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“Inside Washington,” 1988-2015

For those of us who watched this weekly news commentary round-table regularly, Inside Washington aired its last show today, after 25 continuous years. It will be greatly missed.

Host Gordon Peterson ably anchored the program. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many, the fair and level-headed Peterson stood head and shoulders above most other anchors on many similar shows that attempt to bring us the same thing.

Regular panelists Colbert “Colby” King, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Shields, Evan Thomas, and Nina Totenberg all contributed incisive commentary, reflecting news of the day from their respective political perspectives. Given the often strong views of most panelists, and their ability to defend same, I would say I have never seen any other show where panelists were so likeably civil, and generally stayed on-topic, even in the heat of debate.

All panelists, including Charles Krauthammer (with whom I might most often have taken a different view), supplied valued and principled discussion. They could be counted on to bring to us succinct points, and entertaining commentary, and they were all genuinely interesting and likable human beings – not to mention, outstanding journalists.

News shows come and go over the years, but the loss of Inside Washington seemed to me a particularly heavy blow to balanced and to-the-point news analysis. It is truly rare to find commentary articulating both sides of an issue so well that we can gain a clear and unbiased grasp of the positions of each party to a dialog. I can only add that I will always miss this show, and I wish to express my own gratitude to host Peterson and all of the panelists for bringing us 25 years of superlative broadcasts.

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Nelson Mandela and Facebook Blocking

He who cannot forgive … breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.” ~~ old African proverb

There are many finer tributes to Nelson Mandela than this one. I join so many others in feeling sorrow at the passing of a revered and inspirational world leader, but I never expected to compose this essay at all. Something happened to change my mind.

This week has witnessed a huge outpouring of fine tributes worldwide, honoring and remembering the death of Nelson Mandela. Some of these can be found on Facebook, posted or shared by many admirers. I admit I wasn’t prepared to encounter a comment to a Facebook post which actually profaned that memory. I engaged briefly with that poster. Considering his past history of online acting-out, I finally just blocked him.

It’s not the first time I’ve blocked someone, but it’s the first time I’ve ever blocked someone twice in a row.

The first time, this person we’ll just call “Charlie” made some egregiously offensive remark – one of those gratuitous remarks seemingly made just to be as off-the-wall unpleasant as possible. And it fit a pattern. Basically, it was a credible imitation of what a skinhead would sound like. So, I said, “this person is outta here,” and I blocked him.
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La mystérieuse affaire de Yasser Arafat

In recent news, the widow of the poor unfortunate old Arafat authorized the exhumation of his remains for further forensic testing. The rumor that he had been poisoned had never gone away. Arafat died in 2004, or was murdered, depending on which rumors you believe. So far, two forensic teams have completed investigations of this case. Swiss, Russian and French scientific teams gained access to the remains for independent analysis in November 2013.

According to Aljazeera, “Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.”

According to Reuters, “The French report concluded that some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas in the tomb where Arafat was buried. The Swiss experts said on the contrary that the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.”

The French team found the radioactive gas radon on the outside of Arafat’s clothing. If, Reuters cited the French finding accurately, the French said they found “some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas,” there is no explanation for the phrase “some of the” unless there were also other sources of radioactivity.

Having the advantage of unlimited access to the results of the autopsy, which was conducted in Paris where Arafat died, the French said that Arafat died of a stroke which was a complication of a severe bacterial infection, which was the original 2004 finding. So, they ruled the cause of death to be illness.

Thorium and uranium decay byproducts include radium, and its decay product radon. Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Polonium is a radioactive metal found naturally in uranium and thorium ores.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “Polonium-210 (Po-210) is a radioactive element that occurs naturally and is present … Because Po-210 is produced from the decay of radon-222 gas.”

This directly contradicts the Swiss opinion as reported by Reuters, that “the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.” If the Swiss were quoted accurately, that would represent a huge disconnect with physics.

Polonium is produced from the decay of radon, not the other way around, so radon is not “the smoking gun” for polonium poisoning.

On the other hand, if it is true that radon detected on the burial clothing was just the result of naturally occurring concentration, it would be unreasonable to expect French scientists to report an even tinier trace of polonium, a naturally occurring decay product.

So far, there is no news report that either Swiss or French have exchanged results of their independent investigations, why they did or didn’t attach any particular relevance to the radioactivity connection, or detailed reasons for their conclusions. The French report is still preliminary at this writing, because news of it was leaked.

A number of obvious questions seem to remain unanswered. There is no clear consensus whether the radiation source was polonium or radon; they attributed it only to naturally occurring radon where it collects in underground spaces such as tombs. In either case, radioactivity is hazardous to the health, and there is a huge discrepancy between the highly abnormal polonium concentration found by the Swiss, and naturally occurring levels of radon found by the French.

If the Swiss scientists identified polonium by a combination of chemical tests and spectroscopy, a mistaken identification seems extraordinarily improbable. Also, the idea that they could mistakenly measure an 18-times concentration of that metal is quite implausible.

Samples for the independent tests would have been taken at the same point in time. It would be difficult to hypothesize that one set of samples contained polonium and the other did not. It will be interesting to learn what Russian scientists find.

Signs of radiation sickness would, all other things being equal, strike the elderly or infirm first. Arafat was both. The effects of radiation exposure are cumulative, and can affect the immune system in many ways. The effect of even medical radiation dosages on the immune system is already well known in hospitals.

Following this line of logic, it would appear that, if a strong source of radiation was actually present in or on the ailing Arafat, a “bacterial infection” might easily have resulted.

Staph infections, for example, are frequently contracted right in the hospital. This hypothesis would argue strongly in favor of a murder verdict, not against the medical facilities, but on unknown persons who might have caused the hospital death through a hard-to-trace chain of events initiated by poisoning Arafat with a radioactive substance.

Analysis appears further complicated by ambiguous news reporting on such a highly technical scientific subject.

Finally, there’s the unresolved question of who might have murdered Arafat. For the foreseeable future, this is a cold case that will never be solved without new discovery.

The popular theory in the Middle East, outside of Israel, is that the Israeli Mossad was responsible for this. Arafat became an internationally respected leader and a stabilizing force in Palestine, after co-brokering the Camp David Accords with Prime Minister Rabin. Arafat was most heavily criticized by Islamists, PLO leftists and Hamas for being too lenient in negotiations with Israel. This would tend to place Israel lower on a theoretical list of suspects, and PLO dissidents and similar militant factions, relatively higher.

The device of polonium poisoning is also associated with a number of sensational assassinations in Northern Europe, suspected to be the work of Soviet or Russian agents. But since scientific experts cannot even agree on evidence for or against these theories in the mysterious Arafat affair, blame is usually attributed to the political motivations of the accuser. If Arafat died as a result of foul play, there does not yet seem to be compelling evidence for any particular cause or agency.

Alex Forbes, December 4, 2013

Sources for this article

==========================

http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/polonium210.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polonium

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radon

http://www.aljazeera.com/investigations/killing-arafat/swiss-study-polonium-found-arafats-bones-201311522578803512.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/03/us-palestinians-arafat-idUSBRE9B20DI20131203

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The Tangled Web: America, France and Indochina 1947-50

History Today

The Tangled Web: America, France and Indochina 1947-50

“To many, the Vietnam War defines their view of the nature of US international policy.”

 

“Kennan agreed: the United States was supporting the French in an undertaking that ‘neither they, nor we, nor both of us together can win’.”

A good short read. As a Vietnam Vet I was aware of some of this in later years. Follow this link first, then “The OSS and Ho Chi Minh” in my preceding post.

What a different world it might have been if we had applied the principles of the Marshall Plan to Indochina as well as Europe! The plan in Europe worked miracles. The plan in Indochina was a disaster from beginning to end.

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The OSS and Ho Chi Minh

Book by Dixee R. Bartholomew-Feis. University Press of Kansas

The OSS and Ho Chi Minh

“Some will be shocked to find out that the United States and Ho Chi Minh, our nemesis for much of the Vietnam War, were once allies. Indeed, during the last year of World War II, American spies in Indochina found themselves working closely with Ho Chi Minh …”

Good book review. An enlightening short read. We trained Uncle Ho, and the fighters that became the Viet Cong, in guerrilla warfare. The international face of American diplomacy hasn’t usually been our Secretary of State, it’s been the Pentagon. Check it out.

 

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Addictions of Race, Privilege and Cultural Denial

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
By Peggy McIntosh

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks. – See more at blogsite http://www.decolonizingyoga.com:

Author McIntosh’s candor and clarity of thought caught me somewhat by surprise. I have never read a fraction of the vast resources of literature and scholarly works on the subject of race. I have read enough to know that many Americans, including many white Americans like myself, are not only able to say with certainty racism is still with us, but exactly why, and how destructive it is for all of us in this great democracy of ours. My experience is largely anecdotal, but I have lots of it.

If you are or have ever been curious how crudely medieval views on race and culture have survived to the twenty-first century, a deadly virus in a modern world of both miracle antibiotics and people who choose not to take them, I think you will find Mcintosh’s full article a refreshingly clear read.
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Jimmy Wales and His Wikipedia Revolution

Some time back, the online tech blog Slashdot hosted a Q&A session letting readers post single questions to Jimmy Wales, founder of the vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wales would personally respond.

Below is one such exchange, on the unimpeachable infallibility of encyclopedic references:

Editing of Information
by sylivin

Q: Wikipedia has become so large that students and youth in particular deem it the official truth. As such governments, companies, and individuals will constantly try to spin that to their own advantage.

Do you believe you will ever be able to reconcile with governments in regards to information they deem classified showing up on Wikipedia and private citizens that consider articles about them to be libel? Or, perhaps, is that just a fight you will need to struggle against for all eternity?

A: Wales: Human beings will never stop quarreling. It’s part of the glorious nature of our species. Government will never cease being stupid and overstepping their boundaries. That, too, is part of the human condition.

The real question is: can open systems adapt and respond in mostly effective ways to deal with the worst of it? And the answer to that is clearly YES.

WHAT’S THIS REALLY ABOUT?

The Old Way

300px-Brockhaus_Lexikon

In the previous century, the standard reference works for home, school or library were “encyclopedias,” literally a circle of learning or course of instruction. Most readers remember the reference standard Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps appropriately, we’ve linked the topic to the Wikipedia article here.

There used to be many other encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, which focused on knowledge and learning from a slightly more national, occupational or educational-level perspective, not to mention specialty encyclopedias and dictionaries like Bartlett’s and Webster’s, or indispensable compendiums on professional subjects like medicine, science, and engineering. Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition in 2012. A subscription-model online edition still carries on.

Traditional encyclopedias were written by accredited subject matter experts, and edited by boards of other professional editors and academics, often drawn from the ranks of the university and college communities. Every effort was made to ensure article content was as objective and factual as possible, and to present “controversial” topics (such as the American Civil War) as historical recitations of documentable and footnoted fact, along with terse descriptions of the motivations and viewpoints of various opposing sides and viewpoints.

That’s how we came to regard encyclopedias as “gospel,” unimpeachable sources of fact as it were, at least insofar as it’s possible for humans to agree on facts and interpretations. Many a family argument used to be settled by referring to the family encyclopedia.

The problem with the static encyclopedia: the “accuracy” of the encyclopedic “answer” was sometimes dependent on the views and objectivity of the contributors and editors. And you might never know when this was the case, unless you were already an expert on that topic. An article on “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” would definitely read quite differently if prepared under the vigilant eye of the conservative University of Chicago, as opposed to the more liberal eye of the University of California Berkeley.

In defense of the bound volume, it is a static record of the period or era in which it was printed. I have an old Encyclopedia Britannica given to me in the 1970′s, missing two volumes, that’s about twenty years older than that. In preparing my 2002 Astronomy article “Stardust: Where do rocks come from?” I was startled to realize how little mid-century encyclopedias could tell us about supernova explosions, and how these seed the universe with the “heavy” elements that make life possible on Earth.

It’s not often we get a chance to save the Carrier Pigeon. Old bound and printed encyclopedias are a “state of knowledge” frozen in time. We rarely can find that online. Projects like Google Books can preserve those “legacy” volumes. In my opinion, at least, such projects should be supported.

The New Way

The guiding principle of Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is that, following the Wiki process, anyone can contribute to or update an article. There are controls, and there is oversight, most of it peer oversight. You can find a Wikipedia article on Harold “The End of World is Coming” Camping, but you won’t find an article asserting that there’ll be no need to pick up the kids after school, because the world will end at exactly 2PM.

Wikipedia says it currently hosts almost 4.3 million articles. If printed and bound, that would amount to 1,902 hardcopy volumes. I can’t get my arms around the number of Wikipedia contributors in a reasonable span of time, but it seems to be around a million a month, both first-time and repeat. Wikipedians seem to measure productivity in number of edits, not number of new posts. There’s a list of the top 1,000 individual “heavy hitters,” the highest of those amassing over 1,000,000 edits each.

When peer review hits the law of large numbers, some interesting statistical things begin happen for data reliability. It’s no coincidence Wikipedia, in its many international languages, is widely regarded as such a reliable and authoritative reference source.

Wikipedia “works” because constant many-hands peer review tends in the long run to correct inaccuracies and misleading or poorly written entries. If I happen to remember that the early Apple ‘HyperCard’ was a “scripting language” and not a full-fledged “computer program,” to give a hypothetical example, Wikipedia provides a way for me to update the inaccuracy.

If someone were to write an egregiously wrong, incompetent, agenda-biased, prejudiced or sloppy article, chances are it may start a Wikipedia flame war. As in the real world, eventually these anomalies sort themselves out whenever clearer heads finally prevail.

That’s why I think Jimmy Wales dropped the ball, or sold himself short, on explaining why open systems like Wikipedia are so effective.

Yes, again, where the topic can support different points of view and controversial differences of opinion, Wikipedia can be messy, just like the real world.

The difference between Wikipedia and the old printed and bound encyclopedias should by now be pretty obvious. Wikipedia has transparency and accountability.

The old system by its nature allowed for little or no difference of opinion. Once it went to print there was no way of recalling or updating the content. Anyone who ever tried to use the “annual update” volumes, as I once did, is likely to praise them as an effective and helpful research tool. No wonder we took those compendiums as unimpeachable. Any disagreement was swept under the carpet.

There’s a very good reason why printed volumes were called “bound.” Once you bought a set, your knowledge base stopped growing and evolving. Wikipedia is a NON-filterable knowledge base with an almost unlimited supply of subject matter experts. When there are disagreements, these are easily discoverable at a glance.

The person originally questioning Jimmy Wales about information editing obviously had government or corporate censorship and redacting in mind. While I don’t personally believe governments in free western nations have yet made significant inroads toward controlling freedom of online content on Wikipedia or of the press in general,  we can expect occasional interaction on classified information, such as pertains to military or national security. To the extent that might be true, it’s not necessarily likely we’d hear much about it. Corporate redacting must go through the courts and the libel laws.

Having said that, if it hits the national media fan, such as on the recent Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden affairs, or the 2001 Enron scandal, it’s fair game for Wikipedia, blogs such as mine, and other online and offline publications, and I’m not particularly worried about it yet.

The highly visible sporadic messiness of Wikipedia open source authoring is superior to the old system of institutionalized consensus and dogma. The “new” system is a stochastic process; a new entry starts out with bumps and warts, perhaps lacking the Britannica finished eloquence of Oxford verbiage, but with a clearly defined aim of providing useful information about the topic. With the aid of many hands, perhaps thousands over time, the Wikipedia topic quickly becomes a polished authoritative reference, and a superior one, for it is never frozen in a stasis of printed paper. It can always evolve and adapt to new information and discovery.

In effect, it became the first impeachable reference work that’s corrected real-time by the same processes that challenge it.

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Teaching to the Test

MULTIPLE CHOICE. Dick has 3 Junior Mints and 29 Red Hots. Jane has 17 Junior Mints and 11 Red Hots. Select the best solution below to convince your school officials that Dick and Jane will each end up with equal shares of both Red Hots and Junior Mints. NO ERASURES.

A. Solve for 1/2(x + y) = (10 + 40)
B. Quantities of different candy types have no mutual dependency. Just have Jane give Dick 7 Junior Mints, have Dick give Jane 9 Red Hots, and move on to the next question.
C. Jane gives Dick 1/2 of her Junior Mints and Dick gives Jane 1/2 of his Red Hots.
D. Teach to the test.

Last night I watched the PBS Frontline special “The Education of Michelle Rhee.” Rhee is an educator who rose to national prominence as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system – a new office created especially for her, which transferred direct power from the board of supervisors to Rhee.

The DC school system was – and probably still is – one of the most challenged in the nation. It shares problems common to many large inner-city school districts: kids from broken and low-income homes, horrible discipline problems, perfunctory attempts to prepare the kids for the next grade level, failing marks in the three R’s, and a demoralized cadre of tenured teachers who aren’t empowered to make meaningful changes within a seemingly hopeless teaching environment.

Rhee’s solution was simple: raise your kids’ test scores, or I’ll fire you. She also got tough on discipline. Essentially, she became the “Tiger Mom,” the dragon lady of the Washington D.C. school system.

Lo and behold, test scores started rising, slowly at first, then dramatically. Scores of tenured teachers found themselves unemployed. A victory for “tough love” teaching methods? Not so fast!

I heard no one actually SAY “teach to the test,” but teachers running scared for their jobs found that to be the only way to produce immediate results. Investigators later found an unusually high incidence of erasures on multiple-choice IBM computer card scoring sheets, though it was never proved who performed the erasures.

Kids were able to raise their test scores, on an average. Teachers were graded not on inspirational or innovative teaching techniques, but on class test scores. There was ideological method in the Rhee madness.

I wasn’t surprised that Rhee also became active in far-right Republican politics. She launched an initiative to fight the recall effort against anti-union Michigan governor Scott Walker. The philosophical dividing line between the Walker mentality and the rest of the world is that of “human capital” versus “human being” rhetoric. We are NOT just commodities, somebody else’s “resource.”

Be that as it may, what I didn’t hear last night were glowing testimonies from the students themselves. I didn’t hear from kids who’d suddenly acquired the learning tools and self-confidence to announce their goal was to continue on to college. I didn’t hear one expression of delight from a kid who finally “got” a difficult principle. I didn’t hear a single kid ask, “how can I find out more about this?”

It seems manifestly true that big changes need to be made in the philosophy and profession of teaching. Scapegoating teachers makes no more sense than scapegoating kids. It accomplishes no more than scapegoating parents: we blame parents, which in education is like embracing the chicken-vs-egg riddle as a viable solution. Since education is so heavily institutionalized, changes in methodology have to come largely from the top, which Rhee understood, but they have to enable students AND teachers to achieve their potential, which Rhee didn’t understand.

To my mind, teaching kids how to pick answers that best satisfy the educator score card is a monstrous perversion of the point and rewards of a rounded education. For demonstrating that we don’t have to accept dysfunctional school systems as inevitable, I’d give Rhee an “A.” For inspiring kids to acquire the one skill that makes all the others possible, that is to say a love of learning, I’d give Rhee an “F.”

And I’d fire her.

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Mercury in Our Drinking Water?

I was reading our 2011 Annual Water Quality Report. Trust me, this is one of the driest technical reports to the general public that you are ever likely to read. It’s mailed each year by our East Bay Municipal Utility District (EMBUD). By a sheer coincidence so random I deserve no credit for my discovery, the TV was tuned to a PBS Quest special, “Mercury in San Francisco Bay.”

There’s a hidden danger in San Francisco Bay: mercury. A potent neurotoxin that can cause serious illness, mercury has been flowing into the bay since the mining days of the Gold Rush Era. It has settled in the bay’s mud and made its way up the food chain, endangering wildlife and making many fish unsafe to eat. Now a multi-billion-dollar plan aims to clean it up. But will it work?

So, our San Francisco Bay annually flushes some 3,100 pounds of mercury out through the Golden Gate. Its principal source dates to the early days of the Mother Lode. Several rivers carry those compounds down into the Sacramento River. Mercury is not water soluble, but Methylmercury is. It’s a bacteria-generated trace compound of mercury found in all those waters. Although not normally considered present in hazardous concentrations, methylmercury is accumulated in the tissues of small aquatic animals and fish. Like other heavy metals, it is not metabolized. Smaller fish in turn are eaten by larger fish, and so on and so on, all the way up the predator chain. Sharks and largemouth bass are often too toxic to eat.

So what did I ever find in the EMBUD water quality report about mercury? Nothing! I checked more carefully. The report even cites trace levels of uranium (not mined in our area): the EPA target concentration is 20 pico-curies per liter, or less. All our water sources are less than 1 PCi/L. If EBMUD even lists uranium, why, then, no mercury statistics?

So, I went to EMBUD’s website. Plenty about water quality; a little bit about mercury in fish; nothing about mercury in drinking water.

Yet it’s plainly there. Now, we don’t get our drinking water from the Sacramento. Depending on the city we live in, we get it from the Hetch Hetchy, the Mokelumne, or regional reservoirs. In my area, we get it from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs. I haven’t fished Lake Chabot in years, but many people do.

I found a PDF from the California EPA listing CHEMICALS IN FISH FROM TEN RESERVOIRS IN ALAMEDA, CONTRA COSTA, SANTA CLARA, AND MARIN COUNTIES – INTERIM COUNTY HEALTH ADVISORIES.The report is on “elevated levels of mercury and PCBs” in those reservoirs.

“If you eat the recommended maximum amount of fish from one reservoir, do not eat any other fish during the same month.” For women of childbearing age, and children:

Lake Chabot: Carp (0) OR Largemouth bass (1) OR Channel catfish (4) OR Redear sunfish (4)

How does mercury get in the reservoirs, and what does it mean to we who drink it? The Upper San Leandro reservoir was not listed. Since we get drinking water from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs, I conclude there is a problem in both reservoirs since I have fished and hiked in both recreation areas. They are part of the same drainage.

Humans may not be in the fish foodchain, but we’re at the top of the predator food chain, AND we ingest and cook in a lot of drinking water. I caution the reader again, drinking a glass of water is NOT the same as eating a fish. The fish act as pollutant concentrators (think: toxin storage containers), from small snails to mosquito larvae to minnows and all the way up the chain.

Question of the day: Why is a water-drinking human not like a fish in water, even if we’re vegetarians? And why would EBMUD report on minuscule uranium concentrations, but not on the locally much more serious mercury pollution?

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