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Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Jesus of the Sweatshops
Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, then the Georgia Republican party, and now candidate for Lt. Governor, is perhaps the most skilled political operator at the corrupt nexus of Republican business interests and the evangelical christian movement.

In an article in the Washington Post, we learn of a letter that Reed wrote, at the behest of his good friend Jack Abramoff, urging conservative christians to oppose legislation that would have made workers in the Northern Mariana Islands (a US possession) subject to federal wage and worker safety laws.
"The radical left, the Big Labor Union Bosses, and Bill Clinton want to pass a law preventing Chinese from coming to work on the Marianas Islands," the mailer from Reed's firm said. The Chinese workers, it added, "are exposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ" while on the islands, and many "are converted to the Christian faith and return to China with Bibles in hand."
"A year earlier, the Department of the Interior -- which oversees federal policy toward the U.S. territory -- presented a very different picture of life for Chinese workers on the islands. An Interior report found that Chinese women were subject to forced abortions and that women and children were subject to forced prostitution in the local sex-tourism industry.
It also alleged that the garment industry and other businesses set up facilities on the Northern Marianas to produce products labeled "Made in the USA," while importing workers from China and other Asian countries and paying them less than U.S. minimum wage under conditions not subject to federal safety standards."
Abramoff was paid 4 million dollars to plead the case for the sweat-shop owners in Congress, and I don't imagine he had much opposition to push against, given that the people of the Northern Marianas have no representation in Congress. This is yet another example, to go along with the Indian casino rip-offs, in which Reed has used his religious and political networks for self-enrichment while mobilizing christian grass-roots support for some of the worst, and most corrupt policies pushed by the K Street crowd.

Rumor has it that maybe even the Republicans in Georgia are tiring of this scam-artist - apparently Reed is facing stiff opposition in the upcoming primary. Perhaps that is why he was so happy to receive support from a pandering presidential hopeful named Rudy, who would seem to be in great need of some outreach to the southern base of the GOP.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Parsing the "Left" in Latin America
Over the past decade or so, political parties of the left have come to power throughout much of Latin America; Colombia and Central America being the only exceptions. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has received much media attention in the United States because of his confrontational rhetoric. But for the most part this seismic shift in Latin American politics has happened below the radar of most North Americans. To the extent that it is noted, there is a tendency to imagine that it represents some coherent wave of rejection of the "neoliberal" policies of the nineties, fueled by the failure of those policies to improve the lives of the poor, and also by a rejection of the global policies of the Bush administration.

A careful examination of the particular situation in each country could note the unique aspects of each country's political dynamic, but there would remain a very interesting question. To what extent are these movements of a single kind, and what are the deeper wells of tradition and ideology that they draw upon?

In an article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, Jorge G. Castañeda divides the current leftist movements into two categories, based on the manner in which two long-standing political traditions have evolved.
"The left...has followed two different paths in Latin America. One left sprang up out of the Communist International and the Bolshevik Revolution and has followed a path similar to that of the left in the rest of the world. The Chilean, Uruguayan, Brazilian, Salvadoran, and, before Castro's revolution, Cuban Communist Parties, for example, obtained significant shares of the popular vote at one point or another, participated in "popular front" or "national unity" governments in the 1930s and 1940s, established a solid presence in organized labor, and exercised significant influence in academic and intellectual circles."
"The origin of the other Latin American left is peculiarly Latin American. It arose out of the region's strange contribution to political science: good old-fashioned populism. Such populism has almost always been present almost everywhere in Latin America....These populists are representative of a very different left -- often virulently anticommunist, always authoritarian in one fashion or another, and much more interested in policy as an instrument for attaining and conserving power than in power as a tool for making policy. They did do things for the poor -- Perón and Vargas mainly for the urban proletariat, Cárdenas for the Mexican peasantry -- but they also created the corporatist structures that have since plagued the political systems, as well as the labor and peasant movements, in their countries."
"...recently, something funny has happened to both kinds of leftist movements on their way back to power. The communist, socialist, and Castroist left, with a few exceptions, has been able to reconstruct itself, thanks largely to an acknowledgment of its failures and those of its erstwhile models. Meanwhile, the populist left -- with an approach to power that depends on giving away money, a deep attachment to the nationalist fervor of another era, and no real domestic agenda -- has remained true to itself. The latter perseveres in its cult of the past: it waxes nostalgic about the glory days of Peronism, the Mexican Revolution, and, needless to say, Castro. The former, familiar with its own mistakes, defeats, and tragedies, and keenly aware of the failures of the Soviet Union and Cuba, has changed its colors."
It is interesting how Castro seems to be the central figure in both of these movements - arising from the Bolshevik model that has now given rise to a quasi-social democratic model, but also one of the heroes of the authoritarian populist left of today. Perhaps it is an example of political success becoming an obstacle to the positive evolution that less successful parties are forced to undergo.

Castañeda makes strong arguments for how a leftist polity is almost inevitable in Latin America, so long as there is some measure of democracy, and that the populist tradition has been a consistent disaster for the people of Latin America. Writing for a readership that includes most of the decision makers in the foreign policy area (though probably not "the decider"), he advises the developed powers to acknowledge the differences in these movements, and to encourage one, while containing, though not undermining, the other. It is an intriguing analysis that deserves critical assessment.

Sunday, May 28, 2006
Aung San Suu Kyi Update: Military Dictators Extend Her Detention
From an article in the LA Times:
"The Myanmar government today extended the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi despite intense international pressure and a personal appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Suu Kyi, who advocates peaceful change to bring democracy to the country, has been detained for more than 10 of the last 17 years. She was last arrested three years ago after her motorcade was attacked in an apparent attempt to assassinate her.

Her detention had been due to expire today. For many, Suu Kyi embodies the democracy movement in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and the decision of the military regime to detain her for an additional period of at least six months was a major setback for the opposition. Annan, making a rare televised appeal to the leader of a U.N. member nation, had called on Myanmar Sr. Gen. Than Shwe to free Suu Kyi and allow her party, the National League for Democracy, to participate in rebuilding the country. 'For the democratic process and the reconciliation process to be truly successful, it has to be inclusive,' Annan said during a stop in Thailand. 'And she has a role to play. And I'm relying on you, Gen. Than Shwe, to do the right thing.'"
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Progress Toward Invisibility
Would it really be possible to design objects, or cloaks for objects that would be invisible? In a paper published in Science today, researchers report a theoretical breakthrough that may lead in a few years to materials that would be invisible to radio waves, and someday perhaps, to visible light rays as well.

As explained in an article at PhysicsWeb, the key is the use of "metamaterials" - manufactured materials with unique refractive properties. The surface of these materials are composed of nano-scale structures that cause light or other electromagnetic radiation to bend in the opposite direction from normal materials, and this effect can be tuned to cause the radiation to be focused at will. Light could therefore be directed around the material like water flowing around an obstacle, with the result being that the viewer would see around the object - it being rendered invisible.

Thursday, May 25, 2006
Non-DNA Inheritance - A New Mechanism Discovered
The standard genetic model for the inheritance of traits is based on the transmission of genes, regions of DNA, from parents to offspring. In a new discovery, reported in Nature, researchers in France have found that a trait, in this case a spotted tail in mice, can be passed to offspring even if the DNA variant for that trait is not present.

They discovered that a mutation in the Kit gene would be lethal if a mouse were to inherit copies of that gene from both parents. If they inherited one mutant gene and one normal gene, then they would develop a spotted tail. But offspring from these crosses that inherited two normal copies also developed the spotted tail, and that seemed to defy the basic assumption of genetic inheritance.

Upon further investigation, they discovered that the sperm cells from the male parent contained not only the paternal DNA, but also some RNA molecules that had been produced before the sperm cell was fully formed. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is formed from the DNA template and goes on to act as the template for making proteins, so any mutation in the DNA will be reflected in the mRNA molecule. Apparently, some mutant mRNA was formed in the male and deposited in the sperm cells, even though some of those sperm cells had normal DNA. The mutant mRNA was them transmitted to the egg during fertilization where it led to the development of the spotted tail.

This phenomenon had been noticed in several plant species, but there was no real understanding of the process involved. There are also some intriguing hints that this may be a widespread phenomenon, including being an explanation for some of the inheritance patterns found in human diabetes.

It is well known that there are many factors that intervene between the DNA in our cells, and the final traits that we exhibit - factors that determine when and where genes are turned on, and how the proteins that they code for are assembled. This is the field of epigenetics, the study of all these non-DNA-based determinants of how traits develop. This study opens yet another door of possibilities for new explanations in this rapidly developing field.

Doubts About the Space Elevator
One of the most intriguing and unusual ideas regarding space travel has been the proposal to build an elevator that could transport cargo and people into near-Earth orbit. The elevator would consist of a cable made of carbon nanotubes, structures that have incredible strength given their size. The cable would stretch from the Earth's surface to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit - about 60,000 miles high. When in place, one could simply ascend the cable, without need for rocket propulsion.

The cable, actually a ribbon of nanotubes about the thickness of a sheet of paper, and about a meter wide, would have to withstand a tension of 62 gigapascals (GPa)- which is roughly the tension that would be exerted on a rope by 200,000 people playing tug-of-war. Nanotubes have already been shown to be capable of withstanding nearly twice that amount, which have led many to believe that this is actually a viable project. A Dallas-based company founded by a former NASA researcher, Carbon Designs, has plans to build an operational elevator within three years (if they can raise sufficient funds).

But a recent paper in the Journal of Physics, reported in Nature, concludes that inevitable minor imperfections in the manufacturing process would lead to a significant and fatal weakness in the ribbon.
Laboratory tests have shown that individual nanotubes can withstand an average of about 100 GPa, an unusual strength that comes courtesy of their crystalline structure. But if a nanotube is missing just one carbon atom, this can reduce its strength by as much as 30%. And a bulk material made from such tubes is even weaker. Most fibres made from nanotubes have so far had a strength much lower than 1 GPa.
...even if flawless nanotubes could be made for the space elevator, damage from micrometeorites and even erosion by oxygen atoms would render them weak. So can a space elevator be made? "With the technology available today? Never"
Well, the entrepreneurs are not dissuaded, but it does seem that there are some new challenges to overcome.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Jackson Needs to Resign Now
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson should resign, whether or not he made up his story of canceling a government contract because the contractor was not a Bush supporter. To leave him in place now, even if it is proven that the incidenct never took place, would leave his story out there as a threat to all future contractors.

The original story, in the Dallas Business Journal recounts how Jackson told his story to a meeting of the Real Estate Executive Council, a minority business association. Later reports at ThinkProgress tell how Jackson's office is denying the contracting incident ever happened.

If the incident never happened, then it is clear that the purpose of the speech was to put potential contractors on notice as to their need to express political loyalty. This is the real abuse, transcending any one particular incident. If the incident did happen, then Jackson may well be guilty of a federal crime. In either case, he needs to resign.

Monday, May 08, 2006
A Report From the Congo
"The vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the human conscience”. That is how Joseph Conrad described the situation in the Congo a century ago. In a long and painful article, Johann Hari writes of how different things are now. Bottom line: not different at all.
"This is the story of the deadliest war since Adolf Hitler’s armies marched across Europe. It is a war that has not ended. But is also the story of a trail of blood that leads directly to you: to your remote control, to your mobile phone, to your laptop and to your diamond necklace."
"...four million people have died in the dark, unnoticed and unmourned. The generations living in the West today have said nothing while the country has been reduced to near-Leopoldian levels of desperation by the scramble for loot, conducted on our behalf and for our benefit. Average life expectancy in Congo is now 43 and falling. I did not see any elderly people on my journey; they do not exist. In a country where the war is laughably referred to as “winding down”, a World Trade Centre-full of people is butchered every two days, and in the lost rural areas I could not reach, bubonic plague has made a triumphant come-back".
This is an important article to read if you seek insights into the dynamics at play at the base of the global economic pyramid.

Saturday, May 06, 2006
Creationism as Paganism
Belief in creationism is a form of paganism in that it conceives of a god that is responsible for natural events - this according the Vatican's official astronomer. Brother Consolmagno, who heads the Vatican's observatory, interviewed in the Scotsman said:
"Knowledge is dangerous, but so is ignorance. That's why science and religion need to talk to each other... Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism - it's turning God into a nature god."
The interview also touched on matters regarding the pope and his theological authority:
"...the idea of papal infallibility had been a "PR disaster". What it actually meant was that, on matters of faith, followers should accept "somebody has got to be the boss, the final authority". "It's not like he has a magic power, that God whispers the truth in his ear..."
It will certainly be interesting to see how "the final authority" feels on these matters.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Further Corroboration for Global Warming Models
The Climate Change Science Program, a Bush administration panel charged with resolving scientific disputes over global warming has concluded that one of the major discrepancies touted by the global-warming deniers, an apparent difference in warming rates at the surface vs. the troposphere, has been resolved.
"there is no longer a discrepancy in the rate of global average temperature increase for the surface compared with higher levels in the atmosphere"
As reported in the New York Times,
"The report's authors all agreed that their review of the data showed that the atmosphere was, in fact, warming in ways that generally meshed with computer simulations. The study said that the only factor that could explain the measured warming of Earth's average temperature over the last 50 years was the buildup heat-trapping gases, which are mainly emitted by burning coal and oil."
This is a panel that has been set up for the express purpose of giving the skeptics a full hearing, and forcing the two (rather unequally populated sides) to accommodate each others perspective. One of the authors, John Christy, himself somewhat a skeptic, notes that there remains some inconsistencies that need to be resolved regarding model predictions of localized temperatures, especially in the tropics, but does conclude: "part of what has happened over the last 50 years has clearly been caused by humans."

Also from the Times:
Michele St. Martin, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said, "We welcome today's report" and added that it showed that President Bush's decision to focus nearly $2 billion a year on climate monitoring and research was "working.
Matt Yglesias at TAPPED has the better headline: WHITE HOUSE: EARTH MAY BE ROUND, FURTHER STUDY NEEDED.

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