Wednesday, January 30, 2008


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The greatest threat to mankind today is not nuclear proliferation, or terrorism, or even global climate change. No, the greatest threat comes from the most miniscule of predators: the virus.

H5N1, better known as the bird flu, has microbiologists deeply troubled. When they fear, I fear. And so should you.

Top scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and other renown entities agree that not only is a global pandemic inevitable, but also long overdue.

The last pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918, killed between 50 – 100 million people worldwide. Due to the nature of the current avian strain, the death toll, despite modern medicine, may be much higher. Just how bad might it be? Robert Webster, a leading expert on bird flu, reports that the virus may threaten the lives of billions.

Strange, then, how little publicity this virus receives in the media. You would think developments would be of international interest. Sadly, to learn of the latest outbreaks or the fight to protect our future, you need to hunt for the information yourself.

This news embargo may exist because the truth is too unsettling.

The Sky Falls In On Chicken Little

H5N1 spread rapidly after its discovery on a farm in Guangdong Province, China, in 1996. Outbreaks occurred in Hong Kong the following year in poultry farms and live animal markets. The first 18 human cases were reported, resulting in six fatalities.

The virus is now rampant across Asia, and has reached Africa, Europe and the Americas. The culling of poultry is commonplace wherever an outbreak of H5N1 occurs. Several million birds were destroyed this month, where the virus has again resurfaced in India and neighboring Bangladesh.

So far, the virus has had limited affect on humans. According to WHO statistics, only two hundred fatalities have occurred worldwide. The virus needs to undergo certain mutations before it poses a credible threat to the human populace. However, these mutations are now occurring and the question of a human-to-human strain of bird flu is about when, not if.

World governments are seeking methods to limit the spread of the virus once a pandemic erupts. The best defense against a lethal strain of influenza is a vaccine. U.S. scientists created a vaccine in the wake of the Hong Kong outbreak, but the drug was never fully developed or used, in large part because the strain of bird flu mutated, rendering the vaccine ineffectual. That this virus mutates may prove to be the biggest impediment in the fight to save humanity.

Playing the Vaccine Lottery

The reality is that no vaccine to fight human-to-human H5N1 bird flu can exist until the pandemic begins. Until then, we can only guess at what this strain would look like and how it would function. Once the virus is identified, then labs can begin to create a working vaccine.

However, it might take months to create such a solution. In the intervening time, the flu pandemic may have washed across the globe. The only short-term stopgap against H5N1 may be older vaccines (used on previous strains of bird flu) and preventatives such as Tamiflu.

Tamiflu, the brand name for a drug known as oseltamivir, is an antiviral touted as a cornerstone in the fight against pandemic flu. It can be used to help prevent a flu infection and, if taken within 48 hours of symptoms, may mitigate the worse effects.

Hospitals and clinics stockpile Tamiflu during peak flu season. In the event of a pandemic, it will be the main weapon used by doctors to limit the virus threat. However, Tamiflu is not a vaccine, is not designed specifically to combat H5N1, and may offer minimal protection. In other words, Tamiflu may not work against the bird flu. You may be better off washing your hands and staying home.

Even if Tamiflu proved moderately effective in combating bird flu, current stockpiles are woefully inadequate to treat all Americans, let alone the world.

And that’s the other problem plaguing vaccine manufacturers. Should a successful vaccine be produced, the number of doses required to fend off a pandemic are estimated at around 4.5 billion. It’s an unmanageable number.

Dr. Kuo Hsu-sung, Director General of the CDC in Taiwan, said it may take upwards of four years to get a new production facility online. Many are needed. It’s a gamble. The world must wait and hope it has that long before H5N1 transitions to humans. Should the virus transition into a strain that may travel from human to human before stockpiles are filled, hundreds of millions, if not billions, will be left helpless against infection.

In response, members of the U.S. congress requested an investigation into the effects and treatment of bird flu. The results were recently published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It cites a Dept. of Health and Human Services caveat that a pandemic vaccine might play little role in the early phases of a pandemic, because it will take 20 – 23 weeks to develop and produce a targeted vaccine. The report also cited the lack of sufficient production facilities.

The GAO overview received little media attention, and is damning proof that the United States is not ready for a pandemic. Further hampering efforts are poor surveillance systems used to detect outbreaks of bird flu, especially in Asia. If these outbreaks are not recognized initially, there will be no opportunity to harness preventive medicines.

Evolutionary War

Viruses were on earth before mankind. They will be here long after we depart. In a world where evolution is the key to survival, these invisible killers rule supreme. Their constant mutating keeps us guessing. The ability of the flu strain to adapt and evolve requires the same from our science. To date, viruses outpace our ability to constrain them.

Studies by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in October indicated that H5N1 bird flu had begun the transition into a form more readily conducive for human-to-human contamination.

Even as medical professionals wrangle with the complexities of H5N1, other, older, viruses are gathering strength.

Reports from Canada indicate that H1N1, a similar strain to that predominant during the Spanish flu pandemic, and a common influenza agent in North America, is showing an alarming resistance to Tamiflu this season.

Nearly 10% of H1N1 viruses tested so far by the National Microbiology Laboratory, are resistant to the antiviral drug. Resistance normally hovers around 1%.

Yet, we will continue to defend ourselves. British pharmaceutical Glaxo Smith Klein announced positive results in tests of a new bird flu vaccine, and the hope is it may prove effective against future mutations of the virus.

Fighting the future is literally what we must now do to survive. The longer bird flu delays its eventually transition into humans, the more hope we have. Governments are aware of the threat, but the wheels of industry turn slow. Perhaps a public outcry will draw more attention to the plight?

I say shout while you may, for soon an unseen enemy may silence your voice forever.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


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Something strange transpired in the night sky over Stephenville, Texas recently. In the weeks following, something truly out-of-this-world occurred on the ground.

In the early evening of January 8, the residents of this small farming community witnessed the most sensational UFO sighting since the Phoenix lights of 1997.

Dozens of residents, among them a certified pilot and a law enforcement officer, reported a UFO hovering overhead. Some saw the craft return minutes later, pursued (in vain) by two military jets.

By morning, newspapers and local radio were buzzing with alien activity. Unlike most UFO claims, it was clear the Stephenville incident could not readily be dismissed as a hoax, atmospheric conditions, or experimental weather balloon. And, equally bizarre, the media took a serious approach to the subject. As a result, this little community in the heart of the Bible-belt, received national, and then international, scrutiny.

Making accurate observations of aerial phenomenon is notoriously difficult. People tend to miscalculate size, distance, and speed. Which is why pilot Steve Allen became a key witness. A man used to flying these same skies, his judgment of events offered more validity than most.

“I guarantee that what we saw,” he said, “was not a civilian aircraft.” He described the object as enormous, perhaps a half-mile wide and a mile long. It was “bigger than a Wal-Mart.”

Allen claims the UFO sped across the skyline at speeds above 3,000 mph, while two fighter jets attempted to follow.


Where believers see UFOs, skeptics see mundane aircraft. With Allen and others claiming the presence of jets, the media turned to the military. The likeliest suspect was the Joint Reserve Base Naval Air Station, in Fort Worth.

If the base were running exercises over Stephenville that fateful night, all the UFO furor would surely die down.

But, said officials, no military planes were flying in the area that evening.

With a military denial, and so many residents reporting something extraordinary in the sky, the possibility of a close encounter loomed larger.

More residents came forward, admitting they, too, saw something unexplainable. At the weekend, members of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) set up business in nearby Dublin and began compiling reports. They received more than 50, an exceptional number from a church-going, sober (the county is dry), down-to-earth, farming region.

“I’d say a very small percentage of people who see these (UFOs) actually report,” said Kenneth Cherry, the Texas director of MUFON. If true, potentially thousands of bystanders witnessed something strange and seemingly unexplainable that night.

But then things got really weird.

The military reversed its position. Suddenly they did have aircraft in the vicinity the night in question. Not just one or two, either. No, they had ten F-16s on maneuvers.

Ten F-16s?! Okay, then…

Why the change in story? Major Karl Lewis, a base spokesman, said they were mistaken and wanted to set the record straight “in the interest of public awareness.”

After the announcement, the public was very aware, aware that something didn’t smell right in Fort Worth.

It’s likely that the incident would have passed quickly from the public conscience had the Air Force not fueled conspiracy fires with it’s dramatic new claim. Without hard evidence, even the strongest saucer sightings fail to entice lasting interest. Yet the reversal, if designed to abate talk of alien antics, only served to guarantee Stephenville a permanent place in UFO lore.

Why had the military first denied a presence in the area? Did they have something to hide? And what possible reason might there be for ten F-16s to be operating that night?

“This supports our story that there was UFO activity in that area,” said MUFON’s Cherry. “I find it curious that it took them two weeks to ‘fess up. I think they are feeling the heat from the publicity.”

And the publicity would increase. In the week ending January 16, “UFO photos” was the number three fastest-moving search term used on all web sites. Among news and media sites, “UFO sightings” ranked fourth among all U.S.-based searches.

Chat forums were alive with discussion. Everyone had an opinion about what took place over Stephenville, and few believed the military’s version of events.


The culture of UFOlogy is simple to appreciate. Those making the claims of flying saucers are branded as nutcases. Those debunking the claims are branded (by the nutcases) as government agents working to subvert the Truth. The media tends to ignore the subject except to occasionally offer a minute or two of tongue-in-cheek attention. The military sends out press releases explaining what really happened, reassuring us that the nutcases really are nutcases.

But the culture breaks down over Stephenville. You can’t brand an entire town crazy: Respected businessmen, a policeman, friends and neighbors all saw something peculiar. The media took a sober approach to the story, and the only nutcases in town appeared to be the experts, the military.

Just how gullible do they think we are?

First they claimed no presence in the region. Then they suggested that residents were letting their imaginations run wild. It was an optical illusion, they claimed, brought on by sunlight reflecting off two airliners.

Sunlight? Between 6pm and 8pm? In January?

Then the reversal. Then the F-16s.

Excuse me for believing your average Texan can tell the difference between an F-16 and a mile-long flying saucer. Even Mr. Magoo can ogle the disparity. And let’s not forget, several witnesses reported seeing the UFO and jet fighters. Explain that one, Major.

The 457th Fighter Squadron uses the Brownwood Military Operating area for training exercises, which includes airspace above Erath County. Fighter jets over Stephenville, then, should not be uncommon. Residents would be familiar with their night lights, their sounds, their shapes in the sky. The encounter January 8 should be a regular occurrence in this part of the country. Only it’s not.

Something else happened. Some residents are whispering “cover-up.” And who could blame them?

The military’s appalling reversal and subsequent refusal to offer more information rates as an astronomical public relations blunder. When the official explanation sounds more bizarre than the suggestion of extraterrestrial visitors, you can’t help but wonder if there really is something to all this conspiracy talk after all.

At least the 17,000 residents are having some fun with the publicity. High-schoolers are selling tee shirts that read: “Stephenville: The New Roswell” on the front. The back reads: “They’re here for the milk!” and shows a flying saucer beaming up a cow. Maybe the military has a theory about cattle mutilation, too. Maybe it’s just the night sun reflecting off truck beds. Or maybe, finally, this is one Texas two-step for which the military can’t find a dance partner.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


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As a consequence of 9-11, the U.S. is at war with itself. The overwhelming majority of Americans dismiss this truth and, therefore, are destined for defeat.

At stake in this war is personal privacy. The Patriot Act was not the first blow against it, just the most brazen. Signed into law a mere six weeks after the terror attacks, and despite its assault on the Fourth Amendment, its swift passage provoked few complaints. Shaken to the core, American sentiment was near-unanimous: a lack of vigilance had allowed the enemy to strike at home. We would safeguard the future against any repetition, no matter the cost.

Yet, the cost of this, or any, security is the erosion of liberty. And that liberty is the citizenry’s sole defense against its own government. Because so few Americans are able to rationalize the State acting against the good of its people, the calculated overthrow of our privacy will be absolute.

"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”

In 1948, George Orwell visualized a bleak world future, where personal privacy crumbled before state security. Big Brother pried open our lives, scrutinized our every behavior. The slightest disobedience was met by death or macabre re-education.

Despite the draconian message of 1984, the novel’s infrastructure is now prevalent in the U.S. The Thought Police are coming. The weapon fueling this putsch appears harmless, even mundane. And, like the plot of any good sci-fi, it’s already among us.

I write of the soon-to-be ubiquitous RFID tag.

RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags are used in corporate security cards, at highway toll booths. They are the annoying clothing tags that set off store alarms. That these devices will be used to deprive us of our liberty seems absurd. But, as Verbal knew, that’s just the point.


Like a wily devil, RFID will greet you as a friend. It will smother you with gifts practical, quasi-magical, sometimes near-miraculous in their promise. Who wouldn’t want a refrigerator that could talk, tell you the milk’s expired, or that you are running low on eggs, that could even call the grocery store and place an order for you?

What dorm student wouldn’t love to toss the laundry into the washer, knowing the machine is smart enough to tell whites from colors, cold from warm, wool from blend?

Who wouldn’t want the blind to walk safely through town, any town, without the aid of a guide?

RFID is cool. You’re going to want it. The consumer-driven market will demand it. Soon, you won’t be able to imagine life without it. And that’s how, in a nutshell, we lose our privacy.

Because RFID is much more than a tool of industry. It’s a mechanism for surveillance; it’s spyware at its core. These tiny tags store information and, particularly in semi-passive and active models, transmit this data to a central reader for collection and collation, allowing Big Brother to keep tabs on you.

What information will be shared? Proponents suggest you have nothing to fear. No personal data will ever be transmitted. Buy a jacket from a retail store and the RFID chip sends product details to an in-house inventory database. Purchase a magazine and the chip will monitor which articles are read, but without revealing who’s doing the reading.

Yet it’s just not that simple. RFID tags can be illicitly tracked, revealing your whereabouts, your spending habits, your reading habits, and just about anything else that has RFID technology attached to it. Because RFID tags remain functional even after you have purchased a product, you become a walking transmitter of private information.

It gets worse.

Each tag operates on a unique frequency. If one tag can be linked to you, specifically, it allows for all other tags in operation by you, or near you, to be associated with you, thus creating an enormous, highly revelatory picture of who you are. A very personal, very private, picture.

Soon, anyone with the necessary know-how can access your intimate details. Think about this: every political article you read will be filed away. Every movie you rent, every book your borrow, every store you enter, every mile you drive, every person you talk to will be filed away, stored for a day when it may be used against you. In this digital age, where almost every transaction (purchases, emails, phone calls) create an electronic footprint, the infrastructure of RFID means the death to all our secrets.

Blinded by the light of these marvelous innovations, this technology’s dark side will pass unnoticed into our homes.


In early 2007, the Federal Drug Administration approved the use of RFID chips in humans.

The first victims are prison inmates. By implanting tiny microchips under the skin, the State may monitor these offenders’ every move. In jail, they track the location of gang members. On the street, they locate paroled sex offenders and observe their proximity to schools and parks.

Newer versions of the chip promise to allow the controller to send electric shocks through the implant, to discourage undesirable behavior.

Next come corporate employees., an Ohio-based security firm, was the first to require its employees to be implanted.

In Europe, and now in Florida, private citizens may volunteer for implanting. The perks of hardwiring include the ability to conduct financial transactions with a wave of the wrist. No need for cash or credit card. Thanks to RFID, you are your wallet. No more waiting in line. Guys gain access to club VIP rooms thanks to the implanted tag. It’s an invitation to instantly join the social elite.

In effect, RFID will create a police state. But unlike Orwell’s Oceania, we will be the spies. Further, unlike any time before, we won’t be spying on our neighbors, but on ourselves.


Several U.S. states have passed bills outlawing involuntary human tagging. Several more states have legislation in the works. Yet the technology drives the market and soon the price of opting out of the system will be too hard for the ordinary citizen to bear.

VeriChip Corp is the U.S. RFID market leader, having sold thousands of chips worldwide, more than a quarter of them designed for human implantation. China’s RFID market reached more than $500 million in 2007, growing over 50% since 2006, thanks in large part to its national ID card program.

The U.S. State Department now offers RFID-enabled passports for travel across the Americas. Drivers’ licenses are rolling out, too. Every player, from the U.S. military to Wal-Mart, is using RFID and penalizing suppliers that don’t.

Despite recent studies which indicate embedded chips induce malignant tumors in lab animals, there are no plans to slow the transition of chips to humans.

Likewise, despite vigorous warnings about the dangers of RFID chips from sources as diverse as terror experts, state senators, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, the federal government boldly moves forward with new RFID-based programs.

That terrorists may used RFID-based passports to identify U.S. tourists clearly is not a concern of our political leaders.

We should not be surprised. Do we really think the Patriot Act was conceived in a mere six weeks? Of course not. The root desire to increase state security at the expense of personal privacy was seeded long before the horrific events of 9-11. The current War on Terror has proved a catalyst for the coming agenda. What exactly that agenda is remains unclear. All that we can say for sure is that, like Winston Smith, we have reason to fear.

The enemy of the state might well be you.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


I can’t help it. I cringe every time I hear the word Yeti. Mention Big Foot, and I’ll hide my face in shame. Go so far as to utter the words Abominable Snowman and I’ll flee in embarrassment.

I want to believe. I do. It’s just…an Abominable Snowman! For a guy who loves to talk conspiracy theories to three in the morning, who devours reports of UFO sightings over Phoenix and tapes all the reruns of the X-Files, admitting even a modicum of maybe about the existence of hairy ole Harry Henderson tends to discredit everything else I espouse.

There’s a thin line between true believer and gullible idiot.


So, it was with queasy stomach I read reports of fresh Yeti footprints in the Himalayas. This time the find was made by a US TV crew, filming for Destination Truth, a show investigating evidence of the fantastical.

That these tracks were witnessed is no surprise – mountaineers and local herders often claim such discoveries. No, it’s that these reports still garner media attention that befuddles me. I mean, our modern world is so small. When you can eat a Big Mac in Moscow, sip Starbucks coffee in Beijing and discuss Bay Watch in Bhutan, you wonder if this jaded world has any natural secrets left to divulge.

I was born a pleasant Sunday drive from the banks of Loch Ness and spent many childhood nights reading about Nessie and the possibility that dinosaurs might still roam this planet. As a child, the concept is easy to accept. There’s a magic to monsters that can’t easily be dispelled. Yet, as an adult, cynical reality stamps its scientific authority. Few places remain unmapped. Civilization’s thirst for expansion threatens every corner of the globe. Creatures once abundant now face extinction. Surely, there’s no chance that a beast as large as Yeti could avoid detection for so long?


Josh Gates of Destination Truth told the BBC in early December that his team discovered three prints, one a pristine right paw mark, 13” long, with a wide spread of five toes. Commentators familiar with such discoveries are quick to suggest the prints may belong to a Himalayan bear, native to the banks of the Manju River, where Gates and his crew were operating, some 100 miles northeast of Kathmandu.

As always, this latest sensation fell far short of proof. The history of the Yeti is filled with brief glimpses, mysterious prints, unearthly howls and legends aplenty. Missing are the physical clues, the substantive evidence that might peak the curiosity of Gil Grissom and his CSI colleagues. Primatologist John Napier, author of The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality, claims Yeti evidence to be circumstantial. “…there is little uniformity of pattern,” he states, “and what uniformity there is incriminates the bear.”

Perhaps it’s our deep desire to cling to the mystical magic of youth, which enables us to see what surely cannot be. Whether it is the Yeti, Nessie, or dinos in the Congo, the evidence always, rightfully, favors the skeptic.

If such creatures do exist, they are to be found in remote wilderness. Our ocean depths are reluctant to reveal their secrets, but surely harbor the majority of what remains to be discovered. While our jungles and isolable realms still reveal a few surprises, they tend to come in smaller packages: frogs, insects, fish. The Yeti, you see, is just too damn big!


And yet, there’s just enough doubt to make me want to believe…

In 2001, a local Yeti-hunter and guide (yes, there are such things) led investigators into the Bhutan forests, where they took hair samples from a cedar tree hollow. Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, England, were able to extract DNA samples.

“It’s not a human, it’s not a bear, nor anything else that we’ve so far been able to identify,” said Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics. “We don’t know what it is,” he confessed.

The remote Everest region warrants further investigation, if only because eye-witness accounts go back thousands of years.

The Yeti has long been worshipped in Tibet and Nepal, in scrolls, relief and annual festival. Alexander the Great wanted one until locals explained that the creature could not breathe properly at lower altitudes.

Pliny the Elder, in 79AD, wrote of the Land of the Satyrs where lived things able to run on two or four legs. They had “human-like bodies and because of the swiftness can only be caught when they are ill or old.”

In modern times, many renowned explorers share stories of the Yeti. The title of Abominable Snowman was coined in 1921 and resulted in a Royal Geographical Society expedition to find the animal. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reported large footprints while scaling Mount Everest in 1953 – hardly the location for a hoax. Many Sherpas claim to have seen the beast, typically during the winter or summer months when herds are taken to pasture, and Sherpas, you would expect, could spot the difference between a bear and a Yeti.

So, for now, I continue to cringe when tracks in the snow suggest the wily Yeti still roams unseen. I’ll be the first to say I told you so whenever science disproves these wild, outrageous claims. Or I’ll be the first to nod and say I knew it along, should one day someone prove my childhood convictions right and produce a Yeti in the flesh.

Until that day, I’ll go on doubting. In public, anyway.