Saturday, December 10, 2011

Avastin: The Pursuit of Last False Hopes, Extinguished (by Skylanda)

In the past month, the Food and Drug Administration yanked its formal stamp of approval on Avastin – a chemotherapy drug designed to starve tumors of their blood supply – for the advanced stages of breast cancer. Because the drug still carries approval for other indications (especially late-stage colon cancer), patients can still obtain the drug by prescription for off-label use. But because it will lack formal indications for breast cancer, insurers are highly unlikely to continue paying for it. And at an estimated $100,000 per year for sustained use, Avastin is one of the most expensive drugs ever to hit the pharmaceutical market; it is very unlikely that few if any breast cancer patients will be paying for it on their own.

The outcry was immediate and predictable. Breast cancer advocates of some stripes decried the decision as a crime against women’s health – a travesty against hope. The opposition notes that the costs come with desperately little proven benefit, and that the drain on health care resource might go to uses that better suit both breast cancer patients and others who desperately need a slice of the health care pie. (A notably contrary voice in the debate has been the always-stalwart Breast Cancer Action, which applauded the FDA for revoking approval of Avastin, and implored the FDA to “uphold stringent drug approval standards over hasty access without legitimate clinical benefit”). Either way, one can bet the FDA did not tackle this bombshell topic lightly.

On the technical side, the FDA’s role is to protect and promote health, and they may be doing just that by revoking this specific indication for Avastin: in defense of women’s health, the risks of Avastin – risks like heart failure, internal hemorrhage, and intestinal perforation – come with little to no extension of life in the face of metastatic disease.

On the political side, the enemy of Avastin access is not necessarily the FDA: the FDA did not remove access to Avastin – the functional result of the decision was simply that Avastin will likely not be paid for by insurance because it no longer has an official indication for breast cancer specifically. (Off-label prescribing is allowed for most medications on the market with some rare exceptions – as long as a medications is FDA-approved, doctors can prescribe it for just about any indication, though insurance is less likely to cover expensive medications for unapproved uses.) If the medication were reasonably priced, this would not be an issue; instead, continuous use of the medication costs more than a mortgage on a split-level two-car garage house in most midwestern cities. But there is little outcry against Roche/Genentech, the makers of the drug, for their outrageous price gouging – an implicit collusion between the activist voice and the profit-makers that suspiciously mimics the dynamic between a hostage-taker and the sufferer of an obtuse form of Stockholm syndrome. While breast cancer activism has largely aimed its wrath at the FDA, few outside of Breast Cancer Action have squared off against Roche/Genentech for their rapacious pricing scheme that truly forms the barrier between patients and last-ditch use of the drug.

Avastin is not the first or last drug to land in the middle of such controversy over end-of-life access to drugs with potentially sweeping effects on both disease and remaining normal tissue. The compassionate use movement did not start with antiretroviral drugs – the revolutionary compounds developed in the early 1990s to combat AIDS – but that’s where the move to expedite trials and allow dying adults the right to off-label use outside of regulated trials got a foothold. And perhaps rightly so: during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, the rapid mortality rate far outstripped the ability of formal trials to absorb the number of people who could benefit from them – people who had nothing at all to lose. There is likely no way now to know for sure now, but some AIDS patients probably died faster from unproven and ultimately harmful experimental drugs. Some got the miracles they sought, miracles that are now go by routine names like nevirapine and abacavir, Combivir and Kaletra. This is the legacy that Avastin was born into when it was approved in 2004, and this is the environment that Roche/Genentech banks on when it faces down the FDA with a cadre of its own medico-legal experts backed by an army of breast cancer patients and family girded to fight the battle for a drug that annual nets the pharmaceutical conglomerate some several billion dollars – a sum that will take a large hit in the wake of the FDA’s recent decision. (Bizarrely, one line of this activism invokes a strain of libertarian reasoning that is equally circular as it is paranoid: that Avastin’s revocation by the FDA as a secret victory for ObamaCare socialist cost-control measures – in the same sentence decrying that Medicare will no longer cover the drug without FDA coverage, without ever wondering why Avastin costs so damn much in the first place. Government hands off my Medicare? Indeed.)

So to answer to the real root of whether Avastin should be available to women with stage-four breast cancer – whether the FDA was acting in the best interest of women at large and women with this horrific disease in particular – one also must now ask some tough questions beyond evidence and cost-effectiveness: Is it enough to rely on the internal narrative of the breast cancer patient – the first-person ethnographic voice that drives much of activism in the internet age – when this narrative may conflict openly with medical evidence? Can we rely on patient self-advocacy, when that patient self-advocacy movement had been so intentionally and powerfully tainted by the pharmaceutical manufacturers whose profits rely on the very lucrative and politically powerful business of breast cancer activism?

Every terminally ill person dreams of this age of miracles that AIDS sufferers received in the 1990s – a last-minute Lazarus reprieve that stays the executioner’s bell of their disease. Every pharmaceutical company knows this, and none have shown any moral restraint in invoking this sentiment and this desperation to their advantage, while twisting the knife of a substantial price tag into the backs of sick and dying consumers. As profit-generating entities, this is, after all, their raison d’etre. Pharmaceutical companies are like your distant acquaintance that shows up with supper when you’re sick, only to seduce your husband behind your back: they appear with cheery illusions of comfort. But they are not your friend.

Reasonable solutions are possible, but are unlikely to be invoked. Roche/Genentech could provide the few breast cancer patients who have actually responded to Avastin with supplies of the drug at cost – a true invocation of the phrase “compassionate use” – until this generation of patients fades out; with over a billion dollars a year in profits, this isn’t an unreasonable request. Insurers could also look at these few with some exception in mind. Moreover, research needs to be done (and probably already is) to understand and ultimately predict those exceptional Avastin responders – much as we understand why some breast cancers respond to tamoxifen and Herceptin, and others do not – and tailor chemotherapy regimens specifically for use specifically for people most likely to benefit from Avastin.

Until then, however, the FDA decision stands. Will the decision ultimately save or harm the lives of women with end-stage breast cancer? That remains to be seen.

Cross-posted from my newly relocated and relaunched blog, America, Love it or Heal It.

Friday, December 09, 2011

On Cleaning

I'm cleaning house. This is an important announcement, because I haven't got to it very much in the recent months.

My biggest cleaning problem is that I like to clean seams in appliances with a toothpick when I get going and seriously think about unscrewing the plates around light switches so that I could clean behind them, so nothing ever gets finished to my satisfaction. Or rather the Snakepit Inc. is on a pendulum between two cleaning extremities.

Speaking of cleaning, why isn't ease of cleaning a design requirement? Or if it is, who lets through all those non-cleanable gadgets? In my bitter moments I think this is caused by the gadget designers never having cleaned anything at all, not even their own ears. Because they can't hear the complaints.

Or are people not complaining? We should be.

Today's Cartoon

Via Erin PDX, can be found here.

Brush Me Pretty, Please

This is a fun site. It lets you toggle between a picture as it was initially taken and the airbrushed version which probably was used for publication. What percentage of all published photos are airbrushed? Does anyone know?

Perhaps we will know in the future:
Two Dartmouth computer scientists, though, created a program that can test how much a picture has been photoshopped. Their program accurately predicts how much humans think an image has been altered from its original. And for those of us who are still not aware how pervasive airbrushing is — and how drastic the changes can be — they included a nifty and mesmerizing tool that allows you to toggle between the original and final versions of pictures of celebrities and stock photos. It’s pretty shocking how much they all change.
This program has some real potential: imagine if advertisers and magazine photographers had to label every photoshopped image with its score. That would not only curb the excesses of airbrushing, but would show how unrealistic modern advertisements are — people could see just how many changes a typical image undergoes.

I have written about airbrushing before, given that one of its major uses is to make female fashion models and celebrities look slimmer and smoother. That creates, over time, the impression that unachievable perfection is actually not unachievable, but quite common, and that you, poor thing, are the only one with wrinkles or zits or fat or whatever.

The health concerns of airbrushing are mostly about eating disorders. From that point of view this is noteworthy: The Swedish fashion giant, H&M, now uses computer generated standard bodies for its models, with only the heads being interchangeable. And the skin color. That standard body is this:

The body stays constant, diversity is an add-on feature. The company spokesperson stated that the computer-generated body gives them one standard body to show the clothes on. Which is true. But why that particular body?

It is not a common shape, statistically speaking, and that is where the fear of eating disorders rears its ugly head. If a very slim body is presented as the common type in fashion magazines and on clothing websites, how do we tell young girls that other body shapes are, in fact, more common and equally acceptable? That they might be healthier for your particular frame and genetics?

I don't think the perception of what is desirable in women's bodies is just a problem among young girls, say. It's a societal judgment, these days. If you travel on the net as much as I do you will find this to be true. Just read the comments attached to any YouTube song by Adele, say.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

More on Newt Gingrich And The Forced Birthers

He forgot to obey the wingnut definitions in the context of abortion but swiftly changed his mind. Good boy, Newtie, good boy! Have another wife.

Here's the summary:
Newt Gingrich has moved quickly to repair any potential fallout from his remarks last Friday to ABC's Jake Tapper in which he said that life begins at the "successful implantation" of a fertilized egg, rather than at conception. 
That is heresy to the pro-life movement, and had the potential to complicate Gingrich's rise in the Republican presidential polls, especially in crucial states like Iowa and South Carolina, whose early caucuses and primary are dominated by conservative Christian voters. 
"As I have stated many times throughout the course of my public life, I believe that human life begins at conception," Gingrich said in a statement posted Saturday on his campaign's website and sent to Joshua Mercer at, a conservative political site that had first called attention to -- and sharply criticized -- Gingrich's statement.
Too bad Newt is not a woman. Then he could walk his talk. For instance, if he happened to get a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, he could just let himself die rather than have the fertilized egg removed. But even as a man he could start a giant movement to have all those frozen fertilized eggs in fertility clinics implanted in forced birthers.

So the viper tongue part of me got the upper hand this morning. It happens, my friends. After too much stupidity in my reading menu.

This Is Neat

Millionaires saying: "Tax me!" And they are not masochists.

Added later: But some of the comments are utterly hilarious. A few wingnuts there don't seem to have a functioning brain at all. One commenter threatened anyone coming after his/her money (less than 50,000 dollars a year) for more taxes.

Given that the video is about millionaires, getting that interpretation from it is extremely odd. But probably a consequence of the non-stop Fox propaganda which aims to make the less well-off think of themselves as the well-off.

Laura Nyro

Was finally inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! I'm happy. But not everyone is:
With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you just never really know.
Even when an induction seems like a sure thing it isn't, and maybe that's why the honor perennially raises more questions than it answers with its list of inductees.
The 2012 inductees, announced yesterday, are no different.
Would anyone have expected '60s singer-songwriter Laura Nyro to have garnered more support from the Hall's voters than Joan Jett or Heart -- who were also on the nomination short list?

On the other hand, others get the reason why I find her a genius:
The late Nyro had only three minor hit singles, the biggest being her cover of "Up On The Roof," which reached No. 92 in 1970. But her own compositions yielded classic pop hits for the likes of Barbra Streisand ("Stoney End"), Blood Sweat and Tears ("And When I Die"), The 5th Dimension ("Wedding Bell Blues," "Blowin' Away," "Stoned Soul Picnic," and "Sweet Blindness") and Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming").
Still, Nyro would likely have been overlooked as a faceless songwriter had she not also evolved into a true album artist, pioneering a mix of jazz and r&b influences and singing in a gutwrenching voice that likewise mixed gospel and the street. There was nothing like her before or after, and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's nominating committee and voters are to be commended for recognizing and honoring her enormous gifts and influence.
In a weird way, being too much of a cat who walks alone can hamstring you. It opens up arguments that Nyro doesn't fit into a narrowly defined hall of fame because her talent went all over the place.

As to that Joan Jett argument: Laura Nyro died over ten years ago, and I see her induction as overdue. Yes, it's bad that letting her in leaves other deserving candidates out. But last year Nyro was nominated and didn't get inducted, which is Jett's situation this year.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Sexist rant from Alec Baldwin (by Suzie)

After American Airlines kicked Alec Baldwin off a flight Tuesday, he tweeted that the company was one "where Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950's find jobs as flight attendants." In a Huffington Post column, he bemoaned the lack of elegance in air travel post-9/11.

I'm guessing he doesn't like older women who won't put up with his nonsense. Sue Sylvester needs to kick his butt. In addition to the comment being sexist and ageist, it's also anti-union. Gone are the elegant days when airlines could fire flight attendants for being too old. (I've written before about Baldwin's sexism.)

The airline's Facebook page has this account:
Since an extremely vocal customer has publicly identified himself as being removed from an American Airlines flight on Tuesday, Dec. 6, we have elected to provide the actual facts of the matter as well as the FAA regulations which American, and all airlines, must enforce. Cell phones and electronic devices are allowed to be used while the aircraft is at the gate and the door is open for boarding. When the door is closed for departure and the seat belt light is turned on, all cell phones and electronic devices must be turned off for taxi-out and take-off. This passenger declined to turn off his cell phone when asked to do so at the appropriate time. The passenger ultimately stood up (with the seat belt light still on for departure) and took his phone into the plane’s lavatory. He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked. They immediately contacted the cabin crew to check on the situation. The passenger was extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language. Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding.
Apparently, most of his wrath was directed at a flight attendant in first class. I'm betting his rude and offensive language included sexist slurs. He's lucky that he's just a misogynist. If he had used religious or racial slurs, he might actually face some consequences.

Plan B Stays Prescription Only For Young Teenagers

Via Rheality Check, I hear about this:
For the first time ever, the Health and Human Services secretary publicly overruled the Food and Drug Administration, refusing Wednesday to allow emergency contraceptives to be sold over the counter, including to young teenagers. The decision avoided what could have been a bruising political battle over parental control and contraception during a presidential election season.
The contraceptive pill, called Plan B One-Step, has been available without a prescription to women 17 and older, but those 16 and younger have needed a prescription — and they still will because of the decision by the health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. If taken soon after unprotected sex, the pill halves the chances of a pregnancy.
Although Ms. Sebelius had the legal authority to overrule the F.D.A., no health secretary had ever publicly done so, an F.D.A. spokeswoman said. Nor had such a disagreement been the subject of such extraordinary dueling press statements. Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the F.D.A.’s commissioner, issued a lengthy statement saying it was safe to sell Plan B over the counter, while Ms. Sebelius countered that the drug’s manufacturer had failed to study whether girls as young as 11 years old could safely use Plan B.
"Whether girls as young as 11 years old could safely use Plan B?" Are we then going to study whether girls as young as 11 years old can safely get pregnant, bring the pregnancy to term and deliver a child?

I understand what Sebelius is saying, though the quoted article points out that some drugs currently available over-the-counter are quite harmful to children and nobody has tried to turn them into prescription-only. I also understand that Plan B might in theory be worse for very young girls than a surgical abortion. I understand all those considerations and could write about them.

But because this whole thing is about politics the only proper way to discuss it is also a political one. Hence the importance of these sentences in the above quote:
For the first time ever, the Health and Human Services secretary publicly overruled the Food and Drug Administration, refusing Wednesday to allow emergency contraceptives to be sold over the counter, including to young teenagers. The decision avoided what could have been a bruising political battle over parental control and contraception during a presidential election season.
And this is what we should be thinking about! The first time EVER the Health and Human Services secretary publicly overruled the FDA! And it was about the question whether girls even have reproductive rights. Similar arguments have dominated the airwaves when it came to vaccinating young girls against the human papilloma virus.

All this is grounds for a bruising political battle which Obama wants to avoid. Making Sebelius do the overruling allows him to stay above the political fights in the place he prefers to be.

Today's Shallow Thought: Austerity for Some, Xmas Bonuses and Golden Parachutes for Others

That's a short summary of the obvious difficulties in promoting an austerity policy all over the world when one sees the promoters step out of limousines in their $5000 tailored suits and better haircuts than I have!

If we really mean to promote austerity, we should bring everyone down to that level. That means gigantic drops for the wealthy one percent. Austerity for so many others is already the wolf knocking on the door at the end of each month when they paycheck has been spent. Even for many nominally in the middle classes.

Here's my Christmas suggestion: I want to hear all the powers that be tell us in public what they are giving up for this austerity lent. Their private airplanes? Weekly pedicures? Third homes in Aspen?

This is a shallow thought but it is based on real outrage, the kind that burns cold and pure inside my warped mind. If you are telling other people that they have been but naughty children and must now suffer (whether they did anything wrong or not), the least you can do is to show the way to that land of suffering by your own behavior.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

What Are Taxes Good For? The Case of User Fees in Fire Fighting.

Who needs public services funded by taxes? Let's see:
A Tennessee couple helplessly watched their home burn to the ground, along with all of their possessions, because they did not pay a $75 annual fee to the local fire department.

Vicky Bell told the NBC affiliate WPSD-TV that she called 911 when her mobile home in Obion County caught fire. Firefighters arrived on the scene but as the fire raged, they simply stood by and did nothing.


South Fulton Mayor David Crocker defended the fire department, saying that if firefighters responded to non-subscribers, no one would have an incentive to pay the fee. Residents in the city of South Fulton receive the service automatically, but it is not extended to those living in the greater county-wide area.
So it goes. The markets won't provide if you don't pay for the service. The reason the firefighters came at all is probably to be ready to stop the fire from spreading to those properties whose owners had paid the extra fee.

The market alternative (which the local government was using here outside the city limits) has its drawbacks. The most obvious one is that it increases the likelihood of larger fire damages for everyone.

Suppose that you pay for the firefighting services but neither your left-hand or right-hand neighbor does nor do the people living in the house behind yours. In theory, all those three houses could be on fire and the firefighters would wait and see if they need to protect your house. By the time the fire crosses your property line it might be crossing from three directions.

At the same time, the quoted argument about the necessity of not fighting the fire if the owners didn't pay the fees is a valid one. If you get the service without paying for it, why pay at all?

Hence the superiority of tax-funded services in cases like this one. Because taxes are obligatory.

This story reminded me of a historical incident I read about. One community in Finland, several centuries ago, created an early fire fighting unit by promising to pay certain farmers a fee, collected from the community, for each fire they put down. This progressive idea ran into some problems the next time harvests failed, because one group of farmers had a second potential source of income. So many farms suddenly lost barns to inexplicable fires.

What these two stories share is the importance of incentives and the lesson that some things really are better funded using non-market alternatives. In the case of fire fighting that means either tax funding of permanent employees or the use of volunteer fire fighters.

Head: Meet Desk. Desk: Meet Head

Would banging your head really hard against your desk change your basic beliefs?

Because logical arguments, careful data and sophisticated writing don't seem to do that in cases where the beliefs come from that murky back brain, perhaps created by a frightening incident in early childhood.

This is about political arguments, naturally, given that I'm writing a political blog, and it is that blog and my general journeys debating all over the Internet that have taught me how sticky basic beliefs are, how often the argument starts from the conclusions and then works backwards.

I'm not exempt from that. But I swear to you that I visit my basic beliefs (carefully opening the cage door and tossing some bloody meat in first) to interrogate their honesty, truthfulness and overall sobriety.

The feminist example of this has to do with the basic beliefs of some innatists: that women are naturally suited to coyness, inability to understand numbers and a desire to marry monogamously for money, whereas men are naturally suited to spraying their sperm around indiscriminately, while carelessly tossing off fundamental theories about the nature of the universe, and then going home to multiple nubile Barbie wives.

If one set of arguments doesn't support the conclusions, another set of data will be created but the conclusions will not change. We are now several such spirals down the road when it comes to gender roles. It's a fun exercise to see all this worked out from the early 1970s to the present day. The conclusions do not change; only the arguments about how to reach them do, and always in the sense that new arguments will be created to reach the unchanging conclusion.

I can create similar examples from other topics in politics. The belief in the essential evil of governments is one I see clearly because I do not share it. Or at least I do not share the parallel belief which usually goes with it: that markets are sunny grandmothers who treat us all with great justice.

Given the essentially non-logical nature of so many basic beliefs, how do we debate them? Are we limited in this to only those whose basic beliefs are yet unformed on a particular topic?

What President Gingrich Would Do For Women

What do you think?:

Pay special attention to his use of the term "males" for men. I have found it fairly often to be MRA code for "men." After all, the term "male" refers to all male animals, not just human males. To use it in this context seems highly correlated with the assumption that gender differences are all biological, that traditional gender roles are unavoidable and so on.

In any case, Newt is not worried about women earning less, not at all. From his past:
A January 19, 1995, New York Times article reported on concerns about women in military combat roles that Gingrich had raised while teaching a history course at Georgia's Reinhardt College. The Times reported that Gingrich told his students that "females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections, and they don't have upper body strength," and added that men "are basically little piglets; you drop them in a ditch, they roll around in it."

Gingrich reportedly further said that if being in combat "means being on an Aegis class cruiser managing the computer controls for 12 ships and their rockets, a female again may be dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes."


Monday, December 05, 2011

A PR strategy for fighting rape accusations (by Suzie)

Accused rapist and men's rights activist Julian Assange got permission today to delay justice longer. (Please stay with me -- the issue is broader than Assange.)

Two high-court judges in London, who ruled earlier that he should be sent to Sweden, will let him raise an issue with Britain's Supreme Court. Assange contends that police and prosecutors should not be allowed to issue European arrest warrants. The judges disagreed, but said they felt "constrained" to let him proceed. Why? Perhaps because he has rich and powerful backers.

Wired reports:
Assange has 14 days to submit a written petition to the Supreme Court. If the court refuses to hear his appeal, he has no more avenue for redress and will be extradited to Sweden. If he is granted an appeal hearing, that appeal will likely take place at the Supreme Court around May next year.
The longer he fights, the longer his two accusers live in limbo. Of course, they are not the only women who have accused a man of sexual assault, only to have hatred heaped on them while they wait for justice. Assange and his outraged fanboys have smeared them, and details of their private lives have been published on the Internet. They have kept a low profile, in part, I'm guessing, for their own safety.

He has crowdsourced witness intimidation.

I have seen no evidence that any media in the U.S. or U.K. has tried to interview them or their attorney, with the exception of a few sentences from the lawyer now and then. Instead, Assange and his global team of lawyers frame the case in their own way. In fact, he has just hired a PR firm in Sweden to handle the media there.

In Sweden, his case will be a test of men's rights to women's bodies, as in the frat-boy chant of "no means yes, yes means anal." His lawyers have argued that, if a woman agrees to sex with a condom, it isn't a crime if the man has unprotected sex with her without her consent. His lawyers also have said it's no crime for a man to use physical force to try to penetrate a woman if she quits struggling and goes along with it. British courts have disagreed.

Earlier, one of his former British attorneys said Assange wasn't wanted for rape, but rather "sex by surprise," a minor charge found nowhere but Sweden. That wasn't true, but it did plenty of damage. Did the lawyer intend to mislead the public, or was he unable to contact his counterpart in Sweden and ascertain the truth?

If/when Assange finally goes to Sweden, I hope courts will consider the credibility of someone that acclaimed journalist Nick Davies called "extraordinarily dishonest."

Although he and his flock have viciously attacked former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg for writing a book on WikiLeaks, I haven't heard anyone dispute D-B's assertion that he and Assange "grotesquely exaggerated" how many volunteers WL had, wrote under different pseudonyms to make it seem like more people were involved, and misled people on the extent of their technology. D-B said this was done to intimidate enemies as well as gain support from potential allies. It also may have led whistleblowers to think that WL really could protect them.

In the early days, D-B writes, Assange was very interested in marketing WL. "From the media we tried to learn how to manipulate public opinion. ... For us, the important thing was not how something really was, but how one sold it."

Here's a rundown of Assange's misinformation campaign against the sex-crime allegations:

When the accusations were leaked in August 2010, Assange said he didn't know who the women were. That was not true, of course. He suggested elsewhere that the Pentagon was playing dirty tricks. Holocaust denier Israel Shamir, who has been paid by WikiLeaks, published a story suggesting one accuser worked for the CIA. Assange's British lawyer called the case a honeytrap.

Then the spin changed. The lawyer said he had been misquoted, and WL Central said Assange never suggested his accusers did anything wrong. My best guess is that this was done to avoid a libel suit.

But it also fits with a common marketing strategy: A company unveils a sexist ad, or the ad gets "leaked" to YouTube. Feminists and others are outraged. The company pulls the ad, apologizes and says it never meant to offend or the ad wasn't authorized. Meanwhile, the company gets a lot of publicity with a targeted audience -- men who like to put women down.

Some people don't like victim blaming. So, Assange assures them he isn't doing that. Meanwhile, many of his fans continue to bash the women, and we are supposed to believe that he cannot stop them.

I bet he starts attacking the women's credibility again once he's in Sweden, which has much more liberal laws on libel. By then, he may give up his bizarre contention that Sweden is more of a banana republic than a civilized country. (His former lawyer in Sweden, Bjorn Hurtig, said recently that the Swedish judicial system "generally holds a very high standard.")

Assange once thought so highly of Sweden that he sought permission to live and work there. Two days later, two women went to police, who determined that their statements amounted to sexual molestation and rape. A prosecutor dismissed the idea of rape, but Assange was still under investigation for molestation. The women's attorney, Claes Borgstrom, appealed to a higher-ranking prosecutor, Marianne Ny, who put rape back into the mix.

Assange has insisted that this was improper. But both Swedish and British law lets higher-ranking prosecutors overrule subordinates, said Senior District Judge Howard Riddle in his rejection of Assange's appeal in February 2011. (Cryptome has a transcript.)

After Ny took the case Sept. 1, Hurtig claimed, she made no attempt to interview Assange before he left for London at the end of September. Actually, Ny had contacted Hurtig, who later said he couldn't find Assange. Riddle said Hurtig corrected his evidence at the last minute, but in such a low-key way as to be misleading:
I do not accept that this was a genuine mistake. It cannot have slipped his mind. For over a week he was attempting (he says without success) to contact a very important client about a very important matter. The statement was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court.
Later, the Swedish Bar Association issued a warning to Hurtig, who Assange has since replaced.

There was discussion that Assange might return to Sweden in October. Instead, he released the Iraq documents -- some say prematurely. A Swedish court issued an arrest warrant for him in November, and Assange then released the U.S. diplomatic cables. He sold himself as a freedom-of-information martyr.

By claiming falsely that Swedish prosecutors had not tried to interview him earlier, Assange made it appear that they had little interest in the sex-crime allegations until he released sensational documents.

This also lent more credence to his claim that Sweden was trying to extradite him so that he could be turned over to U.S. authorities, who would imprison him in Guantanamo, torture and execute him.

But his lawyers never presented any evidence, and his own defense witness -- a former Chief District Prosecutor in Stockholm -- said that scenario couldn't happen. Riddle noted that it's easier to extradite someone from the U.K. to the U.S., and that, if Assange is extradited to Sweden, and the U.S. then wants him, Sweden would not only have to approve the extradition, but it also would need the approval of the British Secretary of State.

His lawyers complained that Assange hasn't been formally charged with any crime; they haven't seen all the evidence against him; if he returned to Sweden, he would languish incommunicado in jail; the trial would be held behind closed doors; and he would not be tried by a jury of his peers.

After listening to testimony disputing this, Riddle said he believed that Sweden intends to prosecute Assange, but that Ny is required to interview Assange and finish her investigation before bringing formal charges. Prosecutors are not required to give the defense all of their evidence beforehand. In jail, Assange might not be allowed communication with the outside world. But once someone is jailed pending trial in Sweden, the trial follows quickly, usually in two weeks. In sex-crime cases, accusers can choose to have testimony heard in private. Cases are decided by judges and those they appoint as lay judges.

Assange may not like the Swedish system, but it's similar to procedures in other European countries, Riddle said.

"TRUTH WILL OUT!" screams a hoodie peddled on a WL site to raise money. We can only hope.

The Gates Foundation and ALEC

ALEC stands for The American Legislative Exchange Council. Here's what it is:
The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.


Becoming a Member of ALEC: Not So Easy to Do

How do you become a member? Simple. Two ways. You can be an elected Republican legislator who, after being individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per biennium to join. Here’s the membership brochure to use if you meet this criterion:
What if you’re not a Republican elected official? Not to worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a “private sector” member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending on which legislative domains most interest you. Here’s the membership brochure if you meet this criterion:
Then again, even if most of us had this kind of money to contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay the fee. But maybe I’m being cynical here.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just awarded ALEC a grant:

American Legislative Exchange Council
Date: November 2011
Purpose: to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement
Amount: $376,635
Term: 1 year and 10 months
Topic: Advocacy & Public Policy
Region Served: Global, North America
Program: United States
Grantee Location: Washington, District of Columbia
Grantee Web site:

I'm somewhat confused about the purpose of this grant. ALEC is supposed to educate its membership only? And that consists of Republican politicians and people able to afford the steep membership fee? That doesn't sound like a group which would need charitable help in the first place. Neither does it sound like a group which would stay uninformed without such a grant.

Then there are all those code words in the purpose statement which refer to getting rid of teachers' unions.
For more on this topic, check out Karoli at Crooks&Liars.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


This twitter message. It shows a picture of a woman, with this text:
A woman from Jeddah in 1873, before 'Saudi' Arabia was created. No black robes, gloves, or face veils.

Single old pictures cannot tell us anything about what was common for women during that era, because a single old picture is just that. What it can tell us, of course, is that at least one woman let herself be photographed in an outfit which today would be regarded as completely unacceptable.

The whole tweet is about a question I've thought of often: We don't really know how the women in the past dressed.

When an extreme Islamist argues that "modesty" for women means head-to-toe black, face veils and gloves, he bases it on a constructed view of what "modesty" might have meant during the era of the prophet Muhammad. But we don't know how women then dressed. We don't know what "modesty" meant in that context, and the Koran does not, in fact, mention head or face veils at all.

It argues that both men and women should dress modestly and that women should cover their bosoms. Everything else is someone else's interpretation, most of which seems to forget that the command also applies to men.

As far as I understand it, the argument for certain type of veiling is based on a reported saying by Muhammad, who told a woman that she should leave uncovered only that which is acceptable to be seen. But what were those body parts in that era? Is it really possible that they amounted to only one eye per woman? And how did the poor women do their farm work dressed like that?