Monday, March 26, 2007

Barbarians here, barbarians there, everywhere barbarians

Let's see: computer? Check. Cell phone? Check. Pens and notebook? Check. Body armor? Check. Stock price? Uh oh. Come home--The most important story in American journalism is getting harder and harder to cover, is being covered less well than ever before, and presents vast new problems for newsrooms. Four years into the Iraq war--probably the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history--the media is up against stinging truths. Covering this war is so expensive that even the largest and best newsrooms are finding they are shifting resources from elsewhere to cover it or are dropping out altogether; it is getting harder to find people willing to go, and the people who are there need a break desperately. The only good news is that the people back here are paying attention as reflected in the polling data.

Because the economics of the media and the relentless pressures of the barbarians on Wall Street, whose concern for the stock price exceeds their concern for democracy, coverage is diminishing. The United States is at war and the bulk of American media have stopped covering it, an unprecedented situation.

In the history of American journalism, you will find few examples of greater heroism than the reporters, photographers and editors in Iraq. So far, 155 journalists, Iraqi and foreign, have been killed covering this war. Several are missing. The reason the war is not being covered as well as other wars is simple: it is too damned dangerous. Many, if not most, reporters are reluctant to leave the Green Zone, the haven in central Baghdad for fear of their lives, and even that sanctuary isn't safe. Stray rockets and mortar shells blow in sporadically. Going out on the streets or into the country to report the wars simply is no longer an option. The best many bureaus can do is send its Iraqi nationals out to cover the story but even that is difficult. Many have been killed, many have been forced to leave the country because of threats, and others live in total terror of what will happen to them or their families. Translators often wear ski masks to protect their identity. Some media now resort to non-Americans in their bureaus. Note the number of British and Australian accents on the air.

Part of the problem undoubtedly is getting volunteers. When I was a young reporter it was clear that if you wanted to cement your career, you went to Vietnam. I volunteered but UPI at the time would not send married reporters, so I never went. Iraq is different. Those willing to go have been sent and recycled in and out for years. Susan Chira, foreign editor of the New York Times, told Editor and Publisher that the pool of volunteers is getting smaller and the people who had been cycled in and out need to move on. John Burns of the Times, possibly the worlds' best war correspondent, is finally being removed to take over the London bureau. I think he was pushing his luck.

The Los Angeles Times put three new people in Baghdad, but all were hires from other bureaus hired in Iraq. Internal volunteers ran out. The Associated Press, which has 85 staffers, including Iraqis, in Baghdad admits that many cycled out for a rest are reluctant to return. The fact the AP has lost four staffers, two recently, probably hasn't helped recruiting. The LA Times admits that the expense--largely security--is draining the foreign news budget. Other stories go unreported in other parts of the world.

The Wall Street Journal, the last of the big four newspapers, does not have a permanent staff covering the war. They have one person assigned permanently, but that person is not there full-time and sometimes, their office is empty. In part, Bill Spindle, the Middle East Editor of the Journal says, it is the cost of security that makes it hard to operate here.

While all this is going on, the barbarians are loose. Two newspapers, the Boston Globe (owned by the Times, of all companies) and the Baltimore Sun (owned by the Tribune Co.), which once had legendary foreign correspondents, either have totally closed their foreign bureaus or are doing so. Neither covers Iraq. The Globe, which once had five people in Baghdad, closed its bureau in 2005, in part after one of its reporters, Elizabeth Neuffer was killed.

This is serious stuff. The media have a responsibility in a democracy and they are not able to fulfill it as well as they might. And everyone is to blame.

[The picture above is Anna Badkhen, on temporary assignment in Iraq for the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Friday, March 23, 2007

I am now going to scare the crap out of you.

While you were out we redecorated your office and abolished the First and Fourth Amendments--An excerpt from John Murrell's "Good Morning Silicon Valley" and linked to the original in the Washington Post. The Post has verified this is accurate. Just out of curiousity, whatever happened to the First Amendment and why isn't the correct answer to the FBI gag order something in the order of "up yours?" [I had something else in mind but children might wander by.] The Post said it published the op-ed piece anonymously despite its rules not generally to do so. Good for them.

"Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand -- a context that the FBI still won't let me discuss publicly -- I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled. ... I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation."

-- An anonymous businessman describes the gagged life; between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 140,000 such letters.

The person involved heroically took the FBI to court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, essentially telling them to shove it. The FBI responded by withdrawing the request for information but keeping the gag order, which I would think is unconstitutional on its face.

Oh, arragh.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

It's 2007, you idiot--Decline of Western Civilization, Part IX

So if I close the covers, the content stays on the pages, even without being plugged in?--What follows are two absolutely true stories, both of which happened this week.

My daughter has been accepted in a Jewish high school for next year. The school is now in its fifth year, with only about 100 students and using borrowed space until they can build their own permanent home. The school is well-funded and resources are not lacking. At an orientation meeting a few day ago, they opened the floor to questions and I asked about the library. I know it fills about half of a normal-sized classroom (they haven't had time to build a real one, yet), but was curious about their plans. They responded that eventually they will have a full-sized library but it is not on the top of their list because the kids don't really use books. They would much rather use the Internet for research.

Quick fade to the home front. My daughter (and I am not picking on the little darling) has an assignment about ancient Greece, the mythology and the Greek alphabet. For reasons we will not go into here, she computer-grounded for the time being. Occasionally, we will let her have her iBook either as a reward or to do homework that requires a computer. Last night we had a bit of a tussle because she insisted she needed the computer to research the Greeks. Reluctant to let her have the computer, I pointed out that we have a brand-new set of the World Book Encyclopedia downstairs, so unused that most of the volumes are still wrapped in plastic. I unwrapped the G volume, opened it up to about 20 pages of text and pictures on Greece, including the alphabet and a whole section on mythology, all beautifully laid-out and easy to search. World Book does a really excellent job. I got the look you normally give a large animal that just peed on the rug. "I don't want to read through 20 pages of text," says she. "It is much faster on the Internet." But using books is something you have to learn to do research, says I. Not everything is on the Internet and some of the stuff on the Internet is not very good.

"This is 2007!" says she, stalking away.

Take me now before it gets worse.

Which gives me an excuse to point you to this positively hilarious sketch, I think from Sweden. You will note I'm not the only one peeing on the rug. Have a laugh on me.


[Thank you, Amy]

Monday, March 19, 2007

Beam up the chickenpox, it's getting warm in here

Beam me up, Scotty, and good God, start with my pancreas--Scientists at CERN trying out a new technology to kill cancer cells--antimatter. Yes, the stuff that powers the Starship Enterprise, the stuff that annihilates itself when it meets matter, the opposite of, like everything. In an experiment, cancer cells were targeted with antimatter particles and the cells, predictably warped to Vulcan--no, died. The technology is similar to zapping the cells with conventional particles, except the scientists think the antimatter beam would have less serious side effects. Conventional radiotherapy is extremely unpleasant. Some of the larget machines used are proton accelerators, huge machines, staggeringly expensive, and there is no reason to think that if they ever figure out how to do it reliably, using antimatter, wouldn't be even more so.

While we're talking about chickens...--One of the rituals of being a kid was getting chickenpox. I know parents who deliberately sent their kids to the homes of friends with chickenpox to make sure they got the disease on vacation days--and the subsequent immunity. Then came Varivax, the chickenpox vaccine. in 1995. It works well enough to change the demographics of the disease: the only kids with chickenpox are those who are unvaccinated or those for whom the vaccine didn't take. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine tells us something we didn't know: the vaccine wears out and that means that people are getting chickenpox later in life, when it becomes more dangerous. You have 20 times greater risk of dying and have a 10-15 times greater chance of getting hospitalized if you catch it when you are older. The suggestion: booster shots at age 4 to 6 and for older adults and children. It still is unclear how much protection the second shot would bring.

I guess we can move to Alaska now--The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that last winter was the warmest winter ever recorded on ailing planet earth, with land and water temperatures running 1.3 degrees F (0.72 degrees C) warmer than normal. El Nino was one factor. The temperature has been rising a fifth of a degree every decade and the warmest 10 years on record have occurred since 1995. 2007 could be the warmest year on record. NOAA did not give a cause-and-effect--it didn't lay the blame on us poor innocent humans. But other research by the same team said that was a likely cause--except in Oklahoma, where the state's U.S. Senator James Inhofe has assured everyone it is a communist-media plot.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Arsenic and old lies

I'll have chicken sticks, an order of fries, and could I have cyanide instead of arsenic with that chicken?--I’m sure you will be pleased to learn that that factory-raised chicken you just ate had been fed arsenic to make it plumper and happier. Plumper and happier, is, after all, what factory farming is all about.

At least one huge chicken company, Perdue, requires its farmers to feed their birds roxarsone, a feed additive containing arsenic. Many other producers do as well. The additive fights parasites and produces birds with bigger chests. It gets worse: the chickens poop, and the manure, containing the arsenic, is spread on fields where farmers grow vegetables. Farm workers in the fields handle the stuff. Said one farmer in the Baltimore Sun, “we don’t know what the risks are.” Right.

Not all poultry producers use arsenic. Tyson Foods, the largest, stopped using it last spring, and two other producers have already dropped the additive. Perdue, the largest on the east coast, defends its use, pointing out that the FDA says it is safe.

The Europeans disagree. While the FDA have approved the arsenic additive since 1944, the Europeans ban it because there are no studies attesting to its safety.

A Johns Hopkins study in 2004, found that the levels of arsenic found in young chickens was three or four times higher than in any other poultry and meat, and since the average chicken consumption in the U.S. is 350 grams of chicken per day, people "may ingest 1.38-5.24 microg/day of inorganic arsenic from chicken alone." Some may ingest far more. Perdue claims that the arsenic in the additive is organic arsenic, which is not the same as the classic poison, inorganic arsenic. But a new study out of Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh found that the organic arsenic was chemically and quickly transformed into inorganic, the poisonous, carcinogenic stuff. Bacteria in the soil speeds the conversion along much faster than anyone thought. The inorganic arsenic was found in the fertilizer, which means it also will find its way into drinking water. Other studies have shown similar results. Arsenic also is linked to heart disease and diabetes.

Arsenic also is a byproduct of coal-burning power plants and some mining and smelting operations and is closely monitored. It is banned from pesticides, but is commonly is used in fertilizers on home lawns.

Says the industry spokesman (the National Chicken Council, would you believe): “There’s never been any showings of human health risks from the addition of small amounts of roxarsone to the feed.” The manufacturer of roxarsone, Alpharma, is not amused, calling the studies opinions, not science.

I’ll pass. Actually, in our house we usually use only range-fed, free roaming chickens that have been tickled to death with goose feathers. Talk about plump and happy.

[Thank you , Carol]

Friday, March 09, 2007

Shockley was dead: To begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

I'd get organized but I have this genetic malfunction, you understand--Bill Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, founding father of Silicon Valley and a serious son-of-a-bitch, destroyed his career on the notion that intelligence was genetic. He also claimed that blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites because they scored--as a group--lower on standard IQ tests than did whites. You know all of that, of course. The uproar in the scientific community against his assertion was one of the low points of American science in the 60s and 70s. Shockley insisted people actually go out and do the research and see if he was right; the scientific community (or at least the loud and politically correct) raged against it.

(Disclaimer: your obedient servent is Shockley's biographer and you can read all about it here. End of commercial)

As time goes--Shockley died in 1989--it turns out he was correct about the non-racial assertion. Over the years, scientists have found myriad examples of human traits hidden in the genes, including (and depending on how you define) intelligence. In a piece of research that got very little publicity, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have even found a particular gene.

The gene activates a signalling pathway to the brain involved with organizing, certainly an aspect of intelligence. The gene CHRM2 is "not a gene for intelligence," says Danielle M. Dick, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study. "It's a gene that's involved in some kinds of brain processing, and specific alterations in the gene appear to influence IQ. But this single gene isn't going to be the difference between whether a person is a genius or has below-average intelligence." They did find, however, that several variations in the gene could slightly influence the results of IQ tests, particularly performance IQ scores.

The study, published in Behavioral Genetics, was the offshoot of a large study of alcoholism. Some of the subjects (2,150) also took the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised, and the results were matched with individual's DNA.

The study confirms others hinting at the same link

CHRM2 isn't the "intelligence gene." It appears that it affects only one aspect of what we call intelligence. Dick says there could be hundreds of genes involved in intelligence, which seems an entirely intelligent surmise.

Too bad Shockley was cremated--his corpse would be smiling.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Our president doesn't read, why the hell should you?--Decline of Civilization Part VIIII

I’m reading Gibbon. Please go away--Every one has their own measure for the health and well-being of a society. Mine is libraries. How a society treats its libraries (and its literacy) tells you a great deal about it. Folks, we are in deep doodoo.

Thanks to cutoffs in federal funding, 15 libraries in rural Oregon are going to shut down in April, the largest library closure in U.S. history. The libraries in Jackson County lost $7 million in federal funding, about 80 percent of their budget. They are all either brand new (Medford) or newly rebuilt. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, other library systems have been on the brink, including Salinas and Merced Counties in California and Niagara Falls in New York. They were rescued eventually. But this, according to the Chronicle, is different, at least in scope. There are political charges flying back and fourth, children are marching in the streets, and an effort to increase library funding through a property tax has triggered a backlash from the same kind of boar heads who helped destroy California's school system with Proposition 13.

The libraries will close April 7.

The origin of the problem was the failure of Congress (controlled then by Republicans, of course) to reauthorize $400 million for rural counties to goose their economies. Oregon was hit the hardest, and Jackson County lost $23 million. They had to cut everything in sight, including jail beds and first responders. The county was left with the choice of emergency services or books, so they chose the former. Otherwise "we won't be able to monior misdemeanor sex offenders anymore," the county administrator lamented. A crooked railroad deal a century ago--not uncommon in the West--also was involved but that is too complicated to get into, except to say Oregon thinks Congress reneged on funds promised in an agreement with Teddy Roosevelt. Trust me on this. Oh yes, the spotted owl gets involved too.

Three times the good citizens of Jackson voted against a tax to fund the libraries. It's coming up for a vote again and is unlikely to pass because of voting rules on tax increases. God forbid they should have to pay for government services.

The Medford library is brand new and just opened this week.

Just as well. It will be harder to figure out what to read. According to the Wall Street Journal (this one is free), separate book sections in newspapers are becoming a thing of the past. The latest one to fall will be the Los Angeles Times, a paper being sliced to death by its corporate owner and the barbarians on Wall Street. The section will be merged into an opinion section. The reason in this case can't be necessarily blamed on the owners of the newspapers--book publishers are no longer buying ads in these sections. That leaves only five newspapers with separate sections, down from a dozen 10 years ago. Other papers also are reconsidering, including the Washington Post (what will Bush do without a book section, you may ask), the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Only the New York Times, which has a book section too powerful for even the dumbest publisher to ignore, seems immune. The publishers have been putting their advertising money in paying bookstores to prominently display copies. The move from the newspapers, the Journal points out, however, doesn't seem to work--book sales are down.

Of course they are.

Friday, March 02, 2007

BULLETIN-Anna Nicole Smith Is Still Dead

Did you know that Fox News had 12 times the number of stories on Anna Nicole Smith than on Walter Reed Medical Center last week? See here.

Does that mean it will crash tomorrow or yesterday?

Mayday, Mayday! I have the International Dateline on my tail—With all due respect to the men and women who are putting their lives on the line on orders from the most inept administration in modern American history, it still is refreshing to know that the military bureaucracy can be just as incompetent as always.

For example, the newest warplane in the U.S. arsenal is the F-22 Raptor, a stealth fighter. The plane cost $70 billion to develop and each one of the 180 on order will cost $361 million. Like all modern aircraft, it is largely computer controlled, some 1.7 million lines of code, most of which is used to process radar data. You would think that somewhere in those 1.7 million lines of code someone would have thought to enter the International Date Line. You would think wrong. They didn’t. When the Raptors were on their way to Japan for deployment, they flew over the date line and their computers crashed. Dead. According to Maj. General Don Sheppard, interviewed by CNN, the crash took out “all systems, their navigation, part of their communications, their fuel systems. They were--they could have been in real trouble. They were with their tankers. The tankers tried to reset their systems, couldn’t get them reset. The tankers brought them back to Hawaii.” It is sort of like the space ship NASA sent off to Mars and someone confused pounds with grams. Now think of what would have happened if the F-22 computer crashed during combat. Fortunately, it was fixed in 48 hours. No word on whether they were using Windows.

That’s a 404 error dude, now get your artificial leg off the table—It's a good guess you have been following the problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, uncovered by the Washington Post. (Dana Priest may be the best reporter working in America right now). Yesterday, they fired the general in charge and replaced him with the general who was apparently there when the problems were first noticed and did nothing about them. Well, it turns out the army isn't too thrilled with the publicity, as you can imagine. Keep in mind, this is where many of the men and women wounded in our two wars go for treatment, and you would think they would get care appropriate for heroes. You would think. According to the Army Times, the army has forbidden any of the patients to talk to the press, and the patients are getting early-morning inspections that one patient called harassment. If you go to the Walter Reed website you will find all contacts are missing and the link to "In the News" contains absolutely nothing about the scandal. If try to get info on the garrison commander you get a 404 error, "page not found." No telephone numbers are listed except the general one for the main switchboard, which would not do reporters much good.

Don’t you just love a free press?

[Thank you, Eliyahu]