Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why he published the Muhammad cartoons

An op-ed in Der Spiegel Online from the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper that unleashed worldwide Muslim anger explains why he decided to run the cartoons.

The short answer:
[...] Equal treatment is the democratic way to overcome traditional barriers of blood and soil for newcomers. To me, that means treating immigrants just as I would any other Danes. And that's what I felt I was doing in publishing the 12 cartoons of Muhammad last year. Those images in no way exceeded the bounds of taste, satire and humor to which I would subject any other Dane, whether the queen, the head of the church or the prime minister. By treating a Muslim figure the same way I would a Christian or Jewish icon, I was sending an important message: You are not strangers, you are here to stay, and we accept you as an integrated part of our life. And we will satirize you, too. It was an act of inclusion, not exclusion; an act of respect and recognition. [...]
The bulk of the story lays out his fears for Europe, and the causes of those fears.

Europe today finds itself trapped in a posture of moral relativism that is undermining its liberal values. An unholy three-cornered alliance between Middle East dictators, radical imams who live in Europe and Europe's traditional left wing is enabling a politics of victimology. This politics drives a culture that resists integration and adaptation, perpetuates national and religious differences and aggravates such debilitating social ills as high immigrant crime rates and entrenched unemployment.[...]
This one time advocate of multi-culti--the ne plus ultra of Leftist societal aspirations since the 1980s--now sees it as flawed and harmful to traditional European liberal mores.
Now, in Europe's failure to grapple realistically with its dramatically changing demographic picture, I see a new parallel to that Cold War journey. Europe's left is deceiving itself about immigration, integration and Islamic radicalism today the same way we young hippies deceived ourselves about Marxism and communism 30 years ago. It is a narrative of confrontation and hierarchy that claims that the West exploits, abuses and marginalizes the Islamic world. Left-wing intellectuals have insisted that the Danes were oppressing and marginalizing Muslim immigrants. This view comports precisely with the late Edward Said's model of Orientalism, which argues that experts on the Orient and the Muslim world have not depicted it as it is but as some dreaded "other," as exactly the opposite of ourselves -- that should therefore to be rejected. The West, in this narrative, is democratic, the East is despotic. We are rational, they are irrational.

This kind of thinking gave birth to a distorted approach to immigration in countries like Denmark. Left-wing commentators decided that Denmark was both racist and Islamophobic. Therefore, the chief obstacle to integration was not the immigrants' unwillingness to adapt culturally to their adopted country (there are 200,000 Danish Muslims now); it was the country's inherent racism and anti-Muslim bias.

A cult of victimology arose and was happily exploited by clever radicals among Europe's Muslims, especially certain religious leaders like Imam Ahmad Abu Laban in Denmark and Mullah Krekar in Norway. Mullah Krekar -- a Kurdish founder of Ansar al Islam who this spring was facing an expulsion order from Norway -- called our publication of the cartoons "a declaration of war against our religion, our faith and our civilization. Our way of thinking is penetrating society and is stronger than theirs. This causes hate in the Western way of thinking; as the losing side, they commit violence."

The role of victim is very convenient because it frees the self-declared victim from any responsibility, while providing a posture of moral superiority. It also obscures certain inconvenient facts that might suggest a different explanation for the lagging integration of some immigrant groups -- such as the relatively high crime rates, the oppression of women and a tradition of forced marriage. [...]

What's wrong with Europe? For one thing, Europe's approach to immigration and integration is rooted in its historic experience with relatively homogeneous cultures. In the United States one's definition of nationality is essentially political; in Europe it is historically cultural. I am a Dane because I look European, speak Danish, descend from centuries of other Scandinavians. But what about the dark, bearded new Danes who speak Arabic at home and poor Danish in the streets? We Europeans must make a profound cultural adjustment to understand that they, too, can be Danes.

Another great impediment to integration is the European welfare state. Because Europe's highly developed, but increasingly unaffordable, safety nets provide such strong unemployment insurance and not enough incentive to work, many new immigrants go straight onto the dole.
As horrible as it may sound to Europeans, the fact that immigrants in America can fail economically is a tremendous spur to assimilation.
While it can be argued that the fast-growing community of about 20 million Muslim immigrants in Europe is the equivalent of America's new Hispanic immigrants, the difference in their productivity and prosperity is staggering. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study in 1999 showed that while immigrants in the United States are almost equal to native-born workers as taxpayers and contributors to American prosperity, in Denmark there is a glaring gap of 41 percent between the contributions of the native-born and of the immigrants. In the United States, a laid-off worker gets an average of 32 percent compensation for his former wages in welfare services; in Denmark the figure is 81 percent. A culture of welfare dependency is rife among immigrants, and it is taken for granted.
What is at stake are traditional European values. By not teaching them and requiring immigrants to adopt them, Europe risks its identity and future.

Yet multiculturalism that has all too often become mere cultural relativism is an indefensible proposition that often justifies reactionary and oppressive practices. Giving the same weight to the illiberal values of conservative Islam as to the liberal traditions of the European Enlightenment will, in time, destroy the very things that make Europe such a desirable target for migration.

Europe must shed the straitjacket of political correctness, which makes it impossible to criticize minorities for anything -- including violations of laws, traditional mores and values that are central to the European experience.
At the end, admiration for the American model of assimilating immigrants:
Maybe Europe needs to take a leaf -- or a whole book -- from the American experience. In order for new Europe of many cultures that is somehow a single entity to emerge, in a manner similar to the experience of the United States, both sides will have to make an effort -- the native-born and the newly arrived.

For the immigrants, the expectation that they not only learn the host language but also respect their new countries' political and cultural traditions is not too much to demand, and some stringent (maybe too stringent) new laws are being passed to force that. At the same time, Europeans must show a willingness to jettison entrenched notions of blood and soil and accept people from foreign countries and cultures as just what they are, the new Europeans.

Does Iran's President Ahmadinejad have rabies?

He certainly seems to be fizzing with something these days.

Der Spiegel has the symptoms (internal links in original):
[...] Talk of messianic, apocalyptic visions is becoming increasingly common on the streets of Tehran these days. This phenomenon has, on the one hand, something to do with the fact that it's part of the Shiite worldview. But on the other hand -- and this is what's setting off alarm bells in the West -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is practically promoting such scenarios.

After all, he mentioned the Mahdi, the Promised One, as far back as last September, when he first took to the largest stage in global politics, the podium at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. In his speech before the UN, Ahmadinejad, 49, didn't just take the opportunity to complain about the world's injustices and about countries that have already used nuclear weapons and yet seek to bar others from acquiring them -- creating a system of "nuclear apartheid" in which countries like Iran are at a disadvantage. Before the world's assembled delegates, he also called upon the Almighty "to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being" -- none other than the Mahdi, or Messiah. [...]

A snap pop-psychology diagnosis: Barking mad. His Napoleon complex and a micro-johnson combine to make him covet big missles and dream of conquest.

It may be easy to dismiss him as a ranting unstable rug-chewer, but he has a goal, and he'll soon have the tools to advance his plan.

He was long underestimated -- far too long -- and now he is doing his utmost, clearly with relish, to ensure that the world gets to know the new Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has only recently embarked on trips abroad, including visits to Syria and Indonesia. He bases his understanding of the world and what it needs on his religious convictions and his engineering knowledge, and he is apparently convinced that the time has now come to send missives out into the world. His condescending, 18- page letter to US President George W. Bush was just the beginning. A letter to Pope Benedict XVI is said to be in the works, and Ahmadinejad has told SPIEGEL that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be the next world leader to receive one of his communications.

In office for less than a year, Ahmadinejad has already transformed himself into a pivotal figure on the world stage. He speaks as if Iran were already the world power he intends it to become. He tells the Jews that they have no right to be in Palestine. He tells the Germans that there is no historical proof that the Holocaust ever took place, while at the same time proposing that the Israelis be resettled on German soil. He preaches to US President George W. Bush about Christianity and the fiasco in Iraq, and he informs America -- and essentially the entire West -- that its concept of democracy and liberalism has failed.

Compromise has no place in this worldview, one in which compromise is a show of weakness. Iran is devoid of any constructive proposals to bring peace to the Middle East. Ahmadinejad issues demands and refuses to negotiate. He has a high opinion of himself and of Iran.

Few heads of state have made as many enemies in as short a time span as Ahmadinejad. The global community's apparent inability to oppose him and set boundaries has only encouraged Ahmadinejad, a tireless provocateur, to conclude that his actions are historically justified. [...]

He speaks as if in a trance, like a man filled with a divine spirit, like a prophet. He strikes up a great cry of triumph, a cry into which he immerses himself again and again and in which he conjures up a great confrontation, be it with Israel, which he insists must be "wiped off the map," or be it with America and all other enemies of Iran, whose "hands must be severed." In Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, the nations of the West have become nothing but "aging lions with matted fur and rotting manes." [...]

Ahmadinejad firmly believes that he has divine Providence to thank for his journey to his current high-ranking position. " Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen," he announced upon winning the election. "if God wills," he added, this revolution will "cut off the roots of injustice in the world." [....]


The article also touches upon many other aspects of the West's relations with this troublesome man. It is well worth reading.

50 heroic people as voted on by New Statesman readers

From the New Statesman--bastion of British socialism--comes a list of the 50 most heroic living people, voted on by the readers.

Given its readership, you may be surprised that Lady Thatcher even made the list, but there she is at number 5. Others making the list are more predictable. George Galloway? check. Bob Geldof? sure. Subcommandante Marcos (described as a "philosopher-rebel") also made the list; seems the Left must have their revolutionaries as heros--no matter how inept. Nice to see that I have no quibbles with their numero uno choice: Aung San Suu Kyi. Others only a New Statesman reader could find heroic: writers John Pilger and Noam Chomsky, despots Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and bumbler extrordinaire Hans Blix.

The list is here.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Der Spiegel interviews Iran's President Ahmadinejad

The moron president was interviewed in Tehran by three journalists. The interviewer gets right to the point: will you come to Germany to watch the World Cup? President Ahmadinejad dithers, and then goes into his argument about how if the Holocaust happened, then Israel needs to be based in Europe, and if it didn't happen, Israel has no raison d'etre. He attempts to sound reasonable about seeking to re-open the question of the Holocaust to independant reasearchers, but he comes across like a 1950s klansman patiently explaining why a blood transfusion from a Black person will kill a White person.

He expresses amazement that Germans view him as a bit of a lunatic. Part of me hopes that this pissant goes to Germany and watches the Iranian matches. He'll soon see that those who feel as he does are poorly educated and sport shaved heads.

The interview also touches upon Iran's nuclear ambitions. President Ahmadinejad demonstrates his strawman building abilities.

On being asked why he won't accept the state of Israel, he responds:
I'm wondering why you're adopting and fanatically defending the stance of the European politicians. You're a magazine, not a government. Saying that we should accept the world as it is would mean that the winners of World War II would remain the victorious powers for another 1,000 years and that the German people would be humiliated for another 1,000 years. Do you think that is the correct logic?

Not a technique that will win debating points, but effective nontheless. He does this time and again during the interview.

This is not an intelligent man. That he lacks real executive power is hardly reassuring as he has access to the ruling Mullahs, and has strong militias supporting him. He plays a most dangerous game, all while fancying himself very clever. One way or another, the West will have to deal with him and his supporters. It's not enough to hope for regime change before the nitwits in charge of Iran get their bomb.

He ends with this clumsy threat:
[...] By siding with Iran, the Europeans would serve their own and our interests. But they will suffer only damage if they oppose us. For our people is strong and determined. [...]

Don Surber has the Memorial Day RINO round up

Don Surber, who also works as a reporter and columnist in West Virginia, has the latest round up of the RINO community (Republicans/Independants Not Overdosed (on the party kool-aid)).

Monday, May 29, 2006

Cycling: Above the pack, but not suspicion?

The title from the IHT article recapping this year's Giro d'Italia says it all. A smashing performance from Ivan Basso, and a breakthrough performance by Spain's Gutiérrez both raise suspicions of cheating. Such is the state of bike racing.

Nevertheless, doped or not, Basso is going into the Tour de France a heavy favorite. The picture will become clearer once the smaller, week long tours are raced in the run up to the TdF.

From the IHT's Sam Abt:
An absolute Godzilla, Ivan Basso led the final charge of the Giro d'Italia to its finish in Milan on Sunday after three weeks of his domination that stamped him as the favorite to win the Tour de France.

Basso, the 28-year-old Italian leader of the CSC team, won three individual daily stages, the last one Saturday on the royal climb in the Dolomites, increasing his lead to 9 minutes 18 seconds. That amounts to light years in a race that was decided by 28 seconds last year. In fact, his was the biggest margin since 1965.

"Serene" was the adjective to describe Basso in the Giro. His team gave him overwhelming support in the mountains and will be with him again, with one or two changes among its eight members, in the Tour de France.

Never looking troubled or even doubtful, Basso followed his teammates up the highest mountains until the point when they could do no more. Then he did the rest alone.

That was the situation Saturday during a stage of 211 kilometers, or 131 miles, over three big climbs. They included the Gavia Pass, the highest point in the Giro, at 2,618 meters, or 8,600 feet.

CSC rode at the front, swept up some early breakaway riders and prevented anybody from attacking because the speed was so high.

On the final climb, the legendary Mortirolo Pass, averaging a 10.2 percent grade for nearly 13 kilometers, with an 18 percent grade in the middle, Basso took over when his teammates were exhausted and zipped off with only Gilberto Simoni, the Italian leader of Saunier Duval, as company.

Simoni desperately wanted to win this stage. A two-time Giro victor, Simoni, 34, finished third this year without winning a stage. This was his last chance because the entry into Milan on Sunday was a day for the sprinters.

Up over the top the two went, then down a 15-kilometer descent before a long, but not steep, ascent to the finish in Aprica. Three kilometers from the line, Basso left Simoni behind. The new Giro champion finished first by 1 minute 17 seconds, reaching into a pocket at the finish to show fans a photograph of his newborn son, Santiago.

What a display of values! Coupled with the sportsmanship of his teammate Jens Voigt, who let a rival win the day before because he had done all the work in a long breakaway, what a feel-good story!

So why is nobody singing the praises of José Gutiérrez, a Spaniard with Phonak who finished second in the Giro?

That performance has all the usual elements of a prose poem about bicycle racing: a professional since 1998 with just four victories, a fourth place in the Tour de Georgia this spring and no finish in a grand Tour higher than 25th in the Tour de France in 2001, Gutiérrez was a nobody before this 89th Giro.
He also rides for the Swiss team Phonak, which has had recent brushes with doping scandals; little wonder that he's under a cloud of suspicion.

Nevertheless, he never faltered. He hung tight on every climb - fourth on Saturday after three weeks of racing - and even attacked Basso on one a few days before.

There was a time, not long ago, when the media would have exalted Gutiérrez's performance. The phrase "a state of grace" would have been worn thin.

No longer. Gutiérrez hardly rated coverage because everybody is under suspicion. Did a rider outdo himself, or did he find a better doctor? Who gets credit for an unexpected victory, a rider or his pharmacist? Who are the riders involved in the ongoing doping scandal in Spain?

Those questions should not stalk Gutiérrez. He rode with determination, as Richard Virenque, the former Tour de France ace climber [and admitted doper--P] and now a commentator for Eurosport, said. Sometimes, maybe, determination can make a difference.

Basso rode with determination too, although Simoni implied that there was more to the overall victory than that.

After the finish Saturday, he angrily accused Basso of a double-cross. According to Simoni, Basso asked him to slow down on the descent from the Mortirolo and not leave him behind, hinting that there would be a payback.

"Basso said to me, 'Don't drop me on the descent,' so I thought I had a chance to win today," Simoni said. "If I had thought Basso was going to do that in the finale, I would have played my cards differently."

Then he added about Basso, not meaning it admiringly: "I've never seen anyone dominate like him, never seen anyone that strong. He seems like an extraterrestrial."

That was a code word, of course - one first applied admiringly to Miguel Indurain a decade ago when he demolished the pack in a Tour de France time trial, "extraterrestrial" has a different connotation now - that no rider can be so strong naturally.

Basso was dismayed by the description. "I don't like to be called an extraterrestrial or a phenomenon," he said. "In this Giro, I have always been honest and played fairly."

In its present poisonous atmosphere, has the sport really come to this: Nobody is above suspicion? So it seems.

Ex-German FM Fischer on negotiating with Iran

Joschka Fischer, most recently Germany's foreign minister under the terrible Schroeder government, has an opinion piece in today's WaPo arguing for direct US involvment in the Iran negotiations.

For the most part I find plenty to quibble and disagree with in his piece (although I support his overall call for US entering into negotiations). One point where I agree: those who fear that confrontation with Iran will result in high oil prices should realize that a nuclear Iran will also cause prices to rise. An unbalanced level of power in the Mideast will surely permanently destabilize the petroleum markets.
Presenting Iran with these alternatives [Sanctions] presupposes that the West does not fear rising oil and gas prices. Indeed, the two other options -- Iran's emergence as a nuclear power or the use of military force to prevent this -- would, in addition to all the other horrible consequences, increase oil and gas prices. Everything speaks in favor of playing the economic-financial and technology card vis-à-vis Iran.

Another point of agreement: Washington should begin negotiating directly with Iran--if only for tactical reasons. Anything less than US participation will allow Iran to essentially restart negotiations from null by claiming that it needs to speak directly with Washington. Remove this possibility and negotiations move forward.
Knowledge of the potentially horrible consequences of a military confrontation and of the equally horrific consequences of Iranian possession of the atomic bomb must force the United States to abandon its policy of no direct negotiations and its hope for regime change. It is not enough for the Europeans to act while the Americans continue to look on as the diplomatic initiatives unfold, partaking in discussion only behind the scenes and ultimately letting the Europeans do what they will. The Bush administration must lead the Western initiative in harmonized, direct negotiations with Iran, and, if these negotiations succeed, the United States must also be willing to agree to appropriate guarantees. In this confrontation, international credibility and
legitimacy will be the deciding factors, and ensuring them will require farsighted and cool, calculated American leadership. [...]

The world may not support the US over Iraq, but there still remain honorable people

This is a nice story about several embassies in Washington stepping in to host dinners for US veterans of the Iraq war. And they're not doing it to poke Uncle Sam in the eye, either. These dinners are symbolically important. They show that even if Italy is pulling out its troops, Italians still care about the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine. Thankfully, there is no shortage of nations vying to host the dinners.

Just the sort of thing I like to read on a monday morning (internal links in the original).
Fran O'Briens, the basement steak bar that has been hosting Friday night dinners for injured veterans of the Iraq war, has found a new home.

As some of you will have read in my earlier columns, the Hilton in downtown Washington evicted the restaurateurs in a dispute over their lease. Now the nearby Crowne Plaza hotel has stepped into the brink and will host the maimed men and women in uniform until O'Briens finds a permanent base, probably in the next six months.

Meanwhile embassies around town are being wooed to take a turn to host the dinners each month, and there is no shortage of takers. The Italians, who recently announced they planned to withdraw their troops from Iraq later this year, were first to win the honour. You can see pictures of the event here. By all accounts, the Italians will be a hard act to follow. The Irish are thought to be next in line, and the organizers say they have also been talking to the Afghans, the Danes and the Kuwaitis among others. No word yet on the Brits. The organizers are well connected and should have no trouble finding diplomatic hosts. Paul Wolfowitz, the chief architect of the war when he was deputy secretary of defence, attended the Italian event and has been a regular at the Friday night dinners.

Italy's embassy easily wins the award for the coolest façade on Massachusetts Avenue but that is nothing to what the veterans found inside its modern walls, where the men and women were serenaded, wined and dined all evening, heading home to their hospital beds with stomachs full of delicious antipasti, lasagna, mozzarella, glazed vegetables and risotto, and finally, tiramisu and puff pastries that any Tuscan mamma would have been proud to serve.

One of the highlights was the appearance by one-month-old Marshall Valle with his parents Blanca and Army Sgt. Christian Valle. Sergeant First Class Antonio Guiliano, an Italian American tenor, cradled him in his arms and sang a lullaby, much to the delight of his parents, said Shoshana Bryen, who attended the event. Two pianists, also from the Army's "Pershing's Own" band, accompanied him during the evening.

"The Italians wanted more than anything to make these people happy. They went out of their way. They were just extraordinary," Mrs Bryen said. [....]

Friday, May 26, 2006

Krauthammer: No to unilateral Iran talks (for once he's wrong)

Normally I find myself nodding in agreement while reading Charles Krauthammer's opinion pieces. Not today, though.

Today's article discusses the idea of direct US-Iran negotiations. He is decidedly contra.

Unfortunately, he doesn't produce his usual reasoned arguments. Instead he relies on invoking the hypocrisy of those calling for unilateral talks. He also (rightly) notes the outright cynicism of the Iranians' new request for unilateral talks.

Nevertheless, the weakness of his argument is here:
[...] After 2 1/2 years of utter futility, the E.U. Three [negotiating team, with the full backing of the US] had to admit failure and acknowledge the obvious: Iran had no intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions. Iran made the point irrefutable when it broke International Atomic Energy Agency seals and brazenly resumed uranium enrichment.

The full understanding we had with our allies was that if the E.U. Three process failed, we would go to the Security Council together and get sanctions imposed on Iran. Yes, Russia and China might still stand in the way. But even so, concerted sanctions by America, Europe and other economic powers could have devastating effects on Iran and its shaky clerical dictatorship. [...]
Certainly he realizes that it's not that Russia and China might oppse sanctions. It is an absolute guarantee that they will veto any UNSC resolution imposing meaningful sanctions. Unless Russia agrees to Krauthammer's proposed concerted multilateral sanctions, they will utterly fail. The only consequences will be to strengthen Iran's hand and show the rest of the world that doing business with Iran is highly profitable, and carries little risk. If the Mullahs can weather premature sanctions, it will be immensly strengthened domestically and in their own minds. Thus any multilateral sanctions without UNSC backing are doomed to failure and will be counter-productive.

Negotiations with China and Russia--with the aim to win them over to an eventual UNSC resolution with bite are every bit as important at the moment as is speaking with Iran.

Krauthammer again invokes the imminent application of sanctions, but again the UNSC is nowhere close to voting on any set of sanctions harmful to Iran:
Pushing Washington to abandon the multilateral process and enter negotiations alone is more than rank hypocrisy. It is a pernicious folly. It would short-circuit the process that, after years of dithering, is about to yield its first fruits: sanctions that Tehran fears. It would undo the allied consensus, produce endless new delays and give Iran more time to reach the point of no return, after which its nuclear status would be a fait accompli. [....]
I see no evidence sanctions that Tehran fears are anywhere close to becoming real. The world will want the US to negotiate with Iran at some point in time. Best to begin now and show that Iran isn't serious about restraining its quest for nuclear weapons. Europe has the will to push for sanctioning Iran, but only if it looks as though the US has truly bent over backwards. Europeans still exist in a foggy world where threats are far off, and there is always time to deal with them. The politicians may see things more clearly, but they must still sell any collaborations with the US to an anti-American public that does't want to face unpleasant truths.

Rejecting Iran's request will only serve to make the Mullahs look like the reasonable party. As cynical as their move is, at some point it will be necessary to enter unilateral discussions. Avoiding them now will harm the unity with which the West approches Iran.

UPDATE: Fellow RINO (Republicans/Independants Not Overdosed (on the party Kool-aid)) Cranky Insomniac thinks Krauthammer is right.

Oh, the irony

Rythym method may result in increased embryo deaths:
[...] In using the rhythm method, couples avoid pregnancy by refraining from sex during a woman’s fertile period. Perfect adherents claim it is over 90% effective – i.e. one couple in 10 will conceive in an average year. But, typically speaking, effectiveness is estimated at closer to 75%.

Now Bovens [an economist?--P] suggests that for those concerned about embryo loss, the rhythm method may be a bad idea. He argues that, because couples are having sex on the fringes of the fertile period, they are more likely to conceive embryos that are incapable of surviving.

As many as 50% of conceptions may not survive long enough even to disrupt menstruation, Bovens says. It is reasonable to assume then, he adds, that embryos created from sperm that has been sitting for days within the female's reproductive tract before ovulation may be disadvantaged.

The situation is similar, he suggests, for eggs that have been waiting around for sperm to arrive. These are the only two likely scenarios where fertilisation might occur using the rhythm method, he points out.

These embryos may then face a less-than-ideal uterine lining, he points out, since the uterus is not as receptive outside of the most fertile period.

Bovens calculates that, if the rhythm method is 90% effective, and if conceptions outside the fertile period are about twice as likely to fail as to survive, then “millions of rhythm method cycles per year globally depend for their success on massive embryonic death”. [....]

Increased rates of embryos failing to attach to the uterine wall is not likely to challenge the underlying reasoning behind advocating the rythym method. It is simply a case of nature taking its course.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

ASBO follies

Britain's latest attack on anti-social behavior involves the neighbor from hell and others deserving social sanctions.

The ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) is designed to function loosely like a restraining order--in this case anti-social behavior is at issue. Run afoul of it and penalties immediately follow. Britain has issued thousands of them in an effort to rein in constant trouble makers.

From the article:
A high-flying businesswoman who retired to the north for the warmth of its people and easy pace of life was convicted yesterday of turning her adopted home into the hamlet from hell through a "rampaging campaign of hatred and pure evil".

Rival CCTV cameras sprang up in the battleground at Bottomley in the Yorkshire Pennines, where 57-year-old Jeanne Wilding dumped oil, animal corpses and broken glass on neighbours' drives while blasting out choral works depicting rape and murder in the middle of the night.

She was finally restrained yesterday by an Asbo so tough that her defence counsel accused the court of trying to use the penalty to change the former financial consultant's personality. A judge ruled that, after 257 complaints from 15 neighbours and organisations, 30 arrests and a spell in jail on remand, Mrs Wilding had lost touch with reality when it came to quarrels about boundaries and access.
Not what one expects from a Brit, but then Britain is no longer the genteel, mannered place we took it to be.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The callous betrayal of anti-Franco forces

If the Black Book of Communism wasn't enough to convince you that communism (not just Stalinism or Maoism) itself led to horrible atrocities, here is more evidence. From Russia comes new research that the USSR was cynically killing off many idealistic volunteers in the International Brigades:

FOR MANY PEOPLE in many countries, the heroic myth of the Spanish Republic is closely linked to the International Brigades. Nobody can doubt the idealism and self-sacrifice of the volunteers from 52 nations who went in the belief that they could defeat fascism in Spain, yet recent discoveries in Russian archives cast a chilling light on the Comintern organisers who threw away their lives so callously in futile attacks.

Even before most volunteers reached Spain, Soviet advisers were planning to destroy their left-wing allies. In September 1936 General Gorev reported to Moscow: “A struggle against the anarchists is absolutely inevitable after victory over the Whites. This struggle will be very severe.” André Marty, the Comintern representative, wrote in October: “After victory we will get even with them, all the more so since at that point we will have a strong army.” And Pravda declared openly in December that the “cleaning up of Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist elements will be carried out with the same energy as in the USSR”. The Popular Front alliance was merely a tactic “for the moment”. Stalinists were not prepared to share power with anybody else. [...]

Non-Communist International Brigaders, believing the slogans of anti-fascist unity, were dismayed by Communist hatred of Leftist allies, but party members swallowed the line of the Moscow show trials that “Troskyist-Fascists” were secret Gestapo agents. Stalinist paranoia was exported to Spain, yet Russian historians are starting to believe that the conspiracy theories manufactured in Spain served to accelerate the purges in the Soviet Union.

The greatest shock for these “volunteers for freedom”, as the International Brigaders were called, came with the Soviet style of discipline, selecting men at random and shooting them through the back of the head. When one division retreated during the Segovia offensive, General Walter also ordered “the machine-gunning of those who pull back, executions on the spot, and the beating of stragglers”. Even the elite Spanish Communist formation, the 11th Division, was not spared. After it collapsed during the Battle of Brunete, the chief Soviet adviser reported to Moscow: “Lister’s division lost its head and fled. We managed with great difficulty to bring it back under control. The toughest repressive measures had to be applied. About 400 of those fleeing were shot on 24 July.” [...]

Every blunder was attributed to deliberate sabotage. General Walter, convinced that the International Brigades had been infiltrated, set up machineguns behind the lines. “The surrender of Brunete and the flight of many brigades were, to a significant extent, the result of panic sown by the ‘fifth column’ that the Fascists had spread around our forces.” The International Brigades even established their own “concentration camp”, called Camp Lukacs. [...]

The damage to morale was devastating, yet hardly any brigaders repeated what they had seen on their return home for fear of harming the cause of the Republic. Meanwhile, their Comintern commanders, who revelled in a ruthless devotion to the Stalinist cause, did not imagine that their reports to Moscow would ever be revealed, albeit nearly 70 years later.
The Spanish civil war just preceded the Great Terror in the USSR. Under communism, the Soviet peoples went from one disaster to another, often blamed on "Trotskyist wreckers". The state usually responded to economic, political or military setbacks with increasing terror and brutality. And yet some people still feel that the problem was that communism was somehow sidetracked by strong personalities (which was not supposed to happen; according to Marx personality plays no role in history--how wrong he was). Often these same people see Stalin as the culprit, forgetting that Lenin bequethed his followers a fully functioning terror state.

Germans warned of neo-Nazi surge

Get ready for lots of these types of stories. A meeting of needs is coming to pass: German extremist groups need publicity, and news organizations need copy. Germany remains a very safe country overall, but certain parts are more dangerous, and ought to be avoided by the tens of thousands of tourists expected to attend the World Cup. From the Beeb:
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has urged extra vigilance from the public to help tackle a rise in far-right extremism.

He said there should be no "no-go areas" for foreigners, as he presented an official report showing a rise in neo-Nazi violence last year.

A Turkish-born politician, Giyasettin Sayan, is in hospital following an apparently racist assault on Friday.

There has been growing concern about racist attacks ahead of the World Cup.

Former government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye drew criticism from politicians after suggesting that black people should avoid parts of the former communist East Germany. German police have warned that far-right groups are planning to use the World Cup as a platform to win publicity.

Mr Schaeuble has already warned that the government will take a tough stance against xenophobia during the football tournament, adding that "no one who attempts to attack foreigners, especially people of colour, will succeed".

"We will not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism," he told reporters on Monday.

Germany's slogan for the World Cup is "A time to make friends" and officials see the 32-nation tournament as a chance to present their country to the world as welcoming, open and tolerant. The figures in the report by Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution showed a total of 2,448 politically-motivated violent crimes in 2005.

The office, which is tasked with fighting extremism and terrorism, also reported that the number of neo-Nazis in Germany rose from 3,800 in 2004 to 4,100 last year.
Not many too many skin heads overall; but they do have an outsized impact on society given Germany's past.

The number of right-wing extremists ready to use violence also rose from 10,000 to 10,400, although overall number of far-right extremists dropped slightly, the report said.

The number of left-wing extremist acts of violence was reported to have risen dramatically in 2005 - from 375 to 896.

Mr Schaeuble said the violence attributed to right-wing extremists may have increased because they have been holding more organised marches - which in turn attract counter-demonstrations by leftists, often resulting in clashes.

Police unions have called on the government to ban any neo-Nazi demonstrations outside World Cup stadiums.

Konrad Freiburg, the head of the police trade union, says these violent scenes could be repeated if the marches are not banned.

"The consequences would be violence and injuries," he said. "But there would also be terrible pictures seen all over the world - in which 200 mad neo-Nazis are being protected by a ring of 1,000 policemen from a counter-demonstration. It's not the image of Germany we want to present." [...]

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Two terrorist swine captured

One in Jordan:

Jordanian officials say they have arrested a senior al-Qaeda figure heavily involved in Iraq's insurgency.

Security officials in Jordan's capital, Amman, refused to identify the man, said to be a key aide to Iraq's most wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Jordanian TV said the man was wanted for robbery, kidnap and murders.

There was no immediate clue to his name or how he was captured, but security officials said details would be aired on a TV special on Thursday evening.

The other was captured in the Palestinian territories:

Israeli forces have captured a leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas in a raid in the West Bank, sources say.

Troops moved into the town of Ramallah and seized Ibrahim Hammad, 41, the alleged head of Hamas' armed wing in the West Bank, the military said.

He is accused of masterminding a string of suicide bombings on Israelis, including attacks at cafes and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Israel had been trying to catch him for eight years, army radio said.

Britain's NHS told to abandon alternative medicine

About time, too. Medical treatments should be based on evidence gathered from well designed and peer-reviewed studies, not wishful thinking:
A GROUP of Britain’s leading doctors has urged every NHS trust to stop paying for alternative medicine and to use the money for conventional treatments.

Their appeal is a direct challenge to the Prince of Wales’s outspoken campaign to widen access to complementary therapies.

Public funding of “unproven or disproved treatments” such as homoeopathy and reflexology, which are promoted by the Prince, is unacceptable while huge NHS deficits are forcing trusts to sack nurses and limit access to life-saving drugs, the doctors say.

The 13 scientists, who include some of the most eminent names in British medicine, have written to the chief executives of all 476 acute and primary care trusts to demand that only evidence-based therapies are provided free to patients.

Their letter, seen by The Times, has been sent as the Prince today steps up his crusade for increased provision of alternative treatments with a controversial speech to the World Health Organisation assembly in Geneva.

The Prince, who was yesterday given a lesson in crystal therapy while touring a complementary health unit in Merthyr Tydfil, will ask the WHO to embrace alternative therapies in the fight against serious disease. His views have outraged clinicians and researchers, who claim that many of the therapies that he advocates have been shown to be ineffective in trials or have never been properly tested.

The letter criticises two of his flagship initiatives on complementary medicine: a government-funded patient guide prepared by his Foundation for Integrated Medicine, and the Smallwood report last year, which he commissioned to make a financial case for increasing NHS provision.

Both documents, it is claimed, give misleading information about scientific support for therapies such as homoeo-pathy, described as “an implausible treatment for which over a dozen systematic reviews have failed to produce convincing evidence of effectiveness”.

The letter’s signatories include Sir James Black, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988, and Sir Keith Peters, president of the Academy of Medical Science, which represents Britain’s leading clinical researchers.

It was organised by Michael Baum, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at University College London, and other supporters include six Fellows of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, and Professor Edzard Ernst, of the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, who holds the UK’s first chair in complementary medicine.

The doctors ask trust chief executives to review their policies so that patients are given accurate information, and not to waste scarce resources on therapies that have not been shown to work by rigorous clinical trials.

They conclude: “At a time when the NHS is under intense pressure, patients, the public and the NHS are best served by using the available funds for treatments that are based on solid evidence.”

Professor Baum, a cancer specialist, said that he had organised the letter because of his “utter despair” at growing NHS acceptance of alternative treatments while drugs of proven effectiveness are being withheld. “At a time when we are struggling to gain access for our patients to Herceptin, which is absolutely proven to extend survival in breast cancer, I find it appalling that the NHS should be funding a therapy like homoeopathy that is utterly bogus,” he said.

He said that he was happy for the NHS to offer the treatments once research has proven them effective, such as acupuncture for pain relief, but that very few had reached the required standards.

“If people want to spend their own money on it, fine, but it shouldn’t be NHS money.” The Department of Health does not keep figures on the total NHS spending on alternative medicine, but Britain’s total market is estimated at £1.6 billion.
Let the altnative medicine industry--which is huge in Europe--pay for studies designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of their "therapies".

The letter is here.

Ex-Spanish PM Aznar on Iran, Iraq, and trans-Atlantic ties

Through a terrible political miscalculation on his party's part (attempting to blame local terror group ETA for an Islamic attack on Madrid), ex-Spanish PM Aznar's party were turned out at the polls two years ago.

What a pity for Spain, Europe, and America. Instead of his clear views, we have Mr. Bean and his band of appeasers in charge of Spain, and attempting to tilt the EU ever left-ward.

This interesting interview/article from the IHT ($) makes me think more highly of Aznar.
[...] José María Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain and perhaps Europe's most fervent Atlanticist, had just opened a conference last week on the future of relations between the United States and Europe, and sitting back in his office, was being nudged to say something clear about Iran, Iraq and how the Americans and, a little more tangentially, the Europeans were managing.

Ask for clear from Aznar, and you get limpid in return. He said, "The only real will I see is the will of the ayatollahs to have the bomb."

Then: "I am not optimistic. I am very pessimistic."

"The ayatollahs have made the decision to have nuclear capability. The objectives of the International Atomic Energy Agency have failed. A reaction from the Security Council doesn't exist for the moment. Russia and China have an interest in avoiding a decision. That decision ultimately will be to accept or not to accept Iran as a nuclear power. If it is acceptance, it will create a dangerous situation for the world."

Aznar let a visitor taking notes catch up before thrusting forward: "The way out of this lies in the capacity of the United States to manage this situation. Can the U.S. manage two crises at the same time? It is very difficult to define a strong policy."

Aznar's line about Iran's unvarying will came in here. A long pause followed. It seemed to be a silent invocation, a wish for help from afar. Then Aznar actually said, "Inshallah."

The subject shifted to Iraq. Did Aznar, who was such a convinced supporter in 2003 of ousting Saddam Hussein - and now argues that a deeper, more organic relationship between America and Europe is the best bet for securing Western values - believe that an American cop-out from Iraq would devastate that chance?

"I agree, absolutely," he said.

All this, in a quiet, single burst. No Captain Midnight decoder necessary to figure it out. A European politician with a strong, almost ideological link to America, and a very comfortable personal relationship with George W. Bush, was saying he's not convinced that the strategy and commitment are yet in place to head off an era of uncharted grief coming from Iran's nuclear threat and a job left incomplete in Iraq.

For a man out of power, Aznar has a special kind of legitimacy to make that point to the Bush administration.

Although he was not running for re- election after two terms in office, his liberal-conservative Popular Party was beaten in 2004 because of his choice to be at the side of the United States in Iraq. When bombs by Islamic radicals killed nearly 200 people at a Madrid railroad station just days before Spain voted, a substantial lead in the polls for Aznar's candidate as successor was reversed, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialists won, largely on the notion that without Spain's presence in Iraq, the carnage would have never occurred.

These days, Aznar regards Zapatero as undermining the American-European solidarity needed to help resolve the Iraq and Iran crises.

It is not just that Zapatero pulled out Spain's troops so hastily from Iraq that the Vatican and German Social Democrats questioned the move as a destabilizing. Or that Zapatero has sought to supply Hugo Chávez's Venezuelan armed forces with boats and aircraft. Aznar believes that Zapatero sustains a European reflex to avoid dealing with war and peace issues in real, literal terms.

Aznar's approach is at a distant pole. To give it a new focus in Spain, Aznar set up a conference last week bringing together FAES, or Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales, a study group he founded, and the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington-based research group often described as neoconservative and close to the Bush White House.

On the scale of the Zapatero government's international populist favorites, including Chávez and President Evo Morales of Bolivia, the groups' discussions could have been billed as Wolfman Meets the Incredible Hulk.

In one of the sessions, Aznar's conference heard from the American side that the most progressive Muslims were now in the Middle East. Indeed, it was told, Islamic radicalism had found a home in Europe that would not be eradicated without real movement first toward democracy in the Arab world. It was therefore of prime European concern to promote that democratization.

"Europe must have new policies on terror and immigration," Aznar told me. "But Europeans are unable to define who's the enemy. We talk about international terrorism but won't confront Islamic terrorism calling it by its right name."

At the same time, while insisting, "I am a convinced Atlanticist," Aznar hardly sounded totally confident that the trans-Atlantic bridge, partially repaired since 2005, would not begin to sway again.

Although Angela Merkel would work "intelligently" at good German- American relations, her coalition government "cannot promote great, ambitious objectives," he said. In Italy, Aznar believed the international positioning of the new leftist government headed by Romano Prodi "will be the same as Zapatero's." Britain's Atlanticism, he said, was more a fact of national conviction than a single party or politician's policy.

As for France, Aznar's distaste for Jacques Chirac (and vice versa) was publicly known long before the split over Iraq. Today, Aznar holds him responsible for rejecting in 2002 an all- European initiative, proposed by Spain, for controlling illegal immigration at its source in North and Sub- Saharan Africa. He accuses Chirac of having tried to turn Europe against the United States during the countdown to the Iraq war and calls that attempt, although it was fought off, "a historic defeat for Western values."

Now, he said, France is in a deep social and political crisis whose resolution requires "a stronger leader." No secret here that Nicolas Sarkozy would be Aznar's first choice.

This is a long way from the Atlantic world of an integrated European- American economy that Aznar projects as the future foundation of global prosperity and security. Coming from a man who talks hard and straight, the idea, for just a moment, sounds almost less than dreamy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

RINOs on parade at DANEgerus

DANEgerus has a mechanical rhino as the mascot for this week's eclectic round up of RINO posts. Go have a look. He usually has interesting commentary on news, and plenty of well-informed opinions.

Microbe gives clues to origin of life

Energy is critically important to origin of life theories, which is why so many of the newest theories postulate where life started (e.g. near thermal vents--a ready source of energy) in addition to how. After all, without the energy source to break down and combine molecules, life can't begin. A recent news story at Science provides a clue to the enegy problem:

One of the most vexing questions facing biologists is how life on Earth first emerged. Now, research on a methane-producing microbe has led to a novel theory that could breathe new life into the field and help two opposing theories find common ground.

On a simple level, the origin-of-life debate comes down to a question of how the first complex molecules came to be. The so-called heterotrophic hypothesis says that life arose from an organic soup of small molecules that were either brought to Earth by extraterrestrial objects or were produced through lightning-triggered reactions that combined gasses. Life originated when these smaller molecules assembled into larger molecules such as RNA and proteins. On the other hand, the chemoautotrophic hypothesis posits that iron sulfide reactions released hydrogen, which combined with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form organic compounds. These in turn gave rise to more complex molecules.

One problem with both hypotheses is that they don't have a reasonable source of energy for putting the larger molecules together. The heterotrophic theory ignores the issue, and the chemoautotrophic theory relies on extremely complicated enzymes that were unlikely to have already evolved.

An unusual microbe may give both sides hope. While microbial biochemist James Ferry and geomicrobiologist Christopher House of Pennsylvania State University in State College were studying the Methanosarcina acetivorans microbe, they noticed that it had a unique biochemistry: Many of the oldest bacteria on Earth can convert carbon monoxide into methane, but this microbe has the added ability to produce acetate from carbon monoxide as well.

Ferry and House suggest that the first metabolism involved two ancient enzymes found in this microbe that help produce the acetate. In a hypothetical ancient "protocell," excreted acetate would react with iron sulfides outside of the cell to form a sulfide-containing derivative known as an acetate thioester. The protocell would then take this in and break it down to acetate, completing the loop. A key part of the idea is that the formation of acetate inside the cell creates energy-rich molecules known as ATP that could provide the energy needed to combine small molecules into bigger ones. While the theory doesn't completely resolve the origin-of-life debate, it provides a common source of energy for both sides and could be a useful starting point for a compromise, the authors report in the June issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Geochemist George Cody of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., agrees, but he notes the devil is in the details. "There's no reaction that I know of that converts acetate back to thioester," says Cody. Nevertheless, the work is a step in the right direction toward bridging the gap between the two old hypotheses, he says.

Europe paid millions in ransoms in Iraq

No longer an open secret, The Times reports on documents proving that France, Italy and Germany have all ponied up millions of dollars to ransom their citizens unfortunate enough to have been abducted in Iraq.

I imagine most of the hostage takers were just criminals looking to get rich, but I suspect quite a bit of that money was either donated or paid as a "tax" to the terrorists.
FRANCE, Italy and Germany sanctioned the payment of $45 million in deals to free nine hostages abducted in Iraq, according to documents seen by The Times.

All three governments have publicly denied paying ransom money. But according to the documents, held by security officials in Baghdad who have played a crucial role in hostage negotiations, sums from $2.5 million to $10 million per person have been paid over the past 21 months. Among those said to have received cash ransoms was the gang responsible for seizing British hostages including Kenneth Bigley, the murdered Liverpool engineer.

The list of payments has also been seen by Western diplomats, who are angered at the behaviour of the three governments, arguing that it encourages organised crime gangs to grab more foreign captives.

“In theory we stand together in not rewarding kidnappers, but in practice it seems some administrations have parted with cash and so it puts other foreign nationals at risk from gangs who are confident that some governments do pay,” one senior envoy in the Iraqi capital said.

More than 250 foreigners have been abducted since the US-led invasion in 2003. At least 44 have been killed; 135 were released, three escaped, six were rescued and the fate of the others remains unknown.

One wonders just how many of those 135 released hostages were ransomed by governments. The total paid could be far above $45 million.

A number of other governments, including those of Turkey, Romania, Sweden and Jordan, are said to have paid for their hostages to be freed, as have some US companies with lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq. At least four businessmen with dual US and Iraqi nationality have been returned, allegedly in exchange for payments by their employers. This money is often disguised as “ expenses” paid to trusted go-betweens for costs that they claim to incur.

The release this month of Rene Braunlich and Thomas Nitzschke, two German engineers, for a reported $5 million payment prompted senior Iraqi security officials to seek talks with leading Western diplomats in the capital on how to handle hostage release.

When the men returned home, Alaa al-Hashimi, the Iraqi Ambassador to Germany, revealed that the German Government handed over “a large amount” to free the pair after 99 days in captivity. The kidnappers are understood to have asked for $10 million.

Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, called last night for an immediate end to the practice. “The idea that Western governments would have paid ransoms is extremely disturbing,” he said. “It is essential that governments never give in to blackmail from terrorists or criminals if security is ever to be maintained.”

Michael Moore, a Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: “These governments have created a kidnappers’ charter. Everyone from outside Iraq working in the country becomes more vulnerable as a result.” [...]

At least two crime gangs are alleged to have sold on some of their foreign captives to militant groups who use the hostages for propaganda purposes rather than obtaining ransoms.

Britain has never paid to free its citizens, despite pressure from the employees of some hostages, but is understood to have paid intermediaries “expenses” for their efforts to make contact with the kidnappers.

British officials have been criticised for giving the kidnappers of the peace activist Norman Kember time to escape to avoid the risk of a gun battle with Special Forces troops sent to rescue him and his two fellow captives from a house in central Baghdad in March.

Only when Jill Carroll, an American journalist, was freed eight days later did intelligence experts discover that she had been held by the same notorious crime family, who were working with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the wanted al-Qaeda leader in Iraq. That revelation infuriated US officials in Baghdad, who had let Britain take the lead in tracing and freeing Professor Kember, 74, and his two Canadian colleagues.

FBI agents are investigating claims that this gang sold some of its hostages, including American contractors and aid workers, to militant Islamic groups. The gang is reported to have had a hand in organising the abduction of three British hostages, Margaret Hassan, Mr Bigley and Professor Kember, and three Italian journalists.

Figures involved in secret talks to resolve hostage cases told The Times that Mrs Hassan, an aid worker who had converted to Islam and taken Iraqi citizenship, was murdered soon after Tony Blair made it clear in a television broadcast seen on an Arab satellite channel that the Government would not pay a ransom. Wealthy benefactors had signalled their readiness to pay for her release.

A key figure in brokering some of the deals has been Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Qubaisi, a militant Sunni cleric and senior figure in the Association of Muslim Scholars. Professor Kember and his party had just visited the group when he was abducted last November.

What a shadowy world to have to deal with. Encouraging kidnappers only further muddies the waters.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hobbits are people, too

Major bummers on the science front this week. First we learn that our ancestors may have gotten funky with monkeys. Now it turns out that the Indonesian "hobbit" people were just diseased dwarfs, and not an unknown species (internal link removed):
The debate over whether the "hobbit” fossil found on an Indonesian island is a separate species has reignited, as a new study of dwarfing in a range of mammals suggests that Homo floresiensis was a modern human with a pathological condition.

The remains of a tiny woman were found in a limestone cave in Flores, Indonesia. Named H. floresiensis by the discoverers, she quickly became known as “the hobbit” by everyone else.

When the find was reported in 2004 some anthropologists disputed whether it was a new species of human, arguing that the skeleton had characteristics of a modern human with microcephaly, a condition that causes reduced cranium size. Microcephaly is relatively common in isolated populations and is associated with reduced brain function.

Peter Brown and Mike Morwood from the University of New England, Australia, proposed that the 1-metre-tall body (known as LB1) had evolved in an isolated population of Homo erectus as an adaptation to the restricted diet found on an island. But at 380 cubic centimetres, some thought that LB1’s chimp-sized cranial capacity was too small to be a dwarf H. erectus. Brown and Morwood denied this, but their conclusion has now been challenged again.

“As they dwarf, species’ brain sizes decline far more slowly than body size,” says Ann MacLarnon from Roehampton University, UK, who modelled dwarfing in a range of mammals from dogs to elephants with a team from the Field Museum, Chicago, US. “Brain size is key to a mammal species’ identity,” she says. There is, for example, hardly any difference in brain size between the smallest modern humans, the 1.4-metre Bambuti people of Congo’s Ituri Forest, and the tallest, the 2-metre Masai of east Africa.

The team calculated that a dwarfed H. erectus with a 400cc brain would weigh just 2 kilograms. “That’s one-tenth of what the Flores people must have weighed,” she explains. The only way to explain the discrepancy, the team believes, is microcephaly.

“It’s perfectly plausible that these were pygmy people. But there’s only one skull, and that is human and microcephalic,” says team leader Robert Martin. This, Martin believes, ties in with the abundance of sophisticated stone tools at the cave. “These were sophisticated people with a high level of mental development,” he says.

“Although we only have one cranium,” says Morwood, “the other bones we found show that LB1 was a normal member of an endemically dwarfed hominid population.” The distinctive traits of reduced body mass, reduced brain size and short thick legs mirror those found in other island endemic populations of large mammals, Morwood says. He calls the microcephaly explanation “bizarre”. It ignores other evidence from Liang Bua and the literature on island endemic evolution, he says.

Cycling: Giro d'Italia update

The Giro is setting up to be a fantastic race. The leader, Ivan Basso, cemented his hold on first place in yesterday's stage. Over the next several days the Giro heads to the mountains for some truly ferocious stages. Expect Basso to be relentlessly attacked in a multi team effort to wear him and his team out. He has a pretty good cushion and is a fine climber so I see him holding on and winning the Giro.

Looking ahead to the Tour de France, German Jan Ullrich must be pleased that his form is rounding into shape. His stunning win in yeasterday's time trial, often called the race of truth (not to be confused with the Clintons' version, the race from truth) because each rider must perform to the best of their ability with out benefit of teammates, should scare the hell out of the other Tour favorites. Now if he can just drop a couple extra kilos and keep his knee healthy. The mountain stages will give us a glimpse into his fitness level.

The IHT has this commendable article on the Giro:
A daunting time trial in the Giro d'Italia produced two big winners Thursday: Jan Ullrich, who won the race against the clock and showed that his umpteenth comeback is proceeding well, and Ivan Basso, who solidified his status as the Giro's overall leader while leaving some major rivals far behind.

Ullrich, who started the season late because of an injured right knee, the same one that has slowed him for years, is riding in the Giro only to improve his condition for the Tour de France. He has won that race once, in 1997, and finished second five times.

Starting the flat stage in 54th place, he showed all the power that has made him a time trial specialist and the world champion in that discipline in 2001. The German, who rides for T-Mobile, was clocked in 58 minutes 48 seconds, the only man to break 59 minutes and one of just three to finish in less than an hour in the 50-kilometer, or 31-mile, time trial from Pontedera to Pisa and back in Tuscany. [...]

The surprising Gutierrez, not reckoned as a time trailer, remained in second place overall, now 2:48 behind Basso after starting the day 1:34 in arrears. He is not ranked among the top climbers either, so perhaps will fade in the Alps.

The same is true of the third-placed Honchar, who has, however, finished as high as second in the Giro, in 2004, when his name was still being transliterated as Sergei Gontchar.

Now in fourth place overall, Savoldelli should be a tougher foe for Basso.

The Discovery Channel leader has won the Giro twice, most recently last year, and seemed cured Thursday of his sensitivity to pollen in the air. He will also benefit from the strong climbing support of his teammate Tom Danielson, an American who jumped to fifth place overall with a fine time trial.

Wind or whatever, perhaps accumulated fatigue before this 11th of 21 stages, some of Basso's key challengers rode without distinction Thursday.

Are they out of contention as the race heads for its finish in Milan on May 28? No, not with all the mountains ahead next week.

But there will have to be a big rethinking of strategy, not to mention psychological counseling, in the camps of such previous favorites as Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni, both Giro winners in this decade, and Danielo Di Luca, the ProTour champion last year. Each was drubbed in the time trial.

Cunego, the Italian leader of Lampre, fell from third place overall to eighth, a whopping 6:54 behind Basso. Simoni, the Italian leader of Saunier Duval, is 7:13 back in ninth place and Di Luca, the Italian leader of Liquigas, slid to a dreary 10th place.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Quote of the day, "terrorist" is such a perjorative word version

Today's quote comes from Guardian columnist Tim Ash dicussing the London terror bombers and what makes terrorists in general behave the way they do (emphases supplied):
[...] By this stage, his three - what should we call them? Co-conspirators? Comrades in arms? Fellow terrorists? Fellow martyrs? Each term is prejudicial - had already killed themselves, as planned, on the underground. [....]
If he still has to qualify the word terrorist, he can't be expected to understand what the West is up against. Imagine worrying that calling a terrorist a terrorist might prejudice the terrorist's aims, goals, and methods in the public's mind. All his groping for understanding is for nought.

He goes on to advocate use of the term "suicide missionaries" as an alternate description of people who seek out concentrations of innocents to kill.

More dodging the truth:
Obviously there was also a strong Islamic motivation in the case of the London bombers [....]
Their religion was the sine qua non of their motivation. Attempting to downplay it is further evidence that Ash and many on the Left won't face reality.

German terror fears for World Cup grow

The Times has a scary article regarding the challenge German security forces face during the World Cup. Imagine the mayhem a simple rucksack bomb would cause if exploded in one of the many venues set up for viewing the games on huge televisions. The German authorities must be scrambling to come up with contingency plans, evacuation plans and ways to best deploy their limited security forces.

ANTI-TERROR police have identified twenty-one World Cup games, including at least three England matches, as high-risk targets for Islamic terrorist groups.

The main danger is not expected to come inside the stadiums where the games are being played, but in busy city centres where thousands of fans will gather to watch matches on giant television screens.

If the nightmare scenario is a terrorist attack on such a crowded, “soft” target, increasingly nervous German authorities are also assessing the likely threat posed by hooligans and neo-Nazis.
Good point. Neo-Nazis could easily cause panic if they begin attacking groups in a crowded railway station or subway. They've made no bones about their desire to cause violence. Thankfully, they are a tiny minority and seem to well penetrated by the security forces.

Hooliganism will be another cause for spontaneous chaos. Many of the worst English and Dutch hooligans are known to the authorities, and so can be kept out, but Polish hooligans are pretty much free to stream across the border. Expect some pitched battles.

Uwe-Karsten Heye, a former government spokesman sparked an uproar yesterday by warning black fans not to visit towns in Brandenburg, around Berlin, during the tournament. “It could be that they would never leave alive,” he said after a recent spate of racist attacks. He was forced to retract his words by local politicians.

A leaked analysis by the German Federal Criminal Agency (BKA), the equivalent of Scotland Yard, indicates that terrorism has become the main concern. The BKA says that all teams from nations involved in the Iraq war should be considered vulnerable: the US, England, Spain, Poland and Australia.

Udo Nagel, the interior minister of Hamburg, has ordered marksmen to be deployed on rooftops and constant aerial observation around the US team hotel. He said: “We have decided to impose a no-fly zone around the stadium in a radius of three nautical miles and, in some instances, we will be ready to expand this zone to thirty nautical miles.” But the BKA analysis — published in Stern magazine — indicates that the public viewing areas are at greatest risk. The stadiums are being monitored through identity checks on ticket holders and by a massive process of positive vetting: 250,000 World Cup employees, from sausage-sellers to firefighters, are being checked.

Access to the 300 public viewing areas scattered around Germany will be much easier. There will be no airport-style metal detectors, and bag searches will be random. “There will be hundreds of thousands of fans with rucksacks,” a worried police officer said in a briefing for the foreign press. In Hamburg, one site alone — at the Heiligengeist Field — will hold 50,000 fans. In Cologne, one of the match venues for England, giant screens will be floated on the Rhine and fans will spill on to the river banks to watch the matches. There will be almost no security checks.

Berlin, the venue of the final, has at least ten public viewing spots, and almost all could have a symbolic value for terrorists: in front of churches, a luxury shopping area, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Other sites in Berlin are close to railway stations. Any attack there would paralyse the city.

Every weekend the counter-terrorist units and the emergency services stage dress rehearsals. The results have been chaotic in Berlin; police will be hopelessly overstretched.

The security situation in Nuremberg may be eased if — as German diplomats are hinting — President Ahmadinejad of Iran does not appear for the Iran-Mexico fixture on June 11. This was expected to be the most volatile encounter of the competition. Neo-Nazis are planning to march in support of Mr Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust. Iranian exiles are preparing to protest against him, and England fans will be in town for the match with Trinidad. [...]

I've put in for a ticket for the Swiss-Togo match; I probably won't get it, but if I am allocated one I won't be looking forward to marching through the various layers of security. Nevertheless, I'll be grateful they are in place.

Immigrants in German schools are falling behind

File it under: this can't be good.
A new study released by the OECD shows that immigrants in Germany perform much worse at school than their counterparts elsewhere. Even more worrying: the second generation is falling even further behind.

[...] The German school system fails when it comes to educating immigrant children. That is the unsettling conclusion of a report presented on Monday in Berlin by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). When compared to native German students, first-generation immigrants (born outside of Germany) perform well below the average of first-generation immigrants in the 17 countries considered in the report. And the gap becomes even larger among second-generation immigrants (children with at least one parent born outside the country). Among this group, German schools' performance was right at the bottom of the survey. [...]

The most disturbing aspect of the new study was the degree to which Germany's second-generation immigrants still lagged behind their native German counterparts. Only Germany, Denmark and New Zealand showed a decrease in performance from first to second generation immigrants in the four areas tested -- mathematics, reading, science and problem solving -- with German immigrant pupils by far the worst off. [...]
Germany has any number of problems with assimilating its immigrants. A festering and growing (immigrants have the highest birth rates) underclass having little in common with Germans points to French-style riots and an increased liklihood of terrorism.

Coming up with more money to help this group will be tough. Germany is having a hard time with its budget (currently thousands of physicians are striking for better pay), and still has millions out of work.
Specific criticism was levelled at the German and Austrian school systems for their practice of separating students by achievement at the age of 10. In Germany, this means that high-achieving students are placed in university track schools after the fourth grade and lower achieving students are essentially blocked from ever attending university. Many of the third-tier schools in Germany's three-level system become collection points for under-achievers, problem students and foreign students.
This is a system I still can't understand. Fortunately Switzerland doesn't begin placing students in different types of schools until about the high school level--still much too early to my mind. Consequently, only about 20% of Swiss students are able to attend university.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tony Blair says yes to nuclear power

Tony Blair decided not to wait for a panel's report on the pros and cons of nuclear power and ordered up a replacement nuclear power plant--the first in 20 years.

To my mind two things will form the critical part of Blair's legacy: recognizing and confronting the Islamist threat, and taking steps to safeguard his nation's energy future. President Bush will have breached his duty to the public if he does nothing to make the US significantly more energy independant than it is.

From The Times:

[...] Tony Blair yesterday pre-empted his Government’s energy review to say that the replacement of existing nuclear stations was back on the agenda “with a vengeance”, provoking a row with environmentalists.

Construction of the first new atomic plants could start within ten years under fast-track planning permission. Britain’s twelve nuclear power stations currently provide 22 per cent of the country’s electricity, but all but three will close by 2020.

Objections to the cost and environmental record of nuclear power have ensured that no new plants have been ordered since work started on Sizewell B in 1988. However, early findings from the Government’s review of the country’s future energy needs show the importance of the nuclear option, the Prime Minister said last night.

Britain will be importing 90 per cent of its natural gas by 2025, leaving electricity generation reliant on potentially unstable countries in the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union, he said.

Mr Blair told the Confederation of British Industry last night: “These facts put the replacement of nuclear power stations, a big push on renewables and a step change on energy efficiency, engaging both business and consumers, back on the agenda with a vengeance.”

Ofgem, the energy regulator, yesterday added to the sense of urgency surrounding Britain’s power future by saying that the country faced shortages in gas supplies next winter if there are delays in key projects to import more gas. [...]

“If we do not take these long-term decisions now we will be committing a serious dereliction of our duty to the future of this country,” Mr Blair said. [...]

The new plants will almost certainly be built on existing sites to lessen planning objections and public opposition.

The Prime Minister is unlikely to encounter much Cabinet opposition, although some Labour MPs remain strongly opposed to nuclear power. Gordon Brown is believed to be in favour of the principle of building more stations, although he has insisted that the decision should be supported by a cost-benefits analysis. [....]

Prof Churchill's argument against sanctions

Prof Ward Churchill, darling of the offended-but-not-going-to-take-it-any-more-Left, came in for some pointed criticism in the university's examination of possible misconduct (short answer: hell, yes, he's a liar and a fraud).

Now it's up to the university to decide whether sanctions are appropriate. The committee looking into his misconduct suggests a (non-binding) range of punishments: two years unpaid suspension (2 votes), and revocation of tenure and dismissal (3 votes).

Fortunately for Prof Churchill, his defense is found in the Laws of the Regents of The University of Colorado (emphasis supplied, internal citation removed):

As we have noted before, the Laws of the Regents of the University of Colorado expressly recognize the importance of robust and free debate in arriving at truth in the governing documents of this institution. About academic freedom these Laws say this: ‘Academic freedom’ is defined as the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and teach truth as the faculty member sees it, subject to no control or authority save the control and authority of the rational methods by which truth is established.

The Laws also stipulate that: Faculty members have the responsibility to maintain competence, exert themselves to the limit of their intellectual capacities in scholarship, research, writing, and speaking; [....]

So, by demonstrating that his fraudulent behavior was simply due to his intellectual limitations and shortcomings (of which ample evidence already exists), the good professor is off the hook.

The rest of the report is filled with intances of his misconduct and weirdness. The university is also called to task, essentially being told that they knew what they were getting when they first hired him.

Orac was kind enough to send the link to the report. He will have a detailed post later today. Be sure and check his site often. UPDATE: Orac's post is up. It was worth the wait.

Nuclear power will drive the future

The world's energy needs are growing; securing sufficient sources of energy will be the great game of the 21st century. This will bring us into conflict with other nations, either because we seek to safeguard current energy sources from others or through competition for emerging suppliers.

One way to decrease energy tensions (and costs) is to find and develop fossil fuels in our own country. However, this will not be enough. Alternate fuels will need to be developed. At the moment, only nuclear energy is capable of providing significant amounts of electricity. Unfortunately, the anti-nuclear crowd did a fantastic job of using Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to stop nuclear power growth.

Thankfully, policy makers have taken another look and see that nuclear power is safe, efficient, non-polluting, predictable, and readily expandable. This op-ed in the IHT is written by ex-EPA head Whitman, and noted environmental apostate Patrick Moore (co-founder of Green peace):
From the minute the alarm clock goes off in the morning, our lives are fueled by electricity. We are amazed at the seemingly endless parade of new, life-improving and life-saving technologies. But too little attention is paid to the looming shortage of energy needed to power them. We take for granted that the lights will come on at the flip of a switch.

The Department of Energy projects that the United States will need 45 percent more electricity by 2030. Where is this going to come from? Energy conservation, greater efficiencies in the production of natural gas, oil, coal and hydro power, and a genuine commitment to renewables such as wind, solar, and geothermal power will be needed.

Across America today, companies are reducing their demands for power without slowing their growth, but those efforts won't be enough in and of themselves. We will continue to need a mix of power sources, and nuclear energy must play an increased role in supplying America's growing demand for electricity.

Nuclear energy offers numerous benefits and advantages over other sources.

It's cleaner. Nuclear energy has the lowest impact on the environment - air, land, water and wildlife - of any major energy source. It produces no harmful greenhouse gases or controlled air pollutants, its waste byproducts are isolated from the environment, and it requires less land to produce the same amount of electricity as other electricity sources.

It's safe. Strict government regulations and continuous training by the industry ensure that the safety of operations and the security of facilities exceed the highest standards of any American industry.

It's cheaper. Nuclear plants are the most efficient on the electricity grid, and nuclear power has the lowest production cost of all major sources of electricity other than hydropower. [...]

We must plan today to meet our energy needs of tomorrow in a manner that protects the environment. Building new nuclear plants and expanding existing facilities takes time. Working together, we must broaden and advance the national dialogue to include the issues of rising electricity demand, energy conservation and efficiency. [...]

We must act now to secure our energy future. 2030 is closer than we think.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Religious Pot meets literary Kettle

So, the Vatican is upset about the movie The Da Vinci Code, calling it "fiction" and asserting it has "no basis in truth". Which is certainly true.

However, organizations in the business of selling belief without facts to back their assertions shouldn't be too quick to brand other things as fiction. Stones and glass houses and all that, you know.

Kissinger on nuclear proliferation

America should engage in direct multi-lateral negotiations with Iran argues Dr Kissinger in today's WaPo. As usual, he makes a persuassive case.

Such negotiations are necessary if a diplomatic solution is to be found. No matter how productive the EU3 talks are, Iran is simply not willing to commit to ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons unless the US takes an active part, offers security guarantees, and assures Iran that its current encirclement of Iran is not intended per se to encircle it and is only temporary.

However, America entering into direct negotiations with Iran threatens to split the European effort. There is still much dislike and distrust of the US in Europe, and although the leaders recognize the value of US participation, opposition candidates will use the US as a convenient target. In addition, non-EU3 nations--especially Italy, with its new Socialist government--will not hesitate to criticise US participation, thus further emboldening Iran.

Although everyone knows the US will take a prominent role in negotiations, doing so prematurely could be counter productive. Thus the question has been one of timing. The recent letter may have solved that problem by providing the pretext for the US to ramp up its participation.

That little aside out of the way (and I raise the issue only as an aside; I feel that full US participation is critical to a diplomatic solution), here are excerpts from Dr Kissinger's article:
The recent letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush needs to be considered on several levels. It can be treated as a ploy to obstruct U.N. Security Council deliberations on Iran's disregard of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This consideration, and the demagogic tone of the letter, merited its rejection by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the first direct approach by an Iranian leader to a U.S. president in more than 25 years may also have intentions beyond the tactical and propagandistic, and its demagoguery may be a way to get the radical part of the Iranian public used to dialogue with the United States. America's challenge is to define its own strategy and purposes regarding the most fateful issue confronting us today. [...]

The same considerations [the prospect of the rest of the world seeing Iran as America's problem] apply even more strongly to bilateral negotiations with Iran at this stage. Until now formal negotiations have been prevented by the memory of the hostage crisis, Iranian support of terrorist groups and the aggressive rhetoric of the Iranian president. Nor does the Iranian president's letter remove these inhibitions. Nevertheless, on a matter so directly involving its security, the United States should not negotiate through proxies, however closely allied. If America is prepared to negotiate with North Korea over proliferation in the six-party forum, and with Iran in Baghdad over Iraqi security, it must be possible to devise a multilateral venue for nuclear talks with Tehran that would permit the United States to participate -- especially in light of what is at stake. [...]

Diplomacy needs a new impetus. As a first step, the United States and its negotiating partners need to agree on how much time is available for negotiations. [....] Estimates on how close Tehran is to producing its first nuclear weapon range from two to 10 years. Given the risks and stakes, this gap needs to be narrowed. Any consideration of diplomatic pace must take account of the fact that in 2008 governments in both Russia and the United States will change; this will impose a hiatus on diplomacy while the governments are preoccupied with transition and, in America, restaffing the executive branch. [...]

The diplomacy appropriate to denuclearization is comparable to the containment policy that helped win the Cold War: no preemptive challenge to the external security of the adversary, but firm resistance to attempts to project its power abroad and reliance on domestic forces to bring about internal change. It was precisely such a nuanced policy that caused President Ronald Reagan to invite Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to a dialogue within weeks of labeling the Soviet Union as the evil empire. [...]

The current negotiating forum is highly dysfunctional. Three European countries in close coordination with the United States are acting partly as America's surrogate. China and Russia do not participate in the negotiations but are involved when their consequences go before the U.N. Security Council -- a procedure enabling Iran to play off the nuclear powers against each other.

A more coherent forum for negotiation would combine the three European nations with the United States, China and Russia as the countries most directly affected and in the best position to act jointly in the Security Council. This could be set up after the passage of the Security Council resolution now under discussion. It would permit elaboration of the one hopeful scheme that has emerged in Iranian diplomacy. Put forward by Russia, it is to move certain enrichment operations out of Iran into Russia, thereby preventing clandestine weaponization. The new, broader forum could be used to establish an international enrichment program applicable to future nuclear technologies to curb the looming specter of unchecked proliferation.
Dr Kissinger glosses over the fact that both Russia and China have several (actually several billion) reasons not to bring about a quick diplomatic solution. Just getting them to agree to be part of a serious negotiating team will require considerable diplomacy.

Obviously, nuclear proliferation cannot be prevented simply by multiplying negotiating forums. The experience with existing conferences demonstrates the capacity for procrastination and obfuscation. To be effective, diplomacy must involve a willingness to provide clear penalties for obstruction.

Only after we have created the requisite negotiating framework and explored all aspects of diplomacy should the issue of military measures be addressed. But neither should force be rejected in principle and for all time before we know the circumstances in which this last resort should be considered.

The ongoing threat of military action remains critical to bringing about a diplomatic solution. Hopefully Iran will see the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's (who argued strenuously against military action) dismissal as a clear signal that armed action is still contemplated.

The issue before the nations involved is similar to what the world faced in 1938 and at the beginning of the Cold War: whether to overcome fears and hesitancy about undertaking the difficult path demanded by necessity. The failure of that test in 1938 produced a catastrophic war; the ability to master it in the immediate aftermath of World War II led to victory without war. [...]
This is spot on. The Europeans had every opportunity to stop Hitler. That they failed caused the death of millions. The world cannot let Iran succeed. The stakes are just as high. Nuclear proliferation threatens the whole world.

American futurist says Switzerland has the right stuff

Media gadfly and failed futurist Jeremy Rifkin may have given the Swiss economy and society the kiss of death by hailing its combination of free market and social values.

He recently predicted that the Swiss could take a leadership role in the EU because people respect it. Sure. France, Italy, Germany, Poland et al are going to give up fighting to use the EU for their benefit because they like Switzerland.

Rifkin is the guy who wrote a poorly timed book predicting Europe would displace the US as a world power.

One thing he's likely right about: Switzerland will be a member of the EU by 2050 (providing a meaningful EU still exists, of course).