Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Bridge

Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.
-- John Lewis

Perestroika, Iranian-style

Under its most recent development plan, Iran has adopted a privatization program, but it is unlikely to unfold in a straightforward way. Iranian industries have been protected with state money for so long that no one knows what they are actually worth, and Iranian labour law makes it impossible for new owners to streamline bloated workforces. The mot likely buyers of state-backed companies, analysts told me, are those favored by the government: Revolutionary Guards, Islamic foundations. Consequently, privatization will at first permit an armed and unaccountable oligarchy to amass still more wealth.
 -- from The Rationalist, a fascinating account of the Iranian economy since the Islamic revolution, included in a profile of Mohammad Tabibian by Laura Secor.  

'How words could end a war'

There have been similar findings before, but the exercise is clearly worth repeating in the current circumstances:
...Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by our discussions with political leaders from both sides. For example, Mousa Abu Marzook (the deputy chairman of Hamas) said no when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added in the idea of substantial American aid for rebuilding: "No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount."

But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he brightened: "Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that." His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.

We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former Israeli prime minister...
-- Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges

I've got £90,000 in my pyjamas

Just what is this money stuff, anyway? I can see its effects—I can thumb a banknote, flip a coin—but what is it, actually? What do these abstract numbers stand for? What is the thing that’s being represented? Wouldn’t it be reassuring if it was more like a physical thing, and less like an idea? Wouldn’t the global financial system be less vertiginous, less bizarre, if your money actually stood for something?

The answer to that question is no...
-- from John Lanchester's review of Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Jung Chang


Indian power

Chronically short of power, and heavily dependent on imported oil, India wants to massively expand its nuclear power output to improve its long-term energy security and meet surging demand. India’s national energy plan calls for 30,000MW of nuclear power by 2020, 63,000MW by 2030 and 250,000MW by 2050.
-- from an informative FT article. No mention of the near collapse of the NPT, though

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Roll to your rifle

There’s clearly a consensus that things are heading in the wrong direction. What’s not clear to me is why sending 30,000 more troops is the essential step to changing that. My understanding of the larger objective of the allied enterprise in Afghanistan is to bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state. Well, it could be that that’s an unrealistic objective. It could be that sending 30,000 more troops is throwing money and lives down a rat hole.
-- Andrew Bacevich, quoted in Obama's War: Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan.

An Obama administration may, the report says, "look for ways to press Mr. Karzai to crack down on corruption and drug trafficking." Well, that seems more likely than not to fail.

Whatever comes cannot be separated from what happens in Pakistan. Here, William Dalrymple suggests in a review of Ahmed Rashid's new book, there should be three priorities: negotiate with elements of the Taliban; reform/crack down on ISI and Pakistani military (as if!); and find ways to stop the madrasa-inspired and Saudi-financed advance of Wahhabi Islam.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Good post at DotEarth on the Greenhouse effect and the bathtub effect. At openDemocracy we published John Sterman's work as Why wait and see won't do in 2005.

Extracting carbon dioxide

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Tim Lenton et al endorse biochar [1]. 

Bearing in mind that it would only reduce radiative forcing by 0.4 W/m2 by 2100, and that in this timeframe emissions may bring 'irreversible' climate chaos [2], increased research into the options for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere (which, it's calculated, could reduce radiative forcing by 1.9 W/m2 by 2100) looks almost sensible. Could/should an [international] fund for mitigation and adaptation, with revenue from carbon auctions, explicitly include support for this?


[1] "The basic trend", writes James Hrynyshyn, "is the more feasible the idea, the smaller the contribution it can make."

[2] (added 1 Feb) Realclimate notes that 'Irreversible' Does Not Mean Unstoppable.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009


The fact is, my friend, we matter more than you
A husband, lover, son, friend of ours
Outweighs at least a hundred such of yours
Its a fact of life, my friend, and of death too.
-- from Quatrains for a Primer of our Lives by David Constantine, read at Desert Blues.

See Henry Siegman and others in the LRB. Martin Shaw at oD

Friday, January 23, 2009


Here is my letter to BBC complaints:
Dear Sir or Madam,

I am greatly concerned that the BBC has chosen not to broadcast an appeal by DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) for assistance to the civilian population of Gaza. The people of Gaza have suffered on enormously. Humanitarian aid is vitally needed. Rather than remaining objective, the BBC gives every impression of making a highly politicized decision by refusing to facilitate assistance.

Caspar Henderson
In The Investigation on BBC Radio 4, Simon Cox did a good job of exploring whether the UN Human Rights Council is unfair to Israel. Certainly, he showed, its failings worldwide have been many.

Update 4 Feb: a commentary from Media Lens

Thursday, January 22, 2009

'As long as nuclear weapons exist'

The president is proposing tougher NPT rules, suggesting this might help rein in nuclear programmes in Iran and North Korea. But like his predecessors, his policy statements have so far made no mention of Israel's nuclear arsenal, which remains beyond all international scrutiny.

Obama appears to have rowed back on a campaign pledge to make ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty an administration priority. The treaty, which the US currently abides by but has not formally joined, is not mentioned in this week's White House foreign policy agenda statement.

Likewise, a promise "to stop the development of new nuclear weapons" is not as definitive as it looks. Obama and his advisers have yet to rule out future development of the energy department's "reliable replacement warhead" programme. The RRW is said to be needed to keep the ageing US nuclear arsenal at peak readiness. Technically, such replacement warheads would not be "new".

In overall terms, Obama has repeatedly stated that he does not believe the US should disarm unilaterally and that he will maintain "a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist".
-- from The nuclear-free dream fades by Simon Tisdall

Image (added 23 Jan): Earliest weapons-grade plutonium found in US dump

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Abode of snow

Just to say, a little late, how good to see the launch of Chinadialogue's third pole series, with Navin Singh Khadka's article New race to explore the Himalayas. Glad to have contributed to the genesis of this by commissioning Stephan Harrison in '06.

Solving the environmental crisis

is easy:


Good for Obama for ruffling the feathers of the Chinese communist party, and never mind that George Washington was a slave owner, fighting against the British who, with breath-takingly cynical opportunism (hey, what do you expect? We're Brits), offered freedom to the slaves.

But unless he does something serious about Gaza, many of the most important things he said in his inaugural address risk becoming just so many empty words.

Bank-archy in the UK

My belief that the UK government should take over all UK high street banks (on a temporary basis) is based on the simplification this would provide as regards the governance of these institutions under extreme circumstances, when private ownership and governance have clearly failed, and on its positive effect on incentives for future bank behaviour (’moral hazard). When the public interest and the interests of the existing private shareholders and the incumbent managers and boards of directors diverge as manifestly as they do in this crisis, the sensible thing to do is to buy out the existing shareholders (as cheaply as possible). That way the failed and failing management and boards can be restructured (fired without golden parachutes) and the new owner can insist on and enforce an open, verifiable valuation of toxic and dodgy assets, on and off the balance sheet of the bank.
-- Willem Buiter

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The road before us

As a far from perfect but sometimes good enough dad of a 21 month old, I appreciated this:
It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.
Among other key points, Mr Obama said the founding fathers knew that "our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

Dark Matters

Speaking just now at a conference on the evolution of society, Partha Dasgupta said:
The study of trust and cooperation has been influenced too much by the repeated Prisoners’ Dilemma game. But social environments involving the production of public goods and the use of common property resources do not lead to the Prisoners’ Dilemma. They are far worse: outcomes there can involve exploitation of some members by others.
To cheer us up, Bob May will interrupt proceedings with Obama's inauguration speech.

Monday, January 19, 2009


“I think Hamas is stronger now and will be stronger in the future because of this war,” said Eyad Serraj, a psychiatrist [in Gaza] who is an opponent of Hamas. “This war has deepened the people’s feeling that it is impossible to have peace with Israel, a country that promotes death and destruction.”
-- from Israel Hopes to Complete Gaza Troop Pull-Out [in time for Obama inauguration]
Dr Abuelaish [who treated both Israeli and Arab patients, and three of whose daughters were killed in an Israeli strike] said..."Violence is never the right way. My daughters and I were armed with nothing but love and hope."
-- from Gaza doctor's loss grips Israelis
that's the paradox of Al-Jazeera's war journalism: It is flagrantly political, but accompanied by a real curiosity about other perspectives. It also makes me wish for something else: A TV network with the bravery to show the war imagery you can see on Al-Jazeera, but the integrity to do it in the service of peace, rather than the service of a side. Its violent imagery, however unpleasant, would be a strong stand for the individual against violence, and for human compassion against easily fanned hatreds
-- from The Violence Network by Eric Calderwood.
Some [of the graffiti] was in Hebrew, but much was naively written in English: "Arabs need 2 die", "Die you all", "Make war not peace", "1 is down, 999,999 to go", and scrawled on an image of a gravestone the words: "Arabs 1948-2009".
-- from 48 members of the Samouni family were killed in one day by Rory McCarthy

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jaipur in January

We took a view at the festival that it was extremely important to keep up the cultural dialogue between Pakistan and India, and that once you start pulling the plug on writers and artists, the fanatics have won. Our Pakistani delegates are still coming, and they've got their visas despite slightly hysterical travel warnings from their own government.
William Dalrymple on the Jaipur literature fesitval in The Week in Books

Friday, January 16, 2009

"a holographic universe is blurry"

No one... is yet claiming that GEO600 has found evidence that we live in a holographic universe. It is far too soon to say. "There could still be a mundane source of the noise," [Craig] Hogan admits.
-- from Our world may be a giant hologram

Boot, human face, forever

Eternal threats and an unending series of enemies - these were clearly a permanent feature of the world as Maria saw it.
-- from a BBC report by Paul Moss

An overview of Zionism by Geoffrey Wheatcroft published in Feb last year is still useful.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hot war

I grew up in a world that spent billions of dollars on building weapons it hoped never to use. When they became obsolete we threw them away and built even more sophisticated and expensive weapons which we hoped never to use. We did that for fifty years. The threat of climate change to the prosperity, security and well-being of everyone on the planet, especially anyone under forty, is far more certain than was the threat of the Cold War going hot.
-- Tom Burke.

Bomber command

When someone gets near to one of the anecdotes I like to quote most from Freeman Dyson I sit up, and so it is with Menachem Kellner on five asymmetries in Israel’s Gaza war.

So it's disappointing to read that Kellner does not take Dyson's point to heart, but rather persists in a view which I think is mistaken. There is a basic superficiality in, for example, his third point ('green Israel bringing life' v. 'deathly Hamas in a desert'). Does he really not know that Israel has systematically made almost all economic activity in Gaza impossible? Does he not understand that the Israelis control and monopolise water supplies in both Israel proper and the occupied territories?

Arne Naess

Something like ten or twelve years ago I visited Arne Naess in his mountain cabin at Tvergastein. I remember, in particular, these things:
Getting off the train at a tiny stop in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, and walking, as if into nothing, across the rough moorland towards the shoulder of a mountain plateau where, I was had been assured, I would find his cabin. The landscape was magnificently bleak. (And it was near here, I think, that in World War Two Norwegian resistance and British operatives hid while preparing to strike a heavy water production facility. The Germans concluded that no one could survive for several weeks out in the open up here, and gave up their search.)

Naess pointing out to me the tiny flowers in rocks crevices, convincing me of the importance of their existence, and showing me his collection of minerals and elements in tiny glass jars: the purity of their colours.

Even though he was well into his 80s Naess was still an enthusiastic climber. He took me up a rock face, scaring the daylights out of a desk-based reporter. Later, after I had learned more about climbing, I think I understood a little better a part of what this was about: absolute concentration and presence in the moment.

Naess wanted me to understand his belief in what he called ‘beautiful action’ – a term he related to the work of Spinoza.
Naess, it's said, was pessimistic about the 21st century but optimistic about the 23rd. I have some hope for the 22nd or even a little sooner than that.

P.S. 16 Jan: Andy Revkin gathers some recollections and comments


says Juan Cole.

You have to wonder who's in charge here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Mars, there is more than one type of ice...

In addition to frozen water, there's also dry ice -- frozen carbon dioxide -- which shapes and reshapes the Martian landscape. Images (from left):
blocks of icy debris, warmed by the sun, tumble down cliffs of the northern ice cap; 
swirling dust devils leave tracks on defrosting dune surfaces in the south; 
as polar ice recedes, the surface erodes in scalloped ridges;
during spring in the north, sand dunes emerge from the blanket of frost;
starburst patterns are created as ice warms into gas and expands, creating channels spreading out radially;
when the gas breaks through the ice, it creates plumes and material is carried downwind.
-- NYT

At Edge, Rodney Brooks speculates on Life (or not) on Mars. Speaking for myself, I would rather it stayed quiet and beautiful there for at least a while longer.

P.S. 15 Jan: NASA says there could be bugs in the rocks.

Down the dunny

Ashdenizen fisks Simon Calder and the Indy

Sunday, January 11, 2009


The backlash from the school attack is another potent example of the risks in an urban-war strategy: Israel may in fact be able to dismantle Hamas’s military structure even while losing the battle for world opinion and leaving Hamas politically still in charge of Gaza.
-- Steven Erlanger with Taghreed El-Khodary
Even if the Israeli army were to succeed in killing every Hamas fighter to the last man, even then Hamas would win. The Hamas fighters would be seen as the paragons of the Arab nation, the heroes of the Palestinian people, models for emulation by every youngster in the Arab world...If the war ends with Hamas still standing, bloodied but unvanquished, in face of the mighty Israeli military machine, it will look like a fantastic victory, a victory of mind over matter.
--Uri Avnery

Wake up, England!

There is an aversion in England to organised or even personal resistance, a frightening bend towards compromise. There have always been good causes worth fighting for, but seldom, in the modern era, has there been the common volition to fight for them. Perhaps that is why we love the memory of the world wars so much: they are a national heritage exhibition of our least likely selves, a testament to our nature as it might have been. The old wars show us what it was like to be a people willing to resist a vast encroaching power. It is not a posture that comes naturally to the English. Usually, the ordinary people of England only have one word to say to authority, and that word is "yes". Orwell would not be surprised to see such forces at work over the English, but he might be shocked to see the extent to which the English themselves lacked, as time went on, all political resolve to change it. The populist mode in England is silent paralysis. No to change.
-- Andrew O'Hagan on The age of indifference. He's writing, it should be stressed, about a disinherited white working class/underclass, not the whole country. And he finishes with an anecdote that flirts with hope.

Image: Chris Steele-Perkins (1976)

P.S. 17 Jan Tim Lott responds:
The English working class are disenfranchised, depressed and apathetic - for the same reasons the working class everywhere are, including in Scotland. The end of manufacturing industry, the decline of the unions, the break-up of working-class communities through increased mobility and reckless town planning, the concentration of the elites on ethnicity, gender and sexuality issues, rather than class, being the primary reasons. The difference between the English and the Scottish working class is that the Scots can take pride in their nationality without being accused of being Powellite or racist.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Israel Iran nuclear attack

One senior intelligence official argued that as Mr. Bush prepared to leave office, the Iranians were already so close to achieving a weapons capacity that they were unlikely to be stopped.

Others disagreed, making the point that the Israelis would not have been dissuaded from conducting an attack if they believed that the American effort was unlikely to prove effective.
New York Times

(The same reporter, David Sanger, also writes on The Worst Pakistan Nightmare for Obama, such as: what happens when [the Pakistani military] move the [nuclear] weapons. The United States feared that some groups could try to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India in the hope that the Pakistani military would transport tactical nuclear weapons closer to the front lines, where they would be more vulnerable to seizure. Indeed, when the deadly terror attacks occurred in Mumbai in late November, officials told me they feared that one of the attackers’ motives might have been to trigger exactly that series of events.)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Climate priority

I have long agreed with the conclusion that Paul Klemperer comes to in his recent paper What should be the top priority for climate change?:
More R&D into clean energy is probably the highest priority of all. There are other priorities too, of course. In particular, curbing deforestation is cheap and cost- effective, and has the collateral benefit of preserving biodiversity. But finding a clean energy source that is cheaper than those currently available is the only politically plausible way of curbing growth in developing nations’ emissions.
But, Klemperer cautions, "the vagueness of [my] remarks demonstrates an urgent need for research into the economics of innovation!"

"All the elements of war crimes"

...says Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Not very clever

One medical team found 12 bodies in a shelled house, and alongside them four very young children, too weak to stand, waiting by their dead mothers, the ICRC said. Aid workers had been denied access to the site for days.
-- Israel accused over Gaza wounded

Cosmic 'bow shocks'

'Runaway stars carve eerie cosmic sculptures':

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

'The cusp of catastrophe'

says John Ging

Beyond greed

Sobering thoughts for those contemplating longer term battles such as climate change:
[The U.S.] financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today’s financial markets is immense. Obviously the greater the market pressure to excel in the short term, the greater the need for pressure from outside the market to consider the longer term. But that’s the problem: there is no longer any serious pressure from outside the market. The tyranny of the short term has extended itself with frightening ease into the entities that were meant to, one way or another, discipline Wall Street, and force it to consider its enlightened self-interest.
-- from The End of the Financial World as We Know It by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Loving kindness

It is often said of small children now that they are naturally cruel, but it is less often said that they are naturally kind, instinctively concerned for the well-being of others, often disturbed by the suffering of others and keen to allay it. Nineteenth-century accounts of the "innocence" of children, distrusted today as overly sentimental, were also an attempt to speak up for children's spontaneous kind-heartedness. Loss of childhood innocence was, among other things, the loss of a more affectionately trusting nature. After Darwin and Freud we have more ways than ever before of describing our suspicions about our more benevolent feelings - and indeed, about children as innocent. But there is a crucial fact worth putting as simply as possible: the easy kindness of childhood, the reflex of engaged concern that children show for others, all too easily gets lost in growing up; and that this loss, when it occurs on a wide enough scale, is a cultural disaster.
-- from Love thy neighbour by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor


To the Terrorist, by definition, that innocent civilians and even children are killed isn't a regrettable cost of taking military action. It's not a cost at all. It's a benefit. It has strategic value. [Michael] Goldfarb explicitly says this: "to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause."
-- from Orwell, blinding tribalism, selective Terrorism, and Israel/Gaza by Glen Greenwald, who also notes that the Israeli government continues to defy the country's supreme court which said that journalists must be allowed in to the Gaza strip.

The Israeli government is following the lesson of U.S. President Andrew Jackson here: you can get away with it.

Elsewhere, Chandran Kukathas explores the many ways in which the term genocide is used and understood.

Politics and the English language

It's about normalisation... it's about enduring [U.S.] presence and interest...with the Iraqis firmly in charge.
-- Ryan Crocker on the new $600m U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

What I heard about Gaza

Hamas has turned Gaza into a great big prison.
-- Danny Gillerman, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, speaking to Edward Sturton on Today (0810).

[P.S. Andrew Sullivan on Proportionality and terror]

Sunday, January 04, 2009