Monday, December 17, 2018

3130. Nancy Pelosi and the Horse Trading Progressives

By Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist, November 19, 2018

Nancy Pelosi has been making news lately as an obstacle to the transformation of the Democratic Party into the kind of European Social Democratic Party the DSA and Sandernistas yearn for. There is a growing momentum to reject her bid to be reelected as Speaker for the House of Representatives.

Norman Solomon, the director of, a Sandernista online activist group, wrote an article for Truthdig titled The ‘Pelosi Problem’ Runs Deep that does not quite call for a vote against her: “Nancy Pelosi will probably be the next House speaker, a prospect that fills most alert progressives with disquiet, if not dread. But instead of fixating on her as a villain, progressives should recognize the long-standing House Democratic leader as a symptom of a calcified party hierarchy that has worn out its grassroots welcome and is beginning to lose its grip.” Solomon instead urges his 1.5 million “members” (nothing more than clicking a link online) to continue more or less the same course DSA urges, namely activism around various issues such as a “Green New Deal” and electing people like Ocasio-Cortez.

Justice Democrats, another online activist outfit like focused on electing “progressives”, has received the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez. Two days ago she got on the phone with some 700 Justice Democrats, most of whom were active in the Sanders campaign, and told them: “Long story short, I need you to run for office. We all need to run at all levels of government, but I really hope that many of you join me here in Congress.”

Last Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez participated in a sit-in at Pelosi’s office calling for a Green New Deal that she views as requiring the same commitment as WWII and the Marshall Plan. If I were her, I’d probably not have alluded to such obvious imperialist projects but then again I live in Another Country, as James Baldwin once put it.

Does this mean that she was ready to vote against Pelosi becoming Speaker? Surprise-surprise. Four hours ago, she pledged support for her as the “Most Progressive Candidate” . She added, “All of the rebellion for the speakership are challenges to her right, and so I think it’s important to communicate that.” Among the 16 House Democrats opposing Pelosi is Max Rose, who just got elected in Staten Island, a NY borough that has much more in common with rural Iowa than the rest of the city. Filled with white cops and firemen, you’d think that Rose would be another Joe Manchin. A visit to Rose’s website, however, will reveal that he favors lowering the age of Medicare eligibility to 55, etc. The NY Times analyzed why he beat the incumbent:

His pedigree might have alienated potential constituents, but his rhetoric did not. He offered a simple, unifying message that was progressive in substance but relatively neutral in its delivery: that the system is rigged to benefit special interests, that the little guy is getting stiffed over and over, that we need better infrastructure and stronger unions.

The most outspoken opponent of Pelosi’s reelection is Marcia Fudge, an African-American Representative from Ohio, who has even been considering a run against Pelosi. Fudge has been stigmatized as homophobic for refusing to co-sponsor the Equality act but defends herself by saying that that she supports gay rights, but not the way that particular bill was handled. She said, “They can’t find one vote, not one vote, that’s anti. I just don’t want to insert it into the civil rights bill. It should be a stand-alone bill and I’d support that.”

Fudge is an ally of Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who also signed the letter against Pelosi and who ran against her for the House Speaker post in 2016. There’s nothing much in his record to place him in the DP’s rightwing. Indeed, in an op-ed piece for the NY Times, he stated: “I think that Ocasio-Cortez was expressing the frustration that so many people feel right now that our systems aren’t working for the people who work hard and play by the rules. She talked about the cost of rent, health care, wages and education. Those are bread and butter issues that play all across the country.”

I really don’t have the time, nor the motivation, to look into the background of the other 15 Democrats but for argument’s sake will accept the possibility that they are to the right of Pelosi. What interests me more is how this fits into the broader question of how to understand the role of the Democratic Party in American society.

To start with, Ocasio-Cortez does have a point. Pelosi is, by DP standards, fairly progressive. On Facebook, Stephen Zunes, a San Francisco professor and well-known journalist of the left, wrote:

Given that under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership the Democrats won back the House while under Chuck Schumer’s leadership Democrats actually lost seats in the Senate, why is it Pelosi whose leadership is being challenged?

1) Pelosi, while not nearly as progressive as I would like, is still more liberal than Schumer. For example, she opposed the invasion of Iraq and supported the Iran nuclear agreement while Schumer sided with the Republicans on both of these important foreign policy matters. Pelosi is also more progressive on a number of important domestic issues as well.

2) Pelosi, because she is more willing to challenge Republican priorities, has been attacked a lot more by Republicans than has Schumer and some Democrats get easily spooked by right-wing criticism

3) there is still a lot of sexism among Democrats

In my view, the opposition to Pelosi is overdetermined in the Althusserian sense. Among the various factors, each of which by themselves would serve as sufficient grounds for opposing her, are:
  1. As Zunes said above, she has been pilloried for years now by the Republicans. Leaving aside the merit of their attacks, her unpopularity rating is at 29 percent. To some extent, this is the same sort of burden Hillary Clinton carried around. The two are female (obviously), wealthy, urban, and indifferent to the plight of the working people. For example, in 2010 Pelosi opposed a moratorium on home foreclosure, something Clinton ironically did support.
  2. As opposed to the Republicans, the Sanders wing of the party views her as inimical to the changes that are necessary to make the DP an agent of “socialism”. Despite the Republican attack on her as a “radical”, ranks her as the 37th most conservative Democrat in the House.
  3. Probably the most important motivation for replacing her is the perceived need voiced by younger elected officials in the DP to make room at the top for themselves and their cohorts. In a way, it is the same problem that exists in the academy where professors continue to hold down jobs well into their 70s, if not their 80s. An old friend who taught sociology at Columbia described this as “calcification” not much different than the kind that can cause a stroke.
You get a real sense of the ambitions that drive opposition to Pelosi from Beto O’Rourke, the leftwing darling who lost a narrow race to Ted Cruz in November. In today’s NY Times, he comes across as the ultimate careerist:

“You have some of the institutional members say, ‘Who are these upstarts?’ ” one of these younger Democrats, Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who was elected in 2012, told me in 2015. “One member of Congress compared us to spoiled kids, like teenagers who want a car on their 16th birthday. But you look at my class: Tulsi Gabbard, she’s not going to stay in the House for long — she’ll run for governor. Joe Kennedy, the same. Pat Murphy, the same. And they’re all talented, ambitious and good fund-raisers. I’ve just got to think that when you see that 20-year road to be in a position of consequence, other options look a lot more attractive.” O’Rourke, of course, left this year to pursue those other options, following his fellow erstwhile rising House stars Xavier Becerra (who was appointed attorney general of California in 2017) and Kyrsten Sinema (whom Arizona elected to the Senate this month). [emphasis added]

This reminds me quite a bit of what Les Evans told me when I joined the SWP in 1967. “I looked around when I joined and saw that I could become a leader of this party without too much trouble.” (Or something to that effect.) After cutting his ties to the party during the turn, Evans took a position at UCLA exploiting his knowledge of Chinese he developed in the party. Today, he is a Zionist and a liberal. Who knows where O’Rourke will be in 20 years? I can say that when he started out, he was not exactly the sort of politician that would endear himself to the average DSA member.

Probably the most savvy take on the progressive opposition to Pelosi comes from Politico, a website that views this sort of thing the way that touts view the odds at a horse race. Titled Progressives back Pelosi for speaker — in return for more power, it sees the compromise as old-fashion horse-trading, to continue with the equine analogy.

It wasn’t a coincidence that moments after Nancy Pelosi promised progressive House leaders more power in the next Congress, a host of liberal groups announced they were supporting her for speaker.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who is expected to co-chair the House Progressive Caucus next year, left a Thursday night meeting with Pelosi in the Capitol and proclaimed that her members would have more seats on powerful committees and more influence over legislation.

The Washington state Democrat then phoned MoveOn and Indivisible with the news, and they promptly tweeted out support for Pelosi. Then, on Friday morning, Jayapal, previously uncommitted on whom she would back for speaker, gave Pelosi a full-throated endorsement.

“No one can really doubt Pelosi’s progressive chops,” Jayapal told POLITICO in an interview. “And I do think, for the next two years, as we lead into 2020, and are coming off this big wave, we need someone who is smart and strategic and has done this.”

Smart and strategic? I suppose so. To give you an idea of what this means in practice, look how Jayapal and her cohorts finessed the abolish ICE demand as reported by In These Times:

In July, three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.)—introduced a bill to abolish ICE. They intended it as a statement of principle and, as Vox observed, “weren’t ready to be taken seriously,” given that the majority of Americans oppose abolishing ICE and Democrats themselves are split. House Republicans threatened to bring it up for a vote, with the hope of embarrassing Democrats. The progressives then announced they would vote against their own bill. But as with Warren’s plan for reforming capitalism and the more ambitious climate change plans, such laws that push the moral envelope lay important groundwork for when progressives and Democrats actually have power. [emphasis added]

So if they don’t take themselves seriously, why should we?

Writing for The Nation, the abysmal Joan Walsh interviewed Jayapal as “a bridge between the still-feuding Clinton and Sanders wings of the Democratic Party”. It concluded with these words from Jayapal: “We can’t tear each other down. If we start to divide ourselves now, we’re really lost. It doesn’t mean we can’t disagree about things. But we agree we’re all working toward the same place. That’s when we begin to win.”

For the past year or so, we’ve been hearing about how people like Jayapal and Ocasio-Cortez will eventually take over the Democratic Party. Mark my words. Within a year or two, the Democratic Party will have taken them over. That’s what it has been doing with the left for over a century and it is an art it has perfected. When those being co-opted are getting richly rewarded for their surrender, no wonder there will barely be a whimper. It is up to us who still see a need for revolution to scream at the top of our lungs from every rooftop.

3129. Rat Poison Found in 85 Percent of Tested Mountain Lions, Bobcats, Fishers

By Center for Biological Diversity, December 12, 2018

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— A new state analysis has documented super-toxic rat poisons in more than 85 percent of tested mountain lions, bobcats and protected Pacific fishers, prompting state regulators to open a new evaluation of whether to further restrict or ban the powerful toxins.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s analysis of 11 different wildlife studies indicates non-target animals continue to be poisoned in large numbers despite state restrictions on the sale and use of the deadliest rodenticides since 2014. The long-lasting super toxins often poison non-target animals that eat poisoned rodents.

“This alarming new evidence should spur the state to ban these dangerous poisons,” said Jonathan Evans, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program. “There are safer, cheaper alternatives that greatly reduce risks to wildlife, pets and children. Pesticide regulators have no excuse for continuing to allow California’s wildlife to die slow, excruciating deaths.”

Four years ago the state limited the sale and use of the so-called super-toxic rat poisons — known as second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides — to licensed applicators. But they are still allowed throughout the state for agricultural users and licensed pest-control operators.

The ongoing wildlife poisonings and legal pressure from wildlife advocates prompted the Department of Pesticide Regulation to open a reevaluation of the powerful rodenticides. As part of the assessment, the public can submit comments through Jan. 16.

The new state analysis documented super-toxic rat poisons in more than 90 percent of tested mountain lions, 88 percent of tested bobcats and 85 percent of protected Pacific fishers tested.

Along with the high percentage of poisoning among tested mountain lions, fishers and bobcats, the re-evaluation analysis documented the potent rat toxins in seven out of ten endangered northern spotted owls tested and 40 percent of tested barred owls.

In addition, research included in the analysis suggested that anticoagulant rodenticides are associated with the often-deadly mange, a malady that can result in population-level harms to bobcats.

The harm caused by the super-toxic second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides in California is well documented. More than 70 percent of wildlife tested in California in recent years has been exposed to dangerous rodenticides. Officials have found poisonings in more than 25 different species of animals, including endangered wildlife such as the San Joaquin kit fox and Pacific fisher.

More than 4,400 children under age 6 were poisoned with the long-acting anticoagulant rodenticides in the United States in 2016, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that children in low-income families are disproportionately exposed to the poisons. Thousands of incidents of pets being poisoned by rodenticides have also been reported, many resulting in serious injury or death.

Effective affordable, alternatives to rat poison include rodent-proofing of homes and farms by sealing cracks and crevices and eliminating food sources; providing owl boxes in rural areas to encourage natural predation; and using traps that don’t involve these highly toxic chemicals. For more information on nontoxic rodent control methods, visit

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

3128. Humans Are Using Smells to Influence Nonhuman Animals

Elizabeth Anne Brown, National Geographic, December 12, 2018

The Villagers of Maharashtra state held their breath as the body count climbed.
Animal activists knew her as Avni. The Indian government called her T1. But no one knew quite what to do with the tiger, the mother of two cubs who was blamed for 13 mauling deaths in two years.
The Indian government deployed a small army to bring Avni in. Hundreds of foot soldiers, infrared drones, paragliders, snipers, and elephants combed the jungle fruitlessly for nearly two months. By October, with wiley Avni still at large, it was time to break out the big guns, the final line of defence, the Hail Mary. It was time for Obsession for Men. The cologne by Calvin Klein.
Musky colognes like Obsession tap into an invisible system of animal communication—the information superhighway of scent. Urine, musk, and other excreta can serve as a stinky form of “message in a bottle” to the next animal that comes sniffing, providing crucial information that they use to navigate the world.
Some humans hope to crack the code, and to start leaving our own smell-messages—like Obsession—to purposely influence the behaviour of animals fluent in the language of the nose. And that smells like trouble.


Blindness and deafness are considered disabilities—but what’s the word for someone who can’t smell?

Humans give scent—arguably the most primal of the senses—short shrift. We outsource our sniffing jobs to canines and do everything we can to suppress our own bodily odours. But from scent alone, humans can identify individuals, assess the relatedness of potential mates, and detect illness.

Big cats wild for Calin Clin cologne? 
June 24, 2010—Wildlife Conservation Society researchers at the Bronx Zoo found that captive cheetahs were attracted to Calvin Klein's "Obsession for Men" fragrance. That and other scents were tested in the wild to see if big cats would approach camera traps used for behavioural studies.
On a conscious level, we’re overwhelmingly visual creatures, so it’s easy to overlook the olfactory landscape—a whole plane of sensory information. But for many animal species, scent is as important as sight and a primary means of communication.
Scent markings work as animal billboards—at the most basic level, they say, “I’m here.” Depending on the sender and the recipient, that can be read as “come find me” or “stay away.”
These messages can be left intentionally for members of the same species—tigers like Avni deposit scent markings to draw territorial boundaries for rivals nearby, while female pandas rub their butts against trees to leave a ‘come-hither’ smell for males when they’re sexually receptive.
Other scent marks are inevitable—everybody poos—and reveal information competitors can easily exploit. Carnivores track rodents by following a breadcrumb trail of feces pellets, and predators like Avni might as well send up a signal flare for prey animals whenever they urinate.

Hijacked scents
As human populations increase exponentially and wild places shrink, animal-human conflict is on the rise—and with it the demand for products to control animal behaviour.
There’s a whole industry providing natural and synthetic animal smells—from bottled bobcat urine to “ground, aged and preserved otter glands, ”it can all be yours, and with free shipping to boot.
Some scent-messages are easy to hijack. Every deer hunter worth her salt knows a bottle of doe urine will bring bucks running to the stand, and since deer don’t have the most discerning palate, a homemade brew of urea, ammonia, and water is close enough to do the trick, according to hunting websites.
Parfumiers used to scrape a foul-smelling secretion straight from the anal glands of civets like this one (Viverricula indica) to give colognes their signature musky scent. Thankfully, there’s a synthetic dupe available now. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK
We know how to attract animals—baiting with food, like fresh meat or a salt lick, is a historical favorite—but animal deterrents are harder to come by. Products like Shake-Away DEER claim that powdered coyote urine can conjure the odour-ghost of a coyote to patrol your garden and discourage would-be nibblers—but experts like Michael Parsons, behavioural ecologist at Fordham University, say we shouldn’t bet the farm just yet. We haven’t decoded the whole message.

Forging a Van Goug
Michael H. Parsons must have really good laundry detergent. From Tasmanian devil urine to New York City rat tinkle, he’s spent decades studying animals scents and behaviour.
But after compiling the results of more than 170 studies for a smell state-of-the-union published in Biological Reviews, Parsons marvels at how ignorant we still are of how to read scents. “It’s almost embarrassing,” Parsons admits. “Exciting, but embarrassing. We’re just beginning to find out how many variables are involved.”
Parsons points to his own research experience in Australia, where kangaroos outnumber humans almost three to one and are considered a pest species, “like rats in New York.” Kangaroos don’t have many natural predators—“I mean, these animals are six feet tall and built like Schwarzenegger”—but Parsons observed that the majority react fearfully to scents from dingos, wild dogs that travel the country in packs.
Parsons’ colleague Ken Dods developed an artificial scent dingo scent, a time-release gel that scientists hoped could be used as a broad-scale deterrent for kangaroos. The result couldn’t have been farther from their intention. “The kangaroo bucks were responding angrily to it,” Parsons laughs. “They were trashing the area around it.”
The problem is that would-be Pied Pipers are looking for the short version of smell messages—the “come” or “go.” But it’s impossible to convey that information without getting the context right.
Scent markings are made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of volatile chemicals. Canid species like dogs, wolves, and dingos have between 90 and 180 of these in their urine, according to Parsons—all conspiring to create the smell that reaches the nose.
Each chemical doesn’t just add to the positive or negative valence of the overall smell—good or bad, come or go—they can also provide layers of information to the right sniffer. It’s a laundry list of variables: individual identity, sex, social ranking, clan or pack membership, relatedness, health, reproductive status, and even how hungry the animal is. Those are just the ones we know of so far, Parsons emphasises.
It’s easy to get that context wrong when mass-producing animal scents. Apart from ethical concerns, harvesting urine from animals in captivity is full of pitfalls. Take the example of a coyote—prey animals like elk find scent markings from dominant animals frightening, while scents from subordinates and females may not break their stride. Does that mean captive coyotes need to be housed in a group setting to get the mix right in their urine? And since diet is such a defining factor in the, uh, content of excreta, how close to “natural” does it have to be for the scent to work?
We understand the general shape of how these odour messages are supposed to look. But the lives of scent-dependent animals literally depend on having the trained nose of a urine sommelier. Fabricating artificial scent messages is like trying to forge a Van Gogh without even knowing which colours were used.
Even if you get all the animal-side variables aligned, chemistry does not work in your favour. As soon as the scent leaves the body, everything from differential evaporation to weather conditions begin to degrade the scent. That’s how rabbits can tell when the big bad wolf was in the area, which indicates just how concerned they should be. So that stale, long-bottled fox urine may not be enough to spook the chipmunks into the neighbour’s yard.
“If you find a scent that works, you have to freeze-frame it on the spot,” Parsons explains. “By the time you store it in the lab, it may degrade and be very different.” In fact, the very act of freezing a pheromone for transportation or storage has been demonstrated to alter behavioural responses.
Of course, none of the above matters if you’re trying to pull the wool over the nose of a particularly clever animal. Like Avni.

Slinking through the undergrowth of African and Asian forests is the civet, a small-bodied mammal that looks like the illicit lovechild of a racoon and a housecat. Its anal glands secrete a foul-smelling goo that most would associate with tomcat spray—and that Calvin Klein, evidently, associates with attractive men.

Civets love organic smells
With their sense of scent, you might call civets the perfume purveyors of the natural world.
In the early days of Obsession for Men, the cologne by Calvin Klein, its signature musky odour was scraped directly from the butts of captive civets. Thankfully for the civets—and better for Calvin Klein’s PR department—there’s a synthetic mimic manufactured from palm oil available now. Calvin Klein hoped to tap into the primal desires of women—but it turns out his cologne resonated with a much larger demographic.
John Goodrich, chief scientist at big cat conservation NGO Panthera and director of the Tiger Forever program, remembers the first time he saw a cat catch a whiff of Obsession, on a tour of the Omaha Zoo more than a decade ago.
“They’d go crazy, they’d be rubbing up against it,” Goodrich recalls. “They would come up to the bars wanting it sprayed in their face.”
Conservation researchers at the Bronx Zoo identified Obsession as a promising candidate for luring cats to cameras for wildlife surveys. “These big cats would wrap their arms around a tree and just vigorously rub up and down,” Pat Thomas, then the Bronx Zoo’s general curator, explained to National Geographic in 2010. “Sometimes they would start drooling, their eyes would half-close—almost like they were going into a trance.”
Goodrich was eager to bring Obsession to the rocky Sikhote-Alin mountain range of Russia, where he hoped to gather more data in his study of Siberian tigers. “I thought, wow! This is just what we need,” Goodrich remembers. “We’re going to catch tons of tigers now.”
But the words of one particularly strange Obsession commercial from 1985—“Was it me? Did I somehow drive her away?”—would prove prophetic. “We were just better off putting the camera traps in places where tigers normally went and were scent-marking themselves,” Goodrich explains. “The tigers in Russia either avoided it or just didn’t care.”
Some field researchers swear by Obsession. Miguel Ordeñana, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, credits the cologne with increasing traffic around camera traps for jaguars in Nicaragua. He suspects the cats interpret the scent as a territorial marking from rivals—so why weren’t the Russian tigers intrigued?
Scientists speculate that cats react differently to Obsession and other musky colognes based on prior experience. Naïve cats like captive-born leopards and tigers are nearly always interested in novel stimuli—enrichment treats from zoo keepers tend not to be dangerous—whereas wild cats may interpret a mysterious new smell as a red flag to be avoided.
What’s more, a cat’s response may also depend on how closely civetone (the chemical dupe in Obsession) resembles the chemical structure of their own scent markings, which vary considerably across species.


Coyote urine is often marketed as a natural pest deterrent. Some users swear that a quick sprinkle around the garden is enough to discourage would-be nibblers.PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM MURPHY, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
The plan was to tranquillise Avni and her two cubs for assessment by a vet and possible relocation to a rehabilitation centre or release into a more sparsely populated area. That was best-case scenario. But after much debate, India’s Supreme Court had also given wildlife managers carte blanche to “shoot to kill” if the situation turned violent.
If the team could distract Avni for long enough with Obsession—the zoo record was 11.1 minutes—the tranquillisers might have time to kick in, and Avni’s life could be saved.
But it was not to be—Avni didn’t take the bait. “She was too clever for the cologne,” said Asgar Ali Khan, a business management graduate controversially tapped to lead the hunt. “We were dealing with an extraordinarily smart tiger.”
Nawab Shafat Ali Khan, a renowned tiger hunter and Asgar Ali Khan’s father, explained to the New York Times that he was convinced Avni would never be taken alive. “She has learned from all these botched capture operations. We’ve made her very smart. Brilliant, actually.”
Just days later, on Friday November 2, Asgar Ali Khan would shoot and kill Avni in what he described as self-defense—though autopsy reports counter that narrative. Animal rights group across India have decried the killing as a flagrant violation of the law.
The tiger’s case is a high-profile example of how scent is creeping into the mainstream in wildlife management. Though cologne couldn’t save Avni, scientists like Parsons remain optimistic that artificial scent messages will one day help resolve conflict peacefully when animals and humans clash—though replacing fences with feces may be a hard sell at first.

3127. Film Review: Dead Souls

By Bilge Ebiri, The New York Times, December 13, 2018
Gao Guifang in “Dead Souls,” a Wang Bing documentary about Mao’s prison camps.CreditCreditGrasshopper Film/Icarus Films

“Nobody wants to talk about it. And most are dead.” That’s how one subject describes the legacy of the re-education camps that supposed “rightists” were sent to in the 1950s and ’60s in Mao Zedong’s China. Filmed over more than a decade, the director Wang Bing’s monumental, more than eight-hour documentary, “Dead Souls,” seeks to fill an important part of the historical record through extended interviews with about a dozen aging survivors of Jiabiangou, a complex of three work camps in northwest China where conditions were particularly dire.

Why were they there? These men and women were found guilty of thought crimes at a time when the Communist Party wanted to consolidate power and achieve a deluded form of ideological purity. As one interviewee notes, even the slightest inappropriate comment could get you sent away. But just as often, the accused were merely victims of party infighting. Several admitted that they spent years trying to find out why they had been accused.

Avoiding archival footage or insights from outside “experts,” Wang gives these survivors and their memories the stage. He lets the camera run as his subjects speak at length about the horrific things they saw and the comrades they buried — or, in many cases, didn’t get a chance to. Living in mud huts and caves, provided with increasingly meager food rations as the camps swelled in size, the majority of prisoners died of illness and starvation; in many cases, they were eaten by those still alive, while others were left for the wolves.
Many of these interviews were conducted in 2005 and 2006 as the director researched his 2010 narrative film, “The Ditch,” which perhaps accounts for the simplicity of his framing — the camera is often fixed, the lighting functional. Some will find this approach artless, but it has a certain hypnotic quality. These subjects speak for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, and our eyes may catch little details and patterns: the way an individual grabs his knee or scratches his face. Even the modest settings — a floral cushion here, a scattered piece of clothing or unmade bed there — give us a sense of the texture of these lives. In some cases, the little particulars are so absorbing that we might ignore what the interviewee is actually saying. (At one point, Wang even seems to lean into this idea, cutting away to one man’s wife in another room, taking her medicine, as the husband drones on in the background.)

Wang does occasionally reach beyond this basic, fixed-camera interview style. We see the funeral for one man, as his grown son wails about his parents’ fate and the injustices they suffered. Some interviews, clearly shot later, display more cinematic verve, with Wang filming heated conversations by survivors and panning among them. At one particularly poignant moment, we see a letter from a detainee who died at the camp — a nod, perhaps, to the many thousands who didn’t make it out alive. (Among the 3,200 prisoners at Jiabiangou alone, only about 500 survived.)

Despite its intense running time and disturbing subject matter, “Dead Souls” does not seek a complete accounting. In fact, it’s partly about the inability to convey the full horror of these experiences. Wang visits the sites of the camps, in the Gobi Desert, including a mass grave, but they are now just vast, empty stretches of dirt and dust, with a few scattered bones. Only once do we see what these camps in Gansu province actually looked like — in a photo one guard shares near the end of the film — and it’s clear that for Wang, the truth lies just out of reach, somewhere in the imagined space between the dry facts of history and these haunted memories.

3126. Climate Negotiators Reach an Overtime Deal to Keep Paris Pact Alive

By Brad Plumer, The New York Times, December 15, 2018
Michal Kurtyka, president of the climate talks in Katowice, Poland, leaped over his desk as the final session ended. Janek Skarzynski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

KATOWICE, Poland — Diplomats from nearly 200 countries reached a deal on Saturday to keep the Paris climate agreement alive by adopting a detailed set of rules to implement the pact.

The deal, struck after an all-night bargaining session, will ultimately require every country in the world to follow a uniform set of standards for measuring their planet-warming emissions and tracking their climate policies. And it calls on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020.

It also calls on richer countries to be clearer about the aid they intend to offer to help poorer nations install more clean energy or build resilience against natural disasters. And it builds a process in which countries that are struggling to meet their emissions goals can get help in getting back on track.

The United States agreed to the deal despite President Trump’s vow to abandon the Paris Agreement. Diplomats and climate change activists said they hoped that fact would make it easier for the administration to change its mind and stay in the Paris Agreement, or for a future president to embrace the accord once again. The United States cannot formally withdraw from the agreement until late 2020.

Observers said United States negotiators worked constructively behind the scenes with China on transparency rules. The two countries had long been at odds because China had insisted on different reporting rules for developing countries, while the United States favored consistent emissions-accounting rules and wanted all countries to be subject to the same outside scrutiny.

“The U.S. got a clear methodology to make sure that China and India are meeting their targets,” said Jake Schmidt, international policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That creates the level playing field they have been asking for.”

Many of the attendees at this year’s United Nations climate talks — known as COP24, shorthand for their formal name — expressed disappointment at what they saw as half measures to deal with a mounting climate crisis. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising around the world, and millions of people are facing increased risks from severe droughts, floods, and wildfires.

But supporters of the deal reached Saturday said that they hoped the new rules would help build a virtuous cycle of trust and cooperation among countries, at a time when global politics seems increasingly fractured.

“Particularly given the broader geopolitical context, this is a pretty solid outcome,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It delivers what we need to get the Paris Agreement off the ground.’’

“The fundamentals are in place,” Mr. Diringer added.

Not every country got what it wanted at the meeting, which had been scheduled to end on Friday. Developing nations were hoping for more robust promises on climate aid, but that issue has been postponed for future talks.

The negotiations over the Paris rule book, often dense and technical, were frequently bogged down by sharp political disputes inside the saucer-shaped convention center here in Katowice, at the heart of Poland’s coal country.

Midway through the conference, a huge fight over climate science, with the Trump administration at the center, threatened to derail the negotiations altogether.

Most delegates at the talks had wanted to formally endorse a major report issued in October by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change, which said that fossil-fuel emissions would have to fall roughly in half within 12 years to avoid severe climate disruptions.

But the United States and three other big oil producers — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia — tried to weaken the statement’s language, enraging delegates from some of the most at-risk nations. By Friday, negotiators had crafted compromise language that expressed “appreciation and gratitude” for the report.

Then, on Friday, Brazil’s delegation held up the talks all through the night because it was fiercely opposed to proposed changes in rules around carbon trading markets. Negotiators eventually agreed to table the issue until next year.

With a diplomatic framework still alive and rules of the road in place, analysts said it was now up to individual countries to come back before the 2020 talks with concrete pledges to cut emissions more deeply. A few countries, including Chile, Vietnam and Norway, have already said they will start that review process.

When world leaders signed the Paris agreement in 2015, they said they would try to limit the rise in global temperatures to roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels to avoid climate-related disasters like widespread food shortages and mass coral die-offs.

But with global fossil-fuel emissions still rising each year, the planet is now quite likely to cross that temperature threshold within 35 years.

“The real test is what happens when countries go home,” said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “All the decision text in the world doesn’t cut a molecule of carbon. You need action on the ground.”

In some countries, political obstacles to climate action are mounting.

For instance, at the Poland talks, several European Union officials pledged that the bloc would pursue stronger measures to cut emissions before 2020. But inside the union, discussions over a more ambitious climate target have dragged on, in part because Britain is distracted by Brexit; France is struggling with “Yellow Vests” protests, and Germany is grappling with its own difficulties in phasing out coal.

“We can’t ignore that there are a lot of headwinds,” said Laurence Tubiana, France’s former climate change envoy and a key architect of the Paris agreement.

Some experts at the talks argued that the march of cheaper, cleaner energy technologies would do far more to break the deadlock around climate policy than any complicated treaties could.

“Look at countries like China and India that are going ahead with renewables for their own reasons,” said Saleemul Huq, director of Bangladesh’s International Center for Climate Change and Development. “That’s what we need: for countries to move in that direction because it makes sense to them, not because they signed up for an agreement and they’re supposed to.”

Even some of the exhausted politicians in the thick of this week’s climate negotiations were ready to acknowledge the limits of diplomacy.

“Of course it’s important to have these rules, but a lot of the real action is happening by entrepreneurs; it’s happening by business people; it’s happening by the finance sector; by the money flowing; it’s happening at the city and state level,” said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister.

“Climate change is a complicated problem,” she said, “and it’s not going to be solved by national governments alone.”

Saturday, December 15, 2018

3125. An Epidemic of Allergy to Meat?

By Maryn McKenna, Mosaic, December 11, 2018
Tick bites are fueling the rise of allergies to the meat of mammals and everything else that comes from them.

I am on my way to meet Tami McGraw, who lives with her husband and the youngest of their kids in a sprawling development of old trees and wide lawns just south of Chapel Hill. Before I reach her, McGraw emails. She wants to feed me when I get there:

"Would you like to try emu?" she asks. "Or perhaps some duck?"

These are not normal breakfast offerings. But for years, nothing about McGraw's life has been normal. She cannot eat beef or pork, or drink milk or eat cheese or snack on a gelatine-containing dessert without feeling her throat close and her blood pressure drop.

Wearing a wool sweater raises hives on her skin; inhaling the fumes of bacon sizzling on a stove will knock her to the ground. Everywhere she goes, she carries an array of tablets that can beat back an allergy attack, and an auto-injecting EpiPen that can jolt her system out of anaphylactic shock.
McGraw is allergic to the meat of mammals and everything else that comes from them: dairy products, wool and fiber, gelatin from their hooves, char from their bones.

This syndrome affects some thousands of people in the USA and an uncertain but likely larger number worldwide, and after a decade of research, scientists have begun to understand what causes it. It is created by the bite of a tick, picked up on a hike or brushed against in a garden, or hitchhiking on the fur of a pet that was roaming outside.

Tami McGraw cannot eat any products from mammals without feeling her throat close and her blood pressure drop.

The illness, which generally goes by the name "alpha-gal allergy" after the component of meat that triggers it, is a trial that McGraw and her family are still learning to cope with. In much the same way, medicine is grappling with it too.

Allergies occur when our immune systems perceive something that ought to be familiar as foreign. For scientists, alpha-gal is forcing a remapping of basic tenets of immunology: how allergies occur, how they are triggered, whom they put in danger and when.

For those affected, alpha-gal is transforming the landscapes they live in, turning the reliable comforts of home -- the plants in their gardens, the food on their plates -- into an uncertain terrain of risk.

The allergy puzzle
In 1987, Dr Sheryl van Nunen was confronted with a puzzle. She was the head of the allergy department at a regional hospital in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, and had a reputation among her colleagues for sorting out mysterious episodes of anaphylaxis. This time, a man had been sent to see her who kept waking up, in the middle of the night, in the grip of some profound reaction.

Van Nunen checked the man for the obvious irritants and, when those tests came up negative, took a thorough look at his medical history and did a skin test for everything he had eaten and touched in the hours before bedtime. The only potential allergen that returned a positive result was meat.

Then a few more such patients came her way. There were six additional ones across the 1990s; by 2003, she had seen at least 70, all with the same problem, all apparently affected by meat they had eaten a few hours before. Groping for an explanation, she lengthened the list of questions she asked, quizzing the patients about whether they or their families had ever reacted to anything else: detergents, fabrics, plants in their gardens, insects on the plants.A tick at the University of Massachusetts' TickReport laboratory.

When a new disease is discovered, there is usually a long, painful period of time, before it becomes the focus of scientific research. In this case, an odd set of coincidences brought alpha-gal allergy to the attention of researchers almost as soon as it occurred in patients.

The story begins with a cancer drug called cetuximab, which came onto the market in 2004. In clinics in North Carolina and Tennessee, 25 of 88 recipients were hypersensitive to the drug, with some so sick they needed emergency shots of epinephrine and hospitalization. At about the same time, a patient who was receiving a first dose of cetuximab in a cancer clinic in Bentonville, Arkansas, collapsed and died.

News of this death soon reached Dr Thomas Platts-Mills, an allergy researcher at the University of Virginia, who saw these reactions as an intriguing research opportunity.

Platts-Mills pulled together a team, and fairly quickly, they discovered the source of the problem. People were reacting to the drug because they had a pre-existing sensitivity, indicated by a high level of antibodies (called immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short) to a sugar that is present in the muscles of most mammals, though not in humans or other primates. The name of the sugar was galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, known for short as alpha-gal.

Team members scrutinized the patients and their famlilies for anything that could explain the problem. The reactions appeared regional -- patients in Arkansas and North Carolina and Tennessee experienced the hypersensitivity, but ones in Boston and northern California did not. They investigated parasites, moulds and diseases that occur only in pockets of the USA.

Then Dr Christine Chung, a Nashville researcher recruited to the team, stumbled on an intriguing clue. Almost one in five of the patients enrolled at a cancer clinic at her hospital had high levels of IgE to alpha-gal. But when she checked those patients' near neighbors, treating them as a control group -- that is, people who lived their lives in the same way, but did not have cancer and had no reason to have received the drug -- almost one in five had antibodies to alpha-gal as well.

Almost a decade later, that correlation still makes Platts-Mills chuckle. The alpha-gal reaction "had nothing to do with cancer," he says. "It had everything to do with rural Tennessee."

The lone star tick
The question then became: what in rural Tennessee could trigger a reaction like this?
The answer arose from a second coincidence. Dr Jacob Hosen, a researcher in Platts-Mills's lab, stumbled across a map drawn by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing the prevalence of an infection called Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It exactly overlapped the hot spots where the cetuximab reactions had occurred.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is transmitted by the bite of a tick: Amblyomma americanum, one of the most common ticks in south-eastern USA. It's known as the lone star tick for a blotch of white on the back of the female's body.
A vial of live lone star ticks. The ticks -- a species native to Texas and Oklahoma -- were placed within a containment vessel at a lyme disease research site in Cape Elizabeth.
The researchers wondered -- if the mystery reactions shared a footprint with a disease, and ticks caused the disease, could ticks be linked to the reactions too?
Dr Scott Commins, another postgraduate fellow in Platts-Mills's group, took it upon himself to phone every new patient to ask whether they'd ever suffered a tick bite. "I think 94.6 per cent of them answered affirmatively," he says. "And the other few per cent would say, 'You know, I'm outdoors all the time. I can't remember an actual tick that was attached, but I know I'd get bites.'"
Meat from mammals inevitably contains alpha-gal -- so in already sensitized individuals, eating meat might constitute a second exposure, in the same way infusing cetuximab had been.
If tick bites had sensitized them, then the alpha-gal reaction might be a food allergy as well as a drug reaction. But the connection was speculative, and cementing cause and effect would take one final, extraordinary coincidence.

As it happens, Platts-Mills likes to hike. One weekend he took off across the central Virginia hills, tramping through grassy underbrush. He came home five hours later, peeled off his boots and socks, and discovered his legs and feet were speckled with tiny dots. They looked like ground pepper, but they were dug into his skin -- he had to use a dull knife to scrape them off -- and they itched something fierce. He saved a few, and sent them to an entomologist. They were the larval form of lone star ticks.
This, he realized, was an opportunity. As soon as the work week started, he had his lab team draw his blood and check his IgE levels. They were low to start with, and then week by week began to climb. Platts-Mills is English -- his father was a member of Parliament -- and in the midst of having his IgE tracked, he went to an event at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. "And at that point," he says cheerfully, "I ate two lamb chops and drank two glasses of wine."

In the middle of the night, he woke up covered in hives.

A global problem
The lone star tick doesn't receive much attention in the USA, but its range appears to be expanding. "The northern edge of where these ticks are abundant is moving," says Dr Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, north of New York City. "It is now well-established further north, into Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and well up into New England.

"Climate change is likely playing a role in the northward expansion," Ostfeld adds, but acknowledges that we don't know what else could also be contributing.

Alpha-gal reactions linked to tick bites have now been found in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Panama, Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire and South Africa. These cases trace back to at least six additional tick species. (An online map on which patients list themselves includes over a dozen more countries.)

Wherever ticks bite people -- everywhere other than the Arctic and Antarctic -- alpha-gal allergy has been recorded.

In Belgium, patients reacted badly to a drug produced in rabbit cells. In the Italian Alps, men who went hunting in the forests were more at risk than women who stayed in their village. In Germany, the most reactive food was a traditional delicacy, pork kidneys. In Sweden, it was moose.

Van Nunen herself has now seen more than 1,200 patients. "The next busiest clinic, about 350," she says. Those cases have all occurred in two decades, less than the span of a single human generation. As in America, the surge leaves Van Nunen mystified as to what the cause might be. She reasons that the rise cannot be due to something in her patients; neither genetic nor epigenetic change could occur so quickly.
"It has to be environmental," she says.

What does the future hold?
Platts-Mills points out that the prevalence of high levels of alpha-gal IgE in his earliest studies was up to 20 per cent in some communities, "but that was absolutely not the prevalence of allergic reactions to meat," he says. "So there are clearly plenty of people out there who've got the antibody but don't have this syndrome."
What this all means is that there are almost certainly people for whom a meat-containing meal or medical intervention could trigger an alpha-gal reaction of unknown severity.

There may be further peril awaiting them. In June, Platts-Mills and other researchers revealed that more than a quarter of patients who came to the University of Virginia's medical center for cardiac catheterization, to clear out life-threatening blood-vessel blockages, were sensitized to alpha-gal without knowing it.

The patients with the undetected allergy had more arterial plaque than the ones without, and, most worrisome to the researchers, their plaques were of a type that is more likely to break away from the arterial wall and cause heart attacks and strokes.

Though the research is early -- done in one group of 118 patients, in a known hotspot for alpha-gal -- Platts-Mills worries it presages a risk for heart disease that is larger than anyone expects.
In August, Commins gave a talk on alpha-gal allergy at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases, a conference held every two or so years and sponsored by the CDC that often surfaces the earliest signals of illnesses that are destined to become big problems.

The CDC's director of foodborne illness was in the audience; so was its director of vector-borne diseases, the department that deals with ticks. Afterwards, they both zoomed up to ask him questions. "I kind of had the impression this was just a weird, small thing," Dr Lyle Petersen, the vector-borne director, told him. "But this seems like kind of a big deal."

With an increasing number of academics and institutions paying attention, research into alpha-gal might be reaching a threshold, a moment at which isolated investigations might coalesce into answers. For the patients, who feel isolated too, that can't come soon enough.