Friday, February 20, 2009

Change over time

LA Times: More Unverified "War Crimes"


Many allegations and accusations, including "war crimes", have been leveled at Israel as a result of its Gaza operation. The LA Times publishes a report from Gaza that is symptomatic of some of the skewed and potentially faulty information being fed to the foreign media as part of widespread efforts to have Israel condemned in the court of public opinion.

Ashraf Khalil writes about "charges of indiscriminate firing on civilians and ambulances and what one international weapons expert called the heaviest use of controversial white phosphorus munitions in the 22-day offensive."

Importantly, he also states that "It is impossible to fully confirm many of the details of what happened here." Indeed, many of the most egregious charges against Israel, subsequently proven to be false, have come from so-called Palestinian "eyewitnesses" or officials with a vested interest in attacking Israel. (See HR's Big Lies interactive feature for some of the worst cases.)

So is it any wonder that Khalil's report is not necessarily an open and shut case?

Khalil states that "Under cover of darkness and phosphorus smoke, ground forces took up positions throughout the neighborhood". At the same time as implying that Israel has deployed phosphorus shells against Gaza's civilian population, Khalil, whether intentionally or not, makes it clear that the phosphorus has been used in the way in which the IDF intended - providing a smokescreen to protect its troops. Khalil cannot have it both ways by accusing Israel of a "war crime" at the same time as describing its use in a perfectly lawful way.

Khalil writes about the alleged shooting of Palestinian Rawhiya Najar:

When it grew light outside, Rawhiya Najar urged her neighbors to crowd onto the roofs of their homes, hoping the sight of civilians would deter the barrage, neighbors said.

The 47-year-old, who had returned from the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca just days before the Israeli offensive began, was known as a forceful and generous personality. She was also a staunch supporter of the local militant groups, and would often leave tea and cakes on her windowsill at night for the fighters who operated in the area.

Using civilians as human shields, including gathering on rooftops, is a well-rehearsed Hamas tactic. Did Rawhiya Najar's support for terror extend beyond tea and cakes on her windowsill? In any case, it is clear that terrorists were present in the area during the alleged incident.

In addition, Khalil describes the efforts of a Palestinian ambulanceman to retreive Najar's body:

before he could approach Rawhiya's body, gunfire from a nearby home forced him to abandon the ambulance and take shelter with residents.

Having established that terrorists regularly operated from that particular area, Khalil fails to establish the source of the gunfire leaving more unanswered questions.

Was George Washington a gay pot smoker?

The Free Press: Speaking Truth to Power
by Harvey Wasserman

Did George Washington raise hemp? Did he smoke it? Was he gay?

The easy answers are definitely, probably, and maybe.

The questions arise with pre-publication of the shocking satire PASSIONS OF THE PATRIOTS by "Thomas Paine," which opens with Le General in the hemp-filled embrace of his beloved Marquis de Lafayette.

As Washington's February 22 birthday approaches, his personal habits say much about today's America.

Like virtually every Revolutionary farmer, the Father of Our Country grew prodigious quantities of hemp. It was (is) a profitable cash crop, easy to grow, with scant demands for cultivation, watering or fertilizing. As a hardy perennial, it needs no year-after-year replanting, nor pesticides or herbicides.

Early American farmers used cannabis for cloth, rope, sails, paper and much more. At various times its cultivation has been mandatory. Kansas was virtually carpeted with it during World War Two. In today's conversion to a Solartopian economy, the cellulose of its stems and leaves, and the oil from its seeds, could be essential for green ethanol and bio-diesel fuels.

Washington and his fellow planter/presidents Tom Jefferson and James Madison would be astonished to hear that hemp is illegal. These early chief executives would certainly have told President Obama that a re-legalized cannabis crop would mean billions of dollars in desperately needed farm revenue throughout the United States.

As for smoking, I know of no significant communication among the Founders extolling their "great weed."

But in one of his meticulous agricultural journals, dated 1765, Washington regrets being late to separate his male hemp plants from his females. For a master farmer like George, there would be little reason to do this except to make the females ripe for smoking.

The medicinal uses of cannabis were known to the ancient Chinese. Thousands of years later, it's inconceivable American growers would not indulge in its recreational powers.

As for Washington's sexual preferences, his marriage to Martha was sometimes suspect. Historians joke that he did not marry her for her money, but rather for her stocks, bonds, land and slaves. In a letter to a friend, he complained that there was "not much fire between the sheets."

Somnambulism in the Internet Age

Woman emailed party invites in her sleep

A new form of somnambul­ism for the Internet age has been identified by doctors and reported in the latest edition of the medical journal Sleep Medicine. Sleep researchers from the University of Toledo, Ohio, reported the first ever case of someone using the Internet while asleep, even sending emails inviting people over for drinks and caviar.

The 44-year-old woman had gone to bed at about 10pm, but rose a couple of hours later, walked to the next room and sat down at her computer. She turned the machine on, conn­ected to the Internet and success­fully logged on with her user name and password, before composing three emails and sending them to friends. She only found out what she had done when one of them telephoned the next day to reply to the email and accept the invitation.

The mails themselves were perhaps not up to the woman's waking standard; each was in a random mix of upper and lower case characters, badly formatted and containing odd expressions. One read: "Come tomorrow and sort this hell hole out. Dinner and drinks, Bring wine and caviar only." Another said simply: "What the…"

The writers of the report have dubbed this new variation of sleepwalking 'zzz-mailing'. They say: "We believe writing an email after turning the computer on, connecting to the Internet and remembering the password displayed by our patient is novel. To our knowledge this type of complex behaviour requiring coordinated movements has not been reported before in sleepwalking. She was shocked when she saw these emails, as she did not recall writing them. She did not have any history of night terr­ors or sleepwalking as a child."

Unlike simple sleepwalking, they argue, the activities the woman engaged in required complex behaviour and coordinated movement, as well being able to remember her login details. She had no memory of the events next day.

Time to say goodbye to print newspapers

Even those with printer's ink in our veins need to face e-reality

I yield to no one in my love of newspapers. After more than four decades of pounding keyboards for various dailies, and, before that, tossing the now long-gone Yonkers, N.Y., Herald Statesman into the bushes and, occasionally, through front windows of subscribers on my newspaper route, a lot of ink has rubbed off on my psyche. But the time has come to say goodbye to the daily newspaper, a delivery system that should have found its place onto the museum shelf a decade ago, when the Internet shouldered its way into the news business.

Like most goodbyes, parting isn't easy. And like most, the best way is quick and clean. But that isn't what is happening in my trade. In the news business we like to write about the next best thing, but when it shows up on our doorstep we shift gears into denial and foot-dragging. Take the announcement Feb. 15 by the Post Register, in Idaho Falls, that it is dropping its Monday print paper because of mounting financial pressure.

"In this changing economic environment," Post Register Publisher Roger Plothow wrote in a statement to the Idaho paper's readers, "businesses that don't stay nimble will be left in the dust." And then, for a dollop of good news, Plothow said his paper was "moving forward" by installing a state-of-the-art printing press.

Think about that. So many readers and advertisers are bailing out of print that the Post Register can't afford to publish a newspaper every day. And the paper's solution: keep publishing — and spend tens of millions of dollars on a new press to crank out more print papers. That is nimble the way Sonny Liston was a ballerina.


Getting Well

by William Rivers Pitt

photoIn the beginning there is the stem cell; it is the origin of an organism's life. It is a single cell that can give rise to progeny that differentiate into any of the specialized cells of embryonic or adult tissues.
- Stewart Sell, M.D., Senior Scientist, Ordway Research Institute

    The Obama administration won its way through to passage of the economic stimulus package, and President Obama will sign the thing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he's going to Phoenix to kick off a big national push for fixing the foreclosure crisis. There is still a war going on in Afghanistan, and there is still a war going on in Iraq. The White House has wisely decided to stay away from the question of Karl Rove's subpoena and the limits of Bush-era executive privilege claims; the issue is one of separation of powers, and therefore must be handled by the legislative and judicial branches, so the executive branch doesn't wind up getting to determine the limits of its own power.

    So there's a lot of galactically heavy stuff going on right now, with more sure to come.

    But there's also this, from The Associated Press on Sunday afternoon:

President Barack Obama will soon issue an executive order lifting an eight-year ban on embryonic stem cell research imposed by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, a senior adviser said on Sunday. "We're going to be doing something on that soon, I think. The president is considering that right now," Obama adviser David Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday."

In 2001, Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research only to human embryonic stem cell lines that already existed. It was a gesture to his conservative Christian supporters who regard embryonic stem cell research as destroying potential life, because the cells must be extracted from human embryos. Embryonic stem cells are the most basic human cells which can develop into any type of cell in the body.

Scientists believe the research could eventually produce cures for a variety of diseases, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries. Obama vowed to reverse Bush's ban during his presidential campaign, and in his inaugural address last month promised to return science to its proper place in the United States.

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes cells this way: "Stem cells have two important characteristics that distinguish them from other types of cells. First, they are unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. The second is that under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, stem cells in developing tissues give rise to the multiple specialized cell types that make up the heart, lung, skin and other tissues. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury or disease."

The Hard Cases

Will Obama institute a new kind of preventive detention for terrorist suspects?

by Jane Mayer

The last "enemy combatant" being detained in America is incarcerated at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina—a tan, low-slung building situated amid acres of grassy swampland. The prisoner, known internally as EC#2, is an alleged Al Qaeda sleeper agent named Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. He has been held in isolation in the brig for more than five years, although he has never stood trial or been convicted of any crime. Under rules established by the Bush Administration, suspected terrorists such as Marri were denied the legal protections traditionally afforded by the Constitution. Unless the Obama Administration overhauls the nation's terrorism policies, Marri—who claims that he is innocent—will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

On September 10, 2001, Marri, a citizen of Qatar, who is now forty-three, came to America with his family. He had a student visa, and his ostensible purpose was to study computer programming at a small university in Peoria, Illinois. That December, he was arrested as a material witness in an investigation of the September 11th attacks. However, when Marri was on the verge of standing trial, in June, 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the military to seize him and hold him indefinitely. The Bush Administration contended that America was in a full-fledged war against terrorists, and that the President could therefore invoke extraordinary executive powers to detain Marri until the end of hostilities, on the basis of still secret evidence. That day, Marri was put on a military jet to Charleston, and since then he has been living as the only prisoner in an eighty-bed high-security wing of the brig, with no visits from family, friends, or the media.

Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who has taken the lead role in Marri's legal defense, says that the Bush Administration's decision to leave him in sustained isolation was akin to stranding him on a desert island. "It's a Robinson Crusoe-like situation," he told me. In 2005, Hafetz challenged the constitutionality of Marri's imprisonment. A lower court affirmed the government's right to detain him indefinitely. After several appeals, the case is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in April. Hafetz calls the Marri case a pivotal test of "the most far-reaching use of detention powers" ever asserted by an American President.

The Court's calendar requires the Obama Administration to file a reply to the challenge by March 23rd. Unless some kind of diversionary action is taken—such as sending Marri home to Qatar, or working out a plea agreement—the Court's schedule will likely force the Obama Administration to offer quick answers to a host of complicated questions about its approach to fighting terrorism.

Google Earth reveals secret history of US base in Pakistan

Shamsi airbase in Pakistan in 2006
The Shamsi airbase in 2006 with three drones apparently visible

The US was secretly flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan as early as 2006, according to an image of the base from Google Earth.

The image — that is no longer on the site but which was obtained by The News, Pakistan's English language daily newspaper — shows what appear to be three Predator drones outside a hangar at the end of the runway. The Times also obtained a copy of the image, whose co-ordinates confirm that it is the Shamsi airfield, also known as Bandari, about 200 miles southwest of the Pakistani city of Quetta.

An investigation by The Times yesterday revealed that the CIA was secretly using Shamsi to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack al-Qaeda and Taleban militants around Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

US special forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left. Both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington has used, or is using, Pakistani bases to launch drones. Pakistan has also demanded that the US cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last year, allegedly killing several "high-value" targets as well as many civilians.

Stimulus Provides Preview Of Health Battles Ahead

A newly controversial provision in the stimulus bill calls for funding to study medical drugs, devices and procedures.

Prescription pillsAll Things Considered, February 16, 2009 · In Washington, Republicans are already warming up their arguments against what they anticipate will be President Barack Obama's plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

At issue is a heretofore bipartisan — and relatively noncontroversial — provision included in the massive economic stimulus bill about to clear Congress. It calls for $1.1 billion to study, in essence, how well various medical drugs, devices and procedures work.

Currently, prescription drugs and medical devices must show they are safe and effective before they can be marketed. But they don't have to prove they are better or more cost-effective than other treatments already available. Currently, there is little research in this country to compare whether drugs work better than surgery or other types of treatments.

Many experts say that finding out what works best could help both improve care and cut down on expensive care that doesn't work — as well as less expensive alternatives.

"More research on what works and what doesn't, tied to financial incentives to provide the higher-value care, could help to reduce costs without harming quality," said health economist Peter Orszag, who at the time of the comment was director of the Congressional Budget Office. Orszag is now President Obama's budget director. "We currently have a set of financial incentives just for more care. And we need a set of financial incentives for better care. And part of that requires knowing what better care is," Orszag said.

McCollum Urges DoD to Rescind Contract to KBR

Contractor Under Criminal Probe for Negligent Electrocution Deaths of U.S. Troops Should Be Denied Future Pentagon Contracts


Washington, DC – Amid reports that the Department of Defense has recently awarded a multimillion dollar contract to a company under investigation for the electrocution deaths of soldiers, Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN-04) today joined Congressional colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary Robert Gates requesting an explanation for the latest award to Kellogg Brown and Root, Inc (KBR), in light of the existing criminal probes against them for the fatality of several U.S. soldiers in Iraq due to faulty electrical work. The 2004 electrocution death of Congresswoman McCollum's constituent, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class David A. Cedergren, was recently placed under review by military officials, though a direct link to KBR has not yet been determined.


"Secretary Gates should immediately rescind any new awards to KBR. It is irresponsible and negligent for the Department of Defense to grant additional contracts to a company facing such serious allegations.  We recently learned, after five years of scrutiny, that a Minnesota sailor was electrocuted to death by faulty wiring.  Who can trust KBR's work?" Congresswoman McCollum said.


Last year, as a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Congresswoman McCollum took part in an in-depth hearing into the problem of electrocutions in U.S. facilities in Iraq. The Committee's findings showed that KBR was alerted to deficiencies in several cases, but failed to take corrective action. In a Pentagon correspondence from last September, David J. Graff, commander of the Defense Contract Management Agency, wrote, "Many within DOD (Department of Defense) have lost or are losing all remaining confidence in KBR's ability to successfully and repeatedly perform the required electrical support services mission in Iraq."{638D6471-5086-4EE8-B778-1DF1727C3F02}&DE={FA0666E3-5C9C-429B-8FE0-53F502B76602}

The Crisis of Credit Visualized

The Short and Simple Story of the Credit Crisis.

By Jonathan Jarvis.

The goal of giving form to a complex situation like the credit crisis is to quickly supply the essence of the situation to those unfamiliar and uninitiated. This project was completed as part of my thesis work in the Media Design Program, a graduate studio at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

For more on my broader thesis work exploring the use of new media to make sense of a increasingly complex world, visit
Part One
Part Two

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Jobless Hit With Bank Fees on Benefits

More pain for unemployed as banks turn profit on new debit card jobless benefits

So he took out some of the money and then decided to pull out the rest. But that made two withdrawals on the same day, and that was $1.50.

For hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs during the recession, there's a new twist to their financial pain: Even when they're collecting unemployment benefits, they're paying the bank just to get the money — or even to call customer service to complain about it.

Thirty states have struck such deals with banks that include Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., JP Morgan Chase and US Bancorp, an Associated Press review of the agreements found. All the programs carry fees, and in several states the unemployed have no choice but to use the debit cards. Some banks even charge overdraft fees of up to $20 — even though they could decline charges for more than what's on the card.

Obama sushi

This Japanese sushi chef has developed a fantastic Obama sushi: "Obama's skin is Amis (small shrimp) TSUKUDA煮use. 髪は黒ゴマで、歯はかまぼこ。 Hair is black sesame, fish paste teeth."

The site contains instructions on how to make it.

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