Month: February 2007

Pakistan's Self Interest

Excellent article on the dynamics of Pakistan and the Taliban (H/T to 3QD)

Scapegoating Pakistan (

Other countries, as former senior CIA official Michael Scheuer reminded me, do not look at the world from the same point of view as the United States. “The first duty of any intelligence agency,” he said, “is to protect the national interest. Pakistan is not going to destroy the Taliban because at some point they would like to see the Taliban back in power. They cannot tolerate a pro-Indian, pro-American, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian government in Afghanistan. They already have an unstable Western border and have to worry about a country of one million Hindus that has nuclear bombs.”

That’s 1 billion Hindus, kind sir, not 1 million, there are one million Hindus in South Chennai alone, I would guess, your point is well taken, though. Self-interest ought to be the driving force of any country’s foreign policy. But this article oversimplifies the situation. Not all self-interest needs to be couched in, and carried out in purely adversarial terms. It has been in the self-interest of the military ruling class of Pakistan to carry out this hyper militarized foreign policy. It aids and abets the survival of this ruling class. But is it really in the long term self interest of the rest of Pakistan? Being Indian, I might tend to underestimate and undersell the threat that India is to Pakistan, but I don’t see the threat. Yes, India is a large country with hegemonical ambitions of being the local bully, but its threat to Pakistan is overrated. India has huge problems of its own anyway, and is probably not interested in territorial expansion at this point in time! I am guessing that a Pakistan that is a little more accommodating to its neighbors would find its neighbors a little more cooperative, no?

How does this play out in the real world? Very simply, Pakistan cooperates with the United States when it serves its interests and doesn’t cooperate when it feels that its interests aren’t served.

Well, I am completely and utterly on board with that. Pakistan should pay much more attention to its neighbors than to the “leader of the free world” thousands of miles away.

The Pakistan-Afghan border, aka the Durand line, was drawn by some Brit administrator and in a region with thousands of years of history, artificial borders drawn by foreigners means little to the people who live there. Most identities are tribal, and these stupid colonial lines don’t mean that one person living one mile east of the border will think “Pakistani” and the other, one mile west of the border, “Afghani”.

We’re unfortunately still suffering the consequences of colonial manipulations and divisions, and will continue to do so until regional borders reflect ethic identity more accurately, and are not a function of some ignorant British moron governor’s cartographic skills.

Rant over, nothing like an ethnic conflict in my neck of the woods to bring out the stream of consciousness rambling. Back to more science based blogging later!

Compare and Contrast…

“(Our) stance is not limited to those who fight on the government’s side but applies to all Sudanese, including those who still bear arms and fight the government. They are Sudanese, and we will not let them be tried by any court outside Sudan.”
— Sudan Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi
Sudan rejects ICC jurisdiction, says one suspect held | Reuters

To wit…

For a number of reasons, the United States decided that the ICC had unacceptable consequences for our national sovereignty. Specifically, the ICC is an organization whose precepts go against fundamental American notions of sovereignty, checks and balances, and national independence. It is an agreement that is harmful to the national interests of the United States, and harmful to our presence abroad.

John Bolton, Ex US Envoy to the UN

Nothing more to say, goose, meet gander, eat sauce!, insert other acceptable truisms, here. When Sudan uses the same language as the leader of the free world to “protect” perpetrators and apologists of genocide, you know that the world is a FUBARed place.

Hansen Utters the M word

Well, I for one am glad that the world’s most famous climate scientist has called for a moratorium on coal fired power plants.
Top scientist seeks halt on coal plants – Yahoo News

In prepared remarks to be delivered at the National Press Club Monday afternoon, NASA scientist James Hansen, who has been one of the earliest top researchers to warn the world about global warming, will call for a moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants.

Hansen’s call dovetails with an edict by the private equity group buying TXU, a massive Texas-based utility. The equity group, led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Texas Pacific Group, agreed to stop plans to build eight new coal-fired power plants, not to propose new coal-fired plants outside Texas and to support mandatory national caps on emissions linked to global warming.

Hansen’s presentation to the press club says all coal-fired power plants that do not capture and bury carbon dioxide “must eventually be bulldozed (before mid-century).”

The director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, who was speaking as a private citizen, said Congress should adopt these coal cuts and if not, “citizens must accomplish this.” He said increased efficiency can make up for the cutbacks in coal.


Movement on Texas Coal Fired Power Plants.

There’s been some progress on the coal fired power plants I had railed on about recently.
In Big Buyout, Utility to Limit New Coal Plants – New York Times

Under a proposed $45 billion buyout by a team of private equity firms, the TXU Corporation, a Texas utility that has long been the bane of environmental groups, will abandon plans to build 8 of 11 coal plants and commit to a broad menu of environmental measures, according to people involved in the negotiations. The roster of commitments came through an unusual process in which the equity firms asked two prominent environmental groups what measures could be taken to win their support. The result is an about-face from the company’s earlier approach to climate-change issues, and includes a goal of returning the carbon-dioxide emissions by TXU to 1990 levels by 2020. Environmental groups said yesterday that they had never known of a financial deal with such an ambitious built-in environmental component.

Better than nothing. This is good news for sure. But as I mentioned previously, the Sanders (Good ol’ socialist!) Bill calls for an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. This is required to cap CO2 levels at 450 ppm and avoid the worst effects of global warming. So, while reducing CO2 to 1990 levels sounds impressive in a breathlessly written NY Times article. It is not nearly enough. This is exactly what I was afraid of when I mentioned the moratorium word! In the absence of regulation, or a clear policy, private equity companies, power plants, and other plutocrats are setting the US global warming agenda. They are establishing the floor plan, meaning, we’ll set the bar near the floor and not budge. Yes, I know, the NRDC and Environmental Defense were involved, and this part is definitely good…

TXU will discard plans to build eight of 11 proposed new coal plants, which would have been major new sources of emissions. Those plants — which would have added more than 9,000 megawatts of new capacity, the equivalent of 3.5 percent of the nation’s current coal-fired power — had been part of a planned $10 billion expansion of coal-fired electricity.

TXU, which is based in Dallas, also intends to expand the renewable energy portion of its portfolio and reduce or offset its emissions significantly, said people who were familiar with the plans.

All very good, but as I talked about previously (man, way too much self reference, not a good thing!), a book called Reality Check just out assesses voluntary actions by various companies in the US, Europe and Japan and comes to the following conclusion:

Most of the programs it studies have positive results, but they are
small compared with business-as-usual trends and the impact of other
forces–such as higher energy prices. Importantly, potential gains may
be quickly exhausted as the “low-hanging fruit” is picked up by
voluntary programs.

Now tell me that this agreement does not fit this frame!

Circumspection on Circumcision – Lessons for India

Circumcision May Help Protect Against HIV –

Getting circumcised may reduce men’s risk of acquiring HIV, according to a study conducted in Africa. “Our study shows that circumcised men had 53 percent fewer HIV infections than uncircumcised men,” lead study author Robert Bailey, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), said in a prepared statement.

This study, published in The Lancet (registration and kidney donation required!) adds to the growing body of research suggesting that circumcision significantly reduces the incidence of HIV infection. The doubts on circumcision as a protective factor against HIV are falling away.

But, is this a viable public health strategy? In context, the US health and human services reports an 85% reduction in HIV risk through condom usage. This is probably a conservative estimate. There’s no indication yet that the gains from circumcision and condom use together are multiplicative.

Let’s look at India, for instance. Circumcision is not practiced among Hindus. There is no history of circumcision, and when I was growing up, it was clear that circumcision was for Muslims and Muslims only. It was often laughed about and there was a sense of superiority about not having to mutilate. It was a clear distinction setting difference between “us” and “them”. This article by Jaishanker and Haldar provides some perspective on Hindu-Muslim identities.

Apart from that, the other important identity of Muslim males is circumcision. It is found in many riots that Muslims were victimized based on their religious identity. In the riots if the perpetrators or the police are not able to identify victims with their religion they forcefully remove the pants of the victims to check whether they are circumcised or not. Once they find that the victim is circumcised he is targeted without further analysing which community he belongs to.

For example in Bombay riot (1992) there is a case of man who was frisked by the police for assessing whether he was a Muslim. However, out of fear he gave his name as Raju (a Hindu name) the officer made him take out his trousers and, noticed that he was a circumcised Muslim, and fired at him.

No Hindu parent in their right mind would circumcise their male child. It’s that simple. It’s part of the ingrained Hindu psyche that having an uncut member sets us apart from our Muslim brethren.

Nothing has changed about AIDS prevention strategies. But it’s boring to study the same variables all the time, let’s recap them one more time, shall we!

Education and awareness: Look at this picture from India (from the NFHS Survey):
Now tell me that increasing awareness among women and empowering them is not the most important thing you can do!

Condom use = 85% risk reduction

Nothing more to say. Continuing to improve access to condoms is important. Avert indicates that condom use is very state dependent, especially among sex workers, with Tamil Nadu having an 80-90% use rate and Mysore in neighboring Karnataka having a 9% use rate.

Access to antiviral therapy

India is in a lucky position here with a very well established pharmaceutical industry. So, drugs are likely to be available (patent issues notwithstanding). The issue however is with infrastructure, getting the drugs to the right people at the right time. This 2004 paper from the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics indicates that coverage is spotty at best. India’s National AIDs Control Organization (NACO) recognizes this, but in my opinion does not go far enough to provide free/affordable drugs to infected people, especially to prevent mother-child transmission.

So, to cut a long story short, circumcision in India is not likely to be a factor in the pantheon of choices available. We have a long way to go with our other major AIDS prevention challenges, and I hope this circumcision issue does not become an increasing distraction.

Folklore Based Medicine?

Breast cancer theory supports African folklore –

While they stressed that women should always get screening and quick treatment for breast cancer, they said their theory could also help explain the belief, widespread in parts of Africa and the United States, that removing a tumor can hasten death. “I must say that I am sure there is more to this than just a myth,” said Michael Retsky of Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. His latest hypothesis, which he admits is not supported by any new direct research, is published in the International Journal of Surgery. He stressed that any woman with breast cancer should get the tumor removed. And he noted that in the United States, the women who could be considered at risk of having their cancer spread now get chemotherapy anyway, which would stop cancer’s spread.

Note, no direct evidence, no double blind trial, just a story? C’mon, you’re a Doctor. Surely, you know that CNN and the other media will take your qualifications, reservations and cautions  and shove them up your you know what to get a nice headline. Most people don’t read past the first two lines anyway, so nothing you say about your reservations will be transmitted to the public.

I hope you get the funding to prove/disprove your contention. Race based differences in treatment outcomes are not well studied, and are potentially very important. It is vital that more people look at this issue. But speculation based on modeling studies does not belong on CNN.

EU's REACH Program's cornucopia of toxicology data

The REACH program from the European Union is an incredibly far reaching (no pun intended, of course!) effort to catalog the effects of chemical compounds on human health. I came across this interesting article at Environmental Science and Technology.

ES&T Online News: Will the EU’s REACH serve researchers’ needs?

Europe’s new chemicals law, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals), will put about $13 billion worth of data on 30,000 substances onto a searchable database made available at no cost on the Internet. It sounds like a dream come true for researchers wanting to design new compounds free of the structures that cause human health hazards. But lack of funding for basic research and concerns about the competence of toxicity tests have dampened expectations among some scientists.

Well, D’uh, any program that big is bound to have some problems. But the shifting of burden of proof away from the regulators to industry is a big deal and will lead to a lot of self regulation. Companies will have to prove that their chemicals are safe.

John Warner, a synthetic organic chemist at the University of Massachusetts, says REACH will be effective at pushing companies to select safer alternatives that are already on the market. But for the many reagents and solvents that have no safe alternatives, safe molecules must be designed, and REACH is not structured to promote the design work, Warner says.

Yes, this is an effort to regulate existing and new chemical entities, not an initiative to spur innovation. From the REACH site:

The REACH Regulation gives greater responsibility to industry
to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information
on the substances. Manufacturers and importers will be required
to gather information on the properties of their substances,
which will help them manage them safely, and to register the
information in a central database.

The innovation is going to be market driven by the fear of this regulation. Maybe we will start calling it OVERREACH!

Indian Idol creates Kashmir stir

Not a big fan of reality television, but, there’s no denying the effectiveness of pop culture and mass media in fostering normalcy. Indian idol is like American Idol.

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Indian Idol creates Kashmir stir

Hundreds of young people have ignored militant threats in Indian-administered Kashmir and auditioned for the popular television show Indian Idol.

A large number of girls were among those who turned out for the auditions in the state capital, Srinagar. Indian Idol, based on the popular UK programme Pop Idol, has run for two years but this is the first time auditions have been held in Srinagar.

Militants called the Sony TV programme vulgar and against traditional values. Al Madina Regiment, the militant group which warned hopefuls to stay away from the auditions, has been behind several attacks in recent years.

In recent years, various militant groups have attempted to enforce Islamic values, particularly a dress code, in the region.

Lost in all the legitimate talk about self determination and border politics is the subversion of the Kashmiri struggle by these reactionary fundamentalists who will ensure that even a free/autonomous Kashmir will be a miserable one. Unfortunate. But, let’s hope a Kashmiri woman wins Indian Idol!

Coal Fired Power Plants – Moratorium needed

Cleaner Coal Is Attracting Some Doubts – New York Times

Within the next few years, power companies are planning to build about 150 coal plants to meet growing electricity demands. Despite expectations that global warming rules are coming, almost none of the plants will be built to capture the thousands of tons of carbon dioxide that burning coal spews into the atmosphere.

This is batshit insane and irresponsible. The US of A does not have a carbon policy (other than use as much as you possibly can!), and, only in the last few months have phrases like cap and trade and carbon taxes been used in respectable society. I am not going to get into the policy solutions here, there are much better discussions going on elsewhere.

My question is this. When you know that 150 coal fired power plants are going to have a significant effect on the carbon emissions, how can you even think of approving them unless you have a carbon emissions mitigation policy in place already? If you let them be built, they will somehow grandfather themselves out of the controls. The power of existence is a big deal. Will anyone dismantle one of these once they’re operational? Think of the children!!

There needs to be a moratorium on any large new power plants and other global warming sources until this country has figured out what emission targets it’s going to meet, how it’s going to meet them, and when it is going to meet them. Only then can the market decide which choices are feasible and which ones just don’t make sense. How will I know whether gasification or conventional burning/sequestration is better unless I have the metrics to measure them by? Depending on the emission reduction targets, they could both be economically viable, or neither.

Something tells me that the word “moratorium” and the phrase “coal fired power plant” will never be uttered in the same sentence.

Ionic Air Purifiers may actually Increase Particle Concentrations

Take that, Sharper Image, your air purifiers that you waste tons of paper sending me monthly catalogs for don’t work. The ones that use ozone react with organic compounds in the air, especially your fragrances in cleaning products, air fresheners and perfumes to make fine particles in that crucial 0.1-1 um size range that your lungs don’t clear very effectively.

Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, especially with other indoor pollutants. But I always thought these air purifiers were a scam, I am glad somebody actually got the NSF to fund this study and get some proof!

Kinetic Analysis of Competition between Aerosol Particle Removal and Generation by Ionization Air Purifiers

Kinetic Analysis of Competition between Aerosol Particle Removal and Generation by Ionization Air Purifiers

Ahmad Alshawa, Ashley R. Russell, and Sergey A. Nizkorodov*

Department of Chemistry, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-2025


Ionization air purifiers are increasingly used to remove aerosol particles from indoor air. However, certain ionization air purifiers also emit ozone. Reactions between the emitted ozone and unsaturated volatile organic compounds (VOC) commonly found in indoor air produce additional respirable aerosol particles in the ultrafine (This model predicts that certain widely used ionization air purifiers may actually increase the mass concentration of fine and ultrafine particulates in the presence of common unsaturated VOC, such as limonene contained in many household cleaning products. This prediction is supported by an explicit observation of ultrafine particle nucleation events caused by the addition of D-limonene to a ventilated office room equipped with a common ionization air purifier.