Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This is not breaking news

But it is something I keep thinking about. I haven't written about it because every time I start, it expands and expands and.... And I give up in frustration. So I've decided not to try for full-scale explanations with all the appropriate links and background and try to just get to the basics. And it came out rather long anyway, as you can see. I wrote something related (and even somewhat overlapping) back in August but I feel the need to address it again.

I'm disturbed - deeply disturbed - at the attitudes taken in some portions of the lefty blogosphere regarding the Russia-Georgia war. Too many seem too eager to find ways to point fingers at Georgia and exonerate or at least downplay Russia's actions. I have seen, for example, references - complete with ominous italics - to "the US-trained Georgian forces." (I'm still not sure exactly what that's supposed to signify, but it appears to be very important to those who raise it.)

Some, such as Richard Estes at American Leftist, actually celebrated the Russian invasion. Richard called it "a decisive victory" and "a huge defeat for the US, NATO and Israel." Indeed, it was "a positive development for the global left" because "a US military outpost of the 'war on terror' has been overrun." Similarly, a commenter at Hullabaloo said the attack "should be lauded as a necessary setback for fascist Western imperialism."

But my deeper concern is not with knee-jerk ideologues but with what for lack of a better term I will resurrect the old word "trimmers." That originally referred to those who would philosophically trim their sails at the first sign of politically rough weather, who were, to extend the imagery, brave enough in calm seas but unwilling to face the storm. Here, though, I'm looking to an ethical, even a moral, trimming, an unwillingness to go where the facts lead for fear, I strongly suspect, of giving a sort of political aid and comfort to the neocons.

We saw that same attitude during Vietnam, where significant parts of the antiwar movement were hesitant to, avoided, even outright refused to make any criticisms of the North Vietnamese or the PRG née NLF for fear of giving political succor to the Johnson-Nixon administrations. In the years since, we have still proven unable to realize that it is not necessary to choose sides in order to offer moral criticism - that, in the immediate case, criticizing Russia does not mean endorsing Georgia's actions and even less does it mean endorsing US policy in the Caucasus.

Am I making sense here? I fear that I'm not, so maybe a couple of examples will better serve to make things clearer.

Glenn Greenwald, for who I usually have enormous respect, described as a "deceitful premise" the idea
that Russia's "aggression" against Georgia was "unprovoked" ...

Virtually the entire rest of the world - at least the rest of the world that is affected in some way by Russia and Georgia - has access to the truth[, he said].
Just to be clear, the quotation marks around the words "aggression" and "unprovoked," a method normally employed to cast doubt on the truthfulness or accuracy of the words so quoted, were in the original. To be even clearer, Greenwald is saying that the Russians did not commit aggression and were provoked.

Curiously, the article from Der Spiegel (Germany) to which he links in order to show how "the world ... has access to the truth," a truth which we have been denied, contains this paragraph:
But now, five weeks after the end of the war in the Caucasus, the winds have shifted in America. Even Washington is beginning to suspect that [Georgian President Mikhail] Saakashvili, a friend and ally, could in fact be a gambler - someone who triggered the bloody five-day war and then told the West bold-faced lies. "The concerns about Russia have remained," says Paul Sanders, an expert on Russia and the director of the conservative Nixon Center in Washington. His words reflect the continuing Western assessment that Russia's military act of revenge against the tiny Caucasus nation Georgia was disproportionate, that Moscow violated international law by recognizing the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, finally, that it used Georgia as a vehicle to showcase its imperial renaissance.
The "truth" to which Greenwald evidently refers is that, according to the article, Western nations have begun to doubt if Georgia was simply, as it claimed, an innocent victim in the conflict. And yes, there is good reason to doubt that: The term "gambler" to describe Saakashvili has appeared in several accounts; the growing conviction is that he gambled that he could reassert control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia in a lightning move, thus presenting Russia (and the rest of the world) with a fait accompli that would serve to head off any reaction. That was a gamble, quite obviously, that he lost badly.

However, the point is that Greenwald's own source says that the judgment of Russia - that it engaged in "disproportionate" "revenge," violated international law, and "used" Georgia to demonstrate its own "imperial renaissance" - has persisted. Bluntly, to refer to such behavior not as aggression but as "aggression" and to imply everyone else also sees it that way is worse than absurd, it is itself a "deceitful premise."

Meanwhile, Tristero at Hullabaloo approvingly cites an article by Robert English intended to provide "background" to the conflict.
As usual, [Tristero says,] the reasons are far more complicated than the US public is permitted, by their mainstream media and leaders, to consider....
I'm not going to critique English's article; follow the links if you want to see it. Suffice it to say it does provide some additional background but suffers from the common defect of trying to "explain" the roots of a conflict by deciding when the clock of history is supposed to start - so that whatever has happened after that point matters but whatever happened before it doesn't.

My concern here is that Tristero echoes Greenwald's underlying point, which is to say, in essence, "well, ya know, it's really kinda complicated, we really don't know everything, y'see..." followed by a lot of words that add up to mumbles amid shuffling feet.

But as I said in a comment at Hullabaloo,
[a]ppealing to "complexity" is too often a way to avoid the difficulty of having to make judgments and frankly the story that Robert English tells is not that complex; rather it is one of one sort of oppression leading to another sort, of a victimizer becoming the victimized. That is neither a new, nor all that unusual an, experience over the course of history.

So the appeal to complexity appears unnecessary, and the "however"s and "but"s sprinkled through - such as the supposed necessity to "discern the difference" between "an offensive, 'neo-imperial' strategy and a defensive, 'anti-NATO' tactic" (as if that mattered to the dead) or the claim that Russia was "lashing out at the West" (as if the secondary target was a mitigating factor) or the assertion that "the attack was ... a preventive strike against two NATO bases-in-the-making" (even as we condemn the idea of such "preventive strikes" when done by the US) - do more to obscure than to reveal.
Again to be clear, I'm not accusing Greenwald or Tristero of being "pro-Russia" or any other such bullshit. I'm accusing them of going out of their way to dodge making a criticism of Russia, of refusing to condemn the brutality, of striking a pose of studied neutrality while reserving their real criticisms for Georgia supposedly to provide a sort of "balance" (of exactly the artificial sort that is condemned when the mass media does it) but actually, I say, to avoid giving political ammunition to the Bushes, McCains, Palins, and Krauthammers.

And it is that which makes them moral trimmers.

But that still leaves one other issue: if the attack on Georgia was "unprovoked" or not. And here I have to say that in fairness it could depend on your understanding of what constitutes a provocation. Or rather could have if Russia had acted differently.

Certainly Russia had made clear its interest in the region. And it needs to be remembered that the region in question is called South Ossetia because there is a North Ossetia which is part of Russia. Those of the south and north feel themselves to be one people and the Ossetians are ethnically and culturally different from Georgians. South Ossetia became part of Georgia almost by coincidence: When the Soviet Union broke up, the boundaries were set according to those of the old Soviet Socialist Republics - and the Georgian SSR included South Ossetia. Those of South Ossetia have wanted independence from Georgia (and possible unification with North Ossetia) for some time.

So when the Georgian military launched an attack seeking to retake control of South Ossetia, an attack which produced some tens of thousands of refugees, apparently included attacking a base for a Russian peacekeeping force in the region, and during which, it now emerges, it may well have committed war crimes involving deliberate targeting and indiscriminate killing of civilians, Russia might well have felt "provoked." (Sidebar: Georgia, of course, denies committing war crimes but in this case I trust the accusers far more than the accused.)

But while some would stop there, there is more, because the clock of history did not start in August: A report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe noted
the announcement made by the Russian authorities in April 2008 that they would establish formal relations with the separatist de facto authorities in Tskhinvali[, i.e., South Ossetia,] and Sukhumi[, i.e., Abkhazia,]
and that Russia had been building up its military forces in the region. What's more, the "Russian citizens" in South Ossetia to which some trimmers have referred were actually the result of Russia unilaterally bestowing such citizenship, which could then "be used by Russia to legitimise the use of force to protect its citizens."

In the face of that, it would be easy to conclude that it was Georgia, not Russia, that was "provoked."

Another thing needs to be remembered here: The attack on South Ossetia by the Georgian army was not an invasion. As brutal, oppressive, and stupid as it was, it was not an invasion. South Ossetia was by universal agreement among nations (including, at that time, even Russia) part of Georgia and a nation cannot "invade" its own territory. The Russian attack, on the other hand, was an invasion.

Even so, if the Russian attack had been limited to protecting and evacuating its peacekeeping force, it wouldn't have caused a stir. If it actually had been for, and limited to, the original (and false) claimed purpose of protecting Russians in South Ossetia, it might have passed muster. And if it had been a "humanitarian intervention" to prevent a slaughter, those who advocate such uses of military force could have approved.

But it was none of those. The invasion's intended beneficiary was neither South Ossetia nor the Russians there and by the latter I mean both the Russian troops and the Russian "citizens." It was Russia. Russia's advantage, Russia's gain, Russia's "imperial renaissance." Its original claims of 2,000 killed in the initial Georgian assault proved to be wildly inflated and the reported total has dwindled to no more than one-fifth that number and perhaps less than one-tenth. (Which in context is still, I hasten to note, a considerable number.) Its charges of "genocide" were based on fantasy if even that. Its invasion went far beyond South Ossetia, deep into Georgia proper, occupying cities, ports, and military bases, killing over 300 and driving over 125,000 from their homes in the process. And once Russia had control of South Ossetia, it was required under the Geneva Conventions - the same conventions to which many of us (including, frequently, Glenn Greenwald) refer in criticizing US actions in Iraq and at Gitmo - to take steps to prevent revenge ethnic cleansing against Georgians in the area. It utterly failed to do so: The same BBC article that described the Georgian war crimes also referred to
the systematic destruction of former Georgian villages inside South Ossetia.

Some homes appear to have been not just burned by Ossetians, but also bulldozed by the territory's Russian-backed authorities.
The Russian human rights groups Demos says that on a visit to the area its representatives saw "pillaging" by Ossetians of the homes of Georgians who had fled the fighting.

And now Russia is making what the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia says are "inflated" claims of Georgian ceasefire violations, violations it will not allow the EU monitors into South Ossetia to investigate and verify.

All wrapped up in a neat package by Russia's formal recognition of the independence not only of South Ossetia but Abkhazia as well.

Let's get to the bottom line here. What the Georgian government did in South Ossetia was, in the words of one British diplomat, "reckless." It was oppressive. It was brutal. It killed perhaps hundreds, drove thousands from their homes, and quite possibly involved war crimes. What the Russians did in Georgia was every bit as oppressive if not more so, every bit as brutal if not more so, every bit as cruel if not more so, and also illegal, a violation of international law. And any analysis that looks for ways to downplay Russia's behavior to avoid making any judgment about it - and even acts as if the Ossetians themselves played no part in events - is leaning more on ideology than information every bit as much as anyone who tried to make this into a hackneyed "David and Goliath" story.

The Georgian assault on South Ossetia was wrong. Morally and ethically wrong. The Russian invasion of Georgia was wrong. Morally, ethically, and legally wrong. I believe it is incumbent on us to, to the extent we address the matter, condemn both but in doing so to be prepared to label one side's criminality - Russia's - the greater. And if that gives comfort to the neocons, so be it or what happened to our fabled devotion to the truth?

Despite the moaning rising from too many places, I just can't see that as all that complex.

Footnote: As much as I hate the idea of citing something from the libertarian magazine Reason ("Free minds and free markets"), still, as the saying goes, "If it's true, what does it matter who said it?" In the mag's blog for Monday, Contributing Editor Cathy Young had a piece in response to Glenn Greenwald. You can judge the piece for yourself if you want, I just took away this one quote:
If the Bush administration gave the status of expatriate U.S. citizens to thousands of people in a separatist Iranian province and then used their "protection" as a pretext to invade Iran, would Greenwald see moral ambiguities in this situation? Somehow, I doubt it.
Oh, no, I'm sure he'd be going "well, ya know, it's really kinda complicated...."

Another Footnote: Talks on the situation in Georgia are set to resume in Geneva on November 18. Russia wants representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to attend as well. Georgia initially refused to agree to that, then said through a deputy foreign minister that
Georgia would be willing to participate in informal talks with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But he said "legitimate" authorities from the two regions would have to be at the table as well, meaning the officials recognized by Georgia.
Russia's response?
"If Georgia really refuses to participate in the Geneva discussions while South Ossetian and Abkhazian representatives attend, this is sad," [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov said. "It is an outright challenge to all those concerned about regional security."
An "outright challenge?" In the language of diplomacy, that constitutes a threat. Russia, poor, misunderstood Russia, which committed no "aggression" but was "provoked," is threatening Georgia with unspecified consequences if it doesn't attend a conference that, structured as Russia proposes, would put Georgia in the position of giving at least de facto recognition to the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

A Third Footnote: Just in case you thought I think US interests have nothing to do with this:
U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday signed documents to demonstrate American support for NATO membership for Albania and Croatia. ...

Bush also renewed U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine to join the NATO alliance. "Today I reiterate America's commitment to the NATO aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro," he said.

The Bush administration has been supporting Georgia and Ukraine's attempts to join the NATO alliance. "We see no reason that they shouldn't get MAP (membership action plan) status," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said earlier in the day.
France and Germany both oppose the move to have Georgia and Ukraine join.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

All good geeks...

Another old item but to cool to let pass.

Back in 1953, graduate student Stanley Miller and his advisor Harold Urey ran what became a very famous experiment. Methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water - believed at the time to be the major components of the early Earth's atmosphere - were placed in a closed system and subject to electric sparks intended to simulate lightning.
At the end of one week, Miller observed that as much as 10-15% of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids which are used to make proteins.
It was the possibility of an experimentally-demonstrated, entirely naturalistic/materialistic, origin for life on Earth.

Unfortunately, relatively soon afterward scientists came to believe that the mix of gases used was actually nothing like the early atmosphere of Earth, that instead that atmosphere, like that of Venus and Mars, was dominated by carbon dioxide. And so, while remaining iconic, the importance of the experiments faded.

But lo and behold there is, pardon the pun (it's the BBC's), "a new spark of life" in the experiments.
When Stanley Miller died in May last year, his former student, Jeffrey Bada, inherited his materials; including, it turns out, several boxes containing vials of dried samples from those 1950s experiments, and the accompanying notebooks.

"We started going through some of the stuff that was piled up in the corner, and here were several little cardboard boxes, taped shut and all dusty, carefully labelled with all of these little vials with dried material from his experiments," Professor Bada, of the University of California, San Diego, told the BBC. ...

Miller had revised [the initial] experiments by injecting hot steam into the gas mixture, so that conditions resembled those you might find in an erupting volcano.
The importance here is that while the overall atmosphere might not have looked much like that used in Miller's initial experiments,
conditions locally in volcanoes, says Professor Bada, might not have been so different. The trouble was, Miller published only the sketchiest of details of those tests, and the apparatus was lost. It had looked like a dead end, until those dusty boxes turned up with their 200 vials. ...

"[W]e found a whole collection, almost a complete collection, of the extract samples from the volcanic experiments. And so we just went at it, using the state-of-the-art techniques we have today and analysed these samples."
Not only did they find more amino acids than in the original, but they found a greater diversity of them as well: Miller found five amino acids; Bada's teams found 22.

What's more, the new results serve to answer one of the criticisms of the original experiment, that it used constant sparking and lightning storms are not constant at any point. However, volcanic eruptions are usually accompanied by violent electric storms and the same could have been true way back when.
"And so each one of those volcanoes could have been a little, local prebiotic factory[", Bada said. "]And so all of that went into making the material that we refer to as the prebiotic soup."
You want more? Two studies from 2005 concluded that the early Earth atmosphere was not dominated by carbon dioxide. One said it was up to 40% hydrogen
implying a more favorable climate for the production of pre-biotic organic compounds like amino acids,
and the other argued that
the early Earth's atmosphere was a reducing one, chock full of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor,
much more like that in the early Miller/Urey experiment.

Footnote the One: Admirably, Urey declined to be named as a co-author on the original paper because it would result in Miller, as a mere graduate student, not getting the credit he deserved. Instead, he pushed to get it published.

Footnote the Two: Just in case anyone is wondering, this has nothing to do with evolution, which concerns itself with how life changes and adapts, not with how it began. The study here is called abiogenesis (which literally means life without birth, i.e., life arising from non-life). And for those who follow such things, I say that panspermia does not resolve the question, it merely displaces it.

Footnote the Three: For any of you who try to suss out from where the titles of geek post come: While the overall pattern becomes fairly obvious over time, this one may be a bit subtle. So look here.

Before this gets too far away

The item is from four days ago, a generation in blog time, but I think it still deserves mention.
A new drug store at a Virginia strip mall is putting its faith in an unconventional business plan: No candy. No sodas. And no birth control. Divine Mercy Care Pharmacy is among at least seven pharmacies across the nation that are refusing as a matter of faith to sell contraceptives of any kind, even if a person has a prescription. ...

In Virginia ... pharmacists can turn away any prescription for any reason.
And the "reason" here is that they just don't like birth control. Oh, and in case you think this has nothing to do with the desire of conservative religious groups, specifically in this case including the Catholic Church, to dictate private behavior, especially sexual behavior, consider first that birth control appears to be the only area where this is an issue. Then consider that
[o]n Tuesday, the pharmacy celebrated a blessing from Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. While Divine Mercy Care is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, it is guided by church teachings on sexuality, which forbid any form of artificial contraception, including morning-after pills, condoms and birth control pills, a common prescription used by millions of women in the U.S.

"This pharmacy is a vibrant example of our Holy Father's charge to all of us to wear our faith in the public square," said Loverde, who sprinkled holy water on the shelves stocked with painkillers and acne treatments. "It will allow families to shop in an environment where their faith is not compromised."
The anti-freedom group Pharmacists for Life International says this is the seventh pharmacy to be "certified" as refusing to deal in birth control. The group also claims that hundreds of other pharmacies have similar policies. That, however, may well be the typical inflation of their own support in which anti-choicers routinely engage.

Virginia is one of four states that allow pharmacists to refuse on their own accord to fill prescriptions; at least seven other states have laws requiring pharmacists to fill prescriptions for birth control.

I originally wrote something about this back in May of 2004, warning then that it was foolish to believe the anti-rights brigade was only about abortion and not about birth control in general. At that time I quoted medical ethicist Linda Rankin as saying "When people take on the life of a pharmacist, they have to realize what might be asked of them."
They need to realize[, I said] - and damn well should realize - that filling prescriptions that might violate personal beliefs comes with the territory.
That is, it's part of the job. If you can't do it, you can't do the job and should find another line of work. I suppose that an argument could be made that a physician can pick and choose what prescriptions they are willing to write (although I don't actually see how in the absence of a specific medical reason that ability could apply to birth control) - but in any event the pharmacist did not write the prescription, they are filling it. And I say that unless there is a direct health-related reason (such as, for example, a potentially harmful interaction with another med the person is on) for doing so, they have no right to simply refuse.

A pharmacist who can pick and choose what prescriptions they will fill is like a soldier who can pick and choose when and where they will fight.

Let me be clear: I do believe in the right of individual conscience. I believe in it very strongly; in fact it is probably my most core belief. And I do believe in the right of what's called "selective objection" to war, that is, the right to regard a given war as unacceptably immoral without regarding all war as such. The point here is that if you are a soldier and such a war starts, you can't in good conscience continue to be a soldier and must leave the military.

Note well that I'm talking ethics here, not legalities: The military does not recognize selective conscientious objection and wouldn't allow you to leave for that reason and you would have to make the choice of how much to resist. But that restriction doesn't apply to a civilian job like pharmacist. Simply put and again, if you can't in conscience fill the prescriptions presented to you, you can't be a pharmacist.

Again, I do believe in the right of individual conscience. What I do not believe in is the right to impose that individual conscience on others in the expectation, indeed in the demand - and make no mistake, this is what outfits like Pharmacists for Life and the Catholic Church are demanding - that there will be, can be, no consequences to you for doing so.

Did you ever doubt it?

In Friday's New York Times, business writer Joe Nocera gives an account of a recording of an October 17 employee-only conference call at JPMorgan Chase. This was just four days after the feds had pumped $25 billion into the company. Near the end of the call, an employee referred to the funding and asked: “What effect will that have on the business side and will it change our strategic lending policy?”
The JPMorgan executive who was moderating the employee conference call didn’t hesitate to answer a question that was pretty politically sensitive given the events of the previous few weeks. ...

“Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously going to help the folks who are struggling more than Chase,” he began. “What we do think it will help us do is perhaps be a little bit more active on the acquisition side or opportunistic side for some banks who are still struggling. And I would not assume that we are done on the acquisition side just because of the Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns mergers. I think there are going to be some great opportunities for us to grow in this environment, and I think we have an opportunity to use that $25 billion in that way and obviously depending on whether recession turns into depression or what happens in the future, you know, we have that as a backstop.”
That is, he answered directly and bluntly that the money was not going to be used to open up additional credit but to buy more banks. In fact, Nocera says, at another point in the conference call this same executive said that “loan dollars are down significantly” and would drop further "as we continue to tighten credit.”

The whole effing business is not about homeowners, not about consumers, not about getting credit flowing again. It's about the damn banks.
Treasury wants banks to acquire each other and is using its power to inject capital to force a new and wrenching round of bank consolidation[, Nocera writes]. As Mark Landler reported in The New York Times earlier this week ... Treasury would even funnel some of the bailout money to help banks buy other banks. And, in an almost unnoticed move, it recently put in place a new tax break, worth billions to the banking industry, that has only one purpose: to encourage bank mergers.
As if specifically to prove the point, on Friday PNC announced it is purchasing National City - and the tax break will help to finance the deal by allowing it to deduct any losses on National City’s books. Plus, also to finance the deal, it is using $7.7 billion of the bailout fund. That money could have gone toward saving National City. Instead it's being used to, in effect, pay PNC to take it over.
I don’t know about you, [Nocera concludes,] but I’m starting to feel as if we’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Thanks to TalkingPointsMemo for the link.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Update to an earlier post, part two

An update to this post and this post from last week.

They fiddle... - Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai refused to meet with President Robert Mugabe on Monday because, it was said, he was furious that the government has refused to issue him a passport and provided emergency travel documents, good for just one trip, only the night before the scheduled meeting. His party called this an insult which could not be ignored.

On Tuesday, Tsvangirai hinted he might refuse to attend another regional summit scheduled for Monday, one aimed at saving the recent power-sharing accord, even though this one is to be held in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. A representative of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said the party was trying to decide if it could "trust" Mugabe.

However, on Thursday Tsvangirai confirmed he would attend.

So is the Mugabe government trying to gratuitously insult Tsvangirai? Quite possibly. Consider that he apparently turned in the document some months ago so pages could be added to it. The government, however, has not returned it, using the preposterous argument that it had run out of passport paper - even though ordinary Zimbabweans who are prepared and able to pay a high fee can get a passport within 24 hours.

How much of this on both sides is maneuvering during political hardball and how much is just dumb ego is hard to tell, but my money is on a fair amount of the latter.

...while their nation burns - In addition to the total economic collapse suffered by the people of Zimbabwe, there is a new affliction: cholera.
Eleven more people have died in a new outbreak of cholera, an acutely infectious disease, in northern Zimbabwe, state media reported on Tuesday.

The daily Herald newspaper quoted the local civil protection unit in the run-down former agricultural town of Chinhoyi as saying that the deaths had occurred in the last three weeks, while 500 had been treated for the disease.

Earlier in October, health officials confirmed that 16 people had died in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza on Harare's outskirts. ...

"The widespread outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases, including cholera, across Zimbabwe, resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of urban water supply and sanitation services will dramatically worsen with the rainy season which begins in less than a month," warned Gregory Powell, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Child Protection Society, warned.

"A toxic combination of under-nutrition and diarrhoea is likely to result in the deaths of thousands of children, and many more into acute, severe malnutrition."
This undoubtedly is part of the reason that Jacob Zuma, the head of South Africa's ruling African National Congress Party called on Mugabe and Tsvangirai to consider the plight of the poor in their discussions.
"I think what we can do is just to remind our brothers and sisters that, look, Zimbabweans in the meantime are suffering. Their suffering could only be relieved by them, and it is their responsibility as the leaders to ensure that they instill confidence to the Zimbabweans, even to their own leadership," Zuma pointed out.
I wouldn't hold my breath, Mr. Zuma.

Footnote: The wolves are circling, the snakes are coiling and hissing, just waiting for the moment to strike.
As the global financial crisis unfolds and more questions are asked about excessive deregulation, the World Bank and others are preparing economic policy prescriptions that will throw open Zimbabwe’s economy to the whims of the world markets. ...

Zimbabwe’s current political woes started after the government adopted a structural adjustment programme backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1990. The resulting socio-economic downturn culminated in large-scale job losses and a massive rise in the bread price, among others, which provoked social upheaval and, eventually, an electoral challenge to the ruling ZANU-PF.

It seems like déjà vu as various actors are gearing up with similar policies for the country’s "economic revival".
With the same sort of advice, specifically agreeing to "internationally accepted norms of sound macro-economic management," price and exchange rate "liberalization" (that is, no regulations, no price controls, no exchange rate controls), and respect for "property rights" (no land redistribution, no nationalizations, and, based on previous examples, slashed taxes and reduced public services) which includes "revisiting" a law that requires all businesses have at least 51% ownership by Zimbabweans - that is, open wide the doors to the same sorts of international investments that have drained other developing nations and thrust them into permanent debt.

Something about carnival sideshow barkers is running through my mind just now.

Update to an earlier post, part one

An update to this post from Friday.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose ouster in a 2006 coup amid charges of corruption and abuse of power initiated Thailand's on-going political crisis, has been convicted of graft for violating a conflict-of-interest law while in office, Reuters reported yesterday. The Supreme Court sentenced him to two years in prison.

Thaksin, who is living in exile in the UK, was tried in abstentia. The conviction
will add vigor to the street campaign trying to topple the present government led by his supporters, a protest leader said on Wednesday.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose supporters have occupied the prime minister's official compound since August, said the verdict vindicated their long-running campaign against Thaksin and what they call his puppet regime.
However, it's unlikely the conviction will bring any resolution to the crisis since Thaksin remains popular among rural voters and the poor while the current government, lead by his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat, is bitterly opposed by urban elites and the military.

Because we can always use some good news

Just last week I mentioned the renewed hope for the eradication of polio from Nigeria, one of just four nations in the world where it persists. But that's not the only killer that we in the US just never think about any more, in fact there's one that's much worse: malaria.

According to the World Health Organization's World Malaria Report 2008, about half the world's population was at risk for malaria in 2006. Half of the high-risk group within that group were in Africa. There were an estimated 247 million cases of malaria in 2006, with 86% of them in Africa. An estimated 881,000 people died of malaria that year, of which over 90% were in Africa and the vast majority were children under five.

So it was good to read this from Interpress News:
Hot on the heels of Mauritius, health experts predict Swaziland will be the second country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to eliminate malaria. ...

The SADC Malaria Strategic Plan - a malaria elimination programme that aims to wipe out the disease in the region - lists Swaziland, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia as countries where malaria elimination is possible. Swaziland is likely to be the first country of the four to reach this goal.

If Swaziland manages to eradicate malaria for three consecutive years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) will declare the country a malaria-free zone and issue a certificate of elimination.

Mauritius was the first SADC country to receive the certificate after the last case of malaria was reported on the southern African island in 1997. Mauritius was therewith the first country in the region to reach one of the Millennium Development Goals whose target it is to stop malaria by 2015.
And now it appears Swaziland soon be the second. It has already cut malaria cases from 45,000 in 2000 to less than 10,000 in 2007.

The strengthened program calls for better monitoring, the introduction of both improved medicines and rapid diagnostic tests to speed up the start of treatment, and - and this is the underlying horror of the whole business - mosquito nets.

Yes, dammit, mosquito nets. Plain old mosquito nets. Mosquito nets and insect repellent are two heavy-duty weapons against malaria and for the lack of them, hundreds of millions of people live at risk of contracting the disease because they are too poor to afford simple mosquito nets for their families. It is a shock and it is a shame to realize again how much could be done with how little.

Swaziland has just received a grant from the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria which it will use to expand its program of distributing the netting.
Last year, each homestead was given one net per pregnant woman and another one for children under the age of five. Now, the organisation aims to provide each person in a household with a mosquito net.

"Each household will receive three (more) nets, which should be enough because Swaziland has an average of six people per household," said [National Malaria Control Programme manager Simon] Kunene.
Anson Zwane of the WHO praised Swaziland for having already met a standard of cutting malaria cases by half, a goal previously set for 2010. But he had one concern: complacency, the fear that because of the progress, "policy makers might lose interest," figuring malaria cases would continue to drop on their own.

"That would be fatal," he said. In more ways than one.

Footnote: Nothing But Nets is a private nonprofit that raises money to buy and distribute mosquito nets in Africa. So far, nearly 750,000 such nets have been distributed across seven countries. Information is at the link.

Back to Afghanistan... say a plague on both their houses.

The government - Parwez Kambakhsh, a journalism student charged with the crime of blasphemy for asking questions in class about the rights of women under Islam, has been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

And that's the good news: This was a reduction in sentence from being executed.
Kambakhsh was studying journalism at Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and writing for local newspapers when he was arrested in October 2007.

Besides the accusation that Kambakhsh disrupted class with his questions, prosecutors also said he illegally distributed an article he printed off the Internet that asks why Islam does not modernize to give women equal rights. He also allegedly wrote his own comments on the paper.
He had thus, the accusation said, violated the tents of Islam. Under Afghan law, it appears that was enough to have him sentenced to death at his original trial last January.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the sentence, as did other human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.
[Kambakhsh's] brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, had written about human rights violations and local politics.

Ibrahimi told the AP on Tuesday that his brother was sentenced because of the pressure from warlords and other strongmen in northern Afghanistan, whom he has criticized in his writings.
When Afghanistan produced a new constitution in January 2004, I expressed some quiet hope that it would lead to a better future for the nation. But I also noted that the document said no civil law could be "contrary" to the "beliefs and provisions" of Islam and worried that might "set off land mines sometime in the future."
Few nations (actually, none spring to mind right now) have successfully combined a national religion with true political freedom[, I said at the time]. I can but wonder if Afghanistan will be the first. If it does pull it off, it will be a remarkable achievement.
The evidence to date does not support that hope.

The Taliban - Gayle Williams, 34, a worker with an inter-denominational Christian charity named SERVE Afghanistan (Serving Emergency Relief and Vocational Enterprise), was murdered Monday by two men who had been lying in wait for her as she walked to work. According to shopkeeper Mohammed Gul, an eyewitness,
"They knew what they were doing, they knew she would be there. She was hit many times on the chest and the body, no one could have lived after such an attack."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the murder of the "foreign woman."
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, declared that she had been executed "because she was working for an organisation which was preaching Christianity in Afghanistan".
Which in their view makes blowing her head off not merely justifiable, but, it would appear, an honorable thing to do. The fact that there is no evidence that Williams as an individual or SERVE as an organization "preaches" Christianity or attempts to convert Muslims was, of course, irrelevant. Such nuances always are to fanatics.

Fuck 'em all. And if it wasn't for the suffering of innocents, innocents who have nothing to do with either the government or the Taliban, I'd say all the aid agencies, every one of them, should just pack up and say "sit in your own shit, assholes."

Footnote: Interpress Service reminds us that
[t]he present U.S. policy in Afghanistan of using airstrikes to target local Taliban leaders was rejected by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in early 2004 as certain to turn the broader population against the U.S. presence
because of the inevitable civilian casualties they cause.
U.S. planes flew just 86 bombing missions in Afghanistan in all of 2004, but in 2007, the number of such airstrikes had risen to nearly 3,000, according to U.S. Air Forces Central Command figures.

The exponential rise in bombing continued in 2008. In the two months of June and July 2008 alone, the United States dropped nearly 600,000 pounds of bombs in Afghanistan - roughly equivalent to the total tonnage dropped in all of 2006 - according to statistics collected by Marc Gerlasco of Human Rights Watch.

U.S. airstrikes have generated a rapidly rising rate of civilian casualties, creating a political climate marked by increased anger toward the U.S. and NATO military presence, according to many Afghan and foreign observers.
They just don't listen, they just don't learn. Or they just don't care. Fuck them, too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Darfu - Darf - Where, you say?

Human Rights Watch has charged that the Sudanese government's supposed investigation into atrocities in Darfur is actually "window dressing" intended to block the investigations by the International Criminal Court.
On July 14, the ICC prosecutor accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of ordering his forces to annihilate three non-Arab groups in Darfur, masterminding murder, torture, pillage and the use of rape to commit genocide.

A panel of judges is deciding whether to issue an arrest warrant against al-Bashir.
Sudan has been trying to get the Security Council to block the proceedings on the grounds that its own courts can handle the matter. But HRW says that the Sudanese judiciary is not equipped to hold war crimes trials. For one thing,
Sudanese criminal law does not include crimes against humanity or genocide.

"Even if the government were serious about prosecuting Kosheib, limitations in Sudanese law mean that he could not be tried for the full range of crimes ... that have been committed in Darfur," said [Georgette] Gagnon[, Africa director at HRW].
What's more, Sudan only appointed its special prosecutor after the ICC charge against Bashir came down and the only result has been to say that a government-backed militia leader named Ali Kosheib could face a new trial. His first one was suspended indefinitely in March 2007; the government won't say what the charges might be. And there is no indication the prosecutor is going to go after Bashir.

HRW's statement is here.

Oh, and since I mentioned Afghanistan

NPR's show "All Things Considered" scotches the rumors that there have been peace talks between the Taliban and the government.
Last month during a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, [Fazl Hadi] Shinwari[, who is Afghanistan's senior cleric and advises President Hamid Karzai on religious and tribal affairs,] led an Afghan delegation to a dinner hosted by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Shinwari and others who were at the dinner insist there were no negotiations. They say there couldn't have been any talks because no current Taliban leaders were in attendance - only former Taliban officials attended.

But Shinwari says he did deliver a petition to the Saudi king asking that he broker peace talks between the warring sides.
What's more, he says that the two sides "have no choice but to talk" and that he has been in contact with senior Taliban leaders and there is even a proposal for a meeting in Dubai. However, Karzai insists there will be no meeting without US approval.

Leaving aside the obvious "so much for national sovereignty," what is the US position?
[T]he U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment.

But in a recent interview, Christopher Dell, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said negotiations could play a role in resolving this conflict.

"It's a brothers' war, and the brothers have to come to terms with each other," Dell says.

He says there are conditions. For one, the Taliban must lay down arms and accept the Afghan government. Secondly, talks must not hinge on power-sharing or ceding territory to the Taliban.

Dell also says anyone who is linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or who otherwise is on America's "Most Wanted" list - like Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, insurgent leaders, former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - should not take part.
Shorter Dell: The US will be willing to accept the Taliban's unconditional surrender.

Even so, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Guantanamo detainee and one of those at the dinner in Mecca,
says there are signs the Americans are softening. He points to recent comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the U.S. being prepared to reconcile with the Taliban.
Of course, there may be a good reason for that: The New York Times reported earlier this month that
[a] draft report by American intelligence agencies concludes that Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban’s influence there, according to American officials familiar with the document.

The classified report finds that the breakdown in central authority in Afghanistan has been accelerated by rampant corruption within the government of President Hamid Karzai and by an increase in violence by militants who have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks from havens in Pakistan.
Perhaps coincidentally (but perhaps not), this new National Intelligence Estimate isn't scheduled to be completed until after the November elections.

"It's your stinking pile now, suckers. Good luck!"

But yeah, a couple more combat brigades and some helicopters should serve to "accomplish the mission." Oh, here's a bit of free advice, Barack: Don't make any speeches about this from aircraft carriers.

Footnote to the preceding

A reminder, via The Guardian (UK) of what can happen when eliminationist rhetoric, particularly when coupled with economic stresses, reaches a critical mass.

Israeli journalist Yaron Svoray was researching a story on a hunting lodge of Hermann Göring when the local forester pointed something out to him.

It proved to be
a huge dumping ground for the destroyed remains of Jewish property plundered during Kristallnacht....

The site, which is the size of four football pitches, in Brandenburg, [Germany,] contains an extensive array of personal and ceremonial items looted during orchestrated nationwide riots against Jewish property and places of worship on the night of November 9 1938. It is believed the goods were brought by rail to the outskirts of the village and dumped on designated land. ...

Among the items [Svoray] found were glass bottles engraved with the Star of David, Mezuzahs, painted window sills, and the armrests of chairs found in synagogues. He also found an ornamental swastika. His search continues, under the protection of bodyguards after threats to his life.
According to British historian Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht
paved the way for the Holocaust, marking the moment when race hate became sanctioned by the German state.
We haven't gotten to that point, obviously, but while such hate (which here would be a mixture of racial and cultural) isn't technically "sanctioned" by the fanatics, the wingnuts, the reactionaries, it is clearly tolerated by them - and by the McCain campaign.

It's not that they want things to turn violent, it's more that they regard the people they're stirring up as useful idiots, to be manipulated to get their wingnut selves power and then to be kept on simmer until they're needed again. But there is a danger, always a danger, one that I think McCain momentarily realized before he thought "hey, I need these people," always a danger that when you generate a tide it can carry you to places you didn't want to go.

A few random thoughts about the election

Love it; it may be the only time.

1. I'm voting for Cynthia McKinney (that is, Green Party). I know some readers are voting for Nader and others for Obama, but I can't.

I voted for Nader in 2000 and 2004, a matter I've discussed repeatedly both here and elsewhere and I've no intention of getting into again. (If you really want to know all about it, do a search on "Nader" on this blog.) But I simply can't support him this time around.

There are two reasons: One is that, as someone else said before me, where has he been? The whole point of independent candidacies is to build alternatives to the Demopublicans. Running for president every four years does not advance that effort if you're not out there in the years between trying to build on whatever publicity and momentum the campaign generated. Nader has fallen clearly short on that account and I'm not interested in purely symbolic campaigns, especially when there are other solid lefties who are at least trying to build a strong third party. And two, if nothing else, his bizarre, last-minute injection of himself into the Terri Schiavo tragedy (he released a statement calling on the courts to require her feeding tube to remain in place) would have soured me on him.

2. As for Obama, when all is said and done, I have to admit I would prefer him to McCain. But I simply cannot generate any excitement about the prospect of an Obama presidency. For one thing, contrary to the notion of supporters, Obama would not withdraw US troops from Iraq. He'd withdraw combat troops and leave a "residual force" for counter-terrorism, "protecting American service members and ... training Iraqi security forces," a force the Iraq Study Group (which the Obama campaign claims "largely affirmed" his thinking on Iraq) estimated would run to the tens of thousands. And they would of necessity remain for an indefinite period.

And what would Obama do with the combat troops removed from Iraq? He'd send "at least two" brigades of them to Afghanistan. "We need more troops, more helicopters ... to accomplish the mission there," he said. That is, he'd draw down in Iraq in order to escalate in Afghanistan.

He also wants to, among some other desires,

- increase the size of the military by over 90,000,
- promote "agility" in the military (which in the past has served as code for being able to quickly intervene abroad),
- "preserve our unparalleled airpower capabilities to deter and defeat any conventional competitors,"
- increase "investment in advanced technology,"
- "recapitalize" and "modernize" the Navy,
- "add to the Maritime Pre-Positioning Force Squadrons" (that is, increase force projection), and
- "support missile defense."

Barack Obama is not a peace candidate. He's just a "I knew Iraq was a dumb idea" candidate. That's why people like Colin Powell and the several neo-cons who have endorsed Obama feel comfortable doing so: He's a reliable, accepts-the-common-wisdom, centrist who can be counted on to strive to continue the Pax Americana.

Add to that his support of the corporate bailout and his disgusting, craven, betrayal on FISA, and yes, I'd prefer him to McCain - in precisely the same way I'd prefer skin cancer to lung cancer. That's doesn't mean I'd have any enthusiasm about the former.

3. My memory of presidential campaigns goes back to 1960. (Technically, back to 1956 but those memories are very vague.) I think the worst, the most dangerous, the most criminal presidential campaign over that time was 1972: the campaign of Watergate, of (successful!) "dirty tricks" intended not just to screw with your opponents but to manipulate the entire political process.

On the other hand, I think the 2008 McCain campaign ranks as the lowest, slimiest, sleaziest, shabbiest, just cheap campaign in my memory. And if the eliminationist rhetoric and regional hatreds it has embraced and empowered can use the campaign as a springboard to a higher level of intensity, it could quickly become the worst.

4. One final note: I am flaming sick to death of hearing how this is "the most important election of our lifetime" particularly since this is at least the third consecutive election that same cry has been raised and at least the fourth time total (the other I recall clearly being 1984).

Footnote to the preceding, maybe it is that simple after all

According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, about 12 million US homeowners - nearly one in six - are "under water." That is, they owe more on their mortgages than their house is worth.

That compares to a figure of about 6.6 million at the end of 2007 and 3 million at the end of 2006.
"At the root it's 'the' problem," said Zandi. "If you're going to put your finger on the one thing that's gotten us into this fiasco, it's the fact that millions of homeowners are under water on their homes." ...

In a slowing economy, it doesn't take much to push an underwater mortgage into default.

"When you're under water and you have some kind of hit to your income or some kind of unintended expense, that's when you default. And so now we've got this noxious mix of millions of people under water and quickly rising unemployment," Zandi said. ...

While the U.S. government has focused its rescue on banks, it has done little to help individuals who are struggling to pay their mortgages, apart from the HOPE NOW program, which has facilitated a few hundred thousand mortgage restructurings.
This is despite the fact that nearly a third of homes purchased over the last six years - and nearly half of those purchased over the last three years - now have negative equity.
Steve Berg, a managing director at research firm LPS Applied Analytics, said mortgages originated in 2008 were on par or trending worse than those originated last year or in 2006.
In other words, it's getting worse. And instead of addressing "'the' problem," the government is shoveling money at the banks. Which thus remains a pretty fair indication of what and who is regarded as important.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A tale of them and us... one easy lesson.

1. AP reported on Monday that
[m]arkets in Asia, Europe and Latin America all rallied, inspired by the fall in interbank lending rates after governments and central banks in past weeks have cut interest rates while injecting huge sums of cash into battered banks and financial companies.
2. ABC News reported on Tuesday that
[b]ack in March, Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody's, said that only five states were in recession: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada.

Now, he said that 27 states are in recession and another 14 are near recession. ...

"In the past, in recessions, you saw people moving from areas that were hard hit, to areas that were holding up better, looking for jobs and better incomes," he said. "Now, there is nowhere to go."
That concludes today's lesson.

Footnote: Okay, maybe the lesson isn't quite that simple. From the BBC:
Asian stocks fell heavily on Wednesday following data from the US which renewed fears that the world's largest economy is heading for a recession.

Japan's Nikkei index was down 6%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index shed 2.9% and Korea's main share index dropped 5%.

The fundamental point that the banks are being propped up while we have "nowhere to go" remains. But I do have to admit it's not like the haves can breeze along totally unaffected by the state of the have-nots. As much as they'd like to.

The Geek from Another World

ABC News reports that India has joined the ranks of nation space explorers.
Chandrayaan-1 - which means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit - launched from the Sriharikota space center in southern India early Wednesday morning in a two-year mission aimed at laying the groundwork for further Indian space expeditions. ...

"It is a remarkable technological achievement for the country," said S. Satish, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, which plans to use the 3,080-pound lunar probe to create a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and what minerals are below. The mapping instruments are a joint project with NASA.
There's more to this than pure science; in fact, it's a competition where the prize is national honor, pride, recognition as an important nation in the eyes of the rest of the world - and the increased international financing for technological development that comes with that. China and Japan are also involved; both launched lunar orbiters a year ago.

Even so, even given the nationalistic drives involved, I still prefer to think about it in terms to the knowledge gained and say the more the merrier.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reach out and touch someone

Thanks to Tito at The Core 4 for the link to this creepy bit of news from the Gazette-Mail of Charleston, West Virginia:
At least three early voters in Jackson County had a hard time voting for candidates they want to win.

Virginia Matheney and Calvin Thomas said touch-screen machines in the county clerk's office in Ripley kept switching their votes from Democratic to Republican candidates.

"When I touched the screen for Barack Obama, the check mark moved from his box to the box indicating a vote for John McCain," said Matheney, who lives in Kenna.
It affected not only her vote for Obama, but for two seats on the state's Supreme Court; the machine canceled her second vote twice.

Thomas, for his part, said that for all three top offices - president, governor, and state senator - the machine moved his vote from the Democrat to the Republican. He said his daughter reported a similar experience.

Ultimately, all three were able to cast their votes the way they wanted, but Thomas, in addition to wondering why he wasn't warned of the potential problem, worried that other people might have had that happen and not noticed, as did Matheney.

Long-time readers are surely aware that I have repeatedly pointed out both proven and potential problems with electronic - touchscreen - voting machines and have called for an end to their use. In fact, I've had something like 40 posts on the subject, some of which are here.

But even beyond the very real risks of hacking and stealing of votes which they present, even beyond the demonstrated technological glitches which officials admit happen (In this case, they said the screens could have gone out of calibration when the machines were moved out of storage. Didn't anyone check before they were put to use?), probably the single most galling part of the whole business is the insistence by smirking election officials that all the problems are actually the voters' fault.

Matheney was told she was touching the screen too hard. Thomas was told to "Push it again." And Jackson County Clerk Jeff Waybright
blamed the problem on voters.

"People make mistakes more than the machines," he said, "but I went in yesterday and recalibrated the machines. We are doing everything we can not to disenfranchise anybody."
All right, two things should be made very clear here:

1. The machines are supposed to not make such mistakes. Waybright is admitting that they do. Deputy Secretary of State Sarah Bailey defended the process, saying "most" voting machines in "most" counties work properly. Not good enough, Deputy Secretary, not good enough at all.

2. A technology that by Waybright's own assertion leads to more mistakes by voters is a crappy technology that should be trashed.

And a third needs to be mentioned:

3. I'm really not much of one for conspiracy theories, I'm really not. But I can't help but wonder: Why does it seem that whenever we hear about a problem like this, it is the GOPpers who would benefit by it? Where are the stories of voting machines switching votes from Republicans to Democrats? Given a random distribution of machines and errors, it should happen about an equal number of times.

Shouldn't it?

Well noted, again

I made mention of this back in March, but he's updated it, so I will, too.

Reacting to the news that the Obama campaign had raised 150 hundred fucking million dollars in the month of September, August J. Pollak of Some Guy With a Website said this:
Rated to a monthly average, the following 46 countries have a Gross National Income of less than $150 million:

Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Sao Tome and Principe, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tonga, Guinea-Bissau, Vanuatu, Comoros, Dominica, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent, Equatorial Guinea, Grenada, Gambia, Liberia, Bhutan, Seychelles, Maldives, Djibouti, Cape Verde, Saint Lucia, Antigua, Guyana, Eritrea, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Belize, Suriname, Mongolia, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Lesotho, Tajikistan, Togo, Kyrgyzstan, Swaziland, Moldova, Chad, Malawi, Fiji, and Nicaragua.

Of that list, the first seven had a GNI of less than $150 million for the entire year of 2007.
As I said in March, I'll say again that the amounts of money raised for political campaigns is just obscene. And in all the horserace political coverage of who raised more than who when, no one in the media ever seems to say "They raised that much in one month? Holy fucking crap, this system is just bananas."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Speaking of the earth

A few recent environmental notes to wrap up the day.

Lead - The EPA set a standard for airborne lead exposure back in 1978. Since then, numerous - like 6,000 numerous - studies have shown that lead exposure is damaging to children at much lower levels; indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics says there is "no safe level of lead exposure for children." Even so, the agency resisted calls for a tighter standard.

But as the result of a court settlement of a suit brought by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the EPA finally had to act. So on Friday,
EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said he was lowering the current standard of 1.5 micrograms [of lead] per cubic meter of air to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. That figure was in keeping with the recommendations of both the EPA staff and the agency's independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, but the EPA's Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee had urged a sharply lower limit of 0.02 micrograms. ...

Environmentalists hailed the decision as a significant public health advance but questioned some aspects of the EPA's plans for measuring lead pollution under the new rule.
One specific concern is that half of the air-monitoring stations in the country have been dismantled over the last several years and more need to be set up. Another is that lead pollution levels will be measured
over three-month averages rather than the one-month averages the agency's scientific advisers recommended. Averaging the readings over three months, they said, would obscure spikes in pollution that could threaten children and adults.

Frank O'Donnell, who heads the public watchdog group Clean Air Watch, said "a three-month average would permit smelters and other lead polluters to belch high levels of lead periodically and still be considered legal."
Thanks to strict environmental controls, the average level of lead in the air has dropped 97% since the 1970s. But it accumulates in the environment and exposure is still high in urban, particularly poor and minority, areas. More than 300,000 children show effects of lead poisoning in the US. So this is good, but we've still got a ways to go.

For one thing, it will be October 2011 before the standards can be enforced because of the need to improve the monitoring network from the current 133 stations to over 300. At that point the EPA will designate which areas need to reduce their lead concentrations; those areas will have five years to comply - which means the even without delays, it could be October 2016, eight years from now, before the standards are fully in force.

Perhaps the best news out of the announcement, though, was that neither a last minute push by battery recyclers nor lobbying by the White House to cut back on monitoring even further succeeded in heading off the new standard.

Perchlorate - Earlier this month, the EPA
formally refused ... to set a drinking-water safety standard for perchlorate, a chemical in rocket fuel that has been linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women, newborns and young children.
The agency quietly issued a press release announcing the decision, claiming that levels of the chemical were low enough to be safe in 99% of public drinking water systems, so there isn't a "meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction" through establishing a national standard. Of course, the "safe" standard used in the final release is 15 times higher than what the agency itself proposed in 2002; by the earlier standard, 16 million people are drinking water that is unsafe due to perchlorate contamination.

And the decision comes in the wake of reports that
White House officials had extensively edited the EPA's perchlorate rule-making documentation to remove scientific data highlighting some of the risks associated with the chemical, which has been found in water in 35 states. The Defense Department and Pentagon contractors who face legal liability stemming from rocket fuel contamination have lobbied for six years to avoid a federal drinking-water standard for perchlorate.
Some environmental groups intend to sue in federal court in an attempt to get the rule overturned.

Beluga whales - Sarah Palin just can't get no respect, you betcha. In the face of opposition by the GOPper's nominee for Veep, the federal government declared on Friday that the beluga whales of Alaska's Cook Inlet - one of five beluga whale populations in Alaskan waters - are endangered and require additional protection.
"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] acting assistant administrator.
Palin, who had insisted that there was no scientific basis for the listing, won a six-month delay last April so that a new summer count could be included in the data. However, that count showed no increase over the 375 counted a year before and compared clearly unfavorably with the peak number of 653 in 1995.

Wolves - The northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf was returned to the endangered species list earlier this week as the result of a suit by twelve environmental groups.

In February, the feds had delisted the gray wolf in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, removing the species from federal protection for the first time since 1974.
[US District Court Judge Donald] Molloy's Tuesday order came at the request of federal biologists who acknowledged they had failed to prove the animal had fully recovered from near-decimation last century. ...

"The judge was pretty clear (we) were going to lose the case if we went forward," said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator in the Northern Rockies for Fish and Wildlife Service.
So they bailed.

Judge Molloy's order may also have been influenced by the fact that almost as soon as the wolf was delisted, Wyoming allowed them to be shot on sight and all three states planned public hunts. Molloy issued an injunction against the killing in July.

Federal officials say they intend to revamp their delisting proposal and reissue it in early 2009, again removing the federal protection.
Wolves had all but disappeared in the mainland United States by 1974. In 1995, 66 gray wolves from Canada were released in Idaho and near Yellowstone national park in hopes that their numbers would multiply.

There now are an estimated 1,200 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where wary farmers regard them as a threat to livestock.
That threat is often exaggerated and is built more on anecdote than actual study. In fact, it's likely that the image of wolf as livestock predator got its start when settlers pushing west killed large numbers of what would otherwise be prey for the wolves - such as deer, bison, elk, and moose - and then blamed the wolves when, lacking other prey, the animals turned to the sheep and cattle of the ranchers. It is also true that what are labeled wolf attacks are sometimes done instead by dogs or coyotes.

But perhaps the best evidence against the claim that wolves are a serious threat to livestock is the simple fact that if that were so, when they became a protected species and their numbers increased, the damage they inflicted on herds and flocks should have increased right along with that - and it didn't.

As long as I'm going to and fro in the earth

Burma - In a confirmation of pretty much everything we thought we knew about the government there,
[a] rat infestation so severe that an estimated 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation is devastating the Chin State in Western Myanmar, and the nation's government is doing nothing to help its people, according to activists fighting for aid.
It is, they say, a natural disaster turned into a human one by the government's "gross neglect."
[T]he phenomenon causing the famine is known as "maudam"- a happening that occurs about once every 50 years, in which flowering bamboo trees produce a fruit on which the rat population gorges. The last time it struck was in 1958, with other occurrences in 1911 and 1862.

Instead of cannibalizing their young for food, as these rats normally do, the bamboo fruit provides the rats with the means to multiply by the millions. And when there is no fruit left, the plague of hungry rats decimate rice and corn crops in Western Myanmar so much so that an estimated 200 villages of an estimated 100,000 Chin people are now without food. ...

Myanmar is not the only nation plagued by this phenomenon, but aid workers say it is the only one where no action is being taken by its government.
What's more, the food aid that does make it to the area doesn't always make it to the people who need it.
The [Canada-based] Chin Human Rights Organization reports that more than 450 bags of rice donated as food aid by the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of the Province of Myanmar in April were confiscated by the Burmese government. The group says this rice was then sold at an overpriced rate so that the local authorities could make a profit.
The Chin are not only an ethnic minority in Burma, they are a religious minority as well (Christians), making them twice targets of government repression and abuse.
"The Burmese government is among the most brutal in the world, with twice as many mistreated villages than are in Darfur and the Sudan," said [Jeremy] Woodrum [of the US Campaign for Burma]. "Having a natural disaster wipe out the Chin people, a detested ethnic and religious minority, serves the Burmese regime's interest."
Just over a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the protest of the monks in Burma against the oppression there. At the time, there was a call for people to light a candle in witness of support for them. After that movement was suppressed, I thought to myself that those monks are not the only oppressed people who need to be remembered, so I continued lighting a candle in a lantern on my porch every night. I still do it and will continue to, if only to keep reminding myself of what's important in this world - and frankly, how much Joe the Plumber pays in taxes isn't even on that list. But tonight I'm going to think particularly of the Chin.

Italy - Another nation is experiencing its Terri Schiavo. The nation in this case is Italy and Terri's place is taken by a woman named Eluana Englaro.
[She] has been in a vegetative state for 16 years and her father has led a protracted court battle to disconnect her feeding tube, insisting it was her wish. ...

Her father, Beppino Englaro, has said she had visited a friend who was in a similar condition shortly before her accident and had expressed the will to refuse treatment if in the same situation.
While Italy does not allow euthanasia, patients can refuse treatment and this summer a court in Milan granted the father's request to refuse treatment on behalf of his daughter,
setting off a political storm in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. ...

Catholic and anti-euthanasia groups protested the ruling by leaving bottles of water in front of Milan's Duomo cathedral. Prosecutors appealed the decision and the father pledged not to disconnect the tube before Italy's high court weighed in.
Events may make the whole thing moot, however, as the patient suffered a massive hemorrhage, threatening her life (if you can call what she has life in anything beyond purely biological terms). Doctors said the bleeding had stopped but if it started again she might not recover.

Italy again - File this under "Okay, at least we don't do that."

At a demonstration in Rome in July against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, popular comedian Sabina Guzzanti said, apparently in response to the church's campaign against various nations' laws allowing for same-sex marriage,
"Within 20 years the Pope will be where he ought to be - in hell, tormented by great big poofter devils, and very active ones, not passive ones."
In response, Rome prosecutor Giovanni Ferrara threatened to prosecute her for "offending the honor of the sacred and inviolable person of the pope." That's right, in Italy it is illegal to "offend the honor" of the Pope. The penalty is up to five years in prison.

In this case, the prosecutor decided against proceeding, despite the fact that organizers of the protest have distanced themselves from Guzzanti and members of Berlusconi's coalition have declared she should be prosecuted - the latter not surprising, since Berlusconi himself is a frequent target of Guzzanti's satire.

Part of the reason for that prosecutorial reluctance may have been Guzzanti's refusal to be intimidated - she said she was "honored" by the charge - and the fact that in the view of some legal observers, the Vatican, having injected itself into a political controversy, is as much a legitimate target as anyone else with the same view. Put another way, prosecutors may have decided not to pursue that case because they might well lose, and such a loss would damage the power of the law to intimidate others in the future.

Spain - As long as we're filing things, I suppose we can put this one under "More than one way to skin a cat."
A Dutch nonprofit organization is offering Spanish women free abortions on a boat anchored in international waters off Spain's coast.

The boat, operated by the abortion-rights group Women on Waves, arrived at the port of Valencia Thursday and began carrying out its first abortion procedures today.

Women who are less than 6½ weeks pregnant can board the boat, where they will be provided with free abortion pills under the supervision of a licensed gynecologist, said Rebecca Gomperts, Women on Waves' founder and director. ...

Abortion is illegal but decriminalized in Spain. Spanish women are allowed to get the procedure only in specific situations, including when carrying a baby to term is deemed dangerous to the mother's physical or mental health.
The boat docks, picks up pregnant women seeking abortions along with a larger group of nonpregnant women to provide cover, sails out beyond Spain's territorial boundaries, and administers the medications. The procedure is then repeated.
Sailing out to international waters allows Women on Waves to circumvent Spanish abortion laws when performing the procedures because more lenient Dutch standards apply when the ship is anchored outside of national territories. ...

The ship's arrival has sparked fierce protests in traditionally Catholic Spain. ...

"They even tried to stop the ship from mooring," [Gomperts] said of the protesters. "There were two small boats in the harbor trying to prevent us from docking. There was a bit of a struggle. But we managed to do so anyway." ...

In previous years, the so-called "abortion boat" has traveled to waters off the coast of Ireland, Poland and Portugal, causing widespread protests in each case.
In the case of Portugal, the government sent two warships to keep the boat away. Since that time, however, abortion has become legal in Portugal.

Thailand - The position of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat seemed shaky in the face of mass protests and a suggestion by the commander of the army that he resign over the deadly force employed by police to break up an anti-government protest on October 7.

Protesters had tried to prevent Somchai from delivering a speech to Parliament. Police used force to clear the streets, leading to violent clashes and rioting that left two people dead and over 400 injured.

Somchai has dismissed calls he resign, but suggested he might do so depending on the result of an investigation of the violence. A special panel is to release a report within the next two weeks.

Thailand is entering a third year of political upheaval:
A September 2006 military coup ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire, accused of corruption and abuse of power. An interim government was appointed but proved unpopular and incompetent.
Samak Sundaravej was elected prime minister in December 2007 by running as a proxy for Thaksin, who was in exile and banned from politics. Samak was forced out last month
for accepting money for hosting a TV cooking show while in office, which a court ruled an illegal conflict-of-interest.
He was replaced by Somchai, but
[t]he anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy has been seeking Somchai's resignation because they regard him as a puppet of Thaksin, who is his brother-in-law.
Somchai's party is popular in the countryside but is opposed by
the alliance and its sympathizers - monarchists, the military, the urban elite. [Plus, s]everal legal cases pending against him and his party also could force him out of office.
And in the midst of this, the military has stated a position: Somchai should go. While the commander, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, dismissed the possibility of a military coup, others are not so sure.

Oh, crap

Well, that didn't take long.
Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said he has failed to agree on a new cabinet at power-sharing talks with President Robert Mugabe[, the BBC reports today].

After a fourth day of negotiations in the capital, Harare, Mr Tsvangirai said he and Mr Mugabe had agreed to refer the dispute to the Sadc regional group.

SADC is the Southern African Development Community. Maybe they'll have better luck there but so much for my limited optimism.

The earlier report I quoted yesterday indicated that on major ministries, Mugabe was only willing to concede on Finance, but MDC said his Zanu-PF party should not control both Defense (and thus oversee the military) and Home (and so be in charge of police). If that is indeed the point of breakdown, I really don't see where they can go short of one side or the other simply conceding the point - which I don't see either doing.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Planet of the Geeks

In a development that raises new hopes for people who have suffered strokes and spinal cord injuries, monkeys that were taught to play a computer game were able to overcome wrist paralysis with an experimental device that enabled them to use the paralyzed muscles via the activity of a single brain cell.

(I hasten to add that the paralysis was induced with anesthesia and was temporary.)

The monkeys were taught to play a computer game that involved moving a cursor to a target. They had a hand placed on a flat surface and learned to control the cursor's movements by pressing down with their palm or up with the back of their hand.

A probe had been placed in each animal's brain to monitor the firing of a single brain cell. After the hand was anesthetized, the firing of the cell was used to send electrical stimulation to that monkey's wrist muscles.

This method of generating movement is known as functional electrical stimulation, or FES.
Partially paralyzed people use FES devices now to let them stand, walk, use their arms and hands, and do other things. But they control those devices by flicking a switch, moving joints or tensing a muscle - even, say, the muscle that enables them to wiggle an ear.
But such options are limited for, for example, quadriplegics, who have comparatively few muscles they can control. The point here is that the monkeys quickly learned to control the firing rate of that brain cell to direct the movements of their hands and continue playing the game. The researchers even found that the device could use brain cells that normally had nothing to do with wrist movement.
So a large untapped pool of brain cells may be available for letting paralyzed people do things like grasping a coffee cup or brushing teeth, [study co-author Chet] Moritz said.
Dawn Taylor of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who studies the concept of using brain signals to overcome paralysis, called the results "an important step forward."

On the other hand, of course, even such simple things as holding a cup or brushing your teeth are a good deal more complex than merely moving a hand up or down and would require considerably more complex monitoring of a good number of brain cells - and would then depend on the brain's ability to coordinate all those signals. That's hardly out of the question: Simply walking requires a good deal of muscular coordination by the brain so that it won't be said of us "he's no fun, he fell right over."

But the truth remains that "the approach is years, if not decades, away from use in people" according to Moritz.
"There's a long ways to go, and there's no way to say with confidence that it will work," Moritz said. ...

Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, who has used brain signals to enable monkeys to control robot arms, said he considered the new work a modest advance, noting hurdles that remain.
But that's just a bunch of buzzkill and for now, instead of contemplating the hurdles, I'm going to contemplate the vision of quadriplegics someday running the hurdles.

Noted in passing

ABC News breathlessly reports that
American soldiers killed the alleged No. 2 leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, a Moroccan who trained in Afghanistan, recruited foreign fighters and ran operations in northern Iraq where Sunni insurgents remain a potent threat, the U.S. military said Wednesday. ...

The death of such a senior al-Qaida leader will cause a major disruption to the terror network, particularly in northern Iraq, where the movement remains active, the military said.
Isn't this like the 50th "No. 2 leader of al-Qaida in Iraq" that we've killed? And isn't it like the 100th "major disruption to the terror network?" Just how the hell many "No. 2 leaders" do those folks have, anyway?

Footnote: I know I've been MIA on Iraq recently; I hope to correct that very soon.
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