Monday, September 28, 2009

No special treatment for Polanski

I don't usually weigh in on cases like this, but those who think that the charges against Polanski should be dropped without him showing up in court in Los Angeles (where the judge who currently has jurisdiction in the case has already gone on record agreeing that there was judicial misconduct three decades ago) are really pushing hypocritically for a double standard for artists and filmmakers.

Polanski committed a serious crime to which he pleaded guilty. If the defendant were Rush Limbaugh instead of Polanski, everyone would be whistling a different tune (on both sides of the issue!) It also does not matter that Polanski's victim has "forgiven" him and also wants the charges to be dropped. Rapists are prosecuted in the name of the people, not solely in the name of their victims, for obvious reasons: Society at large has an interest in preventing such behavior.

I have little doubt that Polanski is now rehabilitated and no threat to society; he was a different person in a different place psychologically when he committed the crime. But we have legal mechanisms for making such decisions and Polanski now has no reason to think that he will again be the victim of judicial misconduct. He should give up his fight against extradition and return to Los Angeles, so everyone can get on with their lives. Maybe he will even be able to accept an Oscar for one of his films in person some day.

A similar take... from Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post.

And from the New York Times editorial page on Wednesday. The arguments some are making on Polanski's behalf, that he has already paid and atoned for the indiscretions of his youth, are also made today by those who think Nazi fugitives from justice should be allowed to live out their lives in peace. As a Holocaust survivor, Polanski should be particularly sensitive to the hypocrisy of such arguments. And those who make them should try to remember that in the United States at least everyone is supposed to be equal under the law.

And most eloquently, a piece in today's Los Angeles Times by Steve Lopez, entitled "Polanski's defenders lose sight of the true victim," which includes detailed excerpts from the girl's Grand Jury testimony.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iraq war resister Ehren Watada finally allowed to resign from the Army

Finally, an end, or at least a new chapter, in the saga of this brave young man. The U.S. Army, having failed to convict him by court-martial and having failed to convince a federal judge that he should be retried, has let Watada resign as he initially requested, citing the illegality of the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, in today's New York Times, Frank Rich ponders the parallels between JFK's dilemma over whether to escalate or de-escalate in Vietnam in the early 1960s and Obama's at least momentary hesitation to agree to the military's request for more troops in Afghanistan. A chance for Obama to avoid turning his presidency into the kind of disaster that neither Lyndon Johnson nor George W. Bush had the wisdom and the courage to avoid; perhaps Ehren Watada's courage could be an inspiration to Obama at this crossroads in history. At the very least, it should be inspiration to the rest of us.

Some good sense (and even a little knowledge) on Iran's nukes. From Scott Ridder in The Guardian. Read it, and consider that the biggest saber-rattler re Iran, Israel, is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why not? Iran is, whatever one might think of its compliance. The hypocrisy of this situation might escape many Americans and Israeli apologists, but it doesn't escape the Muslim world.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Netanyahu cheapens the Holocaust

Why is it that you have to go to the Israeli press to find good sense about the Israel-Palestine conflict? Gideon Levy provides a little balance to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, in which, as Levy points out in a column in Ha'aretz, the Israeli prime minister cheapened the memory of the Holocaust twice:

Once, when he brandished proof of the very existence of the Holocaust, as if it needed any, and again when he compared Hamas to the Nazis.

Levy goes on:

And it is doubtful that any historian of stature would buy the comparison the prime minister made between Hamas and the Nazis, or between the London Blitz and the Qassam rockets on Sderot. In the Blitz, 400 German bombers and 600 fighter planes killed 43,000 people and destroyed more than one million homes. Hamas' Qassams, perhaps the most primitive weapon in the world, have killed 18 people in eight years. Yes, they sowed great terror - but a Blitz?

But my favorite line from this column:

Talk of security and victims may still have buyers among the WIZO women of America, but that's it. For a regional power that has almost every weapon in the world in its arsenal and is fighting primitive terror organizations, it is a bit difficult to be taken seriously when talking about security, especially when said security is only for Israelis.

Which reminds me, Israeli leaders and the Obama administration are still banging on about how biased and unbalanced Richard Goldstone's report on Israeli and Hamas war crimes in Gaza was, even though it called out both sides for its violations of international law--despite the fact that the death toll on the Palestinian side was 100 times that on the Israeli side. It's time for war crimes prosecutions, and let the chips fall where they may.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

When Darwin met a Neandertal

As many readers will know if they have been paying attention during this 150th anniversary of its publication, On the Origin of Species makes no mention of human evolution. Darwin did not get around to that controversial subject until his 1871 Descent of Man. Yet there was plenty of evidence for the antiquity of humanity, including the 1848 discovery of a Neandertal skull and other bones on Gibraltar and the 1856 discovery of Neandertal fossils in Germany's Neander Valley. Although the 1848 fossils were not recognized for what they were until much later, the Neander finds, which came three years before the publication of Darwin's breakthrough book, were clear evidence for his ideas.

On Science's Origins blog, I report on a talk given at a human evolution meeting last week in Gibraltar, by Alex Menez of the Gibraltar Museum, which described Darwin's first encounter with a Neandertal skull. Check it out, I think it's a cool story.

Photo: Courtesy of Clive Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Obama and the burqas

I see an interesting juxtaposition between two news stories published in the past 24 hours. The first, a piece in yesterday's New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise reporting from Mingora, Pakistan, relates how the women in this Swat Valley city had to put on burqas when the Taliban took control, and then were able to take them off when the Talbian were driven out by a military operation. The second story, in today's Times, tells us that Obama is considering a strategy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan, cutting the number of American troops and focusing more on rooting out al-Qaeda and less on trying to defeat the Taliban (this is reportedly Joe Biden's idea.)

As the White House debates the issue, it is hard for any compassionate person to not feel torn by the dilemma the West is facing. The Taliban is a horrible, oppressive, brutal collection of men who richly deserved to be sent to their rewards (except, perhaps, those young men who have been suckered by the ideology of its leaders and might eventually be convinced to change their views of the world.) And yet they are not going to be defeated by Western military might, as has become increasingly clear. So what will defeat them? Other than those who have signed up for the joke called the "Afghan Army," mostly for the pay, where are the Afghan men willing to take up arms and fight the Taliban in the name of freedom? Where are the Afghan women who would rather take up arms and maybe die rather than put on a burqa?

Perhaps they are out there, waiting in the wings. But until and unless the U.S. and its NATO allies leave the fighting to the Afghans, we will never know. And the Afghans will not have to make this choice for themselves. Perhaps we are afraid that they will choose the Taliban after all?

It may sound callous, but the lessons of Iraq tell us that Western paternalism has its limits, and its terrible costs.

Does "Creation" lack the spark of genius?

That's the conclusion my colleague John Travis, European Editor of Science, comes to about this otherwise laudable attempt to portray the human side of Charles Darwin, in a new film that has yet to find a distributor in the United States. John reviews the film for Science's Origins blog, and it is clear that he wished he could have liked it more:

According to the movie’s press material, the film portrays the “powerful story of Charles Darwin and the single most explosive idea in history. … In Creation, the battleground is a man’s heart. Torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place, Darwin finds himself caught in a struggle between faith and reason, love and truth.” What this ultimately means is that the movie centers on why Darwin was so slow to publish On the Origin of Species, attributing the delay to his illness, his grief, and his desire not to offend the world, or at least his wife. In other words, instead of dramatizing how Darwin traveled the world and arrived at the most explosive idea in history, Creation is ultimately about the world’s biggest case of writer’s block.

That's just one paragraph from John's insightful review, please read the rest. Oh, and if you live in the United States, do lobby for its distribution in a cinema near you. The film may be flawed, but not as flawed as the arguments of the creationists who would love to see it suppressed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Sunday in Ronda, Spain

I'm on my way home from a meeting in Gibraltar, so stopped off for a day in this southern Spanish town nestled in Andalusia's rugged Serrania de Ronda mountains. It is famous for many things, but perhaps most of all for Spain's oldest bullfighting ring, the Plaza de Toros. Ernest Hemingway hung out here, of course, along with Orson Welles and Rainer Maria Rilke. They are all gone now, but tourists flock to Ronda by the thousands even this late in the season. You can't blame them, however: No one can expect to have a place this beautiful all to themselves. The photos above hardly do justice, but they are my modest offering.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Uninsured at higher risk of death

It might seem intuitively likely that people without health insurance are at a higher risk of death, but here is a new study in the American Journal of Public Health that proves it.

A multimedia take on this subject
: "We're Number 37." Thanks to EG for the tip.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ancient DNA: 25 years of agony and ecstasy

It has been 25 years since a team led by Allan Wilson extracted mitochondrial DNA from a museum specimen of the now-extinct quagga. On Science's Origins blog, I report from an ancient DNA meeting in Paris on the ups and downs of the field of paleogenetics, which has given us embarassments such as "dinosaur DNA" and triumps like the Neandertal genome.

Yet another health insurance outrage. A girl of 17 has her insurance cancelled after being diagnosed with celiac disease. Yet another reason to put the health insurance industry out of business. Thanks to PG for the heads up.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Clothes Make the (Hu)Man

In this week's issue of Science I report on a possible sighting of the oldest known woven fibers, from a cave in the Republic of Georgia (see photo at left.) As always, the full story is only available to those with online access to the journal, but here are the essentials:

On page 1359 of this issue of Science, researchers from Georgia, Israel, and the United States, led by archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, report more than 1000 fibers of the flax plant from Dzudzuana Cave in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The microscopic fibers were found in layers radiocarbon dated to as early as 36,000 years ago, about the time when modern humans migrated into the area from Africa. A small number of fibers are colored black, gray, turquoise, and pink, and the team concludes that they were dyed.

I quote a couple of researchers questioning whether the fibers were actually dyed, but overall the commenters gave this paper a thumbs up. The team thinks the fibers were used to make clothing, baskets, and possibly cords to haft stone tools. We don't know when humans first started wearing clothes, but they leave almost no traces in the archaeological record, so this is a notable discovery.

Photo: Courtesy of Anna Belfer-Cohen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Obama says don't be stupid--conservatives object!

Have you been wondering why so many American rightwingers have gone ballistic over President Obama addressing the nation's schoolchildren and urging them to stay in school, work hard, and get a good education? I have, but the reason seems pretty obvious: Without ignorance and stupidity, reactionary and right wing ideas would have little staying power.

Study hard, kids!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The real death panels

The California Nurses Association has published a study showing the astronomically high claim rejection rate among the state's insurance companies. Here are their figures:

Claims denial rates by leading California insurers, first six months of 2009:

  • PacifiCare -- 39.6 percent
  • Cigna -- 32.7 percent
  • HealthNet -- 30 percent
  • Kaiser Permanente -- 28.3 percent
  • Blue Cross -- 27.9 percent
  • Aetna -- 6.4 percent
Read the entire article for more details and specific examples. And it really is a matter of life and death, as the Association concludes:

CNA/NNOC supports an alternative approach, expanding Medicare to cover all Americans, which would give the U.S. a national system similar to what exists in other nations. Data released in late August by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which tracks developed nations, found that among 30 industrial nations, the U.S. ranks last in life expectancy at birth for men, and 24th for women.

(With thanks to PG for the heads up.)

Speaking of death panels. The Washington Post reports on Sunday that the bombing of tanker trucks by German forces that led to the deaths of an estimated 125 people, many of whom were not Taliban, was ordered on the basis of "intelligence" from one Afghan informant. This is the kind of disregard for human life that guides the U.S./NATO "mission" in Afghanistan. Even the news media seems to share at least partly in this attitude: Each such incident is accompanied by a comment from the reporter about how the killing of Afghan civilians is making the population increasingly angry at foreign troops in their country. Is that what's so bad about it? Perhaps if the reporters tried to talk to the families of the victims they would have another perspective.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ancient DNA Says Europe's First Farmers Came From Afar

In this week's issue of Science, I write about an ancient DNA study (also published in the journal) which concludes that farming was brought into Europe by immigrants rather than by the spread of farming technology, that is by demic rather than cultural diffusion. The issue has been debated for decades, and no doubt will continue to be debated despite this new evidence. But it is a fascinating study. Here are some excerpts from my story, which, like the paper, is available only to those with online access to Science (although the abstracts can be viewed.) First, the background:

About 11,000 years ago, farming began to replace the hunting-and-gathering lifestyle in the Near East. At first, agriculture spread slowly into Europe via modern-day Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria. But about 7500 years ago, farming suddenly took off in central Europe, spreading in just a handful of centuries from an epicenter in Hungary and Slovakia to as far east as Ukraine and as far west as France. Rectangular houses sprang up, surrounded by cow pastures and fields of wheat and barley. Researchers have long debated whether this agricultural explosion was sparked by massive migrations of farmers themselves, so-called demic diffusion, or by the spread of farming ideas, known as cultural diffusion.

The basic findings:

The new study goes much further by fully sequencing ancient mtDNA from the skeletons of 25 early farmers as well as from 20 hunter-gatherers, thus allowing for direct comparison of the two ancient groups. The bones were previously unearthed at sites in Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Germany and are dated from about 15,000 years ago to 4300 years ago. The team found that the mtDNA sequences of the farmers were so genetically distinct from those of the hunter-gatherers that they could not be related. For example, hunter-gatherer skeletons featured a high incidence of two genetic markers, called U4 and U5, which were not found in the farmers, and farmers harbored markers N1a and H, which were not found in the hunter-gatherers. Thus, the first farmers were immigrants who did not immediately mate with the locals.

Some researchers raise concerns about contamination of the ancient DNA samples, which is a chronic problem, although ancient DNA labs take considerable precautions to avoid it. The next step:

... the researchers say, is to find where those immigrant farmers came from. Burger and Pinhasi are already looking for freshly dug skeletons in western Turkey and southeastern Europe.


Even earlier Europeans. Like many others, I reported on the redating of two sites in Spain where handaxes, the Swiss Army knife of the Paleolithic, were found. The earlier of these dates, 900,000 years, nearly doubles the earliest known date for handaxes in Europe. This has all sorts of implications which I won't go into here; the link is free for four weeks from publication.