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The gift that keeps on killing

Posted on May 30th, 2016 in War by Robert Miller
Cluster bombs

Cluster bombs

The New Yorker magazine this week is running a story on the unexploded ordinance we left behind in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. The story is written by George Black. Unfortunately Obama’s visit will be timed with the funeral for Ngo Thien Khiet, an ordinance specialist who was skilled at defusing bombs, one of the many thousands of unexploded bombs left over as a gift from the Americans to the Vietnamese people. Ngo Thien Khiet died while defusing a cluster bomb.

From the New Yorker article:

“Khiet, who died at the age of forty-five, and who leaves behind a wife and two sons, was an expert on the unexploded ordnance, or U.X.O., left over from the Vietnam War. He was particularly skilled at locating, removing, and safely destroying cluster bombs found in the farm fields of Quang Tri, an impoverished agricultural province that straddles the old Demilitarized Zone, or D.M.Z., which once divided North and South Vietnam.”

More than 40,000 Vietnamese people have been killed since the war ended in 1975. “More ordnance was dropped on Quang Tri than was dropped on all of Germany during the Second World War. The province was also sprayed with more than seven hundred thousand gallons of herbicide, mainly Agent Orange. The names of battlefields like Cam Lo, Con Thien, Mutter’s Ridge, and the Rockpile still give American veterans nightmares. The seventy-seven-day siege of the Marine base of Khe Sanh, in Quang Tri, so obsessed Lyndon Johnson that he kept a scale model of the base in the White House, and demanded daily updates on the course of the battle.”

“For the eight years before his death, Khiet worked for a nongovernmental organization called Project RENEW, which is based in the provincial capital, Dong Ha. The organization was founded fifteen years ago by a group of foreigners, including an American veteran named Chuck Searcy, who served in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The group’s mission is to help clear the countryside of leftover U.X.O., and it has grown to employ an all-Vietnamese staff of a hundred and sixty people.”

Thanks to the  Project RENEW deaths from U.X.O., have been dropping every year since the program began. “On the day I [George Black] went out with the emergency response team, villagers had found a white phosphorus bomb, three shoulder-fired M-79 grenades, and a 37-mm. projectile. An advance team from Project RENEW had carefully scooped out small holes in the dirt to expose the rusted munitions, marking the spot with colorful warning flags and surrounding it with sandbags. It was time for the demolition crew to move in. We retreated to a safe distance, someone started a countdown, a technician hit a remote switch, and then there was a dull boom. The kids were safe to go back out and play.”

“A couple of days later, I met Ngo Thien Khiet. He was a quiet man, with a sober but friendly demeanor. He was dressed in military-style khakis, with his name stitched in red above his breast pocket. A floppy hat on his head bore the Project RENEW logo. As I reported in a story for The Nation, I’d been invited to join him on a survey of a village called Tan Dinh. Surveying for cluster bombs is slow, painstaking work. Before we set out, Khiet showed me a map that represented his prior work in the area. The map was divided into grid sections, each representing a square kilometre. The sections that had already been combed over were color coded according to the findings of the survey team. Green meant all clear. Red meant cluster bombs. Blue meant other kinds of munitions.”

“Khiet told me that, of all the types of ordnance that still lie buried in the fields of Vietnam, cluster bombs are the most dangerous. They are a particularly devious invention, designed to inflict maximum, indiscriminate harm, and so abhorred that their use, transfer, and stockpiling is prohibited by an international treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions. More than a hundred nations have signed or ratified the treaty; the United States is not one of them.”

“A cluster bomb is made up of as many as six hundred individual bombs, each about the size of a baseball, which are packed into a mother pod. The pod is designed to open several feet above the ground, unloading the bomblets in all directions and shredding anything in their path. Because cluster bombs were dropped by aircraft on fixed flight paths, sometimes clearing the way for Agent Orange spraying runs, unexploded bombs tend to be found in groups. If you find one, you’re likely to find more. After so many years, they are usually heavily pitted with rust and highly unstable.”

“Before going out in the field with Khiet, I had to sign a waiver giving my blood type and accepting full responsibility for any harm that might come to me. A young female paramedic stood in attendance nearby as I signed. There was some gentle teasing. Khiet told me I had nothing to worry about, because in fifteen years of work Project RENEW had never had a single accident.”

“On Thursday, Chuck Searcy sent me an e-mail from Hanoi to tell me what had happened to Khiet. The previous day, Searcy wrote, Khiet had received a call from one of his team members, who told him that a cluster bomb had been found. Following his usual protocol, Khiet proceeded to the site to determine how to dispose of the bomb. What happened next is unclear, but there was an explosion, and Khiet was wounded. He was rushed to the Hai Lang District Hospital, and died shortly thereafter. The colleague who had called him, a man named Nguyen Van Hao, was wounded by shrapnel but survived.”

Here are some facts about what is being done about cluster bombs:

  • The Convention on Cluster Munitions – prohibits the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. The international agreement, signed by 111 nations and ratified by 70 to date, entered into force on August 1st, 2010.  The U.S. has not signed the treaty. The first meeting of the State Parties to the Convention took place on November 9-12, 2010, in Vientiane, Lao PDR, and the second meeting took place in Beirut, Lebanon, on September 12-18, 2011.
  • Former U.S. ambassadors to Laos sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 8, 2011, calling for an increase in funding to the UXO sector in Laos and encouraging her to visit Laos in the course of a future trip to Southeast Asia. The Ambassadors had already written to Secretary Clinton one year beforehand, on July 15, 2010, asking for a dramatic increase of funding for UXO removal in Laos.
  • House/Senate Bill: The Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2011 (S 558, HR 996) awaits passage in Congress. This bill would restrict the production and use of cluster munitions by the U.S.  A permanent ban on cluster bomb exports from the U.S. was passed in the Senate in March 2009.
  • A House Appropriations Subcommittee held the first ever hearing on the issue of UXO in Laos in April 2010, helping to educate members of Congress on the issue and increase support for additional funding for UXO clearance in Laos.
  • 2012 U.S. Budget: In the 2012 appropriations report, Congress set as a priority “the clearance of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in areas where such ordnance was caused by the United States,” and directed that “$9,000,000 be made available for UXO clearance in Laos.” This represents the highest dollar amount ever allocated by the U.S. to clearing UXO in Laos.

On September 6, 2006, a Senate bill–a simple amendment to ban the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas–presented Senator Clinton with a timely opportunity to protect the lives of children throughout the world.

The cluster bomb is one of the most hated and heinous weapons in modern war, and its primary victims are children.

Senator Obama voted for the amendment to ban cluster bombs. Senator Clinton, however, voted with the Republicans to kill the humanitarian bill, an amendment in accord with the Geneva Conventions, which already prohibit the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.

The Legacy of Cluster Bombs in Laos

  • From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.  At least 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped as part of the bombing campaign; approximately 80 million failed to detonate.
  • Data from a survey completed in Laos in 2009 indicate that UXO, including cluster bombs, have killed or maimed as many as 50,000 civilians in Laos since 1964 (and 20,000 since 1973, after the war ended). Over the past two years there have been over one hundred new casualties each year. About 60% of accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children. Boys are particularly at risk.
  • Laos has suffered more than half of the confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world.
  • Over the past four decades, less than 1% of the bomblets that failed to detonate have been cleared. All 17 provinces in Laos, and 41 of 46 of the poorest districts in Laos, are burdened with unexploded ordnance (UXO) contamination.

The problem that I have with Hillary Clinton is that she seems to be in love with going to war.


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How the brains of Republicans differ from those of the rest of us

Posted on May 26th, 2016 in Politics by Robert Miller
Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

I am reissuing one of my postings concerning the many differences between Republican brains and those of our own; when I first issued this posting I was comparing the Republican brain with those of Democrats, but I have since become aware that many Democrats have lost their way and become corporatists.   This election promises to be particularly interesting because Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, and though he doesn’t quite fit the mold of the typical Republican challenger, he nevertheless qualifies for many of the Republican brain characteristics that are mentioned here.

We are making great progress. Progress that is, in understanding the peculiar nature of the Republican brain. In general, humans, both Democrats and Republicans have very large brains and a very long period of adolescence to engage in prolonged learning tasks before the reproductive years come into play. If you try to calculate our brain size, by predicting what it should be, based on mammalians of similar size, you conclude that the human brain is about seven times larger than that of a similar-sized non-human. Other primates have large brains as well. If you look further into the parcellation of our brain, you realize that one of the largest areas of growth over our other mammalian representatives has been dedicated to the growth of the cerebral cortex, but more specifically to the frontal lobes of the brain, where everyone agrees, some of our most complex processes take place, such as long-term planning and analytical strategy.

There are many theories about the evolution of us and our brains, but one theory, that of social evolution is gaining some momentum from studies using fMRI as a method for further defining the roles that different brain regions play in our complex social and biological interactions. A study of great interest in this regard appeared in the New York Times Science section on the social behavior of hyenas. At first, it seems like this may be an irrelevant source of information on this topic, something of a joke. But, one theory of the evolution of our brain comes out of sociobiology. Adapting that point of view to brain evolution suggests that a large frontal lobe evolved and was relegated to the evolution of our complex social interactions, those that feed into our ability to live in a culture and adapt favorably to the survival of a clan, not just an individual.

The hyenas come into this story as a result of extensive studies of their social behavior, based on decades of work, following clans through generations. And, now hyena brain compartmentalization has been invoked to account for hyena social behavior. There are four species of hyenas and they differ from one another based their physical differences, but also on the size of the clan to which they belong and the complex or simple social interactions of each species. Spotted hyenas have the largest clans and the most complex social interactions. A single spotted hyena clan may be as large as 60 to 80 members and each member of the clan recognizes the others as individuals. All social hyena species form a matriarchal structure, with a single “alpha female” as the head. Going down in clan size from the spotted hyenas, you have the brown hyenas with a clan of about 14, striped hyenas have a clan of only 3 and, at the bottom of this social scale you have the aardwolf, who have become primarily insect eaters, with a single pair forming the extent of the clan, living near a termite nest and defending their territory as a small family cluster.

Studies with fMRI have demonstrated interesting phenomena related to brain mechanisms of human social interactions. When studies were carried out to look for brain regions activated by questions about social interactions, the frontal lobe is an apparent source of activity. So the question asked by the hyena researchers was whether the social scale of hyena behavior had a correlate in brain structure. As it turns out, the brains of hyenas are quite large, though still dwarfed by our own. This study was complicated by the fact that hyena brains are hard to come by, but the skulls of different hyena species have been collected and there are well known image reconstruction methods that provide an approximation of different brain regions based on the skull formations and indentations related to the different brain compartments. So, based on this kind of reconstruction data, it appears that the frontal lobes of these four species of hyenas can be scaled in the same order as their social behavior, with the spotted hyenas at the top and the aardwolf at the bottom.

It seems at last, we are beginning to understand the brain structure of Republicans. For the low social brain structure of the Republicans, the type of person to whom Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman would have appeal, we find a brain devoid of major frontal lobe development, something akin to the aardwolf. To compensate for this deficiency, the Republican brain has hypertrophied the amygdala, which is the emotional center that generates strong fear responses in retaliation to threats or unexpected events. Thus the Republican brain responds to threats with emotionalism and seems incapable of engaging in any long-term strategy. The Democrat brain on the other hand has the highest level of frontal lobe development, as these Homo sapiens subtypes rely on a successful clan structure and believe in it as the solution to an ever larger clan community. Concomitantly, the amygdala of the Democrat brain is not hypertrophied, as fear is not the first response of that type of brain. This is because the large frontal lobes allow the Democrat to ponder the threat or the event and make a strategy that is good for the whole clan, not just the aardwolves among us. As clarity on this issue will undoubtedly grow in the coming months and years, it is worth pondering where George W. Bush’s brain will fit on the frontal lobe scale of humanity?

Another triumph of American eclectic university life is reflected in the fact that the academics who have studied hyenas for decades are all members of Michigan State University. Now if that isn’t an elegant example of frontal lobe strategies reaching across the spectrum of biological diversity to find additional clues to George Bush’s behavior, I challenge all of you to come up with a better example. Over and out!


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Red Knot birds: are they on the road to extinction?

Posted on May 13th, 2016 in Climage Change by Robert Miller
red knot birds

Fig 1. red knot birds

The dilemma of the red knot bird not getting adequate nutrition

Fig 2.  The dilemma of the red knot bird not getting adequate nutrition

Today the New York Times has published an article on the red knot bird and whether they are on a glide path towards extinction. For that reason I am reissuing my previous articles on this problem. Each year the red knot makes an incredible migration of 9,300 miles from the tip of South America to the Arctic waters, breed and raise their young and then head back to their wintering place; this tale of annual migration is one of the most stunning examples of endurance and determination. Now we know that climate change is threatening the survival of this species. Their numbers used to be around 1 million, but recent surveys have demonstrated that the are down to about 1/4 of that number and many scientists believe that they are on a certain path for extinction. This is one of the most unique stories of the challenges we will face in the coming years because right now it doesn’t look like there is much we can do to avoid the path toward extinction that the red knot bird is on. The NYT story covers the events after the birds arrive in the Arctic; it is basically a story about bad timing. When the red knot arrives in the Arctic, spring has been going on for two weeks and as a result red knot chicks missed the peak of high insect availability. Missing the peak insect availability results in smaller red knot juveniles. By the time they arrive in Poland on their return trip they are smaller by 15% on average compared to their size in 1985. The smaller sized juveniles are at a disadvantage compared to their normal-sized adults. Normal-sized adults are able to dig deeper into the shoreline sand and successfully retrieve clams, but the smaller juveniles do not have the size to retrieve clams and are restricted to retrieving less nutritious grasses. The red knot has not been able to adjust their timing to leave earlier for the Arctic and unless they manage to do this, the survival of the red knot seems doomed. Can we use optogentics to alter the gene pool and provide the red knot with new clock genes? Hope springs eternal.

Several years ago (2010) I wrote an article entitled “The counter-intuitive interconnectedness of species” in which I explained how the red knot (Claidris canutus rufa) bird makes a remarkable, annual journey from Tierra del Fuego (off the southern tip of South America) to the Canadian Arctic where they nest over the short arctic summer and then return home again in the fall. On the way to its arctic stop, the red knot stops along the East coast to feed on eggs laid by the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), an ancient, primitive-looking crab, that is indigenous to the shorelines of the East coast. The horseshoe crab has been around for 475 million years, so they have sticking power, despite their seemingly clumsy ways and odd shape. The timing of the red knot arrival coincides with the breeding season of the horseshoe crab who come close to the shore to lay their eggs. The red knot birds have about two weeks to feed on the eggs and build up enough body fat and strength to complete their journey. But the horseshoe crabs are becoming scarce. They not only serve as bait for fisherman in the region, but their blood is used in medicine, as the Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) is used as a test to detect bacterial endotoxins, for which it is a highly sensitive, unique detection system. Although medical blood-letting is associated with release of the Limulus, a considerable number of the animals die from this experience. A NYT article on the plight of the red knot bird points out that the population of these birds has plummeted by 70 percent since the 1980s. The United States Fish and Wildlife service has proposed to designate the bird as threatened. If the red knot receives this distinction (we apparently will know by Friday), then the government will develop a plan for the bird’s recovery. If so, this will surely involve additional protections for the horseshoe crab, whose diminished numbers have no doubt contributed to the bird’s decline. If use of horseshoe crabs as bait declines through enforcing new limits, the medical use of the crab’s blood is very likely going to increase, given its importance.

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

One area where survival improvements could be made is to increase the likelihood that blood letting will be more compatible with crab survival. Some estimates suggest that as many as 20 to 30 percent of the crabs from which blood has been withdrawn do not survive. Since 2004, the demand for horseshoe crab blood has increased by 85 percent.

Given what seems to be a biological event of unique synchronization, biologists worry that global warming mechanisms that may interfere with this dependency (an early spring, such that the birds leave too early, or crabs breed out of sync, the threats of ocean acidity from absorbing carbon dioxide on the life cycle of the crab, changes in the arctic that could effect the breeding grounds of the red knot). One could go on and on with other possibilities. How this interdependency between the horseshoe crab and the red knot got started  is itself a remarkable, but unknown story. If crab shortages continue, will the red knot be able to find alternative sources of food? Given the huge drop in the red knot population that answer appears to be no.

Another animal impacted by the drop in the horseshoe crab population is the Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle that feed on Limulus: their numbers have been dropping. Harvesting crabs was banned in New Jersey in 2008.

loggerhead sea turtle (from Wikipedia)

The horseshoe crab has played a major role in our understanding of visual physiology; studies of this animal led to one Nobel Prize (1967, awarded to H.K. Hartline, Ragnar Granit and George Wald; Hartline was the Limulus guy).


– See more at: http://themillercircle.org/2013/11/will-the-red-knot-bird-survive-or-become-another-dodo-bird/#sthash.jp4VHLVw.dpuf

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