Friday, March 28, 2003

Here comes some Italian politics. It is not quite entirely domestic and it has to do with Iraq and the USA and in particular with the 173 airborn flying from Italy to Iraqi Kurdistand and parachuting. www.cnn.com fans will have noticed a very odd aspect of the story on this extremely dramatic operation as (maybe may be) seen following this (possibly still current) link

http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/03/26/sprj.irq.airfield.taken/index.html

For some reason, US military sources refused to say exactly where the planes which dropped the 173rd took off and landed except that it was the same place somewhere in Europe "The paratroopers stepped out of C-17 Globemaster transport planes that took off from an undisclosed airfield in Europe, according to CNN Correspondent Steve Nettleton, who is embedded with the unit there." CNN notes that the 173rd airborn brigades is based in Vicenza Italy. What is going on ?

Well US readers (if any) probably haven't been following the case of every little country counted as part of the coalition by Bush (Italy is definitely included). In Italy however, public opinion is strongly against the invasion and the prime minister is trying to avoid going out on a limb. Therefore Italy is officially not a belligerant. As a NATO ally, Italy allows the US to use Italian air space, roads, rail roads etc but US forces are not supposed to launch attachs on Iraq from Italy. Hence the extreme discretion of US sources about where they are coming from. Needless to say, Italians, including opposition politicians, caught on (even I would probably have been able to figure it out from the CNN story).

The current official line is that these are very peaceful paratroopers as reported at

http://www.ansa.it/fdg01/200303271654103218/200303271654103218.shtml


P. CHIGI: DA PARA' EDERLE NESSUN ATTACCO - Silvio Berlusconi conferma che le autorita' statunitensi preposte alle operazioni hanno fornito esplicita conferma che la missione intrapresa dalle forze americane stazionate nella base di Ederle ''esclude l'attacco ad obiettivi iracheni ed annette preminenti finalita' di stabilizzazione territoriale ed avvio di azioni umanitarie nei confronti della popolazione locale''. L'indicazione e' contenuta in una lettera inviata oggi dal presidente del Consiglio a Pier Ferdinando Casini, presidente della Camera dei deputati.
27/03/2003 16:54

That is
Silvio Berlusconi (Italian prime minister) conferms that the US authorities in charge of the operation have explicitely confermed
that the mission of the American forces stationed in the Ederle base "Exclude attacks on Iraqi objectives and that the principal aims are to stabilize (secure) the territory and begin humanitarian assistance to the local population." The assertion is part of a letter sent by the Prime minister to Pier Ferdinando Casini, President of the lower house of parliament.

(my translation)

I should admit that the letter contains a lot of very unusual and high falutin words whose meaning I am guessing including "preposte" (not to be confused with preposterous) annette (not to be confused with anientare that is anihilate) . I stress that the clarification that humanitarian assistance is for the local population not say Zaireans or Papuans was definitely in the original.

I hazard a guess that this peaceful paratrooper line will not convince quite everyone. US sources are very much more forthcoming about the aims of the operation, although they are trying to be diplomatic about one of the main the messages: "Turkish armed forces are not invited". In fact the same ANSA (Italian wire service) story began

... 173/a brigata aviotrasportata statunitense, di stanza nella base italiana di Ederle, dalla quale sono partiti nelle ultime ore. L'operazione ha consentito agli americani di impadronirsi di un aeroporto in cui far affluire i mezzi pesanti (carri armati, blindati etc.) e le altre truppe necessarie per poter stringere Baghdad fra due fuochi.

that is, ... US 173rd airborn brigade, based in the Italian Ederle base (this is the name of the base in Vicenza : note added) from which they took off recently. The operation enabled the Americans to take control of an airport with which to deliver heavy arms (tanks, armored personel carriers etc) and the additional troops necessary for a pincer operation on Baghdad.
before quoting Berlusconi's claims that the operation is principally humanitarian.

Hmm invisibile insanity. For those to young to remember how bad computer translators used to be (or maybe how feeble jokes used to be). There is an old joke about computer translating "out of sight, out of mind" to Russian then back to English and getting "Invisible Insanity". Ansa is probably translating AP or CNN or someone. The original original is probably more like (from CNN) "The Army aims to secure the northern area so a larger armored force can enter. Another goal is to stabilize the area to prevent other forces from coming in, whether it be Turks from the north or Iraqis from the south. The move will also eventually lead the way to the entry of humanitarian aid". Notice no prediction of an offensive towards Baghdad.

One potentially interesting aspect is the role of Casini. He is involved because, as president of the chamber of deputies (lower house) he is supposed to make sure that the Berlusconi government respects the role of that branch of parliament and keeps promises made on the floor of the chamber of deputies (in this case that Italian based not be used to launch attacks on Iraq). He is also the head of the one of the tiny splinters of the once mighty christian democratic party the CCD. I think that stands for Centro Cristiano Democratico but I'm not sure even Casini pretends to be sure. This party gets about 3 or 4 percent of the vote which is fairly respectably by current Italian standards but does mean that Casini has to present himself as a respectful team player.

The problem (opportunity) is that it is not exactly clear who is the team captain -- Berlusconi head of the governing coalition or John Paul II head of the one true catholic and apostolic church. Casini has had to decide if he is going to be a team player forever or if he is going to try to take advantage of a huge issue where 80% of Italians and the pope strongly disagree with the current prime minister. It is clear, if he can't make trouble for Berlusconi now, then he is just a pretty face. It is, by now, clear that he is going for it (I personally think that it is the prime ministership -- the only thing that counts).

First, when the majority was changing a law to help one of them, who is on trial in Milan, to block the risk of a sentence being passed in the relevant future, Casini did not use as extreme measures to stop the opposition filibuster as his colleague in the Senate (Marcello Pera a professor of philosophy not a potential prime minister). Then he (and Pera) appointed a semi-former communist as chairman of the committee of 5 which protects public TV (RAI) from political influence (no joke intended).

I won't bore any possible readers with discussion of recent developments in these cases (sentence due to be announced today is now delayed at least until 2nd April, President of the committee of 5 outvoted 3 to 2 on who actually runs RAI).

The point is judges in Milan and television are key issues to the prime minister (unlike say wars in Iraq).

In case anyone hadn't noticed, Casini recently said that there was a problem with politics being invaded (entered infiltrated) by businessmen in a way which threatens pluralism as they take important positions in the institutions and cabinet.

Given the frank and open style of political discussion within coalitions and Casini's generally very mild manners, this ranks somewhere between an open declaration of war and a shock and awe campaign.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The amateur Anthropologist

Hey I said these were random thoughts. My real aim is to prove that there is someone who can't concentrate long enough on a topic to have a blog.

20 years ago I had an Idea. Maybe someone who knows something about the field can tell me what is wrong with it in 20 seconds (including maybe someone else had the idea 40 years ago).

This thought was stimulated by reading Structural Anthropology a collection of essays by Claude Levi-Strauss. There are two questions. One is why are some cultures monogynous and others polygynous ? The other is why do the Bororo divide their tiny villages into 3 endogamous clans ?

OK first question. Why in some cultures men can marry more than one woman and in others only one ? One possbile explanation is polygyny occurs when the gender ratio is many women for each man. This can happen if lots of men get killed by other men. So women share husbands or go single wasting their uteruses (the Moll Flanders problem described by Daniel Defoe some time ago). Could be the explanation, but I would like to talk about another. Levi Strauss was very interested in a very simple mathematical model which pointed out that hunter gatherers typically live in tiny groups (have too to avoid killing off all the game within walking distance). Someone else (really some two else) calculated that these groups were about as small as could be sustained given risk that a generation would be all male or all female and thus the last (he didn't explain this model very clearly and I didn't look it up). OK see how much worse this problem is if monogynous. If people live in small groups and are mostly endogamous (must have some flow with other villages/bands to avoide inbreeding but I assume this is pretty low). If each man is allowed to get only one woman pregnant, the number of woman who reproduce each generation is the lesser of the number of woman and the number of men. If each man is allowed to get as many women pregnant as are available then the number of women who reproduce each generation is the number of women. Polygyny might be required in people who live in small mostly endogamous villages to deal with random fluctuations in the sex ratio.

Now What's the problem ? Well in farming, herding or industrialised societies there is the problem that women who share a husband are poor (leave out issue of single moms in cultures which are trying to be monogynous but don't do a very good job of it). This is not the problem in hunter-gatherer cultures where food is shared within the village. The economic unit is not the family but the village (has to be that way given risky returns to hunting not to mention hunting often works best with village size group cooperating).

So is there a disadvantage of polygyny ? I think there is (not that I have any personal experience (REALLY I swear dear my interest is purely theoretical really -- no field trials)). I think it makes the rival suitors problem worse. Think of this little village with two guys chasing after the same gal. That's tension. Monogyny puts a limit on the allowed licit romantic ambitions of each man which reduces the conflict over the babes. We can see in other primates this conflict is very very intense. OK for them as they aren't armed. I think humans have this problem that we have developed weapons which can make quarrels lethal so we men have to stop fighting over the women. Clearly this problem is not easy not solved etc. Now polygyny might (or might not) reduce conflict between women over the men (I also have no experience with polygyny from the wives' point of view). However, women are much less violent than men (a cultural universal I think except where violence levels are so low that it is hard to tell).

Finally I am getting to Levi-Strauss' main interest -- Kinship rules. The observation is that in hunter gatherer populations there are often very strict narrow restrictive rules on who can marry who. There are many theories of why. Levi Strauss has an attractive theory that the idea is to make sure that everyone is related to everyone else in the village so kinship bonds hold the village together. Very nice theory but what about the Bororo ? They have rules restricting people to marry withing their "clan" of which there are 3 in each village. This sure doesn't fit L-S' theory since it divides each village into 3 kinship groups instead of uniting it.

What does he write about them ? He writes that the Bororo made a mistake. That they don't understand how kinship rules should work (and stubbornly refused to listen to his explanation I suppose). That, as a result, their culture is doomed (don't believe me look it up). Hmmm so this is the methodology of structural anthropology according the L-S ? The argument is we find patterns of culture because of cultural selection -- some combinations lead to stability and are selected others to instability and are not selected. Now here is a culture which should not exist according to the theory. Conclusion -- it won't exist for long. Notice how a theory of selection in which observed cultures might be un fit (no problem) is a theory without any predictive content.

OK how about my story. According to my story the point of these complicated rules of who can marry who is to avoid conflict between two men who each want to marry the same woman. Thus the point of the rules is that they are rules. It doesn't matter much if they tell this poor woman miss Smith that she is going to have to be mrs Jones or mrs Miller. The point is they leave her no choice so she can't break any hearts.

Personally I would prefer a doomed unstable culture, but I think the argument makes cultural evolutionary sense. If it's all decided in advance as soon as people are born there is no point in fighting over it.

Now back to the Bororo. The 3 clans make no trouble for my story at all. The point is to have rules. The exact rules don't matter so much. A culture which divides villages into arbitrary groups and forces them to be endogamous is like a culture which divides them into arbitrary groups and forces them to be exogamous. In either case men can't fight each other for wives unless one sets himself against culture and tradition.

One final point. I assume that the rules are not binding to the point that women can't marry if they have no allowed husband. That is, I assume they are really rules for deciding which of more than one candidate husband is chosen. If women are forced to be single because of the kinship rules, my theory is dead wrong. That's a very weak testable prediction. I also predict stricter rules of kinship if polygynous than if monogamous. A vague prediction.

I am an html illiterate but at least I am willing to admit it. I don't know how to find out if anyone is reading this. I don't know how to enable any possible readers to comment. I don't even know the terms for the things I don't know. If anyone is reading this and wants to comment, e-mail me at waldmann@economia.uniroma2.it. Also any kind soul who is willing to try to explain how to make a decent Blog is kindly requested to e-mail me simple instructions.
Apache update. I was displaying my ignorance. More than 30 Apaches came under heavy fire, all but two were hit and all but one made it back to base.
My current guess is that the Apache in the photo was shot down by AK-47s if not rocket propelled grenades. Also the pilots have been captured. Moral, get your news from journalists and don't waste your time here.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Geronimo

Apaches have created an amazing amount of trouble for the US armed forces. I just saw the image
of an Iraqi peasant with a rifle next to a US helicopter which he claims he bagged. I am not comparing
this guy (I forgot his name) to Geronimo and his band of 70 men women and children. I am thinking of the
relative damage done to the US armed forces by our adversaries and by Apache helicopters.

In the Kosovo war,
the only Nato deaths (actually the only casualties) were of the pilot and copilot of an Apache on a
training mission. This after there wree mechanical failures on the west coast of Italy, the east coast of Italy
and in Albania (I don't know if those were 3 different helicopters or one which kept breaking). In this
case again, it looks to me like the helicopter was the problem. First what could a rifle do ? Second I saw no
external damage except for the landing carriage seemed damaged by a very sharp landing. My guess is that the
helicopter just conked out. Fortunately, it appears that the pilot and copilot were not injured or
even captured (although they must be in great danger).

Now I am aware of the temptation to overinterpt results with small data sets. Also to get to Kosovo, the apaches
had to fly hundreds of miles when they were designed to be carried on planes to a staging area and assembled
near the battle zone. Still, I think someone (not employed by the defence department or the contractor)
should investigate the maintenance and failure history of Apache helicopters. Are they performing fine
except on prime time ? I'd like to know.

More generally and still with a small sample, helicopters are clearly dangerous. So far this war, most coalition
deaths are in helicopter crashes (including one in Afganistan). In the last gulf war, a large fraction of
UK deaths were from friendly fire on a helicopter. In Somalia, the significant (humanitarian effort stopping)
US deaths occured when NSA forces armed with low tech weapons downed a helicopter (and not the only one).

Now it is clear that helicopters can be very effective weapons. The faster than a tank, closer than a plane
combination makes them, maybe, the only anti tank weapon more deadly than another tank. Still I wonder if
military doctrine has to adapt to the extremely low number of casualties which are possible and acceptable in
wars against much weaker opponents.

This is part of reconsidering Cold war doctrines. A weapon which
is very effective but inevitably risky was a good choice if the aim was to hold out against the Warsaw pact.
Is it necessary to send people into such risks to spead victory in a war with a final outcome which is not in
doubt ?

This should be exactly the kind of question which interests Rumsfeld, but, somehow, I doubt he's interested.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Well I managed to resist posting about Iraq for months (good thing by the way that I didn’t know about Blogger during the Florida recount business). Partly I don’t know what I think. Decisions depend in part on predictions about the consequences of actions (real shocker there eh) and I don’t like to make predictions. I find the effects of an invasion of Iraq especially hard to predict. My guess is expected value even worse than continued Saddam Hussein rule and I’m against invading. I am not at all sure an invasion would be a bad thing (I am never sure of anything). Oddly I am more confident of some views which might sound crazy and which no one seems to be publicly stating.
First I think it would be tolerable if Saddam Hussein kept stocks of weapons of mass destruction. An absolutely agreed point in say the security council debate is that Iraq must be disarmed. Opponents of invasion implausibly claim that this can be done by inspections. This seems absurd to me given the size of Iraq and the volume of, say, 10,000 liters of anthrax (I might have that in my garage for all you know). However, I am fairly confident that the anthrax will not be used by terrorists. Note that the anthrax that has been used by terrorists was bred in the USA. More importantly note that this is known. The anthrax can be identified because different strains of anthrax are genetically different. I believe we know what strains of anthrax Iraq has because they were imported from the USA with Bush sr administration permission. In any case two things seem clear. Anthrax was traced to a source so reliably that no one contests the claim (note the Bush administration has not even hinted that the anthrax in Daschle’s office might have come from Iraq and they are not very worried about making accusations which turn out to be untrue). I also have no doubt that if the anthrax had come from Iraq (or more exactly not from any known stock outside of Iraq) then we would have invaded long ago (with international support). So if I were in Saddam’s shoes I would make sure that any anthrax I had didn’t get used by terrorists. Saddam is not me in his shoes, but I don’t think he is quite that stupid. On the other hand I can tell two worrisome stories about Iraqi anthrax and terrorists each of which requires the assumption that we invade. First, when Saddam knows he is done for (that is when the invasion starts) he decides to take some of us with him and gives anthrax to some terrorist. I think he could manage that. Why isn’t that a strong argument against invading ? Second other people with access to anthrax might hope to avoid death and prison but recognise that they are going to be out of a job soon. They also could get their hands on something (the anthrax) which a certain rich Saudi terrorist would be glad to buy for a ton of money. That seems to be a problem. The point is that, so long as Saddam is in control, hopes to die in bed, and knows that if his anthrax gets in our lungs he is dead, we are relatively safe. I think invading Iraq because there is anthrax there is roughly like shooting missiles at the old USSR because they had missiles. I think, in this case as in that, first strike won’t work, and deterrence has a better chance of working.
Same goes but less so for nerve gas. Mustard gas is horrible but I think not horrible enough for small quantities to kill huge numbers of people. I think mustard in Iraq is not a big threat to us with or without invasion. I note an Australian intelligence officer who recently resigned made the argument I made above. I hadn’t read it before. I find the rareness of what seems to me to be an obvious argument very puzzling.
Oh what about the Iraqi Kurds or Iranians who Saddam Hussein has already gassed ? Well he hasn’t in the past 15 years mostly because in the past 12 he has known he will be punished very severely if he does. Again it seems to me deterrence has worked and I wouldn’t bet on first strike.
What about liberating Iraq. Yes that would be good. War is generally bad. I am not sure in my belief that Iraq shouldn’t be invaded. I do think that Bush’s sudden enthusiasm for nation building will end when the invasion is over and that post Saddam Hussein Iraq is likely to be horrible. My fear is civil war not pitched battles but guerrilla and urban guerrilla warfare.
I honestly think it could be worse that Iraq with Saddam Hussein. I would not be surprised to see (on TV) Iraqi’s dancing in the street, if Saddam Hussein is overthrown. I remember seeing live on TV Zairians dancing in the street when Mobuto Sese Seko was overthrown and seeing film of Vietnamese dancing in the street when Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown. These memories make me less enthusiastic than I would otherwise be about dancing in the street. Now Saddam Hussein is worse than the other two, but still. What stumps me is I don’t have any story about how Iraq will become a decent place without an invasion. Still general pessimism makes me against the invasion. Iraq is very bad but could be worse.
Oddly one thing pacifists argue when opposing the invasion is that sanctions have horrible costs. This to me is weird. If sanctions were so horrible, I would be in favour of invasion because that is clearly the only way they will end any time soon. I am reassured by my firm conviction that any numbers concerning deaths in Iraq are likely to be lies. I can prove beyond all doubt that I really disbelieve if Saddam’s vital statistics.
I am surprised by the huge importance many people in the USA and even more in the UK seem to place on UN approval. I see that if the USA invades Iraq because Bush claims that Iraq is a potential future threat, then international law will be a utopian pipe dream, but isn’t international law already a utopian pipe dream ? I would say that the claim that Iraq is a threat to the USA is not convincing. If we don’t invade now Saddam will know it was close and that he can’t afford to indulge his inclination to kill some of us without our invading. Iraq is very weak compared to the USA. I think Iraq is a threat to the USA in roughly the same way and to roughly the same degree as Kuwait is a threat to Iraq. How would you react if Saddam Hussein said he was invading Kuwait in self defence ? Still I don’t think this is a key issue because there isn’t much to international law now anyway.
I am also surprised that the means used to achieve UN approval don’t seem to have much effect on people. For example 1441 was approved while Bush was saying he would invade if there were not a new resolution. A country with no aim but preventing an invasion would have voted yes. Yet now he claims that the Security council would be backing down if it didn’t approve an invasion.
I am going to say something really truly weird now. I think it might be better if the US/UK/Australia invade without a resolution. Now I am sure that no one else says that. The reason is simple. This would not be new (Nato bombed Serbia without UN permission and, well, the list is as long as human history). However it would be new if the US demonstrated the ability to bend the UN security council to its will. It seems to me clear that 4 of 15 countries in the security council are in favour of an invasion yet 4 or 5 more might be convinced to go along by arm twisting. I think this would be a bad thing. A security council which rubber stamps the presidents decisions is totally pointless and redundant. The advantage of the security council is that it has perceived legitimate authority. That perception will vanish if the stated will of the security council is seen as being the thinly disguised will of the US president (except among people who think the president of the USA has legitimate authority to take over other countries). I mean if the security council is just a ceremonial appendage on the oval office then why not save a few bucks and shut it down ?
This very unusual (probably crazy) view makes me very sensitive to what I perceive as US and UK bad faith in security council debates. I think that aside from the question of whether Iraq will be invaded (and Bush assures me that the questions are not linked) such bad faith reduces the credibility of the security council. I think the credibility of the security council has some value and that it is rapidly declining because of US and UK diplomatic tactics. I think it would be better to just say we are going to do it and you can’t stop us. Of course I also think we shouldn’t do it in any case with or without security council approval.
Oddly I am less struck by French dishonesty. This is very surprising. One very minor aspect of this crisis which I don’t like at all, is that I find myself agreeing with Jacques Chirac. I shudder as I type that I have even imagined being him and being much more blunt than he has been. OK enough about me. I mean obviously the claim that Iraq can be disarmed by inspections is other than completely frank but this doesn’t bother me so very much. I don’t know why.
OK so the tactics. Well one thing, of course, is the almost open arm twisting. Another is the many lies about matters of fact. Finally there is the completely dishonest reading of, for example, 1441. On 1441 and how it doesn’t say anything like what Bush claims see the Fred Kaplan article at www.slate.com. March 6. Basically Bush is claiming that 1441 was an ultimatum telling Hussein he would be invaded if he didn’t disarm immediately and therefore the security council will lose credibility if it backs down by not authorising an invasion now. This is obviously false. First the threat is of “serious consequences” not invasion. It was written this way because otherwise it wouldn’t have passed. Somehow in the current debate, the Bush administration is claiming that the rewrite was a trick a change which changed nothing. They say the countries which would have vetoes 1441 in its original draft with a threat of invasion now must not back down from the position they were tricked into. Now this is crazy. I don’t think anyone could convince a court that a law, say, which was amended after heated debate should be interpreted as unchanged.
It is an insult to our intelligence for Bush to claim that the security council must do what he says because Saddam Hussein is defying it and it has to defend its credibility. At the same time Bush says he does not consider himself bound by the UN charter, will do the same thing no matter what the security council decides etc etc etc.
The effort to get votes for the current proposed resolution by changing it in a way that it is almost unchanged is also bizarre . Some countries claim that it matters whether Saddam Hussein is given a test. Clearly this does not matter if the test is graded by George Bush. I am not absolutely certain that Bush would give Saddam Hussein a failing grade, but I am sure that in the cases in which he would say Saddam passed the test, he wouldn’t invade Iraq even if the security council hadn’t set the test. Similarly there is no point if the test is graded by Jacques Chirac. So how can anyone keep a straight face while pretending to care ? Now, if the test were graded by, say, Hans Blix, that might make a difference. Format here is the test. On March x or April y Blix must enter the security council chamber. Unless he says “Iraq has passed the test.” with no other words in between all member countries are authorised to invade Iraq otherwise, of course, the UN charter holds and they are forbidden to invade Iraq. That would be something. Of course it is unacceptable to Bush because he won’t accept any limits on his perceived right to invade Iraq. Given that, why do the English care ?
Oh see above forbidden to invade Iraq note no exception for self defence. The clause allowing “self defence” is limited by the clause “Until the security council has acted” or something. If the security council says it has dealt with the matter, self defence is not allowed. Now why doesn’t that get on the nerves of countries which don’t have the veto ?
OK so the test doesn’t matter the grader matters. There is no point in pretending otherwise. However I think the unofficial UK proposed test as quoted in the New is clearly not serious. Some of the challenges might be impossible. Others are open to interpretation so broad that it is possible to claim that Iraq has already complied and would be possible to claim that Iraq has not complied no matter what it does.
The test (www.nytimes.com) my comments in <>
Mr. Hussein must admit on Iraqi television that he possesses weapons of mass destruction and will now disarm fully.

He will account for and destroy stocks of anthrax and other biological and chemical weapons.
Mr. Hussein will permit 30 scientists and their families to fly to Cyprus for interrogation by United Nations weapons inspectors.

He will admit to possession of an unmanned drone aircraft discovered by inspectors.

He will promise to destroy mobile production facilities for biological weapons.
Mr. Hussein will pledge to complete the destruction of all unlawful missiles.

So it goes from the totally trivial to the impossible and is so sloppy that it can’t have been meant seriously. Why does anyone take this charade seriously ?

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

I am a fanatical enthusiast for genetically modified foods and golden rice in particular (and an incorrigible cut and paster see below). Golden rice is rice modified to make beta carotene ( a precursor to vitamin A so named because there is a lot of it in carrots). It is appealing partly because vitamin A deficiency is common in people who eat a lot of rice which when unmodified contains very little vitamin A. Golden rice is a major technological success because it is very hard to make cells make beta carotene a small molecule made in many steps by many enzymes. It is much easier to make cells make one new protein. As far as I know (almost all the way to the tip of my nose) all other genetically modified plants make one new protein each. Hmm so I was thinking is there another stable with a problem. Well there is a staple which is part of a lot of dangerously unbalanced diets – corn. Corn has the highest yield of any grain but it is not good food for two reasons. One is that the main corn protein contains very little of two essential amino acids (lysine and argenine I think Don’t trust any of my “facts”). This means that unless corn is eaten along with legumes that the protein is just used to make energy (water carbon dioxide and Urea). I should have guessed that sukatash wasn’t making it on taste. Corn with more lysine and argenine is one of the big failures of the green revolution period of plant improvement. People refused to grow it because it had lower yield. The claim that it was healthier (which can’t be proved on the spot) did not convince poor farmers who have enough sense not to trust every stranger who claims to have an answer to their problems. I’m stumped. The only role I see for biotech is to make lima beans taste less awful.

There is another problem with living mainly on corn – pellagra or vitamin B-6 (pirodoxal phosphate and don’t trust my chemistry either) deficiency. Here part of the problem is that corn contains a protein which binds very tightly to B-6. People in central America have learned to mill corn with alkaline rocks which liberate some of the B-6. Hmmmm now this looks like a case for biotech (the culprit is a protein). Now getting rid of a gene is very hard (so far as I know not managed for grains or plants generally). It is possible to block expression of a gene with antisense RNA (same gene in backwards makes RNA which sticks to the message and keeps it from being translated into protein). It should also be possible to make corn produce an antibody which binds even tighter than B-6 to the place where B-6 binds. Sounds doable to me. I’m not sure how much this sticky protein is the main Pelagra problem.
Maybe Google isn’t perfect
Or
The dangers of out of control technology
Or
Silence is golden
Or
Skip this one
It’s another guy who knows one tenth as much as you do trying to be philosophical about the web. I mean When Marshall McCluhan said the medium is the message he didn’t mean that people use the medium to write and write and write messages about the medium.


I have spent most of the past few days on the web searching for new information on the USA-Iraq crisis. I mean most of my web time not most of my total time (5th amendment on the ratio web/total). This means I read the same thing 10 times looking for a tiny twist in say inspections or security council deliberations in spite of the fact that I am pretty sure that neither has any importance because Bush is determined to invade no matter what happens on either of those fronts (not to mention whether or not US soldiers will have to fly to the Northern front).

However last night I decided to do something completely different.I surfed for information on golden rice. First I should say I am a fanatical enthusiast for genetically modified foods and golden rice in particular. Golden rice is rice modified to make beta carotene ( a precursor to vitamin A so named because there is a lot of it in carrots). Developing golder rice was a monumental effort of two small university based groups. I for one would not have guessed that any project so complicated would be completed for decades. They chose to make rice make beta carotene not vitamin A directly because vitamin A is toxic in large quantities (this is why you should never ever ever eat polar bear liver which is definitely an unsafe food). They did it with rice because rice contains very little vitamin A and poor people who eat mainly rice often suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

The reason I was surfing is I have encountered two different claims about a simple question – how much golden rice do you have to eat to get enough Beta Carotene to produce the RDA of vitamin A. I have read a wide range of numbers 11 kilos, 9 kilos or 200 grams. Well I read the 200 grams in an interview of one of the inventors of golden rice who would be biased. As far as I can tell based on half an hour of surfing, it seems one would have to eat absurd amounts to get the RDA. As you will notice from the disclaimer above I found this disappointing. I also found the very good point that people with vitamin A deficiency are not getting 0 vitamin A in their diet but maybe 80% of the minimum healthy amount (which is less than the RDA). That is a supplement that gives less than the RDA can still push a lot of people up over the line and into better health. Also it might be possible to increase Beta Carotene production with something like conventional plant breeding. My guess is that the issue between the 9 kilos and the 200 grams might be partly disagreement over the RDA but is mainly related to the difference between beta carotene in the rice and beta carotene absorbed by the intestine of the person who eats the rice.

My current main concern is the strange experience of surfing. Well this will be familiar to any of the few people who reach this obscure site. Thus what follows must be pointless as I bet any of the maybe 2 or 3people who read it have read it hundreds of times and written it at least once or twice.

I am not a very adventurous surfer and mainly just go for the news of the day. There the alarming point is that it is the same in all US sites and the same in all Italian sites but different in the US and in Italy. The AP/ANSA difference is not a difference in ideological slant (see AP exam above). With a google search for golden rice the weird thing was the opposite. As any surfer knows there are contradictory claims of points of fact which are on the public record. With the news the weird point is that the sameness. With a google search the weird thing is the differences. The news I check all manages to appear neutral and unbiased – the topic search web pages are mainly wildly ideological.


I didn’t do anything like a careful search By now I’ve spent more time writing than reading (wait is that just my problem or are there other people like me spewing ignorant nonsense on the web).

The first few pages on the list were from GMfoodphobes. There was no attempt to let biobucks companies have their say. There was no attempt to let university based researchers in the field have their say.

Then I got to something totally different. A libertarian. Still totally idealogical but totally opposed to all regulation on principal. Here there was an odd claim of fact which I have no intention of checking. The claim was that all golden rice seeds are locked up under guard in Germany to protect them from eco terrorists. Huh ? Another search (of
http://www.nature.org Nature a world leading general science journal and sister pub Nature Biotechnology (repeat add) came up with a story Feb 2001 about how golden rice seeds had been shipped to the International Rice Research Institute. Well I’m not going to bother checking anything but it seems to me that a clearly false claim has been posted on the web (wow what a shock) . I could rewrite that to make sure it’s true -- a false claim whose falsehood can be proven with a little searching has been posted on the web. There now I’m safe. Maybe the false claim in question is the sentence before last, but there sure is one.

Now wait. Maybe there is something a tiny bit wrong with Google. It ranks pages by how many links into them there are then by sum of rank of pages that link in and iterates. Now that they are HUGE they have to work very hard to keep people from tricking them. Clearly their counter strategies are secret. But there is a problem with the Google approach. It favours mutual appreciation societies. Now it is clear that GMfoodPhobes are very numerous and feel strongly about the issue, and it is also clear that libertarians are strangely attracted to the web (note the obvious ironies of technophobes on the web and libertarians attracted to something which was mainly developed by the US defense department with important contributions from CERN). Still I think the Web promotes mutual ideological reinforcement. It enables people to get in contact with other people all over the world (with a strong bias for rich countries and for rich people within countries). It could be used to dialog with people with fundamentally different world views. Many people prefer to use it to dialog with people with as close as possible to exactly the same world view. Freedom is freedom to participate in the debate but it is also freedom to run away from it to talk without listening etc etc. It seems to me that the Google approach favours groups of like minded people. It rewards opinions which get the reaction “yes yes exactly I can save time by making a link to this site and not writing the same thing myself” not ones which get the reaction “what is this guy getting at. He isn’t one of us. He isn’t one of them. He’s sometimes like one of us sometimes like one of them sometimes like one of THEM (ugh) and sometimes incomprehensible (anyway he sure is self indulgent but isn’t dumb enough to hope that anyone hasn’t guessed that I like to see myself as “this guy” above). Hmmmm

OK I think I’ve already posted something about the web and the policy debate. I think the web has only rarely had an effect on the policy debate. I think this might be temporary. Most people in positions of power are a little too old to be web surfers. Also they have aides and stuff find and digest and present information to them. I wildly guess that the web debate is still pretty marginal. It might affect a few votes in elections, it might help relatively rich people have an even slightly greater advantage in making their views know to their elected representatives. But might the world change when powerful people start surfing on their own ? There is one case of a powerful person who referred to what he personally found on the web when discussing policy. The person was Thabo Mbeki and the information was that AZT had side effects. This was the first step I remember that President Mbeki took down the path to concluding that AIDS is not caused by HIV (or might very well not be) that AIDS drugs are worse than worthless and that the South African government is not going to have anything to do with them. Not necessarily the very worst policy decision in recent memory but a very surprising horrible decision with an unclear connection to ideology, self interest, interest groups, sectarian fanaticism, or any of the usual suspects. Except for this Mbeki seems to be rather a good president and definitely one of the best in Africa (ok the competition isn’t stellar). What went wrong and did it go wrong when he was surfing ? Maybe Thabo Mbeki is the first politician of the cyber age. Uh oh.
AP exam
I am not a very adventurous surfer and mainly just go for the news of the day. There the alarming point is that it is the same in all US sites and the same in all Italian sites but different in the US and in Italy

Basically in the US all news on the web comes pretty much straight from the associated press (AP) and in Italy it comes from ANSA (don’t know the words it is the main Italian language wire service). Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like there is a clear ideological bias here. Maybe AP and ANSA have the same ideological slant maybe they give the news unslanted (I think that “unslanted news” is a mystical concept something which can’t fit into this universe but I’m trying to be open minded). I think AP is marginally more reliable. For example in Italy there was the hot scoop that Putin had promised Bush not to veto the ultimatum resolution the day before Russia formally announced their intention to veto. However, this impression might just reflect my very strong prejudice. AP certainly is very scrupulous about clearly posting corrections. The weird thing is that as I have obsessively searched different sites trying to get different news and I realise that I am reading the same thing over and over again. Not just the same substantive content but often the same emphasis, order of presentation and phrasing. This is not a scandal, often the pages cite the AP either as source of the page (then usually something I have read word for word twice already) or as the main source of information in the page (means they did mostly cut and paste with a little rewrite).

OK OK the Washington Post does seem to have could off the record sources (talk about shocking news) so sometimes I can tell AP got it from them and wild rumours and stuff are at www.drudge.com (wait what is he up to now that he doesn’t have Clinton to kick around I haven’t been their in months).

Actually AP’s own reporters are pretty good (or lucky). AP had good reporting from Kabul during the war. The AP affiliated Taliban communication ministry kept the Taliban from ejecting the AP reporter. AP picks up Taliban communiqu├ęs which are certainly of interest and it appears that formally the relationship was legally like that between the AP and legitimate news sources (that’s diplomacy).

Still this is weird. I mean I trust the AP I really do. But why isn’t it’s power a source of concern. Most of the content I am describing is written up by AP. It is not the stories filed by member newspapers (they are too obscure to be on the AP ticker page I favour which is at www.newsday.com (they don’t even pretend to rewrite the AP stuff for the web page so you can get straight to the “raw” news. So if AP decided to change it’s slant (or adopt one if it is currently un-slanted) this might have a big effect.

I think the web has made this copy and paste business more extreme (as of course have word processors). It used to be Newspapers had trouble being critical readers of and listeners to their sources because they had to meet a deadline of x PM: Now that they can update continuously there is a deadline every instant “ Get it up on the web now this instant so we aren’t the very last to report it – we can change it later” . Then they rarely change it (same exact words posted for hours as this desperate reader checks again and again for something new anything new). Thus total falsehoods might slip in and stay. Now it could be worse. I mean no one is going to take seriously the totally fabricated “quotation” above which demonstrates only my limited ability to handle the subjunctive in any known human language.

But maybe I’m just going to the wrong sites -- CNN, CBS news,WashingtonPost ,New York Times, AP ticker an Newsday, ANSA itself, La Repubblica Corriere della Sera a pathetic list really. Now if you actually got here, you must be a serious surfer. Please help me out. Where can I get new news in English or Italian. Please mail to rjw88@hotmail.com