31 January 2008

An Independent Judiciary

Pakistani Justice Breaks Silence

The deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has sent a letter to a number of foreign leaders reminding them that, despite his recent travels, Musharraf is not a good man.

Throughout the letter, Mr. Chaudhry referred to the president as General Musharraf, underlining the constitutional questions surrounding the legality of his leadership. Mr. Musharraf was army chief when he took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and was elected president in 2002 and again last October by national and provincial assemblies. Legal challenges remain related to his dual military-civilian role, as well as to whether he had already served the constitutionally allowed number of terms.

Musharraf is a dictator, and he's trying to play up that that he was (nominally) elected. He tries to down play the harsher things he does. And apparently, while on his travels, he talked trash about the judiciary he has dissolved.

Chaudhry is under house arrest, of course they don't call it that, just like we don't call them prisoners of war. But there are people with guns outside the house that don't let anyone in to talk to him and don't let him out. His daughter snuck the letter out.

Mr. Chaudhry insisted that he would continue his struggle for the independence of the judiciary. “There can be no democracy without an independent judiciary, and there can be no independent judge in Pakistan until the action of Nov. 3 is reversed,” the letter read. “Whatever the will of some desperate men, the struggle of the valiant lawyers and civil society of Pakistan will bear fruit. They are not giving up.”

Despite all the things that have gone wrong in Pakistan, there are still people who are willing to say things like this, to talk about democracy with such hope. People who don't see the will of the people as something that can be bought, sold, ignored, or twisted beyond recognition. There are people who see democracy as an idea that could really work for them.

I suppose thats part of the reason I keep coming back to Pakistan on Thursdays, I want our democracy to work, to really reflect our will. But Pakistan is just approaching democracy, where as we are in an older democracy and we've become so desensitized to it that we can't see the cracks.

30 January 2008

The Last Stump Speech

Edwards Drops Out of Democratic Race

As you probably already know, John Edwards has dropped out. I was at his last stump speech last night at the Carpenters Union Hall here in St. Paul. The wind chill was hovering around -40 F, but the room was packed and overflowing into the hall. I'm sure now that he knew that it was his last night on the campaign trail. So I wish I could tell you that he told us something, gave us a hint or threw in something new. But I don't think he did.

That isn't to say that it was a bad or boring speech, it was a good speech and he knew the crowd. He mentioned Paul Wellstone, talked about universal health care, and getting out of Iraq. The one thing he mentioned that caught my attention was a line about wanting to change the pay-day-loan laws. Thats the sort of thing that speaks to his populism. Pay-day-loans are one of those things that keeps people poor and indebted. Its one of those things keeps sucking people down down down and breaking that cycle could really help people.

There were some people in the crowd that would call out "Shame!" as he talked about the money that the HMO CEO's make while so many people are underinsured. That was an interesting response I've never heard from my usually taciturn fellow Minnesotans. But it caught a bit. People booed and hissed at the right points too. Thats another thing I've not heard much of. My father will hiss at speakers and talking heads, but to hear a whole room hiss, its kinda creepy.

I don't think I'll be able to see Obama when he comes, from what I've read the lines have been absurd. I will try to see Hillary when (if?) she comes.

26 January 2008

When you get down to it, common sense has left the capitol.

Fighting for Safety

There are times when a issue gets weighed down with so many interest groups that the obvious answers get lost. Take this example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (which has as many issues as the FDA) is trying to stop people's couches from catching fire when people fall asleep smoking.

For years, there has been an obvious way to address accidental fires: requiring tobacco companies to make cigarettes, which are the leading cause of fatal fires, self-extinguishing. But tobacco was exempted from CPSC jurisdiction when the agency was created in 1972, and a 1994 attempt to give the agency authority over cigarettes failed.
The alternative was to focus on the furniture that was catching fire. And the tobacco industry, which wanted to avoid further regulation of cigarettes, did its best to steer the CPSC in that direction.

You can stop the fire either at the origin or by controlling the fuel. (Technically you could control the oxygen, but that doesn't really work in this scenario.) That sets up the two main interested groups, the tobacco companies and the furniture makers. But then you look at how to make the furniture less flammable and you see that the most common way is to use brominated compounds. So that adds in the chemical companies that produce these brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have a stake in the game. But that pulls in the scientists that are worried about the effects the BFRs could have on the biochemistry of both humans and the environment. The scientists have some reason to be worried; before BFRs, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were used as fire retardants and those have some serious heath issues.

Whew. The tobacco companies have historically been quite good at lobing the various branches of government to look past the obvious problems with their product. This is no different.

Increased awareness of the health risks of fire retardants, meanwhile, confronted the CPSC with a dilemma: how to strike a balance between the need to prevent fatal fires and the risk of exposing millions of consumers to potentially harmful chemicals. It was enough of a conundrum to drive away consumer groups, which in recent years have chosen to sit out of the upholstered furniture debate.

The answer is obvious to me. Add the risk of setting yourself on fire to the list of risks you take when you take up smoking. There isn't a good way out of this problem other than making the population less stupid. Getting the tobacco companies to do things takes too long and the chemical option is not safe. The only way out is education and coming to terms with the fact that there are some things that the government can't do.

Besides shouldn't the CPSC be focusing their energy on all the questionable products that are coming over from China? The ones with melamine and lead and who knows what else? I think that might be a better use of their time and our taxes.

24 January 2008

Walls fall.

Palestinians Topple Gaza Wall and Cross to Egypt

Yesterday, Hamas blew open the wall between the Gaza strip and Egypt. Palestinians are streaming across to buy building supplies, food, satellites for TV, sheep and more. With the boarders into Israel still shut, the holes in the wall at Rafah are the best route for goods.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, refused in an interview to take direct responsibility for ordering the Egyptian border opened, but said: “We are creating facts. We have to try to change the situation, and now we await the results.”

What an interesting way to put it, we are creating facts. It could be a quirk of translation, but it has a very "I'm taking control of my destiny" ring to it.

“I told them: ‘Let them come in to eat and buy food, then they go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons,’ ” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt told reporters at a book fair in Cairo. This came after his forces had pushed back protesting women from the Rafah crossing on Tuesday.

For their part, Israeli officials said that, if controlled, the border opening to Egypt might allow Israel to lock the door to a Hamas-run Gaza and let the Egyptians handle the poverty and problems of the 1.5 million people there.

How much is this going to change the situation there? The Gaza strip is controlled by Hamas and now has an open boarder with Egypt, while the West Bank is controlled by Fatah and still has boarders open with Israel. I don't know enough about the politics of the region to guess.

By the way, the slide show of pictures is very neat. Seeing people stand on rubble that used to be walls is always compelling. There is something about the idea of these sturdy things falling and not holding anyone back anymore.

22 January 2008

Ever seen a pipe burst?

Water main break closes North Side streets

Hmmm... infrastructure again.

A 36-inch water main burst on Chicago's North Side overnight, collapsing a major street, partially submerging parked cars and rerouting CTA service. For a while, a virtual river ran through a popular neighborhood.

The 80-year-old cast-iron main burst about 1:30 a.m. near Montrose Avenue and Wolcott Street, forcing police to close an area of several square blocks. The CTA briefly shut its Brown Line Montrose station and rerouted two buses.

I have no idea if 80 is old for a cast iron pipe, or if this was just one of those one in a million deffects that wasn't tested for in the 1920's.

"It wouldn't be surprising to see that that the weather played a role," LaPorte said. "It went from very cold over the weekend to warmer temperatures that can cause weakness in the pipe."

I wonder how much variation in temperature there is in the ground under the streets in Chicago.

Rachel Maddow is on Countdown right now, talking about how infrastructure investments can work as an economic stimulus package. That sounds like a great idea, employ people and fix our bridges at the same time. It worked for FDR, I would think that it would work for the next president. Build bridges, community centers, clean up land, plant trees, and on and on. Give the local governments some money earmarked for infrastructure and community projects.

I'm just thinking out loud on this one.

21 January 2008

Small town turns down Nobel laureate

Climate Talk’s Cancellation Splits a Town

When you don't know who you're dealing with, its much easier to make a fool of yourself.

But when some residents complained that his presentation here would be one-sided because no opposing view would be offered, the superintendent of Choteau School District No. 1, Kevin St. John, canceled it.
Those who complained misunderstood the content of the talk, Mr. St. John said, but there was no time to explain to all of them that Dr. Running was a leading scientist rather than an agenda-driven ideologue.

A portion of the community seemed to think they were turning down someone crazy tree hugger. But this isn't about laughing at the people of the town for acting like back water hicks; this is about the fact that the superintendent caved into the pressure and treated the scientific consensus as a merely one opinion that would need another to balance it out. Truth is not determine by a vote.

Some students however are smart enough to recognize when their elders are not as wise as they claim.

The controversy here intensified when a local student’s article criticizing school officials was published Monday on the student-created “Class Act Page” of The Great Falls Tribune, a statewide daily.

“I was insulted as a high school student prepared to enter the world I need to hear both sides of the story,” the student, Kip Barhaugh, 17, said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t feel there is another side. Global warming is not a controversial issue, it’s a fact. We need to be prepared to deal with it.”

Hearing this makes me slightly more optimistic. Just because the other generations are still fighting a pointless "debate" about global warming, doesn't mean we can't see the truth of the situation. We've already figured that part out and are moving on to the real questions; how are we going to take care of this problem?

That sound you here is an entire generation sighing and rolling their eyes as their parents argue about whats happening and why, when they've already started changing the light bulbs and researching how to switch the truck to veggie oil.

16 January 2008

Huckabee's Theocratic Tendencies

I've been manning the copy machines at my mother's office for the past few days, hence the lack of posts. But there was a comment made by Mike Huckabee recently that everyone should find disturbing.

While Huckabee's people are trying to say that Huckabee was talking only about a marriage amendment and calling a fetus a person. Not that I agree with any of that, but it sounds like so much more than that. He's saying that the laws of this country should change in order to be in line with the laws prescribed in the Bible.

Spin as they might, what Huckabee said is out.

"...and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."

Whats that line in the Bible about serving two masters? When the choice in Huckabee's mind is between the ever changing (dare I say evolving?) laws of man and the immutable laws of his god, it should come as no surprise that the reverend chooses his god. While its all well and good for him to chose his god's laws so long as they don't run counter to our laws, our laws say that he can't make that choice for the rest of us. But thats what he's saying he would do if given the power; he would chose the laws of his god for all of us.

I shouldn't have to tell you what's wrong with that.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...

10 January 2008

Classy, Bush, real classy

Bush calls on Israel to end occupation of Palestinian land

Can you tell me when its over?

The US president, George Bush, today called on Israel to end its 41-year occupation of Palestinian land and predicted a peace treaty would be signed by the time he leaves office.

I like to add to that prediction and say that humans will walk on Mars and I'll speak ancient Hindi fluently by the time Bush leaves office. Well, okay thats not really fair. There is a chance that something will be signed, but its going to be about as strong as poorly set jello.

This president has started wars. Thats what the Bush Doctrine is all about, attacking nations before they attack you. And now he's talking about peace? In the Middle East? I think that Jesus guy he prays to said something about this, I think it was something about having a beam in your eye.

So he talks a bit about how he understands how difficult peace will be, and how nice and peace loving all the leaders are, and how we all want peace. He says that a fractured Palestinian state isn't viable, but says it in strangest possible way.

"Swiss cheese isn't going to work."

Yeah, thats a stellar comparison for the leader of our country to be making. Very insightful.

Then he talks about how he understands the frustration of the Palestinian people who have to pass through the check points everyday.

Turning to Israeli checkpoints, he said: "I understand why Palestinians are frustrated driving through checkpoints. I can also understand why the Israelis want a state of security."

He went on to joke that "my motorcade of a mere 45 cars made it through without being stopped."

I'm sure that line is really going to endear him to the Palestinian people.

08 January 2008

The Weather in Wisconsin is strange

January Tornados and Pile ups in the fog.

"I have never seen damage like this in the summertime when we have potential for tornadoes," Sheriff David Beth said. "To see something like this in January is mind-boggling to me. This is just unimaginable to me."
The only other tornado to hit Wisconsin in January since 1844 was in 1967, according to the National Weather Service.

I've never been in a tornado, but you can't live in the Midwest and not have spent some time in the basement, hearing the air raid sirens and hoping not to hear that freight train sound. But thats June, July and August. January is supposed to be lots of cold dry air, without any warm moist air coming up. But the weather in Wisconsin hasn't been normal the past few days.

On Sunday there were several pile ups in thick fog and two big ones.

The preliminary investigation shows that some motorists were traveling at least 70 mph above the 65 mph speed limit, said Wisconsin State Patrol Lt. Laurie Steeber said. Steeber said with the conditions, people should have slowed down.

"When there's snow, there's ice, there's fog. The speed limit is too fast,'' Steeber said.

I had a friend call me from the road outside Madison heading south and east. We stayed on the phone almost till she hit the state line. These pile ups were only a few minutes behind her. I checked the weather for her at the time, and visibility in Madison was 0.13 miles. She's a little shaken, but fine.

And while I don't want to blame every little weather quirk on global climate change, there is a larger overall trend of strange weather. And thats what we will see in our weather. You might not experience a net warming, but you will see a change. Warm when it should be cold, dry when it should be raining, floods in parts that are supposed to be dry. How exactly things will change is hard, if not impossible to guess at.

My mother told me a few months ago that she knows something is up because plants that are supposed to die off over a Minnesota winter, haven't been. Things will really be obvious when the insects start moving north. Oh wait, that has already started.

07 January 2008

Another genotype susceptible to vCJD

Brain disease death raises fear of link to BSE meat of 90s

A woman who has died of vCJD, varient Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease aka mad cow disease, did not have the same type of the protein/prion that most victims have.

Her brain was examined by researchers at the Institute of Neurology, at University College London, who found it had an unusual pattern of disease and carried out a genetic analysis. This showed that her version of the prion protein was different from all other previous victims of the infection. In vCJD it is the patients' own prion protein that is subverted by the infection; it alters shape, forming clumps that fatally clog up the brain. About 40% of the population carry the so-called MM variant, found in all victims so far identified, but her VV type is shared by around 10% of the population.

I don't know what exactly is the difference between the VV and MM genotypes or how that changes the resulting structure of the prion protein. But if another genotype can contract vCJD from having eaten contaminated, there maybe a few more people that will suffer. It also means that whatever makes MM different from VV is not enough to stop a prion from changing the original protein to another prion.

There is a precedent for prion diseases affecting people with MM and VV prion-types differently. Kuru, a brain-wasting disease similar to BSE which struck a cannibalistic tribe in Papua New Guinea, had different incubation times according to people's genes. The word kuru means "trembling with fear".

Now that is interesting. It could be that people with different genotypes will suffer differently. A different time scale could be one way that it could manifest. A slightly different change in the brain tissue could be another part of that.

Its sad that people have to suffer because we turned herbivorous cattle into cannibals. At the same time it has spurred research into what otherwise may have languished in the annals of biochemistry as another strange way proteins act. Creutzfeldt-Jakob and scrapies are rather rare, as are other prion diseases such as Fatal Familial Insomnia, and while curious, they probably wouldn't have lead to the funding that this outbreak in the UK has lead to. Squeaky wheels getting oil and stories that bleed, lead.

05 January 2008

Bush and Pepfar

In Global Battle on AIDS, Bush Creates Legacy

Nearly five years later, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — Pepfar, for short — may be the most lasting bipartisan accomplishment of the Bush presidency.

I don't know about that. This god damn war in Iraq had more support from congressional Democrats than any of them are willing to admit. Lets say that it may be the most lasting peaceful accomplishment of the Bush presidency. But even the peaceful things that this president has managed to do have not been unmarred by his illogical ideological roots.

Critics, including Mr. Kerry, are particularly incensed by the requirement that one-third of the prevention funds be spent teaching abstinence, despite a lack of scientific consensus that such programs reduce the spread of H.I.V.

When a Ugandan AIDS activist, Beatrice Were, denounced the abstinence-only approach at an international AIDS conference last year, she received a standing ovation. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, an advocacy group here in Washington, says the Bush program has been hamstrung by “ideologically driven policies.”

Think about how much could have been done with that third that had to be spent on abstinence. The abstinence funding is only in there because the Christian right, like so many other fundamentalist groups, is anti-sex. And that Christian right is the base of Bush's popular support. There is no proof that abstinence education helps decrease premarital or extramarital sex, not here in the US among teens or else where to stop the spread of AIDS.

I will, grudgingly give Bush some props for sending money to help AIDS patients around the world. Some money, even money tied to the stupid abstinence programs, is better than none.

It wont make up for the god damn war though. And it wont make up for torture, trashing civil liberties, putting conservative judges on the SCOTUS, letting New Orleans drown and all the other shit he's pulled. Wont even come close.

04 January 2008

Obama and Huckabee

Another story I shouldn't have to provide a link for; Obama and Huckabee win their respective primaries in Iowa. I'll do some health stuff tomorrow.

I have to admit that I didn't really have a preference among the top three Democrats. Clinton, Edwards and Obama all seemed like good choices. Sure there were differences, but in my mind those different strengths and weaknesses seemed to equal out. The results in Iowa are terribly close between Edwards and Clinton, with 744 and 737 state delegates respectively. As for the number of delegates that will be chosen to go on to Denver, Obama gets 16, Edwards gets 14 and Clinton gets 15. Every where I see is reporting that, but I don't see an explanation for the 14 v 15 numbers.

Huckabee's win is a bit more interesting. The demographics of the win show that much of his support was evangelicals. So the obvious question is how well is that going to work for him in New Hampshire? I don't really know, but the lack of passion for any of their candidates that the Republican voters are showing is probably not a bad thing for the Dems. Besides, Huckabee is kinda nuts. Its like going to the other party's primary and voting for the crazy you know your party can beat, except they did it themselves.

But keeping in mind the post earlier this week questioning how representative the Iowa caucuses and straw poll are, we have to remind ourselves that this is Iowa. While the people there take very seriously their role in the election cycle, it really isn't a very representative sample. No one state can be.

Sit tight, this is just getting good.

PS: I'm still giggling at Wonkette's Merry Fifth Place to Ron Paul.

03 January 2008

Pakistan after Bhutto

Musharraf Says Bhutto Took Risks With Own Safety
As expected, Musharraf is trying to deflect any blame for Benazir Bhutto's assassination that might come his way.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan engaged his international critics for the first time on Thursday, denying accusations of government involvement in the assassination last week of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and instead publicly criticizing Ms. Bhutto for being reckless with her own safety.

Clearly Ms. Bhutto knew that her return to Pakistan and her continuing public campaigning was putting her life at risk. Just because the assassination was not a surprise doesn't excuse legitimate questions about the role or lack there of that the government played.

The elections that were scheduled for the 8th have been reset.

The Election Commission set Feb. 18 as the date for the elections, citing the time needed to recover from the violence that followed Ms. Bhutto’s death last week. Nearly 60 people were killed, election offices were damaged and parts of Ms. Bhutto’s home province, Sindh, were paralyzed.

I hate to say this, but I'll believe it when I see it. I understand the need to set the elections back after Bhutto's death, but the elections need to happen. Pakistan, as a nuclear power, needs more stability. And while a dictatorship is stable while the dictator lives, a democracy has a different sort of stability.

What strikes me as interesting is that Musharraf has asked for international help with the investigation. He is bringing in Scotland Yard. The British, the old colonial overlords. Of course he can't bring in the US, that would be absurd, so he goes for the Brits. He's wagering that a report from the Brits will be accepted as objective, despite the Brits history with Pakistan. Hmm.

02 January 2008

Oh, Iowa

Caucuses Empower Only Some Iowans

This story is fitting, since I am probably going down to Iowa tonight to volunteer.

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty.

I've caucused in my home state of Minnesota before and I went plenty of times as a child with my parents. Its an interesting process if you're old enough to understand whats going on. If you're not, its really fun to run wild in the halls of whatever school its being held in with all the other children. Plus you get stickers.

But its not fun if you're the parent of said child running wild. Thats if you get to go at all. People have long known that the people that vote in the primaries are the people that really care about this sort of thing. That goes double for something as intense and time consuming as a caucus.

As in years past, voters must present themselves in person, at a specified hour, and stay for as long as two. And if these caucuses are anything like prior ones, only a tiny percentage of Iowans will participate.

Its not a quick process and its not something that I think I could explain to any of you in a post. There is a lot of running around talking to the people near you and getting them to support your group of people on an issue or a politician. There is a certain number of people that need to get together in order to send a person to the next level and then the next level meets to decide who will go to the next level and what they will support. If I'm not explaining it well I wouldn't be the first or the last.

“There is no incentive for Iowa to change this at all,” said Mr. Issacharoff, of N.Y.U. “It corresponds to what Iowa wants, which is candidates spending time and resources in Iowa,” in order to win supporters dedicated enough to conquer the obstacles to voting.

This could be said about any of the early primary states. Its not in the people's own self interest that the state wait to vote. The earlier they vote the more their voice counts for. Its not fair to the other states and ideas about changing the entire primary system have been floating around for awhile. But I think it would take someone from the outside, promoting something truly equal for everyone to change the primary system.

If I don't post tomorrow, it means my friends and I decided to go and I'll post on Friday.

01 January 2008

Bishops' Molestation Documents Not Ordered Out

Judge dismisses lawsuit against Catholic diocese in Wis.
The story of this case is a long and twisted one. In 2002, a funeral director and an intern were shot. In late 2004, the police were zeroing in on a Catholic priest who hung himself before the police could get to him.

St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson has said evidence suggested O'Connell learned the priest was sexually abusing someone, was providing alcohol to minors, or both.

Because Rev. Erickson died before he could be questioned, there is no way for us to know if this was true. But the family of the funeral director, the O'Connells, sued the Catholic Diocese of Superior to see if they could get information regarding Rev. Erickson. But that wasn't all, they wanted the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to release all their documents regarding the molestation of minors by priests.

But the case has been dismissed. The reasons are understandable given the facts of the case. The judge ruled that it had no basis in Wisconsin law, and that there is no proof that Rev. Erickson's accused pedophilia made him more likely to kill someone.

But Thomas O'Connell told KSTP-TV in St. Paul that he was disappointed with the ruling.

"Where does church and state, the First Amendment, protect a molester?" he asked.

This is also true. I can see why this specific case couldn't crack open the USCCB's filing cabinets, but I can sort of see the outline of a case that could. If someone could show that they need to see those papers in order to protect children right now, or that the USCCB is protecting someone who has broken the law, then maybe the papers that the O'Connell's were after would have to be given to the court.

The issues that the Catholic Church is dealing with in all this are problems that see boggling to many of us. The way many religions repress the sexuality of their followers, it seems to me obvious that those sexual urges are going to get pushed out in twisted, wrong ways. You can push people's urges down, but the vessel that holds them wont always be able to hold that pressure, and the seems fail and the pressure is released in all the wrong ways. Its just so sad that so many people and children get hurt when the pressure finally gets out.