Tuesday, October 31, 2006

War Profiteering.

Last night, NBC news had a report on the poor management of U.S. tax dollars designed to help rebuild Iraq with dire consequences:

The U.S. has not properly tracked half a million weapons bought for Iraqi security forces, and a new report reveals that 14,000 weapons are now considered missing.
So really, US troops in iraq may soon have to fight people who will be using their own American-made weapons. Great.

Another report finds that "less than half the budget for some reconstruction projects actually went to rebuild the country", and guess who is to blame… not just the government's poor management but also KR, which is, and that’s no surprise, a Halliburton subsidiary. Halliburton, in case you don’t know is the highly controversial giant military contractor which has ties with VP Dick Cheney.
According to the special inspector general for
Iraq reconstruction, not only have they been "accruing exorbitant indirect costs", but they have also "abuse rules designed to protect sensitive, proprietary information to hinder competition and oversight".

California Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, called Halliburton "a case study in corporate profiteering during wartime."
"Halliburton billed the taxpayer for millions of meals it never served and charged the government vastly inflated prices for fuel," Waxman said. "The company has now tried to conceal key information about these abuses from the inspector general and the public." (Houston Chron.)


Monday, October 30, 2006

More Argument for Cutting CO2 Emission.

Some may think this is just another of many reports on Global Warming, but this one, commissioned by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer [the British equivalent of the finance minister] is the first comprehensive study to quantify the economic aspect of global warming.
The author is former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern and his report is as much about economics as it is about politics.

According to the study: the cost of doing nothing is estimated at a loss of 5% to 20% of global GDP while cutting CO2 emissions (by at least 25% below current levels which would stabilize them between 450 and 550ppm) would cost 1% of global GDP.

As The Economist suggests, this report is also very political as it is an attempt at convincing those who accept that climate change is happening, but say that trying to do anything about it would be a waste of money.

This argument is heard occasionally in Europe and frequently in America, where, for added potency, it is combined with the notion that European attempts to tax carbon are part of a conspiracy by socialists determined to undermine the American way of life.

Blair has embraced the results of the report and has seized the opportunity to persuade the United States, as well as fast-growing developing nations China and India, to sign up to a new global framework to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

"Unless you have an international framework which has not just Europe, but America and China and India in it then there will be a limit to the degree to which your company is going to get fully behind this," said Blair.(Reuters)

If there is scientific consensus, there does not seem to be economic consensus, especially among conservatives in the US. The paradox is that the more we wait the more our current life style is likely to be threatened, the very thing, those conservatives claim they want to protect. Denial, denial, denial… it’s like putting your head in the sand.

Thankfully, public opinion in America is changing:

Polls suggest that three-quarters of Americans feel that global warming is a serious problem and a majority of citizens feel environmental protection should take priority over economic growth. (BBC)

This comes right when the UN released its own report showing that emission of greenhouse gases continue to rise and that cuts are needed.

According to the report by Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. climate treaty secretariat,

Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Monaco and Sweden were "relatively close" to goals under the Kyoto protocol. But while the European Union as a whole was 0.6 percent below 1990 levels, the United States was 15.8 percent above 1990 levels. (IHT)

[see full report here and a summary of its findings here]


New from the French (bus attack) Front.

By the way, just a short post to say that all people talk about in France is the attack of a bus in a deprived suburb of Marseille that left a woman of 26 severely burnt over the week-end.

A group of teenagers reportedly forced open the doors of the bus vehicle and threw a flammable liquid inside before fleeing. A 26-year-old French woman was unable to escape and suffered burns to 70% of her body. (BBC)

As a result:

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin vowed on Monday to stiffen punishments for vandals.

Clearly, there is the fear that the country may risk a new wave of unrest as the Marseille attack followed the torching of several buses and cars around Paris in recent weeks and as this is the anniversary of last year’s riots.

But the situation is obviously very different from last year. There has been no major unrest and those attacks have been committed by small groups of youths who use the date of “anniversary” as an opportunity to commit crimes. The week-end was no worse than any others, except for this particular incident.

At the same time, a serious incident with the police could also trigger more wide-spread violence as the tension between the police and those youths is high. After all, last year's riots were sparked by the deaths of two teenagers in one of those suburbs during a chase with the police.

Incidents like this one do not help:

The IGS police watchdog has also launched a probe into how a 16 year-old was injured when police fired a 'flash-ball' gun, which uses rubber bullets, during a clash with youths on Saturday night in the same Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois where the riots began last year, a police source said. (Reuters)

Interior Minister Nicoles Sarkozy, who is also the favorite conservative candidate for next year presidential election is taking some heat

Sarkozy, who is loved and loathed in equal measure for his tough talk on law and order, has faced criticism from opposition leftists for the continued violence in France's rundown suburbs. (Reuters)


A painful moment!

You may have heard of Mary Pierce’s injury last week. She tore the front cruciate ligament on her left knee and has undergone surgery. I have been told that tearing your knee ligament is extremely painful; well this impressive video shows how bad it must have been. Just watching it is painful.
[By the way, I don’t get why she is left there in pain, screaming all alone for a good 10 to 15 sec. What were they thinking?]


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Car Manufacturers and the Environment.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E), Europe's principal environmental organization campaigning specifically on transport has released a report on the auto industry with regard to their commitment to reduce the average CO2 emissions of new cars they sell.
In 1998 the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) committed to the European Union to reduce the average CO2 emissions of new cars sold in the (then) 15 EU Member States to140 g/km by 2008, down from 186 g/km in 1995. Similar agreements were signed by the Japanese and Korean manufacturers’ associations the following year (1999). The target year for the JAMA and KAMA associations is 2009.

The results are staggering: ¾ of the major car brands sold in Europe last year have failed to improve fuel efficiency at the rate needed to meet a key EU climate target.


  • Fiat, Citroen, Renault, Ford and Peugeot are the best performers. All five are on track to meet or exceed the target by 2008.
  • Nissan [which is, interestingly, partly owned by Renault] is the worst performer in Europe followed by Suzuki, Mazda, Audi, Volvo, BMW and Volkswagen.

So in other words, the manufacturers that do best are those that focus on smaller cars. That’s no surprise: big cars pollute more! (see details below)

“Renault is on track while Volkswagen is way off even though Renault started with higher emissions in 1997. Clearly the target is achievable, but as long as seventy-five percent of carmakers go unpunished for their failure, we will never make the necessary progress.
The report then suggested that Europe must forget about “voluntary targets” and move to “legally binding measures”.

“Individual carmakers must be held responsible and punished if they fail.”

I agree of course but I also think some incentives should be used at the other end of the chain. What I mean by “incentive” is actually tax-breaks for smaller less polluting cars and higher taxes on SUVs and 4x4s. People, not just car manufacturers must be held responsible!


David Letterman Takes On Bill O'Reilly.

Once again, David Letterman takes on bill O’Reilly on his Late Show. There is of course some great joy in seeing Bill O'Reilly cornered but there's more to it.
First, it is clear that David Letterman has the great ability to sum up in simple terms what most Americans feel about things and in this case how they have felt about invading Iraq:
We felt like we wanted to do something, because something terrible had been done to us. We did not understand exactly why, all we knew was something terrible, something heinous, something obscene had been done to us. So while it didn't necessarily make sense to go into Iraq as it did perhaps to go into Afghanistan, I like most everybody else felt like yes, we needed to do something. And as the weeks turned into months, years and one death became a dozen deaths and hundred deaths and a thousand deaths - then we began to realize you know what? Maybe we're causing more trouble over there than the whole effort has been worth.

Letterman was also good at dodging O’Reilly’s attempts at reframing reality. In fact, O’Reilly used three techniques that the right conservatives cherish.

  • First, put things in simplistic binary (yes/no) terms and by alluding to the fact that the other part is weak for not responding:

O'Reilly: Possible, but do you right now? Do you want the Untied States to win in Iraq?

Letterman: First of all, I don't -

O'Reilly: It's an easy question, If you don't want the United States to win –

To which Letterman answered skilfully:

Letterman: It's not easy for me because I'm thoughtful.

Which was followed by applause of course, to the joy of Lettermen:

Letterman: How 'bout that? That was a good one.

  • The second technique consists in reframing reality by putting words in people’s mouth:

Letterman: Let me ask you a question — was there more heinous, more dangerous violence taking place before in Iraq, or is there more heinous, dangerous violence taking place now in Iraq?

O'Reilly: Oh, stop it. Saddam Hussein slaughtered 300,000 to 400,000 people, all right, so knock it off… It isn't so black and white, Dave — it isn't, 'We're a bad country. Bush is an evil liar.' That's not true.

Letterman: I didn't say he was an evil liar. You're putting words in my mouth, just the way you put artificial facts in your head!

  • The third technique, consist in misrepresents reality by giving incomplete facts, using true elements while omitting others Unfortunately, Letterman is more of an entertainer than a journalist and to his own admission knows nothing about the subject.

So when O’Reilly says

O'Reilly: You know what Ansar-al-Islam, do you know what that is? You don't. And I'm not saying this in a condescending way, I'm really not. Okay? I'm not going to call you a bonehead or a pinhead?

Letterman was obviously clueless (which made his audience laugh).


O'Reilly: Ansar-al-Islam was the al Qaeda affiliate in Northern Iraq who tried to poison the British water supply with Ricin. They operated with Saddam Hussein's okay. Again, complicated, but it isn't so black and white, Dave. It isn't we're a bad country, Bush is an evil liar.

But as Crooks-and-Liars reported on their blog,

The Senate Intelligence Committee writes on pages 71-72 that Saddam had virtually no control over the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq, that there were flaws that "undermined confidence in the reporting" of such a relationship and that Ansar al-Islam that was not "a branch of al Qaeda." Furthermore, Saddam's regime had no contact with the group other than to possibly infiltrate it to gather intelligence. The report concludes on page 110: "Postwar information reveals that Baghdad viewed Ansar al-Islam as a threat to the regime and that the IIS attempted to collect intelligence on the group."

And Saddam Hussein distrusted al Qaeda so greatly that he even tried to capture Zarqawi.

But at least Letterman knows he doesn’t know when O’Reilly wants us to believe that he does know. Either he is as ignorant as Joe Schmuk or he knows and distorts reality to promote his ideological agenda:

Letterman: Uh ... Oh gosh, where has the time gone? You know I appreciate you coming over her and indulging me because you know once again I'll just end up saying I have no idea what I'm talking about but I don't think you do either.

And Letterman is better than O'Reilly in one: he is funny (most of the time anyway)

[see video here via Crooks and Liars, and the full transcript of the show here]


Friday, October 27, 2006

What France Needs....

The European edition of The Economist has a very provocative cover this week :

My initial reaction was one of horror. France cannot be in such a bad shape that it needs an Iron Lady of its own. As much as I am in favor of reforms for France, I do not think an electro-shock is necessary. Of course, the point of this cover may be simply to be thought provoking.

Their editorial has some good points:

France is a country of contradictions. Its economy may be sluggish, but its workers are among the world's most productive. Its people are famously leery of globalisation and economic liberalism, yet France boasts some of the world's most successful multinational companies. Its public sector may be bloated and its tax burden excessive, yet the quality of its public officials is widely admired. Its mass-education universities come deservedly low in the world rankings, yet Paris's famous grandes écoles are among the best in the world. In short, France is a place in which, for almost every weakness, it is possible to find a matching strength.

The question is whether France can now build on these strengths by bringing in pro-competitive reforms—to its labour market, to its protected utilities and public monopolies, to its social model, to its public services and to its stifling regulatory system. There are reasons to be optimistic. Many of France's impressive businessmen are demanding change. The country's demographic outlook is healthier than its neighbours. Because it is less dependent on manufacturing than Germany, Italy and Spain, France has less to fear from low-cost Asian competition. It will always be hard to get reforms past the gauntlet of France's street protesters. But at least the government is not hobbled by the scratchy coalition politics that bedevils all attempts at reform in Germany and Italy.

The Economist suggests that France is indeed reformable but that it needs strong leadership, a “Madame Thatcher who has the courage to take on vested interests.”. That much I agree with. France does need strong leadership which it hasn’t had since Chirac came to power, 11 years ago! However, times have changed and France is not Britain. It will accomplish reforms in a different way and there are signs that most people in France are aware of the need for reforms even if there is resistance by a minority.

Even The Economist does recognize that "France's dame or homme de fer does not need to be quite as ironclad as the former British prime minister."

They have doubts about the current candidates for the presidency but one must remain cautious in reading too much into the current discourse of a pre-campaign period where competition is tough. A lot of people say a lot of things.... to get some attention or some votes.

In any case, what France needs is a strong leader but NOT a "Dame / Homme de Fer".

Let’s finish on a positive note:

In Britain, where the private sector was much weaker, it took nearly two decades to turn around the economy. If the next French president can push through the reforms needed to restore the country's competitiveness, France could rebound far more quickly than the déclinologues assert.

I have yet to read their 14 page analysis... and I may post something on it later if it turns out to be interesting.

NOTE: Personally, my favorite socialist candidate is the more moderate Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is more of a social-democrat (also referred to as "The Third Way") than an old-syle socialist, even if he signed the old-style socialist programme (but it's not like he had a choice either).


Thursday, October 26, 2006

The next president?

There is real media frenzy these days in the US about Barack Obama, the US senator who has been a rising star in American politics. He is a rather new face in politics. He’s only been in the Senate since 2004 but entered the national spotlight as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention.

As you can see here, Time magazine recently featured a photo of Obama on its cover with the headline "Why Barack Obama could be the next president.".

After saying he would not run for president or vice-president, last Sunday on "Meet the Press", he said he was considering a run for the presidency. He was pretty skillful about how he explained this chage of heart by attributing it to "the responses that I've been getting over the last several months" while campaigning for Democratic candidates across the country

What explains his rock-star popularity?

First, he’s got charisma and is a good speaker. His rhetoric is one of hope and optimism which is what Americans want to hear these days. His views are also much more middle-ground which may also appeal to a country which has been polarized in the last few years.

He also embodies the American dream he went from neighborhood activist to U.S. Senator. Jis book is after all called, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”. His father came from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas and as such he is also a symbol of unity, racial unity this time.

His is also one of those very few democrats who voted against the war in Iraq and that is definitely something that sells well these days.

His fresh face could also attract voters which could also be his weakest point since he has little experience, and it is clear that his opponents would use that against him in the current terror-filled world.

In any case, he is someone to follow closely.

I also see a parallel between what is going on in France with the popularity of French politician Segolène Royal and the popularity of Barrack Obama in the US. It is pretty clear that people in France and in the US want someone who embodies something different. They want some change. The French are now ready for a woman and the Americans for an African-American. Whether either one will ever become president remains to be seen of course.


An American wins prestigious French literary awards

For the French Academy, (L’Académie Française, the prestigious French learned body which has set the standards of what constitutes proper French since 1635) to give an award to a foreigner is highly unusual, but to give it to an American is worthy of being reported here.

Today, Johnathan Littell, an American writer who writes in French won the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française, one of the most prestigious literary awards in France for his novel "Les Bienveillantes,'' (which could be translated by "The Kindly Ones").

His novel has been a literary sensation in France and sold 230,000 copies, almost 20 times the original expectations of its Paris-based publisher, Gallimard. Not bad for a first novel in French (of 903 pages and 1.15 kilograms in weight) which presents the point of view of a Nazi insider.

Granted, Littell is an unusual American to say the least. He is the son of Robert Littell, a spy novelist who settled in France. He has spent most of his life in France and passed the French baccalaureate diploma. He now lives in Barcelona.

Littell chose French for this book, which took him five years to research and write. "The only useful clue I can give is the fact that my literary culture really is French,'' he said. "When I look for literary direction, I look to France -- to writers like Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and, of course, Flaubert.''

"It depends on which language the thought comes in, what I have been reading,'' said Littell, who also speaks Russian and Serbo-Croatian. "I dream in every language I know." (Bloomberg)

The NYTimes reported the bids for the publication of the novel in the US and some publishers called it a "very disturbing and very shocking masterpiece". Littell made some interesting remarks:

"Unlike American editors, French editors don't presume to interfere with content,'' he said. Instead, he and Millet went after pesky "Anglicisms,'' some of which still popped up in the published book.

To read that there were some "Anglicism" is great comfort to the rest of us who tend to mix two languages!

Littell, a descendant of Polish Jews, says he approached the book from a European perspective, but believes it has relevance for the U.S., particularly after the government allowed the use of torture in the interrogation of terror suspects.

"The basic thesis of the book, or rather its hypothesis, is that the barriers to mass killing are not individual but societal,'' said Littell. ``Once the state loosens the constraints against torture, there is never any shortage of torturers.'' (Bloomberg)

So far, the novel has been sold in Germany, but not yet in an English-speaking country.

NOTE: Jonathan Littell was twice refused French citizenship, even though he has spent much of his life in France. "I don't think they will refuse me now,'' said Littell in an Oct. 3 interview at a Paris apartment owned by Gallimard.
When he sent his manuscript to French publishers last year, he used the name Jean Petit, masking his U.S. nationality behind an obvious French pseudonym.(Bloomberb)


More violence in French suburbs.

Tomorrow is the the anniversary of the riots that shook France’s impoverished suburbs and as we said earlier this week, tension has been growing in those areas.

Last Sunday, a group of youths forced passengers off a bus before setting it alight and then stoning fire fighters. Yesterday two other similar incidents took place near Paris and another one in the suburb of Lyon:

Masked assailants torched buses in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre and the eastern suburb of Bagnolet but passengers fled before the flames engulfed the vehicles. Television footage showed the burnt-out wrecks.
An empty, parked private coach was set on fire in Venissieux, a suburb of the eastern city of Lyon, and three youths ordered passengers off a bus in Athis Mons, south of Paris, and tried without success to set it on fire. (Swissnfo)

Then of course, the French political leaders are big on words:

"We cannot accept the unacceptable ... We refuse to see no-go zones created in our country," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told his monthly news conference. "There will be arrests and immediate, exemplary punishment."

Well, the French PM may very well refuse whatever he wants but the facts remain. Those attacks are, if nothing else, another sign of the failure of the ruling political majority after nearly five years at the head of the country.

A few ays ago, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported what the intelligence service of the French police said:

"Today, a certain amount of feverishness is very perceptible among some of the town's youths, who have become critical of the work done by local associations and the purpose of the projects started on their behalf." Thus, there are allegedly many who perceived the opening of a Youth Club as a stop-gap measure. The document, which deplores the state of mind of a "youth fringe in the housing projects" of Clichy as well as Montfermeil, who are described as "deliberately hostile to any change of focus", states that "it is to be feared that tension will increase as we get closer to 27 October". (source)

Of course, those incidents do not necessarily mean that the same riots are about to happen. But one should be wary – this is school holiday in France for the next 10 days (and the youths in those neighborhood have more time to kill, so to speak.). What's more, we are just months away from the presidential elections and the media coverage of those events are likely to make those youths feel like tv stars and get all excited at making the headlines. It would probably take some cathartic event, though, to trigger nationwide suburban violence again, just like it did last year.

At the same time, there may be some positive consequence too: the issues of integration of minorities and social ghettoization are likely to become major political issues as the campaign heats up for next year's presidential and parliamentary elections in France.

Side-note: The French media compared the attacks to “stage-coach hold-ups”. I guess the western-movie metaphor is appealing to the French. It is also quite common in France to compare crime-ridden areas to "old-time Chicago" (meaning the Chicago of Al Capone). So no matter what happens, the U.S. is a reference to the French - not always in the best sort of way though.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bush Uses THE Google...

Here a funny excerpt from an interview of President Bush on CNBC (via Think Progress):

HOST: I’m curious, have you ever googled anybody? Do you use Google?

BUSH: Occasionally. One of the things I’ve used on the Google is to pull up maps. It’s very interesting to see — I’ve forgot the name of the program — but you get the satellite, and you can — like, I kinda like to look at the ranch. It remind me of where I wanna be sometimes.


French Media Fear New Riots in Impoverished Suburbs.

This has not made the international headlines… yet, at least (and hopefully it never will if things stay as they are), but in France, there has been a lot of talk of a possible new wave of suburban riots. October 27 is the anniversary of last year’s riots in French impoverished suburbs and the media have all hyped about it.
From what the French news have said in the past few weeks, there has been a steady increase of violent clashes with the police lately. Most French media have even talked about “
a series of ambushes targeting the police in the Paris outskirts”. The police have even mentioned “a near-perpetual and increasingly violent conflict between police and gangs in tough neighborhood”, and even fire fighters and rescue workers have been targeted and some now receive police escorts in certain areas.

In fact, with the anniversary of those riots approaching in the coming week, spiking statistics for violent crime across the area tell a grim tale of promises unkept and attention unpaid. Residents and experts say that fault lines run even deeper than before and that widespread violence could flare up again at any moment. (Herald Tribune)

Despite many commitments and promises with regards to measures to improve life in the suburbs (extra funding for housing, schools and neighborhood associations, or for counseling and job training for unemployed youths), not much has been done. This is definitely a major failure of the current governing right-wing majority- and of both Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.

Then last Sunday, it got a little bit worse yet:

A gang of youths forced passengers off a bus in a Paris suburb yesterday before setting it alight and then stoning fire fighters. The attack - which happened in broad daylight on Sunday - is the latest in a string of similar disturbances in housing estates surrounding the French capital. (Telegraph)
What is new here is precisely the fact that the attack was not only planned but that it took place in broad daylight (even though the attackers were wearing masks). No one was injured though and two youths were subsequently arrested.

In the wake of the attack, Le Figaro (the French conservative newspaper) reported a secret report by the General Intelligence (RG) agency that said that "most of the conditions that a year ago led to the unleashing of collective violence across a large part of France, are still in place." (IHT)

The whole of the Ile-de-France region -- greater Paris -- "is the source of very deep concern... it is to be feared that tensions get more acute as we approach October 27," it said.

I guess we will see. The problem maay also be exacerbatedby the French presidential campaign is already in full swing:

Nicolas Sarkozy, the front-runner for the nomination of the governing center- right party [and also the Minister of the Interior in charge of the police forces], has staked his reputation on an uncompromising attitude toward young offenders. But his increase in the number of police officers in the suburbs - many of them from far-away parts of France - has meant more harassment and random searches of young people, fueling complaints of unfairness.

I quite agree with The Herald Tribune here. It seems his tough-on-crime approach may simply be backfiring. Obviously, if tough policy is needed, you also need to implement positive measures too. But what does he propose exactly that would be perceived as “positive”?

Not to be outdone, the front-runner for the Socialist Party, Ségolène Royal, has offered her own proposals to curb youth violence, including military-led training programs to deal with young offenders and parenting school for parents of unruly primary school children.
Clearly, the French favor a tough line on security issues. According to an Ifop poll for Le Figaro published last month, 77 percent said that the judicial system was not harsh enough against young offenders.

In reality, the problem is the result of some of 40 years of bad management by all political parties - both left and right are utterly responsible.
The Herald Tribune is also quite right when it links the suburban violence to a sense of alienation by both parents and youths alike, caused in part by racism – something not every French person is ready to acknowledge. Of course racism is not the only reason. As we have mentioned before, there is, one must admit, also some pretty bad parenting going on as well.
But on top of that, there is the terrible perception of the police in those neighborhoods. The police have often been heavy-handed in their dealings with the youths, demanding their papers and frisking them down for no apparent reason. All those things have fueled a sense of injustice.
The bad urban planning (the ugly massive projects) certainly increases a sense of being let down by the state:

"Our main problem is this," a 36-year old self-employed businessman of Algerian origin said, pointing at a 15-storey housing estate. "We live like ants on top of each other." (Wash. Post)

This is a recipe for disaster and the pressure cooker may be ready to explode again. There is no excuse for rioting of course, but one must look beyond possible crisis management and see the deeper reasons why it has come to that, and those are some of the explanations.

In the meantime, it looks like some of the youths in those areas want a celebration of their own:

“We are getting the impression these youths want a 'remake' of what happened last year,” said Fred Lagache, national secretary of the Alliance police union. “The youths are trying to cause a police error to justify chaos.”

However, I would advise for caution about how the media and the police unions tend to report those incdients. I think they, as in the US, often play the dramatic card and hardly ever investigate the events, or even give all the facts.

Hopefully, we will have nothing else to post on this topic any time soon.


Monday, October 23, 2006

When Sci-Fi gives Food for Thought.

I have always been a bit of a sci-fi freak and I can watch just about anything that will remotely take me to a different world. But I must admit that there is a load of B-series crap in the sci-fi world.
However, there is one excellent show that surpasses anything I have seen in sci-fi: Battlestar Galactica. As we have mentioned before on this blog, this series is quite different from its original cheezy late-70s cult-series that tried to capitalize on the Star War success.
Like any good sci-fi, the show is a reflection about our world and the different possibilities the future might offer. It is allegorical in nature. And so what makes Galactica a good sci-fi show is that it is precisely about many issues that would be hard to address all together in a realistic series: religion, politics, war and a post-cataclysmic (9/11) world. In its previous seasons, Battlestar Galactica simply hinted at a war-on-terrorism world, and like a few other shows on American tv (Lost, 24), it even tackled the controversial topic of torture.

But this third season has moved a step further with a much more somber tone:
It shows a world of humans (New Caprica) occupied by Cylons (the robots who want to destroy humans and can look human) and the references to Iraq are totally straightforward to the point of being almost unsettling.
In BG, the situation is reverse to what you usually see in the "real" world as presented in the media: the insurgency is basically the good guys and the occupation force is the monsters.
Yet, it is not so binary. The Cylons have a moral of their own: they want to enlighten a warlike human race and convert them to a faith based on love. However, despite all their might and self-righteousness, they are seen rounding up innocent civilians and torturing those they see resisting. The Cylons are even shown discussing whether benevolent occupation is possible.

One Cylon says during a meeting: "How did you think the humans would greet us? With—oh, never mind."
The reference can’t be any clearer – in fact the human resistance is actually referred to as the “insurgency”. Then there are human collaborators, including a weak president, Gaius Baltar, who has been a pretty scary guy from the beginning. Even more daring and interesting, some of the human insurgency resists the occupation with suicide bombers, and there is debate among the humans as to killing innocents is worth it.
The great thing about this show is not only that it deals with moral complexities in a subtle way; it is that it offers another perspective and turns the tables around. The show re-writes the narrative of occupation by showing us the perspective of those occupied by an illegitimate force.
I am just amazed that such a show can even be aired as the war in Iraq is still going on. It says a lot about the freedom of creativity and criticial expression in America. There is after all a real sense of uneasiness to say the least at being an American when you watch the show.
In addition, the series has great cinematograpic quality which only adds to the pleasure of watching it.

To give an idea, here’s an interesting exchange between the former President of the human colony (Laura Roslin) and the new president (Gaius Baltar) who is also a collaborator with the occupying forces (see the excerpt in the video below):

“The insurgency has crossed the line. Suicide bombings. It’s contrary to everything that we believe in. So you and I…, we will publicly condemn these tactics. That cannot be legitimized in an shape or form.”
“There is something that scares the Cylons after all. “
“I should think that using men and women as human bombs should scare us all.”
“Desperate people take desperate measures”
“Look me in the eye and tell that you approve of sending young men and women into crowded places with explosives strapped to their chests. I’m waiting for so look me in the eye and tell me you approve. 33 people killed and their only crime was putting on peace uniforms and try to bring order to the chaos out there”.
“By arresting innocent people in the dead of night, detaining them indefinitely without charge, torturing them for information”.
“Nobody’s been tortured….”

Battlestar galactica 2003 302 1st 10min


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Seeing the World from the Arab Perspective.

It has always been fascinating to me how one can look at the same events and see it from opposite perspectives depending on one’s personal paradigm. This is particularly visible when you look at public opinions in the West and in the Middle-East.
The divide is based on a very different view of reality and strangely enough, they are not necessarily contradictory.

This week The Economist has an article called Coalitions of the Unwilling, which encapsulates quite well the other perspective that you find in the Arab street and that we in the West, find it so hard to understand with regard to the Middle-East.

What rally the masses in the Arab world can be summed coalitions of the Unwilling up in one concept: resistance. And let’s not kid ourselves, the West is the dominant part of the world today probably even more since the end of the Cold War.

The West is always more or less associated with European colonialism, Zionism, American hegemonism and corrupt local governments. And so the street in the Middle-East tends to read current events from a narrative of victimhood and this is particularly true when it comes to Israel. The Arab world may not care about the fate of the Palestinians except that they have become the epitome of the Arab victim of the Western world.

The Economist adds that the current Bush administration has only worsen the process by, for instance,

“lumping together groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, whose chief agenda was local and nationalist and did not threaten America, with the global terrorist network of al-Qaeda, which had not only declared war on the superpower and on “Jews and Crusaders”, but had also launched hostilities in the most dramatic fashion conceivable.”.

Other factors have contributed to strengthening the idea of a malevolent west: America’s poor moral image in the world, or Bush’s dramatization of the stakes in the Middle-East or his religious references.

On top of things though, there is undeniably the war in Iraq and Bush’s unilateral decision to attack a country that had not struck the first blow:

Far more important, the invasion massively buttressed the old rejectionist thesis that America's aim was to divide and rule the Muslim world, to control its oil and to impose Western culture. Here, stirring faded memories, was a Christian army overrunning a Muslim land, in pursuit of what George Bush once carelessly called a “crusade” against terrorism. And here, on the ground, was “resistance” in action, visibly humiliating the intruding warriors.

Even moderate Arabs are weary:

A recent poll found that 84% of Lebanese believe the war was “a premeditated attempt by the United States and Israel to impose a new regional order in the Middle East”.

The Economist gives two reasons to be hopeful: first the money of the Gulf countries which could win goodwill by, for instance, rebuilding Lebanon and shoring up the Palestinian economy. Then, if a minority of Arabs who reject the West will not change their minds, the majority can still be swayed – even at the government level.

Syria's president has repeatedly signalled that he would shift his position if only some reward, such as a chance to recover the Golan Heights, were offered. Recent polling among Palestinians shows a similar openness to persuasion.

As they put it, what the West must do now is win the moderates to a more pragmatic approach, and as they conclude:

It [the West] could start by remembering that people choose to “resist” when they feel threatened.

Wise words indeed, and whether the threat is real does not matter. What matters, as we have said many times on this blog, is perception not reality. And it is the perceived threat that must be addressed, and the sooner, the better.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

When 'New Europe' Wants to Ban Evolution Theory.

Recently we argued that the much heated debate between “evolutionist” and “creationist (or Intelligent Designer-ists) is almost solely an American phenomenon. We said “almost” because we had in mind the Mollahs of Iran who are not big fans of Evolution either.
As Le Monde reported yesterday, it seems that anti-evolution rhetoric is making progress in the developed world too :

Poland's deputy education minister called for the influential evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin not to be taught in the country's schools, branding them as lies in comments published on Saturday.

"The theory of evolution is a lie, an error that we have legalised as a common truth," Miroslaw Orzechowski, the deputy minister in the country's right-wing coalition government, was quoted as saying.

Orzechowski said that the theory was a feeble idea of an aged non-believer, who had come up with it perhaps because he was a vegetarian and lacked fire inside him. (here in English)

Well, of course this is PolandIs it really "Europe"… and is it really part of the “developed world”? The question remains. Boy, when I come to think of it, yes, Mr Rumsfeld, there is indeed an "Old Europe" and a New One, and I am relieved to be part of the former.

For our other posts on Intelligen Design, go here, here, here or here and here.


Sorry for our polish readers… no offense meant. Our statement may be a gross exaggeration, I’ll be the firstto admit!

But on the other hand, you must agree that a country led by a Convervative political party called Law and Justice, which has allied with the church-affiliated Polish Families' League (a far-right political party with anti-Semitic ideology whose leader is no less than the Minister of Education now) and the agrarian, anti-European Union Self-Defense party to have a majority in parliament... is pretty scary.
It is agreed in Europe that the current Polish government really sucks – read our posts here or here but nobody's talking much about it, it seems.

The latest developments are worth of a pretty bad B-series though – it now looks like while the Kaczynski twins’ government continues to spew homophobic hate, one of the twins may actually be gay himself (read here or details). Just unfounded rumor? Well, it was serious enough to be published in Rzeczpolita, Poland’s second-most important newspaper. They published documents—some only recently declassified, and some that were leaked—from the files of the Polish Secret Service that discussed Prime Minister Kaczynski’s homosexuality.

Whatever..... this would almost be funny, if it wasn't so bad!


Climate - it will get worse before it gets better... if it ever does.

Remember the ozone hole? That was way back when global warming was not such a hot issue. It is not much talked about any more. After all, mankind was able to ban the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, and equipment that contain these chemicals. That was fairly easy. It only concerned a handful of nations - all in the in developed world – and just a handful of products that were fairly easy to change.

Yet look at the damage done – new data from both NASA and the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that the ozone hole over Antarctica is still getting wider and deeper.

"We now have the largest ozone hole on record for this time of year," said Craig Long of NCEP. As the sun rises higher in the sky during October and November, this unusually large and persistent area may allow much more ultraviolet light than usual to reach Earth's surface in the southern latitudes.

This may be a surprise to most of us, but it is not to scientists:

Damage to the upper atmosphere caused by the emission of fluorocarbons won't likely return to the level it was at in 1980 until 2065, according to scientists.

And in fact, it may still get worse, but hopefully not for long:

The maximum depletion of the ozone should occur between 2000 and 2010 before a slow recovery begins.

Yes, nature works on different pace than we do and there is nothing we can do about that. So, imagine how long it is going to take before we can reverse global warming, that is if we ever agree on anything .


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Voting Chaos or Voting Woes....to come.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the most famous French analysis of the American political system, so much so that it has become a classic for anyone even remotely interested in American political or social sciences.
While Tocqueville praised American democracy, he also mentioned a great number of possible threats to it: the tyranny of the majority, slavery, the absence of intellectual freedom, etc… but never could he have guessed a modern plight: the problem of the voting machines. No, he couldn’t have… so ridiculous is the whole issue.

Yet, it seems that since we mentioned this problem last month, the situation has only worsened, and we are now less than 20 days away from the mid-term elections, on Nov. 7. Even the serious NYTimes had a piece on the issue yeserday.

And the irony is that the problem has been made worse by the federal Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 which required to create computerized statewide voter registration rolls. Now, dozens of states are trying to enforce the new law. As you can see on the following graph, that’s a lot of districts.

According to The Brad Blog, the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) chair Rev. DeForest Soaries, who was appointed by president Bush and resigned from the commission in April of 2005 said in an unaired interview, conducted last August, that Congress and the White House "made things worse through the passage of the Help America Vote Act."

"[T]he states were forced to comply and they were asking us for guidance. We were ill-equipped to provide guidance. We didn’t begin our work until January 2004 and we spent the first three months of our work looking for office space. Here we were, the first federal commission, responsible for implementing federal law in the area of election administration and for the first three months we didn’t even have an address. And we physically had to walk around Washington DC looking for office space. This was a travesty. I was basically deceived by the leaders of the House, the Senate and the White House."

So here is yet another Bush appointee who feels deceived.

The are many problems with the changes in the voting machines :

  • vote tampering of course (given the fluidity of electronic data) but also..
  • a shortage of technicians,
  • delays in the delivery of machines and...
  • a shortage of poll workers who are often retirees who have no clue about new technology stuff.

According to the NYTimes :

Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states considered most likely to experience difficulties, according to voting experts who have been tracking the technology and other election changes.

“We’ve got new laws, new technology, heightened partisanship and a growing involvement of lawyers in the voting process,” said Tova Wang, who studies elections for the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. “We also have the greatest potential for problems in more places next month than in any voting season before.”

Meanwhile, votes in about half of the 45 most competitive Congressional races, including contests in Florida, Georgia and Indiana, will be cast on electronic machines that provide no independent means of verification.

Except for rudimentary federal rules on voting age, federal financing for states and counties, and protections for minorities and the disabled, elections are shaped by a variety of local laws, conflicting court rulings and technological choices.

NOTES: According to The Brad Blog, the NY Times article's original headline was "New Laws and Machines May Spell Voting Chaos" but was later softened into "New Laws and Machines May Spell Voting Woes". Interesting...