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How the current Iraq situation came about-Kenneth Pollack

Pollack with a fairly comprehensive read about the current situation in Iraq. And how the hell things ended up this way.

TL;DR (by MJ12): Important takeaways are that the Iraqi Prime Minister basically spent several years disassembling a reasonably competent Iraqi military to put his cronies in charge, and basically methodically set up a situation where not only would the Sunnis in Iraq rebel against his rule because of lack of political power, but the Iraqi military would be in shambles and incapable of resisting.

Likely Next Steps in the Fighting

What appears to be the most likely scenario at this point is that the rapid Sunni militant advance is likely to be stalemated at or north of Baghdad. They will probably continue to make some advances, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to overrun Baghdad and may not even make it to the capital. This scenario appears considerably more likely than the two next most likely alternative scenarios: that the Sunni militants overrun Baghdad and continue their advance south into the Shia heartland of Iraq; or that the Shia coalition is able to counterattack and drive the Sunnis out of most of their recent conquests.

It is not a coincidence that the Sunni militants made rapid advances across primarily Sunni lands. That’s because it is not surprising that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) would crumble in those areas. As Baghdad has (rightly) observed, several of the divisions in the north were disproportionately composed of Kurds and Sunni Arabs, many of them frustrated and alienated by Prime Minister Maliki’s harsh consolidation of power and marginalization of their communities. They were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him. Similarly, the considerable number of Shia troops in the north understandably saw little point to fighting and dying for principally Sunni cities like Mosul, Tikrit, Bayji, etc.

Baghdad could be another matter entirely. First, it is a vast city of almost 9 million people compared to Mosul with less than 2 million. Moreover, the Sunni militants only secured the western (Sunni Arab) half of Mosul, leaving the eastern (Kurdish-dominated) half alone. Conquering a city the size of Baghdad is always a formidable undertaking when it is defended by determined troops.

After the battles of the 2006-2008 civil war, Baghdad is also now a more heavily Shia city—probably 75-80 percent of its population, although it is very difficult to know for certain. While it is understandable, even predictable, that Shia troops would not fight and die for Sunni cities, many are likely to find their courage when they are defending their homes and families in Baghdad and the other Shia-dominated cities of the south.

In addition, as has been well-reported, the (largely-Shia) remnants of the ISF are being reinforced by Shia militiamen and bolstered by contingents of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Although many of the Shia militiamen will be new recruits answering Ayatollah Sistani’s call to defend their community, others are hardened veterans of the fighting in Iraq in 2006-2008 and Syria since 2011.

Thus, the Sunni militants are likely to come up against a far more determined and numerous foe than they have confronted so far. The most likely outcome of that fighting will be a vicious stalemate at or north of Baghdad, basically along Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divide. That is also not surprising because it conforms to the pattern of many similar intercommunal civil wars. In Syria today, in Lebanon in the 1980s, Afghanistan in the 1990s, and elsewhere, that is where the frontlines tend to stalemate. They can shift here and there in small ways, but generally remain unchanged for years. That’s because militias in civil wars find it far easier to hold territory inhabited by the members of their identity group than to conquer (and hold) territory inhabited by members of a rival identity group. It’s one reason they typically try to “cleanse” any territory they have conquered of members of the rival identity group.

If military developments in Iraq conform to this most likely scenario, they could lead to a protracted, bloody stalemate along those lines. In that case, one side or the other would have to receive disproportionately greater military assistance from an outside backer than its adversary to make meaningful territorial gains. Absent that, the fighting will probably continue for years and hundreds of thousands will die.

Watch Anbar. So far, the Sunni militants in Anbar are the dog that hasn’t barked, at least not yet. Obviously, the Sunni militants have significant strength in Anbar, including considerable numbers of ISIS fighters. It is militarily obvious that they should seek to develop a complimentary offensive out of Anbar. Doing so would allow them to (1) open another axis of advance against Baghdad and catch it in a classic pincer movement, or (2) develop a direct advance against the great Shia religious cities of Karbala and Najaf (the most sacred sites in Shia Islam), and/or (3) force the Shia to divert military assets away from the north-south Sunni advance and potentially overstretch their manpower and command and control.

Consequently, the fact that no such offensive has yet materialized is noteworthy. It may be that Sunni militant forces in Anbar were so badly beaten up in the fighting with the ISF around Fallujah and Ramadi that they are not capable of mounting such an attack. Alternatively, they may be preparing to do precisely that.

In short, Anbar bears watching because a Sunni offensive there will further stress the Shia defenses. It is a key variable that could undermine the Shia defense of Baghdad. So if you are looking for something that would push Iraq from the most likely scenario (a bloody stalemate in or north of Baghdad) to the second most likely scenario (a continued Sunni advance through and beyond Baghdad) a successful Sunni offensive from Anbar would be one such variable.

Watch Iran. Given the various problems on the Shia side (demoralization, fragmentation, politicization of the ISF), the variable that would be most likely to advantage the Shia and push Iraq from the most likely scenario (a bloody stalemate in or north of Baghdad) to the third most likely scenario (a Shia counteroffensive that eliminates most of the Sunni gains) is Iranian participation. On their own, it is unlikely that even the larger and more motivated Iraqi Shia forces now assembling to defend Baghdad would be able to retake the Sunni-dominated north. What would make that far more possible would be much greater Iranian involvement, particularly much larger commitments of Iranian ground combat formations.

So far, Iran appears only to have committed three battalion-sized groups of Quds force personnel. Quds force personnel are typically trainers and advisers, not line infantrymen. They are the “Green Berets” of Iran, who help make indigenous forces better rather than fighting the fight themselves. That would make sense for the current situation in Iraq, and those personnel will help stiffen the Shia defense of Baghdad. However, they are unlikely to improve Shia capabilities to the point where they can develop a major offensive to take back the North. Only the commitment of large numbers of Iranian line formations—infantry, armor and artillery—could do that. Consequently, were we to see a large Iranian commitment of such ground combat units, it would signal that the third-most likely scenario was becoming far more likely.

The Combatants, Part I: The Sunni Militants

It is important to understand a few key points about the Sunni militant side of the new Iraqi civil war.

It’s a Coalition, not a Single Group. First, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is essentially the “lead dog” of a larger Sunni militant coalition—hence my preference for the latter, more accurate description. ISIS has been fighting in conjunction with a number of other Iraqi Sunni militant groups. Effectively the entire rogue’s gallery of Sunni militias from the 2006-2008 civil war have been revived by Prime Minister Maliki’s alienation of the Sunni Arab community since 2011. AQI, the Naqshbandis, the Ba’th, Jaysh al-Muhammad, Ansar al-Sunnah, and all of the rest are back in operation in Iraq, in at least tacit cooperation with a number of Sunni tribes.

These groups are key members of the Sunni militant coalition. They have done a great deal of the fighting, dying and occupying. Often they are indistinguishable from one another to outsiders or even Iraqis who are not themselves Sunni militants.

It’s an Iraqi Entity, not a Foreign Invasion. While the Iraqi government has emphasized the foreign elements in ISIS, their indigenous, Iraqi component is of far greater importance. ISIS has been part of the violence in Iraq for over a year. Many of its personnel are Iraqis. Even before last week’s operations, it had an extensive network in Iraq which both conducted terrorist attacks across the length and breadth of the country, and has been engaged in a conventional battle for Ramadi and Fallujah with the ISF for over six months. Moreover, it is busily engaged in recruiting and training additional Sunni Iraqis which is simply reinforcing the Iraqi nature of the group. Finally, as noted above, ISIS is only one piece (albeit, the central piece) in a larger array of Sunni groups that are overwhelmingly Iraqi.

This is important because Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists have tried to paint ISIS as a group of foreigners who were waging the Syrian civil war and suddenly decided to launch an invasion of neighboring Iraq. If that narrative were true, it would suggest that a pure (and immediate) military response were warranted since such a group would have a great deal of difficulty holding territory conquered in Iraq. It would obviate the need for far-reaching political changes, which Maliki seeks to avoid.

Consequently, it is critical to understand that ISIS is as much an Iraqi group as it is Syrian or anything else, and its success is largely a product of its ability to capitalize on Iraq’s political problems and to be accepted (if only grudgingly) by many Iraqi Sunnis as a champion in the fight against what they see as an oppressive, partisan Shia regime.

These are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second. Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.

The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up buildings or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes. While I have no doubt that there are some among the Sunni militants who want to blow up American buildings and planes right now, and many others who would like to do so later, that is not their principal motivation.

Instead, this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign.

And right now, they are completely consumed with continuing to wage this conventional offensive against the Shia forces arrayed against them. That is likely to remain their pre-occupation for some time to come. Somewhere down the road, they probably will begin to mount terrorist attacks against other countries from their secure areas in Iraq and Syria, precisely as the intelligence community warned. But that will be an adjunct to their waging of the new Iraqi civil war.

That is important because defining the Sunni militants as terrorists implies that they need to be attacked immediately and directly by the United States. Seeing them for what they are, first and foremost a sectarian militia waging a civil war, puts the emphasis on where it needs to be: finding an integrated political-military solution to the internal Iraqi problems that sparked the civil war. And that is a set of problems that is unlikely to be solved by immediate, direct American attacks on the Sunni militants. Indeed, such attacks could easily make the situation worse.

The Combatants, Part II: The Shia Coalition

A few points are also in order regarding the other side of the fight, the Shia.

Of greatest importance, we need to recognize that the Iraqi Security Forces are fast becoming little more than a Shia militia. This trend began 3-4 years ago when Prime Minister Maliki began to push Sunni and Kurdish officers out of the armed forces, to replace them with loyal Shia officers. As a result, even before the current debacle, the ISF had become far more Shia than it had been, with fewer and fewer Sunnis and Kurds. Even before the dramatic events of last week, most Sunnis and Kurds referred to the ISF as “Maliki’s militia.” Since last Tuesday, we have seen large numbers of Sunni Arab and Kurdish soldiers desert the ISF, leaving an even more homogeneously Shia force. There are still Sunnis and Kurds in the ranks and in the officer corps, but that seems likely to dissipate over time.

This is a trend that is common to these kinds of intercommunal civil wars. The “Syrian Armed Forces” of today are nothing more than the Asad regime’s militia, heavily comprised of Alawis and other minorities aligned with the regime. All throughout the Lebanese civil war, there was an entity called “the Lebanese Armed Forces” (LAF) that wore the uniforms, lived on the bases and employed the equipment of Lebanon’s former army. But they had become nothing but a Maronite Christian militia (after all of the Muslims and Druse deserted in the late 1970s), and their commanders nothing but Maronite Christian warlords. The same is already happening with the ISF and that trend is likely to continue.

This is important because one of the worst mistakes the United States made in the 1980s was to assume that the Lebanese Armed Forces were still a neutral, professional armed force committed to the security of the entire state. That was a key piece of the tragic U.S. mishandling of Lebanon. When the Reagan Administration intervened in Lebanon in 1983, one of its goals was shoring up the LAF so that it could stabilize the country. Everyone else in Lebanon—and the Middle East—recognized that the LAF had devolved into a Maronite militia and so they saw the U.S. intervention as the (Christian) United States coming to aid the (Christian) Maronite militia. That is why all of the other warring groups in Lebanon immediately saw the American forces not as neutral peacemakers, but as partisans—allies of the Maronites—and so started to attack our forces. It led directly to the Beirut barracks blast and the humiliating withdrawal of our troops.

There is the same danger in Iraq. If we treat the ISF as an apolitical, national army committed to disinterested stability in Iraq, and provide it with weapons and other military support to do so, we will once again be seen as taking a side in a civil war—even if we are doing so inadvertently, again. Everyone else, including our Sunni Arab allies, will see us as siding with the Shia against the Sunnis in the Iraqi civil war. That perspective will only be reinforced by the ongoing nuclear talks with (Shia) Iran. It is why any American military assistance to Iraq must be conditioned on concrete changes in Iraq’s political structure to bring the Sunnis back in and limit the powers of the (Shia) prime minister, coupled with a thorough depoliticization of the ISF. That is the only way we may be able to convince the Sunnis that we have not simply taken the side of Maliki and the Iranians.

What happened to the ISF? Many have been asking what happened to the Iraqi Security Forces that brought them from the successes of 2007-2008 to the collapse of their units in northern Iraq last week. Obviously, a definitive answer to that question will only be provided by historians at some future date, but a number of factors have been known about the ISF for some time and these undoubtedly caused the collapse in part or whole.

First, it is important to recognize that the ISF built by the U.S. military in 2006-2009 had only very modest military capabilities (primarily in counterinsurgency/counterterrorism/population control operations). Throughout the modern era, Arab militaries have never achieved more than middling levels of military effectiveness and on most occasions, their performances were dreadful. Iraq was no exception. (Those looking for additional information on this may want to read the chapter on modern Iraqi military history in my book, Arabs at War.) This was largely a product of factors inherent in Arab culture, education and economics. With enormous exertions, a small number of Arab militaries overcame these problems to perform at a mediocre level. However, whenever Arab regimes politicized their armed forces to try to prevent a military coup against themselves, the performance of their armies dropped from bad to abysmal.

American military trainers and advisors were able to marginally improve the military effectiveness of the ISF by introducing rigorous, Western-style training programs and partnering closely with Iraqi forces in ways that allowed U.S. personnel to get to know their Iraqi counterparts. As a result of this familiarity, over the course of many months, the Americans figured out who were the good Iraqi soldiers and who were the bad, who was connected to the terrorists or militias, who was connected to organized crime, who was smart and brave, and who was lazy or cowardly. And the U.S. military then went about systematically promoting the best Iraqis, and pushing out the bad ones.

The greatest impact of these American efforts with the ISF in 2006-2009 were to depoliticize it, both to modestly increase its combat effectiveness and to make it professional, apolitical and therefore accepted as a stabilizing force by all Iraqis. Again, this was largely performed by promoting professional, patriotic Iraqi officers and removing the sectarian chauvinists. The U.S. also pressed Baghdad to accept more and more Sunni and Kurdish officers and enlisted personnel into the ranks. As a result, the ISF became a far more integrated force than it had been, led by a far more apolitical and nationalistic officer corps than it had been before. Indeed, in 2008, when Prime Minister Maliki sent heavily Sunni brigades from Anbar down to Basra to fight the Shia militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Shia of Basra welcomed the ISF brigades and fought against the Shia militiamen.

Unfortunately, despite the boost it gave him, Prime Minister Maliki saw this largely apolitical and professional military as a threat to himself. He feared that it was overrun by Ba’thists (he sees far too many Sunnis as closet Ba’thists), unwilling to follow his orders (despite the fact that it had always done so), and looking to oust him at the first excuse. So, beginning in 2009-2010, he began to remove the capable, apolitical officers that the United States had painstakingly put in place throughout the Iraqi command structure. Instead, he put in men loyal to himself, often because they had been the ones passed over or removed by the Americans. The result was a heavily politicized and far less competent officer corps.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Maliki’s officers saw little need for the rigorous training programs the Americans had put in place. They closed many of the training facilities we built and allowed training to fall by the wayside. Not surprisingly, when these formations got into action again—both in some skirmishes with the Kurds and more bloody fights against Sunni militants—they did very poorly, undercutting morale.

Finally, beginning in 2011 immediately after the departure of the last American soldiers, Maliki began to use his new, politicized ISF to go after his political rivals, many of them leading (moderate) Sunni leaders. This was a critical element in his alienation of Iraq’s Sunni community, and further demoralized the Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and other minority personnel in the ISF. It also disappointed many of the Shia soldiers and officers who preferred to be part of an apolitical, national military and had never wanted to become part of “Maliki’s militia.”

Not surprisingly, when this force came under tremendous stress, it fractured. As noted above, it is now being rebuilt, but not as a national army: as a Shia militia. And the U.S. should only be providing it with aid if we are given the right and the ability to turn it back into an apolitical, national army.

Cancer Killers: Antibody-Drug Conjugates featuring Dr. Vangipuram Rangan

Scientific names, or the product of me mashing my keyboard randomly? Seemingly little difference.

After noting my unfunny-yet-true caption, you’re probably asking “what is this picture Adarsha has put at the beginning of this blog post/how am I supposed to understand this/am I supposed to care and why/yo is this even a legit extra credit option?”

All valid questions that I will hopefully answer soon enough! Except maybe that last one, as only time, the fates, and Professor Wang will tell.

You see, the above image is of an antibody-drug conjugate (ADC), a special molecular complex that is being touted as one of the revolutionary new ways to combat cancer by utilizing the specific nature of antibodies.

But that still doesn’t tell you how the ADC works. Or how they are made. Or…lots of other things.

Luckily, I was able to interview Dr. Vangipuram Rangan, Senior Director of Protein Chemistry at Bristol-Meyers Squibb, about ADCs in good detail. In this first video, he’ll briefly explain what antibody-drug conjugates are and what they are used for.

Alright, let’s break down that fancy-looking ADC at the beginning into a universal model of ADCs, and take a look at how they work.

This image is from www.sciencebuz.com. I swear I did not make this in MS Paint in 5 minutes (but I totally could have).

Huzzah!

The super simple explanation of that diagram is as follows: the antibody binds to a specific site on the cancer cell, and delivers a cytotoxic drug attached via linker molecule (in)to the cancer cell, killing it. That’s it! Pretty simple in theory, but actually very complicated in reality, with lots of important nuances for each of the big three components (antibody, linker, drug). Once again, Dr. Vangipuram Rangan is here to explain industry details on ADCs in a fairly simple manner.

I’m going to give some timestamps for this next, longer video, as not all of it might interest readers who are interested in a specific portion of ADCs. However, Dr. Rangan does a fantastic job covering ADCs from a broader industry perspective as well as a more specific molecular biology one. Of course, this causes the video to be longer, but no sacrifice, no victory. Or something.

TIMESTAMPS: Until 2:05, Dr. Rangan talks about the specific nature of ADCs and why that’s important in the larger context of (cancer) treatment, but if you’re just interested in the specifics of ADCs, feel free to skip that. At 3:15, Dr. Rangan explains the process by which the antibody used in the ADCs are chosen. Afterwards, the talk shifts to the mechanism (receptor-mediated endocytosis) by which the ADC is able to do its job. Finally, from 5:47 onwards, Dr. Rangan addresses the cost and difficulty issues associated with making an ADC.

It’s important to note that while the receptor-mediated endocytosis model is currently the most accepted model to explain how ADCs work, there are proposed alternatives to it. Another possible mechanism for ADC function is that the ADC binds to the target antigen on the target cell and no receptor-mediated endocytosis occurs: instead, the linker molecule is actually cleaved by enzymes released from the target cell (in response to the binding of the target antigen), releasing the cytotoxic agent in close proximity to the target cell, where it can still kill the target cell (without necessarily being internalized in conjunction with the rest of the ADC).

Speaking of the cytotoxic agent component of ADCs, how are they attached to the antibody? What governs that attachment process, and how important is the location of the drug attachment? There are many questions to be asked in this area, and the good Doctor Rangan has answers to many of them.

In this next video, Dr. Vangipuram Rangan talks about the drug-to-antibody ratio and its significance, the mechanics of conjugating the cytotoxic agents to the antibody, and some of the issues the industry must deal with when creating an ADC, such as toxicity, conjugation location, and selection of drug-to-antibody ratio (DAR).

Again, this video errs on the longer side (a lot of the conversation flows so it’s kinda hard to cut without making the video disjointed), so I’m gonna try and provide some timestamps with details.

TIMESTAMPS: Up until 1:38, Dr. Rangan gets pretty technical on the kinds of binding sites of antibodies and how the binding works, but if you’re interested in the specifics of these things, I recommend you watch it. Next comes the important topic of the drug-to-antibody ratio. Pretty self-explanatory, but Dr. Rangan explains how the industry has to interpret that value in a specific way. At 3:06, I ask (and Dr. Rangan answers) about the importance of the specificity of the site of conjugation, and which parameters companies use to determine which sites to use. Finally, at 5:33 onwards, Dr. Rangan is asked about the DAR and how pharmaceutical companies determine which DAR is ideal.

If we look back at the image at the beginning of this blog post and look at the leftmost bracket, we can see that the drug-to-antibody ratio is 3-4, meaning that per antibody, this ADC has around 3 to 4 molecules of the cytotoxic agent per antibody.

Now, onto the last but still super-important part of the ADC: the linker molecule. The linker molecule might seem to be really simple–I mean, it just connects the cytotoxic agent with the antibody, right? …Well, okay that’s mostly right, but turns out that the linker protein plays a huge role in ensuring the cytotoxic agent actually gets into the cancer cell (harder than it sounds).

In this next short video, Dr. Rangan briefly explains the  role of the linker molecule, examples of existing linker molecules, and the criterion that a linker molecule must fulfill in order to safely and properly deliver the attached cytotoxic agent to the inside of a cancer cell.

All in all, the specific nature of ADCs seem to give them a promising future in cancer treatment. Their highly specific nature also hints at potential for treatment of various other medical issues as well. In this final, brief video clip, Dr. Vangipuram Rangan explains what he thinks the future of antibody-drug conjugates is.

If you have further questions regarding ADCs, please ask them in the comments section! I mean, I’ll not be able to answer them, but odds are Dr. Vangipuram Rangan can and will. Hope you guys found this blog post to be vaguely well-written, mildly amusing at some points, and fairly informative!

~Adarsha

SUMMARYAntibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) are a relatively new biotechnology that has great potential to combat various forms of cancer by utilizing the specific natures of antibodies in conjunction with linker proteins to deliver highly cytotoxic agents to cancer cells. One can think of ADCs functioning like hyperlocalized chemotherapy. The development of ADCs is difficult due to the many parameters that must be fulfilled in order to create a viable ADC. I was able to have Dr. Vangipuram Rangan, Senior Director of Protein Chemistry at Bristol-Meyers Squibb elaborate on the nature of ADCs and relevant biotechnology in a series of short videos.

I Sometimes Hate the LGBT Community. And I’m a Member.

Whether or not you agree with this (I mostly do), read it.

Nihilism is Pointless.

Recently, huge fights have spawned between different camps within the LGBT community.  The fights are born around the use of certain words, different roles, opinions, outlooks, philosophies of life as an LGBT person, and quite simply wounded egos.

And I have had just about enough of the bullshit.

If half the energy expended on fighting each other within the community was used to fight for medical access, legal equality, marriage rights, and positive media portrayals we would already be considering a transgendered woman for Secretary of the Interior and no one would be even slightly concerned about anything but their professional qualifications.  Instead, we have turned on each other like crabs in a pot slowly coming to a boil.  As soon as one goes up, the others must pull them down.  Instead of creating a chain of effort, we spend our time stabbing each other in the back, screaming at…

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SADLY THIS IS BUT A MERE ARTICLE LINK AND IT IS HARD TO MAKE A NOT TERRIBLE LINKIN PARK PUN HERE

Looks pretty kinky. Don’t try this at home kids.

Well, cockroach brain, but the reference had to be made.

Ampulex compressa is a name that (literally) strikes fear (and a stinger) into the minds of cockroaches everywhere. Well, just in South Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands.

This wasp is what is known as an entomophagous parasite (there’s a five dollar word), as in it’s an insect that is parasitic on other insects. Now, when I say that this wasp lays an egg on a paralyzed cockroach and then has its young eat the cockroach alive, you’d probably think that this thing looks like some sort of freaky monstrosity. I mean, that pose in the first photo makes it hard to tell where wasp begins and cockroach ends. Well…

You can admire the beautiful color scheme up close as she jabs her stinger into your brain.

Don’t let her iridescent figure fool you. Millions of years of evolution have lead to a fairly elaborate and interesting reproductive mechanism, one which is simultaneously impressive (from our perspective) and really shitty (from a cockroach’s perspective).

Stabby bits go where noted.

Let’s walk through the process.

A female wasp seeks out a cockroach host and ambushes it. She inserts her stinger into its thorax and delivers a paralyzing shot of venom that immobilizes the insect for a few minutes. She pulls her stinger out and then delivers a second injection. This one goes into the cockroach’s head, delivering more chemicals to two sites in the brain of the host.

The result is a cockroach zombie. The neurosurgically altered victim recovers from its paralysis but now lacks the will to flee or fight. The wasp pulls on an antenna and leads the roach, like a dog on a leash, into a burrow. There she glues an egg to the underside of the roach. She leaves the burrow and seals it shut. In the darkness, the roach stands motionless as the wasp larva hatches from its egg and chews a hole into its side. The wasp feeds through the hole for a while, and then slithers inside. Later, it pops out as a full-grown adult.

Truly romantic.

But what the really interesting thing is the mechanics of those injections. Why do those matter?

To appreciate just how tricky this can be, consider what it takes for doctors to deliver drugs to a human brain. They scan the patient’s brain to map its anatomy in three dimensions. Then they put their patient’s head in a cage, drill a hole in the skull, and then slowly push a tube into the brain. A wasp does much the same thing in about a minute, without ever glancing at a brain scan of its victim.

Yea, it’s impressive, even though roach brains are much simpler.

How is this done? Here’s a quick excerpt-I really recommend reading the rest of the article though, it’s not too long and not super-jargon filled (plus, a video explanation is located at the end, and it’s a TED talk!)

They pull off this feat with their extraordinary stinger. It measures 2 millimeters long, enabling the wasp to insert it into the roach’s neck and snake it up to the brain. The tip of the stinger has two sets of valves. One set hold the equipment for laying eggs, and the other set hold the equipment for delivering venom. The valves interlock in a tongue-and-groove arrangement so that they can slide over each other, allowing the wasp to lay an egg or deliver a sting with the same organ….the wasp uses its stinger to feel its way through the roach’s brain.

If you didn’t want to read all that because the thought of a wasp stabbing a needle into a roach’s head in order to deliver zombie drugs into it so that the wasp larva can eat the roach alive is too disturbing, here’s a quick summary of how the process works.

TL;DR: A very elaborate and college-educated plan.

To finish things off, I’ll leave you with a charming picture that shows the miracle of life.

A wasp majestically emerging from the butt of a cockroach it ate inside out.
That’s some David Attenborough shit right there.

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Iraqi women protest against proposed Islamic law in Iraq

Not much news about this it seems. But pretty important stuff.

About two dozen Iraqi women demonstrated on Saturday in Baghdad against a draft law approved by the Iraqi cabinet that would permit the marriage of nine-year-old girls and automatically give child custody to fathers.

While the proposed law sounds bad already, let’s go into a bit further depth on what it entails.

It describes girls as reaching puberty at nine, making them fit for marriage, makes the father sole guardian of his children at two and condones a husband’s right to insist on sexual intercourse with his wife whenever he wishes.

Well, that sucks.

Keep in mind that Iraq’s current personal status law “enshrines women’s rights regarding marriage, inheritance, and child custody, and has often been held up as the most progressive in the Middle East.”

Good news though: this kind of bill has already been shot down before, in 2003 due to large-scale protests. So hopefully that will happen again.

Now, another important thing to note: our reactions to this. Oftentimes, the standard response is “OMG LOOK AT THOSE BARBARIANS WE NEED TO CIVILIZE THEM AND/OR CUT OFF ALL CONTACT AND AID WITH THEM TILL THEY KNOW BETTER.”

There are a few issues with this. First, notice that there are quite a few people protesting this kind of bill (I mean that’s how it got shot down in 2003)? Yea, you can’t clump together everyone in a nation and claim they’re all barbarians for a proposed law.

MJ12 does a great job addressing the rest, look below.

Hard men making hard decisions, right?

Hard men making hard decisions, right?

Hope the best for those protesters, and hope this law gets shot down.

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GIANT PREHISTORIC TERROR BIRD ACTUALLY PEACEFUL FRUIT-LOVING BEHEMOTH

First thing: TERROR BIRDS must be written in all caps and whenever you say it, you must squawk and raise your arms as if they were useless, tiny wings.

So what are TERROR BIRDS?

Imagine an ostrich. Only on steroids so it’s 10 feet tall, weighs 300 pounds, has a giant razor beak, and uh-oh it’s looking pretty hungry and then it’s dismembering you.

These are some very large and very hungry chickens.

These things lived in (South) America and were the apex predator in the Cenozoic era (65 to a mere 2 million years ago).

In essence, TERROR BIRDS were some of the most vicious and simultaneously mostly-terrifying-but-also-hilarious-looking predators to ever stalk terra firma…or is that TERROR FIRMA? No, it’s just terra firma according to Websters.

Except, at least not in one case. See the yellow bird on the far right? Gastornis?

It lived between 55 and 40 million years ago, and certainly looked the part of a TERROR BIRD, being 6 feet tall and having a giant beak that looks just fantastic for crushing spines and severing limbs.

Except Gastornis probably didn’t do those things.

But recent research has found that Gastornis wasn’t so terrifying, after all. While a 1991 paper concluded that the bird’s beak could have made short work of many small mammals, other publications pointed out that such a beak would have been just as well-suited to cracking seeds and crunching tough fruit. More recently, tracks of Gastornis found in Washington show that the bird had blunted toes rather than vicious talons, and a preliminary study of dietary clues preserved in the bones of a German specimen of the bird suggested a menu of plants rather than flesh.

These things were known, but a recent study by Delphine Angst and colleagues has looked at the diet of these (fossilized) birds and found more evidence indicating that Gastornis was probably not the terror of the North American landscape.

Sounds weird, right? How can paleontologists tell what a bird that lived 50 million years ago ate?

Through SCIENCE!, that’s how. TL;DR below big block of quote if you’re feeling lazy.

Chemical signatures in the extinct bird’s bones are at the center of the Naturwissenschaften study. Angst and coauthors studied carbon isotope (δ13C) traces in the bones of Gastornis, small herbivorous mammals the bird lived alongside, and modern hawks and ostriches. This isotope acts as a proxy for diet. Generated inside plants, the carbon isotope becomes preserved in the tissues of herbivores that eat those greens and, further down the line, in the tissues of the carnivores that consume those herbivores. Locked in bones and teeth, this carbon isotope allows paleontologists to outline what individual animals were consuming and how they may have split up resources in the same habitat.

By themselves, these chemical traces don’t automatically label an individual as an herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore. What the carbon isotope values mean rely on comparison and analysis. In the case of Gastornis, Angst and colleagues used the data to investigate the opposing views of the bird as carnivore or herbivore.

Part of what makes carbon isotopes useful in paleontology is that they can be tied back to different types of plants that photosynthesize in different ways. This detail is  what led  Angst and coauthors to throw out the idea that Gastornis sliced small mammals. If the big bird was a carnivore, the researchers found, then the carbon isotope signatures inside it’s bones would indicate that it ripped open prey that, in turn, relied upon C4 plants – grasses and other plants that rely on a distinct form of carbon fixation. The snag is that plants didn’t evolve that C4 method of photosynthesis until about 14 million years after Gastornis lived. The chemical trace didn’t match up with the ecology of the time.

TL;DR: Scientists analyzed levels of radioactive carbon isotope that is generated in certain kinds of plants to determine that Gastornis likely did not eat substantial quantities of meat.

Well, that evidence might be a bit shaky, so Angst and her colleagues used a different route to lend more credence to the “Gastornis didn’t primarily slaughter hapless mammals and feast on their bones” hypothesis. TL;DR below block’o’quote if you’re feeling lazy.

Through dissections of modern birds ranging from Darwin’s finches to Eurasian sparrowhawks, Angst and colleagues studied the anatomy and connection points of the external adductor muscle in modern herbivorous and carnivorous birds. This is a major muscle that powers bird bites, and the herbivorous, seed-cracking birds typically had wider muscles with increased space for attachment on the lower jaw. That fits they way they feed. Much more power is needed to bust open hard fruits than to tear soft flesh.

The actual muscles of Gastornis rotted away over 40 million years ago, but the bird’s lower jaw shows a wide space for the external adductor muscle to attach. Taken together, the bird’s beak, feet, reconstructed musculature, and chemical signature best fit a large herbivore that snacked on plants rather than the mammals that lived underfoot.

TL;DR: By comparing the jaw structure of Gastornis to modern birds, we see that the jaw structure is much more similar to herbivorous, seed-cracking birds (which interestingly enough need a hell of a lot more power, as hard nuts>>>soft, tender flesh).

So, it seems like Gastornis, kinda like Oviraptor, has been maligned as a TERROR BIRD, when in reality, it probably just wandered around North America looking for nuts to eat. Our mammalian ancestors can retroactively be at slightly more peace.

Oh, one last thing.

While Gastornis was similar in size to other TERROR BIRDS, and looked the part, the other TERROR BIRDS almost certainly ate meat (whether or not they were primarily scavengers or predators or some blend is unclear, but we do know they ate lots of meat and probably killed things dead to do so).

Also, we’re pretty sure TERROR BIRDS ate everything that wasn’t much bigger than them, so yea, sucks to be…well, probably anything if you were where these overgrown death chickens lived.

I cannot get over how creepy those arms look in that pose.

Link

Project ROSE: A Phoenix city program that arrests sex workers to try and “save” them

This is worse than it sounds. Let’s see how bad it gets.

Project ROSE is a Phoenix city programme that arrests sex workers in the name of saving them.

Hoo-boy.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While this is terrible, don’t go all Internet Tough Guy and call for Arizona to be taken over or something.

Be pissed folks, but be rational.

Be pissed folks, but be rational.

Onto what goes on in Project ROSE. And it’s not pretty.

In five two-day stings, more than 100 police officers targeted alleged sex workers on the street and online. They brought them in handcuffs to the Bethany Bible Church. There, the sex workers were forced to meet with prosecutors, detectives, and representatives of Project ROSE, who offered a diversion programme to those who qualified. Those who did not may face months or years in jail.

In the Bethany Bible Church, those arrested were not allowed to speak to lawyers. Despite the handcuffs, they were not officially “arrested” at all.

In law enforcement, language goes through the looking glass. Lieutenant James Gallagher, the former head of the Phoenix Vice Department, told me that Project ROSE raids were “programmes.” The arrests were “contact.” And the sex workers who told Al Jazeera that they had been kidnapped in those windowless church rooms – they were “lawfully detained.”

Even to the legally-untrained eye, this probably seems blatantly illegal.

Well, that’s because it is blatantly illegal.

Some people might note that it seems the organization is trying to weasel its way out of Miranda by not “officially” arresting the sex workers. Ramenth, one of the resident Spacebattles lawyers, explains why that’s a load of crap.

Sorry Project ROSE, Miranda does not work that way. You're still screwed.

Sorry Project ROSE, Miranda does not work that way. You’re still screwed.

But what exactly does Project ROSE do to the people it, uh, brings in?

Project ROSE offers a buffet of services, including emergency housing, detox, and counselling. All these services are available without being arrested, Jaclyn Dairman, an activist with SWOP-Phoenix, told me.

This doesn’t sound too bad right? Well, it’s mostly a nice front. Let’s hear what goes on from the inside.

Monica Jones is a student and sex-worker activist. She volunteers with battered women, works at a needle exchange, passes out condoms to sex workers, and is a member of SWOP-Phoenix (Sex Workers’ Outreach Project). She is also a trans woman of color.

On the day cops dragged Monica to Bethany Bible Church, she had posted on Backpage.com, an advertising service used by sex workers, to warn them of a coming sting. The day before, she had spoken against Project ROSE at a SWOP rally.

Monica told me she had accepted a ride home from her favourite bar the night of her arrest. Once inside the car, undercover officers handcuffed her. They were rude, she said, calling her “he” and “it” (Monica is trans, but her ID lists her as a female). They threatened to take her to jail. Like many incarcerated trans women, Monica had previously been imprisoned with men. Frightened, Monica agreed for them to take her to the church.

Well, this is sadly unsurprising. In addition, sticking someone who is legally classified as a female in the men’s section of prison is very much illegal (in addition to being ignorant and/or bigoted).

Presumably, damn near all of this was done without Monica being read her Miranda rights.

As for what happened when taken in by Project ROSE? Well, read on.

…at ROSE’s heart is DIGNITY Diversion, 36 hours of classroom time run by Catholic Charities.

Monica is a graduate of DIGNITY Diversion. Forced into this programme by another prostitution arrest, Monica sat in a classroom from 8 AM to 4 PM, without food, while vice cops described girls overdosing on heroin. Jail was held over the heads of attendees until they finished the programme, though many were going broke from their loss of sex-work income. Monica described the class as having the religious overtones of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In keeping with the programme’s Catholicism, no condoms were provided. Neither was child care.

Others have been even less fortunate than Monica.

In 2009, Marcia Powell, a sex worker serving two years for agreeing to a $20 (£12) blowjob, was left in an open cage in the maximum-security yard of Perryville Prison Complex for four hours. Guards ignored her pleas for water. Under the pitiless sun, her organs failed her. Her corpse was covered with burns.

Damn.

One might ask, how does Catholic Charities get funding for this sort of thing?

Catholic Charities’ website boasts a photo of a white girl, a tear running down her cheek. Who could resist opening their wallets before such innocence destroyed? Catholic Charities offers walking tours of the sketchy parts of town. Tender-hearted folk can gawk at sex workers. These excursions are like the slum tours beloved by Victorians. Popular enough in the 1890s to be listed in guidebooks, these tours of impoverished London neighbourhoods gave a philanthropic gloss to the thrill of mingling with the poor in brothels, bars, and boarding houses. Then and now, participants got the self-satisfaction of pity mixed with the frisson of proximity to vice.

Well, it really isn’t hard is it. Just some misinformation via select displays, and you can get perfectly well-intentioned people donating to something that hurts far more than it helps.

Urgh.

Read the rest of the article folks. Link’s at the top. Educate yourselves. Let’s stop these things from happening.