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African-Americans Genetically Prone to HIV, AIDS

| Wed Jul. 16, 2008 1:53 PM EDT

New research shows that Africans and African-Americans bear a gene variant that helps protect them from malaria, but also makes them more vulnerable to HIV infection. The variant increases susceptability to HIV by 40 percent, says the San Francisco Chronicle.

The genetic trait is found in 90 percent of Africans and 60 percent of African-Americans. Thus far, it has protected against malaria by disabling a protein that some strains of malaria use to enter red blood cells. However, that same protein that's disabled in Africans to prevent malaria can actually protect against HIV by soaking up virus cells before they can invade white blood cells. With this sponge-like protein disabled, Africans lose a key pre-infection barrier.

This finding helps explain, in part, the high HIV infection rates among Sub-Saharan Africans and Americans of African descent. On the flipside, there is a genetic variant among people of Northern European heritage that actually makes them immune to HIV infection. Scientists think the mutation was passed down by ancestors who survived the Black Plague. In one test, a man's blood was exposed to 3,000 times the amount of HIV needed to infect a cell, but infection still didn't occur. The HIV virus simply had no gateway of entry.

Both the European and African genetic traits are currently being studied to see if they can shed light on a cure to HIV.

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The Last Thing to Bear Jesse Helms's Name

| Wed Jul. 16, 2008 11:46 AM EDT

Maybe Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) has a really wicked sense of humor.

How else do you explain her current attempt to rename an appropriations bill intended to provide assistance to foreign countries combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases after recently deceased Senator Jesse Helms?

Helms was a throwback to the period when bigots could serve openly and proudly in the U.S. Senate. He fought funding for AIDS research, saying, "The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct." At a different time, he contextualized his comments by saying, "Nothing positive happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, and nothing positive is likely to happen to America if our people succumb to the drumbeats of support for the homosexual lifestyle." He once said that AIDS prevention literature was "so obscene, so revolting, I may throw up."

Those his position on AIDS in Africa would soften over time, he remained a steadfast opponent of progress in the States. The man didn't mince words, and wasn't ashamed of his positions. "The Bible is unmistakably instructive on the sin of sodomy," he said in the mid-90s. "I confess I regard it as an abomination." He once admitted he voted against a Clinton appointee "because she's a damn lesbian."

And now an AIDS bill may carry his name. That's either an incredibly vicious way of marring the bill and insulting AIDS victims, or its an incredibly savvy way of tarnishing Helms's legacy. Which do you think it is?

US Mediator Will Attend International Talks with Iran

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 10:09 PM EDT

In an historic development, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns will attend international talks with Iran on its nuclear program, to take place this weekend in Geneva. The Washington Post reports:

In a significant departure from longstanding policy, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will join a scheduled meeting in Geneva between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, according to a senior State Department official.
Burns will not negotiate with the Iranians nor hold separate meetings, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been announced. Instead, he will advance the White House's position that serious negotiations can only begin after Iran suspends its enrichment of uranium. [...]
The U.S. official said Burns would not participate in any further discussions during the freeze-for-freeze period. "This is a one-time deal," he said.

"European officials hailed the news that Burns would come to Geneva as a breakthrough, one that sends a clear message to Iran that the international community was interested in negotiating a solution to the nuclear impasse," the Post further reports. Said one European official cited by the paper, "It is a very interesting and important sign by the United States." The pro-engagement National Iranian American Council also welcomed the move.

With a lot of recent Iranian noises in different directions, some indicating they are considering going for a "freeze for freeze" offer -- in which Iran would freeze further installations on its nuclear enrichment program (but not suspend enrichment) and the UN would freeze further sanctions for a six week "pre-negotiations" period -- Burns' forthcoming presence in Geneva signals to Iran that Washington would actually support such a deal. It would also seem to signify that for now anyhow, Bush continues to entrust the major thrust of his administration's second term Iran policy to its relatively more pragmatic wing, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

If Iran and the internationals, joined by the US, are even able to get to the "freeze for freeze" six week prenegotiation period, how will Washington proceed if Iran demands some face-saving way around a total halt to uranium enrichment activities? Former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and colleagues have a proposal.

The Cutest Rehab

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 9:53 PM EDT

This video is funny and sweet. It restores my faith in human beings. Even Amy Winehouse would love it. Maybe.

Produced by Bluevoice, it shows a bunch of volunteers from Orca, a Peruvian nonprofit, as they rescue and rehabilitate sea lion and fur seal pups orphaned by fishing nets and disease.

Part of the rehab involves the volunteers releasing their inner sea lions. You know, barking, socializing, and climbing all over each other, just like pinnipeds do.

The heroic part: these volunteers work in the seriously cold waters of the Peru Current. They have no money for wetsuits and tough it out for hours in soggy jeans.

Bluevoice is trying to raise the money to test tissue samples and figure out why all the seal mothers are dying.

(First seen on my secret addiction, the antidote to bad news, CuteOverload.)

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Dead Zone Overkill

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 8:08 PM EDT

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The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is set to bust all its own records. Forecasts suggest this super-duper-unproductive ocean zone will reach 8,800 square miles this summer. That's the size of New Jersey.

Last year it reached 7,903 square miles. The earlier record was 8,481 square miles in 2002.

Notice a trend?

Notice the Bizarre-New-Age-of-Abysmal-Record-Everythings we've entered?

For those of you who've been asleep during the Bush-van-Winkle years, here's the primer. A dead zone forms when fertilizers wash from farms via rivers to fertilize the sea.

There are other reasons too. Including whatever nutrients you add to your lawn. Don't even get me started on golf courses.

So this year's climate-change-induced record floods on the Mississippi River do a lot more damage than to Midwestern croplands.

That's because the ocean doesn't like a lot of fertilizer. It makes too many plants grow. Those plants die and feed too many decomposers who use up all the oxygen in the water. Everything suffocates.

Dead zone. Coming soon to a seashore near you.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Do GLAAD Network Ratings Matter?

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 6:00 PM EDT

mojo-photo-gaynetworks.jpgThe Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation just released its annual "Network Responsibility Index," an exhaustive look at television programming that counts the percentage of a network's shows that feature LGBT people or characters. Once again, ABC was the queer juggernaut, so to speak, with gay-inclusive fare like Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty adding up to a whopping 24 percent of the network's prime time. The CW made it to 21 percent on the strength (?) of America's Next Top Model, and below that, things take a turn for the pathetic. Queers show up on CBS 9 percent of the time, on 6 percent of NBC's shows, and just 4 percent of whatever Fox does. Cable did a little bit better, as an FX viewer runs the risk of spotting a homophile 45 percent of the time, with HBO and Showtime just behind. A&E, Spike, TBS, TNT, USA all received grades of "Failing." Bravo doesn't seem to have been ranked, I'm assuming because it would have completely thrown off the grading curve: I'm sorry all other netverks, you are AOUUT, auf Wiedersehen.

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Blackwater's Erik Prince on Human Rights - China Bad; Azerbaijan Good?

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 5:22 PM EDT

Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince granted an interview July 7 to editors and reporters at the Military Times. An excerpt, printed in this week's issue of the Army Times:

Do you work for other countries, or just for the U.S.?
We do some training work for other countries, some helicopter support and training and maintenance and that kind of stuff. In Azerbaijan, we were hired by DoD to build for them a naval special warfare capability to defend the oil platforms and interdict weapons and drugs and whatever else in the southern Caspian [Sea]...
Have you turned down any countries?
Sure. We had a lot of inquiries from China a couple years ago wanting police training before the Olympics, and that's just not something we wanted to do.
What's the difference between working for the Azeris and working for the Chinese?
Well, China has plenty of human rights challenges and we didn't want any of our training to be used in another Tiananmen Square-type faceoff. Simple.
Another difference is also the U.S. government said they wanted you to go to Azerbaijan. They didn't ask you to go to China.
Correct. They hired us to do that [in Azerbaijan].
Because Azerbaijan doesn't have the best human rights record, either.
In this case, they're trying to build a small, focused capability to do maritime protection. But it was something that was in the U.S. foreign policy interest, and our training has to align with that.

Ouch: Climate Change Means More Kidney Stones

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 2:08 PM EDT
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Some squirm-inducing news from the global warming front: Climate change means more kidney stones. Rising temperatures mean people sweat more, which means they get dehydrated, which means salt crystals form in their kidneys, which means—insert your favorite big object-tiny opening image here. Researchers say that the region known as the "Kidney Stone Belt" (who knew?), which is basically the Bible Belt, is expanding northward into the Rust Belt and Grain Belt. By 2095, they predict, 70% of Americans will be living in a high-risk zone for kidney stones. Ouch. Fortunately, preventing kidney stones is easy—drinking plenty of water helps. So stay cool, drink up, and maybe this too shall pass.

Photo of kidney stone from stock.xchng user heyrc

No, Really: It's the Liberals Who Are Elitists

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 1:29 PM EDT

Cindy McCain to CNN:

"In Arizona, the only way to get around the state is small private plane."

Pissed that you don't have a plane? (Or that gas is $5.00 a gallon?) That's because you're part of a nation of whiners.

Taliban Sets Up Permanent Courts in Pakistan's Tribal Areas

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 1:23 PM EDT

A report released today (.pdf) by Dan Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, outlines the frustrations of U.S. efforts to tame Taliban fighters operating in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or the FATA, the region in which most terrorism analysts believe Osama Bin Laden is probably hiding. Writes Markey:

Nearly seven years after 9/11, neither the United States nor Pakistan has fully come to terms with the enormity of the challenge in the tribal belt. Washington has failed to convince Pakistanis that the United States has positive intentions in the region and is committed to staying the course long enough to implement lasting, constructive change. Pakistan, for its part, has demonstrated a disturbing lack of capacity and, all too often, an apparent lack of will to tackle head-on the security, political, or developmental deficits that have produced an explosion of terrorism and extremism within its borders and beyond.

Also today, reports the BBC, there is new evidence that the Taliban is settling down in the tribal areas, relatively untroubled by U.S. and Pakistani attempts to disrupt its operations. Until now, to enforce its strict variant of Sharia law, the Taliban has operated mobile courts, handling cases dealing with everything from land transactions to family disputes to spying. But according to a Taliban spokesman, it has now divided the northwest Mohmand district into four judicial areas. Each one features a permanent court staffed by two judges. These join similar courts said to already be operating in the neighboring Bajaur district.

The fact that Taliban courts can operate from fixed addresses without fear of outside intervention demonstrates, "the diminishing authority of the central and local governments," said the spokesman.