things are going to happen to you,” he told Bloomberg BusinessWeek last year.

Walmart, on the other hand — its problems continue to this day.

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2014 Halloween Drag High Heel Race in Wash, DC Wed, 29 Oct 2014 16:37:50 +0000 Last night was the annual Halloween Drag High Heel Race in Washington, DC.

The race, which goes all the back to 1986, takes place every year in DC’s historic gay neighborhood of Dupont Circle, on the main drag (as it were), 17th Street.

Participants are urged to come in drag, and required to wear a minimum of 2 inch heels for the quarter-mile race. According to the Washington Post, last year’s race was won in under 43 seconds (though the last place finisher took a good 15 minutes).

I’ve been going since 1992 or so. It was a fun little gay event back then, but now several thousand people show up, including mostly quite-amused straight people.

I attended last night (but didn’t compete) with my friend Matt, and my faithful dog Sasha. It was a balmy 70 degrees F, which is quite unusual for DC this time of year. Here are a few photos and videos.

First up, a video of the race contestants mingling before the trek:

And here’s the beginning of the race itself. It starts a bit slow unless you’re at the head of the race.


Some angry birds.


Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Oh, I found some old video I shot from the drag race in 2001. While it’s early-digital-camera, so the quality stinks, I was near the end of the race, so you can see how fast these guys race in their heels — it’s pretty amazing:

Here are the two girls in the lead in 2001 — you can see they’re really running:


2001 was also the year of my Roman experiment:


And back to 2014. Sasha was quite the hit with the girls, as she always is. Guys are less prone to come up and say hi (other than one really cute blond on the way home, who I think might have been straight). But the woman love her.


Sasha doing the demon-eyes.




A bit of an anachronism, but still enjoyed by all.



Selfie with my friend Matt and Sasha.

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Sean Hannity wants you to know his favorite color Wed, 29 Oct 2014 14:24:13 +0000 Fox News’ Sean Hannity has begun a segment where he asks himself questions he always wanted you to ask him, but you just didn’t care.

Like: What’s your favorite color, Sean?


Thankfully, Stephen Colbert is on the story.

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Palin says you “haters” are gonna make her run again Wed, 29 Oct 2014 12:00:17 +0000 If there’s a God.

Sarah Palin, in a fit of me-me-me-ism one week before crucial congressional elections in which control of the entire US Congress is up for grabs (and leaning Republican), warns that if liberals keep “hating” on her, she just might run for office again. Out of spite.

I’m sure the voters of Alaska will be as impressed as the nation at large that Sarah Palin aspires to higher office out a deep sense of civic spite.

Peppered with her usual masterful command of the Queen’s English, Palin told the Fox Business Channel that the “hatred” from her critics has not driven her from public life. Quite the contrary.

She can see delusion from her kitchen window.

She can see delusion from her kitchen window.

“[B]less their hearts, those haters out there. They don’t understand that it invigorates me, it wants me to get out there and defend the innocent. It makes me want to work so hard for justice in this country,” Palin said. “So hey, the more they are pouring on, the more I’m gonna bug the crap out of them by being out there with the voice, with the message, hopefully running for office in the future too.”

Palin has never fully realized what an embarrassment she is to the Republican party. Sure, the base loves her. But this is the same base that so hates gay, blacks, women, Latinos, and immigrants that the GOP is in danger of permanently and perpetually losing the presidential election.

Sarah Palin truly is doing God’s work. It’s the same work the religious right is doing, and that Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and so many other GOP luminaries do on a regular basis. They’re scaring the hell out of moderates and independents, and of youth and women.

So, let’s hope that Sarah Palin keeps running for office. Because I can’t imagine anything better for Democrats than having every election be about Sarah Palin.

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Colbert on Gohmert’s claim that gay soldiers give each other too many massages Tue, 28 Oct 2014 20:31:26 +0000 GOP Cong. Louie Gohmert is concerned that since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” too many gay troops are giving each other back rubs.

And while that might have worked for the Greeks, Gohmert says, massages are no way to fight ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Seriously, he actually said this.

Stephen Colbert, God bless him, has weighed in with the ultimate response.

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Pat Robertson says you can get AIDS from a towel (video) Tue, 28 Oct 2014 18:06:22 +0000 A Christian wanting to do missionary work in Kenya wrote religious right broadcaster, and former Republican presidential candiate, Pat Robertson, asking Robertson is it was too dangerous, what with Ebola and all.

Robertson replied that the real threat was AIDS, which you can get from “towels.”

“You might get AIDS in Kenya. The people have AIDS, you gotta be careful. I mean, the towels could have AIDS.”

Yes, the dreaded Kenyan AIDS towels.

Robertson is a longtime “expert” on AIDS. A few years back, Robertson claimed that gays in San Francisco wore secret rings on their fingers that they used to give people AIDS with pin pricks.

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4 simple ways to help get out the vote Tue, 28 Oct 2014 12:00:22 +0000 We’re one week out from Election Day, and the smart money says that it’s not going to be a fun day for Team Blue.

The FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast gives Republicans an approximately 60/40 chance of gaining control of Congress’ upper chamber, and no one is seriously considering large Democratic gains in the House. That means Republicans would control the House and Senate.

The one saving grace for Democratic Senate hopefuls is that the polls showing them trailing are based on likely voters. And, as we have seen in the last few election cycles, Democrats have the potential to overperform relative to polls by turning unlikely voters into actual voters when it counts.

So in other words, the polls aren’t skewed, but they can sometimes be beaten. Here’s how to do it, and here’s how you can help:

“What’s your plan to vote?”

Vote by Shutterstock.

Vote by Shutterstock.

In both academic and political settings, getting voters to make a plan for voting before Election Day has been shown to raise turnout by roughly four percent.

Just as athletes boost their performance by visualizing success on the field, voters are better voters when they have visualized where, when and how they will cast their ballots.

It doesn’t matter what the plan is, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s written down. What matters is that voters think ahead of time about the logistics involved with breaking their usual Tuesday routine and showing up to vote. You’d be amazed at how many voters don’t know where their polling place is.

Or, if you live in a state with early voting, go vote today and send other people over to do the same.

“Voting is easy”

While all of the talk about the new slate of voter ID laws set to go into effect this year has been useful in pointing out how cravenly political the Republican Party has been in trying to re-engineer the rules of democracy in their favor, it doesn’t do us any favors when we then turn around and try to tell those most-affected by the laws to go out and vote.

Put simply, the harder voting is made to seem, the less likely a marginal voter is to decide that it’s a worthy investment of their time and energy.

In the run-up to Election Day, we should be pointing out that while it’s absolutely true to say the GOP is stating in plain, bureaucratic terms that they’d rather you didn’t vote, you can stick it to them via one of the many channels still available to you to cast a ballot.

“Turnout is going to be high”

We like to think that voting is an individual, personal thing. This is only true with respect to the actual act of filling out a ballot. Voting is an intrinsically social act, and people are far more likely to do it if they hear that everyone else is.

To this point, telling someone that “turnout will be low, so your vote counts for more” actually makes them less likely to vote, while saying “turnout will be high, so make sure your vote is counted” makes them more likely to do so.

And is it really that surprising? When someone hears that turnout is going to be low, what they’re really hearing is that a whole bunch of other people are deciding that voting isn’t worth their time, so why should they bother? Clearly, not voting is a socially acceptable thing to do.

So all of the hand-wringing that Democrats are doing over how low midterm election turnout usually is compared to Presidential years is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it’s especially counterproductive when there’s at least some evidence that this year’s electorate will be larger than 2010’s.

Find a campaign and knock on some doors

The single most effective way to raise voter turnout is through targeted voter contact, particularly in-person conversations. It’s one thing to talk amongst ourselves in our living rooms how important voting is; it’s another thing entirely to go out and talk to voters who have already been identified by a campaign as supporters who may or may not actually cast a ballot.

For every fourteen face-to-face conversations a campaign has with a voter, they get a vote that would not have been cast otherwise. In terms of both votes per contact and voters per dollar spent, that blows every other form of voter contact out of the water.

This means that there are few things you can do that more directly further your political interests than canvassing for a candidate you support. If you don’t in a competitive state or district, you can find one nearby. There are plenty this year.

Campaigns that make a serious investment in voter contact during the closing weeks of an election are able to outperform their polling averages by as much as two percent, turning vast swaths of the unlikely electorate into cast ballots. Two percent is a big number in electoral politics, and there are number of races this year that are polling at similar margins.

One such race is in New Hampshire, where Senator Jeanne Shaheen is working to keep her seat from being taken by Republican interloper and walking LL Bean commercial Scott Brown. I’ll be hitting the doors for her. Where will you be?

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John Oliver on the evils of sugar (video) Mon, 27 Oct 2014 22:39:43 +0000 In honor of Halloween, John Oliver takes on SUGAR.

Apparently, the average American eats 75 pounds of sugar a year.

Oliver reports that they now put sugar in everything from crackers to salar dressings to beef and jerky.

For example, Oliver says that one serving of Clamato juice has 11g of sugar, or basically 2.3 teaspoons (which is almost a tablespoon). Which may not sound like much, but I like a lot of sugar in my morning coffee, and I still wouldn’t put a tablespoon.

He goes on to show an old ad from the sugar industry touting sugar’s healthy aspects.


He also says that the American Beverage Association weighed in with the FDA about possible new rules requiring products to detail the amount of “added sugar.” The Beverage Association would like the FDA to require products to spell out the number of “grams” rather than “teaspoons,” because teaspoons “may carry and unfair negative connotation that undermines the factual nature of nutrition information.”

In other words, people will freak if they find out how many teaspoons of sugar are actually in products, and freak out. But no one, Oliver points out, understands the metric system.

Then he shows a clip of the president of the Sugar Association, talking about sugar’s impact on obesity and diabetes:

“As it relates to obesity there’s been plenty of science that exonerates sugar, that clarifies sugar does not contribute to obesity or diabetes.”

It seems the Harvard School of Public Health disagrees:

 Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

Oh, there’s more:

Sugary drinks increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and gout.

A 20-year study on 120,000 men and women found that people who increased their sugary drink consumption by one 12-ounce serving per day gained more weight over time—on average, an extra pound every 4 years—than people who did not change their intake. (19) Other studies have found a significant link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain in children. (20) One study found that for each additional 12-ounce soda children consumed each day, the odds of becoming obese increased by 60% during 1½ years of follow-up. (21)

People who consume sugary drinks regularly—1 to 2 cans a day or more—have a 26% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely have such drinks. (22) Risks are even greater in young adults and Asians.

A study that followed 40,000 men for two decades found that those who averaged one can of a sugary beverage per day had a 20% higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed sugary drinks. (23) A related study in women found a similar sugary beverage–heart disease link. (24)

A 22-year study of 80,000 women found that those who consumed a can a day of sugary drink had a 75% higher risk of gout than women who rarely had such drinks. (25) Researchers found a similarly-elevated risk in men. (26)

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Chocolate may reverse age-related memory loss Mon, 27 Oct 2014 16:55:34 +0000 A new study suggests that high concentrations of an antioxidant found in chocolate, flavanols, can reverse age-related memory loss in older adults.

The problem: In order to ingest the same amount of flavanols used in the study, you’d need to eat more than 20 chocolate bars a day.

Flavanols are removed from many chocolates by a process called “dutching.”

The study was financed by the chocolate industry, so take it with a grain of cocoa.

chocolateInterestingly, the study found that flavanols did not seem to affect the part of the brain impaired by Alzheimer’s. This backed up the theory that age-related memory loss is something distinctly different from Alzheimer’s.

According to the NYT, even if you ate dark chocolate, which contains a higher concentration of flavanols as compared to regular chocolate, you’d still have to eat 300g of dark chocolate a day, which is equal to seven average sized candy bars.

I know the Ghirardelli chocolate I use for baking is 100g per bar, so you’d still need to eat 3 of those per day, which is quite a lot. Especially when you take into account that you’d be eating 27g of saturated fat, or 129% of your recommended daily maximum.

Another odd thing the study found: exercise didn’t seem to help memory improvement (though they think it’s possible that in older brains you need a larger amount, or more vigorous, exercise in order to produce a memory benefit).

Flavanols apparently keep blood vessels from hardening, and they also play an anti-inflammatory role. Apparently, a number of small studies have linked flavanols to lower risks of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes.

Though, you might want to watch the 25 chocolate bar a day diet if you’re worried about diabetes.

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Are your politics in your genes? Mon, 27 Oct 2014 12:00:36 +0000 Yesterday, John Judis of the New Republic took on what he calls the new social scientific field of “genopolitics,” which, according to him, is a modern-day phrenology of political science.

In his piece, Judis evaluates evidence from a number of prominent political biologists — most notably John Alford, Carolyn Funk and John Hibbing — showing that genetics influence your politics and behavior. He then dismisses the evidence because it isn’t complicated enough: Since political ideology is more nuanced than a liberal/conservative binary, studies showing genetic correlations with general liberalism and conservatism must be flawed.

Judis pays particular attention to two questions raised by political biologists: First, is the methodology sound? Second, even if the methodology is sound, do these political biologists understand the ideologies they purport to measure? Judis answers no and no.

Having written rather extensively on the subject, I want to take the opportunity to re-answer Judis’ questions. Where is he right? Where is he off-base? Spoiler alert: I give the political biologists more credit than he does, with some caveats.

The debate over twin studies

Judis wades into a debate over studies, the go-to measurement tool for determining heritability, and their merit in political science. Twin studies have shown that political attitudes and behaviors — from ideology to turnout — are partially and sometimes significantly heritable, but they have some methodological issues that are important to consider. First, some background:

Is Ann Coulter genetic? (

Is Ann Coulter genetic? (Christopher Halloran /

Twin studies are fairly straightforward: Take a personality trait and see if identical twins who share 100% of their genes are more likely to share that trait than non-identical twins who share only half of their genes. If identical twins are more likely than non-identical twins to share a trait, their increase in shared genes is considered to be at least a partial cause. Through this method, a wide variety of personality traits – even aspects of romantic attraction – have been found to be somewhat heritable.

Of course, genes only provide a “first draft” for behavior, and genes are only considered a predisposition, not a predetermination. As cognitive scientist Gary Marcus notes, “Innate does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” Nevertheless, predispositions can be incredibly significant in placing a person on a path towards developing a given personality trait or worldview.

The biggest criticism of twin studies is that they rely too heavily on the untenable “Equal Environment Assumption,” or the idea that twin studies can completely control for environmental influences on the behaviors in question. As geneticists Jon Beckwith and Corey Morris have pointed out, because identical twins are, well, identical, they will have more similar interactions with their environment than non-identical twins. So while twin studies are said to control for a “shared environment,” you can’t assume that they create an “equal environment.” Beckwith and Morris go on to argue that twin studies should be considered out of date, and that anyone looking to explain behavior with genes should do so with more advanced techniques, such as molecular genetic analysis.

Alford, Funk and Hibbing responded to Beckwith and Morris’ criticism by arguing that, while it’s true that twin studies aren’t great at nailing down precise levels of heritability for a given trait, they’re useful in suggesting whether or not a trait is heritable in general, and can be used to point researchers using more advanced techniques in the right direction (molecular genetics is often likened to finding a needle in a genetic haystack: you can only examine one gene at a time).

Furthermore, when political biologists have done more advanced research, including molecular genetics, they’ve still found significant results. For instance, one study found an association between voter turnout and the dopamine receptor D2 gene (DRD2), whose Taq1 A polymorphism correlates strongly with tendencies to affiliate with a political party. In plain English, this means that while their isn’t a Democratic or Republican gene, there is a gene that predisposes one towards higher levels of political participation, exhibited in both casting ballots and identifying with parties.

// //


All told, the use of molecular genetics has led to two important caveats in the discussion of genes and politics. First, while molecular genetics studies have found significant levels of heritability for political attitudes and traits, they indicate that genes are about half as predictive of behavior as twin studies had previously shown. Second, heritability in political attitudes and behavior is derived from collections of genes, making it difficult to pin down which genes lead to which behaviors.

For example, individuals with a polymorphism in the MAOA gene were between 1.26 and 1.29 times more likely to vote in the 2004 presidential election than individuals without one, and an additional, indirect association was found between a polymorphism of the 5HTT gene and voter turnout, moderated by religious attendance. While it is certainly important that these genes have been shown to provide significant explanations for variation in behavior, they also show that it would be foolish to consider one gene, or even one collection of genes, to be the be-all or end-all for such behavior.

And if you want to get really technical, further research has shown that the environment mediates genetic components of political behavior. One such study found that the 7R variant of the dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4-7R) gene only had a significant effect on political ideology for participants who had both the DRD4-7R gene and a high number of adolescent friendships. While most “nature vs. nurture” questions are best answered with “both,” it’s especially encouraging to see studies showing an interaction between the two.

Long story short, research into how political attitudes and behaviors are affected by our biology — especially our genes — is very new and very clunky, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Judis is right to be skeptical, but it isn’t fair for him to be as dismissive as he is.

The missing piece

Judis is right in pointing out that the big studies concerning genetic influences on political behavior fall into the all-too-common trap of measuring ideology with an Americentric and one-dimensional liberal/conservative scale when actual American citizens hold far more complicated ideologies. Then again, most of our polling data operates on the same assumption.

While this criticism of political genetic studies is absolutely valid, it doesn’t invalidate the field of study. Instead, it points to where it should proceed: explaining the nuance in what it’s previously assumed to be a one-dimensional binary of political orientation.

The theoretical and, by extension, methodological piece missing from the political biologists Judis criticizes is an explanation for how ideology evolved in the first place. If you’re going to claim the existence of a genotype, you almost always have to be able to suggest an adaptive advantage that would explain why that genotype stuck around for hundreds of thousands of years. So simply finding a genetic correlation, packing up and going home isn’t enough.

As I’ve written before, at least one explanation is out there; it just hasn’t come from political science.

In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt outlines how morality, and by extension ideology (what is ideology if not a conception of The Good?), can be broken down on a “six-channel moral equalizer” that is both verified across cultures and appropriately nuanced. Stronger sensitivity to different moral channels correlates with general liberalism and conservatism, but the more granular interpretation of moral intuition allows for the explanation of, say, Rand Paul Republicans and Mark Pryor Democrats, which boggle the minds of researchers who rely too heavily on a simple liberal/conservative self-identifications.

Born this way?

Born this way?

But what Haidt adds on top of nuance is an explanation grounded in adaptive advantage, which is what the political biologists have lacked so far. Without taking time to go into them in this post, I’ll just direct you to my discussion of some of them here. The short version is that the moral divisions we see in our politics are both predictable and grounded in age-old questions that range from “What do we eat?” to “How much power do we give to the guy in charge?” — and since these attitudes and behaviors arise out of adaptive advantage, it’s also predictable that they would show up along genetic lines.

What’s troubling about Haidt’s theory isn’t the theory itself — it’s that Haidt has supplied its most significant criticism, growing the number of significant moral foundations to six when he published The Righteous Mind, whereas previous iterations of his work had stuck with five. That fact can speak to either the theory’s validity (no one’s found major holes in it yet) or it’s novelty (give it time and someone else will). Either way, it suggests that it deserves to be taken seriously by political biologists as a counter to the criticisms that are (rightly) raised by Judis and others.

Where we agree

If there’s anything to be taken away from this debate, it’s that it’s absolutely essential to merge the current genetic correlations we see with a testable causal story as to why we see the correlations in the first place. If all you have is a nifty methodology, as Judis points out, you can easily wind up erroneously assigning genetic causes to cell phone usage. Until the political biology community backs up incorporates explanations as to why we should see the correlations we see, political observers like Judis are absolutely right to be skeptical of the causality that would otherwise be simply assumed.

I can’t wait to see the studies that come out next.

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Islam didn’t kill Canadian Cpl. Nathan Cirillo — but it helped Fri, 24 Oct 2014 16:42:36 +0000 Is it just me, or does talking about religious violence feel an awful lot like talking about gun violence?

Let’s start with the news: On Wednesday, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau allegedly shot a Canadian soldier and engaged in a shootout with Canadian authorities in the halls of Parliament in Ottawa.

CNN was quick to link Zehaf-Bibeau’s violence to Islam and, by extension, Islamic extremist groups. Watch this CNN correspondent say the words “Islam” or “Islamic” nine times in two minutes, on top of a chyron not-so-subtlely pointing out that Zehaf-Bibeau is an Islamic convert:

This is wildly irresponsible, and points any causal arrow that there may be in precisely the wrong direction.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t murder someone because he converted to Islam; if anything, he converted to Islam because he was already violent.

He could have latched on to any other cultish, conspiratorial set of ideas and taken them to their worst conclusions — yet, we don’t see the media pointing out every time someone reads Catcher in the Rye before bringing a gun to a public building and unloading.

It’s a huge distinction, and it’s one that needs to be made; but it’s a distinction I’ve heard before:

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 9.01.48 PM

The arguments that are (rightly) made when an irrevocably-damaged sadist does something terrible in the name of a particular faith, overlap immensely with the arguments that people who oppose gun control make when someone with a mental disorder does something terrible with a gun.

Here are those arguments, here’s where they’re right ,and here’s what they miss.

These violent people are a tiny minority that doesn’t represent the whole

Absolutely true. Just like the vast majority of gun owners aren’t, won’t and have no intention of ever being murderers, the overwhelming majority of religious adherents aren’t, won’t and have no intention of being violent in the name of their faith.

Nearly all gun owners are able to avoid pointing their gun at someone else and pulling the trigger. And nearly all religious adherents are able to avoid the passages in their holy books that tell them to kill members of other faiths.

Newtown, SandyHook, gun control

Sandy Hook Elementary. Gina Jacobs /

But, just as we can’t ignore our country’s lax gun regulations and their obvious role in the ease with which Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho (who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007) and other mentally unstable mass-murderers were able to get their hands on an arsenal of weapons, we can’t ignore religion’s obvious role in someone, say, walking into an abortion clinic and opening fire while claiming divine license to do so.

Easy access to guns, and the proliferation of religious texts that contain incitements to murder, are both umbrellas under which those who are already primed for violence for wholly unrelated reasons can gather. As I wrote earlier this week:

“When a religion is lent undue credence in society, the disastrous outcome isn’t that every member of that faith becomes evil; it’s that those who wouldn’t otherwise have a political or social license to behave badly are given one.”

You can say that mass shooters are abusing the Second Amendment (a misinterpreted religious document if I’ve ever seen one) by turning stockpiles of weapons that the Founding Fathers couldn’t have dreamed of on innocent people.

And you can say that religious fanatics are abusing their religious texts when they read them hyper-literally, and then act on them.

In each case, their actions shouldn’t be projected onto every other person who identifies with that particular group.

But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the evidence staring us in the face. While mass shootings like Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech — and religious movements like Daesh or the Army of God — don’t indict all gun owners or religious adherents, they absolutely do indict guns and religion.

Other things are more dangerous

Why should we bother regulating guns when cars kill more people every year? (Some say.)

And why should we bother highlighting religion’s influence on fundamentalist violence when those movements are just a reaction to encroaching Western globalization and colonialism?

You’re a hypocrite, they say, if you want to criticize a thing without first getting rid of a more-dangerous thing.

This is nothing more than misdirection. The “cars kill people too” argument if facetious, while the colonialism argument is a slightly more legitimate dodge. It is entirely possible for both expansionist foreign policy, and bloody incitements to religious violence in the Quran, to be drivers of violence in the Middle East. And to say that you shouldn’t talk about one because the other may carry more weight is like saying that you shouldn’t fund Ebola research until we cure cancer. How’s that working out for us?

And while it goes without saying that guns are dangerous and that cancer research needs funding — and it goes without saying in the liberal blogosphere that American foreign policy leaves much to be desired — there is still an active debate on the Left as to whether religion should be open to criticism when violent people do violent things in the name of their faith. That doesn’t make religion a bigger problem than, say, US foreign policy in the Middle East. But it does make it worth talking about.

That isn’t what it’s designed to do

“I keep my rifle locked in a safe, and only take it out to hunt. What’s the harm in that?” About as much harm as there is in someone fasting in observance of Yom Kippur or Ramadan, which is to say: none.

But, not everyone who owns a gun just wants to shoot soda cans in the backyard, or the occasional deer. And not everyone who professes to take a holy book seriously keeps their interpretations confined to Sunday mass.

Like it or not, both high-powered weapons and high-powered religion are being misused in the public sphere. (And, for the record, anyone who bombs an abortion clinic in the name of Christianity really hasn’t read what the Bible says about abortion.)

London, July 7, 2005. ©John Aravosis

London, July 7, 2005. ©John Aravosis

Simply shrugging our shoulders, and saying that these guys are doing it wrong won’t keep anyone else from “doing it wrong” in the future. We have to do more to keep guns out of the hands of people who lack the capacity to own them safely. And we have to do more to delegitimize major religions whose self-justifying texts demand to be taken literally. It’s fine to suggest that the non-violent among us know better. But sadly, the violent among us do not.

Furthermore, I’m not entirely sold on the argument that guns and religion, properly understood, are benign and private. Guns were invented to kill people; and the major religions are fairly clear about spreading the Good Word to the infidels. In fact, I’d argue that one of the reasons that our present crop of dominant religions are so dominant is that the religions which didn’t tell their followers to go forth and proselytize — by force if necessary — didn’t grow as fast, or were simply put out of business.

Ironically (because they don’t believe in it), the major religions may have flourished by simple natural selection; survival of the fittest (or the most aggressive).

You can’t keep bad people from doing bad things

Also a true point. We make a tradeoff when we choose to live in a free society, striking a balance between liberty and safety. The steps we’d have to take to prevent anyone from doing anything harmful to anyone else would make life unlivable, so we don’t take them. This means that, on occasion, people hurt each other.

But, we are perfectly capable of limiting bad people’s capacity to do bad things.

For example, on the same day that Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people (mostly 6- and 7- year-old-kids) with guns, Min Yingjun walked into an elementary school in China — a country with actual gun control laws — and injured 23 people with a knife. Put a gun in Min Yingjun’s hand and that sentence changes dramatically, as those people wouldn’t have been injured, they’d have been dead.

So, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But the gun helps.”

You see where I’m going here.

Islam didn’t kill Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau did. But I think Islam helped.


Christianity didn’t kill Dr. George Tiller, Scott Roeder did. But I think Christianity helped.

All of these murderers may be wrong when they claim to represent the faiths they use to justify their violence. But that doesn’t mean we should give their faiths — or faith in general — a pass. These are faiths that leave themselves wide open to being misused — the Scriptures are very clear; it’s the non-violent majority that has to explain them away.

For example, here are the passages on homosexuality in 15 different version of the Bible. They couldn’t be more clear:

New International Version (©1984)
“‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

New Living Translation (©2007)
“If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.

English Standard Version (©2001)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

New American Standard Bible (©1995)
If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.

GOD’S WORD® Translation (©1995)
When a man has sexual intercourse with another man as with a woman, both men are doing something disgusting and must be put to death. They deserve to die.

King James Bible
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood [shall be] upon them.

American King James Version
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be on them.

American Standard Version
And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Bible in Basic English
And if a man has sex relations with a man, the two of them have done a disgusting thing: let them be put to death; their blood will be on them.

Douay-Rheims Bible
If any one lie with a man se with a woman, both have committed an abomination, let them be put to death: their blood be upon them.

Darby Bible Translation
And if a man lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall certainly be put to death; their blood is upon them.

English Revised Version
And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Webster’s Bible Translation
If a man also shall lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

World English Bible
“‘If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Young’s Literal Translation
And a man who lieth with a male as one lieth with a woman; abomination both of them have done; they are certainly put to death; their blood is on them.

It is interesting that these passages never seem to get updated to reflect the “fact” that these faiths don’t “really” think you should kill gay people. If you’re a little bit crazy, the admonition is clear.

So while I don’t think it’d be a good idea to completely outlaw pistols, and I’d absolutely never advocate restricting the rights of the religious to practice their faith — so long as they keep their faith out of the public sphere — we have to talk seriously about ways to reduce religion’s attractiveness to those who would otherwise abuse it for violence.

This isn’t a legal question, it’s a social one. The legal protections for religious practice aren’t a cause of religious violence, but the social status reserved for religious faiths and their texts is a likely candidate.

When someone says that after a close reading of Catcher in the Rye they felt obligated to kill major cultural icons, we don’t have any difficulty understanding how crazy they are. The closer religious texts get to being treated the same way — important works of literature that you are clinically insane for taking literally — the better off we’ll be as a society.

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Mitch McConnell: It’s not “particularly enlightening” talking to constituents, especially “factory workers” Fri, 24 Oct 2014 14:49:27 +0000 Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t find it “particularly enlightening” meeting with constituents.

And McConnell has a particular beef about meeting with factory workers.

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A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” Fox News host, join hate-group-sponsored anti-gay rally Fri, 24 Oct 2014 12:00:23 +0000 Phil and Alan Robertson, of A&E’s show “Duck Dynasty,” will join Fox News host Todd Starnes at an anti-gay rally sponsored by an officially-designated “hate group.”

The rally, called “I Stand Sunday,” is sponsored by the “Family Research Council,” an organization officially-designated as a “hate group” a few years back, and that has a long history of disseminating faux-science in order to harm gays and lesbians.

The rally is directed at Houston’s mayor, Anise Parker, who is openly-gay.

It’s also an interesting coincidence that the Family Research Council is holding this rally — I’m sorry, it’s a “church service” — only two days before the all-important mid-term elections that will decide who controls the US Senate. Apparently A&E stands for “anti-gay electioneering.”


GOP Cong. Lindsey Graham proudly poses with Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson who is desecrating the American flag before the State of the Union.

GOP Cong. Lindsey Graham proudly poses with Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson who is desecrating the American flag before the State of the Union.

In a nutshell, a local Republican party leader sued the city of Houston recently over a new civil rights ordinance covering gays and transgender people that 5 local churches want repealed, even though they were exempt from the ordinance. The churches launched a petition drive to put the matter on the ballot, and ended up not reaching the necessary number of signatures after the city found that they incorrectly filled out the forms. They’re particularly incensed that the city initially said they had enough signatures, until the city later realized the forms did not meet the city’s legal requirements for voter initiatives.

One of the key issues in the lawsuit is whether the churches knew the appropriate rules, and it appears from video evidence that at least one church did know the rules. So when the city, as part of the discovery process, subpoenaed information about what the other four churches knew, the GOP and its allies cried foul.

Of course, the problem for the churches is that they decided to enter the political process, then they apparently broke the rules, then their GOP allies sued the city, and now they’re complaining about, and claiming that they’re exempt from, what is standard procedure for a lawsuit: the discovery process.

City attorney David Feldman explains:

“If you’re going to use a church for a political process, then any communications that are made are just as subject to discovery as if you did it in a commercial building,” Feldman told me. “They chose to do it at churches. I didn’t tell them to do that. And it’s fine, except you can’t engage in a political activity at a church and pursue litigation regarding that and then hide behind the separation of church and state for not producing anything.”

But never wanting to miss an opportunity to grandstand on an issue affecting gays, a gay mayor — coincidentally only two days before a major election — nearly the entire Republican party noise machine has entered the fray, including A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” a Fox News host, and religious right anti-gay activist Benham Brothers (the son of anti-abortion loon Flip Benham) who recently compared gay Americans to the terror group ISIS.

While it’s no surprise that Fox News might have little problem having its name on the Web page of a hate group’s anti-gay rally, it is odd that A&E has no problem with “Duck Dynasty” being emblazoned on the same page.

You’ll recall that this isn’t the first time A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” showed its anti-gay colors. And it looks like it won’t be Duck Dynasty’s last.

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Ted Cruz’s office says Obamacare brought Ebola to US Fri, 24 Oct 2014 02:16:20 +0000 In a bizarre message posted on Twitter this evening, Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s deputy chief of staff Nick Muzin apparently posted a message on Twitter suggesting that Obamacare caused Ebola.

Judd Legum of ThinkProgress copied the tweet before it was deleted. I confirmed with Legum that he did in fact see the Tweet live on Muzin’s Twitter feed, before it was deleted.

Muzin has since apologized on his Twitter account for the “joke.”

Here it is:

by default 2014-10-23 at 10.07.05 PM

And here is Muzin’s apology:

by default 2014-10-23 at 10.07.50 PM

You think?

It’s rather amazing that the #2 person in Ted Cruz’s office — Cruz, a man who wants to be president in two years time — would claim, even jokingly, that health care reform brought Ebola to America.

Who would joke about Ebola in America, at a time when the nation is transfixed by a press conference in NYC announcing that a doctor in that city has just tested positive for Ebola? We find out that Ebola has hit New York City and Ted Cruz’s office’s initial reaction is to laugh.

And don’t be fooled by the 6pm time stamp. Judd saw it at 9pm. And another copy of the tweet is dated exactly 3 hours later — meaning, a different time zone. The tweet appears to have gone out at 9:19pm Eastern time, after CNN had announced the Ebola case in New York City. Ted Cruz’s deputy chief of staff apparently heard that Ebola had struck New York City, and he made a joke about it.


Not very presidential. But terribly Republican.

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It was terrible, but was the Ottawa attack terrorism? Thu, 23 Oct 2014 17:17:56 +0000 Canada’s Prime Minister, along with CNN and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network, and now even the White House, are all referring to the horrible shooting in Ottawa, Canada last night as “terrorism.”

But was it really?

In case you hadn’t heard, a lone gunman opened fire yesterday, and killed, a soldier standing guard at the Canadian National War Memorial.

He then went into the parliament building, shot a guard, and was gunned down before being able to harm anyone else.

But was it terrorism?

I’ve written about this topic before, about whether some of us are prone to label violence “terrorism” if there’s a hint of a connection to Islam. In this case, the shooter-suspect was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a “reported” recent convert to Islam.

But what makes this terrorism, if we don’t yet have a connection to a known terrorist organization? And is such a connection even necessary? If it’s not, then how does this attack differ from some nut just opening fire because he’s some nut? Was it terrorism when Adam Lanza murdered nearly two dozen small children at Sandy Hook Elementary? Or was it not terrorism simply because Lanza chose an elementary school rather than a government building?

There was a second “terrorist” attack in Canada earlier in the week. More from CBN:

Wednesday’s act of Islamic terror in Ottawa came just two days after another recent convert to Islam ran over two soldiers near Montreal with his car.

Ran over them with his car?

Not to minimize the deadly damage a car can cause a human body, but using a car to run over a pedestrian doesn’t sound terribly Al Qaeda.

As for the murder at the war memorial, and the attack on the parliament, CNN reports that the shooter had reportedly talked about being stalked by the devil and demons:

Mr. Bathurst said Zehaf-Bibeau did not appear to be an extremist, but was “erratic” and exhibited strange behavior. “We were having a conversation in a kitchen, and I don’t know how he worded it: He said the devil is after him,” Bathurst said, adding that Zehaf-Bibeau talked frequently about Shaytan, or Satan, being a presence in the world. “I think he must have been mentally ill,” Bathurst said.

He sounds like a nut. And while that doesn’t preclude him from also being a terrorist, it, again, doesn’t sound like the kind of people we usually think of when we think “terrorist.”

As I’ve written before, it’s not easy defining terrorism. Some cases, like September 11, are obvious. Others, less so. And while no one wants to lessen the impact of these crimes, it’s important that we use the right language, lest the phrase “terrorism” become meaningless.

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Police release audio of Palin family drunken brawl Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:57:39 +0000 Anchorage police have released a series of audio tapes of interviews with Sarah Palin and much of her family, following a drunk brawl the Palins were involved at a private party in Anchorage.

It’s a long story, and honestly, it’s not worth getting into the details. All you need know is that the entire Palin family got into a drunk brawl, leaving people bloody and bruised, and oddly, in the case of a “heavily intoxicated” daughter Bristol, shoeless.

This is the family that John McCain and the entire Republican party wanted to put in the White House in 2008.

This is the woman the Republican party counts as one of their leading voices going into 2016. And let the Republicans deny how important Sarah Palin is to their party. But they chose her as their vice presidential candidate, and who’s the star of every conservative convention? Granny Palin herself.

This is what the Republican party has become, at its top and at its core: Duck Dynasty meets the Beverly Hillbillies. They’ve so pandered to the bottom that it’s all they have left.


Meet the leading intellectual in the Republican party.

Below is some audio the police released of an interview they did with various Palins at the scene of the drunken brawl. At about 9 minutes in, you’ll hear the Palins start to freak out because the cops are letting some people leave the party:

The police also released some video of the Palins right before the fighting broke out:


And here’s the police report:

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Brain cells associated with smell are helping paraplegics walk Thu, 23 Oct 2014 12:00:53 +0000 Darek Fidyka may appreciate his nose more than many other people.  Not because of how it makes him look, or how it allows him to smell the fragrance of flowers, but because it’s letting him walk again.

Fidkya, was stabbed during a knife attack in his native Bulgaria when he was just 36.  One of the stab wounds essentially severed his spinal cord.  It left him paralyzed and unable of feel sensation from his chest down. The severed nerve cells couldn’t transmit signals to and from his brain.

When the spinal cord is severed, scar tissue begins to form, and it successfully blocks any ability of the cut nerve cells to regenerate and rejoin.  Most often, conditions like this are permanent injuries.  He could have expected to spend the rest of his life in that state, unable to walk, unable to feel sensations from the lower part of his body.

About 40 years before the attack on Darek, Dr. Geoffrey Rasiman, from the United Kingdom, was working on experiments using nerve cells.  He showed that damaged nerve cells can form new connections.  As his work progressed over decades, he also found that a specific type of cell in the brain, called olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), can allow nerve cells to regrow.

Studies in rats showed that their OECs, when transplanted to their spinal cords,  could cause previously damaged cells nerve cells to repair themselves.  As that happened, the animals regained some use of previously paralyzed limbs.

A neurosurgeon from Poland, Dr. Pawel Tabakow, was interested in working on patients who had spinal cord damage.  Though the severed cord couldn’t be repaired and the nerves made to function again, he was using techniques to try to minimize the scarring and other neurological damage that could occur.  He was using neuroprotective techniques, and having patients undergo intense neurorehabilitation with physical therapy, electrostimulation and other techniques.  Tabakow became aware of Raisman’s work.  They began to correspond, and Tabakow invited Rasiman to Poland to collaborate.

They worked out a technique to attempt to treat human victims of spinal cord transsection.  They would take some of the patient’s brain tissue containing OECs, and get the OECs to multiply in tissue culture.  Then they’d take strips of nerve from the patient’s leg to serve as a physical bridge between the two severed sections of his spinal cord.  Next they’d inject the cord in the area of the cut hundreds of times with small volumes of solution containing OECs.  Theoretically, the OECs would stimulate the previously cut, but still living, nerve cells to regenerate and reconnect.

Fidyka was one of three patients chosen for the initial trial.  He had a small amount of his brain tissue removed, grown, and injected as described.  He continued with intensive neurorehabilitation for, usually, five hours per day for months.  He has gradually had the return of both some motor and some sensory function in his lower body. Using a metal support frame, he can slowly walk. He ’s not graceful, and he’s very slow, but he can walk.  He’s also regained some control over his bowels and bladder, and sexual function.  He’s now able to live a little more independently than he was before.  The rehabilitation specialists have actually started working with him to further increase his mobility by helping him learn to drive a car.

Researchers are planning to do similar operations in 10 other patients to see if they can achieve similar results in them as they did in Darek.

[Fidyka says] walking again – with the support of a frame – was “an incredible feeling”, adding: “When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s like you were born again.”

Raisman said, upon seeing Fidkya walk: “[This is] more impressive than man walking on the moon.”

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John Oliver: Ayn Rand – How Is This Still A Thing? Wed, 22 Oct 2014 21:39:07 +0000 Because I’m loathe to pull punches, I’ll admit to liking Atlas Shrugged, and Ayn Rand, in college.

Some of her non-Atlas writing, especially about the Soviet Union, was pretty spot on. (I was, and remain, pretty hawkish on all things Soviet, including modern-day reincarnations. I’ve never been a great fan of bullies.)

And ironically, as John Oliver points out in the video below, Rand was pro-choice and really didn’t like Reagan.


Sadly, a lot of really bad people like Ayn Rand nowadays. Which would make anyone with a soul think twice.

John Oliver takes Rand on in his ongoing series: “How is this still a thing?”

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