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.