31 October, 2005

Shorter Vietnam: Dilbert covers ass

Secretive organizations often have Dilbert moments. They are accountable only to themselves, so it's all too easy to cover up mistakes with a few choice lies. This can sometimes lead to more lies, and eventually big problems, but the person who made the initial mistake has covered his ass, so he keeps his job and watches the world collapse around him.

Sort of like the incompetent intel analysts who mistranslated some Vietnamese in 1963 and led the U.S. into one of its many wars of dumb. (I don't say war of choice, as all wars are wars of choice. These are wars of dumb, when it takes conscious ignorance in order to go to war. I'd include the Mexican, Spanish-American, and Iraq wars in this list.)

Yes, I meant to do that:
Mr. Hanyok believed the initial misinterpretation of North Vietnamese intercepts was probably an honest mistake. But after months of detective work in N.S.A.'s archives, he concluded that midlevel agency officials discovered the error almost immediately but covered it up and doctored documents so that they appeared to provide evidence of an attack.

"Rather than come clean about their mistake, they helped launch the United States into a bloody war that would last for 10 years," Mr. Aid said.
The best part is that this finding itself has been buried for the last five years, again to prevent embarrassment for policy makers intent on making war -- this time in Iraq.

To sum up: Tonkin incident never happened. NSA analyst thought it did. Analyst covers error with lies. Policy makers push lies to public, leading to war. 38 years later, historian uncovers tale. Historian's findings suppressed from public, in fear public won't support another war based on lies. Yes, a coverup to cover up a coverup that covered up a lie. Upshot: 2 big wars, millions of dead bodies, and the accelerated demise of the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

29 October, 2005

Damage assessment

We don't normally cover "hard news" here at Rhinocrisy, but what the heck. Atrios notices that there are conflicting stories going around about whether the CIA conducted a damage assessment over the Valerie Plame name leak. At a hearing this summer, I heard several former CIA guys agree that after a leak, the CIA would normally conduct a "damage assessment" to determine what intelligence assets had been compromised. I asked one Democratic Party member of the Joint Intelligence Committee whether he had been presented with such a document. He said he was unaware of such a document being prepared. He said he would look into it. I haven't checked back, but it sounds like a good project. I'll let you know what I find out.

28 October, 2005

Happy half-birthday

I hate to sound repetitive, but:

Photo released
April 28, 2004

Today "they" are busy keeping the remainder of the photos under wraps, despite a court order to release them. According to Sy Hersh, the new photos will include boys being sodomized. I guess that's what they get for being born in the wrong damn country, isn't it.

27 October, 2005

Ahmadimejad gets in on the act

Is everyone in on this game except me? I can't look around without someone riling up anti-Iran sentiment. It's one thing for the neocons to be doing this -- that's their habit. But what's up with this guy? Isn't he supposed to be, like, the president of that country? From the Pakistani version:
TEHRAN: Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday openly called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’ and lashed out at Muslim nations who recognise the Jewish state.

“The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world,” the president told a conference in Tehran entitled ‘The World without Zionism’.

“The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of a war of destiny. The outcome of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land,” he thundered in a fiery speech on what he called an “historic war between the oppressor and the world of Islam”.
Ever feel surrounded by assholes?

26 October, 2005

More bad reporting

It's not just the New York Times that has to crib facts from the Internet. What you or I could find out in ten minutes with a browser is apparently the best information available even to the highly placed. Pity Lt. Colonel Steve Boylan, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Boylan cited the Iraq Body Count figure of 30,000*, because:
Boylan said the U.S. military keeps its own tally of Iraqi dead, but does not release it. He said he had asked U.S. authorities to see the estimates of Iraqi dead himself, and was refused.
That's right - they won't even let their own spokesman know how many Iraqi dead there are. What the...? What happened to the good ole days, when we were counting dead Vietnamese daily on the nightly news?

Maybe they're embarassed. As the A.P. coyly points out, the death rate in Iraq is nowhere near what it was in Vietnam, which averaged at 12,000 a month. But, no, Mrs. Reporter - we haven't even started carpet bombing yet! The correct, adjusted equation for death rate should be something like this:

where k is number of kills, and O is the amount of ordinance expended.

The real source of the Pentagon's embarassment, though, is that they still think they haven't matched up to their own protegé Saddam:
Boylan disputed assertions that Iraq was safer under Saddam.

"The mass graves hold the truth," he said.
Haha! Those guys... you'd think they have some sort of weird complex about all this.

Check out McClellan. He can't even bring himself to SAY that sometimes the U.S. military kills innnocent people. Here he is, responding to questions about 70 civilians, including children, who were killed in a U.S. airstrike:
And there are people in Iraq, terrorists, who recognized how high the stakes are, and they're seeking to do everything they can to stop the democratic process from advancing. And there are attacks carried out on some of our troops. And when those attacks are carried out on our troops, you have others that respond to that. And we appreciate all that our men and women in uniform are doing when it comes to defending our freedoms abroad. Now, in terms of any innocent people being killed, we mourn the loss of any innocent life that is lost.
Here's a clue, asshole: if you really mourned the loss of any innocent life, you wouldn't hide it.

* Which is conservative, since it's only those deaths that get reported in newsmedia.

Unknown territory

What a big night! A record-breaking 14-inning World Series game! With a record-breaking 16 pitchers! And a record-breaking 21st tropical storm of the season kills 15 in Haiti! I always wanted to set a record. Isn't it nice to be in unknown territory?

In the future, hurricanes will be named for motor vehicles. Tropical Storm X-Terra. Hurricane Hummer. Atlantic Depression Studebaker.

USA to democracy: "you just get in the way!"

I've been following the story of the US base on Okinawa for a while. We showed a documentary about Okinawa a couple years back at MIT. It showed the areas where the new air field was supposed to be built: a beautiful cove, one of the last refuges for many species of the area. Sure, let's pour some concrete and oil spills there!

So I was relieved to read in this article that the US had agreed to relocate the air field somewhere else (exact location unclear, and having an air field next door is not good for humans, beasts, land, water or air). But still, overall, a good thing, and a concession from the US to Japan. Japan is after all a sovereign nation who has waged fewer wars on the rest of the world than the US in the past 50 years.

However, the last line did stand out:
"Washington had expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress. Lawless, deputy undersecretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, on Tuesday suggested Japanese officials were too concerned with "parochial issues" — a reference to local opposition to the plan to build an offshore air station."

First, note that the guy quoted is called "Lawless". Coincidence sure has a sense of humor.

Secondly, and most importantly, and the whole point of posting chez Saurabh and friends here: local opposition is a "parochial issue" above which the Japanese government should rise, like a soaring imperial bald eagle, or some such image. Dear readers: "local opposition" is the very definition of democracy! You advise ignoring it, you're a tyrant. Plain, simple, spelled out.

25 October, 2005

The quest for knowledge

The New York Times is desperate to find out how many Iraqi civilians have died due to the American invasion. They are so desperate to find out that they put their crack Baghdad bureau to work. Reporter Sabrina Tavernise looked high and low, or at least at Google. After what must have been minutes of exhaustive keyboard-tapping, she copied and pasted the statistics from IraqBodyCount.com. Since those numbers -- 26,000 to 30,000 -- are shockingly high, she does her readers the polite favor of hiding the fact that the numbers are also very conservative. Instead she writes that they are "incomplete," which implies inaccurate, rather than low. I appreciate her willingness to spare our delicate sensibilities. There is nothing worse than when the population paying for burnt dead bodies are forced to see the results of their actions.

And Tavernise's gentility does not stop there. She even ignores the peer-reviewed study published almost exactly a year ago. It used epidemiological sampling to find the most likely estimate of excess Iraqi deaths above the already sickening level at which they were dying under Saddam + sanctions. Their figure, as of September 2003, was 98,000, with a wide range to reach a 95% confidence interval. Of course that study was already deep in the memory hole within days of publication, so Ms. Tavernise did not need even to explain it away.

Instead, the NY Times confirms its own headline: "Rising Civilian Toll Is the Iraq War's Silent, Sinister Pulse."

What on earth are you looking for?

Gerry: The Jon Stewart parody of Mallard Fillmore is a cross of a rhino and a hedgehog. For the peak of rhinocrisy, and to torture saurabh, oil a kleen kanteen in the red amino methyl tyrosinate.

This post is composed entirely of the search terms most likely to have sent readers to Rhinocrisy in the past six months. Apparently, procrastinatory disquisitions on evolutionary biology, politics, and cartography will attract a substantial readership among fans of Mallard Fillmore, Jon Stewart and Kleen Kanteens.


Richard Nixon was president from 1968 until his resignation in 1974. He was elected on an essentially anti-war platform the first time around, promising to bring to an end the war in Vietnam. In actual fact the war ended up dragging on until 1973, and in the interim his secretary of State Henry Kissinger started two other undeclared wars in Cambodia and Laos.

Nixon was thrown out of office for a bit of political skulduggery involving spying on his political opponents. Meanwhile, his performance in Vietnam earned his secretary of State the Nobel Peace Prize. The Secret War in Laos and Cambodia continued thereafter, even following Nixon's resignation.

The modern parallel involves the disclosure of the identity of a covert agent, one Valerie Plame, wife of former ambassador Joe Wilson. This is a bit of political skulduggery, on par with the Watergate affair. The crime involved is of no grave magnitude; no one even died. And its impact on events in the world is negligible, really. Bush lied about yellowcake uranium on January 28, 2003. Joe Wilson told the world Bush was a liar on July 6, 2003. Unfortunately, Bush had already invaded Iraq on March 20.

Maybe someone will go down for revealing Valerie Plame's secret identity. But Iraq is still white-hot, burning bright like thermite. The United States will probably be squirming its toes around in Iraqi sand for the next ten years, regardless of who is in charge here. Whatever figure occupies the oily black leather chair behind the desk in the Oval Office will stare at Iraq with the same greedy grin on its jaws. And no one's ever going to get called out for that, just like no one got called out for killing half a million Cambodians. The moral of the story: the really big crimes always go unpunished. So think big.

Excellent choice of battles, Madame!

White House Orders Satirical Paper 'The Onion' to Stop Using Presidential Seal

By E&P Staff

Published: October 24, 2005 2:25 PM ET

NEW YORK Despite White House spokesman Trent Duffy's admission to New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye that "more than one Bush staffer reads The Onion and enjoys it thoroughly," the White House is seeking to stop the satirical paper from using the presidential seal on its Web site.

Seelye's seal scoop, printed in Monday's paper, reveals that associate counsel to the president Grant M. Dixton sent a letter to the Onion on Sept. 28 stating that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement."

The newspaper parodies President Bush's weekly radio address on its Web site, accompanied by a picture of President Bush and the official insignia.
Sure, the letter is signed by Grant M. Dixton, "Associate Counsel to the President." But who would be his boss? Hmm -- Counsel to the President -- where have I heard that title before?

You gotta love the nominee who goes after the frickin Onion on the eve of her confirmation hearings. That is a class act. A class in, how do you say, "doh!"

Seal added per Hugo Zoom's clever suggestion. This website is endorsed and sponsored by the White House. The nice white house at 87 Montague Road.

24 October, 2005

Worst joke ever

While reading about the bombing of Nagasaki on Wikipedia, I found this tidbit:
On the morning of August 9, 1945, the crew of the American B-29 Superfortress Bockscar, flown by Major Charles W. Sweeney and carrying the nuclear bomb nicknamed "Fat Man," found their primary target, Kokura, to be obscured by clouds. After three runs over the city and having fuel running low due to a fuel-transfer problem, they headed for their secondary target, Nagasaki. At about 07:50 Japanese time, an air raid alert was sounded in Nagasaki, but the "all clear" signal was given at 08:30. When only two B-29 Superfortresses were sighted at 10:53 the Japanese apparently assumed that the planes were only on reconnaissance and no further alarm was given.

A few minutes later, at 11:00, the observation B-29 (The Great Artiste flown by Capt. Frederick C. Bock) dropped instruments attached to three parachutes. These instruments also contained messages to Prof. Ryukichi Sagane, a nuclear physicist who studied with three of the scientists responsible for the atomic bomb at the University of California, urging him to tell the public about the danger involved with these weapons of mass destruction. The letter was not found until after the end of World War II.

21 October, 2005

Smash! Pow! Zonk!

In case you missed it, Jon Stewart had Bill O'Reilly on the Daily Show two nights back. Yes, you read that right. Yes, THAT Bill O'Reilly Personally, I think the old man got his ass handed to him on a platter garnished with parsley and tomato-wedges. As good as that whole Tucker Carlson bit.

More Iran-hatred

The pre-propaganda against Iran continues with Oliver North's new book. Meanwhile, America's #1 Iran-basher gets tied up in Plamegate.
Who was behind the Niger uranium forgeries?

Even as the FBI was following the trail of the forgers, the Italians were looking into the matter from their end. A parliamentary committee was charged with investigating, and they issued a heavily redacted report: now, I am told by a former CIA operations officer, the report has aroused some interest on this side of the Atlantic. According to a source in the Italian embassy, Patrick J. "Bulldog" Fitzgerald asked for and "has finally been given a full copy of the Italian parliamentary oversight report on the forged Niger uranium document," the former CIA officer tells me:

"Previous versions of the report were redacted and had all the names removed, though it was possible to guess who was involved. This version names Michael Ledeen as the conduit for the report and indicates that former CIA officers Duane Clarridge and Alan Wolf were the principal forgers. All three had business interests with Chalabi."

The unmovable post

One of the articles I edit on Wikipedia is the evolution article. The great majority of edits to this article consist of random individuals coming along and inserting their snide creationism-based dismissals of modern evolutionary theory (fleetingly, before their changes are promptly reverted). Here's a representative one, from today. I'm forced to imagine the writer as some sort of half-formed man-ape, picking in consternation at his brow-ridge as he painstakingly searches the keyboard for the correct keys:
Though evolution is not supported by scientific method (it is not observable and repeated), this experience causes the myth of evolution to fall into the category of a religious world-view rathern than a scientific theory. Evolutionists will show evidence for micro-evolution (small changes within a type of biological life form) then switch to macro-evolution to suggest these changes can result in biological life changing into another kind of life form like fish to human, or simple cell organism (there are no simple cell organisms in reality) to whales.
It's really not worth it to make fun of someone who writes blurbs like this. Pointing out their errors is simply demeaning to yourself. It's a pointless waste of time, like correcting the diction and pronunciation of a three-year-old; you're better off smiling benignly and helping them open that Motts' applesauce packet they've been struggling with.

I guess this is the way most biologists feel about engaging creationists in a public forum. As George Bernard Shaw said, "I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." Which is why people like Michael Behe can run around for so long unfettered, tearing up the vegetables and knocking over fenceposts.

The good professor recently starred as the defense's main witness in the intelligent design trial currently underway in Dover, Pennsylvania. Behe's standard argument is "irreducible complexity", which he illustrates via a mousetrap: a mousetrap is a useful thing that cannot have been produced by an evolutionary process. That is, if we remove any one component from a mousetrap, it becomes functionally useless. A system that evolved by the agglomeration of components, however, requires intermediates to be useful. Behe argues that many biochemical systems (e.g. the blood clotting system in humans (and biological cascades more generally) or the flagellar motor) show such irreducibility.

Behe's claims are easily rubbished. This talk.origins page features a gorgeous and simple demonstration of how an "irreducibly complex" system can evolve for gene cascades. But Behe persists because he can, in a public forum. In point of fact, no one can ever shut you up by proving you wrong; so long as you have money and an audience, you can talk gibberish until the cows are blue in the face and come home to the kingdom, and even be reasonably well-received by gullible ignoramuses.

In point of fact, I don't think anyone even cares about Behe's arguments. I don't think Discovery Institute types like Philip Johnson are interested in how robust these concepts are. To them, this is simply armor of a sort. Here's a moderately sophisticated argument that is impenetrable to the vast majority of the public. They'll never appreciate the argument being made; they'll never appreciate the counterarguments, even if anyone bothered to make them explicit. In such a situation, you merely have to pick the expert espousing the ideology that you're comfortable with. Victory.

Speaking of maps

Check out this cloak-and-dagger stuff. It combines everything I love most -- oil, maps, and greedy corporate schemes. The New York Times reports that the map of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is gone. It sure looks stolen to me, based on this report, though the goodnatured scientists at the US Geologic Survey would never suggest such a thing.
The wall-size 1:250,000-scale map delineated the tundra in the biggest national land-use controversy of the last quarter-century, an area that environmentalists call America's Serengeti and that oil enthusiasts see as America's Oman.

The map had been stored behind a filing cabinet in a locked room in Arlington, Va. Late in 2002, it was there. In early 2003, it disappeared. There are just a few reflection-flecked photographs to remember it by.

All this may have real consequences. The United States Geological Survey drew up a new map. On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee passed a measure based on the new map that opened to drilling 1.5 million acres of coastal plain in the refuge.

The missing map did not seem to include in the coastal plain tens of thousands of acres of Native Alaskans' lands. On the new map, those lands were included, arguably making it easier to open them to energy development.

The measure is scheduled to be in the budget reconciliation bill to be voted on next month.

"People have asked me several times, 'Do you think someone took this intentionally?' " said Doug Vandegraft, the cartographer for the Fish and Wildlife Service who was the last known person to see the old map. "I hope to God not. So few people knew about it. I'm able to sleep at night because I don't think it was maliciously taken. I do think it was thrown out."

Mr. Vandegraft said he had folded the map in half, cushioned within its foam-board backing, and put it behind the filing cabinet in the locked room for safekeeping.

I'm not crazy

When President Bush came in and started acting all crazy, shaking his multi-trillion-dollar GI Joe set at Afghanistan and then Iraq and Iran and North Korea, many of us out here in reality-land were horrified. And at the same time curious. It all looked so crazy -- and yet these are smart, educated, non-self-destructive people who are doing this. So maybe it's not nuts, we said. Maybe they know something I don't know. Maybe they have a plan. In arguments with those who supported the war(s), this was what I heard every time. They wouldn't do this all for spite. They aren't that nuts. They aren't that dumb. They don't hate America.

Wrong. As Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Fitzgerald knock down and splinter the Administration's cheap facade of invicibility, one militaristic, pro-American right-winger after another wanders from the wreckage to tell us what we feared all along. They are that nuts. They are that dumb. They do hate America. The latest is here (abridged version follows) -- from Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell:
Foreign policy had been usurped by a "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal," and President Bush has made the country more vulnerable, not less, to future crises.

Secrecy, arrogance and internal feuding had taken a heavy toll in the Bush administration, skewing its policies and undercutting its ability to handle crises.

"I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita - and I could go on back," he said. "We haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time."

"If something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence."

Mr. Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former director of the Marine Corps War College, said that in his years in or close to government, he had seen its national security apparatus twisted in many ways. But what he saw in Mr. Bush's first term "was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberration, bastardizations" and "perturbations."

"What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues," he said.

The former aide referred to Mr. Bush as someone who "is not versed in international relations, and not too much interested in them, either."
So we're not crazy. They're not informed. They really are nutso.

Update October 26: More evidence from A Tiny Revolution.

20 October, 2005

Yet more epidemiology

To paraphrase Jonathan Schwarz, I know only two things, and one of them is that the American medical industry does a fantastic job. Day after day, doctors, hospitals, and drug companies succeed spectacularly in doing what they are supposed to do, which is to make piles and piles of money.

One way they do this, as Saurabh notes below, is to classify everyday life as a disease, and to then offer pharmaceutical -- rather than social -- cures for our discomfort. If you're 7 years old and can't sit still, you should be considered "normal." Instead you are a medicable pariah. If you are a couch potato who gets fat, here's some surgery. If your days in desk chairs and car seats leave you with short hamstrings and a tight lower back, here's some surgery for that, too.

And then there are the lifestyle diseases that wouldn't even exist if it weren't for medicine. This graph shows the change over time in the rate of triplets and "higher-order multiple births" per 100,000 live births. The change is attributable entirely to the growth in fertility treatments. Multiple births take place in 1 out of 50 untreated births and about 1 in 2 births with fertility treatment. And that in itself can easily fit into the new improved definition of an illness -- pregnancy can be a pain, and pregnancy with quadruplets can be an even bigger pain. It's almost certainly worse than PMS, which is also now considered an illness.

19 October, 2005

Obesity rant #7

It's been a long time since I went on a rant about obesity, which I used to do far more frequently back in the day. One of those foregoing rants was about the Department of Health and Human Services' decision to specify obesity as a disease. Included therein was the startling recommendation that gastric bypass surgery be included as an accepted, and even primary, treatment.

This seems unwise even to the ill-informed and conjures up the disquieting phrase "unnecessary surgery". Now a pair of recently-released studies provide some good statistcs to bolster that disquietude. Check out the horrifying graph to the right. Even more disturbing is the fact that the number of people electing to have this sort of surgery is galloping upwards, from 13,000 in 1998 to 103,000 in 2003.

I don't mean to imply that gastric bypass surgery should never happen. Nevertheless, I do find it to be an extreme reaction to something we know to be a problem of lifestyle and nutrition. There's simply no reason why our government should be responding to it as a disease.

Fifty years ago when lung cancer rates started shooting up, few people had any idea that cigarettes were to blame. When that correlation was established, the public health imperative was abundantly clear: stop smoking. Stop smoking, and you will stop lung cancer. In this case, we can say just as certainly that obesity has a lifestyle cause. It isn't as concentrated or obvious as cigarettes, but it's probably far more reversible. It's the responsibility of public health officials to push healthy lifestyle changes first, especially when treatment is a dangerous and undesirable option.

I didn't know that...

Sometimes colossal ignorance itself can be educational.

For example, recently events have underscored the fact that I'm stupendously ignorant of what goes on in Japan. Mostly I think my knowledge is on par with the average American - a few vague tidbits about samurai, a post-war obsession with the bomb and some really bizarre cartoons.

The other day most of Asia was in uproar because the Japanese prime minster (and the following day, 200 Japanese MPs) paid a visit to a Japanese shrine that paid respect to their war dead. What's this all about?

Let's review some history: in 1994, when I was in high school, we learned about World War II. As everyone knows, World War II started with Hitler's invasion of Poland, which was followed by their capture of France and bombing of London. Then, in 1941, following the insidious bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the Americans entered the war, kicking ass, taking names, and chewing their newly-minted Bazooka brand chewing-gum. Eventually we got close enough to Japan that we could firebomb Tokyo and nuke a few cities, which convinced the recalcitrant Japanese to stop their human wave attacks and surrender like reasonable people, and had absolutely nothing to do with any Russians whatsoever.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, "World War II" was actually well underway long before 1939. In 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland, Japan was cutting their way through China on their way to Nanjing, which was, at the time, the capital of the Republic. Once there, they commenced an orgy of blood and violence that earned the subsequent six-week period the lovely moniker "the Rape of Nanjing", or more diffidently, "the Nanjing Massacre."

Or more diffidently still, "the Nanjing Incident."

See, the other part they neglected to review in my world history class, aside from what is arguably one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world, was any of the post-war history of Japan. Until 1952 when they regained formal sovereignty, Japan was effectively ruled by General Douglas MacArthur, and he was not idle during that period. He was heavy-handed in his reforms of Japanese society, including the basic structure of government, the separation of Shinto religion and the state, educational systems, the disbanding of the armed forces, and the breakup of the large commercial conglomerates that ran the economy.

And, as the Cold War began to get underway, the U.S. naturally used its influence to push Japan in an anti-communist direction. Part of this meant encouraging Japanese nationalism, including resurrecting the Japanese army as a 'self-defense force', despite the protests of Japanese progressives. It also meant encouraging the growth of historical revisionism, notably with respect to the Communists in China.

This bore fruit in 1971, when a huge hoopla started out over the censoring of certain Japanese textbooks. The position of many Japanese nationalists, contrary to the prevailing historical understanding, was that the Nanjing massacre had never happened. Sure, some people had been killed, but only soldiers, and there were dead on both sides. The number of dead the Chinese government was suggesting (300,000) was just propaganda, and passing it on denigrated the Japanese national character.

Naturally, this irked the Chinese, for whom, by this point, Nanjing was a signal memory and a symbol of Japanese wartime atrocities. It also irked the author of the textbook, Saburo Ienaga, who sued to have the history of Nanjing preserved as he intended. His desires were upheld in court, and eventually Nanjing made its way back into textbooks.

But nationalism and its historical revisionist currents didn't vanish, and in fact during this period there was plenty of back-and-forth on the subject of Nanjing. Revisionist attempts to whitewash Japanese wartime history resulted in a spate of new journalism on the subject, notably Katsuichi Honda in the newspaper Asahi, who published a series of widely praised and despised articles detailing the atrocities at Nanjing (including a famous account of a macabre death-count competition between two lieutenants).

The essential issue remains alive to this day, however. This, I did learn about in high school, although the source was the dark, sotto voce mutters of my Chinese classmates about the damnable Japanese. Japan has not, to date, issued any formal apology for its war crimes, a subject of frequent dispute. And revisionism is not gone, either; in April of this year, the Japanese Ministry of Education once more announced its intent to adopt textbooks that minimized Nanjing, labeling it only an "incident". Probably you remember the protests that produced, although if you are like me, you were a bit taken aback by their vehemence.

A full account of the complaints made against Japan and the full measure of what they refuse to do would take more space than I'm accustomed to consuming. Here's a Wikipedia page with a fair bit on the subject.

The most recent bit is over the Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial which commemorates 2.5 million Japanese war dead. Included therein are 14 Japanese convicted "class A" war criminals, (i.e., the top top, like Tojo) and over 1,000 other Japanese war criminals. Yasukuni is very much a nationalist shrine; it celebrates the dead and is not apologetic about the war. The literature published by the shrine denies many atrocities (e.g. forced prostitution) and defends those "wrongly convicted" as war criminals.

So when Prime Minister Koizumi pays a visit to this shrine, this is no meaningless statement. When he apologizes and then proceeds to repeat his visits five times, despite the fact that his visits have been ruled unconstitutional, despite the outrage it raises in Korea and China every time he does, you begin to wonder what he's about. When nearly HALF the Japanese Diet visits the shrine, things really start to seem tweaked to you.

In a fashion American ignorance on this subject is understandable because we're outsiders to this conflict, which more or less happened without American interference. But frankly I'm appalled at the notion that human events should be ignored, that human history isn't shared, especially pain of this magnitude. Most Americans are probably just as oblivious to the recent Congo Civil War, which produced something like 4 million dead. And this was practically yesterday. Part of the project of overturning nationalism should involve moving away from 'national histories' told from the point of view of a single nation-state protagonist. Going from "this had nothing to do with us," to "this was a tremendous tragedy for us" takes an important step: it broadens the meaning of us.

18 October, 2005

Can't have too much good news

Because of my recent sojourn in "the" nation's capital, friends ask me what I think will happen in the Valerie Plame case. Of course I have no idea; even Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald could be unsure what he'll do. And no one knows how the case will turn out. Personally, I suspect that whatever indictments are launched, the ultimate outcome will depend a lot on current events over the next year. Courts seem more deferent to executive branch officials during crises; I can easily see events overtaking the case. But in the meantime, we can hope.

Everyone at the top level of the U.S. government has committed countless crimes, from war crimes to perjury before Congress to insider trading. But rarely are they called to task, especially in the one-party town called Washington. What will happen? According to a couple papers in the east today, there's a chance that Cheney could be indicted. A subterranean mammal can dream.

Holy crap. Bill Frist's Senate website calls him "Bill Frist, M.D." both in the title of the page and in a big hospital-blue banner at the top of the page. Even the typeface is supposed to look like a pharmaceutical ad. Now just what kind of doctor is Dr. Frist? He's a hospital administrator -- that is, someone whose paycheck depends on declining treatment, to in the perverted words of the hippocratic oath, "do no harm." Of course, to the informed reader, the "M.D." after his name mostly makes him look like the author of a self-help book.

15 October, 2005

Prior Art

A study out in Science this week* reveals that about 1/5 of the human genome (4382 of 23,688 genes) has patents on it. Is this a good thing? Is this driving innovation or stifling it?

From the perspective of a university researcher, where information is freely shared as a rule and the greater the dissemination of knowledge the more research it stimulates, patents can only inhibit. There's no monetary incentive involved, since research is all (or, mostly) publicly supported.

However, private-sector innovation might depend on patents for survival. This is the argument advanced by, for example, Incyte Genomics, which itself holds over 2000 patents on human genes. They point to the temporary loss of $5 billion in market cap for the biotech industry in 2000 when Clinton gave the mistaken impression that he opposed patents on human genes; patents on genes attract investment, investment spurs innovation. Therefore, stopping patents will result in less innovation. Q.E.D.

Of course, this is a fallacy. We could as well make the opposite argument: patents impede research, research provides the basis for innovations. Therefore, stopping patents will result in less innovation. Both of these situations can be true, acting in opposition.

In 1998 Rebecca Eisenberg and Michael Heller outlined in Science the possibility of patent regimes resulting in a sort of "anticommons", stifling innovation, through several mechanisms. As an academic (and a communist) this sort of argument is obviously appealing to me, but there's a dearth of empirical evidence on the subject. Time will tell.

Weighing in on the negative column, however, is the startling breadth of patents on genes. Until very recently patents on genes required very little demonstration of usage; you only had to describe the sequence and show how to isolate it (or its product). And as John Doll points out in a review on the subject:
A patent might be granted for compound X, which is disclosed to have a specific use (such as a headache remedy). If other investigators find that X has a new and unexpected use, perhaps in combination with compound Y, for treatment of heart arrhythmias, they may have to obtain a license from the individual who first patented compound X in order to sell XY.

In summary, once a product is patented, that patent extends to any use, even those that have not been disclosed in the patent. A future nonobvious method of using that product may be patentable, but the first patent would have been dominant.
Broad patents on genes implies more potential for infringement, which suggests less innovation. This is very different from patents designed to protect an innovator's right to profit from a product; it suppresses more than it produces.

Patent litigation is expensive for both sides. On the one hand this might mean that both sides are more likely to reach an agreement rather than go to court. But on the other, it means agreements are more likely to fail and promising research avenues more likely to be abandoned, especially with increasingly layered license agreements involving multiple parties as patents insinuate themselves further into the research process.

At any rate we can be sure that we're going to need a whole lot more patent lawyers. Wee.

Incidentally, I should give a nod to the implication of the subject line of this article itself, namely that the concept of patenting the gene sequences of living things is a questionable enterprise by its nature. Incyte, for example, claims that there is a substantial amount of effort involved in discovery and characterization of new genes that constitutes "invention". I say balls, especially these days. If they're really spending hundreds of millions of dollars as they claim, they're morons. And even so, the breadth of the patents granted is far more in line with "privatization of the genome" than with protection of innovators' rights. Genes are informational; patents should be applied to, if anything, techniques that employ genes (e.g. using single nucleotide polymorphisms to identify disease susceptibility) rather than the genes themselves. This, however, seems not to be the dominant paradigm for reasons that escape my understanding. I quote a RAND study on the subject:
Because pharmaceuticals require such intensive research and testing before they enter the market, it is broadly accepted that they require (and receive) stringent patent protection to allow that investment to be recouped... Firms that make truly gene-based drugs - drugs that consist of the "natural" protein prepared through use of an isolated gene [ed - e.g. human insulin] - do require patent protection like any other pharmaceutical firm to protect their products and methods of production... What is not clear, however, is whether this requires protection of the entire gene or whether a more narrowly drawn protection - on the optimized, commercialized protein drug itself and its production method - would suffice from society's point of view... The argument for gene IP protection based on the high investments required for pharmaceutical development is also undermined by the many other products that could be derived from genome information that require less investment for commercialization.

* Jensen and Murray, "Intellectual Property Landscape of the Human Genome", Science, 310(5746):239-240

Putting them in the lead for number of patents along with Celera, whose public announcement of their intention to patent large portions of the genome after sequencing it alarmed many researchers and spurred the drive to complete the public mapping project in time with Celera's sequencing.

This raises the interesting question of how multiple patents on the same gene are going to clash with each other. The new Jensen and Murray study in Science finds that some genes have as many as 20 different patents on them.

13 October, 2005

speaking of maps

Sometimes when you make a map, you find something unexpected (subscription required):
U.S. Patents Claim Almost 20% Of Human Genes, Study Finds
October 14, 2005

Close to 20% of human genes are claimed by U.S. patents, say researchers who have produced the first comprehensive map of the patent landscape for the genome.

The work will pave the way for a more informed debate over the consequences of patenting genetic sequences, experts say. The topic of gene ownership has been controversial: Proponents argue that gene patenting promotes development of drugs and diagnostic tests because companies have an incentive to carry the costs, but critics contend the practice stifles innovation at the basic research level.

But until now, despite avid discussion and several high-profile legal fights over the ownership of genes, nobody really knew how many genes were claimed in patents or how widespread the practice was. "The real novelty of the work is that it's a whole-genome approach," said Kyle Jensen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student and co-author of the study.

In the report, to be published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, Mr. Jensen and MIT's Sloan School of Management Professor Fiona Murray compared all of the gene sequences claimed in U.S. patents from 1990 until today with the sequences stored in the government's public database of human genes.

The team found that of the 23,688 genes in the U.S. government's public database, 4,382 were claimed as intellectual property. This is likely an underestimate because the analysis didn't look at patents for protein sequences, said Ms. Murray. "It could be up to double that," she said.

The more than 4,200 patents were owned by 1,156 institutions or inventors. About 63% were assigned to private companies, with Incyte Pharmaceuticals, a unit of Delaware's Incyte Corp., having the highest number of patents assigned, covering more than 2,000 human genes.

The researchers also found that heavily patented genes tended to be those with high relevance to human health and disease. Gene patenting has been the subject of legal battles in Europe, where countries have challenged Utah-based Myriad Genetics Inc.'s patent claims on breast-cancer gene BRCA1. Myriad has developed a diagnostic test that uses the gene, and the countries have resisted its use in Europe because of the patent issue. BRCA1 is one of the most-often-patented genes, with 14 patents issuing claims to it, according to the MIT study.

Scott Stern, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Illinois who studies how scientific ideas get to the marketplace, said the MIT work "illustrates in a very dramatic fashion the degree to which intellectual-property rights over the human genome are inextricably linked with those areas of high medical and scientific interest."

Mr. Stern, who has worked with Ms. Murray in the past but wasn't involved in her current research, said that the debate over the patenting of human genes "is going to be with us for a long time" and that the MIT work lays the groundwork needed to make informed policy decisions. The National Academy of Sciences, which advises the U.S. government on science issues, is looking at the issue of gene ownership and its effects on research.

Write to Sylvia Pagán Westphal at sylvia.westphal@wsj.com

Yom Kippur New Years resolution

I will have at least a fleeting familiarity with every large geographic region to show up in the news this year. This resolution is motivated by my inability to even vaguely imagine where in Russia to find Kabardino-Balkaria.
Militants have staged mass raids on government and police buildings in a provincial capital in Russia, leaving dozens dead and many more injured.

Authorities say that 61 rebels have been killed, but 12 police and 12 civilians also died in the assault on Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria province.
Then again life would be easier if I just read the American press, so I didn't have to hear about these things. So much easier.

A friendly note

The Discovery Institute (peddlers of Intelligent Design theory) has just filed an amicus curiae for the evolution trial going on in the 3rd Circuit court in Pennsylvania. Therein they include 85 amici, all acredited scientists, who either support intelligent design theory or feel that "protecting the freedom to pursue scientific evidence for intelligent design stimulates the advance of scientific knowledge."

This is really annoying, because it's a lot harder to make ad hominem attacks against people with PhDs, since they can respond with their own logical fallacy, appeal to authority. Meanwhile, while we're having pissing contests, some guys over at Shovel Bums ran a Four-Day petition which generated 7,732 signatures from scientists stating that intelligent design is not science and shouldn't be taught in schools.

It's fun crawling through the short list of twenty-four selected "amici" that the DI decided to highlight. Some of them are well-known, like Jonathan Wells, William Dembski and Dean Kenyon. Others are people who famously stuck their foots in their mouths or up their asses (maybe simultaneously), like Russell Carlson, who testified in front of the Kansas Board of Education and admitted that he didn't believe in the descent of man. This is simply not a scientifically defensible position, and people who make claims like that (and then admit they have no reasonable alternative hypothesis, or at least not one they're willing to mouth) can't be called respectable scientists in this context.

12 October, 2005

Halloween poll!

I think this old poll is statistically significant by now. To get you in the spirit for the upcoming holiday, I've put up a new one. As for me, I'm going to be Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. I'll try and post a picture when I'm all suited up.

Just like the prodigal son I return

I have re-emerged from the cesspit of graduate school, briefly, before it sucks me back in again. Fortunately all this flailing about seems to be useful, and the end is in sight. Note to self: NEVER GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL AGAIN.

Ah! You should read this article (via A Tiny Revolution) about how 50% of America thinks we should consider impeaching President Bush if he lied about his reasons for starting the Iraq war. !. !!!.

10 October, 2005


Something I enjoy: decent graphics. Check it out:

Energy flow in USA, 2004

At the same page, you'll find Petroleum  Natural Gas  Coal  Electricity

Grassroots earthquake help

After my post following Katrina in which I slammed the Red Cross, I feel I should point people to respectable grassroots organizations raising money for the lastest, ever more catastrophic, catastrophe. Now I realize that I am not the guy around here with subcontinental cred, and this group might have political connections that other rhinocrats might abhor. All I know is that I got this message from someone whose politics I trust, my friend and colleague Gosia Wozniacka, who also assures us that the wonderful Muzamil Jaleel, in Indian Kashmir, is ok and reporting like mad.
From: farjad nabi ,

dear everyone,

as the scale of the disaster in the north of pakistan is sinking in, there is a massive outpouring of support from all over the world. we in Lahore got jolted pretty badly and since then there have been aftershocks everyday.

my phone is constantly ringing and i'm getting an email and SMS an hour, as it seems the whole city is raising funds for the earthquake victims. people are frantically doing wholesale purchases of blankets, tents, dried milk, flour and warm clothes, packing them up in individual packs and sending them off on trucks.

however the current situation is that most of the effected areas are still inaccessible by vehicles and what's more, the govenment/army have still not gotten their act together and coordination of relief efforts is inefficient to say the least. so there's a huge question mark over whether the goodwill of those who want to help will ever reach those who need it in time ?

in Pakistan there is the trusted name of Edhi Foundation which can be relied upon to deliver and people are generously donating to them. from what i gather, Edhi is working mainly in Muzaffarabad and the surrounding areas in Kashmir.

but for the hardest hit areas of Balakot, Mansehra and the adjoining villages, the best organisation to support is Sungi / Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation (OAKDF). These people have been working in that area for the last 20 years and their head offices are in Abottabad, which has become the nervecentre for relief efforts.

Most importantly, they have knowledge of the local geography, conditions and routes which anyone from the outside would be unaware of. They have a loose network of grassroot workers spread over remote villages, so they are best situated to know what is needed and where.

If you'd like more info you can call

Ali Asghar Khan of OAKDF : 00-92-300-8565279

or if you'd like to make a direct donation, then
the relevant information is as follows:

for those outside pakistan:

Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation

MCB Bank Ltd.



US Dollar A/C No: 0585-12-02-542-2


and for donations in Pak Rs.

PAK RS A/C: 0585-01-01-6019-3

thank you and please forward this email to those
who might be interested,


07 October, 2005

You know you're an asshole when...

... You promise to veto a bill because it contains provisions condemning the use of torture against detainees and sets up comissions to investigate the possibility of torture. You do that despite the fact that it passed the Senate 90 to 9.*

* The nine: Allard (R-CO), Bond (R-MO), Coburn (R-OK), Cochran (R-MS), Cornyn (R-TX), Inhofe (R-OK), Roberts (R-KS), Sessions (R-AL), Stevens (R-AK)

05 October, 2005

since the military can do no wrong

Time to give the military another mission for which it is untrained and ill-equipped. I see some Medals of Honor on the way, if they can find anyone still alive to give them to.
WASHINGTON - President Bush, stirring debate on the worrisome possibility of a bird flu pandemic, suggested dispatching American troops to enforce quarantines in any areas with outbreaks of the killer virus.

Bush asserted aggressive action could be needed to prevent a potentially crippling U.S. outbreak of a bird flu strain that is sweeping through Asian poultry and causing experts to fear it could become the next deadly pandemic. Citing concern that state and local authorities might be unable to contain and deal with such an outbreak, Bush asked Congress to give him the authority to call in the military.


Before any new product, idea, or war can grow in the physical world, soil must be tilled and fertilized in the minds of the public. This is the process that Jacques Ellul called "pre-propaganda." Modern governments have learned from the marketing world how to engage in pre-propaganda in obvious but effective ways. Like this transparent attempt to make English people hate Iran.

I hope those leftover Iraqis like the taste of dead Iranians!

Oh and did I mention that Get Your War On has a new page or two published, along with this plaintive request?
NOTE: I apologize for not keeping the web site updated. From now on, the easiest way to read GYWO comics in a timely manner is probably to convince the editor of your local alternative weekly to publish them. Thanks.

04 October, 2005

More about my health than you ever wanted to know

Do you want to know more about my health than you ever wanted to know? No, of course not, that's impossible! But wait, you can! at a competing blog service, read my almost-daily, half-baked thoughts on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Edge cases

I had dinner with an old pal of mine last night, who is a vegan. As I often do,* I began to probe him about the limits of his veganism and why he chose to abide by his particular set of standards. He was remarkably good-natured about it and readily admitted that, of course, like all philosophies veganism invariably breaks down around the edges.

My particular test case was oysters. I had recent experience with these myself, watching some friends drip raw oyster over the tongue and into the back of the throat, and I was left wondering why exactly such a tantalizing experience must be taboo for me.

Another example that came up today: ciona, also known as the sea squirt. This little bugger is actually a chordate, so more closely related to us than a mere mollusk. But it amounts to little more than a stomach with attached mouth and heart. It (like the oyster) lives an almost purely vegetative lifestyle, breathing in sea water and filtering out whatever nutrients it can.

Compare this to the mustard plant, or a corn stalk. Not even the most susceptible of vegans feels a twinge when their teeth cut into an ear of corn. But in point of fact, the differences amount to mere biochemistry; one lacks a chloroplast and cell walls, the other produces no hemoglobin, etc. This, I very much doubt, is what motivates most vegans. ("No heme molecules shall pass these lips! Except the ones from kissing my girlfriend when her lips are chapped! Those are okay!")

Of course, most vegans these days are hardly strict, and not surprisingly their patterns of consumption are frayed around the edges. But it seems a difficult thing for us, with our dichotomizing minds, to live in a frayed world. Is that something we can escape? Or must we learn to live at odds with the knottiness of reality?

* Not because I'm a bastard, although I am, but because I enjoy understanding how well-grounded people's deeply-held beliefs are, and why.

Administrative notice #425

Over the weekend, some evil spammers seem to have discovered this blog and its abundant readership, which as of now measures in the full dozens (!). To thwart their nefarious schemes (which include going so far afield as posting an actual blog full of news articles with links in its sidebar to spamvertising-blogs), I have enabled the by-now ubiquitous image-verification schema for posting comments and modified the comments hack so it appears inline. Apologies for any inconvenience to you and yours.

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