Friday, March 06, 2015

The Democratization of Cyberattack

A short piece be well-known security professional Bruce Schneier:
We can't choose a world where the US gets to spy but China doesn't, or even a world where governments get to spy and criminals don't. We need to choose, as a matter of policy, communications systems that are secure for all users, or ones that are vulnerable to all attackers. It's security or surveillance.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Police shoot man talking on cell phone

Considering that cops in America can shoot people with impunity (especially black people), I think it's important that we see and review every police killing and not let this issue die.

Here's a story I heard today (via DailyKos): a man named John Crawford was shot and killed in a Walmart, as he talked on his cell phone, holding a toy gun in the toy section of the store. It's not a new story, but it's new to me, and it is shocking.

I don't have to tell you what color his skin was.

Addendum: How often are unarmed black men gunned down by police? Across the U.S., the government doesn't care enough to count "unjustified killings", and not many independent studies exist.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Beagle

As a lifelong Christian and Mormon, I experienced various difficulties: guilt about my sinful nature, sadness that God wouldn't communicate with me, and the many intellectual questions that the church couldn't answer. I don't talk much about that on my blog; it has often been difficult to focus my thoughts on these issues, and besides, I like to talk about solutions rather than problems. After my long journey, I have found that Christianity offers a lot of problems, but not many reliable, trustworthy solutions.

I can always be thankful that Mormonism (together with the teachings of my father, perhaps just as importantly) gave me my belief system. Even if it turns out there is no God, I still learned many good principles from the Church. I have good reasons, however, to say that I will probably never return. I don't feel like talking about it right now, but I found someone who does...
You said you’re worried that you might discover your mother is intellectually dishonest. I suppose she might be, but it’s more likely that she is just fearful. Fundamentalists believe that life without God has no purpose, that they would have no reason to be good, and no reason to care about anything. Add the threat of eternal torment if you give up your faith, and the Bible passages that say apostates can never come back, and you have a huge load of fear. I don’t think conservative Christians as a group realize how much they are oppressed by fear. It is so woven into the doctrinal clothes they wear every day that they don’t even notice it. They think that if they were to give up their faith their whole world would fall apart and they could never put it back together. This is a powerful disincentive to question honestly and thoroughly. What I observe is that they question just enough that they can assure themselves that they have exercised critical thinking, but not so much that they get to the bottom of things. They accept pat answers that, objectively, are totally inadequate. I’m sure they don’t realize they’re doing this, or that it comes from fear.

Also, cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, are part of the human condition. Your mother has them, you have them, and I have them. That doesn’t make your mother a bad person.

- Snippet of a comment from The Beagle
I'd like to thank a new friend of mine for pointing me to this blog, The Path of the Beagle. While the Beagle's path away from Evangelical Christianity is not the same as my path away from the LDS Church, and I haven't completely rejected my church the way he has, it explains the path and the reasons better than I have time or inclination to.

There are a few reasons I left, one of which is the seeming evil of the God of the Old Testament. The Beagle featured this satirical YouTube video which explains the problem pretty well, complete with many biblical references that you can read for yourself.

I'll just add a couple of thoughts.

Above all, the most important issue is whether or not Christianity is true. If it is true, does it really matter that much if God is unreasonable, has committed genocide repeatedly, doesn't answer our prayers, or makes us feel guilty all the time? After all, we are imperfect. Maybe we deserve all that. After my brother left the church, he told me it was because he was tired of feeling guilty all the time. This argument was not persuasive to me, since the really important thing isn't whether you like the church or its doctrines, but whether they are true. I still believed it was true, so I kept going to church, kept reading scriptures, kept praying—and not without guilt!

I think the issue that affected me the most was not evidence that God didn't exist, but rather evidence that he wasn't Good. If God wasn't good, it makes perfect sense that he would still say that he was good in the Bible. If God existed, but was not good, and not trustworthy, and did not keep his promises, should we really follow him? I wouldn't say I started to believe God was evil. But the mere possibility seemed inescapable. How could we know that God is good? Well, we can't. All we have is his Word, and how can we be sure that his Word is trustworthy? Well, there is little more I could do than assume.

I must admit that I haven't sought out information that calls into question the many testimonies of miracles heard within the church--information that would question the very existence of God. But whether there is a God or not, my trust in a loving God is gone, and that is sufficient. If God exists, and is good, he should prove it. If he is unwilling to prove it, then it would be fundamentally unjust for him to send unbelievers to hell. To elaborate, if the Christian God exists, there are two possibilities:
  1. He is Good, and follows some rational ethical system that mortals could understand, even if that system hasn't been clearly stated in the Bible (and even if the conclusions of that system are not predictable by mere mortals). In that case he will not send earnest unbelievers to hell simply for incorrectly concluding, after careful thought, that he does not exist, for it would be unjust to do so. Therefore, since I am sincere and committed to high ethical standards, I need not fear God merely because I am an agnostic — and there is simply no need to try to "save my soul" by bringing me back to church.
  2. He is not good. In that case, nothing stated in the Bible is trustworthy, and his nature is fundamentally unknowable. In this case it makes little sense to worry about angering him, regardless of what we believe or disbelieve, because we don't really know him, because a God that isn't good isn't obliged to tell the truth, even if he says he is. So we can't know how he will treat us after death or even in this life (although if history is any indication, he will not do anything for us or against us in this life). Why would you follow a God who is fundamentally unjust, even if he exists? In this case the ethical thing is not to follow him, even though he exists.
I still hope for life after death, and I wish there were a loving creator, I just don't expect to meet one. I am an agnostic now. But I still know that I have a soul.

Philosophy is therefore no idle pastime, but a serious business, fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, scripture with the whole world of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely asserted or well-liked. … Above all, she commits herself to the constant study of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. - Sense and Goodness without God, pg 25-26, as quoted by The Beagle

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It's Not as Bad as You Think

There are many cognitive tasks Human beings are not very good at... one of which is discerning the differences between eras. We don't appreciate that life today is a lot different from previous epochs from which we got The Bible, the works of Shakespeare or even The Wealth of Nations.

The church I used to attend likes to look for signs of the second coming of Christ (other churches apparently believe in the Rapture instead), which is said to be preceded by great wickedness, wars, and suffering.
And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. - Daniel 12:1
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. - Matthew 24:6–7
I heard people at church saying things like "we don't know when the second coming will be--it could be tomorrow!" But they know the signs — how can they think we're having sufficient famines and wars, let alone earthquakes, for the second coming?

This post is not about religion; it's just a convenient way to illustrate that many people still seem to think the world is filled with wickedness, war, and suffering. Wickedness, conservatives would say, due to phenomena like gay marriage, apathy and atheism — but don't we live in a time with less hatred than ever before? I do think apathy is a serious problem, but it's been a problem throughout all of history. Isn't war and murder far worse than premarital sex? We have much less of both. Hatred is worse than apathy, and we have less of that. As far as I'm aware, the largest group of hateful people on earth are Muslim extremists, and they are a tiny minority of the world's population. As for war and suffering, it can be shown objectively that there is less war and less suffering today — dramatically less — than during most of human history.

When you read this, does it seem remarkable merely that you can read it? I'm not just talking about the fact that you got it from a fantastic technological medium called the internet, or that I was able to publish it worldwide without having to pay anyone a dime. More basic than that, your brain is able to decode a complicated sequence of glyphs into human thought! The remarkable thing about the modern era is that this ability of yours is so commonplace. It is remarkable, not only that you can stare at a bunch of writing and have an intellectually stimulating experience, but that most of the adults in your country can do the same thing.

Don't take my word for it. Slate has a fantastic article on the subject entitled Why The World Is Not Falling Apart.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world.... The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”
This must-read article systematically dismantles the idea that the world is falling apart, mostly with graphs dating from 1945. Before 1945, of course, we had two world wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which 50 to 100 million people were killed.

If you look at statistics before 1900 (what few are available) you'll see numbers even worse than during most of the 20th century. Before 1900 there was no penicillin, virtually no blood transfusions, and few reliable surgical procedures. There were no radios, virtually no automobiles, no airplanes, no television, and no computers. Now you can read this article on the internet--from almost any location on Earth! Do you really understand what life was like before 1900, let alone 1800? Before 1800 there were no anaesthetics (and not much in the way of analgesics), almost no vaccines, and doctors didn't know (and had false beliefs about) how diseases were transmitted, which led to many deaths. Before 1800 there was no such thing as refrigeration, no telegraphs, no telephones, no electricity, and no tall buildings except Pyramids and cathedral spires. Forget indoor plumbing; even underground sewers were rare. Since 1800, life expectancy has more than doubled worldwide, and since 1800, rates of literacy and education have skyrocketed around the world (references: medical, inventions, life expectancy, literacy, etc).

In New York in 1915, even an idea as basic as being kind to your infant was revolutionary in some circles:
Though infant mortality had plummeted in the slums thanks to the bureau’s efforts, it hadn’t budged in wealthier neighborhoods.... At the time, medical opinion held that mothers should train their babies early to be independent by feeding them at regular intervals and ignoring their cries and babbles. Doing otherwise was thought to damage them psychologically. We now know the opposite is true. - The Doctor Who Made a Revolution
To sum up, I bet that even a cat has a much higher chance of surviving to age 5 today than a human child did in 1800.

The world could, of course, be a much better place than it is, but it could also be so much worse. The one constant is change, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance; we must keep fighting for a better world if we are to maintain our quality of life and avoid slipping back to old patterns of war, suffering and ignorance. Thanks to nuclear and biological weapons, another world war could be incomparably disastrous. Thanks to today's severe income inequality, and the shrinkage of the job market, it's possible that average living standards may slip backward soon in some countries. But as we listen to the news and fight for a better world, let us give thanks, and not forget that we are, in fact, living in the most prosperous time in all of human history.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Demand that your vote count!

In past elections, both Liberals and Conservatives in Canada have won over 50% of the seats with less than 40% of the seats, and this difference is caused by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which is one of the first voting systems ever invented, and is still the law of the land today.

FPTP works in a fairly legitimate way in Canada, unlike in the U.S. where practices like gerrymandering, voter suppression and 3rd-party suppression are rampant. Even so, while FPTP makes some limited sense in individual ridings, when you look across a region or country the results are clearly unfair. In the 1992, for example, the Progressive Conservatives got 16% of the vote across the country but won only two seats. The Quebec-only separatist party Bloc Quebecois, on the other hand, won 54 seats with just 13.5% of the vote, and Alberta's Reform party, got 52 seats with 18.7% of the vote.

Generally more flexible than old-fashioned proportional representation, MMP (Mixed-member proportional) represents the population far better than first-past-the-post.

MMP still defines single-winner electoral districts, and the electoral system for these districts could be decided somewhat independently of MMP itself. One assumes that to avoid "rocking the boat", these districts will keep using FPTP. However, MMP compensates for unfairness of the results by granting extra seats to parties that didn't get as many seats as they should given the amount of votes they got. Thus, your vote is far more likely to matter under MMP. It isn't my favorite system, but I would vote YES quite eagerly!

The NDP is backing MMP, and I would urge everyone to sign their petition about it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


This story brought to you by Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL):
There was a filibuster in the U.S. Senate last week. Yes, I know, that’s hardly news. And a cloture vote to end that filibuster. That’s hardly news, either. And the cloture vote failed. Not news.

The vote was, among other things, to end the National Security Agency’s collection of records of every phone call that you make. Which, sadly, also is no longer news. What would be news is if someone did something about it.

Fifty-eight senators voted in favor of ending the filibuster, and the “bulk collection.” Only forty-two voted against. But we no longer live in a country where the majority rules, so every single time you make a phone call, the NSA will know to whom you spoke, and for how long.

Regarding the failed vote against the filibuster, the D.C. newspaper Roll Call opined that: “It’s probably going to take another series of revelations about NSA programs for strict legislation to get momentum again.” But I’m wondering how much of the last series of revelations has been absorbed by the body politic. So I’m offering to you excerpts from a little-noticed interview that Edward Snowden did with The Guardian a few months ago, complete with British spelling. File it under the category of “read it and weep.”

Monday, November 03, 2014

"Nonpolitical Images Evoke Neural Predictors of Political Ideology"

From my experience growing up, I know that people who feel homosexuality is a sin don't merely say so because God says so. They also feel disgust at the thought of homosexual acts. Much as I felt disgust as a young boy about the concept of kissing girls. Anyway, so an interesting study was done:
A new study shows that the way your brain responds to photos of of maggots, mutilated carcasses, and gunk in the kitchen sink gives a pretty good indication of whether you're liberal or conservative. "Remarkably, we found that the brain's response to a single disgusting image was enough to predict an individual's political ideology," Read Montague, a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute psychology professor who led the study, said in a written statement. 83 men and women viewed a series of images while having their brains scanned in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. The images included the disgusting photos described above, along with photos of babies and pleasant landscapes. Afterward, the participants were asked to rate how grossed out they were by each photo. They also completed a survey about their political beliefs, which included questions about their attitudes toward school prayer, gun control, immigration, and gay marriage. There was no significant difference in how liberals and conservatives rated the photos [emphasis mine]. But the researchers noted differences between the two groups in the activity of brain regions associated with disgust recognition, emotion regulation, attention and even memory. The differences were so pronounced that the researchers could analyze a scan and predict the person's political leaning with 95 percent accuracy. - Slashdot
I think you can see the role of disgust when you hear certain U.S. conservative opinion pieces and talking points. They are sometimes counting on a disgust reaction from conservatives, while liberals aren't swayed because they are not as easily disgusted.

One wonders about how this works. So are people conservative because they are easily disgusted? Are people liberal because they have learned to suppress disgust? Is there really some universal "disgust factor" that affects our reaction to both cockroaches and tax increases? Hmm, that doesn't sound right. More likely, if there is some universal "disgust factor", it affects our reaction to cockroaches, homosexuality, homeless people, drug addicts, and other issues with a potential "eww" factor. Then, because the U.S. is a two-party system, people that are against homosexuality end up being against social services and the ACA by cultural association. After all, if you were against homosexuality but in favor of higher taxes & services, you'd be terribly confused about who to vote for, and who to hang out with on Facebook.

It's only 95% accurate, though. There's still room for free will ;^) I await more studies...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spanish Quick Reference updated

Please see the original post or just view the quick reference (cf old version).
  • Page 2: Improved clarity of pronunciation guide
  • Page 3: Replaced necesitar and obtener with empezar (because it's irregular) and conseguir (it has nearly the same meaning as obtener but is more common). Added trivia about Spanish verb irregularities at the bottom.
  • Page 4: corrected a mistake, improved clarity, added examples for se.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

"Kindly provide us with different contact info"

"And so even when the Brits left, they did an airlift. They put their Iraqi employees directly on planes and flew them to Oxfordshire to an RAF base there. Australians airlifted out all of their Iraqis. Denmark airlifted out all of their Iraqis in a single night, Poland the same."
This is an exerpt from the radio program "Taking Names", This American Life.

Act Two. Emails from a Dead Man.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Taking Names," the story of Kirk Johnson's seven-year attempt to save the lives of Iraqis who worked with US forces during the war there.


Nancy Updike

A few months ago, Kirk sent me the draft of a book he's writing about all this. And the last chapter is about a case that's still going on now. That's the case I'm going to talk about. It was sent to the List Project a year ago in July of 2012.
When Kirk got the email, he didn't know anything about it. It was just a zip file full of documents, and he started printing them and laying them all out.

Kirk Johnson

I started with my kitchen table. When that filled up from all the pages laid out, I pulled some chairs up and used the chairs. And then I started running this paper trail along the floor.

Nancy Updike

You were trying to line everything up in chronological order?

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. But I'm basically looking at a dead man's attempt to get a visa.

Nancy Updike

The documents are a back and forth between this one Iraqi man and the bureaucracies processing his refugee application. His first email goes like this. Kirk's translating it from Arabic.

Kirk Johnson

"Greetings to those of you working in the immigration office. I ask your help in considering my request. I need a speedy solution to my situation, which is filled with persistent threats. People want to kill me because I worked for the US Army. Please help me come to America. Attached are some of the certificates and records of my work. Gratefully."
And in the book, I call him Omar. But that's not his real name. So he applied on June 28. And their reply on October 9, 2011, was this. "Dear applicant, please be informed that your application is in process, but we still need a valid official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment and a copy of the contract between your company of employment and the US government. Please reply directly to this email, and do not change the subject line. Thank you."

Nancy Updike

In this exchange, Omar is providing six documents that corroborate his work for the United States, including contact information for American supervisors. He included copies of two contracts he'd had for projects overseen by Parsons, which is an American company. And there was a recommendation letter from the US Army. He'd worked for them as a forklift operator.

Kirk Johnson

So here in front of me is a certificate of appreciation from the Department of the Army. "Your dedicated service to the US is appreciated and will not be forgotten." October 2009 to October 2010-- and then it's got the names of his supervisors.

Nancy Updike

There were two more Army recommendation letters along with that one. And among the three, there were the names and signatures of six different US Army officers. There was also a letter from Parsons, the American company that oversaw the projects he worked for.

Kirk Johnson

"Parsons would be pleased to answer any questions concerning his employment. Contact can be made with the undersigned." And then they gave two phone numbers there.
This one here, this is one that also even says the exact long contract number that he worked under, the federal contract number. Again, at the bottom of this one, there's a Staff Sergeant signature, his DSN number, his phone number, and his Army email address.

Nancy Updike

But in spite of all these documents and all this information, it seems clear from the emails that follow that the bureaucracies involved don't think that Omar has provided exactly the information they want-- a valid official email address for a supervisor-- even though they have four phone numbers for different supervisors and the official Army email address for one of Omar's supervisors. If they found that email address to be invalid for some reason, they don't make that clear to Omar.

Kirk Johnson

In the end of December-- actually the last day of the year, December 31, 2011-- at 9:46 AM, he sent a short note saying, "Peace and respect for everyone who works in your office. My brothers, I wonder if there's any news that you might share with me. What's the latest with my case? With great thanks, Omar."
So the war has officially ended. The troops have fully pulled out. The base that he was working on doesn't exist anymore. Four days pass, and the State Department writes him back at 3:50 PM on January 4. It says, "Dear sir/ma'am, we have checked your case and found that it's in processing pending verifying your employment. Please note that once you are scheduled for an interview, you'll be contacted. Your patience does assist us in accelerating the process," which is a common phrase that I see all over the place, this strange notion that if they're just patient, things will speed up. It's not true.

Nancy Updike

Not only was the process not on the verge of accelerating, Omar was trying to get out during a period when US officials admit that refugee processing for Iraqis had ground almost to a halt. It stayed slow for over a year. The US was beefing up its security screening procedures, because two Iraqis in Kentucky had been arrested and charged with sending money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The two guys in Kentucky had never worked for the United States, like Omar had. They hadn't gotten into the US based on American military or civilian supervisors vouching for them in writing, the kind of letters Omar had. Omar was a different kind of case altogether. But he was Iraqi.

Kirk Johnson

The next email that he wrote to the State Department-- this is February 16, 2012. I have all of these emails, but this one was the only one that was all in red. He had changed the font color.
He says, "Peace and respect to you all. I'd like to explain some of the critical developments that have happened to me in Kirkuk. I feel that I'm in a very critical situation. My security isn't good, and I'm seeking your guidance. I fear for my life, the life of my family, and I'm asking for you to help me by transferring my case to a neighboring country. If you were able to transfer my file to Turkey, then my family and I will go to finish the visa process there. I await your speedy reply, God willing."
He's clearly trying to escalate the situation here and offering to flee to another country if--

Nancy Updike

If that'll speed things up.

Kirk Johnson


Nancy Updike

The next email back to Omar had a new paragraph that Kirk had seen in emails to other Iraqis and that would turn up again and again in Omar's case.

Kirk Johnson

"Please note that you have to provide us with different contact info--" and then this is all in bold-- "official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment. Once we receive this, we will proceed with your case. Kind regards."
And this is where-- I had a wrestling match with the publisher, because in the initial submission of my book, I put the entire back and forth-- and it was 60 pages long-- because I wanted them to see how many times the exact same reply came back where they kept saying, please note that you have to provide us with different contact info.

Nancy Updike

Omar didn't write back saying, "I don't understand what's wrong with the contact information I already gave you. Please explain that to me so I know what to do." And the bureaucracy he's writing to is churning through about 500 new applicants a week in a system that operates like a customer service center for a credit card or phone company. Emails are answered in the order in which they're received by whichever employee is free to answer them, which means that one applicant might get emails from half a dozen different employees.
Finally, Omar asks a cousin in the United States to please track down one of his old supervisors and get new contact information. And then in the chronology of documents, there's a death threat against Omar. It's attached to his email. It's got a seal and a date on it.

Kirk Johnson

From the Lightning Brigade of Ansar al-Sunna, which is-- we know them to be an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. This is now several months after the war is over. Omar is not working for the Americans anymore. The Americans are gone.
But this militia didn't care. An excerpt from the letter that I translated says, "To the atheist agent Omar, you are warned that if you do not accept the orders of the mujahideen by leaving your work with the American forces, your work as a spy-- we have warned you many times before, but you did not heed them. Nor did you return to the correct path. So we, the army of Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq, have decided to carry out the punishment of execution if you do not leave your work."

Nancy Updike

So he's caught, and there's two bureaucracies. There's a bureaucracy of a militant organization that's sending him their outdated threat email, which is saying, you have to leave your job, that he's already out of, or we're going to kill you. And then there's also this bureaucracy saying, you have to send us more information that he's already sent them.

Kirk Johnson

Our bureaucracy doesn't know if he worked for us. And their bureaucracy is certain that he did, but they don't realize that we're gone.

Nancy Updike

We showed this threat letter to three Iraqi translators with experience reading death threats from different Iraqi militias. And they disagreed about its authenticity. One translator pointed out that the death threat had the same kinds of grammatical errors that Omar's emails and later his brother's emails did, so we can't be sure it's real.
Whether or not it was real, Omar at this point fled to Turkey with the idea of finding an apartment and a job and then bringing his family. But he couldn't get permission to work in Turkey, so he went back to Iraq and started moving his family from house to house, hiding.
Finally, his cousin in America did track down new contact information for one of his American bosses, a guy from Parsons. And on April 5, nine months after Omar's first email, the US State Department contacted Omar's former boss.

Kirk Johnson

Exactly 25 minutes later, at 11:47 AM, Omar's old boss at Parsons says, "Yes, I remember him to the best of my knowledge, and attached is further reference. I hope this is sufficient." And he included this letter, where he said, "To whom it may concern, it's my pleasure to provide reference for Omar. His performance working as a maintenance and laborer for the Parsons-Iraq joint venture was outstanding. I knew Omar for more than two years of my capacity as a materials logistics manager, around May 2004 to August 10 of 2006. He was an extremely positive asset as to our endeavors while in Iraq. If I can be of any further assistance or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me."
He's got his office number, cellphone, email address, and it's on official Parsons letterhead. When I saw this, this seems like-- I was relieved when I saw this, because until this point, when I first looked at this case, I didn't know how the story ended. I just thought that this was another typical case of the process dragging on for somebody, and maybe they needed our help to nudge it forward.
So I was getting anxious until I saw this letter. And I was like, this is great. Everything's on official letterhead. It's directly to people that I know in the State Department that are all cc'ed on this email.

Nancy Updike

Omar got an email back saying, "We got the contact information you sent, and we'll be in touch." Omar wrote back immediately.

Kirk Johnson

Kind of a hopeful but still desperate email. He says, "Peace and greetings, my brothers. Now that you have the official email address, I'm wondering whether my file might be transferred to Jordan. Are there any steps left that I need to do? I need resolution. Time is passing here. I don't own anything. I don't work. I'm moving from house to house, from here to there. I beg you to find a solution. Please call me."
Next email-- this is dated April 17. This is less than 10 days after they told him that they had received the employment letter. On April 17, 1:41 PM, they sent Omar this letter. "Dear sir, thank you for your email. We have checked your case and found that it's in processing your employment verification." I'm reading this exactly as it's written.
"Please understand that the process is lengthy and might need a long period of time. Your patience does assist us in accelerating the process. Since your employment has been verified yet, you aren't advised to transfer your case to Jordan. Kind regards."
If you, as an American, can tell me what that means-- those sentences together-- I'd love to know. But it's like asking Siri to save your life or something. You're talking to a robot that seems incapable of learning, much less giving you a visa.
As April turned into May, he kept sending them emails telling them, "I'm in real danger here. I've received another new death threat. I carry the letter with me, which I can send to you or bring with me when you interview me. I'm waiting for your call." And then he puts, like, six exclamation marks at the end of that.

Nancy Updike

Again, the death threat was included in the documents. And our translator raised the same questions about this one as with the earlier one.

Kirk Johnson

Seven weeks after that, after the State Department's employment verification unit received the verification letter from his boss, Omar again receives an email that says-- this is on May 22, 2012.
"Dear sir or madam, please note that we are unable to verify your employment. Kindly provide us with different contact info, official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment. Please reply to this email, and do not change the subject line. Kind regards."

Nancy Updike

It's like they've gone back to the beginning.

Kirk Johnson

Right. This is the last round of correspondence, because less than two weeks later, on June 9, Omar gets a phone call. His wife said that he took the call in the other room, spoke for a couple minutes, and then came back in. They were still sitting around the kitchen table. He told his wife that he needed to step outside but that he was going to come back soon.

Nancy Updike

Omar's decapitated body was found later that night. That's what Omar's widow told the List Project. His death certificate is the next one in the chronology of documents.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Revisiting MSG

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." - Mark Twain
A few years ago I read an article--I don't remember where--explaining the paradox that although Monosodium Glutamate is a "universal" flavor enhancer, it is also, unfortunately, a poison, toxic in large quantities. Some people had a higher tolerance than others, the article explained, but there was no scientifically established safe limit.

I accepted this idea, and kept it in mind as I shopped, along with other ideas like the need to eat foods with high nutritional content and treat foods with low nutritional content as a waste of money. But, knowing that it was only a mild toxin (in much the same way as we might view, for instance, alcohol or lactose), I didn't worry too much if I occasionally ate junk food containing MSG.

But this weekend I was reading numerous articles linked to by one master list, "Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism", an list that I discovered through another website I'd never heard of before Friday,, a site which popped up on Slashdot's radar in a post about how Google permanently and suddenly cut off 40% of traffic to Metafilter on November 17, 2012, for reasons that Google hasn't disclosed, which so far has led to 3 staff members being laid off at Metafilter.

Anyway, so I came upon an article that upended my established knowledge about MSG: "The Notorious MSG’s Unlikely Formula For Success", which started by crushing the "mild poison" idea:
Glutamic acid is one of 20 amino acids that are crucial to the human body’s proper functioning. Without it, we would die, but it is referred to as a nonessential amino acid because our bodies can produce all we need on their own, and we don’t depend on consuming it directly with our food. Glutamic acid is found throughout our bodies, where it is crucial to cell metabolism. In the brain, it is an important neurotransmitter, regulating learning and memory. Every second in our heads, quadrillions of microscopic glutamate bombs explode every time a neuron fires, passing electrical signals through our synapses.
Huh. So that's glutamate. Far from being a poison, it's actually one of many fundamental building blocks in the human body. The minority component in MSG, sodium, simply makes MSG into a salt and one would expect, without evidence to the contrary, that its effect on the body would be similar to ordinary table salt.

The article went on to explain the history of the paranoia around MSG and how the general public came to be distrustful about it based on articles that were either pseudoscientific (not employing proper methods such as double-blind testing and placebos) or properly scientific but not relevant to the issue of food safety (injecting extremely high doses of MSG directly into the bloodstream of baby mice: this adversely affected neurotransmitter levels in the mice, but would probably not affect adult humans by anywhere near the same extent, due to the blood-brain barrier, and it's common knowledge that injecting stuff into your veins isn't the same as eating it anyway.)

After reading this new article about MSG, I Googled "effects of msg" and found a list topped with anti-MSG articles. These articles generally admitted that yes, glutamate is normal in the body, but it's still bad, citing studies such as the one about baby mice. The #1 search result called MSG a "silent killer", saying:
One of the best overviews of the very real dangers of MSG comes from Dr. Russell Blaylock, a board-certified neurosurgeon and author of “Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.” In it he explains that MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees -- and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more.
Wikipedia's entry on Russel Blaylock states,
Blaylock has endorsed views inconsistent with the scientific consensus, including that food additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are excitotoxic in normal doses and that the H1N1 influenza (swine flu) vaccine carries more risk than swine flu itself.
And yet Mr. Blaylock earned respect in his career as a skilled neurosurgeon. This reminds me of a strange phenomenon that happens occasionally in which highly-respected scientists (not that a neurosurgeon is necessarily a scientist) lose their objectivity and become the staunchest advocates of views that have little or no science to back them up. Such scientists can amass large numbers of followers very quickly. Since most people are unfamiliar with the fine details of science itself (indeed, with science being so specialized, scientists in one field often have to exercise some faith that scientists in other fields are doing "good and proper" science), they put their faith in scientists of good reputation and hope for the best. Consequently, a single popular scientist that promotes an incorrect view can do a lot of damage. At first, followers of the incorrect view include many other scientists as well as members of the media and general public. Eventually, various scientists do enough research to debunk the incorrect view and establish a new, corrected consensus; but the general public tends to lag far behind, still believing what they were first told 10, 20, or 40 years ago--partly out of inertia, and partly because anyone who profits from the old views steadfastly continues to promote them.

The most remarkable example of this phenomenon is Linus Pauling, whose rise and fall is explained (and perhaps sensationalized) in the fascinating article "The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements":
On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn't. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer. "It's been a tough week for vitamins," said Carrie Gann of ABC News.

These findings weren't new. Seven previous studies had already shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. Still, in 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements. What few people realize, however, is that their fascination with vitamins can be traced back to one man. A man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world's greatest quack.
In the end, I don't think this new knowledge about MSG, my new confidence in its safety, will affect my eating habits significantly. The fact remains that many of the products that contain a lot of MSG were junk foods anyway; avoiding those was a good idea before, and it's still a good idea now.

Thus, it turns out, the "100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism" includes some other pieces that are more weighty and important in the scheme of things. Like the epidemic of invasive species, like crazy ants, which infest houses, destroy electronics, crawl on everything and die in heaps of millions; jellyfish, which are gaining prominence due to the unexpectedly high rate of global ocean acidification; the sickening modern slave trave in Sudan; the plight of the elephants; or the U.S. Predator drone, which strikes fear into civilians in Pakistan and leaves many of its deadly human operators with PTSD.

But the MSG issue is a good example of an issue where people can vehemently disagree even though there is very little opinion involved: whether the effects of MSG are good or bad or neutral, those effects are a matter of fact, and our level of knowledge about it (neither poor nor especially detailed) is also a matter of fact, yet here we have different people making wildly different claims about what the truth is. I wish that the saying were true:
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."
Now if someone profits monetarily from promoting a false belief, that's pretty easy to understand.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair
Yet those still promoting the idea of MSG-as-a-toxin typically don't profit from it. So what's the deal? Are they just parroting what they've heard before? Perhaps in part, but as this article explains, there is more to it than that.