Thursday, February 28, 2008

Should Planned Parenthood Accept Racists' Donations?

In the USA pro-life groups are currently running a campaign designed to smear Planned Parenthood with the claim that the pro-choice organization accepts knowingly donations from racists, and, as a corollary that it is a racist organization. Here's what happened: a pro-life activist group called Planned Parenthood offices across the USA. Their caller pretended to be a racist wanting to earmark a donation toward assisting African American pregnant women to have an abortion. To leave Planned Parenthood staffers in no doubt about his racist agenda, the caller made clear that he's concerned that his fictional white newborn might suffer as a result of affirmative action policies and so he wants to have his donation go toward the abortion of a 'black baby' (no doubt he meant fetus, but that's neither here nor there, and pro-lifers usually miss out on nitty-gritty details such as developmental stages of embryos).

So, Planned Parenthood staffers across the US told him that they'd happily accept his donation (and earmark it according to his wishes). Nobody said: we do not accept donations from racists. Pro-life groups are trying currently hard to give the impression that individual staffers were motivated by racist motives, but a fair evaluation of the videos the group posted on youtube suggests nothing of that sort. Planned Parenthood has always taken a liberal, pro-choice stance on the abortion issue, so it could not say that it takes donations to assist women of all colors to have abortions if they so wish, whatever their reasons, unless they happen to be African American. So, Planned Parenthood then offers termination of pregnancy to African American women as well as to women of any other skin color.

Comes the racist donor along. Well, of course there can't be an issue for Planned Parenthood in terms of accepting the donation! Big deal. If you've some racist idiot who wants to give a million dollars to Planned Parenthood so that more African American women can be assisted in having a termination of pregnancy, the organization should accept the money. End of story. African American women, like any other client of the organization ask to have a termination of pregnancy out of their own free will. So the money would not suddenly go toward forcing African American women to have abortions that they do not wish to have. If anything it would assist more such women to access affordable reproductive health services.

Just as importantly, perhaps, is of course that the donation provided by the racist would free the organization to re-direct financial resources to women of other color, including white women wanting to have an abortion (probably much to the horror of the racist).

So, here's that big old lesson then one more time: It's not motives that matter, but outcomes. In this hypothetical case, everyone would be better off: the racist is happy, because he thinks he served a racist cause (little does he know that he didn't, of course); African American women, because more of them would be able to access Planned Parenthood's services; women of any other color, including white women, because more money would be available for them after the donation earmarked for black women.

Pro-life activism, intellectually impoverished as it is, seems to know no shame in terms of how it campaigns for its causes. To produce videos linking Planned Parenthood to the KKK and trying to align themselves with Martin Luther King jr's civil rights movement is breathtaking.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sex work - good or bad or what?

This is one of those topics... you won't make friends, whatever your views. I just read an interesting piece on the BBC's website. They interview clients of sex workers in the UK. Three blokes are questioned who unashamedly regularly hire sex workers for their sexual (and possibly emotional) gratification. Their reasons are quite diverse, as one would expect. One guy seems to be a typical city high roller. He claims to have insufficient time for romantic involvement and is looking more or less for quick sexual release. Another guy says that he hasn't had sex with his wife for five years and he gets from sex workers what's missing in his marriage. Another one goes on about getting better sex from sex workers.

Well, first things first, guess this is one of those coming out type moments: I have not paid for sex myself. My main reason really is that I think there's no 'fun' in that. I am probably sufficiently vain that I would want someone to have sex with me because of me as opposed to because of my credit card. So, paying to my mind defeats a central purpose of having sex. Shows you how simple-minded I am. Clearly, however, people hold different views on this.

Secondly, my take on the ethics of sex tends to agree with the view that sex causes no particular moral problems, ie there is nothing special at all about sex. There are certain types of sexual activities that are bad because they translate into harm, eg non-consensual sex, probably sexual acts involving seriously young children, things like that. The wrongness of such acts is related to the harm they cause as opposed to their sexual nature. Some feminists have argued that rape doesn't constitute sex at all, because of the violent nature of such acts. I am not convinced of that, but that's neither here nor there for the purpose of this argument.

Thirdly, I cannot see how sex work is different to any other type of bonded work where we offer our bodies to people hiring us to perform particular tasks. Unless we have good reason to think that it would be wrong, for instance for my assistant to work for me based on agreed-upon conditions, we have no good reasons to think that it would be wrong for someone to work voluntarily and informedly as a sex worker who also offers his or her body on agreed-upon conditions to a person seeking to pay for such services. There does not seem to be an in-principle difference between people selling their bodies for sex for an agreed upon fee or people selling their bodies to produce cars for an agreed upon fee.

Fourth, the illegal nature of sex work in many countries has arguably led to more harm than good, because it forced sex workers into the underground, making them more vulnerable to harm, including rape, STIs, and the illegal industry that goes with this. Arguably one of the reasons for why people in the illegal business of trafficking women for sex work get away with it all too often is precisely that they can threaten the women with deportation or jail should the women opt to inform police, simply because they are/were in an illegal line of work.

Fifth, reading thru the comments posted on the BBC website, I was bemused to note this one: 'I found some of the comments quite shocking, especially the comment about demanding oral sex from a partner and not getting it. I'm sure most women wouldn't dream of visiting a prostitute when their male partner doesn't satisfy their fantasies or demands.
Cheryl Evans, Oldham, Greater Manchester' Little does Cheryl Evans know...

Sixth, of the three men interviewed by the BBC, only one would would seem to be reasonably in the clear, morally, namely our city high roller. The other guys are acting in ways that are morally questionable, not because they hired sex workers but because they are dishonest to their partners. Which takes me back to my point that there is nothing ever morally special about sexual activities. These guys acted wrongly because they cheated on their partners, not because they had sex with sex workers.

It seems to me that everyone would be better off if sex work was a legalized, regulated industry.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gays 'hated to death': Jamaica Gleaner on the anti-gay campaign trail

Jamaica has earned itself notoriety in recent years for anti-gay hate crimes that seem to be condoned to some extent by the country's law enforcement agencies. The US based human rights organisation Human Richts Watch has ensured for some time now that the world gets to know about the Jamaican state's failure to protect the civil rights of its gay citizens. You might want to read the full report of Human Rights Watch, particularly in light of what follows below.

True to form, Christian church leaders have been quick to respond to the charges made by Human Rights Watch. As usual their near-pathological homophobia is carefully cloaked under the guise of 'ethics' and 'morals', which is somewhat amusing, considering the criminal history of the Christian churches the world all over.

One would expect journalists to take one of the basic tenets of journalism ethics seriously, namely to report in an unbiased manner about the issues at stake. A Jamaican paper, the Jamaica Gleaner has instead taken it upon itself to propagate the religious ideologies that are at the heart of anti-gay hate crimes.

This post documents how that works: the paper published on February 18, 2008 a piece which quotes uncritically Christian leaders in the country making mostly unintelligible, and arguably offensive remarks about homosexuality. In fact, this was the 'lead' story of the day, if one assumes that the article's URL is anything to go by. The article was carefully 'balanced' by deploying subheadings such as 'Immoral in every way'.

Fair enough, you might say, may be they published a biased article. After all, the Caribbean is known to have somewhat Neandertalish views on the matter at hand. Surely, however, the paper would have published a couple of letters to the editor that were critical of the stance taken by the church leaders and probably even of the journalist who permitted himself or herself to be used as a tool to propagate sectarian views as 'news'.

Well, this is how the story continues. I decided to write a brief letter to the editor outlining logic errors in the church leaders' stance. This is what I had to say:


Your article ‘Gay lobby rebuked - Church says won't accept homosexual lifestyle in Jamaica’ in today’s Jamaica Gleaner was brought to my attention by one of my students. As someone who thinks about ethics professionally, I am surprised about many of the assertions made by your country’s religious leaders. For instance, they claim that homosexuality is abnormal and that that is one good reason to disapprove of it. There might be good reasons to disapprove of homosexuality, but its abnormality is not one of them. Lots of things are abnormal in the same sense that homosexuality is abnormal. Normality defines a statistical average, no more, no less. No doubt then, homosexuality is abnormal – in the same sense that driving a Rolls Royce is abnormal (ie a minority of people do it). Statistical claims are insufficient to base moral judgment on. It would be a logical fallacy to do so.

Equally, they claim that homosexuality is morally wrong from a ‘physical’ stand point. This statement is unintelligible. Things that are morally wrong are wrong for moral reasons, not ever for physical reasons. It’s like saying that blue is bad because it’s hot. It’s an error in category.

They also suggest that homosexuality is morally wrong for social reasons. There may be good social reasons to condemn homosexuality, yet they have not been provided by the church leaders you mention in your article. The impartial observer must wonder what these good social reasons might be? The evidence in support of the claim is certainly missing.

There are more such oddities in the church leaders’ line of reasoning: they also say that the majority of Jamaicans deem homosexuality ‘wrong’. Assuming this is correct, what is the moral value of knowing this? Assume, for the sake of the argument, that the majority of Jamaicans thought that Chinese or German people were racially inferior. That tells us nothing about the fact of the matter, because the majority of Jamaicans could be mistaken. The same is true for any value judgments the majority of Jamaicans make on homosexuality or any number of issues. Ethics is distinctly not a matter of majority vote but of sound reasoning. Sadly this seems lacking in the statements put forward by Jamaica’s church leaders.

Udo Schuklenk
Professor of Philosophy
Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics
Queen’s University, ON, Canada

Well, you gathered from me having to reproduce my Letter here, that the paper chose not to publish this Letter to the Editor as it didn't fit the propaganda the paper decided to support in its 'news' section. Another breach of journalism ethics.

The paper instead chose to publish a Letter to the Editor in support of its campaign, which more or less reiterated the church leaders' remarks, peppered with the usual bunch of quotes from the Bible. I give you a brief flavour of the letter in question so you are enabled to judge how serious the editorial failing of the Jamaica Gleaner has been in this regard.

'The Bible, therefore, clearly and unequivocally condemns homosexual acts (Gen 1:27-28; Gen 2:24; Matt 19: 4-6; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10 etc.). There is also no scientific evidence to confirm homosexual activity as a normal behaviour. Homosexuality is neither an entirely innate condition nor is it unchangeable. The so-called 'gay gene' has never been found.'

My Letter clearly dealt with the claim from abnormality as well as some others, yet the paper chose not to give its readers a chance to make up their own mind by permitting the other side of the argument to be heard. In rhetoric the continuing repetition of arguments is called 'propaganda'. Note also that propaganda usually relies on the selective or misleading presentations of the facts of the matter. Something this letter writer also happens to be guilty of. As the grand master of propaganda, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels pointed out himself, 'The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.' This precisely describes the strategy followed by the Jamaican church leaders, their local paper, and assorted letter writers over many years by now.

One would have expected a professionally edited newspaper to publish a critical Letter from an expert who has written on this issue in leading international bioethics and medical journals... The Jamaica Gleaner chose not to. A sad indictment indeed.

For what it's worth, here's a link to a paper I published (with colleagues in the US and Australia) some 10 years ago on the ethical issue of sexual orientation research as well as the ethics of homosexuality, it deals with most of the 'arguments' put forward in the campaign items published under various guises by the Jamaica Gleaner. It's been reprinted in a number of bioethics textbooks as well as gender and feminist studies text books. Mind you, there is even a Russian translation :-).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Addicted to caffeine - and proud of it (hehehehe)

I just love the scienceblogs. Here's a totally brilliant piece celebrating - umm, reviewing - the advantages (and mentioning the negligible disadvantages) of going heavy on coffee (as I do). You'll think faster, memorize better, avoid all sorts of illnesses and battle stained teeth. Go for it! Well worth a read!

I even discovered that there's (at long long long last) caffeine infused soap to ease the waking-up process in the morning (ie have a nice shower and apply the soap liberally to your skin).

Monday, February 18, 2008

An AIDS NGO worthy of your support!

Let me tell you something about an AIDS charity worthy probably also of your support. It's a (really - trust me) community based project in Southern Africa. What they do, in a nutshell, is to try to keep AIDS orphans in some kind of family unit (most likely relatives or neighbours). In order to ease the burdens on those usually impoverished families, however, the initiative provides 2 meals per day per child through community based food kitchens. Phedisang's approach to the problem is two-fold: It aims to move as many of the kids it feeds as is feasible on to the state grants that these kids are entitled to (but that they would never receive if it wasn't for the logistical support from Phedisang). So, basically, the first step is to keep kids properly fed, the second step is to move them on to state support in order to free donor money for other children in similar need.

To my mind it's a very clever system because it is sustainable in the longterm, because it's small and doesn't rely on massive administrative operations (gobbling up much of the donor money), and reassuringly, there are no overseas consultants on obscene international salaries that need to be 'fed', too. Check it out and consider supporting them!

Corruption - a problems of those (ethnically) others

It's true, isn't it? We hear the words corruption, tax evasion, theft, many people think immediately 'third world'. And, to be fair, there's a fair share of all of that in developing countries, BUT, us developed world whities are also not doing really badly on that front. Germany, that beacon of decency and honesty, has just been hit by a gigantic tax evasion scandal in the vicinity of about 4 billion Euro. Orchestrated by very wealthy business leaders (including, for instance, the boss of logistics company Deutsche Post) and aided and abetted by that funny financial outfit Liechtenstein (the European equivalent to Caribbean tax havens for tax evaders), in effect these richest of the rich in Germany stole billions of Euros from other tax payers. Not just a problem of the developing world then, it seems...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Going Canada - (South) Africans on the move

This has been an interesting week for me. You know, I have worked in South Africa for some five years or so. To be honest, in intellectual terms, I had the best time of my career there, as the work I undertook was - on my books anyway - truly meaningful. Made some great friends there, too. Eventually I left, for all sorts of reasons, chief among them the unpleasantly low salary that made me wonder about my pension (or lack thereof), lack of personal security (living in Jozi probably didn't help), the deteriorating administrative infrastructure at my university, continuing electricity failures in my suburb, and most importantly nagging doubts about the country's future (I had seen what happened to Zimbabwe next door).

Anyone who has been following this blog knows that I am continuously railing about the dangers to democracy the ANC poses in the country. Large sections of its senior leadership are convicted fraudsters and thieves who have decided to use the public purse as their private piggy-bank. The organisation has long ago begun to use the public broadcaster as a propaganda instrument. The lack of any serious opposition in effect renders the country a one-party state akin to Mexico during its decades under the PRI. Well, there is one-party states and one-party states. Singapore is also more or less run by one party, but it's well-run, something one cannot reasonably claim for South Africa. Its current President presided over a preventable genocide-equivalent tragedy due to his crazy handling of the AIDS crisis in the country. Nobody has as yet held him accountable for the crimes he and his health minister committed against the South African people (aided and abetted by the ANC). Here is evidence demonstrating that the President was pro-actively involved in protecting corrupt underlings of his, in this case the country's former Police Commissioner. His most significant rival (the party's current President) is a bone head of sorts. Aged 65 he just married his fifth wive, a 33 year old woman. Him becoming the next President of the country would be akin to Homer Simpson becoming President of the USA ... well, come to think of it, someone akin to Homer Simpson is currently President of the USA. In South Africa, the separation of state organs and party organs is weakening.

The only hope I have for the country rests with its young people. Many of them don't have the near-pathological hang-up's about race/ethnicity/skin-color that frequently prevent the current ruling class from instituting prudent policies. Thinking back of many of my students, and reading what's currently going on in the country, you'd think they were already a different kind of person. They seem to have been spared the crippling effects of apartheid South Africa on their personalities, very much unlike many members of the current ruling class who have undoubtedly sustained very serious psychological damage. Given a decent education (I won't even go into years of failing education policies that the ANC can also take credit for), they are the last best hope for the country. Thing is, they got to get rid of the current ruling elites altogether, as well as their hand-groomed 'youth' successors in the ANCYL (the party's youth league). Oh well, there's wishful thinking.

So, bad news all around. Let me get to what triggered this commentary: I got three different email messages independently of each other from South African friends/former colleagues during the last week. One from an Afrikaner who has decided to leave the country for good. One from an Indian student of mine who has just graduated as a medical doctor, and will move to Canada. One from a Nigerian medical professional who is in the middle of sorting out his immigration documents so that he can also move to Canada. He told me that he holds little hope for the future of the country and that he's getting out. This, while completely anecdotal, is quite significant. All three of them are very highly trained - and badly needed - professionals, yet they all have decided to get on with life, having lived in Africa for many years. Just today the Mail and Guardian reports that Gauteng's (the country's - and continent's - industrial and commercial powerhouse) pathology services are 'bleeding pathologists dry', meaning that they're in danger of collapsing due to too many of these specialists leaving the country. A brand new survey in Human Resources for Health reports that about 1 out of every five Africa born doctors now works in a developed country.

I have had the 'brain drain' discussion the other night with a Jamaican acquaintance of mine who pointed out that at the end of the day, people only have one shot at life, so one cannot really blame people for moving to countries that are reasonably stable and guarantee a better life for these professionals and their families. He is right, of course. It is all the more important then that developing countries leaders think more carefully about how to make life and work for such professionals better than it is right now, or else risk losing them to countries like Canada, Australia and the UK.

For some African countries the failure to have done so translates into a loss of 70% of its locally trained medical professionals. The signs are probably on the wall for the powers that are in South Africa, get your acts together or join the rest of the African basket cases. It's your call.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Religion in action - up to the rest of us to foot the bill ...

Interesting story in Canada. A Sikh motorbike rider insists to ride his machine without wearing a helmet. Fair enough: you may or may not know that Sikh religion requires that the guys don't ever cut their hair (at least they're permitted to continue to cut their toe nails, otherwise we'd have a real problem). Anyway, those masses of hair need to be kept somewhere, and Sikhs have usually truly nicely tied turbans that hold it all together. None of this is really an issue, as all of this is entirely a self-regarding action. It's up to you to decide not to cut your hair and keep it under a pile of cloth.

The trouble really lies elsewhere: Sikh religion seemingly also requires that cloth and nothing else covers the ever-growing hair mass. For some reason some Sikhs at least think it's a cool idea to ride motorbikes without a helmet. It goes without saying that while their huge quantity of hair might protect ever so slightly against accident related injuries, a helmet is a way better protection (that is, if you must ride a motorbike at all - a fairly questionable high-risk activity at the best of times). It is for that reason that we require motorbike riders to wear helmets.

Thank goodness there's human rights protections that protect religious folks against 'discrimination'. The 'discrimination' in the case under consideration is that the guy in question doesn't want to wear a helmet.

To my mind, none of this really should be an issue as this motorbike devotee is sane (well, as sane as people are who think it's cool to operate such machines to begin with), understands the risks and is willing to take them. I guess in any liberal society this should trigger a negative-liberty entitlement type response of non-interference.

The problem really lies elsewhere: if the guy crashes his motorbike in some accident or other (due to his fault or that of someone else), and he ends up with preventable brain injuries that require life-long medical care for him, he clearly expects others to pick up the tab for him. This is where his religiously driven recklessness ceases to be exclusively self-regarding and turns into a serious other-affecting business. The solution seems to be that he ought to be required to take out private health insurance that covers him for these sorts of eventualities. That failing, his license should simply be withdrawn as a matter of principle, until he agrees to wear a helmet just like everyone else. It goes without saying, however, that our religious motorbike fan expects to have his cake and eat it. It would be fairly foolish of society to accede to that demand, whether under the human rights guise or any other excuse.

It gets more complicated. Let's assume, for the sake of the argument, that our motorbiking friend is not reproductively challenged (say, because he's infertile, gay or whatever). There's a fair chance that he might already have produced male off-spring. What would be the appropriate state response should he decide to take his underage boy for a ride on the back of his bike? Almost certainly the boy would also have a fair few meters of hair under his turban and probably also would be prohibited by the religion to wear a helmet. Are we really saying that religious provisions supersede the state's responsibilities toward safeguarding the child? Surely this would be completely unacceptable as the father's actions then would become other regarding (ie harmful to the child). It would seem then that (like in the case of Jehova's Witnesses) dad may go without helmet, but his kid must not.

End of story, let's find him someone a private insurance and get on with it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Interesting developments on the AIDS frontiers

I suspect you might have missed one or another of the big-news events on the AIDS fronts. Nobel laureate and current president of the AAAS David Baltimore used his keynote address to the AAAS meeting this year to suggest that there's a distinct possibility (not to say high likelihood) that we won't be getting a successful preventive HIV vaccine ever.

The excitement over findings that male circumcision might drastically reduce HIV risk should be somewhat cooled down, because another study since discovered in the USA that that actually wasn't the case for circumcised black and latino men who have sex with other men.

Another piece in the puzzle is a consensus statement from HIV/AIDS specialists in Switzerland who declared that it is impossible for an HIV infected person to pass the infection on to his or her sex partners if she's on HAART and has a viral load of less than 40 copies/ml. In other words, successful medical control of the infection renders infected people non-infectious for all intent and purposes.

Indeed, it has even been suggested by some scientists that pre-exposure prophylaxis might work (ie people who are at high risk of getting infected should take AIDS drugs as a preventative means). Of course, today's AIDS drugs are essentially chemotherapeutics, so to suggest that healthy people at risk of HIV infection take them permanently (or at least while they engage in high-risk activities) seems a difficult to accept proposition, yet it might well work (just as post-exposure prophylaxis works) while there's no vaccine.

However, all of these discussions seem to be indicative of an ever-growing desperation among HIV specialists resulting from the absence of a working vaccine. The ongoing AIDS epidemics among the peoples of Southern Africa and the Caribbean suggest strongly that only so much can be achieved by throwing condoms at people... and so much, quite possibly, just isn't good enough. This is not the type of politically correct message the safe sex industry likes to hear, but surely the pandemic would not continue to run at such high speed if the safe sex campaigners had made significant inroads during the last few decades. To be fair, it might be that safe sex is currently more or less all there is, but it would be wrong to pretend that it is 'working' as they say.

Of course, living in North America these days, I do have access to truly bizarre religious cable channels. This crowd is actually trying to persuade Africans not to use condoms and instead be abstinent. I watched a fundraising programs from them the other day, in which these folks deliberately spread falsehoods such that condoms have little holes in them thru which HIV can spread anyway, and other such nonsense. It boggles the mind. The biggest lies were peddled by a guy in a black (long) skirt with a white collar - he claims, of course, to never have had sex in his whole life. These are the types of characters that, in yet another wave of Western colonialism, travel to Africa and try to persuade rural Africans to forgo the use of condoms when they've sexual intercourse.

Scary stuff. Well, it seems there's always someone out there to make matters worse, and the religious squad is never far from where that happens. As ever, due to some waffle about religious freedom, they cannot even be held accountable in a court of law for spreading lies.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

$cientology remains on German government watch-list

Unlike other countries, Germans have not fallen for the quasi-religious cover of the Church of $cientology. The country's security services have long been monitoring the organization's activities. Indeed, for taxation purposes $cientology is considered a business in that country and has to pay taxes accordingly. So, its fleecing of naive clients at last fills not only the coffers of the Church but also of the German government. The Church sued against the continuing surveillance, in a court of law, and lost. The court found that 'there are concrete indications that the plaintiff (Scientology), as well as its members, maintains ambitions against the free, democratic basic order.' Indeed, there is speculation that the company might be outlawed in Germany altogether. See a full English language report published in the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

ANC working tirelessly to render South Africa a true banana republic

Quite remarkable, South Africa's elite crime fighting unit, THE SCORPIONS, is going to be disbanded. The reasons are fairly simple, the crime fighters found too may senior ANC politicians with their hands in the till, showed them to be thieves, corrupt or worse. Among those investigate and prosecuted were Jackie Selebie (once the country's ANC appointed police commissioner), Jacob Zuma (currently the ANCs president) and many others.

The people of South Africa might want to read up on the history of Mexico's PRI to see what is going to happen to their society if they permit the ANC to continue down the path it so clearly has chosen.

So far for the 'new South Africa'. A less than convincing move from historically white-corruption to 'new South Africa' black-corruption. The masses remain as poor as they always were, service delivery is collapsing across the place (even the country's electricity supply is unreliable these days). Just think about it, the ANC cadres were given the amazing choice to stick to President Mbeki (a leader whose warped AIDS policies have cost hundreds of thousands of HIV infected South Africans their very lives!), or Jacob Zuma (a politician current prosecuted for corruption, and a guy who has a habit of sleeping around with plenty of women without using condoms, and who tends to have a shower as a means of post-exposure prophylaxis!). - How sad can it get? It surely looks like a second democratic revolution is called for.

The trouble for South Africans, of course, is that the country has no credible opposition party and, for that reason alone, the ANC is free to do pretty much anything it wishes. And so it does! Sad developments indeed.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tom Cruise, $cientology and a truly hilarious video

Eish, I know it's not weekend, so I should not post something merely for its entertainment value, but everyone with even the slightest awareness of $cientology will know that these folk are a fairly litigious bunch. I thought, however, I should furnish you with a link to a video on youtube where your truly, Ueber$cientologist Tom Cruise, introduces $cientology.

The Economist reports this week (I'm quoting so $cientology can't sue me :-), that the group (the 'Church' inc.) offers, among other things, 'expensive courses of treatment [that] can help rid people of infestations by alien souls from an extinct civilisation'. Honestly, they're for real. The 'Church' was invented by former scifi writer L Ron Hubbard, so you will probably understand how the alien souls popped into the story line.

Anyway, watch Cruise on his crusade for the Church of $cientology. You think he might just have lost his marbles . In case you have doubts about the marbles question, have a look at another performance at the 'Church'.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Help your country! Smoke, drink... and die faster.

I am sure you will agree with me that public health promotion programs designed to reduce smoking, drinking and obesity are a good thing. After all, we live longer, and our quality of life is higher. Well, both of these claims are correct. There is just one problem that economists have been aware of for some time. The problem is this: People that eat too much, drink too much and smoke big-time have a habit of dying in the average about 7 or so years earlier than comparable people who do not over-eat, drink and smoke. Now, it's possible to parcel out what does more damage, but this isn't the point I am going to make. From a public interest perspective those of us who don't smoke, drink crazily and eat as if there's no tomorrow, should be grateful to those behaving differently. After all, these people kindly pay into our welfare system, pension schemes and so on and so forth, but thankfully they die sooner than those of us who happen to choose a healthier life-style. So, they're subsidising our old-age care, because they usually don't reach old age to begin with. Not only that, overall their health care comes cheaper, too, because us healthier-living characters, while we also get sick, have a habit of escaping death time and again, while the live fast and die young crowd actually achieves at least the dying younger objective, and so, overall turns out to be even cheaper (over a life-time) in terms of health care costs.

Dutch scientists published in PlosMedicine their main finding: 'Until age 56 y, annual health expenditure was highest for obese people. At older ages, smokers incurred higher costs. Because of differences in life expectancy, however, lifetime health expenditure was highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position. Alternative values of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions did not alter these conclusions.' They conclude: 'Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures.'

This strongly suggests that people like the Scots and US Americans (mind you, the Germans are catching up rapidly) may have got it right after all: Live fast (and unhealthy) and die young. It seems our current pension systems are not designed to handle our longevity anyway, so why not make the best of it.

I am kind of kidding, of course, but there is an important lesson in this: If we succeed in getting people to live healthier and live quite a bit longer, we got to find a way to pay for that, too. An average of another 7 years added to our lives adds huge burdens to any pension system.

UNICEF - latest money scandal at UN

Hey, anyone monitoring closely the UN's latest frolics in terms of money wastage, corruption and incompetence will be pleased to see that the international organisation remains true to its historical form. It's been discovered that the German arm of UNICEF diverted about 20% of all donations (roughly 20 mio of 100 mio Euros) to pay its staff nicely exorbitant salaries, make plenty of external consultants happy etc. It could well be that this year, possibly for the first time, UNESCO might have to give up the mantle of most corrupt (and arguably most pointless) or most inefficiently run outfit in the UN bureaucracy, and might have to pass it on to UNICEF. No doubt UNESCO will fight hard, and, according to well-informed insiders, will almost certainly be able to claim the title back in 2009. Still, for 2008 it seems a remarkably close race. The only bit that's really funny about this are serial resignation of UNICEF 'ambassadors' (invariably actors, sports people, and the like, trying to do good by the world's children without wanting to think too much about it). It's as if it had never before occurred to them that any money poured into a UN outfit or a UN affiliated outfit is like attempting to fill a bottom-less pit.

This, of course, goes very much to the heart of the international do-good industry. Many such organisations these days have sufficient cash at hand, and are prepared to pay salaries sufficiently high to advertise in eg. THE ECONOMIST, a magazine in which a half-page advertisement costs probably about 15000 GBP. The question one has to ask in this context is whether poverty fighting organisations really need to pay many of their staff more in terms of salaries than most of their donors take home in a good year.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Microsoft buys Yahoo buys my Image Storage Facility

Capitalism makes it increasingly difficult to escape the tentacles of the larger of the software companies these days. I have to be honest, I belong to the crowd shouting fire whenever it comes to Microsoft, and all of Bill Gates charitable giving can't help me get over ongoing frustrations about truly inferior products that he dumps on customers buying a new PC. I like Apple, but only because their machines are more stable and their software is plain more elegant. I am not a great fan of Mr Jobs and his company's unpleasant copyright hurdles either, when it comes to i-tunes, for instance, or the nonsense of the i-phone tied to an inferior service provider.

I like google a lot, because at least they offer free access to their services (well, not entirely free, as everyone concerned about privacy and data-mining knows). I've also since discovered open source replacements for MS Office, and truth be told, they work just fine (except... bummer ... they are free). Just search for StarOffice 8, download it free of charge and you'll see see what I mean. Equally, googles online word processing software and what it offers for collaborations is pretty cool. Still, I am concerned that pretty much all of my professional life (email, documents) sits on google servers, and is continuously analysed by the company's software. Fair enough, there is nothing there that I would be concerned about if it ever ended up by some accident or other in the public domain, but still, to entrust one company all of that content is a worry to me.

So, I was quite happy that instead of having to use google's Picasa's web albums to store my images there was an alternative, independent operator out there, not beholden to any kind of quasi-Orwellian outfit like google. I was delighted with the services Flickr provided. I am still delighted about Flickr. Sadly, a year or two ago Flickr was bought by another Silicon Valley internet behemoth, Yahoo. It bothered me a bit, but I didn't mind, at least it wasn't Microsoft, or so I thought.

Well, I'm sure you will have heard that Microsoft is now on the verge of gobbling up Yahoo, and with it Flickr and with it my photos (some 4000 or so, and counting). Try as hard as you may, it seems somehow that it's all just a matter of time until the small fish are either killed or incorporated into some larger company, until only few players will be left that pretty much own facilities most people use to store their content, edit documents etc.

Wasn't it an old bearded guy by the name Karl Marx who predicted that such is the nature of capitalism that invariably this would be the outcome? I am not a Marxist, not by a long stretch, yet he seems to have got it right on this one.