Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oíche Bealtaine Shona!

Lá Buidhe Bealtaine maith duit.

Bealtaine fires on the Hill of Tara, Ireland.
Image source here.

'Affecting every form of life'

Climate change hitting entire Arctic ecosystem
The Guardian: Extensive climate change is now affecting every form of life in the Arctic, according to a major new assessment by international polar scientists. In the past four years, air temperatures have increased, sea ice has declined sharply, surface waters in the Arctic Ocean have warmed and permafrost is in some areas rapidly thawing. In addition, says the report... plants and trees are growing more vigorously, snow cover is decreasing 1-2% a year and glaciers are shrinking.

Scientists from Norway, Canada, Russia and the US contributed to the Arctic monitoring and assessment programme (Amap) study, which says new factors such as 'black carbon' -- soot -- ozone and methane may now be contributing to global and arctic warming as much as carbon dioxide. 'Black carbon and ozone in particular have a strong seasonal pattern that makes their impacts particularly important in the Arctic,' it says.
Image source here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

PTSD: 'a silent judgment of war'

How the horrors of war nearly destroyed me
Peter Beaumont in The Observer: War's most dreadful secret, banal and terrible at the same time, is not that men kill -- that much is obvious -- or even that many men enjoy their killing. That, too, has been well documented. It is more insidious than that. There exists a widespread envy of those who kill, and especially those who kill and kill again...

Most of the [US] soldiers I talk to want to get out of Iraq as quickly as they can. Not DC... "What's back there? Nothing. This is it, he says emphatically. "Ain't nothing better in the world. Take a big hit on the bong and then get all dressed up and get behind my gun. And then it's: 'Come on, fuckers, fire at me,' so I can shoot up the streets."...

On another occasion a smart and studiously polite woman soldier shows me her knife. She says she bought it after she came across graffiti in one of the plastic porta-potties outside the command centre where she works announcing that the writer "would like to fuck" her. She tells me she tried to scrub it out. Three times. Three times it returned... "I know it is someone I work with," she explains. It feels like I'm being stalked."

Reuters: A former US soldier on trial in the gang rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family in the war zone  in 2006 was caught in a 'perfect storm of insanity,' his lawyer told a jury... But government prosecutors in the same courtroom said former Private 1st Class Steven Green, alleged ringleader of the slayings, was only interested in killing Iraqis 'nonstop' and bragged during a barbecue celebration later that what he had done was 'awesome.'... The incident unfolded after the soldiers drank whiskey, played cards, and plotted the attack.

Tyler E. Boudreau, Truthout: The trouble with combat stress (and the traumatic accounts that go with it) is its tendency to call into question the morality of military action... War's essence is challenged outright by the mere existence of combat stress.

Upon witnessing the sundered consciousnesses of so many returning veterans and hearing about all the horrible things they endured and commited... When the moral compasses of young soldiers are spun to the point where they find it difficult to bear their own skins (as we've seen expressed in the record suicides of late), it leads to a natural suspicion about the moral direction of the war overall... Like it or not, combat stress is, in its own way, a political statement. It is a silent judgment of war (and of society)...

For those whose angst comes specifically from their deeds in war -- from the violence they inflicted or the deaths they caused -- those veterans come to understand one immutable truth: It is better to break the law than break the faith.

James Baldwin: The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their 'vital interests' are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the 'sanctity' of human life, or the 'conscience' of the civilized world.
Image source here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine flu and factory 'farms'

The swine flu crisis lays bare the meat industry's monstrous power.
The Mexico swine flu outbreak should alert us to a highly globalised industry with global political clout

Mike Davis, The Guardian: The Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever... Meanwhile, one of its first victims has been the consoling faith... that pandemics can be contained by the rapid responses of medical bureaucracies, independent of the quality of local public health...

Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry... This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure...

Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology would have to confront the monstrous power of livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Farms (pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens). The [Pew Research Center] commission reported systematic obstruction of their investigation by corporations, including blatant threats to withhold funding from cooperative researchers...

There is already gossip in the Mexican press about an influenza epicentre around a huge Smithfield subsidiary in Veracruz state. But what matters more is the larger configuration: the WHO's failed pandemic strategy, the further decline of world public health, the stranglehold of big pharma over lifeline medicines, and the planetary catastrophe of industrialised and ecologically unhinged livestock production.

Grist: Is Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork packer and hog producer, linked to the outbreak? Smithfield operates massive hog-raising operations Perote, Mexico, in the state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak originated.
Image source here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Peak Oil: 'We enter a new world'

Interview with 
Colin Campbell: Peak Oil is a turning point for mankind. It is a big subject... The population only doubled over the first 17 centuries of the last millennium. But then came coal followed by oil and gas, and the population increased six-fold. These new energy sources, especially oil, allowed the rapid expansion of industry, transport, trade and agriculture... It was accomplished by the growth of financial capital as banks lent more than they had on deposit, confident that Tomorrow's Expansion was collateral for Today's Debt.

But now we face the dawn of the Second Half of the Age of Oil when supply declines from natural depletion, meaning that debt goes bad (as is already happening) and the economy contracts. Today's oil supply supports 6.7 billion people, but by 2020 the supply will be enough to support no more than about 2.5 billion in their present way of life. So the challenges of using less and finding other energy sources is great.

The transition threatens to be a time of great tension. Urban conditions will become especially difficult... The position of governments is changing. They are heavily influenced by classical economics and badly advised by such practitioners for whom finding oil is just a matter of investment...

The resource in the ground of tar sand in Canada and elsewhere is huge, but extraction is slow and costly, yielding a low or even negative net energy return... The accessible world has now been thoroughly explored, such that all the major productive provinces and large fields within them have been found.

Attention now turns to the deepwater and Polar regions... The main deepwater areas have also already been found... Most of the oceans are definitely non-prospective... There are a few freak occurrences, such as Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, but generally Polar seems to be a gas-prone domain... It is unlikely to have any material impact on Peak Oil...

I doubt that renewable energies will ever replace oil and gas sufficiently to maintain the past order of things or still less allow economic growth to continue... I don't think new technologies will have any impact on the date of peak, which I estimate to have been passed in 2008... but they can of course ameliorate the subsequent decline...

The whole flimsy financial edifice has now crashed, and some of the sillier governments are now pumping yet more fictional money into the system to encourage new consumption. Such policies may briefly succeed, but will only make the subsequent crash worse.

We enter a new world, as the principal energy that drove the anomalous past two centuries heads into decline from natural depletion. This is not necessarily a doomsday message. I have known many simple people in different parts of the world who smiled and laughed, not being part of the consumer society.
Image source here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

'Centre of the world' needs scapegoat

US Customs uses border 'hits' to blame Canada
Canadian officials vexed as Americans continue to repeat lie connecting 9/11 hijackers to Canada

Mitch Potter, Toronto Star: According to figures confirmed by the US Customs and Border Patrol, travellers arriving from Canada registered 500 'hits' on the government's integrated terror watch list for the year ending last October. That compares to 150 hits on the US-Mexico border for the same period...

But the breakdown of those '500 hits' shows the vast majority of the individuals in question are either US citizens or US landed immigrants... And the overwhelming majority were air travellers... connecting flyers with few or no links to Canada...

One US security source said: 'Yeah, that is about dead-on... Nobody should take that number as any kind of proof that Canada is wildly more dangerous for us. That just isn't the case.'

But that is precisely how such numbers are used... Michael Chertoff was heavily criticized in a similar flap last year for spinning statistics to generate apprehension about the US-Canada border.

Chertoff announce[d] the end of an 'honour system' under which Americans and Canadians have for decades entered each other's country simply by showing a driver's license. Among the reasons, he said, was the discovery of 1,517 false claims of US citizenship at land crossings in one three-month period. The Washington Post... found 
99 per cent of the false claims were made at the Mexican border.

James Laxer: The myth... is hardy and resistant to all efforts to expunge it... I think we're missing the bigger picture here. I've concluded that the myth will never die. Our grandchildren will still be refuting it decades from now.

The legend of the terrorists materializing out of the snowy north, shadowy figures en route to attack New York and Washington, conveys a fundamental truth about what America is and is not and who is and is not American. A civilization that sees itself as the centre of the world has to draw diamond-hard lines to set itself apart from the rest of creation.

The Romans did that... From their City on the Hill, Americans look out at the lands beyond in the same sort of way, branding peoples and continents as having this or that characteristic in a world that is taking an agonizingly long time to become civilized in the way that the people at the centre believe it should.

Canada and Canadians occupy a tiny portion of the American imagination... Attempting to inform Americans about their northern neighbour is to inflict a low-level form of torture on them. With the best intentions in the world, the American mind cannot fathom thinking about Canadians for more than a few seconds. Pressuring an American to consider Canada is a form of sensory deprivation, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. No human being should attempt it.
Image source here

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Canadian students near top of world

Shocking news: Canada does something important well
Paul Wells, Maclean's: [In] the OECD's Pisa study, a large international survey of 15-year-olds' performance on standard math, science and reading tests... you get large samples, lots of buy-in, a time series that results from administering the tests repeatedly, and other good stuff. And here's what it shows about how Canadian 15-year-olds do compared to their peers in dozens of other countries.

1. Canadian students perform near the top of the world.

2. Being rich or poor is a worse predictor of test outcomes in Canada than in almost any other country. Typically, poorer students do worse on tests. But that effect is greater in some countries and smaller in others. In Canada it's quite small, compared to other countries.

3. Put those two together and you get a very cool scatter chart. You want to be in the upper-left-hand corner: students score high, and economic inequality is a poor predictor of score inequality. The lower right-hand corner is the dunce-cap corner: students score low, and the poor ones are screwed for good. Guess where Canada lands.

4. How much are we paying for this sort of success? About in the midrange, as these things go... It's a rough measure of the efficiency of a school system. Again, bad news for the United States, which spends profligate sums for very modest results. Canada is not shockingly efficient, but its results are solidly in the middle of the countries on the chart.

5. So, we send out 15-year-olds into international tests quite close to the top of the league tables, and the poorer ones are less disadvantaged than their poorer peers around the world. We achieve these results at a very ordinary cost.
Image: Pisa

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dim Sun won't cool Earth

'Quiet Sun' baffling astronomers
The Sun is the dimmest 
it has been for nearly a century

BBC: There are no sunspots, very few solar flares -- and our nearest star is the quietest it has been for a very long time...

In the mid-17th Century, a quiet spell -- known as the Maunder Minimum -- lasted 70 years, and led to a 'mini ice age.' This has resulted in some people suggesting that a similar cooling might offset the impact of climate change. According to Prof Mike Lockwood of Southampton University, this view is too simplistic. 'I wish the Sun was coming to our aid but, unfortunately, the data shows that is not the case.'

Prof Lockwood was one of the first researchers to show that the Sun's activity has been gradually decreasing since 1985, yet overall global temperatures have continued to rise... 'If the Sun's dimming were to have a cooling effect, we'd have see it by now.'...

Evidence from tree trunks and ice cores suggest that the Sun is calming down after an unusually high point in its activity. Professor Lockwood believes that as well as the Sun's 11-year cycle, there is an underlying solar oscillation lasting hundreds of years. He suggests that 1985 marked the 'grand maximum' in this long-term cycle and the Maunder Minimum marked its low point.

'We are re-entering the middle ground after a period which has seen the Sun in its top 10% of activity. 'We would expect it to be more than 100 years before we get down to the levels of the Maunder Minimum.'

He added that the current slight dimming of the Sun was not going to reverse the rise in global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels. 'What we are seeing is consistent with a global temperature rise, not that the Sun is coming to our aid.'
Image source here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

US torture: forcing 'facts' to fit plans

Washington Post: One Army lieutenant colonel who reviewed the program warned in 2002 that coercion 'usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain.' A second official, briefed on plans to use aggressive techniques on detainees, was quoted the same year as asking: 'Wouldn't that be illegal?'...

By late 2001, counterterrorism officials were becoming frustrated by the paucity of useful leads coming from interrogations -- a meager showing that was linked, according to one Army major, to interrogator's insistence on 'establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.'...

[Attorney] Brent Mickum... said he believes the Justice Department's Aug. 1, 2002, memo retroactively approved coercive tactics that had already been used. 'If torture occurred before the memo was written... the writing of the memo is potentially criminal.'

Mc Clatchy: The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime...

Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime...

According to a newly released Justice Department document, 'Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA... and by others, that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies.'...

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called Burney's statement 'very significant.' I think it's obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link. They made out links where they didn't exist.'

Paul Woodward, War in Context: Interrogation is used for extracting information. Torture is used to force confessions. It's not about getting the victim to tell you something you don't yet know; it's about getting the victim to say what you want to hear.

The New York Times refers to Dr. James E. Mitchell as a mastermind of the torture program. In a telling quote that sounds like an account straight from the Spanish Inquisition -- whose purpose was to force confessions -- we learn: 'Jim believed that people of this ilk would confess for only one reason; sheer terror.'...

There you have it: this was about forcing confessions. Waterboarding someone dozens of times in order to gain new information makes no sense. Repeated application in order to force a confession makes perfect sense.

Downing Street Memo, 23 July 2002 recording the views of the head of MI6 after a meeting in Washington: 'Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.'
Image source here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009

Greenpeace video: 'Inspiring Action'

Ecological Ignorance and Economic Collapse
Chip Ward, Tomdispatch: Our ignorance of the adaptive cycle is just one example of our ecological illiteracy. We are similarly inept at reading all sorts of natural signs. Take, for example, thresholds, those critical points where seemingly minor changes can tip an economy into recession or a climate into a new regime of monster storms and epic droughts.

Thresholds are like the doors between the phases in the adaptive cycle, except that they are often one-way -- once you stumble through them, you can't get back to the other side -- so it is crucially important to understand where they are. Although we recognize that there are such things as 'tipping points' and we recognize, belatedly, that we have already crossed too many of them, we're lousy at seeing, let alone avoiding, thresholds before we reach them.

Understanding exactly where a threshold is located may be difficult, but we can at least look for such boundaries, and deliberately try not to cross them when the unintended consequences of doing so can be dire. There are, after all, usually warnings: the reservoir level is lower every year; the colors in the coral reef are fading away; mercury levels in the lake increase...

Once you have driven off a cliff, it does you little good to realize that you are falling.

Image: Marc's Flag by Marc Arroyo Ortiga, winner of the Adbusters One Flag Competition. See the winning designs here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

US will occupy Afghanistan 'indefinitely'

The mother of all cockfights
Pepe Escobar, Asia Times: Obama's war in AfPak is a war against Pashtuns. Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Holbrooke admitted as much to CNN's State of the Union less than three weeks ago:

'The people we are fighting in Afghanistan and the people they are sheltering in western Pakistan post a direct threat -- those are the men of 9/11, the people that killed [former prime minister] Benazir Bhutto -- and you can be sure that as we sit here today they are planning further attacks on the United States and our allies.'

Holbrooke manages to muddle it all -- merging Arab al-Qaeda with Pashtun Taliban, implying that the Pashtun Taliban were involved in 9/11 and also in the killing of Benazir (which some even claim was an inside Pakistan army/intelligence services job), not to mention the insinuation that Pashtuns are plotting to attack the US in a 9/11 replay. This newspeak is how the Washington establishment under Obama now sells an unwinnable war to US public opinion...

No amount of Washington spin disguises the fact that Afghanistan is currently -- and will continue to be -- occupied by the US and NATO virtually indefinitely as a strategic peon in the New Great Game in Eurasia... The US Army is building no less than $1.1 billion worth of military bases... As for NATO, its mission will be to protect the projected, $7.6 billion (and counting) perennially troubled TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, if investors are foolish enough to give it the go-ahead...

Obama should know by now that Islamabad won't fight the neo-Taliban. The Inter-Services Intelligence supports them -- as do different Pashtun layers of the army. So Obama can pull a Donald Rumsfeld 'stay the course.'... He can keep the anti-Pashtun surge going while getting rid of Karzai in Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan (shades of Vietnam).

What he won't so -- and the Pentagon won't allow -- is to do a full Vietnam and let the last helicopter leave Bagram, because he does not want to go down as the president who lost the American empire of bases and the dream of prevailing in the New Great Game in Eurasia.
Image: Map showing US bases; source here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

'The quiet heroism of getting along'

David Manicom
We live on the edge of the Empire, at a great hinge between eras. Do you ever feel like the Enlightenment is slipping away, and the age of superstition is making a comeback? Perception is not reality... People want to come to Canada. I sometimes think, and dare to hope, that they want to come to a place where holy warrior is an oxymoron, where there is no city shining on a hill, where the truths aren't black and white, and where perceptions have some explaining to do.

Canadians might be forgiven for being the last to know that in many ways we're on our way to becoming the planet's leading experts in the quiet heroism of getting along... I believe Canada's success in welcoming newcomers can be largely attributed to the absence of national chauvinism in this country. Instead of expecting newcomers to conform to some already defined ideal of what it is to be Canadian, Canada seems to say, 'Come here and we'll build Canada together.'... 
I see the paradox of our chauvinism as the idea that Canada is the greatest country in the world because we don't think we're the greatest country in the world.

John Geddes, Maclean's: Ignatieff ends his new book by asking us to consider a radically changed world order (or disorder). He suggests that centres of power might have ceased to exist, at least in the ways that would have been understood by past generations... He says we are 'living the end of the American nigh noon.'... The best thing is not to be big and powerful but to be smart and well-governed... Now it seems more like Canada might be that rare thing -- a country that still has enough going for it to lift the merely talented toward the accomplishment of real service.

Image: Lindsay Yates, 'Seeing Canada' -- Mathieu Da Costa Challenge, Winning Artwork Ages 9-12, Regal Road Public School, Toronto.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

US air strike deaths: 85% women and children

Iraq air raids hit mostly women and children
The Independent: Air strikes and artillery barrages have taken a heavy toll among the most vulnerable of the Iraqi people, with children and women forming a disproportionate number of the dead. Analysis carried out by the research group Iraq Body Count (IBC) found that 39 per cent of those killed in air raids by the US-led coalition were children and 46 per cent were women. Fatalities caused by mortars were 42 per cent children and 44 per cent women.

Juan Cole, Informed Comment: I have long maintained that it is likely a violation of the Geneva Conventions for the US air force to systematically bomb cities that the US military is already occupying. Typically such close air support in urban areas is called in by infantry or armor patrols to deal with snipers atop tenement buildings. But since families live in the tenement buildings, taking out a sniper or two often results in significant civilian deaths. It is likely that the death toll of women and children is much greater than the Iraq Body Count suggests, since pulverized buildings are not always cleared away, and when they are, bodies are not always exhumed.
Image: Kareem Raheem/Reuters; source here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Delusions of omnipotence (and arms sales)

US: Neo-Con Ideologues Launch New Foreign Policy Group
IPS: The blandly-named Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) has thus far kept a low profile... 'This reminds me of the Project for the New American Century,' said Steven Clemons... 'Like PNAC, it will become a watering hole for those who want to see an ever-larger US military machine and who divide the world between those who side with right and might and those who are evil or would appease evil.'...

RACHEL MADDOW: Why is it that people who are catastrophically wrong about big important things like foreign policy and war never, like, flunk out of that as a subject?...
MATT DUSS: There seems to be this special dispensation in American foreign policy that, as long as you are wrong on the side of more military force, then all is forgiven...

David Sirota, Truthdig: One in every three dollars the government spends goes to defense and security. The killing machine and adventurism that money manufactures have delivered 1 million Iraqi casualties, thousands of American casualties and an implicit promise of future wars -- indeed, of permanent war. Perpetuating this expenditure, bloodshed and posture... requires a culture constantly selling violence as a necessity... forwarding the assumption that killing is a legitimate form of national ambition and self-expression.

William Pfaff: The fundamental problem is the illusion of omnipotence: that America is and will continue to be omnipotent because the rest of the world expects this; it is America's Manifest Destiny... America's military power naturally invites excessive or irrelevant use... The United States has a level or military power that it doesn't need, has limited utility against stateless enemies and insurgents, and causes confusion between military strength and national power, the latter being the ability to actually produce a desired effect.
Image source here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

'We are becoming spiritually depraved'

Making Spiritual Poverty History
Glen Pearson, MP (London North Centre): It was an offer hard to refuse. Jeffrey Sachs, special counsel to both President Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was speaking at the Millennium Summit in Montreal. Would I consider having a private meeting with him to discuss humanitarian development issues around the world? Tough to turn down.

Since he travels to 40-50 countries a year, I naturally asked him how Canada was viewed from an international perspective. His comments were insightful... and troubling:

* Your country has lost its distinctive voice.
* Canada should be the conscience of the continent, but instead we're just a business partner.
* His discussions with many world leaders revealed that Canada had lost its presence -- the legacy of Lester Pearson is no more.
* Canada has lost its brand.
* Leaders in Canada have become so enamored with financial markets that they have denied this country's own historical DNA that saw it as a beacon of peace to the world.

I could go on, but the points above are pungent enough that we get where he's coming from. And these aren't just his opinions; they were voiced repeatedly by many international, environmental, economic and anti-poverty leaders at the summit itself. This isn't just about a difference of opinion here. An international consensus is emerging that we have severed ourselves from our own past, a history that was powerful enough to define us in the world...

We are becoming spiritually depraved, moved more by the wallet than the world. That is the kind of poverty we need to make history.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

'Three scalps held aloft'

The Pirates Might Prefer Fish 
to Guns
William Pfaff, Truthdig: President Barack Obama's promise that the United States and its allies will put an end to Indian Ocean piracy had the forceful ring to it that good American citizens like to hear...

Why is there piracy off Somalia? If you listen to the pirates, it is retaliation against the piracy of the international fishing industry... They had no government to speak of to defend them, or go to the international courts to protest about the theft of their fish... 

American diplomats today are reported to be keen to take over from the military in putting order back into the world. Why not a big international effort to get an EU, UN, or NATO-policed agreement governing who can fish in Somalian waters, along with one more try to put together a provisional government?... And a big international fund set up by the world's principal shipping companies to help the Somalians get back into the export business?

Paul Woodward, War in Context: When the Daily Show turns on some triumphalist, hot-blooded American nationalism (notwithstanding some token irony) it makes me wonder how differently a Democratic president would have handled 9/11 from the way George Bush did.

The event of three teenage Somali pirates being shot has been treated as though President Obama has successfully traversed a national security rite of passage. Three scalps held aloft, he can now be hailed by his followers as a blood-anointed chieftain. The ghosts of Mogadishu have been exorcised.

Less attention has been given to the fact that the lifeboat containing the pirates and their hostage was tethered no more than 80 feet behind the USS Bainbridge, presenting a bobbing but not very distant target. Or, that we really have no way of knowing whether the critical moment came dramatically with Capt. Phillips' life in immediate danger or whether it came clinically when three pirates simultaneously found themselves in the snipers' cross hairs...

The elephant in the room here is that Somalia effectively has no government. Where there is no rule of law, there are in a practical sense no law breakers. Pressing leaders of a powerless government to 'take action against pirates' is really a rather transparent way of sidestepping the core political issue: the need to help in the establishment of an effective Somali government whose legitimacy is accepted by the majority of the population.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

'What matters is that we fight despite the risk'

Women protesters against 'marital rape' spat on and stoned in Kabul
The Times [UK]: Women protesting in Kabul against a controversial new law were pelted with stones, jostled and spat on today as they held what is believed to be the first public demonstration calling for equal rights for women in recent Afghan history.

The protest by about 200 women called for amendment of the controversial Shia Family Law, passed last month by the Afghan Parliament, and enforcement of article 22 of the Afghan constitution, which gives equal rights to men and women.

It provoked a furious reaction from local men and a mob quickly surrounded the protesters amid violent scenes close to the Parliament building... As the protesters tried to march to Parliament when were blocked and then surrounded by a second crowd of Afghan men who threatened to overwhelm police. Banners were torn to the ground, women were spat on and stones were thrown.

'I am not afraid. Women have always been oppressed throughout history,' Zara, an 18-year-old student from Kabul told The Times, as men in the crowd surrounding her jostled and screamed abuse. 'This law is against the dignity of women and all the international community opposes it. The US President calls it abhorrent. Don't you see that actually we are the majority?'...

The Age [AU]: Malalai Joya's own battle is against the warlords who, she says, are running the country. These men are former commanders of the various Islamist groups, together known as the mujahideen, who fought and defeated the Soviet Union and communist Afghan government in the 1980s. Soon after coming to power, these groups turned on each other, waging a brutal civil war in which thousands of people were killed, thousands of women and girls raped, and millions were made refugees. The bloodshed only stopped when the Taliban took over.

'Today, because there is no strong central government, Afghanistan is carved up between these same warlords, who have now filled the shoes of the Taliban,' Joya says. 'Afghanistan is once again in the hands of rapists, murderers and extremists.'...

She claims that although liberating women was one of the moral arguments for invading Afghanistan in 2001, the situation for women has continued to deteriorate. 'Ninety per cent of women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic violence, 80 per cent of marriages are forced, and the average life expectancy for women is 44 years.'...

Despite the pressure brought to bear by the world community and while acknowledging the contribution of international forces in Afghanistan, Joya believes the US and other foreign powers are making a mockery of democracy and the liberation of Afghan women by empowering the warlords and fundamentalists...

Although she believes her days are numbered, Joya is not fearful for the future. 'I am not frightened because we will all die one day. What matters is that we fight despite the risk and we sacrifice despite the cost. Only then can we succeed.'
Image sources here and here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

'I'm at a loss for what it means to win'

Toronto Star: The sister of a prominent women's rights activist shot dead by suspected Taliban militants in Afghanistan said she has given up hope for her tortured homeland and other Canadians should too. 'The Canadian troops are dying the same way my sister sacrificed herself,' Mawena Maiwand, 55, said from her Markham home last night. 'They should come out of Afghanistan because all the good people who are trying to do something there are dying away.'

Mental toll on soldiers skyrockets
Toronto Star: More than one in five Canadian soldiers and police officers deployed to Afghanistan leave the force with post-traumatic stress or other psychiatric problems, and that figure is rapidly rising. By the end of last month, the number of soldiers and police officers discharged from the military and RCMP for psychological strain after tours in Afghanistan had reached 1,053, representing an increase of more than 50 per cent from 2008... None of the mental health staff on the tour was trained in addiction counselling -- a clear problem given that some troubled soldiers mask their problem with alcohol and drugs.

Irshad Manji, The Globe and Mail: I'm increasingly convinced that Afghanistan's problem lies deeper than a recalcitrant Taliban or a gutless government. It's a problem so profound that for the first time I have to ask: Should our troops just get out? Make no mistake, I'm a fighter to my fired-up core. Challenged about the West's presence in Afghanistan by numerous audiences, I've been crystal clear about why humanitarian intervention deserves support... But now I must ask: Exactly what are our soldiers falling for?... I've got a sinking feeling that our troops can't adequately help the good people of Afghanistan. Soldiers can restore stability, but when stability means cyclical violence, I'm at a loss for what it means to win.

Truthdig: Pentagon whistle-blower Karen Kwiatowski takes stock of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she says are effectively 'a government jobs program for the military and military contractors.'
Image: 'Futility,' by Melanie Ray; source here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wasted light, no stars

Astronomers battle 
light pollution
Rob Klovance,
If you're thinking that an astronomer's battle against light pollution is just a tad self-serving, think again -- wasted energy, wasted money, dangerous glare for drivers and detrimental effects on wildlife, including birds and fish.

'I think most of us are very keenly aware of the fact that we're using up energy, and that there's a cost to it,' says John McDonald, fresh off a trip to Costa Rica in which he shot a mind-blowing time-lapse video of the sky throughout the night. 'And the amount of energy that is wasted in lighting up the bottoms of clouds and sending light off into space to do nothing is a considerable expense.' ...

There are three types of light pollution:
* Light trespass, which occurs when light crosses property lines. Poor outdoor lighting shines onto neighbours' properties and into bedroom windows, reducing privacy, hindering sleep...
* Glare, which comes from an overly bright source of light compared to background lighting levels. Glare is light that beams directly from a lamp into your eye. It serves no purpose and hampers the vision or pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. If you can see the bright lamp from a distance, it's a bad light. With a good light, you see lit ground instead...
* Sky glow, which spills upward from urbanized areas and blocks the view of the stars.

Reducing light pollution has a variety of benefits, including energy savings and helping eliminate light exposure that disrupts sleep cycles, causes fatigue and strains the immune system. What we can do to help.

The Sky Tonight (over Vancouver)
Image: Detail of a photo of the Pelican Nebula taken by John McDonald through a telescope at Astronomy Hill near Victoria in 2007. (W.J. McDonald photo)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

'It can simply be part of you'

Is a high IQ a burden as much as a blessing?

Sam Knight, Financial Times: Marilyn vos Savant -- the surname is real, it was her mother's maiden name -- has had a unique claim to fame since the mid 1980s. It was then, almost 30 years after she took a test as a schoolgirl in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, that her IQ came to light. In 1985, Guinness World Records accepted that she had answered every question correctly on an adult Stanford-Binet IQ test at the age of 10, a result that gave her a corresponding mental age of 22 years and 11 months, and an unearthly IQ of 228...

'High cognitive ability is very often a mixed blessing,' [says] Patrick O'Shea, president of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry (ISPE). Too wide a deviation from the mean IQ of 100 brings with it an inherent isolation. 'If you have an IQ of 160 or higher, you're probably able to connect well with less than 1 per cent of the population.' Among the 600 or so members of the ISPE, whose IQs are all around 150 or higher, O'Shea described a 'common experience of being socially marginalised,' and the challenge of finding suitable outlets for their gifts...

There is only one question that seems the wrong thing to ask Savant, and that is what else she is supposed to have done with her life, with her glimmering brain. To ask it is to miss the point. I told her when we met that I had always imagined intelligence to be nothing more than a tool. On that foggy afternoon, before we said goodbye, she wanted to correct me. 'I suppose it could be and it should be,' she said. 'But it also seems to be an attribute or a quality or an aspect of one's humanity that one need not use to get something that you want... It can simply be part of you. And I think that's fine too.'
Image source here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Two states, or one?

One-State Supporters Make a Comeback
Helena Cobban, IPS: President Barack Obama has spoken out forcefully in favour of building an independent Palestinian state alongside a still robust Israel. However, many Palestinians have noted that President George W. Bush also, in recent years, expressed a commitment to Palestinian statehood. But, they note, Bush never took the actions necessary to achieve such a state -- and neither, until now, has Obama.

Meanwhile, the US government continues to give very generous support to Israel -- where successive governments have built Jewish-only colonies in the occupied West Bank and taken other actions that make a viable Palestinian state increasingly hard to achieve.

Many Palestinians and some important voices in what remains of Israel's now-battered peace camp have concluded that it is now impossible to win the 'two-state solution' envisaged by Bush and Obama. This has led to the re-emergence in both communities of an old idea: that of a single bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, in which both Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis and Arabic-speaking Palestinians would have equal rights as citizens, and find themselves equally at home...

New energy for leadership is now emerging between two other key groups of Palestinians: those in the diaspora, and those who are citizens of Israel. The contribution those groups can make to nationwide organising has been considerably strengthened by new technologies -- and crucially, neither of them has much interest in a two-state outcome... Discussions about the nature of a one-state outcome -- and how to achieve it -- have become more frequent, and much richer in intellectual content.

Roger Cohen, The New York Times: Pressure on President Obama to recast the failed American approach to Israel-Palestine is building from senior officials whose counsel he respects... The four core proposals of that the authors call 'a last chance for a two-state Israel-Palestine agreement.' Taken together, they constitute the start of an essential rebalancing of America's Bush-era Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

The first is clear US endorsement of a two-state solution based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor, reciprocal, agreed land swaps where necessary. That means removing all West Bank settlements except in some heavily populated areas abutting Jerusalem -- and, of course, halting the unacceptable ongoing construction of new ones.

The second is establishing Jerusalem as home to the Israeli and Palestinian capitals. Jewish neighborhoods would be under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, with special arrangements for the Old City providing unimpeded access to holy sites for all communities.

The third is major financial compensation and resettlement assistance in a Palestinian state for refugees, coupled with some formal Israeli acknowledgment of responsibility for the problem, but no generalized right of return.

The fourth is the creation of an American-led, UN-mandated multinational force for a transition period of up to 15 years leading to full Palestinian control of their security.
Image source here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Canada on Top in Sex Ed

Rise in US teen pregnancies proves information beats abstinence.

Vanessa Richmond, The Tyee: New US government stats reveal that teen births are up for the second year in a row. But when Bill Maher, on his show Real Time... asked his guest panel why that might be the case, or what could be done about it, the trio became suddenly mute...

All they had to do was ask a Canadian. Despite Canadian and American women aged 15 to 44 declaring that they want the same number of kids (about 2.2), American women end up having 2.09 and Canadian women have about 1.6, and 30 per cent of that difference is due to teen births in the US, almost 90 per cent of which are unwanted...

According to StatsCan's comparative study of fertility trends in Canada and the US, no other industrialized country has juvenile birth rates as high as those observed in the United States. The birth rate of American teenage girls is more than double that in other industrialized countries, including Canada... And it's not due to a higher abortion rate in Canada. In fact, unwanted pregnancies and births are more frequent in the US, as is the use of abortion.

No, the main reason is that Canadian teens of all social classes get comprehensive information about contraception and about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. They get more sex ed in school, and can access high-school-based family planning counselling through the nurse. They can also always access universally free medical services, including visiting family doctor and special health clinics. And at all levels, there's a more positive attitude towards the pill, and either cheap or free prescriptions for it...

When adults treat teens as intelligent being capable of making informed decisions when armed with good information, then they do. That's backed not just by belief, but by actual numbers and science.
Image source here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

'Really intolerable consequences'

Experts: Earth Warming Faster; A Trigger for 'Dangerous' Change?

Reuters: Global warming is likely to overshoot a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) rise seen by the European Union and many developing nations as a trigger for 'dangerous' change, a Reuters poll of scientists showed on Tuesday.

Nine of 11 experts, who were among authors of the final summary by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 (IPCC), also said the evidence that mankind was to blame for climate change had grown stronger in the past two years...

Ten of 11 experts said it was at best 'unlikely' -- or less than a one-third chance -- that the world would manage to limit warming to a 2 degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels.

'Scientifically it can be done. But it's unlikely given the level of political will,' said Salemeel Huq at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. And David Karoly, of the University of Melbourne, said the world was 'very unlikely' to reach the goal.

'The concentration of long-lived greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already enough to cause warming of more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, and we are continuing to emit more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,' he said.

San Francisco Chronicle: Tinkering with Earth's climate to chill runaway global warming -- a radical idea once dismissed out of hand -- is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option, the president's new science adviser said...

That's because global warming is happening so rapidly, John Holdren told The Associated Press... His concern is that the United States and other nations won't slow global warming fast enough and that several 'tipping points' could be fast approaching. Once such milestones are reached... it increases chances of 'really intolerable consequences,' he said...

Holdren compared global warming to being 'in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog.' He and many experts believe that warming of a few degrees more could lead to disastrous drought conditions and food shortages in some regions, rising seas and more powerful coastal storms in others...

Those efforts are racing against three tipping points he cited: Earth could be as close as six years away from the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and that has the potential of altering the climate in unforeseen ways. Other elements that could dramatically speed up climate change include the release of frozen methane from thawing permafrost in Siberia, and more and bigger wildfires worldwide.
Image: A mountain is reflected in a bay that used to be covered by the Sheldon glacier on the Antarctic peninsula, January 14, 2009. The glacier has shrunk by about 2 km since 1989. (Reuters/Alister Doyle); source here.