Category Archives: History

China’s Growing Influence

I have noticed for some time that China has been doing quite a lot of business with developing countries. I remember the Nepalese saying that the quality of Chinese engineering projects in the 1980s was far superior to the other aid they received from elsewhere. Any surprise, then, about a rise of “Maoist” revolutionaries starting in the early 1990s?

In fact, I suspect that if the US really wanted to stem the nuclear reactor development in Iran and North Korea they would need to have stronger diplomatic relations with China. That probably feels like eating crow to President Bush who undoubtedly thought he could just swagger his way through international politics in the same way he took over the US presidency. Alas, even Hizbullah actions that destabilize the Mid-East, at the end of the day, seem to be related to a form of Chinese foreign policy as China supplies Iran and Syria. Do they also call some shots, or keep plausable deniability? Hopefully the US Whitehouse is starting to realize that their brash and confrontational style of diplomacy, coupled with overextending the military into conflicts they can not win, is undermining their own country’s security.

Getting the French to stop selling arms and sit at the table for stabilizing the region is one thing, but hardly impressive for the US. The only reason it could seem impressive today is because of the rediculous antics by US leaders who tried to make France look like an enemy for the past few years. The fact is China and Russia are the real powers who the US needs to come to terms with. If the US continues to let itself be bogged down by the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and trying to figure out how to align itself with it allies, then China will be (intentionally or otherwise) surpassing its biggest competitor by quietly but quickly expanding its economic and military influence over developing markets.

Here is a typical example from 2000 of how people regard Chinese assistance:

China is considered by African countries as a good example in the development of national economy and has good experience and technology that are practical and useful for African countries, said Angolan Industrial Minister Albina Assis at the ceremony.

US Married to 2,4-D

Someone posted a comment on Schneier’s blog about the supposed risk of in-breeding. I might be biased, after reading some of the research on this topic, but it seems to me that in the big scheme of risks to life there are more important things for people to object to on moral or even scientific grounds (e.g. poverty or pollutants found to cause death and mutations) than who you *want* to marry.

For example, we have hard evidence that forms of the herbicide 2,4-D cause harm to humans. Agent Orange, which some might try to argue is not the same as the 2,4-D variant sold and used today in America, continues to be a nightmare for tens of thousands of veterans and their families. I am not a chemist, but here is some compelling information that suggests it is really the same thing:

As a result of the veterans exposure to 2,4-D in Vietnam, veterans are being diagnosed 20 years later with rare cancers, sarcomas, immune deficiencies and Central Nervous System disorders. Children of exposed veterans are born with Learning Disabilities, Birth Defects and deficiencies.

Today, herbicide 2,4-D is being used for weed control across the United States; at National Cemeteries, school yards, golf courses and hospitals. It’s used by utility companies, the Department of Transportation and railroads. Additionally, 2,4-D is being used by farmers which in turn is contaminating food crops, cattle, pigs, chickens etc. In addition to 2,4-D being used to eliminate the growth of plant life in our lakes thereby contaminating our freshwater and saltwater fish.

Aside from that contoversy, the NSF quite simply says that any form of 2,4-D has to be below 0.07 mg/L to prevent “Liver and kidney damage”. Seems pretty clear, no? Don’t drink the water if it has more than 0.07 mg/L…

Apparently this does not wash with the site, which proudly says the US is practically covered in the stuff and we, as consumers, should be greatful:

After 60 years of use, 2,4-D is still the third most widely used herbicide in the United States and Canada, and the most widely used worldwide. Its major uses in agriculture are on wheat and small grains, sorghum, corn, rice, sugar cane, low-till soybeans, rangeland, and pasture. It is also used on rights-of-way, roadsides, non-crop areas, forestry, lawn and turf care, and on aquatic weeds. A 1996 U.S. Department of Agriculture study concluded that, should 2,4-D no longer be available, the cost to growers and other users, in terms of higher weed control expenses, and to consumers, in the form of higher food and fiber prices, would total $1,683 million annually in the U.S. alone.

Yes, that is right, the US is risking liver and kidney damage of perhaps tens of millions of Americans in order to avoid less than $2 billion in higher food prices. Hmmm, what’s the annual cost of liver and kidney treatment? Have to look that one up. Oh, and just for good measure, since obviously there is no reason to be worried, the site happens to reassure us that there is no reason to be worried:

The study also reviewed the 2,4-D epidemiology and toxicology data packages and concluded (page 2) that after several decades of extensive use, “The phenoxy herbicides are low in toxicity to humans and animals (1,9). No scientifically documented health risks, either acute or chronic, exist from the approved uses of the phenoxy herbicides.”?

Oh, um, could someone perhaps clarify what “the approved uses” are? Sneaky, eh? Are you worried now? I see this all the time in information security. People say they were approved to do one thing with their code, and then suddenly you find the stuff all over the place. Even if it is only allowed for a very specific need, bug-riddled code can sometimes spread like wild-fire.

The obvious question, thus, is what percentage of use today of 2,4-D would be included by in the approved category. Does it include things that end up in drinking water? The next question is what is done to detect unapproved use and prevent harm to people? The comparison with infosec gets even closer when the appears to say “business is good, we can make it sound like bad things are really good, so please don’t force us to innovate”. Here’s a classic quote from the same page:

2,4-D has for the past sixty years, been a major tool in the continuing fight to reduce world hunger.

Don’t know about you but that kind of reasoning gives me the creeps. Could they really be saying that they are reducing world hunger by killing people who are hungry? Probably wasn’t meant to come out that way, but the language is vague. Major tool? Are they trying to suggest that toxic chemicals are a good way to reduce world hunger, as if there is no safer and more effective/beneficial alternative that would provide a better balance/trade-off?

This reminds me of a discussion where a large company had a theory about getting successful login attempt numbers up by making passwords a little less secure. “I can get you to 100% login success by removing passwords altogether” I told them, “but alas we must ensure that the login is by the right person.” In other words, failure rates could in fact be a good thing since it shows attackers are being repelled (a vulnerability is closed). Of course attackers (the threat) should be reduced as well, if possible, but opening up vulnerabilities is not usually a good way to change the measurement of attacks. Sometimes people fixate on one and only one metric/value and ignore or forget the big picture and the greater consequences…forest, trees, etc.

So, anyway, I’m just saying if you want to find ways to help reduce deformity and death in the world, in-breeding probably isn’t the top of the list, if it’s on the list at all. There is some evidence that people are starting to understand this.

US Troop TBI treatment funding cut by half

ABC has a rather unsettling story about a drastic reduction in funds for treatment of soldier closed-head injuries, also known as traumatic brain injury (TBI):

George Zitnay, a Charlottesville brain injury expert who is a co-founder of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, told ABC News earlier this year that traumatic brain injury is the “signature injury of the war on terrorism.”

That’s because of the proliferation of roadside bombs in Iraq and improved body armor that shields troops from lethal wounds but can do nothing about the violent jolts to even helmeted heads that can damage the brain as it bounces off the inside of the skull.

As a result, more troops are surviving injuries suffered in Iraq than in previous wars, but more troops are surviving with permanent injuries. According to Pentagon data reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, only about 10 percent of wounds in Iraq are lethal — less than half the rate in the first Persian Gulf War, Vietnam and Korea each, and a full one-third of the rate in World War II.

By one estimate, as many as 10 percent of all troops in Iraq and up to 20 percent of front-line infantry suffer concussions during combat tours.

The shift in injury is tragic, but one would think that this would lead to increases in funding for research and treatment for brain injuries. Further complicating the risk is the fact that soldiers may already suffer from concussions without realizing it and therefore significantly increase their chance of brain damage by exposing themselves to additional blasts.

U.S. troops in Iraq are exposed to hundreds of bombings each month. “We’ve seen patients who have had three deployments and have had some (head) injury on every single one,” [neuropsychologist] Drake says.

The damage from multiple concussions can be irreversible. “Repeated concussions can be quite serious and even lethal,” says Air Force Maj. Gerald Grant, a neurosurgeon who treated troops in Iraq.

Thus, it is hard to understand why funds are being drastically reduced so much at a time of so much need. Spending restraints on treating the injuries of soldiers? Is this a result of Bush administration tax cuts?

A professor of emergency medicine, Stuart Hoffman, calls on Americans to help reverse this decision:

At least 18,000 troops have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan to date. Some reports suggest that up to 60 percent of those casualties (as many as 10,000) involve some degree of brain injury. These figures do not include civilian contractors or members of the news media who have suffered brain injuries.

There are signs our government is heading down the same road it followed during the Vietnam War — denying the magnitude of the brain injury problem and thereby depriving soldiers the treatment they need.


To deal with the influx of brain-injured soldiers returning from combat, these centers requested that their 2007 fiscal year budget be increased from $14 million to $19 million, a paltry sum compared to the billions a month we are spending on the wars. Instead of granting the requested increase, the budget proposed by President Bush and rubber-stamped by both houses of congress eliminates the program.

Citizens of this country should demand answers to these questions:

• Why does the White House want to kill this program, and why is Congress going along?

• Are Bush administration officials embarrassed by the numbers of brain-injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?

• Do they believe that if data collection is stopped, the problem will vanish?

• What will happen to brain-injured troops when they no longer have access to these services?

Military discipline prohibits our troops from speaking for themselves. We must speak for them.

Call, write or e-mail your U.S. senators and representatives. Tell them you are outraged by the decision to eliminate the Defense and Veteran Brain Injury Centers from the 2007 fiscal year budget. Those who repeatedly admonish us to “support our troops” should be willing to do so themselves.

Celebrating 750 years of Peeling the Onion

Data integrity issues live at the heart of any reference material, but Wikipedia and the rapid-release cycle of Internet content has created a whole new level of controversy.

The Onion has put together a fine example of this in their fun article: Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence

“At 750 years, the U.S. is by far the world’s oldest surviving democracy, and is certainly deserving of our recognition,” [Wikipedia founder] Wales said. “According to our database, that’s 212 years older than the Eiffel Tower, 347 years older than the earliest-known woolly-mammoth fossil, and a full 493 years older than the microwave oven.”

I love reading the razor-sharp work of the Onion, but I have just two words for them: Pot. Kettle. Black.

Take, for example, their recent analysis of the recent cease-fire by Hizbullah:

As the cost of rocket fuel soared to $630 per gallon Monday, Middle Easterners who depend on the non-renewable propellant to power 10-kilogram rockets have been forced to severely restrict their daily bombing routines, bringing this latest round of fighting to an unexpected halt.

“The way things are going, I won’t have any money left over for other necessities, such as anti-aircraft missiles, land mines, and machine guns,” said Hezbollah guerrilla Mahmoud Hamoui, who is just one of hundreds of Islamic militants compelled to scale back their killing until rocket-fuel prices return to their pre-2006 levels.

That’s rediculous. Everyone knows rocket fuel hit $972 per gallon.

FAA admits fault

The US air controller crisis might finally get the President’s attention following this admission:

The Federal Aviation Administration admitted it broke its own rules in putting only one controller on duty.

We often forget how important the controllers are, since they are the least noticed when they are doing their best work. For some much needed perspective, I went back and reviewed the 1981 testimony to a US congressional subcommittee by the Air Traffic Controllers Organization President Robert Poli:

Controllers constantly face countless situations which require them to make decisions affecting the lives of thousands of people. … Day in and day out, they must guard against even the smallest error, for a mistake could kill hundreds. There is no room for guesswork, nor is there time to sit back and leisurely consider a traffic situation. Decisions must be swift, positive and correct. … Being able to accept such an intense level of responsibility is at the heart of the controller’s job. However, its residual effects are felt in every aspect of his life. Over time, while dreading the terrible consequences of one incorrect control decision, the controller loses the fight to the knowledge that he is human and, in the long run, fallible. The strain created by this internal war generates insidious effects on the controller’s entire life. They can manifest themselves in physical or mental disorders, social withdrawal, marital trouble or concealed alcoholism.

This was in the weeks and days up to the decision by President Reagan to fire over 10,000 striking controllers and begin private contracting for air traffic control. Fast forward to 2004 when complaints very similar to those in 1981 were again coming from the controllers facing staff shortages. In particular, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association requested in 2003 that an additional 1,000 new air traffic controllers be authorized each year for three years.

The current controller workforce is stretched to the limit and we cannot call up the reserves. There are no reserves. That is why we also ask this Subcommittee to stop the FAA from terminating, removing, transferring or reassigning any air traffic control specialist solely because the agency erred in hiring that individual after he or she reached the maximum entry age.

President Bush instead passed a four-year $60 billion bill that increased the number of privately funded control towers and gave funding for only 302 controllers.

So you might want to take a moment to think about all the money being spent to keep America safe and how it is really working when understaffed and often underpaid controllers have been warning of very clear and present danger. National Air Traffic Controllers Association president John Carr put it this way in his 2003 testimony to a US congressional committee:

The thousands of controllers hired during the post-PATCO recovery period will reach retirement eligibility soon. Based on FAA data, over 50% of the workforce will be eligible to retire by 2010. The Government Accounting Office reports the number is even higher. Currently, there are not enough controllers to fill the gap. A new hire is not a replacement for a full performance level retiree. It takes anywhere from three to five years for a new hire to become a full performance level air traffic controller. Most of this training is on-the-job and requires a certified controller to staff each position along with the trainee.

Therefore, the FAA must immediately begin hiring and training the next generation of air traffic controllers to prepare for the wave of upcoming retirements, the increased traffic and system capacity enhancements. Addressing this issue can no longer be deferred because of the significant time required to train new controllers. If we do not begin to hire and train new controllers today, we will be left with a system that is woefully short staffed and unable to accommodate the demands for air transportation.

Predictable disaster?

Edited to add (8/30/2006):

The Associated Press has provided some more insight into the Kentucky controller and crash. Short-staffed, the controller on the job also appears to have been asked to carry long shifts with little rest:

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said the controller had only nine hours off between work shifts Saturday. That was just enough to meet federal rules, which require a minimum of eight hours off between shifts, Hersman said.

“He advised our team that he got approximately two hours of sleep,” Hersman said.

Hizbullah plays age-old propaganda game

Abraham Lincoln wrote on February 15, 1848 “Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. ”

With that in mind, take note of the Hizbullah leader’s reflections on starting a war with Israel:

…Hassan Nasrallah said Monday that had he believed, even one percent, that a war would break out following the kidnapping of two IDF soldiers, the operation would never have been launched.

Kidnapping two IDF soldiers and then firing thousands of rockets into civilian areas…he makes it sound like he made one little mistake and everything afterwards was out of his control. Reminds me of Nasrallah’s apology to his political rivals only a few months ago

for the abusive slogans against [opposition leaders] during a recent pro-Syria Shiite demonstration in South Lebanon’s market town of Nabatiyeh. […] Portraits were raised in the Nabatiyeh demonstration depicting Jumblat as a Jewish Rabbi and Tueni as a bull with long horns.

Rabbi and a bull? Sounds like the start of joke. Nasrallah apparently comes from the political “it’s better to shoot first and ask for forgiveness” school of tactics. But seriously, southern Lebanon is definitely not a bed of roses and it sounds like Nasrallah might be getting the blame for acting foolishly/selfishly. Pride is a huge issue in the region, so if Nasrallah has to back down and ask for forgiveness something must be afoot, perhaps including fractures in his organization. The big question is whether those demanding apologies will radicalize further, or (will be allowed to) pursue political opposition through democratic channels.

Tunnels in Vietnam

Kevin Sites provides some insight in his latest dispatch about the tunnel system built by the Vietnamese:

They are a marvel of engineering, weaving underground for several stories and linking together living, dining and meeting areas, as well as weapons factories and subterranean hospitals, complete with operating rooms.

But perhaps their most significant function was to allow the VC to coordinate their operations in the south, both by utilizing surprise attacks then disappearing underground, while also inserting agents and saboteurs into the south.

Because of their strategic value, the entrances to the tunnels were well-protected both by camouflage and booby traps.

Yes, the strategic value was a factor but perhaps not as much as the low cost of reducing inhabitant vulnerability with simple countermeasures, which also probably diminished threats as well (few would want to enter an unfamiliar tunnel of traps). Not sure why Kevin ends with these quotes, other than to warn anyone considering a visit to the tunnels to expect a harsh and realistic rather than romantic story:

“We expected it to be about the ingenious ways used to escape detection,” says Nicky Ashby, 26, from London. “But instead, it’s more about techniques of torture with all the booby traps.”

“It seems to me like it’s celebrating the violence rather than the idea of their perseverance,” says another, who doesn’t want to be identified.

Frenchman builds castle for fun

Nice story about an archaeology buff who is building a castle from scratch in 13th century style. Along with period building material and methods, they are also considering how to defend from period attackers:

Our guide blended humor with the history lesson and had us play the role of invaders to explain how even the smallest architectural details helped protect castles.

Some examples: A staircase turns clockwise, forcing invaders to transfer their spears to the left hand and giving the defense an advantage. An extra-tall step requires them to take off their chain-link armor to scale it. Anyone who actually makes it up the stairs alive would have to bend over to pass through a low doorway — giving the castle’s hatchet-armed defenders a prime crack at their necks.

Sounds like fun, but the real question is what will they do to defend against other period threats like The Black Death. Will these history buffs bathe regularly and keep their lodging clean or find scapegoats to torture and burn?

A cider a day?

More good news about cider, in case you need yet another reason why it should never have been regulated into oblivion in America:

The researchers have found that English cider apples have high levels of “phenolic antioxidants” – linked to protection against strokes and cancer.

The next stage of the study, partly funded by the National Association of Cider Makers, is to analyse how humans absorb these chemicals from cider.

I am sure they will find plenty of volunteers. I may have to return to Scotland to do some of my own “analysis”.

WebCam monitors 1901 lightbulb

good bulbEver heard of a lightbulb with its own website? The reason for celebration is the quality of engineering. Apparently it has been burning since 1901, the product of an energy pioneer named Dennis Bernal who lived near Livermore, California. Ironically, the webcam setup to monitor the bulb failed after only a few years of use, the same as the average life of a basic modern lightbulb:

Unlike the bulb, the first camera had a limited life of about 3 years. We are hoping this one will give the bulb a run for it’s money.

This Cam image will continue to be updated every 10 seconds. So to enjoy the view of Fire Station Number 6 either hit your refresh button, or click the picture above!.

Imagine if every house in America had been running on a bulb like this. For some reason consumers do not demand this kind of quality. Do they prefer things engineered for failure. Quality doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive, does it? Alas, if you read their website even the fire station believes it is sheer luck, rather than sound engineering that keeps this bulb burning.