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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: March 6, 2010

John Wilcock

“The Vietnam War is less a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan than a template. For eight years the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military re-enactment of the Vietnam War, and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events…is deeply disturbing.”

(On March 9, the war in Afghanistan becomes the longest in American history.)


LudicrOUS AS IT MIGHT SOUND, a plan to colonize Mars is laid out in the February issue of National Geographic magazine. Unfortunately, it’s a 1,000-year plan so — assuming the earth survives that long — even our great-grandchildren won’t be around to see it happen. The first hundred years would consist of numerous six-month journeys delivering “habitation modules”; in the second hundred, atmosphere would be created through the release of carbon dioxide frozen in dirt and polar ice caps, as well as creating old-fashioned factories to spew potent greenhouse gases to thaw the ground. Eventually, rain would fall, bringing to life microbes, algae, lichen, and, after a few hundred years, soil suitable for cultivating flowers. Robert Zubin, president of the Mars Society, predicts: “We’re going to live on Mars the way we live in Antarctica.” Really?  What was that date again?

THE MAJOR THREAT to the efficient working of the country’s security system charges Stewart A. Baker, is the privacy lobby, which has managed to block the implementation of an adequate terror-suspect list. After the intervention of the ACLU, Baker writes in the National Review, “a pale imitation” of the proposed program went into effect, “So eight years after 9/11, we’re still looking for weapons and not terrorists because of the obstructionism of the privacy lobby.”

EXCLUSIVE DRUG PATENTS are starting to expire this year in what Big Pharma ominously calls “the patent cliff” (i.e. falling over the…). Lipitor, which annually brings Pfizer $12bn loses its exclusivity next year, and by 2016, predicts Popular Science, the major drug companies could be ceding as much as $140bn in sales to cheaper generics. What this means is less money available for research, and writer Corey Binns predicts that less attention will be paid to relatively simple profitable drugs such as statins and antidepressants, in favor of “more complex” drugs for obesity, cancer, and neurological diseases. And, as you might have guessed, as the patents on some of Big Pharma’s drugs expire, the very same companies will be cornering the generic market with the very same drugs at a fraction of the price.

BEGINNING NEXT MONTH, a team of university researchers plans to spend four years and $1.3million  examining the meaning and origin of 200,000 British surnames. In Shakespeare’s day, when there were only one-tenth as many,  his name was commonly used to refer to  “someone who was aggressive.” At least 75,000 new names were introduced into Britain after 1945 by immigrants from scores of different countries.

THE GRATEFUL DEAD have churned up a  ton of ephemera in their lengthy career, and most of it is to be stored in a special archive at UC Santa Cruz among whose faculty is one of the earliest academics to study and teach the band’s music 30 years ago. This would be ethnomusicologist Fredric Lieberman who told the Atlantic he had found similarities with “the complex notational system” of South Indian classical music, exactly the sort of esoteric claim that has spun around the pop group from its early days. Surprisingly, the Dead has been celebrated as an innovatively efficient business model, notable for what has been described as “strategic improvisation,” i.e. their early decision to allow fans to freely tape their performances, thus widening their audience. Next week, an exhibit of material from the archive will go on show at the New York Historical Society.

“I travel with my meals pre-packed in insulated bags, and I carry a scale with me (to) measure my portions. It’s a big enterprise but it’s necessary. I don’t have cravings and I’m never hungry. I only eat what I’m supposed to be eating, because in this line of work you have to live like an athlete.”                 
— Judy Collins, she of  the timeless,  ethereal voice.

AS MANY AS five million wild birds, from hummingbirds to eagles, are traded illegally throughout the world every year according to the State Department, smuggled in everything from nylon stockings to hubcaps. “We do not lack laws against the trade,” says María Fernanda Espinosa, director of an international conservation organization, “but there is a lack of conservation priority.” In Ecuador, where her coalition is based, there are 1,600 species of birds but only nine officers assigned to illegal trafficking. Anti-poaching habits are hard to erase, explains the Smithsonian, because in many poor communities, wildlife is one of the few resources from which to make a living.

HOSTING A PARTY to help the world’s poor people is an event in the worldwide campaign applied every April by the admirable Heiffer International: Pass on the Gift. It’s held every April and if you check out they’ll send you advice on how to participate, along with information about films and games that will help the celebrations. The campaign’s title stems from the mandate that recipients of animals from Heiffer must pass on the gift of offspring to others.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Whenever a new disaster-in-the-making pops up, it seems that Goldman Sachs is always there in the background poised to benefit from it….Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates complains that Europe is suffering from a dangerous addiction to peace…. Author of two dozen sci-fi novels,  award-winning John Barnes, 52, will shake up the cyber community next month with his Direction 51 which speculates on the extent to which Chinese government hackers have penetrated US security…The $18 million the soda pop industry is reported to have spent in trying to block a proposed tax on calorie-rich soft drinks, might better have been spent on developing sodas that tasted the same without the sugar……After Senator Arlen Specter advised an opponent to “act like a lady,”  National Review commented that “unhappily the lady he (himself) acts like is Norma Desmond, infamous (as he is) for his tireless abuse of underlings”…So many British MPS fiddled their expenses that 390 of them have been ordered to repay a total of $1.5 million…. How many firms allow their employees to spend most of their time and derive much of their income from working another job? And yet it’s conventional for members of Congress. Full-time pay for part-time work …. Elton John says Keith Richards is “like a monkey with arthritis,” and Boy George described Madonna as “a gay man trapped in a woman’s body …. The $26 million earned by Harry Potter babe, Emma Watson, made her Hollywood’s highest-paid actress last year….Irked by the choice of Jennifer Hudson to portray Winnie Mandela in a movie to begin production in May, the Creative Workers Union of South Africa complains that telling the nation’s history through foreign actors “undermines efforts to develop (our) own movie industry”…. Speeches by the former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini have been such a popular app on Apple’s iPhone that a writer in Rome’s La Repubblica says he fears for the country’s youth. “They are so easily seduced by fascist nostalgia,” writes Giovanni Gagliardi….. Those car brokers can almost always save you $$$ buying an automobile, advises Smart Money, because they know about all those incentive payments (like ‘holdback’ and ‘stair-step’ bonuses) “that are invisible to the car-buying public” ….Simon Cowell, boss of American Idol, a talent contest for amateur singers, is quitting the show to introduce the X Factor, a  talent contest for amateur singers….What a ridiculous “sport” curling is…Name of The Office of Congressional Ethics has just been changed. It’s now The Office of Congressional Whitewash…. “To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.” — Confucius ( 551–479 BC)