Redrawing the map

I caught up on a lot of podcasts today, notable ones include Planet Money’s final Iceland report and the intriguing birther/Trump vs Obama political wrangling on both KCRW’s Left, Right and Center as well as the New Yorker’s Political Scene. Of course I was consumed, as much of the world was, by the news that Osama bin Laden was killed outside Islamabad early this morning.

What I find most interesting though is the stalemate that has developed in Libya. Last week’s Economist had an article about the siege of Misrata and the necessity for US drone and A-10 support for any real success to emerge for the rebels. It’s become clear though that Qaddafi is not likely to simply be overthrown by emboldened supporters turned against him (either the unwashed masses or those closest to him) nor by that rag-tag coalition loosely headquartered around Benghazi. As such, NATO stepped up its selected “strategic targeting” of military compounds that all just happen to be places where the Qaddafi family hangs out (but this is definitely not an assassination attempt). It seems we’re hoping that cutting off the head of the snake will dissolve the defenders of the status quo. This move succeeded in Iraq – after Saddam’s death no one remained to defend his government really – but it was a frying pan/fire situation at best.

Which is why I found an Economist online poll (http://www.economist.com/node/21256109) interesting. Is simply partitioning the country appropriate?

A simple look at the map of Africa reveals far too many straight lines, a sign of arbitrary colonial cartographers rather than national and ethnic association. Many of the current problems come from this awkward hodge-podge of countries, with Muslim sections fighting Christian regions (Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria) or historical autonomous regions smarting from distant rule (Morocco). Letting these countries redraw the map wouldn’t promote the western liberal multicultural ideal (that few western countries practice despite their preaching, France being only the most recent example). But with each nationality firmly in control of their state, disagreements could be compromised in a meeting of equal heads of state, rather than in contentious, rigged elections for winner-take-all. As the AU gains power, a loose set of guidelines could become prevalent, deferring to an authority that normally would be rejected for internal matters.

Of course, nations wage devastating war and in this instance such a partition would only change the name of Libya’s war, and the end game would still be a unified Libya sans Qaddafi. But such a change might gain some breathing room for the rebels to learn how to govern and save some face for Qaddafi to promote a bloodless (relatively) transition from power.

Media type: Online poll
From: The Economist
Title: Would the partition of Libya be a bad thing?
Ponder at: http://www.economist.com/node/21256109

The power of hype

First, a quick nod to Nigeria which has begun its relatively successful elections this week. Here’s hoping that the term “relatively” will be dropped over time. Also, I’m keeping an eye on developments in Yemen, to see which way the army breaks as the GCC seeks to peacefully remove Saleh. As I mentioned previously, it looks like elements of the army are lining up for reform so we may see more-or-less peaceable transition. Finally, it appears Gbagbo is captured and the democratically elected leader of the Ivory Coast can start governing fully. And all without a single NATO no-fly zone.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Instead, I’d like to call your attention to Steven Pinker’s My Genome, my self article from the New York Times Magazine. I came across it in the book I’m currently reading: The Best American Science Writing of 2010. The article is by no means succinct but it is an immensely readable detailing of the current state of human genomic research.

He lays out the potential and limits of current understandings as well as the hype surrounding the “personal genomics” movement over the past decade. As a genomics researcher these past few years, I came in right when grand ideas were becoming actual projects and have watched as they stumbled across the always-unexpected hurdles. It is a pleasure to read Pinker’s layman’s guide to narrow band that is actually revealed from current academic and commercial testing.

Basically, the big labs and companies can tell you with decent accuracy whether you have certain known, popular mutations. Of course, you may realize this means they can’t reveal whether you have less common mutations or even unique ones! The companies will also quickly let you know that this mutation (really a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP) is associated with this disease/trait/ethnic group. But what they fail to mention is that the strength of that association is almost always extremely weak.
Pinker’s example is height. Long discussed at academic conferences, height is the perfect trait: quantitative and highly heritable. Looking for common SNPs in tall or short people has revealed a host of associations. But when you look at all the known ones, they account for only 2% of the heritability! This means that while it’s almost automatic that tall couples make tall kids, tall kids don’t always inherit the known “tall” mutations from their parents. Since it’s easier to find SNPs with strong effects (think Huntingdon’s disease, where the SNP explains 100% of the heritability), and we’ve found dozens of SNPs associated to height, that means there are at least hundreds other SNPs that are contributing. So maybe tall kids inherit 50 from one parent and 50 from another, but we only are looking at 2.

What’s worse is that different studies don’t always find the same SNPs. Studies looking for associations in thousands of papers often come up with different, non-overlapping lists of SNPs. So which ones are right? Well, right now, we just say they’re all correct. But of course the studies are done in different ethnicities, and given that genes are highly interactive, what may be height-enhancing in Scandinavians is meaningless in Japanese.

We “finished” the human genome project a decade ago but really are not much closer to that heralded age of personalized medicine. It’s my opinion that we’re never going to get to that predicted moment where you submit a DNA sample and get an ideal drug-cocktail and health-warning. There’s simply too much genetic individuality that will never be understandable. Sure, we’ll be able to sequence genomes for pennies soon, but if you’re the only person in the history of the world with a set of specific mutations who can possibly predict whether that makes you more or less susceptible to statins or HIV or skin cancer or poor inhibition control.

That’s not to say this research is useless. It would be better applied to things like agriculture and biotech. Herds of cattle and rows of corn have less genetic differences so we can make conclusive findings that tie SNPs with trait differences. Indeed companies like Monsanto are gobbling up the biotechs that make just these finds. These natural polymorphisms should calm those afraid of genetically-modified crops as they can just be bred into the next generation and are entirely native.

Media type: Book
From: The Best American Science Writing 2010
Title: My Genome, My Self
Read it at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11Genome-t.html

Democracy’s nooks and crannies

I’ve been as riveted as the rest of the world as the Arab Spring continues, spilling out in north Africa before hitting the first storm breaks in Tripoli and now Bahrain.  I’ve written earlier about the nearly-neglected democratic crises in Haiti and the Ivory Coast, but today I was caught totally unaware by the recent presidential election in Niger, a country geographically centered between Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Just over a year ago, Niger’s president attempted to amend the constitution in his favor resulting in an eviction notice from the military.  Now, the military is holding to its promise to hand power back to civilian control, specifically to the winner of what looks like a mostly free run-off election.  General Djibo is quoted as being thrilled to return to his post as a humble soldier.  Importantly he has also “appeal[ed] to the two candidates that they respect the outcome…and the loser accepts his defeat.”  No Ivory Coast shenanigans here.

So here we see yet another example of my earlier stated thesis that a focus on divorcing the military from civilian leaders allows for successful evolutions into democratic governance.  To add more support one only need to look at Yemen where the top general, Ali Mohsen, has declared his support for the protesters despite personal and tribal ties to President Saleh, prompting the prognosticators to move his retirement date up.  Saleh is by no means out, he and his family still directly command various elite, well trained Republican Guards and his role in the War on Terror guarantees some awkward shuffling by western leaders.  Still, it seems his tenure is nearly up with tanks ringing the protesters in his capital pointing out rather than in.

When the top leader does not have personal control over the dogs of war, they are less likely to slip the leash.  Countries like Bahrain, Syria and Iran (as well as China, North Korea, Myanmar, and even it seems Gaza) are unlikely to truly see change due to mass uprisings so long as their generals do not feel independent.  It is in democracy-loving peoples interest to focus less on pushing top-down government reform and instead urge independent military control.  While an independent military may not be a sign of stability, such as in Thailand’s numerous coups or Turkey’s tumultuous past, they are able to respond as a counter-weight to any great accumulation of power.

Media type: Online news
From: al-Jazeera
Title: Niger votes in presidential run-off
Read it at:  http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/201131216474436974.html

What a difference a desert makes

I mentioned yesterday that only those who live in a state with near-absolute media control are unaware of scenes from the Arab street, specifically the outright rebellion in Libya.  How interesting that a few hundred miles southwest is another African country suffering a leadership transition, but unless you are checking the BBC or Al Jazeera you’ll have barely heard of it.

I’m talking of the disputed election and its aftermath in the Ivory Coast.  Since late last year, incumbent-president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to recognize the election results placing him in second (that is, losing) to Outtara.  During the initial counting and announcement, Gbagbo tried numerous tricks including having an ally rip up the election results on television before they could be officially announced by the election commission!  Can you imagine if on election eve Karl Rove had stormed onto CNN’s set and smashed the colored electoral map?  Ok, maybe it’s not quite as absurd as I initially envisioned.  Regardless, Gbagbo holed himself up in official facilities refusing to leave like a spoiled toddler.

After a UN-certification of the results, Gbagbo did the usual thing: he called for demonstrations in the street of his supporters, brought the military to bear, accused his opponent of being a foreign-backed puppet, and refused to meet with the carousel of African leaders who requested a visit.  Currently rebel forces (that is, militias in support of the recognized winner, Outtara) are pressing around the capital.  Outtara has called for an embargo on his own country, denying the Gbagbo-controlled ports and banks the ability to collect dues from the immense cocoa trade.

It all makes for quite high-drama.  All the more so considering the fragile democracies that emerged in west Africa after so many bloody ethnic civil wars that frequently spilled over borders. And yes, there’s even oil involved as Nigeria prepares for its first election with no automatic winner.  And yet, news from the region fails to make it near the top of the hour or the front page.

My first theory was that the Arab world has upstaged this region, being larger and more immediate to western commercial interests.  This cannot be the sole reason, the Ivorian election was in November.  Perhaps crowded out by our mid-terms, few news organizations feel they can now bring in their audience mid-crisis?  Perhaps the constant conflict of the 90s has acclimatized us to the region, whereas the ossified Arab leaders’ downfall is grander.  Or perhaps after painting Muslims as our enemy (but shhhh, not officially) for the past decade, their news catches our eye more easily.

Personally, I believe this last point.  Look how little we care about Russia and its perversion of democracy and capitalism after they ceased being the frightening USSR, or how much the media seem to comment on China’s machinations now as opposed to when they reclaimed Hong Kong or attacked one of our spy planes at the turn of the century.  If this truly is the reason why one revolt is covered while another ignored -one region thrust to the spotlight while the other resigned to the shadows- then we can look forward to a drop off in the denigration of Muslims as we simply ignore them in favor of some new bogeyman.

Media type: Online news
From: Reuters
Title: Ivorian rebels take western town as violence mounts
Read it at: http://tinyurl.com/4oc97vt

People Power vs Actual Power

Unless you live in China, you can’t escape the near constant reporting on the upheaval in the Middle East and north Africa over the past two months.  The jasmine revolution continues to inspire demonstrations, riots and outright rebellion from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic.  We may be witnessing a world-changing event on par with the various color revolutions in eastern Europe of barely a generation ago.  It is easy for the media and the casual observer to get swept up in the belief that when the people truly want change, change is inevitable.  Numerous articles in such high-thinking publications as the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times tell us that regardless of short-term stability we should always be pro-democracy, or else we end up on the wrong side of such history!

No one can deny the power of an outraged populous, and current events serve only to remind us of that.  The theory that greater access to communication and information help break authoritarian rule suggest that as xerox and personal computers were to the Soviets, so twitter and facebook are to the Arab autocrats.  But that is hardly the end of the story.

People have continually risen up against oppressive regimes.  Prague Spring, Tienamen Square, and the Green Revolution in Tehran are all examples of people power trying to burst the dam but ultimately falling short.  All three of these examples were quashed by a no-nonsense military crackdown.  As with all things political, one only has to look back to the Roman Republic crisis to see that a disrupted population can be brought to heel with the use of a disciplined military and its unflinching commander.  For all his craziness, Qaddafi seems to have understood this fact and despite near-universal disgust may yet cling to power.  Even civilized Bahrain toys with more forceful tactics as it inches closer to instability.

So while the west’s role in propping up dictators may be outdated, instead of backing various pro-democracy groups we should instead put our focus on creating tighter bonds with nations’ armies .  In the chaos of a new order, revolutionaries can get shut out of the very government they helped make possible in favor of stronger figures; but those with the biggest guns always seem to find a seat at the table.  Such influence may be enough to convince leaders not to let loose the dogs of war.  Slow, steady influence may even help convince them that their fate is tied with the citizens-at-large.  While some demonstrations have overcome armed response (Kyrgyzstan, the Bolsheviks, even the American Revolution), few regimes have stayed in power when the army takes itself out of the equation.

Media type: Online news
From: Al-Jazeera
Title: Thousands protest in Bahrain
Read it at: Thousands protest in Bahrain – Middle East – Al Jazeera English