Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Beinart Agonistes

"...on Iraq, [The New Republic] was intellectually pro-war, but emotionally anti–anti-war". Michael Tomasky quoted by Chris Suellentrop who is summarising a debate as to whether liberal hawks are "secret neocons, or secret peaceniks".

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Earthquakes, lawsuits and fraud

The 27 May edition of New Scientist contains several things that can help towards intelligent thinking. Along with diversions on spiders smarter than monkeys, nano-solar and others issues, there are two useful pieces relating to climate change: Bill McGuire on links to earthquakes, volcanic erruptions and sea-floor landslides, and Jessica Marshall on lawsuits in the US.

As McGuire says, after the December 2004 tsunami some silly ideas went around about links to global warming (in this article I was careful to keep a distinction between the phenomena, but did suggest that there was a lesson in the tsunami for our response to climate change should we be ready to listen ["Human development may be shaped in less destructive ways that take more account of the nature of the world in which we find ourselves"]. The article has faults, but not this one).

McGuire reports, however, that could well be significant geological and related consequences to rapid climate change such as a contribution to large-scale methane release. This could be centuries away.

Jessica Marshall's article is as important for what it doesn't say as for what it does. America's attitude to global warming may ulimately be shaped by its highest court as by its politicians, she says; but that doesn't necessarily mean that good science will prevail. She quotes Richard Lazarus, a supreme court expert at Georgetown:
"The court is not going to say the scientists are right and EPA is wrong," Lazarus says. If the court does side with Massachusetts, it may well instruct the EPA to re-evaluate its regulations rather than compel it to curtail CO2 emissions. Still, sending the message that greenhouse gases deserve consideration as a pollutant would send a broader public message. "People will take it as the Supreme Court saying, 'EPA you're not taking global warming seriously enough.' "
The potential of climate change related law suits (noted in predictions for 2006 here) may be great, but is far from predictable. Some moves in the game are readily apparent. A good example is that the Bush administration has filed a brief backing the car makers case against a California law that requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Responses need to be well judged and timed. This is not the same as excessive diffidence. Paul Krugman is right to say that liars need to named and shamed.

Chapter 39

There's been some suprise that the anniversary of Magna Carta topped a poll as the day to celebrate Britishness. Among the reasons this may be a better choice than some others (assuming that such a thing, bound up with ideas of progressive nationalism, is a good idea at all) are those explored in Peter Linebaugh's remarkable 2003 essay The Secret History of the Magna Carta.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Emotions and media

A very familiar theme: how contemporary media, especially TV, most often corrupts emotional and moral connection to others - is well captured in a comment from San Nakji quoted by Ben Rooney in The Guardian:
Our local TV news website is leading with Brad and Angie's new baby... The 3000 deaths get third billing. Now that's messed up!
The same logic put Diana's death ahead of the drowning of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean und so weiter ad nauseam.

And yet, sometimes the news of the death of a single individual of whom you previously know nothing may bring a reader or viewer close to tears - as in the case of stabbing of Thomas Grant, aged 19 - and maybe that's OK.

Herissons sans frontiers

I picked a lousy day to try scything the grass in the small garden behind our house, but in between hail storms during the wettest May since 1773 I gave it a go.

I almost scythed straight into an extremely large but unseen frog. Fortunately, he or she hopped away just in time and hid in an uncut patch.

How did the frog get here? So many of the fences are pretty impenetrable. I understand the situation was different just a few years ago when the people who used to live a few doors down at number 6 (and now live round the corner) used to have hedgehogs coming through all the time. One used to come and sleep in the potato basket in their house.

How could we open up more small wildlife corridors and opportunities around here?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The music is life

Isabel Knowland tells how encounters with a group of musicians transformed the spirits of detainees at an immigration removal centre.

A radio report appears here from 29 May.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Swede-ness and light

Garbage in, garbage out, goes the old saying. In the light of that, a BBC survey of UK energy preferences reveals more wisdom in the public than amongst some specialists.

BBC respondent's ideal mix of energy generation technologies at least included 10% - 39bn kWh - of demand reduction, despite the fact that too many energy experts seldom stray beyond talk of a gap.

Those experts are debating whether Coca Cola or Sunny Delight is better for obesity. At least some of the public recognise we should reduce consumption of both and go for more walks as well.

The Swedish government is planning to radically reduce emissions and - supposedly - phase out oil dependence by 2020. At the same time, they say, they will phase out nuclear, which currently generates nearly half of electricity supply (more than twice the UK proportion). How? Through demand management. As has been well said, "energy is an infrastructure issue, not a commodity issue".

It won't be easy, but Sweden has a good track record in innovation, competitiveness and quality of life improvements. They are already better equipped to tackle the deeper political and cultural challenges necessary. More important, they're focussed and have a can-do attitude. I've written a short article about this for a forthcoming issue of Director magazine, which doesn't add up to much. Let's see some proper studies please!

(There are, of course, some very sensible energy specialists and experts in the UK. I'm not talking about them)

Barbi's playmates

In The Storm over the Israel Lobby Michael Massing identifies faults in Mersheimer and Walt (on which earlier comments are here and here) such as their confusion of Israel's citizenship laws with the right of return, and recalls Noam Chomsky's telling criticism (that their thesis could be used to serve the misguided notion that without the Israel Lobby US policy would be just fine). Most productively, he castigates them for an absence of first hand research:

"Mearsheimer and Walt provide little sense of how AIPAC and other lobbying groups work, how they seek to influence policy, and what people in government have to say about them. The authors seem to have concluded that in view of the sensitivity of the subject, few people would talk frankly about it. In fact, many people are fed up with the lobby and eager to explain why (though often not on the record)".
Massing then goes some way to make up for this fault with some first hand research and reporting on precisely who is involved (that includes the "Barbi" in the title of this post, wife of Larry Weinberg of AIPAC's "gang of four") and just how fast some congressmen/women and senators run to the whistle of money.

For example, "in the current election cycle, [Hillary Clinton] has received $80,000 in pro-Israel money—more than any other congressional candidate". It makes Tim Garton Ash's scenario in which it is president Hillary Clinton who launches the strike on Iran seem about right. One congressman, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Massing:

"We're so predictable, so supportive, so unquestioning, of Israel's actions that in the long run we've alienated much of the Arab world. We've passed any number of resolutions making it clear that we didn't want Clinton or Bush to put pressure on Israel with regard to settlements, or negotiations. If we passed a resolution that fully embraced the road map, it would make an enormous difference in the Arab world, and it would help undermine terrorists. But you would never get a measure like that through the international relations or appropriations committees. Congress would never pass a resolution that was in any way critical of anything Israel has done".
See also the letter by Betty McCollum.

Buried away in Massing's piece is are reference to
Tony Beilenson who suffered in his Los Angeles district because he had wanted to divert one percent of all US foreign aid—including aid to Israel—to help drought victims in sub-Saharan Africa. Israel, a rich country, gets around $500 per head in direct aid from the US. Sub-Saharan Africans get less than a dollar each.

Power, ignorance and stupidity

Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity - the Malinowski lecture by David Graeber at the LSE last night was stimulating, but left me wondering if it contained both more and less than met the ear.

Graeber is radical in the best senses and connotations of the word. Many of his insights -- on structural stupidity in Medicare, language and brutality in Madagascar and Adam Smith's acuity on how the poor may feel more sympathy for the rich than vica versa -- are tremendously fertile, and he's funny.

A good definition of intelligence, he said, was Piaget's: the ability to co-ordinate multiple perspectives. Bureaucracy tends to the opposite: infantile stupidity.

He said (I think!) that anthropologists may capture two percent of what goes on, in theorising simplify still further, but that this has use because it can produce ways of saying new [and valuable] things. He challenged, of course, the dangers of anthropology reinforcing an unjust status quo (Weber and Foucault -- sequentially the most formative influences on social sciences including anthropology in the US since WW2 -- were, he said, the only two intelligent people in history who believed that bureaucracy works; they contributed therefore to the training of functionaries for empire). The danger has been there since Evans-Pritchard, he said, and continues today.

On the way home, I stopped over to look at some new books, including a "pocket hedgehog" with quotes from Kant and other philosophers. The editors quote Jesus - typically cast as sensitive, intelligent sort of super being: "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me" (Luke 19, v. 27).

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jahanbegloo open letter

Writers, scholars and journalists from around the world call on the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to release Ramin Jahanbegloo.

Collective punishment

"We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death" Dov Wisglass quoted by Chris MacGreal

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Racoons in a bag

Al Gore must want to punch Hillary Clinton right through the hole in the ozone layer. At the National Press Club here yesterday, the New York senator finally took a passionate stand. After giving a courteous nod to her old rival Al as "a committed visionary on global warming," she purloined his issue and his revolution, going his Earth Tones in the Balance one better by wearing a blinding yellow pantsuit that looked as if it could provide solar power to all of Tennessee.
Maureen Dowd: Enter Ozone Woman (see comment for full text)

Eye on the prize

I've put my cards on the table in this post for the IOP. Just as I finished it, the 26 May edition of Private Eye comes through the door. Unfortunately, its cover -- showing cabinet backing for nuclear power -- is not up on their web site yet; but the magazine notes that "names and shames" many Labour MPs but almost no Tories and asks if this could be related to the fact that the JMG Foundation was created by Zak Goldsmith ( I think Alasdair Campbell has said he thought Goldsmith would cause David Cameron trouble in the long run; we'll see if that proves to be correct).

A useful read, I think, is The Battle for Power from the Sunday Herald, to which I link in the IOP post.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Freak warmth in Svalbard

More on the Arctic at describes a remarkable warming event in Svalbard this April:
"The April mean temperature is almost 5 standard deviations above the mean, a "5 sigma event" in statistical parlance. Under the assumption of stationary 'normal' statistics, such an event is considered astronomically improbable (less than 1 in a million), and, like the summer heat wave in Europe in 2003 (which was a 5 sigma event in Switzerland, 3 sigma over Europe as a whole), deserves special attention".
Did any of those -- scientists, artists or others - associated with projects such as Cape Farewell (see also here and here) have a presentiment of such an event?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

If any question why we died

"As chaos swept Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, the Pentagon began its effort to rebuild the Iraqi police with a mere dozen advisers. Overmatched from the start, one was sent to train a 4,000-officer unit to guard power plants and other utilities. A second to advise 500 commanders in Baghdad. Another to organize a border patrol for the entire country".
Misjudgements marred US plans for Iraqi police.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nine nuclear questions

John Vidal's questions Tony Blair's decision on nuclear power.


I've always liked this photo, and used to have a copy on the wall in my bathroom (some time, I think, before the 2002 date noted in the article on Russian demography with which it appears in today's NYT)

More to come?

As a friend suggested a few days ago, things not looking great in Turkey. The assassination of Judge Mustafa Birden will have consequences.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Henry's hopes

"...A more coherent forum for negotiation [with Iran] would combine the three European nations with the United States, China and Russia as the countries most directly affected and in the best position to act jointly in the Security Council. This could be set up after the passage of the Security Council resolution now under discussion. It would permit elaboration of the one hopeful scheme that has emerged in Iranian diplomacy. Put forward by Russia, it is to move certain enrichment operations out of Iran into Russia, thereby preventing clandestine weaponization. The new, broader forum could be used to establish an international enrichment program applicable to future nuclear technologies to curb the looming specter of unchecked proliferation".
-- Henry Kissinger: A Nuclear Test for Diplomacy

Monday, May 15, 2006

"The climate of poverty"

The climate of poverty: facts, fears and hope, a new report by John McGhie for Christian Aid, looks worthwhile, and I look foward to reading it. Some quick comments ahead of that:
  • The number 185 million (for those who could die in sub-Saharan Africa of diseases directly attributable to climate change) sounds impossibly precise.
  • It is said that the report strongly recommends small-scale solar power, estimating that an investment of $50bn could provide electricity to 500m people in this way. How will this sit with the point by Andrew Scott of Practical Action that "the right technologies are not necessarily new technologies"?
It would have been great to give advance notice of Christian Aid's work in a note printed with the interview with John Houghton. But it seems they didn't want anything going out before today.

Wise words

I wrote to Walt Patterson to notify him of the New Statesman supplement on UK energy and climate policy, and to express my gratitude for his inspirational thinking (which I came to quite late - in 1997/98 when writing about Transforming Electricity for the Financial Times).

He likes the supplement and refers to Climate means energy means infrastructure, which is absolutely worth reading (and which, rather predictably, was spiked by The Guardian).

In recent months Walt says he's found himself continually reciting, in speeches and writing, a sort of syllogism:
Climate is an energy issue.

Energy is an infrastructure issue (not a commodity issue).

Therefore climate is an infrastructure issue.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Potential Energy

My first contribution to the Insitute of Physics blog on nuclear power in the UK is now here.

An earlier trial post is here.

Botton down

"The Architecture of Happines is rather like a rubbery Starbucks cappuccino: it is 65 per cent shattering banality presented in a froth of Latinate pollysyllables"
- Rachel Aspden.

Heat and Light

Heat and Light - UK Energy Policy in Context is available with the 15 May edition of New Statesman from all good UK newsagents and bookshops. Buy your copy with full colour pictures and graphs now! The plain texts are also available in the online edition, which includes articles by Roger Harrabin and Angela Saini that do not appear in the print edition.

As you can read in the introductory editorial, one of the things I wanted to highlight in this supplement was the central importance of efficiency and demand management. The case is made in articles by Roger Levett (here and here) and Clive Bates (here - and further to his question "what if the energy supply market changed to making money from saving energy", see this).

The supplement was sponsored by Eon, Germany's largest gas and electric company (which also operates nuclear power plants in Germany). Eon owns Powergen in the UK and is battling to take control of Endesa, Spain's largest power company.

Eon owns 6.4% of Gazprom and has contracts with Russia until 2030.
Chief Executive Wulf Bernotat recently leapt to the defence of Gazprom, describing the debate about whether or not the Russian energy group would divert supplies away from Europe as "absolute nonsense"(FT, 2 May; see also Why Putin does not need to hire PR).

In its submission the Energy Review, Eon called on the British government to back a diverse mix of energy sources, including nuclear power. It also said the government should encourage new forms of power generation such as marine power and clean coal technology, as as well as giving tax breaks to energy efficiency households (FT, 4 April).

Eon's profits in its UK division were down 84% in the first quarter of this year, but the group said the unit would still earn more over the whole year than in 2005 (FT, 11 May).

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Darwin and the neocons

Robert Trivers, actually:
"This Iraq disaster is almost prototypical. Deceit and self-deception made a major contribution, illustrated primarily by the complete failure to plan rationally for the consequences of the invasion. We know that this war was concocted by a small number of people working in secrecy. The optimism, the failure to attend to reality and to take in alternative viewpoints, and the failure to plan rationally was self-deception entrained by deception."
From Peter Aldous's interview with Robert Trivers

Turkish paths

Over a superb Cretan meal, our friend was even more pessimistic and better informed than the author of this article from The Economist.

A marriage de raison with the EU looks less likely. Both Islamism and militant nationalism are on the rise. A bloody coup - with a hat tip to/from the US administration - is quite possible, he thinks.

An observation by Hugh and Nicole Pope looks as applicable as ever: "More important than its cultural flaws are the structural defects of Ataturk's republican state". What grounds for hope? Perhaps in the
sanity and huge decency of some Turks and their friends elsewhere.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The death of birth

Two out of every five species on the planet that have been assessed by scientists face extinction (New Scientist and IUCN).

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Israeli realism, US fantasy

"If a unified Iraq disappears, Iran will remain the only major Muslim state in the immediate region, with Syria a minor, if influential, actor. Hence it is in Israel's interest that the United States bring about regime change in Iran. Israelis know that such an effort could produce the same consequences as in Iraq, which could be to their advantage - although not to Washington's".
Like Tony Judt, William Pfaff's judgement is often good, but is he right to say that Israel's interests necessarily and always depend on the exercise of power in ways unwelcome to the Arab peoples?

PS - see also Ferment over the Israel Lobby by Philip Weiss

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Ramin Jahanbegloo

A source in Chicago reports that the most recent news about Ramin Jahanbegloo is that he is in the hospital wing of Evin prison. "This does not bode well, if you know anything about this notorious institution".

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Two writers in prison

"Briefly, he was appointed minister of culture, but Haile Selassie was deposed by Mengistu Hailemariam and, during the Red Terror in 1975, Tsegaye and the playwright Ayalneh Mulatu spent months together in a prison cell. Ayalneh, who remained friends with Tsegaye for the rest of his life, remembers a daily 11am roll call of men to be killed, and the day his own name came up. It was mispronounced, and Tsegaye seized on the mispronunciation to argue they had the wrong man, thus saving Ayalneh's life. They wrote poems and plays on the paper bags their food came in".
Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin
"If the dictatorship of General Suharto thought that 14 years' incarceration without trial would silence Pramoedya, they miscalculated badly. For it was during that time that this literary icon created the tetralogy of novels for which he is best known. Initially denied any writing materials, he composed This Earth of Mankind by repeating it over and over again to his fellow inmates. Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Broken Glass - the last two were written down following the relaxation of prison rules - completed the Buru quartet. 'Is it possible,' Pramoedya asked later, 'to take from a man his right to speak to himself?' "
Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Cordesman on Iraq

"No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The 'best case' is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008".
Cordesman thinks "there can be no real exit". For those without FT subscription see comment attached to this post.

(P.S. 9 May: Cordesman puts the case against splitting Iraq into three in the NYT)

60% return on capital

Nearly ten years too late, the Public Accounts Committee lays into one of the most egregious PFI deals - the one for the new Norwich and Norfolk hospital. How much was lost in subsequent deals, which will only look appalling by comparison? Octagon is unavailable for comment. Which other firms benefited?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Morales moves against Yanquis

...from Brazil:
Petrobras, the biggest investor, with over $1 billion invested in Bolivia, criticized the government's "unilateral attitude" and said it would take whatever steps necessary to "protect the rights of the company" and guarantee Brazil's supply of gas, half of which comes from Bolivia.
(Bolivia nationalises oil and gas sector) But how much leverage do the Brazilians have? They need the gas, and the market is tight.