Saturday, December 24, 2005


"The minister also revealed that the Israeli army might now begin to fire shells at populated areas of Gaza in response to an attack by rockets." (Israel plans Gaza 'aerial siege')

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Turning point

Walking to the bakery early this morning, I watched a yellow sun edge very slowly over the rooftops. It felt like the moment when the world turns. The Earth has reached the furthest point of its annual wobble and now starts to tilt the other way. Much of the northern winter is still ahead, but there will be ever more light.

May the coming months bring more awareness of the wonders of existence, from creatures like this spotted cuscus to the mind blowing potential of quantum computation in a universe that may be just one among

This blog will pretty much shut down until mid January (see travel plans here).

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


"For Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his allies, it is their experience in the [1980-88 war with Iraq] with that defines their strategic outlook. Iraq’s indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and combatants has scarred the returning war veterans, making them suspicious of the motives of the international community that was largely indifferent to Iran’s plight.

...In the coming months, diplomats will debate and international organisations will issue their periodic rebukes and contemplate their sanctions. And, all along, Iran will inexorably edge closer to the nuclear threshold"

- Ray Takeyh: Diplomacy will not end Iran’s nuclear programme.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The sceptical climatologist

"The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment."

Betrand Russell quoted by Gavin Schmidt in How to be a real sceptic, a useful piece that's been needed for a while.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Voice of reason on ANWR

You know it makes sense (brought to you by the NAM). See also here.

Threefold tears

"Tears have three separate components. The innermost tear layer coats the surface of the cornea and is called the mucous layer, or mucin. The middle tear layer is an aqueous [coating] produced by the lachyrmal glands and supplies salt, proteins and other compounds to the cornea. The outer tear layer is composed of oil from the meibomian sebaceous glands in the eyelids. This helps to prevent evaporation of the watery tears from the surface of the eyes".

Joh Uys of Bellville, South Africa quoted in Does Anything Eat Wasps? (page 23)

King Yoweri's ghost

A finding against Uganda for plunder of Congo assets by the International Court (see here) is another body blow to the supposed legitimacy of Yoweri Museveni, who - along with Meles Zenawi - was supposed to be a pillar of the UK government's commission for Africa.


Barnaby Philip's third film for Newsnight (search "Prudence Radebe" audio video results on the Newsnight web site) on the struggle to get access to anti-retrovirals in South Africa (broadcast on 19 Dec) is an excellent piece of work. A useful note ahead of our forthcoming trip to Zambia.

Only about 85,000 out of South Africa's approximately five million HIV positive people can get the ARVs, which cost about £15 per person (not cheap, but affordable for a middle income country like RSA, even if you don't take into account the enormous benefits to the economy of bringing very large numbers of adults of working age back into the economically active population).

(another demonstration, as if it were needed that John le Carre and his film making successors, for all theirstory-telling skills, chose the wrong moment with The Constant Gardener. Big pharma is no longer the big villain, in this case at least) .

Evo el ganador

"Esta incorporación de sectores indígenas en el poder no había ocurrido en los 200 años de vida republicana y esto es un elemento de inflexión muy importante para el país" (Morales se decalara ganador).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Max Eastley on nature

"We sometimes think of nature as being slow, but we're missing it all the time. It's very, very fast" - Max Eastley (here and here).

Friday, December 16, 2005

Theater of empty talk

Paul Theroux being bilious, but not necessarily altogether wrong. He does leave out an important part of the puzzle by downplaying the deep impact of colonialism, whether in Ireland or Malawi, and the consequences that take so long to overcome (in Ireland's case successfully).

The big thing

Philip Roth being gloomy. Robert Winston being reasonable.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Wise rat, foolish human

"The experts’ trouble in [Philip] Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong. Tetlock describes an experiment that he witnessed thirty years ago in a Yale classroom. A rat was put in a T-shaped maze. Food was placed in either the right or the left transept of the T in a random sequence such that, over the long run, the food was on the left sixty per cent of the time and on the right forty per cent. Neither the students nor (needless to say) the rat was told these frequencies. The students were asked to predict on which side of the T the food would appear each time. The rat eventually figured out that the food was on the left side more often than the right, and it therefore nearly always went to the left, scoring roughly sixty per cent—D, but a passing grade. The students looked for patterns of left-right placement, and ended up scoring only fifty-two per cent, an F. The rat, having no reputation to begin with, was not embarrassed about being wrong two out of every five tries. But Yale students, who do have reputations, searched for a hidden order in the sequence. They couldn’t deal with forty-per-cent error, so they ended up with almost fifty-per-cent error".

Louis Menand: Everybody's an Expert , a review of Tetlock's Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (New Yorker, 5 Dec), which should be read in full.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


"The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. 'Balanced' is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers".

Ken Silverstein of the Los Angeles Times quoted by Michael Massing in The Press: The Enemy Within.

(see also The False Objectivity of Balance, which I was glad to quote in public discussion at IMES)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Cui bono...

...the assassination of Gibran Tueni?

A tree of light

This afternoon in the University Park, Oxford

"Present at the disintegration"

"optimism is misguided, for none of the problems associated with Iraq's monumental change have been sorted out. Worse, profound tensions and contradictions have been enshrined in the Constitution of the new Iraq, and they threaten the very existence of the state".

Kanan Makiya, 11 Dec

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Iraqi liberation?

The press release issued today Oxford Research Group's report of this title contains a call, among other things, for “build[ing] legitimacy in the Iraqi political process” post election by:

Reach[ing] agreement among the communities on key constitutional provisions, in particular on the equitable distribution of future oil reserves, and establish a genuinely inclusive political process enabling a negotiated end to the nationalist insurgency.

But if the analysis in Crude Designs from Platform et al is correct then something that will appear to Iraqi eyes to be the equitable allocation of future oil revenues may prove especially hard. According to this study, at least 64% of the country's oil reserves have already been allocated for development by multinational (US and British) oil companies.

(see also The Washington Post's Iraq and Consequences: six specialists say what to expect if U.S. forces leave or stay in Iraq, and It takes a Potemkin village from Frank Rich in the NYT.)

"A more recognisable, muddled human being"

Richard Mabey.


I have found Carl Hiassen's recent books to be same-y, but on the evidence of Frank Cottrell Boyce's review, Flush looks worthwhile.

"The single worst idea in history"

What do you think is the single worst idea in history?

Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.

But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.

I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.

(from What's the big idea?, an interview with Peter Watson)

Friday, December 09, 2005


Isabel Hilton’s interview for openDemocracy with Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon papers (published 7 Dec) contains much that is interesting. I guess few people will listen to it as it takes the best part of an hour to do so. Further, the blurb on the web site undersells the content of the interview, and is carelessly written (for example, in the second quote the words “to be killed” are omitted after “any number of Americans”). A well cut and restructured transcript might attract more of the attention this exchange deserves. Here are quick comments:

  • The remark that Robert McNamara knows nothing about politics is amusing but not completely plausible. Ellsberg sniping at McNamara’s place in the sun in The Fog of War. More to the point in the current circumstances, President Johnson’s careful calculations as to the domestic political balance look different from the behaviour of the present Executive. “[President Bush] is more determined that ever to say the course…He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances' ”, Seymour Hersh reports a senior defence official as saying (Up in the Air, New Yorker, cover date 5 Dec).
  • Six hundred million dead in Russia, China and Eastern Europe as a result of nuclear attack in the early 1960s would have been quite a party. Ellsberg does not mention the likely level of casualties in the US, although his reference to the Russian determination to totally anihilate Germany in the event of war is notable. His comments make a useful complement to McNamara’s ninety million or so American deaths – a price which (according to McNamara) Fidel Castro would have been glad to inflict along with the eradication of his own country in 1961 just to make a point.
  • The proposition that the US does not plan to get out of Iraq until the oil runs out – forty or years or more – may be about right. James Fallows was prescient to describe it as The Fifty-first State. But can it "work"? If Hersh is right, then plans to maintain control by US air power in support of a friendly Iraqi government’s ground forces could run into severe problems.
  • Philip Giraldi’s assertion in The American Conservative that Dick Cheney has ordered plans for a full scale air attack on Iran to be ready by June [05, presumably] would seem to accord with what I heard in Washington on 4 Nov 04 (see my 12 Nov 04 post War Gaming Iran in Grains of Sand Nov 04 archive). Among the notable things Ellsberg says here: “There probably is not one general or full colonel in the Pentagon who wants war with Iran. They are appalled but they are doing the plan, which is always the case”.
  • Ellsberg’s two key recommendations for averting an attack on Iran, which he considers extremely likely (if by the US only to avert the Israelis doing it first), should be more widely circulated and discussed. The first is that just a small handful of insiders need to leak key papers now in acts of Zivilcourage. The second is for European countries to put their airspace and air bases off limits for US forces preparing for and executing the attack. This doesn’t look likely at present. But if it is to happen then civil society groups in Europe need to start organising now, not a few months hence when it is likely to be too late.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lunch with Tariq Ramadan

Coming a little dazed off the plane from Singapore, I attended a lunchtime talk at Oxfam's headquarters with Tariq Ramadan. (Oxfam is increasingly working with Muslim NGOs of the kind described here by Ehsan Masood).

Ramadan said true respect meant being ready to pay attention to the full complexity of "the other" - and specifically the complexity of different Muslim interpretations and experiences as they are now playing out in Europe. This needed to be acknowledged by all of us alongside other European experiences, be they Christian, Jewish or indeed Buddhist.

He said there was a danger of a rising idiology of fear. He warned against the dangers of a victim mentality. He called for more education across European societies of the different memories and traditions of more recently established communities. And he stressed the importance of a critical mind.

He said much more that was all well and good, and -
given the perilous times we live in - worth repeating however platitudinous much of it may seem. (For something a little more challenging, see John Vinocur on The US model for Europe: Immigrant work ethic, NYT 5 Dec.)

But in my view Ramadan said at least one thing that was not all well and good. For Ramadan "Islam is not a culture"; it is a fundamental which is mediated through various cultural forms.

I put it to him that for people who define themselves as secular, Islam - like other religions - is, precisely, a product of historical contigency and culture. Where, I asked, would he put in his mental model the experience of those from a Muslim background who self-define as secular - as do, for example, some Brits of Pakistani ancestry that I know?

Ramadan's answer bore no relation to my question. (He talked of the importance of distinguishing cultural practices in some Muslim communities that are against women's rights from the true Islam).

My interim hunch is that Ramadan avoided the question because even to acknowledge it opens a crack in the foundation of his world view. He calls for universal recognition of the complexity of the experience of the other but - from the evidence of this encounter at least - dodges the most important developments in Europe over the last five hundred years or so from Copernicus through Voltaire, Kant and beyond: the move beyond reliance on revelation from spirits, gods and magical thinking to the exercise of reason (notwithstanding the catastrophes that result when reason is abused).

I'd be glad of further discussion.

And I wish Tariq Ramadan well and am open to honest and respectful encounters.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A viverrid?

After three days deep in rainforest on the Malaysian side of the central highlands of Borneo, I am now in transit in Singapore airport en route to London.

In Batang Ai national park I was one of the guests of WWF Malaysia and Sarawak Forestry. The chief technical officer for WWF's Borneo Programme alerted us to news that appears
here on the sighting of what may be a new species of mammal. The timing is fortuitous for WWF's campaign for a huge transboundary "Heart of Borneo" reserve.

The day before yesterday I was hiking high on a precipitous ridge in the forest not too far from where the discovery was made. A Mexican colleague and I were with biologists and local assistants surveying wild orang utans. We didn't see any of our primate brethren, but did count seventeen of their "nests" high in the canopy.

The local Iban people do not kill orang utans because they believe them to be descendents of their ancestors. This is, of course, literally true in a scientific sense.

We did see a tiny, very fast-moving squirrel that resembles our much more remote ancestors. Later when traveling upriver we saw two large eagle owls, and beautiful frogs in the rushing cascade of fast water over smooth ancient stone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Travel plans

to Poland, Indonesia and Malaysia noted here.

Willie Pete

The scandal of the use of white phosphorus against people by the US military in Iraq has been brewing for some time. It has reached the British mainstream media over the last week or so including, yesterday, a column by George Monbiot (see footnotes here for references). A couple of quick points:

  • The use of such a weapon in such a way is appaling (if not exactly suprising). Also, it is likely to prove to be "worse than a crime: ... a mistake". In that regard it is entirely consistent with other actions and tactics by the US-led coalition (not to mention torture being used by the Iraqi government etc).
  • It ill serves the Iraqi people, or anyone else, to use the issue to make misleading comparisons. Making an equation between the coalition governments and US-led forces on the one hand and the government of Saddam Hussein on the other is gross. We need more sophisticated critiques.

Nicely done

They cannot come to you, so you must go to them, trekking ever southward. The cold is unrelenting. Most days the sun barely makes an appearance: at midday the contours of the coast are shrouded in a dismal, leaden twilight, while curtains of icy rain undulate across the bay. When I finally arrive, it feels like I've reached the edge of the world. This is Torquay, surely one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What they're doing with the money

On 17 August I asked how oil exporters would spend the windfalls from high oil prices. Two recent articles seem to shed a bit of light on the issues.

Recycling the petro dollars, a fascinating piece in The Economist (Nov 10), reports that "most of the extra money is being saved, not spent".

And from Russia, the second biggest exporter after Saudi, Andrew Kramer reports for the New York Times that there is considerable caution about the use of the money (Awash in Petrodollars, Russia Frets About the Paradoxes of Bounty), with the government continuing to commit to the Stabilization Fund and large foreign debt payments.

Social spending is reported to be more limited: $4bn for "doctors' salaries and other social spending" in 2007 is the only figure stated in the article.

In view of the daunting scale and depth of Russia's social, health and educational challenges this seems like very little.

(Oil exporters will receive earn around $700bn this year)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Under Western eyes

There are some quite sane comments in a report of a conference held a couple of months ago as part of Princeton's project on US "National Security in the 21st Century" (and recently published on the web) .

On "Europe", for example, there were two schools of thought: pessmists and optimists.

"[The pessimists] argue that Europe will be less able and less willing to fulfill its historic role as America's key ally, pointing to a declining and aging population, a low tolerance for immigration, deeply embedded resistance to necessary root and branch reform, slow economic growth, political stagnation, and a refusal to seriously engage in defence modernization. Their bottom line is that while the U.S. should seek good and fruitful relations with Europe, it should not kid itself that [Europe] can ever again be the robust and loyal partner that it once was.

The optimists argue that prophecies of Europe's decline are greatly overstated....Europe has a) over 100,000 troops overseas, b) supported every U.S. military actitivity since the end of the Cold War except Iraq, c) complements the U.S. in important ways, d) exercises considerable soft power, e) expanded and continues to expand the zone of democracy eastwards, f) is a pioneer of international aid, and g) has a compelling social model that appeals to large parts of the world."

As the report almost says, the reality may be a mix of both (plus some things it doesn't mention).

Recent events in France would seem to add to the pessimist's case. But France is not all of Europe. Some of those among the most critical of the state of France, such as Nicola Bavarez, author of La France qui tombe, emphatically distinguish it from other countries. See: Why a sick France needs a true cultural revolution. Is he right?

"The greatest sea change"

Quantum computation.

Friday, November 11, 2005

One last job for Nelson Mandela?

In Quisling and Occupier, Virginia Tilley recommends giving up on the two state solution for Israel and Palestine and pursuing a unitary state with justice for all.

"From the Jewish-Israeli side, Israel would have to be reimagined and reconstructed in the only stable formula ever truly available to Zionism: a democratic state embracing both Jewish and Palestinian national homes within an overarching civic nationalism...

From the Palestinian side...The Israeli government would no longer be seen as the unjust alien occupier of Palestinian land but as an unjust apartheid government in a unified land."

Expecting such fundamental ideological shifts still seems hopelessly utopian to many people, says Tilley. Yes, but if it's the right path how about a big push to reframe the challenge, led (at least symbolically) by the likes of a global hero like Mandela along with a notable - and conspicuously peaceful - figure from a Muslim tradition (e.g. Shirin Ebadi)?

I guess this would never fly, for a million and one reasons?

(Tilley's piece was published together with Sara Roy's 'A Dubai on the Mediterranean')

Dave Reay review

My review of Climate Change Begins at Home is here.

Dave Reay writes to say to correct my comment that there is nothing in the book on carbon offset. It is indexed under "Trees: planting to offset emissions..." And here's the relevant passage:

"It's unrealistic to think that all our air travel emissions can simply be offset by planting trees. The primary worth of such schemes is to get people thinking about their climate impact, rather than to solve it. Some schemes - such as 'Climate Care' for example - now allow you to offset your emissions not with trees but with funding renewable energy schemes in the developing world. The climate benefits of doing this may be more transparent, but there's no easy way round this. To minimise your contribution to global warming fly less, or not at all".

This is OK, but it should be emphasized that :

  • the case for tree planting is, at best, weak. There may be many good reasons to plant trees in some circumstances, but carbon sequestration is unlikely to be one of them.
  • funding energy efficiency may very often be a better priority than renewables (Climate Care's compact flourescents for South Africa townships being a case in point)

I would therefore suggest that a future edition of the book discuss offset in more detail.

As for flying less: yes, objectively this makes sense. It does, however, bring one to a big question not addressed in my review. That is, the willingness - or otherwise - of most relatively wealthy people (the richest one billion) to consume less.

Hair shirts don't go down well, as Jonathon Porritt almost put it. And a writer at The Economist was on to something when he or she observed observing that you need to appeal to people's self-interest because that tends to trump tight-fistedness (see
Virtue for Sale).

It's a tough challenge to influence attitudes, market products and promote behaviours that are less environmentally destructive. It may require a careful mix of greed and fear (...and wanting to do the right thing, of course!). And even the most ambitious initiatives concieved hitherto may be hopelessly inadequate with regard to the objective challenges.

So, for example more thing on flying: booming air travel in Asia will easily wipe out even the most spectacular gains in passenger kilometre efficiency in the richest countries thought to be vaguely credible (see the post Air apparent from July).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back to the 14th century, Toto

Darwinism is only a theory! The Kansas board of education has rewritten the definition of science so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

In Pennsylvania, a different scenario.

Schmabeas corpus

Gordon Brown flies to Israel for "vital" meetings with Israeli and Palestinian politicians. As soon as he lands he gets on the phone to cancel the meetings, and flies back to the UK after barely two hours on the ground to help the the Prime Minister fight for a bill that would allow the police to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge.

Explanation 1. GB genuinely believes that it is a good idea to hold people for 90 days without charge. Habeas corpus, schmabeas corpus.

Explanation 2. GB maneouvering to be cast as "saviour" of Labour party in time of crisis

Explanation 3. ?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Iraqi humour

The brothers told me a joke about the occuption. An American soldier is about to kill a Shiite, who cries, "Please, no, in the name of Imam Hussein!" The American asks who Imam Hussein was and then decides to spare the man's life. A few weeks later, this same soldier is sent to Falluja, where he's cornered by a Sunni insurgent. The soldier thinks fast and cries, "Please, no, in the name of Immam Hussein!" The insurgent says, "What, You're an Americn and a Shiite?" and blows him away.

There was a moment of laughter in the room.

I had been collecting Iraqi jokes, and I weighed telling the Shaker brothers one. There was a joke about the newlyweds in Falluja (Falluja jokes abounded in Iraq). The man asks his new bride to suck his dick. "No, no," she says, "it's haram." "We're married now," he says, "please, please do it." "I can't, it's haram". "Please." "Okay, if you cover it in honey." "Are you kidding?" If I cover it in honey, I'm sucking it".

A glance at the faces of somber Ali and devout Shamir made me file the Falluja joke away.

Then there was the joke I'd recently heard, from an Iraqi Shiite, about Ayatollah Mohamed Baqr al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Tehran-based Shiite political party, who had been killed by a car bomb in Najaf in August 2003. In the joke, he is blown into so many pieces that his body can't be identified. Finally, investigators bring a severed penis to his widow and apologetically ask her whether she can make a positive identification. The widow glances at the object and says, "That's not my husband. That's his driver."

This joke was so haram that I felt a quiver of fear just thinking about it.

Finally I remembered a repeatable joke. Ten Kurds locked up in a mental hospital spend six months fighting one another to look through the tiny hole in the wall of their cell. A doctor, curious, enters the cell and asks to have a look. He puts his eye to the hole for ten minutes: nothing. "There's nothing there," he says. One of the patients answers, "We haven't seen anything in six months - you expect to see something in ten minutes?" But by the time I remembered the Kurdish joke, the moment had passed.

From George Packer's The Assassins' Gate (page 266)

"The victory of fear over hope"

"Most if not all of Europe is - or should be - concerned by events in France", says Dominique Moisi.

Olives and coral reefs

My first plan for this month had been to help with the olive harvest in the West Bank, as documented here.

Instead, I am embarking on a couple of other projects. One of them - an investigation into whether tropical coral reefs may be the first ecosystem to be eliminated by climate change - is noted here.

It's hard to know what the right choice is, or would have been. Perhaps there is no such thing.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Bimark bismillah

"Realists ...refuse to don rose-colored glasses when considering the United States itself. As a consequence, they understand that 'American exceptionalism' is a snare. Realists reject claims of American innocence - the conviction, as [Reinhold] Niebuhr wrote..., that 'our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of our actions.'

The United States emerged as the world's sole superpower not due to its superior virtue but because it prevailed in a bloody century-long competition. Among the principal combatants in that contest were three genuinely odious criminal enterprises: the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, and Mao's China. The United States came out on top because it allied itself with Stalin against Hitler and subsequently made common cause with Mao against Stalin's successors. These were not the actions of an innocent nation".

So writes Andrew Bacevich in a relatively clear-eyed piece. Nevertheless, he still appears to believe in a form of American exceptionalism (or deploys a seeming belief in it for rhetorical purposes) when he writes of a "distinctively American realist tradition" (unlike those oh so dastardly, moustache-twirling Europeans).

Another assumption here is that modern nation states retain most of the characteristics of their nineteenth and twentieth century predecessors.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The bush where Man was

An account on BBC online of the row over the use of the word "genocide" with regard to the San who used to live in what is now called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is, perhaps, a little too cautious.

While it's obviously true that the Bushmen are far fewer in number than those who died in Darfur (not to speak of some of the more notable episodes in the twentieth century), they may - and this is a slightly strange notion to grapple with - have a value in disproportion to mere numbers because of their extraordinary place in the history of the humanity (that is, as representatives of one of its oldest and most continuous strains).

That being said, Ditshwanelo's warning on the possible danger of inflammatory language must be taken seriously - given their far greater knowledge than many of us outsiders.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Positive feedback

"Biologist Karl von Frisch had it more or less right when, confronted with the variety of delicately patterned radiolarans and diatoms, he was determined not to get misty-eyed: 'I do not want to wax philosophical about so much useless beauty scattered over the oceans', he said. 'Nature is prodigal ' ". - Philip Ball: Natural Talent, on creativity in nature

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Wham bam thankyou ma'am!

I am shocked by a report that the number of miscarriages in Gaza hospitals is reported to have increased by 40% because of repeated very loud sonic booms from low flying Israeli aircraft.

Clearly, if the rate of miscarriage has only increased by 40%, the security forces need to double and redouble their efforts again.

Pressure must be increased so that those who harbour terrorists are brought into line, and the population levels are set on a more sustainable course.

Europe in big trouble

"Radical Islamism is as much a product of modernization and globalization as it is a religious phenomenon...This means that "fixing" the Middle East by bringing modernization and democracy to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not solve the terrorism problem, but may in the short run make the problem worse. Democracy and modernization in the Muslim world are desirable for their own sake, but we will continue to have a big problem with terrorism in Europe regardless of what happens there".

Francis Fukuyama: A Year of Living Dangerously. An interesting piece, but when considering the alienation that leads to trouble in Europe there is no mention of conditions in France, despite the week of riots in Paris

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Black sites

CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons

The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement. (continues)

Useful blasphemy

An elegant introduction by Ian McEwan to What We Believe But Cannot Prove.

Among the notable quotes is Stanislas Dehaene, of the Institut National de la Santé in Paris: "We vastly underestimate the differences that set the human brain apart from the brains of other primates".

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Parapets and trenches there

"I came across a Cornishman who was ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him. A bullet wound is clean - shrapnel tears you all to pieces. As I got to him he said, 'Shoot me.' Before I could draw my revolver, he died... He gasped one word - 'Mother'. That one word has run through my brain for 88 years. I will never forget it". Harry Patch, aged 107

Windows for hope

"Every year a million kids die [of malaria]...You could save between thirty and fifty per cent of them with [bed] nets alone [costing approx $4 each]. If you added improved hospital services and proper medicine [for a few dollars more], you could save eighty percent. But we already know how much eight hundred thousand African children are worth to the rich world. We have known it for a long time".

Stephen Magesa, an entomologist at Tanazania's National Institute for Medical Research, quoted in Michael Specter's valuable report on the Gates Foundation and malaria (New Yorker, 24 Oct) - and a bit of extra context for latest reports of what could be important grants from the Foundation.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Hanging Chad

Excellent pictures showing the transformation of Lake Chad over a near twenty year period.

Moral or normal?

"Two important implications can be drawn from Finkelstein's study, one political and the other academic. Politically, Beyond Chutzpah reveals how Israel has defied the rule of law in the Occupied Territories by providing a condensed and precise summation of literally thousands of pages of human rights reports. In this way, Finkelstein does a great service for those who long for a better Israel, since one is left with the conclusion that the only way of putting an end to the violations of Palestinian rights is by ending the occupation. There is no other option.

Academically, the section discussing Israel's human rights record raises serious questions about intellectual honesty and the ideological bias of our cultural institutions, since it reveals how a prominent professor holding an endowed chair at a leading university can publish a book whose major claims are false. The significant point is not simply that the claims cannot be corroborated by the facts on the ground--anyone can make mistakes--but that any first-year student who takes the time to read the human rights reports would quickly realize that while The Case for Israel has rhetorical style and structure, it is, for the most part, fiction passing as fact.

...The major irony informing this saga is that [Norman] Finkelstein's book, not [Alan] Dershowitz's, constitutes the real case for Israel--that is, for a moral Israel".

So writes Neve Gordon in a useful review of Beyond Chutzpah.

A question for Gordon and others: can Israel ever be a normal country (one in which people screw up big time as well as do amazing things), or will myth bury the values of Enlightenment liberalism on which the best hopes of some Zionists, like some other European thinkers, were based?

(P.S. Jon Wiener also had a useful piece on Finkelstein/Derschowitz in The Nation back in July)

Money makes

"There are nearly $2,000bn of foreign exchange transactions every day, double the level of just five years ago. The daily value of financial derivatives transactions has risen from nearly zero in 1990 to well over $1,000bn. Foreign investors control 40-50 per cent of the capitalisation of most European equity markets and the US borrows more than $2bn a day from abroad".
Jeffrey Garten: Crisis-management skills will be needed at the Fed.

Western Sahara

"There is a danger that, in the corridors of power, the chance to press forward towards a settlement in Western Sahara will be lost through attempts to dilute a people's right" Jose Ramos Horta.

Chomsky the massacre denier

Emma Brockes's interview is a reminder of when Chomsky crashed and burned:

'Look,' says Chomsky, 'there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you're a traitor, you're destroyed. It's totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous.'

They didn't 'think' it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law.

But Chomsky insists that 'LM was probably correct' and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. 'It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong.' It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. 'And if they were wrong, sure; but don't just scream well, if you say you're in favour of that you're in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers.'

Eh? Not everyone who disagrees with him is a 'fanatic', I say. These are serious, trustworthy people.

'Like who?'

'Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy.'

Vulliamy's reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994. He was present when the ITN footage of the Bosnian Serb concentration camp was filmed and supported their case against LM magazine.

'Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.'

Utanc and European civilisation

"When we in Turkey discuss the east-west question, when we talk of the tensions between tradition and modernity (which, to my mind, is what the east-west question is really all about), or when we prevaricate over our country's relations with Europe, the question of shame is always lurking between the lines.

...The novel, like orchestral music and post-Renaissance painting, is in my opinion one of the cornerstones of European civilisation...The great novelists I read as a child and a young man did not define Europe by its Christian faith but by its individuals. It was because they described Europe through heroes who were struggling to free themselves, express their creativity and make their dreams come true, that their novels spoke to my heart...If Europe's soul is enlightenment, equality and democracy, if it is to be a union predicated on peace, then Turkey has a place in it".
From Orhan Pamuk's As Others See Us, an acceptance speech for the 2005 Friedenpreis.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The reward

"The sort of pleasure you get [from eventually solving a difficult mathematical problem] is like supporting a not terribly good football team. Once in a while the team has some spectacular success that you can live off for several years. In between, you're yearning for something else to happen". Timothy Gowers, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge

Pants on fire

"When a man thinks he can get away with denying his own words even though there are millions of witnesses and a video record, he clearly believes he can get away with murder" - Frank Rich on Dick Cheney.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The beast is red

Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg: red pandas for dialectical materialism.

Great creating nature

John Vidal in The Guardian reports proposals for "huge" new reserves (8,000 square kilometres, which is approx 3,000 square miles or 3% of UK land area by my calculation) for some forms of wildlife (but not others - e.g. no bears or wolves). Gail Vines in New Scientist looks at the increasing presence of wildlife in urban areas, and asks whether cities are a new niche or a trap.

Cold water on humbug?

Anatol Lieven, 27 Oct, does the business on Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton's and Roger Scruton's articles.

(John Dunn, in a useful article published 20 Oct, only takes three paragraphs to get to conceptual confusion at the heart of Barnett and Hilton's piece that I pointed out here on 14 Oct.)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Schizo Journal

A few years ago when Microsoft was under investigation by the US Department of Justice antitrust, The Wall Street Journal would report on its news pages clear examples of exactly how Microsoft was abusing its power, while on the opinion pages commentators would fulminate and thunder at how Big Government was trying to undermine a Good Business that Just Wanted To Make A Buck. Sometimes this happened in the same edition of the paper.

The split personality has continued with regard to climate change, with the latest example being a reasonably straight report in the news pages about the so-called hockey stick controversy: Global Warming Skeptics Under Fire by Antonio Regalado.

What it's like

"The last thing this President wants is the first thing he needs: someone to slap his spoiled, pampered, trust-funded, plutocratic, never-worked-a-day-in-his-life cheek and make him face the reality of his foul-ups.

And so they wait. And they sniff the royal throne. They tell the Beloved Leader he's the victim of a partisan plot...They assure him all is well. But all is not well. People are looking over their shoulders. The smart ones have stopped taking notes in meetings. The very smart ones have stopped using email for all but the most pedestrian communications. And the smartest ones have already obtained outside counsel".

From Paul Begala's What it's like (see responses #26 and #43, among others)

Hormuz blues

Why deliberately add to the annoyance of two countries, Israel and the United States, that are your sworn enemies and both of which ostensibly have far more powerful and capable forces than you do? What signals are you sending, to who? And why now? I will be glad to hear of an analysis that puts the whole thing together in a way that makes sense.

Filthy dead meat

"God has not been so merciful with the rest of his family. One of his brothers and a nephew have died fighting the Americans; another brother was killed a month ago as he was setting an IED on the side of the road. But Abu Theeb's faith remains strong" - Ghaith Abdul Ahad We Don't Need Al-Qaida, 27 Oct

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Saddam on trial

"Iraqis are trying their former rulers in the middle of an insurgency that is sliding toward civil war. This is what makes the trial in Baghdad so different from its predecessors in Nuremberg, Arusha, and The Hague...As the trial goes on, it will be skillfully manipulated by the lead defendant into an indictment of the indicters, and the divisions in the country will almost certainly grow deeper.

...[the Trial] has elicited criticism from human-rights organizations that should have been helping to collect new evidence of Saddam’s crimes. It has brought out the worst in Iraq’s current leaders, who have opportunistically accelerated the timetable and meddled in the selection of judges".

George Packer - Saddam on Trial, 24 Oct

Two cheers for no democracy

Even vehement opponents of an unelected upper house like me are cheering the defeat of the government's pernicious and foolish bill on religious hatred.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


"If I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus" - Rosa Lee Parks, 4 Feb 1913 to 24 Oct 2005

Monday, October 24, 2005

If you think you've got problems...

...consider the case of Mamusu Thoronka, a mother in Sierra Leone trying to look after six children with half a hand.

Doctrine not changed since the 1840s

"The [US] has never taken counterinsurgency seriously. The Army's doctrine hasn't changed since the 1840's." - John Waghelstein, a retired colonel in the Special Forces who helped to conduct the American-backed counterinsurgency campaign in El Salvador, quoted in The Fall of the Warrior King.

One of the most telling lines from
Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the star soldier and quarterback, is "Don't they have those people [who do nation-building] at the State Department?"

Well, yes, exactly.

(see also Leadership Failure, from Human Rights Watch)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Tien Shan, apples and bees

"[On] the [northern slopes of the ] Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains) that stretch from Uzbekistan eastwards over the border of China...the sweet apple, Malus pumila, evolved over a period of up to twelve million years. It then took some 7000 years to travel to the west and finish up on supermarket shelves.

There is...plenty of evidence that other species of bee... played a much greater role in the origin of the apple [than the honey bee]...[solitary bees such as] Leaf cutter and mason bees (including Osmia)...[are] much better evolved for the transfer of pollen in an apple flower.

Osmia starts work earlier in the season [than honey bees], gets up earlier, does not take lunch breaks...and, it is estimated, one red mason bee (Osmia rufa a [UK] native) can do the work of 120 honey-bees".

Barrie Juniper author of The Story of the Apple (Timber Press, Oregon, forthcoming), writing in the Marcher Apple Network Newsletter no. 11, Summer 2005

"Throwing grenades around in the cockpit of the world economy"

"When we as historians get access to all the documents and can figure out how this thing was planned and who supported it, I think we'll find that the Bush administration was a coalition of various forces and each part of the coalition had its own reasons for wanting to fight this war. The group most explored has been the neoconservatives, but I suspect they will bulk less large in our final estimation of the promotion of the war. They weren't in command positions for the most part. They were in positions to make an argument. They may also have been fall guys. When things started going bad, more stuff got leaked about what they had been saying than about others.

...The guerrilla movement destroys infrastructure deliberately. Electricity facilities, petroleum pipelines, rail transport. And it deliberately baits the U.S. military in the cities, basing its fighters in civilian neighborhoods in hopes that a riposte will cause damage, because Iraqis, even urban ones, are organized by clan. Clan vendettas are still an important part of people's sense of honor. So when the American military kills an Iraqi, I figure they've made enemies of five siblings and twenty-five first cousins who feel honor-bound to get revenge. The Sunni Arab guerrilla movement has taken advantage of that sense of clan honor gradually to turn the population against the United States. Many more Sunni Arabs are die-hard opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq now than was the case a year ago, and there were more a year ago than the year before that".

- Juan Cole, speaking to Tom Englehardt (interview, part one)

"People say the most amazing things. Like, 'Well, Iraq is already in civil war, so why would it matter if we left?' No! No! No! This is the stage before proper civil war. The difference is a matter of scale. You have hundreds of people a week being killed by guerrilla violence in Iraq. That's different from thousands of people, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands. I mean we've seen it in other countries -- Cambodia, Afghanistan, Congo -- you can lose a fifth of the population in this kind of struggle. I think it's outrageous that people would say, 'Let's just up and leave and let what happens happen.' I know the Bush administration has mismanaged this thing so badly that one's tempted to say, let's get them away from this before they do any more damage, but do we want a genocide on our conscience?

...I know one person who said, 'Well, once we're out, whatever happens is not our responsibility.' Is it really true? You can invade a country, overthrow its government, dissolve its military, and then walk away, and a million people die, and that's not your problem? I don't understand this way of thinking".

- Juan Cole, speaking to Tom Englehardt (interview, part two)

No Hope

"In order to receive ongoing funding from [the US President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief], organizations like [Hope Worldwide, a US-based Christian charity] must meet their targets—however empty. Their predicament reminded me of Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, in which the main character, a minor nobleman named Chichikov, travels through the countryside, trying to purchase the names of dead serfs from local landowners, reasoning that landowners would be only too happy to hand over the names of serfs who had died between one census and another, because then they wouldn't have to pay taxes on them. Chichikov planned to mortgage the dead serfs to an unsuspecting bank, which—thinking the serfs were alive—would give Chichikov a loan with which he could build a real fortune of his own. Hope's strategy of leveraging the names of children for future gain seemed to me similar". Helen Epstein: The Lost Children of AIDS.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Robber baron?

"Philip Green has banked £1.2bn (approx US$2.1bn)…the biggest pay cheque in British corporate history…and more than four times the [Arcadia] group’s pre-tax profits of £253m".

"[Arcadia’s] balance sheet bears the scars of a statutory net debt now standing at more than £1.3bn. A business which boasted net assets of £303m in August 2004 now has net liabilities of £807m".

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Energy and capital in the UK

Shortages in gas supplies to the UK prompt Digby Jones to call for increase supply and improve infrastructure for delivery, of course, rather than efficiency of use. Whatever, there's money to be made in the present climate, as the competitive bidding for (coal-fired) Drax by three consortia shows. The current chairmain and former chief executive stand to make around £30m from the sale of an asset paid for by the taxypayer (CEGB).

Grandchildren of the revolution

"Who or what could give [the theocratic Iranian] regime renewed popular support among the young? 'Only the United States!' " (Timothy Garton Ash - Soldiers of the Hidden Imam)

See also Shaul Bakhash.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"Strongest on record"

That's Wilma. See Kerry Emmanuel's FAQ on hurricanes and global warming.

(Elsewhere, interesting data on ocean temperature changes that - reportedly - was not quite as expected)


Brain coral and mola (cloth pattern) from the Kuna.

Famine and democracy in Africa

In a contribution to an oD forum, I wrote that I would bet that Amartya Sen's general point about democracy and famine holds for Africa as much as anywhere else, and that the more democratic an African country is the less likely there is to be famine that kills.

Could the current situation in Malawi be seen as a test case for this? There may be a danger of looking through the wrong end of a telescope in the sense that the terms may be too abstract and remote. In Malawi, as elsewhere, one would need to break down what one really means by "democracy" - the strengths and weaknesses of formal institutions, media, civil society and so on - not to speak of the role of unelected international organisations.

Matthew Lockwood argues that de facto one-party states in Africa offer the best chance to contain patronage and create developmental states.

Two Lithuanians under a buddleia bush

Nick Davies on Britain's "new underclass".

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

British and Nigerian corruption

"Nigeria is this week due to enter final talks to win $18bn of debt relief in the biggest ever write-off by the Paris Club of western creditors.

...Amid the mutual congratulation, it is worth taking a moment to compare the impressive-sounding numbers with another figure that originates in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. It is the estimated $3.5m or more worth of crude oil that is stolen each day from the Niger Delta by conspiracies of government officials, militias, the military and expatriates. On an annual basis, the value of that theft would exceed the debt repayment saving.

...Britain has not tried to hide its double standards. The Commission for Africa set up and chaired by Mr Blair to devise an agenda for the G8 summit highlighted the failure of rich country export credit agencies to tackle corruption. Yet Britain’s Export Credits Guarantee Department has shown little inclination to follow up allegations that a consortium including MW Kellogg, a client, agreed to pay $170m of bribes to secure billions of dollars of work on a giant Nigerian gas plant".

Michael Peel - UK and Nigeria’s half-hearted war on corruption, FT 17 Oct

Monday, October 17, 2005

Friends like these

Football fatwa

This should rank alongside the Ayatollah Khomeini Book of Jokes.

Why not bomb them today?

"The most important event of the second half of the 20th century is one that didn't happen." - Tim Harford quotes Thomas Schelling in an introduction to his work.

An unstated question, but ones that presumably occupies Schelling's fellow prize winner and others, is whether uncertainty about the use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East enhances or reduces stability.

Harford also notes:

"Schelling has involved himself in the debate on climate change. Often painted as a straightforward sceptic, his views are far more subtle. A short essay he wrote in 2002 for Foreign Policy argued for immediate action ..., but he also – as always – looked at the problem with fresh eyes, emphasising the fact that the climate change debate was fundamentally an argument about sharing costs and benefits."

The great confusion

"If you have a sign out for the sermon 'Our obligation to the poor,' you won't get anybody. If you have a sign out for 'The Internet and the Antichrist,' you'll bring them in" - Prof Craig C. Hill quoted by Michael Luo in Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last.

Publish and be damned

"This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous".

Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy on the publication of the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Apple pie

Varieties of apples displayed in the Great Barn at Hellens at the Big Apple festival in Much Marcle, Herefordshire this weekend.

They are just part of the range of fruits recorded in the Herefordshire Pomona, and brought to prominence by the Marcher Apple Network.

As you can see from the lower photograph, the members of this sinister network are fomenting a conspiracy to undermine the Western way of life by nibbling away at the profits of leading corporations - and hence our very sense of what we are. If ever there was a case for preventive action , this is it.