Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!


I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

Building Blocks

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist.

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist. I have never been a parent, although I have been a child (as I am a male, I probably still am one). On the other hand, it only takes a modicum of observational insight to notice that humans establish, almost insist on, dominance and submissive roles in many of or interactions. No, not THAT kind, although that is certainly a clear example of the phenomenon (and whatever… not my boat; if it floats go ahead and paddle forth (that’s probably a bad pun)).

Parents with two or more infants, particularly twins, or who host play dates with children of near-identical ages have probably seen dominance behaviors in simple interactions. Imagine two infants with a set of blocks positioned between them. It is likely that one of the two children will start dominating block play fairly soon, either by gathering them disproportionally to themselves, building something, or even exhibiting aggressive behavior towards their peer. They are peers, after all. Just a couple of infants who are supposed to be playing. For some reason, one is likely to develop an advantage of some sort with the blocks. The other child may be unmoved and unimpressed or see the behavior and attempt to gain block parity with the dominant child. This may lead to new dominance or to an increase in aggressive behavior—new attempts by the initially dominant child to have more blocks, throwing blocks, vocalizations by one or the other or both, banging blocks together, etc. It is probable that most of these interactions will be interrupted by adults. If they are not, it is likely that one child will dominate.

Dr. Anthea Pun et al., Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, published a study earlier this year in which 48 infants between 9 and 12 months of age were shown to exhibit submissive behavior to infants from numerically larger groups or to smaller groups that included larger infants—numerical and size-dominance. The following is a summary of the study’s significance:

The ability to detect dominance relationships is essential for survival because it helps individuals weigh the potential costs and benefits of engaging in a physical competition. Here we show that infants as young as 6 mo of age are capable of detecting dominance relations when provided with an ecologically relevant cue such as social group size. Furthermore, infants can infer the social dominance relationship between two competing individuals based on the size of the group to which they belong, and expect individuals from a numerically larger group to get their way. These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

In the body of the paper, the study states that it seems that numerical size of a group is a more significant determinant than individual size. They cite several examples in chimpanzee and bird species wherein a single individual within a group does not gain dominance without the support of a group, regardless of the individual’s size. Interestingly, they also indicate that adults process social status indicators (e.g. military rank) in the same region of the brain in which group size (i.e. “numerical ratio discrimination”) is processed—the inferior parietal cortex (IPC).


Of course, like all studies, this is dependent on many studies on similar questions. But it is the last sentence in the quoted paragraph that concerns me today:

These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

This is elaborated on as follows:

Competition for valuable resources such as mates, food, and territory (1) is commonplace across the animal kingdom. To minimize the cost of fighting (e.g., energy spent and personal injury or death), natural selection appears to have favored the emergence of cognitive adaptations that help individuals predict whether they stand a chance against an opponent (25).

Okay. This seems like a set of behaviors that is well understood in our world, so well understood that infants “understand” that larger groups and/or groups with larger infants may have a dominance advantage over them, although it is an abstract concept to them at the time (i.e. they are probably not competing for mates, food, or territory unless their parents have abandoned them entirely).

This is the problem, though. Social cues that serve various fauna populations well to this day do not do our species much good at all. I would argue, in fact, that these behaviors set up domination/submission conflicts that have sometimes laughable, sometimes mortally serious implications for how we all live together. The behavior reveals itself everywhere!

Families in the same neighborhood compete to “keep up with the Joneses.” Who has the nicest driveway? Who has the best grille? In less suburban settings, the metrics may change but the game is the same. Who has painted their house, rethatched it, most recently? Who has the most wives and/or children (probably a correlation therein)? Who herds the most goats? It’s all about numerical (or value) domination and all is arbitrated right there in the IPC. If families do this, then the towns and cities in which they live also vie for superlatives. Who has the best sports teams? How many sports teams? Who won the season most recently and how often? From there, we go to national competitions, typically for resources of one type or another, which confer status and likelihood of dominance. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if competition was treated as a method of entertainment it is intended to be rather than a measure of self—and therefore group—worth? Wouldn’t each nation, each continent, the whole freakin’ planet gain a mutual advantage if those infant minds were not sorting out who to push about and who to fear… at the incredibly tender age of 9 to 12 months?

Let me put aside a notion really quickly. I am not talking about the benefits of “communism,” “socialism,” or any other imaginary sociopolitical construct. Any movement initiated in the name of Marx (wait, that’s not the one I meant!) quickly became an authoritarian state, with the most powerful enjoying luxuries the least powerful could not imagine. Just like infants sorting out who gets the most blocks.


What I am discussing is the potentially vestigial nature of infantile power-grabs, by which I mean that it is possible that our species has outgrown its need for this constant balance of power game. We have a vestigial tail—the coccyx—a bump that is located precisely where tails are located in other species and which we share with other tailless great apes. It is an important attachment point for a number of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Those of you who have angered it by sitting on it too carelessly will probably sit with greater care forever more. The coccyx isn’t the only example of items in human anatomy that are vestigial but it will do for the purposes of our metaphor.


If our IPC insists on keeping score as we group up, which is going to happen—we are a gregarious species, although not all extrovertedly so—we are going to keep making intellectually unsupportable claims about our superiority over others in our family, community, etc. We are going to keep believing that “our team (whoever that is)” have better recruiting, better warm-up games, better coaches and management, better fill-in-the-blanks (I really don’t care) than other teams. “Our nation” is number one, whatever nation that is (at least the politicians in that nation are going to say so; you can tell them by the gravy of corruption dripping from their lips). As long as “our nation” is peddling its superiority over its neighbors—or more likely, nations with delicious resources—this power-grab business will continue. The following clip from HBO’s series Newsroom addresses the “number one” business fairly directly with respect to the U.S. but again it is not my intent to be negative about one country or another. I am after the foundational issue, which is why some of us, as infants, start grabbing power while others might not like it but go along to get along? It’s wired in and it is going to take a conscious, deliberate, and probably relatively slow process to stop us behaving in accord with vestigial processes—by-products even—of the inferior parietal cortex (an irony that this rank ordering business occurs in the inferior PC!).

The foulest blunders our IPCs do in the name of supporting notions of superiority and domination are in the name of genderist, racist, nationalist—in general, chauvinist—thinking. Millions of people have engaged in dominant behaviors characterizable in the simplest way as “murder” because they have come to believe that their beliefs about another group of humans are correct and that other group is fated by deities to die because of their imagined inferiority. I wish I were still talking about infants and blocks at this point. I am not. I am saying something that everyone—those who read this and the billions who don’t—understands at a fundamental level. When one group of people goes after another group of people (or, for that matter, when one person goes after another individual) and kills them, it is murder and the verdict is not changed by calling it war or serial killing or ethnic cleansing or forced emigration (which results in numerous unnecessary deaths) or any other thing.

Women—yup, about 50% of the population (although seeing difficult days at present) of our species—are still treated as property of the male or of their family in many countries. They do not have an unencumbered right to vote in some countries (the U.S. “granted” women the right to vote in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed (by men, just a footnote here, folks)). They, on average, do not earn as much as men doing the same job. While women nominally have equal rights in many countries, their rights within cultural groups are often quite different than what the law dictates.

This is just plain odd, not to mention wrong. While women comprise 50% of the earth’s human population, they bear 100% of the earth’s human children. In many families, women are responsible, at least tacitly, for raising the children. This works as follows: “I am the breadwinner” said Bob “and your job is to stay home and raise the kids.” That’s the explicit version of the conversation. The implicit version doesn’t happen… it just “is.” And perhaps that is not entirely bad but isn’t it just another form of the play block problem? The dominant person, often the male, tells the less dominant person that he’ll play with the blocks and she will play with the dolls. It should be a conversation (and often is in some cultural segments) but it should ALWAYS be a conversation and dominant/submissive posturing should not be part of the outcome. If all else fails, the jobs should be based on competence, merit, capability.

The place in our culture that this conversation has really been a complete mess for centuries, at the least, is in matters of ethnicity or race, which are often confounded by geographical separation as well. In her work The History of White People, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter discusses how the notion of “whiteness” became a stand-in for superiority and for suppression of regional rivals at least as far back as the Greeks and the histories of  conflicts documented by Herodotus. This whole process of domination was executed in part through creating a characteristic that was a “god-given” right for one group to dominate another. That right was “whiteness” and it is also the false notion that empowered enslavement of Africans, Indians (particularly in Central and South America but also in the “sub-continent” of India and elsewhere).

American Progress, John Gast (1872) depicting Columbia, with telegraph wire and a book of knowledge, penetrating the “darkness” of the American West, driving the Native Americans and Bison before them (no kidding, this is how people thought! It was a popular engraving of the time)

The thing is we all have the capacity to be equal at the moment of our birth, absent very real differences in diet, cultural safety, exposure to environmental hazards (including drugs, lead, cigarette carcinogens, alcohol, plasticizers, etc.), and the like. As we grow older, the patterns of dominance emerge and submission kicks in. We have the intellectual capacity to understand that this is not the way we should live our lives.

Am I arguing against competition in products, in markets, in some people just doing some things better than others? Absolutely not! Differences among us will always exist. The differences that do not exist in the first place must go the way of our tails, though. I am white (actually sort of a weird, mottled pink as I have – or had – freckles and my skin is less uniformly “flesh” colored (is that even a color? really?)) than it once was. Do I care? No, I do not. I do not believe I am superior to anyone on earth. I do believe that to achieve this view, I have had to recognize this ancient dominance game that our IPCs play on us and I have to deny its sway. You can too. Every time your mind tells you that you or people that look like you or people from your family or neighborhood or state or nation or gender or race are better than someone else, find your voice and tell that idiot (your own internal, ancient idiot) NO!!!!!

That is a start. If we all do what I’ve described persistently for the next several decades, centuries, perhaps millennia (I sure hope not), we will become the species we should be, the species without that vestigial argument running around in our heads.

If we make it at all.

Featured image

Pun, A., Birch, S. A., & Baron, A. S. (2016, March 16). Infants use relative numerical group size to infer social dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 113(9), 2376-2381. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514879113

Would you like some milk with that?

Never has such a delicious word been loaded with as much historical baggage.

Never has such a delicious word been loaded with as much historical baggage.

During his 2003 State of the Union (SotU) address, President George W. Bush made the following statement:

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The primary reason that President Bush said this is a convoluted tale straight out of a John Le Carré or Frederick Forsyth novel. The disinformation alluded to in the SotU was disinformation in itself, as members of his White House, ex-Italian spy agency SISMI figures, and rogue CIA and Pentagon analysts had created forged documents using letterhead and stamps stolen from the Niger embassy in Rome the night of January 1, 2001 to create an official order from Iraq for 500 tons of yellowcake uranium to be delivered by Niger mining operations.

Yellowcake Uranium

The narrative that the Bush administration was assembling was that Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq was jeopardizing the stability of the Middle East and the safety of all countries around the world because he was (1) restarting the Iraqi nuclear weapons effort, (2) had a biological weapons capability, and (3) was actively encouraging the training of Al Qaeda personnel in the country.

The first of these arguments was made by pointing to some aluminum tubes that Iraq had ordered and spreading the idea that they were suitable for (1) making centrifuge tubes used to purify uranium from yellowcake to more fissionable material or (2) making short-range rocket casings. Well, the >100,000 aluminum tubes never reached Iraq as they were successfully indicted by American officials. Additionally, there was no evidence presented by the Bush administration that other components used in making gas centrifuges were on order from anywhere.

The other element here was the yellowcake order from Niger. A dossier of numerous documents, apparently showing communications between Iraqi and Niger governments, mysteriously were delivered to the ex-SISMI agent Rocco Martino, who had been fired from SISMI for a variety of performance issues. The person who delivered them to Martino was not known to him. Martino then sold them on to French intelligence, who sent them on to British – and perhaps other – intelligence services, who then shared them with the U.S. or they were directly shared with the U.S. and British intelligence were simply cited in the SotU to give some “it wasn’t us!” cover to the administration.

To acquire affirmation of the deal, the Bush administration sent Joseph Wilson, ex-U.S. ambassador to Niger to see if he could substantiate the origin of the documents and their existence in Niger records. He could not. Instead, he told the Bush administration the truth, which annoyed them. For reasons that still elude me, this resulted in I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, telling Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist who was considered politically conservative, that Ambassador Wilson’s wife, Valerie Wilson (née Plame) was a CIA agent. Novak published Valerie Wilson’s role in the CIA, effectively ending her career as a covert agent for the United States. Why? Apparently, just to kick Ambassador Wilson in the yarbles. Libby was later indicted on five Federal charges of lying, obstructing justice, and the like, although his 30-month prison term was immediately voided by President Bush.

As for restarting the Iraq nuclear weapons effort, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released an amended report in March 7, 2003, eleven days before “shock and awe” campaign was initiated by the “coalition of the willing.” The IAEA weapons inspectors left Iraq on March 19, 2003. The following is text directly from the conclusion of the IAEA weapon inspectors’ report:

  • There is no indication of resumed nuclear activities in those buildings that were identified through the use of satellite imagery as being reconstructed or newly erected since 1998, nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities at any inspected sites.
  • There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990.
  • There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import aluminium tubes for use in centrifuge enrichment. Moreover, even had Iraq pursued such a plan, it would have encountered practical difficulties in manufacturing centrifuges out of the aluminium tubes in question.
  • Although we are still reviewing issues related to magnets and magnet production, there is no indication to date that Iraq imported magnets for use in a centrifuge enrichment programme.
    (British spelling of “aluminum” and “program” retained from the original text)

That pretty much takes care of the second leg of the three-legged U.S. invasion of Iraq argument.

The third leg is the biological weapons capability argument. On February 5, 2003, the Bush administration sent Secretary of State General Colin Powell to the United Nations General Assembly to present arguments for interruption of President Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction campaign in Iraq. Along with his speech, Secretary Powell held up a vial of white powder during his speech and indicated that it was weaponized anthrax bacteria. Here is the complete speech Secretary Powell made to the U.N.:

This element of the story was discredited by the Iraq Survey Group, a group of at least 1,400 inspectors from the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. led by veteran weapons inspector David Kay, in his October 2, 2003 report to both houses of the U.S. Congress. In the final report, completed by Charles Duelfer on September 30, 2004 – one year later than the initial report to intelligence committees, he indicated that

“The former regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions. Neither was there an identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners separate from Saddam” tasked to take this up once sanctions ended.

In other words, there were no WMD and at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to halt Iraqi WMD programs, there was no discernible strategy to rebuild the WMD capability destroyed in the First Gulf War (1991) and constrained by the IAEA weapons inspection program in place since then.

Since the U.S. invasion, there have been tens of thousands of Iraq casualties (dead and wounded; verified numbers are difficult to obtain) and millions of Iraqis have fled ongoing violence in Iraq to surrounding countries. Iran, a country dominated by Shiite clerics, has made a strategic alliance with Iraq’s new Shiite-centric government, leading to the disenfranchisement of the Sunni population and Sunni politicians. Some portion of the Sunni population have joined ex-Ba’athists, expelled from the Iraqi government and army by Ambassador Paul Bremer shortly after his arrival in Iraq, and formed Daesh (aka ISIL or ISIS), ravaged Syria (another Shiite-dominated country allied with Iran) and Iraq, not to mention been implicated in attacks in other countries. And Iraq, once dominated by a brutal Sunni strongman who imprisoned, tortured, and killed his opposition and gased Kurdish tribes in the north, is still in chaos, thirteen years and counting after the U.S. invasion.But Hussein was our brutal strongman. His weapon systems? Almost entirely sourced from the U.S. in the 1970s through ’90s as a (1) bulwark against “radicalized” Iran and (2) a stop-gap against USSR expansionist policy in the area. Most of the strongmen in the area have enjoyed American backing. Saudi Arabia? Jordan ? Iran (during the Shah’s reign)? Syria (Assad)?

But Hussein was our brutal strongman. His weapon systems? Almost entirely sourced from the U.S. in the 1970s through ’90s as a (1) bulwark against “radicalized” Iran and (2) a stop-gap against USSR expansionist policy in the area. Most of the strongmen in the area have enjoyed American backing. Saudi Arabia? Yemen? Kuwait? Egypt? Jordan ? Iran (during the Shah’s reign)? Syria (Assad)? About any “…stan” after the USSR reverted to its pre-imperial states (Uzbekistan, Krygzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, all with brutal dictators)? All were or are ruled by military dictatorships who Hoovered up as much foreign aid as possible and placed it directly in their own bank accounts. All had separate purchasing agreements with western weapon systems manufacturers so that (fill in the blank of the country U.S.-affiliated countries wanted to hold in check) would not make inroads in the region.

And Hussein, awful person that he was, did the job for us until U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie gave Hussein a nod and a wink about possibly invading Kuwait in 1990. Before that? There was the U.S.-backed Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which resulted in 105,000-200,000 Iraqis killed, another 400,000 wounded, 70,000 prisoners taken by Iran and, on the Iranian side, another 200,000-262,000 dead, about 400,000 wounded. And a stalemate. The astute reader will note that this war started soon after the Iranian students took U.S. Embassy hostages (1979) and Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership in Iran. Oh, and Hussein’s gasing of the Kurds? Conducted using American chemical weapons.

The takeaway for all of this should be that it is rare that a single incident involving relations between countries can be reduced to an isolated incident. As a parting example, a significant source of Iranian aggression in 1979, leading to the exile of the Shah to the U.S., was the result of a 1953 CIA-backed coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq, democratically elected (and idiosyncratic) prime minister of Iran. The Shah, vigorously pro-western, spent the next 26 years suppressing Shiite clerics who dared to argue with his lifestyle (lavish) or political approach (authoritarian). In 1979, it boiled over. Or you can go back further and look at how the petroleum industry was initiated in Iran in the first decade of the 20th C. Or you can look at how Britain and Russia attempted to play The Great Game in Iran (as well as the rest of the region) starting back in the 1600s. Your choice, but nothing is as simple as it seems. In any country you name.

All, in some way, because of some forged documents regarding yellowcake. It is the latest and perhaps the definitive example of the law of unintended consequences ever visited on a country and maybe the human race. Let’s all make sure this sort of nonsense doesn’t happen again. To anyone.

And let’s not even start on Marie Antoinette’s “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!


Aluminum tubes:

Yellowcake story:

Timeline of Iraq-related events:


Understand the Present, Read History

Unless your daily experience is radically different than mine, unless you are currently in a conflict zone or in a gang-driven neighborhood in your city, your hair is not on fire, you have no right to don a crown of flames and shout “CRISIS!” from the rooftops. You do have a responsibility to try and calm the fearful and help them return to a pattern of rational behavior.

There’s this guy (there’s something inherently old-school Bronx about that phrase “dairs dis guy”) I know who I barely knew in high school. I’m not sure what clique he was in (cliques weren’t as numerous and appearance/affinity-based as they seem to be now), but I was in a tiny clique of military brats (kids who had traveled about every year as their military parents were assigned to new duty stations) in a military base town with a strong southern identity (antebellum houses, racial segregation, covert racism until it wasn’t covert, a lack of good blue-collar jobs, except on base). We liked the idiosyncratic music of the era – early King Crimson, James Brown, early Yes, The Chambers Brothers, early Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Nice, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, SpiritCream, Buffalo Springfield, and many others. We were for civil rights and against the Vietnam war in the vague ways that teens are when they don’t understand (our positions were correct but we didn’t understand the breadth and depth of why).

Fast forward 45 years and I receive emails from him occasionally and they are usually rife with predictions of imminent catastrophe. Some of the emails will be calm until suddenly they are laced with fact-free, unsupportable conspiracy notions. I know the players he writes about and the history behind the topics he chooses to highlight and they are, for the most part, unhinged rants. He sent me one of these “DOOM TOMORROW, HIDE IN A BUNKER!” (not a quote) emails recently and an image sprung to mind.

The phrase “hair on fire” refers to people who are so terrified of what they believe is happening in the world that they have reached an ignition point in their concern and their hair has spontaneously burst into flames. Figuratively. Or at least I hope it’s figurative. I mean, I hope they have not doused their follicles with lighter fluid and crackled a match to life but I don’t hang with “hair on fire” people so I’m not sure. Has anyone seen large packs of people actually walking around (literally this time) with their hair on fire? I want to know. Please report them to (1) the local fire station and (2) me, then (3) whomever else you’d like to inform.

The image that occurred to me is that if there are people out there who are breathing in these conspiracies and then propagating them through email, text, conversations, comment sections on websites, blogs, ham radios, semaphore usage, morse code, or otherwise on a persistent basis, their hair may no longer be on fire.

They have fashioned themselves a crown of flames. A permanent adornment, although not a healthy or rational or circumspect one. They have chosen to exist in a permanent state of fear, hyper-alertness, suspicion, dread, horror, when I do not see a rational basis for this sort of behavior. It is concerning that there are people in this country, in particular, that have chosen to inculcate these kinds of apocalyptic beliefs into their lives. I feel for them and wish I could alleviate what must be substantial personal pain but I cannot do that for anyone. Only those who have imbibed the tincture of fear can stop their dependency on it.

Lest you think I am living in a fantasy world, let me assure you I am not. I will compare my daily experience with some of the horrors of the last hundred years, give or take a couple. This morning, I woke up in a climate-controlled apartment, fed myself exactly the food I wanted, along with some coffee, cleaned up and went to the gym, exercised, talked to friends at the gym, went to the post office, and came back here. Everyone I saw was courteous enough, some exceptionally, some in a perfunctory way. People drove on the correct sides of the road, used turn signals, stopped at stop lights, drove when the lights turned green, did not speed (at least egregiously), did not yell and scream at each other, did not shoot, knife, bludgeon, impale, drive over, spray each other with chemical or biological weapons, bomb or set each other on fire. It was sunny, although humid. Nothing extraordinary happened. At all. Just like in MOST villages, towns, cities, regions, states, countries, and continents around the world. I am relatively sure that some crime was going down somewhere in this country, as in all countries. Some of it may have been violent crime. And certainly, hideous displacements of ordinary people is occurring in a variety of countries around the world. A good bit of that are sequelae to America’s invasion of Iraq, but a good bit of it is also due to post-colonial governments that have been coddled by their colonial “partners” (Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the U.S., Italy, Russia, whomever I’m leaving out) in the aftermath of outright colonialism. The colonial “masters” retreated to their home countries, leaving a dictator, a strongman, well funded so that their sycophancy would continue. In exchange, whatever natural resources were being lumbered or dug or drilled out of the ground using ill-paid local labor would continue to flow to corporations with headquarters in the home countries. The dictators and their extended families and friends would live a life of exorbitant luxury. The local labor would live in the dirt. Those who wouldn’t put up with it were branded unpatriotic, populists, unionists, communists, socialists, traitors, terrorists, insurgents, and revolutionaries. Many of them – and their extended families and friends – would end up tortured (not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” brutal, medieval-style torture) and/or hacked to death or riddled with bullets by colonialist-funded, colonialist-armed police and military personnel controlled by the dictator.

Those post-colonial dictators rule some of the countries in turmoil around the world. And a lot of that turmoil is also a delayed reaction to a very arbitrary set of lines that were drawn, principally by Britain and France, but with help from the U.S., at the conclusion of World War I. There were a couple of agreements signed called the Sykes-Picot Act and the Treaty of Sèvres that disposed of the Ottoman Empire and carved up much of what we call the “Middle East.” The Ottoman Empire had lasted from 1299 until 1922 – 623 years – and very much had a colonialist-like relationship with much of the region, out to the western edge of north Africa, but it all came to an end as one of the outcomes of WWI. People in those countries have, for the most part, lived under dictators ever since. And they are not happy. Some of them are irrationally unhappy and are trying to restart a tin-pot version of the Ottoman Empire, which was a caliphate. Does that make their violence less heinous? Absolutely not! Violence is humanity at its worst, whether it occurs during the American Civil War, Japan’s war against China and southeast Asia, Russia’s serial absorption of once-independent countries, Napoleon’s wars, or any other violence, large or small, interpersonal or intergovernmental.

But the state of the world at the moment is generally okay, excepting the horrific violence occurring within Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Mali, the Central African Republic, wherever the Lord’s Resistance Army is at the moment (and I’m relatively sure that I’m leaving some current disasters out). That seems like a huge exception – and it is – but the world is not on fire. Your town is not on fire. Your country, unless listed above, is not on fire. Your hair is not aflame unless you personally have placed a crown of flames up there.

Consider WWI: there were 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded. As WWI wound down, Spanish influenza kicked up and killed 50 million people around the world. About 675,000 Americans died in this pandemic, more than died in the American Civil War, which was responsible for about 620,000 deaths. There were other wars between WWI and WWII, but when WWII occurred, between 60 and 80 million people died (the higher number includes deaths due to war-related disease and famine). Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Malaysians all endured enormous hardship – food, gasoline, metal rationing, insufficient supplies compared to pre-war living standards. In India a famine in 1943 wiped out between 1.5 and 4 million citizens, largely due to the British army taking about 60% of the harvest to feed British efforts against the Japanese – an important duty, but one that mercilessly squandered many Indian lives. During and after WWII about 60 million Europeans became refugees, either fleeing various ethnicity-based violence or being forced out of countries where they had lived for centuries. It’s a grim read, but I can’t recommend Savage Continent highly enough. During the Vietnam War, between 1.5 million and 3.6 million people died due to the conflict, including deaths in Laos, Cambodia, North and South Vietnam and allied combatants (Americans, Australians, etc.). Vietnam was a very bad place to be for 20 years or more.

Now, I am pretty sure that for all the families and individuals attempting to flee the insanity in Iraq, Syria, and other countries, the best place in the world for them is their home town or city. Their culture is there, their friends are there, their history unspooled across the millennia before these current horrors. The way for refugees to stop fleeing their countries of origin is for those countries to return to sanity. Not “sanity” as defined by bellicose authoritarian families who are corrupt to the core and corrupted still by their old colonial masters. True sanity, where everyone works together to rebuild what was lost and collaborates on a system of government that represents everyone.

Unless your daily experience is radically different than mine, unless you are currently in a conflict zone or in a gang-driven neighborhood in your city, your hair is not on fire, you have no right to don a crown of flames and shout “CRISIS!” from the rooftops. You do have a responsibility to try and calm the fearful and help them return to a pattern of rational behavior. We all need calm, civil, rational voices in our world and in our countries, in our regions, states, and towns, and we need those voices to speak firmly, but without hate, confidently but without judgment, imbued with hope and a desire to resolve all the world’s many problems together. Carry on.


CARE – it’s free!

We live in the moment. We leave a trail of these behind us, some memorable, most just time, however we spend it. Is this moment, the one just – now (ah, it’s gone!) – serene? It depends on where you are and what you’re doing, even what you’re allowed to do and why you’re there instead of somewhere else. Our species ticks towards 7.4 billion and many of us must care every moment or we are washed over by a wave of of troubles that cannot be overcome passively.

Let’s talk about food, but ignore how delicious it is with a nice sauce or garnish. About 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to live in health. About 13 percent of people living in developing countries are undernourished. Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are have the highest percent of hunger in their populations. About 3 million children each year die before age 5 due to poor nutrition. Caring is one thing – that is free – but making a modest donation to an organization that provides relief to some portion of this population may a little bit of a healthy salary. Try the World Food Programme or choose one of your own from Charity Navigator.

While we are keen to talk about the importance of children, it is estimated that there are up to 150 million children worldwide who live on the streets, who have no home. This is approximately half the population of the United States. About 16,000 children die every day from preventable disease or treatable causes. About 2.4 billion people lack access to appropriate sanitation; the effect is felt particularly by children. Every 10 minutes, an adolescent girl dies from violence. It is an emergency of the first order; every child alive should have a chance at a life without fear, without hunger, without violence.

About one out of every three women – 35% of all women – will experience physical violence of some type during their lives. Surely, this must stop.

No one can ignore the huge number of forcibly displaced people in the world today – 65.3 million people, 21.3 million refugees, 10 million stateless people. It is hard to imagine the hardships endured by these people, yet millions of them are ignored by billions of us.

There are a few giant steps to be taken before we can be carefree. First, we must care. When we are all without troubles, I will be care-free.