Archive | November 2010

Dr. Denis Mukwege

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of western Europe and has seen the largest conflict the planet has known since World War II. Since 1998, more than 5 million people have died, more than Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Most have died of malnutrition, starvation and disease. Millions more have been displaced. Worse, is the widespread use of sexual violence by all parties involved in the war. More than half a million women and children have been raped, sexually mutilated and left to die in an all encompassing strategy to impose fear and subservience in a weak and vulnerable population. Women are raped in front of their families and are thus sunned from their children, husbands and the wider community. Often women are physically wounded, suffering from vaginal mutilation which can include cutting, forced insertion of objects and gun shots. Women often can never bear children again. Victimized women frequently suffer from intense tearing that leads to fistula, a condition of incontinence which isolates women even further. It’s a disgusting chapter in human history and continues as I write this.

The war is largely fueled by the DRC’s vast trove of mineral resources which are in high demand among developed countries. Groups fight for control of minerals required for the manufacture of cell phones, computers and televisions. Wealthy countries are happy to purchase these resources from who ever is selling, and ask few questions as to where and how they were procured. Nonexistent governance and a powerless population create a perfect storm for groups which seek to grab market shares through violence. Everyone who owns a cell phone or a computer is at least somewhat complicit in what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To this end, bill HR 4128, a bill to “To improve transparency and reduce trade in conflict minerals” was introduced in Congress in 2009, but has yet to see a vote. Please go here and write to members of Congress to call for a vote on this bill.

Last night, the University of Michigan’s Raoul Wallenberg Award was presented to Dr. Denis Mukwege. Dr. Mukwege operates a women’s hospital in the city of Bukavu in eastern DRC. The Panzi Hospital treats women who have been subjected to sexual violence, offering psychological services, medical treatment, reconstructive surgery to repair the incredible physical damage and support services to help women transition back into society. They see approximately 3600 patients a year and he personally has performed more than 21,000 reconstructive surgeries over the past decade. In short, Mukwege is a human rights champion and a selfless advocate of women who have been subjected to sexual violence. Presently, he is in the United States attempting to raise awareness for the dire situation of women in the DRC.

People like Mukwege are not alone. Behind him is a small army of medical and women’s advocates in the DRC, who tirelessly and often at the expense of their own welfare and security work to make the troubled world they live in a better place. Every single one of them are deserving of this award.

Measuring Travel Times with GPSTrack: Monday, Nov 15th

In gearing up for a research project on travel times to health facilities in developing countries, I used a GPS app for my iPhone to track my travel route yesterday. GPSTrack is a free app which tracks one’s lat/long positions and elevation at intermittent points throughout a specified time window (you can pause it, it’s a battery hog). One is then able to export the points as a data file and can then import it into a GIS program such as ArcGIS to view it, as I have done to the left. A close of up my travels through Central campus on my lunch break gives you an idea of the accuracy of the readings. It’s pretty good; I can even track my movements within buildings:

The app not only allows one to produce pretty pictures, but, with a little computational pushing can allow one to calculate speed travelled between points. Below, I have two graphs, one is on an absolute time scale, the other is just for the series of measurement points, ignoring the time that passes between points:

It’s pretty easy to spot the difference between travel by foot and by bus, and to notice that I do a lot of sitting on my butt throughout the day. Unfortunately, travel distances while in front of a computer are 0. You can even spot stop lights and pausing in front of doors, desks, etc.

A cool feature is being able to track changes in elevation throughout the day, as I show below. To get from North Campus (where I live) and Central, one must travel through a bowl along where a river flows, hence the dips.

All in all? A cool free app. Unfortunately, the data export requires a little coaxing to get it to do what you want to do, and you have to filter out odd points when the cel phone is trying to figure out where you are. However, for the price, it’s worth it. In the future, we hope to attach GPS readers to mothers on their way home from health facilities, in order to accurately track the amount of time and the means of getting there and back.

Minamata Museum Faces Decay

I first became aware of Minamata through a Dead Kennedys song and learning about it truly hit home. I was born in Midland, Michigan, home of chemical giant, Dow Chemical, who make, among other things, the ubiquitous Zip-Loc bag. Dow dumped toxins into the environment for years, poisoning the largely silent local populace, which would rather have jobs than health. Cancers are rampant in people from the area. For myself, it’s a fact that I’m conscious of every single day. My mother contracted stomach cancer at 26, and I have an uncle who fought leukemia as a child. Given the lessons that we should be learning from Minamata and Dow, it’s frightening to me that the American right would call for less environmental regulation and consider even basic environmental standards to be unAmerican and inherently anti-business. While the government in both cases was entirely complicit in these vast health disasters, we should be increasing regulation and encouraging greater transparency in environmental hazards, not lessening them.

Minamata’s history is this: throughout the twentieth century, the Chisso Coporation operated a factory in Kumamoto Prefecture on the western island of Kyuushuu, Japan. Chisso makes liquid crystal for LCD displays and televisions and continues to operate to this day. For nearly 34 years, Chisso regularly dumped methyl mercury into the water surrounding Minamata bay. In 1959, a five year old girl appeared in a Chisso factory hospital having difficulty walking , convulsions and slurred speech and days later, her sister showed the same symptoms. What happened after that, was a turbulent unveiling of Chisso’s pursuit of profit at the expense of human health and safety and a community torn apart by the seams, along with more than 3000 officially recognized cases of Minamata disease. Those who profited from Chisso and stood to lose by the unveiling of contamination, clashed with victims seeking compensation and an end to Chisso’s using Minamata Bay as a toxic dumping ground.

Given the complex web of complicity in the Minamata poisoning which includes individuals at every level of local, business and Japanese administration, it is no surprise that the Japanese government has been unwilling to pony up money to support the decaying supporting centerr for theMinamata Disease Museum. The City of Minamata operates the museum on a shoestring and cannot support even basic archival standards. Documents chronicling the event, it’s after effects and the long legal battles in it’s wake, are now beginning to rot, with some photographs showing signs of mold and insect infestation. Now, the museum, which arguably is a necessity to preserve the incredible struggles of citizenry against exploitation by big business, must find a way to raise funds to preserve it’s archives, not an easy feat in a sinking economy. The disappearance of these documents would no doubt be welcome to big business and rightist members of the Japanese government. What is forgotten, no longer exists and history then can be rewritten however one sees fit.

I leave you with the lyrics to the Dead Kennedy’s “Kepone Factory.” Mostly I find Jello (the vocalist) annoying, but these lyrics are right on:

“Kepone Factory”

I finally found a job in a paper
Movin’ barrels at a chemical plant
There’s shiny-looking dust on my fingers
Goin’ up my nose and into my lungs

It’s the Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata
At the grimy Kepone Factory
Turning people into bonzai trees

Now I’ve got these splitting headaches
I can’t quite get it up no more
I can’t sleep and it’s driving me crazy
I shake all day and I’m seeing double

Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata

Gonna go down your big metal building
Gonna slam right through your bright metal door
Gonna grab you by your sta-prest collar
And ram some kepone down your throat

The lawyer says ‘That’s the breaks, kid
Gonna gnarl and rot the rest of your life
If you don’t sue, we’ll give you a Trans-Am:’
That I’ll never drive cos I shake all the time

‘Cause of the Kepone poisoning
At the grimy Kepone factory

Treaties of the World

One of my favorite blogs, Computational Legal Studies, just posted a link to an extensive database containing all world treaties between countries. In a spare moment, I downloaded the entire database of more than 58,000 treaties, loaded it into UCINET and was able to produce this graphic through NetDraw. The countries are arranged in k-cores, that is groups where the members all have a similar number of treaties between each other. Not surprisingly, countries which share borders tend to have a large number of treaties between each other, hence the clumping of countries. Note the bottom clump which contains mostly European countries. Also, not surprising is that the US, France, Germany and the UK all have large numbers of treaties with other countries. The US has a whopping 4,165 treaties that it has recognized in the past, and is the most important in connecting countries together. That is, a large number of countries may not have treaties directly with each other, but have mutual treaties with the United States, leading to at least some level of connection (one could assume).

ACLED Database: Conflicts in Africa 1997-2010

While at this year’s ASTMH meetings, I happened upon a fantastic poster featuring conflicts in the DRC as associated with malaria outcomes in children. While I won’t go into the specifics of that particular research (paper forthcoming I assume), I will present this map of conflicts in Africa from 1997-2010 that I created from the ACLED database. Conflict is ubiquitous in central Sub-Saharan Africa, bleeding like a festering cancer throughout Central Africa. Border violence upon civilians is unfortunately common. Over here, in the United States, we are too busy being distracted by idiots like Michelle Bachmann to be concerned about what happens halfway around the globe but make no mistake, our economic downturn likely has grave effects for civilians caught in the crossfire of these senseless conflicts, as aid money dries up, political will disintegrates and good governance and African growth fall to the wayside.

There has been a disturbing uptick in conflicts in the past 3 years after a considerable drop during our economic boom years. However, violence against civilians continues, fueled likely in part to oil and resource grabs by first world countries, and a wide availability of guns from around the world. In particular, billions of dollars of American weapons flowed into Africa during the 90’s under the Clinton admin. Africans will use whatever they have as long as they can. Weapons don’t just go away and US and European small arms manufacturers profit at the expense of kids in Africa, while the US government, in bed with the gun industry, turns a blind eye. Ironically, it has been suggested that guns and supplies which flow into Africa to fuel these stupid conflicts are manufactured in part using US prison labor through the US government’s sanctioned slave labor unit UNICOR for not more than $1.15 an hour, labor which largely consists of the descendants of African slaves.

While this post is rife with sweeping generalizations and unsupported conclusions, in my mind it is highly likely that American big business profits off chaos. As long as people argue and fight, markets for violence are created. As long as Americans are distracted with their own political chaos as encouraged by the American right, these companies will freely operate in the shadows. Citizens are easy to control when they feel that they are in danger and power for business easy to consolidate.


Republicans have taken the House of Representatives. This, in itself, is not such a bad thing. I am a strong proponent of a productive balance of power. The true strength of democracies lies in the ability of groups with vastly different priorities civilly (or not) contribute to a reasonable debate of the issues, and the free expression of their respective priorities and issues. However, this election is different. We have seen the rise of what the Republicans have long worked to suppress within their ranks. Tea partiers, which at one time would have been card carrying members of the John Birch Society, have not only gained a 24 hour sounding board through Fox news, but have garnered the sympathies of a large swaths of angry white baby boomers, and, through this election, have honest political power in the Congress.

I am everything that they hate. I’m an educated liberal-leaning loudmouth who believes that government exists to protect the people and insure the welfare of the people, because there are assholes out there who seek to profit off the suffering of the masses. Taxation serves to provide that which people and business cannot reasonably be expected to provide by themselves. Could you imagine the Koch brothers running a public library? I believe in public schools, as choked as they may be. I believe in public universities, radio, television, public funding for research, government, and societal standards of fair and ethical business practices and the power of government as a voice for those too weak to speak for themselves. I believe that this is what the founding fathers envisioned, not a pseudo anarchic dog eat dog state which lets white business owners run free at the expense of the lower classes. Reagan style right wingers would like to see public money go to building guns and prisons for immigrants, I would like to see public money go to health care and free education for anybody who wants it. Prisons don’t make our society better. Schools do.

I don’t believe that the free market can set moral and societal standards. It can’t. The free market is born of men seeking profit at the expense of desperate consumers, who have little choice in who provides them opportunities for purchase. People in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan have a range of choices of where they buy necessary goods from, I would venture to say that people in Adrian have less, and residents of Detroit have little to none. The free market fails the poor.

Reading the news for me is a depressing experience. For example, take the health care bill. The average Tea Partier, who screams for its repeal, has neither read the bill, nor understands its contents. I’m very sure that there are people in their ranks who directly benefit from being able to keep their kids of their health policy until 26, who directly benefit from not being rejected for preexisting conditions, but who scream the same, because they believe that the bill provides free abortions for illegal immigrants (sic). This morning on the radio, I actually heard a gentleman say that he was against the idea that a majority in the Congress can decide the passing of a bill into law. The man believes that a dictatorial state along the lines of Sadaam Hussein’s Baathist regime is somehow better than a representative democracy such as we have here in the US. I see rightists screaming about the sanctity of the Constitution, yet advocate rewriting the document the deny citizenship to those who are born here.

Presently, I am at the annual American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference. I have seen representatives from not less than 20 government agencies. 20 government agencies the Tea Party doesn’t even know about yet are essential to the security and well-being of Americans. I am more educated than most Tea Partiers. I read political articles and blogs more than any human should. Yet, it is still extremely difficult for me to grasp all the issues. I can’t keep track of what Senator is from what state nor the details of the multitude of bills that pass thought the Congress every month. Yet, somehow, some guy who works in a chainsaw store, who didn’t’ graduate from high school, who can barely calculate his home mortgage, claims to have the right to say that government is too big, that the multitudes of dedicated government employees are useless, that they are merely parasites sucking off the teat of the American people and that they should be canceled, fired and thrown to the coals. If that sounds elitist, it is. It pisses me off to no end.

I pray that this Congress works to govern and not destroy but am not confident that that is what they plan to do. Government based on nonaction and the dismantling of public policy is not government. You have to be able to provide to maintain the support of the people. Right now, I see no indication that Americans understand that.

This is an elitist rant, from an elitist individual who is absolutely aware that he knows next to nothing. You win.


Continuing a series of fictional movies shot in real warzones on this blog, Ahlaam is a fantastic film. Iraqi born, London trained director Mohamed Al Daradji traveled to Baghdad in 2004 to film Ahlaam with a cast of everyday Iraqis and legendary, but displaced, well known Iraqi stage and film actors. Much akin to the incredible Heavy Metal in Baghdad, Al Daradji presents a disturbing picture of every day Iraqi lives pre and post Sadaam. He recreates the allegedly true story of three people from a mental institution in Baghdad and the great sadness that their friends and family experience. While politics plays out in the form of guns, violence and marginalization, everyday Iraqi people somehow have to piece together what they can of their troubled lives. The acting is excellent and incredibly sincere. Some of the looting and rioting scenes are difficult to watch. It’s unclear whether they scenes are staged or if the film crew took the opportunity to shoot in the midst of true chaos. One crew member was kidnapped, the rest were purportedly lined up against a wall during filming to be shot by insurgents, harassed by American patrols and a 14 year old mike operator was shot in the leg while filming but the movie got made anyway.

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