Thursday, January 31, 2008

Weapons of mass distraction

If you ask a child - or someone particularly untrustworthy - what they are hiding behind their back, they might show you one hand at a time, transferring the contraband from one to the other in between. I think the government did something like this over the notorious "uranium from Africa" claim.
from Chris Ames on Britain's WMD sleight of hand.


Views differ. Randeep Ramesh quotes Rudrangshu Mukherjee, one of those who say that Gandhi's ideas have been irrelevant to modern India:
India today has repudiated everything he stood for. He did not want industrialisation, he did not want a strong centralised state, he did not want violence or religious intolerance. Yet this is India today. He is at best an icon, respected but not relevant.
But Ramin Jahanbegloo is more positive (The modern Gandhi):
Gandhi was very conscious of the fact that the cultivation of an "enlarged pluralism" requires the creation of institutions and practices where the voice and perspective of everyone can be articulated, tested and transformed. This indeed is a vision of modernity, offering fruitful insights that may help us to confront the dilemmas of the new century: among them how to create a sense of global citizenship, how to turn inter-faith dialogue into a means of civic and moral self-understanding, and how to realise the potential of non-violence to heal a torn world. To reap the harvest of these ideas, we must sow the seeds - and the seeds are in Gandhi. In this respect, this moral and intellectual figure - sixty years after his death on 30 January 1948 - retains the disturbing capacity to unsettle fixed categories, shake inherited conceptual habits, and challenge us to see the world in a fresh light.


Americans snicker patronizingly as “democratic” Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, India and Argentina hand over power to a wife or child of a former leader. Yet I can’t find any example of even the most rinky-dink “democracy” confining power continuously for seven terms over 28 years to four people from two families. (And that’s not counting George H.W. Bush’s eight years as vice president.)
-- from Nicholas Kristof on The Dynastic Question.

People sometimes ask about the URL of this blog since '04. ("What's a Jebin?"). Kristof notes that Bush & Clinton Forever proposes Jeb Bush in 2017, Chelsea Clinton in 2025, Jeb Bush’s son George P. Bush in 2033 etc etc.
More than two for the price of one.

On Obama, read Collins and Raban.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Common pursuit

Jim Al-Khalili's articles in the Telegraph yesterday and Guardian today, pre-figuring his lecture at the Royal Society tonight, do a service to all of us in helping to increase awareness of a heritage of openness and inquiry under the Abassids. Where such intelligence and willingness to pay attention to evidence are present, hope is reinforced.

[Incidentally, it sounds as if al-Jahith (781-869) was as much/more proto-Lamarckian as/than proto-Darwinian: "Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival". But I should learn more.]


Jendayi Fraser says ethnic cleansing is taking place in Kenya. What name would her government give to population movements (the biggest in the middle East since 1948) along religious and ethnic lines in Iraq since 2003?

Not yet lost

Wajda said he wanted to reach "those moviegoers for whom it matters that we are a society, and not just an accidental crowd."
- from an anecdote related in Anne Applebaum's review of Katyn.

Anger, loathing and beards

P.S. 31 Jan: a review of Marc Sageman on Leaderless Jihad.

P.S. 19 Feb: Khan was sentenced to a minimum of 14 years in jail. The jury heard he had even indoctrinated his five-year-old son, teaching him to express his love of Osama Bin Laden and to call for the death of Bush and Blair. Khan talked of marrying off his three-year-old daughter to a terrorist and also referred to the July 7 suicide bombers as "brothers". (The Guardian)

Doing the right thing

The Australian government has announced it will issue its first formal apology to Aboriginal people when parliament resumes next month more.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Above the valley of Ellah

Maybe, sooner or later, American mainstream journalists in Iraq...will actually look up, notice those contrails in the skies, register those "precision" bombs and missiles landing, and consider whether it really is a ho-hum, no-news period when the U.S. Air Force looses 100,000 pounds of explosives on a farming district on the edge of Baghdad. Maybe artists will once again begin pouring their outrage over the very nature of air war into works of art, at least one of which will become iconic, and travel the world reminding us just what, almost five years later, the "liberation" of Iraq has really meant for Iraqis.
-- from Tom Engelhardt on Normalizing Air War from Guernica to Arab Jabour.

P.S. 31 Jan: Paul Rogers puts this in context (The Iraq Project):
The need to guarantee the security of a protectorate on the scale envisaged - and, more immediately, to avoid attacks on US ground-patrols - is already being met by a second and largely hidden military surge. . This one is airborne, and involves the expansion of US air-power in Iraq far beyond even the intensive pounding of insurgent-held areas around Baghdad.

Get them while they're young

Qianci, barely 2 months old, is probably the youngest political prisoner in China.

P.S. 1 Feb: Isabel Hilton says:
The real documents of China today will not be on display in the government sanctioned celebrations. For those, try Hu Jia's video postings of life under house arrest on YouTube.

Things that fit differently

In an interview with Peter Day (Global Biz 22 Jan), Paul Saffo said that one of the likely most significant developments of the next few years which many people were failing to recognise was the development of robotics. Will this include shape shifting robots?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Just playing

Craig Venter says fears about abuse of the capability to create synthetic life forms (reportedly advancing with the publication today of a paper about the construction of the DNA code of a common bacterium) are largely irrational and unfounded. (See, for example, his intervention in Life: What a Concept: "it's a very low threat that people like to use to scare people, but it's not a real one" [p. 32]).

But others do not share his optimism, especially when it comes to viruses (in 2001 Australian scientsts gave everyone a nasty surprise, and a synthetic virus was created in 2002). Martin Rees bets there will a million casualties from bioterror or bioerror between 2002 and 2020. And it's reported that Mike McConnell, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, thinks "there could be a time in the not distant future when teenagers can design biological components just as they do computer viruses today".

A sparrow's flight

Science reports an initiative to make the Anthropocene an 'official' geological term (strangely the report doesn't mention Paul Crutzen, who first suggested it).

But this could be the briefest of all geological eras given that the odds of humans getting through this century may not be better than even. What is Greek for the 'vanishing present'? Something vaguely like, er, the Ekaphanizontaiotigmene? (from εξαφανιζονται + στιγμη)?

OK, maybe we'd better stick with Anthropocene.

P.S. 31 Jan: Mother Jones Blue Marble blog rocks it (thanks DP).

P.P.S. Catherine Brahic blogged it here on 24 Jan.

Parlez-vous gorille?

A first lesson in gorilla here.

Back story here and here.

image from Beautiful Rwanda

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cursing the darkness

I have been wondering if there could be a better name for those who willfully ignore evidence and reason on climate change than 'climate deniers' or 'climate sceptics' ('skeptics' in modern U.S. and 18th century British English).

'Sceptic' is misleading because these people are seldom interested in reasoned scepticism but rather pursue an ideological agenda against the facts (see, for example, these two identified by Philip Pullman or this story about a hoax). And 'denial(ist)', while sometimes accurate, neither always fully captures what is going nor has the feel of a rollicking good insult.

Elizabethan curses and army and navy swearing may be one place to look. Yiddish and other cultures have some great terms of abuse too. I quite like 'mooncusser', an old Yankee term for wrecker. It's colourful, and germane because these bastards used to curse the light of nature and lead people to destruction for fun and profit. (And I'm sure they had a self-story about how what they were doing was justified.)

If you have suggestion for a better label for these shysters please post a comment. Or should we just stick with the terms we have?

Perdition on these mewling toad-spotted carbuncles.

Good name for a band?

"The Pirates of Compassion" - Paul Watson

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What's good for business is good for Bangladesh

Good news! Climate change increases trade!:
One unexpected consequence of the rising water levels in Bangladesh is that river erosion has reduced the number of operable ferry berths, so men wait longer to cross, which in turn increases the demand for prostitution.
-- from a FOOC piece by Claudia Hammond.

Non stop worrying

I have been having second or third thoughts about the inclusion of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in a short list of works of literature that speak to fears and imagining regarding climate change (see Climate, culture and imagination, part one, and its footnote number 23). Couldn't almost any dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel have a place on that list?

So I was comforted to read that I may not be any more short-sighted and paranoid-delusional than some of the brightest minds to have recently led the Dutch, French, German, U.K. and U.S military. They say pre-emptive strikes with nuclear weapons should be part of future NATO doctrine in "an increasingly brutal world", where climate change (and energy security, a contest for resources and potential "environmental" migration on a mass scale) is one of the three "key threats to Western way of life" (the other two being "dark side" of globalisation, and the weakening of the nation state and existing international institutions).

Vital bodily fluids, Mandrake!

P.S. "I believe nuclear weapons will be used in my children's lifetime" writes U.S. diplomat Bob Barry.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Saudi boom

One of the most noticeable illustrations of the industrialization push is a build six new cities throughout the country — including the King Abdullah Economic City on the western coast, near the city of Rabigh; the Knowledge Economic City, near Medina; and the Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, in the north.

...these cities together will have four times the geographical area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to Singapore’s. Other plans include building four refineries, two petrochemical plants and a modern graduate-level university with an endowment of $10 billion.
-- from The Construction Site Called Saudi Arabia

Over the Hill

Kristof speaks out on the experience issue. Why is it that Hillary fails to dazzle at least five of the most read columnists (Brooks, Dowd, Rich, Kristof and Krugman) in her home town paper?

P.S. 25 Jan: but the NYT editorial board endorses Hill (see also Gail Collins and George Packer).

Chelsea in '16!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

It makes ze vorld go round

The average life expectancy in the poorest countries at the end of the twentieth century was fifteen years longer than the average life expectancy in the richest country in the world — Britain — at the start of that century.
-- claims Peter Saunders in Why Capitalism is Good for the Soul. He argues that "while capitalism may not be a sufficient condition of human freedom, it is almost certainly a necessary one", and "recognising that consumption does not always bring contentment does not mean we have to give up on capitalism."

Some things to mull over here, but the essay has important gaps, and one might want a copy of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, Stiglitz on globalization, Mike Davis on slums and much else to hand as well.

P.S. A quick search seems to raise some questions with regard to Saunders's claims about life expectancy. According to one source, UK life expectancy in 1900 (both sexes) was 49.2 (table 12A here). A BBC report from Sierra Leone in 2000 put the figure there at 25.9 years. The CIA factbook for 2007 gives, for example, 49.21 for Burkina Faso 53.29 for Congo and 42.98 for Malawi.

At war

I find myself at the age of 60 quite unexpectedly rich. My mind boggles, because I've been very poor most of my life. My childhood was formed during the austerity years after the war. So I still feel influenced by that. Curious, isn't it, how we were much healthier as a nation after the war when the rationing was on?

In a sense it was easier then because everybody knew there was a war on; you didn't get people like Melanie Phillips or Dominic Lawson saying: "War? Of course there isn't a war. It's just a conspiracy to get money out of us. All the scientific evidence is forged. Real scientists know there isn't any such thing as a war."
-- from Philip Pullman being interviewed on the challenge of climate change for an affluent society.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Remembering Dink

One year on, "his blood can only be washed away by justice", said Rakel Dink according to a BBC report. Some background at Blog de Turquía.

P.S. 23 Jan: In What Hrant left behind Ece Temelkuran paints as dark a picture of the Turkish future as the foreboding I heard directly from (XX) of (YY) publication in Istanbul before Dink was murdered.

Neutralising the ghetto

Without compromise, without concessions and without mercy
-- Ehud Olmert on Israeli military operations in Gaza.

P.S. 20 Jan: With the Gaza economy crushed by embargo -- grave diggers using bathroom tile grout because they have no more cement, and almost all jobs destroyed -- the creation of a terrorist-free greater Israel, as imagined by Avigdor Lieberman & co, is surely a step closer.

Son of Borat

Pro-Street Romania is quite funny

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tongues in trees, books in running brooks

If [Chomsky] is wrong, it shows that the human ability to communicate is not reducible to the kind of "mathematical" system that [he] envisions. It means that language is something we gain by interacting with our fellow human beings, people who share our culture with us. I'm claiming that culture shapes grammar, that it can even affect the nature of what Chomsky called "core grammar" - the part of grammar that's supposed to be innate. If it's innate, it can't be affected by culture. I say it can.
-- Daniel Everett in Out on a limb over language, New Scientist, 19 Jan 2008.
Take, for example, the phrase in the Montagnais language, Hipiskapigoka iagusit. In a 1729 dictionary, this was translated as "the magician/sorceror sings a sick man". According to Alan Ford, an expert in the Algonquian languages...this deeply distorts the nature of the thinking processes of the Montagnais people, for the translator had tried to transform a verb-based concept into a European language dominated by nouns and object categories. Rather than there being a medicine person who is doing something to a sick patient, there is an activity of singing, a process. In this world view, songs are alive, singing is going on, and within the process is a medicine person and a sick man.
-- from Is there a language problem with quantum physics? by David Peat, New Scientist 5 Jan 2008.
There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."
-- from Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges (1940)

Making Nothing Happen

I'm taking part in the London Word Festival, joining Melanie Challenger and Mario Petrucci for an event titled Making Nothing Happen on leap year's day. I may read something from The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

[How did this happen? Tom Chivers of penned in the margins said he'd been reading this blog, having seen Climate Change, Imagination and Culture via a link at CRASSH.]

Watch out, goyim

We can reach with a rocket engine to every point in the world.
-- Isaac Ben-Israel after the test flight of Jericho 3, an advanced version of the Jericho missiles already capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

P.S. 11am: Meanwhile, Gazans are "digging up roads because there [is] no cement for making graves" according to a UN official reported by the BBC. Hammas "has launched over 100 [home-made] rockets into Israel in recent days.

P.P.S. 'As we used to sing in the good old days of Golda Meir: "The whole world is against us / That is an old melody / …And everybody who is against us / Let him go to hell…" At the time, one of the army entertainment teams even turned it into a folk dance.' - Uri Avnery on How they stole the bomb from us.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hearts and minds in Kandahar

Each day, hundreds of sick people visit the graves of more than 70 Arab and other foreign fighters and their family members who were killed in US bombing in the southern Afghan city [of Kandahar] in late 2001.

Soon after their burial, a cult developed around them and the graves became centres of pilgrimage for many in the area.

..."Several paralysed people have left the cemetery walking on their own two feet", says Sangeena, a Kandahar resident.
-- from Kandahar's cemetery of 'miracles'.

Less water, more rats

Dry, polluted, plagued by rats: the crisis in China's greatest river.

More books and more censorship too.

I am become death

David Thomson (America's pain inside) notes the commercial failure in the U.S. of films dealing explicitly with the Iraq war. That doesn't mean, he says, that American audiences have lost their taste for blood, witness whereto these three: No County for Old Men, There Will be Blood and Sweeney Todd. Thomson concludes:
It seems America is getting ready for a great interior violence. Don't think its civil war was ever settled.
Well maybe. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And the violence, if/when it comes, may not just be directed inwardly. As Jonathan Schell writes, the U.S. 2001 Nuclear Posture Review envisages:
a permanent new facility [for plutonium pit production]; a new facility for producing tritium, which boosts the yield of thermonuclear weapons; a new intercontinental ballistic missile, to be operational in...2018; a new strategic submarine and a new ballistic missile to go with it, for 2029; a new nuclear-capable bomber for 2040; [etc]...
In the words of Tom Cruise, "we are the authorities".

P.S. The Nuclear Threats Initiative circulates a freeview version of Toward a Nuclear Free World by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn (15 Jan 08). This follows A World Free of Nuclear Weapons by the same authors (4 Jan 07).

That Middle East Tour in Full

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Euro weenies and winners

...unsubstantiated prejudice masquerading as economic analysis is pervasive in the US business world....

There are indeed lessons that Europe can learn from the US, but...the statistics suggest that there would be much for Americans to learn from Europe, above all that the road to economic success does not entail widening inequality and impoverishing the working population.
-- from Ian Williams The world according to Wall Street

See too Ulrich Beck arguing that "a Europe based on the principles of cosmopolitan tolerance could form the template for a new global order".

And for U.S. perspectives see Pharyngula's I really don't understand Republicans and Paul Krugman on The Comeback Continent.

Of course Europe has plenty of problems, not least regarding the environment - e.g. fisheries. See NYT Empty Seas articles one and two.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fear eats the soul

Matt Dellinger: Why haven't we found Bin Laden?

Lawrence Wright: This is one of the questions I've asked many people in the intelligence community including [Mike] McConnell [the director of U.S. National Intelligence]. First of all, we know where he is. He's in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So we have found him in that sense. Beyond that, the truth is we haven't found him because we're not really looking. Even the Pakistanis are not really looking for him...For one thing, there are very important diplomatic considerations. If we went in to Pakistan, essentially invaded it, we might undermine what is already a very volatile country. Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. They have spread nuclear technology around the world before. The prospect of a radical Islamist group taking over a nuclear armed country paralyses the American policy community. It is to them a much greater problem than even Osama Bin Laden.

Matt Dellinger: It sounds like there is some ambivalence about what we would do with him.

Lawrence Wright: It's a fascinating dilemma because if you do catch kill him you make him a martyr. He would be more powerful in death than in life. But if you capture him and put him on trial you give him a forum for his views. The head of the FBI's intelligence division said to me: "what did we do when we got Saddam Hussein? Do we want to go through that with Osama Bin Laden?"

Matt Dellinger: So what's the next generation of dangers we face?

Lawrence Wright: It can be quite terrifying. Take the example of Chinese hackers. One NSA official told me there are forty thousand of them who are constantly trying to penetrate American networks...According to the Germans, last summer many German government computers were penetrated and they blame the Chinese Army. Similarly the Pentagon had to take fifteen hundred computers offline because they had been penetrated. It's a really significant problem. As this NSA official was telling me, "how many of these Chinese hackers speak English? Virtually all of them. How many of our guys speak Mandarin? Virtually none." So he says we should never get into a hacking war with the Chinese. As for other dangers, well one of the things McConnell worries about is weaponising some virus like the Avian flu, which could kill tens of millions maybe even hundreds of millions of people.

(This a rough transcript, not word for word, excerpted from What we know on The New Yorker web site)

Kirkuk to Haifa

From Kirkuk a double line takes the oil across the bed of the Tigris and the Euphrates to Hadithe, a distance of 156 miles. Thence the line forks, one great steel tube stretching out through Syria and the Lebanon to its northern terminus at Tripoli and the other crossing the rocky volcanic stretches of the Transjordan to Palestine and its southern terminal at Haifa.

Some 1,000 miles of its way lies through barren desert where roads were unknown and water non-existent for the greater part of the year. In the high deserts of Syria the track rises to 3,000 feet or more above sea-level while in other places it sinks over 200 feet below the level of the sea. For a hundred miles in the Transjordan the hard volcanic rock had to be blasted and drilled before a trench could be made to bury the great steel tube.
-- from King Ghazi opens pipeline an article which originally appeared in the Guardian on 15 Jan 1935.

Ghost heart, Boltzmann brain

The heart has 3 billion cells that beat in synchronization to pump more than 7,500 litres of blood each day through 100,000 miles of blood vessels.
News reports of the successful creation of a beating heart using substrate and new cells (e.g. here, here and here) communicate what needs to be said effectively enough, but miss something intriguing and complicated -- a kind of Cheshire cat in reverse -- with regard to the ghostly scaffold used in the experiment (as shown in the image above from Nature's news piece) .

Perhaps there is a connection to be made -- in a touchy-feely poetical non-space that might not be as useless as many people will immediately rush to say it is -- between this and debate about Boltzmann brains as described by Dennis Overbye (Big Brain Theory: Have Cosmologists Lost Theirs?):
Rather than simply going to black like “The Sopranos” conclusion, however, the cosmic horizon would glow, emitting a feeble spray of elementary particles and radiation, with a temperature of a fraction of a billionth of a degree, courtesy of quantum uncertainty. That radiation bath will be subject to random fluctuations just like Boltzmann’s eternal universe, however, and every once in a very long, long time, one of those fluctuations would be big enough to recreate the Big Bang. In the fullness of time this process could lead to the endless series of recurring universes.

Americanus eunt domus

Iran's Penal Code prescribes execution by stoning. It even dictates that the stones are large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the victim immediately. Article 102 of the Penal Code states that men should be buried up to their waists and women up to their breasts for the purpose of execution by stoning. Article 104 states, with reference to the penalty for adultery, that the stones used should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones.
-- from Amnesty International Iran: Death by Stoning, a Grotesque and Unacceptable Reality.

But we should always look on the bright side of life:

Monday, January 14, 2008

Credibility Gulf

The World Tonight (14 Jan) reports that George W. Bush's urging of Saudi and the Gulf states to confront Iran, along with his call for countries like Saudi Arabia to come over all democratic, has not impressed everyone. A comparison from 1964, perhaps:
the U.S. described the Chinese government of that time in terms very similar to those used later by George W. Bush to describe the 'axis [of evil]' governments. Soviet leaders, American observers were already saying, were ruthless but rational. They wanted to stay in power and stay alive, not die in a universal conflagration. They could be deterred. Mao Zedong was said to be different. He was a proven fanatic. He could not be counted on to make rational decisions...The choice for the American government, then as now, was between relying chiefly on diplomacy or chiefly on force. Johnson like every other president [since 1945] but the current one, chose diplomacy, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was born.
-- from The Seventh Decade.

P.S. 16 Jan:
Arab TV offered an uncomfortable juxtaposition: Al Arabiya running the wretched saga of Gaza children suffering from a lack of food and medicine during the Israeli blockade, blending into the wretched excess scenes of W. being festooned with rapper-level bling from royal hosts flush with gazillions from gouging us on oil
. -- from Maureen Dowd on Faith, Freedom and Bling in the Middle East.

No brainer

Waterboarding would be torture to me: U.S. spy chief

..."But he rejected a suggestion that he personally condemned the practice".

Ex Africa

Press reports that a million Africans migrants 'massing' in Libya plan to cross to Europe this spring (e.g.Libya key transit for UK-bound migrants) are likely to heighten concern but not on their own contribute to a sensible reaction. More analysis of causes (e.g. Surviving a desert 'nightmare' and Europe Takes Africa’s Fish, and Migrants Follow) is also helpful, but of course only a start.

Inclusive civil society, part 2

Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said: "This is all happening because Voice of Beslan is making every effort so that the investigation into the deaths of such a huge number of children and adults doesn't go quiet. That's why the might of the state, the court system and administrative methods are being used to battle against these unfortunate women who lost their children."
from Relatives of victims of Beslan siege go on trial.

('Part one" here)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Afghan fix

Why did things go so badly wrong? Most reasons come back to a lack of interest and courage at crucial moments. Perhaps the biggest error was the political decision to expand the international security force from Kabul through the relatively calm north and west first, leaving the crucial south east to rot for nearly five years. In late 2003 I interviewed starving peasants in a ward of Kandahar hospital. That there was still famine two years after Afghanistan had been invaded by the world's richest superpower was not just a disgrace, but plain dumb.
-- from No hope of victory soon in Afghanistan by Jason Burke, who says what is needed is "decades of expensive political, economic and military effort, without much to look forward to at the end". But that "with a bit of luck, in a generation or so, Afghanistan might just be as stable and developed as its neighbours".

King Leopold's cell phone

Umicore has roots in actual mining. In the late 1800s, during the reign of King Leopold II, the firm mined copper in the African Congo and shipped it to a riverside smelter near Antwerp. Today the same property houses a sprawling, state-of-the-art $2 billion smelter and refinery. Here, metals are recovered and processed. Then they are sold, sometimes to Asia, where they are used to manufacture brand-new electronics. It’s a reshuffling of the colonial arrangement: an abundant resource is sent from richer countries to poorer ones, made into goods, then sent back.
-- from Jon Mooallem on The Afterlife of Cellphones.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A very British coup, part 49,832

The UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, which manages the Aldermaston weapons site on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, is set to come under the control of US companies.
-- Atomic body set for US control, Financial Times, 10 Jan 2007
If we are unable to make bombs ourselves and have to rely entirely on the United States we shall sink to the rank of second-class nation, only permitted to supply auxiliary troops, like the native levies who were allowed small arms but not artillery.
-- Lord Cherwell, science adviser to Winston Churchill, quoted in Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945-52, and cited in The Seventh Decade.

Nailing Hillary

people... wished [to see] a tear into her stony reptilian eye, not [that] there actually was one. What caused her to get all mooshy was her mention of her own love of her country. Patriotism has once more proved a valuable last refuge for a scoundrel.
-- from Germaine Greer.
There was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.
-- from Maureen Dowd Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?.
the episode [showed] that Hillary Clinton is willing to sacrifice even her most cherished value -- children's welfare -- when she sees even the smallest political advantage in doing so.
-- from Clinton lobbied for tire burning near Granite State.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Deep unrest

A kind of agitation without shape is forming throughout the landscape as if some existential force is shaking each living thing from a short-lived torpor and freeing it to be itself.
-- from Paul Evans, who notes that daffodils have been in flower on Wenlock Edge since Christmas.

P.S. 4 Feb: Spring comes 'earlier than ever'.

TINA bullshxt

Clear and reasoned case for setting aside nuclear -- responding to We have no choice - the future must be nuclear.

[Private Eye (cover date 11 Jan) suggests joy at the UK government nuclear new build decision will be unconfined at EDF, a major builder of nuclear power stations whose UK head of media relations is Andrew Brown, "or as the prime minister calls him, Bruv!"]

An undeveloping country

In Kibombo he meets a stationmaster who diligently turns up for work every morning even though no train has reached the town in six years.
-- from Rory Maclean's review of Blood River by Tim Butcher.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The poetry of reality

Sometimes, from a skylight in the bedroom on the top floor of our house, I watch the grey-yellow-blue dawns of winter. The rising sun silhouettes tall trees next to the river about two hundred yards downstream from our house. This morning, our baby not yet awake, I stopped for a moment longer than usual to look at them. I have forgotten that glance until this moment at the end of the day when, with the relentless darkness all around, I come across the following passage in Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun:
The tree's purpose is the sky. Think of a beech tree in winter, its leaves lost, its architecture revealed in dark lines against the cold grey cloud. Do what Robin Hill used to urge his children to do to cultivate the artist’s eye – take away the trees established ‘common sense’ context by turning round, bending over and looking at it upside down through your legs. Its growth looks less like something pushed through the earth than it does something drawn from the sky...embodying something between desire and transubstantiation.

Reckonings and reticence

“It is too early to reassure that all will stabilize, and similarly there is no way to predict a catastrophic collapse,” [says] Eric Rignot [of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. “But things are definitely far more serious than anyone would have thought five years ago.”
-- from In Greenland, Ice and Instability.

P.S. 13 Jan: Antarctic ice loss speeding up:
[Eric Rignot, an ice sheet expert at the University of California at Irvine] agrees that the trend might not continue: the triggers and feedbacks of glacial flows are poorly understood, he notes. But he still thinks the IPCC has been overly cautious in not reporting the possibilities of ice loss, which he says could occur in the next century. “Each time I look at some new data, I am astonished.”

Kick off?

09:41 GMT: a report that Rockets from Lebanon hit Israel.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Earth's breath breadth

As noted, Simon Donner recommends wider circulation of a figure from Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification to help drive home some key points about changes in the earth system. Another useful figure may be one showing spring and autumn zero-crossing dates from Carbon cycle: Sources, sinks and seasons, a short by John B. Miller published in Nature:
If, as evidence suggests, rising temperatures are decreasing the efficiency of terrestrial carbon uptake in the Northern Hemisphere, then this cycle could be substantially altered. To make a slightly fanciful but still useful metaphor (which I first came across years ago in Tyler Volk's Gaia's Body, but which may well be much older) the "natural breathing" shown in the figure may become shallower and/or more erratic, like a patient in a critical condition.

Murderous and illegal

At age 85, I won't be around to witness the completion of the difficult rebuilding of our sorely damaged country, but I'd like to hold on long enough to see the healing begin.
-- from Why I Believe Bush Must Go by George McGovern.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Points of no return

I'm in the middle of Jonathan Schell's The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of the Nuclear Danger and, from what I've read so far, cannot recommend it too highly.

Starting with a key (a psycho-socio-historico-technological[!]) insight -- that nuclear weapons were "born into the world...propelled by a momentum that no one knew how to stop (Einstein called it the "ghostlike character" of its "apparently compulsory trend") because the bomb's momentum was "rooted in the structure of the modern scientific enterprise" -- everything I've read so far in this book repays careful attention.

But Schell may be wrong in a distinction he makes between nuclear weapons and climate change. Regarding the latter he writes:
The question, complex in practice but simple in principle, becomes whether the unpleasant initial consequences [of anthropogenic climate change] can inspire political action fast enough to head off utter calamity later on.
The problem here may prove to be that catastrophic changes are already locked into the earth system, and these cannot be headed off by action now in response to relatively minor effects we are seeing at present -- what should be the familiar stock and flow problem (see, e.g., here and here).

And on the bright side, we can imagine at least some scenarios in which limited nuclear exchanges lead to relatively co-ordinated and sensible responses -- more awareness of what David Hayes calls a “global we”, and less of the “trapped transition”.

[At this moment -- small, perhaps in the scheme of things, but remarkable for all that -- when real democracy has been manifest in a country where democracy seemed lost, there may a little hope, however transitory. (Eric Alterman, for example, raise his own hopes and those of some others when he writes: "nothing about...Obama's cool, almost non-partisan rhetoric...precludes his taking an extremely progressive direction as president.")]

P.S. 9 Jan: On being too late see Richard C. J. Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, quoted here: “a dramatic shocking surprising climate event that is unambiguously due to global warming may be the only thing that motivates people and governments. Maybe a big chunk of ice sheet destabilizing and producing a significant sudden sea level rise. Unfortunately, then it may be too late, because it’s essentially irreversible; you can’t cool the world enough to make the ice re-form quickly.”

Friday, January 04, 2008

Banana being

The Lesser Kiki by Sam Connelly, 13:
It attaches itself to a banana tree and waits for a human/animal to pluck and eat one of the bananas on its back. When this happens, the creature’s energy is drained away for the rest of the day and cannot move. And another two bananas grow on its back.
One of twenty images from here.


China's environmental degradation has accelerated, and its environmental sustainability index is near the bottom among the countries of the world, say Jianguo Liu and Jared Diamond:
Changing the development model requires changes in attitudes toward the environment. Many people still hope that the path followed by developed countries (pollute first, control later) will work for China, but that hope is risky because China suffers from two new disadvantages: Natural resources are more limited today, and fewer countries accept pollution transfers. Even if pollution can be controlled later, we foresee that many plant and animal species that provide essential ecosystem services to humans...will become extinct. Furthermore, environmental impacts on human health and socioeconomic well-being will be much greater, as China's population is now much larger than the populations of developed countries when they suffered severe air and water pollution.
Part of the good news, they say, is that:
Environmental awareness has been increasing among China's populace. The public demands the right to speak out about environmental issues and to be engaged in environmental actions
-- from Revolutionizing China's Environmental Protection.

See too China, coal, and the U.S. economy.

Broon's nukes

Significant issues were not consulted on in any meaningful way or resolved in practice. It has left the government vulnerable to legal challenge and may lead to hostility and mistrust of any future energy decision.
-- from the Nuclear Consultation Working Group Report, reported as Scientists take on Brown over nuclear plans.

See too Rupert Read at OurKingdom on Green milestones and nuclear millstones.

The ironic evangelical and hearts of stone

"A conservatism that pays attention to people making less than $50,000 a year is the only conservatism worth defending", writes David Brooks in an analysis of the Obama and Huckabee victories in Iowa.

This is Brooks at his more sensible (though I don't agree that John Edwards's political career is over because he says “corporate greed is killing your children’s future").

Bhutto's death 'good news'

A counterintuitive and literate analysis from Shashi Tharoor. But is it right?

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Simon Donner highlights a figure in a recent paper that uses a simple inversion of the 420,000 year record of temperature and CO2 plots from the Vostok ice cores. He says it "clearly demonstrates three crucial points about the planet's current situation":
1. There is warming in the pipeline, like it or not. Today lies far outside the cluster of data points from the Vostok core. Those points represent a rough historical relationship between temperature presuming the climate is at equilibrium. Right now, we are experiencing what climate modelers call the transient response to CO2 forcing. If CO2 concentrations froze now, global temperatures would continue to rise until the climate reached equilibrium.

2. That equilibrium point lies outside any experience the planet has had in the past 420,000 years, even without any future increase in greenhouse gas concentrations (as the current CO2 level is unprecedented). A further increase places the planet in an even farther outside the envelope of anything in the "recent" geological record, to use a geologists warped definition of the word recent.

3. Oceanic ecosystems - particularly coral reefs - that are sensitive to both the physical (temperature) conditions and the chemical (pCO2) conditions are already and will continue to experience a thermal and chemical environment not seen for hundreds of thousands of years.
Among recently reported findings that may point to yet further large-scale changes are: Trees absorbing less CO2 as world warms and Melting ice may not explain warming Arctic.

Deep-Fried Broonman Imp

British trains are twice as expensive as German ones, and four times more likely to be late...Our masters have never made much sense on transport, but recent events - skyrocketing fares plus technological paralysis - seem to bear out John Stuart Mill's line that nations that can't run their transport won't remain nations for much longer... It's time to have a system run by engineers, not by bankers and lawyers saving up for Caribbean yachts.
-- from Off the rails by Christopher Harvie.


Many analysts are surprised that liberal Dubai, with its high concentration of Western tourists, shoppers and expatriates, has so far escaped attack....

...[but] the area [which] many might find surprising, but which is alarming counter-terrorism officials, is Europe...

...Al-Qaeda's media arm, known as al-Sahab, has increased its annual output of audio and video messages from just 6 in 2002 to a record 94 in 2007, according to the US-based research institute, the IntelCenter
-- Frank Gardner on The global terror threat in 2008.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

'Cap and dividend'

A 'cap and dividend' proposal described by Peter Barnes, a founder of Working Assets, (Paying the Cost of Climate Control) seems to have similarities to Oliver Tickell's Kyoto2 and SuperKyoto. But it envisages a U.S. only frame rather than a global one.

P.S. 6 Jan: As Grist reports it, Obama puts the 100 percent auction idea into the mainstream.

Will there be blood?

Oil is now within reach of its historic inflation-adjusted high reached in April 1980 in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution when oil prices jumped to the equivalent of $102 a barrel in today’s money.
-- from Oil Hits $100 a Barrel for the First Time.

P.S. 3 Jan: FPTV on The Future of Oil, Dot Earth asks Is $100-a-Barrel Oil Good or Bad? and BBC reports Single trader behind oil record. And Jared Diamond writes:
Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.
P.S. 4 Jan Paul Krugman argues that oil at $100 a barrel is, in large part, a made-in-China phenomenon, and goes on from there to make some comparatively sensible suggestions.

Through a glass

'Three spheres' by Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey.

Dan was a good companion on the 2003 Voyage of 'The Noorderlicht', recorded in this Arctic diary, along with Max Eastley and the rest of the gang.