Religion is the Scourge of Mankind

Reading about the atrocities committed by Jihadist militants in Iraq and Syria today in their attempt to establish an Islamic state, the burning questions remains as to how will we rid ourselves of those amongst us who use religion as an excuse and a weapon to kill or otherwise terrorize populations in the name of some arcane and barbaric mythical beliefs.  Without a doubt, the world needs to find a way to rid itself of this deadly horde of  miscreants who’s minds appear to be infected by the sickly, nonsensical ideology of the religious fanatic who will murder the innocent man, woman or child just because they refuse to subject to them

But  it is hard not be reminded of similar acts of barbarism committed in the name of a religion in earlier times,  when very much the same thing was going on to advance the interests  of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe.  Lest we forget, in slaughtering the infidel unwilling to convert to their version of Islam the Muslim Jihadis of today appear to have taken a page from the late great King Charlemagne – or Charles the Great – the king of the Franks. In the year 800 he became the first emperor in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier; he is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern Europe.

During his campaign to establish an empire in full support of the Church, he felt compelled to Christianize newly conquered people upon penalty of death, which lead to such events as the massacre of 4,500 captive rebel Saxons in October 782 in what is now known as Verden in Lower Saxony, Germany. The unfortunate Saxons had rebelled against King Charles’ invasion and his subsequent attempts to Christianize them from their native Germanic paganism.

Oh, and don’t let us forget the Massacre at Béziers, Languedoc, France, on July 22, 1209. When the Roman Catholic Church established the Inquisition, it was set up, initially, to wipe out the Cathar movement in southern France where it had taken hold in opposition to the hitherto dominant Roman Catholic religion. The pope would not put up with the competition so he mounted a crusade against the Cathars, and under leadership of the Abbot of Citeaux the town of Béziers was taken on 22 July 1209 and all its inhabitants were killed – more than 20,000 people – every man, woman and child. That this would have included many thousands of Roman Catholic adherents also didn’t seem to matter. When questioned about this, the Cistercian abbot-commander of the Catholic crusaders,  is on record of having said that: “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eis. (Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own).

Now all this happened a long time ago, but the justification for this kind of slaughter remains an intrinsic part of the foundation of the Christian faith: the bible, for in Deuteronomy XIII.12-16, the faithful are instructed as follows:

If thou shalt hear say in one of these cities …, Let us go and serve other Gods …; then shalt thou surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly and all that is therein. … And thou shalt burn with fire the city and all the spoil thereof every whit for the Lord thy God. … And it shall be a heap forever; and it shall not be built again.

Today the Christian faith appears to be more benign, but as can be evidenced from recent events in the Middle East, innocent people continue to be slaughtered in the name of some god or prophet or another. One might claim that this kind of action has nothing to do with the religious beliefs themselves – and that they are misused when wielded as weapons of murder and destruction. No – it is precisely the unsubstantiated and irrational nature of these beliefs that allows them to be used in this manner. When you think you have the creator and eternity on your side – all your actions are justified; you cannot be wrong!  Until we shake off the influence of these dangerous beliefs, our species will continue to be murdered for them.

This leads me to say that to believe in the existence of a god or other kinds of super-natural beings is terrible affliction and a seemingly endless source of human tragedy. Because – while in principle these are nonsensical and hence harmless beliefs– it is at the same time the sickly smell of centuries of savagery and senseless slaughter of thousands  of people in the name of such beliefs – and primarily in the competition between such beliefs.  And when you read up on human history and listen to the news today, this shall be revealed and – in my mind – made abundantly clear: “Religion is the Scourge of Mankind”.

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Dreams and Allegories

There are some religions or cultures where one looks at reality as a dream in which we are awake, and as much as it would be difficult to get your head around that notion,  it does remind me about dreams and their sometimes  uncanny ability to play certain episodes in your life back to you using people and events that are mere props to help demonstrate the underlying theme.

When you happen to remember such dreams, you realize soon that what is important about them is the theme as well as the role you played in them, and that it is the nature of the actions and their relationships that are the significant part in them; everything else in them is likely incidental, like props in a staged theater play –  and conveniently borrowed from the vast store of your experiences so that you are able to relate to what is being presented to you.

In this context we can look at dreams as  allegorical reflections of real-life experiences that have affected you in some way, their  meaning embedded in a seemingly different set of circumstances. As such they are emotional echoes, resonating certain events in your life back to you, because they were important to you in some way although you might not have thought so at the time.

Going back to the notion that life is a living dream, one could say that life itself is an allegory where we are experiencing indirectly what  motivates us directly from within, below the surface of our consciousness, by the creature that we are from ourselves and the embodiment of  an evolutionary drive of unknown origin and intent. This mysterious process propels towards a destiny we are yet to create for ourselves; nevertheless, we find ourselves acting out what is at stake by our very presence in it.  But not knowing what is in fact at stake would account for much of the misery we have brought onto ourselves as evidenced by the state the world is in today.

In suggesting this I am inspired once again by Spinoza who said (about people): They find themselves with needs and desires without understanding the underlying reasons why they want to act as they do.

And not knowing any better,  because we’re just not not reading between the lines something that has been staring us directly in the face since we opened our eyes as human beings …

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The Sickness unto Death

With my apologies to Søren Kierkegaard for abusing the title of one of his deeply perplexing books about whatever his beliefs about God and associated religious fables were supposed to have meant to him.  I suspect he read too much into the legendarily nebulous Hegel and suffered the consequences. The one observation I can make here is that, yes, religion has confused a lot of people into various stages of existential despair, the inevitable outcome of trying to believe in something that is entirely without substance regardless of what spiritual or ontological argument one wishes to root for it.  The attempt to make the leap of faith required in order to embrace some variety of eschatological mythology at the core of existence leaves one stranded at the dark abyss of irrationally because all reason must be abandoned beforehand.

Religion is the poisonous worm that, in the abandonment of reason, burrows itself into the minds of those who find comfort in the kinds of beliefs that appear to let them off the hook for having to take any kind of responsibility for the moral character of our species, as this will have been decided “elsewhere”.  This reminds me of a line from a poem by Friedrich Holderlin which, somewhat loosely translated from German, goes like this:

“While here on earth we mortals toil, elsewhere a God decides …”

And so religious beliefs continue to confuse the minds of  men and women wishing to adopt them.  What should have been no more than the childhood stage of an evolving species that gradually found itself capable of reasoning yet lacking the skills and experience on how to proceed with this newly found ability, it led instead to a descend into the bottomless pit of  mindless superstition, and too often with deadly results for those at the receiving end of it.

In short, religion is an affliction and a kind of sickness, a mental illness, that has left a trail of death and self-destruction if human history has anything to say about this, and right up to this very day as the fanatical Jihadi mobs in Africa and the Middle East continue to slaughter their fellow human beings in pursuit of its genocidal objectives.

We need to be deeply concerned about the quality of the human condition as encountered in the integrity of their beliefs about our place in the world and what this might imply  for the future of our species. In today’s language, God is vaporware, and the self can no more be aligned with God – as Mr. Kierkegaard will have it – as you are able to take a breath in a vacuum. Or, as some unknown philosopher is reported as having said once:

Trying to make sense of religion is like trying to nail jelly to a wall”

Examining religious beliefs is like peeling an onion: after stripping layer after layer there is absolutely nothing at their core. Although some folks simply claim that they “know” that such beliefs are absolutely true – e.g., that a God exists – we can do little but take their word for it as they are unable to clarify what they mean by this assumption. This is at the core of every religious edifice – rationality has no place here – and as Nietzsche put it once:

Faith means not wanting to know the truth

But while a juvenile condition by any other name, collectively our species should have grown out of this by now, and in the process have prepared the intellect to be immune from similar afflictions. This as we attempt to extract ourselves from the quagmire of religious nonsense into a more enlightened future free from the self-denial featured by such beliefs. Hopefully we will then want to embrace the idea that we are accountable for our all our actions to ourselves only, and not to some imaginary third party.

However – from the looks of it – we’re not quite there yet. Pity.

 

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The Human Condition

I think often about the human condition, and in particular what it would take to move beyond the current state of affairs that appears to be largely defined by an insatiable desire for personal gratification. The rule for many seems to be: the more you have, the more you want – and one can never have enough.  And damned the consequences …

Here, we have truly abandoned our animal past, by perverting the need to survive into a grotesque effort to rise to the top of the heap through relentless consumption, sustainable or not – with no regards for the millions amongst us who can do no better than maintain a marginal existence to the point of starvation in the face of drought or famine, or other conditions of adversity that prevent even very moderate levels of prosperity to be in reach of those willing to work hard for it.

I guess we can’t help ourselves – the predator primate within us is still very much in charge, and as such we are human only to the extent that we like to think of ourselves as being able to be more than that, although we really don’t know what that means in terms what is actually achievable should we ever be able to put our minds to it and try to rise above the mindlessness of our present ways.

This – for me – is the most depressing part of being human.

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Religion Has No Future – Only a Deadly Past!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

As we have now started another new year there is much about present day life and its effect on the overall state of the world in particular that appears to lend credibility to this quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as much as like to think that this isn’t true.

I say this in regards to that aspect of human history which contains a lengthy and dreary record of the ongoing and absolutely non-nonsensical disputes between religious beliefs.  Speaking of tales fraught with sound an fury! Without question a pervasive and debilitating process – often pursued to the point of self-destruction – that continues to thrive into the present, and the surest indication that the human race is truly lost – wayward! –  unless it finds some way to get back to its senses.

But how will we ever save ourselves from the neurosis that seems to affect so many of our species: an obsessive-compulsive disease of the mind around the need to hold beliefs about unseen and powerful supernatural beings in charge of the world, and – in the most extreme case – being compelled to kill or be killed for them.

The sad thing is that it only takes a modicum of common sense to realize that there is no god or deity or any other entity of the metaphysical kind out there. I can’t for the life of me think why people still believe in such things, as we have left the age of innocence as a species a long time ago, when we climbed to the top of Mount Olympus, but Zeus was nowhere to be found.

And since coming of age, we now know why: no God was ever there, or anywhere else for that matter. No longer should we be willing to blindly accept the existence of such entities without a shred of evidence, by simply having been told about it or having read a book. A figment of our imagination is all he ever was, and the truth is that we made him up – Man created God – when we first opened our eyes on this planet as sentient beings with the innate need to know how and why the world came about and what our place in it should be.

These questions remain intrinsic to our being, and life is about pursuing the answers to them – nothing more and nothing less. And as opposed to seeking the answers outside or beyond ourselves, e.g., by postulating supernatural beings within the realm of metaphysics – or by peering into the furthest corners of time and space with evermore sophisticated technology – we need to look only within ourselves to find the answers since the essence of the cosmos lies within each and every particle of our being, and that would include all its rhyme and reason.

And so the meaning and purpose of the world are there for us to be found if we have the courage to discover what we are from ourselves. This as opposed to what the powers of religion want us be for them: the subservient underlings of  their paternalistic institutions that forbid you to think for yourself, ostensibly for your own protection and spiritual well being,  but in reality a means to keep their theocratic hierarchies in power in a power play with other competing religions.

Once we remove the stupefying blindfold of religious dogma our species will be able to focus ahead  towards a much different future – as without religion (as Sartre pointed out) we will actually have a future!  Perhaps then, too , we might want to steer ourselves towards a future in pursuit of  such enlightened qualities as consideration, compassion, sharing, conservation and the arts, to be enjoyed for their own sake as opposed to being rewarded for them in some imaginary afterlife

If that is a supremely naive objective in light of what we know about human nature, so be it! It is nevertheless the only one that would allow us to flourish as a species in the long run – as all other paths will lead to our eventual self-destruction and demise!

That the road ahead will be difficult goes without saying, but as Nietzsche put it at the occasion of his famous “God is Dead” statement:

At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”

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Massacre at Palmnicken, East Prussia, January 1945

Palmnicken-Memorial

Palmnicken-Memorial

Warning: This, sadly, is a true story of incredible cruelty that you will not be able to get easily out of your mind once you have read it. It is one of many similar  acts of unimaginable savagery making up the holocaust and perpetrated by the criminal leadership of the German Nazi Reich during its dying days. Once they realized that their game was up and that the end of the Reich was in sight, they embarked on a desperate attempt to erase the evidence of their state run genocide directed against the Jews of Europe. This would include closing existing concentration camps, by evacuating prisoners to other areas, to be killed  and their bodies disposed of.

It was this approach to the Final Solution – Endlösung – that saw approximately 7,000 people, mostly Jewish women – begin their death march on 26 January 1945 from their Königsberg prison in East Prussia towards the town of Palmnicken in the Samland region on the Baltic coast. They had been gathered from various areas in Eastern Europe, and their death march to Palmnicken would be one of many similar marches by Jewish prisoners in East Prussia from January 1945 onwards.

Palmnicken was approximately 50 kilometers away. Once they arrived there, the plan was to drive the prisoners into a disused mine shaft in the large amber mine complex at the shore front, and then to seal up the entrance.

The march started the late morning of January 26 under the most atrocious conditions. It was the midst of a very cold winter, and the prisoners went without food or warm clothes. One survivor, Maria Blitz (née Salz), recalled:

 We were wrapped in dirty, threadbare blankets and on our feet we wore crude wooden clogs, which made moving forward on the snow and ice—in addition to our constant mortal terror—pure torture. Our clothing consisted of rags and paper, which we had tied together with wires to protect ourselves from the cold. Anyone who could not go on or fell over was shot immediately or beaten with a rifle butt. My sister Gita could not go any further—she had violent diarrhea and collapsed. We tried to get her back on her feet, but she asked us to leave her lying there, she wanted to go to her mother—whom we had already lost in Auschwitz. She was shot.

A Königsberg resident who witnessed the start of the march, Rose-Marie Blask, remembered the following:

I was 14-years-old back then. … I saw a procession of people on the other side of General-Litzmann-Strasse [the former Fuchsberger Allee]. I stood near a tree, it was already getting dark, the air full of snow, and no one could see me. Then I saw in horror that the SS were driving a long procession of prisoners in front of them. Again and again, an SS man raised his arm and a person fell in the snow, though I could not hear a gunshot. I don’t know how long I stood there, as if frozen. At any rate, I saw a lorry following on behind. The dead were lifted out of the snow and thrown into the back of the lorry.

Only 3,000 of the approximately 6,500 to 7,000 Jewish prisoners arrived in Palmnicken later that night on January 26. Around 2,000 to 2,500 marchers where either shot by the accompanying SS guards when they tried to flee or simply fell down, or died from sheer exhaustion during the 50 kilometer march under abhorrent conditions. The following morning up to 300 corpses were found along the final two kilometer stretch between Palmnicken and the village of Sorgenau.

Once at the mine site in Palmnicken things did not go to plan for the SS as the site manager refused to allow the disused shaft – the Anna Grube – to be used for mass murder. It was argued that the shaft was needed for the town’s water supply. Instead, the remaining exhausted and freezing victims were allowed to recover from their ordeal by being housed in the mine’s large workshop, and the factory canteen was order to cook for them. On January 30th, however, the site’s estate manager – Hans Feyerabend – was found dead, his own gun in his mouth, but unclear if he had committed suicide or was murdered. He had opposed the SS plans to murder all the prisoners from the moment he found out about it.

That same evening a number of Hitler Youths were ordered by the town’s mayor and the regional Nazi Party group leader to assist the SS at the disused Anna mine site with re-captured Jewish prisoners who had managed to get away during the final stage of the march. One of the Hitler Youths, Martin Bergau – on which much of this account is based – stated the following:

When we left the municipal office with the SS-men, it was already quite dark. … When we reached the northern part of the town, we turned left and went down the path to the closed Anna mine. We reached the squalid buildings, situated at sea level. I noticed a group of around forty to fifty women and girls. They were captured Jews. A diffuse source of light sparsely illuminated what seemed a ghostly scene. The women had to line up in twos, and we were instructed by the SS-men to escort them. Around six to eight SS-men might have belonged to the command. I could not tell whether they were Germans or foreigners, as their commands were extremely terse. Once the line-up was complete, two women at a time were led around the side of the building by two SS-men. Shortly afterwards two pistol shots rang out. That was the sign for two more SS executioners to take the next two victims to the building, which was shrouded in twilight, and shots soon resounded there again. I had had to position myself pretty much at the end of the long line. A classmate stood right across from me with a cocked rifle, watching over the women on the other side. One woman turned to me and asked in good German if she could move two places forward; she wished to walk this last path with her daughter. In a voice nearly choked with tears, I granted this brave woman her request. … Then I accompanied a mother whom I will never forget to her daughter.

Because of the concerns about contaminating the town’s water supply, the SS opted for a different approach. With the promise that the prisoners would now be taken by ship to Hamburg, they were led out of the main complex and through a gate that led directly onto the beach where they were directed to start marching South towards along the icy Baltic seashore towards Pilau. Once on the way, the SS executed their plan kill each and every one of the roughly 3,000 remaining prisoners, by machine-gunning the marchers from the back and herding them into the icy waters. Because of the melee that followed – and the sheer number of prisoners involved – the SS could not murder everyone as systematically as they had planned. Many victims were initially only wounded, or not even hit. Some fainted and froze to death, or became trapped between ice floes and drowned. Others died on the beach after days in agony. But some survived;  Zila Manielewicz, born in 1921 in Ozorkow, recalled the following:

When we arrived on the shore, it was already darkest night. … Suddenly I was hit on my head with a rifle butt and I and I fell into a precipice. I gained consciousness in the water. At this time, dusk had already fallen. The shore was full of corpses and the SS men were still hovering over them. …. Towards morning the SS men disappeared. Around this time we became aware that about 200 of us were still alive. We got up and climbed onto the beach. The path we had taken that night was itself full of corpses and the seawater was red from the victims’ blood. Together with two other Jewish women, I dragged myself to the closest German village; …

Another account, by Pnina Kronisch,born in 1927 in Belzec:

Then they threw the murdered Jews into the water by kicking them. As the seacoast was covered with ice, the murderers pushed their victims into the icy water with their rifle butts. Since I was at the front of the column with my sister Sara, we were the last in line to be shot. I was also laid down on the seacoast together with my sister, though I was not killed by the shot that was aimed at me but only wounded in my left foot, and my face was soaked in the blood of the murdered Jews lying next to me. During this time my sister was killed. I did not wait until the Germans threw me into the sea—I threw myself in and remained lying next to the ice floe, which already was caught up in the water and hit by the waves. The Germans believed I was dead, and since I was alone, to my good luck, and last in line to be murdered, the Germans got into their sleds and drove off. Before dawn I scrambled out of the sea and hid in the coal store of a German farmer who did not live far from where these events occurred.

Because the seashore where the massacre occurred was separated by a broad strip of park and woodland and the town 30 meters above, only a few of the inhabitants of Palmnicken saw what happened that night. But next day it was immediately apparent that a massacre had taken place. Helene Zimmer, a former resident of Palmnicken, stated the following to the Ludwigsburg court:

… Then we went back to Palmnicken on foot, along the shore instead of along the completely congested road. It was a very painful march taking several hours. … Just before Palmnicken, actually between Nodems and Palmnicken, we suddenly saw countless corpses lying on the shore, and also heard desperate screams still coming from the water. As far as I could see, those lying on the shore were all dead, and every now and then we could hear desperate cries coming from the water. … The water along the shore was partly frozen and ice floes floated around, between them were the seriously wounded or dead people. Many of them were dressed in the same striped clothes. There were also many women among them. … I was so shaken at the sight that I covered my eyes with my hands. … We then quickly went on walking because we could not stand the sight.

It is estimated that approximately fifteen of the original group of 7,000 individuals survived death march and final massacre on the beach at Palmnicken. While the crime was reported to the Soviets when they captured Palmnicken ten weeks later, few details regarding this monstrous crime made its way into the West prior to 1994. It was then that Martin Bergau – a former Hitler Youth member from Palmnicken- had his memoir covering the war years published. He had witnessed the crime at the age of sixteen. Shortly after the massacre he had been taken prisoner by the Soviets; after his release he had not been allowed to return to his home in East Prussia.

In 1945 Palmnicken became part of the Soviet Union and Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad as a result of the Potsdam agreement. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992 it became part of the Russian Federation. While the mass grave in the Anna mine had disappeared into a sand dune, the murder victims’ remains were eventually unearthed by amber excavators in the 60’s. Initially thought to be the remains of Soviet soldiers murdered by the Germans, a memorial stone was erected and wreaths were laid every year at the site until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992. Finally, in 1994, Martin Bergau was able to convince the regional authorities that the bodies lying at the site were in fact Jewish.

And so ends another incredibly sad tale of man’s inhumanity to man – what an infinitely tragic species we are! Clearly, there can be no almighty god, or at least not one that is capable of compassion, empathy, love or self-respect – and in which case he might as well kill himself. Or perhaps he did that already, realizing what kind of creature he hath wrought here on earth, as we must have started slaughtering each other from the moment we found ourselves capable of it.

Today is January 27 2015, Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lest we forget …

This entire article is based on:
Endlösung on the ‘Amber Shore’:
The Massacre in January 1945 on the Baltic Seashore—
A Repressed Chapter of East Prussian History
BY ANDREAS KOSSERT (2004)
http://leobaeck.oxfordjournals.org/

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Multiculturalism and Islamic Radicalism

According to recent Dutch media articles, the conflict in Syria has become a catalyst for radical Muslims in the Netherlands, with messages becoming more explicit and widespread, the Dutch security service AIVD said on Monday. Radical texts spoken by young preachers and social media are leading to jihadist propaganda being spread more quickly, leading to ‘further radicalization on a wider scale,’ the AIVD said in a new report.

So much for Multiculturalism – or the bitter fruits thereof! Before Merkel stated something similar not all that long ago about the German implementation of it, even Blair, the happy clappy multi culti prophet of yore in the UK had to eventually admit that multiculturalism (an awkward neologism invented by the Canadians while under the spell of that great philosopher king Trudeau) is a failure.

Based on the principle that if national unity it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, it must be founded on confidence in one’s own individual identity, and that a “vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this”. Instead, it deepened the divisions between traditional cultures through the creation of cultural silos, which – in the case of some Muslim communities – became the ideal breeding grounds for the radicalization of youth.

Anyone wishing to understand more about this problem as opposed to just bark at it, they might do well by reading this insightful article first published in 2006 by Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, in the Telegraph about the origins of Islamic Radicalism, titled ”Multiculturalism is to blame for perverting young Muslims” .

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Journey To The Planet Mars: Are We There Yet?

Martian-Sunset

Behold, intrepid Mars colonist, the Sun sets on your new home. Maybe take some photos along from a similar event on good old Mother Earth to remember her by … (photo courtesy of NASA)

As a long-standing Sci-Fi fan I have been trying to get my head around the Mars One concept – the brainchild of Dutchman Bas Lansdorp, a 36 year old engineer who plans to spend $6 billion dollars in order to realize the project.   The goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars, and as such the effort is portrayed as “the next giant leap for humankind”.  The one catch is that this project does currently not include a way to leap back to earth from there …

The most amazing thing of the whole thing is that – when the word went out that they were looking for volunteers for a one way trip to Mars – people have been lining up to be part of this mission.  “The trip of a lifetime” said one volunteer that made the shortlist. Well, yes, and “likely the very last trip of a lifetime” might also be an accurate description of it.

But, “Getting there is half the fun!” or so it is said.  In case of the Mars One project it may take up to 7 months, or maybe a little longer … should the space-vehicle miss its target.  Not likely, that, but there is always that possibility, in which case there will be an opportunity to admire the outer regions of the solar system before leaving it indefinitely and traveling “to infinity and beyond”, as Buzz Lightyear is so fond of saying.

To be sure, Mr. Lansdorp does not plan to make the trip himself. He will be occupied by the production of a reality TV show that is meant to finance the project as it will feature his Mars-bound flock as they get on with the business of colonizing the dusty red planet.

It is said that exploring the solar system as a united humanity will bring us all closer together. Mars is the stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe. Human settlement on Mars will aid our understanding of the origins of the solar system, the origins of life and “our place in the universe”.

Now I would not want to make light of any of these lofty objectives, but there is a kind of charming naivety about the whole project that makes me question the depth of the brain trust behind it.  While cocooned in a space capsule for a seven month trip through a vacuum, I wonder how long into the journey it would take the Mars-bound traveller to realize that that “our place in the universe” is in fact the very planet that spawned us, as well as being responsible for its well being.  And as we have evolved into the creatures that we are today, it has become possible to reach out and touch the stars vicariously, and not only in an intellectual sense, but also in a physical sense with the help of some very clever technology, and allowing us to do so from within the comfort and safety of our own planet’s environment.

There will be no fact either physical or logical about Mars – or the universe at large, for that matter – that, in principle,  cannot be discovered remotely and without physically going there, except for perhaps one thing:  no matter how romantic the language describing this as a heroic adventure in space travel, “the next giant leap for humankind”, etc., being the subject of a reality TV show to be fired off to a lifeless planet with no foreseeable way of getting back here has to be the dumbest thing anyone could have signed up for in a lifetime.

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles,
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows
Ground control to major Tom, your circuits dead,
There’s something wrong
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Can you…
Here am I floatin’ ’round my tin can far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.
(from “Space Oddity”, on the 1969 David Bowie album)

Earth-Sunset

Well, here is a picture of a sunset on Mother Earth to remember her by, in case you forgot what you left behind. Forever.

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The Ugly World of Big Bad Pharma

If anyone should have the naive belief that pharmaceutical companies are in business to produce drugs to make or keep people healthy, that is only true to the extent that some of the drugs they bring to market will actually do that. However, that is only incidental to the real objective of why they are in business: to make as much money as possible while remaining to stay out of jail in light of the countless accusations of sleazy deception, massive fraud, wholesale corruption, and the despicable and outright criminal failure to disclose critical health information – which can be assumed to have led to many a patient’s death.

I guess these guys just cannot help themselves: Being Bad comes naturally to Big Pharma, as evidenced by their history in the marketplace. Over the last 10 years the pharmaceutical industry has raked up over 11 billion USD in fines for all kinds of absolutely unconscionable behavior, ranging from publishing fake journals to plug their own products, hiding information about the deadly consequences of their drug during the testing phase, to bribing physicians to promote off-label prescription of anti-depressants leading to increased suicides in children.

The following is the sorry lineup of some of the major fines issued to the pharmaceutical industry since 2006 as a result of their sordid and no doubt criminal business practices:

In December of 2013, the European Commission fined US drug maker Johnson & Johnson and Novartis of Switzerland a combined 16 million euros or about $21.95 million on December 11 for delaying market entry of a cheaper generic painkiller in the Netherlands. The commission said in a statement that Johnson & Johnson’s patent on a patch containing the drug Fentanyl expired in 2005, however in July 2005, it signed a so-called “co-promotion agreement” and paid Novartis to delay launching a generic version. The delay lasted 17 months, and was more profitable for both companies than competing honestly would have been. Fentanyl is a pain-killer 100 times more potent than morphine. It is used notably for patients suffering from cancer.

On July 3, 2012, the Associated Press reported that British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline LLC will pay $3 billion in fines — the largest healthcare fraud settlement in U.S. history — and plead guilty to promoting two popular drugs for unapproved uses and to failing to disclose important safety information on a third in the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history, the Justice Department said Monday.

In addition to the fine, Glaxo agreed to resolve civil liability for promoting Paxil, Wellbutrin, asthma drug Advair and two lesser-known drugs for unapproved uses. The company also resolved accusations that it overcharged the government-funded Medicaid program for some drugs, and that it paid kickbacks to doctors to prescribe several drugs including asthma drug Flovent and herpes medicine Valtrex.

Glaxo illegally promoted Paxil for treating depression in children from 1998 to 2003, even though it wasn’t approved for anyone under age 18. The company also promoted Wellbutrin from 1999 through 2003 for weight loss, sexual dysfunction, substance addictions and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, although it was only approved for treatment of major depression.

In January 2009, Indianapolis-based Lilly, the largest U.S. psychiatric drug maker, pleaded guilty and paid $1.42 billion in fines and penalties to settle charges that it had for at least four years illegally marketed Zyprexa, a drug approved for the treatment of schizophrenia, as a remedy for dementia in elderly patients. In five company-sponsored clinical trials, 31 people out of 1,184 participants died after taking the drug for dementia — twice the death rate for those taking a placebo. Those findings were reported in an October 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lilly already had a criminal conviction for misbranding a drug when it broke the law again in promoting schizophrenia drug Zyprexa for off-label uses starting in 1999. The medication provided Lilly with $36 billion in revenue from 2000 to 2008. That’s more than 25 times as much as the total penalties Lilly paid in January of 2009.

On Sept. 2, 2009, Pfizer unit, Pharmacia & Upjohn, pleaded guilty to  instructing more than 100 salespeople to promote Bextra, a drug approved only for the relief of arthritis and menstrual discomfort, for treatment of acute pains of all kinds.

For this  felony, Pfizer paid (then) the largest criminal fine in U.S. history: $1.19 billion. On the same day, it paid $1 billion to settle civil cases involving the off-label promotion of Bextra and three other drugs with the U.S. and 49 states. This follows earlier allegations of criminal conduct by one of Pfizer’s units –  Warner-Lambert -in January 2004, for pushing doctors to prescribe an epilepsy drug called Neurontin for uses the Food and Drug Administration had never approved. Pfizer agreed to pay $430 million in criminal fines and civil penalties, and pleaded guilty to two felony counts of marketing a drug for unapproved uses. while assuring the U.S. Attorney’s office that Pfizer and its units would stop promoting drugs for unauthorized purposes.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office: “At the very same time Pfizer was in our office negotiating and resolving the allegations of criminal conduct in 2004, Pfizer was itself in its other operations violating those very same laws. They’ve repeatedly marketed drugs for things they knew they couldn’t demonstrate efficacy for. That’s clearly criminal.”

The penalties Pfizer paid this year for promoting Bextra off-label were the latest chapter in the drug’s benighted history. The FDA found Bextra to be so dangerous that Pfizer took it off the market for all uses in 2005.

Also in 2009,  Forest Laboratories was accused of fraud in 2009 related to Lexapro, an antidepressant. In a civil complaint, federal prosecutors alleged that Forest hid from parents and doctors the results of a study indicating that Lexapro might increase the risk of suicide in kids. Meanwhile, the complaint alleges, the company was promoting another clinical trial — financed by Forest, naturally — showing Lexapro’s effectiveness.

Prosecutors also charged the company with providing kickbacks to doctors in the form of sports tickets, expensive meals, and paid vacations.

In September 2007, New York-based Bristol-Myers paid $515 million — without admitting or denying wrongdoing — to federal and state governments in a civil lawsuit brought by the Justice Department.

Across the U.S., pharmaceutical companies have been pleading guilty to criminal charges or paying penalties in civil cases when the U.S. Department of Justice finds that they deceptively marketed drugs for unapproved uses, putting millions of people at risk of chest infections, heart attacks, suicidal impulses or death.

Since May 2004, Pfizer, Eli Lilly & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and four other drug companies have paid a total of $7 billion in fines and penalties. Six of the companies admitted in court that they marketed medicines for unapproved uses.

The US government has been signaling for the last couple years that pharmaceutical executives should expect to become targeted for prosecution or debarment.  This in light of the fact that companies regard the risk of multimillion-dollar penalties as just another cost of doing business.  This according to a 2006 study by the  University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles for the National Institute of Mental Health of off-label use of drugs, including Zyprexa, for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

However, in their most recent effort  in 2011 to oust Forest Laboratories’  Howard Solomon from his 30-year tenure as its CEO – following accusations of fraud in 2009 related to Lexapro – have been unsuccessful.  The expression “Thick as Thieves” comes to mind when considering  a statement made by the company’s board in defense of Mr. Solomon: “Mr. Solomon has always set a tone of the highest integrity from the top.”

Yes, and the moon is made of green cheese.

And then there is  Merck. Vioxx maker Merck & Co. concealed heart attacks suffered by three patients during a clinical study of the now-withdrawn painkiller in a report on the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, the journal wrote in an editorial released in August of 2005. The editorial, written by the journal’s editor in chief, Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, executive editor Dr. Gregory D. Curfman and a third doctor, also alleges the study’s authors deleted other relevant data before submitting their article for publication. Adverse cardiovascular events include heart attacks, strokes and deaths. “Taken together, these inaccuracies and deletions call into question the integrity of the data on adverse cardiovascular events in this article,” the doctors wrote.

And staying with Merck for a moment, how unethical is this:  Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of  fake medical journals that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles–most of which presented data favorable to Merck products–that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship. The journals -The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was published by Exerpta Medica, a division of scientific publishing juggernaut Elsevier, is not indexed in the MEDLINE database.

The claim that Merck had created a journal out of whole cloth to serve as a marketing tool was first reported by The Australian and came to light in the context of a civil suit filed by Graeme Peterson, who suffered a heart attack in 2003 while on Vioxx, against Merck and its Australian subsidiary, Merck, Sharp & Dohme Australia (MSDA).

In a setback in May 17, 2006 for biopharmaceutical company Chiron – now Novartis – a federal judge ruled that the company’s medical-method patent covering a drug-device combination used by cystic fibrosis victims cannot be used to bar use of the treatment in lower concentrations. Chiron had been successful in keeping a significantly more efficient nebulizer technology of the market since 1997 because it would require less of the drug TOBI that they had exclusive rights to.  The new “vibrating mesh” nebulizer would cut the treatment duration at least in half (more like from 20 minutes down to 5) encouraging children to comply with their treatment regimens, and are small and portable, unlike the heavy traditional compressor type nebulizers patented by Chiron for the delivery of TOBI.

According to Richard P. Doyle, Jr. of Janssen Doyle LLP, the firm representing the defendants in the case, the ruling marked a huge victory for patients and potentially huge losses for Chiron by allowing doctors to prescribe the eFlow nebulizer manufactured by PARI of Germany: “This is a rape and pillaging case on the part of Chiron,” said Doyle. “I’ve never run into somebody so evil. Chiron spent millions of dollars to keep this new technology off the market simply because it would hurt sales.”

You wonder how these folks sleep at night, don’t you?

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Mandela a Role Model for Political Leaders Anywhere

Not much that I could contribute  in addition to the already huge volume of praise that has been uttered on behalf of Nelson Mandela. The man was a marvel of political dexterity under the most difficult circumstances – converting his own history as a political prisoner into a position of power and influence to eventually become the leader of a nation free from Apartheid.

I wonder if any of this massive outpouring of grief and admiration for a former national leader gives pause to other national leaders currently at the helm of their country and consider their own potential for a similar response in a future scenario.  Hopefully, a few will take  pointers from this if they care at all about the legacy they leave behind, and how they want to be remembered by history,  if that should be more than a footnote. For this they need to consider the notions of compassion and goodwill towards their fellow human beings, and these will be difficult if not impossible qualities for many to reflect on within the context of their own ambitions and given the way in which some scoundrels have managed to seize and maintain control of their country.

But let us just hope that Mandela’s  legacy of moderation carries enough momentum to forestall the rise of completely opposite characters of political dexterity in South Afria, such as that former ANC youth leader and intellectually-challenged-brawler-in-waiting  Julius Malema who appears to have taken neighbouring Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe as his role model. Lest we forget, Mugabe –  the complete antithesis to Mandela – single-handedly reduced one of the most prosperous  African nations to a hell-hole of starving, suffering humanity. No nation on earth deserves such as fate, but this is what happens  when you motivation to rule is driven by hate (of the former colonial rulers  and the legacy they left behind left) – as opposed to reason and the desire to create a better life for your people  – as it will destroy everything in its path to achieve its objectives. Nelson Mandela showed us the way towards a more enlightened means to rule a country, and in that sense he was a superior human being who made the world a better place for everyone.

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