Saturday, December 31, 2005

Scary new year, thanks to Iran

Richard Bernstein of the IHT doesn't go out on a limb when he predicts Iran will aggressively pursue nuclear weapons, but his description is chilling nonetheless. Read his other predictions for the new year, too.

[...] To begin with, the most dire: Iran will move to acquire the technology to enrich uranium gas into fissionable uranium, even as European negotiators will, finally, give up on talks with Tehran and bring Iranian violations of the Nonproliferation Treaty to the Security Council.

This is probably the most important event that will take place next year, because the world will not have prevented Iran from moving decisively to become a nuclear power, and Iran's becoming a nuclear power changes everything in the Middle East.

After Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will go nuclear too, and just when the post-Cold War world is supposed to reduce its nuclear stockpiles, a nuclear arc will be forming from India and Pakistan in the East all the way to North Africa, and it will be forming in the most politically explosive, death- and extremist-prone region of the globe.

What will have gone wrong? For the final few weeks of 2005, the negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran have essentially turned into a public relations campaign aimed at what both sides recognize as a sort of global parliament.

The Europeans keep talking in order to give the Iranians a chance to show how truly belligerent and uncompromising they are, and thereby to isolate Tehran from the countries that form its natural constituency, most importantly Russia and China, the two permanent Security Council members who, until now, have been opposed to sanctions.

The Iranian game is the inverse: it is to keep talking, and to throw in the occasional concession, to provide some hope that the negotiations can succeed - an example being the announcement Wednesday in Tehran that Iran would give the so-called Russian ideas to enrich Iran's uranium in Russia and re-export it to Iran "enthusiastic" study.

Iran wants to give Russia, China and the nonaligned countries that form Iran's home group the pretext they all prefer in any case, to maintain business as usual, rather than move to sanctions that will hurt them at least as much as they hurt Iran. [...]

On the brighter side: As Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac lose their luster, the luster of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, will brighten even further. Blair and Chirac suffer badly from what the French call "usure," a wearing out from too much exposure, like quilts left out in the sun. Merkel is not only a smart and capable politician, she has the decided advantage of having an easy act to follow.

Just how easy was made clear by the news in Germany this week, namely that the much-proclaimed Hartz IV reforms, on which Gerhard Schröder staked his chancellorship and lost it, have utterly failed, according to studies by independent research institutes. The goal was to decrease unemployment, but unemployment has risen. As the mass-circulation Bild Zeitung put it, referring to the former Social Democratic-Green coalition government, "Red-Green's most important reform is one big disaster."
The Schroeder years are finally beginning to be seen in Germany as a disaster. Now if only some journalists could point out that his failed policies are still being championed by the SPD and Greens....
The fundamental problem, as the economist Wolfgang Nowak put it some time ago, is that it does no good to try to force people into work if there are no jobs for them to be forced into. That realization, put into cold statistics by the report on Hartz IV, will induce the Social Democrats to agree to Merkel's reforms, focusing on reducing the cost of labor and labor market flexibility. But Merkel here will have to be bold and tough. It will be her opportunity and her test.

Internationally, following her stellar performance in cobbling together an unsatisfactory compromise at the EU budget talks a couple of weeks ago, Merkel will be the European honest broker. The French and the British have abandoned the possibilities of European leadership by pursuing narrow national self-interest. Merkel becomes the new European leader by default. [...]
Given the initial low expectations for Merkel, 2006 may well be the year she eclipses Chirac (practically a given) and Blair. She certainly lacks the ties to Bush that hurt Blair so much in the public's mind, which means she is well placed to be the bridge between the US and Europe.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Third of Pakistan’s madrassahs defying deadline to register

File it under: hardly surprising.
Pakistan is expected to take a flexible approach towards Saturday’s deadline for the registration of Islamic religious schools. About a third of the 12,000 madrassahs has so far failed to comply with government’s efforts to tighten regulation of their activities.

The registration drive is widely seen as a response to western concerns over the alleged role of some madrassahs in providing a breeding ground for Islamic militants.

The registration forces the schools to periodically submit information on their sources of funding as well as respect an official ban on recruiting foreign students. Government officials will also carry out regular inspections to ensure there is no training of students in the use of weapons. [...]
The good news is that some two-thirds have complied; whether sufficient oversight will take place is doubtful, however.

A cyclist for all seasons (hint: not Lance Armstrong)

The sports reporters at the IHT have voted on the cyclist of the year, and it's not Lance Armstrong. Although they leave the considerable evidence that he doped in 1999 out of their rationale, the evidence remains the snorting and trumpeting elephant in the room.

Unstated, too, is that the writers likely feel that the focus on the Tour de France is finally gotten to be too much. Starting with Miguel Indurain--who won the Tour five times running--riders have focused their seasons on winning the Tour, to the exclusion of all else. By choosing a well rounded rider who has no chance of ever winning the Tour--or any other multi-day race--the IHT staff is seeking to bring a bit more balance back to bike racing.

Here is the article:

The next question is from a Mr. Lance Armstrong of Austin, Texas: "I hear rumors that, once again, I have finished second in the voting for the IHT man of the year in bicycle racing. Last year, I lost out to a corpse; who is it this time, a spectator?

"When somebody wins the Tour de France, the world's toughest athletic competition, for the seventh consecutive year, you'd think he would cop this award, too. What gives?"

Answer: Steady there, champ. It's true that the title last year went to the deceased Emile Brichard, a 104-year-old Belgian who succumbed to the pressure of countless interviews when he turned out to be the oldest Tour de France former rider. He gave his all to the sport and the jury felt he fully deserved the honor. [...]

It is true, Mr. Armstrong, that you had a magnificent ride in the Tour de France, ending your career with an easy triumph.

The record you set - two victories more than any other rider in the century-old history of the Tour - will not be broken anytime soon, or at least not for the next seven years.

But the Tour de France is just - if that is the word - a three-week race in July. Where were you otherwise during the season? Nowhere. All spring you showed no more life than Brichard did.

On the other hand, look at what Tom Boonen did.

The Belgian, who turned a mere 25 in October, won the Tour of Flanders in April with a decisive attack that left him alone by 35 seconds at the finish line. A week after that one-day classic, he finished first in Paris-Roubaix [the most prestigious one-day race in the world--pigilito], beating two rivals in a sprint on the track at the end of the cobblestoned slog.

Victories in those two esteemed races in the same year are not unprecedented, but they don't occur all that often either.

Boonen had an otherwise quiet spring, then won two sprint stages in the Tour de France before he had to quit the race because of injuries in crashes.

In September, the Belgian emerged from a crowd near the finish of the world championship road race in Madrid and sped across the line the winner by a bicycle length.

Over a full season, two of the monuments of bicycle racing and the rainbow jersey of the world champion add up to a triumph that overshadows Armstrong's.

The international jury for the Vélo d'Or, the Golden Bicycle award that is given by the French magazine Vélo to the top rider of the year, agrees. Boonen accumulated 84 points, with Armstrong the runner-up at 65 points.

The Belgian, who rides for the Quick Step team from his homeland, paid tribute to Armstrong when he accepted the award.

"These last few years, it's been very difficult to do better than Armstrong," he said. "He's been untouchable. But I think I've also raised the bar pretty high. It's also a victory for all classics riders, who are sometimes forgotten when the Tour de France comes around.

"This award will be a lesson to some riders, who base their season on July, that there's life outside the Tour."

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Pat Buchanan, ID attack dog, is frothing

Pat Buchanan throws just about everything but the kitchen sink at evolution (one of the few tropes left out: evolution is just a theory). Tellingly, rather than defend ID, he seeks to attack "Darwinism", with hilarious results.

"Intelligent Design Derailed," exulted the headline.

"By now, the Christian conservatives who once dominated the school board in Dover, Pa., ought to rue their recklessness in forcing biology classes to hear about 'intelligent design' as an alternative to the theory of evolution," declared The New York Times, which added its own caning to the Christians who dared challenge the revealed truths of Darwinian scripture.
Pat writes as though the sum of evidence for evolution includes only those books penned by Darwin himself, thus "Darwinian scripture". Ignorance of the thousands of experiments and papers in peer-reviewed journals is helpful in this case. But the paragraph does point up the threat Creationists take evolution to be.

Noting that U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III is a Bush appointee, The Washington Post called his decision "a scathing opinion that criticized local school board members for lying under oath and for their 'breathtaking inanity' in trying to inject religion into science classes."

But is it really game, set, match, Darwin?

Have these fellows forgotten that John Scopes, the teacher in that 1925 "Monkey Trial," lost in court, and was convicted of violating Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution and fined $100? Yet Darwin went on to conquer public education, and ACLU atheists went on to purge Christianity and the Bible from our public schools.
So, the evidence for evolution had nothing to do with it conquering public education? He does have a point, though. The backlash to Scopes' conviction led to an examination of such laws and the debunking of creationism. Thus, evolution did benefit from the trial.

To suggest that ID will similarly benefit is incredible. One trial was solely about whether a man had violated a state law. The recent Dover trial which has Pat's knickers in a loop concerned itself in part with whether ID was science.
The Dover defeat notwithstanding, the pendulum is clearly swinging back. Darwinism is on the defensive. For, as Tom Bethell, author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science," reminds us, there is no better way to make kids curious about "intelligent design" than to have some Neanderthal forbid its being mentioned in biology class.
That's all? Let me tell you, Pat, few children are going to willingly add to their school workload. Nevertheless learning about ID is a fine idea; encourage children to learn all they want. By all means, place whatever reading material you wish in the library. But keep it out of science classes.
In ideological politics, winning by losing is textbook stuff. The Goldwater defeat of 1964, which a triumphant left said would bury the right forever, turned out to be liberalism's last hurrah. Like Marxism and Freudianism, Darwinism appears destined for the graveyard of discredited ideas, no matter the breathtaking inanity of the trial judge. In his opinion, Judge Jones the Third declared:

"The overwhelming evidence is that (intelligent design) is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism and not a scientific theory. ... It is an extension of the fundamentalists' view that one must either accept the literal interpretation of Genesis or else believe in the godless system of evolution."
Just like Pat: everything is an ideological battlefield, even what should be taught in science class. Also, unlike Marxism, evolution is not a political ideology. Likewise, evolution is supported by thousands of experiments and observations.
But if intelligent design is creationism or fundamentalism in drag, how does Judge Jones explain how that greatest of ancient thinkers, Aristotle, who died 300 years before Christ, concluded that the physical universe points directly to an unmoved First Mover?

As Aristotle wrote in his "Physics": "Since everything that is in motion must be moved by something, let us suppose there is a thing in motion which was moved by something else in motion, and that by something else, and so on. But this series cannot go on to infinity, so there must be some First Mover."

A man of science and reason, Aristotle used his observations of the physical universe to reach conclusions about how it came about. Where is the evidence he channeled the Torah and creation story of Genesis before positing his theory about a prime mover?
How did Aristotle channel a creation myth before it was included in the Torah? First of all, the Book of Genesis was written before Aristotle. Secondly, Genesis is not the first creation myth; plenty were around to provide Aristotle with inspiration. Thirdly, how is the idea of a First Mover equivalent to the creation story of Genesis? Fourthly, Aristotle's views and conclusions about how the physical universe works have long been supplanted; Aristotle is no longer the expert on all things the Middle Ages took him to be.
Darwinism is in trouble today for the reason creationism was in trouble 80 years ago. It makes claims that are beyond the capacity of science to prove.

Darwinism claims, for example, that matter evolved from non-matter -- i.e., something from nothing -- that life evolved from non-life; that, through natural selection, rudimentary forms evolved into more complex forms; and that men are descended from animals or apes.
Evolution makes no claims as to the origin of life. Period.
Now, all of this is unproven theory. And as the Darwinists have never been able to create matter out of non-matter or life out of non-life, or extract from the fossil record the "missing links" between species, what they are asking is that we accept it all on faith. And the response they are getting in the classroom and public forum is: "Prove it," and, "Where is your evidence?"
No missing links in the fossil record? Plenty have been found showing how one species turned into another. The problem with missing links is that as soon as one is discovered, it creates two more. Which is why the missing link argument is so beloved of Creationists. Regarding the lack of evidence, it is ID which has failed to produce meaningful evidence.
And while Darwinism suggests our physical universe and its operations happened by chance and accident, intelligent design seems to comport more with what men can observe and reason to. If, for example, we are all atop the Grand Canyon being told by a tour guide that nature, in the form of a surging river over eons of time, carved out the canyon, we might all nod in agreement. But if we ask how "Kilroy was here!" got painted on the opposite wall of the canyon, and the tour guide says the river did it, we would all howl.

A retreating glacier may have created the mountain, but the glacier didn't build the cabin on top of it. Reason tells us the cabin came about through intelligent design.
Thus we have the argument at last for ID: things that appear designed must have been designed. By th way, evolution in no way postulates the origin of the universe.
Darwinism is headed for the compost pile of discarded ideas because it cannot back up its claims. It must be taken on faith. It contains dogmas men may believe, but cannot stand the burden of proof, the acid of attack or the demands of science.
Substitute ID for Darwinism and Pat would be correct. Evolution as a process is accepted as fact. Disagreements as to how it operates exist, but it has clearly met the demands of science.
Where science says, "No miracles allowed," Darwinism asks us to believe in miracles.

Europe and the US: more storms ahead

From an opinion piece in today's IHT comes this assessment of the EU-US rift: many problems may have been patched over this year, but significant disagreements remain, and will cause continued friction.

As 2005 draws to a close, European and American officials are enthusing over how good a year it has been for trans-Atlantic relations. In the words of Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, Europe and the United States have rebuilt bridges across the Atlantic, ended the war of words sparked by discord over Iraq and recognized the fundamental truth that the trans-Atlantic partnership is a long-term marriage not susceptible to separation or divorce.

The same conclusion is drawn by senior European officials. But the improved climate in day-to-day exchanges conceals two big structural disjunctions that are far from resolved and are likely to cause more trouble in future. The first is that while from Washington's point of view, as Burns puts it, trans-Atlantic relations are "no longer about Europe," in European eyes they are still very much about the United States.

Burns's analysis is frequently echoed in Washington these days. At its simplest, it is little more than a polite statement of the obvious fact that Europe today is no longer at the heart of U.S. geopolitical strategy. But administration officials are now putting a more constructive spin on that reality: With the end of the Cold War and the inclusion of former Soviet satellites in NATO and the European Union, Europe has solved most of the problems that for centuries made it the world's most dangerous flashpoint.

Now that the process of postwar European construction has largely been achieved, the question is no longer what Washington thinks about Europe, but what the United States and Europe can do together to promote their interests and values, and spread democracy, in the rest of the world. This new approach, together with recognition of the growing role of the EU, was deliberately highlighted by President George W. Bush's visit to the European Commission in Brussels, the first by a U.S. president, in February 2005.

The approach is seductive to those of the Brussels-oriented European elite who want to believe that the EU is poised to become an equal partner to the United States on the world stage. But that belief is largely based on self-delusion. While the United States wants Europe as a helpmate for many purposes, Washington does not usually place the word "equal" before "partner." And a still highly anti-American European public is further away from accepting U.S. leadership, or even partnership, than it has been for many years.

The fundamental difficulty is that despite Washington's recent blandishments, the majority of the European intelligentsia, the news media and the political classes believe that the United States, particularly under Bush, is domineering and dangerous. They pounce on every alleged misdeed, from so-called "torture flights" carrying terrorist suspects to secret prisons to purported infringements of American civil liberties, as avidly as Bush's most virulent opponents in the United States.

For a taste of how the German media fans the flames of anti-Americanism, go here.
This distorted view of America is fed by widespread envy of U.S. power. As long as it persists, many Europeans will be reluctant to commit themselves to a stronger Atlantic partnership. Political leaders who want to work with the United States, especially against terrorism, are frightened of saying so too openly. Although Atlanticism is far from dead in Europe, discussions of trans-Atlantic relations too often focus on the alleged shortcomings of the United States, rather than on constructive new ideas for collaboration.

The second, related, disjunction stems from the different ways in which Europeans and Americans believe that the world should be organized. It is true, as EU and U.S. officials often stress, that the EU is making major contributions to peace in places like the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and working with Washington on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. But the standard European view of how Western influence - and particularly military force - should be exerted in the 21st century is radically opposed to America's and is likely to remain so.

While Europeans generally want diplomacy, international law and the will of the United Nations to prevail, Americans tend to believe, particularly since the Sept. 11 attacks, that in the end America must look after itself, with allies if possible but without if necessary.

The clash is accentuated by EU efforts to build a common foreign policy, venturing into international arenas that Washington expects to dominate. It is consequently not surprising that the worst trans-Atlantic confrontations are no longer about trade but about how the world should be run - most seriously over Iraq and the Middle East, but potentially equally seriously over EU arms sales to China. And yet it is precisely in such areas that Washington now wants to work with the Europeans.

Despite the undeniable improvements at surface level, these deep, underlying trans-Atlantic tensions are unlikely to disappear for years, at best. But an exchange of modest New Year's resolutions could point in the right direction. It might help if the Americans pledged greater respect for European opinions, and Europeans resolved to make those opinions less biased and sanctimonious.

(Reginald Dale is editor in chief of European Affairs and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.)

Overall, I don't see this as much of a problem. The EU understandably has goals which differ from those of the US, although there remains much overlap. Opinions certainly differ over how to accomplish these goals (the EU prefers soft power and appeasement, even in cases of extreme urgency or peril; whereas the US is willing to openly threaten military means in such cases).

European hysteria over the US is also nothing new. At the time of the Rosenberg executions (1953), European intelligensia were proclaiming that the US had rabies and that Europe would have to sever all ties in order to avoid infection. Roughly the same thing happened in 1968 over the Vietnam war.

Problems will become unmanageable only if the EU defines its foreign policy as one of thwarting US goals (as France and Germany attempted prior to the Iraq war).

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chief Intelligent Design cheerleader deplores cheerleading

On his recently mothballed blog (via TPD), Uncommon Descent, ueber-cheerleader for Intelligent Design William Dembski posts this regarding Science magazine's selection of evolution as the story of the year:
[...] In what other science do its scientists have to do so much cheerleading for their theory?
I would answer: Intelligent Design, except that it is neither science nor a theory.

A call to charge Mugabe with human rights violations

A powerful call for the UN Security Council to intervene in Zimbabwe comes from the pen of the head of the International Bar Association in an IHT opinion piece. It will come to naught as African nations (following their colonial past) are very opposed to outside interventention, and would lobby strongly against any action against one of their owm (nor would some of the lesser tyrants like to see a precedent set). Nevertheless, the article's cataloging of Bob Mugabe's actions makes a strong case for sanctions and diplomatic isolation, if not for a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Zimbabweans have been gallant in their struggle to try to topple Robert Mugabe and rescue their country from despair. But Mugabe's state machine is simply too powerful and corrupt to be defeated by weakened and demoralized citizens. The escalating humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe requires an immediate and forceful international response.

Mugabe must be held accountable for the crimes he has committed. A UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court to investigate Mugabe and his regime, similar to the referral over Sudan's Darfur situation, is the most appropriate and effective response.

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, was established on July 1, 2002, as the first permanent international court to investigate and try individuals for the most heinous violations of international humanitarian law. A referral to the ICC to immediately investigate Zimbabwe would fall squarely within the powers of the Security Council to decide what measures should be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Exercising its wide discretionary powers, the Security Council could specifically name Mugabe as an ongoing threat to the peace and security of the region and authorize an ICC investigation, even though Zimbabwe has refused to accept the court's jurisdiction.

Would an investigation for crimes against humanity stop Mugabe? Nobody knows. But we have to try, because the Zimbabwean government's systematic human rights abuses have reached staggering proportions.

Under the guise of creating order in the cities, Mugabe's government has razed informal suburban townships that housed more than a million people. Without notice or judicial proceedings, tens of thousands of homes, classrooms, clinics and businesses have been bulldozed or set on fire, forcing their residents onto the streets. The government has provided no alternative housing, nor has it provided aid for the 700,000 people who are now displaced.

Crimes against humanity include acts committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against any civilian population - including the deprivation of housing and forceful transfer of a population, calculated to bring about the destruction of a targeted political group, which is the case in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe's razing of the townships is the culmination of the ruling ZANU-PF Party's anti-democratic assault. In rural areas, ZANU-PF is able to control voting through village leaders using a widespread system of patronage. But the residents of the townships and cities, who have access to the news media and are able to mobilize, form the backbone of Zimbabwe's opposition. Not content with shutting down the opposition media and targeting its leaders, the government is now is literally dispersing opposition supporters.

There is overwhelming evidence that Mugabe's government has committed other crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, rape, abduction and torture.

Zimbabwe is a country in ruins; its people are destitute. The unemployment rate is more than 70 percent and the annual inflation rate is more than 500 percent. Since 1998, annual foreign investment inflows have dropped from $436 million to less than $5 million.

The rural population suffers from increasing starvation, which is now being exacerbated by the influx of people displaced from the townships. Nearly 40 per cent of Zimbabweans are malnourished, with 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line of $1 a day. In the span of only 15 years, the average life expectancy has declined from 60 years to 30 years.

To make the situation worse, many of those who have been left on the streets suffer from AIDS. The World Health Organization reports that one in four Zimbabweans has the AIDS virus. In a recent demolition campaign, an AIDS orphanage was bulldozed. The independent news media have been shut down; the judiciary has been compromised; social services have collapsed and elections are rigged.

Mugabe is a demagogue whose egregious crimes have, to date, gone unpunished - much to the consternation of Zimbabweans. It is time for the international community to act, by using the "trigger mechanism" at the UN Security Council to initiate proceedings before the International Criminal Court.

An indictment by the ICC would turn Mugabe into a pariah within the context of international law: An international arrest warrant would be issued, and all UN member states would be obliged to detain Mugabe if he stepped outside the borders of Zimbabwe.

A referral to the ICC would also send an unmistakable message to the beleaguered citizens of Zimbabwe that Mugabe will ultimately be held accountable for his crimes. There is no statute of limitations for those, like Mugabe, who commit atrocities against their own citizens. It is time to bring him to justice.
Most of what is listed falls into the catagory of poor governing (poverty, reduced foreign investment), rather than crimes suited to the ICC, but the piece is a good indictment of his rule.

EU constitution may be revived

The EUobserver reports that the EU constitution, long held for dead, may be resurrected in 2007. Germany and Portugal favor adopting the constitution; the nations will split the EU presidency in 2007.

The Financial Times has an article about a preemptive attack on the ghost of the treaty:
Tony Blair’s longest serving minister for Europe has launched a stinging attack on the European Union’s now mothballed constitution, saying it was proposed “at the wrong time, by the wrong people, in the wrong manner”.

Denis MacShane, who as Europe minister from 2002 to 2005 was responsible for promoting the draft constitutional treaty, says he was “horrified” at the way some of his ministerial colleagues wanted to promote it as a “constitution” when it was really a new “rule book”.

In a pamphlet published by the Foreign Policy Centre, a think-tank, Mr MacShane makes clear he was uneasy with the prime minister’s decision to call a referendum on the proposed treaty. Plebiscites are “a device that undermines representative parliamentary democracy”, he writes. [...]

Criticising parliamentary procedures for scrutinising EU legislation as “inadequate”, he calls for five new committees each devoted to examining a separate field of EU activity. [...]

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Is Britain regaining a sense of patriotism?

Few countries have a greater reason to be proud of their history than England. At the same time, few citizens are so dismissive of the moral and intellectual acheivements of their forebearers as many of the British.

The Telegraph points to an uptick in patriotism, even among the Left. Reading the piece reminds me of the spasms of schadenfruede many US progressives evince when bad news hits America. Americans often ignore their intellectual betters; it appears that British intellectuals are beginning to approve of a certain British bias.

Can an intelligent person be patriotic? Or is national loyalty a base emotion, fit only for the tabloid-reading masses? In the 1940s, George Orwell remarked that Colonel Blimps and highbrow intellectuals both accepted as a law of nature that patriotism and intelligence were divorced.

England was, he thought, the only great country whose intellectuals were ashamed of their own nationality and felt it their "duty to snigger at every English institution".

The recent re-publication of Our Island Story (1905), Henrietta Marshall's patriotic and beautifully written children's history, which encouraged legitimate pride in British achievements, has sparked some reactions that Orwell would have recognised.

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, A. N. Wilson even went so far as to claim that from "Charlemagne to Frederick the Great, the story of Europe is very largely a German story".

The necessity to look up the dates of these two monarchs may distract a little from the audacity of this claim. Charlemagne assumed the Frankish throne in 768 and Frederick the Great died in 1786, a period during which, in Britain, the long struggle for liberty and democracy was taking place, culminating in the founding of parliamentary democracy and the entrenching of the idea that the power of the state was limited by law.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the foundations for totalitarianism - the absolute power of the unchecked ruler - were being laid. Wilson's Anglophobia has found recent support from no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury: Dr Rowan Williams apologised at an international conference for the sin of making "cultural captives" of people subject to missionary work by the Anglican Church during the days of Empire.

Yet this hostility seems increasingly like an anachronistic outburst. Patriotism as Orwell defined it - "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people" - is making a comeback among members of the intelligentsia.

In the week before his enthronement as Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu urged the English to stop being embarrassed by their own culture. He owed his own success to Anglican missionaries in Uganda, he said.

The English way of life was democratic, based on reason, and allowed "genuine dissent without resort to violence". And while in office he intended to remind everyone that English culture was rooted in Christianity.

Prospect magazine has put the idea of national loyalty to core beliefs back on the map of intellectual respectability. Consciousness of the threat from Islamist extremists has given added impetus, but the debate stimulated by its editor, David Goodhart, had begun earlier.

Among academics, Oxford's David Miller had been quietly restoring respectability to legitimate national pride through his book Nationality, and Professor Robert Rowthorn of Cambridge had warned, also in Prospect, of the dangers of multiculturalism to the sense of solidarity on which any free people must rely.

The Anglophobia that Orwell noticed within the intelligentsia of the 1930s and 1940s is still a powerful presence.

During the Second World War, various highbrows did not actually want Germany and Japan to win, he said, but they were pleased when Singapore fell because they "could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated".

Occasional reverses suffered in modern Iraq provoke the same ambiguous, gloating reaction from today's Anglophobe intellectuals.

But the success of Our Island Story - boosted by a hearty recommendation from this newspaper's education editor, John Clare - suggests that the tide has turned.

Not only has the book sold more than 20,000 copies in a couple of months, but it has earned unexpected praise from bien pensant quarters.

The Guardian reviewer remarked that Antonia Fraser, an undisputed progressive heroine, had expressed her "lifelong gratitude" to the book. And so did the reviewer - on the grounds that, in the Peasants' Revolt, Henrietta Marshall had been on the side of the peasants, who had been ruthlessly exploited by a cruel ruling class and betrayed by the king.

Time Out, always a handy guide to the mental assumptions of the fashion-conscious Left, also came out in favour, finding "its tight focus on the virtues of courage, wisdom and patriotism" both valuable and relevant. And the Sunday Mirror declared it approved reading for the Labour-voting working class: it was "one of the great children's history books of all time".

The Economist, meanwhile, called it an "impeccably postmodern" contribution to the new political fashion of musing about the meaning of being British.

Perhaps the most interesting and encouraging feature of this debate is that it is taking place above the tribal loyalties of party politics. Orwell would have approved. "Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism," he wrote.

"It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past."

Europe 'behind on Kyoto pledges'

The Kyoto Protocol is more and more being exposed for the feel good scrap of paper it is. Aside from Britain and Sweden, no European nation is likely to meet their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
[...] Ten of 15 European Union signatories will miss the targets without urgent action, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found. [...]

France, Greece and Germany are given an "amber warning" and will not reach targets unless they put planned policies into action, the IPPR said.

Only Sweden and the UK were on course to meet their commitments, the think-tank's study found. [...]

The moral high ground also comes with a greased slope, as fervant Kyoto backers and noted international scolds France and Germany are discovering. But at least their citizens can say that their governments' hearts were in the right place. And, after all, isn't that what really counts?

No matter if the EU fails to meet its goals, there is always the US to blame:
The Kyoto commitments have been undermined, critics say, because the US - the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - has refused to sign up to the treaty. [...]

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas to all

Actually, best wishes to both my regular readers, the RINO community, and anyone who stumbles in due to a google search gone awry.

I hope that the holidays go well for everyone, that our troops are safe, and that your travels go smoothly.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Several good articles at The Economist

All are free (nice of them, as most of their best articles require a subscription; well worth the money, as the magazine is head and shoulders above its competition). All are entertaining and useful--some more than others.

An essay on pranks.

A short history of hated American corporations.

The story of wheat.

A possible explanation of French anti-Americanism.

The political importance of Ohio.

My favorite: a survey of evolution (this comprises a series of articles. Alas, only the first is free).

Friday, December 23, 2005

Evolution was the number one science topic in '05

Science magazine has selected research in Evolution as the most important science breakthrough of the year. Perhaps the editors raised it so high in response to Intelligent Design advocates' incessant bleatings about Evolution being in crisis.

From the journal's editorial (also as PDF file):

[...] Wait a minute, I hear you cry. Hasn’t it been a trying year for evolution, considering the debates about teaching evolutionary theory in science classes in the United States and the headlines about Intelligent Design? On the contrary; in the research community, it’s been a great year for understanding how evolution works, through both experiment and theory. No single discovery makes the case by itself; after all, the challenge of understanding evolution makes multiple demands: How can we integrate genetics with patterns of inherited change? How do new species arise in nature? What can the new science of comparative genomics tell us about change over time? We have to put the pieces together, and it could not be a more important challenge: As the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Our scientist/journalist teams have compiled a splendid case for this exploding science. One of my favorites is the European blackcap, a species of warbler that spends the winter in two separate places but then reunites to breed, with birds selecting mates from those who shared the same wintering ground. Assortative mating of this kind can produce a gradual differentiation of the two populations. Biologists have shown that new species can arise because of geographic barriers that separate subpopulations, but the divergent evolution shown in this case could result in new species arising within a single range.

A favorite, if unlikely, subject for evolutionary studies is the small fish called the stickleback. Repeatedly, sticklebacks [Beatrix Potter wrote about them, too--Pigilito] have moved from the sea into fresh water. When that happens, the fish shed the rather heavy armor plates that protect them from marine predators, freeing themselves to enjoy la dolce vita fresca. New species have been generated in each invasion, always in the same way: by rapid evolutionary selection of the same rare and ancient gene. The exciting thing about evolution is not that our understanding is perfect or complete but that it is the foundation stone for the rest of biology. As such, researchers are eager to explore issues that have been seen as problems. Genes that are now known to exert complex effects on body form at the macro level answer the commonly stated objection that complex structures could not have evolved from simpler precursors. And so it goes: Scientific challenges are raised, inviting answers. [...]

Organic building blocks orbit a sun-like star

Creationists just can't get a break these days:
The first evidence that some of the basic organic building blocks of life can exist in an Earth-like orbit around a young Sun-like star has been provided by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. [...]

These gases, when combined with water, can form several different amino acids. These are needed to form proteins, as well as one of the four chemical letters, or bases, in DNA, called adenine.

The organic molecules were detected in a ring of dust and gas circling a young star called IRS 46. Such dust rings, found around all of the young stars that were examined by the Spitzer telescope, are believed to be the raw material for planetary systems.

The spectrographic data showed that the gases were so hot that they must be orbiting close to the star, approximately in its "habitable zone", the region where Earth orbits the Sun and where water is just at the borderline between liquid and gaseous states.

The detection supports the widely held theory that many of the molecular building blocks of life were present in the solar system even before planets formed, thus assisting the initial formation of complex organic molecules and the start of life itself.

Observations earlier in 2005 by a different team using Spitzer showed that simpler organic molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, were present in galaxies as much as 10 billion years ago.

The star IRS 46 and its emerging planetary system "might look a lot like ours did billions of years ago, before life arose on Earth", said Fred Lahuis of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, who led the research team. [...]

But the new findings are the first to show they can occur around other Sun-like stars, and in a region where planets are likely to form. Follow-up observations with the Keck Observatory in Hawaii suggest that a stellar wind is beginning to blow away the dust surrounding IRS 46. This may be the start of what is thought to be a final stage in the formation of planets.

So we have organic building blocks, an energy source, and the makings for planets in the sweet spot (not too far or too close to a sun). Looks like science is getting closer to explaining the origin of life.

The pace of science has changed, adding to ethical lapses

As this analysis in the IHT makes clear, scientific ethics have changed as the rewards available to scientists have increased.

The recent scandal over falsified stem cell results brings that point home: Dr. Hwang Woo Suk became a national hero in South Korea for his ability to consistently produce breakthroughs in his field--one of the most glamorous in science at the moment (see the update below for more on Dr. Hwang).

In recent weeks, two widely respected scientists have found themselves in the stockades under suspicion of scientific misconduct, at worst, or poor judgment, at best.

Hwang Woo Suk of South Korea, who repeatedly stunned the world with groundbreaking cloning research in the past year, is now charged with ethical lapses and presenting inaccurate data in a landmark paper on cloning that appeared in the journal Science last summer.

Jean-Michel Dubernard of France, the plastic surgeon who has pushed the boundaries of transplant surgery, first with hand transplants and more recently with a partial face transplant, is now accused of rushing to perform surgery that was poorly conceived and unacceptably risky.

Although their work is unrelated, both are part of a new, high-profile school of science, where discoveries are often trumpeted in the media, sometimes even before they are thoroughly scrutinized by scientific peers or published in scientific journals. [...]

While such high-profile tactics have helped bring science to center stage, many critics complain that they fundamentally distort the slow, boring scientific method that for centuries has ensured the quality of research. In a world where top scientists are increasingly celebrities and millionaires, they say, the limelight can corrupt judgment.

"In these two cases I would say scientists were overzealous, too quick to push ahead," said Adil Shamoo, editor of the journal Accountability in Research and an ethicist at the University of Maryland. "Scientists feel the pressure of our society like everyone else. Their decisions are clouded by visions of fame and dollars."

Donald Kennedy, editor of Science - which is in the process of retracting Hwang's challenged paper - said that scientists had become far less collegial in the past decade, pushing hard to be first in their field. "There are enormous pressures to be extremely productive and at the top of the heap," he said.

Fame, prizes and lucrative patents await those who finish first, Kennedy said, but there are few kudos for those finishing fifth or sixth.

"Scientists want to be recognized like everyone else," he said. [...]

Also, news coverage has become invaluable, lifting fund-raising, stock prices and profits.
This is clearly the most important part. Adequate funding allows researchers to thrive. By making a name for themselves, it becomes easier to solicit funds from private companies.
"People use press coverage as a way to judge the value of research," Bradford said. "They want to know, Did it get in the papers? Not whether it really expands our knowledge."

Hwang insists that while some of his methods were flawed, his principal achievement stands: creating 11 stem cell lines from tailor-made embryos that could help treat diseases like diabetes. But, in addressing the public, he has not provided scientific data to support that claim, Bradford said.

In answering critics, both Hwang and Dubernard have noted that they work fast because desperately ill patients are waiting for help and it would be immoral to abandon them.

The plastic surgeon said that when he first saw the horribly disfigured face of the woman who received the facial transplant - she had been mauled by a dog - he could not deny her the operation.

In Dubernard's case, the charges are simpler: that he unwisely short-circuited what should have been a more thorough evaluation in order to operate on the victim. He took a leap, when science should proceed in a step-wise fashion. [...]
It's hard to criticise someone for wanting to prove his theories correct. In his case, much of the professional criticism seems to stem from envy or a distaste of medical showmanship. While the recipient may have been troubled psychologically, this shouldn't be an absolute disqualifier as this sort of transplant depends on matching the donor's facial structure to that of the recipient, and thus is a matter of luck and timing.

UPDATE: Regarding Dr. Hwang, this just in from the Beeb:

Research by South Korea's top human cloning scientist - hailed as a breakthrough earlier this year - was fabricated, colleagues have concluded.

A Seoul National University panel said the research by world-renowned Hwang Woo-suk was "intentionally fabricated", and he would be disciplined.

Dr Hwang said he would resign, but he did not admit his research was faked.

"I sincerely apologise to the people for creating shock and disappointment," he said after the panel's announcement.

"As a symbol of apology, I step down as professor of Seoul National University." [...]

Thursday, December 22, 2005

ID in the Bible: suggestions for experiments

Given the recent court ruling prohibiting the teaching of ID in Pennsylvannian schools, I thought the Discovery Institute could use a bit of help with their goal of teaching Creationism (under the new title of Intelligent Design) in public schools.

My suggestion: Do the damned science if you want to win in court. Relying on repackaged arguments dating back to St. Aquinas simply won't cut it.

According to the Bible everything in the heavens and on earth is here due to an Intelligent Designer's good will and is according to the Designer's design.

Intrigued, and wanting to help out ID scientists--who can't seem to come up with evidence for ID on their own, let alone concieve an experiment to determine if evidence exists--I went looking through the Bible for mention of specific examples of what the Intelligent Designer's purpose was for some of his/her/its designs (giving a bird wings so it could fly wasn't a specific enough example; nor was making cows for Man's consumption).

I came up with two examples (quotes are taken from the NKJV Bible).

1. The snake was condemned to spend life on its belly for tempting Eve to eat the apple:

“ Because you have done this, You are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life (Genesis 3.14);

Unfortunately, as no specific design modification is implied, the serpent's locomotion issues and dietary sufferings don't count as an example of ID.

2. The Designer's desire that women would bring children forth in pain (also following the apple debacle):

To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children (Genesis 3.16)
Bingo! We have a clear Biblical example of the Designer's intelligence at work.

Presumably, before the apple, women's pelvises were wide enough to bear children without pain, although perhaps with discomfort (the citation is ambiguous as to what level of pain would have been expected pre-design modification). After promising pain in childbirth, the Intelligent Designer likely tightened up the pelvic girdle so that squeezing children out caused plenty of pain. An aside: clearly then, anesthesiologists are subverting the Designer's will, and may be taken to be in league with the Anti-Designer.

Unfortunatley, as Eve was the first woman, no evidence of designed pelvic adjustments can possibly exist in the fossil record. Consequently, ID proponents have again been let down through the unfortunate lack of the Designer's foresight. Perhaps the Designer was identified by the ancient Greeks.

An alternative--and testable--explanation would be that the Designer set up a unique pain pathway for women which only kicks in during childbirth.

Two scientific tests which could provide evidence for Intelligent Design suggest themselves:

1. Competent anatomists should search for extra nerve bundles only possessed by women and which are linked exclusively to childbirth.

2. During birth, MRI images of volunteers' brains, pelvic areas, and spinal columns could be captured. Examine the images for evidence of unique pain signals and pain pathways which only are active during birth.

Granted, positive results from these studies prove nothing, but would provide beneficial PR.

The Discovery Institute must have one or two underworked grant application writers who could get to work filling out NSF or NIH grant applications. The protocols would be simple to write; getting them past an Institutional Review Board might be another matter; doubtless they would have to hide their actual reasons for the studies, but they have loads of experience in hiding their true nature.

Swiss group wants human rights extended to animals

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This man is a torturer. Some in Switzerland want the croc to have access to a lawyer (who will doubtless represent it as a professional courtesy). Looks like it will be on a referendum in a year or two. Give animals too much dignity and rights and next thing you know, they'll be taking our jobs; I'll vote "nein".

Switzerland's largest animal-welfare group has launched a new popular initiative to seek legal representation for animals.

Declaring itself "far from satisfied" with the new law on animal protection adopted last week by parliament, Swiss Animal Protection (SAP) said it had decided to withdraw its original initiative to focus on this one key demand.

SAP's Heinz Lienhard told a news conference in Bern that the new law was a step forward but that important changes that could have improved the lives of millions of animals in Switzerland had not been incorporated.

The introduction of legal representation for animals was one of the main planks of the SAP campaign, which was omitted from the new legislation.

The organisation now has to collect 100,000 signatures to force a nationwide vote on the issue. The collection of signatures for the initiative "against the abuse of animals and for their better legal protection" should begin next April and finish at the latest in autumn 2007.

The aim is to anchor the position of an animal protection lawyer in the constitution.

According to SAP, the animals' lawyer would only intervene where there are failures in the investigation of possible animal mistreatment or where certain legal questions are raised.

Some animal protection lawyers already operate at the cantonal level and several cantons are discussing the introduction of such a role.

The new law includes measures to protect the dignity and well-being of animals [....]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Some quotes from the court's smackdown of ID.

Here are some choice quotes from the federal court's decision holding that the proposed disclaimer to be read at the start of Freshman high school biology classes. The decision is here.

Some of the better conclusions (internal citations ommited):

p. 29:
In addition to the IDM itself describing ID as a religious argument, ID’s religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer.
p. 31:
The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.
p. 63:
We have now found that both an objective student and an objective adult member of the Dover community would perceive Defendants’ conduct to be a strong endorsement of religion pursuant to the endorsement test.
On ID as science, p. 64:
After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science.
p. 78:
We find that [this] demonstrates that the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution.
A pithy (and highly quotable) summation of ID and its scientific problems is found on page 82:
ID is reliant upon forces acting outside of the natural world, forces that we cannot see, replicate, control or test, which have produced changes in this world. While we take no position on whether such forces exist, they are simply not testable by scientific means and therefore cannot qualify as part of the scientific process or as a scientific theory.
p. 89:
[W]e find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science.

Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students willencourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum.
p. 93:

The disclaimer’s plain language, the legislative history, and the historical context in which the ID Policy arose, all inevitably lead to the conclusion that Defendants consciously chose to change Dover’s biology curriculum to advance religion.

p. 132:

[W]e find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.

p. 134:

The effect of Defendants’ actions in adopting the curriculum change was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Read the complete decision. On top of reaching the proper legal conclusion, it rips ID apart, exposing its Creationist parentage, refutes claims that ID is a part of science, and demonstrates the fallacies ID proponents rely upon.

Makes this atheist want to thank God for this nice bit of intelligently designed justice.

UPDATE: The Politburo Diktat is collecting quotes from the decision.

Dover school's ID policy on Intelligent Design is held to be unconstitutional

Sweetness itself is found on page three of the ruling:

[W]e hold that the ID Policy is unconstitutional pursuant to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Press release from the Discovery Institute (well-funded champions of ID):
"The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won't work," said Dr. John West, Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, the nation's leading think tank researching the scientific theory known as intelligent design. “He has conflated Discovery Institute’s position with that of the Dover school board, and he totally misrepresents intelligent design and the motivations of the scientists who research it.”
So, the attempt at putting distance between their "science" and what happened in a federal disctrict court in Pennsyvannia has begun. Expect more, much more.

UPDATE: As I slowly read through the decision, I find myself slightly uncomfortable with some of the judge's conclusions and phrasing, but not to the extent that they introduce a risk it will be overturned on appeal (the conclusions are not a part of the legal holding). The total weight of the decision's legal logic is overwhelming.

UPDATE 2: This decision provides a fine summation of the arguments put forward by ID, and then sytemmatically destroys them. It will become a reference for those of us with a scientific background, but less than full understanding of evolutionary biology.

UPDATE 3: The totality of ID's loss is surprising. The judge went out of his way to engage every one of the ID proponent's arguments and fallacies.

This ruling is a massive refutation of Creationism (one of my favorite conclusions from the ruling is that ID is simply Creationism masquerading as science).

So, now we have Creationism, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design found to be religious in nature. What will the next permutation be called? We can be sure there will be another version popping up in a few years (the court noted that before the ink was dry on previous court rulings, the current proponents of ID were changing their tactics and terminology).

Given the religious drive behind attempts to push ID, its proponents won't give up easily, nor does this decision represent the final nail in ID's coffin. Ironically, the two things ID hasn't tried, honest scientific inquiry and experimentation, remain it's best hope (at least in theory; I highly doubt any experiment will emerge which offers support to their idea).

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Swiss hospitals discuss changing euthanasia rules

Switzerland is about to allow assisted suicide of patients while in the hospital. On its face, allowing terminal patients to kill themselves is not troubling. Previously these patients would have been discharged and either taken home or to another location to take their lives--with assistance if requested.

Nevertheless, by permitting this to happen in a hospital--a place devoted to making people better, brings us one step closer to allowing physicians to unilaterally and legally end lives at their discretion (sadly, the unilateral aspect has long been present, while limited immunity from prosecution also exists).

Leading Swiss hospitals say they are considering whether to allow assisted suicide to take place within their walls.

Lausanne University Hospital confirmed at the weekend that it would permit the practice under strict conditions from January 1.

The hospital in western Switzerland said it would allow the voluntary euthanasia group, Exit, to help terminally ill patients who are unable to go home.

Patients wishing to take their own lives must have expressed a persistent wish to die, be of sound mind, suffer from an incurable disease and carry out the final act themselves.

On Monday other leading Swiss hospitals said they were debating whether to allow assisted suicide on their premises.

"We are considering the issue. Our ethics forum discussed it at their last meeting on November 30," Markus Hächler, spokesman for Bern University Hospital, told swissinfo.

"But the whole process will take some time because we have to make sure everyone is involved – nurses, doctors and social workers."

A spokeswoman for Basel University Hospital said its ethics committee had also grasped the nettle but added that it was too early to say what the outcome would be.

She said enquiries regarding assisted suicide had been received in the past but these had always been refused.

Zurich University Hospital said the subject was not under consideration at the moment but would be "in the future".

According to the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS), voluntary euthanasia organisations are prohibited from Geneva University Hospital but the hospital's ethics committee has recommended lifting the ban.

The move by hospitals to address the issue follows efforts by the SAMS and the National Ethics Commission (NEC) to clarify the situation.

Switzerland has liberal laws on assisted suicide and a person who helps a terminally ill patient to die is only likely to face prosecution if they are found to be acting out of self-interest.

Both bodies contacted the cantons in April this year to find out if hospitals had rules in place stipulating whether assisted-suicide organisations were allowed on the premises.

According to the SAMS, none of the cantons had binding legal rules in place, and the majority of hospitals had no guidelines either. Most of those that did have guidelines prohibited entry to assisted-suicide organisations.

Dr Margrit Leuthold, secretary general of the SAMS, told swissinfo that the body had yet to adopt an official position on the decision taken by Lausanne University Hospital.

But she said she was in two minds about allowing assisted suicide in hospitals and questioned whether it should be introduced as a general rule.

"There are situations where it does not make sense for terminally ill patients to have to return home because they cannot die in hospital with Exit. This can cause a lot of additional pain and trouble," said Leuthold.

"But an acute-care hospital should be a place where people are treated to become healthy again rather than helped to die. It sends out a dangerous signal and it would also be difficult for other patients."
Exactly. Breaking the psychological barrier of hospitals supporting and making assisted suicide available can only have negative consequences.

With any luck this will be decided through referendum.

Civilisation has left its mark on our genes

The growth and evolution of societies and civilisations led to Darwinian evolution in people. Such is the tentative conclusion of this report found in New Scientist, which summarizes an article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

[...] A detailed look at human DNA has shown that a significant percentage of our genes have been shaped by natural selection in the past 50,000 years, probably in response to aspects of modern human culture such as the emergence of agriculture and the shift towards living in densely populated settlements. [...]

Robert Moyzis and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, US, searched for instances of linkage disequilibrium in a collection of 1.6 million SNPs [single-nucleotide polymorphisms] scattered across all the human chromosomes. They then looked carefully at the instances they found to distinguish the consequences of natural selection from other phenomena, such as random inversions of chunks of DNA, which can disrupt normal genetic reshuffling.

This analysis suggested that around 1800 genes, or roughly 7% of the total in the human genome, have changed under the influence of natural selection within the past 50,000 years. A second analysis using a second SNP database gave similar results. That is roughly the same proportion of genes that were altered in maize when humans domesticated it from its wild ancestors.

Moyzis speculates that we may have similarly “domesticated” ourselves with the emergence of modern civilisation.

“One of the major things that has happened in the last 50,000 years is the development of culture,” he says. “By so radically and rapidly changing our environment through our culture, we’ve put new kinds of selection [pressures] on ourselves.”

Genes that aid protein metabolism – perhaps related to a change in diet with the dawn of agriculture – turn up unusually often in Moyzis’s list of recently selected genes. So do genes involved in resisting infections, which would be important in a species settling into more densely populated villages where diseases would spread more easily. Other selected genes include those involved in brain function, which could be important in the development of culture.

But the details of any such sweeping survey of the genome should be treated with caution, geneticists warn. Now that Moyzis has made a start on studying how the influence of modern human culture is written in our genes, other teams can see if similar results are produced by other analytical techniques, such as comparing human and chimp genomes.

Intriguing results aside, I would like to see several comparative studies before any cause and effect conclusions are reached.

Map of Blogland: geopolitical kingdoms and lesser lands

The master of all things cartographic, Der Kommissar (and ueber-talented photoshopper Jillian), has taken a 1911 map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and developed a new map depicting the competing kingdoms of Kostria and Wingery (prominent left- and right-wing websites are featured).

These lands border one another and engage in constant minor border skirmishes, with an occassional major concerted attack on strongly-held positions. Caught between the two is the fiercely independant federation of Centro-Rinovia. Other lands depicted are the Dukedom of Centriola, and the lands of Sciencia, along with many smaller principalities, etc.

Not pictured is the rapidly spreading Great Rift Valley, which threatens to separate the two kingdoms for all time.

Go have a look, you may be represented. It's also a fine way to visit blogs you might otherwise ignore.

UPDATE: Requests and suggestions for inclusion in an updated map are solicited, so here goes:

Hmm. Looks to be some open space on the western borders of Kostria, right where Switzerland is located. Might be room for an outpost manned by a flannel-wearing, Centro-Rinovia backing descendant of William Tell.

The old imperial naval port of Trieste could easily harbor Captain Ed, Citizen Smash, or a Marine's blog.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Stompin', rompin', RINOs at Kesher Talk

Judith at Kesher Talk has plenty of good posts from RINOs (Repubs/Independants Not Overdosed on the party kool-aid) on display at this week's Carnival of the RINOs.

Lance Armstrong claims he's the victim of a witch hunt

And I agree. Only in his case, he was caught emptying his cauldron. Always ready to sue in the past over the merest whisper that he cheated (though it was usually against individuals who couldn't afford to defend a civil suit), he has grandly decided to give two organizations (the newspaper L'Equipe and a lab which processed his results) a pass.

It's a bit different this time as both have the the funds to defend themselves, and more importantly, Armstrong doesn't want to have the test results showing him to be a doper brought up in court (as background: In 2005 a lab in France tested anonymous urine samples from 1999--his first of seven vistories. The sports newspaper L'Equipe was able to match sample results to individuals and determined that Armstrong had doped that Tour de France).

It is far easier for Armstrong to take potshots at the lab than to have them describe--in court--how they went about testing his samples. Same with the newspaper. He clearly doesn't want the paper to go through, again, how it obtained the results and carefully matched them to him. He certainly doesn't want this story to be recapitulated on the nightly news.

One final bit of irony here: sue-happy Armstrong must now stand trial in Italy. He is being sued for defaming a fellow racer, although he is not required to either attend or testify.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Humans with horns. The minor God Pan is pleased

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Like goats and women? You're in luck. How about devil women? No need to look for the 666, just lift their hair because these women sport actual horns (article probably available only for those logging on from a university), and have consecrated their lives to evil. From the archives of PubMed, where you can search for any number of odd medical conditions.

From the abstract:

Gigantic cutaneous horns, grossly similar to the horns seen in animals, are exceedingly rare in humans. After finding one case in practice, we searched our departmental files for similar cases and examined them grossly and microscopically. Four cases were identified. All occurred as solitary lesions in older women on the parietal occipital region of the scalp. They had a growth history of up to 30 years; the women hid these horns in their hair. Grossly, the horns were yellow grey, and there were shallow furrows running along the length of the horns. The length ranged from 17 to 25 cm, and the width was up to 2.5 cm.
Of the four women, two were demented, while one lived in the mountains--doubtless far from her neighbors; small wonder. No word on the marital status, but I'm guessing these women were either never married or divorced.

Command agriculture in Zimbabwe

Bob Mugabe has realized that his people don't care how much he blames the West for food shortages, they simply want to be able to buy basic foodstuffs. In response, Mugabe has instituted a program called "command agriculture".

In an attempt to rescue his failing programme of land redistribution, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is trying to involve the army in a "command agriculture" programme.

"Instructions have already been passed onto battalion commanders," a Zimbabwean army major told the BBC.

Five years after Mr Mugabe ordered the seizure of the white-owned commercial farms, agricultural production has halved. [...]
Apparently he got the idea from China (the two nations have increasingly close ties) which made use of it in the past. They in turn got the idea from the USSR, who also used it in hard times--notably during the two great famines following attempts at collectivization.

Mugabe also picked something else up from Stalinist times: blame counter-revolutionaries for sabotaging brilliant ideas:

Mr Mugabe has admitted that the people to whom he gave some 4,000 farms have some responsibility for the country's current problems.

"Mugabe is now saying that the people who are on the farms are opposition supporters and that they are sabotaging the country. He says the army must take over. [...]

Roy Bennett, a former opposition MP who lost his farm in the recent seizures, describes the scheme as "a non-starter".

"For farming, you need experience and commitment. The army has neither."

Many soldiers and other officials have already been given land individually under the land reform programme.

Also, like Stalin, he shows no hints of quitting his land redistribution program. Lenin at least halted the first attempt at collectivization after a year or so.

The extent of Mugabe's mismanagement is neatly summed up thusly:
A country which once exported grain must now import 80% of its foodstuffs.

The hospitals are filled with malnutrition cases with the very old and the very young the worst affected. [...]

The hospital puts children on an emergency feeding programme, releases them but they are back within weeks because, the doctor says, their parents have "no meat, eggs, beans, sugar or milk". [...]
Mugabe also recently refused food aid.

Science on the march: safe to let your elephant booze it up

If you've been keeping your elephant on a short leash out of concern for your neighbors, you can relax--some one did the math:
ELEPHANTS are big, powerful and can be very dangerous - but they are not drunkards. Anecdotes about African elephants going on alcohol-fuelled rampages after eating the fermented fruit of the marula tree are probably incorrect, says Steven Morris at the University of Bristol, UK.

Assuming an alcohol content of 3 per cent, his team calculates that a 3-tonne elephant would need to eat more than 1200 fruit to get drunk. That would require a diet solely of fermented marula fruit consumed at 400 times the normal maximum food intake.

It is more likely that "drunk" bulls are just defending a prized food source, says Morris. The study will be published in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology next year.

No word yet on rhinos or RINOs.

Europe looks at twin defeats of budget and WTO

It's not surprising that Europeans aren't feeling too well these days. Winter has set in, they can't get close to a meaningful budget agreeement for funding the EU's institutions, and they look set to absorb much of the blame at the doomed WTO talks.

The politicians are busily crafting responses as to why their country is not to blame for these further examples of discord and disunity. Is it any wonder that it seems as if the nations are in a never ending political circus /campaign?

Here is the latest from the Financial Times on the EU budget talks:

Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, on Thursday night warned that a deal on a new seven-year European Union budget was “very much hanging in the balance”, at the start of a highly charged summit in Brussels.

Mr Blair, the host of the two-day summit, is under pressure from France and Poland for the UK to pay several billion euros more towards the cost of the EU’s expansion to eastern Europe and to agree to pay “a fair share” of future enlargement costs.

Although many EU diplomats expect a budget deal on Friday, Mr Blair says his room for manoeuvre is “narrow”. He will face intense political and media criticism in Britain if he is seen to be handing over a large part of the UK’s annual rebate from the European budget. [...]

A budget agreement would put an end to the EU’s debilitating financial dispute which has bedevilled relations in the 25-member club for most of 2005, compounding the sense of crisis that followed the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in the spring.

While Mr Blair is expected to give ground on the rebate, he will insist that Mr Chirac should be prepared to at least countenance the option of further farm subsidy cuts during the EU spending round, following an expenditure review in 2009. [...]

There will doubtless be a budget agreement of sorts before the year is out, but it will only postpone the deeper philosophical arguments which are already overdue. Chirac wants to avoid this until the next decade, when talks on budgeting agriculture subsidies must begin.

And here is news from the WTO meeting in Hong Kong (aka the last world moonbat congress of 2006. The next gathering of moonbat protesters will be here in Switzerland at the World Economic forum):
Pressure mounted on the European Union on Thursday to agree a firm date for eliminating farm export subsidies, as World Trade Organisation ministers struggled to find ways to move the Doha trade round forward at the Hong Kong ministerial meeting that opened on Tuesday. [...]

The US and the G20 say breaking the deadlock in agriculture is the key to making progress in the rest of the negotiations. They insist the onus is on the EU to improve its offer on market access and are pressing it to agree this week to a commitment to phasing out all export subsidies by 2010. [...]

So, another opportunity to help the emerging world missed, largely because France prefers pandering to the home voters, where agricultural subsidies have been turned into a political third rail.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Indonesia fighting against militant Islam

The editorial in today's Jakarta Post notes the new Indonesian policy to uproot and destroy Islamic terrorism. Apparently the US approves of the steps taken, and has upgraded military ties as a reward.

The piece lists many of the steps taken and the wider geo-political implications of the Indonesia-US relationship.
What has impressed the United States most about Indonesia, leading to the lifting of the ban on military ties, is the unwavering commitment of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government to fight terrorism. The killing of Azahari Husin, the mastermind of the Bali and other terrorist bombings in Indonesia, was its most concrete and dramatic proof. Noordin Mohammed Top, who is believed to be the top recruiter for potential suicide bombers, might not be able to escape the police dragnet for long.

The Susilo government is engaged in a multi-pronged attack on terrorism. It has decided to involve the military in combating terrorism by activating "the territorial command to the village level..." Its advantage is its vast reach in terms of information and intelligence gathering, thus shrinking the space for terrorists to mingle and hide among the people. Its drawback is that it would have the potential, over a period of time, to degenerate into political witch-hunting and creating a general climate of fear.

On the question of terrorism, though, an encouraging development is the government's decision to co-opt the country's Muslim clerics into fighting terrorism by stripping it of its misplaced religious authority. A task force of prominent clerics, including leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, two mass organizations with an estimated 70 million members, will undertake to confront terrorism ideologically, including looking into the teaching curriculum of Islamic schools (pesantrens) prone to radical views. As Ma'ruf Amin, the head of the team, has said, "We will clarify these ideas with pesantrens, especially those alleged to have indications of influences from radical terror views." [...]
This is a critical step. Pointing out the fallacies in the terrorists' religious interpretations is a necessary first step in that it completely discredits their raison d'être.

Indonesians have traditionally practice a moderate live and let live form of Islam, so it should be possible to successfully argue their case.
Returning now to the lifting of the ban on military ties by the United States: This is a new development with important implications over time for Indonesia's foreign and security policies. As of today, the primary U.S. objective is to enlist Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, in its fight against terrorism. But it would, in time, have other strategic objectives; chief among them to contain China's expanding regional profile and role.

As South East Asia's largest nation, Indonesia is an important regional country. This gives it added weight in regional organizations like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) and the upcoming East Asia community (an East Asia Summit is scheduled this month in Kuala Lumpur).

Indonesia will, therefore, figure importantly in the emerging regional power games between China and Japan, and between the United States (with Japan as its ally) and China. According to Sean McCormack, a U.S. spokesman, "The Administration considers the relationship between the United States and Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, to be of the utmost importance."

The U.S. will have other expectations from Indonesia, beyond just combating terrorism, in due course of time. How will Indonesia balance its steadily growing relationship with China and its re-energized ties with the United States, would remain to be seen?

Aussie riots now religious in nature

At least partly, as roving bands of Muslims have begun targeting churches.
FOUR churches in Sydney's southwest have been attacked in 24 hours as the city's riots spread from race to religion.

A community hall linked to a Uniting church was burned to the ground early yesterday, carol-singers were spat on and church buildings peppered with gunfire.

In response, members of the Arab Christian and Arab Muslim communities have called for a curfew for all Lebanese youths over the weekend.

Most likely the numbers commiting these crimes are small, and they may be attacking churches more out of a desire to upset Aussies than purely religious intolerance. Nevertheless, this is potentially far more serious than the recent French riots--which were largely a reaction to economic straits, discrimination and racism. Many Muslim religious leaders are taking it seriously, and seem to be working with Christian leaders and government officials.

I hope the curfew call is voluntarily observed. If not, there will surely be a mandatory one.

Saw it first on Tim Blair's site, where he has lots of other info and background.

Academic misconduct in Korea stem cell lab?

The superhuman research efforts made by Korean national hero and biologist Woo Suk Hwang's lab may have been just that: beyond believable. After recently admitting to ethical misconduct, Hwang's published results are being questioned (internal links are in the original article). Nature News supplies the cheap thrills:

In the latest chapter of a messy scientific divorce, biologist Gerald Schatten has asked his former collaborator, Woo Suk Hwang, to retract a celebrated stem-cell paper published under both their names.

A statement issued on 13 December by the University of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, reveals that Schatten has asked to remove his name from a paper that he co-authored with Hwang, of Seoul National University in South Korea, and others.

The paper, published by Science in May, was seen as a major achievement for the field of stem-cell research, because it was the first to show that stem-cell lines could be made from the cells of individual patients. Many hoped the work would help scientists to study the origins of disease and investigate treatments tailored to individuals (see 'Korean team lauded for stem-cell advance').

In November, Schatten alleged that some of the actions of Hwang's team were ethically questionable, such as using eggs from paid donors and junior researchers. Hwang later conceded that eggs from such sources had been used during work on a 2004 publication (see 'Clone star admits lies over eggs') .

Now Schatten says he has further concerns: not about the ethics of the research, but about the validity of the results.

In a letter he sent to Science and to his fellow authors on 12 December, Schatten, who is director of the Pittsburgh Development Center, writes: "My careful re-evaluations of published figures and tables, along with new problematic information, now casts substantial doubts about the paper's accuracy."

The letter states that over the weekend, Schatten received allegations from someone involved with the experiments that led him to make his decision.

"I request retraction of my co-authorship on Hwang et al. (2005) and have recommended to first author Dr. Woo-Suk Hwang and all other co-authors that the report should now be retracted."

Schatten's letter does not explain which elements of the 2005 paper he is concerned about.

Some observers, including an anonymous poster to an Internet message board hosted by the Biological Research Information Center, question a DNA fingerprint analysis used to verify the results of the experiments in the 2005 paper. They say the DNA fingerprints from some of the cell lines match the patients' cells too perfectly, and could therefore be duplicates, rather than separate experiments: whether that be accidental or intentional.

Hwang has already told Science that they made an "unintentional error" in providing some duplicate pictures.

On 13 December, Science published a letter on its website from scientists who are calling on Hwang to resolve the matter by cooperating with independent investigators to confirm the results of the DNA tests. The letter is signed by eight scientists, including Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh, UK, who submitted DNA from Dolly, the cloned sheep, to be independently tested.

"As we confirmed the validity of our work by cooperating with an independent study, we encourage Hwang's laboratory to cooperate with us to perform an independent test of his cell lines," Wilmut's letter states.

Science says that it has no mechanism for retracting one author's name from a published paper. "No single author, having declared at the time of submission his full and complete confidence in the contents of the paper, can retract his name unilaterally, after publication, and while inquiries are still underway by the Korean authors," the journal says in an editorial statement issued on 13 December.

Science editor Donald Kennedy says there is no reason to believe the data in the 2005 paper are fraudulent. "We continue to take this issue seriously," Kennedy adds in the statement, "and we are following developments both in South Korea and at the University of Pittsburgh."

Both the University of Pittsburgh and Seoul National University have said they will investigate the work.

Doubtless Schatten knew he couldn't retract his name unilaterally from a published paper. He simply wanted to make it clear that he felt duped, and could no longer stand by the research.

Messy scientific divorces can be pretty spectacular. Time to bring the allegations, boys.

Whoa; here's the first:

A doctor who provided human eggs for research by cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk said in a Thursday broadcast that the South Korean scientist admitted that most of the stem cells produced for a key research paper were faked. Roh Sung-il, chairman of the board at Mizmedi Hospital, told KBS television that Hwang had agreed to ask the journal Science to withdraw the paper, published in June to international acclaim. Roh was one of the co-authors of the article that detailed how individual stem cell colonies were created for 11 patients through cloning.

Ex commerce sec. Evans may head Russian oil company

Former commerce Secretary Evans may take a post with Russian oil giant Rosneft according to the Financial Times:
Donald Evans, a close friend of president George W. Bush and the former commerce secretary, met president Vladimir Putin of Russia last week but refused to be drawn on growing speculation that he had been offered the chairmanship of Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled oil company.
Although this will be compared to ex-chancellor Schroeder's taking a job with the company responsible for the Russian-German gas pipeline, there are important distinctions.

Schroeder went straight from his job as German leader into his cushy position as Chairman. Evans was out of government for some time. More troubling is that Schroeder pushed hard politically for the pipeline, perhaps knowing his future position was secure. It may even have been a part of one side or the other's negotiating strategy.

What struck me originally when reading the Evans story was unease at the influence he might yet wield in the Bush administration, but on second thought it can be seen as a a fitting cap to the cold war: the ex-American commerce secretary (doesn't get more capitalistic than that) is wooed by a former Soviet oil company.

Lenin must be spinning in his glass case.