Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Case For Fictional Superheroes

Children's Imagination

You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you, even in the face of
our deaths. The richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I've
learned, everything I feel, all this and more I bequeath you my son.
Jor-El's words to his son, Kar-El (Superman), 
upon leaving the planet Krypton

When I was nine, I had this girlfriend and we used to have running races in the park. I wanted to be like Superman and fly in and rescue her.
Orlando Bloom, British actor

We like Batman —we understand him, we suffer with him. On the other hand, we want to be Superman. But they're conflicting philosophies. Let's bring them together in one movie and see how we, as an audience, wrestle with our inner demons.
Wolfgang Petersen, German film director

As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.
Ernest Hemingway, American novelist

Superman: From the cover art of Superman no. 204 (released April 2004, dated June). Superman, the Man of Steel, is the ultimate superhero, fighting for truth and justice and ridding the world of bad guys.
Photo Credit: Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams. Released promotionally as part of DC's solicitations for April 2004. All DC Comics characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © 2004 DC Comics, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

We need superheroes. We always have. We certainly do today, perhaps now more than ever, at a time when cynicism and the selfish pursuit of power seems to be the norm rather than the exception. A fictional superhero is a disinterested fighter for Truth and Justice, looking out for the good and betterment of humanity. It is the ideal man or woman, the ideal human looking out for the best interests, notably for the underdog, the downtrodden, the little guy who's feeling defeated.

A superhero doesn't have to be perfect. It is better that he isn't, as most of us want to identify with some imperfection, albeit a minor character flaw that doesn't prevent the superhero from performing good deeds. 

A Superhero is the Universal Man, not bound by nation or state, but by the universal principles, similar to those enshrined on the United Nations Charter. The Superhero is the Modern morality play, where Everyman is replaced by a unique individual who has special powers, super powers that are a testament to his virtues of good, honesty and justice. He is often the caped crime-fighter, whose true identity is kept secret. His day job is far different than his evening crime-fighting duties, sometimes diametrically opposed (a la Clark Kent and Superman)

Superman, introduced in 1938, is the first modern superhero, whose appeal is moral clarity in a turbulent world, a recent article explains:
Superman, the world’s first super-powered hero, has been developed over time to be a hero of strong moral conviction, and someone for whom most of the super hero community, in DC comics, strives to emulate in their behavior and capacity for good.
True enough. A superhero could be funny, even ironic and playful, but not sarcastic or ill-humoured. There is too much evidence of that already today among the lesser humans, the lesser lights of humanity, whom in their weakness and pain want to hurt others by sarcastic barbs and ridicule. A superhero wants to heal, to bridge humanity, to build up society and individuals.

Spider-Man: Cover of Amazing Fantasy 15 (Aug 1962 :Marvel Comics).
Photo Credit: Art by Jack Kirby, pencils, Steve Ditko, inks, and Stan Goldberg, colors. All Marvel characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are Trademarks & Copyright  © 1962 Marvel Characters, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

When  I asked my nine-year-old son who his favourite superheroes were, I was pleasantly surprised by his response: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, The Flash, The Fantastic Four and Justice League. I could have been talking to my younger self of forty years ago. The more things change., the more they remain the same, to quote an oft-used cliche. (A list of the most influential superheroes, the Significant Seven, confirms my son's tastes.)

And there are good reasons why young children, including toddlers and pre-school children are drawn to superheroes, says a site dedicated to educators of young children.
Young children, facing the challenges of learning many new skills, may often feel small, helpless, fearful, unable to accomplish what they desire, or troubled—in other words, just the opposite of superheroes. It’s no wonder that many preschoolers are drawn to superhero play. Through play they can feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, outside of ordinary, and just plain good.
Sounds good to me, and good for any age. When you get to be my age, however, it becomes harder to believe in superheroes. But Ernest Hemingway was right to say we need them. We can claim sophistication, intellectualism, and knowledge as reasons to cast away the childish notions of superheroes. Yet each generation has superheroes. Each generation yearns for the good guys to win. That shows me that nothing really has changed, and least of all the need for superheroes.

One could naturally look to academics or psychologists to explain such a need. But I think we all know the reason why it exists. The need taps deep into our psyche, and explains to a great degree who we are, or at least what are the deepest values and virtues that we cherish. I suspect that we all want the world to be a safe, fun place where we can show our true selves,  free from harm and ridicule.


A version of this post was published previously on Perry J. Greenbaum (February 4, 2011).

Five Stories Of The week: Ending February 23, 2013

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Retinal Implant Technology:The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved the nation's first retinal implant technology, which promises to restore partial sight to individuals suffering from advanced retinitis pigmentos, a genetic condition that damages cells surrounding the retina, says an article, by Larry Greenemeir, in Scientific American:
The FDA’s green light for Second Sight’s Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System gives hope to those blinded by a rare genetic eye condition called advanced retinitis pigmentosa, which damages the light-sensitive cells that line the retina.

For Second Sight, FDA approval follows more than 20 years of development, two clinical trials and more than $200 million in funding—half from the National Eye Institute, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, and the rest from private investors. The Argus II has been approved for use in Europe since 2011 and implanted in 30 clinical-trial patients since 2007. The FDA’s Ophthalmic Devices Advisory Panel in September 2012 voted unanimously to recommend approval.

The Argus II includes a small video camera, a transmitter mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, a video processing unit and a 60-electrode implanted retinal prosthesis that replaces the function of degenerated cells in the retina, the membrane lining the inside of the eye. Although it does not fully restore vision, this setup can improve a patient’s ability to perceive images and movement, using the video processing unit to transform images from the video camera into electronic data that is wirelessly transmitted to the retinal prosthesis.
This genetic condition, which affects, as the article points out, "about one in 4,000 people in the US and about 1.5 million people worldwide—kills the retina’s photoreceptors, the rod and cone cells that convert light into electrical signals transmitted via the optic nerve to the brain’s visual cortex for processing."

There are other retinal technologies being developed in the U.S. and Britain that harness our modern understanding of electrical engineering, brain neural codes and light sensors that show some promise for other more common eye diseases that affect millions. For example, on the horizon is a technology that will alleviate the widespread effects of macular degeneration, a disease that often affects the elderly.

Life Sciences Prize Winners: An article in The Guardian reports that high-tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley in California have invested  their money to fund a new prize in the life sciences that rewards fundamental research whose purpose is better and extend human life.
The Silicon Valley aristocrats Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Yuri Milner have jointly established the most lucrative annual prize in the history of science to reward research into curing diseases and extending human life. The newly created Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation on Wednesday announces the first 11 winners of an award intended to inject excitement into the sometimes lonely, underfunded quests to understand and combat cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other maladies.
Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook; Brin, who co-founded Google; and Milner, a venture capitalist, have dipped into their fortunes to sponsor awards worth $3m each, compared with a Nobel prize's monetary value of $1.1m. "With the mapping of the genome sequence there are expectations of significant progress in the next 10 or 20 years so I think the timing is really appropriate to create an incentive for the best scientific minds," Milner told the Guardian in an interview on the eve of the announcement.
A Russian internet investor who quit a PhD in physics and invested in social networking, Milner persuaded his fellow internet billionaires to contribute to the bounty to encourage a new generation of molecular biologists and geneticists. "Young people will hopefully get the message that not only the careers in sports or entertainment can get a public recognition."
Such is true; and this prize will likely get more attention in the years to come. One of its noted weaknesses at the moment, and it doesn't take anything from this year's winners, is that the prize is currently focused on the United States and its research institutes. Nine of the eleven prize winners are affiliated with American organizations, all leading and recognized research institutes. In the years to come it would be good if this changed to include more individuals and institutions outside the U.S. This would give the prize more international recognition and prestige.

Even so, and more important than the prize money itself is what it recognizes— the fundamental research such scientists conduct, much of it devoted to decoding the complexities of cancer. Bravo both to the individuals who funded this prize and to this year's winners.

Solution To Big Banks Financial Woes: An article, by James Surowiecki, in The New Yorker offers a practical and rational approach to ensure that America's banking industry remains both solvent and profitable:
What does this mean in practice? Well, the biggest issue with the way banks work these days is that they’re funded almost entirely by debt—in other words, nearly all of the money they lend out is itself borrowed. This has a number of negative consequences. First, it encourages recklessness, since the banks are in effect gambling with other people’s money. Second, it means that banks have very little cushion if they make mistakes—even relatively small declines in the value of their loans can put them on the verge of technical insolvency. And since some of the biggest holders of bank debt are other banks, the heavy reliance on borrowing means that if one institution gets into trouble, its problems can easily cascade through the system, weakening other banks as well.
As it happens, though, there’s a way to change this—as Admati and Hellwig persuasively argue, we should simply require banks to hold more equity capital, and less debt. (Equity isn’t the same thing as reserves; banks can raise equity either by selling more shares to the public or just retaining earnings and investing them in the company.) Bankers hate this idea when it’s applied to them, because they think it will reduce their profits, and therefore their salaries. But the irony is that when it comes to the loans they make, most of them understand the value of equity perfectly well. If you want to start a restaurant, and you ask a bank for a loan, any sensible banker is going to insist that you put a sizable amount of money down—that is, that you have a significant chunk of equity in the business—before they lend you any money. They do this because they know that if you don’t have real equity in the business, they’ll be running almost all of the risk, while you’ll be making most of the profits, which will encourage you to take reckless gambles. (This is also why, these days, the only way banks will issue low-down-payment mortgages is if they’re insured by the federal government). Yet when it comes to their own operations, banks want to put as little down as possible—they want to be “equity-light.”
No doubt, hard-core Republicans, reactionary conservatives and those in the business of self-enlightened greed have already rejected this idea out of hand for a number of reasons: 1) it's wasn't their idea; 2) it makes perfect sense and is reasonable; and, perhaps the most important, 3) it would reduce the profits of banks and thus executive compensation. For such types, its unAmerican to even suggest an idea that would reduce their obscene profits and a life of privileged and power. In the end, if all else fails, the government has a "moral obligation" to bail them out.

Controlling Scientific Knowledge: Canada's Harper government has been accused of trying to "muzzle" scientists, notably in how they disseminate and share information to the media, says an article, by Margaret Munro, in the Ottawa Citizen:
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has been asked to investigate the way the Harper government has been “muzzling” federal scientists.The request, accompanied by a report on the government’s “systematic efforts” to obstruct access to researchers, was made jointly on Wednesday by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, a national non-profit group.
“There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists – information that their tax dollars have paid for,” they say. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”
The request for an investigation comes after years of controversy over the silencing of federal scientists who used to be encouraged to speak about their research on everything from melting permafrost to pesticide pollution. The evidence is collected in “Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?” a 128-page report also sent to Legault. 
The report notes the Harper government has generated national and international headlines for stopping government researchers from talking about their studies on prehistoric floods, the unprecedented 2011 Arctic Ozone hole, and snow research in Ontario. It argues the government has implemented policies that now “routinely require political approval before scientists can speak to the media about their scientific findings.”
Government scientists are “routinely instructed to not speak publicly – or to respond with pre-scripted ‘approved lines,’ ” it says.
Such tactics are reminiscent of authoritarian regimes and not of democracies; and if this is indeed proven true it's a black mark for Canada, and for its democratic institutions. It bears reminding and repeating that one of the fundamental ideas of liberal democracy is that scientists are independent of the government and its authority. Ultimately, governments are servants of the people, and in accordance with such thinking, the people, through the media, have every right to expect truthful and transparent scientific information to receive the light of day.

Except for cases of national security, which are rare, scientists have every right to speak and share their important research findings to the media without any government interference or threats—whether such be implicit or explicit. Politics has no place in science. Period. All in all, I would expect that the governing party of a nation like Canada has more important things to do than to meddle in areas they little understand.

The Syrian Situation: An article in The Economist says that America must act, intervene in some fashion in Syria's long and brutal civil war. It says:
Syria is more dangerous today than it was in October, when this newspaper called for a no-fly zone in order to ground Mr Assad’s air force. Mr Obama’s policy of waiting for the conflagration in Syria to burn itself out is failing. Rather than see things deteriorate still further, he should act.
His aim should be to preserve what is left of Syria. That means trying to convince the people around Mr Assad that their choice is between ruinous defeat and turfing out the Assad family as a prelude to talks with the rebels. A no-fly zone is still needed to ground Mr Assad’s air force and destroy some of his missiles. It would be a big, bold signal of America’s resolve to Mr Assad’s supporters. America should recognise a transitional government, selected from Syria’s opposition. It should arm non-jihadist rebel groups—including with limited numbers of anti-aircraft missiles. France and Britain would back this, even if other Europeans would not. Russia supports Mr Assad in part to frustrate Mr Obama. Europe and America should keep on trying to tempt it to give him up, by promising it a stake in a liberated Syria.
There are no guarantees that this policy will work. But it will at least build links with the non-jihadist rebels whom America will need as allies in the chaos if Mr Assad stays. Today those moderate Syrians feel utterly abandoned.
It sounds like a reasonable policy; the only problem, among many, is how would America decide, determine if you will, who the non-jihadist groups are from among the many opposition groups involved in Syria's civil war. After Libya, America got fooled, when some of the militants fighting against the Libyan regime of Gaddafi later on, after gaining a cache of weapons, used these weapon against the French in Mali; they were essentially joining their co-religionist Muslims against the western (i.e., Christian) powers.

I am not sure how America, Europe or other western nation would be able to accurately determine not only whom to arm, but also how to ensure that later on such weapons not be turned against the West. Can America afford to be wrong in this case?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Allowing Boys To Be Boys

A boy carries out suggestions more wholeheartedly when he understands their aim.  
Robert Baden-Powell [1857-1941], 
British officer, writer & founder of the Scout movement

Close your eyes,
Have no fear,
The monsters gone,
He's on the run and your daddy's here,
Beautiful, beautiful,
Beautiful Boy.

—John Lennon [1940-80],
English singer/songwriter, in "Beautiful Boy"

Sex Differences: In Shakespeare's comedy, Much Adoe about Nothing (1600), the Bard intimately  understood the differences between the sexes better than many of today's academics.

Among pedagogues there has been, of late, a great amount of hand-wringing on how in the primary grades boys are falling behind girls in the so-called soft subjects like reading and articulation. The articles in mainstream media, have such provocative headlines as Failing boys and the powder keg of sexual politics (by Carolyn Abraham); Young boys "turned off books" by by lack of male teachers (Graeme Paton); and Why Boys Are Failing in an Educational System Stacked against Them (by Lori Day).

No doubt all these articles are full of good intentions and raise important points about teaching methods today, including the "feminization" of the classroom, notably in the early grades.  But that has always been the case; elementary or primary grade teachers have long been female; it certainly was the case when I attended elementary school in the 1960s (and long before then), and I held interest in both sciences and reading, influenced in many cases by the female teachers who taught me. 

It's interesting to note that the first article's writer, in this case, Carolyn Abraham, fails to notice that in math and sciences, boys tend to outrank girls across all cultures when they become older. In an OECD report of test results for 15-year-olds, generally students in Grade 9, the results were consistent:
In mathematics the boys score higher than the girls in the majority of the countries except in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland where the advantage for boys is not significant, and in Iceland where the girls outperform the boys.
There are sound valid explanations for such findings, namely, that boys as a group are more interested in math and sciences and girls in reading and language, and equally important they as a group mature later. Even so, the article ignores this finding, and with much puzzlement, usually compare the test scores of girls and boys, today and, say, 20 years ago. Lest I have to remind journalists and school teachers, when you make a comparison or ranking of two groups, someone has to be first, and someone has to be second.

While teaching styles and the current feminization of the classroom undoubtedly contributes somewhat to boys showing more interest in the subjects of science and math than reading and language, other more important factors, which evolutionary sciences has shown, are at play. These are strong biological and genetic forces, which scare a lot of people. This might come as a shock to some educators, but boys are different than girls in many ways.

And the differences are not so much socialization as genetic. Of course, socialization might play some role later on in some respects, but boys and girls are born with innate differences that socialization can never change.

Boys Just Want To Have Fun: Schoolboys in Nakempte, Western Oromia region of Ethiopia.
Photo Credit: Mexikids: Tim & Annette Gulick, 2005
Source: Flickr
Anyone who has children will see the differences at a young age, even with infants and toddlers. I have three children: an adult girl, and two boys. My daughter (20) was adequate in math and science, but excelled in reading, languages and literature. She shows interest in writing, in which I think she'll do very well. My boys, one school-aged (8), and one a toddler (2), are more mechanically and scientifically minded and show interest in how things work. My eight-year-old, for example, is fascinated with insects, and has already stated his intention of being an entomologist.

The differences are easy to see and remarkable. Ask any parent. Steven Pinker in his landmark book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), argues that sex differences are common to all cultures:
Sex differences are not an arbitrary feature of Western culture, like the decision to drive on the left or on the right. In all human cultures, men and women are seen as having different natures. All cultures divide their labor by sex, with more responsibilities for childrearing by women and more control of the public and political realms by men. (346)
While many feminists might say that's unfair, there are sound scientific reasons for the sexual differences, says Dr. Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, who has built an edifice of fact on years of scientific findings. Although some people understand the validity of such realities, they find the results unfair, Dr. Pinker points out in further on in The Blank Slate:
But among many professional women the existence of sex differences is still a source of discomfort. As one colleague said to me, "Look, I know that males and females are not identical. I see it in my kids, I see it in myself, I know about the research. I can't explain it, but when I read claims about sex differences, steam comes out of my ears." (351)
One reason is the politics of the women's liberation movement, led by Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963). In Ms. Friedan's estimation of fairness and equality, the same number of women as men should be among the academic, professional, political and economic elites. Such is called the "fairness of outcomes," an idea that is absurd and contrary to the ideals of an open, liberal western democratic state. Even if it could be imposed, which is authoritarian thinking, it would fail for the very reasons that authoritarian states always fail.

Moreover, many women want to do things other than a professional career, including the raising and nurturing of children. No doubt, the issue of sex differences has been overly politicized, resulting in much anguish for both women and men, boys and girls alike. We ought to celebrate our differences, not mourn them. Or worse, politicize them. Viva la différence!

To say there are differences in anything, including gender, is not saying one sex is better than another in all areas. That would be an absurd assumption. Let's celebrate our differences, weaknesses included. I can't hit a 90 mph fastball, although I wish I could when I was younger. Nor could I sing opera. Or make a decent soufflé. But others can, and can do it well, with style.

Politicizing the differences changes little other than, perhaps, advancing a scholar's career or publishing more controversial articles. Yet, how does it really help society? Pedagogical attempts to neutralize (emasculate might be a better word in some cases) the male sex at a young age are not the best solutions to the problems that have, and continually, plague society. Even if the pedagogues are earnest in their social engineering exercises. Well-meaning educators armed with the latest test results and studies have to look at the broader social implications of their pronouncements, as do journalists looking for a sensational story.

It will result in many other unintended problems that the educators are only starting to see today, including the marginalization of boys. At the risk of offending some noted writers and academics, there is a need to rethink their premises, or at least their ideology. After all, it's quite obvious that boys will be boys. It's that obvious. To deny that is to deny the obvious. And, as evolutionary biologists would point out, is to deny biology and good science. Even so, some will remain unconvinced of this or any argument put forward.

As for the gender crisis in education, It's a crisis (generally) manufactured for no particular purpose than to sound the alarms of despair, or, perhaps, for some organizations to get some grant money for further studies. It's an exercise in futility. In 20 years, we might be reading about another study that shows girls are falling behind boys in one academic area or another. Education is important, but looking at test scores alone is, to use a war metaphor, an easy and soft target. Eventually, most boys learn to read and write sufficiently well enough to have a job and function in society. Some become great writers and teachers.

There are more important issues, more important battles, which centre on human rights, individual liberty and dignity that need all our intellectual energy and attention at the moment. So, yes, to point out the obvious,  boys will be boys. As for the test results in the soft subjects like reading and writing, "It's much ado about nothing."

A version of this post originally appeared in Perry J Greenbaum (October 18, 2010).

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending February 16, 2013

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Killing Cancer Cells: An article, by Anna Hodgekiss, in the Daily Mail says that scientists have made a non-invasive discovery on the molecular level that allows the body's immune system to battle cancerous cells.
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have identified a molecule, known as TIC10, which activates a protein that helps fight the disease. The protein, called TRAIL, suppresses tumour development during immune surveillance, the immune system's process of patrolling the body for cancer cells.
This process is lost during cancer progression, which leads to uncontrolled growth and spread of tumours. The key benefit of using TRAIL (tumour-necrosis-factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand) as a way to fight cancer is that it is already part of the immune system so it is not toxic to the body like chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Furthermore, the small size of TIC10 also makes it more effective than past discoveries because it can cross the blood-brain barrier, which separates the main circulatory system from the brain.
This barrier can prevent cancer treatments from entering the brain, thereby hindering the action of drugs for brain tumours. 'We didn’t actually anticipate that this molecule would be able to treat brain tumours - that was a pleasant surprise,' said lead researcher Wafik El-Deiry, an oncologist at Pennsylvania State University.
Any method that will activate the body's natural immune system is a good thing; let's hope that this discovery can go from the lab, and mice trials, to human trails and eventual success as a treatment.

Pope To Resign: An AP article published in the Washington Post, says the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, announced his intentions to resign on February 28th, the first pope in 600 years to step down.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning. He emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope — the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide — requires “both strength of mind and body.”
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he told the cardinals. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.
“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
As a non-Catholic and non-Christian, I admittedly find it hard to understand what the fuss is all about; the pope after all is little more than a symbolic figurehead—a tired old man wearing ecclesiastical garb, who now wants peace and quiet in a monastery.

Here's a thought: Perhaps the next pope should be younger, no older than 70, giving him an opportunity to modernize the Catholic Church, including seeing it as necessary to improve its uneven relations with the Jewish community, seeing it as important to honestly and transparently deal with its continuing priests' scandal, and attempting to root out corruption that continues to plague the organization.

I wouldn't count on it, though: some powerful conservatives, who hold key positions in the organizational hierarchy, will find any change and a nod to modernity highly objectionable.

North Korea Conducts Third Nuclear Test: In an act of defiance, North Korea conducted a third nuclear test, which U.S. President Obama said was a "highly provocative act." An article in Ynet News taken from Reuters reports:
"The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community," Obama said in a statement issued early Tuesday. "The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies."

"We will strengthen close coordination with allies and partners and work with our Six-Party partners, the United Nations Security Council, and other UN member states to pursue firm action," he said. "These provocations do not make North Korea more secure," Obama said. "Far from achieving its stated goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, North Korea has instead increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery."

Earlier, North Korea confirmed that it successfully conducted a third nuclear test, saying it used a "miniaturized device" that had a greater explosive force than previous tests, the country's official news agency, KCNA, said. KCNA added that the test was conducted in a safe manner and was aimed at coping with "outrageous US hostility that violently undermines the North's peaceful, sovereign right to launch satellites."
I am not sure what the U.S. can do in this case; I suspect that China can do more. It will be interesting and important for China to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions, whatever these might be. As a regional and increasing global superpower, China has a moral obligation to do so. The next few weeks and months will be telling.

Women Arrested For Praying At Western Wall: An article, by Jodi Rudoren, in the New York Times reports that ten women were arrested for praying with traditional garb at Jerusalem's western wall, the site of the last temple. Rudoren writes:
Those detained were part of the group Women of the Wall, which has gathered each month for the past 24 years to protest the ultra-Orthodox insistence that only men may pray at the wall wearing traditional garb, a rule that has been backed by the Supreme Court. Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said the women were not charged with criminal offenses, but were barred from returning to the wall for 15 days. He said the women had been detained “as a result of them wearing the garments that they’re not allowed to wear specifically at that site.” He noted that despite the court ruling, “they decided to go down to that specific area.”
The dispute over prayer at the wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the ancient Temple Mount, has caused growing tensions in recent months between Jewish leaders in the United States and the Israeli government.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the site, said in an interview in November that the wall “is not a site for any kind of protest” and “not a place for the individual, where everyone can do what they want.” Of the women’s group, he said, “You can’t have everyone taking the law into their own hands.”
Women of the Wall has filed a lawsuit challenging the ultra-Orthodox dominance of the board that governs the holy site. In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency — a quasi-governmental body that handles immigration and works with the diaspora — to try to resolve the conflict.
Mr. Sharansky  has been handed a tough problem to solve, perhaps the toughest one of all. The clash between the women who want to pray how they will at the Wall and those who find such actions offensive reveals one of the greatest divisions the State of Israel faces. In this case, although I see the need for maintaining tradition, I side with the women. In this case, the law is out of date and an affront to western democracy.

Highly Prescribed Anti-Inflammatory Drug Poses Heart Risk: An article in CBC News says a highly prescribed and popular inflammatory drug (Diclofenacposes the same risks as another drug (Vioxx) that its manufacturer (Merck & Co) voluntarily removed from the consumer market in 2004; such drugs fall under the category of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or NSAIDs. The drug has been available in the UK since 1979.
Diclofenac is sold under a variety of brand names including Voltaren and is widely used for pain such as headaches, toothaches and arthritis. The pills are available with a prescription in Canada and over-the-counter elsewhere in the world. Writing in Tuesday's issue of the journal PLOS Medicine, published by the Public Library of Science, Dr. David Henry of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto ranked the cardiovascular risks and sales of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or NSAIDs, in 15 countries including Canada, Australia, China, Pakistan and Vietnam.
"This is a drug that has about the same risk of causing heart attacks as a drug called Vioxx, which was withdrawn from the market eight years ago because of this adverse effect," Henry, who is also a clinical pharmacologist, said in an interview with CBC News. "We believe there’s no advantage over safer drugs, and we believe it should be withdrawn from world markets."
Despite having an equivalent cardiovascular risk to Vioxx or rofecoxib, diclofenac remains popular in many countries, with more than a third of the market for NSAIDs worldwide and about 15 per cent in Canada, Henry said. Henry advised against diclofenac in favour of safer NSAIDs such as naproxen for people with risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol or a history of heart disease. For those who have a low risk of heart attacks, diclofenac does not increase the heart risks to any great degree.
It's likely that with such a peer-reviewed scientific study, the many manufacturers—the drug is off-patent and made by a number of companies—will eventually remove the drug from the market. If so, this shows that Big Pharma is not immune to public safety, notably if scientific studies show that a drug has notable and proven deleterious effects on a subset of the population. As an interesting side note, the drug was widely used for veterinary use, but was banned across southern Asia in 2006 after it was determined that vulture populations who fed on dead cattle died from its ingestion.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Corruption Destroys Democracy Like Cancer

Modern Civil Society

Transparency International recently came up with its latest edition of the least and most corrupt nations. There were no surprises. Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Sweden top the list as the least corrupt, most open, nations; Canada ranked ninth, the United Kingdom 17th and United States 19th—all admirable positions. At the bottom of the list were Somalia, North Korea and Afghanistan.

The title is an apt metaphor to describe the destructive powers of corruption and how it eats away at the institutions of democracy; corruption in all its forms—both small and large—does precisely what cancer does to the human body, and its effects are both wide-sweeping and all-encompassing. An individual, a society, a state that either ignores or abides corruption is a sick one, indeed. Corruption works best best when it is hidden; a free press is an enemy of corruption, and rightly so.

Corruption is theft by deceit and privilege; corruption is linked to poverty and unemployment; corruption aids no one save the few and some might argue not even them, since they earned it by dishonest means. In short, corruption is an offense to democracy and to all of its noble and outstanding principles. In short, corruption is an enemy of liberal democracy.

Nations that abide by corruption turn a blind eye to bribery and to public officials who accept and often encourage the giving of bribes in a "business as usual approach" This  practice is not only against the intentions of public bidding on government projects, but it often leads to shoddy work for public-works projects. Why bother doing a good job if you don't have to? The evidence is there. The "winner" has not won on merit but on bribery, corruption and "greasing the palms" of the right officials, hardly a recipe for a well-working democracy. (Even highly transparent democracies are not immune to corruption; consider the case of the Canadian province of Quebec and its construction scandal, resulting in the mayor of Montreal resigning; see herehere and here.)

That the nations on the bottom of the list suffer from all of the above ills and more are some of the reasons why they have not yet prospered as a nation; and prosperity here is given the widest latitude and meaning in that the vast majority of its citizens are fairly employed and have a faith in their government institutions. When the citizens of such nations don't have confidence in their government institutions—and can you expect otherwise?—then they will often see no need to follow laws that do not protect them. It's hardly a winning recipe for advancement; and like the victim of the metaphorical cancer, it dies a slow and agonizing death.


This article appeared in Perry J. Greenbaum (December 19, 2012).

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending February 9, 2013

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Coalition Talks Begin In Israel: An article, by Moran Azulay, in Ynet News says Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been given 28 days to form a coalition government.
Netanyahu, who was reelected on January 22, was recommended by the various party heads, as mandated by the formal political process in IsraelCurrently, the law affords Netanyahu 28 days to create the government. Should he find he is unable to do so, he may request a two-week extension from the president. Peres reserves the final say on approving such an extension and its length.
In Israel, where there are multiple political parties, each representing particular interests, coalitions are a way of life. There is much negotiation and promises. It is likely the next Netanyahu-led government will become more centralist, with the left holding more important portfolios in the government. Of course, that is a prediction based on the way the situation seems today; when it comes to Israel and its politics, however, all bets are off.

England's Richard III Unearthed: An article in BBC News says that King Richard III's remains have been unearthed in an old monastery's parking lot:
Richard was a royal prince until the death of his brother Edward IV in 1483. Appointed as protector of his nephew, Edward V, Richard instead assumed the reins of power. Edward and his brother, known as the Princes in the Tower, disappeared soon after. Rumours circulated they had been murdered on the orders of their uncle. Challenged by Henry Tudor, Richard was killed at Bosworth in 1485 after only two years on the throne.
He was given a low-key burial beneath in the church of Greyfriars in the centre of Leicester.But when this building was demolished in the 16th Century the exact location became uncertain and was eventually forgotten.
Despite this, a team of enthusiasts and historians traced the likely area - and, crucially, also found a 17th-generation descendant of Richard's sister with whose DNA they could compare any remains recovered. Genealogical research eventually led to a Canadian woman called Joy Ibsen. She died several years ago but her son, Michael, who now works in London, provided a sample.The researchers were fortunate as, while the DNA they were looking for was in all Joy Ibsen's offspring, it is only handed down through the female line and her only daughter has no children. The line was about to stop.
But the University of Leicester's experts had other problems. Dr Turi King, project geneticist, said there had been concern DNA in the bones would be too degraded: "The question was could we get a sample of DNA to work with, and I am extremely pleased to tell you that we could." She added: "There is a DNA match between the maternal DNA of the descendants of the family of Richard III and the skeletal remains we found at the Greyfriars dig.
This find has renewed interest, not only in Britain but elsewhere, in Britain's most controversial king, the last of the House of York and the last from the Plantagenet dynasty. [see here, here & here]. Much of the current narrative points out that "history is written by the victors," and that Shakespeare himself was "wrong" in his historical drama, likely beholden as he was to the Tudors. This will keep academics on the many sides of the debate busy for years.

New TB Vaccine Not effective in Infants; A new vaccine against TB, which initially showed much promise, has not proven effective for infants in the last phase of clinical trials, says an article, by David Brown, in the Washington Post: 
The study, reported online by the Lancet on Monday, was conducted in about 2,800 South African infants. Although the vaccine did not protect them, it might possibly benefit adolescents or adults. “We’re disappointed that the trial did not have a positive outcome,” said Tom Evans, a physician who heads Aeras, the nonprofit biotechnology company in Rockville that developed the vaccine. He added, “We can’t necessarily say this kind of vaccine is not going to be efficacious in another population.”
About a third of the dozen tuberculosis vaccines in human testing bear some biological resemblance to Aeras’s product, MVA85A. The study results are unlikely to stop work on the other “candidate” vaccines, at least immediately. Evans and others sought to put the best spin on the results. In a Lancet commentary, two experts said the study “presents the tuberculosis vaccine community with a serious challenge” but is “at last generating hard evidence about protection against tuberculosis.”
The experiment, run in the rural outskirts of Cape Town, produced data that were both detailed and unambiguous. That is an achievement in itself, Evans said. “We got a very clean answer that will help us move forward,” he said.
Aeras has six TB vaccines in clinical trials and a larger number in laboratory development.
About 8.7 million people became ill with tuberculosis in 2011, the latest year for which there are complete statistics, and 1.4 million died. The bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis is carried by about one-third of the globe’s population, according to some estimates. Transmission is usually through the air, with the organism infecting the lungs. In most people the infection is “latent,” controlled by the body’s immune defenses.
Although this news is disappointing and a setback to coming up with a viable and effective vaccine, this does not suggest that the vaccine in some form will not work for older children or adults. This would be a partial victory. Of course, it's important that an efficacious vaccine for infants eventually be developed—one that would help eradicate TB from the list of known diseases.

Remembering N.Y.'s Ed Koch: An article, by Adam Soclof, in JTA gives a thumbnail portrait of Ed Koch, who died on February 1; Koch is fondly remembered as the outspoken mayor of New York. Although I am not a New Yorker, the city resonates with me and I have memories of Mayor Koch. But he was also a well-known activist for Jewish causes:
Ed Koch died Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, the day a documentary about his life premiered in New York City. As JTA's Uriel Heilman and Ron Kampeas note in their obituary of the former mayor, Koch wasn't shy about being Jewish or sticking up for Israel and other Jewish causes —and that's how he wanted to be remembered :
Koch’s tombstone is engraved with his name, his years as mayor, the Shema prayer, and the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002, the same date Koch died: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish."
Koch's advocacy on Jewish issues started before his three terms as mayor, from 1977 to 1989. Below are excerpts of JTA’s coverage of Koch’s early political career:
  • 1969 As a member of the House of Representative, Koch is part of a delegation that meets with Golda Meir in New York.
  • 1971 In March, Koch introduces a bill to allot 30,000 visas for Soviet Jews. In October, after lobbying andparticipating in rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Koch withdraws his bill after Mitchell removes the quota.
  • 1972 Koch asks President Nixon to protest the U.N. Security Council over the treatment of Syrian Jews. In October -- one month after the murder of Israeli athletes at Munich and amid frozen diplomatic relations over the Six-Day War and a Jewish American held there for espionage -- the United States informs Syria that it will make visas available to Jews with relatives in the United States. Koch continues to rally for the cause.
  • 1974 In November, Koch protests against the U.S. decision to grant visas to PLO representative. In an unrelated development the following month, Koch alleges underworld ties at a nursing and old age home owned by New York Rabbi Bernard Bergman. The accused served eight months of a one-year prison sentence before his death in 1984.
Ed Koch was a man unlike the many cardboard cut-out leaders of today; he will be missed.

North Korea's Capitalists: It might sound strange for many, but North Korea has allowed capitalism to seep in, much like China did in the 1980s, So says an article in The Economist.
In the 1990s famine provided an opening for a new sort of North Korean trader. Many of them were smallholders, often women, selling vegetables grubbed up from the family plot. The facts are patchy, but it is becoming clear that other merchants operate today on a far more ambitious scale, exporting raw materials to China and bringing back consumer goods. The merchants use an informal system of money-changing to move funds in and out of the country. In the capital those with cash go to restaurants and play the slot machines. It sounds surreal, but they are the North’s nouveaux riches.
North Korea’s capitalists are here to stay. The regime has repeatedly tried to purge them, by suppressing the farmers’ markets and cracking down on smuggling. But money talks in today’s North Korea, and the traders often have enough cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Moreover, they have become an indispensable part of the economy. Industry functions so poorly that tower blocks in Pyongyang cannot be built without the imported supplies the merchants provide.
As in China, capitalism is letting in the outside world—a vital change for a people fed only grotesque lies. Corrupt border guards and security operatives can be bribed by people determined, for religious or political reasons, to get information in and out. The mobile phones, computers and radios that the traders sell are eroding the state’s monopoly on truth. Television shows and films smuggled in on memory sticks confront North Koreans with the potentially revolutionary fact that their brethren in the South live in comfort and plenty—and without the fear of a knock on the door at midnight. They discover that the Workers’ Utopia is built on a Great Lie.
And such is the way totalitarian states undo, from within, as ordinary people in great numbers lose faith in, and support for, the Big Lie. Many might find it hard to believe that North Korea will become capitalist; but then again many said the same about Russia and China 20 years ago. No one would suggest that both are democratic nations, but it's a start. North Korea's transformation to a marxist-capitalist hybrid, as is now the case in China, would go a long way to alleviating the poverty and famine now common in North Korea.