Sunday, January 27, 2008

Off to a good week: Suharto dead, Xenophobia rejected in Germany

This has been a good weekend for many people. Mr Suharto, the kleptocrat former Indonesian leader (and good friend of the USA) has at long last died. His policies were directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, both in Indonesia as well as in East Timor. Naurally, in return for receiving support from the land of the free he promised to fight Communists (right wing dictators always fought Communists, didn't they?). Well, Indonesia failed to ever hold him and his fellow mass murdering kleptocrats to account for their deeds. At least he is gone. One can only hope that Indonesia's prosecutors will now try to get as much of the loot Suharto extracted from government coffers and foreign companies as is possible back from his family.

There has been more good news, xenophobia has been rejected by the electorate fairly powerfully in the German state of Hesse. The first minister, Roland Koch, ran a campaign against foreigners living and working in the state, linking them indiscriminately to violence, his opponents (you guessed it) to communism and so on and so forth. His party suffered today a double-digit loss in terms of voter support. It is reassuring that xenophobic policies don't go down too well in post-unification Germany.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

'Professional' and other interests

A low-profile discussion has recently taken place on the Letters page of the TIMES newspaper in the UK. Initially a number of top-flight scientists, including Nobel Laureates, argued that the current draft of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is flawed in that it prevents 'the generation of embryos (up to 14 days) in such research by the use of cells for which the donors did not, or could not, give specific consent.' Their point is that such research is of vital importance if we wish to 'increas[e] knowledge about the causes and potential treatment of serious, incurable degenerative conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and motor neurone disease.' The trouble is that 'many existing cell and tissue samples and cell lines were donated, for any research purpose, by patients (now untraceable) with particular diseases, before this sort of research was even imagined. These cells have been well characterised over many years, or have unique properties and may therefore be the best samples to use for the derivation of embryonic stem cells. Such stem cell lines would be of great value in understanding how diseases develop, as well in the search for therapies.'

One can be persuaded by such arguments or not, this isn't actually the point that I am concerned about. The scientists who signed this letter pretty much constitute the international leaders in stem cell research. Still, people might think that there are good ethical reasons for not utilising genetic material donated by people for any kind of research purposes for this sort of research without the explicit consent of the donors. I don't see any serious ethical issues if someone gives an open-ended type of consent, agreeing at some point that his or her genetic materials may be used for any kind of research.

A day later, also in the TIMES, another letter appeared. The letter was critical of the scientists views. Read it yourself to decide whether or not you find it convincing. As I said, this is not really of concern to me for the purpose of this commentary. What bothers me about this letter is its writers desperate attempt to add authority to their (otherwise probably weak) arguments. The writers are actually driven by strong Christian beliefs, beliefs that they fail to mention in their letter. So, they're not saying, 'as a Christian, it is my view that'. No, they're describing themselves as 'individuals with a professional interest' in bioethics. So, unlike the scientists who clearly are professionals providing a professional opinion, here we have a bunch of folks who try to make us think that they are professionals, while really they have a 'professional interest'. Well, what's a professional interest, I wonder? They certainly don't have this interest as professionals, as most of them are philosophers, and in any case, they claim a professional interest in bioethics. So, what's that? Are they saying that they have no professional competence in bioethics but that they are otherwise professionals who are interested in bioethics? If that was the case, surely the 'respect for authority' demanding introductory line would have been pointless. If, on the other hand, they're suggesting that they have a kind of bioethical professional authority, akin to the professional competence the scientists have, they would be plain wrong. Bioethicists, much like philosophers and politicians are not professionals by any sensible interpretation of this term. They don't meet the most basic criteria of what constitutes a professional. One of the writers even refers to himself as Director of Research at some Scottish Bioethics Council. You might want to look for his 'professional' or other qualifications in bioethics (say a doctorate), or peer reviewed publications in academic journals (as opposed to in-house publications of his 'Council'). I think the Council is just another tool in the armament of our 'authority' demanding writers' group. It has not published a single research report that would have made it into the academic literature. For all intent and purposes it is non-existent. Another of the contributors directs a Christian bioethics think tank (conveniently forgetting to add the descriptor Christian to its name). Main main point is this: The 'professional interest in bioethics' crowd is very much an emperor who happens to be naked...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jackie Selebi - South Africa's Police Commissioner and friend of the local Mafia


Jackie Selebi, until recent South Africa's Police Commissioner and head of Interpol has been suspended from his day job in South Africa and forced to resign as head of Interpol. The reason for all this? Well, Selebi admitted some time ago to be best friends with a local crime boss (drug trafficer Glen Agliotti), but insisted that this didn't affect his work. At long last, and despite interference by the country's President, Mr Mbeki, the National Prosecuting Authority has decided that it will charge Selebi with corruption and defeating the ends of justice. Even Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's outgoing President, couldn't protect Selebi anylonger. Despite some skirmishing from Selebi's underlings (eg his police arrested a senior member of the team investigating Selebi under drummed up charges that were straight thrown out of court), his day in court is looming - at long last.
I got to be honest, I can't stand Mr Selebi, he's a pompous, clearly inept, deeply overweight civilian with a strong preference for colourful uniforms. I recall like it was yesterday when I sat with him on a panel and he and I started a discussion about corruption in South Africa. His main mode of reasoning was to explain it away by saying that it wouldn't happen if there were not rich white Europeans (Selebi is a racist kinda character who fits well into the new South African dispensation) offering money to corrupt South Africans. I could see that there was actually some truth in this, yet it seemed at the same time plain stupid to suggest that the person who takes the money and allows him or herself to be bought is kind of innocent. It's clear to me now that Selebi might well have had himself in mind when he tried to suggest that it is (as always) the whities fault. Not a big surprise then that his mafia friend turns out to be a white bloke. He very much knew what he was talking about, it seems.
What is remarkable is how long it took to remove this shady character. The same applies to someone less shady but equally incompetent, South Africa's Minister for Health Prevention, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. All of these shenanigans can only be explained by the fact that the country is well and truly a one-party state and anything but a functioning democracy. Nobody really has the power to hold the South African government accountable for its failings, of which widespread corruption is just one.

'Freedom of Speech' and the Mark Steyn's of the world

In case you don't know Mark Steyn: Well, basically Mr Steyn is a rightwing lunatic. He raves on the web and right-wing papers like MacLean's the Chicago Sun-Times (courtesy of convicted rightwing fraudster Conrad Black), the Washington Times (owned by the Moonies), the New York Sun (courtesy of convicted rightwing fraudster Conrad Black) among others, against gays, Muslims and most other folks that are not like him. No doubt his hysterics are partially a marketing ploy (nobody reasonable would beat up minorities as he does without hoping for a public outcry). After all, in this day and age, the more aggressively you wave your hands and shout 'fire', the more likely you are to get the attention that you probably didn't get from your parents while you were younger. Certainly Mr Steyn, by now, should have more than overcompensated for parental failings and should be very much in the clear.

So, currently the Canadian Human Rights Commission is investigating MacLean's for republishing an excerpt from a book in which Mr Steyn attacks Islam and Muslims. I am not a great friend of this ideology or most of its followers either (just as I think any other monotheistic religion is likely to cause more harm than good), but Mr Steyn being Mr Steyn, he manages to mess up occasionally sensible arguments by means of going after the person (the believer) rather than the cause of the evil, namely the ideology. No doubt there is a correlation between crimes committed in the name of Islam and the ideology which doesn't seem to forbid its followers clearly to commit such crimes.

Having said that, one should be concerned about the Canadian Human Rights Commission going after Mr Steyn and Maclean's on the grounds that his views caused offense to Muslims. Mr Steyn is right to point out that what constitutes offense is very much in the eyes of the beholder. No doubt there is a direct correlation between the views one holds and what one considers offensive. Ie, the more fanatical my views are the more likely I am to take offense at even the slightest criticism of my opinions. To be also fair to Mr Steyn, due to his mostly repulsive agitprop style writings he is constantly under attack by legions of people. For instance, he would almost certainly never attack Christian fundamentalists firebombing reproductive health clinics in the USA, no, his targets would rather be gay people being discriminated against by right-wing Christians. To his credit, to the best of my knowledge he has never resorted to the courts to stop them from having their say about him.

But herein also lies the problem: One of the reasons for why we don't have absolute freedom of speech is precisely to protect weaker groups of people (let's call them lunatics favourite targets or LFTs) from attacks like Mr Steyn's.

Mr Steyn, a darling of the political right, arguably would be unknown without Mr Black and his wife's interventions, which gave him access to many of the papers controlled at one point or other by the Black media empire. So, civil rights protections of LFTs(and Muslims in liberal societies are still just that) are a means of leveling the playing field to some extent. It's all nice and well to say that there should be absolute freedom of speech for us all when only some of us (say, those with the right (!) connections) have convenient access to mass media outlets in order to vent their spleen, while most others of us are relegated to the letters pages. Limitations on freedom of speech are also designed to prevent unnecessary inflammations of the relations between different communities making up a given society. In other words, they're precisely designed to stop people addicted to generating public attention for themselves, consequences be damned, from getting away with conduct not conducive to living peacefully together. This also applies, of course, to radical Muslims going over the top. Not a bad deal in the end, I would think. So, I would not really mind if Mr Steyn and MacLean's were held to account, provided the Human Rights Commission consistently applied the same standard to fanatics of any other ideological conviction.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

UK moves closer to presumed consent for organ transplantation purposes

Every day people die unnecessary, preventable deaths because most of us are essentially lazy. Across the world we are suffering a serious shortage of organs available for transplantation purposes. This is not because there is a shortage of people dying premature deaths in car accidents and the like, but because these people have forgotten to sign the necessary forms permitting doctors to take their organs after they have died, in order to transplant them into people who are unable to survive without suitable transplant organs. Any survey that has ever been published on this issue shows time and again that many more people are prepared to donate their organs after their death in order to preserve a fellow human beings life. However, many of these very same people forget, don't know where or how to sign the necessary papers permitting them to become organ donors. The result is that their organs are inaccessible in case of their death, and the result is avoidable deaths of people in need of transplant organs.

Anglosaxon countries, traditionally preoccupied with individual rights and individual liberties have dragged their feet longest when it came to considering changes to this lamentable status quo. More community oriented societies such as France, Spain and Iran, have long implemented an op-out system whereby people who do not wish to see their organs removed for transplantation purposes after their death have to state explicitly that they do not want to see their organs utilized after their death to save others. The results have been astonishing, to say the least. Waiting lists are substantially shorter, and fewer lives are lost due to lack of transplant organs. For once, people's laziness to deal with this matter is deployed in favor of preserving lives instead of letting go of them.

The English Chief Medical Officer has started a campaign to change regulations in England toward such an opt-out system. Sir Liam Donaldson argues that some 1000 or more lives are lost each year in England alone, because people need to opt-in to be considered as organ donors after their deaths. Surely agreeing to an opt-out system is the least we can do to change the odds of survival for our fellow citizens in need of a transplant organ. Hundreds of lives could be saved by means of this change of policy. The health care system in the UK is a devolved one, so it is worth noting that the train has departed in a similar direction to the English in Scotland. In fact, the Scots have very much taken on the role of change agent in the UK in this context.

There can be no doubt that there is something distinctly uncomfortable about the idea that unless I object to someone taking something off (not to say, out of) me after my death, I am presumed to have consented. However, equally, one wonders what good reason anyone could have to deny in death someone else the gift of life? Surely it is only a small minority of people insisting to be buried with their whole set of organs included. Why should we as society not ask them to let us know that they wish to utilize their organs to feed worms in the cemetery instead of permitting another human being to continue to live? That the majority of people disagrees with the friends of cemetery worms, when asked, in survey after survey, gives us arguably some reason to presume consent.

Pro-life activists have already responded to this new 'threat' in their traditional disingenious ways. Here's a quote from lifenews.com: 'In what pro-life advocates see as a further scaling back of the respect government should have for patients and their right to life, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has endorsed allowing hospitals to take organs from dead patients without their consent.' Patients' right to life is subverted by taking organs from DEAD people. Yeah, sure, the dead can't get up walking again after their liver is taken out to save someone else's life. Normally the dead would go straight from their hospital bed to soccer matches, or church or whatever else they fancy. But now that those nasty politicians propose to extract organs from dead people in order to save someone who is still alive, the dead people's participation in public life is seriously under threat. Thank goodness prolifers managed to alert us to this danger to the lives of dead people.

Canada would do well to follow the French, Spanish, and hopefully soon Scottish and English examples suit. That much is surely owed by society to those of its members dying preventable deaths due to a lack of transplant organs.

- post scriptum: a shortened version of this opinion appeared on Jan 17, 2008 in the OTTAWA CITIZEN, and the Windsor Star.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Great Britain - land of human rights and respect for human dignity


Well yes, up to a point, it seems. Incredible as it may sound, but British law enforcement agencies do seem to think that it is an appropriate course of action to remove a terminally ill Ghanaian woman from her hospital bed in Cardiff, and put her on a plane back to Ghana, because her visa has expired. 39 year old Ama Sumani, a woman requiring continuing kidney dialysis, was - incredibly - physically removed from her hospital bed by police officers and shipped off to Ghana. Home Affairs officials did not see a problem with this, as kidney dialysis is available in Ghana. They just forgot that tiny detail of affordability. Sumani tried desperately to get access to medical care since she got to Ghana, and failed, because she was unable to pay for dialysis. Of Ghana trained medical doctors about 56% work currently abroad, many of which in fact in the UK. While the UK seems content with being a free-rider on Ghana's medical education system, it does not seem to be content with giving something back to Ghanaians, for instance by way of treating some of its citizens in Britain. Surely, the visa issue has just been the excuse to get rid of a sick African migrant. Land of human rights and human dignity... I wonder.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Race or no ... race

Interesting bit of information taken from the GUARDIAN science site.

Are there genetic differences between "races"?

Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading University. His research includes work on language and cultural evolution.

"Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like minuscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.

"The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations ... Like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations - including differences that may even correspond to old categories of "race" - that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.

"This in no way says one group is in general "superior" to another ... But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Barack Obama is BAD news for American health care


Any politics junkie will probably be glued to the TV watching today's primaries' results in New Hamsphire. It looks almost certain that John McCaine will seal it for the Republicans and Barack Obama for the Democrats. The latter's ascent strikes me as truly bizarre. He has few concrete policies, and, if anything, has supported a whole range of right-wing causes. Unlike most other Democrats he voted in favor of Dick Cheney's energy legislation. More importantly, Hillary Clinton, the much derided and disliked other leading contender for the Democrats' top spot, has consistently campaigned for a Europe style health care system while Barack Obama's policies (vague as they are) seem to be to the right of Mitt Romney, another Republican candidate. There is an easy explanation then for the rightwing US media (campaign outfits like Fox News) overt support for Obama. They see their chance to do away with the Clinton dynasty for good. It's all neatly hidden under the cloak of 'Change', a darker skin color, and an ever smiling candidate. For some reason the political Left seems to believe that Obama is a particularly progressive candidate. Well, brace yourself for a nasty awakening... there is no evidence that he is. As the old Romans said: let the buyer beware. With Obama the US Democrats seem to be prepared to buy a product they are unable to have a proper look at. This democracy remains a scary place...

In a clear sign that sexism is alive and kicking in that country, Hillary Clinton is busily forced to show that she is emotional and not 'cold'. Surely only a woman would ever have to defend herself against such a charge. Who has ever seen such a charge levelled against any male presidential candidate in that country? Bizarre... bizarre!

The bad news that is Barack Obama for American health care comes fresh on the heels of a brand new study, reported today by Reuters news agency.
'France, Japan and Australia rated best and the United States worst in new rankings focusing on preventable deaths due to treatable conditions in 19 leading industrialized nations, researchers said on Tuesday. If the U.S. health care system performed as well as those of those top three countries, there would be 101,000 fewer deaths in the United States per year, according to researchers writing in the journal Health Affairs.'

Surely there is a reason for why public health care works better than private health care! Obama, the much tauted agent for 'change' is not planning to change the private nature of US health care! Well, at least he's black, but then, so is Clarence Thomas... nuff said.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Hitler was a vegetarian, Stalin an atheist, Osama bin Laden a Muslim


I am sure you all at one point or other have heard (or, worse, deployed) an argument like this: Hitler was a vegetarian, ergo something got to be wrong with vegetarianism (vegetarians are probably all more or less on the verge of becoming genocidal mass murderers); or: Stalin was an atheist, ergo atheism is responsible for the pogroms Stalin presided over; or: Osama is a Muslim, ergo Islam is responsible for the mayhem currently taking place all over the world.
It will not come as a great surprise to readers of my blog that I am quite content with exonerating vegetarianism and atheism, but I am uncertain as to Islam. The reasons for this are fairly simple, neither Stalin nor Hitler used atheism or vegetarianism (respectively) as their ideological rationale trying to justify their murderous activities. Say, Hitler didn't go about saying, 'because I think eating animals is unethical, I think we should slaughter plenty of Jewish people'. These two things were unrelated. The same is true for Stalin. Stalin also did not justify his mass murder with reference to atheism. He murdered millions of Russians for entirely unrelated reasons.
The same, however, cannot be said with regard to Osama bin Laden (and many like him), whose main frame of ideological reference and justification for their continuing terrorist activities is indeed their religion - Islam. The same holds also true for fundamentalist Christian fanatics who have killed people working in reproductive health facilities in the USA.
So, the argument that Stalin was an atheist and that therefore atheism is a bad thing is false, while the argument that Osama bin Laden is a Muslim and therefore Islam is a bad thing cannot be brushed away in the same vain. One would probably have to show that Osama bin Laden's interpretation if Islam is false, which does not seem to be easily done, or else he would not have the number of followers he seems to have all over the world.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Scotland - hopefully - moving to presumed consent system for organ donations

I have been writing about this issue time and again. Many human lives are being lost because most countries operate a system whereby a deceased person's organs may only be extracted for transplant purposes if that person has given consent (ie joined some kind of organ donor registry). The thing is, most of us are simply too lazy to do so. A survey in the UK suggests that about 70% of people surveyed would be happy to see their organ utilised after their death to save someone else's life, yet only 25% of the same group of people was on the organ donor registry operated by the NHS. So, bravely a Scot MSP, George Foulkes, has suggested that Scotland introduces an opt-out regime. In opt-out regimes people must state explicitly that they do not wish their organs to be used for transplantation purposes, or else their consent is going to be presumed to exist. Reportedly, the Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon supports the opt-out regime. Such a change would be great news for Scotland! Preventable deaths would actually be prevented as a result of a switch from an opt-in regime to an opt-out regime.

Air Canada - your incompetent airline

I thought KLM is one of the worst outfits gracing our skies (well, I am excluding US airlines, of course), but I have since discovered that AIR CANADA is by far the worst outfit disgracing our skies. It is basically a state subsidized organization run very much incompetently, and with no concern for its customers. Its customer complaints people churn out message after message generating platitudes explaining why its failings are 'acts of god', 'bad weather', 'name your preferred excuse of the day'.
I failed a few weeks back to get to Hong Kong because 'weather' supposedly prevented my flight to Hong Kong from leaving. It goes without saying, plenty of flights left my airport, despite the 'weather', but hey, AIR CANADA's excuse generating software is routinely up for some unintelligible explanation or other. According to its excuse generating software (presumably sent from an overseas based excuse generating computer) 'bad weather' permitted flights to leave at 6 am, and at 8 am, but the very same bad weather prevented the 7 am flight from leaving. It goes without saying that this is utter bollocks (utter bollocks is a short for 'AIR CANADA customer disservice department's unintelligible explanation').
A friend tried to leave on AIR CANADA for an overseas trip yesterday. The weather was actually really bad, and one would have expected the flight to be canceled. AIR CANADA operates another dysfunctional 'service', one in theory at least informing people (NOT) about flight cancellations. So, he calls em up and asks whether his flight is still scheduled to fly out that day. Dutifully AIR CANADA 'informs' him that his flight is on time and that he should go to the airport. Upon arrival there he's told that there were NO flights that day, due to the bad weather. So, he had to scramble last minute to catch a train to Toronto's airport to fly from there. Reimbursement for the flight not operated? Reimbursement for unnecessary taxi fares to the aiport based on AIR CANADA's advice (ie we are flying)? Of course not. The only thing AIR CANADA is truly good at is a prompt response saying 'weather related' or 'act of god' (the airline's standard response should, of course, be: 'due to our incompetence'). So, my friend got an 'act of god' response in lieu of an explanation for why the airline dragged him to the airport when it hadn't operated a single flight from that airport on that day.
One can only hope that the Canadian government will stop sinking tax payers' money in what is obviously a dysfunctional national carrier (it doesn't seem to carry too many passengers to their booked destinations anyway...).
My advice, avoid booking AIR CANADA at all cost. I won't be boarding its planes again. My idea about boycotting particularly bad airlines is to boycott them for a period of, say, five years, hoping that either they'll be bankrupt by then and out of business, or replaced by a more competently run operator, or that they'd have improved their operations to such an extent that they'd be given another chance. So, AIR CANADA, come January 01, 2012 I might reconsider you. Hopefully though, there is an alternative carrier available to me by then.