Will a German Doctor's Snake-Oil Doom America's Carnivorous Plants?

It's the golden age of podcasts, everybody, and I've just discovered a fine one: Criminal. Each episode is 20 minutes long and has something to do with some sort of crime. The first episode profiled a man convicted of killing his wife who may be freed by proof an owl actually killed her. From this podcast we learn that 'owlstrike' is a word, and that owls usually attack humans on the right rear side of the head, and that owls are strong and silent and can really fuck you up if they want. There's also a story about the late 1990s inkjet currency-counterfeit trend, and a profile of one of Wyoming's three female coroners, who talks about a man who kept himself alive during a cold winter by drinking antifreeze.

The German connection comes in Episode 5, 'Dropping like Flies'. The carnivorous venus flytrap plant grows naturally only in a 90-square-mile of North Carolina:

Problem is, the market for flytraps is booming. Poachers can get between 10 and 25 cents per plant, and local flytrap nurseries make a healthy profit selling them on. The plants aren't yet listed as endangered, so the penalties are relatively low.

'Criminal' goes on the hunt for who is buying all these plants, and quickly arrives at the door of Carnivora. Carnivora is a U.S.-based company that sells a product based on extracts from the Venus Flytrap plant which it claims boosts the immune system. They're not allowed to claim that it cures cancer under U.S. law, but that is the main selling point in countries where they can make this claim. The man who came up with the formula was a German 'country doctor' named Helmut Keller. This 1985 article (g) from Der Spiegel records the frenzy surrounding the then-new preparation, as desperate cancer patients begged Keller to treat them.

Now, as the podcast reports, Keller's been dead for four years ('still here, but on the Other Side', claims the company's new director), the company is under new management, and is not being accused of breaking any American laws, since it only calls Carnivora a dietary supplement, not a cancer cure. Also, the current owner of the company claims it doesn't buy any flytraps from North Carolina, but instead gets them from laboratories in Holland and China. But if Carnivora isn't behind the huge recent increases in demand for flytrap plants, who or what is? As you might expect in the area of carnivorous-plant-poaching and alternative medicine, there are a lot of gray areas. A fascinating listen.


Open Borders Advocates Are Everywhere You Look

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Some commenters here have accused me of setting up straw-men. Nobody except cray-cray black-bloc nutcases really advocates open borders. You're simply making up this silly argument to taint advocates of more liberal migration with the extremist brush.

The problem is all those dozens of commentaries and interviews in the German press outlets in which people explicitly advocate open borders.

Here's the latest in an endless succession of them: an interview (g) in the German magazine Stern (weekly circulation 700,000 copies (g)) with 'migration researcher' François Gemenne. For convenience's sake, I have bolded the parts of the interview in which Mr. Gemenne ... advocates open borders (my translation):

Nobody leaves their home country jut because Germany, for example, opens its borders. Nobody stays home because those borders are closed. Open or closed borders have no influence on whether people try to migrate or not.

...It's naive to think the situation can be solved by closed borders. The very idea that migration can be controlled or limited is absurd.

...So I say again: Open the Borders! This would essentially eliminate illegal migration. This would also be a significant step toward solving the problem of misery among migrants.

...We have not yet fully accepted that migration is a part of our reality and a fundamental right of every person. The right to go where living conditions are better. To try and prevent migration is like preventing the sun from rising: completely senseless.

I rest my case.

Gemenne's first point is something you hear a lot, and it's a howler. The same logic could be used to scrap laws against theft: 'Hey man, people are always going to steal, out of greed, need, or whatever. Putting locks on your doors and passing laws won't get rid of the problem.'

And yet every society has such laws, and you have locks on your doors and bicycles. Why? Because of a little thing called 'marginal deterrent effect'. Humans balance their desire to take other peoples' stuff against (1) how easy it is to take the stuff; and (2) not get punished. Add a few extra barriers to taking your stuff and you increase the amount of time needed to take it and therefore the chance of getting caught. You may not deter an experienced burglar who has targeted you, but you certainly will deter dozens of casual opportunistic thieves who will move on, looking for an easier target.

Case in point: Israel recently constructed a new fence on its border to Egypt to control illegal immigration from Africa. The results: "While 9,570 citizens of various African countries entered Israel illegally in the first half of 2012, only 34 did the same in the first six months of 2013, after construction of the main section of the barrier was completed."


Kureishi in English for German Teens FTW

Düsseldorf has public bookshelves (g) dotted around the city. These are hardly, well-designed glass-walled boxes the size of a telephone booth (designed by architect Hans-Jürgen Greve) in which you can leave and pick up books for free. Most of the offerings are long-forgotten historical romances with names like 'Prince of the Thuringians' or 'Stolen Homeland', but I've also found a history of garden gnomes, a Polish cake cookbook, a manual of German parliamentary procedure, and other amusing things.

But the hippest find so far has been:

Kureishi front real

Dry, angry wit! But it gets better. I opened it to find a German schoolgirl's name written in the front cover and some annotations on the blurb:

Kurieshi front cover

So an English-language novel about Pakistani counterculture types coming to terms with sex, drugs and rock and roll was assigned (or at least) accepted as official class reading by a German Gymnasium for a 17-year-old girl.

Germany, you have regained my respect. 


Why is German Immigration Policy the Solution to Albania's Domestic Problems?

I have already pointed out that Elisabeth Raether's front-page article in this week's Die Zeit contains a factual error. But what about the rest of her argument?

Let me sumarize it. Raether points out that the Federal Migration Ministry has gotten 5,000 applications for asylum from Albanian migrants since July, and has not granted a single one. As we know by now, since Die Zeit apparently doesn't fact-check its articles, we can't really take this for granted, but let's assume it is accurate.

Raether notes that at the upcoming migration summit, Germany may declare Albania a 'secure country of origin,' which would make it easier to process asylum applications and deport those who have no grounds for asylum. She argues that this should not happen, because Albania has 'deficiencies in the rule of law', which after all explains why it has yet to be accepted into the EU. She argues that the 'biggest problem' for Albanian women is the Kanun, an orally-transmitted body of customary law that 'for simplicity's sake' can be called Albanian sharia. According to Raether, under Kanun law, women are treated as 'nothing more than a tube through which goods can be transported.' Important components of Kanun, she states, include 'blood revenge, forced marriage, and taking the law into your own hands'.

So far, Raether has not provided no citations to proof for any of these assertions.

She then moves on to state that Albania had no laws against domestic violence until 2012. This is false. But even under this (not-so-new) law, Raether claims, there are rarely consequences for wrongdoers, since women frequently withdraw their request for protective orders. The Albanian government does not adequately protect its citizens from human traffickers, and Albanian women are being forced into prostitution. So many female fetuses are being aborted that the sex ratio of society has seen lasting changes.

Still no proof for any of these assertions. Nor does she provide numbers to quantify how serious a problem human trafficking or domestic violence is in Albania.

Finally, Raether gives a source for these assertions: We should 'listen to Albanian women' applying for asylum. She claims that Belgium did so, and decided to revoke Albania's designation as a secure country of origin and even before that granted 17.2% of asylum applications. Germany already recognizes threats of violence from family members as a valid ground for asylum, but is not taking this responsibility seriously.

So that's the argument. Let me point out the problems with it.

First, uncorroborated first-person narratives from persons currently involved in a legal proceeding in which they have a strong incentive to exaggerate threats to them are not reliable evidence, period. Saying that immigration policy should be based on trusting these narratives is like saying that you should judge a criminal-justice system by how many prison inmates claim they are innocent.

Second, Raether says we can't consider Albania a safe country of origin because it's not in the EU yet. But of course there is no either-or here, virtually all countries in the world are in the category of neither EU members nor unsafe countries of origin. There are literally hundreds of reasons a country might not be a candidate for EU membership (infrastructure, fiscal policy, foreign policy) that have nothing to do with whether it's a safe place to live.

Raether says the main reason Albania isn't in the EU yet are problems with the rule of law. Although she doesn't cite any proof of this, it could well be true. The obvious response is that Albania should improve its performance in this regard. Should the European Commission help? Perhaps so. And in fact it is: By granting Albania € 320 million in assistance from 2014 to 2020 devoted to improving governance, democracy, and the rule of law.

€ 320 million.

And that's only half of the entire IPA (Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance) II EC spending package for Albania in 2014-2020, which has a total of € 650 million. And as the name indicates, IPA II is the successor to IPA I, another huge EC aid package which ran from 2007 to 2013.

Now is all of this money going to effective programs? Of course not, we all know there is some corruption and inefficiency in government aid packages. But € 320 million is a lot of money. And Albania has made significant progress in recent years. Of course, that progress is slow, and politicization and corruption of the public sector (pdf) are still big problems, as they are for most countries in that part of the world. And there is a distorted sex ratio (pdf) in Albania. And there are still some blood feuds in Albania, a favorite subject for the Western media.

But the key question is this: why is German immigration policy a good response to Albania's domestic deficiencies? The existence of an informal quasi-feudal code of conduct among a small proportion of Albanians is not Germany's problem. The weak prosecution of alleged domestic abuse in Albania (we're not told exactly how prevalent it is) is not Germany's problem. The preference of Albanians for male children is not Germany's problem. The continuing existence of corruption in Albanian domestic politics is not Germany's problem. These problems exist to some extent in dozens of countries all over the globe.

In fact, these problems exist in EU countries. A recent study documented domestic violence all over Europe (g) and identified what the authors consider to be inadequate legal protections for victims, including in Germany. In fact, Germany itself (g) does not have a special section of its criminal code directly addressing domestic violence. Germany, like Albania before 2007, prosecutes abusers under normal criminal-code provisions that apply to everyone, such as assault, insult, etc. Besides getting the date wrong, Raether never explains why Albania should be condemned for waiting too long to pass a law that Germany has yet to see the need for.

And in any case, the phenomenon of women withdrawing domestic-violence complaints and men getting off with light punishments is universal, also in many EU countries. This problem indicates a need for better enforcement methods. It does not indicate that the entire country is unsafe.

In any case, Albanian problems are all overwhelmingly internal to Albania, just as India's skewed sex ration is internal to India. If they are ever solved, it will be by cultural changes within Albania. The outside world can perhaps play a limited role in encouraging these changes. Which is precisely what the outside world is doing right now, by providing billions of euros in assistance and massive outside diplomatic pressure to Albania. I think that approach is likely to be a lot more effective than tinkering with Germany's immigration laws.


Another Error on the Front Page of 'Die Zeit'

The front page of this week's paper Die Zeit features an article called 'Please re-think' ('Bitte Umdenken'), which advocates for loosening asylum qualifications for Albanian women. I can't find a link to it just yet. The author, Elisabeth Raether, states: 'Domestic violence has only been a crime [in Albania] for 3 years' ('Erst seit drei Jahren ist häusliche Gewalt eine Straftat'). 

This is incorrect in two ways. First, because Albania has had a specific law addressing domestic violence for eight years. Second, because even before this law, Albania had laws against assault which could be applied to domestic violence.

Error No. 1: According to the NGO Advocates for Human Rights, Albania has had a specific law on domestic violence since 2007: 

The Law on Measures Against Violence in Family Relations (entered into force 1 June 2007) was designed to prevent and reduce domestic violence, and to guarantee victims’ protection. Several Albanian women’s non-governmental organizations had presented the draft law to Parliament in 2006 through a citizens’ petition of over 20,000 signatures. The law defined domestic violence as “any act of violence … committed between persons who are or used to be in a family relation,” violence being “any act or omission of one person against another, resulting in violation of the physical, moral, psychological, sexual, social and economic integrity.”

Error No. 2: The article states that domestic violence was not a crime in Albania before this law. This is also wrong. Like any modern nation-state, Albania has had laws against assault for decades. From the same article linked above:

Domestic violence can be prosecuted under the general crime of assault in the Criminal Code. Serious intentional injury is punishable under Article 88 by three to ten years of imprisonment. Non-serious intentional injury is punishable under Article 89 by a fine or up to two years of imprisonment. Under Article 90, other intentional harm is punishable by a fine or up to six months of imprisonment. Interruption of pregnancy without the woman’s consent is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison under Article 93.  Under Article 284 of the Criminal Procedure Code, crimes of non-serious intentional injury, including rape and sexual harassment, can be prosecuted only when the victim files a complaint. The Counseling Center for Women and Girls is a resource for victims of domestic or other kinds of violence.  The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) created a handbook (must be a registered OSCE user; follow links to document in English or Albanian) with Frequently Asked Questions for Albanian women who are victims of domestic violence.

I will reach out to the author and editors about this. They've added corrections before, I'm hoping they'll do so again. It's not very reassuring to have factual mistakes printed on the first page of a newspaper. However, it seems the better long-term solution would be to hire fact-checkers, no?

I have other problems with this piece, but I'll save those for another post.


Genetic Engineering is a Moral Imperative

Steven Pinker on the moral imperative of funding gene research and therapy:

Physical suffering and early death have long been considered an ineluctable part of the human condition. But human ingenuity is changing that apparent fate. The past two decades have seen a 35 percent reduction in the per capita, age-specific disability-adjusted life-years lost to disease. The improvements, though geographically uneven, are worldwide: every continent has enjoyed massive gains.

Part of the improvement is a gift of economic development. Citizens of richer countries live longer and healthier lives because basic public-health measures and medical interventions have largely conquered the infectious, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders which continue to take a toll (though a decreasing one) in the developing world. But not all the gains have been low-hanging fruit. Advances in drugs, surgery, and epidemiology have brought reductions in years lost to more recalcitrant diseases in every age range and in richer as well as poorer countries. As the treatments get cheaper and poor countries get richer, these gains will spread.

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.


Stolen Mataré and the Weirdness of Art Theft Investigation

From Interpol's most recent flyer showing the most-sought-after works of stolen art, I see that a sculpture by Düsseldorf-based artist Ewald Mataré is on the list:

Matare

One of the interesting things about these posters is how little information there is about the stolen artworks. You learn only the name and place of the theft (e.g., Rome -- a 'church') and some descriptions, not even the title of the artwork. Ordinarily when you're spreading information about a crime, you add as many details as possible. Not here. 

I wonder what the strategy behind this is? Interpol obviously knows the details but is choosing not the share them. There must be some reason for this. Perhaps to make it easier for someone to report or return the work of art anonymously? But that's just a guess.

Another interesting wrinkle is the American authorities' method of investigating the biggest art theft in modern history (by value, at least), the 1990 theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Two men posing as cops stole art worth hundreds of millions -- 2 Rembrandts, a Manet, a Degas, a Vermeer. Still unaccounted for. Hints of mob involvement. The US authorities have repeatedly announced they think they know who committed this theft:

In March 2013, the FBI said it believed it knows the identity of the thieves. They believe that the theft was carried out by a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England, and that the stolen paintings were moved by a criminal organization through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. The FBI believes some of the art may have been sold in Philadelphia in the early 2000s.

...

On August 11, 2015, FBI special agent Peter Kowenhoven revealed that the two suspects of the theft, previously identified by the FBI but not revealed publicly, are deceased. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kowenhoven declined to identify the individuals.

They have questioned people, but have not arrested or prosecuted anybody. Again, the puzzling ambiguities. Why announce that you think you know who did it without any searches or prosecutions? It's one thing to not have enough evidence, but what purpose is served by announcing that you don't have enough evidence? Just recently it turned out that one of the security guards who were 'overpowered' during the incident was seen buzzing someone into the museum against policy the day before the theft. But he was not arrested.

What tactical purpose does all this caginess serve? Anyone have an idea?


Handelsblad, Are You Crazy?

The Dutch broadsheet Handelsblad ran a review of three recent books on the state of race relations in America. Here are the graphics and the headline accompanying the review. You will notice the headline needs no translation:

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The Washington Post was not amused

How a group of Dutch editors decided to publish an attempt to examine race and racism in the United States, using the English n-word and blackface in a major newspaper is beyond comprehension at the least, and rage-inducing at worst. Indeed, the Twitter reactions were swift and angry. Michel Krielaars, editor of the Book supplement for NRC, said that the paper had taken down the illustrations online, in order not to “offend non-Dutch speakers who only read Twitter.” The illustration still appears on their online reader, however.

To summarize the backlash so far: the author of the review says he had nothing to do with the illustrations or headline choice, which is plausible. The editor who did make these choices has pointed out that the content of the review was sympathetic to the plight of black Americans. The quotation used as the headline comes from one of the books. The illustrations were not meant to be offensive: in fact they show black Americans cowering before well-armed white figures (90% of American black homicide victims were killed by blacks, and the white-on-black homicide rate is extremely small). He admits that there are no black editors in the book review section of the paper (although there are in other sections), and that he didn't get any input from any black people on the graphic. 

I read enough Dutch to know that the review is, of course, sympathetic and praises the books. But you'd hardly need to read Dutch to know that. It's Charlie Hebdo redux, fortunately without the mass murder. Europeans create a caricature graphic design incorporating centuries-old tropes about how to portray black people. They are either unaware that these tropes are considered offensive in the Anglosphere, or they think the Anglosphere are a bunch of PC hypocrites who should lighten up already. The Europeans point out, correctly, that the content of the caricature or text is anti-racist. The Anglosphere, usually unable to evaluate this claim, insists that's not the point; these stereotyped depictions are inherently evil and must never be used.

A few more points about this amusing kerfluffle:

  • You may be wondering why a Dutch newspaper should be so concerned about the state of race relations in America. After all, that country is across a vast ocean. America's race relations have negligible effect on Dutch society, and Dutch people can do nothing to affect them. Yet you will find wall-to-wall coverage of American race relations in the Western European news media. To understand this, you should understand that...
  • ...a bourgeois urbanite's opinions on race relations in America are a shibboleth, just as opinions on immigration are. The idea that America is an irredeemably racist society in which helpless blacks are excluded, oppressed, and harassed at every turn is part of the standard European urban-liberal catechism. This attitude has complex roots. Partly anti-Americanism, of course. Partly a response to mindless American crowing about being the Land of Opportunity. Partly a matter of compensation: 'Sure I supported austerity for Greece, but that doesn't prove I'm a reactionary -- look at my righteous outrage about America's blacks!' Soviet bloc countries denounced American racism as a defensive counterpoint to critiques of their own human-rights failings, as does China today. Europeans who denounce US racism may also harbor genuine concern for the plight of black Americans, but I've found most of them have never taken any concrete action. In any case, one of the reasons modern European left-liberal issues loud denunciations of American race relations for the same reason frogs issue mating calls: signaling.
  • This is what makes being called out by actual black people for using offensive caricatures and language so disturbing to people like Handelsblad editors. They consider themselves to be on the right-on progressive side of the issue of race in America (as to the issue of race in the Netherlands, it's complicated. Other People's Indians, you see). It strikes at a fundamental component of their identity. It's like accusing a devout Catholic of having recited an incorrect version of the Our Father her entire life.

In any case, I predict that Anglosphere norms about how to depict people of other races will soon spread throughout Europe. The pressure of international outrage in the era of Twitter is likely to prove irresistible. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I leave for you to hash out in comments, if you care to.