Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An example

Somebody who gets it - Bob Baer on Iraq:

BAER: Yes. (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq) Ryan Crocker said it was the Iranians blocking a basing agreement. It was the Iranians buying elections and buying up the parliament. That tells me that Iran has de facto control over the country. Crocker didn’t say it was just a question of bringing a few parliamentarians around; he said Iran. That was his official statement. Crocker was the ambassador to Lebanon at the time I was there, and he calls this Iraq’s “Lebanonization.” Observers use Serbia as an example for Iraq and say we accomplished a victory there with just American troops. But they did it there with the Sunnis and Shi'a together. They were complicit in lowering the level of violence. Iran could make life hell if they unleash the Shi’a on us, as they’ve already done in the south of Iraq. The Iranians could fight us forever in Iraq, but that doesn’t actually serve their immediate interests. They know to just remain patient because eventually the Americans will leave. I don’t care if we even reach a basing agreement. Iran will undermine it. Unless we’re committed to placing a million troops in the region to contain this empire—as we did the Soviet empire—the basing agreement simply won’t have an effect.


Obama, all of Washington, and most of the military are totally clueless about Afghanistan.

I do believe there are some in the military - probably mostly junior folks with lots of time in the field and a serious will to understand the situation - who have a pretty good feel for what to do and how to do it. I don't know how much influence those smart junior folks have on the chain of command. 

The "tribal strategy", which is offered as a blueprint for success in Afghanistan, is not the panacea and will not solve our dilemma there, except in the context of a much larger and more sophisticated strategy.

First of all we have got to get over our obsession with lines on the map: "seams" in military parlance, which are the ways that ignorant wonks in Washington and careerists in the military divide up the world for their own personal, short-sighted, benefit. The enemy doesn't have seams. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb doesn't have to coordinate and synchronize their deployment schedules with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula before carrying 0ut operations.  The only seams the enemy has are created by us, e.g. limitations on their abilities to cross international borders because of security, surveillance, or local allied policy. The only seams we have are created by us: artificial lines on the map created by our own bureaucrats for our own bureaucratic purposes.

Next we have to honestly assess and understand the war we are fighting. It is unfortunately a clash of civilizations between the west and the Islamic world. It is a measure of how dire this conflict has become that many of you reading this paragraph will think "that's intolerant of Islamicist religious freedom".  I'm not going to spend a long time footnoting it now, but only a very few years ago the idea that other civilizations opposed western ideals was not controversial. Sometime since I graduated from college our civilization has lost its identity. If you don't think this idea is overtly self evident, you have not read, much less understood, the writings and speeches of our adversaries: Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama, et al. If you don't think those guys reflect and represent the intellectual and ideological center of global Islam, you simply aren't paying attention. While a substantial percentage of Muslims around the world may be normal, reasonable, peaceloving folks, at least 90% of the money and power in the Islamic world is with Osama.  This is important, and as long as we willfully deny it we will lose.

Next we have got to accept that we are a 2nd Generation power in a 4th Generation world. The information revolution has transformed international politics and warfare. It has made the weak strong and the strong weak, but the information-savvy hold most of the cards. Conventional military power is mostly a liability - we deploy our regular forces to irregular conflicts, then torment ourselves with "force protection" of our troops in situations were they simply don't belong. This problem was bad enough in Iraq, which was a vastly more conventional, comprehensible problem than is Afghanistan.  We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq by overlaying a pretty sophisticated unconventional strategy and the credit was given to the "troop surge", which was a massive oversimplification of what we did and how it worked. Warfare is now unconventional, information-based, non-linear, and more psychological than kinetic. Large numbers of conventional troops are usually just a liability.

Next we have to understand Afghanistan. Probably there are some folks who have spent a lot of time there who have a good feeling for the place, but it is really not an easy place to understand. It is not a nation-state by any conventional understanding of the term. The tribal model is good, and useful, but won't solve all problems there because Afghanistan is mainly a proxy, a tool, and a buffer of surrounding powerful nation-states. Take away state sponsorship of the Taliban  (Pakistani and Iranian) and they wouldn't last a year. I only give them that long because they have drug trafficking and corruption working in their favor. (Ever wonder why the Taliban banned opium cultivation when they were in power? Because they were sitting on the world's largest stockpile of heroin and they wanted to drive up the price.)

The factors which govern events in Afghanistan are mostly totally different from what Obama says they are and what Washington thinks they are. Drug trafficking is one big fat example of that but there are bigger and more significant factors that are totally unknown in Washington but totally axiomatic in Islamabad, Teheran, and Dubai (hint: it's mostly about money). If we can't figure that stuff out we'll never stand a chance. At the moment we're just deceiving ourselves and the Islamic world is laughing their asses off at our cluelessness. I kind of doubt that will change, but I was somewhat surprised at how we engineered a politically appealing result in Iraq.  It's just amazing how naive and simple we are. 

That's the final point: we're all shocked, shocked at the corruption in Afghanistan and how it is thwarting our democratic idealism. The corruption in Afghanistan is kindergarten-level compared to Iraq, where bigger games are still being played. The difference is that there isn't much else going on in Afghanistan, so it's more obvious. If we want to succeed we have to learn to understand how things work in that part of the world and integrate that understanding into a more strategic strategy.

Such a strategy should seek to contain Iran, discredit and roll back Wahhabism, promote and encourage adoption of ideas and values that are at least not detrimental to our interests, and reduce the ability of our 4th generation adversaries (also known as terrorists) to threaten the US homeland. That's what we should be doing in Afghanistan - not seeking to do enough "nation building" to permit a graceful exit. 

I thought Obama laid out a plan for willful failure - a theme that will not be missed by the real players over there. They are thinking tonight "this is going to work out well for us".

Is Global Warming Dead?

Long time readers may recall I have been sceptical about the data behind the theories global warming for a while.

It now turns out that scepticism was well founded: the data was falsified.

The recent hack of the Hadley Climate Research Unit produced a gold mine of evidence against the main proponents of global warming, including hockey-stick proponent Michael Mann.

The most damning revelation to date, however, is known as the "harry_read_me.txt" file. It is a long rambling discussion that essentially says that the available data does not indicate global warming at all - much less anthropogenic global warming - and the conclusions being drawn by key researchers are simply not supported by the evidence. And this is from someone "on the inside" of an organization that is one of the key proponents of so-called climate change.

I have said this before: claims about global warming are not about science, they are about politics. Somebody somewhere figured out that if you control the use of energy you control the world - and some of those somebodies are trying to use bad science to control the world.

The question now is whether they will still get away with it now that it has been revealed that they were deliberately lying. I think there's a real good chance that they will.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Good Is It?

So Janiece has been making me think recently. She pulled out the old canard that an MBA was worth no more than a year’s subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I don’t agree, but on the other hand, despite holding the degree, I am somewhat ambivalent about the value of my education.

But I have to stand up and defend the degree itself. First of all, the original purpose of the degree, back when most Americans still made stuff instead of shuffling paper, was to take Engineers and other technical staff and prepare them to be business leaders within their silos, with perhaps the option of making them strong general managers as well. A good program was supposed to give those staff a broad general education in the rudiments of all aspects of a business, from Finance to Marketing. Most good programs also encourage a specialization so that the student acquires some deep specific skills in a particular area of business. Given that substrate of student, the MBA program is still remarkably good at turning out better managers.

In my own career journey, the education I received in business school was invaluable. I would not have been ready to take on a business role after working in an Industrial lab for a few years. No way, no how. I had too many preconceived notions and arrogance coming out of obtaining a Ph.D. I learned pretty quick in business school how much I thought I knew about how the world outside academia worked was wrong. None of the scientists I work with today could do my job without an MBA or other business training, despite having more years in the industry than I do.

So what specifically did business school do for me? First, it gave me rudimentary skills in the major areas of a modern business so that I can evaluate the concerns of different lines with my projects. It would have taken me years of real-world work experience in a number of different positions (which I may or may not have been qualified to occupy) to get that broad a view of business operations. If, indeed, I was lucky enough to get the right assignments to see all of those lines.

I knew nothing of financial instruments before business school, and the Corporate Finance and Accounting classes gave me a really good grounding in that aspect of business. Now, I find Finance about as much fun as watching paint dry, despite my proclivity for numeric activities, so I took the minimum in that area. People who concentrated in finance got real world projects from real firms to work on as part of their course work. A Journal education (which admittedly is slightly better than a University of Google education because the Journal staff acts as a bozo filter) would not provide that hands-on experience.

Likely as a bench scientist I would never have seen the HR side of modern business (the courses in which were surprisingly useful, though it is perhaps unsurprising that most real-world HR I’ve come into contact with does not practice what I learned in those classes). The Journal is especially weak on HR. In my HR class I was required to approach a company and ask for confidential information on their HR practices so that we could perform a benchmarking evaluation. What the company got out of the deal was an independent appraisal. I had connections with what was then the largest laser company in the world from my previous life, and they opened up their entire operations to my team. It was an amazing learning experience, and one I never would have gotten on the job or in a Journal education.

Beyond those basic classes, I concentrated in Strategy and Marketing. I took classes in Consumer Behavior from one of the world’s leading experts in consumer psychology. I took quantitative research methods and survey instrument design form another leading expert. I came out of B-school with specific, useful skills that I immediately put into practice on my first job. Skills I didn’t have as a scientist, and skills that take time and money to acquire. Skills you can’t get from the Journal.

A good business school should provide more than a case-based education, although cases do have their value. The main deliverable at my school was tied into several courses, and used the content from all of them for a practical purpose – mid-to-large-tier businesses sent the school projects for the students to work on all year as consultants, and we had to present and defend our recommendations just as an actual business consultant would. The teams that worked on those projects were selected by the school, so that a balance of industries and experience was represented on each team. Although the Journal can provide some insight into other industries, there is no other way outside of business school to be thrown into a project with people of such varied backgrounds. I worked on that team with people from the fashion industry, high tech, wood and paper products, steel making, insurance, and other industries. The price of the MBA was cheap compared to the value of that kind of cross-fertilization of ideas.

Which brings me to the international diversity aspect. The make-up of my class was about 45% foreign. Most of the Americans marveled at the large ratio of foreigners. Coming from a science lab, I marveled at the novelty of a class with a majority of native-born Americans. :D

That had a huge impact on my educational experience. And the diversity ran deep – we were not dealing with Americanized immigrants, we were interacting with people who were going to go back to their native countries and do business.

My team had several foreigners on it, actually by luck of the draw we had less than the average. However, we made up for that with quality. Two of my best friends on the team brought a lot of perspective to the project. One was a Finance guy from Hugo Boss in Germany, and a Lieutenant in the Bundeswehr Reserves. The other guy was going to school on company plastic – and the company was Nippon Steel. I probably owe my present career, which I entered because my original group needed someone to deal with the Japan office, to two things – the fact that I got the real scoop on Japanese business practices (and not recycled Nikkei news articles via the Journal) from Kunio, and the fact that the business school offered Japanese language as an elective. I made a very convincing case that I knew what the heck I was talking about when my interviewers asked about Japan. I didn’t know everything by a long shot – in no way was I ready for a senior level position, but I was in a position to do a good job in an entry level slot, which is what I was being asked to do.

Beyond that, I made a point to enter foreign-dominated groups in the self-selected teams in other classes. In most of my non-marketing classes I wound up working either with Kunio and another Japanese, or with a couple of Turks. I got good international exposure from them, and they benefited from my quant skills. In business school more than any other graduate program except the JD, peers matter. In my marketing classes I wound up working with a couple of Korean guys. Many a dinner with them and Kunio gave me real insight into the business and political relations between their two countries. To be fair, most of the Americans gravitated to American-only team when given the choice.

Now that brings up an important point – I got a lot out of business school because I’m the type of intellectual vampire who seizes every opportunity to learn something and sucks it dry until the veins are making that empty milkshake sound. Less motivated people get less out of business school, and one of the problems with the MBA degree is that the material is really not rocket science, with the exception of some of the more esoteric finance stuff and a bit of the quantitative statistics in predictive market research – topics which can be easily avoided by the lazy. Any reasonably good parrot can do enough to get out of the even a good program with passing grades. There is really no filter in the program beyond the initial selection process. Thus programs with easy admission requirements generally issue diplomas that would find better use as tissue paper.

Now I went to a school that’s in the second tier in the Business Week rankings, but still well within the top 50 business schools in the world. I got a good enough education that I can compete successfully with graduates of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Chicago and Wharton. But those people have a couple of edges on me. The bottom quartile of their class was probably equal to the middle quartiles of mine – their peers pushed them harder, and on average had more experience at Fortune 100 companies prior to matriculating. They also got social networking advantages I didn’t, because Donald Trump sends his kids to Wharton, not a second tier, high value-for-money institution. Educational Return On Investment means less to families at the top of American business than it did to me.

I think that on the whole, a business education can be a very valuable experience.

But there are too many business schools and too many MBAs out there, and outside of the coasts, it’s a lot more likely you are interacting with the dregs of American business education.

Unfortunately there is an over-reliance on credentialism within American business. The MBA at lesser programs is now nothing but a signal of ambition. Thus, the proliferation of MBA programs has led to relaxed admissions of people who really don’t have the background to make the most of their business education. There is an administrative assistant with an MBA at my company. It’s a Podunk MBA, from an institution not respected enough to get her a job using it at my company, yet she’s over credentialed for her current position. If she goes somewhere else and gets a job using that degree, she won’t have the skills of the people who graduated from my school. That’s an issue.

Given my own experience, I’d say that an institution that is too small to attract a significant number of real world projects for its students, not prestigious enough to attract top students who push their peers, and has less than 30% foreign students is not likely to produce MBAs of much value.

In addition to that, the ratio of full-time to part time students matters. I don’t have much use for executive or part time MBAs. Executive MBAs take people with years and years of experience, but who are lacking that special piece of paper. I’m not sure how much value the MBA adds in that case. Part time MBAs miss the whole benefit of an MBA. The students take night classes with the same peers from the same local businesses, removing much of the cross-fertilization of ideas from different industries. The number of foreigners tends to be very low, reducing the impact of student diversity. And finally, the programs often take 5 to 7 years to complete at one or 2 night classes per semester. The other benefit of an MBA is to immerse students in topics from all over the business world at one time so that they begin to see the connections between the silos. Taking the classes one at a time reduces the student’s ability to see those connections, and taking them over 5 years ensures that the material from 5 years ago ahs been completely forgotten by the time the degree is granted.

It seems to me that business education is in a very similar state to Medical Education before the Flexner Report. I’d like to see a lot of programs forced to improve or close. The quality rapidly drops off beyond the top 70 or 80 schools (world-wide not US), and graduates from those other institutions give the rest of us a bad name.

That’s not the only issue with the MBA degree. Graduates of the top schools have their own issues as well. The idea that the skills that the MBA imparts give one a deep understanding into the mechanics of all businesses is a pernicious one. There is no substitute for experience in (and passion for) an industry. Legions of bloodsucking, useless consultants, themselves graduates of top-tier MBA programs, reinforce this notion.

A lot of the problems in the modern business world come from managers who talk about their products in a generic sense. One of the stupidest things I ever heard came from such an MBA, something to the effect that if he were to split his business up and one person were to take the people and equipment, and he were to take only the brand names, he’d do better than the person with the goods. That statement pretty stupidly discounts the contributions of all those people who do the actual work of bringing a product to the customer. A brand is a quality signal, and unless he could maintain the same quality with his mercenaries and rented plants, those brands would disintegrate. Ask Magellan.

The MBA is a starting point. Denigrating it in the absence of any other business education is a mistake. The school matters, but most importantly, what one does with it matters. More than any other professional degree, it means little outside of the context of the holder's work history and work ethic. But with it the hard worker becomes that much more valuable.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Free Flow

My friend Janiece just reminded me of one of the reasons I'm a small "L" libertarian: unlike the Ayn Rand fan club, I recognize the limits of the free market.

The free market is the best device ever invented for the fair distribution of goods and services. But the efficiency of the free market depends on several conditions, and one of those is the free flow of information, and relatively equal access of that information to all the players in the market.

I'm not talking about the fact that Proctor and Gamble does not disclose that Joy and Dawn dish detergent are based on the very same patents, and are likely almost identical, save for the price. If you fall for that, you deserve to give P&G a little more of your hard-earned money than would otherwise be the case. Marketers make a lot of money on low-involvement decisions. It's a sort of tax voluntarily paid by the unwary to maintain a free market that is not over-regulated. Not to mention that the law mandates that the patent numbers be printed on the bottle for transparency. What more do you want, someone to read it for you? Read the fine print yourself and caveat emptor.

But we all take a little more care with high involvement purchases, which are de facto the ones that take a significant chunk of cash to make. In those instances, reputable sellers make sure that all the information is available to the buyer. Investing should be one of those high-involvement areas where the market is forced to operate at great transparency. GAAP, fund prospecti, 10Ks and the like keep everyone honest.

Which is why derivatives bother me. I'm a relatively smart guy, I hold an MBA from a top school, and I'm pretty math-savvy. I damn sure don't understand how all the risks in derivatives are accounted for, nor how ownership of that risk is distributed. Given the implosion-prone nature of derivative markets, I'm pretty convinced those people who do say they understand such things really don't.

This is exactly analagous to the illegal practice of buying on margin. In a normal market where people are betting with their own money, prices reflect the wisdom of the crowd on the rational expectation of future cash flows from an investment. Rational people can spot bubbles and avoid them. Although irrational actors can temporarily distort the market, they generally get what they deserve when the market returns to its natural equilibrium.

When people are borrowing to make stock purchases, the information on the crowd's confidence in the solidity of the the investment (reflected in the price) is hidden, distorted, or completely absent. The market breaks down because information is no longer transparent. In a similar way, the inability to track risk and accountability with derivatives distorts the natural feedback mechanisms that allow the market to self-correct.

This is why we need regulators, despite the very real issues of regulatory creep and capture. It is in maintaining the balance of ideals and real-world issues when the system is stressed that one can separate the rational libertarian from, say, Ron Paul.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Al Qaeda Associated Movement

My last couple of posts, as well as some of the comments over at Jim's, apparently have elicited quite a bit of puzzlement and consternation. I think that's because I haven't been very clear in what I've been talking about when I say that our public institutions have apparently been compromised by radical Islam. 

What I mean is this: radical Sunni Islam overtly intends to destroy Western civilization and enslave all non-Muslims. This is not a secret: it is the overt, public teaching of Salafism and Wahhabism's most important leaders, including Ibn Taymiyyah, ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Omar Abdel Rahman, and Osama bin Laden. 

To that end, Salafists and Wahhabists have devoted themselves to jihad in many different ways, but the ultimate objective is the same: our destruction. 

Osama, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al Qaeda have pursued an integrated, primarily military and information-based strategy to undermine our institutions, while the House of Saud and other Saudi-based Salafists and Wahhabists have pursued political and financial strategies. These different strategies are coordinated and complimentary, however, and are extremely complex and sophisticated. They are not, in general, secret - Islamic leaders are loquacious in describing their strategies for our destruction. Anwar al-Awlaki (gosh he's been in the news a lot lately) has been particularly vociferous and eloquent about destroying the country of his birth. Please read Awlaki's "44 Ways to Support Jihad": it pretty much covers everything I'm talking about. 

The most insidious facets of the overall Salafist strategy of jihad are the compromise of our institutions from within, via political and financial influence, and the socialization of the Ummah to the radical Wahhabist/Qutbist ideas about jahiliyyah and jihad. These two facets work together. 

The socialization of the Ummah, or promoting the teachings of Taymiyyah, Wahhab, Qutb, et al, has been the most dramatically effective of all the strategies of jihad sponsored by the House of Saud. It created al Qaeda and the al Qaeda movement, which inspires individuals or small groups of jihadis to carry out terrorist attacks against Western targets without any guidance or sponsorship from the central AQ leadership. That appears to be what happened last week with Nidal Malik Hasan.

Compromise of our institutions is a complementary strategy: it enhances and amplifies the effectiveness of unilateralist jihad. This is a very Leninist approach - Lenin wrote that the corruption inherent in capitalist systems would prove their undoing. The Islamists are simply using their wealth to help speed things along. At the same time, an army of Islamic lobbyists plays upon our inherent guilt to promote the idea that any opposition to the Islamist agenda is racist and intolerant. This theme of course finds a very receptive audience among American liberal elites. In that way anything we might do to counter their strategy is immediately neutralized.

We've been fighting hard in Iraq and Afghanistan when the most critical front in the "Global War on Terrorism" is right here at home. The Islamists are laughing with undisguised glee at our willingness to help them in their jihad against us. 

Oh well - I still haven't scratched the surface of this subject. It's pretty hard to encapsulate the ultimate clash of civilizations in a blog post, even several blog posts. I will keep trying as time permits.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Terrorism Analysis

I was about to say we do a very bad job at analyzing terrorist networks, but then I thought about it and realized we do a lot of very good analysis. We have lots of amazingly smart analysts who do some great work and undoubtedly save a lot of lives.

Unfortunately, the record is spotty, however. We have done pretty well at breaking the back of al Qaeda in Iraq, probably because the counterterrorism analysis was integrated with a broad strategy of counterinsurgency, civil affairs, political action, foreign internal defense, and direct action. Our performance isn't bad in other areas of the middle east, where there are few barriers to all-source collection, analysis, and dissemination.

It's only when you come back to CONUS that things get really ugly. Within our own borders the political correctness disease has substantially crippled our otherwise-reasonably-competent capabilities.

This situation opens an obvious opportunity for our adversaries: come here and be safe. The evidence is clear that they did just that.

Understanding that phenomenon is the key to understanding what happened with Nidal Malik Hassan.

The evidence is abundant and readily available that the "Wahhabi Corridor" in Northern Virginia has played an ongoing, key role in coordinating and facilitating Salafist terror in the United States. What's astounding is the coverup, by the ostensible victims of those many terrorist plots, that has kept this huge threat to our national security - and indeed the lives of every ordinary Americans - from the public consciousness.

It's very hard to understand why this is happening, but it seems to be the ultimate perversion of political correctness. Ralph Peters has been eloquent in recent days about how this mass psychosis has completely permeated the US Army. Quote from LTC Peters:

Had Hasan been a Lutheran or a Methodist, he would've been gone with the simoom... If heads don't roll in this maggot's chain of command, the Army will have shamed itself beyond moral redemption.

Anyone out there who considers themselves a liberal or a progressive, please clue me in: what is the argument that this situation ISN'T an example of domestic terrorism inspired and sponsored by the al Qaeda associated movement? I keep hearing from the MSM that the main problem with this terrorist attack is the reaction of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. What's the logic there? Why is the MSM determined to cover up or deny the role of radical Islam in inspiring the actions of Major Nidal Hassan?

But the original point of this post is about analysis. I expect the MSM to confuse and distort the facts. The more important question is why the many obvious warning signs about this guy were ignored or deliberately covered up by people who have less-clear motivations to do so. Why does the US Army have a vested interest in promoting al Qaeda's agenda? That's what I don't quite understand. I think it has something to do with the death-grip the MSM has on the Washington bureaucrasy, including the leadership of the Army in the Pentagon. But I'm not sure about that.

It's like a mass psychosis, where a whole lot of people have an artificially distorted perception of reality. The American people don't seem to have the same delusions - as far as I can tell, 100% of ordinary folks understand that radical Islam motivated Nidal Hasan - compared to approximately 0% of the MSM and the Army's leadership in the Pentagon. That kind of dichotomy is certain to have unpredictable, but dramatic, effects.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nidal Malik Hasan

The recent tragedy at Fort Hood has reopened a very interesting subject that has never been resolved, or even thoroughly investigated: the relationships of al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers to the radical Islamic community in the United States.

Nidal Malik Hasan is an ethnic Palestinian born and raised in Virginia (AKA Northern Virginiastan). He attended the notorious Dar al-Hijra mosque in Falls Church, VA (AKA Falls al-Church) at the same time as at least two 9/11 hijackers, while the even-more-notorious Anwar al-Awlaki was the Imam there.

These facts are all over the internet, but the real significance behind them has not been published anywhere that I've seen yet. Of course the MSM's reflexive denial of the role radical Islam played in yet another terrorist act is almost a cliche at this point, but it really looks like this guy may have had some pretty explosive connections.

The 9/11 hijackers who attended Dar al Hijra were Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and probably Khalid al-Midhar. For the uninitiated, Hanjour, al-Hazmi, and al-Midhar were all aboard American Flight 77 when it struck the Pentagon.

Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar were the only 9/11 hijackers who attended the al Qaeda Kuala Lumpur summit meeting in January 2000, where key decisions related to both the Cole bombing and the 9/11 attacks (along with other al Qaeda operations) were apparently made. What that means is that they were not just stupid "muscle" hijackers but rather veteran al Qaeda operatives around whom Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed originally organized the 9/11 attacks. They were famous for their relationship with Omar al-Bayoumi, the Los Angeles station manager for Dallah Avco, the charter airline that belongs to Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel. It was also al Midhar and al Hazmi, you may or may not recall, who were the receipients of mysterious checks sent from Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar's wife Princess Haifa in the months before 9/11.

This is a very complex story that is worth a number of blog posts, although I doubt I'll have the time to do the story the justice it deserves. What is important to understand is the nature of the "al Qaeda affiliated movement" (or AQAM as it is known to acronym-happy bureaucrats) and the role of the Saudi-funded and directed global network of Wahhabist mosques and Islamic centers.

Dar al Hijra in Virginia is part of the so-called "Wahhabi Corridor" in Northern Virginiastan, an area of greater concentration of connections to al Qaeda terror than any place outside Afghanistan. It was founded with Saudi money and influence in 1983, during the great Saudi Islamic and Wahhabist outreach movement that sponsored the construction of over 80% of the mosques in the world today. That movement was an explicit policy of the Saudi kingdom to radicalize Islam worldwide - and it largely succeeded. Almost all Sunni terrorism traces its ideological roots to the Saudis' Wahhabist missions, and apparently Nidal Hassan is just the latest example.

The big question now - as his influence by Saudi-sponsored Salafist-Wahhabist proselytizing by radicals such as Anwar al-Awlaki seems beyond dispute - is whether his connections to al Qaeda or even the 9/11 hijackers are more than coincidental.

To determine the answer to that question, we probably have to look farther back - to well before 9/11, and take a much closer look at the global network of Saudi-sponsored Salafist organizations.

As early as 1991, the Saudi government sponsored a program to convert US military servicemembers to Islam and recruit them for jihad. This effort later evolved into the program that sought to train and commission muslim chaplains in the US armed forces. The original conversion effort was directed by radical Islamist (and unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) Bilal Philips on US bases in Saudi Arabia and the chaplain program was run by convicted al Qaeda financier Abdulrahman Alamoudi.

These efforts had varied results over the years. One overt result was the 1993 "Landmarks" al Qaeda plot, for which al Qaeda recruit and former US military member Clement Hampton-El was convicted. Hampton-El told a very interesting story of meeting members of the Saudi royal family (apparently Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki, who died under very mysterious circumstances shortly after 9/11) as part of an effort to recruit more former US servicemembers to wage jihad in Bosnia. Later this strategy involved famous al Qaeda double agent Ali Mohamed, who was associated with practically everyone else in this post.

So maybe we won't find a "smoking gun" connection between Nidal Hasan and al Qaeda (although I wouldn't bet on it), but he clearly was influenced by the same religious and political themes that define the "al Qaeda associated movement". Clearly a lot of people failed in their obligations to heed the ample warning signs this guy sent up. More importantly now, what will we do to determine how many other Nidal Hassans are out there looking for the right opportunity or motivation to act?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Little Advice

...from Uncle John.

If the frog in your throat is making you sound like the ghost of Barry White being run through a wood chipper, you might be tempted to soothe your vocal chords with alcohol.

And if, as a moderate drinker, all the strong liquor you had in the house amounted to a finger of Jim Beam, a finger of Johnny Walker Black, and a large amount of the rotgut Sobieski in a plastic bottle that your wife uses as cooking vodka, you might be tempted to mix all of those into a three finger kill-the-germs gargle / cocktail.

Yielding to that temptation would be so, so wrong, on so many levels.

Just sayin'. o.O

Friday, October 30, 2009


I’m going to bust on an Engineer for being an Engineer in a few posts from now, so I wanted to get some things straight. I was a double-degree my first 2 years in college, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. When I decided that three years was all I could stand in the Great Midwest, I cut out with the Chemistry degree, having overloaded enough to obtain it in three years*. Because of the Chem E track, almost all my non-Math electives were in Engineering. I have great respect for the profession of Engineering. In fact, most of my graduate work was Molecular Engineering, rather than pure science. In my Shit Hit the Fan value system, Engineers rank well ahead of Scientists in the groups of people I’d want in the lifeboat if civilization pulled a Titanic. You can often grow good Scientists from Engineers. The reverse is much less successful.

Budding Engineers are more valued by society than budding Chemists, as demonstrated by the fact that Chemical Engineers make a lot more money straight out of undergrad than Chemists. With good reason. Chemistry is an experimental science (except for those weirdo theorists :D). The undergraduate experience does not adequately prepare a Chemist to practice the profession outside of the lower-order lab tech positions. A Master’s barely does.

Engineering is a different game from science after the undergraduate study period. While advanced Engineering, like Science, is still largely a medieval apprentice-based learning system, the Masters under whom the Engineer learns the trade (after learning the basics in school) are generally practicing Engineers, not Academics. Those Master practicing Engineers expect the newly-minted Engineer to actually produce something. Thus an Engineer starts out with a better real-world skill set than the B.Sc. Chemist. Hence the higher pay.

The Engineer pays something for that head start, though. The strength of a Scientist’s training is in thinking things through, reading the original sources, and knowing the philosophy and thought process behind most of what he or she does. That takes time, and an undergraduate course of study, with its emphasis on cramming technical details into heads, so that further study can take place, is inadequate to fully create that kind of skill. And an Engineer does not need a greatly sophisticated level of scientific detail to do his or her work, despite the fact that Engineering require sophisticated Math. The Engineer gets an awful lot of scientific rules of thumb thrown at them in school, many made up for a particular set of boundary conditions in which most work is conducted. Most Engineers are too busy making things to think deeply about the science behind those rules of thumb.

In the arrogant or careless, this creates problems when their minds venture beyond the boundary conditions where those rules of thumb hold true. And then you get an experience such as the one Rand Simberg describes in this post:

I (or someone, but I think it was me) suggested using gravity gradient stabilization (that is, taking advantage of the fact that a non-spherical satellite will naturally orient itself in the local vertical position, due to differential tidal forces between the line of the orbit and the small distances of the appendages from that line). The response of one of the supposedly experienced engineers was, "There's no gravity gradient at geosynchronous altitude."

I was a little surprised. "Oh, you mean there's not enough to do the job?" (I was thinking that perhaps he'd already considered it, and run the numbers.)

"No, there is no gravity gradient effect that high--it only applies in LEO."

Note that he wasn't making a quantitative argument, he was making a qualitative one. Low orbits had gravity gradient, high ones did not.

...What happened? Sometimes even engineers don't always apply good scientific principles. In this case, I suspect that he was an airplane guy who'd migrated into the space business (as often was the case in the beginning decades in the space industry), and had never really learned the fundamentals of orbital mechanics, or the underlying principles. Instead, he'd probably taken a space systems design course, and been given a lot of engineering rules of thumb, one of which was, no doubt, that gravity gradient can be used in LEO, but not in GEO.

And that's not a bad rule of thumb, as long as you understand where it comes from. Gravity gradient is indeed much less at twenty thousand miles altitude than at two hundred miles, and for most satellites could be considered, for practical purposes, to be non-existent. But we weren't talking about most satellites--we were looking at a new concept, much larger than anything previously deployed in GEO, with long booms and appendages that might, in fact be used for G-G stabilization. But because he didn't understand the physics, he mistook a rule of thumb for natural law, even though the law of gravitation says that the earth's gravity extends out to infinity, though it drops off as the square of the distance.

Engineers tend to run with a factoid and make stuff. Scientists are more likely to pick up the same factoid and try to figure out under what conditions it’s true and what conditions it’s not. This, I think is the reason underlying the Salem Hypothesis.

In other words, when one encounters an Engineer talking outside of his or her discipline, the caution I advised in this post goes double. Although this is a bit of an argumentum ad hominem, there is so much evidence in the Creationist literature that in this case the rule of thumb can be examined in detail. One can find in the arguments presented in that last link the original stupidity about the Second Law that I ripped apart in my own post on the subject – and find that the original errors were promulgated in the Creationist literature by an Engineer. A Chemical Engineer**! For shame!

The most error ridden thermodynamic analysis I have seen in print is the one by Creationist D. R. Boylan which appears on pages 133 to 138 in the Dec. 1978 issue of CRSQ.[37] [Note by Ben Dehner: Boylan was the Dean of Engineering of Patterson's department, at Iowa State University, at this time. Boylan was effectively Patterson's boss when Patterson accuses him -- in print -- of incompetence.] As we discuss this paper, I want the reader to keep the following statement by Boylan in mind, for it was published the previous year (1977) as if to assure us of his scientific expertise: [38]

"In teaching on-campus and at church, I have found that an understanding of physical laws, particularly the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, is essential to the defense of biblical truths. The Second Law has been particularly helpful in developing an apologetic against abiogenesis..."

To begin with, Boylan virtually equates two of the most distinguishable introductory level concepts in engineering thermodynamics, namely systems[39] and processes.[40] In effect he directs his reader to "consider life processes as systems." This is like a would-be mechanic directing us to consider gas combustion (a process) as being like a tire or an engine, which are mechanical systems.

After teaching beginners the profound difference between a process and a system, the next most important issues are (A) how to define or describe the system (e.g. close, open, isolated, etc.) to which one's analysis is to apply. (B) how to specify the system's boundaries, and (C) how to specify the nature of the processes taking place within or over these boundaries (e.g. are they reversible, irreversible, steady state, etc.) If these specifications are not done properly, the results of one's analysis can come out garbled or self-contradictory. Boylan's paper exemplifies such confusion because he fails to specify properly the system to which his analysis applies and the nature of the "life process" of which he speaks.

In an upcoming post, I’ll be examining one particularly egregious example of an Engineer taking some poorly-understood (by him) scientific principles and making a house of cards with them. And he’s not even a Creationist!

But I love Engineers. Some of my best friends are Engineers. :D

* I then promptly left for the USSR. Which was a vastly preferable place to be than Western Indiana. Terre Haute is the pimple on the ass of America.

** Chemical Engineers have to take more Thermodynamics than most other Engineering Disciplines.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Homemade satellite imagery

Haven't had any of this in a while. This is from NOAA17, which has been a consistently reliable performer. There are newer birds up now, NOAA18 and NOAA19, but they haven't seemed be as strong. NOAA 19, in particular, seldom produces good images. I'm wondering if I'm doing something wrong.

Anyway I'm ready for some nice clear fall weather!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Grief

My friend Janiece seems to attract the whackos. This time it is the alternative medicine crowd glomming on to an old post – what is it with these people? Neither they nor Wagner can stand having a piece of criticism out on the Net, even an old one. Do they spend all day vanity Googling? I had completely forgotten about Janiece’s post until the crazies showed up again months later.

One of the crazies showed up with “data” from the Gerson Institute, and being the truth seeker that she is, Janiece responded:

I'm not a doctor, but I do understand the scientific method, and this is not a clinical trial or a well constructed study. What I will concede is that the information was interesting enough to me as a layman that I think further study by qualified professionals wouldn't be uncalled for.

Janiece is quite kind in her willingness to be open minded. This is not a character flaw*, because she also wanted to test the hypothesis provided – this is precisely what internalizing and living the scientific method as an heir of the Enlightenment and citizen of the modern world entails. But then, Janiece is my friend for many reasons, and this is one of them.

I do have a little bit of experience with clinical trial design, however, although (let me be very clear, here) I am not an MD. There are, however, methodological flaws in the study that negate even the glimmer of interest that Janiece detected – ones that do not require a statistician or an MD to find, though I will concede that the layman will need some specialized bits of information to parse the full impact on the claims made by the alt-med whackos.

There are so many red flags for quackery in that article it is hard to know where to begin.

The first problem is with the study design itself, which was a retrospective analysis with historical controls. The authors claim that:

The genesis of this inquiry occurred during a landmark study by the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment [Ref 2] to which one of us (G.H.) was an advisor. In its report, OTA put forward a protocol for best-case reviews based on the premise that, no matter how many patients failed, as few as 10 or 12 cases with objective evidence of tumor response would be enough to propel an investigation by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

The Ns (number of people in the statistical groups of the study) in that Gerson paper certainly seem to meet this test, but is that really what the OTA meant? Well, no.

Fortunately for us Netizens, Quackwatch has the whole report (and it is a report, not a "landmark study")on its website:

The basic elements of each case in a best case review would be: 1) documented diagnosis by an appropriate licensed professional, including pathology reports and microscope slides of the tumor; 2) history of prior treatments; 3) length of time between the most recent treatment and the treatment under evaluation; 4) x-ray studies from before and after the treatment under evaluation was administered; and 5) a statement from the physician and the patient saying that no other treatments were administered at the same time as the particular treatment under evaluation.

All of those elements are all missing from the Gerson paper. There is no information at all in the Gerson paper about any other treatments their patients tried before or after initiation of their beand of nutrition therapy. Without this information, the entire article is garbage.

The real scientists who authored the paper understood that their words were going to be twisted:

No doubt this report will be used selectively by individuals wishing to portray various points of view, in support of or in opposition to particular treatments. The reason this is possible is that, almost uniformly, the treatments have not been evaluated using methods appropriate for actually determining whether they are effective. Regrettably, there is no guidance for new patients wanting to know whether these treatments are likely to help them.

The actual design of the study that Janiece was pointed to was particularly singled out by the 1990 OTA report as a problematic design:

For the most part, evidence put forward by individuals identified strongly with particular treatments has been of a type not acceptable to the mainstream medical community, usually because the evidence cannot support the conclusions drawn. A common format is a series of individual case histories, described in narrative. The endpoints are more often than not "longer than expected" survival times, sometimes with claims of tumor regression. In mainstream research, case reports of unexpected outcomes have been useful and do have a place, but they almost never can provide definite evidence of a treatment's effectiveness.

Why exactly, is this study design problematic?

Except in rare circumstances, because of the heterogeneity of cancer patients' clinical courses, it is virtually impossible to predict what would have happened to a particular patient if he or she had had no treatment or a different treatment. Groups of patients who have chosen to take a particular treatment cannot be compared retrospectively with other groups of patients, even those with similar disease, to determine the effects of the treatment. The factors that set apart patients who take unconventional treatments from other cancer patients may be related to prognosis (these may be both physical and psychological factors), and the means do not exist currently to confidently "adjust" for these factors in analyses. Examples of retrospective evaluations that have turned out to be wrong are well documented (see, e.g., (146)) as are problems with attempting to evaluate the efficacy of treatment from registries of cancer patients (145), though the problems are not necessarily widely appreciated.

In Chapter 12 of the OTA report, the point is elaborated on at length:

It is tempting to use the records of patients already taking unconventional treatments to try to derive some type of "response rate" or "survival rate" that could be compared with a "standard" rate, thus providing a quantitative estimate of the comparative "efficacy" of a particular treatment. While this approach has some intuitive appeal, it fails because there are no "standard" rates with which to make the comparison. The reason for this is that there is tremendous heterogeneity among cancer patients, even among those who have nominally the same type of cancer. While for most cancers it is possible to identify several important variables, "prognostic factors" (e.g., age, sex, stage of cancer), that are predictive of the likelihood of survival for a group of patients, the heterogeneity reaches beyond easily identifiable factors.

Even more so than the particular patients who are treated at a given hospital, patients who opt for unconventional treatment are strongly self-selected, and as a group, may have very different characteristics from those of the total cancer patient population, some of which may be related to prognosis.

In other words, we know that mental state can affect outcomes, both becuase it increases resolve and perhaps innate cancer-fighting ability, and because really sick people get beaten down. People with enough fight in them to actively seek alternative therapies are probably different from the average pool of patients. As the authors of the OTA report put it in a previous paragraph:

Those of us who have worked over the years with cancer patients have come to respect the vagaries of human biology wherein there are cancer patients who for unclear reasons fare better than we would have expected.

What we have here, is failure to communicate. Proper medical studies have what are known as inclusion and exclusion criteria to ensure that the control and active groups are as closely matched as possible. I surfed on over to clinicaltrials.gov and searched “Oncology” until I found the first drug trial that popped up.

It was this one.

Let’s look at the inclusion / exclusion criteria for that trial:


Ages Eligible for Study: 18 Years and older
Genders Eligible for Study: Both
Accepts Healthy Volunteers: No

Inclusion Criteria:
• Histologic or cytologic diagnosis of breast cancer with evidence of metastatic disease. NOTE: Patients with Her-2 positive (3+ by IHC or gene amplification by FISH) are eligible only if they have had prior trastuzumab therapy.
• Must have measurable or non-measurable lesions as defined by the Response Evaluation Criteria in Solid Tumors (RECIST).
• Two or fewer prior chemotherapy regimens in any disease setting. NOTE: All adjuvant and neoadjuvant chemotherapy will be considered one regimen. NOTE: Prior hormonal therapy for metastatic disease is allowed.
NOTE: Prior radiation therapy is allowed as long as the irradiated area is not the only source of evaluable disease.
• Age > 18 years at the time of consent.
• Written informed consent and HIPAA authorization for release of personal health information.
• Females of childbearing potential and males must be willing to use an effective method of contraception (hormonal or barrier method of birth control; abstinence) from the time consent is signed until 8 weeks after treatment discontinuation.
• Females of childbearing potential must have a negative pregnancy test within 7 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy.
• Ability to comply with study and/or follow-up procedures.

Exclusion Criteria:

• No prior therapy with bevacizumab, sorafenib or any other known VEGF inhibitors.
• No known hypersensitivity to any component of the study drugs.
• No other forms of cancer therapy including radiation, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy within 21 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy.
• No history or radiologic evidence of CNS metastases including previously treated, resected, or asymptomatic brain lesions or leptominigeal involvement. A head CT or MRI must be obtained within 28 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy.
• No other participation in another clinical drug study within 28 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy.
• No known human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or chronic Hepatitis B or C
• No major surgical procedure within 28 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy or anticipation of need for major surgical procedure during the course of the study. Placement of a vascular access device and breast biopsy will not be considered major surgery.
• No minor surgical procedure within 7 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy.
• No known history of cerebrovascular disease including TIA, stroke or subarachnoid hemorrhage.
• No known history of ischemic bowel.
• No known history of deep venous thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.
• No history of hypertensive crisis or hypertensive encephalopathy.
• No non-healing wound or fracture.
• No active infection requiring parenteral antibiotics.
• No other hemorrhage/bleeding event ≥ CTCAE grade 3 within 28 days prior to being registered for protocol therapy.

That’s quite a list. That, my friends, is what real science looks like in black and white. Proper studies show entry criteria.

If, for all the reasons I just noted, a retrospective study design is so problematic, and if the OTA recommended a best-case approach, why did the Gerson Institute abandon that technique?

Because we had proposed the original best-case review protocol to OTA, we were eager to construct a best-case review. However, we found OTA's (and later NCI's) protocol to have a serious shortcoming when used retrospectively: its focus on only tumor regression. Adequate documentation of tumor regression is unlikely to be collected in most alternative medical practices.

We abandoned the best-case review for the more informative retrospective review. In contrast to the best-case review, the retrospective review describes all patients, including non-responders, giving a more adequate impression of the outcomes of treatment.

Emphasis mine. Because that non-responder language hands the knowledgeable person an industrial sized-clue bat with which to whack that study.

More informative? Not according to the OTA report Hildenbrand was touting when it served his purposes. I think now the average layman can figure out why this dog of a study was published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, and not in a serious Oncology journal.

But first, a few more questions are begging to be answered. If Gar Hildenbrand was actually the one who proposed the best-case review protocol to the OTA panel, why did he even propose it, given the arguments presented here? And even if those arguments are valid, if they were indeed “eager” to test the protocol on their own methods, the Gerson Institute is located in a Mexican hospital. Why didn’t they go ahead and conduct the best-case review? Are you telling me that they can’t measure tumor progression? Or that they don’t do so as a matter of course? That they don’t measure disease activity as well as survival (another glaring omission in the paper – the disease-free survival statistics)? If so, they’ve got some serious Hippocratic issues with locating a cancer clinic in that setting.

The OTA already addressed the issue of missing data, however:

Clearly, many patients who benefit from cancer treatment —mainstream or unconventional -- could not be included in a best case review, because their records would not be sufficient to meet these demands. However, an adequate and convincing review could be based on as few as 10 or 20 successful cases. If a treatment is even moderately successful and has been used for many years, that number meeting the criteria should be available.

So I come to the conclusion that what tumor progression data they have is not very favorable. Why? Well, first of all, they could not come up with the requisite 10 ceases with adequate documentation, or they would have not resorted to the song-and-dance routine with the retrospective analysis.

In point of fact, the Gerson Institute actually committed to a best case review, as documented in the 1990 OTA report:

The Gerson Institute, major unconventional clinics treating U.S. patients in Tijuana, has embarked on such a best case review, however. Results have not been reported, but it could prove to be the first successfully-completed study of its type mounted by an unconventional treatment proponent.

Where is that study? It is not on the Gerson Institute website.

Unfortunately for the Gerson Institute, the MD Anderson Cancer Center has a careful review of their claims.

That best case review was published. In German. In the German journal Current Nutritional Medicine. Hiding much, guys? Why yes:

Lechner P, Kronberger J. Erfahrungen mit dem einsatz der diat-therapie in der chirurgischen onkologie. (Experience with the use of dietary therapy in surgical oncology) Akt.Ernahr-Med. 1990;15:72-78.
Purpose: Survival and disease response

Type of Study: Prospective cohort with matched controls

Methods & Results: Two studies were reported in this article:

Study #1: Patients who had carcinoma of the colon with liver metastasis (n=36) were selected from the General Surgery Department of the authors’ clinic in Austria. Patients were selected for the study if a matched control could be found. Controls were matched on age, sex, localization and stage of tumor. (Duration of diet not stated).

Results: In the diet group the mean survival was 28.6 months. For the control groups it was 16.2 months. (Statistical significance not reported.)

Study #2: Breast cancer. (n= 38) Patients were selected from the General Surgery Department of the authors’ clinic in Austria. Patients were selected for the study if a matched control could be found. Controls were matched on age, sex, localization of tumor, receptor status, menopausal status and type of adjuvant treatment (chemotherapy or radiation). (Duration of diet not stated).

Results: No significant differences were seen in terms of metastases and rates of survival between the two groups.

So, in the first study they do exactly what the OTA told them not to do:

This type of study cannot, except possibly in exceptional cases, provide definite proof of efficacy in terms of life extension, nor any estimate of rate of response to the treatment.

The primary endpoint was supposed to be a case-by-case analysis of tumor regression:

The objective of the best case review is to produce evidence of tumor shrinkage (or, in particular cancers, other accepted objective measures of lessening disease) in a group of selected patients (either current or former), with evidence documenting that the patients had the particular unconventional treatment under study and, as far as possible, that they did not have any other treatments during that time period.

This is not to mention that the statistics were not provided (one long-lived individual landing by random in the active group could skew the mean while the rest of the data indicate no difference between the treatment arms).

The second study in that paper was a flat-out failure.

No wonder this paper does not wind up on the Gerson Institute’s website, while the methodologically incorrect (not flawed, but wrong-headed analysis according to the OTA document cited by Hildenbrand) study with the misleading historical comparisons is included.

Finally, well, not finally, but I’m done digging through this particular piece of excrement, we have the issue of non-completers. In point of fact, this is the industrial-sized clue-bat I mentioned above.

The FDA requires companies promoting products with explicit health claims to provide a statistical treatment for drop-outs in their clinical studies. Many volunteer subjects drop out of active arms due to inefficacy. If one were to ignore them and only look at completers, one would get a very favorably skewed view of the efficacy of a treatment. The general methodology used to account for non-completers is called “Last Observation Carried Forward” and as noted in the link, it is seriously biased. Biased against the treatment being studied, in general, because people who drop out often don’t give the treatment a full chance to take effect, given that they are having side effect issues early on in the trial, so they are counted as non-responders**.

In general, clinical trial practice is to bias the design against the treatment in question, and if anything survives that, it meets the Hippocratic criteria for putting something new into a patient’s body.

One area where LOCF does not fulfill the function of raising a high hurdle for treatment effect is in survival studies, because patients lost to follow-up may have died. At the last observation in a survival study, most drop-outs were still alive, unless the treatment is actively and aggressively killing people.

The Gerson study uses 5-year survival as its primary endpoint.

Back to the horse’s mouth:

Over 15 years, from 1975 through July of 1990, 249 patients presented for treatment of melanoma. 53 (21%) are lost to follow-up.

Removing these patients from the failure statistics greatly biases any study in favor of the treatment being studied. Real scientists, real healthcare companies are (rightly) held to a higher standard.

The conservative approach is to treat these patients as dead within 5 years.

The Gerson Institute could obviate these objections by conducting a prospective double-blind clinical trial. They’ve been conducting trials since at least 1987 (assuming the trial published in 1990 took over two years to complete). MD Anderson’s review of the medical literature found:

A total of seven human studies have been identified in the literature as of January 31, 2006. Two were matched control studies15, one was a prospective cohort study16, two were retrospective reviews with historical controls17,18, one was a best case series19 and one was a set of case reports20.

15. Lechner P, Kronberger J. Erfahrungen mit dem einsatz der diat-therapie in der chirurgischen onkologie. Akt.Ernahr-Med 1990;15:72-8.
16. Austin S, Dale EB, DeKadt S. Long term follow-up of cancer patients using Contreras, Hoxsey and Gerson therapies. Journal of Naturopathic Medicine 1994;5(1):74-6.
17. Hildenbrand G, Hildenbrand L. Five year survival rates of melanoma patients treated by diet therapy after the manner of gerson: A retrospective review. Alternative Therapies 1995 Sep;Vol 1(4).
18. Hildenbrand G, Hildenbrand L. Defining the role of diet therapy in complementary cancer management: prevention of recurrence vs. regression of disease. Proceedings of the 1996 Alternative Therapies . Symposium: Creating Integrated Healthcare. January 18-21, 1996 Sandiego, CA.
19. Gerson M. Effects of combined dietary regimens on patients with malignant tumors. Exp Med Surg 1949;7:299-317.
20. Gerson M. Dietary considerations in malignant neoplastic disease. Rev Gastroent 1945;12:419-25.

Note that none of Hildenbrand’s studies have been published in even second tier journals, and two studies in that list date from the 1940s. Now, if you want to base your medical treatment on a study that was state of the art in 1949, go right ahead. As evidenced in the OTA report I (and Hildenbrand) cited, the medical community has bent over backwards to allow a back door into clinical testing for alternative therapies, and the best they can come up with is the crap posted on the Gerson website, which doesn’t even include their best (but still not up to standards) study.

As for me? I conclude that the mainstream medical community isn’t ignoring these studies because of a bias against alternative therapy.

The mainstream medical community is ignoring those studies because they are scientific fuck-ups.

* Having a totally open mind is a character flaw, however, due to the tremendous amount of garbage one’s fellow human beings are willing to toss into the void.

** When proponents of alternative therapies point at low response rates in clinical trials, they forget (or deliberately obfuscate) this treatment of non-responders.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Do you remember? (The "Mad Men" Edition)

Haven't done this in a while... Inspired by my recent favourite TV show, "Mad Men". Mad Men is a viciously authentic portrayal of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s (or so I understand - I wasn't on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s so I don't really know, but that's the buzz).

We've been through this before... I'm not that old, but I'm impressed with the changes in our world in just my brief experience. It's fascinating to look at how much different our lives are today.

So, without further ado... Do you remember:

- Removable pop-tops on soda/beer cans? Soda/beer cans with NO pop-top (you had to use a church key?) Why a church key is called a church key?

- Rotary (twist) light switches on the wall?

- Push-button light switches on the wall?

- Self-powered TV remote controls (Not sure how these worked - seemed like black magic to me. They were made of bakelite (!) and could induce physiological effects if directed at your brain. I'm not kidding.)

- Bakelite (I know we've done that one before).

- Sodas for .10 (saw it on Mad Men, remembered it)

- Soda machines where you pulled the bottle out of a pair of refrigerated metal jaws behind a long glass door. (Also on Mad Men).

Some obvious ones, also inspired by Mad Men:

- Smoking in the office (like everybody, all the time)

- Drinking in the office (ditto)

- Debaucherous office parties (those still go on, right??)

- Working in an office where all the adult men were WWII veterans?

Some consumerist stuff:

- The first time you saw color TV (doesn't count if it was before you saw black and white TV)
- The first time you saw TV (doesn't count if it was after 1970).
- Cigarette ads on TV
- Liquor ads on TV
- The ABC Mystery Movie
- The Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom
- The Marlboro Man
- The Marlboro Man theme
- "Harvey's Bristol Creme" TV ads (where did THAT come from?)

Kids stuff:

- The old Barbie doll (before they made her figure more anatomically realistic)
- GI Joe with painted hair
- GI Joe with painted hair and WWII fatigues
- Miniature electric cars
- Go-karts with no roll cage and no helmets
- Playing "war" against the Germans and the Japanese (I think we did this before)
- Pop-rocks, candy cigarettes, toy switchblades
- Snap-n-pops (I miss those), cap guns (both the paper and the plastic kind)
- The urban legend that Mikey from the Life Cereal commercial died from Pop-rocks
- Mikey from the Life Cereal commercial
- Life cereal (is it still around?)
- The Green Hornet TV series
- (Who played the Green Hornet's sidekick Kato? No fair Googling!)

Other stuff:

- Pastel and bright earth tone polyester leisure suits (probably the worst fashion disaster since the middle ages)
- Men wearing hats all the time
- Aftermarket or dealer-installed air conditioners in cars
- the green "Ecology" flag (whoa - how 70s is that! I guess we're getting a little ahead of Mad Men now)
- Eartha Kitt (heard her first big hit "Monotonous" on the radio today)
- France Nguyen
- The New Christy Minstrels
(Don't know where that came from... I'm kind of drifting I guess)

Do you remember how much stuff used to cost? Like other than sodas? For example a Mercedes Benz S-class was under $10K in 1977. But TV sets cost way more in the 1960s (even in unadjusted dollars) than they do today. I paid something like $300 in early-1980s dollars for the first color TV I ever bought - and it was like 13' or something.

What I'm really interested in is remembering how we did things before the information revolution. There used to be these huge books at the library that listed businesses and what they produced, where to contact them, etc. I wish I could remember what they were called. How about reading the newspaper to actually get important information? Not just news but classified ads, weather, etc? Or religiously watching local TV news for the weather report? (Maybe some people still do that?)

I'm also interested in remembering what the world was like before overdevelopment - when you really had to plan ahead, and maybe travel a long way, if you needed to buy something specific.

How about running to the mailbox every day in late fall looking for the Sears Christmas Catalog? Have I mentioned that one before?

Finally I heard on NPR this week that Art Ferrante, of "Ferrante and Teicher" fame, died the other day. His partner Lou Teicher died last year. I was always a huge fan of theirs, expecially the soundtrack from "Exodus", which was their biggest hit. Anybody else out there remember them?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tea Party Rally

More MSM follies...

Apparently there was a big protest rally in Washington DC on 12 September. The theme was opposition to big government, higher taxes, irresponsible spending, etc.

I knew nothing about it because as far as I can determine, it was not reported by the MSM.

Actively looking for news about this event found only British sources. Glenn Reynolds thought this was strange too, asking "Why is the British press more honest in its reporting on this stuff than the American press?". Glenn also relates this:

Meanwhile, a reader emails: “I’ll tell you what I find impressive. I’m watching the Fox news video about 15 minutes after the end of the event. The crowd has thinned out enough that you can see the ground and there is not a speck of trash on the grass. Absolutely clean. To contrast, google ‘pictures of litter on the mall after the inauguration.’”

Googling to find news about this event revealed mainly controversy over the size of the crowd. Various MSM outlets reported that a photo claimed to be of the demonstration was a fake. I have no idea if the specific photo was a fake, but it looked compatible with numerous other photos of the event that were not fake as well as a You Tube video (from Fox I think) showing the size of the crowd. (The one photo in question definitely was not of the 9/12 event, however, as recent DC landmarks dated it to before 2004.)

I did find one short op-ed column from the Chicago Tribune, where the writer estimated the crowd as 50-60 thousand (look at the video and the pictures and form your own opinions on that) and said "So What. It doesn't mean a thing."

I don't know where this is going but I do think the MSM is haemorrhaging credibility at an unsustainable rate.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cass Sunstein

Update: the Senate cloture vote passed 63-37. This guy is now in charge of making all rules for all Americans.

Reportedly today, the US Senate will vote on confirmation of law professor Cass Sundstein to be the "regulatory czar", formally known as the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (Post edited to correct error: I said the position of "regulatory czar" was new to the Obama administration, but Eric correctly pointed out that OIRA has been around since 1980. See comments.)

Professor Sundstein is notorious for his strange and radical views. He is apparently an animal rights fanatic who has said that pets and livestock deserve legal standing with humans in court (he even published a book with this theme) . This apparently means you could be sued by your chicken (or perhaps someone else's chicken, or maybe a goat) for violation of the chicken's (or the goat's) civil rights. Chickens don't have civil rights, you say? We'll they do if the "Regulatory Czar" says they do - that's what "Regulatory Czar" means: he can make up any loony rule he wants and it will be the law of the land.

Sunstein is also deeply hostile to the 2nd Amendment, publishing legal arguments that it applies only to organized state militia, e.g. the National Guard. This position is contrary to the comments and writings of the authors of the constitution and many rulings of the Supreme Court (most recently DC v. Heller). He is also (as would be expected) strongly opposed to all forms of hunting.

Predictably, I suppose, Sunstein not only believes in high taxes: he apparently believes the government owns everything and everyone. According to him there really no such thing as private property.

If (it looks like when) he is confirmed, it is very likely he will use his position to immediately eliminate all hunting on federal lands (which is almost all hunting in the Western US). He will probably also implement all sorts of new gun control through administrative regulation. He could potentially impose vegetarianism on an awful lot of people fed with federal funds (like most schoolchildren). Not that I think vegetarianism is bad - I think it is good. But I don't think it should be imposed by the federal government.

In addition to saying that homeowners should not be permitted to eradicate rats in their home because this would violate the rats' rights, he has said the government should harvest the organs of certain terminally ill patients to give the organs to someone else whom the government considers more worthy (of a working kidney, or heart), because the government already owns your internal organs. Government death panels? You wish. Try government murder panels.

Sundstein reportedly attracted the admiration of the Obama administration because of his book last year called "Nudge", the theme of which is people are not smart enough to make decisions for themselves so the government should do it for them.

That notion is fundamentally, documentably contrary to the ideals upon which our nation was founded. It is pretty much exactly and specifically why the founding fathers fought the American Revolution.

Now we have a man who not only holds this view but celebrates it (he wrote a book saying the Constitution doesn't mean what it says) - a man not elected by any American - administratively assigned to a position - not provided for in the US Constitution or any law - where he can regulate the lives and behavior of Americans in any way he likes.

This would seem to be the most undemocratic thing that has happened in this country in 233 years.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


False friends - words that sound like cognates but aren't, are the bane of the language learner. One that American students of Russian get hung up with all the time is "нормально" (normal'no), which sounds like the English "normal" and many American students use to mean "typical", but which actually means "pretty good" in Russian.

In Chinese, the word for "kiss" is "親嘴" (chin zui), but the slang version is "親親" (chin chin). There is even an export company named Chin Chin with two interlocked hearts as its logo.

In Japanese, the slang word for male member is "チンチン", also pronounced "chin chin".

This must have caused quite a bit of mirth and misunderstanding over the years, especially since the English name of the Chinese company is "King Lucky". o.O

Now, the proper French version of "Cheers" for a toast is "Salut", but informally, they also have an onomatopoeic toast to mimic the sound of full glasses clinking. "Chin Chin".

I'd advise French ladies on a business dinner with a bunch of traditional Japanese businessmen to stick to "Salut" when asked what you say when toasting in French. Unless those ladies like seeing their younger companions trying to suppress a snicker while the older ones turn beet red.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I love the Czechs

First of all I should proclaim a disclaimer that, unlike my partner John, I am not a scientist. My scientific credentials are sketchy at best - a few undergrad classes and a few courses in the military in scientific subjects - so my opinions on scientific topics are not jealously or zealously held. It is easy for someone to sway my opinions on technical subjects if they have better scientific evidence than me. But I do think I know enough to spot weak science - when the facts to back up a conclusion or theory just aren't there, or the scientific method has been short-circuited.

One of the Czechs I love has scientific credentials that are not sketchy (as it were): Luboš Motl. Dr. Motl is a theoretical physicist who was an assistant professor at Harvard until he was forced out - apparently because he angered the mainstream academic establishment at Harvard in many different ways.

One of the things I like about Luboš is that is attitude towards science is a sceptical one: it takes a lot of good hard falsifiable evidence to convince him. I have been reading his writings for several years now (both his blog and his publications in physics), and for years thought he'd probably eventually be forced out of Harvard, for reasons having nothing to do with his scientific contributions, which are significant. He's pretty cranky when it comes to bad science and his sense of humour, while entertaining, is apparently regarded as very undiplomatic. (I get the impression that his sarcasm and irony simply don't translate in to politically-correct-ese.)

This situation reminds me of why I'm not in academics (which I'd like to be, but it wouldn't be in science, unfortunately): that the truth takes a back seat to the consensus of the crowd, which is far too often wrong. It's basic social science: us humans are social creatures, and tend to go along with one another, and reject those who don't - and that rejection is much more aggressive if the outsider is right, because it introduces the exposition that the crowd is wrong.

But this post is not about Luboš, nor is it about Vaclav Klaus, to whom Luboš refers in his most recent post.

Dr. Klaus, like Dr. Motl, is a controversial Czech academic, although in his case also the president of the Czech Republic.

Instead this post is about freedom, and why the Czechs seem to have a better sense for it than some of the rest of us.

Both Klaus and Motl have been vilified (in Motl's case, perhaps ruined) for their scientific scepticism about anthropogenic "climate change" (so called because "global warming" has apparently already become discredited).

Klaus and Motl, like many other Czechs as well as other citizens of former Soviet vassal states, are pretty sensitive to totalitarianism and suppression of intellectual freedom. Both see a lot of it in western civilization these days, and are vocal in their criticism. Both see the politics of climate change as among the most hostile to freedom - intellectual and otherwise - currently threatening us.

A good bit of what little scientific education I have had was in climatology, meteorology, and oceanography. I once passed on the (fully funded) opportunity to pursue an advanced degree in oceano, for reasons that in retrospect are absolutely stupid (only to study politics instead, to compound my already-epic stupidity). So while I absolutely don't claim to be anything like an expert, I probably do have more qualifications in climatology than most politicians.

What I see is much like what I see in many other fields of academia: corrosive groupthink.

Here's an example:

Still, there are incontrovertible facts. We can measure the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. And we do know exactly what they do. It’s simple physics. If you put “X” amount of these gases into the air, the temperature will warm by “Y.” It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pot of water, or like the heat that builds up inside your car when your park it in the sun with the windows closed. It’s clear that global temperatures have increased in recent decades, right in line with what the physics predict.
OK - I'm not the scientist around here, so maybe some of those of you who are can help me. "You put X amount of gas in the air and the temperature will warm by Y"? Where are the other variables? Like "A", the amount of thermal energy transmitted by the sun, or "B", the amount of energy transported by thermohaline circulation, or "C", geothermal and volcanic energy released by the earth, etc? This is science? "It's clear that global temperatures have increased in recent decades"????

My understanding of climatology says that of all the factors affecting the thermal budget of the earth, the sun is #1 by several orders of magnitude, and normal fluctuations in solar activity can have vastly greater impact on earth's climate than anything humans are thusfar capable of doing. Solar energy is followed by geologic energy, e.g. volcanoes, etc., which still dwarf human activity in terms of energy output.

More compelling is the geologic record, which shows the sun is overwhemingly the dominant influence on climate. (Uh, common sense aside: why is this news to anyone?) The correlation of CO2 output on climate appears, to the scientific layman such as myself, to be as much coincidental as anything else, and because it is coincidental, the correlative data seems likely to diverge, which has apparently already happened:

Here's a graphic:

The red line shows the predictions from the "Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change" at the MIT Center for Global Climate Change. (If that name doesn't scare and alert you, I'm not sure what would.) The rest of the lines on the graph show what has actually happened. The name of the organization that produced the prediction pretty much sums up the situation: a pseudo-academic organization created to push a political agenda.

And that's the point - which the Czechs kind of automatically get because they suffered under this kind of crap from the Soviets for decades: It's not about science or truth or reality, it's about some people who want to exert control over, and expropriate resources from, the rest of us.

The whole fuss about "CO2 emissions" isn't about the climate - it's about control of the world, because CO2 emissions are roughly correlated with wealth, power, and influence. Control who gets to use energy and you control the world.

I don't consider myself a conspiracy nut, although I'm idly amused by conspiracy as an intellectual diversion. But I have to wonder what processes are at work here. Who came up with the idea of controlling CO2 emissions as a way of dictating economic policy? How is this agenda coordinated, successfully, in the face of all the science I can find? My point is this whole business is about political science, not scientific science.

Finally, here's another interesting graphic, showing CO2 vs temperature over geologic timescales. The point of this chart is to show where we are today, in terms of the earth's history:

Because this data is geologic, there's no human influence represented. Anyone please let me know what correlation they detect, and how it applies to us.

Finally: I know it isn't scientific, but I also know experience can be indicative. I watch the local temperatures at my house, in particular in my swimming pool, which is literally 8-10 degrees cooler this summer on average than last year. What does that mean? Possibly not much - local variations do not mean much because global climate can vary assymetrically - it can get hotter in one place and cooler in another while the globe warms or cools overall. But dramatic variations in the mid latitudes from one year to the next also tend to get reflected in global averages - and what I'm seeing is the trend is not up.

I'm hoping for an ice age. They're really very nice in the mid-to-lower latitudes.