27 August 2014

A referendum to watch

The US is still coming to terms with the ongoing break-up of Iraq, but not many Americans realize there's an imminent risk -- albeit a slight one, and without violence in the offing -- of the break-up of another country which for most of recent history has been our most important ally.

The United Kingdom is a country consisting of four culturally-distinct territories -- England (by far the largest in population), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  In 2011 the Scottish National Party (SNP) which advocates independence of Scotland from the UK, won a majority in the Scottish Parliament and went ahead with plans for a referendum on secession.  That referendum will be held on September 18, three weeks from tomorrow.  Scotland (like Oregon) has voting by mail, and ballots are arriving at residences there today.

How serious a loss would Scotland be?  While it looks large on the map of the UK, Scotland has only 5.3 million people out of the UK's total population of 64.1 million, or 8.3%.  But this is comparable to the population size of Texas relative to the whole US, and clearly the loss of Texas would have a substantial impact on the US.  The UK would be distracted for years by internal problems such as division of North Sea oil resources, division of the national debt, what currency Scotland would have, what to do about UK military bases on Scottish territory, etc.  Also, Scotland is more leftist-voting than the UK as a whole, so the subtraction of its voters from the UK electorate would lead to more conservative UK governments which, there as elsewhere, would be generally bad for the economy.

(The current UK government is conservative and Scots are widely disgruntled at its policies, such as ongoing cuts to the National Health Service.  Cutting the NHS doesn't carry much political cost in England, because as wait times increase and services deteriorate, the public just blames immigration.)

That currency question, by the way, is a surprisingly thorny one.  The SNP had originally said that independent Scotland would adopt the euro, the common currency used by the majority of countries of the European Union (though not by the UK, which still uses the pound).  When it became clear that the euro is a fiasco which has helped ruin the economies which use it, the SNP switched to saying that Scotland would keep using the UK pound even after independence.  The UK has said that it would not allow that.  There are various options for a separate Scottish currency, but these would carry problems of their own.  A good overview is here.

A pro-independence vote would also likely encourage secessionist movements elsewhere, notably Spain, Italy, and even France, distracting and preoccupying European leaders who need to be focused on the real problems of recession, immigration, rising anti-Semitism, and the erosion of democracy and national sovereignty by the EU.

The good news is that polling shows the pro-independence side losing by margins ranging from 3% to 20%, though polls don't yet reflect the effects (if any) of a TV debate on Monday which SNP leader Alex Salmond is perceived to have won.  Scotland's business community is also urging a no vote.  The EU elections in May showed a resurgence of nationalism in the UK (as in other countries, notably France), a sentiment which will hopefully work against a national break-up.

If public opinion doesn't favor independence, why did the SNP win a majority in 2011?  At that time the UK's left-wing Labour party was badly discredited after years of the unpopular Blair and Brown government (among other things, Blair took the UK into the Iraq war), but Scotland would no more vote for the rival Conservative party than California would vote Republican, so the SNP may have won by default.  Also, voters sometimes vote to "send a message" even if they don't actually support the platform of the party they're voting for.

At any rate, thanks to mail balloting, Scots begin voting on the question today, and in a little over three weeks we'll know the answer.

24 August 2014

Link round-up for 24 August 2014

Hey, it looks like Republic of Gilead is back to active blogging!

When you gotta scratch, you gotta scratch.

Check out these photos that were improved by animals.

Oklahoma City's Catholic Archbishop had been planning to sue a devil-worship cult over a cracker (and we think the Pastafarians are silly).

Don't shoot!

If you don't think gerrymandering has much impact, take a look at this (found via Politics Plus).

Frank Moraes explains why the Boy Scouts have always bothered him (my take is that any society where you see children in uniforms has something wrong with it).

Here's what would happen if Obama found a cure for cancer (found via Squatlo Rant).

The atheist tone police need to STFU.

Krugman nails it (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

That video supposedly showing Michael Brown robbing a store actually may not show that at all (found via Progressive Eruptions).  Despite what a bunch of crank right-wing sites like Fox reported, Officer Wilson did not suffer a fractured eye socket.  Green Eagle's Wingnut Wrapup has more, along with the usual insanity.

Obamacare is becoming an electoral asset for Democrats.

19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavah is the latest victim of police incompetence and excessive force.

Here's why Hillary talks like a neocon (NSFW blog).

The California drought just gets worse and worse.

Rand Paul could destroy the Republicans.

"We don't serve fags here."

Purity-crazed conservatives are channeling Jack D. Ripper.

Only one President in US history had a criminal record when he took office, and it worked out about as well as you'd expect.

Right-wing fantasies of revolt against an oppressive government have a basis in reality, but not where they think.

McConnell promises more government shutdowns if the Republicans take the Senate -- thus proving he's an idiot.

The beaches of Cornwall are awash in.....Lego?

London is looking great, by night and by day.

Police just killed a man in Iceland -- the first time that has ever happened in that country.

Some of the unaccompanied minors the US has deported back to Central America have already been murdered there.

Putin backs down again, pulling his "aid convoy" out of Ukraine.

Pakistan's small Hindu minority suffers forced conversions and worse.

In the latest example of Saudi barbarity, a woman who called the religious police liars gets fifty lashes.

In Liberia, police open fire on rioters protesting a clumsily-imposed Ebola quarantine.  This preacher responds to the disease with the usual bullshit.

This is surprisingly well done: 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire.

There's a story going around that an ancient Neanderthal skull with a bullet hole in it has been discovered (found via Mendip), but it isn't a bullet hole, and the skull isn't Neanderthal.

The Ediacarans, Earth's first multi-cellular life forms, show how evolution bridged the gap between simple and complex.

23 August 2014

Video of the day -- but he loves you!


Religion isn't just about hating people who are different -- it has its own kind of love, too!  I have a note on my link to this video that it came from Shaw Kenawe, but I can't remember the context.  It was a while ago.

22 August 2014

Quote for the day -- different words, same thing

Found via Squatlo Rant.

20 August 2014

Bet on decentralization

This article on the sluggish sales of the colossal Airbus A380 airliner (found via F169) exemplifies an important point about the future direction of technology.  Consider the different responses of Boeing and Airbus to the anticipated growth of the volume of air traffic in the near future:

A little more than a decade ago, the two dominant airplane makers, Boeing and Airbus, looked at where their businesses were headed and saw similar facts: air traffic doubling every 15 years, estimates that the number of travelers would hit four billion by 2030 -- and came to radically different conclusions about what those numbers meant for their future. Boeing figured that traffic would move away from big hubs and toward secondary airports. So it started to build a smaller, more fuel-efficient long-range aircraft, which became known as the 787 Dreamliner. Airbus, on the other hand, saw the rise of international traffic through major hubs and decided to bet on a big plane to connect those big airports.

Airbus bet on the continued dominance of the centralized hub-and-spoke model, with its implications of ever-further gigantism -- bigger and bigger planes serving bigger and bigger "hub" airports.  Boeing bet on a decentralized model where the growth would take the form of more direct flights between smaller, local airports, bypassing the hubs.

From the point of view of an air traveler, it's easy to see why Boeing's bet was the winning one.  Flying by way of a stop means being stuck on the ground in your plane at the "hub" or possibly having to hang out at an airport for hours waiting for your connecting flight, prolonging an already overlong journey -- and increasing the risk of delays, missed connections, etc.  For most people, a non-stop flight is preferable when possible -- and that means point-to-point.  If you live in Portland and you want to go to Copenhagen, you'll take a direct flight if there is one, rather than one that stops at a "hub" like New York or London.

(It's tempting to wonder if Airbus's decision springs from the same mentality as the European Union, another over-centralized entity which has forced a one-size-fits-all currency and set of policies on a diverse group of nations, with disastrous results.)

Some airlines have bet on piling on more luxuries, but I think this appeals only to the very wealthy (or those on expense accounts who aren't paying their own way).  Everyone else would rather save money.  If somebody offered you $500 to sit in a cramped uncomfortable chair for 10 hours, you'd probably take it.  So you'd probably choose the no-frills air ticket over the first-class one if it's $500 cheaper.

The point is that the centralized, gigantist model which came in with the industrial revolution is on its way out.  This first occurred to me with the way new power-generation technologies like solar give us the opportunity to break away from that model.  We're used to having a small number of huge power plants which each generates electricity for a vast area (nuclear power in particular requires this model).  This means that a failure of a single plant could black out a wide area, making such plants attractive targets for terrorist attacks, among other problems.  Giant plants inherently involve more danger since generating so much energy in one place means you need something immensely powerful or massive to be present, such as radioactive fuel in nuclear power plants.  Anything so powerful is difficult to control, and dangerous if it gets out of control, as Fukushima exemplified (and God help the world if this ever happens).  Solar power allows for a decentralized system of many much smaller generating plants, far less vulnerable and far less dangerous.

We've had a glimpse of this problem recently in the fighting in Iraq. Earlier this month the insanely murderous ISIS/Islamic State organization captured the Mosul dam on the upper Tigris, the largest dam in Iraq.  Having a terrorist gang in control of a major energy source presents obvious problems, and if the dam were to break or be destroyed (deliberately or as a result of warfare), the resulting flood would devastate the city of Mosul and perhaps even Baghdad.  ISIS/Islamic State probably does not want to wreck Mosul since they control it, but even after Kurdish forces recently recaptured the dam with the aid of US air strikes, they found that the fanatics had booby-trapped it with explosives; removing these will be difficult and dangerous.  And the site on which the dam is built is now known to be made up of weak, soluble soils and minerals which need continuous attention to prevent the dam from being undermined.  For the sun-drenched, perennially violence-racked Middle East, decentralized solar power systems would surely be preferable.

Fukushima is probably not the last high-profile disaster that will result from the centralized / gigantist model.  Each one will increase the attractiveness of decentralized, smaller-scale technology.  Bet on that to be the look of the future.

19 August 2014

Some things last

Today marks eight years I've had this blog.

17 August 2014

I hate this man

The man pictured above is Rick Wiles, an American Christian radio preacher who has recently been in the news for declaring that "Ebola could solve America's problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion."  He hopes that this ghastly disease will become widespread in the advanced world and condemn all those who do not submit to his religion's primitive taboos to a hideous death.  Squatlo Rant blog reported it and Right Wing Watch confirms it.

I've tried to embrace free speech impartially, I really have.  I've tried so hard to be tolerant of religious hate and religious bigotry, treating it as just another opinion which is as legitimate, under the auspices of free expression, as my own.

But I just can't do it any more.  I hate Rick Wiles.  I hate his guts.

And why shouldn't I?  He hates me.  He has bluntly said that he wishes a hideous death upon me if I don't get an "attitude adjustment", and he clearly doesn't feel an atom of guilt or self-doubt about doing so.

And I don't just hate Rick Wiles.  He's just the latest example of the type.  I hate all those who are like him and who equally casually and confidently hate me and people like me.  They are my enemies, they have chosen to be so.  Bryan Fischer.  Ayatollah Khamenei.  Pope Francis.  The men of ISIS/Islamic State.  The American fundamentalist movement.  The men of Hamas.  The Catholic Church hierarchy.  They are not human to me, they are monsters.  They are all mortal enemies of me and people like me, and I hate them all.

I'm done with tolerance and any pretense of mutual respect.  This is an all-out war, and we are winning, and we must smash them, and settle for nothing less than unconditional surrender and total victory.

Link round-up for 17 August 2014

I've driven across this bridge hundreds of times.  Always made me nervous.

Piss on the building, and the building will piss on you.

No, the Rapture is not a good enough reason to skip education, even in Texas.

Stupidest movie ever.

Can't get a girlfriend?  Try this.  It will soon be normal.

What's the most-spoken language in your state after English and Spanish?

Texas blog Brains and Eggs has some reactions to the Perry indictment.

This woman's virginity fixation ruined her wedding night.

Behold the white-supremacist paradise.

Gin and Tacos looks at class hierarchy and incarceration in the US.

Republican rule in the modern South has parallels with the sabotage of Reconstruction in the 1870s.

On F169, I debate the merits of "white culture" and my home city.

Are people fleeing gay marriage?  Not really.

A teabagger campaign against "liberal" judges fizzles in Tennessee.

Here's the biggest reason why we must prevent a Republican President in 2016.

"Knockout" is still going, the latest victim being a pregnant New Yorker.

The latest Republican dirty trick is fake news sites attacking Democrats (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

Politics Plus, Squatlo Rant, and The Immoral Minority comment on the Ferguson crisis, while Green Eagle points out how we know who's at fault.  The cops are militarized, but incompetently militarized (link from commenter Vic78).

Don't be fooled by Rand Paul, he's nuttier than most Republicans.

Learn the meaning of the "rape trees" now appearing along the US-Mexico border.

PZ Myers is hanging out in Yorkshire, which has moors.

There's a surreal, natural blue wonderland in Belgium.

Italy's only hope of returning to prosperity is to abandon the euro currency.  France is already flatly defying EU austerity edicts.

Maryam Mirzâkhâni is the first woman and the first Iranian to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics.  So of course the Iranian media fuss over her not wearing a headscarf, with President Rouhani ahead of the curve as usual.

Yezidis think they know ISIS/Islamic State's plans for their abducted women.  They've already murdered about 500 Yezidis, some by burying alive.

Obama's actions in Iraq are in line with what Americans want.

In Baghdad, Shiite radicals mass-murder those whose lifestyle they disapprove.

They should've listened, should've stayed out of goddamn Syria.

Kenya contemplates a law imposing life imprisonment or death by stoning for homosexuality.

This week a new Ebola treatment center opened in Liberia.  Two days later a rioting mob looted and destroyed it.

For those who pay me the compliment of linking to my posts, a brief reminder.

15 August 2014

From around the blogs -- Ferguson, Missouri

I haven't had time to study the Ferguson situation closely enough to write a post about it, but I do have a couple of observations.

1) Many have remarked on the militarized, occupation-force-like character of the police deployed in Ferguson, and some have tried to justify it by pointing to the occasional looting the accompanied the protests, but all this display of intimidating force didn't prevent the looting!  The looting happened anyway.  Besides being bad for all the obvious reasons, militarizing the police doesn't even deter crime.

2) We still don't know exactly what happened in the shooting of Michael Brown.  There are conflicting reports and it will take careful investigation to establish the facts.  But in a time when conservatives are re-imposing Jim-Crow-style vote-suppression gimmicks and rolling back civil-rights protections, it's only natural that a lot of black Americans feel targeted and under siege by the authorities, especially in certain parts of the country  You can't do all that crap and then expect people to give you the benefit of the doubt when a black person is killed by the police under suspicious (at best) circumstances.

3) They arrested reporters who were covering the story.  There's no ambiguity or "two sides" to that.  It's how the authorities act in Russia or Iran.  Not here.

Anyway, here's a sample of what other bloggers have had to say:

"The one observation I have tonight is that this is an incredibly odd way for the police department of St. Louis County to behave. When there is civil unrest because the local police killed an unarmed 18 year old in cold blood for no reason, the smart response is to do community outreach. But they turned the whole thing over to the county and then the decision was made to use terror on the populace. There has been one store looted and one store lit on fire, but it's not like there was a total breakdown of law and order. Breaking out mine-resistant vehicles, sniper rifles, and full-on riot gear and firing stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets at peaceably assembled people is not how you overcome the overzealousness of one bad cap and repair your reputation with the community." -- Booman Tribune

"How many times have we read on conservative blogs that President Obama is 'shredding the Constitution?' How many times have conservative pols, pundits, and bloggers accused President Obama of fundamentally changing this country? Meanwhile, the police in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities across the country have violated the most fundamental Constitutional guarantees. It's not the president who is slamming reporters' heads against walls for being reporters and performing their constitutionally protected rights, it is an out-of-control police presence, which is under the jurisdiction of the individual cities and towns' leadership -- the mayors and city/town councils. When will this be addressed by them?" -- Progressive Eruptions

"It's actually funny in a way, because all their violence and body armor and tanks just show that they are a bunch of wimps. Does a real man panic and put seven bullets in a boy because he doesn't immediate respond to the officer's command? Of course not." -- Frank Moraes

"But for Fox News, it is pretty much a non-story. Or rather, the murder of an unarmed teen was a non-story. The many peaceful protests was a non-story. Militarized police use of excessive force against protesters was a non-story. Pretty much everything about Ferguson was a non-story except for some looting that took place Sunday evening." -- Frank Moraes

"I was reminded of that a few days ago while I was listening to a program about changing careers on public radio. One of the people who called in was a cop who said he should have become a farmer like his dad because police work was such a disappointment. He went on to talk about how he expected to be chasing "bad guys," but instead found he spent most of his time mediating and negotiating community conflicts. To me, that gets to the heart of our problem with law enforcement. We envision it as "good guys vs bad guys" and then recruit people for the job who want to stick it to the "bad guys." Racial sensitivity training is never going to cut it when the problem goes much deeper. Until we get to the place where we see law enforcement as a service working for/with the community and recruit folks who are good at doing that, we won't be able to fix this mess." -- Horizons

"Every nog is looking for that 16 minutes and that big payout. It's the black American dream. I can't help but laugh when I see these goddamn monkeys running around shouting about justice. Justice!! Really? From a subculture known for nothing if not violence and materialism. You know every last one of those protesting niggers has visions of being roughed up by the police and it being captured on film dancing in their little pea brains." -- Anonymous commenter here, where there's more of the same, like this advisory guide -- never forget that these people exist.

The best blog post on Ferguson is Green Eagle's, which I insist you click over to and read in its entirety.

At the moment a take-over by state-level police, led by a captain who grasps the difference between policing and military occupation, seems to offer some hope of defusing the crisis.  Too bad they didn't think of that sooner.

10 August 2014

Success in Iraq

When President Obama recently authorized airstrikes against the ISIS (or "Islamic State", as they are now calling themselves) forces in northern Iraq, the move was reflexively condemned by those on both left and right who don't understand a damn thing about the details of the situation in Iraq, but just mindlessly reacted to the prospect of "getting back into" that disintegrating country.

Here are the relevant details.  ISIS/Islamic State forces, extremist Sunni Muslim fanatics who have already committed atrocities against Christians and Shiite Muslims in the areas they control, recently captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, whose population was mostly Yazidis.  The Yazidis are a small Kurdish-speaking group who practice a secretive religion which is mostly derived from Zoroastrianism, but which many Muslims consider a form of devil-worship.

ISIS/Islamic State had openly declared its intention to wipe out the Yezidis, so most of the population of Sinjar fled to a nearby highland where they have been exposed to the roasting heat of an Iraqi summer, without shelter or water.  Almost immediately the weak, the elderly, and small children began dying.  ISIS/Islamic State was relentless, killing all the Yezidis they could catch, except for several hundred women whom they seized alive for purposes unknown but perhaps easily guessed.  The situation had all the signs of an imminent genocide.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters set out to reach the Yezidi refugees and rescue them, but could not make headway against the ISIS/Islamic State forces controlling the surrounding area.  Obama authorized American airstrikes against ISIS/Islamic State positions to weaken them and facilitate the advance of the Peshmerga.  No American forces on the ground were even considered.

It worked.  The Peshmerga have now forced the fanatics back and opened the way for the Yazidi refugees to escape.

Rather than just throw up his hands and dismiss the situation as an incomprehensible mess, as too many bloggers do when it comes to the Middle East, Obama analyzed the situation, set a goal, chose a tactic appropriate to achieving it, and ordered our forces into action.  The tactic worked, the goal was achieved, and he helped save the lives of about five thousand people, without a single American soldier being put at risk on the ground.  This is what can be done when American power is guided by informed intelligence instead of blind rah-rah arrogance that would rather just blow everything up than take the trouble to understand it.

And spare a thought, too, for the Peshmerga, the men who did do the hard and dangerous work of fighting on the ground to save members of a despised minority.  The word Peshmerga translates as "those who face death".  They do.

Link round-up for 10 August 2014

Murr Brewster looks at toilets with a mind of their own.

There's a storm coming.

Many fundie preachers have been exposed as closet homosexuals, but Jerald Hill is different.

Teabaggers remind us that we face a simple choice.

I want one of these.

The New York Public Library has put 20,000 maps online for the public (found via Mendip).

Why do people do disgusting things like this?

Rosa Rubicondior looks at the gross historical blunders of the Old Testament, and the real significance of the story of Lot.

Portland is the most livable US city, apparently.

A Tampa church cancels a man's funeral one day beforehand -- because they discovered he was gay.

Colorado offers free birth control, teen pregnancy plummets.

Kangaroos pwn Biblical literalists, but be careful how you point such things out.

Esquire profiles Dr. Willie Parker, Mississippi's last abortion provider.

Ted Nugent reaches out to American Indians.

Texas executed an innocent man.  Oregon needs to make sure this thing never walks free again.

We still can't do what Norway has been doing since 1912.

Six yours behind bars -- sounds about right.

A dark horror from Europe's past is rising again, with an echo in the US (yes, it's real).

Separate truth from lies on human shields in Gaza.

Kaveh Mousavi has a detailed evaluation of Rouhani's first year as President of Iran.

Turkey's Islamotard leader shows his true attitude toward women.

Aid workers face exhaustion and despair trying to save an uncomprehending population from Ebola.  Here's an example of normal conditions in the same region.

Scientists think they know what caused that new giant crater in Siberia, and it's not good news.

09 August 2014

Quote for the day -- fashionable impotence

"You can't afford to be cynical. Cynicism is fashionable sometimes. You see it all over our culture, all over TV; everybody likes just putting stuff down and being cynical and being negative, and that shows somehow that you're sophisticated and you're cool. You know what -- cynicism didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynicism didn’t win women the right to vote. Cynicism did not get a Civil Rights Act signed. Cynicism has never won a war. Cynicism has never cured a disease. Cynicism has never started a business. Cynicism has never fed a young mind."

President Obama, found via Horizons, which has another must-read post on the same theme.

07 August 2014

A dictator at bay

Vladimir Putin's epic blundering has painted him, and Russia, into a very dark and uncomfortable corner.  And he may be on the verge of making an even more disastrous mistake.

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia until this year, evaluates Putin's record against the standard of the man's own goals.  He has had a couple of successes -- turning Russian public opinion against the US, and positioning Russia internationally as a conservative, pro-religion, authoritarian, anti-gay, anti-individualist alternative to the liberal model represented by the US.  Aside from that, his inept and impulsive actions have been disastrous.

His annexation of Crimea and clumsy subversion of eastern Ukraine have irrevocably alienated the Ukrainian people and ruined any chance that they might be coaxed willingly into Russia's orbit.  He has even made countries already in Russia's zone of influence, such as Kazakhstan, nervous about what he might do to them in the future.  Some neighbors, such as Georgia and Moldova, are rushing to tighten their ties with the EU to help keep Russia at arms length.  The bumbling Ukrainian separatists he supports shot down a civilian airliner, a public-relations disaster.  The Western sanctions he provoked have badly damaged Russia's economy and development prospects, much to the consternation of Russian business interests.

It's true that the intervention in Ukraine has boosted Putin's popularity at home -- but as McFaul points out, the Iraq invasion initially gave Bush sky-high ratings here, and look how that turned out.

British business commentator Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a lot more detail about the harm the sanctions are doing to Russia's economy, and how Putin's alienation of the West is driving Russia into the arms of China, a country actually far more threatening to Russian interests than the West is.  But as he also points out, Putin has massed 20,000 troops and a lot of heavy equipment on the Ukrainian border.  It could be a bluff -- 20,000 sounds like a rather small force to invade a country of 47 million or even a significant chunk of it -- or it could be that he has so taken leave of his senses that he would rather invade Ukraine than accept humiliating defeat by watching his separatist proxies there be annihilated by the Ukrainian military, as is now happening.

If so, one can only hope that others are trying to talk sense into him.  A Russian invasion of Ukraine would not drag NATO or the US into war -- Ukraine is not a NATO member and we have no legal obligation to defend it, and a direct conflict between the two nuclear superpowers would be too dangerous to risk.  But the West would certainly give military aid to Ukraine, as it did to the Afghans during the Soviet invasion.  Sanctions would escalate to crushing, devastating levels, with the explicit goal of smashing Russia's economy and bringing down the regime.  Countries near Russia would stampede to make the best deals they could with the West, for the sake of their own security.

The frightening thing is that Putin's track record shows him to be unpredictable, impulsive, and capable of making stupid mistakes.  The saving grace is that we aren't the only people who are worried about that.  Russian businessmen and oligarchs (and the dividing line between those two groups is a tad fuzzy) have already seen their interests hurt by Putin's adventurism, and they surely know what would happen if he launched an invasion.  The Russian military probably doesn't want to enter a prolonged war with a NATO-backed enemy.

If Putin does intend to invade and can't be talked out of it, those interests will need to decide what to do.  Removing a dictator who is, for the moment, popular with the public would be a daunting prospect.  But Putin himself has chosen to create an order where sheer force and propaganda sweep aside legality and deference to popular will.  Removing him from power to save Russia from his incompetence would just be playing by his own rules.

Update:  In further self-pwnage, Putin has "retaliated" for the sanctions by banning a wide range of food imports from Western and Western-linked countries.  But with a few local exceptions, the ban will have little impact on the West, while it will crimp the lifestyle to which Russians, especially those of the middle and upper-middle class, have grown accustomed since the fall of the USSR opened up the country to the world.  Yet another likely source of discontentment with the regime.

05 August 2014

What technology can do, and what it cannot do

Two American missionaries who contracted Ebola while working in west Africa have been given an experimental treatment for the disease, a monoclonal antibody serum called "ZMapp", developed in California.  ZMapp is so new that it had not even been tested on humans, but the two victims' condition had deteriorated to the point where they had little to lose.  The results were dramatic:

"Within an hour of receiving the medication, Brantly's condition was nearly reversed. His breathing improved; the rash over his trunk faded away. One of his doctors described the events as 'miraculous'," reported CNN, citing sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation.

Of course, this was not a controlled experiment, so it can't be taken as proven in a scientific sense that the serum caused the recovery (as with most diseases, some people who get Ebola recover spontaneously), but this is about as good non-experimental evidence gets.  Assuming Brantly and his colleague continue to recover, it is no longer true that there is no cure for Ebola.

The technologies involved in modern mass hygiene are far simpler and humbler -- soap, availability of clean water, toilets -- and they've been around a lot longer.  Even in Roman times, major cities had sewer systems, because heaven help you if you cram a million people together in an urban setting without some systematic means of waste disposal.

I've posted occasionally about the perplexing problem of defecation in public places in India, which officials there have tried to combat by everything from installing free toilets to producing amusing videos.  It's not working, because contrary to what Westerners might assume, the problem is not unavailability of toilets, but rather cultural and religious attitudes.

Only dalits, the lowest Hindu caste, should be exposed to excrement in a closed space, "or city-dwellers who don’t have space to go in the open," said Sunita, who uses one name, as she washed clothes next to the concrete latrine. "Feces don’t belong under the same roof as where we eat and sleep."

"Targets for construction of toilets are somewhat irrelevant to resolving the sanitation problem," said Yamini Aiyar, director of policy research group Accountability Initiative in New Delhi. "Building toilets does not mean that people will use them and there seems to be a host of cultural, social and caste-based reasons for that. People need to be taught the value of sanitation".....In at least five of India’s poorest states, the majority of people in households with a government latrine don’t use it, according to a survey of 3,200 rural households by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics in the capital.

The Indian government has been trying for decades to deal with this problem, with apparently almost no success.  Yes, inefficiency and incompetence are part of the reason, but millions of free latrines have been provided.  The real problem is that making the tools available doesn't help much when masses of people reject the scientific understanding of healthful behavior because of traditional beliefs and attitudes.

And beliefs and attitudes have consequences.  Public defecation spreads disease.  Its consequences in India include 600,000 deaths from diarrhea per year.  The west African Ebola outbreak so far has killed somewhat fewer than one thousand people, but India suffers far more deaths than that per day from foolish ideas that perpetuate a terrible failure of public sanitation.

Even in the case of Ebola, ignorance and superstition have inflated the death toll as people reject science-based advice on basic precautions that could help them avoid the disease.  ZMapp could probably save many lives in west Africa, but only behavioral changes could really stop the spread of the disease.  For that matter, the anti-vaccine crazies in the US are another example of the same problem.

Technology can provide the tools to work what seem like miracles.  It cannot overcome the beliefs that lead people to refuse them.  To accomplish that, other means must be used.

03 August 2014

Link round-up for 3 August 2014

In Utah, you can be fired because your boss is a moron.

We're not getting any better at this.

Looking for a date?  Don't bother with OKCupid, they're assholes.

Men -- don't go swimming in Illinois.

Is Oklahoma really like this?

Sometimes it's useful to be a good shot.

Do not use this person as a babysitter.

Some former leaders/victims of the "ex-gay" movement speak out.

One religious group truly supports individual freedom (sent by Mendip).

A gay man asks the haters some reasonable questions.

A trivial traffic stop ends with a family pet dead.

Faye Kane talks sense about porn and sexuality (NSFW blog).

The lies of Frederic Wertham almost destroyed a part of American culture (found via Mendip).

Michelle Obama is working on getting out the vote.

The flow of unaccompanied minors across our southern border, never actually very large, slacks off.

Will Boehner be goaded into the impeachment tar pit?

Anti-vaccine idiocy threatens the lives of babies in Tennessee.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, the Republican party has created a monster it can no longer control.

In Belgium, a doctor refuses to help a 90-year-old woman with a fractured rib -- because she's Jewish (found via F169).

Here's the story of an Egyptian woman, raised as a strict Muslim, who became an atheist (found via Kaveh Mousavi).

Most Arab countries are quietly supporting Israel against Hamas.

The Ebola epidemic in Africa is being exacerbated by ignorance and superstition.

Karl Shuker is on the hunt for giant spiders (found via Mendip).

Weird creatures wash up on west-coast beaches.

01 August 2014

Video of the day -- Hiya Hiya -- visions of the great barrier


This video fascinates me partly for the contrast it exemplifies.  The imagery is from the western part of the Sahara, the vast barrier of wasteland separating the Mediterranean world from the very different world of Sub-Saharan Africa -- perhaps the most desolate large region on Earth, after Antarctica.  Set against that is the luxuriant beauty of Khaled's voice and of the Arabic script spelling out the words of the song.  Arab culture is known for its love of poetry and calligraphy -- is there perhaps something about desert cultures that seeks refuge from the barrenness of the physical environment in the richness of language?

Previous videos by Khaled are here and here.