29 April, 2004

American torture techniques

Abu Ghraib is a dreaded Iraqi prison, notorious for torture and disappearance under Saddam Hussein's regime. Last year, the Americans "reluctantly" reopened Abu Ghraib to deal with "intransigent" Iraqis. It still managed to hang onto a corner of its reputation, as Iraqis frequented the prison desperately searching for signs of inexplicably disappeared relatives and friends.

Now it looks like it's going to recover 100% of its reputation. CBS recently obtained photographs showing "mistreatment" of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Six soldiers are being court-martialed and some higher-ups are being investigated for disciplinary action. Mark Kimmit is appalled, of course.

But in any case, what I actually want to talk about is torture techniques. The above story happens to mention some incidental techniques used against Iraqis, and they pretty much fall into the pattern of torture techniques I've heard about over the course of the "War on Terror". These include sleep deprivation, hoods, and exposure to loud music.

There are lots of ways to torture someone if you want them to give up information, but some of them are obviously going to be more effective than others. There's lots of pain-based techniques, like electro-shock to the head or groin, finger-breaking, etc., but as far as I can tell Americans like to use less bloody techniques that are based more on the principal of confusion: so, throwing off the sense of time and messing with sleep cycles is often used. In fact the "loud music" technique is in the end a form of sleep deprivation - I first heard about this back in the early 1990s, when, during the invasion of Panama, Marines used "New Kids on the Block" to flush out Maniel Noriega. It seemed sort of silly at the time, but the actual torture part of it is simply the fact that it's impossible to sleep when someone is playing loud and repetitive music constantly. As most college students are probably aware, sleep deprivation is one of the quickest ways to screw up the human body and reduces the brain to absolute mush. Other methods of sleep deprivation include irregular serving of meals, constant bright lights, extremes of temperature and uncomfortable sleeping surfaces.

Sensory deprivation also seems to be common - hoods and earphones, goggles, cuffs so you can't touch yourself, etc. The infamous Guantanamo picture showed detainees bound, goggled and ear-phoned. Isolation from everything is a good way to break the mind.

Why these techniques as opposed to physical ones? I'm just speculating, but I can think of a few reasons: first, these require relatively little training. Electroshock, thumbscrews, finger-breaking, etc., all involve a certain amount of knowledge and require active time investment on the part of the interrogator to get the subject prepared. The above techniques are relatively simple to perform by just about anybody and can be done routinely, and will leave the subject pliant for the interrogator. Second, they leave few physical marks, which probably is useful if you're worried about human rights organizations getting on your case. Third, they might be more effective in general (although I once saw a 60 minutes interview with a Mossad agent who claimed that nothing was more effective than a wet-towel-over-the-mouth suffocation torture in getting people to talk).

Anyhow, I point these techniques out just so people can keep their eyes open for similar activities and recognize them for what they are. I should emphasize that these torture techniques, especially prolonged sensory deprivation, can have severe psychological effects and should not be considered "nicer" than physically traumatic techniques.

27 April, 2004

shame on you, Gerry Fink

Gerry Fink, ex-director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and general asshole thinks that people in Boston should "welcome" the biosafety level 4 Boston University Medical Center bioterrorism lab in densely-populated metropolitan Boston. I'd like to see him live close to the proposed lab site and see if he still supports it.

I can't say I'm surprised. This is the guy who is proud to be close personal friends with John Deutch (ex-director of the CIA and general asshole). He thought it was a cool idea to invite John Deutch to a Whitehead retreat forum discussing how new bioterrorism laws affect science in the U.S.. Deutch proceeded to lecture us on our duty as Americans (1/3 of the scientists there weren't Americans) to comply with everything the government demanded. Then he proceeded to flippantly ignore attempts at discussion. A graduate student on the panel asked why the list of countries with whom we are not allowed to collaborate was not at all based on which states engaged in terrorism or not, but on being allies with the U.S... for example Saudi Arabia was not on the list of "do not collaborate" countries. Deutch brushed off the question and didn't even try to answer it. Probably because he couldn't.

Then an Asian-American student asked what protections from our school/ institute we could expect if we were accused of spying, etcetera as in the case of Wen Ho Lee. Deutch was again flippant, merely responding "tell them to talk to me."

What a waste of time.

Shame on you, Gerry Fink.

26 April, 2004

IMF meetings/ruminations on anti-capitalism

The IMF meetings happened this weekend. I didn't go, although I was planning on it, because I had too much work to do. By most accounts it was boisterous but sparsely attended, between 2,000 and 3,000 people. The Wash Post wrote a crowing editorial cautiously cheering the death of the antiglobalization movement (but warning us to continue "worrying" because anti-capitalists continue to lurk in the wings).

In the doldrums I am often led to question my beliefs and wonder whether the movement is enervated simply because it is wrong. And in fact oftentimes I think I lose sight of the beautiful aspects of the capitalist system, simply because my eye is so often drawn to all that is wrong and ugly about it; so when I am forced to consider what is right about that system, it seems all the more striking and my assessments all the more wrong.

What disturbs me is Margaret Thatcher's idea: There Is No Alternative. And there really isn't. No one has laid out a coherent vision of a qualitatively better non-capitalist society, one that could provide the level of wealth that capitalism does and at the same time assure a more equitable distribution and show greater ecological responsibility. Actually, it only makes sense to critique a system if you have something reasonable to replace it with. Of course, the first step is to admit you have a problem...

So, though I'll continue to throw pie in the face of smarmy defenders of capitalism who pretend that all is jolly, I pine for a vision of where to go from here.

24 April, 2004

A near miss

It's funny how we try to find meaning in everything.

This morning as I stepped outside the house I narrowly avoided the aerial bombardment of a squadron of pigeons. The payload landed directly in front of me and made a loud "SPLAT!", like someone had spilled a bucketful of raw eggs across the steps. There must have been at least eight of the little shitters involved in the attack, but when I looked up I could only see one, perched on the edge of the roof with his ass hanging out cheekily. After my heart had stopped racing, I went back upstairs to make sure that none of it was in my hair or on my clothes (that's happened before - nothing is more embarassing than being told you have bird shit in your hair) before heading out again, making sure to dart out quickly from the front door, in case they were planning a second barrage.

I went through the full range of emotional response: genocidal rage, paranoia ("There's a pigeon on every wire!"), humiliation, fear. But in the end I was just left with a sort of confusion. I couldn't help but try and draw meaning from my narrow escape - after all, only one second's difference would have left me, err, soiled. And when you think about it, there's no real qualitative difference between the disaster that I was saved from and escaping death by falling piano, chunk of masonry or tree downed in a thunderstorm. And it's all too common to hear people thank Jehovah for saving them from that sort of cruel fate - why not me? Sure, my disaster is about fifty times sillier than death by falling masonry, but so what? Either you believe that there's some divine spirit watching over you, deciding magnanimously that today, It is going to save your ass from the blender; or you believe that it's all random shit, and Jehovah doesn't give a fuck if you get bird ca-ca all over you, or you die, or what.

I think it's pretty evident that there isn't anything to it - I don't think Jehovah spread his arms over me this morning and shielded me from a fate worse than death. But I did feel compelled to try and explain it that way. We're odd creatures - we can't just take adversity as it comes and accept it as haphazard and undirected. We want to see reason and purpose in everything - even bird defecation. But I think the sooner we give up on the idea of a just universe and a rational god watching over it, the better. Not because we'll be happier, that way. Just less disappointed when God doesn't pull through.

I support them in theory

A gem from Union-basher Trent Lott:

“I love firefighters and policemen as individuals and as a group, [but] I don’t think much of their unions.”

This is from an article about firefighters who dislike being used by the Bush campaign. His administration has cut initiatives for their profession.

23 April, 2004

the worst sexist assholes are women

At least it seems that way. Or maybe it hurts more when it comes from women. I was an undergrad at Caltech, where the male to female ratio when I was there was roughly 3 to 1. Women got a lot of this crap:

"She's dumb, and she only got into Caltech because she's a woman."

It was mostly women, to my recollection, who'd say stuff like that. Then there'd be things like: I would do math homework with a guy friend and a girl friend. I'd solve the math problem first. When the guy gave up trying to solve the problem, he asked for help and I explained my solution. Then when the girl gave up on the math problem, she asked the *guy* for help and completely ignored me even though it was me who had originally solved the problem.

Anyway, I'm angry about this again because in a current discussion between Caltech alums, the women are doing the same stuff again and assuming women are inferior and that for a school like MIT to have a 50/50 ratio it must automatically mean that MIT lowers the bar for women.

don't make trouble

After the hostage standoff is resolved, coming home to Japan doesn't always mean living happily ever after. According to the spokesman for the Japanese government, ""They may have gone on their own but they must consider how many people they caused trouble to because of their action."

I can't decide if this is better or worse than our own hero worship.

The young Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq returned home this week, not to the warmth of a yellow-ribbon embrace but to a disapproving nation's cold stare.

Three of them, including a woman who helped street children on the streets of Baghdad, appeared on television two weeks ago as their knife-brandishing kidnappers threatened to slit their throats. A few days after their release, they landed here on Sunday, in the eye of a peculiarly Japanese storm.

"You got what you deserve!" read one hand-written sign at the airport where they landed. "You are Japan's shame," another wrote on the Web site of one of the former hostages. They had "caused trouble" for everybody. The government, not to be outdone, announced it would bill the former hostages $6,000 for air fare.


Dr. Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist who examined the three former hostages twice since their return, said the stress they were enduring now was "much heavier" than what they experienced during their captivity in Iraq.

22 April, 2004

is this thing on?

I made a resume today and applied for an office job at the co-op. They don't say they're hiring, but maybe I'll get lucky. I'm giving up on the theater. Now that they have me working at cashier (sitting down), I realize how much standing up for an eight-hour shift was killing me. Plus, it's the right time to leave the theater anyway. T. just moved back to the vineyard, and M. quit for a job selling jewelry.

The house is shaping up nicely. We get our sixth person in this week, so my rent will only be $265, which is good, 'cuz that's about how much I make at the theater. :) I hooked up the dryer yesterday, but we don't have a hose, and the washer still doesn't work because the drain is clogged. I can see how people enjoy this whole 'home upkeep' thing. It really feels productive to work on your house, even if it's actually the landlord's.

I'll write something more interesting later. Peace and love to all you folks I haven't seen in ages and have fun in DC if you're going down there. Oh, and SA- I listed you as a reference for the co-op.

(insert impotent cry of rage)

I hate science in this country. Specifically I hate pharmaceutical research. Recently someone discovered that turmeric can treat the most common cystic fibrosis variant, CFTR F508. Apparently some component of turmeric helps the mutant CFTR protein make it to the cell membrane and do its job. How do the researchers respond?
"[C]urcumin and curcumin derivatives represent promising new candidate compounds that may prove useful in the search for small-molecule pharmacotherapies for cystic fibrosis and for other protein-folding diseases"
Or, you could JUST EAT THE GODDAMN TURMERIC! Damn capitalism...

Of course, I might be biased, coming from a culture where people eat turmeric every damn day anyway. At least this answers my girlfriend's question. ("What's the point of adding this stuff? It doesn't even taste like anything.")

21 April, 2004

in mouse world, no dad needed...

Scientists have created mice from two genetic mothers and no dad. This isn't possible (yet) with humans for both technical and ethical reasons. This is supposed to come out in the April 22 issue of Nature.

It may seem like a "why'd they do that?" sort of experiment, but it touches on my field of molecular biology (epigenetics) and adds a lot to a very important topic. In mammals, the set of genes inherited from one's father is treated differently than the set of genes inherited from one's mother. Some genes are marked differently so that long after fertilization in an adult animal, the cells "know" which of the two copies of a particular gene came from dad, and which came from mom. It normally isn't possible just to add any two halves of a genome together and expect that an animal will develop - there's something special and (we thought) necessary about the complementarity of having half of a genome from dad, and the other half from mom. It's quite amazing the scientists only had to tweak two genes in order to get it to work without this complementarity. Of course, my opinion of the research is subject to modification pending my reading of the actual journal article.

While I think it's exciting work, I am worried about the ethical implications. The scientists who did this had no intentions of doing this in humans, but that was the same story with Dolly, the cloned sheep.

The cloning frenzy that ensued led to the attempts of some groups including one associated with the Raelians and another with fertility doctor Panos Zavos to clone humans, despite warnings from experts in the field that cloned mammals have severe developmental problems.

The Raelians made a series of claims that they've succeeded despite having no track record of cloning expertise and no evidence of their "success." We haven't heard from Panos Zavos in a while, but let's hope he didn't actually make the attempt, which according to the predictions of the world's animal cloning experts, would have yielded many sick babies.

Brave new world, or scary, scary one?

Comfort zones

I read some Ann Coulter today. (If you've never read any Ann Coulter, don't start now. She has nothing going for her except bile, which you can produce yourself just by sticking your fingers down your throat. That, I assure you, will be a more pleasant experience than reading Ann Coulter.) It caused me to reflect on the fact that most people who are passionate about politics rarely allow themselves to drift outside of their political comfort zones - how often do people really have extended conversations with people of differing political persuasion?

I've often pined for a right-wing buddy who could de-mystify the seemingly irrational world of conservative politics for me. Is there anyone interested in being my conservative pal? I'll even take a neo-liberal.

20 April, 2004

Porn industry HIV scare - the followup

Apparently health authorities in Los Angeles are now pushing for mandatory condom use during sex scenes, according to an update article. This seems like something of which one should have thought before. (Aargh - hanging out too much with a grammar snob means I start writing awkwardly.) The delay before one might test positive for antibodies against HIV (which can be 6 months) is another scary factor. The basic upshot - use condoms, dammit. And being a porn star can be dangerous to one's health.

19 April, 2004

Christopher Hitchens is an asshole

Honestly, how can someone do such a complete 180? I read this article of his, comparing Iraq to Vietnam. He still seems to have his head on straight about Vietnam, but his arguments about the Iraqi resistance are ridiculous.

First of all, he calls them cowards, saying they were 'notably inconspicuous for their bravery' during the Saddam regime. Excuse me, Hitchy, but how could you possibly know? There was resistance under Saddam, and it was brutally put down. The Kurds that he seems to be full of praise for rebelled in the same way - the peshmerga only took points and kept them once they had the benefit of no-fly zones protecting them, whereas those in the South were quite open to Saddam's retribution. Also, al-Sadr's father was quite openly opposed to Saddam within Iraq, and was gunned down by the regime along with his eldest sons. It's entirely possible that a good number of the current resistance fighters did fight against Saddam. Since we haven't done a survey, there's no way to know, but that does mean that it is entirely artful propaganda to suggest they are cowards.

Then he praises the US for its efforts at creating democracy. I assume he has some excellent example of precedent to cite here, since I can only think of examples of US disruption and destruction of democracy, installation of dictators and support for juntas and capitalist elites. If Hitchens can give sound reasons why he believes that THIS time, we should believe that the US is sincere and actually intends to create democracy, I would love to hear them. Blind faith in the US is not something I am capable of.

Hitchens glosses over American crimes in Iraq, doesn't even mention the violence done in Falluja, and dismisses Iraqi opposition as "theocratic barbarism". This is the same man who carefully catalogued Kissinger's crimes and has such lucid comments to make on imperialism in ages past? I hope I don't go batfuck crazy some day and start praising the Mighty Avenging Sword of Imperialist Justice.

Obesity Rant #1 of ...

Check out this body mass index calculator. The basic principle of bmi is simple: divide weight by the square of your height (which makes sense since you only have two degrees of freedom for size - height and girth, as opposed to height, breadth and width; very few people are wide one way and not the other). This one is exceedingly interesting because it has percentile rank. Observe that someone who is 185 lbs at 5' 6", which is just at the edge of the 'obese' category, is only in the 78% percentile. Holy cow! Or holy buffalo! holy ridiculously fat buffalo that has swallowed two other buffalo whole! This country is fat. Not P-H-A-T, either.

In other news, my profession (biological-type research) I get to watch research minds tinkering with upcoming medical problems. I'm pretty annoyed by obesity-focused research, which explores fundamental underlying biological ways to turn off obesity rather than things like what aspects of American diet contribute to burgeoning Americans. Money, though, lies in selling pills, not in eating well, and that's where the research will go.

How to lie good

Today, Bush chastised Zapatero, PM of Spain, for withdrawing from Iraq, saying he might "give false comfort to terrorists and enemies of freedom in Iraq". The implication being that those opposing the US are opposing freedom. Odd that you might identify an occupying power which is essentially maintaining dicatorial authority over the populace, complete with extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and imperial dictat, as synonymous with freedom. But a good example of well-placed propaganda. Smart folks, those imperialist swine.

16 April, 2004

Revenge of the bicyclists!

Part of the joy of learning German is that the swear words sound a lot scarier. It comes in handy when I must swear at the inconsiderate drivers who nearly kill me during my bike ride to work.
I work in an enormous glass building, and for several weeks the area around the base of it has been a wasteland while some guys with incredibly fun-looking jobs work on it (these same guys get to RAPPEL DOWN THE SIDE OF THE BUILDING as part of their job. And here I am in this damn cubicle). This morning the entire area was suddenly covered with sod, which is delivered in giant rolled-up mats resembling Swiss cake rolls. In a single day this area went from ugly wasteland to green lawn. This really brings home the very superficial nature of Nature in the city - we've reduced it to mere cosmetic drapery. I almost wish they would make the things out of green plastic - at least it would be more honest. Eventually our hubris and our disdain for Nature is going to come around and bite us on the ass. Then I will laugh. Then I will look for some herbs to make a linament for my ass.

15 April, 2004

You would think in our usually prudish society there'd be regulations
on the porn industry, oh say, something like "actors must use appropriate protection against STDs." Apparently not, because there are such things as "non-condom" sets. The porn industry took a hit today when one of its actors tested positive for HIV.

Speaking of porn, why is porn legal but prostitution is not? In both cases people are having sex in exchange for payment.
Wow, Darryl Hannah, eco-activist... apparently she lives in a solar house and drives a biodiesel car. If you've ever had to deal with biodiesel, you probably know that this is not a sort of cosmetic, faddish activist thing that Hollywood types often engage in (like getting naked for PETA or something). Biodiesel fuel is made from recycled waste oils disposed from frying vats in fast-food joints. It involves a fair amount of work to create (including driving around to pick up used oil from the waste-oil bins behind Burger King) and the oil is often quite dirty, and very, very, foul-smelling (it contains the residue of tons of McDonalds burgers and fries). Darryl says:
“They actually dump billions of gallons of it a year in dumps and the diesel engine was meant to run on vegetable oil and it can. It’s actually less expensive than gas these days, and also burns green. No greenhouse gases. No war for oil.”
Right on. She goes on the "good list" with Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando.
Okay, first check this out.

Now, I know this is going to rattle some cages, but... what the hell is wrong with those European leaders? Basically they're saying, "No, you keep terrorizing us, because we won't stop attacking Muslim countries." Is it Opposite Day, or something? That sort of reaction is a bit absurd - just because your enemy insists on something doesn't mean you need to refuse. They needn't even accept the offer tendered, they could simply emphasize that they are not interested in attacking Muslim countries. Also this "we don't bargain with terrorists" crap that the Japanese prime minister pulled last week... what the fuck? No one in Japan but for some cynical realpolitik jerks wants to be in Iraq; innocent people's lives are directly in your hands. Bargain, goddamnit.

International politics seems like so much macho posturing. Castration should be a requirement for high political office. Then machismo will cease to be an issue.

14 April, 2004

Okay, this is old hat by now (circa January), but still well worth reading: the IMF released an occassional paper on Bush fiscal policy. Or, rather, on Bush fiscal irresponsibility. They give light praise for efforts to switch from a personal- and corporate-incom-based tax system to a consumption-based tax system (i.e. sales taxes) but then come down hard on runaway debt. This is a killer:
The United States is on course to increase its net external liabilities to around 40 percent of GDP within the next few years—an unprecedented level of external debt for a large industrial country
It degenerates from there: their recommendations on how to deal with the resulting Social Security/Medicare crisis range from raising taxes (which they reject as damaging) to fucking over old people (which they don't seem to mind at all) to privatizing the whole mess (which, commendably, they admit will leave old people twisting in the fierce winds of market fluctuations).

12 April, 2004

Easter is over, so I can safely say: Jesus Christ.

A Guardian story on the quest of the hapless occupying army in Iraq contains this gem:
A hospital official said over 600 Iraqis were killed in Fallujah alone - mostly women, children and the elderly.
Thank goodness that we Americans can all absolve our collective sin merely by shouting "Christ is Lord!", because I don't think I would be physically capable of working it off. It's going to suck when we're all rolling spiked boulders up and down the side of an enormous mountain in the Circle of Hell for "Sinners Who Let Their Government Commit Atrocities". Maybe we can mitigate it and end up in the Hell for "Sinners Who Vote In A Slightly Less Evil Government".
Apparently, Greenland is melting. Over a period of a thousand years, resulting in a 7-meter rise in sea level worldwide. Goodbye, Bangladesh. Goodbye, Los Angeles. Of course, that sort of timescale is ridiculously long. Given the rate at which we're altering this planet's environment, it seems likely that something else is going to kill us off long before then.

09 April, 2004

The battle for hearts and minds is never easy.

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