Obama vs. Honduran Democracy

The Obama administration is using its brass knuckles to support Latin American thugs.

If the Obama administration were a flotilla of ships, it might be sending out an SOS right about now. ObamaCare has hit the political equivalent of an iceberg. And last week the president’s international prestige was broadsided by the Scots, who set free the Lockerbie bomber without the least consideration of American concerns. Mr. Obama’s campaign promise of restoring common sense to budget management is sleeping with the fishes.

This administration needs a win. Or more accurately, it can’t bear another loss right now. Most especially it can’t afford to be defeated by the government of a puny Central American country that doesn’t seem to know its place in the world and dares to defy the imperial orders of Uncle Sam.

I’m referring, of course, to Honduras, which despite two months of intense pressure from Washington is still refusing to reinstate Manuel Zelaya, its deposed president. Last week the administration took off the gloves and sent a message that it would use everything it has to break the neck of the Honduran democracy. Its bullying might work. But it will never be able to brag about what it has done.

The most recent example of the Obama-style Good Neighbor Policy was the announcement last week that visa services for Hondurans are suspended indefinitely, and that some $135 million in bilateral aid might be cut. But these are only the public examples of its hardball tactics. Much nastier stuff is going on behind the scenes, practiced by a presidency that once promised the American people greater transparency and a less interventionist foreign policy.

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Supporters of Honduran President Roberto Micheletti (August 24.). The U.S. continues to implement punitive measures against the country.

To recap, the Honduran military in June executed a Supreme Court arrest warrant against Mr. Zelaya for trying to hold a referendum on whether he should be able to run for a second term. Article 239 of the Honduran constitution states that any president who tries for a second term automatically loses the privilege of his office. By insisting that Mr. Zelaya be returned to power, the U.S. is trying to force Honduras to violate its own constitution.

It is also asking Hondurans to risk the fate of Venezuela. They know how Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez went from being democratically elected the first time, in 1998, to making himself dictator for life. He did it by destroying his country’s institutional checks and balances. When Mr. Zelaya moved to do the same in Honduras, the nation cut him off at the pass.

For Mr. Chávez, Mr. Zelaya’s return to power is crucial. The Venezuelan is actively spreading his Marxist gospel around the region and Mr. Zelaya was his man in Tegucigalpa.

The Honduran push-back is a major setback for Caracas. That’s why Mr. Chávez has mobilized the Latin left to demand Mr. Zelaya’s return. Last week, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández joined the fray, calling for Honduras to be kicked out of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta). Mr. Fernandez is a close friend of Mr. Chávez and a beneficiary of Venezuela’s oil-for-obedience program in the Caribbean.

Mr. Obama apparently wants in on this leftie-fest. He ran for president, in essence, against George W. Bush. Mr. Bush was unpopular in socialist circles. This administration wants to show that it can be cool with Mr. Chávez and friends.

Mr. Obama’s methods are decidedly uncool. Prominent Hondurans, including leading members of the business community, complain that a State Department official has been pressuring them to push the interim government to accept the return of Mr. Zelaya to power.

When I asked the State Department whether it was employing such dirty tricks a spokeswoman would only say the U.S. has been “encouraging all members of civil society to support the San Jose ‘accord'”—which calls for Mr. Zelaya to be restored to power. Perhaps something was lost in the translation but threats to use U.S. power against a small, poor nation hardly qualify as encouragement.

Elsewhere in the region there are reports that U.S. officials have been calling Latin governments to demand that they support the U.S. position. When I asked State whether that was true, a spokeswoman would not answer the question. She would only say that the U.S. is “cooperating with the [Organization of American States] and [Costa Rican President] Oscar Arias to support the San José accord.”

In other words, though it won’t admit to coercion, it is fully engaged in arm-twisting at the OAS in order to advance its agenda.

This not only seems unfair to the Honduran democracy but it also seems to contradict an earlier U.S. position. In a letter to Sen. Richard Lugar on Aug. 4, the State Department claimed that its “strategy for engagement is not based on any particular politician or individual” but rather finding “a “resolution that best serves the Honduran people and their democratic aspirations.”

A lot of Hondurans believe that the U.S. isn’t using its brass knuckles to serve their “democratic aspirations” at all, but the quite-opposite aspirations of a neighborhood thug.

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Sorting Fact From Fiction on Health Care

Current congressional proposals would significantly change your relationship with your doctor.

In recent town-hall meetings, President Barack Obama has called for a national debate on health-care reform based on facts. It is fact that more than 40 million Americans lack coverage and spiraling costs are a burden on individuals, families and our economy. There is broad consensus that these problems must be addressed. But the public is skeptical that their current clinical care is substandard and that no government bureaucrat will come between them and their doctor. Americans have good reason for their doubts—key assertions about gaps in care are flawed and reform proposals to oversee care could sharply shift decisions away from patients and their physicians.

Consider these myths and mantras of the current debate:

Americans only receive 55% of recommended care. This would be a frightening statistic, if it were true. It is not. Yet it was presented as fact to the Senate Health and Finance Committees, which are writing reform bills, in March 2009 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (the federal body that sets priorities to improve the nation’s health care).

The statistic comes from a flawed study published in 2003 by the Rand Corporation. That study was suppose to be based on telephone interviews with 13,000 Americans in 12 metropolitan areas followed up by a review of each person’s medical records and then matched against 439 indicators of quality health practices. But two-thirds of the people contacted declined to participate, making the study biased, by Rand’s own admission. To make matters worse, Rand had incomplete medical records on many of those who participated and could not accurately document the care that these patients received.

For example, Rand found that only 15% of the patients had received a flu vaccine based on available medical records. But when asked directly, 85% of the patients said that they had been vaccinated. Most importantly, there were no data that indicated whether following the best practices defined by Rand’s experts made any difference in the health of the patients.

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In March 2007, a team of Harvard researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at nearly 10,000 patients at community health centers and assessed whether implementing similar quality measures would improve the health of patients with three costly disorders: diabetes, asthma and hypertension. It found that there was no improvement in any of these three maladies.

Dr. Rodney Hayward, a respected health-services professor at the University of Michigan, wrote about this negative result, “It sounds terrible when we hear that 50 percent of recommended care is not received, but much of the care recommended by subspecialty groups is of a modest or unproven value, and mandating adherence to these recommendations is not necessarily in the best interest of patients or society.”

The World Health Organization ranks the U.S. 37th In the world in quality. This is another frightening statistic. It is also not accurate. Yet the head of the National Committee for Quality Assurance, a powerful organization influencing both the government and private insurers in defining quality of care, has stated this as fact.

The World Health Organization ranks the U.S. No. 1 among all countries in “responsiveness.” Responsiveness has two components: respect for persons (including dignity, confidentiality and autonomy of individuals and families to make decisions about their own care), and client orientation (including prompt attention, access to social support networks during care, quality of basic amenities and choice of provider). This is what Americans rightly understand as quality care and worry will be lost in the upheaval of reform. Our country’s composite score fell to 37 primarily because we lack universal coverage and care is a financial burden for many citizens.

We need to implement “best practices.” Mr. Obama and his advisers believe in implementing “best practices” that physicians and hospitals should follow. A federal commission would identify these practices.

On June 24, 2009, the president appeared on “Good Morning America” with Diane Sawyer. When Ms. Sawyer asked whether “best practices” would be implemented by “encouragement” or “by law,” the president did not answer directly. He said that he was confident doctors “want to engage in best practices” and “patients are going to insist on it.” The president also said there should be financial incentives to “allow doctors to do the right thing.”

There are domains of medicine where a patient has no control and depends on the physician and the hospital to provide best practices. Strict protocols have been developed to prevent infections during procedures and to reduce the risk of surgical mishaps. There are also emergency situations like a patient arriving in the midst of a heart attack where standardized advanced treatments save many lives.

But once we leave safety measures and emergency therapies where patients have scant say, what is “the right thing”? Data from clinical studies provide averages from populations and may not apply to individual patients. Clinical studies routinely exclude patients with more than one medical condition and often the elderly or people on multiple medications. Conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work change much too quickly for policy makers to dictate clinical practice.

An analysis from the Ottawa Health Research Institute published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2007 reveals how long it takes for conclusions derived from clinical studies about drugs, devices and procedures to become outdated. Within one year, 15 of 100 recommendations based on the “best evidence” had to be significantly reversed; within two years, 23 were reversed, and at 5 1/2 years, half were contradicted. Americans have witnessed these reversals firsthand as firm “expert” recommendations about the benefits of estrogen replacement therapy for postmenopausal women, low fat diets for obesity, and tight control of blood sugar were overturned.

Even when experts examine the same data, they can come to different conclusions. For example, millions of Americans have elevated cholesterol levels and no heart disease. Guidelines developed in the U.S. about whom to treat with cholesterol-lowering drugs are much more aggressive than guidelines in the European Union or the United Kingdom, even though experts here and abroad are extrapolating from the same scientific studies. An illuminating publication from researchers in Munich, Germany, published in March 2003 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed that of 100 consecutive patients seen in their clinic with high cholesterol, 52% would be treated with a statin drug in the U.S. based on our guidelines while only 26% would be prescribed statins in Germany and 35% in the U.K. So, different experts define “best practice” differently. Many prominent American cardiologists and specialists in preventive medicine believe the U.S. guidelines lead to overtreatment and the Europeans are more sensible. After hearing of this controversy, some patients will still want to take the drug and some will not.

This is how doctors and patients make shared decisions—by considering expert guidelines, weighing why other experts may disagree with the guidelines, and then customizing the therapy to the individual. With respect to “best practices,” prudent doctors think, not just follow, and informed patients consider and then choose, not just comply.

No government bureaucrat will come between you and your doctor. The president has repeatedly stated this in town-hall meetings. But his proposal to provide financial incentives to “allow doctors to do the right thing” could undermine this promise. If doctors and hospitals are rewarded for complying with government mandated treatment measures or penalized if they do not comply, clearly federal bureaucrats are directing health decisions.

Further, at the AMA convention in June 2009, the president proposed linking protection for physicians from malpractice lawsuits if they strictly adhered to government-sponsored treatment guidelines. We need tort reform, but this is misconceived and again clearly inserts the bureaucrat directly into clinical decision making. If doctors are legally protected when they follow government mandates, the converse is that doctors risk lawsuits if they deviate from federal guidelines—even if they believe the government mandate is not in the patient’s best interest. With this kind of legislation, physicians might well pressure the patient to comply with treatments even if the therapy clashes with the individual’s values and preferences.

The devil is in the regulations. Federal legislation is written with general principles and imperatives. The current House bill H.R. 3200 in title IV, part D has very broad language about identifying and implementing best practices in the delivery of health care. It rightly sets initial priorities around measures to protect patient safety. But the bill does not set limits on what “best practices” federal officials can implement. If it becomes law, bureaucrats could well write regulations mandating treatment measures that violate patient autonomy.

Private insurers are already doing this, and both physicians and patients are chafing at their arbitrary intervention. As Congress works to extend coverage and contain costs, any legislation must clearly codify the promise to preserve for Americans the principle of control over their health-care decisions.

Dr. Groopman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and Dr. Hartzband are on the staff of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574378542143891778.html

Israel, Iran and Obama

Conflict is inevitable unless the West moves quickly to stop a nuclear Tehran.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has produced another alarming report on Iran’s nuclear programs, though it hasn’t released it publicly, only to governments that would also rather not disclose more details of Iran’s progress toward becoming a nuclear theocracy. Meanwhile, Iran intends to introduce a resolution, backed by more than 100 members of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement, that would ban military attacks on nuclear facilities. No actual mention of Israel, of course.

The mullahs understand that the only real challenge to their nuclear ambitions is likely to come from Israel. They’ve long concluded that the U.N. is no threat, as IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has in practice become an apologist for Iran’s program. They can also see that the West lacks the will to do anything, as the Obama Administration continues to plead for Tehran to negotiate even as Iran holds show trials of opposition leaders and journalists for saying the recent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fraudulent. The irony is that the weaker the West and U.N. appear, the more probable an Israeli attack becomes.

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The reality that Western leaders don’t want to admit is that preventing Iran from getting the bomb is an Israeli national imperative, not a mere policy choice. That’s a view shared across Israel’s political spectrum, from traditional hawks like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to current Defense Minister and former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Israelis can see the relentless progress Iran is making toward enriching uranium, building a plutonium-breeding facility and improving on its ballistic missiles—all the while violating U.N. sanctions without consequence. Iran’s march to the bomb also alarms its Arab neighbors, but it represents an existential threat to an Israeli nation that Iran has promised to destroy and has waged decades of proxy war against.

This threat has only increased in the wake of Iran’s stolen election and crackdown. The nature of the regime seems to be changing from a revolutionary theocracy to a military-theocratic state that is becoming fascist in operation. The Revolutionary Guard Corps is gaining power at the expense of the traditional military and a divided clerical establishment.

On the weekend, Ahmadinejad called for the arrest and punishment of opposition leaders, and last week he nominated Ahmad Vahidi, a commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, to become defense minister. Vahidi is wanted on an Interpol arrest warrant for his role in masterminding the 1994 attack on a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. That attack killed 85 people and wounded 200 others. Vahidi’s nomination shows that when Ahmadinejad talks of wiping Israel off the map, no Israel leader can afford to dismiss it as a religious allegory.

Israel also looks warily on the Obama Administration’s policy of diplomatic pleading with Iran, which comes after six years of failed diplomatic overtures by the European Union and Bush Administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s suggestion in July that the U.S. would extend a “defense umbrella” over its allies in the Middle East “once [Iranians] have a nuclear weapon” may have been a slip of the lip. But Israelis can be forgiven for wondering if the U.S. would sooner accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli than do whatever is necessary to stop it.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Israeli military has been intensively—and very publicly—war-gaming attack scenarios on Iran’s nuclear installations. This has included sending warships through the Suez Canal (with Egypt’s blessing), testing its Arrow antiballistic missile systems and conducting nation-wide emergency drills. U.S. and Israeli military officials we’ve spoken to are confident an Israeli strike could deal a significant blow to Iran’s programs, even if some elements would survive. The longer Israel waits, however, the more steps Iran can take to protect its installations.

The consequences of an Israeli attack are impossible to predict, but there is no doubt they would implicate U.S. interests throughout the Middle East. Iran would accuse the U.S. of complicity, whether or not the U.S. gave its assent to an attack. Iran could also attack U.S. targets, drawing America into a larger Mideast war.

Short of an Islamist revolution in Pakistan, an Israeli strike on Iran would be the most dangerous foreign policy issue President Obama could face, throwing all his diplomatic ambitions into a cocked hat. Yet in its first seven months, the Administration has spent more diplomatic effort warning Israel not to strike than it has rallying the world to stop Iran.

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In recent days, the Administration has begun taking a harder line against Tehran, with talk of “crippling” sanctions on Iran’s imports of gasoline if the mullahs don’t negotiate by the end of September. Rhetorically, that’s a step in the right direction. But unless Mr. Obama gets serious, and soon, about stopping Iran from getting a bomb, he’ll be forced to deal with the consequences of Israel acting in its own defense. 

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203863204574348533106427974.html

Diplomacy in the Age of No Secrets

Today’s quiet deal could be tomorrow’s headline.

To the list of industries undermined by the Internet, from music to the Yellow Pages, we can add another: diplomacy. By all appearances, the early release of the Libyan convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland was part of a program of quiet diplomacy by the British government to appeal to Moammar Gadhafi. This favor turned out to be anything but quiet.

The freeing of the Libyan intelligence officer convicted of the 1988 bombing, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, is a case study in how people now expect a free and instant flow of information about what their politicians have done and how hard it has become to keep secret deals secret.

The release of the bomber was announced by the Scottish minister of justice as an act of compassion, citing Megrahi’s prostate cancer. But other murderers have been ill and died in Scottish prisons. Suspicions grew with the leak of a letter from the Foreign Office in London that had assured the justice minister there was no legal barrier to Megrahi’s early release. The letter expressed the “hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application.” The “judicial” decision was exposed as political.

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Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Seif al-Islam Gadhafi at an airport in Tripoli, Libya.

It didn’t help the British government that the Libyans didn’t play along, ignoring the ground rules of quiet diplomacy. Megrahi, who was released after serving only eight years of a 27-year sentence, got a hero’s welcome in Tripoli that included the flying of the Scottish and Libyan flags. Gadhafi thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (“my friend Brown”) and others, including the queen, for “encouraging the Scottish government to make this historical and courageous decision.” Gadhafi’s son bragged that the release of the Libyan bomber was “always on the negotiating table” during discussions of “commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain.”

Under further pressure, Downing Street released a letter Prime Minister Brown had sent Gadhafi urging a low-key welcome for the state intelligence officer who killed 270 people, mostly Americans. A “high-profile return would cause further unnecessary pain for the families of the Lockerbie victims,” the letter said. It also said, “You will be aware that the Scottish executive’s public announcement on Megrahi’s future is expected very shortly. I understand that their decision is to transfer Megrahi back to Libya on compassionate grounds,” contradicting earlier claims that the decision was known only when the Scottish minister announced it.

Reports then emerged that a procession of cabinet ministers had gone cap in hand to Libya in recent months and that Prince Andrew had even been scheduled to attend tomorrow’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of Gadhafi’s one-man rule. As these facts emerged, Chris Patten, a former chairman of the Conservative Party, pointed out that people would assume the next British company to win a contract in Libya was “all part of the payoff for complicity in an ill-judged decision.”

The Web made political sentiment easy to track. Comments on the BBC site last week included an American who wrote that he’ll boycott Scottish goods, including Scotch whisky. “As an American of Scottish descent, this is particularly painful, though not as painful as watching a mass murderer set free,” John from Washington wrote. “On the bright side, I will instead enjoy my Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whisky and Kentucky Bourbon, which will actually save me money.” Frank in Edinburgh posted, “I think the boycott’s a good idea. Alas, I shall not participate. As an Edinburgh resident, I would have to drive to Berwick [England] to buy my groceries and that’s not feasible.”

Polls found that twice as many Britons think the release had more to do with oil than with Megrahi’s health and that people in Scotland opposed the release by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. The Scottish Parliament begins hearings today, so expect further details of how this release happened.

We’ve come a long way from the days when a diplomatic wink and nod were the end of the discussion. It’s real progress that Libya, which out of caution stepped back from some of its activities following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, is now largely the focus of trade deals, but this doesn’t mean that people will ever forgive terrorism.

Indeed, one lesson for the U.S. is that politicians can’t avoid responsibility for anything to do with terrorism. The British government couldn’t blame a Scottish justice minister for releasing a terrorist. Likewise, a White House wouldn’t be able to escape political repercussions if a terrorist is freed because of the difficulties in trying these cases in criminal courts instead of as acts of war.

Diplomacy was once satirically defined as the patriotic art of lying for one’s country. This approach is hard to sustain in a world that demands transparency. For diplomats, there’s no negotiating around the fact that confidential deals today could be headlines tomorrow.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204731804574382571184933610.html

Society Meets The Sixties

The aristos flock to a party. The brownies are spiked with hashish.

Anyone who has seen “Gosford Park” (2001) knows that Julian Fellowes, the movie’s screenwriter, has a knack for mocking the foibles of the British ­upper crust. In his novel “Snobs” (2005) he skewered the inhabitants of the same milieu even more savagely. “Past Imperfect” shows Mr. Fellowes’s satirical talents to be undiminished. Here, though, he offers a rounded portrait of an aristocratic gratin fighting to preserve its customs and defend its turf.

Mr. Fellowes chooses his moment carefully—­precisely a decade after Queen Elizabeth II had ­summarily ended the ceremonies at which young ladies were presented at court. Until 1958, this rite of passage was the sine qua non for debutantes. How, in the new dispensation, were aristocratic parents (and parvenus) going to marry off their progeny? “Past Imperfect” ­offers a portrait of Society in 1968, unwilling to yield to democratic norms and fighting to ­retain its habits and mores.

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The effort now centers on a charity ball held at—how the mighty have fallen!—a hotel, albeit a grand one on London’s fashionable Park Lane. “There was hardly a parent there,” Mr. ­Fellowes writes of the event, “who thought their daughters’ future would be anything more than an extended repeat of their own present. How can they have been so secure in their expectations? Didn’t it occur to them that more change might be on its way? After all, their generation had lived through enough of it to push the world off its axis.”

The novel’s whirl of parties and dances takes place in London’s fabled Swinging Sixties, and some of the era’s telltale iconography makes an appearance. The ­first-person narrator, a student at Cambridge at the time and now recalling his youth, notes that part of British culture in the 1960s was “about pop and drugs and happenings, and Marianne Faithfull and Mars Bars and free love.” But another part looked back to a ­traditional England, “where behaviour was laid down according to the practice of, if not many centuries, at least the century immediately before, where everything from clothes to sexual morality was rigidly determined and, if we did not always obey the rules, we knew what they were.”

The view of this social class in “Past Imperfect” is often less than flattering. By the late 1960s, its ­members are nervous about their status, toying with “the new” and, as ever, eager for the money to keep up appearances. The men still dress in white tie, and even know when it is right to wear it, though ever fewer ­people care. Other customs threaten to fall away. A ­debutante attempts to attend the races at Ascot but is forbidden admission because she is—shockingly—­wearing trousers. She decides to remove them on the spot, sending nearby photographers into a frenzy. “I suppose I can come in now,” she says calmly to the bow-tied gateman. “I suppose you can,” he ­answers. Later in the story, an American heiress—the family’s name is Vitkov—arrives in London and tries to crash London society by renting Madame Tussauds, of all places. The aristos flock to her party even so, ­consuming the brownies that are handed around ­without quite grasping, until it is too late, that they have been spiked with hashish by a spiteful guest.

The novel’s narrator, a member of the aristocratic class himself, is aware of its foolish side but cannot feel happy about what eventually comes to replace the old order. He observes that a new and affluent group is now living the high life, but its members “do not, unlike their predecessors a century ago, take much ­responsibility for those less blessed. This new breed feel no heed to lead the public in public.”

Mr. Fellowes, it should be said, is not merely ­committing sociology in “Past Imperfect.” He offers a narrative crowded with incident and memorable ­characters. The device by which he builds his story—a dying billionaire entrusts the narrator with a quest to discover which one of a half-dozen ladies gave birth to his only heir—is a trifle contrived. But it does give Mr. Fellowes the chance to romp through bedroom and ­ballroom, not to mention down memory lane. A ­disastrous dinner party referred to throughout the novel—think shattered crockery and illusions—is not described in full until near the end. Even after all that build-up, it proves worth the wait.

Mr. Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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Japan Throws the Bums Out

But does the new crowd have better ideas?

It was inevitable that even the Japanese would eventually get fed up with patronage politics, governance gaffes and decades of economic drift.

Yesterday’s election victory of the Democratic Party of Japan and party leader Yukio Hatoyama is no small thing. It undermines nearly 54 years of Liberal Democratic Party dominance in Tokyo. The last time this happened—in 1993—a motley coalition of eight parties held power for merely 11 months. The DPJ, by contrast, has been a party for more than a decade and wants to stay for the Lower House’s full four-year term.

Mr. Hatoyama also wields the biggest popular mandate in more than a decade after winning a resounding majority in the Lower House yesterday. The DPJ and its allies now control both legislative houses. Such a political earthquake was last witnessed in 2005, when former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election to get a popular mandate to reform Japan’s economy and oust antireform MPs.

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Democratic Party of Japan new leader Yukio Hatoyama

Mr. Hatoyama follows three lackluster LDP governments. He is—as Barack Obama was to George W. Bush—the anti-Koizumi. His political mantra is yuai, or friendship and love. Mr. Koizumi touted reform. Mr. Hatoyama is an anticapitalist. Mr. Koizumi embraced competition. Mr. Hatoyama wants to embrace Asia and the United Nations. Mr. Koizumi drew closer to the U.S. Mr. Hatoyama thinks China’s rise is inevitable and that Japan should resign itself to making do with the prosperity it accumulated in the past. Mr. Koizumi took a firm line toward Beijing and wanted Japan to start growing again to support a strong defense.

These are not small differences, nor are they marginal to American interests in Asia. At home, Mr. Hatoyama’s Keynesian worship may spell another lost decade of growth for the world’s second-largest economy. He stands for agricultural protectionism, higher minimum wages, higher taxes in the name of environmental responsibility and more handouts to the elderly, parents and unemployed. He wants to protect small- and medium-sized businesses from competition. His pledges to cut taxes are minimal; his goal to cut fat from the budget, vague; and his commitment to free trade, marginal. The phrase “economic growth” scored nary a mention in his campaign pledges.

Mr. Hatoyama’s big reform idea is to attack the bureaucracy, which is a worthy goal and scores big points with voters. But he won’t touch the shibboleth of Japan’s political establishment—the postal service. He wants politicians to make policy, which in any other, normal democracy would seem banal. But if the policies themselves aren’t better, will that really matter?

On foreign policy, too, the DPJ marks a change from the Koizumi era. Mr. Hatoyama, like other U.S. allies in Asia-Pacific, maintains that the relationship with Washington will continue to be the cornerstone of Japan’s security. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter; Japan has yet to fully normalize its military, and even if it did, it’s unreasonable to think Tokyo could match China’s single-minded military buildup and raw numbers. The DPJ, like the LDP before it, needs the U.S.

But Mr. Hatoyama is intent on scoring populist points at home by talking about distancing Japan from that very alliance. The first thing he’s likely to do is stop Japanese self-defense forces in the Indian Ocean from refueling the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. That won’t have much practical effect, but the symbolism matters. The DPJ also wants to renegotiate U.S. basing agreements and do more with the United Nations, that most effective of fighting forces. Like Mr. Obama, the Japanese leader also likes the utopian idea of a nuclear-free world. North Korea’s recent tests and missile launches make that kind of thinking seem naive.

The remarkable thing is that the Obama administration seems almost wholly unaware of this anticapitalist, anti-U.S. turn of events in its cornerstone ally in North Asia. This is a mistake. Mr. Hatoyama has little experience governing and could use some guidance from Japan’s best and closest ally.

Ms. Kissel is editor of The Wall Street Journal Asia’s editorial page.

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Why Oil Still Has a Future

 Demand in the developing world trumps new technology.

On Aug. 28, 1859, in the backwoods of northwest Pennsylvania, the first successful oil well went into production in the United States, ushering in an energy revolution that would make whale oil obsolete and eventually transform the industrial world. Yet 150 years later, even as demand increases in developing countries, oil’s position in the global economy is being questioned and challenged as never before.

Why this debate about the single most important source of energy—and a very convenient one—that provides 40% of the world’s total energy? There are the traditional concerns—energy security, diversification, political risk, and the potential for conflict among nations over resources. The huge shifts in global income flows raise anxieties about the possible impact on the global balance of power. Some worry that physical supply will run out, although examination of the world’s resource base—including a new analysis of over 800 oil fields—shows ample physical resources below ground. The politics above ground is a separate question.

But two new factors are now fueling the debate. One is the way in which oil has taken on a second identity. It is no longer only a physical commodity. It has also become a financial asset, along with stocks, bonds, currencies and the rest of the world’s financial portfolio. The resulting price volatility—from less than $40 in 2004, to as high as $147.27 in July 2008, back down to $32.40 in December 2008, and now back over $70—has enormous consequences, and not only at the gas station and in terms of public anger. It makes it much more difficult to plan future energy investments, whether in oil and gas or in renewable and alternative fuels. And it can have enormous economic impact; Detroit was sent reeling by what happened at the gas pump in 2007 and 2008 even before the credit crisis. Such volatility can fuel future recessions and inflation.

That volatility has become an explosive political issue. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently called in these pages for a global solution to “destructive volatility,” although they added that there are “no easy solutions.”

The other new factor is climate change. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming mammoth United Nations climate-change conference in Copenhagen this December, carbon regulation is now part of the future of oil.

But are big cuts in world oil usage possible? Both the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency project that global energy use will increase almost 50% between 2006 and 2030—with oil still providing 30% or more of the world’s energy.

The reason is something else that is new—the globalization of demand. No longer are the growth markets for petroleum to be found in North America, Western Europe and Japan. The United States has already hit “peak gasoline demand.”

The demand growth has now shifted, massively, to the fast-growing emerging markets—China, India and the Middle East. Between 2000 and 2007, 85% of the growth in world oil demand was in the developing world. This shift continues: This year, more new cars have been sold in China than in the United States. When economic recovery takes hold, what happens in emerging countries will be the defining factor in the path for overall consumption.

There are two obvious ways to temper demand growth—either roll back economic growth, or find new technologies. The former is not acceptable. Thus, the answer has to lie in technology. The challenge is to find alternatives to oil that can be economically competitive—and convenient and reliable—at the massive scale required.

What will those alternatives be? Batteries and plug-ins and other electric cars—today’s favorite? Advanced biofuels? Natural-gas vehicles? The evolving smart grid, which can integrate plug-ins with greener electric generation? Or advances in the internal combustion engine, increasing fuel efficiency two or three times over?

In truth, we don’t know, and we won’t know for some time. For now, however, it is clear that the much higher levels of support for innovation—and large government incentives and subsidies—will inevitably drive technological change.

For oil, the focus is on transportation. After all, only 2% of America’s electricity is generated by oil. Until recently, it appeared that the race between the electric car and the gasoline-powered car had been decided a century ago, with a decisive win by the gasoline-powered car on the basis of cost and performance. But the race is clearly on again.

Yet, whatever the breakthroughs, the actual impact on fuel use for the next 20 years will be incremental due to the time it takes to get large-scale mass production up and running and the massive scale of the global auto industry. My firm, IHS CERA, projects that with aggressive sales volumes and no major bumps in the road (unusual for new technologies), plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles could constitute 25% of new car sales by 2030. But because of the slow turn-over of the overall fleet, gasoline consumption would be reduced only modestly below what it would otherwise be. Thereafter, of course, the impact could grow, perhaps very substantially.

But, in the U.S., at least for the next two decades, greater efficiency in the internal combustion engine, advanced diesels, and regular hybrids, combined with second-generation biofuels and new lighter materials, would have a bigger impact sooner. There is, however, a global twist. If small, low-cost electric vehicles really catch on in the auto growth markets in Asia, that would certainly lower the global growth curve for future oil demand.

As to the next 150 years of petroleum, we can hardly even begin to guess. For the next 20 years at least, the unfolding economic saga in emerging markets will continue to make oil a global growth business.

Mr. Yergin, chairman of IHS CERA, is author of “The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power” (Free Press), out in a revised edition this year. His article on the future of oil appears in the most recent issue of Foreign Policy.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574370511700484236.html

Health Care and the Democratic Soul

It’s time for Obama to channel Harry Truman.

What is at stake in the debate over health care is more than the mere crafting of policy. The issue is now the identity of the Democratic Party.

By now we know that Democrats can bail out traditional Republican constituencies like Wall Street, but it remains to be seen whether they can enact a convincing version of their own signature issue, health-care reform.

At this point, it’s fair to ask whether Democrats remember why health care is their issue in the first place. As health-care debates always have done, this one has pushed to the fore all the big questions about the rightful role of government, and too many Democrats have sought to avoid them with mushy appeals to consensus and bipartisanship. The war is on and if Democrats want to win they need to start fighting.

In the early years of the campaign for national health insurance, the battle lines were more clearly drawn. Back in the ’40s, the issue was part of an “economic bill of rights,” a grand Rooseveltian idea pushed by President Harry S. Truman.

Truman had a knack for populist phrasing. “In 1932 we were attacking the citadel of special privilege and greed,” he declared in accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1948. “We were fighting to drive the money changers from the temple. Today, in 1948, we are now the defenders of the stronghold of democracy and of equal opportunity, the haven of the ordinary people of this land and not of the favored classes or the powerful few.”

The Democrats won that particular battle with “the powerful few” but, fighting among themselves as usual, failed to enact national health insurance. Health-care reform nonetheless remained their great cause, their high-voltage appeal to average voters, even those who otherwise saw them as a Harvard-and-Hollywood elite. And even during feeble reform campaigns like President Bill Clinton’s 1993 attempt, the opposite half of the populist melodrama—in that case, the insurance industry—duly acted out its corporate bad-guy role.

This year things were supposed to be different. Democrats hold good-sized majorities in both houses of Congress and are led by an eloquent president who won an undeniable mandate last November. This time, the Democrats got the traditional opponents of health-care reform on board: “Ex-Foes of Health-Care Reform Emerge as Supporters” declared a headline in the Washington Post in March, over a story describing a friendly summit meeting between Mr. Obama and various health-care industry representatives.

This time the health-care fight was to be what official Washington loves: An act of cold consensus, not of hot idealism or Trumanesque populism. All the “stakeholders” would be taken care of. No one would need to get his suit ruffled.

And all it took to send the whole thing crashing to the ground, it now appears, were a few groundless rumors and a handful of angry right wingers who figured out how to game town-hall meetings and get themselves on TV. “Today there is another populist revolt afoot,” wrote Gary Bauer in Human Events last week, hailing the righteous grassroots outrage he sees in the town-hall protests.

So we have come full circle: The reformers shake hands with the special interests, while conservatives denounce the whole thing in the name of the common man and the Founding Fathers.

After I listened to a few angry town-hall meetings on the radio, the situation was clear to me. Democrats had to meet this pseudo-populist challenge by rolling out the real thing, the New Deal vision that is their party’s raison d’être.

So far, however, many in the party’s leadership haven’t been able to awaken from their bipartisan reverie. When Mr. Obama found his plans under attack, for example, he promptly began to downplay the “public option,” an obvious predicate to cutting a deal and placating the insurance industry. In other words, the prospect of a populist outburst from the right apparently moved him toward abandoning the most populist element of his party’s plans and toward an even more Beltwayist position—to move that much closer to the caricature of Democrats traditionally drawn by the right.

Mr. Obama still has time to reverse course. A great deal depends on it. To fail on health care yet again might well be the “Waterloo” Republicans dream of. And yet, as the party’s leaders click through their PowerPoint presentations and review the complicated details, they seem unable to confront the biggest questions that the right is asking, the ones about the eternal perfidy of government.

Maybe Democrats are afraid it will hurt their standing with those generous fellows on K Street if they channel Harry Truman and say what needs to be said: That government can be made to work for average people. But it will hurt even worse if they refuse to say it.

Thomas Frank, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574373000964995482.html

Early dinner

Fried egg

For a lower-middle class boy from Liverpool, a plate of egg and chips at five o’clock was not the done thing, recalls Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

It was the egg and chips which first made me realise that Jim lived in a different world.

We’d gone back to his terrace house in Bootle one day after school and were sitting at the table in the back room when his dad came home from a long shift on the railways. I remember him saying “Hello” as he saw his son and me at the table but he then vanished into the tiny kitchen.

Jim and I went on chatting for a few minutes about school and Liverpool’s chances in the coming Saturday game until suddenly his dad re-appeared and without a single word placed a big plate of egg and chips and a steaming sugary mug of tea in front of each of us.

The egg and chips were delicious. No doubt about it. And the tea was just great. But even as I followed Jim’s example and finger dipped my chips in the runny yolk I felt confused by their sudden appearance.

Had Jim exchanged some hidden sign with his dad that said he was ready for egg and chips and tea? And why had I been automatically included? And why had it been so readily assumed that I wanted or even liked egg and chips? And why had no one even asked how much sugar I wanted in my mug of tea? And why, come to think of it, were we so happily wading into such a substantial meal at just after five in the afternoon?

Of course, the answer to all these questions was quite straightforward. Jim and his dad were working class. And members of the working class at that time thought it completely natural to eat five o’clock in the afternoon. But even more, as members of the working class they took it for granted that everyone else ate at that time and would happily regard egg and chips and tea as the perfect meal for the occasion.

Terraced life

How different from my own dear lower middle-class home where eating a heavy meal in the late afternoon would have been regarded as dangerously close to a satanic rite. Neither would my mother have ever tolerated egg and chips on her dinner table, or, even, in her wildest dreams, have allowed any member of the family to accompany any meal at all with a mug of steaming tea.

The more time I spent with Jim the more I came to realise the taken-for-granted aspect of so much of the terraced life around him. In Jim’s road everyone seemed to smoke Woodbines, read the Daily Mirror, take coach trips to Blackpool to see the lights, have a regular flutter on the horses, eat tins of assorted biscuits, drink mild and bitter (“mixed”), and finish off any evening out with a bag of fish and chips. No-one I knew in my road in Crosby did any of these things.

I realised, of course, that it was hard cash which determined some of these choices, but I also sensed that everybody did much the same as everybody else because that was a way of saying that you weren’t too posh or stuck up or different.

When I went on from school to college in Kent and began to talk in this way about working class life in Liverpool I was accused of being sentimental and romantic. My new friends pointed out the sins of the working class – their drunkenness and violence and sexism.

At the time I was snobbish enough to accept much of this argument. I began to wonder how I could ever have seen life in Bootle as somehow worth celebrating.

But at the end of my first year I came across a copy of Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. I read every word, placing ticks in the margin to record the similarities between life in my Bootle and his Hunslet. And I insisted on reading out chunks to my snooty new friends. Compare this, I said imperiously, with your own isolated, miserable, bourgeois lives.

But reading Hoggart did make me wonder why not one of my Bootle friends had ever expressed any personal pleasure at the way they lived their lives. Had they been no more able than I was to see its great strength and vitality? And then one day in the early 70s I heard the perfect answer.

The Liverpool sculptor, Arthur Dooley, was talking on the radio about the destruction of even more Liverpool terraces. The architect who was responsible for this latest bout of demolition sought to justify his action by telling Dooley that not one of the residents had complained about being moved out to the new tower block estates on the edges of the city.

Dooley was not convinced. “Let me tell you this,” he said in his strong Liverpool accent, “there’s no-one as easy to rob of their culture as those folks that don’t know they’ve got one.”

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8223453.stm

Interrogating the CIA

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A clever, streetwise classmate of mine at the Central Intelligence Agency’s junior officer training program—a former Delta Force officer—quickly and rudely discovered that counterterrorism in the much-vaunted Reagan years wasn’t a serious endeavor at Langley. He had original and provocative ideas on using physical force to scare the bejesus out of terrorist suspects who had American blood on their hands. Although the CIA was then filling up with operatives pretending to be engaged against a growing terrorist menace, Langley’s counterterrorist data bank and real operational planning were near zero. My friend’s ideas were too unsettling. He resigned. By the time I resigned in 1994, CIA counterterrorism had become an inflexible, lumbering creature, incapable of countering the wicked anti-American forces gaining strength in the Middle East.

Fast forward to eight years after 9/11: Has Attorney General Eric Holder damaged the CIA’s improved counterterrorist capacity by his decision to employ a special prosecutor to investigate whether crimes were committed by the agency’s interrogators? From the moment Barack Obama won the presidency, Langley’s use of “enhanced interrogation” was obviously over. The appointment of a prosecutor guarantees that unless the United States is again devastated by a terrorist attack—on a scale greater than 9/11—CIA operatives will certainly decline any future order by a Republican president to interrogate roughly a jihadist. Langley’s junior officers may still receive survival and escape training, which is the baptismal font for the agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques. But members of al Qaeda will not similarly get to enjoy the experience. 

Constrained by new rules and hostile lawyers, can the CIA in the future successfully interrogate uncooperative jihadists, like self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who remained as close-mouthed as a clam when questioned without physical coercion? The Obama White House has been enamored of the possibilities of soft power; jihadists, too, are now supposed to yield to the psychological prowess of interrogators who play by the rules of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Will Langley be able to develop and retain interrogators culturally and linguistically qualified under the administration’s new plans, which will have the White House and the FBI overseeing all counterterrorist interrogations? Such outside control is, among other things, meant to ensure that the CIA, which originally generated the idea of enhanced interrogation, will never again be a font of such unpleasant creativity.

Regardless of whether one believes CIA-inflicted waterboarding, sleep deprivation or severe psychological coercion (suggesting that harm could come to a family member of a taciturn al Qaeda detainee) constitute torture, such actions may have produced an intelligence bonanza and saved thousands of lives. The released and heavily redacted 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report on interrogations doesn’t make a crystal clear case in favor of enhanced interrogation, but it certainly does suggest—and one has the distinct impression that the Inspector General was personally inclined against the rough treatment—that senior officers in the Directorate of Operations consistently found the interrogations to be valuable in collecting critical information against some members of al Qaeda, especially Mr. Mohammed.

We will never know whether being nicer—building rapport—with Mr. Mohammed would have eventually worked and produced the same or better results than CIA methods did. It’s possible. But what those who argue this position are really saying is that the variables of human nature—that even the hardest holy warriors, men who live to die and slaughter infidels as an expression of divine love and vengeance—will always yield to physically noncoercive methods that don’t have that much psychological punch either. This is a very Christian way of looking at interrogation: FBI agents are supposed to reach into the souls of jihadists and as father-confessors get them to voluntarily cooperate. It’s morally redemptive for all concerned. It’s neat and clean. No deadly plots go unbroken.

Even if the 3,000 intelligence reports produced between Sept. 11, 2001 and April 2003 from the CIA’s “high value detainees,” that is, the folks who likely received rough treatment, were released, we might not resolve the debate between those who believe exclusively in the utility of rapport-building interrogations and those more skeptical about FBI methods applied to those who fly airplanes into skyscrapers. But the publication of these documents would probably help. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a busy man, undoubtedly just read the summaries given him by the CIA and believed them; Mr. Obama, a busier man, has certainly by now perused the same operational assessments and dismissed them. (Mr. Obama could hardly do otherwise since he’d so emphatically declared during the campaign, before having classified access to Langley’s work, that enhanced interrogation had both disgraced us and made us less safe.)

Until these reports are made public, or at a minimum the detailed and regular agency assessments of the reports’ value are released, we on the outside cannot better assess whether enhanced interrogation techniques worked. Mr. Obama has certainly set the stage for an enormous row that could well consume much of the energy of his administration if the special prosecutor brings charges against any CIA official for the way he interrogated an al Qaeda terrorist with 9/11 blood on his hands. And it’s an excellent bet that if the Justice Department starts prosecuting CIA officers, some hard-left European magistrates, who are still furious that their governments abetted the Bush administration’s counterterrorism in clandestine ways, won’t be far behind in bringing lawsuits against U.S. officials. Euro-American security ties are strong (self-interest is a strong glue) and have been mostly immune to the storms that regularly strike the trans-Atlantic community (the invasion of Iraq actually deepened the intelligence exchanges between us and the antiwar French and Germans).

But the prosecution of high-profile CIA and Bush administration officials for “torture” could well spotlight U.S.-European clandestine dealings sufficiently to make them subject to political litmus tests—something that has rarely happened even with ardently leftist European governments.

As difficult as these problems could prove for the Obama administration, the CIA and the Justice Department, there’s a more immediate operational issue for the clandestine service: Langley, once again, probably cannot field a competent group of counterterrorist interrogators.

It’s a very good guess that the organization right now has no volunteers coming forward for this work, and those who are currently indentured will free themselves from this profession as soon as possible. This may not be a pressing problem if the CIA doesn’t have anyone to interrogate, which was the case throughout most of the 1990s. That changed after 9/11, but even then it’s very unlikely that the best and the brightest at the agency involved themselves with the nuts and bolts and unpleasantness of interrogating “high-value” al Qaeda detainees. Complex debriefings—let alone more aggressive interrogations—in foreign languages have rarely been an agency forte. Such things are very hard work and don’t guarantee promotions.

Inexperienced officers have usually been on the agency’s frontline. And as the 2004 Inspector General report makes clear, CIA officials were early on nervous about the interrogations. Rest assured that this meant that most case officers—especially those with field experience, Middle Eastern language skills and good opportunities for traditional, perk-filled assignments abroad—kept far away from anything touching upon the interrogation of al Qaeda terrorists.

Standard job rotations in the CIA have always been enough to debilitate professionalism developing inside the clandestine service against most targets—operatives work two or three years on a subject or country and then move on. From discussions with active-duty CIA officers since 9/11, I have the strong impression that counterterrorism hasn’t been exempted from Langley’s constantly revolving doors. When real competence develops among an operational cadre it is inevitably because individual officers have a special drive to do so, usually because of an insufficiently requited love of a subject.

A good case officer with Middle Eastern languages and a penchant for understanding Islamic radicalism would now have to be insane to accept an assignment that detailed him to interrogate Islamic terrorist suspects. No self-respecting case officer wants to be constantly surveilled by his boss. That’s not the way the intelligence business works, which is, when it works, an idiosyncratic, intimate affair. We should be horrified by the idea that holy warriors will now be questioned by operatives who tolerate all the cover-your-tush paperwork, who don’t mind being videoed when they go to work, who want to be second-guessed by their CIA bosses, let alone by FBI agents, and intelligence-committee Congressional staffers, and now White House officials.

The war on terrorism obviously isn’t what it used to be (invading countries initially produces a lot of intelligence work). If the White House is unwilling to detain terrorist suspects in facilities like Guantanamo, it is doubtful that it will want to capture many individuals for interrogations. Since the Obama administration has retained rendition, it has an escape valve that it can use to discard suspected or confirmed terrorists whom the administration wouldn’t want to prosecute in the U.S. criminal justice system (a position not at all unlikely given the difficulties of using intelligence information in U.S. courts).

Rendition isn’t risk-free, as President George W. Bush learned all too well. The Obama administration will surely use rendition when it must (quietly transporting suspects out of the country just to empty the jails of Guantanamo would be tricky and politically precarious). But it will likely not use rendition often enough to allow case officers in the field a means to examine would-be terrorists without stultifying concerns about what to do with them after the heart-to-heart chats.

Case officers only get good at hunting their prey—at prying into the minds of their targets—by constant work and by pushing the envelope. With enhanced interrogation off-limits, CIA operatives could easily find themselves face-to-face with a jihadist who tells them to bugger off. What are they then to do? Will their superiors be professionally sensitive to their inability to make further progress? Could they get promoted after they pass suspected jihadists to the FBI? Would the FBI even take them, knowing that they might have to be rendered to an unsavory foreign power and thereby quite possibly compromise the bureau’s more pristine image? (It will be a near-miracle if the Obama administration can long hide its renditions from the press given the number of Democrats within the administration in sensitive positions who may strongly oppose rendition to any country willing to take in suspected jihadists.)

American counterterrorism has now enthusiastically shifted from the “gloves coming off” to a post-post-9/11 determination to return American virtue to what it supposedly once was. Unless Langley now piles on cash bonuses—and CIA bonuses usually aren’t compelling—the incentives for agency officers to join the White House’s new plans for a multiagency “professional” cadre of interrogators will go nowhere. Langley will be lucky if it can get the third-rate among its own to sign on. And one has to wonder about the better agents at the FBI, which still hasn’t happily made the transition into a counterterrorist organization. Who would want to join an interrogation outfit that sounds so politically correct and sensitive?

Throughout the 1990s, FBI offices grew rapidly overseas. In some places, the bureau’s men actually took over the offices of CIA station chiefs, pushing the bureaucratic equivalent of four-star generals into much smaller digs. Returning rapidly to a pre-9/11 world, the Obama administration seems poised to give the FBI overwhelming responsibility for counterterrorism at home and abroad. The CIA is no longer the pre-eminent agency in the fight against Islamic militancy. It hardly did a superlative job. But many will not be rejoicing at the rise once again of the FBI in counterterrorism. Being “virtuous” may not look so good looking back.

Mr. Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former operative in the CIA’s clandestine service.

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Full article and photo : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574377130844113174.html#mod=article-outset-box

Germany Recalls Myth That Created the Nation

In September 9 AD, Germanic tribesmen slaughtered three Roman legions in a battle that marked the “big bang” of the German nation and created its first hero — Hermann. The country is marking the 2,000th anniversary with restraint because the myth of Hermann remains tainted by the militant nationalism that would later be associated with Hitler.

 Heermannn

Hermann, portrayed as a blond, musclebound warrior, featured in more than 50 operas and plays during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nationalists turned the Germanic leader into an icon to help them forge unity in the face of such perceived enemies as the Vatican, the French and the Jews.

Germany’s 20th century history has been so troubled that anniversaries of positive events are in short supply. This year has two such rare examples, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 60th of the establishment of democracy after World War II.

There’s a third one coming up in September that represents nothing less than the birth of the German nation — the 2,000th anniversary of a devastating victory over three Roman legions by Germanic tribes in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

The battle created the first German hero, Arminius, or Hermann as he later became known, a young chieftain of the Cherusci tribe who led the rebellion and was hailed for centuries as the man who united the Germans and drove the Romans out of Germania.

But Germany is marking the event with noticeable restraint. There’s no sense of glory and no program of flag-waving festivals of the sort one would expect in other nations celebrating their creation.

In fact, a lot of Germans don’t even know about Arminius. Many schools shunned his story after 1945 because he became contaminated by the militant nationalism that led to Hitler. Interest has gradually reawakened since the discovery of the presumed site of the battle in the late 1980s, and there has been intense media coverage of the man and the myth this year.

Cautious Celebration

Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the battlefield in a forest near the village of Kalkriese in May to open an exhibition on Germanic tribes there, and some 400 actors dressed as Romans or Germanic tribesmen gently re-enacted scenes from the battle there in June, with rubber-tipped spears. Most actors wanted to be Romans, and there was such a shortage of Germanic warriors that some hirsute hobby Vikings had to be recruited to make up the numbers.

“This anniversary year has gone very well because it has been free of nationalist emotion,” Tillmann Bendikowski, author of a new book on the battle and the myth of Hermann, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “It has been dealt with far more soberly than one might have expected.”

The story of Arminius is a lesson in how history can be invented and turned into propaganda. From the 16th century onwards, when an account of the battle by Roman historian Tacitus resurfaced in a German monastery, nationalists fashioned the Germanic leader into an icon to help them forge unity in the face of such perceived enemies as the Vatican, the French and the Jews.

Arminius and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, they said, marked the origin of the German nation. Hermann, as Martin Luther called him, was deemed the perfect symbol to give a nation fragmented into dozens of states the identity it lacked.

Germany ‘s “Big Bang”

“The battle became the big bang of the German nation in terms of myth and legend. But in terms of real history, it was no such thing,” said Bendikowski.

The more than 50 Germanic tribes of the ancient period were the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans. And Arminius by no means united them — he persuaded five tribes to join him in battle, and he was killed by members of his own tribe a few years later.

However, there’s little doubt that the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire. It was one reason why Rome abandoned plans to turn Germania east of the Rhine into a province.

Some 10,000 to 12,000 highly trained and battle-hardened legionnaires are believed to have been slaughtered at Kalkriese in an ambush orchestrated by Arminius. Three Roman legions were wiped out in four days of fighting on the narrow forest paths a few miles from what is now the city of Osnabrück. The entire Roman Empire stretching from northern England to Egypt only had 28 legions at the time.

The popular notion that Arminius drove the Romans out of Germania east of the Rhine is a fallacy, though. Roman legions were back in force six years after the battle, wreaking havoc and winning major battles. The discovery last year of an ancient battlefield some 100 kilometers east of Kalkriese, near the town of Kalefeld south of Hanover, testifies to Roman military presence deep in hostile Germania as late as the third century AD.

“It’s typically German to say world history was shaped on German soil,” said Bendikowski. “We know that this was one battle among many and that there was a range of factors behind Rome’s eventual retreat to the Rhine. Everyone who needed this myth regarded it as the turning point of history. For many it remains the turning point. But it wasn’t.”

The Man and the Myth

The playwrights, writers and political leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. They were helped by a severe shortage of facts because the ancient Germanic tribes had no written culture and no Roman eyewitnesses survived the slaughter.

Hermann, portrayed as a blond, muscle-bound warrior, featured in more than 50 operas and plays during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as “The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest” written by German poet Heinrich von Kleist in 1808 as a call to arms against Napoleon’s occupation. The figure came to epitomize the power of a young nation striving to be united and free.

The cult of Hermann continued to grow during the 19th century and was evoked impressively by a gigantic monument to him erected near the northwestern town of Detmold. Completed in 1875, four years after Germany unified, the statue wields a seven-meter (23 foot) sword and stares defiantly westwards — towards France.

The statue became a focal point for a brand of nationalism that turned increasingly aggressive and racist and culminated in the Nazi quest to subjugate Europe and eradicate the Jews.

Hermann has never recovered. “I personally think this Hermann myth will pale. And I hope people in the future will take a closer look at history, question what they have learned and review the sources,” Gisela Söger of the Kalkriese battlefield museum, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “We want to contribute to a spirit of taking a more sober, distanced look at history here.”

Crushed Skulls and Slingshots

  The Kalkriese museum displays spear tips, human bones with terrible battle wounds and metal parts from Roman body armor found on the battlefield in the more than 20 years since a British hobby archaeologist, Major Tony Clunn who was stationed in Germany with the British army, discovered 150 silver coins and three Roman slingshots about a kilometer from the site.

Traces of fighting have been found in a wide area around Kalkriese, which ties in with accounts by Roman historians that the battle lasted four days and began with ambushes on the thin column of legionnaires and supplies that stretched 15 kilometers along narrow forest paths.

The army was commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general, and was heading south to spend the winter in a base by the Rhine.

Arminius, who belonged to the tribe of the Cherusci, was the commander of a troop of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman army as auxiliaries. He led Varus into a trap by persuading him to make a detour to put down a rebellion, Roman historians wrote.

Varus trusted Arminius — the two had dined together — and agreed to change course. Then the Germanic warrior, who wanted to head a revolt that would help him found his own kingdom, rode off with his men to join up with fighters from other tribes hiding in the forests. They started a wave of guerrilla-style ambushes up and down the snaking column.

Romans Outwitted

The Roman legionnaires, accustomed to fighting in disciplined formations on open ground using their shields, spears and swords, were unable to deploy their trusted tactics in the forest. But they were able to regroup and make camp on the first night of the ambush.

After days of attacks, the battle is believed to have culminated at Kalkriese, a bottleneck between a hill and a moor where the Germans had erected an earthen wall from which to assault the Roman flank. Seeing that defeat was inevitable, Varus fell on his sword rather than be captured by the Germanic hordes slaughtering his troops all around him.

The site of the battlefield had been a mystery ever since the Hermann cult got going in the 16th century, and countless locations have laid claim to it. Some historians still have their doubts about Kalkriese, but they are now in the minority because the certainty that this is the true battlefield has grown steadily over the last two decades.

Eight pits containing the bones of men aged 20 to 45 have been found, with many skulls showing gaping holes from fatal blows. The pits tally with Roman accounts of how an army under commander Germanicus discovered the battlefield in AD16 and buried the heaps of bleached bones strewn across it. The soldiers also found skulls nailed to trees.

There are other clear indications that the battle was fought here. None of the 1,600 coins found were minted after AD9. Skeletons of mules were found — only Roman armies used mules.

Tiny Metal Parts Tell Chilling Story

Other finds at Kalkriese tally with the presence of a Roman military column that wasn’t expecting trouble. Ornate tableware, large amounts of cash, even a miniscule painted glass eye taken from a decorative figure that adorned a luxurious Roman dining sofa — it’s not exactly the equipment a Roman army would carry into battle. The army of Varus was moving home for the winter rather than embarking on a military campaign.

The most visually striking find is an iron face mask from a Roman cavalryman’s helmet. But it’s the myriad of unspectacular bits of metal that really tell the chilling story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

“We have been finding traces of plundering rather than of fighting,” Susanne Wilbers-Rost, the chief archaeologist at the site, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The excavations have revealed many small items torn off when the Germans were stripping the Romans as they lay dead or wounded. Things like buckles, hinges, connecting parts of body armor and chain mail.

“You can only imagine this kind of brutal stripping of the dead when the defeat was total, when no Romans survived,” she said. “We know that the Romans always tried to retrieve their dead. The Germans had all the time in the world. They weren’t disturbed.”

Hermann on the Wane

Wilbers-Rost and her colleagues have even found evidence of organized sorting of equipment such as heavy Roman shields that the Germanic warriors had little use for. “They were mainly interested in the metal frames of the shields which they could melt down. We found many frames bent and folded ready to transport. That kind of folding can’t have happened in battle.”

Wilbers-Rost has gained international recognition for her work which has provided insights that can be applied to other battlefields of all ages. “This is a highly interesting excavation because it’s very unusual to find an ancient battlefield. The locations of these sites usually aren’t known because they were always plundered. Here we have found out that inconspicuous items can be indications of battle, or of related actions like plundering.”

“Usually if you’re looking for the remains of thousands of Romans and their enemies you wouldn’t pay any attention to a few spear tips and a few remains of a few metal frames, but that may be an indication of a battle,” said Wilbers-Rost.

Each year some 100,000 people visit the Kalkriese museum, which does a good job of explaining the battle. This year, visitor numbers are likely to be well above the average. The museum shop is doing a brisk trade in souvenirs such as “Hard Hermann” sausages, replica Germanic drinking horns and “Varus Temptation Waffles.”

But the myth of Hermann has lost its power in modern Germany. The old nationalism has been replaced by an easy-going patriotism that mainly manifests itself at sporting events like the soccer World Cup. Today’s interest in Arminius mainly reflects curiosity about what really happened in that fateful September 2,000 years ago. “This is a historical thriller,” said Söger.

“The myth of Hermann will continue to wane,” said Bendikowski. “What will remain of him will be the experience of how a historical myth was created, and how a nation sought to invent itself by fabricating history. It may help us to understand ourselves and other nations better.”

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Full article and photo : http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,644913,00.html

Inside a Creepy Global Body Parts Business

The German company Tutogen’s business in body parts is as secretive as it is lucrative. It extracts bones from corpses in Ukraine to manufacture medical products, as part of a global market worth billions that is centered in the United States.

Anatoly Korzhak, a pensioner and former engineer, died in Kiev on August 5, 2004. His body was picked up at 2 a.m. and taken to the forensic medicine institute in the Ukrainian capital. That same night, Korzhak’s daughter, Lena Krat, received a telephone call and was asked to come to the institute immediately in the morning, where she was told she would receive further information.

It was the first time Krat was confronted with the death of a close relative. “I was so upset that I couldn’t think clearly,” she recalls. When she arrived at the institute in the morning, a man there said something to her about skin transplants. He was an employee of a Ukrainian company that works hand-in-hand with forensic medicine experts. She said to the man: “Leave me alone. I don’t understand what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to listen to you.”

But the employee was persistent and eventually gave her a form to sign. He told her that if she consented to skin removal, she would be helping pediatric burn victims who needed transplants. Krat signed the form. “It was as if I had been hypnotized,” she says.

But now Krat, a mother of two young girls, has learned from SPIEGEL that the Ukrainian company in question sends the body parts to a German company, Tutogen Medical GmbH, which in turn apparently supplies large numbers of such parts to the American tissue market.

In addition to strips of skin, tendons, bones and cartilage are removed from the bodies. “This shocks me,” says Krat. “If I had known that so much is cut out, I would never have given my consent.”

A Lucrative Industry

The incident in the Ukrainian capital is part of the secretive daily routine of a little-known but highly lucrative branch of the medical industry, in which companies use corpses to make medical spare parts. In doing so, they reuse almost everything the human body has to offer: bones, cartilage, tendons, muscle fascia, skin, corneas, pericardial sacs and heart valves. In the jargon of the profession, all of this is referred to as tissue.

Bones and tendons, the parts that interest Tutogen the most, are subjected to complex processing. The company degreases and cleans bones, cuts, saws or mills them into the desired shapes, then sterilizes, packages and sells the finished product in more than 40 countries around the world. With a prescription, it is even possible to order Tutogen’s products through online pharmacies.

postmoral

The market for tissue products is still small in Germany. When it comes to bones, for example, experts estimate that only about 30,000 transplants a year are used in hospitals nationwide, mainly for use in bone reconstruction for hip surgery and in spinal column surgery.

It’s a completely different story in the United States. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than a million bone parts are used in transplants every year. In no other country is it possible to make so much money with body parts. If a body were disassembled into its individual parts, then processed and sold, the total proceeds could amount to $250,000 (€176,000). For a single corpse! The US tissue industry generates total revenues of about $1 billion a year, says journalist Martina Keller, a co-author of this article and the author of the German book, “Cannibalized: The Human Corpse as a Resource.”

Legal and Ethical Questions

This raises the question of just how legal the process of obtaining raw materials is. And are bone products made from corpses even medically necessary? According to Klaus-Peter Günther, president of the German Society of Orthopedics and Orthopedic Surgery, they are often “not the first choice” in operations. “For us, the gold standard is still tissue taken directly from the patient in question.”

Alternatives are only an option, says Günther, when the material from the patient’s body is insufficient. Those alternatives include animal bones and artificial replacement parts made of ceramic material, for example — or human donor bones.

Many hospitals collect and reuse bone fragments removed from patients who have received artificial hips. “For this reason,” says Günther, “we have not had to resort to dead donors so far.”

In the United States, doctors have far fewer qualms about using body parts from corpses than their German counterparts — in such areas as spinal surgery, sports injuries and cosmetic surgery. For instance, doctors used pulverized skin particles to enhance lips and smooth out wrinkles.

Should corpses be butchered to make cosmetic procedures possible? Ingrid Schneider is decidedly opposed to the practice. For the past 15 years the Hamburg political scientist, a former member of the Investigative Commission on Law and Ethics in Modern Medicine in the German parliament, has been involved in the subject of recycling body substances. Schneider argues that the body is not a source of raw materials that can be sold at will. Given such concerns, it is not surprising that many people are deeply opposed to allowing the body of a family member to be reused, even for medical purposes.

Even if it is unrealistic to expect that all commercialization of the body could be ruled out in modern medicine, says Schneider, it is important to set boundaries. For that reason, she insists that human tissue ought to be used sparingly — that is, only when such use is medically necessary and clearly superior to other forms of treatment.

The conviction that the body is much more than an object has also shaped the policies of the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Parliament and the European Council, the EU’s body representing the leaders and ministers of the 27-member bloc. All of these bodies condemn the practice of trading in human body parts to turn a profit.

In Germany, the country’s organ transplant act regulates the removal of tissue. Only those who have consented to organ and tissue harvesting are considered as donors. If a person dies and is not already a donor, his or her closest relatives can consent to donation. Paragraph 17 of the transplant act explicitly states: “Trading in organs or tissue intended for use in the medical treatment of others is prohibited.” Physicians who remove tissue can only be paid suitable compensation for their efforts. The law calls for prison sentences of up to five years for violation of the trading prohibition.

A Booming Tissue Market

Tutogen paid its Ukrainian partners a fixed price for each body part. In January 2002, the company paid €42.90 for a complete femur, €42.90 for a humerus and €13.30 to €16.40 for a pericardial sac, depending on its size. Graduated prices were also arranged with the Ukrainians. Take, for example, the removal of patellar tendons with bone segments, known as “bond-tendon-bone,” or BTB. When coroners supplied less than 40 BTBs on-site, Tutogen paid €14.30 apiece. For larger numbers of BTBs, the price went up: to €23 apiece for 40 or more BTBs and to €26.10 for 60 or more. For a coroner, who makes about €200 ($287) a month in Ukraine, such graduated prices must have been an incentive to remove as much body material as possible.

Thousands of pages of internal memos, faxes, supply lists and documents from the years 2000 to 2004, which SPIEGEL has obtained, suggest that not only did Tutogen process the Ukrainian body parts itself, but it also supplied the US tissue market.

Florida-based RTI Biologics, one of the US market leaders in the industry, generated $147 million in sales in 2008. The company describes itself as the “leading provider of sterile biological implants for surgeries around the world.”

To that end, RTI acquired Tutogen Medical, Inc., the American parent company of the German company Tutogen Medical GmbH, last year. The acquisition was good news for RTI shareholders, because of Tutogen’s large international donor network, says CEO Brian Hutchison. Put differently, Tutogen is a company that knows the ins and outs of gaining access to as many body parts as possible.

The body parts from Ukraine are shipped by air to Frankfurt or Nuremberg. From there, they are taken to Tutogen headquarters in Neunkirchen am Brand, a town of 8,000 people in northern Bavaria.

Tutogen’s facilities in Neunkirchen, just a few kilometers north of Nuremberg, comprise several low, warehouse-like buildings, where about 140 employees work. All in all, it is an inconspicuous place for visitors who fly in regularly from Ukraine and the United States.

Company President Karl Koschatzky refused to respond to requests for an interview, and the company declined to answer a list of questions sent to its offices.

The Middleman

Tutogen uses a middleman to organize its deliveries from Ukraine. Dr. Igor Aleshenko, a coroner by training, manages the company’s relationships with the various local forensic medicine institutes. He has been working for Tutogen in Ukraine for about 10 years.

In that time, Aleshenko has become a wealthy man, and he now divides his time between his two residences, one in Kiev and one in Moscow. In 2002, Tutogen described Aleshenko as a “cost-intensive person.” He too was unavailable for an interview in Kiev, nor did he respond to written questions.

In Ukraine, Aleshenko is far more than Tutogen’s local contact. He is the director of Bioimplant, a company that manages tissue removal. Because of its close ties to the Ukrainian Health Ministry, Bioimplant is practically immune to overly probing government inspections of bone shipments crossing the border.

Ukrainians are kept somewhat in the dark when it comes to Bioimplant’s true business dealings. According to the company’s Web site, its “primary activity” is the “production of bio-implants” for use in Ukrainian patients. But what does Bioimplant really do?

Kiev, on a summer’s day in 2009. Anyone seeking to pay a visit to Bioimplant’s headquarters would be inclined to head to the company’s official address at Patrice Lumumba Street 4/6, an office building with a number of tenants — where Bioimplant doesn’t even have its own mailbox.

A guard and a doorman greet visitors and send them to the fourth floor, where Bioimplant’s offices are supposedly located. Room 305 is in a long hallway of closed doors. There is not even a sign to identify the room as being associated with Bioimplant. A young man in a pinstriped suit opens the door. He says that he hasn’t been working for Bioimplant for very long, and that most of his work consists of photocopying.

According to the young man, the company leases three rooms in the office complex, but Dr. Aleshenko is not in today. Tutogen brochures and packets of sterilized corpse bones are stacked in the next room. Instead of the expected production facility, the offices are nothing but a distribution site.

Tutogen developed its business relationship with Aleshenko about 10 years ago. During a trip to Tutogen headquarters in the Bavarian countryside in November 2001, Aleshenko met with Koschatzky at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Erlangen, near Nuremberg. The minutes of the meeting contain a list of “new pathologies” working for Tutogen in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava and Zhytomyr.

Aleshenko had apparently brought along a wish list to the meeting, and his German business partners were eager to comply. According to the minutes, “TTG (Tutogen) agreed to provide 5,000 deutsche marks for investment costs in Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine). Dr. Aleshenko will send us the necessary payment instructions.”

Unkosher Discussions

Some of the issues discussed at the meeting were less than kosher. For instance, the minutes state, “TTG is testing whether depilation of the corpse prior to skin removal could alleviate the hair problem (perhaps using the hot wax or cold wax method).”

A list of “pathologies currently providing (parts),” dated November 2001, already included abbreviations for 15 facilities in Ukraine. In the 2000-2001 fiscal year alone, 1,152 bodies in Ukraine were used to provide tissue for Tutogen.

But it still wasn’t enough for the company, which needed more cooperating institutions, more donors and more bone parts to supply a booming tissue market.

According to an internal planning document dated June 17, 2002 (the file is titled “Raw Tissue Requirements”), Tutogen needed the following parts for the coming fiscal year:

* 2,920 shafts of the femur,

* 3,000 iliac crests,

* 1,190 patellar tendons,

* 3,750 kneecaps,

* 10,200 femoral muscle fascia (or fascia lata),

* 50 cranial bones,

* 70 Achilles tendons.

Aleshenko, who Tutogen apparently paid directly for the tissue parts, is believed to have funneled part of the money to coroners in Dnipropetrovsk, Kiev, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities. According to an internal list of “paid incoming goods,” Tutogen’s Ukrainian partner received roughly €350,000 between January and August 2001.

The investment must have paid off. Online pharmacies charge between €367 and €854, depending on the size, for a Tutoplast Spongiosa Block (Bone Substance). According to the price lists used at the time, the Ukrainians received between €23 and €26.10 for the original body part, again depending on the size. Even if Tutogen were paying twice as much for the raw material today, it would still be a bargain.

Tissue and Organ Harvesting

Not surprisingly, Tutogen could afford to be generous to its Ukrainian partners. That generosity included large quantities of equipment the company routinely sent to its hardworking coroners.

According to the internal documents, in the 2000-2001 fiscal year Tutogen shipped 6,000 scalpels, 2,600 pairs of sterile gloves, 500 surgical gowns, 15 hacksaw blades for autopsies and many other items to Ukraine — at a total cost of €40,000 in “donor expenses without tissue,” as the Tutogen bookkeepers noted fastidiously. Tutogen paid its Ukrainian partners roughly €500,000 for the body parts during the same period.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently lists 20 facilities in Ukraine that are authorized to supply body parts for the US market. But no matter which of these facilities one clicks on in the FDA database, all share the same contact information: the telephone number of Tutogen Medical GmbH in northern Bavaria.

One of the facilities on the list is the forensic medicine institute in Krivoy Rog, an industrial city in southeastern Ukraine, with a population of about 700,000. According to the FDA database, the Krivoy Rog site is authorized to supply bones, cartilage, fascia, ligaments, pericardial sacs, sclera (the white of the eye), skin and tendons.

Tissue and Organ Harvesting

The whitewashed, Spartan structure housing the forensic medicine institute is on the edge of the hospital grounds. Frosted glass windowpanes behind latticed windows discourage prying eyes. Visitors immediately notice the cloying odor of corpses upon entering the building. The director of the institute is unavailable, even though his car is parked on the hospital grounds. A doctor wearing a denim jacket assumes the task of getting rid of anyone inquiring about the institute’s collaboration with the German company.

Instead, he tells the reporters to contact the district attorney’s office and points to a sign above the door, which reads: “No Admittance without Authorization.” Does that include Tutogen, the reporters ask? “No, Tutogen is not unauthorized here,” the man says, indicating that the conversation is over.

The former director of the city’s forensic medicine department, Vladimir Bondarenko, is slightly more forthcoming. A retiree, he meets with visitors at a street café. Tissue harvesting began at his department about 10 years ago, says Bondarenko.

“It was illegal,” he says. “The family members should have been told about what was happening with the bodies,” but they had no idea. “When the deceased is lying in the coffin, the family members see nothing but the face. What they don’t see is that the bones of the legs or arms have been removed.”

The Ukrainian tissue transplant act includes a provision stating that family members must consent to tissue donation if the deceased did not already do so while still alive. However, there are indications that this was often not the case. Ukrainian authorities in Krivoy Rog and several other cities are conducting investigations into suspected illegal tissue and organ harvesting.

The case of the deceased father of Kiev resident Lena Krat, for example, was examined in connection with an investigation identified by the file number 50-3793, begun on Jan. 4, 2005. The investigation included all incidents that took place between May and September 2004. The names of 10 deceased persons are listed in the files. Their family members stated that they “did not consent to the removal of anatomical material.”

According to the court order authorizing the proceedings, “family members were deceived, in that they were told that only a small part of the deceased would be removed, such as a bone or tissue fragment. In actual fact, almost all bones and tissue were removed. … All of the material is taken to Germany.”

A Legal Twist

Despite the evidence, the Kiev district attorney’s office closed the proceedings in July 2005, “for lack of a statutory offense.” Curiously, the document states, as grounds for dropping the case, that the Bioimplant employees had not violated the transplant act, because they had not transplanted material from corpses, but had merely removed it so that it could be processed into “bio-implants.” As a result of this legal twist, the recycling of corpses has been allowed to continue to this day.

Kiev, the forensic medicine institute on Orangery Street: A long, brick building, from which doctors wearing light-green aprons occasionally emerge to smoke cigarettes outside the front door. Family members stand next to the entrance, waiting for the release of their dead relatives. There is a display of coffins and wreaths in front of a funeral parlor across the street.

Vladimir Yurchenko is the director of the institute. He points to the room where bodies are processed for Tutogen. It is on the ground floor and sealed off to outsiders. Why? “Because that’s what the US health authorities require,” says Yurchenko.

Kiev’s senior forensic pathologist explains the process. Bioimplant obtains the relatives’ consent, and company employees also come to the institute to harvest the body parts. Yurchenko’s staff members assist in the process, for which they receive additional compensation. Once bones and other parts have been removed, wooden sticks are inserted into the body so that it retains its shape until the funeral.

The harvested bones, tendons and pieces of cartilage are stored in zinc-plated metal boxes in a refrigerated room in the basement. “The tissue parts are brought up once every few weeks, when a truck comes and takes them away,” says Yurchenko. Karl Koschatzky, the secretive Tutogen executive from Bavarian, also turns up occasionally.

‘A Source of Raw Materials’

According to Yurchenko, about 8,000 corpses a year are delivered to the forensic medicine department. Of that number, more than 5,000 are potential bone donors, but family members only consent to harvesting from about 150 bodies. If the two facilities in the capital already provide parts from about 150 bodies each, as Yurchenko says, and if a total of 20 facilities in Ukraine are registered with the FDA — and, therefore, are collaborating with Tutogen — it can be assumed that the German company obtains its body parts from large numbers of Ukrainian corpses. “All we are for the rich countries is a source of raw materials,” says Yurchenko.

In May 2004, Tutogen signed a five-year contract with Bioimplant, which describes the process as follows: The Ukrainians transfer harvested tissue to Tutogen in Germany to have it processed into products. But this processing is costly. How does the Ukrainian company pay for the expensive processing? The answer is deceptively simple: with the bones, from Ukrainian corpses, that have been processed into products in Germany. This is the currency accepted by both parties to the arrangement.

What the agreement does not state is that the Germans were not producing products for Bioimplant, but were ordering substantial amounts of raw material from the Ukrainians every month.

At times, much larger numbers of body parts from Ukraine and other countries were arriving in Neunkirchen than Tutogen could even process. A document titled “Inventory, Raw Material Storage 1,” dated March 2000, reveals the scope of this excess material. According to this inventory document, Tutogen warehouses already contained 688 patellar tendons, 1,831 kneecaps, 1,848 fibula, 2,114 fascia and 1,196 foot bones, or a total of more than 20,000 body parts.

In June 2002, Tutogen employees wrote the following comments in the minutes of a meeting: “Warehouse problems. More tissue than necessary continues to be delivered. Solutions are needed to address this problem.”

The company documents also include references to the kinds of solutions Tutogen had in mind. According to an internal memo dated April 2002, a Ms. R. noted “that there is no longer any storage capacity in the deep freezers. Efforts must be stepped up to ship tissue to the USA.”

According to a document dated June 2002, which lists the “Raw Tissue Requirements for USA Needs,” the US partners required the following monthly supply:

* 119 iliac crests,

* 667 pieces of fascia lata,

* 267 kneecaps,

* 243 shafts of the femur.

Did Tutogen Break the Law?

Apparently, the deliveries to the United States were not only sent to the parent company in Florida, Tutogen Medical Inc., which could have been explained as a way of shifting the problem within the company, but also to RTI, the company’s US competitor at the time.

In a table detailing a shipment from Lugansk in Ukraine, delivered on Dec. 7, 2001, a sum of €62,000 is quoted, but the recipient is identified as “TM/RTI.”

If Tutogen was indeed shipping unprocessed tissue to the United States, this could constitute an act of engaging in illegal tissue trade, provided a profit was generated as a result.

In a memo dated April 4, 2002, a Tutogen employee issued the following cautionary statement: “We should avoid shipping unprocessed raw material to TMUS (Tutogen USA), so as not to create the impression of engaging in the tissue trade.”

The German Institute for Cell and Tissue Replacement, another major bone producer, categorically rejects such practices. Director Hans-Joachim Mönig insists that “obtaining raw tissue from one country and passing it on to third parties is against the law. In our view, this constitutes the crime of trading in tissue.”

To date, its collaboration with Aleshenko and the Kiev Health Ministry has worked exceedingly well for Tutogen. All investigations against Tutogen’s Ukrainian partners in Krivoy Rog, Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk have been suspended.

But that could change. Last year, the public prosecutor’s office in Krivoy Rog launched a new investigation.

Once again, forensic medicine employees, as the public prosecutor’s office states in response to SPIEGEL’s inquiry, are suspected of “having used coercion and fraud to obtain the consent of family members for the removal of tissue and other anatomical material for purposes of transplantation.” Seventeen family members of the deceased have already testified.

On Jan. 9, 2009, the district attorney’s office submitted the case to the relevant district court, where the case is still underway.

Lena Krat, the Kiev woman who was persuaded to release her father’s body for tissue harvesting in 2004, would be pleased to see those responsible finally brought to justice. “Those people are truly guilty,” she says, “and I am outraged that these terrible things are still taking place.”

Uncommon knowledge

The deficit of women in math

uncommon knowledge sss

Explaining the gender gap in math achievement is one of the hotter issues in social science. It’s even credited with helping to bring down a president of Harvard. Adding to the debate is a new paper by economists at MIT suggesting that the gender gap may be more than simply an ability gap or a discrimination gap. Based on data from national and international math competitions, the authors confirm that the number of females, relative to males, falls off a cliff at the highest scores. The big difference, though, between the highest-achieving girls and boys was that the girls almost all came from a small group of elite high schools. So, unless the parents of all the gifted girls in the country are enrolling their kids in the same schools, the evidence suggests that a lot of female talent is just not being tapped. As for why, the authors speculate that “several elements in our results seem consistent with the view that girls suffer because they are more compliant with authority figures and/or are more sensitive to peer pressure” in not seeking out extra math training.

Ellison, G. and Swanson, A., “The Gender Gap in Secondary School Mathematics at High Achievement Levels: Evidence from the American Mathematics Competitions,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2009).

The pigskin effect

Although many readers of this newspaper are surely Patriots fans, you might consider rooting for or against another football team, depending on your view of government. Economists compared the season record of the Washington Redskins to the number of pages generated in the Federal Register, which is the official record of federal regulatory activity. The two measures were significantly correlated, such that going from an average season to a perfect season predicted a 9 percent increase in the number of pages in the Federal Register for the calendar quarter. The authors theorize that agency staff, who live in the D.C. area (there was no corresponding effect for Congress, whose members should be fans of teams back home), are stirred by the Redskins’ success and/or are more likely to socialize with one another (or lobbyists) in a winning season.

Coffey, B. et al., “Regulators and Redskins,” Clemson University (February 2009).

Love and sex and creativity

If you want to see the forest through the trees, think of love; if you want to see the trees right in front of you, think of sex. Researchers asked people to imagine taking a walk with someone they loved or having casual sex with someone they didn’t love. People primed with love scored above average on a test of creative insight but below average on a test of logical analysis. The reverse was true for those primed with sex: They scored above average on the test of logical analysis but below average on the test of creative insight. The researchers carried the experiment one step further and flashed subliminal messages of love- or sex-related words to people staring at a computer screen. People primed with love-related words did better at thinking creatively about the big picture, while people primed with sex-related words did better with narrowly focused logic.

Förster, J. et al., “Why Love Has Wings and Sex Has Not: How Reminders of Love and Sex Influence Creative and Analytic Thinking,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Heaven vs. Hell

Many religious sects incorporate belief in some kind of heaven or hell. The former is a reward for good behavior; the latter is punishment for bad behavior. From a social science point of view, then, a question one might ask is which – heaven or hell – is better at motivating religious practice. One study does just that by analyzing data from an international survey of tens of thousands of people. Both heaven and hell motivated people to attend church and to pray, but the effect was three times larger for heaven, especially when it came to motivating men.

Brañas-Garza, P. et al., “The Big Carrot: High-Stakes Incentives Revisited,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (forthcoming).

The problem  with prestige

As in health care, the big debate in education policy is between public and private options. Do we put more money into public schools? Do we open more charter schools? Do we give everyone vouchers for private schools? And, as in health care, cream-skimming (the best students or the best patients) and affordability (of tuition or insurance) are key issues. An analysis by economists at Columbia University suggests that the ideal of unfettered school competition can actually create more problems than it solves. If schools can select students based on ability, then allowing school choice increases inequality, as you might expect, by sorting the better and wealthier students into the more prestigious schools. But, to add insult to injury, this sorting also results in lower student effort across the board, because students at the select schools figure they can coast on the place’s prestige. However, if schools can’t select students based on ability, the authors conclude, “school choice will unambiguously raise school performance and student outcomes.”

MacLeod, W.B. & Urquiola, M., “Anti-Lemons: School Reputation and Educational Quality,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2009).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article and photo : http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/30/uncommon_knowledge_surprising_insights_from_the_social_sciences/

The curious appeal of miscellanea

Or, why we’ll pay for information, but only if it’s completely irrelevant

Facts are fun, though it is not obvious why this should be so. Every day, the newspaper brings new unhappy facts to the door: Tap water in Greenville, Miss., is brown; more than 100 instances of misconduct have been alleged in the Afghan election; the swine flu is more likely to strike schoolchildren.

And while the newspapers are on their way to financial ruin, it’s not because people don’t want information. It is because information has proliferated like Weimar bank notes, with everyone shoveling it into wheelbarrows, till the old economic arrangements have collapsed. There are 3 million English-language entries on Wikipeda, according to the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia.

Yet professionally compiled books of facts are thriving. In 2003, a petite, meticulously designed volume titled “Schott’s Original Miscellany” arrived in the United States from Britain – listing Earth’s atmospheric layers next to sumo weight classes, diagramming palmistry lines and the method of tying a bow tie. The “Original” of the title was part of author Ben Schott’s mock-archaic tone, but it also turned out to be a prophecy. “There’s more and more of them every year,” said Megan Sullivan, the head buyer at the Harvard Book Store.

Last month, Perigee Books brought out “The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information,” the fifth “Book of Useless Information” published since that series appeared in 2006. This is not to be confused with the “Essential Book of Useless Information,” due out from Perigee this fall, nor with the unrelated “That Book…of Perfectly Useless Information,” published by Harper in 2004, or its sequels, “This Book…of More Perfectly Useless Information” and “The Other Book…of the Most Perfectly Useless Information.”

The Google toolbar hovers a few inches up and to the right from everyone’s center of

vision, ready to drop a cascade of optimized search results. The text of books can be delivered to a touchscreen mobile phone. And even so, people are going out and buying paper volumes of facts, printed in unchanging ink, to keep on a shelf. What’s behind this seemingly backward turn?

These new books are not reference books, at least not in the sense that you would refer to one of them to answer a question. “Schott’s Original” has a terse index and no table of contents; “The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information” has a vague table of contents and no index. “We keep them mostly in the gifts section,” Sullivan said.

In a world where useful and important answers come looking for you, it is the idea of unimportance that is the primary selling point of the miscellanies. The books promise to guide the reader somewhere older and slower, to create a little world in which information can serve as amusement rather than currency. A carefully done miscellany appears random, but it achieves a sort of quiet intellectual bustle, set apart from the roar of the daily info-chaos. The miscellanies are information as art, and art for art’s sake.

Schott’s tables of conversions won’t really help me convert liters to gallons – my mobile phone does it more quickly – nor will they get me from the Scotch pint to the Biblical omer, since Schott has left out the numbers for the peck, which would bridge the two. (Google fills in the gap, allowing a calculation of 2.30 Scotch pints in one omer.)

Still, the author has dug back to the sources that identify what an omer or a Scotch pint might be, and brought them together on one page. The result is cultivated serendipity. “That Book…” reports that Davy Crockett was born the same day Frederick the Great died – better yet, that the birth of Johnny Rotten coincided with the death of A.A. Milne. Also that the jukebox was invented seven years before the electric stove (1889 to 1896). There is a connection, or the sense of one. The facts nod at one another, and the reader gives them a nod in return.

“It’s mindless entertainment, is basically what it is,” said Don Voorhees, author of “The Essential Book of Useless Information” and six previous books of trivia and miscellany. “The Essential Book” will be Voorhees’s first contribution to Perigee’s Useless Information series – though he had also written an unaffiliated volume, back in 1998, called “The Book of Totally Useless Information.” (“It gets harder and harder to get stuff that hasn’t been used in another book,” Voorhees noted.)

Before Voorhees took over, the author of the Useless Information series was Noel Botham – another British writer, like Schott. The That Book series is likewise a British import, as is the young readers’ miscellany “The Dangerous Book for Boys” (“Timers and Tripwires”…“Baseball’s Most Valuable Players”).

Why do we turn to Britain for useless information? Britain is the parents’ house that American culture moved out of. It has so much more storage space than our place, and we can always rummage through the bookshelves and the attic when we visit. “Maybe they’re just better rummagers over there,” said George Gibson, the editorial director at Bloomsbury, which publishes Schott’s.

Or they’re more comfortable amid the picturesque ruins of the old informational empire. The broken brickwork of authoritative knowledge – Bartlett’s, Hoyle, Debrett’s, Guinness, the Boy Scout Handbook – has become the deftly juggled informational bits of Schott’s. Cool Britannica.

Within the pages of a miscellany, the world is vast but also manageable, piece by piece. Such works are oddly reminiscent of the children’s books of Richard Scarry, where anthropomorphic animals move thorough busy, well-labeled spheres of existence: “At the Airport”…“At School”…“Mealtime.”

“Not ‘oddly,’ ” Gibson said. “I love Richard Scarry. I think Scarry was an innovator in the way he presented information for kids.”

But miscellaneous information for small children shows them a road forward: Once they know pancakes from fried eggs from toast, or a bulldozer from a bucket loader, they can move on to their next questions about the world. For adult readers, the rise of miscellany is a sign of defeat. The questions multiply faster than you are ever going to answer them. The road isn’t getting you anywhere.

The post-authority reader of reference already knows that. “In Texas,” says “The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information,” a “man can beat his wife as long as he doesn’t use an object larger than his thumb.” Really? To the Web, where – amid a string of “rule of thumb” wacky-law citations that all seem derived from one another – Christina Hoff Sommers and Nancy K.D. Lemon can be found vehemently disagreeing over whether jurisprudence has ever included such a principle at all or whether it is victimological myth.

Is the thumb in Blackstone? They do not agree. Nobody is saying anything about Texas, and Snopes.com seems not to have weighed in. A commentator on the article says: “I don’t have access to the materials cited above, so verification is difficult.” Google Books has a 1915 Volume One of Blackstone, for which the search window finds nothing for “thumb.” How many volumes are there? This is the way we inform ourselves.

Or this way: “No law in the United States has ever permitted the beating of women,” Wikipedia says. There is no citation.

In this state of things, the actor and humorist John Hodgman added to the pile of miscellanies with “The Areas of My Expertise,” a dense-packed collection of facts that happen to be untrue. (Disclosure: I share an editor and publishing house with Hodgman; tangential fact: so do Junot Diaz and the RZA.) The publishing climate for miscellanies is such that the parody led to a sequel, “More Information Than You Require.”

“More Information Than You Require” includes a passage in which Hodgman discusses the Internet, with reference to a passage from one of the great forebears of contemporary miscellany, “The Book of Lists #2” – “certainly one of the best sequels to a book of trivia I have ever read.”

In the passage – which Hodgman describes as “almost entirely accurate” and which Google appears to confirm – the authors of “The Book of Lists” warn of a failed Nixon-era plan to connect up houses by cable, rendering newspapers unnecessary. “[W]hile the Internet may have been dreamed up by authoritarians, in fact, it is the perfect system for *erasing* authority,” Hodgman writes. “[W]hat is the Wikipedia if not one great and endless compendium of fake trivia?”

What’s a compiler of facts to do? Even in this seemingly archaic little reserve of publishing, the Internet is finding a role. Next summer, Gibson said, Bloomsbury plans to bring out another miscellany, this one dedicated to animals. It will be a print version, he said, of “The Animal Review,” a website.

Tom Scocca is working on a new book, “Beijing Welcomes You,” from Riverhead Books. 

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Full article : http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/30/the_curious_appeal_of_miscellanea/

No waiting

A simple prescription that could dramatically improve hospitals — and American health care

prescription

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital estimates efficiency measures will allow the hospital to generate an additional $137m in revenue this year from treating more children with the same staffing levels.

The modern hospital is a storehouse of technology and training unmatched in human society. These lifesaving institutions are often the biggest employer in town, making them – justifiably – the pride of their communities.

But hospitals are also the black holes of the American health care debate. “Death panels” and fear of federal bureaucracy may get more public attention, but poor management at many of the nation’s 5,700 hospitals is a vastly more important reason that US health care costs are the highest in the world, and why the quality of care that we get for our money isn’t far better.

Hospitals waste 20 to 30 cents of every dollar they collect, and most lag behind the neighborhood Rite-Aid in adopting basic business practices such as computerized record-keeping. What’s more, they make lots of mistakes, hastening nearly 100,000 patient deaths a year, according to one major study. Awash in internal politics and inefficiency, hospitals have overtaken prescription drugs as the main reason insurance bills go up each year – and the major reason that more and more people can’t afford insurance at all.

The complexity of hospitals has long frustrated reformers. Hospital executives are adept at PowerPoint presentations that prove their 10 percent a year cost increases are justified, and they resist comparisons to other industries that have cut costs more effectively, saying it’s impossible to apply lessons from other industries to something as urgent and morally necessary as medicine.

But in recent years an efficiency expert – originally trained in the Soviet Union, land of legendary inefficiency – has been proving that hospitals don’t have to be wasteful and inflexible. Eugene Litvak, now a professor of health care management at Boston University, looks at hospitals and sees systems that aren’t even trying to be efficient with people’s time or money. If hospital executives concentrated on moving patients smoothly through the hospital the way that the local Applebee’s restaurant moves diners, he believes, they could make hospitals better places to work, safer environments for patients, and cheaper to operate.

Now he can point to a dramatic proof of his ideas. Over the past six years, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, one of the country’s premier hospitals, has worked with Litvak to streamline the flow of patients from the emergency department waiting room to post-surgical recovery areas. The payoff has been dramatic. Doctors now care for more patients in less time; there are fewer aggravations and logistical conflicts for staff and patients alike. The hospital says the improvements in efficiency have given it a boost in capacity equivalent to a $100 million, 100-bed expansion and boosted income from treating patients by even more. Doctors and nurses – many of them initially skeptical – generally like the system, too, because their schedules became more predictable. And Children’s officials say the changes have also made their hospital safer by reducing the times when nurses and doctors are under extreme stress.

Litvak’s work is part of a broader field called operations management, which focuses on the mundane but vital business of making processes more efficient, from manufacturing a can of soup to moving baseball fans in and out of a ballpark. Virtually every other major industry has adopted the principles of operations management, led by successful companies such as Toyota. But the health care industry, 17 percent of the US economy, has been a big holdout.

Leading thinkers of the health care reform movement agree that the ideas put forward by Litvak and a few others have extraordinary potential. If all hospitals adopted aggressive “flow management” programs, Litvak believes it would free up enough beds and other medical resources to care for all of the nation’s 46 million uninsured people.

Litvak’s ideas are “the best near-term play for changing health care delivery in a way that would meaningfully reduce spending and improve quality,” said Dr. Arnold Milstein, medical director of the Pacific Business Group on Health in California, the nation’s largest health care purchasing coalition. “As a country, we are at this point really starving for improvements in care delivery that not only improve quality, but equally important, make health insurance more affordable.”

Of course, the US health care system is frustrating proof that just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean it will happen. The American approach to health care has always been to focus overwhelmingly on the search for cures while devoting far less energy to practical matters like finding the best way to get cures to patients. Americans spend twice as much on health care as other industrialized nations with little evidence that the care here is better, and with little being done to stop the escalating costs. Litvak, who learned a lot about bureaucratic inertia from his years as an economist in the former Soviet Union, said that persuading hospitals to adopt his efficiency recommendations has been like cutting through sour cream. “You get no resistance,” he says, “but you also get no slice.”

In the world of operations management, Litvak is among the leading experts on flow. In the fast-food industry, maintaining an even flow is what keeps dozens of chicken fingers from stacking up while frustrated customers wait for cheeseburgers; at Toyota, it turns automobile production into a tightly choreographed dance that minimizes wasted time and materials. Thanks to strong central management and years of practice, companies have become expert at ensuring that steel arrives exactly when it needs to be rolled into car hoods, or a container of dishwashers from China shows up almost exactly when stores need to restock them for customers.

Good flow keeps costs down and customers happy.

In hospitals, nobody expects – or even wants – “fast” care, but everyone in the building benefits when the flow of patients from one part of the system to another is smooth. Backups in one part of the hospital can cause backups in others, leaving, for example, patients sitting for hours in the waiting room or highly trained surgical teams cooling their heels with no patient. A smoothly flowing hospital saves time and money, but it also reduces stress on the staff and the risk of mistakes.

Unfortunately, the typical US hospital is a model of bad flow: The average emergency room wait, for example, is four hours. The problem is actually quite simple, Litvak says. Nearly every department is run separately, making today’s hospital a nest of competing kingdoms rather than a smooth-running, cooperative organization. Hospitals often have limited power over doctors, who can schedule patient appointments without regard to the hospital’s needs. Effectively, one of the most important industries in America is in the hands of people who, for all their talents, have little expertise at running a business.

As a result, Litvak says, American hospitals only think they’re overcrowded because they have a chronic problem managing their flow. Patients simply pile up at certain times. In 2006, for instance, US hospitals were typically only 65 percent full, far less crowded than the 84 percent occupancy in Britain and the 90 percent occupancy of Canadian hospitals. But when US hospitals get much more than 65 percent full, the whole system starts to become stressed. Then, to boost their capacity, hospitals expand, at an average cost of $1 million per new bed.

James M. Anderson, a former corporate lawyer and president of a company that manufactures valves, was underwhelmed by the level of efficiency he saw when he became chief executive of Cincinnati Children’s in 1996. He wasn’t worried about money so much: After all, the hospital had a huge endowment and its annual revenues were growing at a healthy pace. But, perhaps more than traditional hospital executives drawn from medicine, Anderson was sensitive to the fact that chronic delays and patient overcrowding can lead to bad morale and a decline in the quality of care.

Dr. Frederick Ryckman, a prominent transplant surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s, noticed how inefficiency can adversely affect his patients years ago. For no obvious reason, he found that the nurses who cared for his young transplant patients sometimes had a lot more time to lavish on the children.

“Some days, all the stars were aligned and you would have the perfect care system,” recalled Ryckman. “But some nights, if there were a lot of sick kids in the ICU, the care that was delivered was going to be very different.”

Cincinnati officials discovered that the busy nights were caused, not by the random distribution of accidents and illnesses in Cincinnati, but by the way the hospital assigned operating room time to surgeons for scheduled surgery. Since a child who has just received a new liver needs near constant attention, this was no small matter, raising the risk that the child’s vital signs could plummet while the nurse is off caring for other patients.

For several years, Cincinnati Children’s officials, with Anderson’s enthusiastic backing, tried to get their patients flowing better through the building. They tried hiring more staff to work in the emergency department at certain times. But Anderson’s team realized that, to make dramatic steps forward, they needed to analyze the whole hospital, not just individual departments. That’s when two doctors, Ryckman and the vice president for quality and transformation, went to a talk by Litvak as part of an Institute for Healthcare Improvement program in 2004.

“We were just blown away. If what he says is true, oh my God. Isn’t it exciting?” recalled Dr. Uma Kotagal, the vice president. Or, as Ryckman put it, “He might be brilliant, and he might be nuts.”

Litvak, who cut his academic teeth analyzing the Soviet telecommunications industry, may have seemed an unlikely avatar of efficiency, but he had the advantage of not carrying the baggage of medical traditions that can crush the spirit of innovators.

And so, armed with a branch of mathematics known as queuing theory, Litvak began to rearrange Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He told administrators that a lot of the delays throughout the hospital traced back to the lack of control over operating room time. He recommended that some operating rooms be set aside for emergencies only so that scheduled operations would not be disrupted. He also suggested that administrators take charge of assigning times for nonemergency surgeries to spread them out evenly. And he asked that surgeons notify the intensive care unit if their patients would need ICU care after the operation, giving the nurses time to plan.

Litvak promised that the efficiency measures would increase the number of surgeries that Children’s could perform with the same resources. Over the next four years, the data proved him right. Cincinnati Children’s estimates that these and other streamlining measures will allow the hospital to generate an additional $137 million in revenue this year from treating more children with the same levels of staffing in surgery and other departments.

Dr. Milstein, the director of the Pacific Business Group on Health in California, said hospitals have resisted efficiency ideas because they could. “It takes a saint to say, ‘Well, even though the market is not very competitive, I am going to quintuple the level of difficulty for my managers’ ” by pressing for big efficiency improvements, explained Milstein.

There is also a deep cultural reason that “efficiency” hasn’t caught on in America’s hospitals: Many doctors and nurses just don’t care about “efficiency” for its own sake. They got into the business to help people, and tend to cringe when administrators start going on about cost-cutting. But Litvak’s work blows up the easy doctors-vs.-bean-counters formulation, showing that the bigger threat to patient safety and medical staff sanity is the current disorganization of American hospitals. It’s the same sort of thinking that helped propel Toyota to world leadership in automobiles: Toyota focused on making the best car at the best price, and the general public didn’t hear much about eliminating “muda” – Japanese for waste – even though it was a key element of the Toyota system.

Today, with politicians from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill clamoring for ways to reduce the cost of health care, some hospitals are taking a harder look at the efficiency lessons from other industries. Last year, Lahey Clinic hired an engineer from Pepsi-Cola to help with an ongoing effort to streamline operations. Earlier, Boston University Medical Center, guided by Litvak, reduced the number of elective surgeries that had to be rescheduled from 700 a year to seven. Litvak is gearing up to train far more hospitals in his methods, setting up a nonprofit that will run independently from Boston University’s Program for the Management of Variability in Health Care Delivery. Cincinnati Children’s, meanwhile, has become a laboratory for hospital reform, offering a course in flow management for the staff and hosting curious delegations of hospital officials from all over the country.

Dr. Michael Long, a former anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and frequent collaborator with Litvak, said it’s somehow fitting that a management consultant who learned his trade in a communist country should be leading the American hospital efficiency revolution. “In some respects, Eugene was right at home,” said Long, “It reminded him of the way things are done in Russia.”

Scott Allen has covered medicine for the Globe since 2000.  

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Full article and pboto: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/30/a_simple_change_could_dramatically_improve_hospitals_ndash_and_american_health_care/

More than friends

What it means to be ‘an item’

In the era of spill-it-all social networking, can we still describe a possibly amorous couple as an item, or is such discreetly winking terminology out of date? Chuck Eisenhardt of Arlington, after using the label in a Facebook posting several months ago, wrote to ask whether it was appropriate there, and where it had come from in the first place. “It sounds as though it springs from big-city society pages: polite, but to the point,” he said.

The romantic item, however, began its career not in good society but in the celebrity gossip columns, where it still flourishes. Search Google News, and you’ll find dozens of stars and wannabes either revealing or denying that they’ve been item-ized: Kate Hudson and A-Rod, Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper.

Several slang dictionaries call this item a 1980s usage, and even the Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in 2001, dates it only to 1970. But zillions more words have been made Web-accessible in the past few years; today, a search of Google News turns up examples of item for “suspected romance” as early as the 1930s. (Most of them, culled from ProQuest’s news archives, are available to nonsubscribers only as snippets; but for our purpose, snippets supply more than enough context.)

The earliest example I’ve dug up so far is a “Looking at Hollywood” column from October 1937, that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (and surely in other papers). “Gloria Blondell and Ronald Reagan are an item,” it alleged. (They were costarring in “Accidents Will Happen,” with Reagan as a young and honest insurance man.) Just a few months later, Hedda Hopper launched her Hollywood gossip column, and for the next few decades she slugged it out with rival Louella Parsons, establishing the item usage firmly in the American consciousness.

It’s been a fairly racy career for a word with such sedate origins. Item, Latin for “thus, likewise,” was borrowed into English around 1400 for use (as an adverb) in enumerations. Perhaps the most famous is Olivia’s catalog of her attractions in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”: “Item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.”

Olivia’s item is not our noun item; she uses the word as she might “first, second, third,” to punctuate her list. But during the 16th century, item had also become a noun, designating the thing being itemized or enumerated. And in the 19th century, journalists adopted the noun item to mean a specimen of information or news. And the 20th-century gossips’ sense seems to be a shorthand version of that; as Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang puts it, “such fashionable individuals provide items for newspaper gossip columnists,” and thus become items themselves.

Romance may not be what it once was, but “romance” remains a key part of the definition of an item, which has made itself useful precisely by suggesting attraction without specifying a degree of intimacy. I did run across a nonsexual usage (or so I assume) on the website Smash Hits, which used the term in a story on President Obama’s “beer summit”: “Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley are an item these days,” said the report. A news item, yes; an “item,” no. All the usual sources, from the OED to Urban Dictionary, agree: To be an item, you need that spark. Without it, two people, no matter how famous, are just friends.

. . .

The dating game, part 2: “When did go come to mean say and how did this come about?” asks John Sweney in an e-mail. He doesn’t say so, but it’s often considered an affliction of Modern Youth: “So I go, No way! and he goes, Way! and I go You can’t be serious{hellip}”

But no. Modern youth may enjoy this sort of narration – though I remember it from decades ago – but go for say is a natural evolution, says the OED, from other uses of go to mean sound, found from about 1500 onward: “The bell goes for church,” “his noble heart went pit-a-pat.” (Or, more recently: “Zing went the strings of my heart.”) In the 19th century, the usage was also applied to voices. The OED’s earliest example is from Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” (1836): “ ‘Yo-yo-yo-yo-yoe,’ went the first boy.”

Today, of course, it’s “often in the historic present,” as the OED notes, and it could be that the use of go for say is more obvious in the present than the past. But do objectors really mind the verb go (would “so I say, no way!” be acceptable?). Or is it the present tense that annoys them (would Dickens’s style – “so I went, no way!” – be OK?) Or is it a combination of sense, tense, and speaker that rubs some the wrong way? If you’re among the irritated, let me know where it itches. But whatever the problem, it’s not about the grammar.

 Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/30/the_word_what_it_means_to_be_an_item/

The C.I.A. in Double Jeopardy

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EARLY in 2002, Eric Holder, then a former deputy attorney general, said on CNN that the detainees being held at Guantánamo Bay were “not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention,” particularly “given the way in which they have conducted themselves.”

Six years later, declaring that “Guantánamo Bay is an international embarrassment,” Mr. Holder said, “I never thought I would see the day when … the Supreme Court would have to order the president of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention.”

So what changed?

A lot of things, of course, but most of all, our national political climate. Reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many on the front lines of the war against terrorism felt a sense of fear and urgency that, years later, it’s hard for some to recall. Now, the attacks receding into the past, a lot of us see things in a different light.

Certainly Mr. Holder, now the attorney general, does. Last week he announced the appointment of a career prosecutor, John Durham, to review a dozen or so cases of abuses inflicted upon detainees by Central Intelligence Agency employees and contractors in the course of carrying out “enhanced interrogation” (which they had been ordered to do, and which had been authorized by the Justice Department) and to determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation.

Mr. Holder doesn’t seem concerned that each of these cases was exhaustively reviewed, beginning in 2005, by career prosecutors under the supervision of the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Those men had access to the complete, unredacted report of the agency’s inspector general, an expurgated version of which was released on Monday. Yet these prosecutors recommended against criminal charges in all but one case. (That exception involved a contractor named David Passaro, who had assaulted a prisoner with a flashlight and kicked him in the groin, shortly after which the prisoner died. Mr. Passaro was convicted of assault and sentenced to eight years in prison.)

Mr. Holder’s decision, then, implies that justice wasn’t done five years ago probably because high-level officials in the George W. Bush administration put their thumbs on the scale of justice. This seems unlikely. The prosecutors in Virginia were well experienced in dealing with classified intelligence matters, as most of the federal intelligence agencies are in their district. They have a reputation for being hardheaded and unforgiving of C.I.A. transgressions.

Lacking reliable witnesses or forensic evidence, they made the only call they could have made: not to prosecute. In our nation of laws, that’s exactly the way you want government prosecutors to behave. And there is no indication that any of them has complained about being pressured to decide against criminal charges. If any new information has come out about these cases, any complaints about undue influence or any new witnesses, Mr. Holder hasn’t mentioned it. The prosecutors in this case had to abide by the Justice Department’s ruling, in August 2002, that no agency interrogator would face prosecution for exceeding the guidelines as long as he acted in “good faith” and didn’t have “the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering.” Not an easy distinction to make, surely, when the work you’re told to do seems to be designed precisely to inflict pain and suffering.

Now imagine that you’re a C.I.A. interrogator in some dank “black site” prison, facing a terrorist you honestly believe had something to do with the attack that killed 3,000 of your fellow Americans and might very well know about the next one. You’re under extreme pressure to extract information from the guy.

And the guidance you’ve been given from Washington is maddeningly illogical. “Walling” (slamming a prisoner into a wall) is legal, but not revving a power drill near his head. “Cramped confinement” — locking someone in a dark box for 18 hours a day — or depriving him of sleep for 180 hours is O.K., but firing a gun in the next room is not. Waterboarding a prisoner is legal, but blowing cigar smoke in his face may be a crime.

This was the murky world in which these interrogators operated. No jury in America would have convicted them at the time they were being investigated. Not even close. Mr. Holder’s decision, then, raises fundamental questions of fairness. Once the Justice Department declined to prosecute five years ago, the misconduct cases were sent back to the Central Intelligence Agency to handle. The agency decided to take internal disciplinary action. The employees and contractors in question — having been assured by their employer that they would no longer be facing prosecution — presumably accepted the administrative sanctions, relying on the Justice Department decision to end the criminal inquiry.

For the government now to turn around and prosecute them without any significant new facts coming to light would be, legal experts tell me, a violation of the principle of estoppel. To a nonlawyer, it sure seems wrong. And you can be sure that any decent defense lawyer is going to raise this issue if there is a trial — particularly if the government decides to use admissions that might have been made during the agency’s administrative hearings.

Mr. Holder said in April that it “would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department.” He has also made it clear that he won’t be going after any high-level officials who approved the waterboarding of “high-value detainees,” including Dick Cheney, George Tenet, John Ashcroft and Colin Powell. He won’t be prosecuting anyone who issued the “enhanced interrogation” instructions.

Certainly nobody in the Justice Department has to worry. While Attorney General Holder pushed hard for the release of the C.I.A. inspector general’s report, which contained a lot of highly classified information (along with gruesome details) — he still hasn’t published the findings of his own Office of Professional Responsibility on the “torture memos” that were written by the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. If that newer report is critical of the legal competence of top lawyers at Justice who authorized the torture program in the first place, wouldn’t it have some bearing on Mr. Durham’s investigation?

Yet it seems that Mr. Holder has instructed Mr. Durham to focus only on whether any agency employees or contractors exceeded the authorized guidelines — to go after the “bad apples”: those at the bottom of the food chain who carried out these orders in wartime and may have violated an incoherent set of rules that made as little sense to them in the field six or seven years ago as it does to us now. This doesn’t look much like justice; it looks like politics. This is scarcely different from what the Bush administration did after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, scapegoating only low-level military police officers.

Nothing will change for the better: President Obama has, fortunately, already renounced torture. We’ll learn nothing from this.

The process that Mr. Holder has unleashed threatens to undermine one of the basic principles of our government. For a new administration to repudiate a consequential legal decision in an individual case made by the previous administration serves to delegitimize our government itself, which is, after, all premised upon institutional continuity.

Whatever Mr. Holder’s motive for reopening these cases — whether a well-intentioned desire to provide the American people with the “reckoning” for the “abusive and unlawful practices in the ‘war on terror’ ” that he demanded last year, or a more cynical political calculation — the consequences will be grievous.

Joseph Finder, who writes frequently on intelligence issues, is the author, most recently, of the novel “Vanished.”

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Full article and photo : http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/opinion/30finder.html

No ‘Hero’s Welcome’ in Libya

CONTRARY to reports in the Western press, there was no “hero’s welcome” for Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi when he returned to Libya earlier this month.

There was not in fact any official reception for the return of Mr. Megrahi, who had been convicted and imprisoned in Scotland for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The strong reactions to these misperceptions must not be allowed to impair the improvements in a mutually beneficial relationship between Libya and the West.

When I arrived at the airport with Mr. Megrahi, there was not a single government official present. State and foreign news media were also barred from the event. If you were watching Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network, at the time the plane landed, you would have heard its correspondent complain that he was not allowed by Libyan authorities to go to the airport to cover Mr. Megrahi’s arrival.

It is true that there were a few hundred people present. But most of them were members of Mr. Megrahi’s large tribe, extended families being an important element in Libyan society. They had no official invitation, but it was hardly possible to prevent them from coming.

Coincidentally, the day Mr. Megrahi landed was also the very day of the annual Libyan Youth Day, and many participants came to the airport after seeing coverage of Mr. Megrahi’s release on British television. But this was not planned. Indeed, we sat in the plane on the tarmac until the police brought the crowd to order.

So, from the Libyan point of view, the reception given to Mr. Megrahi was low-key. Had it been an official welcome, there would have been tens if not hundreds of thousands of people at the airport. And the event would have been carried live on state television.

At the same time, I was extremely happy for Mr. Megrahi’s return. Convinced of his innocence, I have worked for years on his behalf, raising the issue at every meeting with British officials.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair recently confirmed my statement that Libya put Mr. Megrahi’s release on the table at every meeting. He also made it clear that there was never any agreement by the British government to release Mr. Megrahi as part of some quid pro quo on trade — a statement I can confirm.

Mr. Megrahi was released for the right reasons. The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, freed Mr. Megrahi, who is dying of cancer, on compassionate grounds. Mr. MacAskill’s courageous decision demonstrates to the world that both justice and compassion can be achieved by people of good will. Despite the uproar over the release, others agree. A recent survey of Scottish lawyers showed that a majority of those surveyed agreed with the secretary’s decision.

It’s worth pointing out that we Libyans are far from the only ones who believe that Mr. Megrahi is innocent of this terrible crime. In June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission determined that a “miscarriage of justice” may have occurred and referred the case to the High Court. A retired Scottish police officer who worked on the case has signed a statement saying that evidence was fabricated. The credibility of a key witness, a shopkeeper in Malta, has subsequently been disputed by the Scottish judge who presided in the review. Even the spokesman of a family group of Lockerbie victims has said that the group was not satisfied that the verdict in the Megrahi case was correct.

What’s more, although we Libyans believe that Mr. Megrahi is innocent, we agreed in a civil action to pay the families of the victims, and we have done so. In fact, we could have withheld the final tranche of payments last year, because the United States had not kept its part of the deal, to fully normalize relations within the formally agreed-upon time frame. Still, we made the final payment as an act of good will.

The truth about Lockerbie will come out one day. Had Mr. Megrahi been able to appeal his case through the court, we believe that his conviction would have been overturned. Mr. Megrahi made the difficult decision to give up his promising appeal in order to spend his last days with his family.

Libya has worked with Britain, the United States and other Western countries for more than five years now to defuse the tensions of earlier times, and to promote trade, security and improved relations. I believe that clarifying the facts in the Lockerbie case can only further assist this process.

I once again offer my deepest sympathy to the families and loved ones of those lost in the Lockerbie tragedy. They deserve justice. The best way to get it is through a public inquiry. We need to know the truth.

Saif Al-Islam El-Qaddafi is the chairman of the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/opinion/30qaddafi.html

A Libyan Lesson In Tehran

Moammar Gaddafi leaned across the couch and surprised me with the question he posed, squinting as he searched my face for reaction: “Why do you drink poison?”

I could guess where the Libyan dictator was headed but asked him to explain. During a news conference, we had just engaged in a verbal confrontation over terrorism, and he had asked to see me alone — perhaps, I thought, to articulate his position better, or just to arrest me. “Alcohol,” he said through an interpreter. “You people in the West poison yourself with alcohol. You are fools.”

That 1973 interview in Tripoli and an even more venomous conversation with Gaddafi 14 years later accustomed me never to be surprised by anything he does. And no one — beginning with the Scottish and British officials trying to glide away from a truly reprehensible act — should have been surprised by the hero’s welcome Gaddafi gave to Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

The hoopla in Tripoli for Megrahi, released from a Scottish jail for “humanitarian reasons,” was not only in Gaddafi’s nature. It was in his interest.

Gaddafi needed to lionize Megrahi to continue to assert that his regime had no connection to the Lockerbie tragedy — despite evidence to the contrary. Megrahi had to be visibly rewarded for enduring the unjust persecution claimed in Gaddafi’s version. No surprise, no afterthought, the welcome was an essential goal that Gaddafi never let out of his sight.

U.S. officials have to deal not only with the odious aftermath of Megrahi’s release but also with Gaddafi’s plan to visit New York next month to address the United Nations. They should remember that Gaddafi is crazy, but crazy like a monomaniacal fox.

It has alas become too late to obtain justice for the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Letting Gaddafi off the hook was an implicit feature of the 2003 plea bargain that George W. Bush and Tony Blair struck with the Libyan leader to get Tripoli to end its nuclear and chemical weapons programs and help roll up terrorist networks it had previously supported.

But it is not too late to apply lessons from that plea bargaining to President Obama’s determination to reach a somewhat similar arrangement with Iran. Like Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his followers have one goal they can never abandon, even if it must remain swaddled in silence and in their promises to change in other ways.

Iranians live in a culture of negotiation, much as Americans venerate entrepreneurship or the French value style and elegance. The act of negotiating, for Iranians, is a high art and the ultimate framework for all human interaction. Arriving at a quick, clear outcome based on compromise is amateurish and rude, if not unpatriotic.

I was reminded of this recently by Abbas Kiarostami’s masterfully minimalist film “Taste of Cherry,” now available on DVD. Like the work of many serious moviemakers, Kiarostami’s film succeeds because it places national character at its center. The plot:

A man tries to persuade strangers to help him commit suicide (for undisclosed reasons) in return for money. The movie becomes a long, continuous negotiation among many players, in which the pros and cons of every conceivable action are debated, weighed and reformulated. And in the end, no one is clear exactly what has happened.

Even the power struggle going on in Iran has taken on many traits of a negotiation between the rulers and the dissidents. Fraudulent elections, protests, Stalinist show trials and staggering human rights abuses have given rise to a national dialogue about the Islamic republic’s outdated institutions — particularly the office of Supreme Guide occupied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So Iranians will be comfortable with the elaborate interlocking negotiations that will have to involve the United States, Israel, Russia, the European powers and China to bring a halt to Tehran’s current nuclear and missile programs. But in the end, whatever the regime seems to have promised, it will have to be able to communicate to its people that Iran has not given up the instrument that guarantees a continuing place at the top negotiating table — the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

That is Tehran’s equivalent of Megrahi’s welcome, whatever the rest of the plea bargain says. Such a deal may be worth it for Obama, and for the United States, on balance. But he, and we, should be under no illusion about the result Tehran has in mind.

Jim Hagland, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/28/AR2009082802602.html

The vote nobody won

Helping build a credible government is as important as fighting the Taliban

IT IS a measure of how bleak prospects look in Afghanistan that America and its allies have been scrambling to present the presidential election held there on August 20th as a great success. “A bad day for the Taliban and a good day for the people of Afghanistan”, cheered Britain’s ambassador. In fact, the reverse is true. The task facing the new government and the foreign powers that will back it was always daunting. The election has made it even harder.

The election was not a complete disaster. The Taliban had threatened to scupper it, and failed. The two main candidates campaigned across ethnic lines, and there was a genuinely competitive race. Only 5% of polling stations were inaccessible for security reasons and millions defied threats from the Taliban to cast their ballots. But to count this as success is to aim very low. The process was marred by violence, intimidation, a low turnout and widespread fraud. The outcome will be a government whose legitimacy is seriously wounded from the outset; and a country in renewed danger of fracturing along ethnic and tribal lines.

In parts of the south and east, where the insurgency by the Taliban and other groups is strongest, no more than 5-10% of voters managed to cast their ballots. Some were deterred by the Taliban, who said they would chop off voters’ fingers, and around 400 attacks on polling day. Some may have thought voting a waste of time anyway.

After the vote some ballot boxes were stuffed and others stolen. An independent complaints commission is investigating hundreds of allegations of irregularities. Its sister organisation, the election commission, also notionally independent, is widely seen as having been captured by the government. Partly for that reason, many Afghans will regard the election result as a convenient fiction. The most likely winner remains Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president. He may yet have “won” more than 50% of the vote on August 20th. If not there will be a run-off, perhaps in October. The Afghan and foreign forces who will have to secure it must dread the prospect. In theory though, it would offer the chance for a less tainted poll.

If Mr Karzai does win, many in the relatively peaceful north of the country, where voters turned out in large numbers, may feel cheated. Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai’s main challenger, is seen as a Tajik, and hence unacceptable to some Pushtuns. The country’s largest ethnic group, Pushtuns, make up about 40% of the population, dominate the south and form the Taliban’s main support base. Conversely, if Mr Abdullah does emerge as the victor, Pushtuns may feel even more alienated from a government many still regard as dominated by Tajiks.

Whoever wins the presidency, however, will do so facing the suspicion and resentment of much of the country—even if, in the interests of national unity, the two rivals reconcile. The new government, on past form, would probably then do its best to fulfil the low expectations. Worst would be a cabinet stuffed with warlords being repaid for murky services rendered during the election, with no interest in curbing corruption, or in severing official links with the heroin trade or even in the development that might do most to win it popularity.

Remember Vietnam?

It need not be that way. Afghanistan does have some honest, competent technocrats. And its government has the huge asset of massive foreign support. To many in Afghanistan and abroad it is incomprehensible that the providers of that support cannot exert a greater influence on its behaviour—even, for example, to the extent of staging a credible election.

The lesson of failed counter-insurgency wars everywhere is that they are lost not just because of the insurgents’ capacity for violence, but because of the government’s incompetence, corruption and unpopularity. In the coming month Western forces may well be beefed up to contain the worsening insurgency. A civilian surge is also needed, to help Afghanistan build a government worth voting for. If the fortune spent allowing Afghanistan to hold this election has helped highlight that need, it may not have been totally wasted.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14303753&source=hptextfeature

Mr Muscle

The price and privilege of beefcake

 The way to hook the ladies?

WHY are men’s muscles so much bigger than women’s? Partly, of course, because men do the fighting and hunting. But also, perhaps, because women like men who can do these things well, and are thus attracted to muscular men. Both phenomena—competing with members of the same sex and showing off to members of the opposite—are subject to a form of evolution known as sexual selection. It is sexual selection that created the deer’s antlers and the peacock’s tail, and William Lassek of the University of Pittsburgh and Steven Gaulin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, think it explains men’s muscles as well.

The main characteristic of sexually selected features is that they are expensive to maintain. Since, whether competing or attracting, only the best will do, resources get piled into them, almost regardless of the consequences. In a study just published in Evolution and Human Behavior, Dr Lassek and Dr Gaulin show that this crucial characteristic is true for men’s muscles.

Their data came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which followed 12,000 American men and women over the course of six years. They found that men require 50% more calories than women do, even after adjusting for activity levels, and that their muscle mass is the strongest predictor of their intake of calories—stronger than their occupation or their body-mass index (a measure of obesity). And there is another cost to being muscly: men’s immune systems are less effective than those of women (which was known before), and become worse the more muscular the men are (which was not).

The benefits, however, were there, as well. The more muscular a man, the more sexual partners he reported, both in the past year and over his lifetime, and the earlier his first sexual experience was likely to have been. This may, in part, be a result of the ability of muscular men to intimidate 97lb weaklings. But in a society where extreme forms of such intimidation are curbed by law, female choice seems as likely an explanation—especially as previous studies have confirmed scientifically the everyday observation that women do indeed prefer men with big biceps and triangular torsos.

Because muscles come at such cost, Dr Gaulin thinks an evolutionary fight is going on between natural selection, which conserves metabolic expenditure and promotes longevity, and sexual selection, which willingly trades both for extra mating opportunities. This may explain why men have such a range of muscularity. In the past, the strong man would have had better mating opportunities in the short term, but the skinny guy who outlived him could have had just as much reproductive success over the course of his longer life.

The irony for the skinny guy is that the laws which protect him from aggression also make it less likely that the hulk will fight himself into an early grave. Modern medicine, meanwhile, means the hulk’s weakened immune system is less likely to expose him to lethal infection. Time, then, to get the weights out, and start pumping iron.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14302009&source=hptextfeature

Legal case against God dismissed

God on a cloud in a 18th century depiction
The plaintiff argued an omniscient God would know of the lawsuit

A US judge has thrown out a case against God, ruling that because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served.

The suit was launched by Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers, who said he might appeal against the ruling.

He sought a permanent injunction to prevent the “death, destruction and terrorisation” caused by God.

Judge Marlon Polk said in his ruling that a plaintiff must have access to the defendant for a case to proceed.

“Given that this court finds that there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant this action will be dismissed with prejudice,” Judge Polk wrote in his ruling.

Mr Chambers cannot refile the suit but may appeal.

‘God knows everything’

Mr Chambers sued God last year. He said God had threatened him and the people of Nebraska and had inflicted “widespread death, destruction and terrorisation of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants”.

He said he would carefully consider Judge Polk’s ruling before deciding whether to appeal.

The court, Mr Chambers said, had acknowledged the existence of God and “a consequence of that acknowledgement is a recognition of God’s omniscience”.

“Since God knows everything,” he reasoned, “God has notice of this lawsuit.”

Mr Chambers, a state senator for 38 years, said he filed the suit to make the point that “anyone can sue anyone else, even God”.

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Full article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7673591.stm

Treating, not punishing

The evidence from Portugal since 2001 is that decriminalisation of drug use and possession has benefits and no harmful side-effects

IN 2001 newspapers around the world carried graphic reports of addicts injecting heroin in the grimy streets of a Lisbon slum. The place was dubbed Europe’s “most shameful neighbourhood” and its “worst drugs ghetto”. The Times helpfully managed to find a young British backpacker sprawled comatose on a corner. This lurid coverage was prompted by a government decision to decriminalise the personal use and possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. The police were told not to arrest anyone found taking any kind of drug.

This “ultraliberal legislation”, said the foreign media, had set alarm bells ringing across Europe. The Portuguese were said to be fearful that holiday resorts would become dumping-grounds for drug tourists. Some conservative politicians denounced the decriminalisation as “pure lunacy”. Plane-loads of foreign students would head for the Algarve to smoke marijuana, predicted Paulo Portas, leader of the People’s Party. Portugal, he said, was offering “sun, beaches and any drug you like.”

Yet after all the furore, the drug law was largely forgotten by the international and Portuguese press—until earlier this year, when the Cato Institute, a libertarian American think-tank, published a study of the new policy by a lawyer, Glenn Greenwald.* In contrast to the dire consequences that critics predicted, he concluded that “none of the nightmare scenarios” initially painted, “from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’, has occurred.”

Mr Greenwald claims that the data show that “decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal”, which “in numerous categories are now among the lowest in the European Union”. This came after some rises in the 1990s, before decriminalisation. The figures reveal little evidence of drug tourism: 95% of those cited for drug misdemeanours since 2001 have been Portuguese. The level of drug trafficking, measured by numbers convicted, has also declined. And the incidence of other drug-related problems, including sexually transmitted diseases and deaths from drug overdoses, has “decreased dramatically”.

There are widespread misconceptions about the Portuguese approach. “It is important not to confuse decriminalisation with depenalisation or legalisation,” comments Brendan Hughes of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is, coincidentally, based in Lisbon. “Drug use remains illegal in Portugal, and anyone in possession will be stopped by the police, have the drugs confiscated and be sent before a commission.”

Nor is it uncommon in Europe to make drug use an administrative offence rather than a criminal one (putting it in the same category as not wearing a seat belt, say). What is unique, according to Mr Hughes, is that offenders in Portugal are sent to specialist “dissuasion commissions” run by the government, rather than into the judicial system. “In Portugal,” he says, “the health aspect [of the government’s response to drugs] has gone mainstream.”

The aim of the dissuasion commissions, which are made up of panels of two or three psychiatrists, social workers and legal advisers, is to encourage addicts to undergo treatment and to stop recreational users falling into addiction. They have the power to impose community work and even fines, but punishment is not their main aim. The police turn some 7,500 people a year over to the commissions. But nobody carrying anything considered to be less than a ten-day personal supply of drugs can be arrested, sentenced to jail or given a criminal record.

Officials believe that, by lifting fears of prosecution, the policy has encouraged addicts to seek treatment. This bears out their view that criminal sanctions are not the best answer. “Before decriminalisation, addicts were afraid to seek treatment because they feared they would be denounced to the police and arrested,” says Manuel Cardoso, deputy director of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal’s main drugs-prevention and drugs-policy agency. “Now they know they will be treated as patients with a problem and not stigmatised as criminals.”

The number of addicts registered in drug-substitution programmes has risen from 6,000 in 1999 to over 24,000 in 2008, reflecting a big rise in treatment (but not in drug use). Between 2001 and 2007 the number of Portuguese who say they have taken heroin at least once in their lives increased from just 1% to 1.1%. For most other drugs, the figures have fallen: Portugal has one of Europe’s lowest lifetime usage rates for cannabis. And most notably, heroin and other drug abuse has decreased among vulnerable younger age-groups, according to Mr Cardoso.

The share of heroin users who inject the drug has also fallen, from 45% before decriminalisation to 17% now, he says, because the new law has facilitated treatment and harm-reduction programmes. Drug addicts now account for only 20% of Portugal’s HIV cases, down from 56% before. “We no longer have to work under the paradox that exists in many countries of providing support and medical care to people the law considers criminals.”

“Proving a causal link between Portugal’s decriminalisation measures and any changes in drug-use patterns is virtually impossible in scientific terms,” concludes Mr Hughes. “But anyone looking at the statistics can see that drug consumption in 2001 was relatively low in European terms, and that it remains so. The apocalypse hasn’t happened.”

*“Drug Decriminalisation in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.” By Glenn Greenwald.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14309861&source=hptextfeature

Today in History – August 30

Today is Sunday, Aug. 30, the 242nd day of 2009. There are 123 days left in the year.

Today’s Highlight in History

On Aug. 30, 1983, Guion S. Bluford Jr. became the first black American astronaut to travel in space as he blasted off aboard the Challenger.

On this date

In 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of “Frankenstein,” was born in London.

In 1861, Union Gen. John C. Fremont instituted martial law in Missouri and declared slaves there to be free. (However, Fremont’s order was countermanded days later by President Abraham Lincoln).

In 1862, Union forces were defeated by the Confederates at the Second Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Va.

In 1905, Ty Cobb made his major-league debut as a player for the Detroit Tigers, hitting a double in his first at-bat in a game against the New York Highlanders. (The Tigers won, 5-3.)

In 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur arrived in Japan to set up Allied occupation headquarters.

In 1963, the “Hot Line” communications link between Washington and Moscow went into operation.

In 1967, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1989, a federal jury in New York found “hotel queen” Leona Helmsley guilty of income tax evasion, but acquitted her of extortion. (Helmsley ended up serving 18 months behind bars, a month at a halfway house and two months under house arrest.)

In 1991, Azerbaijan declared its independence, joining the stampede of republics seeking to secede from the Soviet Union.

In 1997, Americans received word of the car crash in Paris that claimed the lives of Princess Diana, Dodi Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul. (Because of the time difference, it was Aug. 31st where the crash occurred.)

Ten years ago: Residents of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in a U.N.-sponsored ballot. (Afterward, pro-Indonesia militiamen reacted by going on a violent rampage that ended when international forces were sent in.)

Five years ago: Republicans opened their national convention in New York, with speakers belittling Democratic Sen. John Kerry as a shift-in-the-wind campaigner unworthy of the White House and lavishing praise on President George W. Bush as a steady, decisive leader in an age of terrorism. President Bush ignited a Democratic inferno of criticism by suggesting on NBC’s “Today” show that an all-out victory against terrorism might not be possible.

One year ago: Hurricane Gustav slammed into Cuba as a monstrous Category 4 storm, damaging 100,000 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage, but no reported fatalities. Pro wrestling pioneer Walter “Killer” Kowalski died in Everett, Mass., at age 81.

Today’s Birthdays

Country singer Kitty Wells is 90. Opera singer Regina Resnik is 87. Actor Bill Daily is 82. Actress Elizabeth Ashley is 70. Actor Ben Jones is 68. Cartoonist R. Crumb is 66. Skier Jean-Claude Killy is 66. Actress Peggy Lipton is 62. Comedian Lewis Black is 61. Actor Timothy Bottoms is 58. Actor David Paymer is 55. Jazz musician Gerald Albright is 52. Actor Michael Chiklis is 46. Music producer Robert Clivilles is 45. Actress Michael Michele is 43. Country musician Geoff Firebaugh is 41. Country singer Sherrie Austin is 38. Rock singer-musician Lars Frederiksen (Rancid) is 38. Actress Cameron Diaz is 37. Rock musician Leon Caffrey (Space) is 36. TV personality Lisa Ling is 36. Rock singer-musician Aaron Barrett (Reel Big Fish) is 35. Singer Rich Cronin (LFO) is 34. NFL player Shaun Alexander is 32. Rock musician Matt Taul (Tantric; Days of the New) is 31. Tennis player Andy Roddick is 27. Rock musician Ryan Ross is 23. Actor Cameron Finley is 22.

Thought for Today

 “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” — Proverbs 1:10.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/news/history/articles/2009/08/30/today_in_history___aug_30/

Clunkers

The Associated Press has just informed its clients “to note the use of the uppercase in the name of the program.” No longer is the federal plan — which ended last week — that subjected old vehicles to the scrapheap to be described as merely a “cash-for-clunkers” notion; it is now upgraded to capitalization: “Cash for Clunkers.” This echoic slang derogation of a dilapidated, bucket-of-bolts rattletrap has now achieved at least informal status as an American English word. How did this come to pass? Government did it. 

The root is the verb to clunk, “to make a dull sound of metal meeting metal” (differing from clank “to make a sharp metallic sound”). The dullness of clunk spawned the slang term for “dullard; clumsy oaf” in the mid-1930s and its follow-up, clunkhead. “You’ll be listed among the clunks,” warned the columnist Damon Runyon in 1934; earlier use of the insult began the word with a k. But its primary meaning is that of “old machinery that no longer works” — making that clunking sound reminding the geezersphere of a Fred Allen radio character saying “Duh” — and was applied to cars, buses, aircraft and even guns that were in advanced stages of dilapidation.

Enter the public sector. In 1990, amendments to the Clean Air Act urged states to come up with market-based incentives to improve air quality; they were called accelerated vehicle retirement programs (A.V.R.), which Bush the Elder’s acronymists presented as “Customer Assistance to Recycle and Save” (CARS). In Los Angeles, the Union Oil Company joined with the city to begin the “South Coast Recycled Auto Project,” its catchier acronym being Scrap; more than 8,000 vehicles bit the dust. But on an early General Motors Web site, the federal program was called “Cash-for-Clunkers”; The Los Angeles Times picked that up on April 27, 1990, removed the hyphens and ran the headline “Cash In a Clunker for Clean Air.”

When the Obama administration’s program-namers chose a title for its version of Bush the Elder’s plan, it was the Car Allowance Rebate System, with the familiar acronym of CARS. But they were too late; the name firmly attached to the idea was “Cash for Clunkers,” and it was presented in those words in the House of Representatives by Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (unfamiliarly known as S.C.E.I.G.W.), who must have felt it was just too catchy to change. I am indebted to Markey’s staff for this insight into phrasal formation, but in the language mavenhood, you do not pay “cash for coinage.”

IN THE MOMENTS

Before heading off for vacation last month, I left with an exegesis of the vogue use of moment in forming phrases: from aha! moment to defining moment to one I almost forgot: senior moment. Soon afterward, President Obama made his famous boo-boo in saying that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in their response to an erroneous break-in report at the home of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and a black intellectual sensitive to racial profiling. As white indignation rose at his insult to the cops, the president skillfully admitted his error in a way that suggested the incident had a positive side by providing what he called “a teachable moment” in race relations.

At the ensuing “beer summit” at the White House, great care was shown to avoid giving offense on any front; last-minute P.R. tweaks included adding Joseph Biden to the threesome, which balanced the number of blacks and whites in the photo, and persuading one of the summiteers to switch his expressed preference in beer from an import to Samuel Adams lager, brewed in Boston U.S.A.

Although “Skip” Gates and I served for years on the Pulitzer Prize board, occasionally voting in the minority, my interest in this short-lived contretemps is in the origin of the repopularized teachable moment. Robert Cleary of the resourceful Syracuse University Library found a review in Phi Delta Kappan magazine of a 1938 book by Jay B. Nash titled “Teachable Moments: A New Approach to Health.” Such moments include “when a child exhibits curiosity . . . when adults are frightened . . . when parents want something better for their children . . . when genuine health problems arise, there is receptivity to health instruction.” To which we can now add “when a national leader espousing health legislation admits going ‘off message.’ ”

DEPT. OF AMPLIFICATION

I run corrections in this column from time to time, usually lumping them together to get the drearily responsible process done in a hurry. And I sometimes “crowdsource,” asking for help in research from the Lexicographic Irregulars (like when I asked for sign-language suggestions for “thanks” and learned how the little Dutch boy felt when he pulled his finger out of the dike). Today we begin a new mail-pull inducement: “The Department of Amplification,” its title borrowed from The New Yorker magazine, which has had success with this editorial labor-saving device since 1938.

An amplification was sent in by 30 readers about my previous coverage of the aha! moment, which profoundly enriches the phrase’s meaning of “triumphant revelation or startling discovery.” Their sources range from Leo Rosten’s 1968 “Joys of Yiddish” to recollections of stories of the humorist Myron Cohen:

Customer says, “Waiter, taste this soup.” Waiter: “Is it cold?” Customer: “Just taste the soup.” Waiter: “Didn’t you order the chicken noodle?” Customer: “Taste . . . the soup!” Waiter: “O.K., already. Where’s the spoon?”

Customer: “Aha!

William Safire, New York Times 

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/magazine/30FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Freud’s Adirondack Vacation

SIGMUND Freud arrived in Hoboken, N.J., 100 years ago today on his first and only visit to the United States. He came to lecture on psychoanalysis and to receive an honorary degree from Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. It was, he said, “an honorable call,” a mark of his academic success. Freud was then 53 and had been practicing for 23 years.

At the time, most doctors here and in Europe still considered mental illness to be caused by “degeneration” of the brain. They assumed that there was little to be done for it beyond physical treatments like diet, exercise, drugs, rest and massage. But a growing awareness that the mind could influence bodily functions was giving rise to debates about the nature of the unconscious mind.

G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark and the first person to earn a doctorate in psychology from Harvard, invited American scientists to hear Freud’s ideas about the unconscious roots of mental illness. William James, the philosopher and psychologist, was among those who attended, as were other prominent academics, like Adolf Meyer, who would become perhaps the most important psychiatric educator in the first half of the 20th century, and Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. Emma Goldman, the noted radical, who was also there, remarked, “Among the array of professors, looking stiff and important in their caps and gowns, Sigmund Freud, in ordinary attire, unassuming, almost shrinking, stood out like a giant among Pygmies.”

Speaking in German and without notes, Freud delivered five lectures covering the basic principles of psychoanalysis: hysteria and the psychoanalytic method, the idea that mental illness could arise from a person’s early experience, the importance of dreams and unconscious mental activity, infantile sexuality and the nature of transference.

When Freud learned that James would attend only one day, he chose that day to speak on the interpretation of dreams and the power of the unconscious. After the lecture, the two men spent more than an hour alone together. James would later express ambivalence about Freud’s ideas. “They can’t fail to throw light on human nature,” he wrote, “but I confess that he made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas.”

While accounts of Freud’s visit have inevitably focused on this conversation with James, a less-known encounter with another prominent American scientist would become far more significant — for the two men and for the future of psychoanalysis in the United States. This person was James Jackson Putnam, a professor of neurology at Harvard and a leader of a growing movement to professionalize psychotherapy in the United States. Putnam and many other scientifically minded people were trying to counteract the growing influence of spiritual healers, who had been trying to treat the mentally ill with religious and mystical approaches. He had recently attended the first medical conference on psychotherapy, in New Haven.

After listening to Freud at Clark, Putnam invited him and the other psychoanalysts who had traveled with him to the United States — Carl Jung (who also lectured and received an honorary degree at Clark) and Sandor Ferenczi — to spend a few days at the Putnam family camp in the Adirondacks, after the group visited Niagara Falls. Freud marveled at Putnam Camp, “where we had an opportunity of being acquainted with the utter wilderness of such an American landscape.” In several days of hiking and feasting, Putnam and Freud cemented a strong bond.

It was, Freud would later write, “the most important personal relationship which arose from the meeting at Worcester.” Putnam lent his stature to Freud’s ideas, promoting the psychoanalytic approach as a way to reach those patients who had been considered incurable. “There are obvious limits to its usefulness,” Putnam wrote in 1910, “but nevertheless it strikes deeper than any other method now known to psychiatry, and reaches some of these very cases to which the terms degenerative and incurable have been applied, forcing us to recast our conception of these states.”

Talk therapy offered a message of hope, in contrast to the pessimism that came with theories of hereditary illness and degeneration.

Looking back on his trip a few years later, Freud wrote that it had been encouraging: “In Europe I felt as though I were despised; but over there I found myself received by the foremost men as an equal.”

Putnam would go on to become the first president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in 1911. And psychoanalytic ideas would fairly rapidly become part and parcel of American culture and psychiatric education. Freudian terms like transference, the unconscious and the Oedipus complex entered the lexicon. And mental-health practitioners embarked on in-depth studies of their patients’ idiosyncratic life stories from childhood on. Thanks in large measure to Putnam’s work, psychoanalysis would become — and remain for 100 years — an ingrained and respected approach to treating mental illness of all kinds.

Leon Hoffman, a psychiatrist, is a co-director of the Pacella Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/29/opinion/29hoffman.html

Smart Birds

crow

When she set out to write about the crow — the black sheep of the avian world — the naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt didn’t relish the task. “I never meant to watch crows especially,” she admits in her curiously personal and thought-provoking meditation, “Crow Planet.” “Whenever I ask someone about chickadees or robins or flickers or other common birds . . . the response is almost always lackluster, noncommittal or at best blandly cheerful.” Crows, however, sometimes elicit raves (“They are so intelligent! And beautiful!”), but far more often insults (“loud,” “poopy,” “evil,” “menacingly bold,” “harbingers of death”).

Haupt knew the dark history that fed this distaste. During the plague years in medieval Europe, crows “scavenged the bodies lying uncovered in the streets.” In 1666, she writes, after the great fire of London, so many crows descended on the victims that Charles II ordered a campaign against them to calm a horrified populace. And yet, as she trained her binoculars on the familiar but spooky creatures in her yard, Haupt found aspects of the corvid family that argued for more respect.

Did you know that crows recognize human faces? To prove this, she writes, a researcher at the University of Washington conducted an experiment. Volunteers who had captured and banded crows (something crows resent) while wearing caveman masks were cawed at and dive-bombed whenever they re-entered crow precincts. When the same volunteers walked through the crow zone with their faces hidden by Dick Cheney masks, “the crows left them entirely alone.” (Presumably, this reflected no political bias.) Affectingly, Haupt describes “crow funerals” in which a “stillness” settles around a deceased bird as other crows “cluster about the crow in perfect silence,” and records evidence of crows at play — basking in the sun, “sprawled on one side with their wings hanging open . . . like black-feathered Madame Bovarys” or catching falling cherry blossoms. She knows that by publishing such observations, she risks criticism from the scientific community: studies “must not resort to anecdote” or “anthropomorphize their subject,” she scolds herself. And yet, she maintains, she can’t faithfully portray the interlaced world of man and crow without sharing such stories. She prefers the more open-minded, questing inquiry of earlier students of the natural world like Thoreau and Louis Agassiz, and patterns her own research technique on St. Benedict’s thoughtful reading practice, allowing a “contemplative flow” to settle upon her watching.

Like human beings, Haupt explains, crows are one of the “few prominent, dominant, successful species” that prosper in the modern world. Their hardiness means they will outlast more fragile ­species. Before we revile them, she suggests, we ought to understand that there are so many of them because there are so many of us. Because we have built, they have come, and crows and humans today must coexist in the “zoöpolis,” the “overlap of human and animal geographies.”

In a lyrical narrative that blends science and conscience, Haupt mourns the encroachments of urbanization, but cherishes the wildness that survives. She has learned to appreciate, “but not quite love,” the crow. And while she may hesitate to anthropomorphize the bird, she is unable to avoid, in one instance, caninifying it — comparing a brood of fledglings who landed on her lawn and uprooted her seedling carrots to playful Labrador puppies. She gently spritzed the young crows with a hose, hoping they’d flutter away and spare her crop. “Instead,” she writes, “all four of them gathered under the spray, flapped their wings and opened their bills, in what appeared to be absolute joy. I laughed, but in that slightly imbalanced way that could turn into crying if someone looked at me the wrong way.” Over the next few days, she brought out the hose again so they could play some more. Perhaps, then, it’s time to update the grisly collective noun (so unlike “an exaltation of larks” or a “paddling of ducks”) that’s been applied to these birds: not a “murder of crows” but a “litter.” It’s an apt expression in more ways than one. 

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/books/review/Schillinger-t.html

Defying Experts, Rogue Computer Code Still Lurks

It is still out there.

Like a ghost ship, a rogue software program that glided onto the Internet last November has confounded the efforts of top security experts to eradicate the program and trace its origins and purpose, exposing serious weaknesses in the world’s digital infrastructure.

The program, known as Conficker, uses flaws in Windows software to co-opt machines and link them into a virtual computer that can be commanded remotely by its authors. With more than five million of these zombies now under its control — government, business and home computers in more than 200 countries — this shadowy computer has power that dwarfs that of the world’s largest data centers.

Alarmed by the program’s quick spread after its debut in November, computer security experts from industry, academia and government joined forces in a highly unusual collaboration. They decoded the program and developed antivirus software that erased it from millions of the computers. But Conficker’s persistence and sophistication has squelched the belief of many experts that such global computer infections are a thing of the past.

“It’s using the best current practices and state of the art to communicate and to protect itself,” Rodney Joffe, director of the Conficker Working Group, said of the malicious program. “We have not found the trick to take control back from the malware in any way.”

Researchers speculate that the computer could be employed to generate vast amounts of spam; it could steal information like passwords and logins by capturing keystrokes on infected computers; it could deliver fake antivirus warnings to trick naïve users into believing their computers are infected and persuading them to pay by credit card to have the infection removed.

There is also a different possibility that concerns the researchers: That the program was not designed by a criminal gang, but instead by an intelligence agency or the military of some country to monitor or disable an enemy’s computers. Networks of infected computers, or botnets, were used widely as weapons in conflicts in Estonia in 2007 and in Georgia last year, and in more recent attacks against South Korean and United States government agencies. Recent attacks that temporarily crippled Twitter and Facebook were believed to have had political overtones.

Yet for the most part Conficker has done little more than to extend its reach to more and more computers. Though there had been speculation that the computer might be activated to do something malicious on April 1, the date passed without incident, and some security experts wonder if the program has been abandoned.

The experts have only tiny clues about the location of the program’s authors. The first version included software that stopped the program if it infected a machine with a Ukrainian language keyboard. There may have been two initial infections — in Buenos Aires and in Kiev.

Wherever the authors are, the experts say, they are clearly professionals using the most advanced technology available. The program is protected by internal defense mechanisms that make it hard to erase, and even kills or hides from programs designed to look for botnets.

A member of the security team said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had suspects, but was moving slowly because it needed to build a relationship with “noncorrupt” law enforcement agencies in the countries where the suspects are located.

An F.B.I. spokesman in Washington declined to comment, saying that the Conficker investigation was an open case.

The first infections, last Nov. 20, set off an intense battle between the hidden authors and the volunteer group that formed to counter them. The group, which first called itself the “Conficker Cabal,” changed its name when Microsoft, Symantec and several other companies objected to the unprofessional connotation.

Eventually, university researchers and law enforcement officials joined forces with computer experts at more than two dozen Internet, software and computer security firms.

The group won some battles, but lost others. The Conficker authors kept distributing new, more intricate versions of the program, at one point using code that had been devised in academia only months before. At another point, a single technical slip by the working group allowed the program’s authors to convert a huge number of the infected machines to an advanced peer-to-peer communications scheme that the industry group has not been able to defeat. Where before all the infected computers would have to phone home to a single source for instructions, the authors could now use any infected computer to instruct all the others.

In early April, Patrick Peterson, a research fellow at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif., gained some intelligence about the authors’ interests. He studies nasty computer programs by keeping a set of quarantined computers that capture and observe them — his “digital zoo.”

He discovered that the Conficker authors had begun distributing software that tricks Internet users into buying fake antivirus software with their credit cards. “We turned off the lights in the zoo one day and came back the next day,” Mr. Peterson said, noting that in the “cage” reserved for Conficker, the infection had been joined by a program distributing an antivirus software scam.

It was the most recent sign of life from the program, and its silence has set off a debate among computer security experts. Some researchers think Conficker is an empty shell, or that the authors of the program were scared away in the spring. Others argue that they are simply biding their time.

If the misbegotten computer were reactivated, it would not have the problem-solving ability of supercomputers used to design nuclear weapons or simulate climate change. But because it has commandeered so many machines, it could draw on an amount of computing power greater than that from any single computing facility run by governments or Google. It is a dark reflection of the “cloud computing” sweeping the commercial Internet, in which data is stored on the Internet rather than on a personal computer.

The industry group continues to try to find ways to kill Conficker, meeting as recently as Tuesday. Mr. Joffe said he, for one, was not prepared to declare victory. But he said that the group’s work proved that government and private industry could cooperate to counter cyberthreats.

“Even if we lose against Conficker,” he said, “there are things we’ve learned that will benefit us in the future.”

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Full article : http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/technology/27compute.html

Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood

Here is an experiment you don’t want to try at home.

guilt

Show a toy — a doll, say, or a model boat — to a toddler and explain that it it’s something special you’ve had since you were little. Ask the child to be “very careful” with it. Hand over the toy, which appears to be in fine condition, except that you’ve secretly rigged it to break spectacularly as soon as the child handles it.

When your precious toy falls apart, express regret by mildly saying, “Oh, my.” Then sit still and observe the child.

The point is not to permanently traumatize anyone — the researchers who performed this experiment quickly followed it with a ritual absolving the child of blame. But first, for 60 seconds after the toy broke, the psychologists recorded every reaction as the toddlers squirmed, avoided the experimenter’s gaze, hunched their shoulders, hugged themselves and covered their faces with their hands.

It was part of a long-term study at the University of Iowa to isolate the effects of two distinct mechanisms that help children become considerate, conscientious adults. One mechanism, measured in other experiments testing toddlers’ ability to resist temptations, is called effortful self-control — how well you can think ahead and deliberately suppress impulsive behavior that hurts yourself and others.

The other mechanism is less rational and is especially valuable for children and adults with poor self-control. It’s the feeling measured in that broken-toy experiment: guilt, or what children diagnose as a “sinking feeling in the tummy.”

Guilt in its many varieties — Puritan, Catholic, Jewish, etc. — has often gotten a bad rap, but psychologists keep finding evidence of its usefulness. Too little guilt clearly has a downside — most obviously in sociopaths who feel no remorse, but also in kindergartners who smack other children and snatch their toys. Children typically start to feel guilt in their second year of life, says Grazyna Kochanska, who has been tracking children’s development for two decades in her laboratory at the University of Iowa. Some children’s temperament makes them prone to guilt, she said, and some become more guilt-prone thanks to parents and other early influences.

“Children respond with acute and intense tension and negative emotions when they are tempted to misbehave, or even anticipate violating norms and rules,” Dr. Kochanska said. “They remember, often subconsciously, how awful they have felt in the past.”

In Dr. Kochanska’s latest studies, published in the August issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she and colleagues found that 2-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the broken-toy experiment went on to have fewer behavioral problems over the next five years. That was true even for the ones who scored low on tests measuring their ability to focus on tasks and suppress strong desires to act impulsively.

“If you have high guilt,” Dr. Kochanska said, “it’s such a rapid response system, and the sensation is so incredibly unpleasant, that effortful control doesn’t much matter.”

But self-control was critical to children in the studies who were low in guilt, because they still behaved well if they had high self-control.

“Even if you don’t have that sinking feeling in the tummy, you can still suppress impulses,” Dr. Kochanska said. “You can stop and remember what your parents told you. You can stop and reflect on the consequences for others and yourself.”

But what if your child lacks both self-control and guilt? What can you do? And should you feel guilty for doing a lousy job of parenting?

Well, you could blame yourself, although researchers haven’t been able to link any particular pattern of parenting to children’s levels of guilt, says June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University. But Dr. Tangney, who has studied guilt extensively in both children and adults, including prison inmates, does have some advice for parents.

“The key element is the difference between shame and guilt,” Dr. Tangney says. Shame, the feeling that you’re a bad person because of bad behavior, has repeatedly been found to be unhealthy, she says, whereas guilty feelings focused on the behavior itself can be productive. But it’s not enough, Dr. Tangney says, for parents just to follow the old admonition to criticize the sin, not the sinner. “Most young children,” Dr. Tangney said, “really don’t hear the distinction between ‘Johnny, you did a bad thing’ versus ‘Johnny, you’re a bad boy.’ They hear ‘bad kid.’ I think a more active, directive approach is needed.”

She recommends focusing not just on the bad deed, but more important, on how to make amends. “Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right,” Dr. Tangney said. “Little kids are overwhelmed by the spilled mess of milk on the floor. Parents can teach and support them to say ‘I’m sorry’ and to clean it up, maybe leaving the kitchen a little cleaner than it was before.”

That was the same atonement strategy, by the way, followed by the experimenters in Iowa who tricked the children with the broken toy. After the 60 seconds of angst, the children were asked what had happened and then were told that the toy could be easily repaired. The researcher would then leave the room with the broken toy and return in half a minute with an intact replica of it. The experimenter took the blame for having caused the damage, reassuring the children that it wasn’t their fault and that the toy was now as good as new anyway.

No harm, no foul, no guilt. If only the rest of their lives were so simple.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/science/25tier.html

Rare Photo of Snow Leopard in Afghanistan

Snow LeopardWildlife

Dot Earth likes a good animal photo as much as the next blog, particularly when the animal is beautiful and endangered. So we’re pleased to present a photograph of a snow leopard, taken by a camera trap in the Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan. (Here’s more on camera traps and Afghanistan’s elusive wildlife.)

Camera traps are used by conservationists to document the presence of animals that because of their rarity, behavior or other factors would otherwise be seldom seen. The basic trap consists of a camera and a means of triggering it — often an infrared device or some other motion sensor.

Workers try to set the traps in areas the target animal is likely to pass through — en route to a water or food source, for example. And the sensor is calibrated so that smaller animals or swaying tree limbs shouldn’t trigger it. Despite all this, camera traps don’t always capture their quarry. And even when they do, the subject is sometimes out of focus, or half out of the frame or plagued by red eye. And sometimes you get a fabulous shot of the animal’s derriere.

This photograph, though, is spectacular (if a trifle cockeyed). The trap was set up by workers with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the people who run the Bronx Zoo and undertake conservation projects around the world. In the Wakhan Corridor they are conducting wildlife surveys with the eventual goal of establishing a protected area.

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Full article and photo: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/28/rare-photo-of-snow-leopard-in-afghanistan/