Friday, November 26, 2010

TSA Use Of Advanced Imaging Technology and Pat-Downs

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably read, seen and/or heard several reports about the TSA's new "naked body scanners" and enhanced pat-down procedures.

Millimeter wave technology bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to create a black and white three-dimensional image. Backscatter technology projects X-ray beams over the body to create a reflection of the body displayed on the monitor.
This week, USA Today published an opinion piece written by TSA Administrator John Pistole. Pistole's article was titled "Why we need TSA's security measures", and included the official explanation for the TSA's new enhanced security screening procedures. In his article, Pistole claimed that travelers "now have the option" of going through the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines. This is a very strange choice of words, because if you choose to opt out of a full-body scanner, or if you set off an alarm of one of the machines, you will undergo a very invasive pat-down. Pistole also said that the AIT machines will eventually replace the metal detectors, which have been in place since the 1960s.

In this post I have compiled some highlights from the national debate on the TSA's new security procedures. I focus on several of the main questions that are being asked and answered in the news.

What Can the TSA see when you submit to the AIT machines?

What the TSA sees when you submit to the AIT machines
This image of an adult man was taken using a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray scanner (Credit: John Wild (

Backscatter technology produces an image that resembles a chalk etching. This image was taken from the TSA web site.

Millimeter wave technology produces an image that resembles a fuzzy photo negative. This image was taken from the TSA web site.
The Rapiscan Secure 1000 is one of the models in use at airports and the manufacturer says that it can detect organic and inorganic threats, metals and non-metallic objects such as liquids, ceramics, plastic explosives, narcotics, contraband, and currency.

In a speech about the NATO summit, President Obama implied that the AIT machines are a necessary response to the threat posed by the underwear bomber on Christmas day 2009. He said, "Since the explosive device that was on Mr. Abdulmutallab was not detected by ordinary metal detectors, it has meant that TSA has tried to adapt to make sure that passengers on planes are safe."

Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), chairman of the Congressional Biomedical Caucus, wrote an open letter to the TSA in which he strongly objects to the AIT machines because they are ineffective and potentially dangerous. In his letter, Holt quoted the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which said, “it remains unclear whether the AIT would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack based on the preliminary TSA information we have received.”

How harmful are the scans and pat-downs?

The TSA claims that the AIT machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which have all affirmed their safety. According to the RapidScan manufacturer's Frequently Asked Questions regarding Health and Safety, a person receives the same amount of radiation exposure from one inspection that they would receive in two minutes of a typical commercial aviation flight.

This claim about radiation exposure has been debated by several scientists. In his previously mentioned letter to the TSA, Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) describes the testimony of Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of the AIT machines. Dr. Brenner explained in his briefing that the AIT machines deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.” According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure on the top of the head can act as a significant cancer rate multiplier.

I personally am not very concerned about the health hazards related to the radiation exposure, but I am concerned about the psychological impact that these new screening procedures have on some passengers. Many children and victims of rape or sexual assault will be traumatized when they are forced to have strangers touching them and seeing images of their body. Many passengers have special needs and special circumstances that should exempt them from these invasive procedures.

TSA made this young boy take off his shirt at Salt Lake International Airport
An article in the Christian Science Monitor explains the impact of the TSA procedures on victims of sexual abuse. The experience “can be extremely re-traumatizing to someone who has already experienced an invasion of their privacy and their body,” says Amy Menna, a counselor and professor at the University of South Florida who has a decade’s experience researching and treating rape survivors. “Any type of violation of physical boundaries can set back a rape survivor in their treatment, in their therapy, in their recovery,” says Menna.

Deborah Petersen is a features editor for the San Jose Mercury News who has a graduate degree is in psychology, and her specialty was post-traumatic stress disorder. She described her encounter with the TSA in a recent article and how it made her concern about the affect of these procedures on victims of sexual abuse. She used to counsel survivors of sexual abuse, and she explained that experiencing abuse, predictably, produces distrust and an aversion to surprises, especially when survivors are thrust into situations that might remind them of their abuse.

Humorist Dave Barry was interviewed on NPR about his experience with the new TSA screening process. He was told by the TSA that he has a "blurred groin" and must have a pat-down inspection. He explained, "My wife doesn't have any complaints about my groin - that I know of." Dave Barry's interview on NPR made light of the situation, but this is no laughing matter for people who actually have unusual genitalia or abnormal breasts.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has expressed concern about the violation of the civil rights of transgender travelers. Many people are born with ambiguous genitalia and some people choose to change or alter their genitalia and/or breasts. These people can suffer a significant trauma when they submit to be processed in the AIT machines and their images appear different from other passengers. This invariably results in very uncomfortable discussions.

Can TSA employees be trusted to behave legally and ethically?

Obviously, most TSA employees do their best to be honest and professional and I believe that most of them are just trying to do their job and protect the public from security threats. I am convinced that most employees of the TSA believe that they are enforcing policies that are reasonable and necessary. When you search for cases of abuse, you won't find many. When you consider that an average of over 2 million passengers fly in the US every day, it's not surprising that a few feel that they have been treated unfairly. There are obvious cases where TSA employees lack sensitivity and abuse their position of authority. Most of these cases seem to involve belligerent and defiant passengers who make a scene and try to attract the attention of everybody around them.

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano wrote an article that was published in USA Today's Opinion Column. Napolitano claims that all images generated by AIT machines are viewed in a walled-off location that is not visible to the public and the officer assisting the passenger never sees the image. She further explains that the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger.

In her article, Napolitano said, "the imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images". TSA spokesman, Greg Soule also told CBS News that the AIT machines are "sent to the airports without the ability to save, transmit or print the images" and then contradicts himself in the next sentence by explaining that "the images are examined by a security officer in a remote location, and, once the image is cleared, they're deleted." Most computer users know that the ability to transmit the images is required to view the images in a remote part of the airport.

Why should we trust our government when they say that the AIT images will not be stored? The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom Of Information Act request for images from an AIT machine that were stored. William Bordley, an associate general counsel with the U.S. Marshals Service, acknowledged in response to the FOIA request that "approximately 35,314 images ... have been stored on the Brijot Gen2 machine" used in the Orlando, Fla. federal courthouse. Gozmodo posted samples of these images and fortunately for those who walked through the scanner in Florida last year, this AIT machine used the less revealing imaging technique.

In 2008, when Janet Napolitano was governor of Arizona, she assured state lawmakers that proposed freeway speed cameras would only photograph lawbreakers. Only after the wildly unpopular machines doled out millions in tickets did the truth emerge that the robotic devices recorded the movements of all drivers, 24 hours a day, and stored the images for 90 days.

Here Are a Collection Of Video Reports Of TSA Misconduct

There are several news reports that make it clear that TSA employees do not always act in a professional and respectful manner. One TSA employee named Rolando Negrin was arrested after he "lost his mind" and attacked a colleague who repeatedly made fun of his small penis. Negrin had been embarrassed and enraged by constant ribbing from his colleagues after a training session with an AIT machine.

The TSA claims that pat-downs are conducted by same-gender officers, who have received specific training on how to conduct pat-downs in a "professional and respectful manner". The TSA seems to do a fair job of evaluating employees and they have a stated policy of conducting thorough background checks to prevent criminals from entering service. A few TSA employees have managed to slip through the background checks and a few have been charged with various sex crimes. The Boston Herald reported that TSA screener Sean Shanahan, was charged with statutory enticing a minor and assault and battery. A TSA employee named Randall Scott Kingkidnapped and sexually assaulted a woman. A WSBTV report reveals that King had previously been convicted of misdemeanor harassment and stalking.

Who benefits from the new security procedures?

The most obvious beneficiaries of the new security procedures are the manufacturers of the AIT systems. According to the Washington Examiner, L-3 Communications has a TSA contract worth $165 million and Rapiscan has a contract worth $173 million. According to a Washington Times Editorial, Deepak Chopra is the chief executive of OSI Systems Inc and Rapiscan Systems is a subsidiary of OSI. Mr. Chopra and his executive vice presidents, Alan I. Edrick and Ajay Mehra, each cut separate checks to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign for the maximum legal amount on Oct. 24, 2008. Chopra was one of the corporate leaders who Obama invited on his extravagant trip to India earlier this month.

Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security formed a security advisory firm, The Chertoff Group, which advises corporate and government clients on security and risk management issues. The Chertoff Group was hired by RapidScan in 2009.

After printer cartridges allegedly loaded with PETN explosives were found onboard cargo planes from Yemen to the United States, Chertoff warned us that the nation needed stronger security procedures. Chertoff repeated his talking points on ABC News's "World News Tonight", Fox News' "Fox and Friends", CNBC's "Squawk Box" and Bloomberg TV.

The Hill published an article that lists several of the lobbyists and elected officials who have benefited from the TSA policy. L-3 has spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying since 2004 and Rapiscan has spent close to $3.6 million on lobbying since 2007, according to records.

Linda Hall Daschle, a former administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration and wife of ex-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), is one of L-3’s best-connected lobbyists. Daschle has earned $100,000 in lobbying fees so far this year working on “matters related to advanced imaging technology” — body scanners — among other air-travel issues, according to lobbying disclosure documents.

The Center for Responsive Politics released a report that found eight members of Congress who owned at least $2,000 worth of stock in L-3 Communications. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) owns $500,000 to $1 million worth of stock in L-3. Michael Castle (R-Del.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) both disclosed possessing between $16,002 and $65,000 worth of L-3 stock. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) is listed as having the next most valuable holdings in L-3 Communications, worth between $15,001 and $50,000.

How does the general public feel about the AIT machines and pat-downs?

The mainstream media seems obsessed with the public backlash against the new procedures, but several polls indicate that most Americans are supportive of the new security procedures. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 68% of respondents said they think it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy and 64% support the use of the new scanners. Americans mostly seem willing to voluntarily forfeit some of their rights because they believe this provides them greater protection.

There was very little public outrage when the USA Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9/11 terrorist attacks. Americans didn't seem to care that our government decided that it was OK for law enforcement to enter people’s homes, search through their private property, and then leave without even informing the inhabitants that their property had been searched. Few objected when it was determined that the government could send someone a national security letter demanding the disclosure of certain documents or information without probable cause, without judicial oversight, and with a gag order that prohibits the recipient of such a letter from discussing it, let alone challenging it in court. There was quite a bit of outrage when we discovered that the Bush administration decided that waterboarding was a legitimate interrogation technique, but few Americans did anything about it.

I imagine that most Americans presumed that none of this would ever apply to them. Most people probably assume that since they are law abiding citizens, they are not suspected of being terrorists and nobody would want to search their homes or violate their privacy. The media rarely advises the public about human rights violations when the government appears to be acting in the best interest of the majority. For some reason, most Americans seem content to allow the government to violate the rights of a few as long as they are not aware that they are having their rights violated. It even seems that the general population does not want to hear about the abuses and they tend to turn to another channel to avoid dealing with the guilt involved in knowing about the abuses. This is apparently the American way.

Do you feel that our Government has gone too far?

Last time I checked, US citizens still have a constitutional right to freedom of passage without unreasonable search and seizure. The TSA seems to know this and their policy seems to be geared around encouraging passengers to voluntarily give up their rights and submit to one of their preferred screening "options". I would argue that the TSA is using intimidation and fear to achieve their unreasonable searches. I admire their strategy of providing the illusion of "choice" to convince passengers to choose one method of violating their rights verses another. This seems to be a very effective tool because people like to believe that they have some choices in life. I am mostly just disappointed that Americans don't stand up for their rights more.

I was very encouraged to read Matt Kernan's blog post about his recent encounter with the TSA. Even though Kernan was selected for additional screening, he managed to get through security without submitting to an AIT machine or a pat-down. He politely said to the TSA agents and supervisors, “I understand what the pat-down entails, but I wanted to let you know that I do not give you permission to touch my genitals or the surrounding area. If you do, I will consider it assault.”

After repeating his request to multiple TSA agents and a asked for a supervisor. He took out his iPhone, activated the voice recorder, and said, “Per my constitutional rights, I am not allowed to be detained without reasonable cause for arrest." He then asked, "Now, am I free to go?”

The TSA called in the Airport Police Department and Kernan repeated his attempt to reason with the authorities. “Since you are actual police officers and not simply TSA, I am sure you have had much more training on my rights as a U.S. citizen, so you understand what is at stake here." And then he asked again, "So, am I free to go? Or am I being detained?” One of the officers answered, “You aren’t being detained, but you can’t go through there.” Pointing to the exit of the customs area.

Kernan asked the police officers if they would arrest him if he continued through the metal detector. The police explained that he was in an area within the jurisdiction of the TSA, and they are only authorized to assist the TSA.

Kernan asked for the TSA supervisor and explained, “The police have explained to me that it is your call on whether or not I am being detained. If I walked through that metal detector right now, you would have to ask them to arrest me in order for them to do anything.”

The TSA supervisor tried to defer responsibility to the officers, and they explained to him they they are only acting on his behalf. It is his jurisdiction. It is policy. They won’t detain me unless he tells them to.

Kernan asked, ”So, if I were to get up, walk through the metal detector, and not have it go off, would you still have them arrest me?”

The TSA supervisor answers, “I can’t answer that question. That is no longer an option because you were selected for the Backscatter.”

The TSA supervisor then called in “The Federal Security Director” who explained,
“Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to escort you out of the terminal to the public area. You are to stay with me at all times. Do you understand?”

Kernan asked, “Will I be touched?”

The Federal Security Director answered, “I can’t guarantee that, but I am going to escort you out.”

Kernan answered, “OK. I will do this. But I will restate that I still do not give you permission to touch my genitals or the surrounding area. If you do, I will still consider it assault.”

The Federal Security Director answered, “I understand.” and Kernan was escorted through a staff entrance, down a hallway and out to the baggage claim area. By the end of his journey, there were 13 TSA officials and 2 uniformed police officers forming a circle around around him.

By politely stating his rights, recording the audio of his encounter and repeatedly asking if he was being detained, Kernan managed to get through without submitting to a pat-down or an AIT machine. He was detained for 2.5 hours, but he accomplished something that most passengers have not. Kernan could easily have been arrested if he made any mistakes, and he went to great lengths to avoid conflict.

If you object to the use of the AIT machines and invasive pat-down techniques, stand up for your rights, politely object to the invasive screening procedures, and write your member of Congress and ask them to cosponsor Ron Paul's TSA bill (HR 6416)!

Ron Paul introduces the American Traveler Dignity Act (HR 6416)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ron Paul's famous "What If?" speech on Feb 13, 2009

Ron Paul made this speech on the House floor on Feb 13, 2009:

Some unknown artist created this very cool "kinetic typography" illustration of Mr. Paul's speech.

Here is the full text of Ron Paul's speech taken from The House Web Site:

"Madam Speaker, I have a few questions for my colleagues.
What if our foreign policy of the past century is deeply flawed and has not served our national security interests?

What if we wake up one day and realize that the terrorist threat is a predictable consequence of our meddling in the affairs of others and has nothing to do with us being free and prosperous?

What if propping up repressive regimes in the Middle East endangers both the United States and Israel?

What if occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan--and bombing Pakistan--is directly related to the hatred directed towards us?

What if some day it dawns on us that losing over 5,000 American military personnel in the Middle East since 9/11 is not a fair trade-off for the loss of nearly 3,000 American citizens--no matter how many Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghan people are killed or displaced?

What if we finally decide that torture--even if called 'enhanced interrogation techniques'--is self-destructive and produces no useful information and that contracting it out to a third world nation is just as evil?

What if it is finally realized that war and military spending is always destructive to the economy?

What if all wartime spending is paid for through the deceitful and evil process of inflating and borrowing?

What if we finally see that wartime conditions always undermine personal liberty?

What if conservatives, who preach small government, wake up and realize that our interventionist foreign policy provides the greatest incentive to expand the government?

What if conservatives understood once again that their only logical position is to reject military intervention and managing an empire throughout the world?

What if the American people woke up and understood the official reasons for going to war are almost always based on lies and promoted by war propaganda in order to serve special interests?

What if we, as a Nation, came to realize that the quest for empire eventually destroys all great nations?

What if Obama has no intention of leaving Iraq?

What if a military draft is being planned for the wars that will spread if our foreign policy is not changed?

What if the American people learn the truth: that our foreign policy has nothing to do with national security and it never changes from one administration to the next?

What if war and preparation for war is a racket serving the special interests?

What if President Obama is completely wrong about Afghanistan and it turns out worse than Iraq and Vietnam put together?

What if Christianity actually teaches peace and not preventive wars of aggression?

What if diplomacy is found to be superior to bombs and bribes in protecting America?

What happens if my concerns are completely unfounded? Nothing.

But what happens if my concerns are justified and ignored? Nothing good."

And here is a CSPAN video of the original "What if" speech on the floor of the House of Representatives:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Opinion Polls Regarding 9/11

At the United Nations General Assembly, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said there was a theory that "some segments within the US government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East, in order also to save the Zionist regime. The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view".

You Can Watch Ahmadinejad's Complete 33 Minute UN General Assembly Address Here:

If you don't watch the entire speech, watch how many attendees applaud as Ahmadinejad completes his address at timestamp 34:30. Why would so many applaud his speech if it was so offensive?

Read More Here

The Tehran Times provided coverage of Ahmadinejad's comments during other meetings in New York.

"The hegemonistic powers are taking revenge on the Muslims rather than the terrorists. About 3000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, but in the war the U.S. began in Afghanistan afterwards under the pretext of fighting terrorism, over 110,000 have been killed so far", he noted.

Read More Here

President Obama accused Ahmadinejad of making "offensive" and "hateful" comments when he said most of the world thinks the United States was behind the attacks to benefit Israel. Ahmadinejad defended his remarks and suggested that a fact-finding panel be created by the U.N. to look into who was behind them.

Watch Obama's Comments About Ahmadinejad's UN Address

"It was offensive," Obama said in an interview with the Persian service of the BBC that was to be broadcast to the Iranian people. "It was hateful."

"And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of ground zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation, for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable," Obama said.

Read More Here

Several polls reveal quite a bit of data about world opinion on the likely cause of the 9/11 attacks. Poll

According to this poll, Ahmadinejad was wrong when he said "The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view." However, this poll found that majorities in only nine of the 17 nations polled believed that al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The data from this 2008 poll is even more interesting when broken down by country.

Here Is A Video Summary Of Many Of The Polls - WARNING: Contains Some Offensive Language

Several Zogby polls have been sponsored by organizations within the 9/11 Truth Movement including

The first poll was conducted in August 2004, on the eve of a Republican National Convention, on 808 randomly-selected residents of New York State. It found that 49 percent of New York City residents and 41 percent of New York state citizens believe individuals within the US government "knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act".

The second major Zogby poll on 9/11 was conducted in May 2006. It was a telephone interview of 1,200 randomly-selected adults from across the United States, consisting of 81 questions. Some of the questions asked include the following:

"Some people believe that the US government and its 9/11 Commission concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts their official explanation of the September 11th attacks, saying there has been a cover-up. Others say that the 9/11 Commission was a bi-partisan group of honest and well-respected people and that there is no reason they would want to cover-up anything. Who are you more likely to agree with?"

Responses: 48% No Cover-up / 42% Cover-up / 10% Not sure

"World Trade Center Building 7 is the 47-story skyscraper that was not hit by any planes during the September 11th attacks, but still totally collapsed later the same day. This collapse was not investigated by the 9/11 Commission. Are you aware of this skyscraper's collapse, and if so do you believe that the Commission should have also investigated it? Or do you believe that the Commission was right to only investigate the collapse of the buildings which were directly hit by airplanes?"

Responses: 43% Not Aware / 38% Aware - should have investigated it / 14% Aware - right not to investigate it / 5% Not Sure

"Some people say that so many unanswered questions about 9/11 remain that Congress or an International Tribunal should re-investigate the attacks, including whether any US government officials consciously allowed or helped facilitate their success. Other people say the 9/11 attacks were thoroughly investigated and that any speculation about US government involvement is nonsense. Who are you more likely to agree with?"

Responses: 47% Attacks were thoroughly investigated / 45% Reinvestigate the attacks / 8% Not Sure

The third major Zogby poll regarding 9/11 was conducted in August 2007. It was a telephone interview with a target of 1,000 interviews with randomly-selected adults from across the United States, consisting of 71 questions.

The results of the 2007 August poll indicate that 51% of Americans want Congress to probe Bush/Cheney regarding the 9/11 attacks and over 30% of those polled seek immediate impeachment. While only 32% seek immediate Bush and/or Cheney impeachment based on their personal knowledge, many citizens appear eager for clear exposure of the facts.

In addition, the poll also found that two-thirds (67%) of Americans say the 9/11 Commission should have investigated the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7. Only 4.8 percent of the respondents agreed that members of the United States government "actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attack."

Read More Here

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Genetic Birth Defects In Iraq - US & UK used DU WMD

The Tehran Times, The Raw Story, and Russia Today are reporting today that the US and UK used depleted uranium during bombings of Iraq in 2003 and 2004. They are also reporting that the people of Fallujah are experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia, infant mortality, and sexual mutations than those recorded among survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the years after those Japanese cities were incinerated by U.S. atomic bomb strikes in 1945.

In the wake of America's "shock and awe" bombing campaign to take Baghdad, radiation detectors as far away as the United Kingdom noticed a fourfold spike in radioactivity in the atmosphere. At the time, the US Department of Defense bragged that the substance, a nuclear byproduct with a fraction of the radioactivity as standard uranium, is commonly ingested by Americans, in food, drinking water and the air, allegedly with no ill effects. Officials went on to say its use would cause "no impact on the health of people and the environment."

The U.S. military uses depleted uranium, also known as spent nuclear fuel, in armor-piercing shells and bullets because it is twice as dense as lead. Once these shells hit their target, however, as much as 40 percent of the uranium is released in the form of tiny particles in the area of the explosion. It can remain there for years, easily entering the human bloodstream, where it lodges itself in lymph glands and attacks the DNA produced in the sperm and eggs of affected adults, causing, in turn, serious birth defects in the next generation.

According to the authors of “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009” the Iraqi authorities attempted to scuttle their survey. “[S]hortly after the questionnaire survey was completed, Iraqi TV reportedly broadcast that a questionnaire survey was being carried out by terrorists and that anyone who was answering or administering the questionnaire could be arrested,” the study reports.

Why is the Iraqi government trying to hide the high rates of deformities, cancer and infant mortality? Some reports claim that the Iraqi government is trying to avoid embarrassing the US government, but you have to wonder if this is a deliberate cover-up by allied forces and the Iraqi government is simply cooperating with the cover-up. I also find it very strange that none of the prominent US media outlets seem to have covered any aspect of this story.

The RT news story above also discussed the fact that depleted uranium was used during the first gulf war also. Many have attributed many of the symptoms of "Gulf War Syndrome" to exposure to depleted uranium. Over the years, there have been many reports about the long-term risks of using depleted uranium in weapons. A BBC report from 2001 reported that a team from the World Health Organisation (WHO) was study the links between depleted uranium (DU) and the high incidence of certain diseases in the Iraqi population. But later reports indicate that the WHO report said that depleted uranium weapons posed only a small contamination risk. Dr Mike Repacholi, who oversaw work on the WHO report, said, "You would have to ingest a huge amount of depleted uranium dust to cause any adverse health effect."

These are also not the first reports about the birth defects and cancer in Fallujah. Several stories about the birth defects where previously reported, but the cause was unknown. One report said that the locals thought the cause to be the use of white phosphorus during the bombings.

BBC News Report On Birth Defects:

The Iraqi government, which people have said doesn't want to embarrass the Americans, says there are maybe one or two cases of birth defects per year. BBC went to the hospital in Fallujah, found a pediatrician, and she said she sees 2 or 3 new cases every day, and that adds up to about 1000 per year. Americans are able to say, quite honestly that they are unaware of any official investigation.

The Guardian Also Reported On This Problem:

Every week the Fallujah hospital deals with at least seven cases of birth defects, and the hospital is being overrun with more problems than they can address. Many problems require treatment outside of Iraq. One mother in this video who's daughter needed treatment by a specialist said, "Neither the Americans or anyone else are willing to perform the operation. She's in a lot of pain."

Sky News Also Reported On The Birth Defects:

In this video, the mother of a baby born with two heads described the death of her child. ANother mother described how they made a journey to neighboring Jordan to seek treatment at great expense.

"For years, Fallujah was well-known for being a stronghold for insurgency. Today, these parents have gathered along with their children to send a message, that the town has now become a stronghold for birth defects. Most of the children have brain damage related, limb and eye deformities."

"Some babies are born so deformed that their parents wish their children dead."

"Most of the newborn babies die shortly after birth. Most of them are deformed."

"We have recorded around 200 cases in our organization. Most of these cases are incurable in Iraq. Cataracts are very common here as well, as nerve damage and entire orbit deformity. We call on International charity organizations to help these people."

"We try to help them by filing complaints against US forces, but the US forces say they swill only consider complaints within 3 months of the incident. The problem is how to deal with the birth deformities. In Fallujah, these deformities only turn up after birth. The problem is how to tackle these cases. We call on the International community and International court of justice to set up a tribunal to consider these cases."

"Most of the locals attribute the rise of birth deformities to the use of white phosphorus by the US troops when they launched the biggest bombardment in Fallujah in November 2004. US troops denied the use of phosphorus to kill their enemies in a statement to The Independent newspaper, however they confirmed using it for this purpose in another statement to ABC News."

"Local lawyers are trying to sue the US troops, but there is a legal problem deterring their efforts. Despite the US troop's denial, there is still lack of medical equipment, facilities and expertise to diagnose the real cause of these deformities. Children keep paying heavily for the mistakes of elders."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Confusion About Easter

Updated on April 5, 2015.
What happened on the day of Christ's resurrection? My challenge to every Christian is to study and determine for yourself exactly what happened on the day that Christianity's most important doctrine was born.
Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:14-15, "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not."
I challenge you to read the account of the Easter story in each of the four Gospels. Begin at Easter morning and read to the end of each book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. You may also want to read Acts 1:3-12 and I Corinthians 15:3-8. Then, carefully arrange every detail from these separate accounts into a roughly chronological order of the events between the resurrection and the ascension. Use any method that works for you to create a plausible account of all of the facts presented in the Bible and do your best to avoid omitting any single biblical detail. I have shared below a few of the challenges I found when trying to do this for myself.

Tomb stone replica visited by tourists in Jerusalem
Tomb stone in Jerusalem
All four gospels agree that on the third day, after Jesus' crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus was buried and found it empty. But on virtually every other detail, the Gospels disagree. I encourage careful study of the Biblical accounts by all who are interested in this topic. The best way to compare the biblical accounts it to read the verses in chronological order and to compare them in parallel.

One simple comparison is offered by the JesusWalk Bible Study Series, but the best method is to read the accounts for yourself in each of the four Gospels. Make four columns on a sheet of notebook paper, and take notes as you read. You might be amazed how much the four accounts of the story vary and contradict. Below, I highlight some of the most confusing contradictions by asking a few simple questions and then providing answers from the four Gospels.

Who went to visit Jesus' tomb?

Mattew 28:1Mark 16:1Luke 23:5John 20:1
Mary and another MaryMary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and SalmoneThe women who had come with Jesus from GalileeMary alone

Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb?

Matthew 28:2Mark 16:4LukeJohn
The stone was rolled away from the tomb by an angel while the women where there.The stone was already rolled away when they arrived.No stone mentioned.No stone mentioned.

Whom did the women see when hey arrived at the empty tomb?

Matthew 28:5Mark 16:5Luke 24:4John
An angel.A young man.Two men.No mention of anybody besides Mary.

What did the women say about what they saw?

Matthew 28:8Mark 16:8
They told the disciples what they saw and heard.They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

If the women tell their account of the visit to the tomb, who did they tell?

Matthew 28:8 Luke 24:8John 20:2
They told only the eleven disciples.They told the eleven disciples and other people.They told Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple.

What do Jesus' disciples do when the women tell them about Jesus' resurrection?

Matthew 20:9Luke 24:11John 20:3
They have no response because Jesus immediately appears to them.The disciples think the story is a lie.The disciples go to the tomb to look for themselves.

These are just a few examples of the contradictions and irreconcilable differences in the Bible. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a critical part of the Christian faith, and yet, the four Gospels don't agree on hardly any of the details of these events. The authors of the Bible can't all be right, because their accounts of Christ's life and death conflict. I am not trying to suggest that we should ignore the entire Bible because of a few inconsistencies in some of the stories. What I am trying to suggest is that the modern versions of the Bible are not infallible or inerrant. Perhaps the true meanings of the scriptures where lost as scribes copied the texts and made corrections, omissions or additions. We can be sure that what we have today is far from what was printed in the original manuscripts.

Tourists waiting to enter a cave in Jerusalem.
This should be a photo of a line of tourists waiting to enter a small cave
Please allow me to take a brief diversion to tell you about experiences I had in Israel. I have had the pleasure of taking two business trips to Israel and I took tours of Jerusalem during both trips. On my first visit I took a very short guided tour of the ancient City of Jerusalem. The guide on my first trip spoke as if everything he had to say was a matter of fact. I tend to get a bit skeptical when people portray an ancient story so confidently, and so at one point in the tour, I pulled the guide aside to ask him some questions privately away from the others in my tour. I asked my questions quietly and privately out of respect for those on my tour who where obviously very religious and probably wouldn't appreciate the subject matter of my questions.

They say Jesus was prepared here for burial.
A flat rock surface in Jerusalem with oil lamps hanging above it.
We where standing near a flat rectangular stone that was meant to resemble the stone where Christ's body was laid to be dressed with oil and prepared for burial. Our guide had explained that religious people come from all corners of the earth to kneel down, touch the stone, and touch the oil that once touched Christ's body. When I asked him how they perpetually replenish the supply of oil on the stone, he explained how oil lamps are hung over the stone and they slowly drip oil onto the surface of the stone. I also asked him several other questions about his stories, and on every topic, our guide acknowledged that he was only telling a modern version of a story and explaining things that may or may not have happened at the places we where visiting.

Prison cell in Jerusalem.
Rock surface a in a cave with two holes where feet could have been placed
This first tour included short visits to several highlights of Israel provided by a guide and a driver who took us from Haifa down through Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, through the West Bank to the Dead Sea, and then back to Haifa. I realized that this was far too much to see in one day and so I decided to spend an entire day touring the old city of Jerusalem on my next trip. On my second trip, I and several of my colleagues decided to hire one of the independent guides who wait near Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate waiting for tourists who enter there. Our independent guide showed us many different sites and explained many different versions of several stories. He seemed not to put any faith in any of the stories and he never showed any bias toward one story or another. He just presented the stories as best as he could and let us ask questions and influence where he would take us and what he told us about what we wanted to know.

I told the story of my two Israel tours as examples of two different approaches to the study of history and historical documents. These two approaches also apply to Biblical study. You can either treat the scriptures as inerrant and infallible historical records, or you can treat them each as one man's version of the story. As with my two guides in Jerusalem, each author of the Gospels was a fallible man writing down events from memory many years after the events occurred. Each author of the Gospels obviously had an agenda, and that agenda may have influenced their memory of events, or perhaps they even embellished the story a little to support the points they where trying to make.

The Gospels also include a few strange occurrences of misquotes and misunderstandings of Old Testament prophesy. A passage in Zechariah describes a scene that sounds like the New Testament story we now call Palm Sunday.

A Bible card from the early 1900s
This is a Bible card from the early 1900s that depicts Jesus on the colt
Zechariah 9:9
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The Gospels have conflicting accounts of the events of Palm Sunday.
Matthew 21:7Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35John 12:14
They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.Jesus' disciples brought a colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, and He sat on it.Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it.
Matthew's account is clearly a misunderstanding of this Old Testament prophesy. So, I think it is pretty obvious that Matthew told the story of Palm Sunday by using the literal interpretation of Zechariah's prophesy and telling a story that Christ rode on both a donkey AND a colt. The other Gospels portray the story using the obvious interpretation that there was only one animal and that animal was a colt. This begs the question, did the Palm Sunday event ever actually occur? Why would Matthew make such an obvious mistake? Or of course the other obvious conclusion is that a well-meaning scribe changed the story because he felt that Matthew's story was not an exact fulfillment of of the Old Testament prophesy.

You also have to take into account that none of the authors of the Biblical texts intended for their works to be compiled into a giant volume and presented together as one Bible for modern Christians to study. If the authors had known, perhaps they would have consulted with each other and collaborated their stories more carefully with the other authors.

The errors and conflicts in the resurrection story are not just troubling because they indicate the fallibility of the authors and scribes of the Bible. The errors and conflicts are also very troubling because the miraculous story of the resurrection is portrayed by Christians as proof that Jesus is the Son of God and his life events fulfill Old Testament prophesy. Here are just a few passages from Scripture that further demonstrate this point.

Acts 2:22-24
"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."

This passage continues by quoting the prophesies of David in the old testament and then making the case that David predicted Christ's resurrection.
Acts 2:31-32
"Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact."

Jesus' death and resurrection is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy and is used repeatedly as proof that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. Paul was one of the early Christians who preached the story of Christ's life and death and encouraged gentiles to believe in God.
Rom. 1:1-6
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."

As an open-minded student of the Bible, I cannot rule out the possibility that there may indeed be many passages that are the word of God written by men who where inspired directly by God to write His words into the scriptures. But I also have to conclude that these scriptures where passed down through the generations, written and re-written by scribes, and we can't know how much of the modern Bible is different from the events recorded therein. The present day versions of the scriptures in the modern Bible are full of contradictions and errors. The Bible makes better sense if you acknowledge its inconsistencies instead of blindly insisting that there aren't any, even when they are staring you in the face. You must carefully study the scriptures, consider them thoughtfully, question some of the assumptions and conclusions, and cautiously consider how the scriptures affect your faith and your life choices.

I think I have made the point I intended to make so I will conclude this portion of my post. For those who are interested in further reading on these topics, please consider reading the books by Bart Ehrman. I especially recommend his book called Jesus Interrupted.

You may also enjoy listening to Bart Ehrman's interview on an NPR program called Fresh Air

For those who are particularly interested in the topic of Apologetics, please continue reading. In modern times, apologists are authors, writers, editors or academic journals, and leaders known for defending the points in arguments, conflicts or positions that receive great popular scrutinies and/or are minority views. This portion of my blog post focuses specifically on Biblical Apologetics. Jesus himself was an apologist.

Jesus taught many things about the inspiration of the Old Testament:
(1) Its entirety; the whole of the Bible is inspired: In Matthew 4:4, Jesus responded to Satan’s temptation by affirming verbal plenary inspiration when He said, man is to live by every word (plenary) that proceeds out of the mouth of God (inspiration). In Matthew 5:17-18, Christ promised that the entire Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, would be fulfilled, not abolished. In fact, He declared that not even the smallest Hebrew letter, the yodh, which looks like an apostrophe (‘), or stroke of a letter, a small distinguishing extension or protrusion of several Hebrews letters would pass away until all is fulfilled. Christ’s point is that it is all inspired and true and will be fulfilled.
(2) Its historical accuracy: Jesus spoke of the Old Testament in terms of actual history. Adam and Eve were two human beings, created by God in the beginning, who lived and acted in certain ways (Matt. 19:3-5; Mark 10:6-8). He spoke of Jonah and his experience in the belly of the great fish as an historical event (Matt. 12:40). He also verified the events of the flood in Noah’s day along with the ark (Matt. 24:38-39; Luke 17:26-27). He verified God’s destruction of Sodom and the story of Lot and his wife (Matt. 10:15; Luke 17:28-29). These are only a few illustrations; many others exist.
(3) Its reliability: Because it is God’s word, the Scripture must be fulfilled (Matt. 26:54).
(4) Its sufficiency: It is sufficient to witness to the truth of God and His salvation (Luke 16:31).
(5) Its indestructibility: Heaven and earth will not pass away until it is all fulfilled. Nothing can stop its fulfillment (Matt. 5:17-18).
(6) Its unity: The whole of the Bible speaks and witnesses to the person and work of Christ (Luke 24:27, 44).
(7) Its inerrancy: Men are often in error, but the Bible is not; it is truth (Matt. 22:29; John 17:17).
(8) Its infallibility: The Bible cannot be broken, it always stands the test (John 10:35).

E. J. Young, in "Thy Word Is Truth", his classic work on the inspiration of the Bible, gives a good definition of inerrancy: “By this word we mean that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability to mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth.

Stephen T. Davis, in his book titled "The Debate about the Bible" wrote, “The Bible is infallible, as I define that term, but not inerrant. That is, there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice.”

A study of what Jesus said about the Old Testament of the Bible reveals not only His belief in its verbal, plenary inspiration, but that He also believed it was inerrant. In fact, the greatest testimony to the authenticity of the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant Word is the Lord Jesus. Why is Jesus' testimony so important? Because God authenticated and proved Him to be His own divine Son by the resurrection.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Vicious And Vocal Opponents Of Health Reform

The US Congress is very close to passing a significant Health Reform bill after months of debate, concessions and amendments. As this historical moment approaches, a minority of the American people are being very vocal with their apposition to this legislation. Teabaggers are protesting in Washington and elsewhere around the country, trying desperately to be heard. In many cases, their signs and words are outrageous and offensive, and of course this increases the coverage of their actions in the media. I must say that their tactics have been quite effective, because I have seen several photos and video clips featured in many print and TV news stories, despite their relatively small numbers in comparison to the overall population.

Here is a shocking video shot by the Columbus Dispatch at a "Honk and Wave in Support of Health Care" event at Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy's district office.

This video includes a segment where teabaggers mock and scorn an apparent Parkinson's victim telling him "he's in the wrong end of town to ask for handouts", calling him a communist and throwing money at him to "pay for his health care". This is exactly the type of rhetoric and hateful language that is echoed to one degree or another across the country. Most opponents of the health reform bill repeat the GOP talking point about spending "other peoples money" to provide health coverage for those who have no coverage. They like to make it sound like this health reform bill will take more money from the rich and middle class to pay for the poor.

The GOP is also taking this opportunity to spread doom and gloom about the government takeover of Health Care. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is posting this countdown ticker on various web sites and placing it as a paid political ad in the middle of news stories on the Washington Post on-line edition.

A recent opinion piece by Paul Krugman explains several of the popular myths about the health care reform bill. Krugman is a Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He explains that if government funding and regulation of health care equals a takeover, then the takeover happened a long time ago. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs pay for about half of the nation's health costs already and private health insurance covers only about one third of health costs. The other third of health costs are paid out of pocket. The private health insurance is mostly provided by employers and is heavily subsidized by the government. The cost of private health care is very high because hospitals and doctors have to charge more to cover the treatment of uninsured patients who can't afford treatment. The expenses from uninsured patients is exactly what this bill is intended to address.

The NRCC also produced this video entitled "90 Seconds to Gov't Run Healthcare".
This video is labeled as "An explaination of the process Nancy Pelosi and Democrats are using to take away your healthcare." Yes, the RNCC are such morons, they can't even use a spell checker to get the correct spelling of the word "explaination". Thanks GOP for that extra bit of unintended humor!

The substance of the video focuses mainly upon a legislative procedure known as the self-executing rule. There was talk that House Democrats might use this tactic to push through the Senate version of the health reform bill by voting not on the measure itself, but rather a "fixes package." This procedure is also known as "Deem and pass" or "Deamon Pass" as the radicals call it. Of course the GOP is calling foul, and saying that this strategy is unfair and potentially unconstitutional. Self-executing rules are not uncommon in the House. House Republican leaders used it 36 times between 2005 and 2006 and Democrats used it 49 times in 2007 and 2008, according to an article in Politico by Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution congressional scholar.

The National Post is reporting that "Democrats in the House of Representatives said on Saturday they had secured enough support to pass a sweeping healthcare overhaul and would dump a controversial plan to avoid a direct vote on the Senate bill." So, the GOP seems to have been successful with their fear-mongering about Deem and Pass being an unconstitutional tactic. The good news here is that the Democrats are claiming that they will actually bring this issue to a vote, and that should eliminate the possibility of the courts overturning this legislation on a technicality.

CNN, the Christian Science Monitor and other news sources are reporting that the CBO projects that the final version of the health reform bill will cost $940 billion over the next ten years.

By comparison the US will spend $5.73 Trillion for ten years of defense spending. And that's not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you doubt these numbers, I explain this cost projection in more detail at the end of this blog post, but I quoted this figure to make a point. Republicans and Teabaggers are complaining about government takeover of health care and the enormous expense to taxpayers. I'll bet you would be hard pressed to find a member of the GOP that would complain about the defense spending projections. The DoD spending plan includes funding for troops deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, with more than 369,000 of its 1,379,551 active-duty troops serving outside the United States and its territories. Many of these troops are still located at installations activated during the Cold War. See Wikipedia for these and more details.

US Military Presence

Why exactly is it so horrible to spend less than one fifth as much on health care reform as we will spend on defense? Why is it such a problem to save as many as 45,000 American lives per year?

In case you aren't familiar with that number, Researchers from Harvard Medical School published a study that concluded that lack of health coverage can be tied to about 45,000 deaths a year in the United States. The study also found that people without health insurance had a 40 percent higher risk of death than those with private health insurance as a result of being unable to obtain necessary medical care. The risk appears to have increased since 1993, when a similar study found the risk of death was 25 percent greater for the uninsured.

CBO health cost projectionAccording to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), "The federal budget is on an unsustainable path, primarily because of the rising cost of health care and the aging of the U.S. population." The CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimates that enacting both H.R. 3590 and the reconciliation proposal would produce a net reduction in federal deficits of $143 billion over the 2010–2019 period as result of changes in direct spending and revenues. The CBO also projects that this legislation would reduce the deficit by $1.3 trillion over the next two decades.

And finally, as promised, here I will explain how I calculated the ten year cost of defense spending.

A CBO estimate says that carrying out the Department of Defense's (DoD’s) plans would require defense resources averaging at least $573 billion annually from 2011 to 2028. This projection excludes overseas contingency operations (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and some much smaller military actions elsewhere.

another CBO estimate says that under the Obama Administration’s plan, costs related directly to the U.S. forces conducting the war in Iraq, also called Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) would total $156 billion over the 2009-2014 period.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Talking Points

This is just a quick post to demonstrate the use of "Talking Points" as a political tool. I have had a few discussions with people who doubt that members of the President's administration and members of Congress collaborate on talking points. As a news junkie, I tend to obsess a bit on this trend, and I have seen countless examples of this practice. Members of Congress are the worst offenders, and you will often see several Congressmen and Congresswomen repeat the same tired rhetoric over and over on TV news network, after TV news network.

On February 25, 2010, President Obama, in essentially a solo performance, took on the entire Republican leadership in this unprecedented meeting. The Republicans repeated many of the same talking points, most of which where committed to memory. Phrases like "scrap this bill", "start over", "clean sheet of paper" where repeated over and over and over and over throughout the meeting with Obama.

If you don't have time to watch the entire video, I have captured a few examples of Republicans reading their talking points from what appear to be 3x5 index cards, 4x11 sized lists, and letter sized printouts of materials.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)

Rep. Tom Price (R-GA)

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)

In this clip from May 2008, Keith Olbermann delivers a special comment on Countdown about the Bush Administration talking points used to promote the War on Terror. Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Sean Hanity and other talk show hosts highlight some of the more catchy phrases including "Stay the Course", "Cut and Run", 'appeasement' 'fight over there so we don't fight them here', 'they hate our freedom', and many more.

In this video clip from Sept. 2007, Katie Couric reported live from Baghdad. But instead of using that opportunity to ask tough questions and dig for the truth, Couric asked softball questions and repeated false Bush talking points.

I can't say that I blame political pundits and elected officials for sharing and repeating each other's talking points, because I am sure I would probably do the same thing on occasion if I was an elected official. It does seem a bit sad that some politicians can't always speak frankly and from the heart.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Avatar: Pandora Is Real

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Avatar: The Science Behind The Fiction.

SPOILER ALERT: Please follow my advice and go watch the movie before reading the rest of this blog post.

Jake Sully, the main character in Avatar, has a well honed survival instinct, presumably because of his paramilitary training and battle experiences. This turns out to be an advantage in gaining the trust of the native Na'vi humanoids on Pandora because they are tribal warriors and he could relate to them better than the scientists in the avatar program. Jake earns the trust of the tribal leaders and is eventually accepted as one of the Na'vi people.

Neytiri teaches Jake the skills he'll need to survive on Pandora.

Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is a typical war mongering Colonel who lives to kill and destroy anyone and everything that stands in the way of his objective. He teaches his soldiers that Pandora is a very dangerous place full of fierce animals and skilled warriors who want to kill them. Quaritch provides the orientation for soldiers arriving on Pandora and informs them that it is his job to keep them alive, but that he will not succeed, at least "not with all of you," he says.

Jake's mission throughout the movie is to gain information that can help the Resources Development Administration (RDA) gain access to the planet's most valuable natural resource called unobtanium. Throughout the movie, Jake shares with Colonel Quaritch the intelligence he has gathered on Pandora's indigenous Na'vi people during his missions with the avatar program. Quaritch promises Jake that he will receive a new pair of legs if he provides the support that the colonel needs.

The film makes several references to the dying planet Earth and also implies that there may be some sort of energy crisis back on Earth. Unobtanium is portrayed in the film as the most valuable energy source available to the RDA. The biggest obstruction to mining is the fact that the largest deposit of unobtanium lies underneath the Na'vi people's most sacred spiritual grounds. The RDA plans to take the unobtanium at any cost. Jake and the scientists in the avatar program try to convince the Na'vi people to leave their sacred "home tree" grounds voluntarily to avoid the need for forceful removal by the paramilitary forces.

Jake Sully and Colonel Quaritch discuss strategy

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the Chief Administrator for RDA and He is in charge of mining operations on Pandora. Parker is determined not the let the native "blue monkeys" stand in the way of unobtanium mining, but he allows the avatar program to use diplomatic methods to try to remove the Na'vi from their sacred land for a while.

Parker has little patience for Grace's science and diplomacy missions.

Unfortunately, Jake and the rest of the avatar research team are unsuccessful in their attempts to convince the Na'vi people to evacuate their land before the paramilitary forces drive them out by force. The paramilitary forces end up using extreme force against the Na'vi people and many end up injured and dead. In the end, Jake, the avatar research team, and a few of the paramilitary troupes go rogue and help the Na'vi people fight against the paramilitary forces of the RDA.

Avatar is based on many true stories, but the happy ending is not anything like the conclusion of the true stories. Pandora exists on Earth and it is located in South and Central America, in Africa, in the Middle East and many other places. The indigenous peoples in those regions are being displaced, exploited and killed right now, in order to extract the natural resources in their native land. The names of places and peoples may be different than the movie, but the events in the film are very similar to real events in Earth history and the present day.

Avatar is a film that accurately depicts the actions of the governments and corporations of present day Earth. The ruthless approach used by RDA to acquire Pandora's resources for planet Earth are similar to the recent actions of governments and corporations around the world. Indigenous peoples around the world have been and are being displaced by wars and corporations, in order to extract the natural resources found in their territories. The most notable and well known incident was when Native Americans where forced to move from their homelands in the south to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the Western United States.

The Trail Of Tears

The phrase "Trail Of Tears" originated in 1831 from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation from their land in present-day Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes where also displaced from their lands. Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their destinations, and many died, including 4,000 of the 15,000 relocated Cherokee.

A recent example of exploitation involves the island nation of Haiti. The recent 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti resulted in mainstream media coverage of the extreme poverty there. As you might have guessed, Haiti did not become poor by accident, but as the result of US government actions including support for violent coups and US complicity in trade and lending policies that have destroyed civil society, crushed democracy, crashed the economy and turned a food exporting country into a food importing country where few can afford to eat. Most of the food imported into Haiti comes from U.S. growers and exporters, and so the U.S. corporations benefit at the expense of the local Haitian farmers and corporations.

A man exits a Port au Prince restaurant after he looked for his belongings.
Photo by Marco Dormino / The United Nations United Nations Development Programme

In 1991 Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was removed in a military coup. As a condition for supporting his return, the U.S., the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank required that he further open up the Haitian economy to foreign trade. Haitian tariffs on rice were reduced from 35% to 3%, the lowest in the Caribbean region, and government funding was diverted away from agricultural development to servicing the nation's foreign debt. Without government support or protection, Haitian farmers were in no position to compete with their highly subsidized U.S. counterparts. Subsidies for rice producers in the U.S. totaled approximately $1.3 billion in 2003 alone, amounting to more than double Haiti's entire budget for that year.

Since 2006 the IMF has disbursed close to $170 million to Haiti under the IMF Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility for poor countries. After the January 12 earthquake, the IMF said that it would increase Haiti's existing loan program by $100 million and disburse the funds quickly to help the government rebuild from the massive earthquake. The new funding is in addition to the debts previously incurred by the country. Haiti is already burdened with debt far beyond its capacity to repay, and this new loan will cause further suffering for the impoverished island nation.

Guatemalan ladies standing in the doorway next to a Coca-Cola ad.

Another recent example of exploitation involves Coca-Cola Co. which was recently sued in New York by Guatemalans Over Anti-Union Violence. Guatemalan workers say they endured a “campaign of violence” by people working on behalf of bottling and processing plants owned by Coke after they engaged in union activities.

This same basic process of extortion has been used by the US Government, the World Bank, the IMF and Corporations in poor countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. John Perkins is the author of several books including his best seller, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. This is one of his shortest talks that summarizes his book in just a few minutes.

These are only a few examples of the exploitation of Indigenous Peoples around the world. I will provide many other examples in future posts on this web site.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Avatar: The Science Behind The Fiction

James Cameron's latest and arguably his best film is called Avatar. First I must implore all readers to get to your nearest IMAX theater and witness this cinematic experience in it's intended format at least once. If you haven't already experienced this film in IMAX 3D, you must take advantage of the opportunity while this film is still screening in most IMAX theaters. No matter how you feel about the story line and the political overtones, you must experience the technically brilliant and amazing 3D experience that this film offers. Watching this film in 3D truly makes you feel as if you are on Pandora experiencing the events with the actors and animated characters.

The brilliant plot of Avatar is a creative blend of science fiction, close representations of actual life forms and life sciences including botany and marine biology, aspects of real life religious and spiritual beliefs, and many facts and stories from the anthropology of indigenous peoples and those who have terrorized and displaced them around the world.

SPOILER ALERT: Please follow my advice and go watch the movie before reading the rest of this blog post.

See the Official Avatar Movie web site

The story follows a paraplegic war veteran character named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is invited to control an avatar that was created for his brother. Jake's brother tragically dies before he can participate in a scientific exploration and reconnaissance mission on an alien planet called Pandora. The avatar is a genetically engineered Human-Na'vi hybrid drone that was created by a corporation that seeks to profit by mining the resources of the planet Pandora. The corporation created the avatar by combining the DNA of Jake's brother and the DNA of the Na'vi who are the indigenous people of Pandora. Jake is able to control the avatar that was created for his brother because he is a close genetic match and because the corporation invested a great deal of money and resources to create the avatar.

Jake Sully and his brother's Avatar

Doctor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the chief scientist in charge of the avatar program which allows human 'pilots' to control the avatars. Grace seems primarily focused on conducting anthropological, biological, and spiritual studies related to the flora and fona of the planet Pandora. Grace seems completely uninterested in aiding the corporation with their quest for a valuable mineral called unobtanium, and is constantly at odds with the paramilitary thugs who are in charge of the tactical operations of their mission. Since Jake came from the ranks of the paramilitary forces, Grace initially has a very strong opposition to Jake's participation in the scientific expeditions.

Dr. Grace Augustine and Jake Sully

Jake receives an extremely abbreviated orientation into the avatar program and he is linked to his brother's avatar after only reading a technical manual. Since Jake is a paraplegic, he finds new freedom when he controls his brother's avatar and has the use of a fully functional body. The Pandora expeditions afford him the ability to walk, run and participate in other athletic activities. Jake's experiences in the avatar program are probably inspired by the brain computer interface research that is primarily intended to enable quadriplegics to control computers and robotic prosthetic arms and hands. This is an exciting field of science, but the technology is still in the very early stages of research and development.

Stanford Demonstration of a Brain Computer Interface

As Jake runs and jumps through the jungles of Pandora, the IMAX 3D media format allows you, the viewer, to experience his new-found freedom with him. He runs through fields, jumps between the tops of trees in the Pandoran jungles, and rides creatures that look like horses and flying dinosaurs. The winged reptiles called "mountain banshees" in Avatar appear to be very accurate representations of the the first flying vertebrates on earth called Pterosaurs.

Mountain Banshees attacking a helicopter

Pterosaurs have intrigued paleontologists and it is difficult to say now such large creatures could fly. Some species of pterosaurs had wingspans from 24 to 36 feet (8 to 12 meters) and probably weighed as much as a piloted hang-glider. There has been a great deal of debate about these creatures and how they solved the problems of powered flight. Efforts to explain how the pterosaurs became airborne have led to suggestions that they launched themselves by jumping from cliffs or dropping from trees. Nobody knows for sure how exactly they where able to fly. The pterosaurs in Avatar seem to be a fairly accurate artist's conception of the extinct creatures on earth.

A collection of several artist's depictions of pterosaurs

Perhaps the least controversial conclusion about the pterosaurs is that they were reptiles. Their skulls, pelvises, and hind feet are similar to those of reptiles, and the anatomy of their wings suggests that they did not evolve into the class of birds. In pterosaurs a greatly elongated fourth finger of each forelimb supported a wing-like membrane. The other fingers were short and reptilian, with sharp claws. In birds the second finger is the principal strut of the wing, which consists primarily of feathers. If the pterosaurs walked on all fours, the three short fingers may have been employed for grasping. When a pterosaur walked or remained stationary, the fourth finger, and with it the wing, could only turn upward in an extended inverted V-shape along each side of the animal’s body.

Pterosaur Wing - Image created by Nobu Tamura

Most of the plants and animals on Pandora appear to be animated, but are based closely upon life forms on earth. Some of the plants and creatures appear to be actual video of real earth plant life and sea life, but in most cases these plants and animals are way out of proportion from their real earth counterparts. For example, there is a scene in the jungle where Jake reaches out and touches some giant plants and they react by retracting their leaves into a protective stem. These giant plants could be real life footage of marine tube worms commonly known as feather dusters or fanworms.

A feather duster emerges

This is the first in a two-part series. Click here for part 2.