Sunday, December 25, 2011

Celebrating Christmas is Haram for Muslims

I went to the garage and let the cats in, and then walked out to get the newspaper. It was an overcast, chilly Christmas morning. Our next-door neighbors had not yet turned off their outdoor Christmas lights. The lighted lawn ornaments, two reindeer, were still slowly moving their wire heads, on the alert for Christmas day hunters; the Muslim neighbors, perhaps?

We have two Muslim families living across the street from us. They have no holiday decorations up, which is not surprising, but I wondered what their attitudes are towards Christmas. For example, how would they react to being wished, "Happy Holidays?" What do they think about Christmas decorations going up on houses in the neighborhood, and downtown, or Christmas sales at all the stores, and the incessant Christmas music played in those stores? They might not shoot the wire-lighted reindeer, but, like me, wouldn't they love to shut off that damned music?

Well, of course, a practicing Muslim does not celebrate Christmas, or any other kuffar (kufr, kafir), i.e., unbeliever religious holiday. According to, "Celebrating the holidays and the occasions of the Kuffar is certainly Haram. You are not permitted to do it. Nor are your rulers allowed to make these (Kufr) holidays as official holidays, since it is an imitation of the Kuffar." Haram in this context connotes sacrilege and is forbidden.

According to the Quran, the Prophet صلى الله عليه is said to have provided the people of Islam with two holidays, Fitr, and Tashriq (Tashreeq). Fitr or Eid al-Fitr is the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.  Tashriq are the days of eating and drinking and remembering Allah. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so the timing of these holidays varies according to the Gregorian calendar.

Many American Muslims are said to be tolerant of Christian holidays and are not offended if they are greeted with "Happy Holidays." It would not be appropriate, however, to wish them Merry Christmas.

Since moving here last February, I've had very little opportunity to interact with my Muslim neighbors, and certainly haven't had a heart-to-heart talk about religion. I have talked with Hamid, across the street, about the economic situation and his plans for returning to his country -- Bosnia. I've had more interaction with the other neighbor's son, Ahmed, who tosses the football with me and is like any American boy of 12.

I hope to learn more about my Muslim neighbors in the coming year, enshallah.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Iraq War Ends

We went to war with Iraq a wounded nation. Some say we were compelled by lofty motives; to put down a dictator whose brutal repression of his people cried out for their liberation, and whose weapons of mass destruction threatened the region, if not the world. But in our heart we knew what drove us into that vast desert. In our hearts we seethed with anger, with hate, and yes, with fear, and we went to seek vengeance. And in the blasting heat of those desert sands we took their blood, and spilled our own. And in the end, they danced in Fallujah, as we cased our flags.

As of the end of November of this year, 4486 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, 316 troops of other nations have been killed. Over half of those killed were under 25 years old. Over 32,200 have been wounded, about 20% of which are serious brain or spinal injuries. There is no official count of soldiers suffering PTSD. Roughly 55,000 Iraqi insurgents have been killed. A secret U.S. government estimate puts the Iraqi civilian death toll at over 100,000, although some estimates are 6 times that amount.

Her name is Samira
She is five
She sees the silver bird flying through a clear blue sky

It glints in the sun and catches her eye
The bird makes a long slow arc
She loves the shape of the curve it makes

Like the curve of her arm shielding her eyes
Her thoughts go to her very own tree
And the soft shapes of its lovely limbs
And she thinks of the sound

Of the leaves at night
How they take her off to sleep

Excerpts of a poem by, “Kaneix,” 2003

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December 7, 1941

The destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the
Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941

USS Arizona Memorial

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Hookah Pipe Dream

Me, with beard and hoodie, dressed to fit in with OWS
I’m growing a beard. My wife doesn’t like it. She turns her head when I go to kiss her. “It’s prickly,” she complains. Well, I’m feeling prickly. I don’t like what I see in the American political or business arenas. So I’m growing the beard in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) folks. I’m not sure what they don’t like, although articulating their complaints seems to be high on the list.

There are several things I don’t like, and I’m sure if I wandered around an OWS camp like James ‘ACORN’ O’Keefe (he takes photos of people misbehaving), I’d find common ground on many of them. For example, I don’t like James O’Keefe.

But let’s stick to the theme. How do I loath thee, Wall Street, let me count the ways.

    • I don’t like banks taking TARP money and then paying their executives huge bonuses.
    • I don’t like financial institutions like Goldman Sachs cheating investors.
    • I don’t like the lack of public and quasi-public oversight of our financial institutions.
    • I don’t like the executives of companies that led the American economy down the garden path to the dump going unpunished.
    • I don’t like corporations being people -- they’re so antisocial.
A judge just threw out the Securities and Exchange Commission's proposed $285m settlement with Citigroup, which was accused of misleading investors in one of those toxic mortgage schemes at the peak of the US housing bubble. If I recall correctly, he called the amount of the fine, “rounding error” for Citigroup.
The SEC is supposed to be riding herd on Wall Street, but it’s letting the bulls run and feeding the rest of us manure. The SEC has had a longstanding practice of levying relatively minor financial settlements alongside de facto waivers of civil liability for the guilty. “Wealth management institutions,” as they like to call themselves, commit fraud and pay small fines, and the SEC allows them to walk away without admitting to criminal wrongdoing. Nice work if you can get it, and you can, and that brings me to my next dislike.
I hate the fact that no one went to jail. AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley were run by people involved in elaborate fraud and theft. Lehman Brothers hid billions in loans from its investors. Bank of America lied about billions in bonuses. And the aforementioned Goldman Sachs failed to tell clients how it put together the born-to-lose toxic mortgage deals it was selling. No one has been indicted, let alone gone to jail. And no one was watching. And that brings me to my next dislike.
I don’t like the total ineptitude of the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and other federal institutions, including the Justice Department. Justice is blind, only not in a good way.
And then there’s our Congress. So much to dislike and so little space to rail about it. But let’s stay with the theme -- Wall Street. Because running for office in the House and Senate requires raising obscene amounts of campaign cash, and because special interests are willing to contribute said cash, we have encouraged a system of legalized bribery. Wall Street leverages that system (Wall Street likes the word ‘leverage’), and the revolving door between the Fed and employees of Wall Street -- once you were a crook, now you’re a regulator -- to preempt and/or weaken regulatory reform, such as the Dodd-Frank bill.
The only way we’re going to solve the problem of a bought and paid for Congress is to institute a system of publicly funded elections -- no 527s, PACs, Super PACs, Pack-of-Money of any kind, soft, squishy, slimy, or otherwise. No endless robocalls at all hours. None, nada. This is what OWS should be demanding, but that brings me to my last dislike.
I dislike the search-and-destroy partisanship in Congress that makes campaign finance reform a hookah pipe dream.
Given the likelihood of any of these dislikes being addressed by Congress anytime soon, the OWS folks, and my beard, may be around for a while.

Sorry honey.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Every American Should Occupy the Hell Out of Wall Street!

Listen. The bastards screwed us. I'm not kidding. It's a disgrace. They are not just unethical -- we expect that by now, don't we? They are crooks. If you don't understand that these bankers and brokers are crooks, you haven't been doing your due diligence -- shame on you. Furthermore, if you believe that the various government and private regulatory agencies charged with oversight and enforcement of our financial institutions are actually doing their job, unimpeded by the influence of revolving doors or money, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Look, corporate capitalism is, on the whole, amoral. Corporations and their CEOs aren't in business to "... form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, or promote the general welfare," especially not to promote the general welfare (consider tobacco companies). Corporations are in business to make a profit. As long as they do this more or less honestly, good for them. I mean, caveat emptor, to some extent, right?

But when corporations (which, despite what five members of the Supreme Court tell us, are not people) and their executive officers (who are people) lie, cheat, and steal, we object, don't we? I do. All those people in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement do (and good for them).

Every American should occupy the hell out of Wall Street any way we can. I've written about Goldman Sachs' approach to the idea of an "honest broker" elsewhere, so I'll go on to describe a personal experience with my former broker. I closed my Merrill Lynch account, and I wrote a rather lengthy letter to Merrill's regional director of "wealth management" and detailed the many and varied egregious Merrill activities that led me to my decision. Here's my letter.

March 6, 2009
James P. Hughes
Managing Director, Greater Northwest
1201 Pacific Ave.
Wells Fargo Plaza
Tacoma, WA 98402
Dear Mr. Hughes;
In your letter of November 12, 2008, your requested that I complete subject survey. Forgive me for taking so long to respond. Developments in Merrill Lynch’s fortunes and conditions in global markets as a whole demanded my attention. Merrill Lynch has been in the news a lot, and the news hasn’t been good.
Today’s news on your firm is that one Merrill trader, Alexis Stenfors, apparently gambled away more than $120 million in the currency markets. Others seemingly lost hundreds of millions on tricky credit derivatives. And it has come to light that Merrill Lynch hemorrhaged $13.8 billion during the final three months of 2008 alone.
Bank of America's shareholders did not learn of the gaping hole until after they approved the merger of the two companies on December 5, 2008. Nor was the extent of the loss fully known when Merrill paid out $3.6 billion in bonuses, which were based on estimates of the firm's performance as of December 8, 2008. Thomas Montag, who headed up Merrill's markets operations, was alone paid a bonus of $39M. When the problems at Merrill became clear, Bank of America was forced to seek a second, multibillion-dollar rescue from Washington. 
Before he was forced to resign in January of this year, ex Merrill CEO John Thain, brought in to right the Merrill ship, spent over $1.2M to redecorate his office, while it was coming to light that the firm had actually lost some $27 billion in 2008. Thain accelerated approximately $4B in bonus payments to employees at Merrill just prior to the close of the deal with Bank of America.
Merrill’s true loses appear to have been concealed from Bank of America. BoA, subject to its own lack of due diligence, lowered its dividend after buying Merrill, its stock subsequently dropped from 45 to 5, and Moody’s lowered BoA’s rating. After the BoA takeover, Peter Krause left Merrill and received a $25M “golden parachute” after just 3 months with the company.
In late 2007, Merrill’s CEO, Stanley O’Neal, who was largely responsible for “reinventing” Merrill to be the aggressive, high risk-taking company it became, was forced to resign after the firm suffered its biggest loss in its history (up to that time). O’Neal left with a $160M severance package.
Because I was concerned by what I was reading recently about Merrill Lynch, I did some background research on the firm and found many other examples of Merrill’s lack of values-based leadership. For example:
In January 2007, Merrill Lynch analyst Stanislav Shpigelman was sentenced to 37 months in jail for his part in an insider-trading scheme, following on the heels of ML broker Peter Bacanovic in another, highly publicized insider-trading scandal involving Martha Stewart.
In 2002, the New York State Attorney General’s Office accused Merrill Lynch, and its analyst, Henry Blodget of regularly issuing false or misleading recommendations about Internet-based stocks in an effort to increase the firm’s underwriting business. Merrill Lynch settled the allegations with a $100 million fine.
One of your firm’s most egregious actions was in aiding the massive Enron fraud by creating the false appearance of profits and cash flow. For example, Merrill Lynch purchased Nigerian barges from Enron on the last day of 1999 only because Enron secretly promised to buy the barges back within six months, guaranteeing Merrill Lynch a profit of more than 20%. As a result of this fraud, Merrill Lynch ultimately paid $80 million to settle with the SEC.
In an eerie preview of today, Merrill Lynch lost $377M trading mortgage-backed securities as far back as 1986, helping bankrupt Orange County, California, which sued Merrill.
Merrill Lynch has been fined by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, and charged by the SEC with overcharging its mutual fund clients.
Mr. Hughes, the positive feelings I have for my financial advisor are, I’m afraid, overwhelmed by the negative feelings I’ve developed for Merrill Lynch. That’s why, after having had a relationship with Merrill Lynch for over 25 years, I am leaving your firm, and why I am not completing the subject client survey.

and etc., etc.

Does it surprise you to learn that I never heard back from Mr. Hughes? No? My you are cynical.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Oligarchy, American Style

By Paul Krugman
The New York Times, November 4, 2011

Can anyone seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money, and that the warping is getting worse as the wealth of a few grows ever larger?

Inequality is back in the news, largely thanks to Occupy Wall Street, but with an assist from the Congressional Budget Office. And you know what that means: It’s time to roll out the obfuscators!

Anyone who has tracked this issue over time knows what I mean. Whenever growing income disparities threaten to come into focus, a reliable set of defenders tries to bring back the blur. Think tanks put out reports claiming that inequality isn’t really rising, or that it doesn’t matter. Pundits try to put a more benign face on the phenomenon, claiming that it’s not really the wealthy few versus the rest, it’s the educated versus the less educated.

IN 1985, THE FORBES 400 were worth $221 billion combined. Today, they’re worth $1.13 trillion—more than the GDP of Canada.

So what you need to know is that all of these claims are basically attempts to obscure the stark reality: We have a society in which money is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people, and in which that concentration of income and wealth threatens to make us a democracy in name only.

The budget office laid out some of that stark reality in a recent report, which documented a sharp decline in the share of total income going to lower- and middle-income Americans. We still like to think of ourselves as a middle-class country. But with the bottom 80 percent of households now receiving less than half of total income, that’s a vision increasingly at odds with reality.

In response, the usual suspects have rolled out some familiar arguments: the data are flawed (they aren’t); the rich are an ever-changing group (not so); and so on. The most popular argument right now seems, however, to be the claim that we may not be a middle-class society, but we’re still an upper-middle-class society, in which a broad class of highly educated workers, who have the skills to compete in the modern world, is doing very well.

It’s a nice story, and a lot less disturbing than the picture of a nation in which a much smaller group of rich people is becoming increasingly dominant. But it’s not true.

Workers with college degrees have indeed, on average, done better than workers without, and the gap has generally widened over time. But highly educated Americans have by no means been immune to income stagnation and growing economic insecurity. Wage gains for most college-educated workers have been unimpressive (and nonexistent since 2000), while even the well-educated can no longer count on getting jobs with good benefits. In particular, these days workers with a college degree but no further degrees are less likely to get workplace health coverage than workers with only a high school degree were in 1979.

So who is getting the big gains? A very small, wealthy minority.

The budget office report tells us that essentially all of the upward redistribution of income away from the bottom 80 percent has gone to the highest-income 1 percent of Americans. That is, the protesters who portray themselves as representing the interests of the 99 percent have it basically right, and the pundits solemnly assuring them that it’s really about education, not the gains of a small elite, have it completely wrong.

If anything, the protesters are setting the cutoff too low. The recent budget office report doesn’t look inside the top 1 percent, but an earlier report, which only went up to 2005, found that almost two-thirds of the rising share of the top percentile in income actually went to the top 0.1 percent — the richest thousandth of Americans, who saw their real incomes rise more than 400 percent over the period from 1979 to 2005.

Who’s in that top 0.1 percent? Are they heroic entrepreneurs creating jobs? No, for the most part, they’re corporate executives. Recent research shows that around 60 percent of the top 0.1 percent either are executives in nonfinancial companies or make their money in finance, i.e., Wall Street broadly defined. Add in lawyers and people in real estate, and we’re talking about more than 70 percent of the lucky one-thousandth.

AMONG THE FORBES 400 who gave to a 2004 presidential campaign, 72% gave to Bush.

But why does this growing concentration of income and wealth in a few hands matter? Part of the answer is that rising inequality has meant a nation in which most families don’t share fully in economic growth. Another part of the answer is that once you realize just how much richer the rich have become, the argument that higher taxes on high incomes should be part of any long-run budget deal becomes a lot more compelling.

BUSH’S TAX CUTS GIVE a 2-child family earning $1 million an extra $86,722, equivalent to Harvard tuition, room, board, and an iMac G5 for both kids.

The larger answer, however, is that extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy. Can anyone seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money, and that the warping is getting worse as the wealth of a few grows ever larger?

Some pundits are still trying to dismiss concerns about rising inequality as somehow foolish. But the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake.

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor,
it cannot save the few who are rich" -  John F. Kennedy

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Richard "Doc" Hastings Playing the Same Old Republican Saw

You have to hand it to Richard "Doc" Hastings (R-WA) -- he stays on message, no matter whether the message meshes with the facts. Republicans want you to believe that if we just cut taxes and eliminate “burdensome” government regulations, jobs will suddenly pop up like mushrooms in May. Never mind that Republicans have being playing the same old saw since time immemorial with the same results, i.e., the rich get richer, and the rest of America gets screwed.

Hastings went on Fox News recently to propose that environmental regulations be lifted so logging could resume in National Forests in Washington. The state is facing a 4 to 5 billion dollar budget shortfall in the next 2 years. Budgets for education, health care, and help for the state’s poor and disabled are being slashed, and Hastings is going on Fox to lament environmental regulations on slash and burn logging?

What's up Doc? Total Timber sales revenues in 2011 amounted to about 4% of the state’s deficit and money going into the State's coffers from that revenue stream is minuscule. How about spending a little time working on the other 99% of the problem and stop playing with that old Republican saw in our forests?

When it comes to the Washington State budget shortfall, thoughtful people (not you, Doc) have some difficult decisions to make. Decide what your priorities are on the League of Education Voters web site and see how you fare in cutting the deficit.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

To Cyber Attack or Not to Cyber Attack?

It has been reported recently that the Obama Administration decided against using cyber warfare to suppress Libya's air defenses as the US sought to aid the rebels attempting to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. Why the reluctance to use a modern, bloodless attack mode?

Libya Before Qaddafi

I spent 5 weeks in Libya on a temporary duty (TDY) assignment in 1964. I was with the US Air Force stationed at Bitburg AFB in Germany. I was, at the tender age of 26, the Chief of Periodic Maintenance for our F-105 squadron. We deployed F-105s to Wheelus AFB, Libya, for pilot training in air-to-air, and air-to-ground combat. I headed up the maintenance squadron of over 100 enlisted men.

I remember my first tour of Wheelus. It was a vast base ideally located for flying off into the Libyan desert (90% of Libya is desert), dropping bombs on the sand dunes, and then returning for a dip in the Mediterranean and a cold beer at the O-Club. The down side of Wheelus was the heat (the highest naturally occurring temperature ever recorded on earth occurred in the Libyan desert). We regularly experienced day-time temperatures of over 45C (113F). One section of the base was reserved for the Libyan Air Force. It consisted of a couple of C-47 "Gooney Birds" and a like number of Cessna, T-37, "Tweet," twin engine trainer-attack aircraft.

Libya Before the Uprising

By 2010, Libya's air force was the largest in North Africa. It was headquartered at Okba Ben Nafi Air Base -- formerly Wheelus and Methega Air Bases -- located 7 miles due east of Tripoli. This was a relatively well-equipped air base that had been developed with Russian assistance to support and maintain over 200 combat aircraft. Another large air base was located at Benghazi and a third, Gamal Abdul Nasser Air Base, was situated a few miles southwest of Tobruk. Two other air bases were located near the Egyptian border -- at Al Kufrah Oasis and at Jabal al Uwaynat in the far south. Overall, the Libyan air force was believed to consist of over 500 combat aircraft, with some reports suggesting the number was as high as 700, including  MiG-23s, MiG-25s, Su-24, Fencer 'D's, Su-27s and Mirage F.1EDs. At least one squadron of Tu-22 bombers were known to be located at Okba Ben Nafi AB.

Libya deployed the SA-2, SA-3, and Crotale missiles. At least one battery of each of these types were spotted at each of Libya's three main air bases (Okba Ben Nafi, Benghazi and Gamal Abdul Nassar). One battery of Crotale sites had been detected at each of the two smaller bases in the southeast. The Libyan Army also operated three SA-5 batteries at undisclosed locations -- probably in storage.

NATO Aids the Uprising Against Qaddafi

The New York Times reports that according to military officials, American warplanes struck at Libyan air defenses about 60 times, and remotely operated drones have fired missiles at Libyan forces about 30 times, since the United States handed control of the air war in Libya to NATO in early April. Today, Aljezeera reports that Libya's air force "no longer exists as a fighting force" following the devastating air strikes by international coalition forces, a British military officer has claimed.

There are no reports on the casualties that Libyan regular forces may have suffered as a result of the air strikes that targeted Libya's air defenses. A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet crashed in Libya, but it was the result of a mechanical failure, not hostile fire, and its two crew members managed to eject to safety. It was the first coalition aircraft to have crashed in the three days of air strikes over Libya up to that time.

It's not necessary to detail the costs and risks of conventional air defense suppression methods to understand that a cyber attack would be cheaper, less risky, and, at least in the short term, equally effective. Only if the objective is to eliminate air defense capabilities in the long term, would conventional methods be the choice.

Why the US Didn't Use Cyber Warfare

According to reports, the Obama administration intensely debated whether to open the Libyan air campaign with a cyber attack to disrupt and disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system, which might have threatened allied warplanes (although this is unlikely). The objective would have been to break through the firewalls of the Libyan government’s computer networks to sever military communications links and prevent the early-warning radars from gathering information and relaying it to missile batteries aiming at NATO warplanes.

But administration officials and even some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own, and questioning whether the attack could be mounted on such short notice. They were also unable to resolve whether the president had the power to proceed with such an attack without informing Congress.

Early in 2010, the US Deputy Defense Secretary warned of cyber warfare’s appeal to potential foes who are unable to match the U.S.'s conventional military might. An enemy could deploy hackers to take down U.S. financial systems, communications and infrastructure, he suggested, at a cost far below that of building a trillion-dollar fleet of fifth-generation jet fighters. "Some governments already have the capacity to disrupt elements of the U.S. information infrastructure." The nation's top intelligence official warned that cyber-enemies have already "severely threatened" U.S. computer systems, and said that, "Malicious cyber activity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication."

United States Cyber Command

But the US military has been working for years on developing its own sophisticated Information Operations (IO) capability and cyber warfare is the most technologically advanced and perhaps the most militarily important element of this IO capability.
  • The Air Force is developing the ability to infiltrate any computer system anywhere in the world completely undetected. It plans to slip computer code into a potential foe's computer and let it sit there for years, maintaining a low and slow gathering paradigm to thwart detection.
  • The Army is developing techniques that capture and identify data traversing enemy networks for the purpose of Information Operations or otherwise countering adversary communications.
  • And the Navy is developing a non-lethal, non-attributable system designed to offer non-kinetic offensive information operation solutions.

In fact, the US established the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) on May 21, 2010. USCYBERCOM “plans, coordinates, integrates, synchronizes and conducts activities to: direct the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries."

USCYBERCOM coordinates the cyber activities of the various military departments. Service elements include Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER); 24 AF/ Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER); Fleet Cyber Command (FLTCYBERCOM); and Marine Forces Cyber Command (MARFORCYBER).

US Capabilities and Limitations

According to some IT experts, the US is one of the top three of nations in terms of cyber warfare capabilities; the other two are China and Russia. The US is concerned that if it is discovered using cyber war against an enemy, other countries would not hesitate to respond by using cyber war against our infrastructure and/or interests. In other words, the US views cyber war in the same way it views conventional war -- you bomb me, I'll bomb you. That premise is certainly debatable (does anyone really believe that North Korea hesitates to use cyber war to attack the US?), but what isn't debatable is that just as warfare in general has gone beyond the nation state boundary, cyber warfare has certainly done the same -- that is after all, the nature of the beast. Richard Clarke talked about this in a PBS interview.

In their book, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, Richard Clarke and Robert Knake state that, “Cyberspace includes the Internet plus lots of other networks of computers that are not supposed to be accessible from the Internet. Clarke and Knake point out that cyberspace includes transactional networks that do things like send data about money flows, stock market trades, and credit card transactions; and control systems that just allow machines to speak to other machines, like control panels talking to pumps, elevators, and generators. They go on to say that, “In the broadest terms, cyber warriors can get into these networks and control or crash them.” Certainly, the United States has or is quickly developing these capabilities.

A warning pops up on Iran's Bushehr's SCADA computer screen.
The plant was attacked by the Stuxnet malware.
Ironically, the US has rejected efforts by other nations to institute a cyber war "arms control" treaty. That rejection is probably reasonable, given the difficulty of verifying compliance. Nevertheless, discussion and debate domestically and in international fora is needed.

Unfortunately, the cyber arena, like so many other national issues, has become a partisan battleground, with Republicans forming their own cybersecurity task force as a response to President Barack Obama's May 2011 legislative proposal. Republicans appear to be concerned again with excessive government regulation regarding defensive measures that might be required of private companies who are part of America's critical infrastructure.

So, the Obama Administration's reluctance to undertake an offensive cyber attack against Libyan air defense systems reflects the administration's caution in setting a precedence in a still evolving arena of advanced warfare. One wonders whether the other 21 nations with such capabilities, and the non-nation players assembling cyber capabilities, will be as cautious.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Should You Get a PSA Test?

According to the Mayo Clinic, "Prostate cancer screening can help identify cancer early on, when treatment is most effective. And a normal PSA test, combined with a digital rectal exam, can help reassure you that it's unlikely you have prostate cancer."

But according to a recent finding of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force,"The vast majority of men who are treated do not have prostate cancer death prevented or lives extended from that treatment, but are subjected to significant harms." The American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) does not support the efficacy of PSA tests or the digital rectal exam (DRE) for prostate cancer screening.

PSA tests have been used for men over 50 since FDA approval in 1994. DREs have been done even longer.  When a PSA test turns up prostate cancer in a man with no outward symptoms, that early warning could help him beat a tumor that otherwise would have killed him. But there are two other possibilities: Either the tumor is so aggressive that the patient dies anyway, or it is so slow-growing that it wouldn't have been fatal, even if left untreated.

According to the task force, fully 95% of men whose prostate cancers are detected with PSA tests will be alive 12 years later even if they don't get treatment. And, the panel added, no study on prostate cancer screening has ever shown that screening reduces the number of deaths.

I started having the PSA test, in addition to a digital rectal exam (DRE), annually after age 55.  Over the years, my PSA gradually rose,eventually reaching double digits (no pun intended). My urologist recommended a biopsy. The first one he performed did not reveal any cancer, but my PSA continued to rise, and I had a second biopsy, which did show traces of cancer. Incidentally, although the biopsy is an unpleasant out-patient procedure, and has its own risks (infection, blood in urine and/or sperm), it is not one of your more involved or painful medical tests.

After considering my situation further and doing some research on the Internet, I opted for the "watch and wait" option, rather than having surgery immediately. My urologist was okay with this. While I "watched and waited," I researched treatment options, specialists, and medical centers. I talked with men who'd had various treatments. I documented my findings systematically, using an Excel spreadsheet. I was focused and meticulous. I knew the probable effectiveness and risk probabilities of each form of treatment, from doing nothing, to radical prostatectomy.

I waited a year. After another biopsy showed cancer, I asked to discuss the findings of the biopsy with the local pathologist (tissue samples had been sent to a pathologist in another city, as well as being examined by our local pathologist). The local pathologist was very willing to discuss the results with me and even sat me down in front of a dual microscope and showed me what he was identifying as cancerous tissue. This was a very interesting experience for me and demonstrated quite dramatically how important experience is in the examination of tissue samples, for what the pathologist saw, I would have definitely missed.

Prostate Tissue Sample

I decided that I wanted my prostate removed. For me the deciding factor was my life expectancy. I was 68. Both my parents had lived into their 100s. I opted for a procedure that attempted to preserve the nerves attached to the prostate. These nerves are crucial for a man's erectal function. Nerve-sparing prostatectomy requires very precise surgery, and therefore I chose retropubic prostatectomy; it is more invasive, but provides the surgeon the best clearance.

Once I decided on my treatment, I looked for the best surgeon to do the job. I found the man who pioneered the technique, Dr. Paul H. Lang. He was located at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, a 4-hour drive from where I lived. My urologist did this type of surgery, but I talked to him about it and he agreed that Dr. Lang would likely be a better choice for the technique I'd chosen. It may also have been that given how much effort I'd put into deciding my course of action, he'd rather have someone else responsible for the result. Frankly, I didn't care about hurting his feelings -- it was my prostate, and my future.

I had my prostate surgery 5 years ago and I've been extremely happy with the result. For those pondering their options given the most recent findings regarding screening for prostate cancer, my advise, for what it's worth, is, be your own consultant and advocate. No single test, whether for that pain in your left knee, or your problems urinating, is going to be sufficient for making a decision on screening or treatment.

When it comes to early detection of prostate cancer, and what to do about it, you have to consider all the relevant factors, including your age, health, family history, and so on. The PSA test is simple and painless and can be done along with other blood work. I'd recommend doing it and the DRE annually for men over 55 who have concerns about their predisposition for prostate cancer. If your PSA is elevated, don't panic, take the next steps and gather all the information available to you -- you'll find there's a lot -- before deciding what your course of action will be. And when dealing with your doctor, remember, it's your future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to be a Denialist

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) "We knew they were cooking the science to support the flawed UN IPCC agenda."
  1. Allege that there's a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
  2. Use fake experts to support your story.
  3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
  4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
  5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
  6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist "both sides" must be heard and cry censorship when "dissenting" arguments or experts are rejected.
(Martin McKee, The European Journal of Public Health, vol 19, p 2)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blow Smoke in Her Face and She'll Follow You Anywhere

The Tobacco Industry is fighting back after they were finally taken to task by Congress for killing Americans and lying about it. It is estimated that the tobacco industry spends some $15 billion per year advertising its products. More and more, Big Tobacco is focusing its advertising dollars, product design and placement on teenagers, with the aim of getting them hooked early. They are even creating tobacco products that are easily concealed in schools and at home. And they're coming up with smokeless products. Camel, for instance, is test marketing tobacco sticks, strips, and orbs. The orbs look a lot like Tic Tacs mints, while the sticks resemble toothpicks, and the strips are much like Listerine breath mint strips. One tobacco lobbyist felt pretty good about this because, in his words, it really reduces the effects of second-hand smoke.

"All my friends are doing it."
The perfume they used? Chanel #5 @ $300/oz. What they smell like? Tobacco smoke.
Do these young women think they look sexy with smoke spewing out of the mouths? Isn't it just a bit absurd really? But tobacco company advertising has for years tried to convince us that smoking is cool and sexy.

"Blow smoke in her face and she'll follow you anywhere."
The Industry doesn't use models like these to advertise their products.
Ronnie smokes 'em. Shouldn't you?

Maybe Ronnie will send some to you for Christmas
Nicotine is not addictive. I swear.
Smoking is stupid, and blowing smoke out of one's face looks stupid, even if it's an electric cigarette. I mean, what's that smoke coming out of your face?

And how about chewing tobacco? Sticking that stuff between your cheek and gum. Yuke! Seeing all that spitting by ball players is bad enough, but believe me, you don't want to see the pictures of people's ruined teeth, jaw, and most of their face. Ugh!

Baseball banned tobacco use in the minor leagues in 1993,
but it is still common in the majors.
" with half-burned wood in their hands and certain herbs to take their smokes, which are some dry herbs put in a certain leaf, also dry, like those the boys make on the day of the Passover of the Holy Ghost; and having lighted one part of it, by the other they suck, absorb, or receive that smoke inside with the breath, by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue. These, muskets as we will call them, they call. I knew Spaniards on this island of Española who were accustomed to take it, and being reprimanded for it, by telling them it was a vice, they replied they were unable to cease using it. I do not know what relish or benefit they found in it." (as recorded by Bartolome de las Casas, sent by Columbus into the interior of Cuba, circa 1500).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Last Century of Wild Seafood

by Richard Black, BBC
Factory Trawler
There will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas by the middle of the century if current trends continue, according to a major scientific study. Stocks have collapsed in nearly one-third of sea fisheries, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Writing in the journal Science, the international team of researchers says fishery decline is closely tied to a broader loss of marine biodiversity. But a greater use of protected areas could safeguard existing stocks.

"The way we use the oceans is that we hope and assume there will always be another species to exploit after we've completely gone through the last one," said research leader Boris Worm, from Dalhousie University in Canada.

“This century is the last century of wild seafood. What we're highlighting is there is a finite number of stocks; we have gone through one-third, and we are going to get through the rest," said Steve Palumbi, from Stanford University in California, one of the other scientists on the project. He added: "Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood."

This is a vast piece of research, incorporating scientists from many institutions in Europe and the Americas, and drawing on four distinctly different kinds of data. Catch records from the open sea give a picture of declining fish stocks.

In 2003, 29% of open sea fisheries were in a state of collapse, defined as a decline to less than 10% of their original yield. Bigger vessels, better nets, and new technology for spotting fish are not bringing the world's fleets bigger returns - in fact, the global catch fell by 13% between 1994 and 2003.

Historical records from coastal zones in North America, Europe and Australia also show declining yields, in step with declining species diversity; these are yields not just of fish, but of other kinds of seafood too.

Zones of biodiversity loss also tended to see more beach closures, more blooms of potentially harmful algae, and more coastal flooding.

Experiments performed in small, relatively contained ecosystems show that reductions in diversity tend to bring reductions in the size and robustness of local fish stocks. This implies that loss of biodiversity is driving the declines in fish stocks seen in the large-scale studies.

The final part of the jigsaw is data from areas where fishing has been banned or heavily restricted. These show that protection brings back biodiversity within the zone, and restores populations of fish just outside.

"The image I use to explain why biodiversity is so important is that marine life is a bit like a house of cards," said Dr Worm. "All parts of it are integral to the structure; if you remove parts, particularly at the bottom, it's detrimental to everything on top and threatens the whole structure. "

And we're learning that in the oceans, species are very strongly linked to each other - probably more so than on land."

What the study does not do is attribute damage to individual activities such as over-fishing, pollution or habitat loss; instead it paints a picture of the cumulative harm done across the board. Even so, a key implication of the research is that more of the oceans should be protected.

But the extent of protection is not the only issue, according to Carl Gustaf Lundin, head of the global marine programme at IUCN, the World Conservation Union. "The benefits of marine-protected areas are quite clear in a few cases; there's no doubt that protecting areas leads to a lot more fish and larger fish, and less vulnerability," he said. "But you also have to have good management of marine parks and good management of fisheries. Clearly, fishing should not wreck the ecosystem, bottom trawling being a good example of something which does wreck the ecosystem." But, he said, the concept of protecting fish stocks by protecting biodiversity does make sense. "This is a good compelling case; we should protect biodiversity, and it does pay off even in simple monetary terms through fisheries yield."

Protecting stocks demands the political will to act on scientific advice - something which Boris Worm finds lacking in Europe, where politicians have ignored recommendations to halt the iconic North Sea cod fishery year after year. Without a ban, scientists fear the North Sea stocks could follow the Grand Banks cod of eastern Canada into apparently terminal decline. "I'm just amazed, it's very irrational," he said. "You have scientific consensus and nothing moves. It's a sad example; and what happened in Canada should be such a warning, because now it's collapsed it's not coming back."

"So long, you've run out of all the fish."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11

Attack on the Pentagon, September 11, 2001

I was working at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Science & Technology Intelligence when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. The event completely changed my work focus and I soon found myself working out of a special compartmented information facility, a SCIF (pronounced “skiff”), in the basement of the Pentagon helping to plan Operation Iraqi Freedom. I saw the damage to the Pentagon first hand.
When I returned to PNNL, I worked on counter terrorism. We briefed a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) for our region -- JTTFs were set up as a result of what were seen as intelligence failures in preventing 9/11 -- and worked with an FBI office in Seattle to help them shift from after-the-fact crime assessment to forward-looking attack prevention. I worked with our counterintelligence/counter terrorism group doing threat assessments.
Back in the PNNL SCIF, I saw playing cards showing the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s government posted on the cork board. These cards were called “personality identification playing cards.” We turned them upside down as the individuals were captured or killed. You can now buy these cards on eBay (but some of the decks for sale are not the original cards).

After my temporary duty at the Pentagon, my focus at PNNL shifted from intelligence analysis of major powers, to the far more difficult assessment of non-state actors. We quickly learned that an over dependence on technical means for intelligence collection (e.g., imagery) wouldn't cut it in the new threat environment.

I think the world changed dramatically after 9/11 -- mine certainly did.

"As the United States heads toward the sixth year of the global war on terror, representing violent nonstate actors (VNSA) as a system remains elusive to all but a few pockets of the Department of Defense." (Maj. Tara A. Leweling, 2006)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Blowing Smoke About Clouds

by Pericles
Originally posted to Pericles on Tue Sep 06, 2011 at 07:51 AM PDT.
Also republished by Science Matters, SciTech, and Community Spotlight. 

Cloud formation over Amon Basin, Kennewick, Washington
Last week an International Business Times headline brought me up short: "Alarmists Got it Wrong, Humans Not Responsible for Climate Change: CERN".
"Wow," I thought. "CERN. Not some Exxon-funded stooge. CERN, where the real scientists are. There's the CERN logo right in the article. I'd better read this and rethink my opinion on climate change."
I read the article and I learned a lot. But not about science, about propaganda. Hijacking the well-deserved prestige of a scientific organization like CERN is easier than I thought.
Occasionally you need to know some science to spot the BS in a newspaper science article, but most of the time you just need some common sense. Start with: Does the content of the article justify the headline?
Not this time. The article discusses new research about cloud formation that CERN scientists recently published in Nature (another one of the biggest names in science). But nobody at CERN is quoted saying, "Humans aren't responsible for climate change."
In fact, the article doesn't quote anybody from CERN (or Nature). Who, then? Lawrence Solomon, David Whitehouse, and Nigel Calder. If you're just skimming, you might assume at least one of them represents CERN, but they don't.
Who are they? In the Age of Google, that's an easy question.
  • Solomon is the author of The Deniers: The World Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution, and Fraud; And those who are too fearful to do so.
  • Whitehouse is from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, described by SourceWatch as "a United Kingdom group opposing action to mitigate climate change". Funded by ... they won't say.
  • Calder (according to Wikipedia) is "a long-standing skeptic of global warming" who "participated in the polemic film The Great Global Warming Swindle."
So a more accurate headline would be: "Global-Warming Skeptics Claim New CERN Research Vindicates Them".
Well, of course they claim that. But then any real journalist would have to ask: Does it?
Journalism -- even journalism about rocket science -- is not rocket science: Punch "CERN cloud experiment results" into Google, and in seconds you'll be looking at the CERN press release and its supporting press briefing. Spend a few minutes chasing links, and you'll see the lead author of the Nature article (Jasper Kirkby) quoted in Scientific Computing, Live Science, and -- oh, look at this! -- Nature News, which is put out by the same people who publish Nature.
So it isn't hard to find sources closer to the action than Solomon, Whitehouse, and Calder. Do any of them say "Humans are not responsible for climate change"? No. So what is this experiment and what does it really show?
CERN made a cloud chamber that simulates Earth's atmosphere, and tried to figure out where atmospheric aerosols -- tiny particles that cloud droplets form around -- come from. They discovered that previous theories only accounted for a small fraction of the aerosols observed in the atmosphere. They could account for more when they added cosmic rays to their simulation, but they still couldn't form a complete theory.
The CERN press release quotes Kirkby:
“It was a big surprise to find that aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere isn’t due to sulphuric acid, water and ammonia alone. Now it’s vitally important to discover which additional vapors are involved, whether they are largely natural or of human origin, and how they influence clouds.”
The press briefing concludes:
“This result leaves open the possibility that cosmic rays could also influence climate. However,  it is premature to conclude that cosmic rays have a significant influence on climate until the additional nucleating vapours have been identified, their ion enhancement measured, and the ultimate effects on clouds have been confirmed.”
Nothing in the press release quantifies this possibility. Kirkby told Nature News: "At the moment, [our research] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it's a very important first step."
Live Science also talked to Kirkby:
“The research doesn't call into question the basic science of greenhouse gas warming, Kirkby emphasized, but rather refines one facet of the research. ... "It's part of the jigsaw puzzle, and you could say it adds to the understanding of the big picture," he said. "But it in no way disproves the other pieces."
None of that stops Solomon from claiming (in the Financial Post -- again published with no comment from the actual researchers) that, “The science is now all-but-settled on global warming, convincing new evidence demonstrates, but Al Gore, the IPCC and other global warming doomsayers won’t be celebrating. The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun — not human activities — as the dominant controller of climate on Earth.”
Discover's Bad Astronomy blog responds:
“There’s only one problem: that’s completely wrong. In reality the study shows nothing of the sort.”
BA goes on to explain why you shouldn't expect any future research to support Solomon either:
“The problem here is two fold: there doesn’t appear to be a large variation in Earth’s temperatures with solar activity, and also that temperatures are rising extremely rapidly in the past 100 years, when solar activity has been relatively normal.”
So, who do you think the conservative media outlets go with: science publications that have done the legwork and talked to the CERN researchers, or a long-time global-warming denier who makes unsupported claims in an opinion piece in a financial newspaper?
Do you have to ask?
Fox Business Channel's Tobin Smith:
“We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world's largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it's the sun's rays, not human activity, which controls the earth's climate. Now, that, of course, is horrible news for the greenies who've used, you know, for years questionable science to justify more and more regulations against fossil fuels like coal and oil, all the while arguing for more and more for the renewable energy sources they just love so dearly. So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?”
Media Matters collects similar statements from CBN, the Washington Times, and Investor's Business Daily -- all clearly repeating Solomon's interpretation rather than CERN's.
So this is what you need to hijack the well-deserved prestige of a research organization like CERN and a journal like Nature:
  • three zero-credibility cranks to "interpret" the research by making stuff up,
  • two newspapers willing to ignore anybody connected to the research, and instead source their articles to the cranks,
  • an echo chamber of news outlets willing to accept the first two papers as reliable sources, do no independent checking, and instead let false claims grow in the telling,
  • opinion leaders in the echo chamber who shift the onus away from the cranks onto their opponents: What's wrong with those greenies, that they still hold out now that they've been proven wrong?
Result? Rank-and-file conservatives hear the same message from multiple directions. When they confidently tell their friends and  co-workers that CERN has proved Al Gore wrong, people who get their news from the New York Times know nothing about it -- because an accurate assessment of these tentative results was not deemed sufficiently newsworthy. And the conservative nods knowingly: It's that liberal media, constantly suppressing anything that doesn't fit its biased worldview.