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Torture is a Crime Against Humanity

The current torture scandal in Britain is about how they were willing to use information extracted in Uzbek prisons. Britain, too, has legal beagles to pretend it’s all okay. In their case, it’s supposed to be okay so long as it’s not used in evidence. /Holds head with both hands to prevent explosion./

The British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, protested against this practice until his government decided to remove him from office. He has a book ready for publication on the subject of Britain’s role in using torture. It has to be vetted by the UK Foreign Office. Instead of doing that, or pointing out any bits they object to that compromise national security, they have told the former Ambassador that he may not publish at all, and that all copies are to be destroyed.

Right. Britain, the first nation to have anything like the Magna Carta, the first to have habeas corpus, has decided free speech is inconvenient. So copies of Murray’s unpublished work are multiplying all over the world, to make sure it can’t be suppressed. Please download it to your site and include it in your blog, if you have one.
Please let me know in comments or by email if the links no longer work, and I’ll post copies from another server.

Folks, I got up on this soapbox because I couldn’t just sit there when the Abu Ghraib disgrace came out. I had to do something, even if it’s kinda useless in the real world. Unfortunately, I have a very vivid imagination, and I can’t deal with the news about torture. I literally wake up at three in the morning, listening to screams I can’t hear. So I haven’t read any of this. I’m afraid of clicking on the links. But the word just has to get out there.

More information here:

Links from: King of Zembla, a href=”″ Boiling the Messenger [2014-05-14: link now inactive]

Technorati tags: human rights, crimes against humanity, Craig Murray, torture, Uzbekistan

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Globalization for me but not for thee

Globalization is good. Regions adept at making thingummies can use their natural advantages to produce them cheaper than anyone else, efficiently saving everyone money.

Globalization is bad. The regions outclassed in thingummy production lose their livelihoods, and factories can flit around the globe, escaping labor and environmental laws.

Neither of these problems is new. Only the scale is different. In the Middle Ages, a mass of fiefdoms ringed the Baltic and fought all the time, although nominally they were all part of the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, traders among the independent cities of the area formed the Hanseatic League for profit and protection, and were actually more powerful than many of the area governments. Global corporations are different only in scale, and in their expectation that governments will provide protection.

Getting rich is conceptually simple. One buys low and sells high. The traders or corporations, by having more mobility than average citizens, are able to make money off of regional disparities in pricing. If you or I could hop over to Western China for a couple of dollars, we could buy the t-shirts Walmart makes there for the cheap local price and cut Walmart out of the process entirely. We can’t, so Walmart makes money by buying low and selling (relatively) high.

There is a technical term for making money from pricing disparities that really shouldn’t exist, according the economic theory. (In that particular fairyland, everybody has access to all goods and to the same information, so overpriced goods are immediately outcompeted.) In the real world, disparities always exist. The technical term for profiting by them is arbitrage, the idea being that you “arbitrate” or balance between the two unequal situations. Walmart arbitrages the cost of living in China versus that in the US.

According to economic theory, arbitrage is a good thing because it removes disparities, makes markets more efficient, and generally makes it easier to fit economic activity into a mathematical equation, which is (apparently) the point of the dismal science. Somewhere, there is someone with tenure who thinks that sweatshops in the Third World will increase local wealth to the point where everyone becomes middle class and the disparity ceases to exist.

If arbitrage is such a good thing, then why doesn’t everyone get to participate? Walmart can do it, but the Chinese woman in the company’s factory, who’s quite willing to arbitrage her modest wage demands against the higher expectations of workers in, say, New York, is not allowed to. It’s the exact same thing. The only difference is that it’s a poor person taking advantage of disparity rather than a rich person. Globally, workers are in the same position as medieval serfs, but on a different scale. They’re tied to their land and not allowed to move to better markets for their labor.

Obviously, if everyone willing to work for next-to-nothing were to flood into the high-wage West, it would be the end of life as we know it. However, if everyone were to turn themselves into Walmarts, that situation would also fall apart immediately. The benefit in these things depends on most people being unable to do them. It’s true of labor, but it’s equally true of the corporations. If it’s okay for them, it has to be okay for everyone. If it’s not okay for poor people to end life as we know it, then it’s not okay for the corporations either.

Labor isn’t the only thing whose globalization runs on different rules than that of corporations. Products people buy, rather than those businesses sell, are also not to be globalized. US citizens are not to take advantage of a better health care system in Canada and buy cheaper drugs there. You’d think the economists would be pleased at this free market pressure towards reform of the US system, but they’re oddly silent about the merits. US college students aren’t supposed to buy half-price textbooks in England. The list of anti-globalization measures for consumers could go on for pages, and it’s promulgated by the same outfits who insist that completely free markets are the only fair way to treat corporations.

It doesn’t take much for the pattern to show through. Globalization is used to mean “I want to make as much profit as possible.” Add in the consistency with which “globalization” is used to evade the most basic environmental and labor laws, and it is screamingly obvious that the term is a euphemism. Dishonest business practices are not exactly a new thing. The people protesting globalization at the trade talks aren’t really protesting globalization. They’re protesting greed. Let’s keep these things straight. Then we may have a snowball’s chance in a temperate zone of using globalization to provide wider markets for everyone. (Imagine what an African villager could do with a web connection and reasonable local transport). And we may do it without all becoming wage slaves living in cesspools.

Technorati tags: globalization, free markets, labor market, slave labor, environmental laws

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Personal Carbon Credits

I just saw this on the BBC. I have to say that as a pointy-headed leftie, I agree with those who think a straight carbon tax is the simplest and most effective way to go. But the carbon credit idea may actually be politically feasible, and it would be way better than nothing (and way, way better than the SUV subsidies the US currently has).

The idea is the same as corporate carbon trading. Everybody gets their allotment, those who use less can sell what they don’t need, and those who use more have to pay for it. The environmental part comes in because the allotments shrink over time to meet carbon reduction targets. Suddenly, there will be consumer pressure for devices that actually turn all the way off, for “moneymaking” cars, for public transportation. (Hyperventilates)

It’s worth reading the details. The concept started with David Fleming and “Tradable Energy Quotas.” ( The Tyndall Centre in the UK is applying the idea to Britain, in work done by Richard Starkey.

Technorati tags: global warming, carbon credits, decarbonisation

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Copyright, copyleft, copy everything

Ownership vs. creativity. We’re going to have to decide why we protect intellectual property. Is it to own ideas? Or is it to reward creativity? Copyright and patent law are supposed to do both, but new technologies make them do neither. Worse yet, technology is making creativity incompatible with the ownership model.

As a creative type, I’m supposed to be all for ownership, and yet I find the concept of owning ideas ridiculous. All ideas stand on a stage built of other ideas, even when they’re as great a breakthrough as Einstein’s famous equation. Yet the partial interest of the “minority shareholders” is not recognized. How can a property right be justified that is based on stealing other people’s property rights? On the other hand, if having a hand in creating something does not confer rights, then the main creator doesn’t have any either.

The absurdity of treating ideas as property is evident in other ways. There is no relation between the usefulness of an idea and its level of protection. The equivalence of mass and energy was never patented, but one-click shopping was not only patented, it was litigated. This is not a simple matter of one being a discovery and the other an invention. Genetic engineering is based on decoding DNA. Not inventing it. Decoding it. The discoveries of the genetic engineers have been patented for no other reason than the widespread ignorance about what workers in white coats actually do. People were at least as ignorant about what Einstein was doing, but he didn’t think to hire a team of lawyers because of it.

Further, if an idea can be owned, what does that mean? If a piece of music is sold, some part of the rights used to be sold under what was called the “fair use” doctrine. The buyer had control over it similar to their other property. But recently a “no use” doctrine seems to be gaining currency. You may buy it, but every time you want to use it, you should pay again. Ownership becomes meaningless.

There is neither rhyme nor reason regarding which ideas become property, which don’t, what they cost, or who pays for them. The operating principle seems to be, “You pay for it because I grabbed it first.” This may be expedient, but it is not valid. Capitalism is not actually supposed to be a criminal enterprise based on might making right.

Creations are, in essence, ideas trapped in three dimensions. They’re really more like thoughts than things, and they share the traits of other intangibles, such as hope, love, truth, beauty, or justice. These simply are not property, they can’t be owned, and any attempt to buy them changes them into something worse than worthless. Information doesn’t just want to be free. It has to be.

Beans can be counted. Ideas can’t. The ownership model suffers from the delusion that in a perfect world there would be a one-to-one correspondence between payment and product. But when the product is an idea, you might as well try to count moonbeams. Creations travel with the speed of thought, literally so in an electronic age. Slowing them down enough to corral them and limit their spread reduces the number of people who can benefit from them. This is not in the interests of consumers, who lose out, nor is it in the interests of creators, if they’re paid based on how many people use their product. The only reason it seems like a good idea is that we don’t know any other way to do it. That is a failure of imagination, not a proof of effectiveness.

The actual point behind payment for intellectual property is that the most useful “properties” should yield the greatest return. Our current system is very far from giving the biggest rewards to the people who create the value. The artist or inventor is generally the last one in the food chain that depends on their work, and as often as not they miss out on the distribution entirely. If our current system can miss its point so badly, and yet be seen as having merit, then any distribution of royalties that does a better job of accruing to the creator, even if it is imprecise, would be an improvement. As a matter of fact, it is *easier* to reward creativity if the ownership model is abandoned in favor of limited creator’s rights.

What we need is a method of figuring out how widely used a product is. That is a *census* issue, not a sales issue. Methods of estimating flows have grown very sophisticated. Wildlife biologists have techniques to estimate migrating populations of animals. Traffic engineers do the same with cars. Telephone companies have ways of estimating the flow of calls.

Similarly, software usage, movies, music, games, and anything that moves over the net could be censused as it goes by. Product headers (such as the “created with the Gimp” embedded in graphics files made with that program) are another source of usage data. Automated spot check queries could go out to computers, phones, or wifi players asking users if they would mind a poll of the software in use on their machine. There could be self-reports, like the Nielsen ratings for tv, to estimate usage of other popular items.

A program that is used daily, a song that is shared all over the world, all kinds of increased usage then help rather than harm the creator. Users don’t have to pay each time their eyes rest on a screensaver, but the most popular screensavers provide more money anyway. People whose function is packaging rather than creating, movie producers, publishers, agents, and the like, could contribute to a finished product the same way they do now, although their strategic significance in the process would probably change.

Payment. How would the user pay if usage and payment are separated? The answer seems obvious to me: by including a royalty fee in the sale of anything involved in using or enjoying the fruits of someone’s creativity. Memory, computers, displays, phones, routers, the list is quite long, and some percentage tacked on to each one could provide the funds that are then divvied up based on the census. This has seemed like the logical solution to me for years, and I heard somewhere that the Dutch are actually trying it. However, they missed on one important point. Artists who want to participate have to sign up and pay a fee. Needless to say, the type of starving artists who need the system most are not in it.

A census method would solve almost all of the problems that plague the current system. Ever since the printing press made it easier to share ideas, sharing has been known to generate incalculable social value. If information were set free, we could concentrate on creating that value instead of bogging down in futile attempts to count usage by hijacking computers. Creators could concentrate on creating instead of wresting royalties out of megacorporations. It’s true that people would not get paid for every single copy of their work, but they don’t now, either. Under a census system, most people would get paid a lot more than they do now. As a matter of fact, the only ones who would lose big are the megacorporations themselves. And that, of course, is such a minor objection that we should see an open and rational system in place any day now.

Update, March 5, 2006

Dream we dream together is reality. (Yoko Ono)

From the BBC report on French filesharing legalization:

MPs introduced an amendment which would authorise internet file-sharing by setting up a “global licence” system.

Users would pay a few euros a month to download as much music or film material as they wanted, with proceeds going to the artists.

Socialist MP Patrick Bloche helped draft the amendment.

He argues it makes no sense to treat several million French internet users as potential offenders.

“Rather than outlawing, punishing, and paradoxically maintaining to a certain extent an illegal system,” he says, “let’s make a different choice: authorising peer-to-peer downloading, but in return, putting in place a system allowing artists to be paid.”

Technorati tags: copyright, copyleft, creative commons

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Do we need it? Yes. Is California the place to start? Hell, no. As Brad Plumer pointed out (here and here), Texas is carved out into something that helps the Republicans control the whole national House of Representatives. Meanwhile, in California, we’re supposed to go all impartial.


If redistricting is important–and it is–then let’s start in the places with the worst abuses. They’re not hard to find. At a minimum, start with Texas. Then we’ll talk.

Redistricting was intended as a way of adapting to changing numbers of voters. It has turned into a travesty of democracy where the voters no longer choose the politicians. The politicians now choose their voters. (Discussed also in an earlier post, Democracy Doesn’t Work.)

That obviously has to stop, but who should be drawing the new districts, if not the corrupt politicians who caused the problem?

Redistricting is a mapping problem that uses statistics. What you’re really trying to do is find the most compact regions that have approximately equal numbers of voters, with allowances made for geography, ease of access to polling places, and the like.

Retired judges (who were to be the experts in the California initiative Prop. 77) don’t necessarily know anything about mapping or statistics. I’m not sure why anyone would consider that districts drawn by one set of amateurs (judges) will be better than those drawn by another set (politicians).

Districts should be redrawn by mousy bureaucrats in the US Geological Survey, people who actually do this sort of thing for a living, people who know how to use GIS (geographical information systems). To make sure the scientists haven’t been suborned in some fashion, one could have three sets of redistricting maps: one by the USGS, one by left-leaning GIS experts (Harvard?), one by right-leaning GIS experts (Brigham Young?), and then let the retired judges choose between them.

Note that nobody will do it this way. It doesn’t allow enough wiggle room away from the original intent of the framers of the Constitution.

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Global Warming: the dog that doesn’t bark

Inspector Gregory: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The analogy to global warming is that those who can understand the evidence, even when it doesn’t make obvious noise, understand the problem. Those who don’t, don’t.

Where’s the proof?

Hurricanes, fires, and droughts notwithstandng, the evidence for global warming lies in statistics. No single weather event can be pinned on global warming, any more than a specific price increase at a specific grocery store indicates inflation. Next summer could be the coldest one on record, and yet it would neither prove nor disprove the existence of global warming. Because specific events can always be found that contradict the general trend, it feels like statistics prove nothing, and since statistics are the only evidence for global warming, it feels like global warming has no proof.

But, actually, statistics do sort of prove things. Let me explain.

Statistics aren’t proof in the common meaning that there is 100% certainty. However, in day-to-day life we make almost every decision without proof. Which college to go to, which presidential candidate to vote for, which house to buy, which job to take, these are all things with elements of uncertainty where we place bets and hope for the best.

Depending on the consequences of betting wrong, we’re less tolerant of risk. If my house turns out to be on top of a superfund site, and that means I have 20% excess chance of getting leukemia, I won’t wait till I get leukemia before moving out. That kind of certainty, I don’t need.

Statistics can indicate which bet we’re likeliest to win, and it can do so to a much, much higher degree of certainty than we have in almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives. How many people wait to invest in a mutual fund until they are sure it has a better than nineteen to one chance of exceeding its previous returns? That’s the standard of acceptability in biological sciences. After the study has been confirmed many times, it’s considered very likely to be right. “Very likely” in that case would be more like several hundred to one. That kind of certainty about a mutual fund would make it a better bet than US Treasury bonds.

On the other hand, statistics can also be used as in the phrase, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” This, however, isn’t the fault of statistics, any more than Latin is at fault when a priest puts one over on us by speaking authoritative gobbledygook. The difficult part, for those of us whose statistical abilities are nonexistent, is to evaluate when the numbers are being used truthfully, and when not.

It’s not as difficult as it might seem, although you’re on your own to figure it out. The media don’t help at all. Dramatic tension, which packs in the viewers, requires opponents, so the media will find opposing points of view even if there’s only one and a half scientists on one side, and 99,999 on the other. (Yes, I’m thinking of the “intelligent” design vs. evolution debate.) Although the media ignore it, the consensus among independent scientists is the main indication of whether scientific conclusions (which are always based on statistics) are lies or good guesses. Keep an eye out for boring statements like “95% of scientists think X, 3% think Y, and 2% are on sabbatical.” X stands an extraordinarily good chance of being true in that case. With that kind of informed consensus on a stock market tip, you could bet the farm and win.

In the case of global warming, there are two layers of statistics. There are the numbers concerning temperature, ice melting, ocean currents, carbon dioxide sequestration, and so on and on and on. Then there are the numbers of scientists who are convinced by the research that global warming is in progress, and that it is due to human activities. In recent years, the number of scientific specialists convinced by the research has grown vast. It’s near 99%. You can bank on that type of consensus, especially when the opposing voices are loudest among those funded by Big Oil.

Global warming is happening, and it’s due to human activities.

What does global warming mean?

The other problem with perceptions of global warming is the inability to understand what it means. We hear numbers like “five degree average rise in global mean annual temperature,” and our eyes glaze over. Five degrees? Good grief, we think. We won’t even have to turn up the a/c.

Not so.

Keep in mind that the last Ice Age represented approximately 7C drop in temperature. Mean annual temperature is a meaningless number, just as the average height of human beings tells you little about the height of, say, your uncle. The mean rise is composed of much warmer temperatures in the hot, dry interiors of continents. Texas, for instance, could go from having summer highs of 105F to 120F. That’ll do a lot more than raise electrical bills, or even than increase deaths among vulnerable people. Crops won’t grow well in that kind of heat, and will require massive irrigation. Cattle will die. And wildlife will be decimated. Before you think that’ll be the least of our worries, remember that insects are wildlife too. And if the natural enemies of, say, mosquitoes, are gone, we’ll have clouds of mosquitoes and of the diseases they carry. Start with malaria, go on through dengue, and you start to get the picture.

Ocean levels will rise, even if there is no ice melting (and there is ice melting). Air expands when heated, and so does water. The effect is miniscule on the scale of a pot of water, but it is huge on the scale of an ocean. Expected rises in temperatures are projected to lead to about a meter rise in sea levels, based on thermal expansion alone. This is not a calm process where every year things just seem to get a bit damper underfoot if you live in Miami. What happens is that one day a storm blows through and floods occur where they didn’t before. There is no effect if the flood doesn’t happen to soak you. If it does, your whole livelihood, even your life may be destroyed.

There is no comfort in the fact that even awful local disasters are overcome, in time. The point with global warming is that there will be more frequent and larger disasters, and sooner or later, nobody will be immune. After Hurricane Katrina, Rita would not have weakened (because the warmer water near Texas would have sustained it). Then a Category 5 would have taken out Galveston. Imagine, a week later, if another Category 5 had taken out Miami. At 200,000,000,000+ in damages for each one and the two major centers of energy production decimated, there would have been a national recession. That would affect everyone.

So far, I’ve sketched out famine, pestilence, and flood as consequences. War wouldn’t be far behind. The people displaced by catastrophe will try to move to places where they can survive. Other people will try to replace resources lost in disasters by taking them from someone else. People who lose their living may become entrepreneurial robbers or meth cooks. The politicians will be “realistic” and “tough-minded” and will make the “hard choices” involved in dealing with the situation “as it is now.” They’ll be too busy selling wars to waste money on switching over to non-carbon energy sources and to removing carbon from the atmosphere. (If you can think of current examples of these future scenarios, there’s a good reason for that. The process has begun, and the future has arrived.)

Not all places will grow hotter. Some will become colder. There are several indications that global warming could cause the Gulf Stream to stop flowing. Europe would look like Newfoundland, or colder. That would have a massive economic and agricultural impact. It wouldn’t mean much to them that the global mean annual temperature was actually up.

And that was the good news.

The bad news is what happens if global warming spirals out of control. Venus is described as a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect. Earth is too far from the sun to have a surface temperature of 890F. But 200F would be plenty bad enough. Vast quantities of carbon are fixed in arctic peat bogs. The permafrost there is starting to melt, and they’re starting to exhale their carbon. Coral reefs sequester masses of carbon into limestone where it stays for millions of years. Warmer oceans would be more acidic, which dissolves limestone faster, which liberates increasing amounts of that carbon back into the atmosphere. Just because we stop behaving like idiots, doesn’t mean the feedback loops we’ve set in motion will stop too.

That means that if we don’t prevent global warming before the symptoms become acute, flood, fire, famine, pestilence, and war could look like nice problems to have. What we are doing here is taking the chance on making our whole planet unlivable. Is that outcome likely? No. Does it therefore make sense to take the chance? Only if you’d be happy raising your kids on top of a superfund site. We’re okay with other people having to take that chance, but nobody on Earth, speaking for themselves, would say anything but, “Hell, NO.”

We have only this one planet. The loaded gun isn’t pointed at someone else. It’s pointed straight at my head. And yours.

What to do?

There is really only one thing to do. Start reducing carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions now. We’re past the stage when we had the luxury of tapering off slowly. We’re even past the stage when we could afford to hold levels constant and reduce gradually. The exhaling peat bogs and quietly bleaching coral reefs are telling us that. Even the Kyoto accords are too little too late. We have to start reducing, and we have to start now.

That means coordinated, global programs away from coal, oil, and all fossil fuels, even nice, clean-burning natural gas. Biodiesel, ethanol, and other biomass energy sources aren’t in that group because the carbon they release is carbon they fixed within the previous few years. They don’t reduce carbon in the atmosphere, but they don’t increase it either. Active carbon sequestration is a good idea, if done right, but, by itself, it couldn’t be done on a sufficient scale to reverse all the decades of carbon liberation. Nor is there any way it could compensate for continued carbon profligacy.

The main thing to do is to stop pumping carbon out. Solar, wind, tidal, and all clean alternative energies, as well as efficient mass transit systems, need to be perfected and promoted in nationwide efforts worthy of wars. This isn’t an exaggeration. Even the good news about global warming means that we’re fighting for our survival here. A war effort might be enough. We have to hope. Less than that probably won’t be.

It is also pointless to piss and moan about the expense. The expense of continuing our current course will dwarf anything we pay to switch to a nonlethal track. As a very minor case in point: The “impossible” cost of dealing with Louisiana’s levees, coastal erosion, and wetlands was around ten to twenty billion dollars. The price tag after Hurrican Katrina is at least two hundred billion, and that won’t get it back even to where it was before the hurricane, or pay for the lives ruined and lost. I am not joking or exaggerating or using poetic licence when I say that the expense of cures will only get worse compared to that of prevention.

Well, you may say, it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to spend money they don’t have to. Just make the best of it.

Unfortunately, I agree with that. Unlike nuclear war, which terrified people, global warming sounds rather benign, especially as the northern hemisphere heads into the season of sleet and ice. I cannot imagine that enough people will wake up to our mortal danger in time to avoid it. I hope the real problem is my lack of imagination. But that’s why the original title for this piece was going to be: Global Warming: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

More information:
RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.

Technorati tags: global warming, alternative fuels

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Freedom and Fairness (Slogans for Democrats)

I live in La-La land, literally and figuratively, but even here we have heard that the Democrats need something to stand for, or a quick way of saying what they stand for. Or something. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m in the class of people that Molly Ivins (whom I love and respect) recently called “morons.” One of those people who believes a (fair) tax code could fit on a postcard, and that what The System needs is a complete, not-in-the-sphere-of-practical-politics overhaul.

However, I’m a moron who’s a friend of the cause, and as Karl Rove has shown, morons can be useful. I’m not remotely in his league (the bush-leagues as they were called by a “well-placed source”), but even microscopic contributions add up.

So here they are.

Freedom and Fairness.

These two words summarize the lion’s share of issues these days.
Some issues of freedom with landslide levels of support:

  • Freedom in your bedroom (but not in anybody else’s).
  • Freedom from spam.
  • Freedom from all use of personal data, except for specific, uncoerced requests.
  • And, while we’re at it, freedom to have free wifi, whether Verizon likes it or not.

Some issues of fairness with landslide levels of support:

  • Universal health care. (There’s something sick about lives depending on the ability to pay.)
  • HIV prevention and research. (See previous.)
  • National and international birth control programs. (See previous.)
  • Stem cell research. (See previous.)
  • A military with fair recruitment policies, fair veterans’ policies, and deployed in response to fair foreign policies. (Now that would be a huge change!)

I bet James Carville could turn something like this into a real campaign.

Update, Oct 25. I hear the Democratic powers-that-be are bandying around “Together we can do better.” Yeah. True. Not terribly exciting, though. Who wants to just do “better”? Shoot for the stars. Any damn fool can hit the ground.

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Science of Aliens exhibit in London! (I am so-o jealous)

This is my favorite subject. Why aren’t I in London? Why?

The exhibit will run for four months, and then “travel,” says the BBC. But where? They don’t say. Here? Huh? Huh? In the meantime, those of us who don’t live in the center of the universe have to make do with pictures.

(This dreadful-looking thing is actually rather graceful when alive. It’s a pycnogonid, probably from the deep sea since those are the only ones to reach large size. The abdomen extends into the legs, allowing the whole body to be thin and spindly enough for a supermodel. Digestion is downright alien: Food is partly externally digested, the particles are sucked in, and cells lining the midgut absorb the particles. So far, that’s reasonably normal, but once the cells are full, they detach and wander around in the haemolymph of the animal, bringing the actual food to other cells by special delivery.

[Image credit: Dale Russell, Canadian Museum of Nature.]

One of my favorite scientific aliens. An extrapolation of what a sapient dinosaur-evolved being would probably look like, with its animal relative, one of the Velociraptor group.

My personal all-time favorite, which isn’t too surprising since (full disclosure) I discovered them. Link to their story.

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Bird flu facts and fiction

From a biologist, a rant on what works and what doesn’t for H5N1. Below: fiction, then fact, then what to do. I apologize in advance for the hectoring tone, but I’m fed up with the balderdash I keep hearing. Eat tamiflu, and barricade yourself into Fortress Wherever with a gun to keep out the feverish hordes. I mean, honestly.

(Nov 1, update, at end)

Fiction 1: We’re all going to die.
It makes for a good movie script, but this is not the way diseases work. The most lethal disease on record, Marburg hemorrhagic fever, causes death in over 90% of patients in the worst outbreaks. Ebola’s rate hovers around 80%. (Aids, a long-term illness, is in a different category, but even untreated Aids is not 100% fatal. See the research on prostitutes with immunity in Nigeria.) Both Marburg and Ebola are very different from flu. Sars is more closely related, and it had a fatality rate of around 15%.

Obviously, these are all very high fatality rates, and the only good rate is zero. The point I’m trying to make is that exaggerating risk does not help anyone to deal with it.

There is some early data coming out of Indonesia that suggest 100% fatalities. What the number means is that 100% of the people diagnosed as definitely having H5N1 virus have died. These tests are done at hospitals. People don’t normally go to hospital for flu, certainly not in the Global South. The people seen at the hospital are in a very bad way when they’re brought in, and many fatalities are expected in a group in that condition. But in order to know what the chance of surviving the disease is, you’d need to know the total number of people who have the virus. You’d need to know how many carry the virus without symptoms, how many recover, and how many die. We know none of this, so we have no idea what the rate is. It could be 100%, it could be 5%. H5N1 is a very bad strain of flu with pandemic potential. The intelligent thing would be to deal with the real threat (more on that below), and the stupid thing would be to do nothing but stock up on tamiflu. [Update Oct 8, below, on antivirals.]

Fiction 2. Quarantine outbreak areas to contain the disease.
You feel the first twinges of something that could be bird flu. Imagine two different scenarios. In the first, you go to the hospital, get tested, receive free medication, your whole family and all your contacts are tested and also receive any necessary medication. In the second, you go to the hospital, get tested, are quarantined for an unspecified length of time, your family is quarantined and unable to go to work, pay the rent, go to school, or do anything they have to do. The money spent on finding and quarantining you and yours is not available to provide an adequate supply of drugs. It’s a no-brainer that in the second case you’ll rush to the hospital and turn yourself in. Not.

Non-punitive quarantine is an essential public health measure. Punitive quarantine just makes people hide disease symptoms, infecting other people the whole time, until they physically collapse. What’s true on an individual level is also true on a national level in that governments try to cover up problems, citizens try to evade border controls, and the spread of the disease becomes unknowable and can’t even be tracked.

None of this is smart. It satisfies the need to spend money on oneself rather than others, but unfortunately that’s the only thing it accomplishes. In the case of flu, quarantine doesn’t achieve containment of the disease, and it doesn’t stop an ever-widening number of people from getting sick. It does, however, cost lots of money. Spending the same amount of money on an actual solution would be smarter, even if it meant we had to donate to others.

Fact 1. Flu viruses mutate.
Flu viruses mutate a lot. There are uncountable trillions of them, all changing in various ways. Some of those changes make them able to infect bats, or civet cats, or Canada geese, or humans. The way they do this is the same way spaghetti sticks to the wall when you throw it to see how done it is. Most of it slides off, but a few noodles hang on. In the case of viruses, the ones who manage to hang on have a whole new defenceless host to grow in. After a few years, the host learns how to unstick that particular kind of virus, and the hunt is on for yet another new home. The point of all this is that sooner or later, any flu virus will have a mutation that allows it to pass between humans. If one outbreak of lethal human flu is stopped, that’s not the end of the danger. A few months later, there will be another outbreak.

That’s another reason why quarantine, by itself, doesn’t solve the problem. All you’re doing–if it works!– is putting out brush fires, while the viruses keep pouring on fuel just out of reach.

Fact 2. Flu and cold viruses are transmitted mainly by touch. (Some recent work on that reported in the BBC Oxford & Lambkin, 2005, Journal of Infection, August 2005, pages 103-9)

A small amount of cold and flu transmission is by the dreaded droplet infection and inhalation of the virus. The risk is especially high for air travellers because the airlines save money by recirculating air without filtering it well enough, by keeping the air too dry because that’s cheaper, and by keeping its oxygen content too low, likewise because that’s cheaper. Airlines should be kicked, repeatedly, until they do what is necessary for the safety and health of their passengers and flight attendants, especially so since air travel is the best way for the virus to hop continents.

For the rest of us, however, the most effective flu prevention is washing hands or using alcohol wipes after touching doorknobs, phones, toilet handles, and anything else touched by many different people. Basically, you should be cleaning your hands about six times a day. The next most important thing is cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are touched often (counters, phones, desks, etc.). The virus is activated when virus-laden fingers touch our mouths, nose or eyes. It is truly amazing how difficult it is not to touch one’s face, and how unconscious and automatic the process is. One of the interesting effects of wearing rubber gloves is that you find out how often you touch your face.

Most face masks are useless for stopping viruses. Viruses are *tiny*. They’re just big molecules, after all. Any face mask that is easy to breathe through has a pore size that looks like chicken wire to a virus. However, what face masks can do, and do very effectively, is stop you from touching your nose or mouth.

Fact 3. The public health system in the US has become inadequate to deal with a flu pandemic.
Any system will be stressed by a big outbreak of flu, but ours has fallen down on three important counts. The first is vaccine production. Production has been allowed to concentrate in very few plants. Problems at even one plant, as in the 2004 flu season, then cause nationwide problems. The second issue is vaccine distribution. This is part of the great nationwide infrastructure decay that makes it difficult to provide any emergency supplies to where they’re needed. We’ve had all the proof we need of how bad the situation is during the 2005 hurricane season. Vaccine distribution is bad, too. The 2004 season proved that.

The third issue is tailoring vaccines to current outbreaks. The approved method involves sterile incubation of virus in chicken eggs and takes months. A flu season gears up around November and extends into spring. About nine months earlier, scientists have to *guess* what the next epidemic strain will be, and then start the months-long process of designing a vaccine for it. It then takes a couple of months, at best, to distribute it. For decades, there was no alternative.

Now, DNA-based methods could make a tailored vaccine in *weeks*. There are valid reasons to make sure the method is safe enough to apply to millions of people, so it should have been pushed through testing at the earliest opportunity and the fastest speed. It hasn’t been. It’s still sitting on the shelf. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have to guess about the right vaccine to use for the current flu season. And if a new strain showed up suddenly, we could deal with it right then and there. As for distribution, I’d bet UPS could give the government a hint or two that would get that time down to weeks as well.

Take home message: Vaccines are the best personal preventive measure. Get shots if you can. Assume government response to a pandemic will be reasonably useless.

Some links for more information:
Dr. Charles paints a plausible doomsday scenario if we do everything wrong.

Centers for Disease Control “what’s new” page with links to other CDC info on transmission, vaccines, and prevention.

The 2005-2006 flu season US vaccine contains two A series elements (related to H5N1): A/New Caledonia/20/99-like (H1N1) and A/California/7/2004-like (H3N2). The third element is from B, the other major group, B/Shanghai/361/2002-like viruses.
Update Oct 11: Dr. Chris Grant, writing in comments on the excellent BBC article on bird flu: “H5N1 is a description of two tiny virus peptides (H = hyaluronidase type 5 and N = Neuraminidase type 1). (Fun factoid: Hyaluronidase is the same stuff on the surface of sperm to help them make a way into the egg.)

World Health Organization, data on confirmed cases and transmission.

Wikipedia, facts and figures about avian flu and its history.

Things to do:

  • Get your and your family’s flu shots, even if you have to pay for it yourself out of the milk money, and even if it’s not for bird flu. Different strains of flu are related, though not identical. Immunization against one strain may help reduce the effect of another strain, even if it doesn’t eliminate it.

    If and when H5N1 vaccine is needed and is available, get that if you can without depriving more needy people. These are, in more-or-less order, frontline public health workers (nurses, ambulance drivers, and the like); school-age and day care-age children (the main vectors); the elderly, infants, and the immune-suppressed; people who deal with the public a lot (teachers, hairdressers, police, funeral workers, and so on), and, finally, the rest of us.

  • Wash your hands a lot during flu season, clean surfaces, and don’t touch your face.
  • Vote for people who care enough about public health to fund it intelligently.
  • Help the source areas for flu implement vaccination, treatment, information for the population, and other useful public health measures.
  • Get a bottle of tamiflu if you want, by all means, but don’t go crazy.
  • Stop whingeing. (Definition for non-Aussies: whine + cringe + complain + do nothing useful)

[Update, Oct. 8.] More on tamiflu, and flu antivirals. They are not useless, but:

Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) reduces the severity of flu and/or shortens its duration IF treatment is started within hours of the first symptoms. It does not work against colds. When self-medicating without positive diagnosis, you need to differentiate between cold and flu symptoms within the first 4-12 hours of onset. Tamiflu can have side effects, the main ones being nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, bronchitis, or dizziness. Relenza (zanamavir), the other major antiviral, is likewise strong medicine.

Flu viruses are growing resistant to antivirals: “…in a special online edition of The Lancet, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 12% of influenza A strains worldwide have developed resistance to the most widely used flu medications.” Bird flu (H5N1) has already shown some resistance to tamiflu. Whether the strain that mutates into human-to-human transmission will be susceptible or resistant can’t be known until the strain actually evolves. Resistance is arising the same way antibiotic resistance did. Amantadine and rimantadine are apparently ineffective against H5N1, and many other flu viruses, some say because the drugs are widely used to medicate poultry in China. Tamiflu is widely prescribed in Japan for any flu-like illness.

Stockpiling and self-medicating with tamiflu will likely exacerbate viral resistance. Anybody who doesn’t take the full course will help the evolution of resistant viruses. There are always plenty of people who “save some for next time.” So, by trying to take care of number one, instead of everyone, we’ll end up breeding resistant disease, potentially in a matter of weeks, and we’ll all be defenseless.

When is it sensible to take an antiviral? When it is part of the public health measures to contain an outbreak, (or, on an individual level, when you or someone you live with has a diagnosed case of flu). This is the main reason why there aren’t enough doses of antivirals for everyone. We don’t need enough for everyone. We need enough to blanket regions with outbreaks, and we need those viruses not to be already resistant to the only drugs available because people have been using them wrongly. Outbreak regions involve a few million people at most. This is not to say our current public health system has enough doses even for that, but the shortfall is nowhere near as stark as the scaremongering about, “There’s only two million doses for three hundred million Americans!”

Update, Oct 11. My earlier information was too sanguine. The WHO recommends enough antivirals to cover 25% of the population. In the US, that’s closer to 80 million than a few million. So we have a BIG shortfall. As I said, expect the government response to be pretty useless. The shortfall doesn’t change all the other points made about incorrect usage, viral resistance, and promoting the spread of the virus, potentially to yourself.

Containing outbreaks is better for everyone than stockpiling drugs uselessly, depleting supplies until outbreaks are uncontainable, or, worst of all, breeding resistant strains. Getting yours while you can could be worse-than-useless by making it MORE difficult to contain an outbreak, an outbreak just as capable of infecting you as anyone else.

This is one of those difficult situations where, if we’re all sensible and unselfish, there won’t be a problem, but if we try to take care of ourselves, we’ll end up hurting ourselves. A minute’s thought shows how stupid selfishness is in this case, but it feels so right, people will invariably do it unless there is strong leadership to the contrary. I think part of the reason there is so much pressure for self-centered (and useless) actions is the assumption of an adversarial, or at least uncaring, relationship between people and government. The sad thing is that unless the government is doing its job, there is no way for an individual to solve the problem. It would be like trying to have a mass transit system all by yourself.

[Update: Nov. 1 2005]
File this under “OMIGOD, I can’t bel-eeeeve it!” I wonder what the CDC threatened them with to make them listen? Or is the Shrub’s popularity so low, somebody in the Administration decided they can’t be complete screw-ups about absolutely everything? Somebody’s even figured out that cell culture-based vaccine-making methods are Important. I am shocked. Shocked!

From the BBC:

“Bush unveils bird flu action plan

“…At the heart of the plan is a request for $2.8bn to accelerate development of vaccines using cell-culture technology. …

“The strategy entails:

  • $1.2bn for the government to buy enough doses of the vaccine against the current strain of bird flu to protect 20 million Americans
  • $1bn to stockpile more anti-viral drugs that lessen the severity of the flu symptoms
  • $2.8bn to speed the development of vaccines as new strains emerge, a process that now takes months
  • $583m for states and local governments to prepare emergency plans to respond to an outbreak

“To equip Americans with accurate information on how to protect themselves and their families, the government is launching a website:”

Technorati tags: bird flu, avian flu, H5N1, pandemic, epidemic, public health

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New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina

Final update, Oct. 4 (unless I add more….)

It appears that the people who I thought should be shot on sight probably didn’t exist. Yes, there was real looting, and yes, there were people behaving very badly, civilians and uniformed. But at least it appears that no victims of the storm were so subhuman as to shoot at rescuers.

No evidence backs up reports of rescue helicopters being fired upon
By Miriam Hill and Nicholas Spangler, Knight Ridder Newspapers Sun Oct 2, 4:22 PM ET

NEW ORLEANS – Among the rumors that spread as quickly as floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina, reports that gunmen were taking potshots at rescue helicopters stood out for their senselessness. … But more than a month later, representatives from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security and Louisiana Air National Guard say they have yet to confirm a single incident of gunfire at helicopters. Likewise, members of several rescue crews who were told to halt operations say there is no evidence they were under fire.

To be sure, the streets of New Orleans posed real dangers in the days following Katrina. Many rescue workers said they heard gunfire; one doctor reports that shots came close enough to Charity Hospital that he heard the bullets hit.

The confusion affected more than just helicopter crews. Florida Task Force 1 was using boats to reach the stranded – but not on Sept. 1. Because of reports of gunfire, a FEMA support team ordered the Florida task force to stop work for the entire day unless law enforcement protection could be found, task force leader Dave Downey said. That help never came. Meanwhile, thousands of people were stuck in attics and on roofs of flooded houses in New Orleans.

Acadian [Ambulance] pilot Marc Creswell believes the sound of gunfire from thugs roaming the streets gave rise to the widespread tales of rescue workers being targeted.

One month later, Downey, of Florida Task Force 1, isn’t sure the decision to halt operations was the right one. “In hindsight, it didn’t appear as though security was as big an issue. But (at the time) we were inundated with reports from back home, saying the situation was very violent. We didn’t know what to believe.

And then there’s this from The Independent (UK). (I’m not sure why we have to hear news about the US from England, but it’s all part of being a Third World country, I guess.) A confidential report was prepared by the Office of the Secretary of the Defense (yes, Rumsfeld’s Office) on how the federal government did.

Relief efforts to combat Hurricane Katrina suffered near catastrophic failures due to endemic corruption, divisions within the military and troop shortages caused by the Iraq war, an official American inquiry into the disaster has revealed.

The confidential report, which has been seen by The Independent, details how funds for flood control were diverted to other projects, desperately needed National Guards were stuck in Iraq and how military personnel had to “sneak off post” to help with relief efforts because their commander had refused permission . . . .

The report concludes: “The one thing this disaster has demonstrated [is] the lack of coordinated, in-depth planning and training on all levels of Government, for any/all types of emergency contingencies. 9/11 was an exception because the geographical area was small and contained, but these two hurricanes have clearly demonstrated a national response weakness … Failure to plan, and train properly has plagued US efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and now that failure has come home to roost in the United States.”

As far as I’m concerned, the report is too kind. There’s no word on the current and future profiteering by megacorporations. It just goes to show: the sweaty, shirtless gangsters in New Orleans aren’t a patch on the ones in three-piece suits in DC.

[Yet another update. Sept. 14th.]
There are no parallels between the World Trade Center terrorism and the New Orleans hurricane, except one. The reaction of the authorities is making everything infinitely worse.

Now there are thousands of troops deployed, now that it’s too late. Are they handing out water, food, and inflatable boats (or maybe chest-high waders) to people, to enable them to pull through for the next month? No, they’re pointing guns at them to turn them into refugees.

The motto seems to be: Whatever the victims want, don’t do it.

It wouldn’t cost any more to distribute what they need than it will to house and feed them (badly) for months. These are obviously not people who are going to whine as soon as they have a problem. Medical dangers can be dealt with more easily than uprooting them for months. Why is it impossible to HELP them?

The reaction–and lack of reaction–of the authorities is the worst thing exposed by Katrina. The now-famous description by two paramedics, Bradshaw and Slonsky, of their experiences dodging the guns of gangs AND uniforms says it all. If you read nothing else about the hurricane’s aftermath, read that.

People in uniform in the Superdome, who were supposed to keep order, barricaded themselves into safety away from the gangsters and abandoned all the ordinary citizens to their fate. (This is the same strategy used on a daily basis, since there aren’t enough police to keep order in the projects and the citizens are abandoned to their fate. I don’t know why I’m surprised they would be consistent during a natural disaster.)

Instead of helping people, the first priority is apparently to prevent outsiders from noticing any nasty pictures. CNN, **CNN**, had to sue to be able to do its job of reporting the news. A TV cameraman has posted his personal notes on the aftermath anonymously. It is an interesting, eyewitness account from someone with access to the whole city. It libels or slanders no one. And yet, it is anonymous. As I said earlier, New Orleans will come through this. I”m not so sure about the rest of us.

Meanwhile, New Orleans policemen out of uniform and camping in a parking lot, because they’d lost everything including the clothes on their backs, were trying to keep the flag flying and to stop crime, with no resources, no help, and not even enough ammunition (Ariana Cha, Washington Post article). In case it needs saying, and not that it matters in any cosmic sense, but many of New Orleans Finest are black, just like the rest of the city.

[Original post, August 29th, and other updates to Sept 4th follow]

New Orleans.

[1st post August 29th]
I lived there for thirteen years, on Freret St., and I love the city. I don’t know how other cities would come back from this, but New Orleans will. Bet on it.

The best news sources I’ve found is the Times Picayune’s “Breaking News” and “weblog” sites. They also have links for donations.

[Update Sep 3 (also more below): Times Picayune’s direct link for donations goes to the Red Cross. Kathleen Blanco, Governor of Louisiana, has established The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation for donations for longer-term projects. The money will be used for education, job assistance, housing, medical needs and other purposes to help disaster victims return to productive lives. (Donations are tax-deductible.)

Also of interest: NOAA has the best aerial images I’ve seen on which it is possible to see flooding of individual neighborhoods. Click on the “Index map” on the first screen to bring up more detailed maps.]
This one is my old neighborhood. Clicking on it on the NOAA site brings up detail sufficient to see road signs.

[Back to original posting, from Aug 29, Sep 1, 3, 4, and so on!]

A few bits from the TP Breaking News site:

In many neighborhoods, people waded through more than water waist deep, sometimes carrying food. Late Monday [Aug. 29], a party of five adults waded along Tulane Avenue between Canal and Broad Streets, towing five toddlers in a large plastic tub.

The [French Quarter] neighborhood was among the last to lose power as the storm strengthened shortly after dawn. After its passage, pedestrians bought beer through walk-up windows and guests loitered on second-floor balconies.

[Too many people are too poor in New Orleans, so the looting started early, sad to say:]
[On Monday, with gales still howling, there was a report of a bunch of guys towing snack food and beer cans in a plastic tub out of a gas station convenience store near Claiborne and Louisiana avenues, or thereabouts.]

As the sun set, four young women slipped out of the Magnolia Discount convenience store on South Carrollton Avenue and loaded pilfered boxes into a waiting car. One woman waved at approaching vehicles.
[New Orleanians are very friendly.]

[and brave:]
In Lakeview, the scene was surreal. A woman hollered to reporters from a rooftop, asking them to call her father and tell him she was OK – although fleeing to the roof of a two-story home hardly seemed to qualify.

[and some have clear priorities:]
Two men surviving on generator power in the Lake Terrace neighborhood near the Lake Pontchartrain levee still had a dry house, but they were eyeing the rising water in the yard nervously. They were planning to head back out to the levee to retrieve a vast stash of beer, champagne and hard liquor they found washed onto the levee.

Story after story told of people who moved to their second floors when they had them, and then decided that wasn’t going to work either. They untied the dinghy floating out back. (What dinghy, you say? Well, many Lousianans feel that there is nothing half so worth doing as simply messing about in boats, so there’s something boat-like somewhere around the house.) They climbed in, and set off to rescue their neighbors.


I don’t want to sound churlish, BUT . . . people in New Orleans have known about the coastal erosion problem FOREVER. This is not some new insight delivered courtesy of Katrina.

(Brief summary: the levees along the Mississippi channel the silt it carries way out into the Gulf, instead of spreading it over the southern marshes. The soil of the marshes settles naturally, and without the new silt, the marshes sink lower and lower. When there’s an ocean storm, sea water comes in, and kills the marsh plants and trees. With nothing to hold the soil, it all washes out to sea, the salt water comes in permanently, and the coastline is suddenly a lot further north.)

Coastal erosion has been obvious for decades. (Billmon has some of the history.) Wild-eyed environmentalists have been trying, for decades, to get anyone to listen. Even *Louisiana* politicians didn’t care until some genius pointed out one simple fact. Louisiana gets huge royalties for offshore oil rigs that are within state waters. (I think it’s a twelve-mile limit.) If the coast moves north, guess who loses a lot of money. That’s when the state really started trying to keep the barrier islands from vanishing. The coastal erosion itself they didn’t work quite as hard on (all they needed was a southernmost line, after all), but even that got some money. I’ll be curious to see how much effort Bush really puts into building up the Louisiana coastal ecology when he realizes that not doing it would save the feds a few pennies in the micro-short term.

And as for global warming, for years, scientists have been tearing their hair out in handfuls over the likelihood of bigger and worser hurricanes. The Gulf is warmer than it usually is. Just by a degree or two, but a degree or two is all it takes. Go back over the records and see how many storms have gone from barely Category 1 to Category 5 in just a couple of days. It’s the warmer water that does that. As Nabil Tikriti writes in Juan Cole’s blog, “DC policy does matter. Get used to it.”

Update #3, Sept 1, about looting

People who are trying to find food or water shouldn’t really be called looters. People who use a catastrophe like this to break into people’s homes are the scum of the earth. People who attack rescue workers, whose violence makes it impossible to help people in desperate need, those people should just be shot on the spot. And, yes, I’m a card-carrying, bleeding heart liberal.

There’s been some talk of black – white issues with respect to the looting. Over 60% of New Orleans is black. Most of the really poor people are black. Those are the people who didn’t have cars to evacuate in. Black people have been helping to rescue their neighbors. Black people have been doing all the things you’ve been hearing about in terms of trying to help each other and everyone else. The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the first to flood and still under deep water, is an almost entirely black community. People have been saying for years that the levees for St. Bernard and the Lower Ninth Ward are totally inadequate, and the flooding can be noticeable there after a mere rainstorm. The levees never were improved because, well, there aren’t too many rich, white folks living there.

Yes, there is a very vicious, criminal element in the housing projects. Find me a housing project in a major US city that doesn’t have these parasites. The difference now is that they’re attacking someone else besides their neighbors in the projects, and that they’re making it impossible for people to get help. I just have no words for how furious and disgusted I am. Even criminals shouldn’t be capable of such crimes. I’m so angry, I can’t stop myself from adding that otherwise we won’t be able to tell the difference between them and those people in Washington.

Update, Sept 3, Sat.: Un-effing-believable.

From TP Breaking News:

Bush visit halts food delivery
By Michelle Krupa
Staff writer

Three tons of food ready for delivery by air to refugees in St. Bernard Parish and on Algiers Point sat on the Crescent City Connection bridge Friday afternoon as air traffic was halted because of President Bush’s visit to New Orleans, officials said.

The provisions, secured by U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, and state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, baked in the afternoon sun as Bush surveyed damage across southeast Louisiana five days after Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm, said Melancon’s chief of staff, Casey O’Shea.

“We had arrangements to airlift food by helicopter to these folks, and now the food is sitting in trucks because they won’t let helicopters fly,” O’Shea said Friday afternoon.

The food was expected to be in the hands of storm survivors after the president left the devastated region Friday night, he said.

Technorati tags: New Orleans, Katrina, hurricane, looting, FEMA, incompetence

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Are Women Human?

The DNA evidence has come in, and the answer is clear. Women are human beings. Who knew? Consider all the evidence to the contrary.

Skip lightly over the centuries when women were explicitly defined as property. Skip likewise over Samuel Johnson’s famous commen when he said, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” He is said to have been intelligent, witty, devoted to his wife, and kindhearted. It was the 1700s, and DNA hadn’t been discovered yet.

We know better now, right? No, not exactly. Catholicism, Islam (except Sufism, I believe), Judaism, some Protestant sects, the Mormons, many organized religions in fact, tell us that women cannot commune with God well enough to minister to others. Given that the argument can be made, and has been made, that religious awe is what divides us from animals, exclusion from the priesthood says something about the attitudes involved. Especially so when you consider that it can be the same people making the argument and doing the excluding.

It would make sense if women, at least, avoided religions that relegate them to irrelevance, but that’s not what happens. It is, perhaps, the strongest proof that (some) of reality is a social construct. Women don’t mean much even to women.

Consider some examples. There are plenty to choose from. After Pope John Paul II’s death, someone who’d had enough of the eulogies pointed out that his policies had led to millions of excess deaths. Well, I thought, if you add up all the unwanted children who’d died as the pope implemented his policies, and the women dying in unwanted childbirths and botched abortions (e.g. for one year: WHO, world health report 2005), as well as AIDS deaths due to unprotected sex (UNAIDS,2004), it would easily reach into millions. But it turned out the speaker had been thinking only of AIDS. The others were invisible.

Another example is a discussion I had regarding Iraq. I pointed out how braindead it was for the US to let violence and fundamentalism disenfranchise women. The US was wasting a huge bloc of moderate, non-violent voices of the kind they kept saying they wanted. I was told that the issues in Iraq were much bigger than “women’s rights.” I was speechless. The right to freedom of movement, to free assembly, to vote–these are women’s rights? I had thought they were human rights. Furthermore, if women are human, we’re talking about half the population. Of course, if they’re not, then it makes sense that their rights are secondary.

Now, on a personal level, this seems crazy. People, men and women both, care about the women in their lives, and there aren’t many who would insist that their own wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters are some kind of different order of being. It’s hard (but not impossible) to live with someone and not realize that you both have hopes, fears, dreams, and hardships. Thinking of women as belonging to some other species is not something that anyone does. It’s something “other people” do.

Take one example. Ask any father whether he loves his children, and he will say yes. However, look at the marriage statistics of brides who were pregnant at the time and who knew the sex of the child-to-be. The couple was more likely to be getting married if they were expecting a boy (Dahl and Moretti, 2004). Few people see this in their own lives, but, in the aggregate, it happens. Most people’s contribution to the rush of events is so small, it can’t be seen, like a molecule of air. But put all the contributions together, and, like air, they can make people live or die.

The peculiar attitude to women, in the aggregate, can be seen in every aspect of life, but people are tired of being reminded about the world’s social backwaters. However, troglodyte fundamentalists aren’t the only problem. For instance, the left side of the blogosphere had a discussion recently about female bloggers and the relative lack thereof at the top of the blogging tree. Why, we pondered, were there so few female bloggers with huge readerships who were linked to by other important bloggers?

There were many explanations. Women are less techie, so there’s a smaller pool to draw from. Women’s writing of the same quality gets linked to just as much, and the lack of links indicates lack of quality. Women write perfectly well, but the topics they write about have less general interest. And so on. All of these explanations may have some merit, and yet the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room was missed.

There are a number of classical experiments in psychology where researchers looked at attitudes to writing based on whether the author had a male or female name. Regardless who the actual author was, papers apparently by males were significantly more highly rated. Yet this obvious explanation was not brought out by the heavy hitters, nor was it noticed when I contributed it.

The big problem, in other words, is not with the women doing the blogging. The problem lies with the audience and with the many small, unnoticed moments of inattention that end up making a huge pattern. To take an analogous, far more extreme situation, the level of analysis in blogspace would have been like that of an Abolitionist who said that slavery was bad . . . and then asked what was wrong with blacks that they were trapped in it.

Sex, like religion, is central to who we are, and the same pattern is repeated. Women are irrelevant. No, really. Think about it. Even the definitions give the game away. Sexually repressed women have to dress in tents. Free women can wear lipstick and thong underwear. And this is supposed to do exactly what for women? (I’m talking about heterosexuals, of course. Homosexuals don’t have to contend with the X-challenged world in quite the same way.) Being “allowed” to be attractive to men is not the same as having men who are willing to think about what a woman might want. Defining a situation in a way that works for you is freedom. Living inside someone else’s reality is not.

I’m sure I’ve hit a sore point by bringing up what women want. Men’s regular complaint is that they can’t figure this out. Well, how about the same things men want? Such as pleasure, perhaps? Such as someone who’s both willing and wants to please, like the nice young women in all the ads? The specific way a man acts who wants to please would be different, because he’d look stupid batting his eyelashes. And what he does would also depend on the specific woman in question, since women don’t actually come out of a mold down at the female factory. However, the principle, surprisingly enough, is the same.

The irrelevance of women is particularly evident in mainstream ads, big movies, and other dominant myths. The images of women of reproductive age all tend toward the slightly exaggerated breasts-forward, tush-back, pleased-smile look. It’s something that anthropologists call “presenting” when they observe the equivalent in a troop of, say, rhesus macaques. It says, “I want sex,” and it is the female equivalent of an erection. To spell it out, in case it’s not clear, that message is aimed at males. Not females. Is there any equivalent message of obvious and willing male sexuality for women? Have you ever seen even a hint of an erection shown in any medium intended for general audiences? Ever? It’s as if only men have sex. Women have children.

The usual objection to exposing general audiences to actual male sexuality is that it would be bad for the children. However, given that children survive exposure to blatant female sexuality, that doesn’t seem like the real problem. Men, on the other hand, would be in the novel position of seeing themselves as sex objects for women, something which seems to make them squeamish. (That may sound implausible, but there is a difference between wanting sex and doing what someone else wants.) Having said that, personally I don’t think I’d like seeing men on display the same way women are. Sex seems to work better in private, where it’s more interesting (and more feasible), and I’d rather not have either side of it relentlessly in my face. But what do I know? I’ve never been surrounded by images of men with tastefully concealed erections lining up to please me, 24/7, selling everything from broadband to soap to themselves.

So far, I’ve been discussing religion and rights and sex. These are all optional, on some level. Survival isn’t, and the weirdness in attitudes is at its most stark in the reaction to crimes against women.

We had an election for governor not long ago in California. During the campaign, news came out that Schwarzenegger had perhaps praised Hitler, and people even grew concerned about his father’s activities during the World War. There was a great deal of back-and-forth, lots of digging for facts, and it came out that, no, he did not admire Hitler, and that his father had not committed atrocities during WWII. His campaign came back on track.

Shortly before the election, he was accused, by the woman involved, of groping her on a movie set. There was a certain amount of disbelief, but then six other stories surfaced of similar behavior (e.g. LATimes, Oct. 7, 2003) with other women, spanning 25 years right into very recent times. It began to look like he might have had a habit of forcing his attentions on women, to use an old phrase. However, it was not essential to his campaign to show his innocence before the election. He lost a few points in the polls, but only enough to feel called upon to apologize for “playing.” And people voted for him. Women voted for him. The point here is not what he did or did not do. The point is the difference in people’s reactions to accusations of antisemitism versus accusations of anti-women behavior. The point is that people didn’t care enough. Somehow, although nobody agrees with the statement when face-to-face, crimes against women just aren’t that important.

Then there are the attitudes to a far more serious crime: female genital mutilation. The attitudes in Africa vary in ways that are painful to discuss, but what about attitudes here in the progressive West? There are a number of confounding issues: it’s happening “over there,” and it’s happening in a very different culture. Except when it isn’t. At least in the US, I haven’t noticed that it’s much of a priority to prevent this heinous child abuse by the relevant ethnic groups living in this country. (For some statistics on the practice, see, e.g., Dr. N. Nour, African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, “Number of women, girls with or at risk for female genital cutting on the rise in the United States”)  The British make slightly more effort (see, e.g., this BBC report).

The objection is that, well, it’s highly regrettable, but it is their culture and who are we to interfere? The practice has also been intertwined with religion, so for a while it was excused on religious grounds, until people more familiar with Islam pointed out forcefully that the Koran sanctions no such thing. Either way, there is no other group for whom culture or religion is allowed to trump the most basic human rights. Imagine the reaction to a headline that said: “Penises cut off to keep men faithful.” (Subtitle: “Strangely effective!”) You might as well excuse cannibalism on cultural grounds. That’s only possible if the people involved really are “long pig,” as that particular meat was called by Fijians in the very old days.

Consider the archetypal crime against women: rape. We’re all agreed it’s a very bad thing. We’re all agreed it’s a hate crime. Consider the New Yorker, a magazine with impeccable liberal credentials. They published a book of humor a few years ago, and since like many people the first thing I look at in the magazine are the cartoons, I was sure it was going to be good. I trotted right down to the bookstore. There, at the beginning of the book, was a funny story about rape. To say that I was stunned would be putting it mildly. I returned the book to the shelf and didn’t read any of the rest, so I don’t know if there were jokes further in about lynching, or gas chambers, or murders of gay men. Somehow, I doubt it.

Rape is not a joke. Rape is not a regrettable form of sex any more than foot-binding is a regrettable form of shoes. Rape is a type of torture that uses sex. Like other torture, it is primarily meant to break the spirit, not the body. Its intention is to turn the victim into a tool of the torturer. Obviously, torturers aren’t likely to be the introspective type and articulate all this. But the actions can be judged by the results, whether it produces women who stay in their place or compliant prisoners.

The BBC did a report a few years ago on a brave woman living in one of the predominantly Muslim housing projects outside Paris. She didn’t wear a veil, as per the local thugs concept of propriety, so they gang-raped her. Instead of being intimidated, she spoke out against the reign of terror directed at women. So they gang-raped her again. As the reporter said, “Who in such a system would dare to speak, or even know, her own mind?”

Well, yes, you might say, that’s all very dreadful. But it doesn’t touch me. It has nothing to do with my life. Maybe not, but I see women who think crimes against women are isolated incidents, even as I watch them rearrange their whole schedule to avoid the late-night train. I see men who want everyone to understand that it’s-not-their-fault-they-found-it-that-way, and who are tied in knots about how to approach a woman so she doesn’t misunderstand their intentions.

The threat of physical danger focuses anyone’s mind, male or female. When faced with an unknown man, women go through some millisecond decision-making about the need for fight or flight or whether they can go off red alert. After all that, if he’s trying to be friendly, comes the question of whether he was worth all the bother. The sexual landscape women have to live in is so different from the one inhabited by men that obvious male sexuality is often considered repellent rather than attractive. That makes as much sense as men being put off by sexy women. Imagine how much damage it would take to achieve that effect, and you start to have an idea how much crimes against women complicate everyone’s life, male and female.

The various points raised in this essay are not new. We’ve known about all this forever, or, at least, it feels like forever. Many people, certainly among those reading this, would agree that the human rights of women haven’t been any too good in the past, and that very serious issues still exist in benighted sectors. But the feeling is that the problem has been identified, we dealt with all that years ago, and this is the post-feminist era. The “Mission Accomplished” banner is up and it’s time to move on.

The only problem is that we haven’t actually moved on. Besides the vast swamps of pure-bred ignorance, even progressives don’t always seem to know which species women belong to. It’s not time to move on. It’s time to get back to work.

I know that’s an unwelcome message. Adjusting gender attitudes is the open heart surgery of the soul, and there’s no anesthetic. However, the thing about surgery is that it’s a lot better than the alternative. I’m not suggesting that some sort of new millenium would break out afterwards, but simply that we’d be free of a whole set of aches and pains. Nor am I saying that it’s up to men to do all the work, since there’s plenty of attitude adjusting for women to do too. Actually, it would be surprising if that weren’t the case. We are, after all, only human.

Technorati tags: human rights, gender equality, sexism, hate crimes, discrimination, women priests, genital mutilation, crimes against women

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Free Markets Cost Too Much

It is a given in the United States that free markets can solve all problems. Bureaucratic inefficiency? Give the job to competing businesses and waste will disappear. World hunger? Nothing some free trade can’t cure. Global warming? If there’s a problem, free markets will let the best solution win. Unfortunately, despite the application of capitalism, the problems on the ground get worse, not better. However, that’s supposed to be because we still have too much regulatory baggage for the benefits of freedom to show through. The more problems there are, the more free trade we need.

That kind of thinking reminds me of the communist party line, which said that communism would solve all problems, and the only reason it hadn’t was that those miserable bourgeois were still gumming up the works. China’s Great Leap Forward was supposed to root out these remnants, and we all know how smoothly the communist economy functioned after that.

So I would like to cast a jaundiced eye on the free market, and explain why I think we can’t afford more of it than we actually need. My background is not in economics, which is ample qualification to discuss the subject. Economists, after all, are the ones who assume that decisions about buying and selling are based on rational thinking. Stop laughing for a second, and take stock of just how far away from the real world these people must live. Another thing economics teaches us is that supply and demand are always in balance in a free market. It’s impossible, for instance, for oil to run out because supply balances demand. Totally gaga, right? It took a translation from econospeak for me to make sense of this. To an economist, demand equals ability to pay, and not demand in the ordinary sense of the word. So, if there is only one shipload of oil left in the world, it will cost billions of dollars, and there will be few buyers bidding for the meager supply. And, they point out, you can always squeeze out another barrel or two, so the supply never actually runs out. These are the people managing the world’s economies.

(I should, perhaps, attach a humor alert to the previous paragraph. And even though economics deserves much much of its reputation for having no clothes, I would never have understood the little I do understand about it without the help of some very sharp economists willing to talk to the rest of us. E.g. Brad DeLong, Kash and others at Angry Bear, Paul Krugman, James Hamilton at Econbrowser, Mark Thoma, excellent articles in The Economist.)

The biggest recent failure of unreal economic theories was communism, but that doesn’t make capitalism right just because it’s the opposite. That is not good logic. It’s also more than a theoretical fallacy, since capitalism shows symptoms of the same problem of trying to fit human nature to economies, rather than the other way around.

Economic theory still seems to have a tenuous grip on how people work. It was born in the era of the Gas Laws, the subsequent invention of the steam engine, and its transformation of society. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be in on the game. Everything was viewed as a mass of gas, its little molecules bumping around frictionlessly, and if you could just figure out the laws governing the motions, as Boyle had done for gases, you’d have the whole system figured out. People in a market were like atoms, buyers bumping into sellers, bouncing off, with the force of the interaction dependent on as simple a set of parameters as any volume of hot air. Most people, of course, don’t make very good gas molecules, which is something economists eventually figured out and which made their equations increasingly complex. However, to this day, many of their ideas smack of the old simplicity and clarity, as if they’re not only studying gas, but have forgotten they live on a planet and need to take gravity into account.

The human equivalent of gravity is power, whether it’s social, military, or financial. Without taking into account how power tilts and warps any given situation, there isn’t a hope of providing the level playing field that is supposed to be the home of the free market. It is a fact of human nature that people holding the levers of power will try to tilt the field. (Just as it’s a fact that people will only live by half of the communist ideal, facetiously summarized as, “What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours.”) Everybody knows that unrestrained freedom is just a way to hand the game to the biggest bully on the block. That’s why stock exchanges are among the most tightly regulated activities in the world.

However, the focused and continuous balancing needed to keep free markets on the level is generally obscured by the free marketeers themselves. Regulation is anathema to them, and yet when they lose in the market, they demand special treatment. There are endless examples of this, but look at just one particularly ironic one. The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed subsidized US corn to undersell that produced in Mexico. Thousands of poor farmers went out of business and whole communities are collapsing. The people, however, aren’t sitting on their butts waiting for handouts. They go where the work is, and since their own provinces are broke, that means going north. In the US, these people “taking jobs away” are unwanted, so US regulations prevent a free market in labor, and seal the borders against the poverty they created.

Considering the spotty adherence to free market principles, that philosophy looks less like an ideal and more like a con man’s attempt to distract attention from what his fingers are doing to your wallet. The only thing to be said for it is that the system, as applied, does work for the con man. On the other hand, true believers in unfettered capitalism actually subscribe to the principles of anarchism, which holds that social systems self-regulate if there is no interference. Anarchism hasn’t worked for anybody.

Regulation of markets is a fragile thing: too much, and there’s no free market; too little, and the result is the same. So let’s begin at the beginning and think about what a market actually is. It’s a place where things are bought and sold. Logically, anything that can be bought and sold, such as oranges or copper, belongs there. Equally logically, anything that cannot be traded does not belong there. That includes practically everything that really matters, such as life, liberty, happiness, hope, love, and God. A market trades things. It doesn’t try to provide the greatest good of the greatest number, or moral behavior, or knowledge, or anything we care about except a living. Free markets are good, within their limits, at divvying up livings.

The concept that free markets have limits is the important one. They’re not bad in and of themselves. They’re good at what they do, but they do not do everything. That used to be taken for granted, but lately it’s become a radical position, so the limits need to be examined.

The most obvious one is that human life should not be for sale. Slavetrading is a crime against humanity. However, other stark ways of putting a price on life are not much better. Policies that cause people to starve, sicken, or die, all these are also crimes. I realize that this has implications for everything from pollution to structural poverty in the Third World. I realize that it means medicine should not rightly be profit-driven. I know it means that whole sectors of the market would have to stop making a killing, and go back to making a living. Putting a price on life is a crime, whether our economic system is built on allowing it or not. If we don’t want to be criminals, the economic system has to be changed.

It’s common practice to forget that free markets are based on a series of assumptions, and that when these assumptions don’t hold, there can be no free market. In very general terms, free markets presuppose equality. Buyers and sellers have equal levels of choice of trading partners, as well as equal access to information. The famous self-correcting and self-regulating abilities of markets depend on the participants having other choices, so that bad deals evaporate when all they do is drive everyone elsewhere. When participants have too little choice, it’s the freedom of the market that evaporates.

Monopolies reduce choice, which is why they’re not supposed to exist without heavy regulation, and yet they’re so lucrative that it’s a constant struggle to beat them back. The latest trick is to pretend tiny companies provide enough choice so that the giants don’t need to be regulated. (Yes, I’m thinking of Microsoft.)

There is, however, a more insidious form of monopoly which isn’t recognized because it is new. In a technological age, the mental cost associated with learning to use new things can create its own kind of barriers. Once you’ve learned how to use the “qwerty” keyboard, for instance, you won’t use another kind even if it’s demonstrably cheaper, faster, and better. The same is true of anything bought with a learning curve as well as money, and if we’re to get the benefits of free markets for complex things, it’s very important to adapt copyright and patent law to be fair to the buyer’s time as well as the seller’s intellectual property.

Another kind of unfree market that does not receive enough attention is the labor market. The difference in power between employer and employed is huge, but discussions about labor proceed as if workers can quit jobs as easily as they can get them. In reality both carry enormous costs, and pretending otherwise is simply a way of tilting the playing field into something more like a slide that ends right in the employer’s hands. Convenient for employers, certainly, but not in any sense free.

The abuses that can be expected when buyer and seller aren’t equal happen without fail. Sometimes it’s a matter of paying starvation wages to people in countries without labor laws and then quietly pocketing the profit when the t-shirts, or whatever, are sold in countries where labor laws have created a population rich enough to pay more. Sometimes it’s a matter of socializing the costs of underpaid labor, such as medical care, while privatizing the profit. All of this has tremendous social consequences in terms of stress, disease, and crime, and yet we seem unable to stop the true perps from laughing all the way to the bank.

In addition to free choice, efficient markets depend on equal access to good information, but preventing that access is the quietest and most effective way to tilt any playing field. Controlling the flow of information doesn’t have to be done with hamhanded secrecy. For instance, regulations require lots of information about companies to be published, but nobody without a degree in accounting can understand it. This is not because that is the only way to present those facts.

Markets are supposed to summarize all the information about a sale in its price. Products made more efficiently provide more value for less cost and are supposed to win the competition. That would be great if it worked, but cost information is rigged and the system is failing so badly we may lose the planet in the process. The game starts in the very definition of what is a cost, long before it enters the realm of economics. The seller obviously wants costs to be as low as possible, since everything above that is profit. The honest way to do this is to keep costs low. The less honest way to do this is pretend costs don’t exist, thereby sticking someone else with the bill. Costs are defined as whatever the seller says they are, and all the other costs–social, environmental, or medical–belong to someone else. This is, in effect, a blank check to rip off the world. At this rate, so-called free markets cost way more than the whole planet can afford. What capitalism needs, if it’s not to fail even more spectacularly than communism, is reality-based accounting.

Even a glance as rapid as the one I’ve tried to give here is enough to show how far away from free markets we actually are. Examples of the discrepancies could be multiplied easily, but the solutions are difficult because every problem is caused by excess pressure on the levers of power, and counteracting the powerful is the most difficult social problem of all. I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not opposed to free markets. Far from it. In their proper place, and operating under the conditions they need, I think they’d do a much better job of rewarding merit and distributing wealth than our current system of insisting, “What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine.”

Technorati tags: free market, capitalism, socialism, globalization, social costs, environmental costs, economics,

legal: Site covered by a creative commons license with the following limits: content may only be used  without modification, for non-commercial purposes, and with attribution to Mia Molvray and her home page as noted here.

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The difference between Us and Them

After terrorist bombings, it is required to stress how evil it is to target civilians, a barbarism without parallel in the modern world.

Yes, it is barbaric. But does it stand alone? Dropping atomic bombs on cities has, so far, thankfully, stood alone. Targeted destruction of ethnic groups by the millions has not happened too recently, although targeted destruction of hundreds of thousands is ongoing and causes mainly averted eyes (just like it did when it was millions). It seems like quite a stretch to insist that bombing tens, even thousands, of civilians is in a class by itself.

The main reason why there is no moral equivalence between terrorists and everyone else seems to be that Our mayhem is good, whereas Theirs is bad. Possibly, this is true. However, whether I was killed by a terrorist or a soldier in a clean uniform, I’d be just as dead. The only real difference, in practical rather than moral terms, is that right now my personal chance of being killed by a soldier is zero, but my chance of encountering terrorism is slightly greater than that. (I use the word “slightly” on purpose. The risk of dying in a terrorist attack, worldwide, is on the order of being struck by lighting: not zero, but also not much more. This is true post 9/11, post Madrid, post Beslan, and post London tube bombings.) I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the practical difference, not the moral one, that leads to much of the outrage about terrorism. The terrorists have succeeded in terrifying us, and we don’t like it.

The moral differences depend mainly on where one stands for their strength. The people standing under the bombs don’t like them, no matter who sent them. We target the enemy and define civilians as collateral damage. Terrorists, on the other hand, target the enemy and define civilians as the enemy. Civilians are not given the opportunity to reject either classification. Maybe that makes us better than them, but it is difficult to see by how much.

So what am I suggesting? That terrorism is okay? That it is just another tool in the eternal struggle to advance one rung up the ladder?


Just in case someone didn’t hear that, let me say it again. No.

What I am suggesting is that targeting civilians is not okay, whether it is done on purpose or accidentally-on-purpose. What I’m suggesting is that we preface all mention of miltant actions with sorrow and outrage for the people who died in them. What I am suggesting is that we expand our outrage over violent deaths to the point where PEOPLE STOP BEING KILLED.

Update: August 5th.

I just read the BBC quotes from the men who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The following is from Dr Harold Agnew, now 85, who was a scientific observer on a chase plane of the Enola Gay.

[On working in the Manhattan Project:]
I describe myself as a ‘grunt’ at that time, I did what I was told to do. But I was part of a great undertaking.

[On the bomb:]
[We] were about four or five miles off to one side of Hiroshima, dropping gauges with parachutes that would measure the yield of the bomb. …

I don’t think anyone realised exactly what would happen. It was the only uranium bomb to be dropped.

My honest feeling at the time was that they deserved it, and as far as I am concerned that is still how I feel today.

People never look back to what led up to it – Pearl Harbour, Nanking – and there are no innocent civilians in war, everyone is doing something, contributing to the war effort, building bombs.

What we did saved a lot of lives in the long run and I am proud to have been part of it.

Technorati tags: terrorist, moral equivalence,

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An eye-opening, funny, and informative blog

Via the BBC, I just heard about 360 Degrees of Sky – Life in Rural Zambia. It’s written by a woman who does publicity for a British NGO in Zambia. She can write. She can see, hear,smell, and touch. Go read.

360 Online Breaking News

…Roger the Dodger – local bicycle repair man – made an attempt to secure the mantle of Unabomber, when he threatened Chief with “blowing your brains out”. Witnesses were unanimous in their belief that he was unlikely to achieve this with an inner tube and an old candle.

Residents have been advised to stay indoors and watch out for anything suspicious. Unfortunately this advice has had to be ignored, on account of no lights for watching anything, and the danger of using a paraffin stove indoors with no ventilation. We await further updates.

Brandishing Pens

…people undoubtedly have tough lives, [but] they are not limpid beggars with their hands outstretched. They have pride, dignity, laughter. Their children go to school, even if it is under a tree. They work their farms, hard, every day. The women sit and twist each other’s hair into elaborate styles and gossip about their neighbours. The men sit and gossip about the women. The rhythm of life is the same here as it is the world over. And yet it is not the laughter or the gossip which sells, but the hardship and the illness.

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EU Software patent bill thrown out

From the BBC (link)

The European Parliament voted 648 to 14 to reject the Computer Implemented Inventions Directive. … Hi-tech firms supporting the directive said it was vital to protect the fruits of their research and development.

Opponents said, if passed, the bill would lead to the patenting of software which would jeopardise the prospects of small firms and open source developers. …

The bill was intended to sweep away individual EU nations’ patent dispute systems in favour of one common procedure. … Dr John Collins, a partner at patent attorney Marks & Clerk said the decision was not a victory for opoonents of software patents. “Today’s outcome is a continuation of inconsistency and uncertainty with regard to software patenting across the EU,” he said. The anti-piracy Business Software Alliance said it would have welcomed harmonisation of European patent laws and the decision marked a time for reflection. …

More than 1,700 Europe-wide companies, represented by the Free Information Infrastructure UK (FFII-UK), joined the plea for the European Union to reject any law which patents software. The FFII-UK and many others feared the that the passing of the bill would lead to Europe following the US and allowing business processes to be patented[emphasis mine]. This has led to online store Amazon patenting and protecting its one-click shopping system.

Big technology firms, such as Philips, Nokia, Microsoft, Siemens, and telecoms firm Ericsson, continued to voice their support for the original bill.

Why, if an idea is bad, would anyone want to be consistent about it? (Except, of course, the “big technology firms” for whom it’s not such a bad idea at all.)

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Help stop infection of Europe with failed US software patent law

[Below copied from the “No EU Patents” page. Formatting modified, since I’m not sure how to replace my index page on]

STOP Software Patents!

We are asking our representatives in the European Parliament to
save Europe from software patents by following the
Buzek-Rocard-Duff amendments.

The Software Patents Directive, as approved by the European
Council of Ministers, would legalise US-style Software
in the European Union.

How you can help

If that happens, software developers will no longer own what they write and can be sued for selling or distributing their own software.
This would not only endanger your job, but the entire
European software sector.

On Wed the 6th of July, the European Parliament will have the last
chance to prevent this. To do so, 367 of the 732 members must be present and
vote for the right amendments.

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