Monday, October 31, 2005

Hanging Chad

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

Moral or normal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money makes

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

Western Sahara

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

Chomsky the massacre denier

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

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

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

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

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

'Like who?'

'Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy.'

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

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

Utanc and European civilisation

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

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

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The reward

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

Pants on fire

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

Friday, October 28, 2005

The beast is red

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

Great creating nature

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

Cold water on humbug?

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

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

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Schizo Journal

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

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

What it's like

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

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

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

Hormuz blues

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

Filthy dead meat

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Saddam on trial

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

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

George Packer - Saddam on Trial, 24 Oct

Two cheers for no democracy

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


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

Monday, October 24, 2005

If you think you've got problems...

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

Doctrine not changed since the 1840s

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

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

Well, yes, exactly.

(see also Leadership Failure, from Human Rights Watch)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Tien Shan, apples and bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Hope

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

Friday, October 21, 2005

Robber baron?

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Energy and capital in the UK

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

Grandchildren of the revolution

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

See also Shaul Bakhash.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"Strongest on record"

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

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


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

Famine and democracy in Africa

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

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

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

Two Lithuanians under a buddleia bush

Nick Davies on Britain's "new underclass".

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

British and Nigerian corruption

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2005

Friends like these

Football fatwa

This should rank alongside the Ayatollah Khomeini Book of Jokes.

Why not bomb them today?

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

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

Harford also notes:

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

The great confusion

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

Publish and be damned

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Apple pie

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

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

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

Magical thinking

"Didion has always juxtaposed the hardware and the soft: hummingbirds and the FBI; nightmares of infant death and the dawn light for a Pacific bomb test; disposable needles in a Snoopy wastebasket and the cost of a visa to leave Phnom Penh; four year olds in burning cars, rattlesnakes in playpens, earthquakes, tidle waves and Patty Hearst.

The daughter of conservative Republicans who...voted 'ardently' for Barry Goldwater in 1964 [describes] the abduction of American democracy by a permanent political class, an oligarchy consisting of not only the best candidates big money can buy, their focus groups, advance teams, donor bases, and consultants, but also the journalists who cover the prefab story, the pundit caste of smogball sermonizers, the spayed creatures of the talkshow ether, and aparatchiks in it for career advancement, agenda enhancement, a book contract, or a coup d'etat".

- John Leonard, The Black Album.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A brave woman

or foolish?


John Schellnhuber says twelve "tipping points" for climate change have been identified so far, according to this report. They are the Sahara desert; the Amazon rainforest; the stratospheric Ozone hole; the Greenland ice sheet; the Tibetan plateau; salinity valves ("pinch" points between adjacent seas); the North Atlantic current; El Nino; the West Antarctic ice sheet; methane clathrates; the South Asian monsoon; and the [Southern] circumpolar current.

Face-eating monkeys

"Ray Kurzweil's vision of the future strikes me as very sad. We will live forever, we will adopt new gadgets mere moments after they are invented, and we will have nanotech solar panels that are, well, really awesome.

You know what? I don't care. TV, cellphones, email, nanotech, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering: are any of us made happier by all this? I think the opposite is true - we are increasingly isolated, alienated and neurotic.

While we draw ever-closer to Kurzweil's singularity, the horrors of the world continue unabated, and Kurzweil seems to have next to nothing to say about that. His vision of the future is devoid of humanity, even as he insists that being human is defined by 'going beyond our limitations'. The tragic point that escapes him is that our most important limitations, the ones we really need to go beyond if we are ever really to be happy, have nothing whatsoever to do with technology".

Ben Haller, Menlo Park, California - Letter to New Scientist magazine, 15 October

"Hatred disfigures..."

"... It makes a stone of the heart, as WB Yeats wrote. Where it becomes a dominant element in a person’s political expression, it corrodes the ability to think, to make judgments, to connect to the true reality of things, to persuade. As a result, it cannot produce a serious, humane politics. This was part of Karl Kraus’s truth when he wrote: 'Hatred must make a person productive; otherwise, you might as well love'.

It is fortunate that Pinter’s profound dramas come from a different place than his shallow, vulgar and myopic political views. But insofar as his award will be celebrated for his politics as much as for his art, these two giant figures are closer than they know – trapped in a shrill, polarising language that does a disservice to democratic public discourse. This is not just Margaret Thatcher’s or Harold Pinter’s tragedy, but of many of their political opponents. In short, of modern Britain itself".

David Hayes on Harold Pinter and Margaret Thatcher.

David Harvey review

My review of A Brief History of Neoliberalism is here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

"Brazil is not for amateurs"

At a seminar yesterday Leslie Bethell, Director of Oxford's Centre for Brazilian Studies, offered an analysis of the nature and extent of Brazil's political crisis (see also Arthur Ituassu).

He thinks the what has happened under the PT is of a different order from previous scandals. The party still has a massive grass roots support base, but it has been significantly weakened, and a defeat for Lula in the presidential election of 2006 - once unthinkable - is a real possibility now that "he has lost the urban middle class irrevocably".

It would be great to see a version of Bethell's talk published and easily accessible.

A Brazilian analyst whose name I didn't catch said she feared a turn by Lula towards populism. Bethell agreed that "on some days" Lula was deeply impressed by Hugo Chavez and that this was "worrying", as was the murder of [name?] that some had linked to Lula's private secretary.

So much to get to grips with here. What else helps towards understanding of background, context and present? How about, for example, Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil?

March of folly?

"This week I had the opportunity to have a debate with one of the leaders of the [Gaza] settlers in front of an audience of high school students, aged 16 or 17. It was a rare opportunity, because the nationalist Ministry of Education generally uses its fearful power to prevent people like me from being invited to school debates. After a shower of the settler's demagogic phrases - 'Jewish blood', 'All Arabs are animals', 'Mahmoud Abbas is a bastard like Arafat', 'The Arabs understand only force' - I conveyed a simple message: Let's make peace while we are strong. Instead we are doing the opposite". Uri Avnery, Salaam or Salami, 8 Oct (thanks to Stephen Marks of Jews for Justice for Palestinians for refering to this).

Is this right? Israel only seems to be getting stronger, as - for example - Jonathan Freedland points out in The canny Sharon's one and threequarter state solution (12 Oct).

[P.S. Avnery told the pupils: "Listen carefully to what [the settler] says and ask yourself: what is he offering you - except kill and be killed, be killed and kill, from here to eternity"]

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sarowiwa living memorial

On 21 Oct Platform and others launch a season for Ken Saro-Wiwa ( Among the proposals for a Living Memorial is an idea from Frances Newman, Jeff Jackson and Knott Architects "to transplant flora of the Niger delta to the [London] petrol forecourts that are destroying it".

Monday, October 10, 2005

Globalisation's missing link

"Labour is globalisation's missing link. The flow of workers across borders is heavily impeded, leaving the global market for labour far more distorted than those for capital and commodities. The world price of capital may be set in America, and that of oil set in Saudi Arabia. But there is no such thing as a world price of labour. Wages can differ by a factor of ten or more depending only on the passport of the wage-earner, according to Dani Rodrik".

- from Be my guest, a useful piece in The Economist (6 Oct), which says the most consequential of 33 recommendations from Kofi Annan's Global Commission on International Migration is a call for more temporary migration from poor countries to rich ones.

Can it work? Reportedly, the Commission argues that the interests of rich and poor countries can be aligned. Rich countries want migrants' labour, but do not want to look after these newcomers when they grow old, never mind other political issues. 'Temporary and circular migration' is also better for poor countries because it brings more in remittances. "The longer an immigrant stays away from home, the smaller the share of his wages he sends back".

It sounds promising, in theory. Would Dani Rodrik's proposed limit - up to 3% of host country workforce - be about right? And would even the very best temporary migration schemes - assuming they're truly feasible - make sufficient or any difference to the pressures bringing people across the Sahara towards Europe?

The big melt

"All told, one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources lies in the Arctic, according to the United States Geological Survey" (As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound).

"Predictions vary from the catastrophic to the cataclysmic" (Earth - melting in the heat?) .

"If we don't do that, who will?"

I asked [Scott] Smith [president and publisher of the Chicago Tribune Company, which in 2004 had $5.7bn in revenues] how he responds to [newspaper] reporters who ask why a fifteen percent profit margin is not enough. He replied, "It's the equivalent of saying, 'I wrote a really good story yesterday, but that's the best I'll ever do'. Our premise is that we can improve". The question is: Improve the paper or the profits?

from Fault Line - Can the Los Angeles Times survive its owners? by Ken Auletta, The New Yorker, 10 October

"Former friends now drank each other's blood"

Temple Grandin’s thoughtful review suggests that Frans de Waal’s “Our Inner Ape” is worth careful study. And De Waal’s own comment We’re all Machiavellians is also instructive.

The more you look, the more similarities between humans and other apes there are.

But even – perhaps especially – ethologists and comparative psychologists should be cautious about making normative judgements about humanity.

The idea De Waal champions that humanity has “two inner apes” – the aggressive chimp and the peaceful bonobo – may well help us think about what’s going on, but only to a limited extent. Humans are neither chimps nor bonobos.

Similarly, Grandin’s conclusion that “De Waal's most hopeful message is that peaceful behavior can be learned” looks just great; but – strictly from the evidence cited – that conclusion can only be applied to juvenile rhesus and stumptail monkeys in the study.

There may well be evidence from historical, political, cultural and other studies of humans that peaceful behaviour can be learned, but one should be cautious about a “message” from even the most careful study of other animals.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Now that's xxxxxx up

[President Bush's] speech came one day after the White House threatened to veto a bill onto which the Senate added a ban on the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against prisoners of the American government. This president could not find the spine to veto a bloated transportation bill that included wildly wasteful projects like the now-famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. What kind of priorities does that suggest? (Doing the 9/11 Timewarp Again)

Beyond The Gate

Having, back in 1988-90, studied the nature of Saddam's regime, I was, in 2002 and early 2003, still in a grey area not too far from the fringes of what George Packer reportedly calls "the tiny, insignificant camp of ambivalently prowar liberals" (see That Global Emotion). So I’m looking forward to reading Packer’s new book The Assassin's Gate, noting the following reviews among other so far.

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (Grand Theories, Ignored Realities) welcomes it warmly and finishes with a direct quote with which Kakutani presumably agrees:

If his assessment in these pages of the Bush administration is scorching, it is because [Packer] writes as one who shared its hopes of seeing a functioning democracy established in Iraq and who now sees the chances of that happening dwindling in the wake of the administration's bungled handling of the war and occupation…

"Swaddled in abstract ideas," [Packer] writes, "convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, [the US administration] turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive."

Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun (Moral Luck and the Iraq War), welcomes it as the best book yet written on the war. He says it "demonstrates beyond a doubt the administration's failure to plan for the inevitable postwar occupation".

Michael Hirsch in the Washington Monthly (Confessions of a Humvee Liberal) is tougher on Packer, concluding:

Wars are always deadly, no matter how perfectly planned. That's why one tries so hard to avoid them—and why the whole idea of a "war of choice" is a sin in itself. George Packer, one of the very best chroniclers of America's Iraq experience, should know that better than almost anyone. If only he had told us.

David Glenn in the Columbia Journalism Review (Unfinished Wars) notes:

Packer remains as committed as ever to the principle of liberal interventionism, even if in a highly chastened form. "You can’t lose that impulse entirely," he says, "or else you become Henry Kissinger."

..."I took almost a pleasure in watching my preconceptions start to crumble,” [Packer] says. “I knew that, even though personally and politically that’s a painful thing, as a writer it’s where the action would be."

Anthony Barnett, who was against the war, says:

"Packer's qualities as a writer and observer mean that you can draw different conclusions from the evidence he reports than he himself might wish, and this makes him a true journalist in the very best sense" (personal communication).

And the larger context – the US and global economic and geopolitical context in which this all takes place? Perhaps that should include critiques of both John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience (insightful but misguided?) and David Harvey’s The New Imperialism and Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Dummer and umma

Al-Qaida’s current status as an apparently free-floating and stateless group, it must be recalled, is for Osama bin Laden and his cohorts very much a second best. Al-Qaida began life and long continued its operations with the support of states:

  • 1980s, phase one: activity in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States
  • 1990-96, phase two: work alongside the Islamist revolutionary regime in Sudan to export revolution to Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea
  • 1996-2001, phase three: operations from Afghanistan, as an ally of the Taliban government

Al-Qaida is a state-centred group in a further, highly important, sense: its goal is to take power in specific Islamic states and establish a new form of authoritarian government, a caliphate.

Fred Halliday: A transnational umma - reality or myth?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Le Grand Voyage

...looks interesting.

Who are these guys?

According to Paul Rogers (6 Oct), Iraqi insurgents have been described in at least five different ways by the US administration. First they were "dead enders", then "remnants", then "hired guns", then (reluctantly) "nationalists", then "foreign jihadists".

Both Rogers and Godfrey Hodgson (3 Oct) concur with my response to Mark Danner (11 Sep) that Iraq is too important for US forces to leave.

Rogers concludes, as you would expect, that a continued US presence in the region will be a fundamental strategic mistake:

"For those dedicated radicals who expect it to take several decades to establish their caliphate, the prospect of a few more years of opportunity to train and harden thousands of young jihadists is almost too good to be true. On current trends, it is also exactly what they are likely to get".

But will the US, British and Israeli governments up the ante - going as far as the use of nuclear weapons against Iran sooner rather than later? Or will they settle for a diminished sphere of influence, centred on a Kurdish entity (ideally in a pragmatic non-confrontational stance towards EU-looking Turkey) in uneasy co-habitation with a Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad that plays both (Iranian and Western) sides and does just enough to keep the Saudis onside? Will neither of these options be open?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Plastic and garbage earth

David Woodfall's "Car dump in prairies and Rocky Mountains, USA" is the image of the week from Still Pictures. It's reminder that this week or next sees the publication of Our Fragile World, an anti-coffee table co-effort for which I conceived and wrote the chapter texts, chose most of the 150 or so pictures (a good number from the Still Pictures archive) and wrote some of the captions.

The book looks really good, and I recommend it to anyone. Troth Wells and designer Ian Nixon have done a great job. Only two small quibbles. One, the use of "fragile" in the title. As James Lovelock (who calls the book "splendid") has frequently emphasized: "Nature is not fragile. We [humans] are". Two, the quote at the top from Chief Seattle is bogus. It was written by a screenwriter in the seventies.

One of the things that comes across in the book (in, for example, an image of a tree full of colourful plastic bags) and which David Woodfall's picture also shows is that there can be a kind of beauty in the ugliness humans create. Sometimes, as Charlie Devereux (currently working at openDemocracy) observed of fields of rubbish in Morocco, there can be an otherworldly fascination to it.

(note: "more
than 150 nature photographers from around the world are in Anchorage, Alaska, this week to discuss various conservational initiatives" as a side event at the eighth World Wilderness Congress).

Coral wonder

Today was the first time I looked at older editions of Charles Darwin's Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (first edition 1842, third edition 1889). The map showing the distribution of different kinds of coral reefs (atolls, barrier and fringing ) and their distance from active volcanoes illustrates his central thesis brilliantly. And the plates showing the resemblance in form between barrier coral reefs surrounding mountinous islands and those around atolls or lagoon islands are beautifully executed. You seldom see this quality of draftmanship in twentieth and twenty-first century work.

At the beginning of the book Darwin quotes Francois Pyrard de Laval from 1605: "C'est une merueille de voir chacun de ces atollons, enuironne d'un grand banc de pierre tout autour, n'y ayant point d'artifice humain".

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Soldiers and police...exchanged live fire across the main highway in Lagos, the country's largest city. Some 60 vehicles, including 20 police cars, were set ablaze during the clashes...Law enforcement throughout Lagos broke down for about five hours, as uniformed policemen deserted streets across the city for fear of being attacked (Nigerian troops clash with police).

Fund for Nadia

Flora Roberts and her colleagues have set up a fund to help a nineteen year old Afghan girl who is her family's primary breadwinner but suffers from terrible disfigurement.

Read the details here, and please make a donation.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

On thy belly shalt thou go

" is not an infant-mother, infant-father, or infant-family template per se from which God concepts extended, but a more encompassing evolutionary program for avoiding and tracking predators and prey. It is an innate module for detecting agency and intention, whether good or bad. Moreover, unlike the actual world of nature, in religion's counterfactual and counterintuitive worlds one and the same deity can have the dual role of predator and protector, or prey and protector. These may well be humankind's most popular deities...Worship of serpent deities and would-be destroyers is at least as prevalent as God the Father and mother goddesses". (Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust, chapter 3)

23% of Americans view storms like Katrina and Rita as "deliberate acts of God" (Washington Post, 2 Oct)

Nukes and nous

James Meek does a good job summarising questions about new nuclear build in the UK (Back to the future, 4 Oct). But his concluding paragraphs give too easy a ride to James Skillings, director of strategy and energy policy at E.ON UK. Meeks writes:

"One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.

'Somehow or other, we've got to find a commercial answer that makes us money and makes our customers' lives better by them consuming less energy', says Skillings. 'If I knew the answer, I could go away and collect my Nobel prize right now'."

As the analogy in the first of those two paragraphs hints, the challenge is not as hard as Skillings disingenously suggests. There is lots of useful work and experience out there to draw on, and this is where the government needs to focus as a basic national priority - a point I stressed in a short piece for the New Statesman's energy supplement published last week (noted at Blair and Kyoto).

Monday, October 03, 2005

You cannot be serious

British environmentalists could learn from their US counterparts who recommend humour as part of a package to sell a change of heart. With something as serious as, say, climate change, nothing less than big laughs will do. As Damien Cave reports in It's not sexy to be green (yet):

"...environmentalists need to be less preachy. Mark Katz, a humorist and former speech writer for President Bill Clinton, said Americans might be more willing to take up conservation if they could first laugh at their own consumption. His suggestion is a bumper sticker for S.U.V.'s that reads, 'My third car is a Prius,' a reference to Toyota's popular electric hybrid vehicle".

Being cool, not a cardigan-wearer, may help:

"According to advertising executives, environmentalists and cultural critics, conservation can become a movement large enough to influence world energy markets only if it becomes hip, fashionable, something that teenagers, chief executives and celebrities from New York to Dallas to Los Angeles can't help but do".

British celebrities associated with climate change campaigns are few and far between. The only one I can think of doesn't make me laugh. How about engaging someone like Mr Cool himself, Ricky Gervais? His recent spot for The Prostate Cancer Charity is a good, if squelchy, place to start.

Armenian skeletons, Balkan ghosts

"Moving the discussion of what happened to Armenians out of the realm of politics and back into history will certainly demolish some hallowed nationalist myths. We will learn how it came about that many hundreds of thousands of Armenian civilians were killed and who planned and carried out the crime. We will also learn more about the war during which those events took place and in particular about the part played by the great powers, especially Russia, and their plans to partition the empire. We may learn, too, more about the long-forgotten backdrop – the decades of Muslim dispossession from former Ottoman lands in Europe and the millions of refugees this generated. The end result will be less serviceable to the political concerns of this or that side, but far more beneficial to both Armenian historical memory and the vitality of Turkish intellectual life.

As important, it may offer a precedent for how to deal with the most neuralgic aspects of one’s past that not a few European countries could learn from. Democratisation and glasnost need not be a one-way street".

-Mark Mazower: Europe can learn from Turkey’s past, 2 Oct.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Gerin oil in Bali, sobriety in Jakarta

The blast in Bali which has killed at least 12 people will presumably have some people punching the air with joy, although not necessarily with as much ecstasy as Ali Ghuron, better known as Mukhlas, greeted the news that he was to be executed by firing squad for murdering 202 innocent holidaymakers whom he had never met.

But the bigger picture across Indonesia is not necessarily altogether bad. Among the things to watch will be the consequences of SBY's dramatic cuts in fuel subsidies, which will hugely improve the government's fiscal situation but, among other things, triple the price of kerosene, the primary cooking fuel the poor.

If - and it's a big if - the government can spend the substantial savings wisely, and the monthly
Rp100,000 (approx $9.50) payments to 15.6m poor families for the rest of this year actually work and are sufficient, then the reforms could contribute to better allocation of resources. But it's a high stakes game (see also Easing the Chocks, The Economist, 29 Sep).