Monday, April 27, 2009

What's New With Swine Flu?

So what is the latest word on what may be a potential pandemic ? The following give varied answers. Questions to be answered include is this the same virus in every country?, Is this susceptible to commonly used anti-virals?, And how bad may it get?

First its not clear if this has the same virulence or killing potential everywhere. The death rate in Mexico seems to be substantially higher than other countries and why this is so is not clear given the fact that so far this seems to be the same virus in the U.S. as Mexico.

Anecdotal reports from Mexico suggest that this disease is not as susceptible to commonly used anti-virals . The BBC has a number of concerning reports such as this:

"I'm a specialist doctor in respiratory diseases and intensive care at the Mexican National Institute of Health. There is a severe emergency over the swine flu here. More and more patients are being admitted to the intensive care unit. Despite the heroic efforts of all staff (doctors, nurses, specialists, etc) patients continue to inevitably die. The truth is that anti-viral treatments and vaccines are not expected to have any effect, even at high doses. It is a great fear among the staff. The infection risk is very high among the doctors and health staff.

There is a sense of chaos in the other hospitals and we do not know what to do. Staff are starting to leave and many are opting to retire or apply for holidays. The truth is that mortality is even higher than what is being reported by the authorities, at least in the hospital where I work it. It is killing three to four patients daily, and it has been going on for more than three weeks. It is a shame and there is great fear here. Increasingly younger patients aged 20 to 30 years are dying before our helpless eyes and there is great sadness among health professionals here.
Antonio Chavez, Mexico City "

As to the last question who knows? The unpredictability of these outbreaks makes prognostication difficult. CIDRAP sums it up:

" Unpredictability stressed
Schuchat stressed the unpredictability and fluidity of the swine flu situation. "We do think this virus is spreading from person to person, and we're taking steps aggressively to try to slow the spread," she said. "We are expecting things to change, and we want you to expect change as well."

In response to questions, she said it is "premature" to conclude that the disease in Mexico is different from the one in the United States, even though Mexico has had a number of deaths. "We don't have many infected people, and we don't have great information yet," she said. Though the United States has had no deaths attributed to the virus yet, "I do fear that we will have deaths here," she added.

In response to a question, Schuchat said the CDC believes that "person to person to person" (tertiary) transmission is going on. But the agency has not yet estimated how many additional cases can be expected to result from each case.

She said some of the US cases have involved US residents who traveled to Mexico, but she wasn't sure how many. The two case-patients in Kansas are a married couple, one of whom got sick after a trip to Mexico, and the spouse became ill 2 days later.

In reiterating CDC advice about self-protective steps people can take, Schuchat said, "If you're having symptoms after a trip to Mexico, that's a good time to go to the doctor and get tested." Symptoms that may suggest swine flu include a high fever, muscle aches, cough, sore throat, and possibly vomiting and diarrhea—though these could indicate many other possibilities as well, she noted.

She repeated earlier CDC assessments that the H1N1 strain in the seasonal flu vaccine is unlikely to offer protection against the new swine H1N1 strain. From the latest tests, "it doesn't look like there are cross-reacting antibodies from seasonal H1N1 to this particular strain," she said.

Commenting on the age distribution of swine flu cases, Schuchat said US patients range from about 7 years to 54 years. In Mexico, "What we know so far is that many of the patients are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but we're still lining up information about which have an illness actually caused by this virus." Tests have shown that some of the sick people in Mexico actually had a seasonal flu virus, she said.

Though it appears there have been few if any swine flu cases in older people, "It's really too soon for us to conclude that older persons are spared," Schuchat said.

International developments
Elsewhere, two Canadian provinces today reported a total of 6 confirmed swine flu cases, according to reports from Canwest News Service and Reuters. Nova Scotia health officials said that 2 of its 4 confirmed cases were students attending the same private school who recently visited Mexico. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, said the patients' illnesses were mild.

In British Columbia, a spokesman for the province's Centre for Disease Control told Reuters today that officials have confirmed 2 cases.

Israel's health ministry today reported its first swine flu case, in a man who had recently traveled to Mexico and returned with influenza symptoms, Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported. He is hospitalized and is in isolation, the report said.

According to media reports, health authorities in several countries, including France, Spain, and New Zealand, are testing several travelers who reported flu-like symptoms after traveling to Mexico.

Mexican officials have closed schools through May 6, though many schools were closed anyway during the lead-up to the Cinco de Mayo holiday. The US Embassy in Mexico City has suspended all visa and nonessential citizen services from Apr 27 until Apr 30 as a precautionary measure to protect clients and staff, according to an Apr 25 State Department warden message. "

My favorite resources include CIDRAP, PROMED and of course the CDC.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Drones Bombs and Immoral Slaughter

More and more the use of Drone aircraft has become a tool of the U.S. military and the political establishment that serves it. In Pakistan and Afghanistan these are now somehow seen as "humanitarian weapons" that reduce the loss of U.S. servicemen and supposedly civilians as well. In fact they follow an almost 100 year history of aerial war on civilians that has been justified from the outset as a better way of war that in reality seems to be more and more dehumanized.

As Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young in their book "Bombing Civlians" point out:

"The ability to destroy an entire city and annihilate its population in a single bombing campaign was not only far more effcient and less costly for the attacker than previous methods of warfare; it also sanitized slaughter.The bombardier never looks squarely into the eyes of the victim, never even sees the victim. The act of destruction has no physical immeadiacy for the perpetrator, as in decapitation by sword or even shooting with a machine gun. This may be particularly important when the principal targets are women, children, and the elderly."

gives a particularly chilling account of drones and their possible future:

"To those who know their air power history, that shouldn't be so surprising. Air power has had a remarkably stellar record when it comes to causing death and destruction, but a remarkably poor one when it comes to breaking the will of nations, peoples, or even modest-sized organizations. Our drone wars are destructive, but they are unlikely to achieve Washington's goals.

The Future Awaits Us

If you want to read the single most chilling line yet uttered about drone warfare American-style, it comes at the end of Christopher Drew's piece. He quotes Brookings Institution analyst Peter Singer saying of our Predators and Reapers: "[T]hese systems today are very much Model T Fords. These things will only get more advanced."

In other words, our drone wars are being fought with the airborne equivalent of cars with cranks, but the "race" to the horizon is already underway. By next year, some Reapers will have a far more sophisticated sensor system with 12 cameras capable of filming a two-and-a-half mile round area from 12 different angles. That program has been dubbed "Gorgon Stare", but it doesn't compare to the future 92-camera Argus program whose initial development is being funded by the Pentagon's blue-skies outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Soon enough, a single pilot may be capable of handling not one but perhaps three drones, and drone armaments will undoubtedly grow progressively more powerful and "precise." In the meantime, BAE Systems already has a drone four years into development, the Taranis, that should someday be "completely autonomous"; that is, it theoretically will do without human pilots. Initial trials of a prototype are scheduled for 2010.

By 2020, so claim UAV enthusiasts, drones could be engaging in aerial battle and choosing their victims themselves. As Robert S. Boyd of McClatchy reported recently, "The Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous, or self-governing, armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own. On-board computer programs, not flesh-and-blood people, would decide whether to fire their weapons."

It's a particular sadness of our world that, in Washington, only the military can dream about the future in this way, and then fund the "arms race" of 2018 or 2035. Rest assured that no one with a governmental red cent is researching the health care system of 2018 or 2035, or the public education system of those years.

In the meantime, the skies of our world are filling with round-the-clock assassins. They will only evolve and proliferate. Of course, when we check ourselves out in the movies, we like to identify with John Connor, the human resister, the good guy of this planet, against the evil machines. Elsewhere, however, as we fight our drone wars ever more openly, as we field mechanical techno-terminators with all-seeing eyes and loose our missiles from thousands of miles away ("Hasta la Vista, Baby!"), we undoubtedly look like something other than a nation of John Connors to those living under the Predators. It may not matter if the joysticks and consoles on those advanced machines are somewhat antiquated; to others, we are now the terminators of the planet, implacable machine assassins.

True, we can't send our drones into the past to wipe out the young Ayman al-Zawahiri in Cairo or the teenage Osama bin Laden speeding down some Saudi road in his gray Mercedes sedan. True, the UAV enthusiasts, who are already imagining all-drone wars run by "ethical" machines, may never see anything like their fantasies come to pass. Still, the fact that without the help of a single advanced cyborg we are already in the process of creating a Terminator planet should give us pause for thought... or not. "

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eduard Liminov To Run For Russian Presidency 2012

I'll have to admit I missed the initial message but here it is and it could be as game changing, if not more than, Obama in the U.S. It may seem somewhat retarded now but I think there is a great unrepresented majority that can get behind Liminov if allowed to.

Dead Cats Bouncing

Nouriel Roubini, one of the few to get it, explains the latest stock "bounce":

"Mild signs that the rate of economic contraction is slowing in the United States, China, and other parts of the world have led many economists to forecast that positive growth will return to the US in the second half of the year, and that a similar recovery will occur in other advanced economies. The emerging consensus among economists is that growth next year will be close to the trend rate of 2.5 per cent.

Investors are talking of “green shoots” of recovery and of positive “second derivatives of economic activity” (continuing economic contraction is the first, negative, derivative, but the slower rate suggests that the bottom is near). As a result, stock markets have started to rally in the US and around the world. Markets seem to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the economy and for the battered profits of corporations and financial firms.

This consensus optimism is, I believe, not supported by the facts. Indeed, I expect that while the rate of US contraction will slow from -6 per cent in the last two quarters, US growth will still be negative (around -1.5 to -2 per cent) in the second half of the year (compared to the bullish consensus of +2 per cent). Moreover, growth next year will be so weak (0.5 to 1 per cent, as opposed to the consensus of 2 per cent or more) and unemployment so high (above 10 per cent) that it will still feel like a recession.

In the euro zone and Japan, the outlook for 2009 and 2010 is even worse, with growth close to zero even next year. China will have a more rapid recovery later this year, but growth will reach only 5 per cent this year and 7 per cent in 2010, well below the average of 10 per cent over the last decade.

Given this weak outlook for the major economies, losses by banks and other financial institutions will continue to grow. My latest estimates are $3.6 trillion in losses for loans and securities issued by US institutions, and $1 trillion for the rest of the world.

It is said that the International Monetary Fund, which earlier this year revised upward its estimate of bank losses, from $1 trillion to $2.2 trillion, will announce a new estimate of $3.1 trillion for US assets and $0.9 trillion for foreign assets, figures very close to my own. By this standard, many US and foreign banks are effectively insolvent and will have to be taken over by governments. The credit crunch will last much longer if we keep zombie banks alive despite their massive and continuing losses.

Given this outlook for the real economy and financial institutions, the latest rally in US and global stock markets has to be interpreted as a bear-market rally. Economists usually joke that the stock market has predicted 12 out of the last nine recessions, as markets often fall sharply without an ensuing recession. But, in the last two years, the stock market has predicted six out of the last zero economic recoveries— that is, six bear market rallies that eventually fizzled and led to new lows.

The stock market's latest “dead cat bounce” may last a while longer, but three factors will, in due course, lead it to turn south again. First, macroeconomic indicators will be worse than expected, with growth failing to recover as fast as the consensus expects.

Second, the profits and earnings of corporations and financial institutions will not rebound as fast as the consensus predicts, as weak economic growth, deflationary pressures, and surging defaults on corporate bonds will limit firms’ pricing power and keep profit margins low.

Third, financial shocks will be worse than expected. At some point, investors will realise that bank losses are massive, and that some banks are insolvent. Deleveraging by highly leveraged firms— such as hedge funds— will lead them to sell illiquid assets in illiquid markets. And some emerging market economies— despite massive IMF support— will experience a severe financial crisis with contagious effects on other economies.

So, while this latest bear-market rally may continue for a bit longer, renewed downward pressure on stocks and other risky assets is inevitable.

To be sure, much more aggressive policy action (massive and unconventional monetary easing, larger fiscal-stimulus packages, bailouts of financial firms, individual mortgage-debt relief, and increased financial support for troubled emerging markets) in many countries in the last few months has reduced the risk of a near depression. That outcome seemed highly likely six months ago, when global financial markets nearly collapsed.

Still, this global recession will continue for a longer period than the consensus suggests. There may be light at the end of the tunnel— no depression and financial meltdown. But economic recovery everywhere will be weaker and will take longer than expected. The same is true for a sustained recovery of financial markets.

Nouriel Roubini is Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University, and Chairman of RGE Monitor "

Putin as Talking Kielbasa

Грани-ТВ: Путина колбасит

If you had'nt heard there is a power struggle in Russia and this talking sausage clip shows Vladimir Putin with egg on his face. Wonder who's winning?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Banking Thievery

According to MSM accounts the economy is on the upswing and we should quit worrying about things. There are however voices who have been around for sometime to suggest otherwise, one of my favorites is Elizabeth Warren who has always told it as it is, especially as her current position head of the Congressional Oversight Panel adds a dose of reality lacking in current analysis.
This is reinforced by an article by Mike Whitney in Counterpunch that gives additional insight as seen in the following:

"That question was best answered by the former chief economist of the IMF, Simon Johnson, in an article which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly:

"The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming... is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government - a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF's staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation; recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression we're running out of time." (The Atlantic Monthly, May 2009, by Simon Johnson)

The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Many of their foot soldiers now occupy the highest offices in government. It's up to people like Elizabeth Warren to draw attention to the silent coup that has taken place and do whatever needs to be done to purge the moneylenders from the seat of power and restore representative government. It's a tall order and time is running out."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Climate Change Goes On

I keep running into climate change deniers who seem to feel that climate change is a political problem as opposed to something that involves scientific evidence and continuing evaluation. The latest news is not reassuring to them or anyone else as far as that goes as a hunk of ice the size of Connecticut peels off :

"Images from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors on the Terra and Aqua satellites showed the shattering of the ice bridge between March 31, 2009 and April 6, 2009. The loss of the ice bridge, which was bracing the remaining portions of the Wilkins ice shelf, will now allow a mass of broken ice and icebergs to drift into the Southern Ocean.

Scientists at NSIDC and around the world have been watching the ice bridge since last March, anticipating its collapse. Now that it has broken up, researchers are closely monitoring the remaining portion of the Wilkins Ice Shelf to see if the loss of the ice bridge allows the ice shelf to collapse further.

The Wilkins is following a pattern of instability and rapid collapse that many Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves have experienced in recent years. Scientists think that the dramatic loss of these ice shelves, which have existed for hundreds to thousands of years, is an important sign of climate change in the Southern Hemisphere. The loss of an ice shelf can also allow the glaciers that feed into it to start flowing ice into the ocean at an accelerated rate, contributing to a rise in global sea levels.

The Wilkins Ice Shelf first began to break up in the mid-1990s. Last March, the Wilkins lost another 400 square kilometers (160 square miles) in a rapid retreat, and the ice shelf continued to form new cracks over the winter.

The Wilkins Ice Shelf is located on the southwestern Antarctic Peninsula, the fastest-warming region of the Earth. In the past 50 years, the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by 2.5 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit). In the early 1990s, the Wilkins Ice Shelf had a total area of 17,400 square kilometers (6,700 square miles). Events in 1998 and the early years of this decade reduced that to roughly 13,680 square kilometers (5,280 square miles). In 2008, a series of disintegrations (rapid repeated calvings in which the ice shelf pieces are small enough to topple over) and break-up events (rifting of large sections of the shelf, leading to large tabular iceberg calvings) shrunk the area of stable shelf to roughly 10,300 square kilometers (4,000 square miles), a net loss within a year of approximately 3,600 square kilometers (1,400 square miles)."

Meanwhile at the top of the Earth the disappearance of Arctic ice becomes even more apparent even if weather in your local situation is less than dramatic. And that's the point, this is global climate change, not Wisconsin or Minnesota or Iowa climate change, or around your block change.People can argue about the signifigance of minor points, reality trumps dogma any day.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Engdahl: American Bankers Like Russian 1990's Oligarchs

F. William Engdahl in the above clip from The Real News Network draws parallels between 1990 asset stripping Russian Oligarchs and the largest banks in the U.S. Meanwhile I still can't get over the creepy seperated at birth similarity between Tim Geithner and Eraserhead.

Arms Control, Another Kick At The Cat

I've got issues with the new administration but one thing I can get behind is any serious attempt to reduce nuclear weapons.President Obama meets President Medvedev tomorrow with the possibility of starting to limit world destroying weapons, here are a couple of perspectives, first Pavel Podvig of the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Blog:

"Presidents Medvedev and Obama will meet for the first time on April 1st, on the margins of the G-20 conference in London. One issue that will definitely be on the agenda is a new "legally binding" arms control agreement that is supposed to bring a new round of nuclear weapons reductions. It is too early, of course, for anything that would resemble an actual agreement, but we could probably expect a join statement with some an outline of the new arrangement.

As far as I can tell from various conversations with people in Moscow and elsewhere, we shouldn't expect a breakthrough of any kind. To begin with, the number that we will probably see in the new agreement is 1500 warheads - hardly a radical reduction from the "1700-2200 warheads" level of the Moscow treaty.

Then, to get to the level of 1500 warheads, the United States and Russia will have to come up with some creative accounting. One way to do that would be to accept the "operationally deployed nuclear warheads" count, which is referred to in the Moscow treaty and which the United States used unilaterally since then, but which Russia has never officially accepted. So far, that is - I was told that Russia will be ready to use the U.S. definition in the new treaty.

What about the "upload potential" then? One of the reasons Russia objected to accepting the "operationally deployed nuclear warheads" count was that it allows the United States to implement reductions by simply removing some warheads from missiles and bombers. As far as I understand, no final decision has been made yet in Russia on how to deal with that issue, but one possibility would be to have a separate ceiling on delivery systems - this would probably not limit the "upload potential" in any substantial way, but would allow Russian negotiators to claim that they got the limit on launchers that they wanted. Another possibility that was mentioned is an agreement that would limit the "upload potential" by a certain percentage of "operationally deployed nuclear warheads".

Whatever choice is made, it is hard to see how a limit on "upload potential" would be meaningful without significant changes in the U.S. strategic posture - right now the United States has about 6000 START-accountable warheads and about 2200 "operationally deployed nuclear" warheads. Even with some serious flexibility in counting rules it would be difficult for the United States to bring its forces to the 1500-warheads level (isn't this the good time for the United States to get rid of its ICBMs?).

As far as Russia is concerned, 1500 warheads would be a relatively easy number to achieve (although getting lower would take some tough decisions). Russia might even have an upload potential of its own - there will be a theoretical possibility to MIRV single-warhead Topol-M missiles and to increase the number of warheads on R-29RM Sineva missile to ten. Not that this would make any sense, but at least Russia could claim some parity with the United States.

I was told in no uncertain terms that Russia has made a firm decision not to extend the START treaty. This is very unfortunate - keeping START in force would be the best way of keeping that "upload potential" under control. As far as I can tell, many in Russia believe that they could get a better deal in a new treaty, but I'm sure this is not the case - once the provisions of START treaty are abandoned it would be very difficult to get them back. The issue of "offensive strategic arms" deployed outside of national territories that received a special place in a recent address from the president is an example of how this would work - I was told that the reason it was mentioned was precisely to ensure that this ban, which is part of START, will remain in place after the treaty expires. But I'm not sure that Russia will be able to get that formal commitment again.

Overall, although the "party line" is that the new treaty is expected to be ready by the end of the year, there is quite a bit of skepticism about that. I think this skepticism is justified - I don't see how the two countries could negotiate a meaningful new agreement in the time that's left. Of course, the United States and Russia could always sign a meaningless agreement, which I'm afraid they will most likely end up doing.

I still believe that the idea of having a new agreement is misguided - keeping START treaty in force would be a much better strategy."

The Global Security Newswire has a different perspective:

"The U.S. and Russian presidents plan to sign a statement Wednesday pledging to finish a new nuclear arms control agreement before the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires in December, Reuters reported (see GSN, March 27).
"We will seek to agree on the terms and time frame for working on an agreement to replace the START treaty so that at our next meeting we can reach our first concrete agreements and conclude all of our work by year's end," said Sergei Prikhodko, an aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The two leaders are scheduled to meet for the first time this week on the sidelines of a global economic summit in London.

The existing pact restricts the numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles each nation may deploy, but its limits and detailed verification provisions are set to lapse on Dec. 5. Another agreement, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, has spurred much deeper warhead cuts, but lacks any tools for the two sides to confirm those reductions.

Prikhodko said the Kremlin welcomed new U.S. overtures by President Barack Obama, but recognized that negotiations would not be easy.

"A shared understanding is now taking shape that bilateral relations are getting a second chance that must not be missed. We are confident that London will be an important milestone along that path," he said. However, "we fully understand the differences that divide us and harbor no illusions that they will be easily overcome" (Shuster/Shchedrov, Reuters, March 28).

One potentially large area of disagreement is whether Obama plans to continue a Bush administration initiative to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Europe. The plan has riled Russian officials, and Obama has not yet offered his opinion. He has, however, written to Medvedev suggesting that Russian help in curbing Iran's nuclear activities could reduce the rationale for the missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Medvedev, however, appeared to rule out such a deal.

"I don't think you can just trade one thing for another; this is not serious talk," he said in a BBC interview aired yesterday.

He said a cooperative defense would be a better solution to protect against emerging missile threats.

"This should be done through common efforts rather than by deploying any missiles or radars along our borders which give rise to real doubt arises as to what lies behind all this? Is it done to make us nervous or in order to really prevent some threats?" Medvedev said (BBC News, March 29)."

At this point any dialogue is better than none. Given the American/World economic situation world wide reduction in military budgets would be a welcome relief to a world that needs health care,food,and education. Americans in particular need to ask themselves how much military spending is necessary to make them secure especially when the combined military spending of Russia and China is perhaps 20-30%(and I think I'm being generous with these numbers) of American spending.