Thursday, March 31, 2005


What is the City Desk?

Major Literary Works for $400

In this Dickens classic, Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, rears her ward Estella to hate men.

"First they ignore you, then they fight you...."

Via I learned of a column by Marie Cocco in the March 29 Newsday (NY) showing that
[s]upporters of President George W. Bush's plan to privatize part of Social Security are losing the public relations war. Some of them have decided to fight dirty.
What's happened is that organized labor "is enjoying a rare moment of success." Through demonstrating and lobbying, the AFL-CIO has
managed to get some big investment firms to back out of business coalitions that provide financial and lobbying support for the White House Social Security effort. The firms manage billions in union pension assets.

And, one by one, they've been deciding that their union business is a plump bird in hand compared with the uncertainty of a deal on Social Security promoted by Bush.
Labor, that is, is doing what corporations have been doing all along: Using its financial muscle to advance its interests. And Big Business and its White House toadies, used to having no competition, don't like it one bit.
Two top Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee recently demanded a Labor Department investigation into union political activity on Social Security. The stated reason for this interest by the panel's chairman, John Boehner of Ohio, and the head of its subcommittee on employer-employee relations, Sam Johnson of Texas, is that organized labor's persistent protests against the Bush plan raise questions about whether laws have been broken. ...

[T]hey sought an inquiry into one issue: whether labor pressure on financial firms breaches the "fiduciary duty" that union pension funds owe to beneficiaries.
This loony argument was apparently dreamed up by one Derrick Max, a top lobbyist for the business groups being hurt by the union campaign. He has argued "to anyone who would listen" that
the unions had breached their "fiduciary duty" to choose fund managers solely for financial reasons.
But not only doesn't the charge apply to the AFL-CIO (it runs no pension fund and thus has no "fiduciary duty"), it's ridiculous even applied to individual unions that do have funds: To be even remotely sensible by stretching of the law, the charge would have to be based on the claim that lobbying for dismantling Social Security is in the best interest of beneficiaries. If instead you maintain that such a dismantling is actually harmful to beneficiaries, you could argue that by not opposing such lobbying the unions would be failing that same "fiduciary duty."

(Interestingly, the term "fiduciary duty," while usually equated with "maximization of return" nowadays, actually refers to a requirement to act in the best interests of those for who you are a trustee. There is no reason why such interests must be financial gain and even less reason why the union whose members are the beneficiaries should be bound by such a limitation. After all, don't the beneficiaries have the "freedom," the "choice," to determine what they think is in their best interest?)

To show you how absurd this whole thing is, Boehner and Johnson even raised the claim that unions' public protests against sacrificing Social Security to the whims of Wall Street may violate a ban on "secondary" picketing! Now, the rules about secondary labor actions are rather complex, but one thing they're all concerned with is an on-going labor-management dispute, not public policy issues.

But logic and reason, of course, are not the point: Power is. The intent here is not actually to win some idiotic prosecution and no way is it to protect union members' pensions. (Feel free to giggle at the notion.) It's about trying to browbeat unions, to make them drain resources and energy into defending themselves, to make them back off. It is, in short, a political version of a SLAPP, and it's just as underhanded. As Cocco says in closing,
[m]aybe there's been some dark plot by organized labor to bring Wall Street to its knees and harm its own members' pensions in the process.

Or maybe this is just what it seems to be: a union lobbying campaign that has so far turned out to be more effective than the one business mounted. In the logic of Washington, it's payback time - with public resources used for the retaliatory hit.
But it does bear repeating one more time, just to help keep it in mind: This is happening not because we're losing but because, at least on this, we're winning.

Amazing insight

Last fall I noted that Dover, Pennsylvania "had achieved the dishonor of being the first place in the country to mandate the teaching of the intellectual fraud of 'intelligent design' as a scientifically-valid alternative to evolution." In February I was able to follow up with news of the resistance to the new know-nothing regime, including the refusal of the science teachers to go along with making the required announcement.

Well, yesterday I came across a link to a story on a blog called Craig's Thoughts, Theories, and Tantrums and just had to pass it on. It seems the town is still arguing over the decision, deeply divided. Apparently the school board was not so representative of the community as they thought.
In January the school board ordered teachers to tell students that Darwinism is not proved, and to teach as well an alternate theory, "intelligent design," which posits that a grand creator, God, is responsible for the development of living organisms. ...

The command landed in the sprawling, red-brick Dover high school like a bomb. Biology teachers refused to read it, while around 15 students walked out in protest.
The facts that it's the big topic of discussion and an issue in the next school board election are to the good because what will do the most to advance the darkness of ignorance is silence.
"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." - Edmund Burke, "Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents" (The passage is usually rendered as "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.")
But all that is not why I wanted to bring this up. No, what I wanted to do was to commemorate the wise insight of one Ray Mummert, a local pastor, who complains about students being "indoctrinated" with "non-religious principles." As a result of the school board's decision,
"[w]e've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture," he said....
Which would make Mummert's allies...?

Back in the '60s, Richard Nixon used to claim that the "silent majority" supported his actions and policies. Gore Vidal noted that the phrase "silent majority" came from ancient Greece, where it referred to the dead. "At last we have a president who truly understands his constituency," he said.

Ray Mummert now carries on that proud tradition of knowing who his friends are.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


What is Camp David?

"C.D." for $1000

In the 1920s and '30s, the legendary Stanley Walker ran this department of the Herald Tribune.

Meanwhile, in the other "people's revolution"

Updated Nestled safely under the heading "be careful what you wish for" comes news that the political crisis in Lebanon continues.

Pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami* had been forced to resign the end of February, along with the rest of his government, in the face of protests following the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. But then, in an apparent slap to the anti-Syrian opposition, just 10 days later he was brought back by pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, supposedly to form a "national unity" government. Now, less than three weeks down the road, he is out again, AP reports on Wednesday.
Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister said Tuesday he would resign, unable to put together a government, and the head of military intelligence stepped aside in new signs the anti-Syrian opposition was gaining momentum in the country's political turmoil.

Prime Minister Omar Karami's decision comes amid a deadlock over forming the government, which must be completed before parliamentary elections can be held. Elections are scheduled for April and May, and the opposition - which is expected to win them - is eager to see them held on time.

It was unclear whether the resignation would end to the standoff. It could delay the ballot because it means the process of finding a leader for the government must start again from scratch.

But it could also be a signal that the pro-Syrian leadership is ready to bend to opposition demands, which would clear the way for the quick formation of a new cabinet and the organizing of elections.
The fighting has not been limited to words, either. The BBC reported on Sunday that
[a] bomb has exploded in a mainly Christian area of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, wounding at least six people.

The blast in the city's industrial eastern suburb tore through a number of buildings, starting a blaze that destroyed several workshops. ...

Two blasts in the past week have killed three people in areas opposed to Syria's presence in Lebanon.
Karami's decision also came in the wake of the report of a UN fact-finding mission looking into the murder of Hariri. While the report said it couldn't assert a particular motive for the killing "until after the perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice," it was sharply critical of the Lebanese security services and Syria and questioned the government's interest in solving the case:
[T]he Mission concluded that the Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon. The Lebanese security services have demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus. ... The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.

It is also the Mission's conclusion that the Government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination of former Prime Minister Mr. Hariri. The Government of Syria clearly exerted influence that goes beyond the reasonable exercise of cooperative or neighborly relations. It interfered with the details of governance in Lebanon in a heavy-handed and inflexible manner that was the primary reason for the political polarization that ensued. ...

It became clear to the Mission that the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion.
That from the Executive Summary of the report, printed in the Daily Star (Lebanon) for March 26.

But it's unclear if either Karami's resignation or Syria's promise to withdraw its troops from Lebanon before the upcoming parliamentary elections - both of them called evidence of gains by the opposition - will actually resolve anything or bring a real peace. So much attention has been paid to the role of Syria that many have forgotten those who make up the opposition, some of who have their own questionable histories.

For example, Anna Ciezadlo, writing in the March 28 edition of The Nation, notes that one of the "cornerstones" of the opposition is
the Free Patriotic Movement. A mostly Christian political party, the FPM is loyal to Gen. Michel Aoun, the exiled former chief of staff of Lebanon's army. In 1988 Aoun declared a separate government in East Beirut, and the city was split in half, with two separate governments, until the Syrian army bombed him out of the presidential palace, effectively ending the war.
For some of us with longer memories, some of the names which current events in Lebanon conjure up, names such as Aoun, Bashir and Amine Gemayel, and Samir Geagea (whose notoriety as Lebanon's most famed political prisoner has raised him to the status of mythic adored hero) do not bring a great deal of comfort.

The UN report said that
Lebanese politicians from different backgrounds expressed to the Mission their fear that Lebanon could be caught in a possible showdown between Syria and the international community, with devastating consequences for Lebanese peace and security.
While that is undoubtedly true, it's wise to keep in mind that this is another of those too-common situations where good and bad are not so easily labeled or even disentangled.

*To anyone who would object to the terms "pro-Syrian" and "anti-Syrian" as displaying some hidden (or perhaps not so hidden) bias on my part, I say that pro-Syria v. anti-Syria is the basic political fault line in Lebanon now. That makes the labels not only valid but useful.

Updated with the news that Karami has stalled on actually resigning, saying he will not do so until after political consultations with pro-government parties later in the week, although he did say that after the meetings "I will call his excellency [President Emile Lahoud] to officially inform him of my decision to step down."

However, the opposition argues that
he aims to draw out Lebanon's political crisis and scuttle parliamentary elections his camp fears it could lose.
There must be a government in place in order to arrange for elections in April and May, a schedule that now appears in doubt. The mandate of the current parliament expires on May 31.

How could they?

Updated By all that's merciful, how could they?
Atlanta, GA (CBC, March 30) - A U.S. federal appeal court agreed early Wednesday to consider a petition for a new hearing on whether to reconnect Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

The ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, announced before 1 a.m. local time Wednesday, came as the brain-damaged Florida woman edged closer to death on her 13th day without nourishment. ...

The federal appeal court ruling was sure to surprise many legal experts, who said the Schindlers had exhausted all legal options after they lost two more appeals in Florida courts on Saturday.
And it brings false hope to the parents, renewed pain to the husband, more riches to the lawyers, more opportunities for pandering and tub-thumping by the drooling politicos, more time for Fox and MSNBC and CNN to run, rerun, and rerun again the manipulative videos and rehashed lies, and a further loss of human dignity to a woman who has, be thankful for small favors, no consciousness by which to understand what a circus freak others have made her into.

How could they?

Updated with the news that just 15 hours after agreeing to consider the petition for a new hearing, the court rejected it.
"Any further action by our court or the district court would be improper," Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr. wrote. "While the members of her family and the members of Congress have acted in a way that is both fervent and sincere, the time has come for dispassionate discharge of duty."
Accepting the petition, that is, scheduling a new hearing, would have required a majority of the 12-judge panel. My suspicion is that the agreement to hear the petition was the result of an action by just a couple of judges, whatever is the minimum required for that, and that Judge Birch's opinion was intended to put an end to such last-minute dealings.

Updated again with an interesting footnote: It turns out that Judge Birch is one of the most conservative jurists on the federal bench.
Birch authored opinions upholding Alabama's right to ban the sale of sex toys and Florida's ability to prohibit adoptions by gay couples. ...

Yet, in Wednesday's 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to deny a rehearing to Schiavo's parents, Birch went out of his way to castigate Bush and congressional Republicans for acting "in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for governance of a free people - our Constitution." ...

Noting that it had become popular among "some members of society, including some members of Congress," to denounce "activist judges," or those who substitute their personal opinions for constitutional imperatives, Birch said lawmakers embarked on their own form of unconstitutional activism.
Actually, a second footnote, from the same article:
Michael Dorf, a Columbia University law professor and constitutional expert, said he's not surprised that Republicans made an apparent exception to limited government in the Schiavo case.

"Republicans are not categorically against opening federal courts where they think that doing so would produce politically conservative results," Dorf said. ...

In the political realm, he said, "repeated instances of hypocrisy can become consistency."
You got that right, prof.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


What is a cough drop?

"C.D." for $600

The leader of the free world traditionally spends some free time at this Maryland retreat.

Revolution reversal

The situation in Kyrgyzstan, the site of the latest "people's uprising," has taken an odd turn. The crisis was sparked by widespread charges of fraud in voting for a new assembly, in which only a handful of opposition candidates won seats. As the BBC notes,
In the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan's democratic credentials were regarded as relatively strong. This reputation was subsequently lost as corruption and nepotism took hold. Parliamentary and presidential elections of recent years have been flawed, opposition figures have faced harassment and imprisonment while opposition newspapers have been closed.
Combine that with a floundering economy that has seen unemployment, malnutrition, and poverty rising rapidly, stir in some ethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and you have a situation that required only a spark - and the election provided it.

The charges of fraud generated an explosion of protest drawing on the frustrations of the preceding years. Within days, President Askar Akayev was gone.
In the immediate aftermath of the protests, the Supreme Court annulled the poll results and said the previous parliament had authority.
It seemed the protestors had won. They had demanded
a rerun of the elections - the same solution that ended Ukraine's similar crisis last December - as well as tough measures to take back the "peoples' wealth" allegedly stolen by the Akayev family during its kleptocratic 15-year rule.
With the Supreme Court decision in their pocket, the opposition was riding high.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory party: The two parliaments, the previously-sitting one and the newly-elected one, both claimed legitimacy. Both wound up sitting in the legislative hall. And each had support from some of the leaders of the fractured opposition. And on Monday, the old parliament gave in. As CBC (Canada) put it on Monday, the lower house "conceded defeat."
Half of Kyrgyzstan's old parliament agreed to step down Monday, four days after those politicians and a group of politicians elected to succeed them in disputed elections earlier this month both claimed the right to rule.

Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, the chamber's Speaker, said the lower house was suspending its activity "in the interests of the people, and so that the acting president [Kurmanbek Bakiyev] will not face two rival legislatures."
The new parliament moved quickly to cement its position, naming interim leader Kurmanbek Bakiev as prime minister, who in response threw his weight behind the incoming parliament. Meanwhile, the speaker of the new parliament said a new election for president could not be held until
after talks had been held with Mr Akayev, because he had not formally resigned. "Otherwise it will be another anti-constitutional move," Omurbek Tekebayev said.
Significantly, while Bakiyev had been acting president as well as prime minister, the new parliament did not confirm him in the latter role. It was argued it was "unconstitutional" for him to hold both posts but suspicion can't help but linger that the intention was to leave open the option of Akayev returning to resume the office.

The Christian Science Monitor noted on Tuesday that it was a matter of
patch[ing] together a compromise ... ending - at least for now - the uncertainty and legal limbo following the overthrow of President Askar Akayev last Thursday.

But the deal, which will legitimize a new parliament allegedly elected by fraudulent means, appears to undo the main achievement of the "tulip revolution" - infuriating many of the same protesters who helped topple the government - and could even create a fresh role for the deposed and self-exiled Mr. Akayev. ...

The new legislature, heavily stacked with Akayev supporters - including the president's son and daughter - is widely despised by opposition activists, several hundred of whom gathered outside the parliament Monday to protest.

"They have stolen the peoples' victory," says Alla Shabayeva, a protest organizer. "This new government is turning out just like the old one. If they don't do what the people want, we will stage a second revolution." ...

"We want a parliament chosen honestly, without bribes and manipulation, to represent the peoples' will. Isn't that what we fought for?," said Saginbek Mambekov, a musician who says he was in the thick of the revolution.
At this point it does appear that "opposition" leaders, or at least enough of them, were more interested in securing a place for themselves in the government than in bringing to actual power the opposition on whose behalf they supposedly spoke.

(Besides Bakiyev, there is Felix Kulov, released from prison by protestors during the uprising. He'd been jailed five years ago on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges because he was a rival to Akayev. He was
given temporary charge of law enforcement, and moved quickly to quell rioting and looting in the capital. "Kulov has done a brilliant job for himself," says Stuart Kahn, Kyrgyzstan program director for Freedom House, a nonpartisan group partly funded by the US.

"He looks like the hero, he saved Bishkek from the looters," says Mr. Kahn.
He and Bakiyev are political rivals who may clash for supremacy, generating another source of conflict.)

Whether that seeming betrayal leads to sullen acceptance or renewed strife remains to be seen. As Deutsche Welle (Germany) said,
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), fears that Monday's bizarre twist will only underscore uncertainty and possibly spark new violence. ...

"The political situation in this country has improved, but the crisis is not yet over," said OSCE representative Alojz Peterle.
Footnote: Surely surprisingly to some among us, one of the better sources of objective information on nations of the world is the CIA's World Factbook. The entry on Kyrgyzstan is here. Also, the CBC has a backgrounder here.

Monday, March 28, 2005


What is an (Easter) lily?

"C.D." for $200

A small lozenge to treat hoarseness.

Take a look

I'm not usually one to just send a link, but this little video is worthwhile. No, I won't tell you what it's about.

One more footnote

In an earlier post on Terri Schiavo, on February 25, I suggested that despite what they might think now, even if they won their case and got custody, Terri's parents assuredly would be in for more pain.
Pain not only emotional but financial as a host of "therapists" hawking their wares and their cures will circle like vultures over a family already threadbare with grief.
I forgot something: There was no way the lurking con artists were going to steal a march on solid, patriotic, American corporations!
The parents of Terri Schiavo have authorized a conservative direct-mailing firm to sell a list of their financial supporters, making it likely that thousands of strangers moved by her plight will receive a steady stream of solicitations from anti-abortion and conservative groups[, the New York Times reports on Tuesday].

"These compassionate pro-lifers donated toward Bob Schindler's legal battle to keep Terri's estranged husband from removing the feeding tube from Terri," says a description of the list on the Web site of the firm, Response Unlimited, which is asking $150 a month for 6,000 names and $500 a month for 4,000 e-mail addresses of people who responded last month to an e-mail plea from Ms. Schiavo's father. "These individuals are passionate about the way they value human life, adamantly oppose euthanasia and are pro-life in every sense of the word!"

Privacy experts said the sale of the list was legal and even predictable, if ghoulish.

"I think it's amusing," said Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant. "I think it's absolutely classic America. Everything is for sale in America, every type of personal information."
Oh, yes, amusing is the word, isn't it? It's all just so piquantly droll. According to family representatives, the Schindlers were aware of the conditions but in their desperation for support probably didn't think about them. Which means Response Unlimited may have the honor of being the very first company to take financial (as opposed to political) advantage of the Schindlers' emotional turbulence.

Congratulations, Response Unlimited, and thank you for your "amusing" demonstration of the true American way!

Footnote to all the preceding

Do you remember David Gunn, shot in the back by Michael Griffin in Pensacola, Florida, on March 10, 1993 - murdered because he performed legal abortions?

Do you remember Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard Jim Barret? They were the ones murdered by a blast from a shotgun fired by Paul Hill outside a clinic, also in Pensacola, on July 29, 1994. Same "reason."

Or how about Dr. Barnett Slepian? He was the Buffalo, New York, doctor who was murdered in his home on October 23, 1998 by James Kopp, again because he performed abortions.

Do you remember any of the others?

Do you remember especially how all the anti-choice politicians, all the screeching preachers, all the Falwells and Robertsons and yes, all the Terrys, all those who vociferously, viciously, repeatedly, denounced abortion as "murder," labelled a fetus a "child," called legal abortion a "holocaust" and those who performed them "babykillers," how when the disturbed, the fanatical, the Griffens and Hills and Kopps and Shannons took them at their words and acted on them, they scurried away like cockroaches and hid? "Oh no no no, I didn't mean that! You can't blame me for that! That has nothing to do with me! Oh no no no!" The sniveling cowards, hiding behind the brutality of others, too low, too craven even to take responsibility for the meaning of their own words.

And now, amid the cries of "murder" and "barbarism," amid the charges that Michael Schiavo is a slimy adulterer who abused his wife and even tried to kill her, that he's only interested in the money, amid accusations that Judge George Greer "wants her dead," comes word that a North Carolina man has been arrested on a charge of offering a $250,000 bounty to anyone who would kill Michael Schiavo.
"It is my understanding that whoever eliminates Michael Schiavo from the planet while inflicting as much pain and suffering that he can bear stands to be paid this reward in cash,"
the message said. And that wasn't the only example.
In recent weeks, [Schiavo] has received death threats, and a dozen police officers have been guarding his home, his attorney, George J. Felos, said.
For his part,
Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer has been under the protection of armed guards, and friends say his family also is protected
because of death threats - and he's been kicked out of his Southern Baptist congregation for his failure to "side with the angels."

(Sidebar: The same nutcase who put a price tag on Michael Schiavo's head also said that "an additional $50,000 has been offered for the elimination of the judge who ruled against (Terri) in Florida." The judge was unidentified by officials but may have been Greer - or it may refer to US District Judge James Whittemore, who refused to order the feeding tube replaced.)

If someone does try to act on any of this, if someone does, again, take the slimebags at their word, if someone does accept the claims of those who have done more to dehumanize Terri Schiavo, more to turn her into a thing, than her brain damage ever did, who have turned her into a mere sack into which they can stuff their narrow-minded, reactionary agendas, if someone does try to "avenge her death," what do you think are the chances that any of them, just one of them, will accept an iota of responsibility for the results of the bile-spitting hatred they have roused and espoused? Will the Limbaughs, the Scarboroughs, the O'Reillys, the Buchanans, the DeLays, the Frists, the Terrys, will any of them breathe a single sigh of contrition?

You know the answer as well as I do: There's as much chance of that as there is of Terri Schiavo coming out of PVS.

Down memory lane

Reading about Randall Terry's involvement in the Terri Schiavo tragedy as family spokesman for the Schindlers, a role he took up at their request (which, I can't help but suspect, says something unpleasant about them), brought to mind something I wrote about him in the print version of Lotus. So flashback to July, 1992:
Randall Terry, Executive Director of Operation Rescue, has been reported to be carrying around an aborted fetus in a jar of liquid, intending to push it at "pro-abortion" politicians.

If Terry actually believes, as he claims, that a fetus is a child, why hasn't he given this particular child a decent burial? Why is he carrying a dead baby around in a jar? If, on the other hand, he sees no need for such a burial, how can he claim it’s a child?

I'll leave it to Terry's conscience to decide whether he's a creepy ghoul or a foul hypocrite - but by his actions he clearly must be one or the other.
I guess it's true that some things - and some people - never change.

Footnote One: Not surprisingly, Jon Stewart found a way to point up the absurdity of the "debate." The link to the video clip is found here at Crooks and Liars; the direct link to the video in Quicktime format is here.

Footnote Two: It may seem cruel to judge the emotional pain of others as if all such decisions were coldly rational, but I can't help but be struck by the fact that Robert Schindler, Terri's father, had previously made the decision to remove his mother's life support.
She was 79 at the time[, reported the Guardian (UK), for November 4, 2003], and had been ill with pneumonia for a week, when her kidneys gave out. "I can remember like yesterday the doctors said she had a good life. I asked, 'If you put her on a ventilator does she have a chance of surviving, of coming out of this thing?'" Robert says. "I was very angry with God because I didn't want to make those decisions."
It makes it hard to understand why he has no sympathy for someone else making the same decision under even clearer circumstances.

Footnote Three: On the other hand, I have no compunction about noting that the March 27 Los Angeles Times tells how in 1988, that arch-hypocrite Tom DeLay, who called removal of the feeding tube "an act of barbarism,"
quietly joined the sad family consensus to let his father[, who was in a coma after a bizarre accident, kept alive by intravenous lines and oxygen equipment,] die.

"There was no point to even really talking about it," Maxine DeLay, the congressman's 81-year-old widowed mother, recalled in an interview last week. "There was no way [Charles] wanted to live like that. Tom knew - we all knew - his father wouldn't have wanted to live that way."
Oh, but this case is very, very different, his aides say. Certainly: There were no votes to be gotten from his father's death, no fanatics to pander to. It's very different.

How convenient

This may have been a coincidence, but if so it sure is a lucky one for the Frankenfood industry. Just days after genetically-modified foods were found to have failed another test of their environmental safety, comes news via the BBC that
UK scientists have developed a new genetically modified strain of "golden rice", producing more beta-carotene.

The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, and this strain produces around 20 times as much as previous varieties.
Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness in developing nations, affecting, by World Health Organization estimates, 250,000-500,000 children every year, half of who subsequently die within a year. When so-called "golden rice" (because the extra beta-carotene gives it a characteristic yellow-gold color) was first introduced in 2000, it was actively promoted by the GM industry as a godsend for the world's poor - maybe you, along with me, remember the proliferation of ads touting the rice as "proof" of what gene-splicing could do for humanity.

It quickly became clear, though, that this was corporate PR, not science. For example, it turned out that to get sufficient Vitamin A, an adult woman would have to eat 16 pounds of cooked golden rice per day; a child would need to eat 12 pounds. What's more,
[i]n order to absorb beta carotene, the human body requires adequate amounts of zinc, protein and fats, elements often lacking in the diets of poor people. Those with diarrhea - common in developing countries - are also unable to obtain vitamin A from golden rice.
By February of 2004, the Beeb was calling the promise of golden rice a "mirage."
The genes for beta-carotene are already present in conventional rice.

It is just that they do not work as well in the "natural" varieties as in the novel version.

Beyond that though, poorly-fed people are unlikely to be able to absorb beta-carotene even when they eat golden rice. To use it, they need a diverse diet, including green leafy vegetables.

But the sorts of vegetables people used to be able to find have declined in number as the green revolution of the 60s and 70s emphasised monocultures of new varieties.

Household consumption of vegetables in India has fallen by 12% in two decades.
And now, just like before, and just at a moment the future of GM foods had hit another wall, we have the "New! Improved!" rice that, just like before, is going to save the world from blindness, even though, just like before, the related nutritional issues are unaddressed, and the seed for which, just like before, is being offered for free for field trials by the biotechnology corporation that designed it.

In this case, the company is Syngenta, a Swiss-based multinational pressing ahead on a variety of GM crops. It's not necessary to wonder if Syngenta's motives are altruistic or just for public-image buffing: They are neither. The purpose is good, old-fashioned greed. A couple of years ago Syngenta was pushing Japan for permission to introduce a different GM rice there.
The rice has been modified to remove a protein responsible for allergic reactions and is being aimed at kidney dialysis patients in Asia who cannot eat normal rice because of an intolerance to the cereal's high protein content. Michael Pragnell chief executive of Syngenta talking about the GM rice said:

"It's a niche market, but it's a latch-lifter, the regulators either have to become less fastidious or deny benefits to patients. We are pursuing these markets not because we will make a fortune, but because it will introduce some regulatory tension."
It was, in a different cliche, the camel's nose under the tent, simply a means to pry open the market. I see absolutely no reason to imagine their intent here is a whit different.

BBC closes its report on the new strain with this:
Some agricultural experts and environmental groups say aiming for a balanced diet across the board would be a better solution.

But it is the first concrete evidence that GM technology can produce crops aimed at solving the pressing problems of the developing world, rather than increasing the profits of western biotechnology companies.
An argument which is, yet again, just like before. Which leaves me saying, just like before, when will we learn?

Footnote: Notice, too, that part of the cause of the lack of a balanced diet is that "the green revolution of the 60s and 70s emphasized monocultures of new varieties." The "green revolution," intended to reduce hunger, has not only trapped many developing nations in a cycle of dependence on Western technologies to make efficient use of the seeds, it has also encouraged monoculture and through that increased the risk of blindness among the same people it was intended to help. The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again.

One last thing on this: Dr. Norman Borlaug, often called the "father" of the "green revolution," has been both praised and damned for it. He himself, while certainly a supporter of technology, took more of a middle path. In a speech in 1970,
Dr. Borlaug expressed his social views as follows: "I've worked with wheat, but wheat is merely a catalyst, a part of the picture. I'm interested in the total economic development in all countries. Only by attacking the whole problem can we raise the standard of living for all people in all communities, so that they will be able to live decent lives. This is something we wish for all people on this planet."
In another context, he said that the "green revolution" would not solve the problems of hunger and resource depletion, only that it would give us, he suggested, a few more decades in which to act.

That time has run out and instead of being a catalyst for further change, the "green revolution" quickly became an excuse to avoid it. When, when, when will we learn that what puts more control in the hands of corporations will do us no good if we don't control those corporations?

Sunday, March 27, 2005


What are degrees?


Popular at Easter, a white one of these flowers is sacred to the Virgin Mary.

Just another Sunday

I'm taking the day off. :-)

Happy Easter.

Saturday, March 26, 2005


What is a yard?

Weights and Measures for $2000

Circles, thermometers, and college grads are marked by the number of these they have.


And the beat(ing) goes on

Which is the more appropriate cliche here: A few rotten apples spoil the barrel? Or the fish rots from the head down? From AP for March 26 comes news that an Army investigator
found that detainees "were being systematically and intentionally mistreated" at a holding facility near Mosul in December 2003. ...

"There is evidence that suggests the 311th MI personnel and/or translators engaged in physical torture of the detainees," a memo from the investigator said. ...

The investigating officer, whose name was blacked out of the documents, said the troops were poorly trained and encouraged to abuse prisoners. [Emphasis added.]
The report was filed in January, 2004. The date is significant because it was that same month when the brass supposedly first became aware of the abuses as Abu Ghraib - abuses which when they came to public light were ascribed to a "few bad apples" in an isolated case. Now we know for a fact that the high command (and, we can surely assume, the White House) had in hand credible accusations of torture, "systematic ... intentional ... encouraged," at, at least, one other facility.

We don't just think, we don't just logically deduce, we don't just "know," we now know for a demonstrated fact that they were lying through their goddam teeth the whole time. Lying from beginning to end, as Mosul joins the growing list of sites from Gitmo to Iraq to Afghanistan where brutality has been a regular part of the process. How many "isolated incidents" does it take to equal one "pattern?"

And as for my opening question, things seem pretty fishy to me.

Footnote: To make it even worse,
[n]o one was punished for the abuses [at Mosul], however, because the investigating officer said there was not enough proof against any individual.
Apparently a "code of silence" does not apply only to Mafia types.

If I had a hammer

Updated Science writer Chet Raymo posts a weekly column about some aspect of science at his own website, Science Musings. Last October, he wrote about genetically-modified, or GM, foods - also known as Frankenfoods. He mentioned some of the promises and pitfalls, ending up by saying that
[w]hat's required is something between America's uncritical compliance with the vested interests of the big agribusiness corporations - which so far have done little for the developing world or the environment - and Europe's knee-jerk rejection of anything and everything that bears the GM label.

Human population will continue to grow for at least another fifty years. It would be nice if all of those extra people had enough nourishing food to eat, produced with minimal disruption of the environment. If rigorously-tested GM foods can help achieve that end, I say give them a chance.
But "if" is a very big word despite its minimal length. The environmental safety of Frankenfoods has been at issue from the beginning - or, rather, it was. From The Independent (UK) for last Tuesday:
Yet another nail was hammered into the coffin of the GM food industry in Britain yesterday when the final trial of a four-year series of experiments found, once more, that genetically modified crops can be harmful to wildlife.

The study was the fourth in a series that has, in effect, sealed the fate of GM in the UK - at least in the foreseeable future. They showed the ultra-powerful weedkillers that the crops are engineered to tolerate would bring about further damage to a countryside already devastated by intensive farming.

Only one of the four farm-scale trials, which have gone on for nearly five years, showed that growing GM crops might be less harmful to birds, flowers and insects than the non-GM equivalent - and even that was attacked as flawed, because the weedkiller the particular conventional crop required was so destructive it was about to be banned by the EU. ...

The fourth and final mass experiment involving GM crops has found that they caused significant harm to wild flowers, butterflies, bees and probably songbirds. Results of the farm-scale trial of winter-sown oilseed rape raised further doubts about whether GM crops can ever be grown in Britain without causing further damage to the nation's wildlife. ...

The three previous farm-scale trials into crops investigated spring-sown oilseed rape, maize and beet. These showed that growing GM rape and GM beet did more harm to wildlife than their conventional counterparts.
Even at that, critics noted, the tests only compared conventional intensive farming to GM-food intensive farming.
"The FSEs [Farm-Scale Evaluations] specifically didn't examine the impact of organic agriculture," said FOE [Friends of the Earth] GM campaigner Emily Diamand.

"They only looked at 'bad' and 'worse'. There are more sustainable ways of farming than intensive agriculture that could benefit the environment,"
such as, for example, integrated pest management, or IPM.

The fourth test, beyond the two on rape and one on beets, was on a variety of maize (corn to us across the pond). That's the one that involved the soon-to-be-banned herbicide. Even so, a license was granted for Bayer, holder of the patent on the GM maize (a "patented" plant still sounds strange to me) in the test, to grow it in the UK - but Bayer pulled out three weeks later. Even chemical giant and legal bully Monsanto has given up the fight to bring its patented foods to Europe, preferring to attack US and Canadian farmers and dairies.

The arguments in favor of GM foods continue to fall. No, consumers do not want them, not even in the US.
Genetically modified food is viewed as unsafe by most [Americans], and the public wants warning labels on food, a new on June 20, 2001 poll finds:

- 52% believe such foods are unsafe, and an additional 13% are unsure about them
- 93% say the federal government should require labels on food saying whether it's been genetically modified
- 57% also say they'd be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified
No, the developing world is not falling all over itself trying to get GM foods; they know the risks.
In meetings with Canadian government officials in Ottawa today [March 9], farmers, scientists, and policy specialists from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East will call on the government to review its use of genetically modified (GM) crops as a tool for sustainable development. ...

"The Canadian government is under the false impression that GMOs [genetically-modified organisms] play a positive role in its sustainable development initiatives in the developing world," says Anna Paskal of Inter Pares, "It is clear from the experiences of members of this delegation that GM crops are not the solution to poverty and hunger; in fact, they can make the problem worse." ...

Small farmers develop and use their own seeds, and GM contamination and the resulting loss of biodiversity are key concerns. "By relying on traditional crops, we have coped with years of drought and never faced hunger. We have adapted our crops to local conditions and grow our food on marginal soils with no irrigated water," says Indian farmer Sammamma Bidakanne, "Our ability to save and re-use traditional seeds is the basis of our biodiversity and food security - all this is threatened by GM crops."
In fact, in 2002 Zambia refused a shipment of American corn intended as food aid because it was genetically modified - both because of health concerns and because of fears of what cross-pollination could mean to the future of its own corn crop, including the ability to market it to places like Europe.

Consumer safety remains in doubt, claims of increased yields are for the most part unproven, and now even assertions of environmental harmlessness have been shown to be hollow.

When will we learn that where corporate profit is concerned, "guilty until proven innocent," otherwise known as the precautionary principle, should be our guiding star?

Footnote: The discussion of the precautionary principle at the link is rather garbled but it was the best I found on short notice.

Updated with the link to the profile of Bayer and with the link to the description of oilseed rape, having realized some people don't know what it is.

Friday, March 25, 2005


What is a cup?

Weights and Measures for $1200

US unit of measure equivalent to .9144 meters.

Innocent until proven guilty

So therefore, if you never have a trial, no one is guilty!
U.S. Army commanders have decided not to prosecute any of 17 American soldiers implicated in three separate incidents involving the deaths of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, according to a new accounting released by the army Friday.
So says the International Herald Tribune for Saturday. It goes on to say that
[i]n each of the cases, the commanders chose to disregard recommendations by army investigators, who had proposed that the soldiers be charged with crimes that included murder, conspiracy and negligent homicide, the army accounting showed. Only 2 of the 17 soldiers were disciplined at all in connection with the three deaths, receiving a letter of reprimand and a discharge from the army, respectively.
One of the three cases involved a former Iraqi lieutenant colonel who died at a forward operating base in Iraq in January 2004, as the result of "blunt force injuries and asphyxia." Commanders rejected the recommendation to prosecute because, they said, the injuries were "a result of a series of lawful applications of force." Hey, gang, dying of "blunt force injuries" means you were beaten to death. Just when the hell did that get to be "lawful?"

Oh, I know when: When the brass got scared because the investigations were getting out of hand, showing that abuse of, and violence against, prisoners were far more pervasive and widespread than one isolated case of a handful of bad actors at Abu Ghraib. Pursuing the matter seriously would move the blame, the culpability, up the chain of command. How high? Maybe very high. And that simply could not be allowed.

Footnote: The army raised the total of prisoner deaths resulting from suspected or criminal homicides to 27, not counting at least four more still being investigated for which no cause of death has been determined. Only one of the deaths was at Abu Ghraib.

Do as we say, not as we do

Or "A Tale of Two Arms Races."
Manaus, Brazil (AP, March 23) - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday criticized Venezuela's reported efforts to purchase 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia, suggesting that Venezuela's possession of so many weapons would threaten the hemisphere. ...

"I can't imagine what's going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s," Rumsfeld said at a news conference in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, which shares a border with Venezuela.

"I can't understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s. I personally hope it doesn't happen. I can't imagine if it did happen it would be good for the hemisphere," the defense secretary said.
Venezuela, which has a total of 130,000 troops and reservists, says the guns are to replace older weapons in its arsenal. The White House, abetted by a media muttering darkly about guerrilla groups "armed with weapons and ammunition from Nicaragua, a former Soviet client" and Venezuela's desire to manufacture 7.62mm bullets "that are in common use among guerrillas and criminals," hints broadly that the guns will instead wind up in the hands of those guerrillas - Venezuela apparently occupying for the Bushites the same place Nicaragua did for the Reaganites.
Many Latin America nations has [sic] reduced the size of their militaries since the violence of the 1980s. Officials fear [President Hugo] Chavez's actions could lead to a new arms race.
It's hard to tell from the article, but it appears that the "officials" here are American officials, not Latin American officials, since they are the only ones cited in the article as expressing concern.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the International Herald Tribune for March 26 tells us that
[t]he United States has agreed to sell F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan in a major policy shift that is meant to reward that country for its help in combating terrorism and is certain to antagonize India. ...

The F-16 comes in both single-seat and two-seat models and is one of the premier weapons in the Pentagon's air arsenal. ...

India has lobbied against Pakistan's acquisition of the planes because it fears Pakistan would use them if war between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, broke out again, as it has several times in the past half-century.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited both India and Pakistan this month, and there were reports that she signaled U.S. willingness to sell F-16s to both Pakistan and to India, if India wanted them.
So let's sum up: Venezuela wants to get small arms from Russia for its army. This is bad. This threatens the entire hemisphere and can set off an arms race. Pakistan wants to get top-of-the-line, nuclear-capable fighter jets from us, which we are also willing to sell to India - even though these two nations, both possessing nuclear weapons, have been in near-constant conflict since partition and have been at war three times since 1947. This is good. This threatens nothing and is no part of any arms race.

There's just one last thing I need to understand, though: Does the difference the WHS* see lie in who is getting the weapons - or in who is selling them?

Footnote: Brazil's vice president and defense minister, Jose Alencar, appeared with Rumsfeld but declined to criticize Chavez, saying Brazil respects other nations' right to self-determination.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Just noted in passing

Bobby Fischer, quite probably the best chess player who ever lived, arrived in Iceland on Friday, freed from nine months in captivity in Japan while he fought extradition to the US. He was wanted for the heinous crime of playing in an exhibition chess match against Boris Spassky in 1992 in the former Yugoslavia in violation of US sanctions on that country.

He was released after accepting Iceland's offer of citizenship.

Media accounts made much of his history of anti-Semitism and his diatribes against the US, which he called, among other things, part of the "allies of evil" together with Australia, the UK, and Japan - in deliberate contrast to Bush's "axis of evil." But Bobby has long been troubled by what seems to this admittedly untrained observer clear signs of clinical paranoia. As long ago as 1959, in fact: After a (to him) disappointing finish in the middle of the pack at the Candidates Tournament, he wrote a blistering "expose" in Sports Illustrated charging "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess!" His later involvement in the Worldwide Church of God just marked a further step along that tragic path.

I hope now he can find some peace or at least stability.

This is a pretty good article about him.

Footnote: R. Byrne-Fischer, 1963 is my favorite Fischer game. Byrne said afterward that the subtlety of Fischer's attack was go great that "at the very moment I resigned," grandmasters in the next room commenting on the match "thought I had a won game." (In the final position, the threat is 22...Q-h3+, 22 K-g1 [22 K-f2, Q-g2++], Bxd4+, etc. And if none of that makes sense to you, don't worry about it.)

Thursday, March 24, 2005


What is the Columbia Journalism Review?

Weights and Measures for $400

Sixteen tablespoons equal one of these.

For my next trick....

The ability of the SCLM to internalize GOPper talking points continues to amaze. It's like watching a good professional magician for the third or fourth time: The act no longer surprises, but it's still an astonishing spectacle. The latest example to come to hand is an AP article for March 24 by one Glen Johnson:
A new report on the financial health of Social Security changed the numbers only slightly and the terms of the political debate even less so.

The trustees who oversee the government retirement program said Wednesday that Social Security will begin paying out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes in 2017. That means the government at that point will have to increase its borrowing on financial markets, raise taxes or divert money from other government programs to sustain Social Security at current levels.

The trustees also estimated in their annual report that the program, which is about to be inundated with baby boom retirees, will go broke in 2041. That's the date, the trustees said, that the $1.6 trillion accumulated in trust accounts from excess payroll taxes over past decades - really just IOUs because the government already has spent the money on other things - will dwindle to zero from sending out monthly benefit checks. [Emphasis obviously added.]
This is just - there aren't words. Spouting nonsense takes no ability, you can tell that just by listening to Rick Santorum. But to spout that much nonsense in so short a space, especially in a forum that lays claim to at least a degree of impartiality - that takes real talent.

What happens in 2017, well first off, it's quite possible that nothing relevant to this discussion will happen in 2017 or for some time thereafter. The projections made by the trustees of Social Security are based on very conservative, not to say pessimistic, economic assumptions. Thus, every year the economy grows more than the 1.8% per year they use as a basis, the supposed day of reckoning recedes into the future.

But leave that aside for now, we'll come back to it later. Accept 2017 as the year. At that point, the Social Security Administration will, as the article notes, begin paying out more in benefits than it brings in, in taxes. So at that point the system has to start drawing on the surplus that was specifically created for this purpose. There is no reason to expect this to have any particular impact on the rest of the government and Johnson's list of disastrous or at least unpleasant-sounding alternatives is just fear-mongering that is misleading where it's not false and false where it's not misleading.

Going broke in 2041? That's the year, the trustees predict, that the surplus will be exhausted and Social Security will have to go back to the pay-as-you-go basis on which it has functioned for most of its history. But here's an often-ignored point; certainly Johnson doesn't address it: While benefit increases to recipients are based on the inflation rate, initial benefits are not. They're pegged to wage increases. Because, happily, over time wages tend to rise faster than prices, initial benefits to new retirees tend to rise in real terms.

The trustees now predict that in 2041, when the system is "broke," taxes coming in will be enough to fund 74% of projected benefits. Not 74% of what they are now, but 74% of what they otherwise would have been in 2041. Allowing for projections of inflation and wage increases, that 74% of projected benefits is more in real terms than benefits provided to new retirees now. In other words, even at that level, people retiring in 2041 will be better off, have a higher standard of living, than those retiring now. Remember, that's if we do nothing at all.

By what bizarre definition does this describe a system that is "broke?"

Going broke in 2041? Another movable feast because of the low-balling of economic predictions by the trustees. In 1996, the Year of Horror, they said, was to be 2030, 34 years in the future. In 2000, it was 2036, or 36 years in the future. And in 2004, it was to be 2042 - 38 years in the future. Now, in 2005, we're back to our Day of Doom being 36 years away. But even at that, it's still further off than it was in 1996. Even moderate economic growth will keep pushing the date off; indeed, a growth rate of 2.4% per year would prevent the surplus from ever being exhausted.

Now, it could be argued, not unfairly, that taking a more pessimistic attitude toward long-range prospects, by which things would likely turn out better than predicted, is preferable to highly optimistic figures which could leave you flattened if they don't pan out. But it can't be argued that such forecasts are a sound or even reasonable basis for trying to stampede people into rashly cutting their own retirement throats. That's especially true since the trustees' figures aren't the only ones: Using slightly more optimistic but still cautious estimates, the Congressional Budge Office predicts the year the surplus will be gone is 2052.

But the biggest whopper is the business that the trust fund is "just IOUs." This can't be ascribed to ignorance or even sloppiness, as its insertion was clearly deliberate. Johnson is either being consciously deceptive or willfully ignorant. The surplus is invested. Of course it's not just sitting in a vault somewhere. It's invested. In Treasury bonds and other government instruments, backed, as they say, "by the full faith and credit of the United States government." If those are to be regarded as "just IOUs," then all the people, all the corporations, all the investment houses, all the pension plans, all the foreign governments, that have likewise invested in government securities likewise have "just IOUs," with, we are apparently supposed to think, no guarantee they will be paid. Your bank account is just IOUs, since those sums are, again, not just sitting in a vault. And if that bank extends you a mortgage, all it's getting from you is some IOUs.

This is absurd beyond measure, disgraceful beyond understanding. Glen Johnson clearly deserves his new, honored place in the Hack Hall of Fame.

Some previous posts about Social Security over the past few months, which have links to sources documenting what I've said here and which I'm just too tired to redo now, have come on December 16, December 20, February 1, February 3, another on February 3, February 8, February 10, and March 3.

Footnote One: Johnson also says that
[v]irtually ignored by both sides were the findings of a separate report from the trustees ... that said Medicare ... began paying out more in benefits than it received in taxes as of last year. The trustees also predicted Medicare would go broke in 2020 ... more than two decades ahead of Social Security.
Well, I dunno about the Dims, but the GOPpers ignored it because it's just not a problem: Back in mid-December, Shrub said he wasn't worried about Medicare because his "reform" bill "introduced market forces" into the system, so the problem is solved.

Footnote Two: David at Ruminations had a sudden flash of insight as to what all the media talk really means.
100% unemployment by 2041!

That's right, I could hardly believe it when I read the headlines, but its true. ... [T]he conclusion is unavoidable. No more American jobs by 2041 according to the Social Security Trustees....

The headlines say that Social Security will be broke by 2041. I don't know what y'all's sense of the word "broke" is, but mine is "no money". Now, Social Security is pay-as-you-go. The benefits are paid out from the payroll taxes of current workers. The only way there'd be no money for benefits is if there were no more payroll taxes coming in, ergo, no one's working.
I guess all those tax cuts aren't going to do anything for the economy after all.

Be careful what you wish for

According to a long-term study of 12,000 adolescents published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health,
[t]eens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are more likely to take chances with other kinds of sex that increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases[, AP reported last Friday]. ...

[T]eens pledging virginity until marriage are more likely to have oral and anal sex than other teens who have not had intercourse. That behavior, however, "puts you at risk," said Hannah Brueckner, assistant professor of sociology at Yale and one of the study's authors.
What's more, the pledging group was both less likely to use condoms during their first experience and less likely to get tested for STDs, which likely goes a long way toward explaining a previous finding that the rate of STDs among pledgers was as high as among the general adolescent population. Oh, any by the way,
[l]ast year, the same research team found that 88 percent of teens who pledge abstinence end up having sex before marriage, compared with 99 percent of teens who do not make a pledge.
As usual, the simple-minded, ignorance-celebrating nostrums of the right are a failure at everything except demonstrating the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Footnote, Don't Confuse Him with Facts Div.: The article also quotes Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, as calling
the study "bogus," disputing that those involved had pledged true "abstinence."

"Kids who pledge abstinence are taught that any word that has 'sex' in it is considered a sexual activity," Unruh said. "Therefore oral sex is sex, and they are staying away."
"I did not have sex with that abstainer."

Jurassic Geek

This could prove really interesting - and no, not for the reason you first think.
[R]esearchers have recovered 70-million-year-old soft tissue, including what may be blood vessels and cells, from a Tyrannosaurus rex.

If scientists can isolate proteins from the material, they may be able to learn new details of how dinosaurs lived, said lead researcher Mary Higby Schweitzer of North Carolina State University. ...

The soft tissues were recovered from the thighbone of a T. rex, known as MOR 1125, that was found in a sandstone formation in Montana. The dinosaur was about 18 years old when it died.

The bone was broken when it was removed from the site. Schweitzer and her colleagues then analyzed the material inside the bone. ...

Richard A. Hengst of Purdue University said the finding "opens the door for research into the protein structure of ancient organisms, if nothing else. While we think that nature is conservative in how things are built, this gives scientists an opportunity to observe this at the chemical and cellular level."
There are, of course, some big ifs still here; perhaps the biggest being whether or not they can actually extract any proteins.

Remember, however, that the tissue came from a bone that got broken, something the researchers that find the fossils and the museums that store them try to avoid. So even a partial success might drive others, because the find may well be by no means unique; other recoverable tissue may lie hidden in other fossils. Museums might be willing to risk breaking some less-important fossils to look for tissue inside.

But no, this has nothing to do with Jurassic Park and no, cloned dinosaurs are not just around the corner or even way down at the end of the lane. But it could, you'll pardon the expression, flesh out our knowledge about dinosaurs and how they lived. A fair amount of what is now thought about dinosaurs is extrapolation from the fossils and a little bit of what is now thought is no more than speculation. Examination of this tissue could lead to confirming (or changing) some of those ideas through solid facts. And that would be much cooler than any movie.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


What is electricity?

Corrections for $1000

As we'd hope, this publication, the CJR, scrupulously corrects its own errors, like misspelling Dian Fossey.

Time flies when you're having FUBAR

My gosh, did this weekend really mark two years? Have we really been at this madness for two whole years?

Has it really been two years of dripping blood?
From a fact sheet developed by the Institute for Policy Studies:

U.S. military killed in Iraq: 1,469
U.S. troops wounded in combat since the war began: 10,938
Iraqi soldiers and insurgents killed since May 1, 2003: approximately 24,000
Iraqi civilians killed: Estimates range from 15,000 - 100,000
Number of civilian contractors killed: 207

(Figures are as of February 17; the US death toll was 1,513 as of March 21.)
Has it really been two years of demolished cities?
From a summary of a UN report by the American Friends Service Committee, January 20:

Approximately 85,000 residents have passed through Fallujah's checkpoints as of January 9. However, only 3,000 to 8,000 people remain in the city overnight, due to the harsh conditions that include a lack of adequate shelter, electricity, water, and health care, as well as curfews and restrictions on movement. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that only 40 percent of the population in the city is receiving assistance.

Returning residents find a city that has been ravaged. Massive destruction to infrastructure and housing has been reported. It is estimated that 40 percent of the buildings were completely destroyed, 20 percent had major damage, and 40 percent had significant damage. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported on December 23 that three of the city’s water purification plants had been destroyed and the fourth was badly damaged. The water distribution network was destroyed. It will take a long time to restore basic services.
Has it really been two years of torture?
From an ACLU press release, December 12, 2004:

U.S. Navy documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal that abuse and even torture of detainees by U.S. Marines in Iraq was widespread. One Navy criminal investigator sent an e-mail in June 2004 describing his Iraq caseload "exploding" with "high visibility cases."

From the ACLU webpage containing links to the documents:

Careful review of these documents demonstrates that many other critical records have not been released.

From the New York Times, March 16:

At least 26 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide, according to military officials.

The number of confirmed or suspected cases is much higher than any accounting the military has previously reported. ...

Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, officials said, showing how broadly the most violent abuses extended beyond those prison walls and contradicting early impressions that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of members of the military police on the prison's night shift.

From the Washington Post, March 17:

The CIA and the White House yesterday defended the practice of secretly transferring suspected terrorists to other countries, including some with poor human rights records, and reiterated that proper safeguards exist to ensure detainees are not tortured.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not answer repeated questions about whether President Bush was aware of - or believed or discounted - assertions made recently by freed detainees that they were tortured by other governments after they were transferred abroad by the CIA.
Has it really been two years of corruption?
From the Christian Science Monitor, March 17:

In Iraq, allegations range from petty bribery to large-scale embezzlement, expropriation, profiteering and nepotism [according to a major report released Wednesday by Transparency International, an international organization that focuses on issues of corruption]. The TI report says it could become "the biggest corruption scandal in history."

"I can see all sorts of levels of corruption in Iraq," says report contributor Reinoud Leenders, "starting from petty officials asking for bribes to process a passport, way up to contractors delivering shoddy work and the kind of high-level corruption involving ministers and high officials handing out contracts to their friends and clients." ...

US audits of its own spending have found repeated shortcomings, including a lack of competitive bidding for contracts worth billions of dollars, payment of contracts without adequate certification that work had been done, and in some cases, outright theft. ...

A January report by special inspector Stuart Bowen found that $8.8 billion dollars had been disbursed from Iraqi oil revenue by US administrators to Iraqi ministries without proper accounting.

And earlier this week, it emerged that the Pentagon's auditing agency found that Halliburton, the Houston oil services giant formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney, overcharged by more than $108 million on a contract.
Has it really been two years of assaults on our civil liberties without even the sop of a supposed gain in "security?"
From an ACLU press release, March 22:

In a stern rebuke to U. S. immigration detention policies, a panel of experts at the United Nations ruled that the government is violating universal human rights standards by continuing to detain an Algerian immigrant, Benamar Benatta, who was taken into custody on September 12, 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union said today. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights is expected to adopt the opinion during its 61st session, which opens this month.

From an ACLU press release, March 23:

The American Civil Liberties Union said today that it has joined forces with the several conservative organizations to fix the most extreme provisions of the Patriot Act.... Former Congressman Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, will chair the new group, "Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances," which includes Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union and others. ...

The new organization is urging Congress to thoroughly review the most intrusive and constitutionally suspect provisions of the Patriot Act. Specifically, the act allows federal agents to gather highly personal information - including library, medical and gun purchase records - without criminal suspicion, permits secret searches of homes and businesses with indefinite notification, and expands the definition of domestic terrorism to potentially include political protest.

From Mother Jones magazine's Daily Mojo, March 14:

In fact, looked at with a cold eye, the administration's record of convictions in terrorism cases is remarkably inconsequential. Although it is extremely difficult to obtain reliable information on such cases, the facts, as best we know them, are these: Of the 120 terrorism cases recorded on Findlaw, the major information source for legal cases of note, the initial major charges leveled have resulted in only two actual terrorism convictions - both in a single case, that of Richard Reid, the notorious shoe bomber. Of 18 actual charges of "terrorism" brought between September 2001 and October 2004, 15 are still pending and one was dismissed.
Has it really been two years? And what have we gained? What's been achieved?
From the IPS fact sheet cited above:

Number of insurgents in Iraq, November 2003 estimate: 5,000 fighters
Number of insurgents in Iraq, December 2004 estimate: 40,000 fighters and 200,000 Iraqi sympathizers
What the Iraq war has created, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Council: "a training and recruitment ground (for terrorists), and an opportunity for terrorists to enhance their technical skills."
Effect on al Qaeda of the Iraq War, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies: "Accelerated recruitment"

From a Human Rights Watch press release, January 26:

Iraqi security forces are committing systematic torture and other abuses against people in detention, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. ...

[U]nlawful arrest, long-term incommunicado detention, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees (including children) by Iraqi authorities have become routine and commonplace. ...

Methods of torture cited by detainees include routine beatings to the body using cables, hosepipes and other implements. Detainees report kicking, slapping and punching; prolonged suspension from the wrists with the hands tied behind the back; electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body, including the earlobes and genitals; and being kept blindfolded and/or handcuffed continuously for several days. In several cases, the detainees suffered what may be permanent physical disability.

Detainees also reported being deprived by Iraqi security forces of food and water, and being crammed into small cells with standing room only. Numerous detainees described how Iraqi police sought bribes in return for release, access to family members or food and water.

From the New York Times, March 21:

The confidence of the Iraqi people in their future, given a boost after the strong turnout in the Jan. 30 elections despite insurgent threats, has steadily faded as negotiations to form the government have dragged on. The leading Shiite and Kurdish parties, which together have more than two-thirds of the 275 seats in the new constitutional assembly, have been in protracted talks, with the Kurds trying to extract from the Shiites promises that will ultimately result in the Kurds retaining strong autonomous powers and getting territory, particularly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
And what was it all for? What was it all about? Security? Weapons of Mass Destruction? "Freedom" for Iraq? Oil?
From BBC's "Newsnight," March 17:

The Bush administration made plans for war and for Iraq's oil before the 9/11 attacks, sparking a policy battle between neo-cons and Big Oil, BBC's Newsnight has revealed.

Two years ago today - when President George Bush announced US, British and Allied forces would begin to bomb Baghdad - protesters claimed the US had a secret plan for Iraq's oil once Saddam had been conquered.

In fact there were two conflicting plans, setting off a hidden policy war between neo-conservatives at the Pentagon, on one side, versus a combination of "Big Oil" executives and US State Department "pragmatists".

"Big Oil" appears to have won. The latest plan, obtained by Newsnight from the US State Department was, we learned, drafted with the help of American oil industry consultants.

Insiders told Newsnight that planning began "within weeks" of Bush's first taking office in 2001, long before the September 11th attack on the US. ...

The industry-favoured plan was pushed aside by a secret plan, drafted just before the invasion in 2003, which called for the sell-off of all of Iraq's oil fields. The new plan was crafted by neo-conservatives intent on using Iraq's oil to destroy the Opec cartel through massive increases in production above Opec quotas.

The sell-off was given the green light in a secret meeting in London headed by Ahmed Chalabi shortly after the US entered Baghdad, according to Robert Ebel. ...

Philip Carroll, the former CEO of Shell Oil USA who took control of Iraq's oil production for the US Government a month after the invasion, stalled the sell-off scheme.

Mr Carroll told us he made it clear to Paul Bremer, the US occupation chief who arrived in Iraq in May 2003, that: "There was to be no privatisation of Iraqi oil resources or facilities while I was involved." ...

New plans, obtained from the State Department by Newsnight and Harper's Magazine under the US Freedom of Information Act, called for creation of a state-owned oil company favoured by the US oil industry. It was completed in January 2004 under the guidance of Amy Jaffe of the James Baker Institute in Texas. ...

Questioned by Newsnight, Ms Jaffe said the oil industry prefers state control of Iraq's oil over a sell-off....

Ms Jaffe says US oil companies are not warm to any plan that would undermine Opec and the current high oil price: "I'm not sure that if I'm the chair of an American company, and you put me on a lie detector test, I would say high oil prices are bad for me or my company."

The former Shell oil boss agrees. In Houston, he told Newsnight: "Many neo conservatives are people who have certain ideological beliefs about markets, about democracy, about this, that and the other. International oil companies, without exception, are very pragmatic commercial organizations. They don't have a theology."
Yes, it has been two years. Two years of dripping blood, demolished cities, torture, corruption, and assaults on civil liberties. Two years of lies. Two years of wasted lives. Two years for, yes, for oil. Or, to be more precise, as I said exactly two years ago today,
there is one way in which the slogan ["No War for Oil"] has it not wrong but not complete: The issue isn't oil profits (most oil companies have shied away from the war, fearing the repercussions) but oil control. Control of oil means control over major portions of the world economy. Taking over (excuse me, reconstructing) Iraq means icing the French and the Russians, heavily involved in Iraqi oil, out. It means American power, American dominance, American preeminence, exactly those things the people around (and including) Bush are after. So is the war about oil? Not directly. It's about what war is always about: power and control.
And it's not going to end anytime soon. Remember the pre-war claim that US forces would start to be withdrawn by the fall of 2003? The schedule has slipped a bit:
Washington (AP, March 18) - Any permanent reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq isn't likely until sometime between 2006 and 2008, a top Army general said Thursday.

For there to be any drawdown, Iraq security forces must continue to improve their ability to fight the insurgency themselves, said Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff.

The military is planning a staggered rotation of soldiers and large units that will be in Iraq between 2006 and early 2008, Cody said. That planning is expected to include the possibility of a significant reduction in U.S. forces.
A reduction - but even then not a withdrawal, meaning they are anticipating US forces being in Iraq beyond 2008.

Perhaps well beyond: The Pentagon has established 12-14 "enduring bases" in Iraq, intended to serve the needs of US forces for up to three years and in January acknowledged it is building a permanent military communications system there - and as at least some of those bases come complete with Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, gymnasiums, and DVD stores, one can easily be forgiven for thinking of them as having somewhat greater permanence, especially since one such site, Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, has been in place for nearly 10 years.

How to staff those bases? Well, there's always the draft. And then there are the old folks, as noted by the March 23 issue of The Hilltop, the campus paper of Howard University, Washington, DC:
The Army announced this week that it will increase the enlistment age for Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers to 39, a five-year increase meant to add 22 million additional reserves over three years. ...

Officials said the new initiative would apply only to new recruits enlisting between now and 2008. Army spokesmen told reporters that it is possible the age limit for Reserve and National Guard soldiers will be raised again after the current three-year test ends. However, the age limit for the regular Army will remain at 34.

News of the age increase comes weeks after the Army disclosed that it was having trouble reaching recruiting goals as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Some defense analysts said the war in Iraq is the primary reason for the age increase.
Two years of blood, destruction, torture, corruption, lies, waste. And more in store.

But not, it must be said, without opposition. There is still opposition. Perhaps not as loud, perhaps not as insistent, and frankly in some quarters not as confident in the effort as before, but still there. Protests across Europe this past weekend demanded an end to the war. A quick scan of news reports included these:

- Somewhere between 45,000 (police estimate) and 100,000 (organizer's estimate) in London.
- About 3,000 in Athens.
- About 500 in Warsaw.
- 15,000 in Istanbul.
- Some 400 in Oslo and 300 in Stockholm.
- Protests were held in nine Spanish cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastian; I haven't seen numbers.
- Over 4,500 in Tokyo.

In the US, a large number of decentralized actions marked the anniversary. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) had a list of 765 towns and cities covering all 50 states where actions were planned. The largest one seems to have been in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of Ft. Bragg, in which some 4000 people participated, while protests in San Diego and New York were attended by "thousands."

Those numbers are certainly down from a year ago and even more from the millions who poured into the streets the year before that in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade the Bush gang from starting the war in the first place. Some reasons have been offered for that drop-off. One is weariness, a sort of sluggish defeatism driven by a sense that the WHS* are not going to listen no matter how many voices are raised how often or how loudly. There is certainly some truth to that; these people make ordinary pig-headedness seem as flexible as a willow reed. But it may also be a pose: It wasn't until after the fact that we learned that Richard Nixon, who made a point of showing how unmoved he was by demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, was actually driven to distraction by them - and how both he and Lyndon Johnson before him had been dissuaded from escalations of the war by protests.

Another, I suppose in some ways more favorable possibility, is that fewer people feel driven to oppose the war because their nations are becoming less involved. Eleven countries - Nicaragua, Spain, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, Tonga, Hungary, Portugal, and Moldova - which had troops in, or maintained support operations for, Iraq have pulled out. And five more - Poland, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Italy - have announced their intention to do so. In that light, it may be meaningful that the largest protest, at least of the ones I heard about in my quick scan, was in the European nation whose government is most grimly determined to stick with Shrub: the UK.

There is one more possibility that deserves comment, one that a couple of media reports mentioned: a division among war opponents as to the best course, with some calling for immediate (or at least prompt) withdrawal and others saying that while the invasion should not have taken place, now that it has we're stuck there because pulling out will make things even worse. You could consider it a variation of the "flypaper strategy," except that instead of insurgents being tied down in Iraq, it's the peace movement.

I think that's a terrible mistake politically, practically, and ethically. First and probably most obviously, it enables the militarists to manipulate us into being passive if not active supporters of their schemes: All they have to do is ignore us long enough to get the troops in so they can say "well, we can't leave now!" But more importantly in the case of Iraq, it doesn't make sense. Are we controlling an insurgency - or creating one? Are we providing security - or targets?

Here's a question I haven't seen asked: The argument for staying - which is very likely just a cover story to justify a long-term intent for a long-term stay, but never mind that now - is, again, that it would be "worse" if we left.

How do we know that?

I mean it. How do we know? The assumption seems to be that the insurgency would get much larger, much more violent, if we left. But what is that based on? What is the evidence that our presence is suppressing an insurgency that has both the intent and the ability to be much more active than it already is, especially since US withdrawal would remove a major raison d'ĂȘtre of that same insurgency? If there is any, tell me about it. I'd genuinely like to know.

My concern about Iraq descending into the chaos of a three-sided civil war is as great as ever. But as I've said before, we are not ending the dying, we are contributing to it. We are not eliminating ethnic and religious conflicts, we are at most temporarily suppressing the forces which our invasion unleashed. And the more identified we become with the Shiite-dominated government, the more divisive a presence we well be. John, Lord Morley, famously said "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him." Neither will we have achieved peace even if we were to succeed in achieving silence, which we clearly have not.

I've said it before: Pulling out will not stop the bloodshed. But the bloodshed will not stop until we pull out.


*WHS = White House Sociopaths
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