Monthly Archives: February 2009

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BANFF 2009: MENSA IN THE MOUNTAINS
 
Eight months from the Banff Regional Gathering (September 11 through 13, 2009) in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Combine world-class scenery, the low Canadian dollar and top minds: the result is a memorable experience. Check out our RG web site at www.mensabanffrg.com for more info. Like music, the arts, math, science, politics, games? Add your requests to the mix and book early through Patricia (almostp@shaw.ca) or volunteer to make this RG the best ever.
 
 
EDITORIAL
 
Obama 2009: Some people don’t get it. For them, the excitement is suspect. They’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes once too often. There are tricksters everywhere, they believe, and usually they sport a politician’s garb. Gimme the facts, they say. Wait till we see what the man does. The problems are intractable; they’re systemic or a matter of the military-industrial complex; solutions depend on other people’s goodwill and those people are out for their personal profit.

 

All true, of course, but beside the point. The Bush years, his father’s, Reagan’s, the whole sorry mess of Republicans, are branded with a pre-scientific and anti-rational slant that horrified those who can read and put two thoughts together. Consider it a throwback to 600 BCE and shortly after in the Greek world, when Thales and then the Pythagoreans took wing. The assumption was that custom governed behavior and tyrants arbitrarily dictated notions of right and wrong. Against this dominant stream fought a small group of converts to a new ideal: reason, abstraction, logic. For a short time, the new group prospered. Egypt and Mesopotamia were sources and Athens the spawning ground. We still derive most of our highest intellectual values from that era. And we sometimes come close to losing our way.

The Bush years were like wandering in the desert. We collectively held our breaths and prayed the nightmare would be over one day. The despair of those years – can’t you still feel it? – the hopeless, helpless agony of being governed by ignorance, seeing absolute power in the hands of the greedy and feckless.
 
Yes, the problems are real and Obama can’t solve them all or even most of them. But the excitement in the street is because we have a chance now. Don’t you remember the chief source of hope that has lighted humanity’s path through gloom and despondency? You know it. We make our own history. We aren’t governed by the all-powerful gods or forces beyond our control such as the ‘market’ or ‘hate’. There doesn’t have to be war in the middle east. There doesn’t have to be unemployment and cholera. We create these disasters. Yes, we do. And we refuse to stop. But as in around 600 BCE, there is a small group offering an alternative, and with any luck it can accomplish something that will permit the rest of us to draw breath again as rational beings.
 

Contact us with your comments, articles and queries. (As we’re crawling in spam, don’t use the editor’s address but rather almostp@shaw.ca.)

EVENTS

General
 
Feel life is passing you by? Activities with fellow Mensans will turn this around. Think coffees, martinis, movies, dinners, quizzes, anything that ravels up the tired sleeve of care. We’re informal, unstructured and intellectually challenging. Mensa Calgary is a community where members interact, network, support each other, and enjoy each other’s company. For further info, contact Patricia at kathleen4057@yahoo.ca ["There's no pleasure on earth that's worth sacrificing for the sake of an extra five years in the geriatric ward of the Sunset Old People's Home.” (John Mortimore)]
 
 
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Mensa Test
 
The date isn’t set yet. If you work at a post-secondary institution such as U of C, SAIT, or Mount Royal, or think potential Mensans are affiliated with your company or organization, post a notice on your bulletin board or wherever seems sensible. For the date and notice format, contact Vicki at vherd@shaw.ca or (403) 243-6144. We’ll advertise generally, but please let Vicki have your ideas on this subject. Likewise, let your friends or colleagues know about the upcoming test.  
 
The testing fee is $90, which covers two tests, receiving feedback on eligibility for Mensa membership, plus the first year’s membership if you qualify. You write two tests so have an enhanced chance to qualify. Full time students pay only $70.
 
A pictorial test is available if your mother tongue is not English and you do not want your test scores to be disadvantaged by language.
 
You need to score in the top 2% of the population in one of the two tests.
 
Contact Vicki with questions about Mensa or the tests, and let her know if you want to write the tests so she can plan resources and give detailed directions to the testing site (likely at meeting Room 2, Basement, W R Castell Central Library, 616 Macleod Trail SE, Calgary).
 
 
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MensaGenerationX
 
Viva the under-30s!! Ideas and participation are welcome. Beat the winter blues by contacting Robert Conn at robertanddiana@telus.net
 
 
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CoffeeFests
 
Brighten the heart of winter by attending our coffee fest on Thursday, February 5th at 7:00pm. The place is Kaffa (2138-33rd Ave SW, corner of 33rd Ave & 21st St). Parking on 21st. Cash only, a copy of Harry Potter will be at the table, RSVP not required, atmosphere great, munchies superb. Funky to the max. Email Patricia for more info: kathleen4057@yahoo.ca
 
 
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DinnerNight
 
Feast to your heart’s content on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 6:30 pm at The Redwater Rustic Grille (9223 Macleod Trail South/253-4266). This is one of Calgary’s best locations for quality food. RSVP and get more information from Patricia at almostp@shaw.ca. Check the restaurant’s site at: http://www.redwatergrille.com/CMS/uploads/32.pdf
 
 
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BookClub
 
The February meeting will be held Friday February 20, 2009, hosted by Ginny Vassal. We’ll discuss anything you’ve recently read. If there’s one thing true about most Mensans, it’s that we have opinions. So come with any book and we’ll talk about it. No holds barred. Book Reviews are a new addition to this issue (see the N&Q section); to contribute a book review or obtain the address/time of the book club meeting, contact Patricia at almostp@shaw.ca.
 
 
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SecondTuesdays(of the Month)
 
Join us for Second Tuesday @ 7:30 PM on Tuesday February 10th, at the home of Vicki Herd (2469 Sorrel Mews SW/Garrison Woods near the Marda Loop Safeway). Contact Patricia at (403) 212-1461 if you have any questions. Second Tuesday is an open house social evening held the ST of each month, providing an opportunity to mellow out with your peers, fume at the idiocies of the universe, and generally find a sympathetic or intelligent ear.
 
 
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Movie Night
 
Slumdog Millionaire (if it’s still playing) on Friday, February 6th. Contact Patricia for more info: almostp@shaw.ca
 
 
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OtherUpComings
 
Lecture Night: David Patton, who is a member of Mensa Calgary and a Calgary Firefighter, will give a lecture on Thursday February 26th @ 7:30 PM at Vicki’s home. The topic is ‘Drugs and Terrorism, A Local Perspective’. This will be our 4th lecture in the past 8 months and so far everyone has found them very worthwhile. 
 
Flames Night: Robert Conn has chosen some potential games for the next Mensa Flames night at Bottlescrew Bills. If you are interested in joining Robert, contact him at robertanddiana@telus.net with your game preference.
- Tue 3 @ 6:30 vs Dallas
- Tue 17 @ 7:30 vs Vancouver
- Thu 19 @ 6:30 vs Minnesota
Likely the game against Vancouver.

PUZZLES

1) What two numbers add up to 10, but when multiplied give 40?
 
2) A village has baskets, all of equal size. When the community harvests its grain, it finds that three baskets of wheat, two of barley and one of flax total 39 kilos. Two baskets of wheat, three of barley and one of flax total 34 kilos. One basket of wheat, two of barley and three of flax total 26 kilos. How many kilos does one basket of each grain weigh?
 
 
The answers to January’s puzzles were supplied in the January issue.
 
Here are the answers to this month’s puzzles:
 
1) 5 plus the square root of minus 15. And 5 minus the square root of minus 15.

 

2) Wheat weighs 37/4 kilos, barley 17/4 and flax 11/4.

Feature1 Dolphin Tools

Dolphins have developed tools to help them hunt for food, according to new research, which suggests the mammals could be even smarter than previously thought.
 
Bottlenose dolphins from an extended family in Australia’s Shark Bay have taken to protecting their noses with pieces of sponge when foraging for fish on the abrasive sea bed.
 
Scientists at Georgetown University in Washington DC believe a single dolphin discovered the foraging technique by chance and then passed it on to her offspring. Its use has had a marked impact on the dolphins’ hunting and social behaviour as the animals deploying the sponge tool spend more time alone, rummaging through sand.
 
While several animals use tools by instinct – such as birds that cover themselves with leaves for camouflage — the US scientists say discovering a new tool is a direct sign of intelligence.
 
“There’s a strong link between animals with larger brains and tool users,” said Janet Mann, a marine biologist who led the research. “Bottlenose dolphins have a brain second in size only to humans.
 
“Dolphins are already good at catching fish so they don’t need tools, but they’ve discovered this sponge makes their job easier. Working out how to use tools in a creative way like that is a hallmark of intelligence.” The foraging technique came to light a few decades ago – very recently in evolutionary terms – when a local fisherman spotted what looked like a strange tumour on a dolphin’s nose.
 
Researchers eventually worked out that the “tumour” was a conically shaped sponge and it became apparent that the dolphins would spend considerable time searching for one the right shape to fit their nose.
 
The sponge is used to scatter the sand gently on the sea floor and disturb buried fish. When a fish is spotted, the dolphin drops the sponge and gives chase.
 
Scientists discovered that although dolphins tried to teach the hunting technique to all their young, it was mainly female offspring that grasped the concept. Those males that use sponges for hunting do so discreetly and avoid other male dolphins.
 
Mann admits we still do not understand dolphins well. “It’s hard to get inside their heads because their brains are constructed differently and it’s very hard to analyse their language, but they do seem very intelligent,” she said.
 
“Dolphins are able to recognise themselves in mirrors and have complex societies and personalities,” she added. “Most people agree that processing social information places a high demand on the brain. However, manipulating a sponge requires a lot less brainpower than manipulating a person.”
 
¤ Dolphins display self-awareness and are able to recognise themselves in mirrors
¤ They can interpret television images and copy human actions
¤ Their echo-location system is better than the most advanced military sonar systems
 

(by chris gourlay, Sunday Times, 4 January 2009)

Feature2 Israel

It was strictly forbidden to have a notebook in Belsen, but my Aunt Ruth had one anyway. Just a little pocket diary – an appointment book with one of those tiny pencils. And in it, in the autumn of 1944, she noted that Anne Frank and Anne’s sister, Ruth’s schoolfriend Margot, had arrived in the concentration camp.
 
My mother and my aunt had been watching through the camp wire when the Franks arrived. Mum remembers it well, because they had been excited to spot girls they knew from the old days in Amsterdam. They had played in the same streets, been to the same schools and Ruth and Margot attended Hebrew classes together. The pair had once been pressed into service to act as bridesmaids, when a secretive Jewish wedding had taken place at the synagogue during their lesson time.

 

But Ruth and Margot did not grow up together. Because while Ruth and my mother lived, Margot and Anne never left Belsen. They died of typhus.

I am telling you this story because I want you to understand Israel. Not to agree with all it does, not to keep quiet when you want to protest against its actions, not to side with it always, merely to understand Israel.
 
There are two things about the tale that help to provide insight. The first is that all these things, the gas chambers, the concentration camps, the attempt to wipe Jews from the face of the Earth, they aren’t ancient history, and they aren’t fable. They happened to real people and they happened in our lifetime. Anne and Margot Frank were just children to my aunt and my mother; they weren’t icons, or symbols of anything.
 
The second is that world opinion weeps now for Anne Frank. But world opinion did not save her.
 
The origin of the state of Israel is not religion or nationalism, it is the experience of oppression and murder, the fear of total annihilation and the bitter conclusion that world opinion could not be relied upon to protect the Jews.
 
Israel was the idea of a journalist. Theodor Herzl was the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse when he witnessed anti-Semitic rioting against the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus who had been falsely accused of espionage. Herzl was then among the small corps of journalists who in 1895 witnessed the famous ceremony of disgrace in which Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulettes.
 
The experience led Herzl to abandon his belief in assimilation. He became convinced that Jews would only be safe if they had their own national home. Herzl became the first leader of modern Zionism. For many years many Jews resisted Herzl’s conclusion. My grandfather was among them. But the experience of Jews all over the world in the first half of the 20th century – not just in Europe but in the Middle East too – rather bore out Herzl.
 
So when Israel is urged to respect world opinion and put its faith in the international community the point is rather being missed. The very idea of Israel is a rejection of this option. Israel only exists because Jews do not feel safe as the wards of world opinion. Zionism, that word that is so abused, so reviled, is founded on a determination that, at the end of the day, somehow the Jews will defend themselves and their fellow Jews from destruction. If world opinion was enough, there would be no Israel.
 
The poverty and the death and the despair among the Palestinians in Gaza moves me to tears. How can it not? Who can see pictures of children in a war zone or a slum street and not be angry and bewildered and driven to protest? And what is so appalling is that it is so unnecessary. For there can be peace and prosperity at the smallest of prices. The Palestinians need only say that they will allow Israel to exist in peace. They need only say this tiny thing, and mean it, and there is pretty much nothing they cannot have.
 
Yet they will not say it. And they will not mean it. For they do not want the Jews. Again and again – again and again – the Palestinians have been offered a nation state in a divided Palestine. And again and again they have turned the offer down, for it has always been more important to drive out the Jews than to have a Palestinian state. It is difficult sometimes to avoid the feeling that Hamas and Hezbollah don’t want to kill Jews because they hate Israel. They hate Israel because they want to kill Jews.
 
There cannot be peace until this changes. For Israel will not rely on airy guarantees and international gestures to defend it. At its very core, it will not. It will lay down its arms when the Jews are safe, but it will not do it until they are.
 
And if you reflect on it, doesn’t recent experience bear this out? Just as Herzl was borne out? A year or so back I met a teacher while I was on holiday and fell to talking with him about Israel. He was a nice man and all he wanted was for fighting to stop and to end the suffering of children. And he had a question for me.
 
Why, he asked, doesn’t Israel offer to give back the West Bank and Gaza? Why doesn’t it just let the Palestinians have a state there? If the Palestinians turned it down, he said, then at least liberal opinion would be on Israel’s side and would rally to its assistance.
 
So I patiently explained to this kind, good man that Israel had, at Camp David in 2000, made precisely this offer and that it had been rejected out of hand by Yassir Arafat, not even used as the basis for negotiation. I told him that Israel was no longer in Gaza, having withdrawn unilaterally and taken the settlers with it. The Palestinians had greeted this movement with suicide bombs and rockets. Yet the teacher, with all his compassion, wasn’t even aware of all this. And liberal opinion? Sad to relate, my new friend’s faith in it was misplaced. It has turned strongly against Israel.
 
Israel has made many mistakes. It has acted too aggressively on some occasions, has been too defensive on others. The country hasn’t always respected the human rights of its enemies as it should have done. What nation under such a threat would have avoided all errors?
 
But you know what? As Iran gets a nuclear weapon and so the potential for another Holocaust against the Jews and world opinion does nothing, I am not so sure that the errors of world opinion are so much to be preferred to the errors of Israel.
 

(by daniel finkelstein, The Times, 7 January 2009)

Feature3 War & Strength

I was startled by the monument that stands at the entrance to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial to the Holocaust. One side of Nathan Rappaport’s diptych is what looks like a caricature of Jews. The hunched, twisted figures, with hooked noses and heavy-lidded eyes, seem devoid of physical energy. The other panel displays a group of heroic young men and women who are heavily muscled, standing tall, weapons at the ready.
 
It turns out that the first group is meant to depict Jews being marched to their deaths, while the second is the leaders of the Warsaw uprising; the whole monument is constructed of granite imported from Sweden by the Nazis for the construction of what was meant to be one of the Third Reich’s victory towers.

The message is in fact close to the view expressed with brutal clarity by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion: “That masses of exiled Jews walked to the death trains . . . silently, stupidly . . . is a decisive, embarrassing and painful statement of the disintegration of spiritual-ethical strength. What is their place among us?” Ben-Gurion envisaged that “new Jews”, with the security of their own nation state, would erase what he saw as the shameful memory of a “submissive, lowly camp of strange creatures . . . who know only how to arouse pity”. Indeed, so anxious was Ben-Gurion to obliterate such memories that he opposed any memorial to the Holocaust. That was one battle he lost.

A Briton entering Yad Vashem might do so in the hope that he would see a compliment to his own nation’s fight against the Nazis. He would be disappointed. Instead, there is footage of a long dead emissary to London recording how Britain’s wartime foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, told him the plight of the Jews was not an important consideration in the war effort. Later, he would see pictures of British soldiers dragging Jewish immigrants from ships on the shores of Tel Aviv and of Holocaust survivors behind the wire of British camps in Cyprus, prevented from reaching the promised land. The message here is equally clear. No one will protect the Jews except themselves.
 
That remains the position. After all, there was no great perturbation within the UN building in New York during the month upon month that Hamas rained rockets on southern Israel, still less any international pressure on the government of Gaza to desist. Ten months ago I was in Sderot, 30 seconds’ rocket flying time from Gaza, talking to an Israeli nurse whose home had been hit by one of thousands of Qassam missiles which Hamas had fired without fear of reprisal. She still had shrapnel lodged, irremovably, near her brain.
 
The nurse said she constantly tells her four-year-old son, who was also injured, that “there are so many good people in Gaza who are not trying to kill us”. Her anger was principally against her own government: “The day Israel withdrew from Gaza, I knew it was a terrible idea, I knew we would be a target. And I know my Arab friends will suffer when the IDF [Israel Defence Force] goes back into Gaza.” Now, they are indeed suffering terribly, as the images on our television screens show all too graphically – and yet infinitely less than the pictures that are too horrific to be shown and are left to our imagination. This is what war means.
 
All the same, even the majority of those Israelis who passionately believe that the Palestinians should have their own state, and that the West Bank should be handed over to them, are convinced there was no choice for their government but to act as it has over the past fortnight. These Israelis were bitterly opposed to the military campaigns against Lebanon, but see this campaign as much closer to the spirit of the six-day war and the Yom Kippur war. “Ein brera”, they tell me, which is Hebrew for “no choice”.
 
It was no longer just Sderot which was taking hits from the Qassams, and where parents would not let their children play outdoors. The Iranian-supplied Hamas ordnance was becoming ever wider in its range. Ashkelon (which incidentally supplies all of Gaza’s electricity) and even the city of Beer-sheba are now reachable targets, and more than 800,000 Israelis the potential victims.
 
It is undeniable that the consequences for the people of Gaza have been far worse, in numbers of innocent dead and in sheer intensity, than anything the people of Israel have suffered. The word “disproportionate” is inevitably used to describe the Israeli response, with the equally inevitable failure to acknowledge that Hamas targets civilians on purpose and with open expressions of bloodthirsty delight when it succeeds.
 
Those who claim the IDF also deliberately targets civilians don’t have to believe the official spokesman’s denials: they could speak to someone such as Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British Army campaigns in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, and was most recently senior military adviser to the Cabinet Office. Kemp told me that “Hamas deploys suicide attackers including women and children, and rigs up schools and houses with booby-trap explosives. Its leaders knew as a matter of certainty this would lead to civilian casualties if there was a ground battle. Virtually every aspect of its operations is illegal under international humanitarian law – ‘war crimes’ in the emotive language usually reserved for the Israelis”.
 
Colonel Kemp points out that if the IDF had no regard for civilian lives it would never have leafleted and telephoned residents in Gaza, warning them when it was about to attack their area: after all, that also gives Hamas notice – hardly the act of an army devoted to military victory at all costs. Similarly, the IDF’s unilateral commitment to a daily three-hour ceasefire to permit the evacuation (to Israel) of casualties, and for the passage of “humanitarian aid”, also allows Hamas time to regroup and redeploy for future attacks.
 
Of course, none of these arguments can penetrate the brains of the superannuated Stalinists, vicarious jihadists and attention-seeking actors and pop stars who think it’s cool to go on marches chanting, “We are all Hamas now”. Even if these luvvies might not be aware that on Christmas Eve Hamas legalised crucifixion as a punishment for those who “weaken the spirit of the people”, and have been shooting such political enemies in the head when they find them in hospitals conveniently injured by Israeli bombing raids, they still deserve to be dismissed as useful idiots for a depraved death cult.
 
There are also perfectly sensible people – both inside and outside Israel – who say the IDF’s campaign is worse than a crime: it is stupid. They cite the Lebanon war of 2006 as a dire precedent. Leave aside the terrible casualties – although that’s hard enough – they say it left Hezbollah unconquered and elevated in prestige on the “Arab street”.
 
Perhaps so, but consider this: since that campaign, no Hezbollah missiles have been fired on northern Israel. Indeed, when on Thursday three rockets were fired from Lebanon, Hezbollah rushed to reassure the Israeli government that it was not involved and that the rockets were not the sort it even possessed.
 
This is not exactly the classical doctrine of deterrence: it’s supposed to stop people attacking you in the first place. Yet the Israeli attack on Gaza is part of the same policy of delayed deterrence. Paradoxical though this might seem, it is also essential if the process towards an independent Palestinian state is to havea future. For until the people of Israel believe that such a state – including the heights of the West Bank, which overlook Tel Aviv – is not a threat to their own existence, they will never support a government which abandons those territories, won in an earlier war of self-defence.
 
If you believe otherwise, go to Yad Vashem.

(by dominic lawson, Sunday Times, 11 January 2009)

Feature 4: UK Disaster

They don’t know what they’re doing, do they? With every step taken by the Government as it tries frantically to prop up the British banking system, this central truth becomes ever more obvious.
 
Yesterday marked a new low for all involved, even by the standards of this crisis. Britons woke to news of the enormity of the fresh horrors in store. Despite all the sophistry and outdated boom-era terminology from experts, I think a far greater number of people than is imagined grasp at root what is happening here.
 
The country stands on the precipice. We are at risk of utter humiliation, of London becoming a Reykjavik on Thames and Britain going under. Thanks to the arrogance, hubristic strutting and serial incompetence of the Government and a group of bankers, the possibility of national bankruptcy is not unrealistic.
 
The political impact will be seismic; anger will rage. The haunted looks on the faces of those in supporting roles, such as the Chancellor, suggest they have worked out that a tragedy is unfolding here. Gordon Brown is engaged no longer in a standard battle for re-election; instead he is fighting to avoid going down in history disgraced completely.
 
This catastrophe happened on his watch, no matter how much he now opportunistically beats up on bankers. He turned on the fountain of cheap money and encouraged the country to swim in it. House prices rose, debt went through the roof and the illusion won elections. Throughout, Brown boasted of the beauty of his regulatory structure, when those in charge of it were failing to ask the most basic questions of financial institutions. The same bankers Brown now claims to be angry with, he once wooed, travelling to the City to give speeches praising their "financial innovation".
 
Does the Prime Minister realise the likely implications when the country joins the dots? He has never been wild on shouldering blame, so I doubt it. But Brown is a historian. He should know that when a nation has put all its chips on red and the ball lands on black, the person who made the call is responsible. Neville Chamberlain discovered this in May 1940 with the German invasion of France.
 
We’re some way from a similar event. But do not underestimate the gravity of the emergency and potential for disgrace.
 
The Government’s bail-out of the banks in October with £37 billion of taxpayers’ money was supposed to have "saved the world", according to the PM, but now it is clear that it has not even saved the banks. Our money kept the show on the road for only three months.
 
As the Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokesman Vince Cable asks: where has the £37 billion gone? The answer, as Cable knows, is that it has disappeared down the plug hole.
 
It is finally dawning on the Government that the liabilities of the British banks grew to be so vast in the boom years that they now eclipse the entire economy. Unfortunately, the Treasury is pledged to honour those liabilities because it has guaranteed not to let a British bank go down. RBS has liabilities of £1.8 trillion, three times annual UK government spending, against assets of £1.9 trillion. But after the events of the past year, I wager most taxpayers will believe the true picture is worse.
 
Meanwhile, the assets are falling in value. This matters, because post-nationalisation these liabilities are now yours and mine.
 
And they come piled on top of the rocketing national debt, charitably put at £630 billion, or 43 per cent of GDP. The true figure is much higher because the Government has used off-balance sheet accounting to hide commitments such as PFI projects.
 
Add to that record consumer indebtedness and Britain becomes extremely vulnerable. The markets have worked this out ahead of the politicians, as usual, and are wondering what to do next. If they decide our nation is a basket case, they will make it so.
 
The PM and the Chancellor , both looking a year older every day, tell us that for their next trick they will buy more bank shares, create a giant insurance scheme for bad debt, pledge to honour liabilities without limit, cross their fingers and hope it all works. The phrase "bottomless pit" springs to mind for a reason: that is what they have designed.
 
In this gloom, the Prime Minister has but one slender hope: that somehow, by force of personality, the new President Obama engineers a rapid American recovery restoring global confidence, energising the markets and making us all forget this bad dream.
 
Obama is talented but he is not a magician. Instead, Gordon Brown’s nightmare, in which we are all trapped, is going to get much worse.
 

(by iain martin, Telegraph, 21 January 2009)

Feature5 FreeMarketsAreFraud

The words “Remaking America” were splashed yesterday across the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and almost every other paper in the US. This kind of unanimity in the press corps is not coincidental – “Remaking America” was the phrase the President’s media machine wanted to emphasise. Why?
 
“Remaking America” is President Obama’s riposte to the slogan of populist conservatism through the ages: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This do-nothing mentality was taken to its logical extreme by George W. Bush and his doltish Administration, whose epitaph should be the P.J.O’Rourke quip: “The Republicans are a party who believe that government doesn’t work and get themselves elected to prove it.”
 
To have any hope of repairing the ruin left behind by the Bush Administration, President Obama must first convince the 45 per cent of the population who voted against him that America really is broke. Not only is the US trapped, as Mr Obama noted, in a geopolitical quagmire and the worst recession in living memory. But behind both of these dreadful things lurks a horror even more existentially shocking: the entire politico-economic model of free enterprise, rugged individualism and small government on which America built its global hegemony seems to have broken down. How else can one describe a situation in which all of the country’s main financial institutions and many of its biggest industrial companies are effectively bankrupt and on government life-support?
 
The crisis triggered by September’s bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers appears to have discredited many of the assumptions on which American prosperity and democracy was founded. In this sense, it really is possible to compare the credit crunch, as Ed Miliband did last weekend, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989 the world, from China and Russia to South Africa, India and Brazil, concluded that there was no serious alternative to market forces as a means of organising productive activity. In 2009 the whole world seems to have reached the opposite conclusion – that free markets and financial incentives lead even the richest and most sophisticated societies to disaster.
 
There is, however, a crucial difference between these two pivotal years and this brings us to the positive side of President Obama’s message. Communism was a monolithic and inflexible system that worked against the grain of human nature and had to be brutally imposed. Capitalism, by contrast, is a constantly evolving and organic set of human relationships. It advances by trial and error and takes a myriad different forms. Thus the demise of the post-1989 fundamentalist faith in market forces as the solution to all social problems now offers Mr Obama the chance to preside over a new evolution of American capitalism into a more stable and ultimately more successful form. Creating this new kind of capitalism will be the most important challenge of the Obama presidency and beyond.
 
But two features of this evolutionary process can already be suggested. First, it is clear that America will continue to lead the world, not only as a military power and technological innovator but also as a model of economic management. The idea that Anglo-American capitalism will give way to a European or Asian model is already crumbling, as Germany, Japan and China discover that their economies are even more dependent on American (and British) consumers, mortgage markets and financial institutions than the Americans themselves. With the US likely to start recovering this year, while Europe and Japan remain mired in recession, American economic management will again be seen as a model around the world, instead of a cautionary tale.
 
Second, America’s new leadership will encourage much more pragmatic thinking around the world about when market mechanisms are useful and when they are useless, about the right balance between the profit motive and social objectives, and about the relative efficiency of private and public enterprises.
 
This may sound abstract, but such a shift in US ideology will have profound practical effects. Once it is understood, for example, that financial markets often send perverse signals about values, whether of houses, mortgages or barrels of oil, new solutions to the credit crisis will become possible. In America many homeowners will have their mortgages reduced and guaranteed by government. Such mortgage writedowns have been stridently opposed by bank lobbyists and Republicans for ideological reasons, yet they are likely to save many banks from going bust. More generally, there is likely to be recognition that many problems demand non-market solutions and that financial incentives are neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve social ends.
 
This doesn’t mean, however, that the State will necessarily grow. As President Obama said on Tuesday: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
 
This injunction brought to mind Philanthrocapitalism, a fascinating book by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. It describes the varying approaches of billionaires who spend extraordinary sums of their own money to achieve social ends, such as Bill Gates’s campaign against malaria or George Soros’s promotion of “open societies” in former communist dictatorships. The book’s main conclusion is that these efforts could serve as models for broader collaboration between government and private enterprise, whether charitable or not.
 
As the book notes, the most important asset that these hands-on philanthrocapitalists bring to their foundations is not just money but a way of thinking, specifically that “society’s biggest problems have to be addressed in a businesslike way in the sense of a serious focus on results; understanding where scarce resources have the most impact; a determination quickly to scale up solutions that work and a toughness in shutting down those that do not”.
 
Given that many of the people now joining the Obama Administration, including the President, have spent large parts of their careers in the non-profit sectors, philanthrocapitalism may well be an idea whose time has come for the new model of US capitalism that the President must now invent.
 
More generally, financial regulation and macroeconomic management will surely now recognise that naive theories about “efficient” financial markets and the statistical models they spawned were a major cause of the entire financial disaster. It will still be capitalism, but Obamanomics will not try to rebuild America on the principle that “markets are always right”.
 

(by anatole kaletsky, The Times, 22 January 2009)

Feature6 Mideast Bias

Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC, is quite right to refuse to broadcast the appeal of the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) for humanitarian relief for Gaza, but not for the reason he thinks.
 
He is under the impression that it will damage the BBC’s reputation for impartiality in reporting the Israel-Palestine question, but the fact is that the BBC does not have any such reputation, having for years been institutionally pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. The reason that his decision is brave and right, however, is that many of the 13 charities that make up the DEC are even more mired in anti-Israeli assumptions than the BBC itself.
 
Mr Thompson rightly appreciates that the issue of humanitarian relief in this conflict is quite unlike humanitarian relief for victims of a tsunami or a famine.
 
Who adjudicates on which victims to support via such charitable aid – and according to whose political morality? Why did the BBC not launch an appeal for the victims of collateral damage during Nato’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo campaign? And had it done so, would it have given money to ethnic Serbs as well as to Kosovars and Bosnian Muslims, all of whom were “cleansed” during the Balkan wars of that decade? What about the victims of insurgencies and counter- insurgencies in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Chechnya or Georgia? Or Israeli victims of the next Hamas suicide attack? Indeed, what about the Palestinian victims of Hamas’s hideous human rights abuses, still so shamefully under-reported by the British media as a whole?
 
And who are these supposedly impartial charities who are attacking Mr Thompson’s (albeit belated) attempt to uphold the Corporation’s traditional standards? While groups such as the British Red Cross and Christian Aid are generally impartial in other areas of the world, that cannot be said to apply to their role in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, where they regularly view the conflict through a deeply partisan lens.
 
In the months prior to the decision by Hamas to end the six-month ceasefire and resume rocket attacks, these charities issued a flood of one- sided denunciations aimed at Israel. Their campaign repeated tendentious and often highly inaccurate terms such as “collective punishment” and “violation of international law”. On March 6, 2008, CARE International, Cafod, Christian Aid and Oxfam (among others) published a widely quoted report under the headline “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion”. The authors did not bother to hide their political bias against Israel, repeating standard Palestinian political rhetoric and including claims that Israeli policy “constitutes a collective punishment against ordinary men, women and children” and is “illegal under international humanitarian law”.
 
The report was wrong on many counts, including allegations over the availability of food and basic necessities, which were later contradicted by both the World Bank and World Health Organisation, neither of which are exactly Israeli stooges. The fact that Hamas chose to pursue war with Israel rather than the welfare of its people, was not covered in these reports. There was no sense that any of these claims might be disputed by the other side or by genuinely neutral observers.
 
During the three-week war, Oxfam and other charities were extremely active in the ideological campaign that highlighted Palestinians as the sole victims and Israelis as the sole aggressors. Numerous Oxfam press statements included language such as: “The international community must not stand aside and allow Israeli leaders to commit massive and disproportionate violence against Gazan civilians in violation of international law.”
 
Violence against Israelis, including deaths, are virtually ignored by Oxfam officials, who have referred to “collective punishment illegal under international humanitarian law yet tolerated by the international community”. For those of us who reject such gross ideological bias, which absolves the Hamas leadership for a confrontation which they openly sought, such statements by charities are unacceptable and should not be rewarded by the BBC.
 
The final issue is the fraught one of the practicability of actually distributing the aid on the ground. After Hamas seized total control of Gaza in June 2007 there have been many well-documented reports of Hamas officials diverting assistance for themselves. On February 7 last year, for example, the Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that “at least ten trucks with humanitarian aid sent to the Gaza Strip by the Jordanian Red Crescent Society were confiscated by Hamas police shortly after the lorries entered the territory”. Journalists also reported that the aid was “unloaded in Hamas ministry warehouses” and that a similar seizure took place in January 2008.
 
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, used to say that Hamas was like a bird that needed two wings to fly – the armed branch, but also the charitable-welfare side of the organisation. Do the 13 charities and their political allies that are so vocally attacking the “cowardly” BBC really have the guts and wherewithal to do a proper audit on how those monies might be spent in today’s Gaza Strip? I, for one, do not believe it.
 

(by andrew roberts, The Times, 25 January 2009)

N&Q1 Book Review: Unknown Quantity, by John Derbyshire

John Derbyshire, author of the immensely popular Prime Obsession (2003), has done it again with Unknown Quantity (2006). This is a masterful history of algebra, which might be described as the mathematics of unknowns. Wandering across many curious headlands and byways, Derbyshire focuses on the growing abstraction that has brought us from geometry and counting stones to recondite theories that only highly specialized mathematicians understand, a world where propositions take years to evaluate. Literate and folksy, the book treads the dangerous path that separates facile from abstruse. There is a troll in these waters. But let’s take the upside first.
 
This book is perfect for the reader with high school math. It’s even better for those with a course or two at university level, who occasionally peruse math books for fun. Granted there aren’t many of us, but the list is growing partly because of writers such as Derbyshire who love their trade, avoid jargon and explain detail both graphically and with a poet’s gift for the striking image. One is left with a miraculous grasp of the subject and a sense of the pleasure in store if one investigates further. What more could a reader want?
 
Beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt, Derbyshire takes us carefully through the mathematical centres of the ancient world: Babylon, Alexandria and Baghdad for starters. We see the authors of cuneiform texts struggling with the limits of their language to describe concepts they skirted and yet likely perceived. Derbyshire gives us primary material as well as summaries and links to authors who grappled with similar issues. The impact of language on thought is a fascinating side-route in Derbyshire’s journey.
 
The early Christian era was mathematically fertile and so were the middle ages. Derbyshire weighs in heavily with Khayyam, Fibonacci, Tartaglia and Cardano, Viete and Descartes, Newton and Leibnitz, while resolutely maintaining his focus on algebra. The thematic core is a great strength of this book. Derbyshire is able to visit and revisit issues from different vantage points as problems from the past are taken up by younger mathematicians, given updated slants, and solved or laid aside for a new generation to tackle. Thus with the roots of numbers (of unity especially) and the properties of polynomials. Derbyshire gives these all a romantic flare; human beings seem destined to grapple with certain mathematical issues till they’re understood. Only then can we move on.
 
So to the 19th century’s soaring mathematical imagination in Europe (Riemann, Klein, Lie, Jordan, Listing and Poincare) and the tragic dispersion or worse that flowed from prejudice and, later, the death camps. Derbyshire somehow never quite rises from the ashes of the Nazi era. True, he makes a magnificent effort, but the chapters on recent trends are short and highly selective, as though the subject matter is too fresh for evaluation. Nevertheless, the contribution of mathematics to modern physics and our view of the universe is clearly and incisively described. Without the matrix algebra, no Heisenberg quantum leaps. Without Lie groups in three complex dimensions, no predicted particles that helped organize the hadrons.
 
Now the troll. It started when Derbyshire describes William Rowan Hamilton. In his youth during the early 19th century, Hamilton conceived a flaming passion for someone whose family promptly married her off to another person. So far, so good. We have biographical information and it might lead anywhere, perhaps to withdrawal from the world. Are we going to see a Goethe-like Werther? No, Mr Derbyshire says that Hamilton married later, ‘more or less at random, a sickly and disorderly woman and suffered all his life from an ill-managed household.’ Poor fellow. But was the ‘sickly and disorderly’ a function of Hamilton’s personality, was he cursed with a compulsion to control, did he have a father and mother who intruded on his married life? Mr Derbyshire leaves us hanging in midair with what becomes a gratuitous criticism of this woman who otherwise plays no role in history. Rather unfair, but even Homer slips you might think. Yet earlier we encounter a potted narrative of the last 17 months of Galois’ life that ended with a duel in 1832. There seems no reason to treat us to this list of events in his life, at least none that I could discern. Another slip?
 
Later we find a host of coy remarks about Emmy Noether. Women are rare among mathematicians, it’s true. Mr Derbyshire doesn’t mention that they’re rare among all the valued occupations, because of – well, we need no reminding, do we. Yet we see a list, which appears out of nowhere, of many derogatory and sexist comments made by various people about Ms Noether. Why? No reason that I can see. Unless our author is making a political statement of which his editor has blue-penciled the conclusion. Possible. We then see numerous references to mathematicians being Jewish and the impact of the Nazis. Where are we going here? Undoubtedly true and important as these facts are, the book has wandered from mathematical to social terrain. Are we going to see an absorption of social forms into abstract mathematical functions? We’re encouraged to believe this, because Derbyshire emphasizes that algebra has moved from arithmetical to abstract structures that are independent of particular content. But no, Derbyshire touches a social issue and moves on. What are we to conclude: must we stop at the fact that Jews like women weren’t allowed to enter most professions? Okay, this is a book about mathematics, we say to ourselves. And yet, Derbyshire allows himself a discursion about the modern great, Alexander Grothendieck, whose interest in communes and other popular themes of the sixties culture Derbyshire describes in condescending terms, withering because of their eloquence. The difficulty of course isn’t the meld of mathematics and history, but the uncritical history that contrasts uneasily with the rigor of Derbyshire’s mathematical segments. Might the reader think that mathematics is related to the real world unless Derbyshire strictly curtails our vision and changes subject before we draw conclusions? There’s a right-wing flavour, a conservative scent, to this book that sometimes interferes with its thrust.
 
Let us imagine an editor. This person might be Derbyshire. It might be someone else. The editor fails to excise those parts of Unknown Quantity, mentioned above, that complicate the reader’s enjoyment. Also, in biographical and historical passages, the text often refers to mathematics described elsewhere, which the tenacious reader must then flip back and forth to find, frequently dropping his pen in the process. Finally, there occasionally seem gaps between exposition and conclusion. An example lies in Derbyshire’s description of Galois’ insight on the structure of abstract groups. It seemed to me that we were talking about elements; then came a sudden wind that blew us into a discussion of coefficients. Did I miss a key transition? Was one omitted? A humble reviewer takes the blame and calls it a failure to understand. So be it. Mea culpa. But in a book destined for the general public, perhaps the layout and conceptual underpinnings might attract greater care. At the same time, it’s fair to say that Derbyshire’s mathematics almost always reward the reader and his diagrams are wonderful. We are lured into the details of history while retaining belief in abstruse truths among which human beings somehow are privileged to walk. Mathematics may lead us further into abstraction. Where we’re ultimately heading is a mystery. But at least through writers such as John Derbyshire, a wider audience can appreciate the jungle that mathematicians have explored, the effort needed, and some of the progress in other sciences to which mathematics has contributed. Moreover, the book has great footnotes and a first-class index!
 

In all, Unknown Quantity – like Prime Obsession – is a treat. I was enthralled.

ForYourContemplation1 GlobalWarming?

Friends -
 
A friend on a rig in Northern Alberta passes this item along.
 
For the record, in Southeastern Alberta, we are currently showing -17C/+2F, with a 35 km/hr wind giving -29C/ -20F wind chills. It was quite bitter standing in the wind while cementing our production casing in place this evening.
 
For your contemplation.
 
Jim Szpajcher
 
 
 
 
The Australian (Australia’s National News Paper)
 
 
I DEVOTED six years to carbon accounting, building models for the Australian Greenhouse Office. I am the rocket scientist who wrote the carbon accounting model (FullCAM) that measures Australia’s compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, in the land use change and forestry sector.
 
FullCAM models carbon flows in plants, mulch, debris, soils and agricultural products, using inputs such as climate data, plant physiology and satellite data. I’ve been following the global warming debate closely for years.
 
When I started that job in 1999 the evidence that carbon emissions caused global warming seemed pretty good: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the old ice core data, no other suspects.
 
The evidence was not conclusive, but why wait until we were certain when it appeared we needed to act quickly? Soon government and the scientific community were working together and lots of science research jobs were created. We scientists had political support, the ear of government, big budgets, and we felt fairly important and useful (well, I did anyway). It was great. We were working to save the planet.
 
But since 1999 new evidence has seriously weakened the case that carbon emissions are the main cause of global warming, and by 2007 the evidence was pretty conclusive that carbon played only a minor role and was not the main cause of the recent global warming. As Lord Keynes famously said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
 
There has not been a public debate about the causes of global warming and most of the public and our decision makers are not aware of the most basic salient facts:
 
The greenhouse signature is missing. We have been looking and measuring for years, and cannot find it.
 
Each possible cause of global warming has a different pattern of where in the planet the warming occurs first and the most. The signature of an increased greenhouse effect is a hot spot about 10 km up in the atmosphere over the tropics. We have been measuring the atmosphere for decades using radiosondes: weather balloons with thermometers that radio back the temperature as the balloon ascends through the atmosphere. They show no hot spot. Whatsoever.
 
If there is no hot spot then an increased greenhouse effect is not the cause of global warming. So we know for sure that carbon emissions are not a significant cause of the global warming. If we had found the greenhouse signature then I would be an alarmist again.
 
When the signature was found to be missing in 2007 (after the latest IPCC report), alarmists objected that maybe the readings of the radiosonde thermometers might not be accurate and maybe the hot spot was there but had gone undetected. Yet hundreds of radiosondes have given the same answer, so statistically it is not possible that they missed the hot spot.
 
Recently the alarmists have suggested we ignore the radiosonde thermometers, but instead take the radiosonde wind measurements, apply a theory about wind shear, and run the results through their computers to estimate the temperatures. They then say that the results show that we cannot rule out the presence of a hot spot. If you believe that you’d believe anything.
 
 
1. There is no evidence to support the idea that carbon emissions cause significant global warming. None. There is plenty of evidence that global warming has occurred, and theory suggests that carbon emissions should raise temperatures (though by how much is hotly disputed) but there are no observations by anyone that implicate carbon emissions as a significant cause of the recent global warming.
 
2. The satellites that measure the world’s temperature all say that the warming trend ended in 2001, and that the temperature has dropped about 0.6C in the past year (to the temperature of 1980). Land-based temperature readings are corrupted by the "urban heat island" effect: urban areas encroaching on thermometer stations warm the micro-climate around the thermometer, due to vegetation changes, concrete, cars, houses. Satellite data is the only temperature data we can trust, but it only goes back to 1979. NASA reports only land-based data, and reports a modest warming trend and recent cooling. The other three global temperature records use a mix of satellite and land measurements, or satellite only, and they all show no warming since 2001 and a recent cooling.
 
3. The new ice cores show that in the past six global warmings over the past half a million years, the temperature rises occurred on average 800 years before the accompanying rise in atmospheric carbon. Which says something important about which was cause and which was effect.
 
None of these points are controversial. The alarmist scientists agree with them, though they would dispute their relevance.
 
The last point was known and past dispute by 2003, yet Al Gore made his movie in 2005 and presented the ice cores as the sole reason for believing that carbon emissions cause global warming. In any other political context our cynical and experienced press corps would surely have called this dishonest and widely questioned the politician’s assertion.
 
Until now the global warming debate has merely been an academic matter of little interest. Now that it matters, we should debate the causes of global warming.
 
So far that debate has just consisted of a simple sleight of hand: show evidence of global warming, and while the audience is stunned at the implications, simply assert that it is due to carbon emissions.
 
In the minds of the audience, the evidence that global warming has occurred becomes conflated with the alleged cause, and the audience hasn’t noticed that the cause was merely asserted, not proved.
 
If there really was any evidence that carbon emissions caused global warming, don’t you think we would have heard all about it ad nauseam by now?
 
The world has spent $50 billion on global warming since 1990, and we have not found any actual evidence that carbon emissions cause global warming. Evidence consists of observations made by someone at some time that supports the idea that carbon emissions cause global warming. Computer models and theoretical calculations are not evidence, they are just theory.
 
What is going to happen over the next decade as global temperatures continue not to rise? The Labor Government is about to deliberately wreck the economy in order to reduce carbon emissions. If the reasons later turn out to be bogus, the electorate is not going to re-elect a Labor government for a long time. When it comes to light that the carbon scare was known to be bogus in 2008, the ALP is going to be regarded as criminally negligent or ideologically stupid for not having seen through it. And if the Liberals support the general thrust of their actions, they will be seen likewise.
 
The onus should be on those who want to change things to provide evidence for why the changes are necessary. The Australian public is eventually going to have to be told the evidence anyway, so it might as well be told before wrecking the economy.
 
[Dr David Evans was a consultant to the Australian Greenhouse Office from 1999 to 2005.]
 
(by david evans, The Australian, 18 July 2008. Copyright 2008 News Limited)

ForYourContemplation2 Economics & Civil War

Friends -
 
For your contemplation.
 
Jim Szpajcher
 
 
Icelanders all but stormed their Parliament last night. It was the first session of the chamber after what might appear to be an unusually long Christmas break.
 
Ordinary islanders were determined to vent their fury at the way that the political class had allowed the country to slip towards bankruptcy. The building was splattered with paint and yoghurt, the crowd yelled and banged pans, fired rockets at the windows and lit a bonfire in front of the main door. Riot police moved in.
 
Now in the grand sweep of the current crisis, a riot on a piece of volcanic rock in the north Atlantic may not seem to add up to much. But it is a sign of things to come: a new age of rebellion.
 
The financial meltdown has become part of the real economy and is now beginning to shape real politics. More and more citizens on the edge of the global crisis are taking to the streets. Bulgaria has been gripped this month by its worst riots since 1997 when street power helped to topple a Socialist government. Now Socialists are at the helm again and are having to fend off popular protests about government incompetence and corruption.
 
In Latvia – where growth has been in double-digit figures for years – anger is bubbling over at official mismanagement. GDP is expected to contract by 5 per cent this year; salaries will be cut; unemployment will rise. Last week, in a country where demonstrators usually just sing and then go home, 10,000 people besieged parliament.
 
Iceland, Bulgaria, Latvia: these are not natural protest cultures. Something is going amiss.
 
The LSE economist Robert Wade – addressing a protest meeting in Reykjavik’s cinema – recently warned that the world was approaching a new tipping point. Starting from March-May 2009, we can expect large-scale civil unrest, he said. "It will be caused by the rise of general awareness throughout Europe, America and Asia that hundreds of millions of people in rich and poor countries are experiencing rapidly falling consumption standards; that the crisis is getting worse not better; and that it has escaped the control of public authorities, national and international."
 
Ukraine could be the next to go. The gas pricing deal agreed with Moscow could propel the country towards a serious financial crisis. Russia, too, is looking wobbly. A riot in Vladivostok may have been an omen for things to come. What will happen when the wider economic crisis translates into higher food prices? Or if Gazprom has no choice but to increase domestic gas prices?
 
Governments have so far managed to deflect attention from their role in the crash, their slipshod monitoring, by declaring themselves to be indispensible to the solution. This may save the skins of politicians in wealthier countries who can credibly and expensively try to prop up banks and sickly industries. But it does not work in countries that are heavily indebted, with bloated and exposed financial sectors. There, the irate crowds are already beginning to demand: why hasn’t a single politician resigned? What has happened to ministerial responsibility? Who will investigate government failure?
 
Good questions, it seems to me, in these unquiet times.
 

(by roger boyes, The Times, 21 January 2009)

ForYourContemplation3 War and Terror

President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the "war on terror," as President George W. Bush had defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the U.S. government in battling its enemies will not be limitless.
 
While Obama says he has no plans to diminish counterterrorism operations abroad, the notion that a president can circumvent long-standing U.S. laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office.
 
Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration’s lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.
 
It was a swift and sudden end to an era that was slowly drawing to a close anyway, as public sentiment grew against perceived abuses of government power. The feisty debate over the tactics employed against al-Qaeda began more than six years ago as whispers among confidants with access to the nation’s most tightly held secrets. At the time, there was consensus in Congress and among the public that the United States would be attacked again and that government should do what was necessary to thwart the threat.
 
The CIA, which had taken the lead on counterterrorism operations worldwide, asked intelligence contacts around the globe to help its teams of covert operatives and clandestine military units identify, kill or capture terrorism suspects. They set up their first interrogation center in a compound walled off by black canvas at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and more at tiny bases throughout that country, where detainees could be questioned outside military rules and the protocols of the Geneva Conventions, which lay out the standards for treatment of prisoners of war.
 
As the CIA recruited young case officers, polygraphers and medical personnel to work on interrogation teams, the agency’s leaders asked its allies in Thailand and Eastern Europe to set up secret prisons where people such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh could be held in isolation and subjected to extreme sleep and sensory deprivation, waterboarding and sexual humiliation. These tactics are not permitted under military rules or the Geneva Conventions.
 
Over time, a tiny circle of federal employees outside these teams got access to some of the reports of interrogations. Some were pleased by the new aggressiveness. Others were horrified. They began to push back gingerly, as did an even smaller number of congressional officials briefed on the reports.
 
Eventually their worries reached a handful of reporters trying to confirm rumors of people who seemed to have disappeared: a Pakistani microbiologist spirited away in the dead of night in Indonesia. An Afghan prisoner frozen to death at a base code-named the Salt Pit. A German citizen who did not get back on his bus at a border crossing in Macedonia.
 
Front companies and fictitious people were used to hide a system of aircraft that carried terrorism suspects to "undisclosed locations" and to third countries under a little-known practice called rendition.
 
Unlike the federal employees, who could go to jail for disclosing the classified program, the reporters and their news outlets were protected by the Constitution — but not from government pressure. Then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss and, later, Bush summoned top editors of The Washington Post to press their case against disclosing the existence of the secret prison network.
 
The published reports in The Post and elsewhere earned the news media sharp recriminations from the administration, the Republican leadership in Congress and the public. Government leak investigations were launched. Bush administration officials argued that such methods and operations were necessary to effectively thwart terrorism, noting to this day that there have been no major attacks since 2001.
 
If there were dissenters back then, they were largely silent.
 
But in Europe, the reports set off a firestorm of criticism and government investigations in nearly every capital. Washington was pressured to move prisoners out of the secret jails. U.S. government officials scattered throughout the national security and foreign policy agencies scrambled to learn more about operations they knew little about. A growing chorus within the CIA and the State Department began to question how long the secret system of detention and interrogation could survive, and drew up plans for an alternative.
 
By then, the color-coded terrorist alerts had ended. Police disappeared from roadblocks around the Capitol. Washington the fortress drew millions of visitors again. Some Democratic members of Congress replaced the "war on terror" phraseology with language indicating vigilance and persistence, but not unending combat and military-only options.
 
On Sept. 6, 2006, Bush announced the transfer of 14 "high-value detainees" from secret prisons to Guantanamo. He suspended the CIA program, but defended its utility and reserved the right to reopen it. The secret was officially out.
 
Over the next 2 1/2 years, as Democrats gained power in Congress, as the violence in Iraq sapped public support for the president and as the fear of another terrorist attack receded, the debate over secret prisons, renditions and harsh interrogations grew louder. Presidential candidates felt comfortable to include these sensitive subjects in the debate on the efficiency of Bush’s war against terrorists, and even on the notion that it was still a war.
 
During his campaign and again in his inaugural address Tuesday, Obama used a different lexicon to describe operations to defeat terrorists. "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said. ". . . And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
 

(by dana priest, Washington Post, 23 January 2009)

ForYourContemplation4 Fear of the Uncurable

Friends -
 
A comment by Dmitri Orlov, on the start of the Obama presidency.
 
For your contemplation.
 
After you read the item below, you can check out another of his talks, "Closing the Collapse Gap", at:
 
http://www.energybulletin.net/node/23259
 
 
For your contemplation.
 
Jim Szpajcher
 
 
Congratulations, everyone, we have a new president: a fresh new face, a capable, optimistic, inspiring figure, ushering in a new era of responsibility, ready to confront the many serious challenges that face the nation; in short, we have us a Gorbachev. I don’t know about you, but I find the parallel rather obvious.
 
Obama wishes to save the economy, and to inspire us with words such as "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." [Inauguration speech] At the same time, he cautions us that "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense" — an echo of Dick Cheney’s "The American way of life is non-negotiable." And so we descend from the nonexistent but wonderfully evocative "clean coal" to the more pedestrian "Put a little dirt in your gas tank!"
 
But these are all euphemisms: the reality is that it is either fossil fuels, which are running out while simultaneously destabilizing the planet’s climate and poisoning the biosphere, or the end of industrial civilization, or (most likely) both, happening in that order. According to the latest International Energy Agency projections, the half-life of industrial civilization can be capped at about 17 years: it’s all downhill from here. All industrial countries will be forced to rapidly deindustrialize on this time scale, but the one that has spent the last century building an infrastructure that has no future — based on little houses interconnected by cars, with all of its associated moribund, unmaintainable systems — is virtually guaranteed to fall the hardest. An American’s two greatest enemies are his house and his car. But try telling that to most Americans, and you will get ridicule, consternation, and disbelief. Thus, the problem has no political solution. Tragically, Obama happens to be a politician.
 
"Whenever we confront a problem for which no political solution exists, the inevitable result is an uncomfortable impasse filled with awkward, self-censored chatter. During the Soviet establishment’s fast slide toward dissolution, Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign unleashed a torrent of words. In a sort of nation-wide talking cure, many previously taboo subjects could be broached in public, and many important problems could suddenly be discussed. An important caveat still applied: the problems always had to be cast as "specific difficulties," or "singular problems" and never as a small piece within the larger mosaic of obvious system-wide failure. The spell was really only broken by Yeltsin, when, in the aftermath of the failed putsch, he forcefully affixed the prefix "former" to the term "Soviet Union." At that point, old, pro-Soviet, now irrelevant standards of patriotic thought and behavior suddenly became ridiculous – the domain of half-crazed, destitute pensioners, parading with portraits of Lenin and Stalin. By then, fear of political reprisals had already faded into history, but old habits die hard, and it took years for people’s thinking to catch up with the new, post-imperial reality. It was not an easy transition, and many remained embittered for life.
 
"In today’s America, it is also quite possible to talk about separate difficulties and singular problems, provided they are kept separate and singular and served up under a patriotic sauce with a dash of optimism on top. It is quite possible to refer to depressed areas, to the growing underclass and even to human rights abuses. It is, however, not allowable to refer to America as a chronically depressed country, an increasingly lower-class and impoverished country or a country that fails to take care of its citizens and often abuses them. Yes, there are prisons where heroin addicts are strapped to a chair while they go through withdrawal, a treatment so effective that some of them have to be carried out in body bags later, but that, you see, is a specific difficulty, a singular problem, if you will. But, no no no, we are a decent, freedom-loving country in spite of such little problems. We just have a slight problem with the way we all treat each other… and others. We did recently invade a country that had posed no threat to us and caused about a half a million civilian deaths there, but no no no, we are a freedom-loving country! That is just a specific difficulty with our foreign policy, not a true reflection of our national character (which is to squirm when presented with unpleasant facts and to roll our eyes when someone draws general conclusions from them based on a preponderance of evidence).
 
"When it comes to collapse mitigation, there is no one who will undertake an organized effort to make the collapse survivable, to save what can be saved and to avert the catastrophes that can still be averted. We will all do our best to delay or avert the collapse, possibly bringing it on sooner and making it worse. Constitutionally incapable of conceiving of a future that does not include the system that sustains our public personae, we will prattle on about a bright future for the country for as long as there is enough electricity to power the video camera that is pointed at us. Gorbachev’s perestroika is an example of just such an effort at self-delusion: he gave speeches that ran to several hours, devoted to mystical entities such as the "socialist marketplace." He only paused to drink water – copious amounts of it, it seemed – causing people to wonder whether there was a chamber pot inside his podium.
 
"There are few grounds for optimism when it comes to organizing a timely and successful effort at collapse mitigation. Nevertheless, miracles do happen. For instance, in spite of inadequate preparation, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, none of the high-grade nuclear fissile material has ended up in the hands of terrorists, and although there were a few reports of radiation leaks, nothing happened that approached the scale of the Chernobyl catastrophe. In other ways, the miserable experience had by all was mitigated by the very nature of the Soviet system, as I described in Chapter 3. No such automatic windfalls are due the United States; here, collapse preparation, if any, is likely to be the result of an overdue, haphazardly organized and hasty effort." [Reinventing Collapse, pp. 108-110]
 
I sincerely hope that Obama manages to do better for himself than Gorbachev. History can be mean to do-gooders. On that fateful day when Gorbachev lost his job, his wife suffered a stroke, and he, since that day, hasn’t been able to wipe that deer-in-the-headlights look off his face. Trying to solve problems that have no solution is a fine thing to try to do. Even if it is utterly futile, it makes for great drama. But I hope, for his sake, that Obama doesn’t give up any of his hobbies. should he still have any.
 

(by dmitri orlov, cluborlov, 22 January 2009)