Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Change Of Views In Iran

Iran-Israel Relations


Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī of Iran [1919-1980], U.S. President Kennedy, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.at the White House, Cabinet Room, April 13, 1962.
During his tenure as leader, Mohammad Reza established good relations with both Israel and the United States; he ruled as a monarch from 1941 until 1979, when he was forced to leave when the Islamic Revolution gained power. His rule was a modernizing influence, although he crushed dissent, notably from Islamists and Communists. His achievements included modernizing the nation by nationalizing certain industries and granting women suffrage. His legacy has undergone transformation in the last few years, notably among Iranian expatriates, who now view him as a needed moderating influence.
Photo Credit: JFK Library, 1962
Source: Wikipedia


AAP article, by Nasser Karim, published in The Huffington Post says that potential presidential candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has stated that Iran is not at war with Israel, despite previous statements to the contrary made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Karim writes:
Iran’s influential former president says his country is not at war with archenemy Israel, the media reported Monday, in the latest departure by a high-profile politician from the strident anti-Israel line traditionally taken by many senior Iranian leaders. The remarks by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani follows calls from figures across the political spectrum to repair the damage to Iran’s international reputation they said had been caused by outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel a doomed state and questioned the extent of the Holocaust.
Several of them, including Rafsanjani, are considered possible contenders in June elections to replace Ahmadinejad as president. “We are not at war with Israel,” said the ex-president, quoted by several Iranian newspapers including the pro-reform Shargh daily. He said Iran would not initiate war against Israel, but “if Arab nations wage a war, then we would help.” Comments on Iran’s policies on Israel must tread a fine line. While it’s possible to question Ahmadinejad's remarks, it’s dangerous to be seen as contradicting Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has called Israel a “cancer” in the region.
The remarks are unable to herald any significant changes in Iranian policy, but may indicate the assessment of politicians that Ahmadinejad's particular brand of strident anti-Israel rhetoric may hurt him with many voters. Rafsanjani is considered a political centrist, attractive to some reformists but not a candidate who would challenge the dominance of the clerical establishment. He has not ruled out a run at the presidency himself, but is more likely to throw his considerable influence behind a center candidate and may be burnishing his moderate credentials.
Clerical conservatives, who once backed Ahmadinejad but turned on him after he challenged the authority Khamenei in 2011, also want to distance themselves from the president.
I disagree with this writer’s analysis that “the remarks are unable to herald any significant changes in Iranian policy.“ In a nation like Iran, airing such views does indeed send a signal to the international community that Iran wants to change its previous ill-advised course, and possibly establish some sort of (initially perhaps low-level) diplomatic relations with Israel. Such would be good news, both for the peoples of Iran and Israel, who I sense long for good diplomatic relations, increased trade with the west and better economic fortunes. There were diplomatic and trade relations between Israel and Iran from Israel's founding in 1948 until 1979, when Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, the shah (or king) was ousted in the Iranian Revolution.

In addition, and it now sounds far-fetched, this might be a start of Iran eventually establishing some sort of relations with the United States, which broke off after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis. There have been no official diplomatic relations between the two nations since April 7, 1980, when President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order. That is recent history, leading to 33 years of hostility between the two nations; but what happened before the situation escalated to what it has become today:

In an article (“The Dilemma of U.S.–Iran Relations”; Fall 2012) in The University of Virginia Magazine,  R.K. Ramazani, an Iranian by birth, writes in a first-person account of the long and deep ties between the two nations:
To resist imperialist pressures, the Iranian government established diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1883, and the Iranian parliament hired an American financial expert, Morgan Shuster, in 1911, to reform the foreign-dominated finances of the country. British and Russian machinations, however, compelled him to leave Iran. He wrote about his bitter experience in his 1912 book, The Strangling of Persia.
The situation could be reversed, the situation could be normalized, if the political will is present and doubts and fears can be overcome, no easy task to be sure. Even so, stranger things have happened, leaving all the political experts caught without an explanation for the significant and important change in views (think the collapse of the Soviet Union a little more than 20 years ago). Truly, this might be a harbinger of things to come.

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You can read the rest of the article at [The Huffington Post]

Lessons From France

Political Philosophy


Four principles of democracy common to western nations have allowed nations like Canada, the U.S., and western Europe and the British Commonwealth to achieve social and economic prosperity, at least to some degree, Lorna Salesman writes: “Putting aside ecological integrity for now, I believe they boil down into four categories: universal human rights; respect for international law; an accessible equitable justice system; non-violence except in the case of self-defense. Few countries, if any, can be said to possess or observe these to a satisfactory degree, but there is little doubt that some countries come closer than others, especially with regard to the treatment of their own citizens (as opposed to foreign countries).”



by Lorna Salzman

Bernard-Henri Levy, known as BHL in France, a French philosopher and theorist, wrote his book Left in Dark Times, not as a farewell but as a bereavement over the condition of the French and European left, which is now repeating, with Islam, its earlier egregious error of ignoring or rationalizing the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet Union. French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has also written powerfully about this moral capitulation of the left in Europe. In this country, except for Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman and Michael Berube, we still have not seen their equal in the broad intellectual community. The timidity of progressives is reprehensible. Into the void created by the moral absence of the left, the right has stepped in.

Levy still regards himself as a truer leftist than those who embrace post-modern Political Correctness, cultural relativism and the mandatory revulsion at the United States. His closest political allies end up being those usually associated with the right, which alone in the USA has taken on the task of confronting what he calls “Fascislam.” It is depressing to acknowledge that the defense of Enlightenment values and human rights comes today only from the right.

Contrary to the leftist notion of cultural relativism, moral philosophers, ethicists and political theorists do not appear to dispute the existence of universal moral principles. Religions have always asserted these but only as a means of social domination and retention of power. What are these principles?

Putting aside ecological integrity for now, I believe they boil down into four categories: universal human rights; respect for international law; an accessible equitable justice system; non-violence except in the case of self-defense. Few countries, if any, can be said to possess or observe these to a satisfactory degree, but there is little doubt that some countries come closer than others, especially with regard to the treatment of their own citizens (as opposed to foreign countries).

In the case of the USA, most of western Europe, and the British Commonwealth, the existence of one or more of these characteristics makes possible the existence or potential existence of the others. The American Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the Enlightenment, the advance of scientific inquiry and rationalism, the separation of religion from public life, gender equity to a large degree, accompanied by a sturdy legal system, have allowed western Europe and the USA to achieve a level of social and economic development unknown in most of the world. Whatever imperfections and malfunctions exist, they have not yet substantially weakened society. In fact, the continued emigration of foreigners from Asia, Africa, the middle east and Latin America to this country belies the leftist propaganda today, which persists in its absurd accusation that we are now living in a fascist state. Like its blind support for that fanatic terrorist group called Hamas , the American left is Clueless in Gaza (and elsewhere).

We tend to think that our own failures regarding Wall St. and the corporations will destroy our society. By themselves they will not. But there are external factors that capitalism and secular democracy have not yet included in their prospectus of America's future. These are two in number: the ecological crisis (including global warming, loss of biodiversity, and food and energy policy), and the threat from political Islam, or Islamic Jihad. The accelerated ecological threats and the subtle insinuation of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring groups such as CAIR and the Muslim Students' Association on behalf of Hamas and Hezbollah must be confronted and halted, using all necessary tools and laws at our disposal.

Where has the left failed?
  • Universal human rights: it still turns a blind eye to the enslavement and oppression of women in the Muslim world, to honor killings, to forced child marriage, to the deprivation of women in education and health, to domestic abuse, to the persecution of Muslim gays and the absence of civil liberties.It has aligned itself with right-wing anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, and while it opposes "offensive speech" that might disturb Muslims it has nothing to say about the steady growth of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence against individuals and buildings all over the world or the anti-Semitic propaganda broadcast as a matter of course by Muslim governments, educational institutions, mosques and media throughout the middle east, or the murder of Christians and the burning of Christian churches in Egypt and elsewhere. 
  • International law: instead of supporting the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, the left has supported the Muslim-controlled UN Human Rights Council which has made the rooting out and punishment of all critics of Islam its top priority, with Richard Falk as its hatchet man. The left had nothing to say about the UN HRC's shift from guaranteeing universal freedom of speech to its new witchhunt against anyone speaking ill of Islam.
  • Justice system: instead of pressing for international and global action to stop the persecution and murder by Arab Muslims of black minorities in Darfur, the left has created the myth that Sudan's problems are due to Zionists. In the former Yugoslavia, at the behest of apologists like Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark, it defended the fascist assassin Slobodan Milosevic and attacked NATO for bombing Serbia, which was killing Croats and Bosnian Muslims without cease. It has had no comment on the appointment by Pres. Obama of Scott Motian as special envoy to Pres. Bashir, the criminally indicted president of Sudan (!!!!).
  • Non-violence: while the left attacks the USA for its invasive foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it proudly defends the use of any and all means of resistance, armed and otherwise, on the part of the USA's adversaries, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. To underscore their support for Islamist terrorism, they wear shi'ite headscarves prominently at public rallies and propose (sometimes overtly, sometimes indirectly) the destruction of Israel and "Zionists", today's euphemism for Jews.
Until the left and its liberal allies acknowledge the overarching threats of the ecological crisis and Islamic Jihad to our society and the world at large, we will be focusing our attention on what are arguably the easiest parts of our society to change. As we hold our finger in the dike and hold our breath about the collapse of capitalism, the waters of eco-collapse and radical Islamism are rolling over the top.

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The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.


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Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Gun Violence In America: The Problem That Remains

Social Justice

Gun Deaths:  Garen Wintemute says in the article that America’s love affair with guns has changed little in the last 30 years: “Everything that was true of firearm violence in the early 1980s is still true today,” he says. “There is a fundamental injustice in violence. People don’t ask for it; it comes to them.”
Source: Nature News

An article, by Meredith Waldman, in Nature News says that despite the large number of deaths due to guns, there is little research done on the correlation between handguns and violence in America. One of the few researchers is Garen Wintemute, an emergency-room physician in san Francisco and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California (UC), Davis.

While gun-rights organizations like the NRA, and many others, have lots of money to advocate for their members, and lobby Congress, the federal government prohibits any agency from taking sides on the issue of gun control, even if the medical science supports tougher legislation. Waldman writes:
That has led to a striking imbalance in US medical research. Firearms accounted for more than 31,000 deaths in the United States in 2011 (see 'Gun deaths'). But fewer than 20 academics in the country study gun violence, and most of them are economists, criminologists or sociologists. Wintemute is one of just a few public-health experts devoted to this research, which he has funded through a mixture of grants and nearly US$1 million of personal money.
His undercover gun-show tactics have led him into situations where he feared for his safety, and they have also raised protests from some gun-rights advocates, who charge that Wintemute is more a biased campaigner than a researcher.
But even a few of his ideological opponents praise Wintemute's work. “Garen is one of the very best in terms of his research skills,” says David Kopel, the research director at the Independence Institute in Denver, Colorado, a think tank that supports gun-owners' rights.
And Wintemute, who is 61, makes no apologies for his passion or his methods. “I believe just as strongly as I can articulate in the value of free inquiry,” he says, “especially when the stakes are so high — when so many people are dying through no fault of their own; when so much of the country simply turns its back on this problem.”
Ignoring issues never makes them go away, as is the case with gun violence in America; with so few serious scientific studies, it becomes difficult to look at correlations. Still, if you look at the numbers in a rational way, you would question why it is acceptable that each year 31,000 individuals die as a result of death by gun, the majority self-inflicted death by suicide. It would be both rational and reasonable to at least have required background checks, to ensure that individuals who are mentally ill or who have a criminal record ought not have easy access to guns. Really, it's that simple.

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You can read the rest of the article at [Nature]

The Cancer Blog: Week 14

My Health


This blog within a blog will discuss cancer and all of my fears, hopes and expectations for a positive outcome—full and complete recovery. In addition, I plan to throw in some latest medical research. All cancer patients are interested, to some degree, in research and the latest medical findings; I am no exception. Today is Day 133  living with cancer.


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I thought it would be helpful to give what a day is like at a chemotherapy session; although this applies to Sunnybrook Health Science Centre’s Odette Cancer Centre, I suspect that all centres have similar protocols. This is what took place last Tuesday, April 23rd at my chemo session:

10:05 a.m.: I arrive at the reception desk to check in; the process takes a few minutes.

10:08 a.m: I go to get bloodworks, wait a few minutes and hear my name called.

10:12 a.m. Get my bloodworks done; the nurse removes the usual three vials from my left arm; she is exceptionally adept at it, and I feel very little pain when she inserts the needle. Of course, she does this all day.

10:14 a.m.: I walk across the hall and use another card to check in electronically at a kiosk to let the assessing nurse know that I have completed my bloodworks; it will take an hour for the tests to be ready and sent electronically to the nurse.

11:22 a.m: My number is called, and I see the nurse; she asks me the routine questions on how I am generally feeling, if I have lost weight; if I have an appetite; what my side effects are and whether these are manageable. I receive the go-ahead, and she gives me a pager to let me know when a bed or chair will be available for chemo treatment. The nurse then sends instructions to the on-site pharmacy dedicated to the cancer centre to prepare my chemo drugs. This process typically takes about one hour.

11:23 a.m. I take my anti-nausea medication (Ondansetronor Zofran®) in preparation for my chemo; I then go downstairs to the cafeteria to get some lunch. I order a delicious and healthy salad, filled with greens, fruit, olives, mushrooms, beets, sunflower seeds and a Asian sesame dressing. I sit down with a book I brought, in this case, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and eat and read.

12:11 p.m.: I finish eating and reading, and go upstairs and go outside yo get a breath of fresh air, I call my wife and briefly speak to her about what is happening.

12:22 p.m.: I return inside in anticipation of being called inside to one of the many chemo-treatment suites. i don't have to wait long; the chemo nurse calls my name 15 minutes later.

12:37 p.m.: I am called inside and am situated on a comfortable chair, where I receive a pillow and a heated blanket. I am then given three steroid pills and a glass of orange juice in preparation of my chemo treatment. There are four of us in all in this treatment suite; this time two men and two women.

12:42 p.m.: The chemo nurse attaches the needle to my port-a-cath, a poke through the skin; the pain is minor.

12:55 p.m. The chemo drugs arrive and she attaches three bags, two if which are the powerful drugs  oxaliplatin and fluorouracil, and one a bag of dextrose. The bags are attached to a double-infusion pump set at 158 mL/min, which means that I will be sitting in the chair for approx. two hours-a typical treatment time.

12:55 p.m. to 2: 45 p.m.: I spend the next two hours talking to other patients and reading my book, and writing a few notes for upcoming blog posts.

2:55 p.m: This chemo session is over; the nurse removes the tubes from my port, does a heparin flush and then connects another bottle of chemo drugs ( 230 mL of fluorouracil), that provides a slow infusion over a period of 46 hours. I will have this bottle, the size of a baby bottle, with me for two days, until Thursday. I carry it in my left pants pocket.

3:05 p.m.: I go to the pharmacy to pick up my two take-home medications:  1) 4 pills of Ondansetronor Zofran®) and 2) 6 pills of Dexamethasone (or Decadron®); I have to take the first for two days, every 12 hours; and he second for three days, also every 12 hours, with meals. I hand over $4; now that my deductible has been reached, Ontario’s Trillium Program pays the rest.

3:15 p.m.: A little more than five hours after arriving at the cancer centre,  I step outside through the main doors to the parking lot to retrieve my car. I was feeling good until I stepped outside into the chilled wind (about 4°C). In my short walk to the parking lot, no more than a few hundred metres, my throat constricted and I had trouble breathing. I still have to pay for my parking ($23) at the parking kiosk, which I do.

For what Dr. Chan, my oncologist, had told me this was one of the side effects; cold air is bad for me. I make it to the car, turn on the heat, and within a few minutes I am feeling better, but exhausted. Now I know how asthma patients and others with respiratory diseases feel, gasping for air. It's unpleasing to say the least. I am OK, but tired.

3:45 p.m.: I arrive home, tired and but happy to see my bed to take a nap before supper; I don't yet have much of an appetite, but I eat to ensure my weight doesn’t dip. It is now ranges between 65 kg (143 lbs) and 67 kg (147 lbs); my baseline weight is 71 kg (156 lbs), I sense that I will not recover that lost four to six kilograms until after my chemo sessions are completed.

5:00 p.m.: I decide to wear a scarf when I go outside to cover my neck, along with leather gloves a leather jacket and sunglasses to protect my eyes from the sun, the scarf and gloves a necessity at least until the temperature hits 20°C. I somehow feel like the great late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, but without the musical talent.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

New Hepatitis C Drug Nears Regulatory Approval

Advanced Drugs

Hepatitis C Infections in the U.S.: As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: “With an estimated 3.2 million chronically infected persons nationwide, HCV infection is the most common blood-borne infection in the United States.”
Image Credit: CDC; 2009
Source: Wikipedia

An article, by Beth Mole, in Nature News says that a new drug to combat Hepatitis C is near regulatory approval, having sailed through initial Phase III clinical trials.

Mole writes:
Sofosbuvir, a new antiviral developed by Gilead Sciences of Foster City, California, is one of several drugs in the pipeline that could replace hepatitis C treatments that incorporate the immune-boosting drug interferon, which can cause harsh side effects including depression, anaemia and severe flu-like symptoms. Up to 170 million people worldwide are infected with blood-borne hepatitis C virus (HCV), including as many as 4 million people in the United States. Long-term exposure to the virus can cause chronic liver disease and cancer. Current therapies that combine the antiviral drug ribavirin and interferon cure up to 75% of those treated, but take as long as a year to do so.
Facing a lengthy drug regimen that can produce debilitating side effects, many patients — who may not develop liver damage for years — delay or refuse treatment. And with the promise of better drugs on the way, some doctors approve waiting.
The two papers published today suggest that the wait for improved hepatitis C treatment regimens may be coming to an end. Researchers led by Ira Jacobson of Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York report that a combination of sofosbuvir and ribavirin cured up to 78% of trial participants infected with two types of HCV — genotypes 2 and 3 — in as few as three months, without the need for interferon. That result is similar to outcomes from earlier phase II trials. Another team, led by Eric Lawitz of the Texas Liver Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, showed that a combination of sofosbuvir, ribavirin and interferon cured up to 90% of patients with HCV genotype 1, the most common variety.
The World Health Organization reports that although hepatitis C is found worldwide, “countries with high rates of chronic infection are Egypt (15%), Pakistan (4.8%) and China (3.2%). The main mode of transmission in these countries is attributed to unsafe injections using contaminated equipment.” About 350,000 people die every year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases such as cirrhosis and cancer..

A quicker cure is better than a longer one, notably if its side effects are kept to a minimal; and if this drug can reduce the time by one-third, to as little as a few months, so much better for patients and doctors alike. A long therapy regime, lasting a year, can deter patients from going ahead in the first place. If this drug proves as effective as the initial results show, it will should go a long way to both reducing and curing Hepatitis C.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NatureNews]

Criminal Bumblebees

Bee Behaviour

An article in The Economist says that there exist some bumblebees that act as criminals, stealing nectar from flowering plants without giving anything in return, namely, without pollinating the flower
Nectar robbery, in which a bumblebee carves a hole in the side of a flower as a bank robber might cut his way into a vault, was discovered by Charles Darwin. This technique lets bees get at the nectar of flowers whose shapes have evolved to encourage their pollination by insects with long tongues, which can reach down narrow tubes.
Some bumblebees do have such tongues. But some do not. Short-tongued bees are, however, unwilling to deny themselves the bounty of nectar inside these flowers. Hence the hole-cutting. By breaking in in this way, though, a bumblebee nullifies the 100m-year-old pact between flowering plants and insects: that the plant feeds the insect in exchange for the insect pollinating the plant.
The question about nectar robbery that has intrigued biologists from Darwin onwards is whether the behaviour is innate or learnt. Darwin, though he originated the idea that many behaviour patterns are products of evolution by natural selection, suspected that it is learnt. Insects, in other words, can copy what other insects get up to. Only now, though, has somebody proved that this is true.
The observations were made by David Goulson (then at the University of Stirling, now at the University of Sussex), and his colleagues. To test his ideas he had to go from Britain to Switzerland, for only there could he find a flower of the correct shape to conduct the study.
His crucial observation was that when the flowers of an alpine plant called the yellow rattle are robbed, the entry holes—because of the structure of the flower—tend to be unambiguously on either the right-hand side or the left-hand side. Moreover, preliminary observation suggested that the holes in flowers in a single meadow are often all made on the same side. This led him to speculate that bumblebees in a particular area do indeed learn the art of nectar robbery from one another, and then copy the technique with such fidelity that they always attack a flower from the same side.
This is an interesting finding in that it shows that such behaviour is passed on to other bees, who learn how to essentially get something for free. This type of thinking and action is, of course, common to many humans, who often show little hesitation or moral qualms in taking and not giving anything back in return, even though they gain the sweet nectar of the gods.

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You can read the rest of the article at [The Economist]

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Long Road To Recovery For Boston Terror Victims

Personal Trauma


Ryan McMahon: The 33-year-old, says the NYT, “fractured her back and broke both wrists
in the panicked moments after the Boston Marathon bombings.”
Photo Credit: Katherine Taylor; The New York Times
Source: NYT

Here is a good article, by Abby Goodnough and Jess Bidgood, in The New York Times on the state of mind and the road to recovery of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15th.

 Goodnough and Bidggod write:
Thirty-one victims remained hospitalized at the city’s trauma centers on Thursday, including some who lost legs or feet. Sixteen people had limbs blown off in the blasts or amputated afterward, ranging in age from 7 to 71. But in a way, their cases are the simpler ones, said Dr. David King, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital.
For some whose limbs were preserved, Dr. King said, the wounds were so littered with debris that five or six operations have been needed to decontaminate them. “The idea is to spread out the physiological stress over multiple operations,” he said.
Some of the wounded also still need surgery to repair bones, veins and nerves. Many will need physical therapy as well. About 10 patients have already arrived at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, said Timothy Sullivan, a spokesman, and that number could soon double. For many of the wounded, managing pain is a constant challenge. Dr. Alok Gupta, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said the hospital was giving patients oral and intravenous narcotics and, where possible, regional nerve blocks using catheters.
Dr. King said that for those who lost limbs, so-called phantom pain — which feels as if it is coming from the body part that is no longer there — can be excruciating and particularly hard to treat. “You have to balance between taking the pain away,” he said, “and them being interactive and able to participate in their own rehabilitation.”
The ailments are not just physical. Some patients are upbeat, doctors said, but others are angry, anxious and depressed.
While there has been a lot of commentary and speculation of root causes, necessary to a degree to provide closure, it is now important to shift the media spotlight and offer encouragement to the victims. None of the victims of the terror attack deserve their fate; all are innocent individuals of a cruel and inhumane act. I wish them all a good and lasting recovery, and all the support, whether financial, mental or emotional.

As the NYT's article says about one of the victims, Ryan McMahon and her initial views almost two weeks ago: “I just saw everyone coming in, and that was really hard,” she said, adding that the sight of other patients arriving covered with blood and without limbs has been much more difficult to process than her own injuries. “Every once in a while, I just kind of break down and think about the whole big picture of it, just focusing on other people.”

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You can read the rest of the article at [NYT]

World Thinkers 2013: The Economist Speaks

Thinking Aloud



World's Public Intellectuals: (left to right): Ashraf Ghani, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker.
The Economist writes: “Most striking of all is the lack of women at the top of this year’s list, which
numbers 65. The highest-placed woman in this year’s poll, at number 15, is Arundhati Roy, who
has become a prominent left-wing critic of inequalities and injustice in modern India since the
publication of her novel The God of Small Things over a decade ago.”
Photo Credit: ©US Embassy, Kabul; © Rex Features
Source: The Economist


An article in The Economist has come up with a list of the top-ten thinkers of 2013, whose ideas on humanity, religion, poverty and public economic policy have become well-known; whether they are accepted, particularly by world governments and the masses of people within the global community, is another matter altogether.

Each of these public intellectauls, from Richard Dawkins, to Paul Krugman, to Steven Pinker to Daniel Kahnemann, have contributed ideas that often challenge conventional thinking, through thoughtful rational arguments that offer nsights in bettering the human condition.

Here are a few of the thinkers on The Economist's list of ten:
1. Richard DawkinsWhen Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.
2. Ashraf GhaniFew academics get the chance to put their ideas into practice. But after decades of research into building states at Columbia, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, followed by a stint at the World Bank, Ashraf Ghani returned to his native Afghanistan to do just that. He served as the country’s finance minister and advised the UN on the transfer of power to the Afghans. He is now in charge of the Afghan Transition Coordination Commission and the Institute for State Effectiveness, applying his experience in Afghanistan elsewhere. He is already looking beyond the current crisis in Syria, raising important questions about what kind of state it will eventually become.
3. Steven PinkerLong admired for his work on language and cognition, the latest book by the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was a panoramic sweep through history. Marshalling a huge range of evidence, Pinker argued that humanity has become less violent over time. As with Pinker’s previous books, it sparked fierce debate. Whether writing about evolutionary psychology, linguistics or history, what unites Pinker’s work is a fascination with human nature and an enthusiasm for sharing new discoveries in accessible, elegant prose.
The top-three women on the list are Arundhati Roy, novelist, at 15; Martha Nussbaum, philosopher, at 19; and Anne Applebaum, journalist, at 24. I have read the writings of all three of these women, and their contribution to the world of ideas is outstanding.

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You can read the rest of the article at [The Economist]


Friday, April 26, 2013

Re-Energizing South Africa’s Slums

Energy & Poverty

IMG_1660[1]
Energy Needs: Khayelitsha, a community outside Cape Town, corrugated housing is the norm;
as is access to affordable energy.
Photo Credit: Saleem H. Ali
Source: NatGeo





An article, by Saleem Ali, in National Geographic says that South Africa’s slums have come up with innovative ways to provide affordable housing and provide cheap energy to its inhabitants, the majority residing in corrugated shacks with make-shift energy connections.
The sweeping slums of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town are a stark reminder of the endemic inequality that continues to haunt South Africa almost twenty years since the end of apartheid. Here we find around half a million people living in a sea of shacks that are often associated with urban blight across the developing world. Yet, the sight of these shelters made of corrugated steel and wood in an informal settlement should not necessarily evoke fatalism about this land. The typical South African shack is a versatile piece of simple engineering that only costs around $400 to buy and meets the basic needs of shelter for its residents. Nevertheless, the government recognizes the need for providing more stable housing through its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which has provided around 3 million homes to South Africans since the end of apartheid.
Those living in the shacks on less than an inflation-adjusted amount per month are entitled to apply for RDP housing, though the waiting period can be as much as 10 years. Unlike high-rise low-income housing in China, the demand in South Africa is to have a small tract of land and a hut as the residence. Human ingenuity and resilience beams through through many residents in these areas as they traverse their life journeys from shacks to RDP huts.
The energy landscape of Khayelitsha. Photograph by Saleem H. AliDuring a recent visit to Khayelitsha, while tutoring an advanced social management course (in collaboration with Cambridge University’s Sustainability Leadership Programme), I witnessed entrepreneurship in many forms that gives me renewed hope about South Africa’s development path in these settlements. At the heart of such a development trajectory is access to electricity which would allow for safe lighting; computing; and consequently opportunities for small businesses to flourish.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the informal settlements in South Africa’s urban periphery do have government control in terms of basic energy access infrastructure and some level of sanitation and waste management provisions. The power utility has provided small metered boxes for prepaid electricity credit to these shack-dwellers, and unlike most slum areas of India or Brazil, the power is largely paid for by the destitute customers as well. However, these utility connections are by no means adequate for the population density and people are forced to be creative in finding ways to serve their needs. The slum dwellers of Khayelitsha have come up with an informal market for electricity and share connections between homes which have a connection and those which do not. There are entrepreneurs who are selling small solar-powered lighting with battery packs through organizations such as the Micro Energy Alliance.
By western standards, such housing conditions might be considered primitive; and yet I remember driving around part of rural Alabama in the American south during the late 1990s and  was struck by seeing corrugated housing similar to what the photo above depicts of South Africa and the community of Khayelitsha. I am not sure if these Alabaman residents had running water and electrical connections.

The link between cheap affordable energy and reducing poverty is well known .Perhaps things have changed for such residents of the American south as they are slowly changing, through personal innovation and good will, in South Africa.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NatGeo]

A Cry For Help

Modern Living


Those who do not weep, do not see.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables 

If someone made a cry for help in a modern urban centre, would anyone hear it? Would anyone care? Would anyone act? I suggest that the answer is generally a disappointing “no,” respecting the individual’s personal space and giving him or her distance. Most individuals say they would, or might, but it is likely that most would fail to act, for various reasons. Thought in this case does not translate to action. The only exception is when large crowds amass at a public event or space, and see a need to respond to a terrible incident, as was the recent case of the Boston bombings on April 15th.

Yet, on the individual level, things are greatly different. A cry is a signal that something is wrong; a baby communicates by crying, signaling it has some unmet need. Parents rush to the baby, seeing what it needs; this is both natural and normal. When adults cry figuratively, which is the case I was laying out here, the response from other adults differs from that in response to an infant. Adults are supposed to be mature, responsible and take care of their own needs. It’s part of being independent, conventional thinking says.

Does that mean that adults should never ask (cry out) for help? You can but don’t expect any response. For the most part you are alone; you might get advice—it's freely offered—and criticism that your actions do not meet their expectations. After all, it's about meeting expectations. Sadly, the answer in today's modern society is indifference, a shift from the progressive ideas of empathy and social cohesion. The crude American expression, “Man Up” explains much. A favourite of conservatives, retrogrades and others who want to return to the good ’ol days of the 1950s. Life was simpler. Perhaps for some people—certainly not for many.

My own experience—a small sample, it’s true, bears this out. “If you are suffering, Man Up and do something about it.” What a beautiful world we live in.  The ’50s are back with a vengeance with the introduction of narrow and restrictive retrograde policies common to the thinking of both social and economic conservatives. It’s the willful and consistent destruction of The Social Contract—a processs that started thirty or so years ago, much to the detriment of social peace and social cohesion. Such policies will not last, but for now they continue to damage the very fundamentals of democracy in many, if not all, democracies, including the United States and my own nation of Canada.

So, this leads to a thought: what if it’s not an individual that is crying out, but an institution, a nation that has been good to its citizens for long. Short note: Democracy in America is crying out for help; it is a mature adult, almost 237 years old, but it is tired of defending itself against relentless attacks, mostly from within. What are you, we, going to do about it?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cancer Researchers & Doctors Ought To Use Personal Genomic Sequencing To Better Odds Of Success

Advances In Medicine


Gerald Batist, an oncologist at McGill University says that single-subject, or “n-of-1” cases are now more typical, and require further analysis: “If you talk to any oncologist, they’ll tell you about an unusual case or two like this. It’s time for us to stop just collecting anecdotes and dive deeper.”
Photo Credit: Claudio Calligris
Source: Nature News

An article, by Heidi Ledford, in Nature News says that medical oncologists might have more success with cancer therapies if they start relying on personal genomics; the thinking goes against prevailing ideas that one drug regime fits the needs of all cancer patients, or even of particular cancers such as colon or breast cancer. General clinical trials often don't tell the complete story, because they are general, statistical approach to predict viability.

Ledford writes about an exceptional case:

By all rights, Gerald Batist’s patient should have died nine years ago. Her pancreatic cancer failed to flinch in the face of the standard arsenal — surgery, radiation, chemotherapy — and Batist, an oncologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, estimated that she had one year to live. With treatment options dwindling, he enrolled her in a clinical trial of a hot new class of drugs called farnesyltransferase inhibitors. Animal tests had suggested that the drugs had the potential to defeat some of the deadliest cancers, and pharmaceutical firms were racing to be the first to bring such compounds to market.
But the drugs flopped in clinical trials. Companies abandoned the inhibitors — one of the biggest heartbreaks in cancer research over the past decade. For Batist’s patient, however, the drugs were anything but disappointing. Her tumours were resolved; now, a decade later, she remains cancer free. And Batist hopes that he may soon find out why.
The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, is recruiting stories, tissue samples and clinical data from up to 200 such ‘exceptional responders’ to learn why these patients benefited from drugs that failed most others. The effort is part of a larger push among cancer researchers to focus on single-subject, or ‘n-of-1’, studies that could offer new insights into the disease. The tactic initially met with resistance, says Charles Sawyers, a cancer researcher at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and an advocate of the approach. “It’s in vogue to talk about your n-of-1 study now,” he says. “But when I was in medical school this was called an anecdote — and it was a bad word.”
 Embracing outliers
Since then, however, cancer-genome sequencing has forced researchers to reckon with the profound complexity of the disease. No two tumours are alike. Each has a web of mutations — typically numbering well into the thousands — that is as unique as a snowflake. Within these gnarled networks could lurk molecular signatures that reveal ways to target tumours, hidden hints for avoiding drug resistance and markers that could indicate which patients would respond to a given therapy. “This is a real treasure trove of data that has just been ignored,” says James Doroshow, deputy director for clinical and translational research at the NCI.
This is indeed the future; and the very near future, to be precise, because it is both effective and prolongs lifespans. I can see why large pharmaceutical companies might not like this approach; they method is to conduct large clinical trails, with the aim of receiving regulatory approval, which means that the drug is both safe and generally effective for all classes of individuals, and not in particular cases only. It's a statistical approach, and a general regulatory approval is better for business.

And, yet I see a future where personal genome sequencing—not only a statistical approach— will become normative and large drug companies, unless they change, will become dispensers of general, everyday drugs such as pain killers and not become innovators. This might open a market for small, nimble biotech genomic companies that can quickly serve the immediate needs of both patients and doctors.

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You can read the rest of the article in [Nature News]

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Taiwan Researchers Identify 8 Genes That Can Predict Likelihood Of Cancer Survival After Chemo Treatment

Cancer Therapy

An article in BioMed Central, an open-access journal, says that researchers in Taiwan have identified eight genes that can accurately predict if cancer patients will survive chemotherapy, or in other words continue on to a relapse-free life:
Researchers from Academia Sinica and the National Taiwan University College of Medicine first identified genes that were involved in cellular invasion, a property of many cancer cells, using the National Cancer Institute’s 60 human cancer cell line panel (NCI-60). Comparing the pattern of activation of each of these genes in different cell lines with how these cell lines responded to 99 different anti-cancer drugs, helped narrow down the list of genes to just those which could potentially influence the outcome of chemotherapy.
Testing this link, Prof Ker-Chau Li, from Academia Sinica and UCLA, commented, “Our study found eight genes which were involved in invasion, and the relative activation of these genes correlated to chemotherapy outcome, including the receptor for growth factor EGF. We also found that some invasion genes had unique patterns of expression that reflect the differential cell responses to each of the chemotherapy agents - five drugs (paclitaxel, docetaxel, erlotinib, everolimus and dasatinib) had the greatest effect.”

When the researchers looked at gene expression data of these eight genes from cancer cell lines they found that there was an obvious difference between cells which responded to chemotherapy and those who did not (albeit with some overlap). In clinical studies, looking at lung and breast cancer, the patients, whose gene signature put them in the low-risk group, had a longer relapse free survival than the high-risk group.

Prof Pan-Chyr Yang of National Taiwan University added, “The discovery of prognostic biomarkers for chemotherapy patients remains critical toward improving the efficacy of cancer treatment. The eight-gene signature obtained here may help choice of treatment as part of individualized cancer therapy and our method of gene discovery may be applicable in studying other cancers.”
This is an excellent finding, which will lead to better cancer therapy. Equally important, this makes the case for personal genomic sequencing. Targeted therapy is the future, and will come about shortly. When the costs become more affordable, to the level of $1,000, individuals can have their DNA decoded and the information interpreted (at an additional cost) and digitalized for delivery to a health-care provider as needed.

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You can read the rest of the article at [BMC Medicine]

Fitting In

Modern Schools

I often drive my 11-year-old son to school; before he exits the car to walk into the schoolyard, to beyond the metal fence common to so many schools built during a certain period, we talk for a bit in the car. During once recent conversation, he explained why he didn't want to be known as an exceptional student. “Then, kids would think I’m weird; Dad, I want to fit it; I want to have friends; you said that friends are important.”

That I did.  My son then told a story how one particularly bright girl conformed to that idea, and all the kids thought her “weird.” Time was running out, and the first bell was about to ring. I quickly explained how the three ideas: 1) working hard and liking school and 2) being accepted for yourself; and 3) making and keeping friends were not mutually exclusive. He listened, shrugged his shoulders, and said “I have to go.”

As he walked off into the gates of the elementary school, I shouted, “we'll continue this discussion later.”

And we will; it will likely be a continuing dialogue for the next decade. And yet this conversation raised questions in my mind. Am I so out of touch with modern schools, modern psychology, modern thinking that I am giving the wrong advice to my son?  Is conformity and fitting in more important than educational excellence? than academic success? than the establishment of an unique identity?

My son undoutedly knows more about the needs of today's young people than I do. Fitting in first; individual identity later. Such is today’s culture.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Boston Bombings: A Pointless Act Of Evil

Irrational Behaviour


There is currently a lot of media and political focus on the Boston bombings and its root causes; this is both normal and expected. But, as horrible as it is to America and Americans, such acts of terror and violence have become normative in many other nations. Sadly and predictably so, and they serve no purpose whatsoever, George Jochnowitz writes: “On the same day, bombs went off in Baghdad killing civilians. Although they seem to have been provoked by forthcoming elections in Iraq, there is no way the bombs could have accomplished anything. They were purposeless. Similar purposeless, murderous bombs go off frequently in marketplaces and mosques not only in Iraq but in Pakistan, and elsewhere. They are typically suicide bombings. The perpetrators kill themselves in order to kill others, often others of different Islamic denominations. By doing so, they are not aiding their own denominations in any imaginable way. They are killing themselves and others because they believe it is virtuous to die while killing one’s supposed enemies."

There is no way the bombs could have accomplished anything. They were purposeless. Similar purposeless, murderous bombs go off frequently in marketplaces and mosques not only in Iraq but in Pakistan, and elsewhere.

On April 15, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They served no purpose whatsoever. Investigators are wondering about the Chechen ancestry of the Tsarnaev brothers, but the struggle for Chechen independence could in no way have been aided by bombing runners and spectators in the Boston Marathon.

There is some talk about the brothers’ trip to Russia, but again, Russia had nothing to gain from killing and wounding civilians in Boston. As time goes on, we may possibly learn more about what the perpetrators were thinking, but even if we do, their actions could not have helped any cause on any side of any issue.

On the same day, bombs went off in Baghdad killing civilians. Although they seem to have been provoked by forthcoming elections in Iraq, there is no way the bombs could have accomplished anything. They were purposeless. Similar purposeless, murderous bombs go off frequently in marketplaces and mosques not only in Iraq but in Pakistan, and elsewhere. They are typically suicide bombings. The perpetrators kill themselves in order to kill others, often others of different Islamic denominations. By doing so, they are not aiding their own denominations in any imaginable way. They are killing themselves and others because they believe it is virtuous to die while killing one’s supposed enemies.

We typically think of evil as the result of jealously, greed, conflict of interest, struggles for independence, disputes over territory, and other such reasons. All of these factors have led to evil.

But the greatest of all evils are utterly pointless. Hitler, perhaps the most evil human being who ever lived, decided it was his job to rid the world of Jewish genes. What did he think he was accomplishing? The Jews of Germany were assimilated, productive, loyal citizens. Some of them were scientists. Even before Hitler knew that he would need such people to help him construct a nuclear weapon, he knew that scientists were useful to a nation and its military power. He didn’t care.

Hitler also knew that many of Germany’s musicians were Jews. He was a passionate music lover. In all likelihood, Hitler’s favorite composer would have been Mahler, since he loved Bruckner, Wagner, Richard Strauss and other composers whose styles resembled Mahler’s. Hitler didn’t care. He was determined to kill Jews. Many of the scientists and musicians were able to flee. Among those who fled were Enrico Fermi, who was not Jewish but was married to a Jewish woman, which made him Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws. Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, atomic scientists who were Hungarian Jews, also managed to get out of Europe. Together with Albert Einstein, another German Jew, they created the atomic bomb.

Would Hitler have not tried to exterminate Jews had he known that he was forcing atomic scientists to work for his enemies? Of course not. He was utterly selfless.

Chairman Mao created the greatest famine in human history by asking peasants to melt their tools in backyard furnaces so that they could provide steel for weapons. The steel turned out to be totally useless. This may have been simple stupidity rather than pointless evil. However, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao closed the high schools and colleges, and declared that intellectuals, including high-school teachers were the chou lao jiu (stinking ninth category). Members of this category were sent to live in the countryside so that they could learn from the peasants. Since there was no place for them to sleep, they lived with the pigs and other animals, whom they hugged in winter in order to keep warm at night. Many died.

China has since restored its schools and gone back to honoring learning, but Mao’s action set China back for many years. The Cultural Revolution was another act that could not possibly have served any purpose.

Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, emptied cities in his attempt to create a classless society. The number of deaths he caused is not known, but it was enormous. He too was acting selflessly and causing incredible damage for no purpose whatsoever. Monarchs of the Kim Dynasty in North Korea never went quite so far, but they too enforced laws leading to repeated famines in their country—again, for no logical reason.

Hamas periodically aims rockets at Israeli towns. The rockets are not too effective, but they do kill some of the innocent civilians that they are aimed at. To defend itself, Israel has on occasion sent its soldiers into Gaza to stop the rockets. The invasions lead to casualties, of course. If Hamas did not insist on launching rockets, there might have been an independent Palestinian state by now. Hamas doesn’t care. Its members are totally selfless. They too must pursue their evil policies even though there is nothing they could possibly gain.

If only these evil doers could be bribed!

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay originally appeared in Arutz Sheva: April 22, 2013. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Asking Some Questions In Boston

Acts of Terror

The world has witnessed one sure and steadfast truth: Americans refuse to be terrorized. Ultimately, that's what we'll remember from this week. That's what will remain. Stories of heroism and kindness, resolve and resilience, generosity and love.

U.S. President Barack Obama

Last week was a difficult one for residents of Boston. First, the bombing at the Boston Marathon and then the acts of violence that followed in the quiet suburb of Watertown have left residents of Boston feeling shock and numbness. Understandably so. These are indeed heinous actions, whose perpetrators acted with evil intent, with no motive or purpose other than to cause terror. News analysts, moderators and political leaders will ask why this happened. This is both necessary and important to obtain some resolution to what is considered an abnormal event.

While there are no shortage of possible answers for this unique act of terror, one of many that occur daily in the world, there are some general answers: terrorists are individuals or individual within groups who believe in the need to use violence to get their message across, whatever that might be. Such people have no regard for human life; they have lost all sense of humanity. This much is clear.

In the next days and weeks, there will be many articles looking at the background of these two young men, Tamerlan Tsarneav, 26 and his younger brother, Dzhokar A. Tsarnaev, 19. There will be questions on whether they held Islamist views and whether they were financed by third parties, notably, by al-Qaeda inspired groups. They will question whether they were radicalized in America. The articles will look at whether the war in Chechnya influenced their thinking, their actions. Other articles will examine their life in America, their schooling, their friendships and what are called cultural values, and how they did or did not adapt to American values. How one or both became nihilists is not yet clear, as is how much influence the older brother had on the younger, pulling him into his boiling cauldron of hate and violence. Some or all of these factors might be relevant.

And yet many of the articles will get it wrong, looking for simplicity in what is really full of complexity; human lives and what informs our thinking and actions cannot easily be dissected and layed out in a short article, or even in a long essay. It may well be that the actions of these two young men were motivated by visceral, personal reasons, and not ideological or religious ones. It could be that they acted completely independent of radical groups. Or not. We don't know and that bothers us. We want closure.

The answers will come, but I suspect not easily. It might be important to ask some pointed questions. We don't yet know what compelled these two brothers, seemingly normal in many respects, to commit acts of violence against their adopted land. Such questions need asking against a broader background where the U.S. Senate could not pass simple and reasonable gun-control legislation and where a culture of violence is prevalent and implicitly endorsed by too many people. Also implicit in the analysis of root causes is the difficulty that many immigrants face coming from another land and culture. It is called a sense of belonging.

None of this, of course, excuses or exonerates their actions. It never could.

While I agree with President Obama's sentiments on the resolve and kindness of America and of Americans, it still remains that the residents of Boston and of the United States need to address these questions, as painful as these might be. Ignoring these tough questions will not make them go away.

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Here are some of the better articles:

1. The Boston Bombers Were Muslim, So? (The Atlantic: April 19)

2. Bombing Inquiry Turns To Motive and Russian Trip (New York Times: April 20)

3. Suspect With Foots in 2 Worlds, Perhaps Echoing Plots of the Past (New York Times: April 20)

4. ‘If you did it, explain yourself’: Canadian aunt says Boston Marathon bombing suspects had no motive (National Post; April 20)

5. Boston Bombing Suspects Raise New Terrorism Questions (National Geographic; April 20)

6. Chechnya and the bombs in Boston (The Economist; April 20)


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Monday, April 22, 2013

The Aims Of Personal Genome Sequencing For All

Advanced Medicine

An article, by Amemona Hartocollis, in The New York Times says major medical facilities in the United States are racing to build large cancer centres, armed with the latest computer technologies, which can sequence individual patient's genomes; one of the aims is to provide better, more directed cancer care.
Major academic medical centers in New York and around the country are spending and recruiting heavily in what has become an arms race within the war on cancer. The investments are based on the belief that the medical establishment is moving toward the routine sequencing of every patient’s genome in the quest for “precision medicine,” a course for prevention and treatment based on the special, even unique characteristics of the patient’s genes.
Among other projects, Harvard Medical School has its Center for Biomedical Informatics, which among a broad array of approaches uses mathematical modeling to predict when genetic information could lead to more effective treatment. Phoenix Children’s Hospital opened the Ronald A. Matricaria Institute of Molecular Medicine in December, recruiting researchers from Los Angeles and Baltimore and planning to sequence the genomes of 30 percent of their childhood cancer patients in their search for better therapies.
Johns Hopkins, with its focus on public health, wants to develop a “systematic genomic sequencing program” over the next two years that will combine genomic analysis with a patient’s environmental exposure, family history and other factors to support preventive medicine, said Scott Zeger, vice provost for research.
“There will be a moment in time when whole genome sequencing becomes ubiquitous throughout health care,” said Peter Tonellato, director of the Harvard personalized medicine lab and a clinical investigator in pathology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “Let’s say we figure out all the individuals who might have a cancer, and we can predict that with a relatively high level of accuracy. Then presumably we can take steps to avoid those, let’s say, decades of treatment.”
Sequencing an entire genome currently costs in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000, not including the interpretation of the information. It is usually not reimbursed by insurance, which is more likely to cover tests for genetic mutations that are known to be responsive to drugs. The treatments themselves, which are sometimes covered, typically cost several times that.
Even so, there is much promise in personal genome sequencing; and, accordingly, there is much work currently being done to reduce the cost to $1,000 at private centres. For that, individuals would receive their DNA code, but uninterrupted as to its meaning. That would cost more. But I can see a market around genomic sequencing developing, and as more companies enter the marketplace, the price for such services will fall. As a cancer patient currently undergoing chemotherpay, I find this possibility both encouraging and exciting.

In the near future, likely within five years, cancer patients will arrive with their DNA information, interpreted, on their electronic devices of choice or have it transmitted to both their physician and medical oncologist. Such knowledge, I suspect, will improve the medical treatments available to patients, and as such increase their lifespans. And this is always good news.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NYT]

Why Galileo Still Matters

Scientific Method



Galileo's Two World System; “Facts which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty.”
Source: BBC News
In an article in BBC News, Adam Gopnik writes about Galileo and his importance among the many great scientists and thinkers in history.
Not long ago, for instance, I wrote an essay about the great Galileo, and the beginnings of modern science. I explained, or tried to, that what made Galileo's work science, properly so-called, wasn't that he was always right about the universe (he was very often wrong) but that he believed in searching for ways of finding out what was right by figuring out what would happen in the world if he wasn't.
One story of that search is famous. When he wanted to find out if Aristotle was wrong to say that a small body would fall at a different speed from a large body, he didn't look the answer up in an old book about falling objects. Instead, he threw cannonballs of two different sizes off the Tower of Pisa, and, checking to make sure that no-one was down there, watched what happened. They hit the ground at the same time.
That story may be a legend - though it was first told by someone who knew him well—but it's a legend that points towards a truth.We know for certain that he attempted lots of adventures in looking that were just as decisive. He looked at stars and planets and the way cannonballs fell on moving ships - and changed the mind of man as he did. We call it the experimental method, and if science had an essence, that would be it.
In 1632 Galileo wrote a great book—his Dialogue On Two World Systems. It's one of the best books ever written because it's essentially a record of a temperament, of a kind of impatience and irritability that leads men to drop things from towers and see what happens when they fall. He invented a dumb character for the book named Simplicio and two smart ones to argue with him. The joke is that Simplicio is the most erudite of the three—the dumb guy who thinks he's the smart guy (the original half-bright guy), who's read a lot but just repeats whatever Aristotle says. He's erudite and ignorant.
Galileo wasn't naive about experiments. He always emphasises the importance of looking for yourself. But he also wants to convince you that sometimes it's important not to look for yourself, not just to trust your own eyes, and that you have to work to understand the real meaning of what you're seeing.But on every page of that wonderful book, he's trying to imagine a decisive test - dropping a cannonball from a ship's mast, or digging a hole in the ground and watching the Moon—to help you argue your way around the universe.
 There's a lovely moment, it could be the motto of the scientific revolution, when Salviati, one of his alter egos, says, “Therefore Simplicio, come either with arguments and demonstrations and bring us no more Texts and authorities, for our disputes are about the Sensible World, and not one of Paper.”
Such alone describes why Galileo still matters today;  arguments based on abstract ideas, unproven, remain so—paper arguments. What Galileo did for science and humanity is take abstract ideas and prove them experimentally, giving the world the Scientific Method, still in use today. Its importance as a tool of science and modernity is without dispute.

And, again, the Method can unravel old ideas and replace them with new ones, often met with strenuous objection from the scientific community. Scientists are all-too-human, and they too have "faith" in certain prevailing ideas, giving comfort where it can be found. But science and its method is there for the rescue; science is an auto-correcting process, which cannot be denied, another of its known strengths. Science is democracy in action.

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You can read the rest of the article at [BBC News]