Sunday, February 28, 2010

Doofus Of The Day #326

Today's award goes to the Russian army dispatch officer responsible for dumping 200 main battle tanks in a forest, miles from anywhere. The Telegraph reports:

A news website near the city of Yekaterinburg posted a video of the forgotten tanks showing passers-by clambering inside the vehicles and playing with empty ammunition belts. The only items that seemed to be missing were live rounds and the keys to the tanks' ignitions.

"There are tanks all over the forest, abandoned," an unnamed reporter on the video says. "If you need one, come and get it."

Locals in a nearby village said the tanks had been sitting there for almost four months covered in snow. The armoured vehicles were identified as a mixture of T-80 and T-72 battle tanks, the workhorses of the Russian army.

"We were shocked," Pavel L., a local, told Russian media. "It is like you can sit behind the wheel, start up the engine and drive off and nobody would notice!"

A military spokesman claimed the tanks were in fact being guarded by special patrols and were in the process of being dispatched to a military base. But military prosecutors appeared sceptical about his claims and opened an official investigation. Wary of further bad publicity, the army has urgently begun relocating the tanks.

There's more at the link. The video clip below shows the tanks abandoned in the forest.

Hmm . . . if the US Army sent over a few spare tank drivers, I bet they could have the lot across the border within a few days, and no-one the wiser! There again, by now they've probably got all the old Russian tanks they need, so why bother?


Beating infections by using . . . LESS drugs???

It seems that Norway has developed a new and interesting technique to cut down on hospital infections - minimize the use of antibiotics, so that bacteria can't develop a resistance to them. The Miami Herald reports:

Aker University Hospital is a dingy place to heal. The floors are streaked and scratched. A light layer of dust coats the blood pressure monitors. A faint stench of urine and bleach wafts from a pile of soiled bedsheets dropped in a corner.

Look closer, however, at a microscopic level, and this place is pristine. There is no sign of a dangerous and contagious staph infection that killed tens of thousands of patients in the most sophisticated hospitals of Europe, North America and Asia last year, soaring virtually unchecked.

The reason: Norwegians stopped taking so many drugs.

Twenty-five years ago, Norwegians were also losing their lives to this bacteria. But Norway's public health system fought back with an aggressive program that made it the most infection-free country in the world. A key part of that program was cutting back severely on the use of antibiotics.

Now a spate of new studies from around the world prove that Norway's model can be replicated with extraordinary success, and public health experts are saying these deaths -- 19,000 in the U.S. each year alone, more than from AIDS -- are unnecessary.

``It's a very sad situation that in some places so many are dying from this, because we have shown here in Norway that Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus [MRSA] can be controlled, and with not too much effort,'' said Jan Hendrik-Binder, Oslo's MRSA medical advisor. ``But you have to take it seriously, you have to give it attention and you must not give up.''

The World Health Organization says antibiotic resistance is one of the leading public health threats on the planet. A six-month investigation by The Associated Press found overuse and misuse of medicines has led to mutations in once curable diseases like tuberculosis and malaria, making them harder and in some cases impossible to treat.

Now, in Norway's simple solution, there's a glimmer of hope.

Dr. John Birger Haug shuffles down Aker's scuffed corridors, patting the pocket of his baggy white scrubs. ``My bible,'' the infectious disease specialist says, pulling out a little red Antibiotic Guide that details this country's impressive MRSA solution.

It's what's missing from this book -- an array of antibiotics -- that makes it so remarkable.

``There are times I must show these golden rules to our doctors and tell them they cannot prescribe something, but our patients do not suffer more and our nation, as a result, is mostly infection free,'' he says.

. . .

Around the world, various medical providers have successfully adapted Norway's program with encouraging results. A medical center in Billings, Mont., cut MRSA infections by 89 percent by increasing screening, isolating patients and making all staff -- not just doctors -- responsible for increasing hygiene.

In 2001, the CDC approached a Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh about conducting a small test program. It started in one unit, and within four years, the entire hospital was screening everyone who came through the door for MRSA. The result: an 80 percent decrease in MRSA infections.

The program has now been expanded to all 153 VA hospitals, resulting in a 50 percent drop in MRSA bloodstream infections, said Dr. Robert Muder, chief of infectious diseases at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

There's more at the link.

Hmm . . . no - or virtually no - deaths from MRSA infections in Norway, as opposed to 19,000 in the USA every year? I wonder how much Norway's saving by not having to provide all those antibiotics, too?

I've had a post-surgery MRSA infection, and it was no fun at all. It took three weeks to clear it up with some very strong antibiotics (which made me feel even more grim than the pain from the surgery), and I had recurrent skin infections for a couple of years afterwards.

If something as simple as the Norwegian approach can be so effective, I have to ask: why is it not being more widely implemented here? Is it that our medical system is simply too oriented towards 'give them a pill' or 'give them an injection' as a solution to every problem?


The funniest headline failures

The Huffington Post has an article entitled 'The Funniest Headline Fails Of All Time'. It describes them as follows:

Newspapers (and even some news websites) just keep providing us with gold. Last week, we showed you the creepiest classified ads, and now we've collected our favorite unintentionally funny headlines. We're convinced that none of these publications have editors. And if they do, either they have an amazing sense of humor, or they're completely oblivious. If it's the latter, perhaps they missed on being a teenager, when anything sounding remotely sexual was the funniest thing in the world.

Here are three examples from the article, to whet your appetite.

There are more at the link. Some are definitely not safe for work, but they're all very funny.


So that's what a 'gut feeling' is all about!

I was astonished to learn that the nervous system in the gastrointestinal tract is so dense that it's referred to as a 'second brain'. The Scientific American reports:

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, which measures about nine meters end to end from the esophagus to the anus. The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system, Gershon says.

This multitude of neurons in the enteric nervous system enables us to "feel" the inner world of our gut and its contents. Much of this neural firepower comes to bear in the elaborate daily grind of digestion. Breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and expelling of waste requires chemical processing, mechanical mixing and rhythmic muscle contractions that move everything on down the line.

. . .

"The system is way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon," says Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. "Some of that info is decidedly unpleasant," Gershon says.

The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. "A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut," Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach — signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says — is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one's moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above. For example, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve — a useful treatment for depression — may mimic these signals, Gershon says.

Given the two brains' commonalities, other depression treatments that target the mind can unintentionally impact the gut. The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body's serotonin is found in the bowels. Because antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI's) increase serotonin levels, it's little wonder that meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often provoke GI issues as a side effect. Irritable bowel syndrome—which afflicts more than two million Americans—also arises in part from too much serotonin in our entrails, and could perhaps be regarded as a "mental illness" of the second brain.

Scientists are learning that the serotonin made by the enteric nervous system might also play a role in more surprising diseases: In a new Nature Medicine study published online February 7, a drug that inhibited the release of serotonin from the gut counteracted the bone-deteriorating disease osteoporosis in postmenopausal rodents. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) "It was totally unexpected that the gut would regulate bone mass to the extent that one could use this regulation to cure—at least in rodents—osteoporosis," says Gerard Karsenty, lead author of the study and chair of the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Medical Center.

Serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism, the developmental disorder often first noticed in early childhood. Gershon has discovered that the same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. "If these genes are affected in autism," he says, "it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities" in addition to elevated levels of gut-produced serotonin in their blood.

Down the road, the blossoming field of neurogastroenterology will likely offer some new insight into the workings of the second brain — and its impact on the body and mind. "We have never systematically looked at [the enteric nervous system] in relating lesions in it to diseases like they have for the" central nervous system, Gershon says. One day, perhaps there will be well-known connections between diseases and lesions in the gut's nervous system as some in the brain and spinal cord today indicate multiple sclerosis.

Cutting-edge research is currently investigating how the second brain mediates the body's immune response; after all, at least 70 percent of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders.

U.C.L.A.'s Mayer is doing work on how the trillions of bacteria in the gut "communicate" with enteric nervous system cells (which they greatly outnumber). His work with the gut's nervous system has led him to think that in coming years psychiatry will need to expand to treat the second brain in addition to the one atop the shoulders.

There's more at the link.

That's just mind-blowing! To think that our digestive nervous system is so developed that it might complement, or even rival, our central nervous system in some respects! I've known for years that a good meal makes me feel happier in every way, physically and mentally, but I'd never suspected that the 'happy feelings' might be my digestive nervous system telling my brain that it had good reason to feel happy!

I'm going to have to read more about this. It sounds like a fascinating field for further study.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

World's fastest sled?

The video clip below shows a group of Swedish adventurers with a steam-powered sled. According to a rough-and-ready translation of the commentary, they heat a tank containing 15 liters (just under 4 US gallons) of water to a temperature of 400° Centigrade (752° Fahrenheit), attach it to their sled, and open a valve at the rear. The resulting jet of steam propels them across a frozen lake at speeds of over 100 kilometers per hour (more than 62 mph). They claim that the current world record for a steam-powered sled is 105.2 km/h, and they want to try to set a new world record later this year (hopefully before the ice melts!).

Personally, I think I'll pass. The thought of casually heating up a home-made pressure vessel to those temperatures in an open fire like that, then strapping it down between my legs for a run across the ice . . . let's just say I've suddenly remembered a (pressing) previous engagement!


The most unfortunate names?

The BBC provides a selection.

What do you call some of the most unlucky people in Britain?

Justin Case, Barb Dwyer and Stan Still.

It sounds like a bad joke, but a study has revealed that there really are unfortunate people with those names in the UK.

Joining them on the list are Terry Bull, Paige Turner, Mary Christmas and Anna Sasin.

And just imagine having to introduce yourself to a crowd as Doug Hole or Hazel Nutt.

The names were uncovered by researchers from parenting group after trawling through online telephone records.

. . .

Researchers also scoured phone records in the US and found some unlikely names there too.

Spare a thought for Anna Prentice, Annette Curtain and Bill Board the next time you sign your name.

A string of Americans also have very job-specific names, including Dr Leslie Doctor, Dr Thoulton Surgeon and Les Plack - a dentist in San Francisco.

A spokesman for said: "When the parents of some of those people mentioned named their children, many probably didn't even realise the implications at the time.

"Parents really do need to think carefully though when choosing names for their children.

"Their name will be with them for life and what may be quirky and fun for a toddler might be regretted terribly when that person becomes older or even a grandparent perhaps."

There's more at the link.

Some of those are bad enough . . . but the worst I ever heard of was the poor New Zealand girl named by her ignoramus parents, 'Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii'. She was so embarrassed that she refused to use her name at all, and eventually went to court to force her parents to allow her to change it. The judge agreed, needless to say.


More teen sex education = more teen pregnancies

I've known it all along, but Peter Hitchens puts it succinctly.

Sex education has failed. So the Establishment decrees that we must have more of it, and in fact that there shall be no escape from it.

What I don’t grasp is why the people of this country put up with so many separate insults to their intelligence in any given week.

And why this particular blatantly obvious sequence comes round year by year and nobody even laughs, let alone draws the correct conclusion.

Despite the casual massacre of unborn babies in the abortion mills, and the free handouts of morning-after pills (originally developed for pedigree dogs which had been consorting improperly with mongrels), and the ready issue of condoms to anyone who asks, and the prescription of contraceptive devices to young girls behind the backs of their parents by smiling advice workers, and the invasion of school classrooms by supposedly educational smut, the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy has failed, is failing and will continue to fail.

In the week that figures clearly showed that the Government’s supposed target for cutting teen pregnancy by half is never going to be reached, compulsory smut education – a key part of this ‘strategy’ – was forced on all English schools by law for the first time.

There will be no opt-outs. The new liberal gospel of ‘do what thou wilt – but wear a condom while thou doest it’ will be taught by order of the State.

Some years ago, I wrote a short history of sex education in this country. I didn’t then know about its first invention, during the Hungarian Soviet revolution of 1919, when Education Commissar George Lukacs ordered teachers to instruct children about sex in a deliberate effort to debauch Christian morality.

But what I found was this. That the people who want it are always militant Leftists who loathe conventional family life; that the pretext for it has always been the same – a supposed effort to reduce teen pregnancy and sexual disease; and that it has always been followed by the exact opposite.

It was introduced into schools against much parental resistance during the early Fifties. And, yes, the more of it there was, the more under-age and extramarital sex there seemed to be.

By 1963, in Norwich, parents were told that their young were to be instructed in sexual matters because the illegitimacy rate in that fine city had reached an alarming 7.7 per cent (compared with a national rate of 5.9 per cent). The national rate is now 46 per cent and climbing, so that was obviously a success, wasn’t it?

Well, yes it was, because the people who force these peculiar classes on our young are lying about their aims. You can see why.

Most of us, in any other circumstance, would be highly suspicious of adults who wanted to talk about sex to other people’s children. But by this sleight of hand – that they are somehow being protected from disease and unwanted pregnancy – we are tricked into permitting it.

And our civilised society goes swirling down the plughole of moral chaos.

Well said, Sir! Mr. Hitchens is writing about England, but my experience in the USA bears out what he says. The more sex education you provide to inquiring teenage minds, the more they're going to want to experiment with what you've taught them, and the more teenage pregnancies - and abortions, and unwanted births - will result. Q.E.D.


Friday, February 26, 2010

It's all in the bindings . . .

Hint to skiers about to attempt a jump: it really, really helps to fasten your skis securely before takeoff!


Doofus Of The Day #325

Today's award goes to whoever approved this advertisement (on an escalator in a Muscat shopping mall) for Turkish Airlines.

To portray your aircraft diving enthusiastically into the floor isn't the usual way to impress people with your airline!


Of fobbits, geardos and rooney guns

Back in the days when I wore military uniform, we used to joke about rear-echelon wannabe's (we called them something ruder, that I can't publish on so high-toned a forum as this blog) who dressed in the most 'tacti-cool' manner they could manage. You could bet your next paycheck that if those of us 'up at the sharp end' ran short of camouflage uniforms, or desert boots, or something desirable in the way of equipment, we'd find an unending supply of it in the rear areas, being worn by every wannabe in sight - but would they ship any of it to us, who really needed it? Like hell they would!

These were the same characters who'd dress up their weapons with every attachment known to the human race (and some that not even our armorers could identify), in an attempt to look seriously warrior-like. Needless to say, those of us actually doing the fighting restricted attachments to those that worked every time, and fulfilled a seriously-needed function. If something looked cool, but wasn't really useful, it got 'lost in combat' as quickly as possible. Our rule was reliability first, bling later. (Oh, yes - I don't know when these wannabes ever cleaned their weapons, but if you inspected them, they were usually dusty, sandy and dry as a bone. Fighting soldiers' rifles, on the other hand, were always clean and well lubricated. Since our lives might have to depend on them at any moment, you can bet we took that seriously!)

I've noticed that the US armed forces have developed their own vocabulary to describe such people in recent years. An e-mail from a friend contained the image below (click for a larger version), which he referred to as a 'geardo'.

Intrigued, I looked up 'geardo' on the Internet, and found that it's got its own definition in the Urban Dictionary. It's also associated with the word 'fobbit', which has an amusement value all of its own. I suspect many of those regarded by US servicemen as 'geardos' and 'fobbits' would be instantly recognized as such by the men with whom I served, in another war, on another continent, in another time.

In my Internet search, I also found the 'Private Murphy' cartoons by Mark Baker, which proved very entertaining. Among them was this gem:

All of the Private Murphy cartoons I looked at were very entertaining. Recommended reading.

It seems that teenagers involved with first-person-shooter or roleplaying games are particularly susceptible to 'geardo-itis' (to coin a phrase). This photograph of a wannabe 'geardo' made me laugh out loud, particularly because he's pointing to his gear inspiration - an action figure!

In all my searching, however, I didn't come across any mention of 'rooney guns'. The term was coined by the late, great Col. Jeff Cooper, referring to a firearm that had so many weird and wonderful attachments that it was almost worthless for its primary purpose. Here's an example of what must surely be an 'ultimate rooney' gun.

The Gun Zone has more pictures of 'rooney guns', here, here, here and here. All very entertaining.

So there you have it: fobbits, geardos and rooney guns. Looks like things haven't changed much since my days up at the sharp end . . .


Thursday, February 25, 2010

A brown-trouser moment if ever I saw one!

I imagine the pilot of this Russian Su-33 fighter, attempting to land on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, was devoutly grateful that his aircraft has a better than one-to-one thrust-to-weight ratio (in other words, its engines produce more pounds of thrust than the weight of the aircraft, allowing it to accelerate straight up if necessary). His landing approach went disastrously wrong, and only the power of his engines saved him - and only just!

I imagine the 'pucker factor' was operating at full strength there for a few seconds! Wonder how long it took him to dislodge the seat cushion from his backside when he finally got down?


A man of conscience

The Scotsman reports that the German sailor who saved the port of Bordeaux from destruction in World War II has died.

Heinz Stahlschmidt was that rare thing in the Third Reich, a man who followed his conscience instead of his orders when the tide of the war began to turn.

By his actions, he not only saved thousands of lives, but a vital component of the post-war economic recovery of France – Bordeaux was its most important harbour city.

But while recognised as a hero by France – he was awarded its highest civilian decoration, the Legion d'Honneur – he was regarded as a traitor in a post-war Germany. He was struck from the list of naval personnel regarded as eligible for a pension and his name erased from honour rolls of the German navy.

He died in his adopted homeland of France as Henri Salmide, his new name for a new life, after a long illness. He returned only once to Germany, to his birthplace at Dortmund, in 2001, preferring to spend his days among people who appreciated his humanity.

By any measure, his actions were brave and humane. This son of a plumber, who volunteered for the German navy in 1939 upon the outbreak of war, Heinz Stahlschmidt was posted to shore duties after three times being rescued when his vessels were sunk.

In Bordeaux in 1944, it fell to Sgt Stahlschmidt – a weapons and demolitions expert – to lead a detachment that defused British sea mines.

In August, the Allies were steamrolling their way through France after the successful June landings in Normandy on D-Day. Bordeaux, the largest seaport on the west coast, was occupied by the 159th Infantry Division of the German army. On 19 August, the order came from Berlin to destroy the entire port infrastructure – stretching over seven miles – before retreating. The date was fixed for 26 August.

"It fell to me," said Mr Stahlschmidt, because of his familiarity with explosives. "I couldn't do it. I knew the war was lost. What was the point of this, I asked myself. People would die and suffer, and the war would still be lost by Germany."

On 22 August, he struck. A bunker at Rue Raze in the docks was filled with detonators, plungers, timers and other hardware needed for the demolition. They were never to be used – instead, they were destroyed in a single massive explosion. "I sent the guards home and then I did it with dynamite," Mr Stahlschmidt said. "It was all I could do."

French historians estimate he saved 3,500 lives by refusing to carry out his orders.

There's more at the link.

Herr Stahlschmidt - or, I suppose, we should call him by his adopted name, M. Salmide - ranks with General Dietrich von Choltitz, the savior of Paris, who ignored Hitler's orders to raze the city and surrendered it intact. Both are remembered with gratitude in France to this day.

May the mercy both men showed to others, be shown to them in the hereafter.


The pagans are coming!

When the banks in Iceland collapsed a year or two ago, having offered wildly exaggerated interest rates to attract investors from outside the country and then found that they couldn't afford to pay what they'd promised, some European governments - particularly Holland and Britain - exerted enormous pressure on the Icelandic government to repay their citizens who'd been affected. Britain went so far as to seize all Icelandic government assets.

Needless to say, this didn't go down well with the citizens of Iceland, who demonstrated in the streets against their bankers, their Government and the nations who were applying pressure. Indeed, some went further than merely demonstrating. The Reykjavik Grapevine reports:

A spell cast against Iceland's enemies by members of the Ásatrú Society at the start of the banking crisis has finally began to bear results.

Vísir reports that at the start of the 2008 crash, members of the pagan faith gathered to work magic with the dual purpose of protecting the country from harm, and also to drive away enemies who might approach (called "griðníðing", often erroneously translated as a curse).

As the Dutch government coalition is falling apart, and Gordon Brown [the Prime Minister of England] tumbles in popularity, it would appear the magic has begun to work, contends Ásatrú Society chieftain Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.

The griðníðing against Gordon Brown, written in English, reads as follows:

In London town this lying clown
our land he drowns and shatters.
Gordon Brown is going down,
his good renown in tatters.

"It fortunately seems to have worked," Hilmarsson told reporters.

Er . . . well, yes, quite! However, I suspect Prime Minister Brown's current problems have far more to do with his political ineptness and the faults and failings of his Labor Party than they do with the 'spells' of an obscure Icelandic pagan cult. Still, one never knows . . . perhaps the British Conservative Party should make a donation to the Icelandic Ásatrú Society before the forthcoming General Election in Britain, to ensure their success?


Academic insanity . . .

I was very pleased to read that a British professor has successfully sued his university for 'dumbing down' his exam results - but more than a little irked to see how widespread the practice is, both there and here. The Daily Mail reports:

A professor who quit in protest at the 'dumbing down' of degrees has won a long-running legal fight to prove he was forced out of his job.

Paul Buckland failed 18 out of 60 second-year students on an archaeology course at Bournemouth University, believing many of the papers to be 'of poor quality'.

When 16 candidates took a resit, he failed all but two of them.

But senior dons claimed his marking had been too harsh and raised the students' marks by up to 6 per cent, moving several from a 'clear fail' to a 'potential pass' if grades in other areas were high enough.

Professor Buckland argued in the Court of Appeal the over-ruling of his marks amounted to 'an equivocal affront to his integrity' that had left his position untenable.

Judges this week ruled in his favour, finding the university did treat him unfairly.

Professor Buckland's resignation in February 2007 from the department of environmental archaeology provoked a row over academic standards as the Government sought to expand higher education.

Explaining his decision to step down, he said at the time: 'If you don't make a stand somewhere, you might as well start selling the degrees on eBay because that's all they'll be worth.'

He said the re-marking was 'part of a much larger process of dumbing down' that made a 'complete mockery of the examination process'.

. . .

Responding to the ruling, Professor Buckland said: 'The verdict restores the right of individual academics to return marks within the subject in which they are acknowledged experts.'

He is now likely to receive compensation from Bournemouth.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, to which Professor Buckland belongs, said: 'This is an important victory for everyone who values high standards and probity in our universities.

'However, we are deeply concerned about the events that led to this tribunal.

'Staff need the confidence to be forthright and honest in their comments and assessment of work.'

There's more at the link.

Congratulations to Prof. Buckland for his grit and determination in sticking to his guns . . . but how many other professors and lecturers share his passion for excellence? How many of them simply 'go with the flow' and adjust marks to let second-rate work pass muster? It's a disgrace, but it's also very widespread.

I hope Prof. Buckland's example might signal a reversal of the trend . . . but I won't hold my breath in anticipation.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Now that's a splash!

I don't know where this happened, but the video below shows what happens when a train approaches flooded lines at too great a speed. Do keep an eye on the workers and pedestrians to one side . . .



Doofus Of The Day #324

Today's award goes to the valuations department of Christie's auctioneers in London, England.

A lost masterpiece by Venetian artist Titian which was once owned by King Charles I and worth millions was mistakenly sold at auction for just £8,000 [about US $12,287], it emerged yesterday.

The £4 million 16th century painting - Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist - was originally unearthed during a house clearance in 1993.

Its unsuspecting owners took it to auction house Christie's in London where they were told that it was probably 'from the school of Titian', but not by the hand of the master himself.

Assured that cleaning the painting would be an unnecessary expense David Seton Pollok-Morris Dickson, 60, and his sister Susan Marjorie Glencorse Priestley, 62, agreed a valuation.

When it went under the hammer 12 months later in December 1994 they watched as lot 348 was sold for its reserve price of just £8,000.

Only later after the painting was sold on again in 2001, this time to Milan-based private collector Luigi Koelliker, was its true value revealed. And ironically, all it took was a little cleaning.

. . .

In January last year it was put up for auction by Sotheby's as part of Mr Koelliker's collection --with a guide price of between £2.6 million and £4 million [between US $4 million and 6.14 million].

Sotheby's described it as a 'remarkable painting, in which the seductress Salome strains under the weight of John the Baptist's severed head'.

There's more at the link.

The original owners sued Christie's, of course, and the latter hastily settled out of court for an undisclosed (but doubtless substantial) sum. I'm not surprised . . . the negative publicity of a long-drawn-out court fight, over so doofus-ish a mistake, would probably have cost them a lot more than the true value of the painting!


Homes built from recycled plastic?

I've been a keen observer of what one might call 'alternative home technologies' for some years, given my background in the Third World and my awareness of the very great need for relatively low-cost, durable, environmentally friendly alternatives to current home construction methods. I've written before about the use of recycled shipping containers for housing, and I've looked into other techniques such as straw-bale houses, cob housing, adobe housing, earthbag construction, etc.

I've been puzzled at the lack of use in housing construction of planks made from recycled plastic. These are already common, with a number of companies making park benches, decking, etc. out of this material. (The four companies linked in the previous sentence are only a few of many in the industry.) The Coney Island Boardwalk is apparently going to be resurfaced with it, and I've seen several boat docks on the Great Lakes made out of these planks - but I've never seen it widely used for beams or siding in conventional houses, and wondered why. I'm told it's not strong enough for structural use, but surely that's just a matter of making it thicker, or modifying the plastic 'mixture' used to produce it?

It seems a British company has taken the next step, and is actively pursuing houses built entirely of recycled plastic waste. The Daily Mail reports:

It puts the fab into prefabricated. And goes some way to solving the huge problem of managing the mountains of rubbish we throw away.

For the latest use of recycled plastic is building family homes.

And the price? All yours, complete with bathroom, kitchen and plumbing, for £42,000 [about US $65,000] - although you will have to provide your own land.

A pioneering company is building three-bedroom houses with frameworks made entirely of recycled waste plastic - including thousands of water bottles.

Each house is made up of 18 tonnes [just under 20 US short tons] of recycled plastic trash that would have been destined for waste tips across the country.

... the special plastic is almost four times as strong as concrete and insulates the house twice as well, enabling house-holders to cut their heating bills in half.

It is fire, storm and wind proof and, being made of plastic, is naturally waterproof.

The firm, Swansea-based Affresol, uses material that cannot be recycled any other way, to make panels that bolt together to create low carbon homes.

Any plastic, from old patio chairs and tables to building fixtures and fittings, are ground down into small granules that are then fused together in a chemical reaction to make Thermo Poly Rock (TPR).

Forty TPR panels are then bolted together to form the load bearing frame of houses.

They can then be externally clad with brick, block or stone, with the interior insulated and plastered as any other house.

Managing director of Affresol, Ian McPherson, believes the company is solving the country's housing and recycling problems at the same time.

He came up with [the] brainwave three years ago, after selling his IT company, and teamed up with manufacturing expert Scott Phillips and the universities of Cardiff and Glamorgan.

Father-of-two Mr McPherson, 60, said: ‘The materials are stronger and lighter than concrete.

‘They are waterproof, fire retardant, do not rot and have great insulation.

‘We estimate the life of the houses at more than 60 years and after that they are recyclable.

‘We believe there is tremendous potential for this new product particularly with the growing focus on carbon reduction, low energy affordable homes and sustainability.

‘At the moment about 50 to 60 per cent of all plastic is recycled – we take the other 40 to 50 per cent and use it to make something really useful.

‘Individuals can buy houses from us or developers can buy in bulk.

‘This is a new kind of prefabricated house which helps the environment as well.

‘As a country we put far too much waste into landfill and this goes some way to helping solve the problem of all our rubbish.

‘It’s exciting to build something new out of things we throw away.’

There's more at the link.

This is really interesting news. If they get it right, there's no reason why the same technology can't be applied in the USA and other countries. The price is fairly reasonable, and would probably become cheaper with mass production; and think of the maintenance savings! By impregnating the plastic panels with the desired color, one would never need to repaint; never have to replace worn-out siding . . . there are all sorts of advantages. The houses might even be portable! If they're made by assembling plastic panels, I can't see any reason why those panels can't be disassembled, transported to a new site and re-erected there, if necessary.

I'll be watching this very carefully. It's a development that's long overdue.


The Toyota case, revisited

Back on February 1st I posted an article titled 'Is Toyota Lying To Its Customers?' In it, I cited another source which claimed that Toyota's electronic systems - not just the floor mats in its vehicles - might be to blame for a series of dangerous, sometimes fatal accidents. Most comments in reply to that article tended to side with Toyota, rather than the allegations of electronic system defects.

Now we read that there is, indeed, evidence that Toyota's systems may be defective. CNN reports:

Witnesses at the first of three Congressional hearings on Toyota's recall problems testified that they believe they have found a possible additional cause of unintended acceleration in Toyotas, one that has to do with the vehicles' electronic throttle control systems.

David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, said he had uncovered a potential for a short circuit that could undermine the car's built in safety checks.

"What this does is this opens the opportunity to have other problems occur without detection," he said.

Toyota Motor U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz said that an engineering consulting firm hired by Toyota, Exponent, Inc., was able to replicate the situation created by Gilbert both in a Toyota vehicle and in a competing vehicle.

Gilbert spoke shortly after Rhonda Smith, a Lexus owner who experienced an episode of high-speed unintended acceleration in her ES350. The car revved out of control shortly after she entered the highway, she said, and neither the brakes nor shifting the car into neutral or reverse brought it to a stop.

"After six miles, God intervened," she said, and she was able to bring the car to a stop.

Representatives of both Toyota and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told her that what she had experienced could not have happened, she said.

"I was labeled a destructive lying idiot," she said.

The system used on Toyota relies on two separate sensors connected to the gas pedal and another pair connected to the throttle valve itself.

In order for the system to work each sensor in a pair has to match. If they don't match in the proper way, an on-board computer immediately senses that as a problem and the engine power is immediately reduced to idle or, in some situations, it's shut off altogether.

Gilbert said that he overrode that safety feature, which would have allowed faulty pedal signals to be sent to the engine with no problem being detected by the car's on-board computer.

Toyota has raised questions about Gilbert's tests and its application to real-world circumstances. The carmaker has invited Gilbert to demonstrate the problem for them after Toyota's own engineers were unable to replicate the situation in an earlier test.

The problem could, theoretically, be caused by a manufacturing defect in the sensors, Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he was unable to create a similar problem in cars by other manufacturers, including General Motors and Honda. Those cars use more stringent error-checking systems in their cars, Gilbert said.

. . .

Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Transportation Department, told the subcommittee that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is going to investigate the possibility that electronic defects are to blame for some of Toyota's acceleration problems.

"Under our watch we are going get into the weeds and have a complete review on the electronics," he said.

LaHood, who was named Transportation Secretary in January, defended his agency's handing of Toyota's safety problems and said the government will work to ensure the safety of American drivers.

A NHTSA administrator went to Toyota headquarters in Japan earlier this year to press the automaker's management to instigate the recalls, LaHood said. "I think they were a little safety def and we wanted to create some listening devices for them."

In a letter addressed to Lentz Monday, Oversight and Investigations subcommittee chairman Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) wrote that his committee's preliminary review of 75,000 pages of Toyota's internal company documents raises significant concerns. In particular, Toyota boasted of saving $100 million by dodging a more extensive recall of the Toyota Camry and Lexus.

In response, Lentz said in prepared testimony that, "Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith and efforts. The problem has been compounded by poor communication both within our company and with regulators and consumers."

He goes on to say that Toyota's investigation of customer complaints focused on technical issues, failing to efficiently analyze and respond to information about sticking accelerator pedals.

"We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize for them and we have learned from them," Lentz says in the remarks. "We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customer and our regulators."

. . .

Several witnesses at Tuesday morning's hearing are expected to testify about their suspicions that a software issue in the car's computerized throttle system may be to blame in some cases of unintended acceleration.

Documents reviewed by the Energy Committee call into question the thoroughness of Toyota's investigations.

During opening statements at the start of Tuesday's hearings, several Representatives also questioned NHTSA's ability to deal with possible software issues, noting that agency lacks technical expertise in computerized automotive systems.

There's more at the link.

My original question stands. Has Toyota been lying to its customers, either by deliberate act, or by omission - failing to convey to them safety news that they had a right to know?

I'll be watching further developments in this case with great interest.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A sticky competition!

I'm amused to note a competition currently being run by the makers of Scotch tape, which closes at the end of this month. The challenge is to use a roll (or more) of Scotch tape to create sculptures. There have been many entries, some of which are shown below. Click on the link in each picture's title to go to a page with more pictures of that entry.

Roman, by Nathan M.

Mr. Postman, by Joshua R.

Office Space, by Scott M.

Child Of Yesterday, by Kent H.

Screwtape, by Ashley R.

That's some pretty imaginative work! There are many more entries to be seen at the link. Entertaining and thought-provoking reading.


Culture and the brain

There's a fascinating article in Newsweek discussing how cultural differences appear to affect how individuals use their brains and cognitive facilities. Here's an extract.

... scientists have been surprised at how deeply culture—the language we speak, the values we absorb—shapes the brain, and are rethinking findings derived from studies of Westerners. To take one recent example, a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex supposedly represents the self: it is active when we ("we" being the Americans in the study) think of our own identity and traits. But with Chinese volunteers, the results were strikingly different. The "me" circuit hummed not only when they thought whether a particular adjective described themselves, but also when they considered whether it described their mother. The Westerners showed no such overlap between self and mom. Depending whether one lives in a culture that views the self as autonomous and unique or as connected to and part of a larger whole, this neural circuit takes on quite different functions.

"Cultural neuroscience," as this new field is called, is about discovering such differences. Some of the findings, as with the "me/mom" circuit, buttress longstanding notions of cultural differences. For instance, it is a cultural cliché that Westerners focus on individual objects while East Asians pay attention to context and background (another manifestation of the individualism-collectivism split). Sure enough, when shown complex, busy scenes, Asian-Americans and non-Asian--Americans recruited different brain regions. The Asians showed more activity in areas that process figure-ground relations—holistic context—while the Americans showed more activity in regions that recognize objects.

Psychologist Nalini Ambady of Tufts found something similar when she and colleagues showed drawings of people in a submissive pose (head down, shoulders hunched) or a dominant one (arms crossed, face forward) to Japanese and Americans. The brain's dopamine-fueled reward circuit became most active at the sight of the stance—dominant for Americans, submissive for Japanese—that each volunteer's culture most values, they reported in 2009. This raises an obvious chicken-and-egg question, but the smart money is on culture shaping the brain, not vice versa.

Cultural neuroscience wouldn't be making waves if it found neurobiological bases only for well-known cultural differences. It is also uncovering the unexpected. For instance, a 2006 study found that native Chinese speakers use a different region of the brain to do simple arithmetic (3 + 4) or decide which number is larger than native English speakers do, even though both use Arabic numerals. The Chinese use the circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements (the latter may be related to the use of the abacus). But English speakers use language circuits. It is as if the West conceives numbers as just words, but the East imbues them with symbolic, spatial freight. (Insert cliché about Asian math geniuses.) "One would think that neural processes involving basic mathematical computations are universal," says Ambady, but they "seem to be culture-specific."

. . .

Ambady thinks cultural neuro-science does advance understanding. Take the me/mom finding, which, she argues, "attests to the strength of the overlap between self and [people close to you] in collectivistic cultures and the separation in individualistic cultures. It is important to push the analysis to the level of the brain." Especially when it shows how fundamental cultural differences are—so fundamental, perhaps, that "universal" notions such as human rights, democracy, and the like may be no such thing.

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

I note Professor Ambady's last comment with particular interest. It's fascinating to note that what are described as 'self-evident truths' in the US Declaration of Independence (see the second paragraph of that document) may, in fact, not be 'self-evident' to those of other cultures. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Sobering thought, that . . .


My friend Larry meets his fiery nemesis . . .

It seems Larry decided to tackle a restaurant challenge - with, er, . . . unfortunate results. He's written about it on his blog. Go read, and laugh along with him - and with us, his (erstwhile) friends!

Hope you manage to cool down soon, good buddy . . .


Sewn boats, ancient and modern

I've known about Arab sewn boats (literally, boats and ships where the planks are sewn together with cord, rather than fastened with nails or dowels) for some time, ever since reading Tim Severin's fascinating book 'The Sinbad Voyage'. For those of you who haven't read it, you'll find an article about it here, which covers the voyage in somewhat less detail. I highly recommend the book, as well as all his other books, most of which are in my library.

Briefly, Tim Severin believed that the Arabian tales of Sinbad the Sailor probably had some basis in fact. He organized the building of a replica Arab trading ship, sewn together in the traditional manner, then sailed the ship, Sohar, with an Omani and Indian crew, from Oman to China in 1980, along the ancient trade routes through South-East Asia.

In doing so, he demonstrated that the Sinbad stories were, indeed, founded on fact. Sohar was later shipped back to Oman, where she's on display to this day.

Then, in 1998, a German company was given permission to excavate the wreck of a 9th-century Arab trading ship that was discovered off the coast of the island of Belitung in Indonesia. It proved to contain an archaeological treasure-trove.

With the wreck of the sunken vessel were found 60,000 pieces of rare Chinese porcelain. The collection became known as the Tang Treasure.

The Tang Treasure was identified as having been produced in kilns in what is now the Chinese province of Hunan. It was probably intended for export to Malaysia, India and Arabia.

The Tang Treasure includes blue and white porcelain, tricolored glazed pottery from the Tang dynasty, and three early Qinghua plates, the best preserved of their kind ever found. Inscriptions found on some of the pieces suggest that the pottery was produced and transported in the early 9th century, and carbon dating has confirmed this. Islamic inscriptions, written in Arabic calligraphy, also reflects trading relations between China and the nations of the Arab world.

The discovery of the shipwreck and its cargo is significant, therefore, as it indicates that a maritime trade route existed between Arabia and the Far East as early as the 9th century.

The shipwreck itself also revealed much about Arab shipbuilding and navigation from the period. Well-preserved fragments of the ship showed that stitching was used by Arab craftsmen to bind the timber of the hull, while tests on the ship’s wood revealed its origin. The location of the wreck, furthermore, offers insight into the nature of routes taken by 9th century navigators to and from China.

The discovery prompted a joint project between the Governments of Singapore and Oman to build a replica of the Belitung ship and sail it from Oman to Singapore. The ship, Jewel of Muscat, began its voyage earlier this month, and will take approximately 26 weeks to reach Singapore.

Like Sohar, it's built of wood planks sewn together with fiber, in the traditional Arab ship-building style. There are many pictures, video clips and details of the ongoing voyage on the project's Web site.

While reading more about the Jewel of Muscat, and traditional Arab ship-building techniques, I happened to stumble across an article about the kettuvallam houseboats (really converted rice barges) of Kerala, in southern India.

It seems that these, too, are of sewn construction, clearly a cross-pollination between the Persian Gulf and the Indian sub-continent many centuries ago. I wonder who developed the technique first, the Indians or the Arabs?

There are apparently several hundred of these kettuvalams on the rivers and lakes of Kerala, and they're popular with tourists (particularly as a honeymoon destination). They seem to be luxuriously equipped, too - a far cry from the rice-lugging barges that they once were!

Here's a video clip from the Kerala tourist authorities showing some of the kettuvalams on their waterways. I found it interesting (and, I must admit, I like the music they selected for the soundtrack as well!).

I hope you enjoyed this whimsical wander through the world of sewn boats. I found it an enjoyable ride, anyway!


So that's how it's done!

The video below shows a drummer in slow-motion. It's amazing to see how the instrument is played, and how a drummer's body produces the speed of motion required.

Interesting stuff. I'll certainly look on drummers with a great deal more respect from now on!


Something I didn't know about a common ingredient

I'm surprised (and not very happy) to learn that high-fructose corn syrup, a common ingredient in ready-to-use foods, is also much more of a health hazard than the sugar it replaces. The Daily Mail reports:

Why is it so hard to stop at eating just one biscuit and so easy to finish off the packet?

How is it that one spoonful of ice cream can turn into half the tub?

It might not be just a lack of willpower that’s to blame, but a type of sugar based on one found in fruit.

We tend to think of fruit as healthy, but new research suggests that too much fruit - or the sugar found in fruit - is actually bad for us.

The problem is glucose-fructose syrup.

This is actually corn syrup that has been processed using enzymes to convert its glucose into fructose (or fruit sugar).

This is then mixed with glucose from pure corn syrup. Because it is cheaper than regular cane sugar, glucose-fructose syrup is increasingly being used in processed foods, such as fizzy drinks.

It’s easy to see its appeal from the manufacturer’s point of view - not only is it cheap, but it also helps to keep foods moist, which boosts a product’s shelf life.

It also helps to provide texture to food such as cereal bars and biscuits, making them chewy, and thickens up ice cream and yoghurt drinks.

And it’s not just used in obviously sweet foods - glucose-fructose syrup is also found in lots of products you wouldn’t necessarily imagine contain it, such as cereal.

Often it appears in product ingredients lists as ‘glucose-fructose syrup’, ‘high fructose corn syrup’, or ‘HFCS’, which is the name used by some manufacturers.

The problem is that glucose-fructose seems to trick the brain into thinking you need more food, say experts.

Worse, it can trigger the growth of fat cells around the heart, liver and other vital organs and even cause diabetes, obesity and heart disease, according to a new study.

Because of its health risks, it’s been dubbed the ‘Devil’s candy’ in the U.S. and, in the face of a consumer backlash, some manufacturers have been forced to re-think their product ingredients, returning to sugar.

It’s the fructose part which is being blamed for artificially boosting appetite and the health problems. Fructose gives us confused messages about satiety, explains Dr Carel Le Roux, consultant in metabolic medicine at Imperial College London.

‘When we eat sugar, our body releases insulin which tells the brain that we have had enough to eat.

‘High insulin levels are one of the factors that dampen the appetite,’ he says.

But fructose doesn’t trigger as much of an insulin response as regular sugar, so the brain won’t get the message that you are full.’

As well as tricking you into eating more, the syrup has worrying effects on health. Previous studies have linked fructose with high blood levels of triglycerides - a type of blood fat which, in excess, can increase the risk of heart disease. And there is ongoing research into whether fructose can affect kidney health. Fructose can also affect blood pressure.

A study at Colorado University, in the U.S., looked at more than 4,500 people with no history of hypertension, and found that those who ate or drank more than 74 grams a day of fructose (the same as two-and-a-half sugary drinks) increased their risk of high blood pressure by up to 87 per cent.

In a recent study, scientists at the University of California have found that fruit sugar is more readily turned into fat in the liver than glucose is; this increases your risk of suffering from a fatty liver, which is linked to liver disease and Type 2 diabetes.

. . .

... fructose, unlike other sugars, ends up in the liver in a relatively unbroken down state; this disrupts the mechanisms that instruct the body whether to store or burn fat.

Molecular biologist Kimber Stanhope ... says this is the first evidence that fructose increases heart disease and diabetes independently, and not simply because it has caused weight gain.

‘We didn’t see any of these changes in the people eating glucose,’ he said. Experts believe that the rise in childhood diabetes could be linked to the syrup.

There's more at the link.

OK, perhaps I was an uninformed eater, but I hadn't heard of these side effects before; and looking at the labels of food in my pantry, I'm horrified to find how many of them include this ingredient. I'll certainly be a more informed - and much more careful - shopper from now on!


Monday, February 22, 2010

This kicked over my giggle-box!

I thoroughly enjoyed this report of nursing home residents in Chicago who decided to visit a bikers' club.

Lydia Scheltes woke up in her bed at Bethesda Retirement Center one morning with pinkish hair, a tattoo on her arm and a hangover. Not a typical morning for the 90-year-old.

“Seniors are more fun than you’ll ever know,” she said.

Scheltes wasn’t alone: Seven ladies and one dude – aged 65 to 97 – all had a similar hazy look in their eyes after they hung out with bikers at the Evil Olive bar in Wicker Park on Feb. 11.

Some of them were still wearing their own biker gear.

. . .

“These women were serious, man,” said Evil Olive General Manager Eric Bollard. “They showed up with pink hair and skull caps. It was for real. … One woman walked straight up to the bar and ordered a Dirty Martini. It was great.”

They even turned the event into a semi-fundraiser. Werstler is trying to raise $25,000 for a touch screen computer system for the non-profit retirement home so that the women can learn and use the Internet. The bikers who showed up pitched in about $250 toward the “Never-Too-Late.”

But it wasn’t the money that tickled the residents. It was the exhilaration of an evening that felt like it “flew by in a nanosecond,” said 66-year-old Janet Kaplan.

Kaplan, who is wheelchair bound and admittedly extremely overweight, was disappointed when she first arrived at the club because there were stairs by the entrance.

“I said, We’re not going to make it,” Kaplan said. “Then before I knew it a group of bikers came and grabbed my wheelchair. All I saw was my head being tipped back and my feet were up in the air and they had me in the club.”

. . .

The one thing the women didn’t get a chance to do was ride on a motorcycle, because it was too cold.

But that’s coming.

LAMA and A.B.A.T.E. members made plans to come by the residence center in the spring and take the ladies for a ride.

“I want to be the first one on the bike,” said 90-year-old Scheltes.

They may ride straight back to Evil Olive.

“Man, those ladies were an awesome bunch," Boland said. "Everyone was so into it that we’re thinking about arranging another party for them soon."

There's more at the link.

Who says you can't grow old disgracefully?


A new twist to container homes

I'm sure many readers are familiar with the concept of taking standard oceanic shipping containers and converting them into housing. There are many companies doing this: one example may be found here. They've even been converted into apartment blocks, with containers stacked above one another. The example shown below is in London, England.

I've seen several 'container homes', and found them interesting, but with one critical drawback: although they're tall enough inside, and a full 40 feet long, they're only 8 feet wide. This makes the provision of passages difficult, as there's not enough width for a passage and adjacent rooms. One has to construct internal rooms such that one walks through one room to get to the next, which can invade the privacy of those inside.

It seems others have thought about this too. I was intrigued to read of the design of Lot/EK (pronounced 'low-tech'), a New York art and architecture studio, to convert containers into housing using slide-out extension units, similar to those found on some high-end travel trailers and RV's. The schematic design looks like this:

Here are some photographs of a converted unit.

The container itself becomes the passage, and rooms are provided by the slide-out modules.

I'm sure the modules could be given greater privacy, if necessary, either by inserting internal walls and doors, or by something as simple as a curtain.

I've long believed that used shipping containers are a vastly under-utilized housing resource. There are tens of thousands of surplus containers sitting at our ports, any of which can be delivered to anyplace in the USA for a total cost (including transport) of $3,000 to $4,000. If one has a commercial company do the conversion, with their profit margin included, that can cost up to $10,000 or more: but anyone with a decent set of tools and basic handyman skills can do the conversion himself for less than half that cost, including insulating the interior of the container so that it'll be warm in winter and cool in summer. To add slide-out modules such as those shown above would be more expensive, sure, but not prohibitively so.

In a situation such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, where many houses and apartments have been destroyed, used shipping containers, suitably modified, would probably be a lot less expensive than rebuilding masonry or wood buildings. I wonder why no-one's putting effort into taking containers there, and setting them up as houses? The labor to do the work is on-site, and locals can be trained to handle the conversions. Seems to me that it'd save an awful lot of money . . . and, by definition, the containers are about as earthquake-proof as it's possible to make a house!


Sunday, February 21, 2010

The biathlon as you've never seen it before!

In honor of the current Winter Olympics, here's a video clip of a . . . well, a different sort of biathlon.


Radical Islam - under siege from moderates at last?

There have been a number of very interesting reports recently which, taken together, indicate that perhaps moderate, 'mainstream' Islam is finally gaining the upper hand in its struggle with militants.

First, in October last year, Strategy Page reported that Moroccan authorities have been gaining the upper hand in their efforts to combat Muslim extremists in that nation. The author notes:

Suicide bombing has become less popular in the Moslem world, for a variety of reasons. First, there is the fact that most of the victims tend to be Moslems, usually innocent civilians (including many women and children.) Then there is the futility of it all. The many attacks do not appear to have accomplished anything. Lastly, there are the many families that do not want to see a son going off to get himself killed like this.

All this has led to more tips for police, reporting real, or suspected, activity by recruiters. As a result, more and more of these networks are being uncovered and destroyed. There is a shortage of suicide bombers, and a growing use of incompetent bombers. This, in turn, has led to more bombers getting caught, or failing to detonate their explosives near the target.

There's more at the link.

Next, Frank Chadwick pointed out in January that Al Qaeda's days appear to be numbered.

It’s not a security thing or an intelligence thing or a counterinsurgency thing; it’s a generational thing.

Violent revolutionary movements tend to run in forty-year cycles of rise, peak, and decline. The reason is simple. The established order has failed to address a series of concerns critical to a disenfranchised segment of the population. A bunch of “Young Turks” come along, point to the inability of the old farts to deliver, and offer their violent alternative as a means of shaking things up and getting genuine change. Are you with me so far? Swell.

Then, after about twenty years of shaking things up, all the Young Turks aren’t looking so young any more. A new generation of Young Turks has come along, but the founders of the movement tell them to shut up, not make waves, and follow orders. But if there hasn’t been a lot of real progress toward the goals of the movement, that younger generation starts wondering why they’re doing all the bleeding, and for what? Enthusiasm starts to wane, recruiting is down, and the Old Guard (not really Young Turks any more) rely on increasingly violent means to keep their own rank and file in line and keep hold of the headlines. But in a couple more years they are just a bunch of ineffective old farts unable to deliver on their promises, and a new generation grows up realizing that rather than being the solution, those old guys are the problem.

. . .

It’s not just theory; it’s history. Social Democrats. Anarchists. Communists. Revolutionary movements have recently been one-generational waves. In the mid-east before al-Qa’ida, it was the Arab Nationalist movement. They came to power in most of the Arab countries in the wake of World War II with young leaders, big ideas, and the promise of genuine change. Twenty years later they had peaked and twenty years after that they were the people al-Qa’ida set out to topple.

So where are we now? About a year ago al-Qa’ida celebrated its twentieth birthday. Are there any signs of aging? You bet. Suicide bombing has been a hallmark of al-Qa’ida and recruiting bombers has gotten harder and harder. There are a lot of reasons – too many innocent Moslem casualties for starters and no real progress on any of the movement’s key issues are big ones.

The result has been a dwindling supply of male volunteers which has forced them to turn to female recruiting. Their recruiting tactics are shocking, even for them. A recently captured recruiter confessed to arranging the rape of young women and then recruiting the victims with the argument that suicide was the only escape from the shame. Nice, huh?

Those aren’t the tactics of a movement confident in its future. Maybe they aren’t quite death throes, yet, either, but we’re on the down side of the curve.

Again, there's more at the link.

Finally, an article in Newsweek paints a broad picture of a fundamentalist Muslim movement that has lost its way. Here's an excerpt.

There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims living in more than 150 countries across the world. If jihadist ideology became attractive to a significant part of this population, the West faced a clash of civilizations without end, one marked by blood and tears.

. . .

... in fact, the entire terrain of the war on terror has evolved dramatically. Put simply, the moderates are fighting back and the tide is turning. We no longer fear the possibility of a major country succumbing to jihadist ideology. In most Muslim nations, mainstream rulers have stabilized their regimes and their societies, and extremists have been isolated. This has not led to the flowering of Jeffersonian democracy or liberalism. But modern, somewhat secular forces are clearly in control and widely supported across the Muslim world. Polls, elections, and in-depth studies all confirm this trend.

The focus of our concern now is not a broad political movement but a handful of fanatics scattered across the globe.

. . .

The most influential statement on Islam to come out of the post-9/11 era was not a presidential speech or an intellectual's essay. It was, believe it or not, a United Nations report. In 2002 the U.N. Development Program published a detailed study of the Arab world. The paper made plain that in an era of globalization, openness, diversity, and tolerance, the Arabs were the world's great laggards. Using hard data, the report painted a picture of political, social, and intellectual stagnation in countries from the Maghreb to the Gulf. And it was written by a team of Arab scholars. This was not paternalism or imperialism. It was truth.

The report, and many essays and speeches by political figures and intellectuals in the West, launched a process of reflection in the Arab world. The debate did not take the form that many in the West wanted—no one said, "You're right, we are backward." But still, leaders in Arab countries were forced to advocate modernity and moderation openly rather than hoping that they could quietly reap its fruits by day while palling around with the mullahs at night. The Bush administration launched a series of programs across the Muslim world to strengthen moderates, shore up civil society, and build forces of tolerance and pluralism. All this has had an effect. From Dubai to Amman to Cairo, in some form or another, authorities have begun opening up economic and political systems that had been tightly closed. The changes have sometimes been small, but the arrows are finally moving in the right direction.

Ultimately, the catalyst for change was something more lethal than a report. After 9/11, Al Qaeda was full of bluster: recall the videotapes of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, boasting of their plans. Yet they confronted a far less permissive environment. Moving money, people, and materials had all become much more difficult. So they, and local groups inspired by them, began attacking where they could—striking local targets rather than global ones, including a nightclub and hotel in Indonesia, a wedding party in Jordan, cafés in Casablanca and Istanbul, and resorts in Egypt. They threatened the regimes that, either by accident or design, had allowed them to live and breathe.

Over the course of 2003 and 2004, Saudi Arabia was rocked by a series of such terrorist attacks, some directed against foreigners, but others at the heart of the Saudi regime—the Ministry of the Interior and compounds within the oil industry. The monarchy recognized that it had spawned dark forces that were now endangering its very existence. In 2005 a man of wisdom and moderation, King Abdullah, formally ascended to the throne and inaugurated a large-scale political and intellectual effort aimed at discrediting the ideology of jihadism. Mullahs were ordered to denounce suicide bombings, and violence more generally. Education was pried out of the hands of the clerics. Terrorists and terror suspects were "rehabilitated" through extensive programs of education, job training, and counseling. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said to me, "The Saudi role in taking on Al Qaeda, both by force but also using political, social, religious, and educational tools, is one of the most important, least reported positive developments in the war on terror."

Perhaps the most successful country to combat jihadism has been the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia. In 2002 that country seemed destined for a long and painful struggle with the forces of radical Islam. The nation was rocked by terror attacks, and a local Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah, appeared to be gaining strength. But eight years later, JI has been marginalized and main-stream political parties have gained ground, all while a young democracy has flowered after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship.

Magnus Ranstorp of Stockholm's Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies recently published a careful study examining Indonesia's success in beating back extremism. The main lesson, he writes, is to involve not just government but civil society as a whole, including media and cultural figures who can act as counterforces to terrorism. (That approach obviously has greater potential in regions and countries with open and vibrant political systems—Southeast Asia, Turkey, and India—than in the Arab world.)

. . .

The data on public opinion in the Muslim world are now overwhelming. London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges has analyzed polls from dozens of Muslim countries over the past few years. He notes that in a range of places—Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh—there have been substantial declines in the number of people who say suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam. Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable.

. . .

This shift does not reflect a turn away from religiosity or even from a backward conception of Islam. That ideological struggle persists and will take decades, not years, to resolve itself. But the battle against jihadism has fared much better, much sooner, than anyone could have imagined.

The exceptions to this picture readily spring to mind — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen. But consider the conditions in those countries. In Afghanistan, jihadist ideology has wrapped itself around a genuine ethnic struggle in which Pashtuns feel that they are being dispossessed by rival groups. In Pakistan, the regime is still where Saudi Arabia was in 2003 and 2004: slowly coming to realize that the extremism it had fostered has now become a threat to its own survival. In Yemen, the state simply lacks the basic capacity to fight back. So the rule might simply be that in those places where a government lacks the desire, will, or capacity to fight jihadism, Al Qaeda can continue to thrive.

But the nature of the enemy is now quite different. It is not a movement capable of winning over the Arab street. Its political appeal does not make rulers tremble. The video messages of bin Laden and Zawahiri once unsettled moderate regimes. Now they are mostly dismissed as almost comical attempts to find popular causes to latch onto. (After the financial crash, bin Laden tried his hand at bashing greedy bankers.)

This is not an argument to relax our efforts to hunt down militants. Al Qaeda remains a group of relentless, ruthless killers who are trying to recruit other fanatics to carry out hideous attacks that would do terrible damage to civilized society. But the group's aura is gone, its political influence limited. Its few remaining fighters are spread thinly throughout the world and face hostile environments almost everywhere.

America is no longer engaged in a civilizational struggle throughout the Muslim world, but a military and intelligence campaign in a set of discrete places. Now, that latter struggle might well require politics, diplomacy, and development assistance—in the manner that good foreign policy always does (Petraeus calls this a "whole-of-government strategy"). We have allies; we need to support them. But the target is only a handful of extremist organizations that have found a small group of fanatics to carry out their plans. To put it another way, even if the United States pursues a broad and successful effort at nation building in Afghanistan and Yemen, does anyone really think that will deter the next Nigerian misfit—or fanatic from Detroit—from getting on a plane with chemicals in his underwear? Such people cannot be won over. They cannot be reasoned with; they can only be captured or killed.

The enemy is not vast; the swamp is being drained. Al Qaeda has already lost in the realm of ideology. What remains is the battle to defeat it in the nooks, crannies, and crevices of the real world.

There's much more at the link. Very highly recommended reading.

As I said, taken together, these articles suggest that the threat from radical Islam is no longer as serious as it once was deemed. The danger remains, of course: any fanatic willing to die for an ideal can cause significant death and destruction. However, if the authors above are to be believed, the threat of a widespread radicalization of the Islamic world appears to be on the wane.

May it be so!