If an Ebola vaccine were as profitable as erection pills, we’d already have one

The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa is easily the deadliest outbreak in the disease’s known* history, having infected a suspected 1323 people and having killed 729 of them. Since it began in Guinea in February, this outbreak has caused Liberia to close its borders, caused Nigeria to begin screening passengers on incoming flights, caused Sierra Leone to declare a national state of emergency, and caused the Peace Corps to pull its volunteers out of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The Centers for Disease Control issued its highest-level travel warning (level 3: “avoid nonessential travel”) for West Africa.

The good news, though unfortunately not for the people who are being infected right now, is that there’s movement on the path toward an Ebola vaccine. The NIH is supposed to begin a trial in September of something that has proven effective in non-human primate trials, and if it’s successful it could be distributed beginning in 2015, initially to health workers who are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. There are a few other potential treatments/vaccines in the pipeline as well. But buried in that piece on the NIH trial is what really ought to be the final word on the for-profit healthcare industry: Continue reading

The new Caliphate is really outstripping the old one

Depending on how you count this kind of thing, the OG caliphate kicked off either in 632, when Muhammad died, or in 750, when the Abbasid dynasty took the office from its previous owners, the Umayyads. But it wasn’t until 909, when the Shiʿa Fatimid dynasty declared its own caliphate in the city of Qayrawan (in modern Tunisia), that you had some real, honest-to-goodness capitalist caliphal competition. Then in 929 a descendent of the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty declared that he was the caliph, in Cordoba (where the last Umayyads had fled in 750 and established an emirate), and the marketplace really started to go to work. Although since the caliphates occupied mutually exclusive empires, I guess they were really more like competing cable companies with their own local monopolies. And just like what happens when cable companies compete today, nobody won and pretty much everybody lost. But I digress.

What’s really exciting if you’re a fan of repeating history on fast-forward, or maybe if you’re just really not a big fan of Caliph Ibrahim and his Islamic State, is that while it took the old school caliphs somewhere between 250-300 years before they had a serious competitor, it took IS all of about a month, tops. Apparently on July 13, Al-Qaeda (the main operation, not one of their franchisees) released an old video of our good friend Osama bin Laden, in which the dear departed Osama described how he gave his bayat to our other good friend Mullah Omar of the Taliban, and in which he commands other Muslims to do likewise. This is very interesting, since the bayat is the oath of allegiance that all Muslims were traditionally expected to give to the rightful caliph, and also because Bin Laden refers to Omar as amir al-muʾminin, or “Commander of the Faithful,” which was one of the caliph’s regal titles after having been adopted by the second caliph, Umar. He even dismisses concerns that Mullah Omar’s Pashtun heritage might make him ineligible for the job (one of Caliph Ibrahim/al-Baghdadi’s claims is that he is descended from the same tribe (the Quraysh) that produced Muhammad).

The other reason that this is all so interesting is that it doesn’t correspond in any way with actual events. Does anybody remember Mullah Omar claiming to be the leader of all Muslims on the planet? Does anybody remember Bin Laden ever pushing a claim like that? Was there any evidence that the Taliban had any control over what Al-Qaeda was doing back then? Not really, and in fact there’s some evidence that the two groups had, at least a times, a rather tense relationship with one another. Mullah Omar did call himself “Commander of the Faithful,” but of Afghanistan (one of the features of the breakdown of the historical caliphate was that every petty Islamic king and prince suddenly started calling himself “caliph,” just because), not the entire Islamic world. Yet apparently something was going on with respect to Mullah Omar and grandiose claims to power, because here’s this video that Al-Qaeda could conveniently release to discredit Baghdadi. It’s particularly useful in that regard because it suggests that it’s Baghdadi who’s the Johnny-come-lately to the caliphate, and that this isn’t some hastily slapped together Al-Qaeda response to IS’s June declaration.

Unfortunately for all of these guys, another difference between their caliphates and the traditional batch of caliphates is that people, you know, actually believed in the legitimacy of the old caliphates. These guys? Not so much.

At what point are we allowed to ask if it’s deliberate?

I mean, there’s kind of a pattern emerging:

The United Nations and the White House on Wednesday condemned the shelling of a United Nations school in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip overnight, which killed 16 people.

The United Nations Work and Relief Agency, which runs the Abu Haseen school, issued a condemnation earlier, saying that the school was attacked three times, despite that its exact location in a heavily populated residential area was clarified to the IDF on number of occasions.

John Ging, the director of UN humanitarian operations, said it was the fifth attack on a United Nations school sheltering civilians since fighting between Israel and Hamas began on July 8.

But if you’re worried that it’s just UN shelters being targeted, let me ease your mind:

It may have been a tragic case of confusion.

The Israel Defense Forces declared a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire on Wednesday. But the army said it did not apply where soldiers were already engaged and that residents who had evacuated should not return to those areas.

According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, at least 17 Palestinians were killed and around 200 more were wounded when shells hit a street market in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, “which residents thought was temporarily safe but which the Israelis considered part of an active combat zone,” The New York Times reports.

It would be much easier for Israel to make the argument that it sanctifies life if it would stop lobbing shells onto known civilian targets so often.

If you wouldn’t cite it in a term paper, don’t copy from it for pay

I think Wikipedia is great. I could spend all day traipsing through obscure entries learning about this or that. It’s even useful, say when you’re writing about history as I tend to do here from time to time, in a couple of ways. For one thing, it’s a great source for images and maps that are free-license or fair use. But there’s more. Really well-sourced Wikipedia articles (presumably the more obscure the topic, the less likely people are making deliberately false edits on it) can point you to some article or book you might have missed or forgotten about, and can catch you if you’ve glossed over or forgotten about an important point or missed a major train of scholarly thought on a controversial topic. But the point is that you then go read those articles for yourself or research those bits of history or controversy for yourself. Wikipedia is also helpful when you want to drop in a link to an event, a war for example, and not just a particular aspect of that event. If I have a point that would be boosted by a link to something on “The Crimean War,” linking to the Wikipedia entry (assuming the point I’m trying to make is in there somewhere) is just as useful in my view as hunting the internet for a different general history of the Crimean War.

Anyway, that’s what I do here at this friendly blog, which it may surprise you to learn does not actually earn me any money. What I don’t do is verbatim copy from Wikipedia, or rely on it to the exclusion of any other source or my own knowledge. If I can’t contribute anything to a topic that I didn’t learn from Wikipedia, why would I go to the trouble of writing a piece as opposed to just saying “hey, go check out this cool thing I found on Wikipedia”? And, again, that’s my policy when I’m writing for what amounts to my own amusement.

So what the hell is going on when you’ve got everybody from real-deal New York Times reporters to mostly silly Buzzfeed listicle compilers just copying stuff from Wikipedia? Continue reading

Turkey’s being a little weird…

Exhibit A: Tayyip Erdoğan would appreciate it if Turkey’s Jewish citizens would denounce Israel’s offensive in Gaza, but promises that they will be safe even if they don’t do it. Well, that’s very generous of hi–HOLY CRAP DID HE REALLY SAY THAT?

“Jews in Turkey are our citizens. We are responsible for their security of life and property,” Erdogan told the Daily Sabah.

He added: “I talked with our Jewish citizens’ leaders on Thursday and I stated that they should adopt a firm stance and release a statement against the Israeli government. I will contact them [Jewish leaders in Turkey] again, but whether or not they release a statement, we will never let Jewish people in Turkey get hurt.”

So apparently the prime minister of Turkey, its likely future president, is John Gotti.

“Hey, I have a favor to ask, but I want you to know that nobody’s gonna hurt you even if you won’t do this favor for me, capisce?”

“Um, OK. Who was planning to hurt me?”

“Nobody, that’s for sure. And you can rest assured that they won’t be able to hurt you even though you’ve turned your back on me, your close personal friend, by refusing to do this thing that I’ve asked of you, which is very important to me but I want to assure you that not doing it won’t put you at any risk. God bless.”

Exhibit B: Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç explains the problem with society these days, and I think we can all agree with him that it’s…women who laugh in public:

During a speech on Monday, Arınç said that, among other activities, women should not laugh in public if they are to adhere to proper social mores. The speech was given on Eid al-Fitr, the official end to the month-long Islamic celebration of Ramadan. In his speech, Arınç outlined his ideas of morality saying:

Chastity is so important. It is not only a name. It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chasteness. Man will have it, too. He will not be a womanizer. He will be bound to his wife. He will love his children. [The woman] will know what is haram and not haram. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.

Distressingly, Arınç failed to promise that women who inadvertently let a chuckle slip out in public will be protected by their government regardless.

Barrel bomb developments in Iraq and Syria

There’s some interesting news out of Syria, where it seems some rebel faction (Lebanon’s Daily Star says it includes elements of the Nusra Front, which presumably rules out Islamic State participation, but doesn’t say anything beyond that) has just captured a checkpoint about 9 km outside of Hama. So what, you ask? Or maybe you don’t, I shouldn’t assume. Anyway, Hama is a city of about 300,000 (pre-war) that sits just north of Homs in the center of Syria’s eastern corridor (the heavily populated strip running from Damascus in the south to the Mediterranean coast and border with Turkey in the north. What makes Hama important is its military airport, from which Assad’s forces fly a considerable number of sorties, particularly helicopter sorties. At this point, unless it’s responding to a direct assault by IS or the other rebels, a “helicopter sortie” in Syria pretty much means a barrel bomb strike.

Now, the rebels have almost no chance of actually taking Hama from Assad, particularly not because he’ll fight tooth and nail to hold on to that airport. But the longer they can set up that close (9 km away) to it, the higher the likelihood that they can arrange some kind of attack on the airport that puts a serious crimp in the air campaign and the barrel bomb attacks. It may not amount to much more than an inconvenience, but it’s something. The other thing this advance may accomplish is causing Assad to divert forces away from his offensive against Aleppo, which he’d love to take but which is a lower priority for him than maintaining Hama’s airport.

Meanwhile, the increasingly lame-duck Maliki government has apparently decided to follow Assad’s lead and start dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas (specifically Fallujah) under Islamic State’s control, according to Human Rights Watch. Barrel bombs are a weapon of intimidation and collective punishment. They have no value against enemy fighters but are great at striking big crowds of civilians who you might want to punish for supporting (or allegedly supporting) those fighters. That kind of thing is called a “war crime” nowadays. Assad uses them for the same purpose, but he pretends that he has no choice but to manufacture such crude weapons because his government is under arms sales embargoes. Everybody knows that this is bullshit, but at least it’s a pretense at a justification.

Maliki, who is getting weapons from the US, Iran, Russia, basically everybody, doesn’t even have Assad’s lame excuse for using these things. He’s just availing himself of the opportunity to wipe out some uncooperative civilians (remember that Fallujah was in rebellion well before IS got there). The fact that these kinds of tactics will only further inhibit any chance of reconciliation if and when IS is finally beaten doesn’t seem to matter.