Saturday, October 31, 2009
Afghanistan sacrifices may have been in vain
Thomas Walkom, The Toronto Star: Where does the war in Afghanistan go? My sense is that it is finally beginning the long and drawn-out process toward an inglorious end. For Canada, this would mark the finish of the longest -- and the least considered -- war that this country has ever fought...
It is clear that America is losing its stomach for this war. Public opinion polls point to this, as does the president's decision to revisit and revise war plans that he announced just seven months ago. Still, don't expect a dramatic about-face. Obama is not likely to announce that he has begun a process of ignominious retreat. That would be too embarrassing...
More civilians and soldiers (including Canadians) are likely to die in the name of preserving what the politicians like to call Western credibility...
For NATO countries like Canada, this has not been a glorious time. They joined the conflict in 2001 because, as military allies of a country that claimed to be under attack from Afghanistan (even though, in any real sense, this wasn't true), they had little choice. Yet this ill-thought-out war quickly became an opportunity.
Bureaucrats at Brussels' NATO headquarters saw Afghanistan as a war that could make the old anti-Communist alliance, largely meaningless since the Soviet collapse, relevant again.
In Canada, then prime minister Paul Martin's Liberal government viewed robust Canadian participation in this war as a chance to mend fences with a US administration still angered by Ottawa's earlier decision to avoid the Iraq conflict.
As well, Ottawa hoped that its decision to play a serious military role in Afghanistan's dangerous south would convince security-conscious Washington to keep the Canada-US border wide open for trade.
For Canada's generals, the war was a chance to winkle more money and equipment from their tight-fisted political masters -- as well as an opportunity to burnish the image of the military.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, who inherited the war, saw it as a chance to further their overall strategy of shifting the federal government away from social policy toward more traditional 19th-century functions like defence.
And the media saw it as a chance to reinvent the simple but powerful narrative of heroes (us) and villains (them). Indeed, at times the glee with which the media embraced the war bordered on the unwholesome...
Soldiers continued to die, usually in ones and twos...There was no national debate as to what, if anything, these deaths accomplished. The answer, it now seems, is very little... As the long countdown to final withdrawal begins, we now know that their deaths were pointless... The war we never should have waged is effectively lost. We have only to admit it.
Image source: National Post.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Canada sets aside its boreal forest as giant carbon vault
By banning logging, mining and oil drilling in an area twice the size of California, Canada is ensuring its boreal forests continue to soak up carbon
The Guardian: In the far north latitudes, buried within a seemingly endless expanse of evergreen forests, the authorities of Canada are building up one of the world's best natural defences against global warming. In a series of initiatives, Canadian provincial governments and aboriginal leaders have set aside vast tracts of coniferous woods, wetlands, and peat. The conservation drive bans logging, mining and oil drilling on some 250m acres...
In the latest addition to the carbon storehouse, the provincial premier of Manitoba, Gary Doer, announced a $10m Canadian fund to protect a 10.8m acre expanse of boreal or evergreen forest. It was one of Doer's last acts as premier; he took over as Canada's ambassador to Washington this month.
The $10m will go towards efforts by indigenous leaders to designate boreal forest lands in eastern Manitoba as a Unesco world heritage site. The Pimachiowin Aki world heritage project, which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, extends efforts by Canadian provincial leaders to protect the wide swaths of pristine forests in the north. It also ensures the survival of one of the best natural defences against global warming after the world's oceans, environmentalists say.
A report by the International Boreal Conservation Campaign said the forests, with their rich mix of trees, wetlands, peat and tundra, were a far bigger carbon store than scientists had realised, soaking up 22% of the total carbon stores on the Earth's land surface...
Canada's cold temperatures slow decomposition, allowing the build-up of organic soil and peat. The forest floors beneath its evergreens hold twice as much carbon per acre as tropical forests, such as the Amazon...
Canada's 1.3bn acres of boreal forest store the equivalent of 27 years' worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions, a Greenpeace study found. The destruction of those forests, scientists warn, would be like setting off a massive 'carbon bomb' because of the sudden release of emissions.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Biggest, Tallest Tree Photo Ever
At least 1,500 years old, this 300-foot giant in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has the most complex crown ever mapped (Michael Nichols/National Geographic)
Here's a video (also here) about the making of the photo; it took three cameras, a team of scientists, a robotic dolly, a gyroscope, an 83-photo composite and a lot of patience.
More photos here:
Interactive page on range and lifespan here:
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Failed War President or the Prince of Peace?
Nick Turse, TomDispatch: The US military is unquestionably powerful and has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to mete out tremendous amounts of destruction and death. From Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia to Iraq and Afghanistan, enemy fighters and unfortunate civilians, military base camps and people's homes have been laid waste by US forces in decade after decade of conflict.
Yet sealing the deal has been another matter entirely. Victory has repeatedly slipped through the fingers of American presidents, no matter how much technology and ordnance has been unleashed on the poor, sometimes pre-industrial populations of America's war zones...
More than 100 years after their early counterinsurgency efforts on two tiny islands in the Philippines, US troops are still dying there at the hands of Muslim guerillas. More than 50 years later, the US still garrisons the southern part of the Korean peninsula as a result of a stalemate war and a peace as yet unmade. More recently, the American experience has included outright defeat in Vietnam, failures in Laos and Cambodia; debacles in Lebanon and Somalia; a never-ending four-president-long war in Iraq; and almost a decade of wheel-spinning in Afghanistan without any sign of success, no less victory. What could make the limits of American power any clearer?
The record should be as sobering as it is dismal, while the costs to the peoples in those countries are as appalling as they are unfathomable to Americans. The blood and futility of this American past ought to be apparent to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Obama, even if his predecessors have been incredibly resistant to clear-eyed assessments of American power or the real consequences of US wars.
Two paths stretch out before this first-year president. Two destinations beckon: peace or failure.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
US official resigns over Afghan War
Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain says he no longer knows why his nation is fighting
The Washington Post: When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for... But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first US official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.
'I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan,' he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter [.pdf] to the department's head of personnel. 'I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.' [...]
He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war 'has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency.'
With 'multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups,' he wrote, the insurgency 'is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The US and NATO presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide and occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.'
American families, he said at the end of the letter, 'must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made anymore.'
'The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people. The Afghan government's failings, particularly when weighed against the sacrifice of American lives and dollars, appear legion and metastatic...
'Our support for this kind of government, coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency's true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation's own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology...
'I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan... We are mortgaging our Nation's economy on a war, which even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.'
'I realize the emotion and tone of my letter and ask you to excuse any ill temper. I trust you understand the nature of this war and the sacrifices made by so many thousands of families who have been separated from loved ones deployed in defense of our Nation and whose homes bear the fractures, upheavals and scars of multiple and compounded deployments. Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.'
Monday, October 26, 2009
Midway: Message from the Gyre
Chris Jordan: These photographs of albatross chicks were made just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young.
On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking. To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.
-- October 2009
Sunday, October 25, 2009
The Cold We Caused
Steven Stoll, Harper's: Excavate the Middle Ages, and one unearths a geological event with enormous implications for how we think about and respond to climate... The Northern Hemisphere fell into a frigid rut around 1350 that lasted until the nineteenth century... [It] came and went in a geological instant, too brief to have been caused by the wobble of Earth...
Around 1400, gases and temperatures both plunged, then recovered, then plunged again after 1500. Atmospheric carbon declined by a statistically significant 10 parts per million (ppm) in a period only slightly longer than a single human lifetime. For decades, climate scientists have been unable to offer an adequate explanation for this drop...
William Ruddiman, the environmental scientist at [the University of] Virginia, has hit upon a solution to the riddle that is biological instead of geological. Even the best climate models, he realized, had ignored humans. Economic activity until the eighteenth century consisted of farming, hunting, handicrafts, and trading. To whatever degree these practices affected the global carbon budget, they did nothing to lower it. But Ruddiman saw that humans did something else during these centuries. They died in tremendous numbers.
The Little Ice Age coincided with a series of astonishing pandemics. The best documented began in October of 1347... the first victims of the Black Death. Over the next four years, as many as 50 million people perished... By 1400, woody growth had occupied at least 25 percent -- and as much as 45 percent -- of arable Europe. Birches and hazels squatted in the ecological real estate left vacant by human loss.
And the Black Death was not the only pandemic of the late Middle Ages. The same bacterium had arrived in China a decade before, killing perhaps as many as 50 million. When Hernan Cortes invaded the Valley of Mexico in 1519, his armies brought smallpox, influenza, and mumps, setting off among never-before-exposed people a series of devastating infections that, as the disease moved north and south, killed between 50 and 60 million over the following two hundred years...
Globally, an estimated 125 million people died of pandemic disease between 1200 and 1750, representing 25 percent of the total population in 1500. According to Ruddiman's hypothesis, the deaths of so many in such a short time, over terrain extending from the Po Valley to the Incan Empire, left hundreds of millions of hectares abandoned to reforestation...
How the Little Ice Age ended is perhaps even more revealing than how it began. As population lurched toward recovery, settler cultures felt the tension between lands and hands, sending ax-wielding farmers into the forests of Massachusetts, the Volga River Valley, and Manchuria. Between 1700 and 1920 the world's forests lost 537 million hectares, as agrarian societies increased their land use more than threefold. The carbon in all of those trees -- together with soil itself, the greatest source on the surface of the Earth -- wafted up to thicken the eight-mile-high envelope that distinguishes this planet from Mercury. The world counted few coal-burning factories in 1850, but their numbers followed an accelerating curve as petroleum joined coal to provide the hydrocarbons that would generate two more centuries of economic growth. Under the new energy regime, atmospheric carbon levels rose by 100 ppm between 1750 and the present.
If our crop-planting, animal-herding, forest-and-savannah-burning ancestors could trigger the rapid cooling of the atmosphere through their sudden absence, then we can achieve the same effect by abandoning other practices...
Once we accept the human capacity to reconfigure the climate, the rich nations will become directly responsible for the suffering of the poor... What is a just climate and what an unjust one? Which climate represents the insatiable demands of corporate growth rather than the healthy and stability of everyone else? By confirming the human role in climate change, and by declaring a warming world injurious to the public good, the EPA has swung a club against perhaps the grandest capitalist conceit of the twentieth century: that society forms part of the economy, not the other way around.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Friday, October 23, 2009
'Values' drive Conservative politics
Frances Russell, Winnipeg Free Press: The Stephen Harper Conservatives are on their way to shattering the last remnants of the old Liberal fortress through the relentless application of US Republican wedge politics and vicious personal attack ads. The Harper Conservatives have introduced a whole new style of politics to Canada.
Michael Behiels, a native of Alberta's Peace River country, teaches constitutional history at the University of Ottawa. He says Harper's approach to politics and government is shaped by his Christian fundamentalism....
'On foreign policy, Harper is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who maintains that the US, Canada and the UK have a mission, a religious duty, so to speak, to impose an American form of democracy on the world.' On the domestic front, Behiels continues, the prime minister believes 'every left-of-centre Canadian is a moral relativist, that is, immoral, and can't be trusted to govern at any level of society.'...
This is the wellspring for the prime minister's contempt for 'socialists,' for his treatment of Canada's opposition parties as enemies to be destroyed, for his antipathy to 'left-wing fringe groups' working on behalf of the disadvantaged, for his government's crackdown on refugees and his willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building new prisons to facilitate the 'tough-on-crime' agenda...
Bhiels sees the next election as a 'competition of values. There are values on the right which are deeply imbued with religious fundamentalism but you also have longstanding, deeply-entrenched liberal values in Canada that are just as important to people and must be defended.'
Thursday, October 22, 2009
The War We Can't Win
Afghanistan and the limits of American Power
Andrew J. Bacevich, Commonweal: This failure of imagination makes it impossible for those who possess either authority or influence in Washington to consider the possibility (a) that the solution to America's problems is to be found not out there -- where "there" in this case is Central Asia -- but here at home; (b) that the people out there, rather than requiring our ministrations, may well be capable of managing their own affairs, relying on their own methods; and (c) that to disregard (a) and (b) is to open the door to great mischief and in all likelihood to perpetrate no small amount of evil...
If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: 'Come home, America.' The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on 'the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.'
Dr. King's list of evils may need a bit of tweaking -- in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three. Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril. That Barack Obama should fail to realize this qualifies as not only ironic but inexplicable.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Richard J. Evans: The legacy of the Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted. That is why the Third Reich will not go away, but continues to command the attention of thinking people throughout the world long after it has passed into history.
-- From the closing paragraph to The Third Reich at War, the final book in his trilogy including The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Seven Existential Threats
Michael B. Oren, Commentary: Corruption. Recent years have witnessed the indictment of major Israeli leaders on charges of embezzlement, taking bribes, money laundering, sexual harassment, and even rape. Young Israelis shun politics, which are widely perceived as cutthroat; the Knesset, according to annual surveys, commands the lowest level of respect of any state institution. Charges of corruption have spread to areas of Israeli society, such as the army, once considered inviolate.
The breakdown of public morality, in my view, poses the greatest single existential threat to Israel. It is this threat that undermines Israel's ability to cope with other threats; that saps the willingness of Israelis to fight, to govern themselves, and even to continue living within a sovereign Jewish state. It emboldens Israel's enemies and sullies Israel's international reputation. The fact that Israel is a world leader in drug and human trafficking, in money laundering, and in illicit weapons sales is not only unconscionable for a Jewish state, it also substantively reduces that state's ability to survive.
Michael Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Image from 'Corruption index; Israel deteriorating'; source here.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Vancouver Sun: Readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine have voted Vancouver the 'Best City in the Americas' at their annual Readers' Choice Awards ceremony held in New York... Vancouver won the top spot over Buenos Aires, Argentina and Quebec City...
The poll divides cities into six specific geographical divisions including the Americas... Cities are scored on ambience, friendliness, culture and sites, restaurants, lodging, and shopping, to give a final ranking.
This award is at the top of a long list of accolades that Vancouver has received in recent years including being named the world's most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and North America's top destination for international meetings by the International Congress & Convention Association. Vancouver was previously named 'Best City in the Americas' by Condé Nast Traveler readers in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Der Spiegel: First place in this year's Nikon Small World Competition went to Helti Paves of Estonia. The image shows the anther of a thale cress (arabidopsis thaliana) magnified 20 times. The plants pollinate themselves and reproduce quickly, making them a favourite for genetics researchers. See the rest of the gallery here.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
One nation, under illusion
Neal Gabler, The Boston Globe: The hoariest and most oft-repeated cliche in American politics may be that America is the greatest country in the world. Every politician, Democrat and Republican, seems duty bound to pander to this idea of American exceptionalism, and woe unto him who hints otherwise. This country is 'the last, best hope of mankind,' or the 'shining city on the hill,' or the 'great social experiment.'... In the end, government has inspired Americans for more than Americans have inspired their government. They are too busy boasting...
By what standard is one nation any greater than any other nation?... We have, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the 'highest inequality and poverty rate' in the world, outside of Mexico and Turkey, and things are getting worse. Nothing to boast of there... Our standard of living as measured by the Human Development Index of the United Nations ranks us only 15th in the world... We rank 13th in the affordability of [higher] education, and we are 11th in the percentage of the 25 to 34 population with a high school diploma and 22nd in science education... We actually rank 37th in the quality of our health care. And we are still the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system...
The point of all this isn't that American doesn't have a lot to be proud of... The point is that just about every other country has a lot to be proud of... None of this would make much difference if the self-congratulation were just harmless bragging. But there are consequences. A country that believes it is the greatest in the world is also less likely to be constrained by that world. One could argue that the Iraq war was a direct result of a sense of national infallibility. So was our willingness to torture, our reluctance to admit our mistakes in Afghanistan, our culpability in the global recession, and our foot-dragging on global warming. Such a nation is also less likely to introspect or to strive for true greatness because it believes its greatness has already arrived...
It seems eons ago when Bobby Kennedy, a politician who didn't like to stroke even his own supporters, actually scolded a rally for booing Lyndon Johnson because, Kennedy said, Johnson couldn't have done what he did in Vietnam if he didn't have the American people, including Kennedy's audience, as his facilitators.
We aren't going to hear that sort of honesty from political leaders any more because the American people are too thin-skinned and arrogant to tolerate it. Arrogance in an individual is unbecoming. It is no more becoming for a nation. The Greeks understood that the gods punished mortals for their hubris -- for feeling that they were godlike. They knew that overweening pride preceded a fall. One suspects that nations are no more immune to punishment than individuals. A nation that brooks no criticism, a nation that feels it is always better than any other, a nation that has to be endlessly flattered and won't face the truth, a nation whose people think they possess some special moral exemption and wisdom, a nation without humility is a nation spoiling for calamity.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Just How Sensitive Is Earth's Climate to Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide?
Two new studies look far back in geologic time
Scientific American: Earth scientist Aradhna Tripati of the University of California, Los Angeles's Department of Earth and Space Sciences and her colleagues extracted a record of past atmospheric concentrations of CO2 stretching back 20 million years from the shells of tiny creatures known as foraminifera buried in a column of ocean mud and rock. The microscopic animals build chells of calcium carbonate out of minerals in seawater -- a process that is affected by the water's relative pH (acidity), which is, in turn controlled by the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. More CO2 in the atmosphere means a more acidic ocean...
'Modern-day levels of carbon dioxide were last reached about 15 million years ago,' Tripati says, when sea levels were at least 25 meters higher and temperatures were at least 3 degrees C warmer on average. 'During the middle Miocene, an [epoch] in Earth's history when carbon dioxide levels were sustained at values similar to what they are today [300 to 500 ppm], the planet was much warmer, sea level was higher, there was substantially less ice at the poles, and the distribution of rainfall was very different.'
Further, 'at no time in the last 20 million years have levels of carbon dioxide increased as rapidly as at present,' Tripati adds; CO2 concentrations have climbed from 280 ppm to 387 ppm in the past 200 years. And 'our work indicates that moderate changes in carbon dioxide levels of 100 to 200 parts per million were associated with major climate transitions and large changes in temperature' -- indicative of a very sensitive climate.
Image: foraminifera tests; source here.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Employment trends in North America: Local economies matter
For full interactive version, go here.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Al-Qaeda's guerrilla chief lays out strategy
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online: Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, who, according to American intelligence is al-Qaeda's head of military operations and whose death they wrongly confirmed in a recent US Predator drone attack in North Waziristan, spoke to Asia Times Online...
If today al-Qaeda is divided into three spheres, Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly the symbol of the movement and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri defines al-Qaeda's ideology and broader strategic vision. Ilyas, with his unmatched guerrilla expertise, turns the strategic vision into reality, provides the resources and gets targets achieved, but he chooses to remain in the background and is very low key...
'Saleem! I will draw your attention to the basics of the present war theater and use that to explain the whole strategy of the upcoming battle. Those who planned this battle actually aimed to bring the world's biggest Satan [US] and its allies into this trap and swamp... Afghanistan is a unique place in the world where the hunter has all sorts of traps to choose from.
'It might be deserts, rivers, mountains and the urban centers as well. This was the thinking of the planners of this war who were sick and tired of the great Satan's global intrigues and they aim for its demise to make this world a place of peace and justice. However, the great Satan was full of arrogance of its superiority and thought of Afghans as helpless statues who would be hit from all four sides by its war machines, and they would not have the power and capacity to retaliate.
'This was the illusion on which a great alliance of world powers came to Afghanistan, but due to their misplaced conceptions they gradually became trapped... Today, NATO does not have any significance or relevance. They have lost the war in Afghanistan... The reality is that the trap of Afghanistan is successful and the basic military targets on the ground have been achieved...
'East Timor's issue was resolved without losing much time. Why? Because the entire game was in the hands of the great Satan, the USA. Organs like the UN and countries like India and Israel were simply the extension of its resources and that's why there was a failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, the Kashmir issue and the plight of Afghanistan'...
He added that al-Qaeda's regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength...
'So should the world expect more Mumbai-like attacks?' I asked.
'That was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future,' Ilyas replied.
'Even against Israel and the USA?' I asked.
'Saleem, I am not a traditional jihadi cleric who is involved in sloganeering. As a military commander, I would say every target has a specific time and reasons, and the responses will be forthcoming accordingly,' Ilyas said.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The company that turned 'disability' into an asset
The Independent: When Thorkil Sonne was told that his three-year-old son had autism, the Danish IT specialist ran the classic gamut of responses for parents of an autistic child... Few, however, go so far as to embark on a one-man mission to revolutionise society's isolating attitude to autistics by setting up a company... that has some of the world's biggest corporations, including Microsoft and Cisco Systems, queuing to buy its services...
Inspired by the talents of his son Lars, who once stunned his father by reproducing from memory a road map of Europe, Mr Sonne set up Specialisterne six years ago, realizing that the traits of 'high functioning' autistics were in demand among computer software companies.
Mr Sonne, 49, a father of three, said: 'I wanted Lars [to have] the same chances as his brothers... As long as someone with autism could feel comfortable in a workplace and have the social confidence to perform a job then they would have the skills that made them more capable than others to perform certain tasks which required large degrees of precision, focus and memory recall.'...
Among the techniques Specialisterne has perfected is the use of a complex form of Lego to assess the abilities of potential employees, whose condition means the social interaction of a formal interview is often impossible.
Mr Sonne said: 'This is not about offering cheap labour or some kind of occupational therapy. We charge market rates, our consultants receive a market salary and that is because they simply do a better job"...
The company counters any concern that it is gheottoising its workers by pointing out that 70 per cent of its staff work on the premises of the client. A Specialisterne support worker ensures that the most suitable environment -- a lack of sudden and loud noise, clear instructions and an average working week of around 25 hours -- is provided by the host...
In the meantime, Mr Sonne said that if proof were needed of the benefits of his company's work then look no further than his staff. He said: 'I have seen people transformed. One of our consultants had not worked for 24 years. Now he is testing for Cisco Systems. He finally feels he is part of society and respected. He can talk up at family gatherings. He recently got a girlfriend. Lars wants to work for us as a trainer. I see no reason why eventually those who are at lower points in the autistic spectrum should not work as well.'
Image: Thorkil Sonne; source here.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Arctic seas turn to acid, putting vital food chain at risk
The Guardian: Carbon-dioxide emissions are turning the waters of the Arctic Ocean into acid at an unprecedented rate... Research carried out in the archipelago of Svalbard has shown that in many regions around the north pole seawater is likely to reach corrosive levels within 10 years. The water will then start to dissolve the shells of mussels and other shellfish and cause major disruption to the food chain. By the end of the century, the entire Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic.
'This is extremely worrying,' Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, of France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, told an international oceanography conference... 'We knew that the seas were getting more acidic and this would disrupt the ability of shellfish -- like mussels -- to grow their shells. But now we realise the situation is much worse. The water will become so acidic it will actually dissolve the shells of living shellfish.'...
His research suggests that 10% of the Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acid by 2018; 50% by 2050; and 100% by 2100. 'Over the whole planet, there will be a threefold increase in the average acidity of the oceans, which is unprecedented during the past 20 million years. That level of acidification will cause immense damage to the ecosystem and the food chain, particularly in the Arctic,' he added.
The tiny mollusc Limacina helicina, which is found in Arctic waters, will be particularly vulnerable, he said. The little shellfish is eaten by baleen whales, salmon, herring and various seabirds. Its disappearance would therefore have a major impact on the entire marine food chain. The deep-water coral Lophelia pertusa would also be extremely vulnerable... Reefs in high latitudes are constructed by only one of two types of coral -- unlike tropical coral reefs which are built by a large variety of species. The loss of Lophelia pertusa would therefore devastate reefs off Norway and the coast of Scotland, removing underwater shelters that are exploited by dozens of species of fish and other creatures.
'Scientists have proposed all sorts of geo-engineering solutions to global warming,' said Gattuso. 'For instance, they have proposed spraying the upper atmosphere with aerosol particles that would reduce sunlight reaching the Earth, mitigating the warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide. 'But these ideas miss the point. They will still allow carbon dioxide emissions to continue to increase -- and thus the oceans to become more and more acidic. There is only one way to stop the devastation the oceans are now facing and that is to limit carbon-dioxide emissions as a matter of urgency.'
Image: goose barnacles; source here.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Canada No. 4 on UN quality of life ranking
Vancouver Sun: Canada ranks among the top places to live in the world, according to the United Nations quality of life index, placing Canada fourth among 182 rated countries. Canada was bested by Norway, which took the top spot, followed by Australia and Iceland. Canada ranked third last year, but has placed at the top spot eight times.
Officially called the human development index, the report measures criteria such as life expectancy, literacy, school enrolment, gender parity and the economy, to get a snapshot of a country's quality of life...
Coming fifth on the list behind Canada was Ireland, followed by the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Switzerland and Japan. The US ranked 13th. Niger ranked last. Canada last placed first in 200o.
The report's authors said the index looks beyond the country's gross domestic product to a broader definition of well-being. 'For that reason, it is important to examine changes in the human development index over time. The human development index trends tell an important story in that respect. Between 1980 and 2007 Canada's HDI rose by 0.31 per cent annually from 0.890 to 0.966 today. HDI scores in all regions have increased progressively over the years.'
Ranking of all 182 countries here, with links to individual country summaries.
Image: A member of the Skyhawks precision skydiving team; source here.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Saturday, October 3, 2009
The Economist: Global military expenditure rose by 4% in 2008 to a record $1.46 trillion, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel spends most on defence relative to its population, shelling out over $2,300 a person, over $300 more than America. Small and rich countries, and notably Gulf states, feature prominently by this measure. Saudi Arabia ranks ninth in absolute spending, but sixth by population. China has increased spending by 10% to $85 billion to become the world's second largest spender. But it is still dwarfed by America, whose outlay of $607 billion is higher than that of the next 14 biggest spenders combined.