Wednesday, August 31

Pundita finally gets a vacation!

The next post will be Tuesday, September 6 at 9:00 AM, EDT.

Best regards to all,

The hopping mad actuary as engine of rapid innovation

I've been reading your blog for more than a half year. A lot of the things you said came together for me last night as I realized we're facing the possible loss of New Orleans.

Pork barrel politics and wars between Democrats and Republicans about ideological issues took up a lot of energy and diverted attention and resources from fixing critical structural problems in cities and regions across America. Then around 2000 events started forcing Americans to deal with situations that we put off dealing with for decades, such as our aged electrical grid system, the policy on handling forest fires, the illegal immigrant situation, vulnerability of port cities to hurricanes and other natural disasters, our aged [oil] refinery system, the list goes on.

I think you looked at those situations as a whole and saw the end of an era approaching. That explains your tough line about development and aid policies and in general policy toward developing countries. You've been warning that other countries shouldn't assume that America's level of assistance over the past half century will remain the same.

My question is whether you think the government and the public will see the Katrina disaster as an interruption or a wake-up call, once the immediate crisis has passed.
Tom in Sioux City"

Dear Tom:
The "wakeup call" stage is long past; that stage came with Hurricane Andrew. At this moment the CEOs of US oil and refinery companies would prefer to face the entire remnants of al Qaeda rather than meet one insurance claims adjuster in a dark alley. CEOs at Lockheed and all other major corporations in the New Orleans area share the same preference.

This is what's known as increasing the R&D budget at the point of a gun. This is America, not Bangladesh. So 25% of a major US industry shouldn't be shot to hell for weeks because of a storm. A key American city shouldn't be 80% flooded within 24 hours of a storm and with no immediate way to deal with rising waters.

The only question now is whether to rebuild or move New Orleans. If they want to rebuild, Louisiana has to spend megabucks on existing technologies or ask for new ones, if they want to perch a key American city below sea level between a river and a lake in a hurricane alley.

If they don't have the bucks -- either the federal government pulls a rabbit out of the hat or New Orleans is removed from the map.

I think the American public understands that -- or they will, by the end of this week.

Regarding your comments, I hope I haven't given the impression that I see America tottering to the poorhouse. This is an incredibly powerful, wealthy and vital nation. Yet our level of assistance to other countries waxes and wanes according to our domestic needs and foreign policy emphasis. That's a self-evident fact many countries have come to ignore. They need to pay attention to the fact.

I don't see the line I'm taking as tough; I'm just squarely confronting realities and urging others to do the same. American aid and development policies were not overhauled when the Cold War ended, just as US defense policy was not overhauled until 9/11 forced a review. It's past time for the overhaul.

Tuesday, August 30

Pray but row away from the rocks

After a day spent praying, and a night spent studying the precarious situation of New Orleans....I think I'd rather plow through a week's worth of reports on pig disease, rather than wade through another explanation about why more hasn't been done to secure New Orleans against a direct hit from a big hurricane.

I have a bad feeling that all the explanations boil down to a statistic: since recordkeeping began in 1886, only two Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the United States of America.

However, Katrina didn't form off Africa or somewhere in Asia. It formed very close, very fast -- fed by record warm waters in the Gulf. That does not seem to be a blip; all the world's waters are now warmer. Warm waters help create powerful hurricanes.

Given the region's importance to the nation and global trade, should the federal government designate funds to rebuild/reinforce Big Easy?

The guest expert on Chris Core's show last night said the problem is that there are several important US cities perched precariously near water in hurricane alleys and all of those cities need modernization. However, New Orleans is the most precarious....

Pundita doesn't know what the answer is. One thing I know for certain: The people of New Orleans need to find the answer and act on it as quickly as possible.

I can't anymore click my tongue at the bad building codes and shoddy building practices in earthquake-prone regions in "developing" countries, not after learning what I did about the situation in New Orleans. From Miami Herald
[...] "There's a lot of older homes [in New Orleans that can't sustain winds higher than 85 mph], most of these homes are below sea level, most of these homes are termite-ridden," said Capt. Lou Robinson, a training instructor with the City of New Orleans Fire Department.

"The newer homes, construction-wise, they just meet minimum requirements. You know, just for cost-effectiveness, they scrimp. The roofs are manufactured with trusses or lightweight metal, but they just don't hold up under extreme conditions." [...]

The prevalent hurricane code in Louisiana has been what engineers consider the bare minimum -- that buildings be designed to withstand 100-mph winds.

In 2004, Louisiana approved a higher standard comparable to post-Andrew codes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the highest in Florida -- that buildings stand up to gusts of 146 mph.

But the legislature didn't require localities to adopt the new standard. New Orleans and Baton Rouge did, but many local communities have codes that haven't been updated in 10 or 15 years, LSU's Levitan said.

And, he added, the local building industry seems reluctant to adopt hurricane-resistant windows or shutters, which are now required for new construction in Broward and Miami-Dade. Levitan, for instance, is building a wood-framed home, but when his contractor told him he didn't need hurricane straps, he installed them himself.

In any case, New Orleans has seen little new development since adopting the new codes, meaning that most of its structures at best meet the inadequate old standard -- certainly no match for Katrina. And many of those are aging or have been damaged by a Formosan termite infestation.

Worst-case scenario? The city could lose half its homes, Robinson said. [...]
All day yesterday, while I was praying, the old saying kept coming to mind: "Pray, but row away from the rocks."

Sunday, August 28

"You're telling me this because?"

Once again, Pundita must rip herself away from reports about China's pig disease; this time to snap at Dave Schuler. Readers who have trouble following might want to stop at Dave's blog first and read his August 24 entry What's a credible source?"

Dear Pundita:
You might be interested in some of the items in the Strategy Page Prediction Market, particularly the avian flu items:

Not dispositive, of course, but interesting.

Hope all is well and that you are happy, well, and resting.

Dave Schuler
The Glittering Eye

Dear Dave:
No of course we're not interested in a lame attempt at psyops. And how can Pundita be "happy, well and resting" when a loyal reader and contributor to this blog tries to discover what it's like to have cheese tostitos for brains? We all fall prey to these urges on occasion but we need to banish them before publishing to a blog. Do you not realize I stake my reputation on the intelligence of my readers? How could you do this to Pundita?

There is an easy way to gauge the weight of Chi's speech if you know that he's a has-been but in case I'm talking to cheese tostitos at the moment we'll break this into easy steps.

First, Chi Haotian is not China's defense minister. So you worked yourself into a dither for nothing. General Cao Gangchuan is China's defense minister, and has been since 2003 when he nudged out Chi, who is in Jiang Zemin's faction. This would be the same Jiang Zemin who was shoved out of the chairmanship of the Central Military Committee by none other than the same General Cao.

You would know these things if you paid attention to Pundita's entreaties to her readers to click on the link I have provided at least twice, and which was featured in the very first post I made on this blog and most recently in the Strange Days in China... essay.

This is the link to the November 2004 Epoch Times article that dishes the gossip on why Jiang left the CMC early. The gist -- that the power struggle in the top tier of the CCP pits a well educated cadre against a less educated one -- can be verified independently of ET's article.

I present again that blasted Epoch Times article on the real story of why Jiang Zemin decamped earlier than he'd planned. As I have done before, I urge anyone who wants a clue as to what's going on in China to read the article with full attention.

I interject that once you digest the writing and dig into the situations it refers to, you'll appreciate why so many have tried so hard during the past year to thoroughly discredit The Epoch Times. The bastion of objective reporting they ain't. But the bar is so low today that this is not an indictment, only a caution. ET can provide valuable insights into doings in China if you know how to read the paper.

It is well established that a changing of the guard took place in China in 2003, and that the change brought in a younger, well-educated, more 'modern-thinking' group, which includes Cao. It was really only a matter of time before the new guard shoved out the rest of Jiang Zemin's faction -- and Jiang himself.

I interject that the above hardly conveys the bitterness of the struggle and the certain fact that Jiang and his faction have not gone quietly into the night.

If you ask why, then, the Epoch Times describes Chi as defense minister in the introduction to the speech that initially angered you -- Ouija is in a snit just because I asked for the next winning Powerball lottery numbers. So I must fall back on guessing.

I'd say it's likely that the wrong description is a translator's oversight. I say this first because ET was careful to point out that Chi is the former defense minister in the background to the earlier speech of Chi's they recently published.

And second because ET's readership is presumed apprised enough about China's affairs to know that Chi is the former defense minister. Thus, I doubt ET was trying to get one over, in this case.

If you ask, 'Then presuming Chi actually gave the speech, why would ET give so much space recently to the scaremongering of a has-been?' -- now we come to the fun part. (This would be fun only for readers who have heroically slogged through every single post I've written on the "China pig disease" reports.)

It so happens that The Epoch Times published Chi's alleged biowar statements exactly one week after publishing an article about a reported Ebola virus outbreak in China. This is the August 1 article which quotes liberally from the Wong/Wang Boxun interview, and which mentions a March 25 ET story that discusses a report of an Ebola outbreak in February in Guangdong province.

The August 1 article is very clearly ET's way of disputing China's official explanation of strep suis as the cause of the "pig disease."

The question is how far they were willing to run with Wong's claim. So it was not so much what Chi reportedly said about biowar that merited a footnote in one of my posts about pig disease (the one in which you found the link to Chi's alleged speech). I wanted readers to note the timing of ET's publication of the Chi speech -- again, one week after the Ebola virus outbreak story.

Specifically, the question is whether ET's decision to publish the Chi speech in question relates to the ET August 1 article; i.e., whether ET was insinuating that the scary virus/bacteria combo Wong claimed to be the real cause of pig disease is actually a bioweapon.

Because ET knows that General Chi is a has-been and that his entire faction has lost power in China's military and top CCP leadership, my guess would be "yes."

As to whether this guess means I think there could be such a bioweapon -- there is still not a shred of evidence to support Wong's claim. That China has developed, bought and/or stolen bioweapons, I have no doubt. Yet to assume a link between this and the pig disease outbreak would be ridiculous because we don't have reliable data on the outbreak. Indeed, we don't even know whether the outbreak is a disease or a case of poisoning.

Next: You reported to your readers that you tried to learn whether Chi actually gave the speech in question. You expressed frustration at meeting a blank wall. In such cases one has to fall back on contextual analysis, not textual analysis. In figurative terms, you need to ditch the microscope and pick up a wide angle lens.

Chi's statements are consistent with the general tone of Unrestricted Warfare, which won praise from Jiang Zemin, and with the statements of superhawks who are connected with Jiang's faction in the military.

However, no one in China's military who has clearance to talk about China's war scenarios would make such statements. So if General Chi got away with making that speech, you can bet General Cao had a reason for letting Chi run off at the mouth.

Now because that particular over-the-top speech is quite recent, Pundita would place a small bet that the real target is Japan. China has not quite gotten to the saber rattling stage but recent statements suggest they are trying to Gaslight Japan.

(For readers who are unfamiliar with the reference: the movie Gaslight, which features Charles Boyer's character spooking Ingrid Bergman out of her wits.)

Whether or not the words were delivered by General Chi, there must be at least a grain of truth in them, just from what we know about contingency war planning. However, the most striking -- indeed, astounding -- part of General Chi's alleged speech is the starkly accurate depiction of China's environmental problems. The description is not one you'll find in the travel guides and it is a damning indictment of the Chinese Communist Party's long rule.

So I'd say that if anything the text of the speech is a window on the disenchantment in China with the CCP and the anger that has built among Chinese about foreign and domestic companies that are ruining the land.

I interject that the latter is a theme that has become dear to the heart of Jiang Zemin and his followers since losing power. They are trying to align themselves with the rural Chinese who have suffered most from pollution, deforestation, etc., brought on by rapid widescale industrialization.

Indeed, the biowar horror story that Chi's speech spins can be read as saying that if China doesn't reverse course the land will be so poisoned, so denuded of vegetation, so uninhabitable, the Chinese will have no choice but to invade another land. From that angle, he sounds as much a foaming Green as a Dr. Strangelove.

Next, if you had read Pundita posts About Boxun and the Epoch Times vs Xinhua News Agency, you could have spared yourself research time. However, there's a key you need, if you're trying to gauge the usefulness of Epoch Times articles. Pundita is trying to take some vacation time this coming week but I'll write up a post about the key as soon as possible.

For now, I'll observe that those who closely followed the 2002-2004 phase of the Beltway Wars, which flooded the major media with leaks, counter-leaks and "inside information," developed a rule of thumb:

If the news report has anything remotely to do with Washington, the first question to ask is, "You're telling me this because?"

These days, it is often the timing of a report's publication that is the first thing you want to note and try to analyze.

Do you remember when you wrote me about the Time cover issue that published excerpts from Jeffrey Sachs' latest book? Remember I warned that this had to be seen within the context of Sachs' consulting work for Kofi Annan and the upcoming G8 Summit, which was still months away at the time. Looking back on the weeks running up to Gleneagles, do you see why I gave that warning?

So while the rule of thumb is not a crystal ball, it will help you put innumerable headline stories in proper context. That provides a kind of guidewire while maneuvering through disinformation, misinformation, shaping, shading, smoke, omissions and lies.

This, from a battle-scarred veteran of fishing teeny bits of reliable data out of the flood of leaks that characterized the height of the Beltway Wars.

Finally, and if you'll pardon my being instructive, I've observed before on this blog that you have shall we term it....a side of yourself that pops out on occasion. You won't allow yourself to arrive at a good point without first thrashing through brambles.

Your quest to line up ways to vet sources is a noble one and there must be more work done in this area. As soon as I have time I will check out the source-checkers you noted in your post.

But speaking quite frankly, the days are gone when one can complacently lean on a particular source(s) for guidance, no matter how authoritative the source. The best guide is to learn to automatically switch into a thinking mode that is one part intelligence analyst and one part bunko squad detective.

A seasoned cop or prosecuting attorney can tell you that there are many ways for a witness to shade the truth until it becomes a useful lie. What's harder to twist out of shape is the simple fact that people have a motive for providing information at a certain time and in a certain way. This observation holds as true for The New York Times editorial board (and the one at The Epoch Times) as it does for a police informant.

So again, whenever you're wondering how much or what to believe, it helps to start the investigation by thinking, "You're telling me this because?" And try to find a ballpark answer before proceeding.

If you don't like trying to think in the manner of a police detective or intelligence analyst when you study an important news report -- these are the times we live in, Dave. To improve standards in a profession that doesn't want to police itself (there is no accreditation for professional reporters) requires the news consuming public to become more alert about the way data can be manipulated. Speaking of which, now it is time for Pundita to return to reports about pig disease.

Sleight of hand

Re Liz's comments about the limits of speculation in your August 21 and 22 posts. Does she get that national defense is not lab bench science or courtroom law? I think she's failing to see the difference between speculation and going outside a narrow area of speculation in order to understand why a situation has arisen.

I keep remembering your mention of the software program that Paul Wolfowitz used after 9/11 to assess the terrorist threat. The program analyzed data that went beyond the narrow set of questions that the intelligence community used to assess the threat. Once this was done, the true nature and scope of the threat became obvious.

One of your essays brought out that for decades the same blind spot was there when assessing the threat from China. Every year the Congress and the White House asked the Pentagon to asses the threat by analyzing China's military readiness in terms of classic military measurements. They never took into account the kind of strategies that are discussed in "Unrestricted Warfare."

My point is that just because there is no hard data served up on a plate you can't give up trying investigate, when it's a matter of life and death. The effort would include trying analyze statements about a situation. That's what we've been doing with the pig disease scare in China.

You can try to limit your own speculation about the statements but no matter how speculative or outlandish the statements under consideration, the statements have to be analyzed, particularly when that is all you have to go on. If I've learned nothing else from following your blog, that much has been drilled into me.
Jan in Reston"

Dear Jan:
"Liz" is a pen name; the reader behind the name has shared some of her credentials with Pundita. From that, I think I can say with assurance that Liz understands very well the points you've made and would agree with them.

With regard to the pig illness, those who have taken up discussion outside this blog have not done what you suggest. Instead, they stayed within their own little realm of knowledge, then spun speculations to the sky -- without even a smidgen of reliable data from which to launch!

My reading of Liz's comments is that this is just the type of speculation she drew a bead on; I think she's right to consider this dangerous when it finds a public platform. Perhaps the greatest danger is that it keeps attention glued to one spot, so that other ways of looking at a situation are hidden in plain sight.

The truth is that a microbiologist got hold of the China pig illness story early on, and from there shaped the public view and examination of the illness. That's a classic situation, well told in the tale of The Emperor's New Clothes.

However, what we know of the symptoms, the suddenness of their onset and the rapidity of death point first not to an infectious disease but to a case of poisoning. But Henry Niman's specialized knowledge told him that the symptoms could only mean a mutated strain of Ebola virus had combined with a mutated highly lethal form of Avian Flu virus.

I guess he is so focused on chasing down resortments of the A(H) virus that it never occurred to him how useful China's government would find his speculations, if they were trying to stew red herring. They would be highly motivated, once they realized that no one with a half a brain was buying the strep suis diagnosis. Yet given the nature of the symptoms, it would be hard to lead speculation away from poisoning -- unless they could perform a sleight of hand.

If that was their intention they pulled it off in the Dr. Wong/Wang interview published on Boxun. By gum Wong managed to go Niman one better: not only was the mystery pig ailment a case of Ebola, it was also a case Bubonic Plague mixed with some kind of virus too strange to name.

Friday, August 26

Egg Drop Soup a la Kargil

Pundita has a treat for new readers! I have rooted in the Golden Oldie file to bring you this essay!

Translation: The source who promised to get data to me by 10:00 AM at latest has not delivered, which means today's planned essay is not ready for publication.

Dr. Ernie, I hope you see this essay. The ultimate point I make is that it's just a bunch of people, whether they reside on the other side of the globe or right here in the USA. To never lose sight of that fact is to always have a bridge that is much stronger than academic analysis and policy and development language.

We might not always be 'right' in how we try to deal with the problems of the developing world, but the bridge allows us to keep refining communications.

So it is for dealing with misunderstandings that arise between neighbors, co-workers and family members, and so it is for "foreign" relations and development strategies.

I hate to break the news to those who cling to hope, but nobody on this earth is from another planet. That means we all have much in common.
* * * * *
April 10
An excellent account of the Kargil War and the larger Pakistan-India conflict is found in Pakistan: Eye of the Storm . The author, Owen Bennett Jones, was educated at the London School of Economics and Oxford University. He was the BBC correspondent in Pakistan between 1998 and 2001 and saw firsthand many of the events that brought Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to power.

Read the book to understand the importance for India, Pakistan, and the war on terror of two historic bus rides taken April 7 by 49 courageous Indians and Pakistanis.

Few Americans excepting those with Indian or Pakistani heritage know about the Kargil War and the conditions that led to it. Yet the war, and the escalating terrorism in Kashmir during that era, could be described as the dredges thrown up by the US decision to abandon Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. After helping to arm and prop up thugs, after training Pak and Afghan tribes and Middle Eastern Wahabists in aystemmetric warfare, the US turned its back on simmering hell.

For that reason the Kargil War should be viewed as a case study--or a morality tale, if you will--on the inherent limitations in the Cold War containment doctrine.

I remember the Kashmir region from a few years before the Kargil War. Even then, signs of escalating conflict were evident; I arrived in Srinagar to the sound of exchanged gunfire between police and a separatist group. But out on Dal Lake, strolling in the rose gardens built on houseboats, watching Kashmiri Muslim and Hindu children playing together, it was unthinkable that in a few years the region would be drenched in blood.

I remember Kargil from an overnight stop on a bus journey. I will burden the reader with a traveler's tale because it aptly illustrates a mistake the US government repeatedly makes.

BKW--Before the Kargil War--Pundita stupidly agreed to help nursemaid a group of cantankerous older Americans who had never been in India before, but who decided that instead of doing something intelligent for an American first-time visitor, they would travel from New Delhi to Leh, Ladakh.

The way the trip went, they would ask Pundita for advice, then do whatever they decided amongst themselves, which was the opposite of what Pundita advised. This included taking the bus route from Delhi to Leh instead of flying, on the argument that having camped in Yellowstone National Park they knew about roughing it.

That is how Pundita came to be sitting in a restaurant in Kargil at 8 o'clock at night, studying a menu that had several pages. There were German dishes, French dishes, Chinese dishes, American dishes--in short, food from every place around the world that famished foreign tourists landing in Kargil at 8 o'clock at night would love to eat.

During the tourist season, which even BKW was short because of rock avalanches falling onto the bus route, Indian troop maneuvers, bands of brigands, and snow-blocked mountain passes, Kargil is a stopover for the really fun next leg of the route. BKW, before the Indian military widened the road, was the leg about which one tour book advised consuming LSD to help stay calm if you were crazy enough to make the journey.

Much of the road through the mountains was not built for two-way bus and truck traffic but for single file one-way military jeep traffic. But in those days, the road saw heavy two-way traffic from tour buses and truck drivers going at fast speed. You could look out the window on a hairpin turn and see the truck that had just gone over the cliff, its wheels still spinning. Outside a hot war zone it was the world's most dangerous bus journey.

As for Kargil (see military map), there is a curse in northern India: "May you be reborn in Kargil." Kargil, post-British Colonial era, was reminiscent of the outpost town in Star Wars. A smugglers' route that became a hub for truckers delivering to Indian military dug in around the Line of Dispute with Pakistan. Then came the foreign tourists passing through on their way to trekking and visiting Buddhist sites in Himalayan regions.

The cavernous restaurant, large enough to hold more than a hundred, was packed with hungry, sleepy and jangled tourists from all over the globe who had spilled from buses.

Everyone at our table turned expectantly to me for advice after happily studying the menu. I knew it was useless but it was my duty to try. "Even if two cooks laboring over four kerosene stoves could produce coq a vin, lasagne, moo goo gai pan, filet mignon and fried chicken, look around you. You'll be here until 2:00 AM waiting for the orders to arrive and we have to get up at 4:00 AM."

After conferring among themselves, they put in their orders for their favorite food from the menu. "And what will you be having, Madam?" inquired the waiter.

"Whatever the cooks had for their dinner tonight."

Twenty minutes later my rice, dal and chapatis arrived. Two at the table--a Scottish couple who'd attached themselves to our group--grabbed the waiter and switched their order from fettuccine Alfredo to rice and dal.

An hour later, after the Scots polished off their dinner and the three of us ordered another round of beer, a division broke out in the ranks of the starving. One by one, they ran after the waiter and changed their orders to rice and dal. The lone holdout quavered with tears welling, "I want my egg drop soup."

Far from home in a land very foreign, hungry, exhausted, finally realizing he'd embarked on a journey he might reasonably not survive, he wanted comfort food.

Pundita found the waiter and explained the situation. Moments later he arrived at the table with a steaming bowl of dal watered down to the consistency of thin soup. Then, with a flourish, he produced a peeled hard-boiled egg and dropped it in the soup.

I'm not saying a couple master chefs can't do wonders with a few kerosene stoves and cooking pots, but the other Westerners at the table were lulled by their expectations into assuming that the kitchen staff and accouterments matched the menu offerings.

That, in one sentence, is the type of mistake behind much that goes wrong with US policy toward governments in less-developed countries. Such governments have learned to project the trappings of modernized administration but are in truth a long way from modern and informed.

A recent illustration is the US diplomatic blow-up with Russia. US administration officials were stunned to learn that Vladimir Putin assumed that President Bush had fired Dan Rather because of Rather's one-sided examination of Bush's service record in the National Guard.

One official commented that the US really must start building contacts within the Russian government, in order to learn exactly how much the Russian government knew about American democratic administration.

Gee whiz, what a brilliant idea. Better late than never, but it's a little late in the day for the American government to broaden their sources on the Russian government from a few oligarchs, foreign lobbies, business executives and policy institutes. A little earlier would have averted a foreign relations meltdown.

Pundita did not have a crystal ball with her when she entered the restaurant in Kargil. But before I joined the others at the table I stopped off to inspect the kitchen. US Department of State please take note: this exercise did not require spies, satellite technology, or trained foreign service officers. All it required was the decision to stop, look, and listen.

For more comments on the book by Owen Bennett Jones, see Yale University Press page:

Thursday, August 25

The Third Man

"The sudden onset of symptoms sounds a lot like poison, but how on earth would the pig stay alive long enough for enough poison to reach the meat to pose a problem for humans?

One reason poison bait is restricted here in the US is that other animals die from eating the intestines of poisoned animals, not from eating the meat. You might be able to cross check with someone in animal control or the USDA.

A Google search on "animal control" trapping poison suggests Australia and New Zealand have the most current knowledge of the effects of poison on pigs.

A second problem is the weird distribution. That would have to be the result of humans moving products (such as hog feed or building materials), and I don't think there's all that much of that in China?

Yet the little I've heard does not sound exactly right for a disease, either. Less wrong, but not "right".

Cursed CYA politicians. [*]
[anonymous reader]"

Dear Reader:
I am not sure what you mean by "weird distribution" or "humans moving products." If you're asking how a poison could have traveled so quickly from village to village in Sichuan, I am afraid that's probably not a mystery. Reportedly several of the ill pigs did not die from illness or slaughtering. They died from drowning.

There are accounts that villagers threw sick pigs in rivers. Enterprising villagers downstream fished the drowned pigs from the rivers and sold them at markets, where individual customers and pork processors bought them. See this report for details:

Of course we have to consider the sources in the report. But I think throwing ill livestock in rivers to get rid of them has been done all over the world since anyone can remember, and surely the practice still exists in less developed regions. So I think the gist of the report rings true.

And butchering the pigs would have meant splattering blood. If the pigs were alarmingly sick -- those villagers know enough to fear getting contaminated by blood. It makes sense that many would have simply panicked and thrown the ill pigs in the river.

If so, that's possibly how the illness spread so fast in Sichuan: it floated down rivers.

With regard to your other question, keep in mind that Dr. Wong maintains the onset is not sudden, which pits his medical opinion against several reports. In any case, we don't know how long the pigs stayed alive after being infected (or poisoned). All we know is an anecdotal report that pigs were foaming at the mouth prior to slaughtering.

Other reports seem to suggest that the villagers who slaughtered ill pigs didn't realize the pigs were ill until they got sick from eating the pig meat. That suggests at least some of the ill pigs didn't immediately keel from illness or show obvious symptoms.

As to how poison could travel in the pig's body -- it would be important to take into account the question; however, your question skips a few steps.

First, find every published account of symptoms and circumstances pertaining to the onset in humans and pigs. Only then would it be possible to develop a tentative list of the kind of poison material that could produce the same symptoms.

Only after those preliminary steps would another step be to ask how quickly such poisons could be absorbed into a pig's blood stream and whether they could likely permeate the pig flesh sold for human consumption.

I will observe that there have been reports of villagers thoroughly cooking (i.e., boiling) pig meat from "infected" pigs before eating it and still getting sick. Yet these accounts describe that the same villagers slaughtered the infected pig, which they later boiled and ate. So they could have gotten sick from exposure to contaminated blood, not from consuming the boiled pig flesh.

But such an observation is one factoid in a data puzzle. We can't do anything with the fact; we have nowhere to fit it. So we have to throw it on the piles of factoids and anecdotal accounts, where it will sit until we get hard data.

And we have to hope that US intelligence agencies and the CDC are doing the kind of stepwise investigation I've outlined and keeping an open mind during the process. Because there is another way the "pig disease" could have appeared as if by magic around the same time in different parts of Sichuan.

[*] Pundita's search at Google turned up several possibilities for the CYA acronym. Yet in the context of the reader's observations I think we can safely exclude "Chinese Yacht Association" and settle on the colorful insult.

Wednesday, August 24

We interrupt this blogspot on Chinese pig illness to take a question about US policy on global poverty

"Hi, Pundita:
I've been seeing a lot of press about the U.N. millennium challenge. I realize you're insanely busy, but whenever you have a moment I'd be interested in seeing your take on this approach:

Sachs says the 1.1 billion people who currently live in extreme poverty - - defined as living on $1 a day or less -- would escape their misery by 2025 if only the U.S. government could be convinced that crime and terrorism feed on poverty and that the best route to national security would be to cut off this nourishment.
Best wishes, Dr. Ernie"

"I have made my position very clear on this issue in many posts (kindly see Pundita sidebar -- Pundita Essays by Theme -- or type in keywords (e.g., poverty, Africa, India, Sachs, etc., etc.) on Pundita search engine to pull up a list of posts that treat the issue).

Ah, thanks. My browser does a lousy job of rendering your site, so I have a hard time seeing those articles; I apologize for the stupid question.

If I may summarize, it sounds like your position is that poverty is primarily structural, so we need to force or incentivize systemic change if we really want to cure poverty.

That would imply ground-level bottom-up assistance a la Sachs is better than top-down projects that breed corruption, but since [the former] still rely on handouts that would reinforce crippling paternalistic stereotypes.

Is that a fair characterization?
Dr. Ernie"

"Dear Dr. Ernie:
What makes Sachs or you assume that "ground level" projects don't breed corruption? The World Bank once funded a micro project to give high-tech stoves to villagers so the villagers wouldn't have to walk miles to obtain firewood for cooking. When they went back to check on the progress of the project, the Bank discovered that the slickest in the village had snapped up the free stoves then rented them to the other villagers.

Yet are we talking about the same Sachs? Forgive the question but I did not click on the link you provided. This is because my blood pressure is already elevated. This is due to giving up my vacation because people in the media, public health sector and medical/biomedical fields decided the best way to research reports on "pig disease" in China is to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey, with the fallback research method of studying the arrangement of dregs in the bottom of their coffee cup.

If you are referring to Jeffrey Sachs, I think his detractors might agree with the characterization that he is the Dr. Strangelove of development economics. And if one wanted to be truly unkind, one might describe him as a consultant to Kofi Annan, which I believe he is, when I last heard.

It's a vain hope, but Pundita is hoping that Mr. Annan will be fired from his job so that both he and his son hopefully face criminal charges in the coming year. That, I might add, would be infinitely kinder than turning them over to the Iraqi people with the recommendation that they be tried along with Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali.

Mr. Sachs has a history, Dr. Ernie. He has a history of taking a blitzkrieg approach to solving the problems of people in poor countries. That approach pays no mind to the horrific consequences that occur when one treats large numbers of people like game pieces on a chess board.

So if by "ground-level bottom-up" assistance you mean financing microprojects à la Aga Khan Foundation or Grameen Bank, in a pig's eye -- pardon -- will Jeffrey Sachs support the small-is-beautiful approach. He might say he supports it, but his history suggests that what he means is now everybody must do microprojects or face a firing squad.

Sachs aside, it is not by any one way that the world's poorest nations got into their predicament. Thus, it is not by any one way that they extricate themselves. To help them do this takes a variety of approaches, administered on a case-by-case basis, as I indicated in my "Africa who?" essay.

This said, during the past half century there have been recurring patterns in the administrations that have presided over the world's poorest nations. And there are recurring patterns in how the richest countries (via outright aid and via the World Bank, IMF, ADB, etc.) have sought to solve these problems.

There have been great successes on both sides. However, there is also a pattern of catastrophic failures. So the question is the extent to which the rich countries can and should continue to intervene.

In other words, should the developed countries continue to take a "paternalistic" approach? Or should they take the position that no matter how poor an adult is, he's still an adult and thus he should act like one?

I've heard excuses from heads of state that are straight out of the Two-year Old's Manual of Manipulating the Big People. Many if not virtually all well-informed people in those poor countries are aware of these flimsy excuses and their implications.

Indeed, on the eve of the Gleneagles G8 meeting, an African economist pleaded to the world's development nations, "For God's sake, stop the aid to Africa!"

I wouldn't go that far but his point is well taken. It's gone beyond swallowing obvious lies. In many cases we have been actively encouraging criminal and even fiendish behavior.

Just one example among countless of where this has led: After that meth lab explosion, or whatever it was that horribly burned several North Koreans, Kim Jong-il demanded that color television sets be included in the emergency aid package. How does a national leader get to that point? Only after years of being encouraged to arrive there.

From what I have read of his mission to save the world's poorest, Jeffrey Sachs and the crew he represents are making a specious argument. They're implying that there is a cause-and-effect connection between poverty and crime/terrorism. Or as the quote you provided puts it, crime and terrorism "feed" on poverty.

That argument grossly insults human beings and it completely ignores character, not to mention facts on the ground. Many if not most of the world's poorest refuse to engage in crime, or terrorist attacks on civilians, because they believe it's wrong.

And most terrorism today is state-sponsored -- a fact that Kofi Annan and the lice he's spent years covering for at the UN know very well.

As for crime: the world's transnational crime syndicates arose out of a faction(s) in a government and/or were outright started by a government or receive tremendous support from a government.

Who do you think runs the Russian mobs? Potato farmers? The bosses are ex-Soviet military, ex-KGB and from other elements in the Soviet government. Who do you think runs China's crime syndicates? And Japan's? Go on down the list. These people are not the world's downtrodden.

The governments that sponsor and/or work with TOC and major terror organizations are run by people who have gained vast power and mean to hold onto it. Yet when you start digging into how they got all that power, in many cases the trail leads straight to government policies of the richest counties.

Thus, helping the poor in a way that doesn't line the pockets of thugs takes great creativity and great attention to the projects. Above all, it requires a demand for accountability that is backed up by punitive measures.

If you consider the example I gave about the stoves, it's easy to think of ways that could have avoided the situation. They shouldn't have given the stoves; they should have set up a program to rent them, with the proceeds to be spent on improvements for the village.

Even selling the stoves to the villagers wouldn't have worked because they would have turned around and resold them to people who would then rent them out! Double profit, in their mind, and face tomorrow when it comes.

That kind of thinking does not arise from poverty. It arises from no confidence in the long term, which goes hand-in-hand with living under governments that are run by thugs and riddled with corruption.

Also, before we tell others how to clean up their show, we should first get our own show in order. We can start by asking, "What is the real aim of a US-sponsored aid program?"

We need to make a sharp distinction between trying to help a country solve their problems and trying to help them fit into the WTO/globalized trade machine. Because the first is not necessarily the second, when looking for solutions.

A variation of the same tough question should be put to US companies and religious charitable organizations that throw aid money at the poor in the poorest countries. If you've spent billions over decades in bribe money so you can do business or proselytize in a country run by thugs, I don't want to hear that this is the way to help the world's poorest. What it's done is reinforce criminal behavior on the part of governments that take the bribes.

Good programs to help the poor start at home. Pundita has spent years trying to figure how to get parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania declared a Third World country so they can qualify for World Bank development loans. My point is that the best method of correcting others is by setting an example, isn't it so?

This said, the US government has started to wise up. But this unleashes a new set of problems. If the crooks can't flimflam money out of USAID, they'll just go weeping and wailing to a government that would love to stick it to the USA and/or needs a coveted natural resource. That is what happened with Robert Mugabe. When the US told him they weren't going to support his despotism, he got help from China's government.

Speaking of China, now Pundita has to return to matters of pig. It's Rugby, you understand -- or maybe not, if you haven't been reading Pundita for long. I've received at last count 58 emails from him. He suspects foul play against the pigs in Sichuan; no surprise, given his opinion of humans. Yet what would a laboratory rat know about pigs, beyond what he Googles?

Unless he's found a wing in the lab that experiments on pigs. That could mean he's figured out the master code for the security keypads, as he's been boasting for weeks.

Incidentally, Pundita would love to know the name of that lab because I want to drop a line to their suggestion box. In their quest to increase intelligence in rodents they should try to breed the ability to conceive of a Spell-Check computer function.

Monday, August 22

Places in the heart

* * * * * * * * *
Noon Update
From three letters I received in response to today's essay, I should clarify that Guru David was not talking about life-or-death decisions. He created a dramatic metaphor to point out that I had already made a decision about how to proceed. That implied the options were less relevant to me than the time factor -- a point I hadn't noticed until I considered the metaphor.

David was saying, in effect, that actually I must have had a great deal of information, enough to be certain that delaying action was not an option! He was pointing out a common reasoning trap: If we say, "I can't decide but I must decide," that actually represents a decision.

Yet often we're not really looking for more information, as my initial reaction to the metaphor illustrates. We're looking for certainty that a path we choose will be the best one in the final wash. In the decades since that conversation with Guru David, I learned that often such certainty is found only in the heart.
* * * * * * * * *
The following exchange relates to remarks I made in yesterday's post, which include a guest essay by "Liz."

I would have to agree that in the absence of useful amounts of data, we can only speculate. My concern is a slippery-slope problem: reasoned speculation becomes logical limits speculation (but are my logical limits the same as yours? probably not) which in turn too easily devolves into flights of fancy as ever-more improbable possibilities are explored. [...]"

Dear Liz:
I hope you won't find it rude but I will have to interrupt you because you're overlooking that there is another option: experimenting. The basic idea behind the experiment is that if there is no data you can figure a way to create some.

There are all kinds of experiments, I might add. Counterintelligence can be thought of as an experiment, for instance. You do something, then watch how the enemy responds. The response is data, which often translates to very useful information when viewed against other data.

However, my point was that in time-limited situations that demand a decision, we can neither afford to wait for reliable data or continue speculation.

Guru David once explained it all wonderfully. I told him that I was faced with the need for a decision yet didn't have enough information to decide between two courses of action. After laying out the situation I waited eagerly to hear which course he thought was best.

He answered, "Suppose you're being chased in unfamiliar territory by armed men who are trying to kill you. You come to a blind fork in the road. Which path should you take to save yourself?"

"I don't know," I wailed. "That's why I'm asking you."

"Let's go through this again. If the armed men catch you, they will kill you. So while you don't know whether one or both paths lead to escape or a dead end, is there anything you do know at that moment?"

The minutes ticked by while I sweated it out. Suddenly: "I know I will be dead if I stay at the fork in the road."

Guru David nodded. "So actually you have four choices, not two, if you must make a decision now."

More minutes. Slowly: "Okay, option A and option B: I don't know which one to take. Option C: I can decide to delay the decision in hopes of getting more information and try to deal with the consequences of the delay as they arise. Option D, I can decide to toss a coin about whether to pursue A or B, then deal with the consequences of my following A or B."

That last observation came out rather sullenly. So often we don't actually want advice. We want a fortune teller.

Perhaps sensing my disappointment David replied, "You'll be including yourself no matter which option you take."

At my blank stare he elaborated, "Everything you are, which includes everything you've learned up to this point in your life, and your character and intelligence."

In a perfect world we shouldn't have to make critical decisions in the face of a blind fork. Yet it can happen in the life of a person or a nation that we delay action so long that we are faced with great unknowns, no matter which course we take. At such times it is less the type of data and more the type of heart that illuminates the path.

Consider the widow in the movie, Places in the Heart. She knew so little about many things. She knew vastly what she needed to do. So much in life comes down not to irrational decisions but to places in the heart, which present a different order of knowledge than can be gained through data collection and experiment.

Is it a "higher" or "better" order of knowledge? It's an order that's always there to fall back on, when speculation leads in circles and there's no fresh data within shouting distance.

Now to continue with your reply:

"[...] Brainstorming can be quite useful, at times. But in the analytical process, a brainstorming mentality -- where uncritical acceptance of any possibility in order to not hinder the free flow of ideas -- is unwise. It is so easy, almost seductively so, to see the worst possibility as the most likely. The outrageous seems outrageously attractive, when the mundane, because it is mundane and so very ordinary, is far more likely. When police investigate a crime, especially a physical crime of violence against a person, the culprit is far more likely to be known to the victim than a total stranger who chose the victim at random.

Accepting the presence of danger in the mundane, of course, is uncomfortable; it means our lives are not as safe as we would like to think. It means, in fact, we have to think, all the time, and take fewer things for granted than we would like. "Home is where the heart is," goes the old saying. I submit it would be more fitting to say "home is where it's safe to let down our guard, to relax because we know there are no imminent threats." Home has smaller horizons than it used to, and I suspect they will shrink some more before they are able to safely grow again.

Donald Rumsfeld, in one of his more-often quoted pithy remarks, distinguished three types of information:

1. things that we know we know
2. things that we know we don't know
3. things that we don't know we don't know

To this list I would add a fourth (if indeed, he didn't -- it's been a while since I heard the news clip):

4. things that we know that ain't so

We need to beware speculation leading us into type 4, as it's the most dangerous of all.
Liz in USA"

Sunday, August 21

Ignorance, Knowledge, and the Three Strikes Rule

I asked regular reader and contributor "Liz" to consider doing a guest essay on a topic of her choice. She responded with a writing that analyzes reporting on the mysterious 'pig illness' and teaches the difference between information and data and qualitative and quantitative data.

Dare I use the expression "hog heaven" to describe my delight at the topic she chose? I hope that news consumers, journalists and intel analysts take notes while reading. They'll be rewarded countless times over for their brain sweat.

Being clear on the differences Liz points out is a kind of magic lamp. The lamp illuminates the murkiest news reports, shines through the thickest smoke blown by officials, and spotlights the exit in a hall of mirrors built from half truths.

This said, there is a flaw in Liz's conclusion. In a world where information has become a powerful weapon, and during the course of a very hot war, we can't always eschew speculation in the face of unreliable or very incomplete data, any more than we can always delay strong action in the face of little knowledge.

What we can do, and what I've demonstrated in a series of recent essays, is to seek data that relates to goal orientation rather than acquistion of knowledge.

Thus, while we don't know much more about the mystery illness than when the story first broke, we now know a great deal about how China's government has responded to the outbreak and how they've chosen to communicate about it. From this we can conclude, at the least:

This makes the third time in two years that China's central authority has lied themselves blue in the face to the American government about a lethal outbreak of illness in Mainland China.

This makes the third time in two years that US congressionals have not called for a formal US protest to China because of Beijing's refusal to share critical health data with the CDC.

This makes the third time in two years that the US Department of State has not issued a ban on travel to China in response to Beijing's refusal to share medical data with the CDC about a lethal illness outbreak in China.

All this suggests a clear action path: at the voting booth, in letters to editors and congressionals, in calls to companies that do business in China, and while shopping for vacation spots and imported items.

For there must be some means to get across that we're not sending our soldiers to battle against suicide bombers only to see our Congress, foreign office and leaders of industry encourage suicidal behavior.

By all means necessary, Beijing and Washington must be brought to understand that there will not be a fourth time.

With that said, I give the floor to Liz.

Data != Information
The above statement is actually a misuse (or perhaps abuse would be the better term) of a numeric operator in the Perl scripting language, but it’s a handy way to make an important point: data does not equal information.*

What difference does it make? Consider the recent many posts from Pundita and others concerning the mysterious deaths in China. Were the deaths caused by a disease or combination of diseases; evolved or old disease? Or by industrial pollution or toxic wastes? Or some combination of the above?

Pundita has reminded us, early and often, not to assume too much from the limited reports we have, especially since later reports, like those from any totalitarian state, are manipulated to serve the purpose of the manipulators (who may or may not be those in power at the moment).

What we have is not information, it’s data, and it’s pretty darned sketchy data, at that.

The difference matters, because it profoundly affects what we ought to do. Data, to use the readily available Merriam-Webster On-line dictionary is:

1 : factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation: "the data is plentiful and easily available -- H. A. Gleason, Jr.;" "comprehensive data on economic growth have been published -- N. H. Jacoby."

2 : information output by a sensing device or organ that includes both useful and irrelevant or redundant information and must be processed to be meaningful

3 : information in numerical form that can be digitally transmitted or processed

The term information, on the other hand, is not as crisply defined; it has several meanings, many related to mathematical values in measuring reliability of content. However, we do have one relevant definition:

2 a (1) : knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction.

Information is data that has been analyzed, processed, and/or evaluated for the value of its content. Take ten students’ heights and weights -- data -- and average them, plot them on a graph (weight vs. height); collect more measurements, from more students, and separate by gender. Is that more important than height in predicting weight? Does their age matter?

You can answer those questions when you have sufficient observations, because you can legitimately mathematically manipulate the data -- meaning can be derived from it, turning it into information.

But the process is easy to misuse, just as I misused the Perl operator above, when we’re intellectually a little bit lazy. Here’s an example, all too common, from my early statistical analysis training:

We have all taken surveys which asked us to rate something on a scale, where "value_1" means Disagree Strongly, "value_2" means Disagree, "value_3" means Neither Agree nor Disagree, "value_4" means Agree, and "value_5" means Agree Strongly.**

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the construction of such a survey, though the wording of the statements you’re being asked about has a fundamental effect on how you’ll answer. The problem arises when we attempt to turn the survey data into information.

Suppose I used 1 for "value_1", 2 for "value_2", etc. That does not mean the responses have any numerical value. They cannot legitimately be summed, averaged, or have any other mathematical operation performed on them.

If that seems a little difficult to accept (and it is, initially, for almost everyone) think if it this way: we have a spectrum of colors, generally considered as running red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet in a longer-to-shorter wavelength progression. I could just as easily have assigned red as "value_1", orange as "value_2", etc., through blue as "value_5" (and I could have used six values had I wanted, just to nicely map to the color spectrum).

How could I sum the responses, or average them, or take a standard deviation of the responses from the mean answer to a particular statement? Could I really say the average response to statement 1 was teal, and the average response to statement 2 was indigo? Where does burnt sienna lie on the scale? Of course, people mathematically manipulate these kind of results all the time, but that doesn’t make it right.

This kind of data is called qualitative, as opposed to quantitative; we know certain characteristics about the observations, but those known characteristics have no mathematical meaning.

Qualitative data may be represented as existing in a given category; you may count the observations in a given category and compare that to the number of observations in another category, but in the end, the data itself is nothing more than a “yes” answer to the question “does this fit in bucket A?”

The doctor asks if you have a headache; the answer is yes or no – it’s a qualitative answer. Your body temperature is quantitative – it’s measurable on a standard scale, with known reference points (which differ slightly, depending on where the observation is taken, orally/axially/anally, for instance).

Because temperature is quantitative data, I can take measurements -- data -- from many patients on admission and report a mean fever, with a standard deviation (a measure of how widely the observations vary from the mean).

With headache, I can only aggregate the observations into yes/no categories, and report how many or what percentage of patients fell into a category. I can’t report how strong or debilitating their headaches were.

The physical and biological sciences (and engineering) emphasize quantitative data, while the social sciences are forced to use qualitative data, since we frown on using humans as experimental subjects.

We have no quantitative data on the mystery deaths in China. We don’t have any source of measurable data, such as blood samples, because the Chinese government has chosen not to provide them to outsiders. We don’t even know how many deaths, much less the mortality rate of all those who experienced the illness.

Nor do we have any means of measuring the effect of intensity of exposure, or the existence of mitigating or exacerbating factors such as age, nutrition, or gum disease. (Open wounds in the mouth can be an entry vector for disease).

In short, we don’t know much of anything. We have some qualitative data: persons were reported to have experienced these symptoms or behaviors, in those conditions. But quantitative data (e.g., How many people infected? How long after exposure did they become ill? What was the extent of exposure?) as reported in the media is sketchy, missing or contradictory.

Nor has data been validated by proper scientific methods (and proper scientific methods may not arrive at the truth quickly every time, but they have a better track record than nonscientific methods).

If we have no quantitative data with which to use the usual methods of medicine (epidemiology, pathology, toxicology, as well as diagnostic tools), can we apply the methods used by the social sciences? After all, we have qualitative data, and that’s what the social sciences have to use.

The answer is essentially “no.” We have a few incidents, but we don’t even know, with any certainty, how many observations we have. We actually know relatively little about the incidents, and not enough to determine the categories into which to place the observations.

For instance if we knew always knew where, with any reliability, we could create a category for proximity to factories known to use certain chemicals, or proximity to animal rendering.

If we knew how many, we could estimate morbidity (how many got sick of the local possible number) as well as mortality. If we knew in all cases about the victims, such as occupation, we could categorize by exposure to possible sources.

But we have very little information of that kind. We know, in fact, very little. And while a little imagination can go a long way in the creative arts, it’s dangerous to make foreign policy based on imagination. It’s dangerous to do nothing based on imagination, too.

So we shouldn’t ban travel to China (foreign policy) and we shouldn’t ignore the problem (do nothing). We should be working to get more and better quality data --data we can legitimately turn into information.

One more thing: Until we have good data, in sufficient quantity to create information, we should refrain from speculation. There’s more than enough of that going around, already.

* Since I’m using strings, I should use “ne” instead of “!=”, which is properly used for numeric rather than string (written language) comparisons -- but it’s more attention-getting this way!

** This kind of answer system is known as a Likert Scale; it’s often misused by amateurs when conducting surveys -- a misuse often coupled with statements constructed to lead the response in a desired direction.

Saturday, August 20

China: Arsenic and Old Race

I've been reading your series on the outbreak of 'pig disease' in China. Your post [on August 19th] got me thinking more and more that the cause for the outbreak may not be as complicated as initially supposed.

I think your suggestion about manufacturing plants, as a possible source of a poisonous substances leading to the outbreak, is a reasonable guess. I did a Google search on the chief symptoms: hemolysis, fever, rapid death.

My specialty (general biochemistry) caused me to suspect compounds which might "uncouple" or "turn off" the mitochondria in cells (cyanide is one and so is dinitrophenol; the former is lethal and the latter can be absorbed through the skin). These compounds would produce high fever and rapid death but not necessarily hemolysis (hemorrhaging). Vomiting is nonspecific so I punted on that. However, cyanide leads to other characteristic symptoms.

Then, I found this link at Emedicine, which addresses poisoning symptoms related to arsenicals; specifically, arsine, which is a derivative of arsenic:

Arsine compounds seem to fit the bill of the major symptoms you noted. I am not expert in this area by any means; a toxicologist is much more qualified to comment and my information goes back many years to a time when I worked in metabolic biochemistry. But it would seem that most industrial accidents should not cause such rapid death unless the compound is incredibly toxic (as arsenic would be). This is what led me to think of compounds which interfere with, halt or inhibit metabolic respiration (rotenone is one such classic inhibitor and it causes very high fevers as heat is given off as a waste product as I seem to recall).

The EMedicine article indicates that arsine compounds have a dual use. They can be used in certain biowarfare compounds. They are also used in certain industrial processes, such as cleaning semiconductor chips. It would be interesting to learn about the proximity of China's chip processing factories to Sichuan, which has been the main locus of the pig disease outbreak.

While arsine poisoning could be a real possibility, all pools of heavy metals would be possibles. Again, some of these compounds could perhaps derive from dual sources: bioterror research or simple toxic industrial waste. I believe an industrial chemist, given the list of human symptoms (including the rapidity of death), could come up with a list of candidate compounds based on the industry in the region. I think it might be important to discover the level and type of industry in Sichuan and any other provinces that have reported the disease outbreak.

Also, I think it would worthwhile to contact a poison control center to find which industrial compounds produce the symptoms reported with the pig disease. The fact is, the explanation for the illness may be more straightforward than is generally thought. Someone in poison control could perhaps come forward and say, for example, "That sounds like X, or Y!"

Yet it was you who pointed out that China's government may be trying to divert attention from the real cause; perhaps the domestic unrest caused by cases of frank poisoning would be too much to brook?
[Signed] 'Doc,' Ph.D. biochemist in USA"

Dear Doc:
Thank you for your suggestions but I venture you'd agree they are premature without a database on anecdotal accounts of the symptoms. I've been told that poison control centers can be a goldmine of information but we don't yet have good questions to put to them.

And it's too early to focus on heavy metal compounds. It's not for nothing that China is known as Counterfeit, Inc. They do a lot of counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals.

It's setting ourselves up to chase red herring until we have an exhaustive list of reported symptoms along with reported incidences of death and recovery, estimated onset of illness, and so on.

Granted, it would be an incomplete list because China's authorities have repressed accurate data on the number of cases of the mystery disease. That's all the more reason to be very thorough about tracking down published accounts of the symptoms.

Until someone does the ground work of going through medical message boards, Boxun reports and press reports, it's not possible to come up with a good profile of the symptoms to present to a toxicologist or industrial chemist.

However, if someone were intent on throwing sand in Dr. Wong's gears, here would be a shot at it: get a detailed list of all the symptoms of Ebola virus infection, then ring up an industrial chemist and without mentioning Ebola ask, "Got any idea what chemical compound could do this to the human body?"

But even if an industrial chemist came up with an exact match, the most victory you could claim would be sticking it to Wong. That's because the reported pig disease symptoms are not necessarily those of Ebola (or plague), no matter what Wong said.

I harp on the symptom profile because there's no use going from silly to silly. People have been chasing a biomedical explanation for the outbreak and trying to top each other with speculations based on the most tenuous data. Let's not repeat the error by chasing a biochemical explanation with nothing but wisps of data as our steed.

First let's chase down exactly what people recounted about the symptoms they experienced or observed in other people and afflicted swine and chickens.

This said, your observations about the connection between poisoning from arsenic derivatives and the major pig disease symptoms that have been reported by some Chinese are suggestive. Suggestive enough to galvanize Pundita to take a peek on Google. From this, I hate to tell you but it doesn't take a manufacturing process to poison Chinese villagers with arsenic.

There are 200,000+ entries in Google (under "arsenic-China") relating to arsenic poisoning in China in some regions from groundwater laced with arsenic -- and vapors released by arsenic-rich, low-cost coal or "briquettes" used for cooking and heating.

By the way, China is not the only country that has the latter problem; arsenic poisoning from burning cheap coal is endemic in many rural regions of the world. The problem is exacerbated by poor ventilation and faulty stoves, which is the case for rural Chinese.

When it comes to manufacturing in China that deals with arsenic and derivatives, Google shows 103,000 entries for "arsenic manufacturing process China."

According to this 1996 US government report, the United States imports all arsenic metal and compounds and chiefly from China:

Money says the arsenic imports from China have increased since 1996 and that other developed nations import most of their arsenic compounds from China. The article notes, "In August, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed treatment standards for the land disposal of wastes from wood preserving operations..." which use arsenic compounds.

So I think you'd hardly know where to start, if you wanted to find foreign and domestic companies in China that are involved in some aspect of arsenic compound manufacture.

As to whether any of these are located in Sichuan, Pundita doesn't know. I spent all of four minutes reading through the China arsenic entries at Google. Even those minutes were terribly depressing. And these are just entries about arsenic poisoning; let's not talk about entries with regard to plants in China using benzine, mercury and other poisons.

The US got rid of many of those manufacturing processes; surely the same happened in West Europe. Now we know where many of those plants went: to China. It's NIMBY: Not in my back yard. So we moved the really nasty manufacturing processes to someone else's living room.

The Chinese have worked so very hard to pull themselves up. A tragedy they've turned their land into a toxic dump in the process. Double tragedy is the ultimate consequence of China's open door policy for foreign companies seeking relief from stiff regulatory laws at home. The government report I cited mentions:
Substitutes for arsenic compounds exist in most of its major uses, though arsenic compounds may be preferred because of lower cost and superior performance. The wood preservatives pentachlorophenol and creosote may be substituted for CCA when odor and paintability are not problems and where permitted by local regulations.
This situation points to what is probably one of the most horrific aspects of trade globalization. By turning themselves into an industrial plantation for wealthy nations, countries such as China help to discourage R&D of less toxic compounds.

It's the same with petroleum. The stuff is in practically everything, including a lot of makeup and hand creams. Think of petroleum jelly. There's no need for that. But because petroleum has been cheap and readily available for such a long time, this discouraged industries from developing substitutes.

Same with petroleum for fuel. We should have moved decades ago beyond petroleum fuel for cars. But the stuff has been cheaply available and its use has been heavily promoted by what are surely the most powerful lobbies. Yet whose fault is that? Let's all go look in the mirror before cursing OPEC and the oil and car companies.

Friday, August 19

The power of suggestion and Bao Jia

"Dear Pundita:
Thank you for replying to my letter yesterday. After thinking over your post I'm now looking at the outbreak from a completely different angle. It has occurred to me that if the disease is really a case of poisoning it needn't be from toxic waste. It could be from high levels of chemical fertilizer or insecticide or even a mixture of the two. Any thoughts on this?
Michelle in Toronto"

Dear Michelle:
How do you plan to test your theory? Michelle, listen to Pundita: you cannot play Erin Brockovich in this situation. Why? Because you cannot collect samples of fertilizer, pesticide, ground water and so on. You cannot review medical records. You cannot interview the villagers in the affected areas -- and even if you could get into the affected areas, the villagers would be silent or they'd lie like a trooper.

A BBC reporter managed to interview one family about the symptoms a member experienced. He wasn't speaking with them but a few moments when village officials showed up and yelled at the family. That ended the interview but even if he stayed on talking, it wouldn't have mattered. The family would have stayed silent.

You've heard of the Mafia's code of silence? That code is nothing next to the code that arose out of China's ancient Bao Jia system, which was dusted off and used to great advantage by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist party. It allowed the party to create a police state over the entire of Mainland China.

Ten families to one bao. One person errs, his family and the nine other families in the bao must be punished. Ten bao to one jia. So if one family errs, the jia must be punished -- in effect, the entire village. The official line is that the system was disbanded after Chiang Kai-shek's government was overthrown but that's a crock. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) also found use for the system in order to maintain control in rural areas.

However, all is not lost because these villagers, many of them illiterate, are (like illiterate villagers the world over) on the whole very honest in their speech, if honesty is not met with punishment for the entire village.

So if you want to play detective you'd need to pay special attention to the earliest accounts of the symptoms and their onset. These would be accounts given before Beijing had mustered an official party line about the "pig disease" and sent 50,000 so-called health workers into Sichuan to go door-to-door with leaflets about the disease.

Translation: Your account had better match the symptoms of strep suis that the village boss reads out to you from this here leaflet, if you don't want the entire village to suffer.

But because this public health announcement was door-to-door and village to village, there was a lag time. That's what happened with the BBC reporter; by luck or design, he found a family that didn't know what was going on at the official level, even though by that time it was on the radio. They didn't listen to the radio except for entertainment.

The catch is that the reporter stood out like a sore thumb in the village: he was an outsider. Under Bao Jia, neighbors must keep watch on each other's activities and report them to local authorities. So he wouldn't have been in the village 15 minutes before the village boss knew about it.

The earliest accounts flagrantly contradict the government's line on step suis, and point to sudden onset of illness. Indeed, this point was brought up by the interviewer in the Wong interview. Wong then went to the back of beyond to discredit those accounts. In fact, he got himself tangled up in medical terminology in his effort to discredit the claim of sudden onset.

Why would he do that? When you place the earliest accounts of symptoms (vomiting, foaming at the mouth, severe shock, partial paralysis, hemorrhaging, etc.) next to sudden onset (and sudden death in many cases), it's possibile he wants to turn speculation away an inquiry about poisoning.

If you approach the outbreak by asking if it could be poisoning, you're in a new ball game. You're looking at an entirely different explanation for why some people survive the "disease," which has a high mortality rate -- over 70% according to some sources.

Yet because China's government terms the outbreak a disease, speculations about survival revolve around the strength of the immune system in pigs and humans. These speculations would be red herring if there is no disease. If the illness is due to poisoning, survival would depend on how much of the poison agent is consumed or how much contact the person has with the agent.

As I pointed out in yesterday's post, China's government would go a very long way to suppress that line of investigation. This is because it would lead to questions about industrial pollution and the kind of speculations you've raised.

To answer your direct question -- yes, it's a possibility. If the outbreak is poisoning, it's possible that chemical fertilizer, pesticide, disinfectant or even an unfortunate combination could have created the poison agent. As you pointed out, it doesn't necessarily need to be "toxic waste."

But again, if you're working blindfolded (without forensic samples and reliable medical records in hand), you're wasting your time speculating about the exact source of the poison agent and before you've established a working hypothesis that the outbreak is due to poisoning.

Do you see? You can't get there from here. The most you can do is attempt to exclude the target with the biggest bull's eye. That is why I suggested starting with companies that have been known to produce toxic waste and which have plants in China. You would have to do that first.

Up to a certain point this task could be done by any reasonably intelligent person who has access to a simple database program. First collect all the anecdotal accounts of symptoms you can find. These would include accounts given after China's government put out the strep suis explanation. But you'd want to give special attention to the earliest accounts.

Then go to a medical source for poisoning symptoms and see if you can find a match. Once you have a list of poisons that produce the same symptoms, exclude poisons that wouldn't reasonably show up in pigs or chickens in China; e.g., the venom of a spider only found in the Amazon.

Once you got to that point, it would make your life easier if you got help from an industrial chemist or even a law firm that specializes in cases of poisoning from toxic waste.

You'd be trying to match the list of poisons with firms that (a) manufacture such poisons or (b) whose industrial byproduct produces such poisons, and which has a manufacturing plant in China.

Here is where you would be hampered. As I warned in yesterday's post, it might be hard if not impossible (at least, for a private citizen) to obtain the names and locations of Chinese and/or Taiwanese plants that would fit the bill.

But at least you could look at foreign plants located in the biggest pork processing regions of China. The Taipei Times listed those provinces in the link I provide yesterday.

Not to encourage you in this project but it's not necessarily trying to find a needle in a haystack because no one has tried this approach -- at least, not that we know about. So you could hit it lucky after only a few hours of research and without looking at tens of thousands of companies.

It's entirely possible that a Western pharmaceutical or chemical company has been cited for toxic waste that produces just the kind of poisoning symptoms noted in pig disease. And that it's open knowledge in the trade that the company moved a plant to China to avoid paying a fortune in fines and retooling their entire manufacturing process.

In that event you would be very lucky indeed because then you have a possible source for reliable data on the 'pig disease' that circumvents China's health authorities. If the company clams up -- well, then we're talking about a court order to loosen their tongue.

In short, the journey of a thousand miles might turn out to be many tens of thousand of miles or only a few yards. Yet the power of suggestion has been so powerful in this case that nobody started the journey -- at least, not that we know about.

From the beginning, the outbreak was characterized as a disease by the official sources and anonymous reports posted to Boxun. These were picked up by media outlets in Asia and carried forward by Henry Niman, whose company does vaccine development and who is obsessively pursuing his theory about recombination of lethal viruses. And by Patricia Doyle, who is obsessively pursuing her theory that just about any incurable disease is the result of a biological experiment that jumped a laboratory.

This flood of media emphasis on an infectious disease was given the force of a tidal wave when it coincided with reports of mass deaths of migratory fowl at Qinghai Lake -- deaths reportedly due to H5N1. Discussion about the lethal form of the A(H) virus became entwined with speculations about the pig disease.

The tidal wave of suggestion drowned out the most simple and obvious possibility: At the processing or the raising stage, swine (and chickens in one region) were exposed to a toxin powerful enough to kill a human if ingested in sufficient quantity.

So you can continue to spin out speculations on very thin data. You can continue to attempt to badger China to provide reliable medical data. Or you can try to exclude the obvious before playing armchair biomedical scientist.

Keep in mind that you don't want to fall in love with the poison idea. There could be two factors at work: poison and infectious disease. And it could turn out that the outbreak is indeed solely due to viral and/or bacterial infection. Yet ground that needs to be covered has been ignored.

Setting aside the crummy job of investigative reporting we've seen from every major media outlet, it is bad science to speculate before attempting to exclude a likely possibility. In fact, it's not even science. It's hoodoo.

Thursday, August 18

China: Tale of the Blind Men and the Dragon

"Dear Pundita:
About your speculation that the mysterious pig disease is connected with an industrial pollutant or toxic waste, do you think it could be in feed that's been given to both chickens and pigs?
Michelle in Toronto"

"Dear Michelle:
You're trying to reason backward. First study the anecdotal accounts of symptoms in the pigs, chickens and humans that were reportedly infected with the mystery disease. There are reports that "infected" pigs were foaming at the mouth. There are reports of humans vomiting, losing consciousness, hemorrhaging, high fever, severe shock. There are reports of humans dying within hours of eating reportedly infected pork. What does that sound like to you? Sounds like poisoning to me; in any case that would be the first possibility you'd want to attempt to exclude.

Here we come to a snag. China refuses to share any medical data whatsoever about the infected pigs, chickens and humans. What we've gotten instead of data is official claptrap about strep suis and a backdoor report from the Ministry of Health (the Wong interview on Boxun) that characterizes the disease as bubonic plague, Ebola and a virus so weird that Wong confesses he is confounded.

That means we are blindfolded. To compound this problem, everyone is speculating from within their own specialty or area of particular interest. Thus, Henry Niman is looking at the pig disease for a possible connection to a mutated form of H5N1. Patricia Doyle is focused on the possibility of a connection to a biowar experiment. The US military is looking at the disease according to what satellite images show about unusual activity in Sichuan province. And so on.

If you want a ghost of a chance to form a sound working hypothesis about the nature of the outbreak, you first have to study from outside your particular knowledge base. What's needed here is to use a simple database program. It doesn't get more simple than Excel so use that. Then plug in all the symptoms as reported in Epoch Times, Taipei Times, Boxun, Xinhua outlets and so forth, going back to earliest reports. Then try to match those with symptoms of poisoning.

If you find matches, then it's a matter of asking whether the sick piggies could have snuffled up very deadly mushrooms or truffles or whatnot or drunk from a chemical spill, and so on. It's at that point where your question about feed might have relevance.

But one thing you need to keep uppermost in mind: China is one big Love Canal. Ever since they extended an Open Door with No Questions Asked policy to any company that wants to set up a plant there, China's Mainland has become the most toxic place on earth. There are no restrictions on chemical dumping. No restrictions on how to dispose of highly toxic industrial waste. None.

The No Restrictions rule applies to China's companies, as well. That means there is no way you can obtain a complete list of all China's chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

But if you find a match between symptoms and human-made poisons, you might hit it lucky if you then obtained a list of all the foreign chemical and pharmaceutical companies with plants in China and their exact location. And tried to match the list of poisons with the company products and the kind of waste the manufacturing process would likely create.

None of the above means that we're not looking at a true mystery disease. It means you want to attempt to exclude the most obvious possibility first. Yet it's hard to see the obvious from the narrow window of your own area of interest.

If you want to play around with Excel, you can start with one of the earliest newspaper reports to discuss symptoms: Taipei Times July 29 report found here:

Here are descriptions of symptoms from the report:
"Six more towns in Sichuan Province reported cases on Wednesday, in addition to the two cities, Ziyang and Neijiang, where people first fell ill after slaughtering pigs foaming at the mouth last month, the ministry said. [...]

"After killing the pig, our entire family boiled three bowls of pork to eat. After eating just a few mouthfuls of the meat, I felt my heart pound, dizzy and nauseous," Jiang Suhua said.

"Later my legs were so weak I couldn't stand up. My arms and legs also had large blotches of blood under the skin."

Another farmer said that a relative gave him a slice of freshly cut pork and he became dizzy and weak just from taking the pork home.Other symptoms include high fever, vomiting and hemorrhaging, with many patients going into severe shock. Some of the victims died within 10 hours of showing symptoms, reports said.

Wednesday, August 17

Dr Wong's fan club, rejoice!

This just in!

The sentences shown in boldface are from a native-Chinese speaker outside the USA who reviewed the original transcript of the Dr. Wong/Wang interview. The source (including the person who acted as go-between for the letters) is reliable:

[...] Did the interviewer and "Dr" Wang really say filovirus when referring to the disease in pigs? Yes. Also, please see my response in [boldface] in the email below.

There is much confusion over use of the word "virus" in the context of talking about bubonic plague, which is a bacteria. Yet throughout the two English translations available, the interviewer and Dr. Wang refer to plague as a "virus." I don't think so. The original context said the A3231, plague, and pig filovirus were three different virus and bacteria.

Ebola was translated as i-bo-la. That's it. It says that SZ77++A3231 virus is a type of ebola. When asked to describe, the doctor said that it's not appropriate to explain. It says that what happened in that location was not due to pig filovirus, it was a kind of ebola. The reason that the government wanted to say that it's pig filovirus was due to the politics -- they didn't want to admit that they had ebola. Pig filovirus may be passed on to human body, but the damage wouldn't be like the one from ebola. And filovirus won't spread among pigs that fast.

Could I impose on the friend once more to ask for a review of the original text again, just to be certain that the translation of the Mandarin word for "virus" is correct? In the interview, Dr. Wang used "virus" for the incident. He did mention that the death in the city might be caused by the virus (ebola) plus bacteria (plague). The combination made the symptom or the illness worse.

Also, if Wang and interviewer actually said "filovirus," rather than "virus," when referring to bubonic plague that would be very important to know. Dr. Wang didn't said pig filovirus was plague.

The Pig from Outer Space

Within minutes of publishing this essay I received a second opinon about whether Dr. Wong/Wang referred to bubonic plague as a virus; the second translator maintains he never did. Readers who have been closely following this story know much turns on the issue of that one word. For the second translator's additional (brief) comments about the original text, see today's Pundita post at:
* * * * *
I know you want to put a lid on speculation but even with the glaring errors Dr. Lisa spotted in the Wong discussion, the diseases he talks about are so alarming that it's hard not to speculate. What is your sense about the mystery disease outbreak in China? Do you think it could be a biological warfare experiment that got out of the lab? While I was plowing through Wong's interview I found myself wishing I'd majored in biology.
Ken in Boston"

Dear Ken:
Bah. If Henry Niman couldn't figure out what Dr. Wong was talking about, what makes you think a degree in biology would be a help in this?

However, a degree in chemistry might help. There is one scenario that could explain everything: the inconsistencies in Wong's discussion, bulldozing of villages, China's refusal to share blood/tissue samples with WHO, the elaborate cover-ups, the central government's decision to address the disease outbreak in the manner they did, and the bizarre virus/baceteria cocktail Dr. Wong described.

Before discussing the scenario, let's deal with the popular speculation that those who died from the alleged "pig disease" outbreak had a compromised immune system.

One thing to keep in mind is that the peasants in Sichuan live with their pigs and with all manner of barnyard gunk that would kill a city person. As Dr. Wong clearly indicated while pooh-poohing the strep suis story, they've got so many antibodies built up that it would have to be a pig from outer space to kill those peasants.

Unless it was a pig dipped in some kind of industrial pollutant or which had otherwise absorbed a chemical in high enough doses to wreak havoc with the human immune system if ingested.

Or unless the pig carried a virus that was unknown to the immune system of the peasants. A killer virus, such as H5N1, which had exchanged genetic material with a virus that made a pig sick. The birth of the Supervirus.

Or, as Dr. Wong stated, the afflicted were somehow exposed to a virus that represented Ebola with one other virus that he was shy about naming and some variant of bubonic plague.

But the alleged Ebola outbreak reported on Boxun in April was at a chicken farm in Guangdong province. It killed chickens and farmers exposed to the diseased chicken blood.

If we set aside Wong's imperfect understanding of Bubonic Plague, his most baffling remarks pertain to an industrial pollutant. He maintained that an unnamed pollutant was a factor at the disease treatment stage -- that, and using outdated medications (the "medical malpractice" he cited as another contributing factor in the deaths).

There have been a lot of deaths in China because of industrial accidents and indiscriminate dumping of toxic waste; indeed, many of the riots have been about this issue. Entire villages are being poisoned and now many villagers are fighting back -- more often during the past year with officials looking the other way.

If shipments of pork meat got poisoned by toxic waste I think both the local and central government officials would be intent on covering this up while hastily cleaning it up as best as possible. I mean -- pig meat. It's like China's apple pie. And it's to Sichuan what cheese is to Wisconsin.

The peasants would really go on a rampage if they heard that industrial pollutants had tainted their favorite staple meat. They'd rampage all over China. The final insult, and all that: Not even our pigs are safe anymore.

And from reports about the riots, a lot of Chinese are blaming foreign concerns as much as their government. Rage has built up about foreign companies polluting, forcing farmers off the land and bulldozing villages to make room for industrial complexes.

So while this might be hard for Americans to imagine, it could be the central government decided that the farmers would rather hear the spate of deaths was due to a weird virus as long as they weren't buying the strep suis story. After all, they are used to hearing about weird viruses and bacteria. But death from toxic waste is more like an invasion from outer space, or to be more precise the invasion of the Crazy Foreigners.

To stay with this line of speculation: Then why would Dr. Wong and the Interviewer (clearly it was a staged interview) even breathe a word about industrial pollutants -- at the treatment stage or any other? I can think of three possible reasons:

First, there's a rumor circulating that toxic waste is responsible for the deaths and Wong was trying to quash it.

Second, Wong was taking a whack at some faction or other in the central or local government by bringing up the topic of industrial pollutants.

Third, Wong was stating a bald truth in the attempt to be open about the disease outbreak; i.e., an industrial pollutant was somehow implicated in the treatment of several patients.

If you want to speculate about #1, a degree in chemistry might help. Is there any kind of toxic waste -- or mixture of wastes -- that when ingested or inhaled produces the array of symptoms reported in the disease outbreaks? Including Ebola-like symptoms?

If so, that would explain why China's government refuses to share data about deaths from Ebola virus: there are no deaths from Ebola. There are deaths from toxic waste poisoning that produce the appearance of Ebola-like symptoms.

That would explain why the government refuses to provide WHO or any outside agency with pathology samples/reports from the "pig deaths" -- the data would reveal chemical poisoning.

And if those wastes or an industrial accident could be traced to a foreign company -- that would explain the elaborate attempts to cover up deaths and the strewing of red herring about the true nature of the illness. The specter for China's government would be Bhopal-type class action lawsuits against industrial companies.

If we stay with this line of reasoning, the bizarre virus/bacteria cocktail that Wong described, and his tortured discussion of Bubonic Plague, also make perfect sense. He was using a scattershot method to cover a very wide range of symptoms that had occurred in a spate of deaths from toxic waste poisoning.

That would also explain why Wong claimed ignorance of the third factor in the mystery disease. Leaving a question mark gives room to come up with another weird virus or bacterium from the medical textbooks that could provide cover for another kind of toxic waste poisoning.

I mean -- if people report their teeth turning orange before they drop dead, there must be some disease listed in the materia medica to cover that. So why not leave things a little open-ended for the present? Who knows what symptoms the next industrial accident or toxic waste dump might present?

If this speculation is correct, China's authorities were caught in the crossfire when a mutated form of H5N1, a wild fowl version, exploded on the scene in May. By late June it was clear they couldn't keep the lid on anymore. About a month later came the Wong interview posted on Boxun.

As to how much money I'd put on my speculation -- none. However, if you want to pursue every avenue, that would be one to attempt to exclude before banging your head against tales of biowar experiments and bizarre viruses

Re the Quoting Raven essay:
Now the clouds over the Yangtse valley are beginning to lift, grasshopper. What a surprise: It's all about politics! The people be damned! (Column B), or We really are here to help you, and are telling the truth. (Column A) Universal statist syntax.
Bruce Kesler"

"About your post yesterday with the letter from the MD (Lisa). She nailed a lot of points. I recall that under the Soviet Union when they needed more MDs they trained the specialty needed and skipped all the unnecessary stuff like basic biology, chemistry, physiology and general medicine.

An example of how this worked out in practice -- When an American MD consulted on an ophthalmic surgery case, he was shocked to learn that the Russian MD neither knew nor saw any reason to care about the patient's kidney malfunction. Not to mention what that would do to fluid balance and pressure in the eye.
Liz in USA"

Pundita's comment: If they have the same system of medical training in China, that might be another way to explain the errors in Wong's statements!