Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Sarah-Palin-dissing-the-VP-job video

I'm sure this Sarah-Palin-dissing-the-VP-job video must have been all over the web in the last couple of days but I couldn't resist....

Here's the transcript of the best part:

"As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I'm used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we're trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the U.S., before I can even start addressing that question."


(Old) Europe for Obama.

At least when it comes to the big 3 in Europe, there is no doubt... and I suspect this must be the case of most of Europe if not most of the World....

Not that it matters in the end...

Is that a good thing? Well, it depends... :
If Obama does win in November, the great expectations he is setting in Europe could come back to haunt him. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, quoting a German friend, wrote last year, "Underneath every America-hater is a disappointed America-lover." Last week, one European diplomat shared with me his fear that the real Obama can't possibly live up to the hype. (Try, for instance, counting the votes in the Senate for a climate-change bill with real teeth.) This is the moment, then, for Obama to tell Europeans that he is going to let them down. Better they hear it from his own lips now than figure it out on their own, two years down the


Monday, August 25, 2008

The US Electoral Process Explained in less than 60 seconds.



Saturday, August 23, 2008

French or American Disease... that killed millions.

Last week, NPR had a fascinating report on the Spanish Flu in 1918 - the not-so-well-known disease that killed more people than World War I : an estimated death toll of 50 million people (or even a 100 million),compared to 40 million for the war - which represented 2.5 to 5% of the human population, with 20% or more of the world population suffering from the disease to some extent.

(About 25 % of the US population was infected, with perhaps 650,000 people dying from the virus.)

"Spanish flu" is an interesting name for it since, for one, it had nothing to do with Spain:
That name probably came from the fact that only Spain was publishing news about local flu epidemics; there was a blackout on news that might lower morale in Germany, Britain and France.
And now, research indicates that it might even not have been a flu at all (but a bacterial disease). This is actually good news for us:

The new research suggests that with the availability of effective treatments for bacterial infections, a modern-day flu pandemic might not be so deadly.

Why post about this? Well, because the current debate of the origin of the disease is that it started either in America's heartland or in France (the latter being the British army's favorite while some suggest it was nurnured by the British Empire).


Fit for Office?

While the big news this week-end is Obama's pick for VP (which I think will get mostly favorable comments):

The big buzz in the politico-blogshpere is McCain's "housing gaffe":

When asked about how many houses he and his wife have, McCain blundered big time:

“I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain told Politico in Las Cruces, N.M. “It’s condominiums where — I’ll have them get to you.” (audio here)

Yet, I think it is unfair to give McCain a hard time simply for being rich, even though this may not go well in this time of housing and mortgage crisis.

I think most people miss a much bigger point here : it is not that he has 7 houses, it is that he CAN'T REMEMEBER how many. Of course, he's 72.... and memory problems should be expected. Talking about being fit for office!
Oh.. the irony!
PS: Well of course, thanks to modern technology, he can always google himself.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Obama, McCain and Evil.

One of the most telling differences between McCain and Obama in the Saddleback church interview cam out when the two candidates were asked about evil.
Both candidates agreed that evil exists but as to its nature and what to do with it, they gave very distinct answers:

WARREN: Okay we've got time for one last [question] -- I've got a bunch more [but] let me ask you ask you one in evil. Does evil exist and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it or do we defeat it?
OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task. But we can be soldiers in that process and we can confront it when we see it. Now the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil. But, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.
WARREN: In the name of "good?"
OBAMA: In the name of good. And I think one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good, it doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good.

WARREN: How about the issue of evil? I asked this of your rival in the previous thing. Does evil exist and if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?
McCAIN: Defeat it. Couple of points, one, if I'm President of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that and I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one should be allowed to take thousands of American -- innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendant challenge of the 21st century, radical Islamic extremists. Not long ago in Baghdad, Al Queda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and by remote control detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is and we're going to defeat this evil and the central battle ground according to David Petraeus and Osama Bin Laden is the battles -- is Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq and we are winning and we are succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and victory and not defeat and that's what's happening. We have -- and we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us Al Queda contunues to try to establish cells here in America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge and we must totally defeat it and we're in a long struggle, but when I'm around the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt.
For his answer, McCain got more applause from the evangelical audience at Saddleback church. Yet there seems to be a lot of arrogance in McCain's claim that America should and can defeat evil.
From a Christian perspective, his view is not only arrogant, it is even close to blasphemy as it puts America in God's role. Obama, on the other hand, stresses the fact that even Americans are only God's tool ("soldiers")in the confrontation with evil. And by the way, noweher in the bible is America mentioned as a nation that will defeat evil. In fact, no nation, other than Israel (and that would be Ancient Israel) is God's chosen nation to accomplish His deed, and it is He who can (and will) defeat evil.
Now as to the nature of evil, it is also a strange view to limit evil to radical Islamic extremists. I suppose that made the audience feel comfortable (if not self-righteous) since McCain implied that evil is only foreign and "other". Phew!
Obama's view seemed a lot more in line with what the bible says: evil is everywhere, even in our own lives. This is, after all, the very idea of the "original sin".
From a non-Christian perspective, it is even worse - it is non-sensical and dangerous. It is sedning the wrong signal to the rest of the world by associating foreign policy with religion and faith - a highly explosive mix. The fact that McCain has been making many references to "Judeo-Christian" values to justify his world view only adds to the confusion. It is one thing to make war for freedom, it is another to make it for "Judeo-Christian" values.


Religious Test for the Presidential Candidates...

I finally managed to watch the entire interview of McCain and Obama at Saddleback Church last week-end.

Apart from the fact that there is something odd about a political meeting in an evangelical megachurch, the whole idea of having two presidential candidates go through religious interrogation by an evangelical minister is highly questionable. It is as close to a religious test as it can get, a test which the Constitution clearly prohibits.

[Article VI: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."]

Of course, one will easily argue that this was not a "legal test" after all and that Obama and McCain are free agents who can choose to be interviewed by whomever they see fit, but it seems to me to be in contradiction with the spirit of the Constitution, if not the letter and, as Susan Jacoby notes in her Newsweek/Washington-Post article, it may set a worrisome precedent for future campaigns.

Of course, Pastor Rick Warren knew this and he defused criticisms from the start of the interview by saying "we believe in the separation of church and state, we don't believe in the separation of faith and politics. Faith, is just a worldview, and everybody has some kind of worldview. It's important to know what they are."

Warren seemed genuine enough and in many ways, he promotes a very interesting new brand of "evangelical christianity" but while his views may indeed reflect those of many (younger?) evangelical christians, it seems to me that the candidates should have not agreed to submit themselves to something so close to a religious test, with an audience clearly biased on so many issues. The result was that they both tried to give answers they knew were "expected" of them and the whole thing sounded hollow.

Yet surprisingly, there were some noticeable very telling differences that transpired.
(to be continued)

By the way, in case you have never heard of Rick Warren, know that he was named one of "America's Top 25 Leaders" in the October 31, 2005 issue of U.S. News and World Report, he was elected by TIME magazine as one of 15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004 and one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" (2005) and Newsweek magazine called him one of "15 People Who Make America Great", an award given to people who, through bravery or generosity, genius or passion, devote themselves to helping others.

For more, watch this interview by Charlie Rose, along with Greg Boyd, another influential ministzer whose views and theology I feel closer to.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

McCain's History with Georgia.

As could have been expected the topic has spilled over to the US presidential campaign.
McCain’s response has been less that subtle:

"I told him that I know I speak for every American when I said to him, today, we
are all Georgians," McCain said to loud applause. (CBS)

On Tuesday, he called Russia an unrepentant combatant against a "brave little nation" and compared Russian "killing" in the "tiny little democracy" to Soviet aggression during the Cold War era.
"We've seen this movie before in Prague and Budapest," McCain said on
Fox News. (Wash Post)

Then I found out this:

John McCain's top foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, is a leading expert on U.S.-allied Georgia -- and was a paid lobbyist for the former Soviet republic(i.e. Georgia) until March.
Until May, Scheunemann was lobbying for Georgia - earning more than $800,000 in the process - yet now in August, he's advising McCain on the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Scheunemann's other notable lobbying stints include putting his McCain ties to use in 2006 advising Greenberg Traurig, Jack Abramoff's former firm, as McCain served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, charged with investigating Abramoff. (Fox Business)

If nothing else, this ought to raise suspicion in McCain's motivations for backing up Georgia so bluntly.

But there is more ... and better yet:
The crisis puts a spotlight on Mr. Scheunemann, 48 years old, who has long been a leading neoconservative voice in the American foreign-policy debate. He played a prominent role advocating for toppling Saddam Hussein, serving in 2002 as executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. At a key moment before the war, he helped to line up allies in "New Europe" -- notably former Soviet bloc states like Latvia -- to write a letter in support of the invasion.
That came as "Old Europe" American allies like France and Germany resisted.
Mr. Schueneman has made a career in lobbying for countries, including Georgia, that aspire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Russia's objections to expansion of the Western military alliance are a factor in the current assault in the Caucasus. (Wall Street Journal)
Some adviser indeed!!!
PS: Any resemblance to a current administration is purely coincidental, of course!


Framing the Russian-Georgian War

Does history repeats itself? According to the way many commentators have recently framed the current Russian-Georgian war/crisis, it does, and Putin is either Hitler or Stalin while Georgia equals the Sudetenland and Chamberlain and Daladier is played by French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Of course comparing foreign leaders to Hitler has long been a past time of American politicians, and (particularly but not exclusively) neo-con advocates. Would-be Hitlers have been numerous: from Egyptian President Nasser in 1956 (after he nationalized the Suez Canal) to Yasser Arafat, Hugo Chavez, Manuel Noriega and of course, best of all, Saddam Hussein.

As you can read in this article by Michael Dobbs (not to be confused with Lou, thank God!) in the Wash Post , “the events of the past week in Georgia have little in common with either Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II or Soviet policies in Eastern Europe.”.

The power of the 1930s analogy is pretty obvious: it is the only analogy that most Americans understand, it overly simplifies a complex (if not complicated) situation with its specificities and it provides a very clear answer for warmongers.
Not only is the reality more complex than a comfortable binary view of good-v-evil but there also seems to be a lot of PR involved as well - on both sides. The war between Russia and Georgia has indeed also “exploded onto the media and cyberspace theater”.
I am struck however by how the media seem to have all taken the cause of Georgia without even mentioning that it is Georgia’s president (Mikheil Saakashvili) ’s ill-judged assault on South Ossetia that gave Russia a pretext for the invasion of Georgia. What is cleat is that the events that led to the war are still murky:

It is unclear how the simmering tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia came to the boil this month. The Georgians say that they were provoked by the shelling of Georgian villages from Ossetian-controlled territory. While this may well be the case, the Georgian response was disproportionate. On the night of Aug. 7 and into Aug. 8, Saakashvili ordered an artillery barrage against Tskhinvali and sent an armored column to occupy the town. He apparently hoped that Western support would protect Georgia from major Russian retaliation, even though Russian "peacekeepers" were almost certainly killed or wounded in the Georgian assault.
The Russian incursion into Georgia proper has been even more "disproportionate" -- in President Bush's phrase -- than the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali. The Russians have made no secret of their wish to replace Saakashvili with a more compliant leader. (
Wash Post)

And for sure, G. W Bush knows a little something about "disproportionate response"!

In any case it seems to me that we ought to expect our leaders to put things into perspective and act with more wisdom than in the recent past, and try to add some gray into the picture. I thought that people were fed up with the good-v-evil paradigme used by the Bush administration. But maybe not, maybe they are too lazy.
The funny thing is that it has all been a lot of talk and posturing and one can easily understand why Russia is not impressed :
The bottom line is that the United States is overextended militarily, diplomatically and economically. Even hawks such as Vice President Cheney, who have been vociferously denouncing Putin's actions in Georgia, have no stomach for a military conflict with Moscow. The United States is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and needs Russian support in the coming trial of strength with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
Instead of speaking softly and wielding a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt recommended, the American policeman has been loudly lecturing the rest of the world while waving an increasingly unimpressive baton. The events of the past few days serve as a reminder that our ideological ambitions have greatly exceeded our military reach, particularly in areas such as the Caucasus, which is of only peripheral
importance to the United States but of vital interest to Russia. (
Wash Post)
And to answer our initial question about whether history repeats itself, it is enough to quote Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme".


Sunday, August 10, 2008

The French (& American) Love Affair with Cars.

No one can deny that Europe has generally a better system of public transportation than the United-States where most cities were built around the car.

As a result, 91% of the adult Americans commute to work using personal vehicles and only 5% of adults nationwide commute to work regularly using public transit. (Bureau of transportation statistics). In European nations, 15 to 18% of daily travel is on mass transit. (Source Pdf) But of course, there are great variations – more people use public transport in the Paris area than, say in the Alps.

Still, if you look at large cities, an average of almost 40% of work trips are made on transit in Europe compared to only 9.0% in the United States. And an addition 18.4 % of workers walk or bicycle in Europe compared to only 4.6 % in the United States. (source Pdf)

France in this respect is typically European.
Yet against all odds the French and the Americans share one thing in common: their love of cars. My take is that the French are deeply as individualistic as the Americans - only they cannot afford to be as much. If you add this love of cars to a (very French) relentless pursuit of leisure and summer vacation, you have the recipe for the perfect traffic jam.

The LA Times has a very good insight of France's August nightmarish roads:
France has a first-class highway grid and, as an alternative, perhaps the world's best railroad network. But traffic is rooted in prosperity. There's the sheer number of people -- tycoons and janitors, bureaucrats and immigrants -- who take vacations at the same time (July or August) and in the same places (southern France, Spain, Italy and North Africa). Geography also subjects France to a simultaneous invasion of sun-hungry Belgians, Britons and Dutch.
Like Californians, the French are attached to their cars despite obscene prices at the pump. (LA Times)

PS: And by the way, the icon used for road information in France in the last 30 years or so is a cartoon character called Bison Fute (Clever Buffalo), "a plucky Native American warrior who fills the radio, Internet and other media with updates on road conditions and safety tips.". (LATimes)


How Fat Are Americans? VERY.....!

Currently, figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the prevalence of obesity in adults at about 66 %.
But lead study author Dr. Youfa Wang of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore says that if current overweight and obesity trends continue, 86 % of Americans could be overweight or obese by the year 2030.
Even more troubling, the authors note,

"By 2048, all American adults would become overweight or obese." (ABC)
"This would result in 1 of every 6 health care dollars spent in total direct health care costs paying for overweight and obesity-related costs.” (source)


Monday, August 04, 2008

Tornado in ..... France?

I have lived in France all my life and have never heard of a real tornado there, yet yesterday :

A freak tornado ripped through northern France overnight, killing three people and injuring nine as it gutted houses and hurled cars through the air, officials said Monday. (AFP)

As you can see on the pictures, it hit that place pretty hard.

Yet, it was not as vast and wide as tornados in North America, hence the name "mini-tornado". They are still dangerous because according to this weather expert (in French), they can be spotted before they arrive because they are too local and small in scope, and so people cannot be warned and take shelter. In fact, the mini-tordanoes can only be seen on radars after they have hit the ground.

So what is going on?

Well, it seems that tornadoes are more common in Europe than I ever thought, although most of them seem so local that they don't even make the headlines.

It seems, that outside North America,
it is the Netherlands that has the highest average number of recorded tornadoes per area of any country (more than 20, or 0.0013 per sq mi (0.00048 per km²), annually), followed by the UK (around 33, or 0.00035 per sq mi (0.00013 per km²), per year but most are small and cause minor damage.

In absolute number of events, ignoring area, the UK experiences more tornadoes than any other European country, excluding waterspouts.
The United States has the most tornadoes of any country, about four times more than estimated in all of Europe, not including waterspouts. (Wiki)
What is unusual about this one in France is precisely that it caused so much damage and killed people. That I had not heard of before.
Here's a very telling map of "areas worldwide where tornadoes are most likely, indicated by orange shading." (National Climatic Data, Asheville, North Carolina)