31 May 2007

IARPA Develops Spy Tools

New Agency IARPA Develops Spy Tools

WASHINGTON - Using a new laptop and a satellite link, FBI agents can find out within two minutes whether the fingerprint from a newly captured suspect overseas matches a terrorist database in Virginia.

Intelligence officials are running documents in languages such as Arabic through a new computer program called "English Now." It converts the foreign characters into the Roman alphabet and makes words such as Baghdad, President Bush or Osama bin Laden jump out to spies who can't read Arabic.

The language software and the fingerprint-recognition system are examples of new spy gear that the national intelligence director's office bought last year. They may seem like tools that should have been available years ago, but the government isn't noted for its ability to quickly develop new technology.

A fledging center called IARPA is hoping to change that. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity will try to develop groundbreaking technology for the 16 spy agencies.

One potential tool sounds like it comes from an episode of Star Trek: "cloaking" technology that can bend radar around an object to make it appear it's not there. Others include power sources shrunk using nanotechnology and quantum computers that can speed code-breaking, says IARPA acting director Steve Nixon.

"The world has changed in dramatic ways with globalization of technology," Nixon said in an interview. "These are the things that might not get done otherwise."

But not everyone is convinced this is the right way to make new spy tools. The House Intelligence Committee has questions about whether the government truly needs it.

"Much of this research is already going on," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee's panel on technical intelligence. She said IARPA raises questions about the role of new National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, who was supposed to coordinate U.S. intelligence agencies _ not get into their daily operations.

"Is it to fund these things and pull them into the DNI's office and give itself its own turf and projects and pet rocks?" she asked.

There is even resistance within the CIA itself, according to officials who spoke about the concerns privately. The agency gets money that is supposed to go for spy tools that can be shared across the government. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano denied any friction, saying the agency welcomes ideas that promote collaboration on new technology.

In the last half-century, U.S. spy agencies have made technical breakthroughs large and small. In the 1970s, the CIA shared its lithium-iodine batteries with the medical field, which now uses them in pacemakers. Its scientists developed microdot cameras that can produce images so small that they can be hidden in the period of this sentence. They also built a life-size robotic dragonfly that could have been used for surveillance, if only it could have handled crosswinds.

If IARPA can clear some crucial hurdles, including convincing its congressional skeptics, the new office will be modeled after a similar agency that develops gee-whiz toys for the Pentagon.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, driving home the U.S. competitive disadvantage in space. Since then, DARPA researchers have brought the United States much-heralded advances including stealth technology, global positioning systems and the Internet.

But it also brought controversy. The agency's Total Information Awareness data-mining program was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to use technology to find terrorists; critics saw it as a step toward Big Brother-style mass government surveillance. Congress eliminated the program's funding at DARPA in 2003, but portions were moved to secret accounts at other agencies.

The new intelligence organization will be significantly smaller than DARPA, which has a $3 billion annual budget. It will be based at the University of Maryland and staffed with 56 intelligence professionals from the CIA and from McConnell's organization.

Rather than funding IARPA in the House intelligence budget bill passed this month, lawmakers directed technology dollars to centers developing tools that can be shared across government, including offices within the CIA, National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The measure included criticism of McConnell's office for failing to provide details on how IARPA will work and raised questions about whether it would harm existing research for spy tools.

Nixon says IARPA won't have labs and electron microscopes, but will sponsor research at universities, national labs and other organizations.

IARPA is thinking broadly, he said. It won't limit itself to hard sciences, but will also tackle social-science problems such as finding tools for language research or to help analysts measure cultural habits of another society. He also said the organization will work on privacy protection. NSA and other agencies want to be able to make better use of foreign intelligence information from overseas, which often contains information on U.S. citizens.

Given the lack of oversight in intelligence agencies, "this is an area where the research community has to step gingerly," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)

U.S. Investigating How Passenger with TB Slipped Past Border Security

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government is investigating how a globe-trotting tuberculosis patient drove back into the country after his name was put on the no-fly list -- and given to U.S. border guards -- a major gap in the nation's system to keep the direst of diseases from crossing borders.

That the Atlanta man and his wife were cleared by border agents told to stop them is one in a series of missed opportunities to catch a patient seemingly determined to elude health officials.

And worried infection specialists say it shows how vulnerable the nation is, from outdated quarantine laws and the speed of international flight, to killer germs carried by travelers. What if, they ask, the now-quarantined man had carried not hard-to-spread tuberculosis but something very contagious like the next super-flu?

"It's regretful that we weren't able to stop that," said Dr. Martin Cetron of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of how the man fled when U.S. health officials tracked him down in Rome and told him not to get on an airplane.

Should the CDC have asked Italian health authorities to put the man in isolation there? That was under discussion when the CDC learned the man had fled, Cetron said.

"We need to rely on people to do the right thing," Cetron said, saying the CDC hesitates to invoke its quarantine powers. "Can we improve our systems? Absolutely. There will be many lessons learned from this."

The man has a rare but exceptionally dangerous form of TB, a type that international health authorities are desperate to curb because it is untreatable by most medications. The CDC was a step, or more, behind the man on his six-country odyssey. His name didn't get on the no-fly list until he apparently already was en route to Canada, Cetron said.

But the CDC did get word to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol before the man and his wife crossed into the country at Champlain, N.Y., a Department of Homeland Security spokesman told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Customs "is reviewing the facts involved with the decision to admit the individuals into the country without isolation," said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke.

Both Homeland Security's inspector general and internal affairs officials are investigating, reflecting the seriousness of the case, Knocke said.

Congress is probing, too.

The House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled a June 6 hearing.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the case "shows that something is wrong with the training and supervision of our border agents. We put all this time and effort into identifying those who shouldn't enter our country, but what good is it if it can be brushed aside by a border guard? I shudder to think that this individual could have been a terrorist."

Border security isn't the only issue. While the man now is cooperating with CDC investigators, he remains in federally ordered isolation, in a guarded room in an Atlanta hospital. His identity is being withheld to protect his privacy.

But the nation's quarantine laws are so outdated that if the TB traveler challenged that order, "he would probably win in court," warned Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University who has advised the CDC's ongoing effort to update those laws.

"There is a hole" in the nation's disease-security system, Gostin added. "The person's instinct to get back to the United States in this case is understandable. But that's exactly what the law's there for, to prevent a person from endangering other people. ... We need to update the entire process."

Adding to the complexity is the tracking down of roughly 80 passengers who were close enough to the man on two trans-Atlantic flights to potentially have been exposed to TB, plus 27 crew members. The CDC has pushed for years for faster access to electronic lists of air passengers to trace their whereabouts in disease emergencies, and hopes to have new regulations to ease that access in place later this year.

Where was he missed?

The saga begins in mid-May, when Fulton County, Ga., health department officials say they told the man he had a drug-resistant form of TB and should not travel. The man contacted his hometown newspaper to contradict that, saying he was never told to cancel his May 12 flight to Paris for his wedding and honeymoon.

The CDC caught up with him by cell phone in Rome a week and a half later, telling him that updated test results showed he had the worst form of TB, called "extensively drug-resistant" or XDR-TB. Cetron said a CDC official told him not to get on an airplane, that U.S. officials were working on how to get him home, but in the meantime he could seek medical care through the U.S. embassy or Italian hospitals.

The man told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he interpreted that conversation as being stuck in Italy, and decided to sneak home, flying from Prague to Montreal and then driving to New York, because he feared he would die without treatment in the U.S.

"I thought to myself: You're nuts. I wasn't going to do that. They told me I had been put on the no-fly list and my passport was flagged," the man said.

Still, the man didn't violate any laws and faces no charges, CDC said.

"There's a whole body of public health law that's going to be closely scrutinized and redefined with this case," said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who advises the government. "It's going to be looking back at what do you do when you have a non-compliant carrier of some infectious agent that is border-hopping?"

Associated Press

30 May 2007

Tuberculosis infects 1/3 of the world’s population

AS a continuing follow up the previous posts related to tuberculosis I thought you might find the following interesting: People have been working on a solution for some time...

Volume 13, Number 1, 2006
© Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
Pp. 126–129
Prediction of Membrane Proteins in
Mycobacterium tuberculosis Using a
Support Vector Machine Algorithm

"Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) infects one third of the world’s population and is the most
prevalent infectious disease, representing more than a quarter of the world’s preventable deaths.
Although drugs such as isoniazid and rifampin are used for treatment of tuberculosis, these drugs are
ineffective against multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). It is thought that resistance to common antibiotics
and chemotherapeutic agents are conferred in MDR-TB by the unusual constitution of TB cell membrane,
which limits permeability. The inner layer of the outer membrane of M.tb contains large amounts of mycolic
acids, which are covalently linked to the peptidoglycan cell wall through arabinogalactan. This unique
cell envelope structure creates a barrier that limits permeation through the outer membrane by diffusive
mechanisms. Translocation across membranes in M.tb is reliant on membrane proteins as transporters,
porins, and channels. Consequently, to circumvent MDR-TB and generate new drugs capable of combating
MDR-TB infections, further insight into the unique constitution of M.tb membrane would be useful.
Additionally, information about membrane proteins that are essential to cellular function and permeability
in M.tb (e.g., channels, pumps, receptors) would be immensely helpful. This communication reports the
application of a machine-learning algorithm, Support Vector Machine (SVM; Joachims, 1999), to identify
M.tb membrane proteins. "

more info at the link if you want to read more...

The craze for maize

As a follow up to my previous post entitled: "Rising Corn Prices..."

The craze for maize
From The Economist print edition

Ethanol is rapidly transforming life in Iowa and the rest of the corn belt
YOU might think that the opening of a new ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa—a town of 6,700 in the centre of the state—would be of interest mainly to the local farmers who supply the corn that the factory turns to car fuel. You would be wrong. Investors in the refinery include the person who delivers fuel to it, a couple of local parts-suppliers for John Deere (a big farm-equipment company) and the local school-bus driver, among 900 or so other small investors. Like many others in the corn belt, the Nevada refinery is seen as a way for the whole rural community to thrive by exploiting America's new craving for ethanol and the corn (maize) that is being used to make it.

Corn-based ethanol is neither cheap nor especially green: it requires a lot of energy to produce. Production has been boosted by economically-questionable help from state and federal governments, including subsidies, the promotion of mixing petrol with renewable fuels and a high tariff that keeps out foreign ethanol. The federal government offers ethanol producers a subsidy of 51 cents per gallon (13.5 cents per litre); and a growing number of states are pushing for wider use of E85, a fuel blend that is 85% ethanol and only 15% petrol. Since oil prices rose above $30 a barrel in 2004 (they are more than double that now), ethanol capacity has grown especially rapidly. And although the country is experimenting with other renewable plant-based fuels of varying feasibility, from biodiesel to (much greener) ethanol derived from trees, the biggest boom has been in corn-based ethanol.

California has helped to lead the way. When the state banned the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as a fuel additive after 2003, everyone had to use ethanol instead to meet clean-air standards; and local refineries for the product began popping up to cash in on a state subsidy of 40 cents per gallon at the time.

Outside the Golden State, however, the states most eager to subsidise ethanol were those with golden fields of corn. Wallace Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, points out that states that had introduced subsidies early, such as Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, were already building lots of ethanol factories before 2004, whereas corn-belt states without subsidies, such as Indiana and Ohio, did not do much until oil prices rose. Since then, rural areas across the region have been swept up in the ethanol craze, with new facilities sprouting all over corn country..."

Click the link above for the rest of the story and the maps...

Muslims and the veil

As a follow on to my earlier posting entitled: "The Reform Islam Needs" you may find this informative.

Muslims and the veil
The meaning of freedom
From The Economist print edition

In every corner of the Muslim world, female attire is stirring strong emotions

IS THIS all because of me? At once bemused and indignant, the potential first lady of Turkey demands that her compatriots stop judging her, and her spouse, on the basis of her appearance. “My scarf covers my head, not my brain,” insists Hayrunisa Gul, whose husband Abdullah is foreign minister and aspires to be president.

Yet if there is one big reason why the candidacy of Mr Gul—whose elevation by parliament has been vetoed by a court, triggering a political crisis and an early election—sparks strong emotions, it is the silk fabric that frames Mrs Gul's expressive features. “I am a modern woman, I can hold my own with foreign leaders and their spouses,” Mrs Gul (pictured above with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands) told your correspondent this week. Nor does the tall, loquacious mother of three—a more lively figure than any of Turkey's recent presidential spouses—favour a draconian regime of the Taliban kind. “I used to drive Abdullah to work and the children to school,” she says. “So I couldn't imagine living in a country where women cannot drive.”

But the challenge which Mrs Gul's apparel poses for Turkey's strict secularism is more than imaginary. Until now, neither she nor the wife of any other top politician in the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party has been welcome in the chamber of parliament, the presidential palace or any military premises—because as devout Muslim ladies, they cover their heads. The idea of a scarved mistress of the presidential residence, guarded by soldiers trained to uphold secularism, delights some Turks and enrages others.

In almost every other part of the Muslim world, controversy over female headgear is growing. Turkey and Tunisia are at one end of the Muslim spectrum; both ban female civil servants, as well as students in state schools, from covering their hair. One Turkish judge was nearly assassinated after decreeing that teachers could not wear scarves even on their way to work. But in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the rules go the other way. No woman may appear in public with more than face and hands exposed.

Not even that was allowed in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, which mandated the burqa, the most extreme form of female covering. In today's Iraq, meanwhile, a big fissure in the Sunni resistance movement pits al-Qaeda-minded thugs who want women to wear gloves and the niqab (which differs from the burqa only in having slits for the eyes) and milder sorts who allow the simpler hijab, which covers hair and neck.

A clash over female attire is intensifying in neighbouring countries too. Just now, police in Iran are busy with their annual spring campaign against “bad hijab”, prowling parks and stopping traffic to enforce dress codes. This year's drive is the strictest for a decade. Thousands of women have received warnings; police cars have been parked outside shopping malls, scrutinising every customer; vehicles with improperly clad ladies at the wheel have been impounded. The crackdown, which also targets men in short sleeves or with extravagantly gelled hair, marks a reversal in a relative relaxation of dress codes which had occurred under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime. The manteau, or coat, which women are supposed to wear to hide the shape of their bodies has been getting shorter, as have the trousers underneath; and some women have sported jeans and lipstick under chadors covering their upper body.

Whether the current campaign will have any enduring effect on the determination of Iranian women (and fashion designers) to interpret the rules creatively remains to be seen. But there are many Muslim countries where rows over headgear have already taken a toll in blood.

In Pakistan last year, an assassin shot dead a provincial government minister, judging her gauzy head covering not Islamic enough. In January a clash between Tunisian police and Islamist rebels left 12 dead. The rebels said they were “defending their veiled sisters against oppression”, a reference to the fact that Tunisia's president dismisses the hijab as an alien form of “sectarian dress” and has sent police to toy shops to seize dolls with scarves.

Among most Muslims, who live between such extremes, two broad trends have emerged. One is a general movement towards more overt signs of piety, including “Islamic” attire. Within the past two decades, modern forms of head covering have become standard fashion in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, Morocco, Sudan and Yemen, replacing both traditional country scarves and the exposed coifs that were inoffensive to an earlier generation of city dwellers.

On the streets of Cairo, the Egyptian capital, headscarved women form a very visible majority. In the Egyptian countryside, where women used to work the fields uncovered, veils are now universal. Even gloves are not uncommon. Wearing the hijab is now so popular that it has ceased to be a statement, says Hania Sholkamy, an Egyptian anthropologist. “In fact, it is getting hard to shop for what used to be ordinary clothes,” she says. “Islamic dress is cheaper and more available.”

The other trend is an undercurrent of rebellion against sartorial rules of any kind. Trendy women in Saudi Arabia have taken to sporting slimmer-fitting abayas, while embellishing the traditionally black over-garment with bold strips of colour. The fact that Iranian authorities must still, 27 years after the Islamic revolution, forcibly impose dress codes suggests a persistent urge to challenge them. In cities as far apart as Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital, some women accompany perfunctory head-coverings with heavy make-up, while others compete with the skimpy attire that is often seen in Arabic pop videos.

Yet the stern secularism of Turkey and Tunisia also meets resistance. Veiling, which a decade ago was confined largely to the tradition-bound poor, has made a middle-class comeback in both countries. In subtle defiance of a ban on scarves for official identity photos, some Turkish women erase their hair digitally and replace it with a wig-like substitute.

In less rigid Egypt, pious women have filed lawsuits against anti-veil rules imposed, for example, by state-run television networks. One judge overruled the ban applied by a private university against the face-concealing niqab, on the grounds that personal freedom counts more than the university's right to ascertain the identity of its students. When Egypt's culture minister casually told an interviewer that he personally considered veiling a backward practice, the ensuing public outcry forced him to recant. When its minister for religious affairs, who pays the wages of mosque preachers, stripped niqab-wearing employees of the right to preach, provincial bureaucrats declined to obey.

Different views on female apparel reflect differing readings of Islam's holy texts. One passage in the Koran, cited in support of the hijab, reads as follows: “Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments (except such as are normally revealed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their finery...”

A minority of Muslims would argue that female modesty does not necessarily imply covering one's head. Another school cites oral traditions from the early Muslim community to insist that an ordinary hijab is not sufficient covering.

Egypt's grand mufti, under pressure to clarify the issue, obliged recently with two rulings. One stated that modest dress, including hair covering, is an Islamic duty. The other fatwa declared full-face veiling to be permitted—but not obligatory. That may satisfy some people, but it will not please either those zealots who think establishment clerics are too soft—or those devout believers who think God does not mind very much about their hairstyle.

You might also find the following website informative

U.S. seeks fliers possibly exposed to rare TB

As a follwup to my previous posting entitled:
"Superbug poses dire threat to Africa"

US in TB flight infection warning
US health officials have quarantined a man who may have exposed passengers on board two trans-Atlantic flights to a dangerous form of tuberculosis.
Officials say crew and passengers on the same flights, from Atlanta to Paris and from Prague to Montreal this month, should be checked for the infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the illness as "extensively drug-resistant TB". It is the first such federal quarantine order to be issued in over 44 years. The last such order was issued in 1963, to quarantine a patient with smallpox, according to the CDC.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs. It is spread through the air and can lead to symptoms such as chest pain and coughing up blood. There were an estimated 1.6 million deaths from TB in 2005, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

'At risk'
The infected man travelled from Atlanta to Paris on 12 May on Air France flight 385. He returned to the North America on CSA flight 104 from Prague to Montreal on 24 May. He continued his journey in the US by car and is now under quarantine in hospital, according to the WHO.

CDC officials said the man was potentially infectious during this period and are recommending that crew members and passengers on board the same flights seek medical attention. "We want to make sure that we have done everything we possibly can to identify people who could be at risk," said Dr Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC.

TB is rare in the US. Last year there were 13,767 recorded cases or 4.6 cases per 100,000 Americans. About 1.2% of cases in the US are "multidrug-resistant", and can withstand antibiotics commonly used to treat the illness, according to CDC statistics. The "extensively drug-resistant" TB is more dangerous. Medical treatment can cost $500,000 (£250,000) or more, CDC officials say.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/05/29 20:48:38 GMT

You can also read about the breaking story at CNN but they fail to give the flight information.

AND YA KNOW, I don't often agree with Michelle Malkin but I think she has a point:

"What good is a no-fly list...
By Michelle Malkin · May 30, 2007 12:01 PM
...if a banned passenger can still get on a plane? That's the question the feds need to answer in the case of the Atlanta man infected with a super TB strain:"

and here is the spot from the CDC:

This is an official CDC HEALTH UPDATE
Distributed via Health Alert Network
Tuesday, May 29, 2007, 15:30 EDT (03:30 PM EDT)

Corrected: Investigation of U.S. Traveler with Extensively Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (XDR TB)

This message is being sent to correct the flight number of the Czech Air flight on May 24, 2007 from Prague, Czech Republic to Montreal, Canada. The flight number was 0104 not 410.

Original information from CDC Advisory #00261, transmitted May 29, 2007:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working with a number of international, state, and local partners on an investigation involving a U.S. citizen recently diagnosed with extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR TB). XDR TB has been recently defined as a subtype of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB) with additional resistance to the two most important second-line antibiotics (i.e., a fluoroquinolone and an injectable agent [amikacin, kanamycin, or capreomycin]) in addition to the two most important first-line drugs (i.e., isoniazid and rifampin).

CDC learned that a patient with XDR TB traveled to Europe via commercial airline (Air France # 385) departing Atlanta on May 12 and arriving in Paris on May 13, 2007, and returned to the United States after taking a commercial flight on May 24 from Prague, Czech Republic to Montreal, Canada (Czech Air # 410). The patient re-entered the U.S. on May 24 via automobile. Since May 25, the patient has been hospitalized in respiratory isolation and is undergoing additional medical evaluation.

CDC is collaborating with U.S. state and local health departments, international Ministries of Health, the airline industry, and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding appropriate notification and follow up of passengers and crew potentially at risk for exposure to XDR TB. Each country involved in the investigation is determining the most appropriate guidance for its residents. The following recommendations have been developed for U.S. residents who may have been exposed to this patient.

This patient has radiographic evidence of pulmonary TB, is culture-positive for XDR TB, but is sputum smear negative for acid fast bacilli and is relatively asymptomatic. On the basis of the patient’s clinical and laboratory status, and lack of receiving adequate treatment for XDR TB, this patient was considered potentially infectious at the time of his airline travel, and meets the criteria in the WHO guidelines for initiating an airline contact investigation. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_HTM_TB_2006.363_eng.pdf
In accordance with the WHO TB and Airline Travel Guidelines, to ensure appropriate follow-up and care for persons who may have been exposed to XDR TB, CDC is recommending the following for passengers and crew onboard Air France # 385 departing Atlanta on May 12 and arriving in Paris on May 13, and on Czech Air # 410 departing from Prague and arriving in Montreal on May 24: passengers seated in the same row as the index patient and those seated in the two rows ahead and the two rows behind, as well as the cabin crew members working in the same cabin should be evaluated for TB infection. This includes initial evaluation and testing with follow up 8-10 weeks later for re-evaluation.
As there has never been an airline contact investigation for XDR TB, it is not known if the current recommendations are adequate to determine the possible range and risk of transmission of infection. Because of the serious consequences of XDR TB and anticipated public concern, in addition to the contacts listed above, all U.S. residents and citizens on these flights should be notified and encouraged to seek TB testing and evaluation.
Drug-susceptible (regular) TB and XDR TB are thought to be spread the same way. TB bacilli become aerosolized when a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings. These bacilli can float in the air for several hours, depending on the environment. Persons who breathe air containing these TB bacilli can become infected.

The risk of acquiring any type of TB appears to depend on several factors, such as extent of disease in the source patient, duration of exposure, and ventilation. Transmission has been documented in association with patients who have lung disease, and bacteria seen or cultured in sputum. Persons who become infected usually have been exposed for several hours (or days) in poorly ventilated or crowded environments. An important way to prevent the spread and transmission is by limiting an infectious person’s contact with other people. Thus, people who have a confirmed diagnosis of TB or XDR TB are placed on treatment and kept isolated until they are no longer infectious.

Persons who believe they may have been exposed to TB or XDR TB can call 1-800 CDC INFO for further information.

Where to go for information about:
Tuberculosis: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/default.htm

XDR TB: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/xdrtb.htm http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/xdrtb.htm and http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/cdcandxdrtb.htm http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/cdcandxdrtb.htm

TB Testing: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/skintesting.htm http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/skintesting.htm and http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/QFT.htm http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/QFT.htm

Infection control: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/ichcs.htm http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/ichcs.htm and http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/rphcs.htm http://www.cdc.gov/tb/pubs/tbfactsheets/rphcs.htm

Tuberculosis and Air Travel:

##This Message was distributed to State and Local Health Officers, Public Information Officers, Epidemiologists, State Laboratory Directors, BT Coordinators and HAN Coordinators, as well as Public Health Associations and Clinician organizations##

Categories of Health Alert Messages:
Health Alert: Conveys the highest level of importance; warrants immediate action or attention.
Health Advisory: Provides important information for a specific incident or situation; may not require immediate action.
Health Update: Provides updated information regarding an incident or situation; unlikely to require immediate action.

You have received this message based upon the information contained within our emergency notification database. If you have a different or additional e-mail or fax address that you would like us to use, please contact the Health Alert Network program at your State or local health department.

26 May 2007

CIA to focus on HUMINT!

After 30 plus years of every study telling the CIA that it needs to focust on HUMINT there is finally movement to do just that! Go figure...

Top Intel Official Explains Pentagon’s New Vision
John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2007 – Delivering practical intelligence as fast as possible to servicemembers is the Defense Department’s “pre-eminent imperative,” the department’s top intelligence official said yesterday.

“The thing that’s uppermost is providing … the intelligence required for our magnificent troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places around the world where we have troops at risk,” said James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Clapper, who was “dual-hatted” as director of defense intelligence yesterday, will help coordinate the seamless flow of intelligence between the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“The dual-hatting as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence within the department, and as the director of defense intelligence on behalf of the (director of national intelligence), serves to clarify and crystallize those roles,” he said.

For the roughly 20 months remaining in the current administration, Clapper said the intelligence alignment presents “a short window, but a great opportunity to get things done,” citing his longstanding association with retired Navy Vice Adm. John M. “Mike” McConnell, director of national intelligence, and Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“For intelligence, it’s really a golden opportunity given the assembly of the leaders with Mike McConnell, who’s a professional colleague and close personal friend for 20 years, … Mike Hayden as director of the CIA, and myself, who have all been associated closely over the past 10 or 20 years,” Clapper said. He also noted that his boss at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, is a former director of central intelligence.

Clapper said it’s important for intelligence officials to make public the “maximum amount of information” available, with due concern for protecting methods and sources.

“Particularly now, it is incumbent on the intelligence community to make available as much information as we possibly can … so that the public knows what we’re up against,” he said.

Keeping Congress and the public abreast of available intelligence is one of several initiatives Clapper plans to spearhead during his time in his newly created position.

“I view the two years as an opportunity to impel a sense of urgency to get things done in the time remaining that I would have in the administration,” Clapper said. “I don’t view it as checking off a ‘short-timer calendar’ but rather the time we have remaining to get some things done.”

Improving the defense community’s methods of intelligence gathering and recruiting are other long-term goals.

Clapper has focused on human intelligence, or “HUMINT” -- a discipline that encompasses all gathering of intelligence by means of interpersonal contact -- for nearly 15 years, earning him the nickname, ‘Godfather of HUMINT.’

“There’s been a sea change -- all to the good -- of HUMINT capabilities,” he said. “I think a lot has been done here … on bringing to bear the full resources of the department and in working with the other components of the government who have HUMINT equities.”

The challenge, Clapper said, is to synthesize the various elements of intelligence – human intelligence, communication, electronic, imagery, geospatial, financial and other methods – which “all contribute to the war on terrorism.”

Clapper emphasized the need to widen the pool of intelligence recruits, establishing an applicant base with greater cultural and linguistic depth.

“It’s vital that we have the understanding and the insight of the cultures overseas,” he said. “It’s always been a challenge for intelligence, but now it’s even more critical.”

High Gas Prices Mean Big Profit for Big Oil

Your Pain, Their Gain
High Gas Prices Mean Big Profit for Big Oil
By Christian E. Weller, Amanda Logan
May 25, 2007

Read "Pain in the Gas," a report on gas prices
Watch the Pain in the Gas video
The American Petroleum Institute ran full page ads in The Washington Post this week declaring that the oil industry only made a 9.5 cent profit for every dollar spent on gasoline in 2006. Yet when they made this claim, it seems like they were banking on readers not remembering the similar ads that ran last year in The New York Times.
Last year’s New York Times ads showed oil industry earnings for 2005 at just 8.5 cents on each dollar of gasoline sales. By the industry’s own numbers, that means that the profit margin of the oil companies increased by 11.7 percent from 2005 to 2006, at a time when gasoline and crude oil prices rose.

The American Petroleum Institute ads imply that crude oil price jumps and not profits are a bigger part of the story of higher gas prices. But whenever the helpful people of America’s oil and natural gas industry try to educate consumers, it pays to be skeptical. After all, the statement about net income is taken out of context. Most consumers are not experts in gasoline production or corporate finance. And people paying the highest prices in more than a quarter century to fill their gas tanks probably want to know if their friendly neighborhood oil conglomerate is sharing in the pain by lowering their profit margins.

Since the beginning of this year, the ratio of gasoline prices to crude prices—a rough approximation of the oil companies’ mark-up over their input prices—rose 37 percentage points. In fact, gasoline prices jumped 39 percent while crude prices only increased by 9.1 percent since December 2006. That spells big profits for oil companies, and when the lobby runs the same ad next year, it just might show an even larger profit margin.

This is not the way it is supposed to work. When input prices rise in a short period of time, profit margins should decline. Companies often absorb input price shocks, such as higher crude oil prices, by reducing their profit margins while also passing on part of the price increase to their customers. If companies instead pass the full price shock on to their patrons, they may be able to preserve their profit margins, but they could lose business as demand for the product dropped off due to higher prices.

Imagine, for example, that the price of a gallon of milk increases by 25 percent over three months. Most food producers and grocers would not increase prices by 25 percent because such a steep increase would lead many consumers to switch to other substitute products, such as soy or rice milk.

Yet gasoline is clearly not milk. The data show that oil companies have increasingly been able to pass higher crude oil prices on to the consumer rather than absorb the price increase themselves.

If crude prices increase sharply, gasoline prices should rise at the pump as well, although the gasoline increase should be less significant. In other words, the ratio of gasoline prices to crude prices should fall since oil companies presumably cannot pass on the entire crude price increase to the consumer. The more the ratio of gasoline prices to crude oil prices falls, the less oil companies can pass the spike in crude prices on to consumers.

The data show that when crude prices rose by 10 percent, 15 percent, or even 20 percent over a period of six months, gasoline prices did not rise as quickly and the ratio of the two prices fell, just as expected (see Figure 1). When the crude oil price rose by 15 percent during a six-month period in the 1980s, for example, the ratio of gasoline prices to crude prices fell by 51.5 percentage points. The same ratio also declined in the 1990s and early 2000s, when there were sharp price increases.

Notes: Authors’ calculations based on data from the Energy Information Administration, 2007, Short-term Energy Outlook, Washington, DC: EIA. Averages are calculated for business cycles, unless otherwise noted.

The data also show that oil companies had a slightly harder time passing crude oil price increases to consumers in the 1990s than in the 1980s. In each instance, the drop in the ratio of gasoline prices to crude prices was on average larger for the 1990s than in the 1980s.

Yet after 2000, oil companies apparently became much better at passing the crude price increases on to consumers. The decline in the ratio of gasoline prices to crude prices during times of sharp oil price hikes dropped substantially to around 20 percent. And after 2004, the average decline was down in the single digits—the same time period that Americans experienced the largest price spikes of the current business cycle, which started in March 2001. Put differently, after 2004, oil companies were able to translate the jumps in crude prices almost one-for-one into higher gasoline prices at the pumps instead of absorbing some of the oil price hike themselves.

Had the relationship between crude and gas prices remained the same as in the 1980s, gas prices would have climbed substantially less than they did. The last time crude prices were as high in inflation-adjusted terms as they have been in the past year was in the middle of 1983. Back then, the ratio of gasoline prices to crude prices was approximately 170 percent. Now it stands at 225 percent. Prices at the pump would have to decline by 25 percent to $2.43 from their current level of $3.22 to reestablish the same relationship with crude oil prices that prevailed in 1983.

Another way to look at this is that crude prices would have to be much higher, based on past experience, to justify the high gas prices that are prevailing today. Based on the experience of the 1980s, the current price at the pump implies that a barrel of crude oil should cost $80 rather than the current $60.

The fact that gas prices and crude prices have parted ways means that oil companies have become better at passing on increases in input prices to their customers. This eventually shows up as higher profit margins for oil companies—as the friendly people at the oil industry’s own advertising firms have demonstrate in their full-page ads. So it is no surprise that the big five oil companies combined have made a quarter trillion dollar ($254 billion) profit since 2005.

The industry has apparently figured out how to turn higher crude prices to their advantage, turning basic economics on its head. Unfortunately, their extra billions in profits come straight from our pockets.

Use IT or lose it

Economics focus
Use IT or lose it
May 17th 2007
From The Economist print edition
New calculations shed more light on Europe's productivity malaise
LATELY, pleasant surprises about European economies have been popping up with happy regularity. Unemployment in the euro zone ticks down again; output grows a bit faster than forecasters had hoped; a survey finds that German businessmen are even more cheerful than they were the last time they were asked. Much more of this and—who knows—people may even stop being startled by it.

That the world can still be surprised says something about Europe's knack for lowering expectations of its economic performance, especially next to America's. It is now generally accepted that in around 1995, after 20 sluggish years, American productivity growth began a remarkable surge that only now seems to be subsiding. Yet the advances in information technology (IT) and the dramatic cheapening of computing power that lay behind that surge have had much less effect on Europe's productivity. In 2006, admittedly, Europe's output per hour grew faster than America's. But the cheer over that number merely points up the disappointment over the many years that came before.

The recent appearance of a new database, the fruit of a project called EU-KLEMS, that accounts for the sources of European growth and productivity does not alter this broad impression. However, the figures and an accompanying report* edited by Bart van Ark and Gerard Ypma, of the University of Groningen, and Mary O'Mahony, of the University of Birmingham, give the fullest picture yet of where Europe has been missing out.

Between 1970 and 1995 output per hour in America grew at an average rate of 1.3% a year. Then the pace picked up markedly, to 2.4% in 1995-2004. While America accelerated, Europe stalled: having managed 2.4% a year in 1970-95, the European Union's oldest 15 members reached only 1.3% in 1995-2004. In the second period two northern countries, Finland and Sweden, were the best of the Euro-bunch. Two southerners, Italy and Spain, were the worst. The Spanish could at least say that their economy grew quickly and claim that low productivity growth reflected a remarkable increase in employment. The Italians are without even that comfort.

The EU-KLEMS team chop up Europe's productivity performance along two dimensions. First they split the total into the contributions of different industries. Then they divide output growth, in individual sectors and in the market economy, into the contribution of various inputs: hours worked, the mix of skills in the labour force, IT capital, other capital and “multifactor productivity” (MFP)—in theory, the adroitness with which the other inputs are combined; in practice, what is left over after changes in labour and capital are stripped away.

Growing pains
At the industry level, Europe enjoyed rapid productivity growth in the electrical machinery and communications industries, which among other things produce IT. Output per hour there rose by 7.2% a year in 1995-2004, against 5% in the previous quarter-century. But America's acceleration was even more impressive, from 7.5% to 10.4%—a pace that among the Europeans only the Finns and Swedes could beat. More important was Europe's poor showing in services. Productivity growth fell in distribution (from 2.4% in 1970-95 to 1.7% in 1995-2004) and in finance and business services (from 1% to 0.3%). In America the annual growth rates of output per hour leapt from 2.6% to 4.4% in distribution and from 0.2% to 2.6% in finance and business services. Together, the two sectors yielded more than half of America's productivity growth in 1995-2004.

One inference is that Europe was not only worse than America at making IT, but also much worse at using it. That is borne out by the EU-KLEMS economists' attribution of output growth to the various inputs. In this exercise, because of the limitations of the data, they used figures for only ten countries and compared 1995-2004 with the previous 15 years rather than 25. Most European countries used more IT, relative to other forms of capital, after 1995. But America underwent a much bigger shift into new technologies.

Even more dismal was Europe's rate of MFP growth—the biggest element, says the study, in the productivity slowdown. Between 1980 and 1995, the ten countries' market economies grew by 1.9% a year on average. MFP chipped in 0.7 percentage points. In 1995-2004, overall growth was faster, 2.2% a year—but MFP contributed less, 0.3 points. In finance and business services, where gross value added went up by 3.5% a year, MFP subtracted 1.3 points. In Italy and Spain, average MFP growth in the market economy was negative.

Most economists will be grateful for the study's detail. And most of them will no doubt still be puzzled by Europe's tardiness in exploiting IT, given the ease with which ideas now travel. Another new study† may make them more puzzled still. Nick Bloom, of Stanford University, and Rafaella Sadun and John Van Reenen, of the London School of Economics, find that British factories of American multinationals are more productive than the country's other foreign-owned establishments, which in turn are sharper than locally owned rivals. The Americans not only use much more IT per worker, but they also exploit it more effectively: even for a given amount of IT capital, their productivity is higher. That suggests British firms, at least, have not only fallen behind American practice but have not even caught up with methods that Americans have imported to Britain. Still, last year's figures may be a sign that Europe is cottoning on. Europeans should hope so

24 May 2007

The Reform Islam Needs

I just got an email chain letter entitled "Allah or Jesus Christ. I have included the body of the letter below for you to review if you have not seen it previously. Read it and I'll continue with more information after...

"Subject:Allah or Jesus Christ
Last month I attended my annual training session that's required for maintaining my state prison security clearance. During the training session there was a presentation by three speakers representing the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths who explained their belief systems. I was particularly interested in what the Islamic Imam had to say.

The Imam gave a great presentation of the basics of Islam, complete with a video. After the presentations, time was provided for questions and answers. When it was my turn, I directed my question to the Imam and sked, "Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that most Imams and clerics of Islam have declared a holy jihad [Holy war] against the infidels of the world and, that by killing an infidel, which is a command to all Muslims, they are assured of a place in heaven. If that's the case, can you give me the definition of an infidel?"

There was no disagreement with my statements and without hesitation he replied, "Non-believers!"

I responded, "So, let me make sure I have this straight. All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not of your faith so they can go to Heaven. Is that correct?"

The expression on his face changed from one of authority and command to that of a little boy who had just gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He sheepishly replied, "Yes."

I then stated, "Well, sir, I have a real problem trying to imagine Pope John Paul commanding all Catholics to kill those of your faith or Pat Robertson or Dr. Stanley ordering Protestants to do the same in order to go to Heaven!"

The Imam was speechless.

I continued, "I also have problem with being your friend when you and your brother clerics are telling your followers to kill me. Let me ask you a question! ...would you rather have your Allah who tells you to kill me in order to go to Heaven or my Jesus who tells me to love you because I am going to Heaven and wants you to be with me?"

You could have heard a pin drop as the Imam hung his head in shame.

Chuck Colson once told me something that has sustained me these 20 years of prison ministry. He said to me, "Rick, remember that the truth will prevail."

And it will!"

Ok, so that was the letter. I checked it out on Snopes.com and, as with most chain letters, it was not as factual as it claimed. However, it does bring to light that many people, particularly in the United States, have an addiction to fear mongering soundbites of information and fail to delve deeper into the bigger picture and the "reason" why things are the way they are. We have a lack of understanding of history. The Islamic religion has never undergone a "reformation" as happend in Christianity. I think you will find the below article informative so you can have a better understanding of why things are the way they are....

The Reform Islam Needs
James Q. Wilson
City Journal Autumn 2002

"We are engaged in a struggle to defeat terrorism. I have no advice on how to win that struggle, but I have some thoughts as to why it exists. It is not, I think, because Islam is at war with the West or because Palestinians are trying to displace Israelis. The struggle exists, I think, because the West has mastered the problem of reconciling religion and freedom, while several Middle Eastern nations have not. The story of that mastery and that failure occupies several centuries of human history, in which one dominant culture, the world of Islam, was displaced by a new culture, that of the West.

Reconciling religion and freedom has been the most difficult political task most nations have faced. It is not hard to see why. People who believe that there is one set of moral rules superior to all others, laid down by God and sometimes enforced by the fear of eternal punishment, will understandably expect their nation to observe and impose these rules; to do otherwise would be to repudiate deeply held convictions, offend a divine being, and corrupt society. This is the view of many Muslims; it was also the view of Pope Leo XIII—who said in 1888 that men find freedom in obedience to the authority of God—and of the provost of Oriel College, Oxford, who wrote to a faculty member in 1848 that “you were not born for speculation” but to “serve God and serve man.” If you think that there is one God who expects people to confess beliefs, say prayers, observe fasts, and obtain sacraments, it would be impious, indeed scandalously wrong, to permit the state to ignore beliefs, prayers, fasts, and sacraments.

In furtherance of these views, Queen Mary executed 300 Protestants, England and France expelled Jews, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled from Spain both Moors and Jews, the Spanish Inquisition tortured and executed a few thousand alleged heretics, and books were destroyed and scholars threatened for advancing theologically incorrect theories.

During this time, Islam was a vast empire stretching from western Africa into India—an empire that valued learning, prized scholars, maintained great libraries, and preserved the works of many ancient writers. But within three centuries, this greatest civilization on the face of the earth was in retreat, and the West was rising to produce a civilization renowned for its commitment to personal liberty, scientific expertise, political democracy, and free markets.

Freedom of conscience has made the difference. In an old world where knowledge came from libraries, and scientific experiments were rare, freedom would not be so important. But in the new world, knowledge and all that it can produce come from the sharp challenge of competing ideas tested by standards of objective evidence. In Istanbul, Muslims printed no book until 1729, and thereafter only occasionally. By contrast, the West became a world in which books were published starting three centuries earlier and where doubt and self-criticism were important. Of course, doubt and self-criticism can become, as William Bennett has observed, a self-destructive fetish, but short of that calamity, they are the source of human progress.

The central question is not why freedom of conscience failed to come to much of Islam but why it came at all to the West. Though Westerners will conventionally assign great weight to the arguments made by the defenders of freedom, I do not think that the ideas of Milton, Locke, Erasmus, and Spinoza—though important—were decisive.

What made religious toleration and later freedom of conscience possible in England was not theoretical argument but political necessity. It was necessary, first in England and later in America and much of Europe, because rulers trying to govern nations could not do so without granting freedom to people of different faiths. In the words of Herbert Butterfield, toleration was “the last policy that remained when it had proved impossible to go on fighting any longer.”

The fighting occurred because different religions struggled to control nations. Here lay the chief difference between Islam and the West: Islam was a land of one religion and few states, while the West was a land of many states that were acquiring many religions. In the sixteenth century, people in England thought of themselves chiefly as Englishmen before they thought of themselves as Protestants, and those in France saw themselves as Frenchmen before they saw themselves as Catholics. In most of Islam—in Arabia and northern Africa, certainly—people saw themselves as Muslims before they thought of themselves as members of any state; indeed, states hardly existed in this world until European colonial powers created them by drawing somewhat arbitrary lines on a map.

The Muslim faith was divided into the Sunni and the Shiite; but Christianity was soon divided into four branches. The Protestant Reformation created not only Lutheranism but its archrival, Calvinism, which now joined the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.

Lutherans, like Catholics, were governed by a priesthood, but Calvinists were ruled by congregations, and so they proclaimed not only a sterner faith but a distinctive political philosophy. The followers of Luther and Calvin had little interest in religious liberty; they wanted to replace a church they detested with one that they admired. But in doing so, they helped bring about religious wars. Lutheran mobs attacked Calvinist groups in the streets of Berlin, and thousands of Calvinists were murdered in the streets of Paris. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg settled the religious wars briefly with the phrase cuius regio, eius religio—meaning that people in each state or principality would have the religion of their ruler. If you didn’t like your prince’s religion, you had to move somewhere else.

But the problem grew worse as more dissident groups appeared. To the quarrels between Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans were added challenges from Anabaptists, Quakers, and Unitarians. These sects had their own passionate defenders, and they helped start many struggles. And so wars broke out again, all advancing religious claims overlaid with imperial, dynastic, and material objectives.

In France, Catholics killed 20,000 Huguenots, 3,000 in Paris alone. When the Peace of Westphalia settled the wars of the sixteenth century in 1648, it reaffirmed the old doctrine of following the religion of your ruler, but added an odd new doctrine that required some liberty of conscience. As C. V. Wedgwood put it, men had begun to grasp “the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword.”

In England, people were both exhausted by war and worried about following a ruler’s orders on matters of faith. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the successful Presbyterian revolt against the king, was a stern believer in his own faith, but he recognized that his beliefs alone would not enable him to govern; he had to have allies of other faiths. He persuaded Parliament to allow liberty “to all who fear God,” provided they did not disturb the peace, and he took steps to readmit Jews into the country and to moderate attacks on the Quakers.

When Cromwell’s era ended and Charles II took the throne, he brought back with him his Anglican faith, and challenged this arrangement. After he died, James II came to the throne and tried to reestablish Roman Catholicism. When William of Orange invaded the country from Holland in 1688, James II fled, and in time William and his wife, Mary, became rulers. Mary, a Protestant, was the daughter of James II, a Catholic. A lot of English people must have wondered how they were supposed to cope with religious choice if a father and daughter in the royal family could not get the matter straight.

The following year, Parliament passed the Toleration Act, allowing dissident Protestant sects to practice their religion. Their members still could not hold government office, but at least they would not be hanged. The Toleration Act did not help Catholics and Unitarians, but as is so often the case in British law, their religious practices, while not protected by formal law, were allowed by administrative discretion.

Even so, the idea of a free conscience did not advance very much; after all, “toleration” meant that a preferred or established religion, out of its own kindness, allowed other religions to exist—but not to do much more. And William’s support for the Toleration Act probably had a lot to do with economic motives. Tolerance, he is supposed to have said, was essential to commercial success: England would acquire traders, including many Jews, from nations that still practiced persecution.

The Toleration Act began a slow process of moderating the political impact of organized religion. Half a century before it was passed, Galileo, tried by the Roman Inquisition for believing that Earth moved around the Sun, was sentenced to house arrest. But less than a century after the law was adopted, Adam Smith wrote a much praised book on morality that scarcely mentioned God, and less than a century after that, Charles Darwin published books that denied God a role in human evolution, a claim that profoundly disturbed his religious critics but neither prevented his books from being wildly popular nor deterred the Royal Society of London from bestowing on him its royal medal.

Toleration in the American colonies began slowly but accelerated rapidly when our country had to form a nation out of diverse states. The migration of religious sects to America made the colonies a natural breeding ground for religious freedom, but only up to a point. Though Rhode Island under the leadership of Roger Williams had become a religiously free colony, six colonies required their voters to be Protestants, four asked citizens to believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, one required belief in the Trinity and two in heaven and hell, and five had an officially established church. Massachusetts was a theocracy that punished (and on a few occasions executed) Quakers. Maryland was created as a haven for Catholics, but their freedom began to evaporate as Protestants slowly gained the upper hand.

America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had many religions and some tolerance for dissenting views, but not until the colonists tried to form a national union did they squarely face the problem of religious freedom. The 13 colonies, in order to become a nation, had to decide how to manage the extraordinary diversity of the country. The colonists did so largely by writing a constitution that was silent on the question of religion, except to ban any “religious test” as a requirement for holding federal office.

When the first Congress adopted the Bill of Rights, it included the odd and much disputed ban on passing a law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The meaning of that phrase is a matter of scholarly speculation. James Madison’s original proposal was that the First Amendment ban “any national religion,” and in their first drafts the House and Senate agreed. But when the two branches of Congress turned over their slightly different language to a conference committee, its members, for reasons that no one has satisfactorily explained, chose to ban Congress from passing a law “respecting” a religion.

The wall between church and state, as Jefferson called it in a letter he wrote many years later, turned out to be controversial and porous, as Philip Hamburger’s masterful new book, The Separation of Church and State, shows. But it did guarantee that in time American politics would largely become a secular matter. And that is the essence of the issue. Politics made it necessary to establish free consciences in America, just as it had in England. This profound change in the relationship between governance and spirituality was greatly helped by John Locke’s writings in England and James Madison’s in America, but I suspect it would have occurred if neither of these men had ever lived.

There is no similar story to be told in the Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world. With the exception of Turkey (and, for a while, Lebanon), every country there has been ruled either by a radical Islamic sect (as with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran) or by an autocrat who uses military power to enforce his authority in a nation that could not separate religion and politics or by a traditional tribal chieftain, for whom the distinction between church and state was meaningless. And the failure to make a theocracy work is evident in the vast popular resistance to the Taliban and the Iranian mullahs.

But where Muslims have had to end colonial rule and build their own nation, national identity has trumped religious uniformity. When the Indonesians threw off Dutch rule and later struggled to end communist influence, they did so in a way that made the creation and maintenance of an Indonesian nation more important than religious or political identity. India, home to more Muslims than much of the Middle East, also relied on nationalism and overcoming British rule to insist on the creation of one nation. Its constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and promises the free exercise of religious belief.

In the Middle East, nations are either of recent origin or uncertain boundaries. Iraq, once the center of great ancient civilizations, was conquered by the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks, then occupied by the British during the First World War, became a League of Nations protectorate, was convulsed by internal wars with the Kurds, torn apart by military coups, and immersed in a long war with Iran. Syria, a land with often-changing borders, was occupied by an endless series of other powers—the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, and the French. After Syria became a self-governing nation in 1944, it was, like Iraq, preoccupied with a series of military coups, repeated wars with Israel, and then, in 1991, with Iraq. Meanwhile, Lebanon, once part of Syria, became an independent nation, though it later fell again under Syrian domination.

These countries today are about where England was in the eleventh century, lacking much in the way of a clear national history or stable government. To manage religion and freedom, they have yet to acquire regimes in which one set of leaders could be replaced in an orderly fashion with a new set, an accomplishment that in the West required almost a millennium. Though many Middle Eastern countries are divided between two Muslim sects, the Sunni and the Shiites, coping with this diversity has so far been vastly less important than the still-incomplete task of finding some basis for asserting and maintaining national government.

Moreover, the Muslim religion is quite different from Christianity. The Qur’an and the hadith contain a vast collection of sacred laws, which Muslims call shari’a, that regulates many details of the public as well as private lives of believers. It sets down rules governing charity, marriage, orphans, fasting, gambling, vanity, pilgrimages, infidelity, polygamy, incest, divorce, modesty, inheritances, prostitution, alcohol consumption, collecting interest, and female dress.

By contrast, the Christian New Testament has rather few secular rules, and these are best remembered as a reaffirmation of the Ten Commandments as modified by the Sermon on the Mount. One can grasp the whole of Jesus’ moral teachings by recalling only two things: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

As Bernard Lewis has pointed out, the differences between the legal teachings of the two religions may have derived from, and were certainly reinforced by, the differences between Muhammad and Jesus. In the seventh century, Muhammad was invited to rule Medina and then, after a failed effort to conquer Mecca, finally entered that city as its ruler. He was not only a prophet but also a soldier, judge, and governor. Jesus, by contrast, was an outsider, who neither conquered nor governed anyone, and who was put to death by Roman rulers. Christianity was not recognized until Emperor Constantine adopted it, but Muhammad, in Lewis’s words, was his own Constantine.

Jesus asked Christians to distinguish between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar. Islam made no such distinction; to it, Allah prescribed the rules for all of life, encompassing what we now call the religious and the secular spheres. If a Christian nation fails, we look to its political and economic system for an explanation, but when a Muslim state fails, it is only because, as V. S. Naipaul put it, “men had failed the faith.” Disaster in a Christian nation leads to a search for a new political form; disaster in a Muslim one leads to a reinvigoration of the faith.

Christianity began as a persecuted sect, became a tolerated deviance, and then joined with political powers to become, for well over a thousand years, an official religion that persecuted its rivals. But when officially recognized religions stood in the way of maintaining successful nations, Christianity slipped back to what it had once been: an important faith without political power. And in these extraordinary changes, little in the religion was altered, because almost none of it imposed secular rules.

Judaism differs from Christianity in that it supplies its followers with a religious doctrine replete with secular rules. In the first five books of the Bible and in the Talmud, many of these rules are set forth as part of a desire, as stated in Exodus, to create “a holy nation” based on a “kingdom of priests.” In the five books of Moses and the Talmud are rules governing slavery, diet, bribery, incest, marriage, hygiene, and crime and punishment. And many of the earliest Jewish leaders, like Muhammad later, were political and military leaders. But as Daniel Pipes has noted, for two millennia Jews had no country to rule and hence no place in which to let religion govern the state. And by the time Israel was created, the secular rules of the Old Testament and the desire to create “a holy nation” had lost their appeal to most Jews; for them, politics had simply become a matter of survival. Jews may once have been attracted to theocracy, but they learned from experience that powerful states were dangerous ones.

Like the Old Testament, the Qur’an is hard to interpret. One can find phrases that urge Muslims to “fight and slay the pagans” and also passages that say there should be “no compulsion in religion.” The Arabic word jihad means “striving in the path of God,” but it can also mean a holy war against infidels and apostates.

Until the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism, there were efforts by many scholars to modernize the Qur’an by emphasizing its broadest themes more than its narrow rules. Fazlur Rahman, a leading Islamic scholar, sought in the late 1970s and early 1980s to establish a view of the Qur’an based on Muhammad’s teaching that “differences among my community are a source of blessing.” The basic requirement of the Qur’an, Rahman wrote, is the establishment of a social order on a moral foundation that would aim at the realization of egalitarian values. And there is much in the Qur’an to support this view: it constrained the rules permitting polygamy, moderated slavery, banned infanticide, required fair shares for wives and daughters in bequests, and allowed slaves to buy their freedom—all this in the name of the central Islamic rule: command good and forbid evil.

But many traditional Islamic scholars insist that only the shari’a can govern men, even though it is impossible to manage a modern economy and sustain scientific development on the basis of principles set down in the seventh century. Bernard Lewis tells the story of a Muslim, Mirza Abu Talib, who traveled to England in the late eighteenth century. When he visited the House of Commons, he was astonished to discover that it debated and promulgated laws and set the penalties for criminals. He wrote back to his Muslim brethren that the English, not having accepted the divine law, had to make their own.

Of course, Muslim nations do legislate, but in many of them it is done furtively, with jurists describing their decisions as “customs,” “regulations,” or “interpretations.” And in other nations, the legislature is but an amplification of the orders of a military autocrat, whose power, though often defended in religious terms, comes more from the barrel of a gun than from the teachings of the prophet.

All this makes even more remarkable the extraordinary transformation of Turkey from the headquarters of the Ottoman Empire to the place where Muslims are governed by Western law. Mustafa Kemal, now known as Atatürk, came to power after the First World War as a result of his success in helping defeat the British at Gallipoli and attacking other invading forces. For years, he had been sympathetic to the pro-Western views of many friends; when he became leader of the country, he argued that it could not duplicate the success of the West simply by buying Western arms and machines. The nation had to become Western itself.

Over the course of a decade or so, Atatürk proclaimed a new constitution, created a national legislature, abolished the sultan and caliph, required Muslims to pray in Turkish and not Arabic, urged the study of science, created a secular public education system, abolished religious courts, imposed the Latin alphabet, ended the practice of allowing divorce simply at the husband’s request, gave women the vote, adopted the Christian calendar, did away with the University of Istanbul’s theology faculty, created commercial legal codes by copying German and Swiss models, stated that every person was free to choose his own religion, authorized the erection of statues with human likenesses, ended the ban on alcohol (Atatürk liked to drink), converted the mosque of Hagia Sophia into a secular museum, authorized the election of the first Turkish beauty queen, and banned the wearing of the fez.

You may imagine that this last decision was over a trivial matter, but you would be wrong. The fez, the red cap worn by many Turks, conveyed social standing and, because it lacked a brim, made it possible for its wearer to touch the ground with his forehead when saying prayers. Western hats, equipped with brims, made this impossible. When the ban on the fez was announced, riots erupted in many Turkish cities, and some 20 leaders were executed.

Atatürk created the machinery (though not the fact) of democracy and made it clear that he wanted a thoroughly secular state. After his death, real democratic politics began to be practiced, as a result of which some of the anti-Islam laws were modified. Even so, no other Middle Eastern Muslim nation has undergone as dramatic a change. In the rest of the region, autocrats still rule; they deal with religion by either buying it off or allowing it to dominate the spiritual order, provided it keeps its hands off real power.

On occasion, a fundamentalist Islamic regime comes to power, as happened in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. But these regimes have failed, ousted from Afghanistan by Western military power and declining in Iran and Sudan owing to economic incompetence and cultural rigidity.

The touchstones for Western success in reconciling religion and freedom were nationalism and Christianity, two doctrines that today many sophisticated people either ignore or distrust. But then they did not have to spend four centuries establishing freedom of conscience. We are being optimistic if we think that, absent a unique ruler such as Atatürk and a rare opportunity such as a world war, the Middle East will be able to accomplish this much faster.

Both the West and Islam face major challenges that emerge from their ruling principles. When the West reconciled religion and freedom, it did so by making the individual the focus of society, and the price it has paid has been individualism run rampant, in the form of weak marriages, high rates of crime, and alienated personalities. When Islam kept religion at the expense of freedom, it did so by making the individual subordinate to society, and the price it has paid has been autocratic governments, religious intolerance, and little personal freedom.

I believe that in time Islam will become modern, because without religious freedom, modern government is impossible. I hope that in time the West will reaffirm social contracts, because without them a decent life is impossible. But in the near term, Islam will be on the defensive culturally—which means it will be on the offensive politically. And the West will be on the offensive culturally, which I suspect means it will be on the defensive morally.

If the Middle East is to encounter and not merely resist modernity, it would best if it did this before it runs out of oil."

Please keep in mind that this does not change the fact that many of the conservative Imams subscribe to the belief that it is necessary to kill "infidels" but it hopefully has given you a better understanding of the current state of affiars than you might get from much of the 'yellow journalism' being promulgated.

23 May 2007

Mars Rover Spirit Unearths Surprise Evidence of Wetter Past

Mars Rover Spirit Unearths Surprise Evidence of Wetter Past
May 21, 2007

PASADENA, Calif. - A patch of Martian soil analyzed by NASA's rover Spirit is so rich in silica that it may provide some of the strongest evidence yet that ancient Mars was much wetter than it is now. The processes that could have produced such a concentrated deposit of silica require the presence of water.

Members of the rover science team heard from a colleague during a recent teleconference that the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, a chemical analyzer at the end of Spirit's arm, had measured a composition of about 90 percent pure silica for this soil.

"You could hear people gasp in astonishment," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the Mars rovers' science instruments. "This is a remarkable discovery. And the fact that we found something this new and different after nearly 1,200 days on Mars makes it even more remarkable. It makes you wonder what else is still out there."

Spirit's miniature thermal emission spectrometer observed the patch, and Steve Ruff of Arizona State University, Tempe, noticed that its spectrum showed a high silica content. The team has laid out plans for further study of the soil patch and surrounding deposits.

Exploring a low range of hills inside a Connecticut-sized basin named Gusev Crater, Spirit had previously found other indicators of long-ago water at the site, such as patches of water-bearing, sulfur-rich soil; alteration of minerals; and evidence of explosive volcanism.

"This is some of the best evidence Spirit has found for water at Gusev," said Albert Yen, a geochemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. One possible origin for the silica could have been interaction of soil with acid vapors produced by volcanic activity in the presence of water. Another could have been from water in a hot spring environment. The latest discovery adds compelling new evidence for ancient conditions that might have been favorable for life, according to members of the rover science team.

(click the link for the rest of the article)

Rising corn prices hit grocery shoppers' pocketbooks

Rising corn prices hit grocery shoppers' pocketbooks
Tuesday, May 22, 2007 | 12:16 PM ET
CBC News

The rising demand for corn as a source of ethanol-blended fuel is largely to blame for increasing food costs around the world, and Canada is not immune, say industry experts.

Food prices rose 10 per cent in 2006, "driven mainly by surging prices of corn, wheat and soybean oil in the second part of the year," the International Monetary Fund said in a report. "Looking ahead, rising demand for biofuels will likely cause the prices of corn and soybean oil to rise further," the authors wrote in the report released last month.

Statistics Canada says consumers in the country paid 3.8 per cent more for food in April 2007, compared to the same month last year. Jyoti Sahasrabudhe, an independent food industry consultant in Calgary, says consumers would be amazed to learn just how much of their food contains corn.

In a recent trip to the grocery story with CBC News, Sahasrabudhe underlined the point. "For example, in the sushi in the California rolls, we've got hydrolyzed corn protein. Here we are looking at coiled garlic sausage and I believe we will find some modified cornstarch. It's used as a thickener to bind all the ingredients together," said Sahasrabudhe.

"Corn has so many uses throughout the food chain as feed for animals, as an ingredient on its own. I don't know that a relatively inexpensive substitute for all those functions could be found." The flip side of course is that corn dependency is offering farmers like Alberta's Brett Stimpson a kernel of hope

"We look at it as a business opportunity … prices are strong. And you know we're just going to give it a try," Stimpson told CBC News. Canada is not alone in feeling the effects of rising corn prices, which rose to over $4 a bushel earlier this year.

Average U.S. grocery bill up by $47
A study released in May from Iowa State University shows increased prices for ethanol have already led to bigger grocery bills for the average American — an increase of $47 US compared to July 2006. In the United States, as elsewhere, ethanol is made from corn. But corn is also used to feed chickens, hogs and cattle, which means a rise in prices for meat, eggs and dairy. In Mexico last year, corn tortillas, a crucial source of calories for 50 million poor people, doubled in price. The increase forced the government to introduce price controls.

In Canada at least, the fallout from increased production in corn-based ethanol is not likely to lessen any time soon. In its March budget, the federal Conservative government committed $2 billion in incentives for ethanol, made from wheat and corn, and biodiesel. The move is based in part on wide-spread belief that ethanol-blended fuel produces cleaner emissions than regular gasoline.

But a recent Environment Canada study found no statistical difference between the greenhouse gas emissions of regular unleaded fuel and 10 per cent ethanol-blended fuel. Environmental groups have argued that producing ethanol — whether from corn, beets, wheat or other crops — takes more energy than is derived from the product.

Conservationists—and polar bears—should heed the lessons of economics

Species inflation
Hail Linnaeus
May 17th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Conservationists—and polar bears—should heed the lessons of economics
“NO SCIENCE in the world is more elevated, more necessary and more useful than economics.” That was the view of Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, born three centuries ago this week, who is better remembered for devising the system used to this day to classify living organisms.

Linnaeus sought to reveal what he saw as the divine order of the natural world so that it might be exploited for human benefit. He lived at a time when exploration and trade were bringing new specimens to the attention of European scientists. Those specimens, particularly the plants, were scrutinised as potential crops. At the turn of the 17th century there was no sense of how creatures were related to each other; descriptions and classifications were unsystematic. Linnaeus gave life to an organising hierarchy with kingdoms at the top and species at the bottom.

The system he created has proved both robust and flexible. It survived the rise of evolution. It also survived the discovery of whole categories of organism, such as bacteria, that the Swede never suspected existed. But, rather as John Maynard Keynes observed that “there is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency,” so Linnaeus's system is being subtly debauched by over-eager taxonomists, trying to help conservation.

Go Forth and Multiply
As new areas are explored, the number of species naturally increases (see article). For example, the number of species of monkey, ape and lemur gradually increased until the mid-1960s, when it levelled off. In the mid-1980s, however, it started rising again. Today there are twice as many primate species as there were then. That is not because a new wave of primatologists has emerged, pith-helmeted, from the jungle with hitherto unknown specimens. It is because a lot of established subspecies have been reclassified as species.

Perhaps “reclassified” is not quite the right word. “Rebranded” might be closer. Taxonomists do not always get it right first time, of course, and what looked like one species may rightly later be seen as two. But a suspiciously large number of the new species have turned up in the limited group of big, showy animals known somewhat disparagingly as “charismatic megafauna”—in other words the species that the public, as opposed to the experts, care about.

One reason for this taxonomic inflation is that the idea of a species becoming extinct is easy to grasp, and thus easy to make laws about. Subspecies just do not carry as much political clout. The other is that upgrading subspecies into species simultaneously increases the number of rare species (by fragmenting populations) and augments the biodiversity of a piece of habitat and thus its claim for protection.

In the short term, this strategy helps conservationists by intensifying the perceived threat of extinction. In the long term, as every economist knows, inflation brings devaluation. Rarity is not merely determined by the number of individuals in a species, it is also about how unusual that species is. If there are only two species of elephant, African and Indian, losing one matters a lot. Subdivide the African population, as some taxonomists propose, and perceptions of scarcity may shift.

The trouble is that the idea of what defines a species is a lot more slippery than you might think. Since it is changes in DNA that cause species to evolve apart, looking at DNA should be a good way to divide the natural world. However, it depends which bit of DNA you look at. The standard technique says, for example, that polar bears are just brown bears that happen to be white. This is not good news for those relying on the Endangered Species Act. For a certain sort of Colorado rodent (with, alas, a nose for prime riverfront real estate) the question of whether it is “Preble's meadow jumping mouse” or a boring old meadow jumping mouse may be a matter of life or death: local property developers are on the death side. The Bahamas switched overnight from protecting their raccoons to setting up programmes to eradicate them when a look at the genetic evidence showed the animals were common Northern raccoons, not a separate species.

The 21st-century answer to this 18th-century riddle is that a species is what a taxonomist says it is. Evolution often fails to produce the clear divisions that human thought in general, and the law in particular, prefers to work with. It therefore behoves taxonomists to be honest. If they debase their currency, it will ultimately become valueless. Linnaeus the economist would have known that instinctively.

22 May 2007

NASA Finds Vast Regions of Antarctica Melted in 2005

Grey Hautaluoma/Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington

Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
May 15, 2007
RELEASE: 07-115

NASA Finds Vast Regions of West Antarctica Melted in Recent Past

WASHINGTON - A team of NASA and university scientists has found clear evidence that extensive areas of snow melted in west Antarctica in January 2005 in response to warm temperatures. This was the first widespread Antarctic melting ever detected with NASA's QuikScat satellite and the most significant melt observed using satellites during the past three decades. The affected regions encompass a combined area as big as California.

Son Nghiem of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Konrad Steffen, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, led the team. Using data from QuikScat, they measured snowfall accumulation and melt in Antarctica and Greenland from July 1999 through July 2005.

The melting occurred in multiple distinct regions, including far inland, at high latitudes and at high elevations, where melt had been considered unlikely. Evidence of melting was found up to 560 miles inland from the open ocean, farther than 85 degrees south (about 310 miles from the South Pole) and higher than 6,600 feet above sea level. Maximum air temperatures at the time of the melting were unusually high, reaching more than 41 F in one of the affected areas. They remained above melting for approximately a week.

"Antarctica has shown little to no warming in the recent past with the exception of the Antarctic Peninsula, but now large regions are showing the first signs of the impacts of warming as interpreted by this satellite analysis," said Steffen. "Increases in snowmelt, such as this in 2005, definitely could have an impact on larger scale melting of Antarctica's ice sheets if they were severe or sustained over time."

The satellite's scatterometer instrument sends radar pulses to the ice sheet surface, measuring the echoed pulses that bounce back. When snow melts and then refreezes, it changes to ice, just as ice cream crystallizes when it is left out too long and is then refrozen. QuikScat can differentiate this icy fingerprint in the snow cover and can map on a continental scale the extent of strong snowmelt over the subsequently formed ice layer. Available ground station measurements validate the satellite result.

The 2005 melt was intense enough to create an extensive ice layer when water refroze after the melt. However, the melt was not prolonged enough for the melt water to flow into the sea.

"Water from melted snow can penetrate into ice sheets through cracks and narrow, tubular glacial shafts called moulins," Steffen said. "If sufficient melt water is available, it may reach the bottom of the ice sheet. This water can lubricate the underside of the ice sheet at the bedrock, causing the ice mass to move toward the ocean faster, increasing sea level."

Changes in the ice mass of Antarctica, Earth's largest freshwater reservoir, are important to understanding global sea level rise. Large amounts of Antarctic freshwater flowing into the ocean also could affect ocean salinity, currents and global climate.

Nghiem said while no further melting had been detected through March 2007, more monitoring is needed. "Satellite scatterometry is like an X-ray that sees through snow and finds ice layers beneath as early as possible," he said. "It is vital we continue monitoring this region to determine if a long-term trend may be developing."

QuikScat data are helping scientists better understand how Antarctica and Greenland's ice sheets gain or lose mass. "We need to know what's coming in and going out of the ice sheets," Nghiem said. "QuikScat data, combined with data from NASA's IceSat and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites, along with aircraft and ground measurements, all contribute to more accurate estimates of how the polar ice sheets are changing."

The study, "Snow Accumulation and Snowmelt Monitoring in Greenland and Antarctica," appears in the recently published book "Dynamic Planet."

For more information about this study, contact Jim Scott of the University of Colorado, Boulder, at 303-492-3114 or Adriana Raudzens Bailey of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, at 303-492-6289.

For more information on QuikScat, visit:


China's low-key jump onto biofuel bandwagon

China Business
May 23, 2007
China's low-key jump onto biofuel bandwagon
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - While the biofuel craze is sweeping across the world like a wildfire, China appears to remain uncannily quiet, at least lately, just observing the new global obsession.

Beijing has been inconsistent in its love affair with biofuel. Last year, it held a big international conference on biofuel at Beijing's Tsinghua University, displaying great enthusiasm for it. Chinese scientists and government officials visited Brazil, a global leader in the use of biofuel, and came back with a clear determination that this would be China's energy future. But then, toward the end of last year, Beijing announced that it would reconsider bio-ethanol because of concerns about national food security.

Since then, the biofuel news coming out of China has mostly carried a tint of negativism. In March, the state-controlled China Daily ran a piece saying that biofuel causes more harm than good. In April, it quoted a Stanford University research study, saying that bio-ethanol may cause more smog and deaths. That was followed by another piece this month that quoted a United Nations report saying that the benefits of biofuel may bypass the rural poor.

Is the Middle Kingdom, often highlighted these days for its insatiable appetite for oil in Africa, unenthused about jumping on this new-energy bandwagon?

The truth is that China is keenly interested in the new energy source, but it is a contentious issue and the country has been fiercely debating the matter. "Arguments have never ceased in the Chinese science community on biofuel," said a senior Chinese academic.

China is not a newcomer to the global drive for biofuel. It has long been producing bio-ethanol from corn (maize), a national staple crop. However, as the scale of bio-ethanol production for industrial use dried up the corn supply for human consumption, "people began to worry about food security", said the scholar, who asked not to be named.

According to the scholar, that was "China's lesson with bio-ethanol". It turned out to be quite controversial. The collective emotional resistance to the idea of using food as fuel ran deep. After all, this is a country where close to 70% of the population are farmers and many of them are poor.

"China is a country where if the agricultural sector collapses, then the whole country collapses," said a foreign expert who works at the same Beijing research institute as the scholar cited above.

China experienced what many historians call the greatest famine in human history in the 1950s and 1960s. And while going through the Cold War, it felt more strongly the importance of food self-sufficiency, elevating it to the level of national security. To this day Beijing orders provincial governments to reserve a certain amount of arable land for agricultural cultivation.

But that is by no means an indication that China is no longer researching and developing biofuel. "It's safe to assume that anything researched in other countries is also being experimented [with] somewhere in China now, including cutting-edge biofuel technology," said the foreign expert.

Indeed, Yang Xiongnian, a senior official with the Ministry of Agriculture, said China is "researching all kinds of biomass energy options, and others including sorghum ethanol and coal-based diesel oil".

Bioenergy has become a worldwide hot topic because of the limited fossil energy resources and their impact on the environment. Bioenergy is basically categorized into biogas, biomass (in the form of a solid, such as straw briquettes), and biofuel (in the form of liquid, such as bio-diesel and bio-ethanol).

China is the world's second-largest corn producer. In 2005, it churned out a record ethanol output of 920,000 tons from corn. In 2006, it exported 500,000 tons of ethanol, mainly to the United States. But domestically, China has been proposing to address increased fuel demand with the help of biofuel.

In its official 11th Five-Year Plan Guidelines, covering 2006-10, China plans to set aside US$101 billion to meet 15% of its transportation energy needs through the use of biofuel by 2020, corresponding to 12 million tons. The country also plans to plant 13 million hectares of jatropha trees by 2010, from which 6 million tons of bio-diesel can be extracted.

All this indicates that although China officially says the issue of national food security should take precedence over the green agenda, the shift toward biofuel production has been quietly under way all along.

For instance, since 2000 the government has been subsidizing the production of bio-ethanol at four plants in Henan, Anhui, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, with a combined annual capacity of 1 million tons, or about 0.5% of the projected corn and wheat outputs in 2007.

China is also looking at sources other than corn to produce biofuel. It plans to set up a plant - the fifth biofuel production plant in the country - in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region that will use cassava, a tropical plant, by the end of this year. The processing plant would have a production capacity of 200,000 tons a year and would be managed by the state-owned grain trader, China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corp.

The National Offshore Oil Corp will also construct 100 bio-diesel plants across the country with different materials as feedstock.

Particularly noticeable is that some Chinese companies, with the help of the government, are establishing biofuel-production facilities abroad. One such company has invested in Nigeria some $90 million for the production of 150,000 tonnes of cassava-based bio-ethanol. Beijing will provide 85% of the project cost while 15% will come from the Nigerian government.

But all this has been carried out rather quietly because of the national sentiment on biofuel. After all, for China, keeping up with the breakthrough green alternative is important, but equally important is raising the living standards of the country's many rural poor.

The issue is particularly relevant as the wealth gap between urban and rural areas is widening. In China, where "building a harmonious society" has become a popular national slogan as Beijing grows increasingly nervous about growing rural unrest, there is already a concern that the benefits of biofuel may bypass the rural poor to benefit only the urban rich who can afford expensive hybrid cars that run on the substance.

Thus it is imperative for China's biofuel development to make rural areas relevant by investing in them. With that in mind, the Ministry of Agriculture in 2000 began to introduce various "low-end" bioenergy technologies to rural areas and implemented new policies such as "ecological homeland" and the "plan to enrich people". One such option that has been aggressively promoted has been the use of biogas, which powers stoves, electricity, tractors and indoor lighting in rural areas.

Since 2003, biogas-plant construction in rural areas has been included in programs financed by Chinese government bonds. During 2003-06, 1 billion yuan (about $130 million) was invested in household biogas production in rural areas. During the three-year period, the central government invested 3 billion yuan in biogas production and demonstration programs, benefiting more than 3.1 million rural households.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 15 million households in rural China were using biogas by the end of 2004. The ministry aims to increase this number to 27 million by 2010, which would account for more than 10% of all rural households.

Sunny Lee is a journalist based in Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved)