Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bashir 'stronger'

Further to The ICC and Sudan, read about Bashir's charm offensive and see a film which suggests he may be stronger than ever. MEMRI reports that Britain and France have suggested demands for his arrest be postponed.

Clay-based food

"It stops the hunger," [says] Marie-Carmelle Baptiste, 35, a producer, eyeing up her stock laid out in rows. She did not embroider their appeal. "You eat them when you have to."
-- Rory Carroll reports from Cité Soleil. More photos.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Rocky Twyman, a community organiser from Maryland, leads group prayers at petrol stations to beg for divine intervention.
-- Workingman’s blues (The Economist, 24 July)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Can poetry be a war crime?

And we're not just talking because it's really really bad, as in Sarajevo, quoted by Ed Vulliamy in his profile of Radovan Karadzic:
I hear misfortune's threads
Turned into a beetle as if an old singer
Had been crushed by the silence and become a voice.
The town burns like incense
In the smoke rumbles our consciousness.
Rollo Romig notes that the poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic remembers watching Karadzic on the news at the height of the siege:
'Karadzic spouted such blatant lies that, in a rage, I found a book of his children’s poetry — There Are Miracles, There Are No Miracles — and began ripping it apart...'

[While] the lawyer Jay Surdukowski, argues that Karadzic’s poems could be submitted in court as evidence of war crimes
Martin Durkin of Great Global Warming Swindle infamy is something of a Karadzic mini-me in that he shares certain psychological traits, including the delusion that there is a conspiracy against him, the willingness to fabricate and perpetrate outrageous lies, and quickness to violent language.

P.S. 27 July: Alexander Hemon notes of the key Karadzic moment "The point of that performance...was the performance itself."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The oil price etc

In The World's Shifting Balance, a lucid investigation into the state of the global economy, Martin Wolf notes that oil prices are higher in inflation-adjusted terms than at any moment since the beginning of the 20th century. Why? One view comes from Charles Dumas, Chief Economist of Lombard Street Research:
DUMAS: One has to accept the existence of multiple causes when it comes to commodities. People are always trying to say it’s all speculation or it’s all China or it’s all peak oil or whatever. Truth is it’s quite a lot of these things put together. The price of oil is now twice what it was a year ago and what’s happened in the meantime is that the Western world economy has deteriorated sharply, as we all know. What has also happened is that the full overheated extent of the Chinese boom has become evident and that is probably a factor behind the oil price increase. But the fact is that the annual increase in Chinese oil demand is exactly half the annual reduction of US imports going on right now - so if you put the two together, bearing in mind that the US still consumes nearly three times as much oil as China, the net of it is a substantial reduction in the call on the world’s oil.

WOLF: So is speculative activity - trading on expectations of future prices of oil - at the root of the current price rises?

DUMAS: You have to say that the speculative story is a big part of it. And of course we can be polite and call it investment if you like, but the fact is that the over the counter positions in commodity futures in general, revealed by the end of 2007, were eight trillion dollars in volume, of which probably as much as half is oil, which is to say four trillion dollars, which is approximately the annual turnover of the oil business worldwide. So you’re looking at a situation in which the speculative interest is huge. And we know of course that from the moment when Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve started to cut interest rates in a very aggressive and frankly panicky way last October, we were looking at ten dollar increases in oil every time he lifted an eyebrow because the basic perception of the world is that the Fed is trashing the dollar. Or was trashing the dollar. They’ve turned around a little bit over the last two or three months. My personal feeling is that when the Chinese slow down - and it is very much when, not if, which is probably going to be this autumn and winter - then the speculative interest could quickly turn round. And of course it only takes one or two percent of world oil usage to turn the price round very sharply. It doesn’t take anything like four trillion dollars worth of activity. So if a very small piece of that over the counter activity turns negative on oil, the price could come crashing down.

WOLF: This view of the future path of commodity prices is rather optimistic, though far from inconceivable...

Signs and wonders

* 'Allah meat' astounds Nigerians
* Woman 'blessed by the holy toast'
* 'Virgin Mary' on US motorway wall
* Tropical fish 'has Allah marking'
* Christmas thief steals 'Nun Bun'
* India marvels at 'miracle chapati'
* Message from Allah 'in tomato'
* Caravan park 'Christ' draws the faithful
etc. etc.
P.S. 24 July: P.Z. Myers thinks it's crackers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Almost everything

In Surfing the Universe, Benjamin Wallace-Wells surveys the controversy over Garrett Lisi's work. Towards the end Wallace-Wells quotes Betram Kostant of MIT who is "unaffiliated in the string theory wars":
Columbus made mistakes and thought he was in India. [Garrett] Lisi made a few errors, but this pales into insignificance to his possibly opening up a whole new world for exploration...E* is like North America, South America, and the Pacific Ocean all rolled into one. No one in Europe knew anything about it...Lisi's daring possibly creates an agenda for scientists for the next hundred years or more.
P.S. 24 July: Vaguely relevant may be Roger Penrose and Keith Tyson on the limits of reason.

How TV works

Like hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who complained about The Great Global Warming Swindle, I received a letter this morning from Ofcom notifying me of the results of their adjudication. It's online here (you have to scroll down; a summary by David Adam is here). But George Monbiot is about right with this:
But while the new ruling exposes some of the channel's practices, it also exposes the limitations of the regulator. The programme was peppered with distortions and misleading claims. But despite being presented with a vast dossier of evidence by climate scientists, Ofcom decided that it could not rule on the matter of accuracy. While news programmes are expected to be accurate, other factual programmes are not, and Ofcom "only regulates misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence."

It decided that The Great Global Warming Swindle had not caused actual harm to members of the public: merely misleading them does not count. In fact, it is precisely because "the discussion about the causes of global warming was to a very great extent settled by the date of broadcast", meaning that climate change was no longer a matter of political controversy, that a programme claiming it is all a pack of lies could slip past the partiality rules. The greater a programme's defiance of scientific fact, the less likely Ofcom is to rule against it. This paradoxical judgment allows Channel 4 to keep getting away with it.
Michael LePage observes that the Ofcom ruling implies that documentary makers here have no obligation to be accurate, though factual programmes should present a wide range of views:
Ofcom has decided Durkin's programme was not in breach of the code when it comes to factual accuracy. So apparently:

• It's OK to fabricate graphics.

• It's OK to state that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans when in fact humans emit far more.

• It's OK to present scientists as experts in fields they in fact know little about.

• It's OK to present disputed claims as if they were well-established and accepted scientific facts.

• It's OK to claim: "There is no evidence at all from Earth's long climate history that carbon dioxide has ever determined global temperatures", when there is overwhelming evidence going back many decades that CO2 does play a role.

• It's OK to deliberately confuse long-term changes in sea ice cover with the seasonal coming and going of ice.

• It's OK to state that Margaret Thatcher made a speech to scientists at the Royal Society saying: "There's money on the table for you to prove this stuff" (meaning global warming) when she did not say any such thing. The extraordinary idea being that climate change was an issue cooked up by climate scientists in order to get funding.

• It's OK to state that, "The common belief that carbon dioxide is driving climate change is at odds with much of the available scientific data: data from weather balloons and satellites, from ice core surveys, and from the historical temperature records" when this is clearly untrue.

• It's OK to claim that an individual called Piers Corbyn produces more accurate weather forecasts than the UK's Met Office when there is no evidence of this at all.

The list could go on and on, but you get the picture. I can't think of any supposedly factual programme on British TV that was less accurate than Durkin's polemic. For Ofcom to rule that it was not factually misleading is extraordinary and sets a disastrous precedent for programmes relating to controversial scientific issues.
{Read also Dave Rado, 21 July]

P.S. 24 July: George Monbiot rips the cover of a lunar conspiracy.

Happy day

A shit is held accountable.

P.S. 23 July: Ed Vulliamy remembers:
...We had seen very little, and only with time and trials at The Hague of lower-ranking Bosnian Serbs, did it become clear what Karadzic did not want us to see. Scenes of routine sadism such as that described by survivor Halid Mujkanovic, concerning a prisoner forced to perform fellatio on a fellow inmate, then ordered to bite off his testicles while a live pigeon was stuffed down his throat to stifle his screams as he died...

...[But] the governments of Britain and France especially - as well as the United Nations leadership - saw in Karadzic not the war criminal they call him today, but a fellow politician with whom to do business. Karadzic dealt - directly or indirectly - with Lord Peter Carrington, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord David Owen, Cyrus Vance, Douglas Hurd and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones as an equal deserving full diplomatic protocol...They agreed to turn back aid to the desperate "safe areas" declared but betrayed by the UN. They connived in maps and "peace plans" that gave Karadzic everything he had won by violence and tolerated the siege of Sarajevo, which he is accused of personally overseeing...

Cold road

Good photos from Greenland and Iceland by Nathan Myrhvold. For example this one of a storm over a fjord (large verion here).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gore's civic republicanism moment

Gore calls for 100% Clean Energy in 10 Years. My first reaction was, it's well done ("borrow money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn in ways the destroys the planet"...the ten year Apollo type challenge...the appeal to [progressive] nationalism); but why does he launch at this particular moment and what is the political purchase? How does he aim to influence the Presidential election? A NYT report is useful, Andy Revkin's commentary much more so. For example:
There’s no reason not to think big, although it might be harder for Mr. Gore to make this kind of statement if already in office, or seeking one, because it would be hard to find experts immersed in the challenges of generating, storing and distributing electricity at large scale who could chart an achievable or affordable 10-year path to doing this. Joe Romm at said a more realistic ambitious goal would be 50-percent renewable electricity sources by 2020. And of course “affordable” is a word dependent entirely on public attitudes, so if the public can be energized sufficiently by leadership or circumstances, theoretically anything is possible.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

'Organisation of Denial'

Environmental scepticism denies the seriousness of environmental problems, and self-professed 'sceptics' claim to be unbiased analysts combating 'junk science'. This study quantitatively analyses 141 English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005. We find that over 92 per cent of these books, most published in the US since 1992, are linked to conservative think tanks (CTTs). Further, we analyse CTTs involved with environmental issues and find that 90 per cent of them espouse environmental scepticism. We conclude that scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection.
-- abstract from The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism by Peter J. Jacques, Riley E. Dunlap and Mark Freeman, Environmental Politics Vol. 17, No. 3, June 2008, 349–385

P.S. 18 July: an interesting denialist story from Joe Romm.

Your milkshake

The ties that the Complex -- the term [Nick Turse] gives the old military-industrial complex in his superb book on how our everyday lives have been militarized -- has developed with an allied petro-industrial complex are so taken for granted that mainstream reporters seldom think they add up to a story. It's like being on the science beat and filing stories about how we breathe.
Tom Englehardt

Wait and see

Are the crazies no longer in charge? With the appointment of William Burns to talk to the Iranians, the answer may be yes.

P.S. 24 July: Paul Rogers is not optimistic.

Not walking so tall

If the US could match top-ranked Sweden, about 20,000 more American babies a year would live to their first birthday...

The US has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than any of the world's richest countries.
-- from US fails to measure up on 'human index'

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cheney's torture doctors

Earlier in [its] current series, All in the Mind heard from a psychology professor who resigned from the American Psychological Association or APA because of their refusal to ban their members from taking part in interrogations at CIA black sites like Guantanamo Bay. A hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmed just a few weeks ago that psychologists had overseen interrogations which included extremes of temperature and waterboarding. Doctors, nurses and psychiatrists’ associations have all banned their members from taking part in interrogations at all, but the APA only prohibits psychologists specifically from torture, not from interrogations. For the seventy members who have resigned and the four hundred with holding their subs, this isn’t enough. Now one member, Professor Steven Reisner has decided the only way to get the organisation to change its mind, is to run for its presidency. All in the Mind [15 July] asked him what more he wants the APA to do.

The ICC and Sudan

Gideon Rachman highlights an interesting debate on the ICC indictment of Omar al-Bashir.

Alex de Waal's guide appears on openDemocracy. de Waal himself thinks al-Bashir's actions "will be driven by calculations of internal threat more than by his assessment of how threatening the ICC or the UN troops in Sudan might be."

Richard Goldstone writes that criticism of the ICC is misdirected.

Monday, July 14, 2008

So it's not just me

I am swallowed up. I live for an income of £250 & work all day & often from 9am until 1am. It takes me so long because I fret & fret . . . My self criticism or rather my studied self contempt is now nearly a disease.
-- Edward Thomas in an early letter, quoted by Edna Longley in a reappraisal of his poetry that makes the case that, among other things, he was an ecological poet.

The base

I would make it absolutely clear that we seek no presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea. -- says Barack Obama, not wishing to repeat Bush pere's error in building bases in Saudi. But how would Centcom wish to position U.S. forces to 'protect' Iraqi oil supplies?

But in all the op ed looks like a pretty good response to George Packer's comments (7 July) on Obama's Iraq problem.

P.S. 15 July: Obama speaks on U.S grand strategy here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The teacher

His own awakening began in fourth grade, when his teacher, fed up with the distortions of an official history textbook, burst out: “Go out and read other things to try to get the truth.”

“The teacher probably doesn’t even remember,” Mr. Batebi said. “But he changed the course of my life.”
-- from a profile of Ahmad Betebi.

A few rotten apples

So hot is the speculation that war-crimes trials will eventually follow in foreign or international courts that Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, has publicly advised Mr. Feith, Mr. Addington and Alberto Gonzales, among others, to “never travel outside the U.S., except perhaps to Saudi Arabia and Israel.”
-- Frank Rich

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Captain America

T. Boone Pickens outlines a plan to save America. He starts with a stark definition of how he sees the challenge:
Today, [the U.S.] imports almost 70% of [its] oil.

This is a staggering number, particularly for a country that consumes oil the way we do. The U.S. uses nearly a quarter of the world's oil, with just 4% of the population and 3% of the world's reserves. This year, we will spend almost $700 billion on imported oil, which is more than four times the annual cost of our current war in Iraq.

In fact, if we don't do anything about this problem, over the next 10 years we will spend around $10 trillion importing foreign oil. That is $10 trillion leaving the U.S. and going to foreign nations, making it what I certainly believe will be the single largest transfer of wealth in human history.
Pickens sees no need for 'new consumer or corporate taxes or government regulation', but thinks the government must 'renew the subsidies for economic and alternative energy development'.

I used to confuse T. Boone Pickens with Slim Pickens of Dr Strangelove and Blazing Saddles fame. What a pity they are not the same person.

Elsewhere, Peter R. Orszag of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office gives his take on Climate Change Economics.

[P.S. 24 July: Timothy Egan]

Ministry of Food

Felicity Lawrence:
there is an underlying tension throughout [Food Matters] that may explain why the Downing Street soundbites threw the food crisis back to individuals and their waste. It recognises that the agribusiness model of food production based on global competition has failed to deliver, but the government remains wedded to the idea that food markets, like all other markets, are best left to regulate themselves. It wants the food chain reshaped but does not want to edit our choices. It wants to run with the free market, yet trade in food has never been truly free.

Concentrations of corporate power in the global food system distort competition. The government has no plan to address them. The US and EU have retained trade barriers and agricultural protections as they urge poorer countries to liberalise food markets. Britain can't wean the US off its farm bills, nor a biofuels policy that diverts a third of the corn crop to petrol tanks at the expense of global food prices. Nor can it persuade the French to reform the common agricultural policy faster. Moreover, the market has no effective mechanisms for putting a price on the things that matter most: the nutritional, environmental and social costs of production.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Here is the text of the poem sung on the hit Where the hell is Matt? (2008)
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
Stream of Life by Rabindranath Tagore

The Icon

Robert Kaplan says George Bush thinks Israel is
an icon to be both supported and worshipped.
Arnaud de Borchgravew notes U.S. Congressional Resolution 362 and Senate Resolution 580, but concludes that
with three former U.S. CENTCOM commanders on record against the military option, it was hard to see how Israel could strike on its own -- without shutting the Persian Gulf down.
P.S. Simon Tisdall reports on internal divisions in Iran.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Are they with Stupid?

Home to only 4 percent of the world’s population, the [U.S.] slurps up about a quarter of the planet’s oil — and Americans’ daily use is nearly twice the combined consumption of the Chinese and Indians.

...Indeed, low-priced gasoline has long been part of the American social contract, according to Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and Republican leader. While in office, Mr. Gingrich battled efforts to modulate demand through tools like increased gas taxes and tighter fuel standards, and he argues that voters won’t support such measures even now.
-- from American energy policy: asleep at the spigot.

Gee, thanks, Mr Gingrich!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Funny weather

Results for a cartoon competition on climate change. But the winner is not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Fasten your seatbelt

Thomas Powers makes a compelling case that a U.S. attack on Iran would be folly. The day after his article was finished, Israel 'rehearsed an attack on Iran'. Mike Mullen has warned of a 'third front' for US, but is ambiguous about Israel's posture.

It may be that, despite the best efforts of some in the Pentagon and elsewhere, the U.S. administration remains inextricably linked to unhinged and vindictive folly on the part of its key ally and will, as Robert Gates has reportedly predicted, "create generations of jihadists [so that] and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America."

P.S. update 17:02 - an analysis here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A new Last Supper

He was forced to drop plans to show the apostles' cups overflowing with blood and to project Christ's genitals on the refectory walls. But he said his goal was never to shock, but to help people look again at a work of art that has been devalued by superficial familiarity "on chocolate boxes and on T-shirts".
-- from Greenaway's hi-tech gadgetry highlights da Vinci for the laptop generation

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

'Believe Me, It’s Torture'

Watch the video here.
The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer. I still feel ashamed when I think about it. Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
Ian Buruma recently wrote:
the photographs [of torture and abuse from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib that we do see] embarrassed the United States, to be sure. But for the US government, this embarrassment might have actually helped to keep far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view. Preoccupied by the pornography of Abu Ghraib, we have been distracted from the torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film and from finding out who the actual killers were. Moral condemnation of the bad apples turned out to be a highly useful alibi. By looking like a bunch of gloating thugs, "Chuck" Graner, Ivan Frederick, et al. made the lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules—William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—look almost respectable.

Our 'friends' in the East

The tale of Mohammed Omer and Shin Bet.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


George Monbiot reviews Kyoto 2 by Oliver Tickell. I am on record praising the book too (e.g. here), and stand by this.

I have also said that one needs to think hard about the challenges that setting up a system like Kyoto2 presents. How, for example, would producers of fossil fuels (from, say, Saudi Aramco and PDVSA to Gazprom and those seeking to exploit the Athabasca tar sands), plus the governments who control or tax them be convinced that it is their least bad option? What if they cannot be? What if they engage in world-class delaying tactics? How to win round those who are already heavily invested in, for example, a continuation of the current emissions capping and trading regime(s)?

As Nick Stern makes clear in a recent interview, he still buys the case for cap-and-trade, and believes it should be a key part of the Copenhagen agreement in 2009. I wonder if he dismisses an idea like Kyoto2 (if he does) on the grounds of expediency -- "We have to make an agreement with the institutions we have got now" -- or others? And I wonder what a champion of auctions such as Paul Klemperer thinks of the idea.

It looks likely that, rightly or wrongly, Tickell's proposal will continue to run into (and where policies are decided be defeated by) the 'standard' argument which in outline goes roughly, 'it's taken at least fifteen years to get to the current arrangement. There are significant flaws in, for example, the ETS and CDM, but the good news is that we can now learn lessons from what has gone wrong, catch the cheats, fix the flaws and move forward. What *really* matters is to get political agreement on emission reductions, and on that hard challenge Kyoto2 offers no more of a solution than anyone else'.

I'd like to see a stronger riposte to this standard argument than I have seen to date.

[Stern is most conspicuously challenged from the 'right' by people who think he wants to spend more money now to protect present and future lives from the impacts of climate change than the economics warrants, but he is also attacked from the 'left' by, for example, George Monbiot here. See also No polar bear left behind, Tax not Trade and To cap or to tax .]

Operación Arbusto-Triunfo

Today, the question hanging over Iraq is whether its natural endowment will be used to help create a sustainable new state, or will instead be managed in ways that reward the cronies and allies of the country whose army toppled Mr. Hussein. Or perhaps both at the same time.
-- says Peter S. Goodman.

Reports and analysis from Platform here.

Discounting rhetoric

In a recent interview, Nicholas Stern turns a criticism of his team's use of discount rates in their report on the economics of climate change on its head:
Applying a 2 per cent pure time discount...means that you assign half the value to somebody born today to someone who is 35 years old. I would not discriminate against future generations like that.
It probably shows just how out of touch I am, but I hadn't seen the issue framed like this before. I'd be interested to know: would some serious thinkers see it as just a rhetorical trick? If they do, would they think it could still be useful?

P.S. 2 July: The comments to this post by Clive Bates, Ian Christie and Roger Levett are well worth reading. But the second of the three is an uncorrected duplicate of Clive Bates's first comment, and should be ignored. Read comments 1, 3 and 4.