Saturday, December 24, 2005


"The minister also revealed that the Israeli army might now begin to fire shells at populated areas of Gaza in response to an attack by rockets." (Israel plans Gaza 'aerial siege')

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Turning point

Walking to the bakery early this morning, I watched a yellow sun edge very slowly over the rooftops. It felt like the moment when the world turns. The Earth has reached the furthest point of its annual wobble and now starts to tilt the other way. Much of the northern winter is still ahead, but there will be ever more light.

May the coming months bring more awareness of the wonders of existence, from creatures like this spotted cuscus to the mind blowing potential of quantum computation in a universe that may be just one among

This blog will pretty much shut down until mid January (see travel plans here).

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


"For Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his allies, it is their experience in the [1980-88 war with Iraq] with that defines their strategic outlook. Iraq’s indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and combatants has scarred the returning war veterans, making them suspicious of the motives of the international community that was largely indifferent to Iran’s plight.

...In the coming months, diplomats will debate and international organisations will issue their periodic rebukes and contemplate their sanctions. And, all along, Iran will inexorably edge closer to the nuclear threshold"

- Ray Takeyh: Diplomacy will not end Iran’s nuclear programme.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The sceptical climatologist

"The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment."

Betrand Russell quoted by Gavin Schmidt in How to be a real sceptic, a useful piece that's been needed for a while.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Voice of reason on ANWR

You know it makes sense (brought to you by the NAM). See also here.

Threefold tears

"Tears have three separate components. The innermost tear layer coats the surface of the cornea and is called the mucous layer, or mucin. The middle tear layer is an aqueous [coating] produced by the lachyrmal glands and supplies salt, proteins and other compounds to the cornea. The outer tear layer is composed of oil from the meibomian sebaceous glands in the eyelids. This helps to prevent evaporation of the watery tears from the surface of the eyes".

Joh Uys of Bellville, South Africa quoted in Does Anything Eat Wasps? (page 23)

King Yoweri's ghost

A finding against Uganda for plunder of Congo assets by the International Court (see here) is another body blow to the supposed legitimacy of Yoweri Museveni, who - along with Meles Zenawi - was supposed to be a pillar of the UK government's commission for Africa.


Barnaby Philip's third film for Newsnight (search "Prudence Radebe" audio video results on the Newsnight web site) on the struggle to get access to anti-retrovirals in South Africa (broadcast on 19 Dec) is an excellent piece of work. A useful note ahead of our forthcoming trip to Zambia.

Only about 85,000 out of South Africa's approximately five million HIV positive people can get the ARVs, which cost about £15 per person (not cheap, but affordable for a middle income country like RSA, even if you don't take into account the enormous benefits to the economy of bringing very large numbers of adults of working age back into the economically active population).

(another demonstration, as if it were needed that John le Carre and his film making successors, for all theirstory-telling skills, chose the wrong moment with The Constant Gardener. Big pharma is no longer the big villain, in this case at least) .

Evo el ganador

"Esta incorporación de sectores indígenas en el poder no había ocurrido en los 200 años de vida republicana y esto es un elemento de inflexión muy importante para el país" (Morales se decalara ganador).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Max Eastley on nature

"We sometimes think of nature as being slow, but we're missing it all the time. It's very, very fast" - Max Eastley (here and here).

Friday, December 16, 2005

Theater of empty talk

Paul Theroux being bilious, but not necessarily altogether wrong. He does leave out an important part of the puzzle by downplaying the deep impact of colonialism, whether in Ireland or Malawi, and the consequences that take so long to overcome (in Ireland's case successfully).

The big thing

Philip Roth being gloomy. Robert Winston being reasonable.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Wise rat, foolish human

"The experts’ trouble in [Philip] Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong. Tetlock describes an experiment that he witnessed thirty years ago in a Yale classroom. A rat was put in a T-shaped maze. Food was placed in either the right or the left transept of the T in a random sequence such that, over the long run, the food was on the left sixty per cent of the time and on the right forty per cent. Neither the students nor (needless to say) the rat was told these frequencies. The students were asked to predict on which side of the T the food would appear each time. The rat eventually figured out that the food was on the left side more often than the right, and it therefore nearly always went to the left, scoring roughly sixty per cent—D, but a passing grade. The students looked for patterns of left-right placement, and ended up scoring only fifty-two per cent, an F. The rat, having no reputation to begin with, was not embarrassed about being wrong two out of every five tries. But Yale students, who do have reputations, searched for a hidden order in the sequence. They couldn’t deal with forty-per-cent error, so they ended up with almost fifty-per-cent error".

Louis Menand: Everybody's an Expert , a review of Tetlock's Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (New Yorker, 5 Dec), which should be read in full.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


"The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. 'Balanced' is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers".

Ken Silverstein of the Los Angeles Times quoted by Michael Massing in The Press: The Enemy Within.

(see also The False Objectivity of Balance, which I was glad to quote in public discussion at IMES)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Cui bono...

...the assassination of Gibran Tueni?

A tree of light

This afternoon in the University Park, Oxford

"Present at the disintegration"

"optimism is misguided, for none of the problems associated with Iraq's monumental change have been sorted out. Worse, profound tensions and contradictions have been enshrined in the Constitution of the new Iraq, and they threaten the very existence of the state".

Kanan Makiya, 11 Dec

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Iraqi liberation?

The press release issued today Oxford Research Group's report of this title contains a call, among other things, for “build[ing] legitimacy in the Iraqi political process” post election by:

Reach[ing] agreement among the communities on key constitutional provisions, in particular on the equitable distribution of future oil reserves, and establish a genuinely inclusive political process enabling a negotiated end to the nationalist insurgency.

But if the analysis in Crude Designs from Platform et al is correct then something that will appear to Iraqi eyes to be the equitable allocation of future oil revenues may prove especially hard. According to this study, at least 64% of the country's oil reserves have already been allocated for development by multinational (US and British) oil companies.

(see also The Washington Post's Iraq and Consequences: six specialists say what to expect if U.S. forces leave or stay in Iraq, and It takes a Potemkin village from Frank Rich in the NYT.)

"A more recognisable, muddled human being"

Richard Mabey.


I have found Carl Hiassen's recent books to be same-y, but on the evidence of Frank Cottrell Boyce's review, Flush looks worthwhile.

"The single worst idea in history"

What do you think is the single worst idea in history?

Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.

But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.

I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.

(from What's the big idea?, an interview with Peter Watson)

Friday, December 09, 2005


Isabel Hilton’s interview for openDemocracy with Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon papers (published 7 Dec) contains much that is interesting. I guess few people will listen to it as it takes the best part of an hour to do so. Further, the blurb on the web site undersells the content of the interview, and is carelessly written (for example, in the second quote the words “to be killed” are omitted after “any number of Americans”). A well cut and restructured transcript might attract more of the attention this exchange deserves. Here are quick comments:

  • The remark that Robert McNamara knows nothing about politics is amusing but not completely plausible. Ellsberg sniping at McNamara’s place in the sun in The Fog of War. More to the point in the current circumstances, President Johnson’s careful calculations as to the domestic political balance look different from the behaviour of the present Executive. “[President Bush] is more determined that ever to say the course…He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances' ”, Seymour Hersh reports a senior defence official as saying (Up in the Air, New Yorker, cover date 5 Dec).
  • Six hundred million dead in Russia, China and Eastern Europe as a result of nuclear attack in the early 1960s would have been quite a party. Ellsberg does not mention the likely level of casualties in the US, although his reference to the Russian determination to totally anihilate Germany in the event of war is notable. His comments make a useful complement to McNamara’s ninety million or so American deaths – a price which (according to McNamara) Fidel Castro would have been glad to inflict along with the eradication of his own country in 1961 just to make a point.
  • The proposition that the US does not plan to get out of Iraq until the oil runs out – forty or years or more – may be about right. James Fallows was prescient to describe it as The Fifty-first State. But can it "work"? If Hersh is right, then plans to maintain control by US air power in support of a friendly Iraqi government’s ground forces could run into severe problems.
  • Philip Giraldi’s assertion in The American Conservative that Dick Cheney has ordered plans for a full scale air attack on Iran to be ready by June [05, presumably] would seem to accord with what I heard in Washington on 4 Nov 04 (see my 12 Nov 04 post War Gaming Iran in Grains of Sand Nov 04 archive). Among the notable things Ellsberg says here: “There probably is not one general or full colonel in the Pentagon who wants war with Iran. They are appalled but they are doing the plan, which is always the case”.
  • Ellsberg’s two key recommendations for averting an attack on Iran, which he considers extremely likely (if by the US only to avert the Israelis doing it first), should be more widely circulated and discussed. The first is that just a small handful of insiders need to leak key papers now in acts of Zivilcourage. The second is for European countries to put their airspace and air bases off limits for US forces preparing for and executing the attack. This doesn’t look likely at present. But if it is to happen then civil society groups in Europe need to start organising now, not a few months hence when it is likely to be too late.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lunch with Tariq Ramadan

Coming a little dazed off the plane from Singapore, I attended a lunchtime talk at Oxfam's headquarters with Tariq Ramadan. (Oxfam is increasingly working with Muslim NGOs of the kind described here by Ehsan Masood).

Ramadan said true respect meant being ready to pay attention to the full complexity of "the other" - and specifically the complexity of different Muslim interpretations and experiences as they are now playing out in Europe. This needed to be acknowledged by all of us alongside other European experiences, be they Christian, Jewish or indeed Buddhist.

He said there was a danger of a rising idiology of fear. He warned against the dangers of a victim mentality. He called for more education across European societies of the different memories and traditions of more recently established communities. And he stressed the importance of a critical mind.

He said much more that was all well and good, and -
given the perilous times we live in - worth repeating however platitudinous much of it may seem. (For something a little more challenging, see John Vinocur on The US model for Europe: Immigrant work ethic, NYT 5 Dec.)

But in my view Ramadan said at least one thing that was not all well and good. For Ramadan "Islam is not a culture"; it is a fundamental which is mediated through various cultural forms.

I put it to him that for people who define themselves as secular, Islam - like other religions - is, precisely, a product of historical contigency and culture. Where, I asked, would he put in his mental model the experience of those from a Muslim background who self-define as secular - as do, for example, some Brits of Pakistani ancestry that I know?

Ramadan's answer bore no relation to my question. (He talked of the importance of distinguishing cultural practices in some Muslim communities that are against women's rights from the true Islam).

My interim hunch is that Ramadan avoided the question because even to acknowledge it opens a crack in the foundation of his world view. He calls for universal recognition of the complexity of the experience of the other but - from the evidence of this encounter at least - dodges the most important developments in Europe over the last five hundred years or so from Copernicus through Voltaire, Kant and beyond: the move beyond reliance on revelation from spirits, gods and magical thinking to the exercise of reason (notwithstanding the catastrophes that result when reason is abused).

I'd be glad of further discussion.

And I wish Tariq Ramadan well and am open to honest and respectful encounters.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A viverrid?

After three days deep in rainforest on the Malaysian side of the central highlands of Borneo, I am now in transit in Singapore airport en route to London.

In Batang Ai national park I was one of the guests of WWF Malaysia and Sarawak Forestry. The chief technical officer for WWF's Borneo Programme alerted us to news that appears
here on the sighting of what may be a new species of mammal. The timing is fortuitous for WWF's campaign for a huge transboundary "Heart of Borneo" reserve.

The day before yesterday I was hiking high on a precipitous ridge in the forest not too far from where the discovery was made. A Mexican colleague and I were with biologists and local assistants surveying wild orang utans. We didn't see any of our primate brethren, but did count seventeen of their "nests" high in the canopy.

The local Iban people do not kill orang utans because they believe them to be descendents of their ancestors. This is, of course, literally true in a scientific sense.

We did see a tiny, very fast-moving squirrel that resembles our much more remote ancestors. Later when traveling upriver we saw two large eagle owls, and beautiful frogs in the rushing cascade of fast water over smooth ancient stone.