Sunday, August 18, 2013

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending August 17, 2013

News & Commentary


Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

A Deafening Silence In Turkey: An article, by Dexter Filkins, in The New Yorker reports just how bad things are in Turkey under the dictatorial rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Filkins writes about one case, one show trial, that in many ways symbolizes how far from justice Turkey currently is with its cleansing of all dissent, including individuals who were once close to the leader:
Two years ago, when I started investigating the sprawling prosecution of Turkey’s military and political leaders—known as the Ergenekon case—someone pointed me to Emin Şirin. At the time, more than seven hundred people from across Turkish society, from military officers to academics, journalists, and aid workers, had been charged with, among other things, attempting to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Şirin’s story, I was told, was emblematic of the Ergenekon prosecutions, in that it relied on obviously trumped-up evidence.
Şirin, who speaks perfect English and has travelled in the United States, was once one of Erdoğan’s closest confidants. In 2001, he helped found Erdoğan’s political party, known by its Turkish initials, A.K., and was elected to parliament in 2002, when the Party won a landslide victory. Shortly after Erdoğan became Prime Minister, in 2003, Şirin broke with him, accusing Erdoğan of running the A.K. Party in a dictatorial fashion. Şirin completed a lonely term in parliament and left office in 2007. A month later, prosecutors charged him with membership in Ergenekon—allegedly a secret network of secular-minded Turks bent on overthrowing Erdoğan’s Islamist-leaning government.

Sure enough, when I looked at Şirin’s court file, I was astounded. The evidence against Şirin was not merely thin; it was preposterous, as though it had been assembled by a group of schoolchildren—or by a prosecutor who never imagined that an independent observer would examine it. The central piece of evidence against Şirin was a fifteen-page transcript of wiretapped telephone conversations that Şirin had allegedly made to other Ergenekon members. Yet nothing in the transcript appeared remotely criminal in nature; many of the calls were to Şirin’s girlfriend. And—here’s the showstopper—all of the recorded calls were made after his arrest. When I asked a senior Turkish prosecutor about it for my story, he told me, “It’s not one of the strongest cases.”
Last week, a Turkish court sentenced Şirin to seven and a half years in prison. Şirin was convicted along with two hundred and fifty-seven other defendants, including some twenty journalists and three members of parliament. Nineteen of the convicted, who include Ilker Basbug, the former chief of staff of the Turkish military, were sentenced to life in prison; several others received sentences of ninety-nine years or more. Şirin says that he plans to appeal his conviction. But if the Turkish appellate judges even remotely resemble their brethren in the lower courts—and there is no reason to think that they don’t—Şirin and the others don’t stand a chance.
The show trials continue, removing any possibility of dissent. And not a peep of protest from the one nation that could make a difference, Fikin says: “How does Erdoğan get away with it? One reason, surely, is the silence of the Obama Administration. For all of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed tactics, the White House still sees him as a Middle Eastern moderate, a freely elected Muslim leader who is friendly to the West. There aren’t many of those. So, to a remarkable degree, Erdoğan gets a pass ”

An Air Pollution Problem In China: An article in The Economist says that China’s rapid economic growth and industrialization has led the economic powerhouse to look at how it can quickly go green to improve its poor air quality.

The article says:
The muck that spews from Chinese factories most immediately affects those unlucky enough to live nearby. In January 2013 the air of Beijing hit a level of toxicity 40 times above what the World Health Organisation deems safe. A tenth of the country’s farmland is poisoned with chemicals and heavy metals. Half of China’s urban water supplies are unfit even to wash in, let alone drink. In the northern half of the country air pollution lops five-and-a-half years off the average life.
All this has led to an explosion of protest across China, including among a middle class that has discovered nimbyism. That worries the government, which fears that environmental activism could become the foundation for more general political opposition. It is therefore dealing with pollution in two ways—suppression and mitigation. It has jailed environmental activists and is planning to limit the power of judicial oversight by handing a state-approved body a monopoly over bringing environmental lawsuits. At the same time, it is pouring money into cleaning up the country. It has just said that China will spend $275 billion over the next five years improving air quality—roughly the same as the GDP of Hong Kong, and twice the size of the annual defence budget. Even by Chinese standards it is a massive sum.
The pace at which it deals with local pollution is a matter for China itself. But the country’s emissions are of wider interest because they also pollute the atmosphere, which is a global resource. The scale and speed of China’s development—it consumes 40-45% of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel, aluminium and zinc—means it is doing so fast. Since 1990 the amount of CO2 pouring from Chinese smokestacks has risen from 2 billion tonnes a year to 9 billion—almost 30% of the global total. China produces nearly twice as much CO2 as America. It is no longer merely catching up with the West. The average Chinese person produces the same amount of CO2 as the average European. Even if you reduce that number by a quarter to take account of the emissions produced by China’s exports, it is still huge.
Indeed, the environmental problems that China face are large; the health problems of air pollution are well-known and deadly. In many ways China is where the United States and Canada were in the 1970s; the good news is that there are technological solutions today that were not available then, and if China puts the same level of effort into solving its environmental problems as it did to its economic ones it will be successful. It has no choice but to act now.

A Possible Leukemia Cure In Canada: An article in CBC News says that Canadian researchers in the nation’s capital might have a breakthrough cure for leukemia that uses ultra-violet (UV) light to prevent cancer cells from multiplying and spreading

The article says:
Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute say they’ve been able to use a virus-like particle to kill human blood cancer cells and cure mice of leukemia. Dr. John Bell and Dr. David Conrad said in a study published in Blood Cancer Journal they used UV light to take away the ability of a virus to multiply and spread, but keep its ability to enter and kill leukemia cells.

“It kills the cancer cells, the leukemia cells; it preserves the healthy cells,” said Dr. Conrad.
“And when these leukemia cells die it simultaneously induces an immune memory effect, so we are hopeful that this would prevent relapse as well going forward."

Their study found this therapy killed such cells in patients where therapies such as chemotherapy had been unsuccessful. It said 80 per cent of mice with leukemia who received this modified-virus therapy lived much longer than those who did not, and 60 per cent of these mice were eventually cured.
Of course, this now applies only to mice; it’s a long way before we can know whether it can work successfully for humans. This is the first steps in a long testing and proving process that will eventually lead to human clinical trials. This treatment sounds promising since it works when long-tried therapies like chemotherapy have failed, and likely without the nasty side-effects. 

A Safer Additive For Food: An article in Nature News says that allowing manufacturers to decide if food additives are safe is not a good idea, often leading to not only conflicts of interests but also poor science and poor consumer safety. Independent analysis is necessary.

The article says:
A chef who crafts a delicacy for sale in the United States can choose from more than 10,000 food additives to garnish the dish. Of these chemicals, 43% are labelled ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) and need not be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The system has weaknesses. A manufacturer is responsible for assessing whether an additive it has developed is GRAS. Once that is done, the manufacturer is asked — but not required — to notify the FDA. There are no data to evaluate compliance systematically, but the FDA found during a 2010 crackdown on caffeinated alcoholic drinks that four out of four manufacturers queried had not done the required checks.
Even when manufacturers do submit GRAS determinations, there are concerns about the quality of the assessment. An ongoing project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington DC reveals discomfiting gaps in the data. A search of three toxicological databases, including that of the FDA, showed that fewer than 38% of GRAS claims were backed up by FDA-recommended toxicology studies in animals (T. G. Neltner et al. Reprod. Toxicol.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.reprotox.2013.07.023; 2013).
The same team has published an analysis of 451 GRAS notifications submitted to the FDA. To avoid conflicts of interest, assessments should be done by an independent expert panel, but none had been; in fact, 22% had been performed by an employee of the manufacturer (T. G. Neltner et al. JAMA Intern. Med. http://doi.org/nd5; 2013).
This is poor policy; if manufacturers want the public to have confidence in their products the onus is on them to show impartiality, in keeping with scientific standards and objectives. The first rule of production is not to sell shoddy products and services, as is now often the case, but to sell the best products that current manufacturing and production technologies allows. No sensible person begrudges companies making a good profit if that follows making a good product.

A Funeral In Outer Space: An article, by John Simon Ritchie, in Digital Journal says that you can now sign up to have your cremated ashes flown into space for about $2,000.

Ritchie writes:
Technology is booming in the funeral industry right now, and there are no signs of it slowing down. Now thanks to Elysium Space, we've reached a new milestone in burial tech, offering you your own funeral in space for just under $2,000. (Seriously.)
In just the last few years alone, we've gone from the disposing of bodies through environmentally conscience means using alkaline-hydrolysis, to having your loved one's ashes compressed into a diamond that you can wear as a ring, and now, your own space funeral for just $1,990, all thanks to Elysium Space.
The new start-up based in San Francisco, CA will send your cremated remains into low orbit, where they will circle the Earth for a few months before reentering the atmosphere, and burning up into a fireball. And as if that wasn't amazing enough, the entire time your cremated ashes are in space, you can actually track where they are using this iPhone appWow.
Yeah, wow; this is, another silly choice for America’s consumer society. This shows that not all technologies better the human condition.