Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Not Bush Alone

James Carroll makes the argument that the mess we find ourselves in has roots that run deeper than the current administration's policies and attitudes. As always, Carroll is thoughtful, provocative, and, ultimately, persuasive.

Why Care About Darfur?

Nicholas Kristof answers the question in today's New York Times.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Blogging in the PRC

Nicholas Kristof, in a column entitled "Death by a Thousand Blogs," argues today that "the Chinese leadership itself . . . is digging the Communist Party's grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband."

Voinovich vs. Bolton

Senator George Voinovich of Ohio is urging his fellow Republicans to vote against John Bolton's nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations according to tomorrow's New York Times. In a letter and in phone calls to his colleagues, Voinovich has sought to persuade at least five more Republican senators to resist pressure from the White House to confirm the controversial nominee. The Times reports that in Voinovich's letter, the senator said "that while he had been 'hesitant to push my views on my colleagues' during his six years in the Senate, he felt 'compelled to share my deep concerns' about the nomination."

"In these dangerous times, we cannot afford to put at risk our nation's ability to successfully wage and win the war on terror with a controversial and ineffective ambassador to the United Nations," Mr. Voinovich wrote. He urged colleagues to "put aside our partisan agenda and let our consciences and our shared commitment to our nation's best interests guide us."

It is not at all clear that there are five other Republicans in the Senate capable of acting independently of the White House, which, in recent months, has sought to make the Senate a wholely-owned subsidiary of the executive branch.

Monday, May 23, 2005

French Test

The Constitution for the European Union goes to the voters in France for approval on Sunday and public opinion polls suggest that it may fail. Here's the Washington Post's story on the crucial vote.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Women's Suffrage in Kuwait

"It is about time." So said Lulua al-Mulla, general secretary of the Social Cultural Women's Society in Kuwait of the decision of the Kuwaiti parliament yesterday to grant women the right to vote and to run for office. (Read the New York Times story here.) Kuwait thus joins a long progression of the world's states, beginning with New Zealand in 1893, recognizing the right of women to vote.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Downing Street Memo

On May 1, just days before the British general election, The Times of London printed a leaked memorandum that included minutes of a meeting involving Prime Minister Tony Blair and a number of cabinet officials on July 23, 2002. During this meeting, there was discussion of the Bush Administration's posture regarding Iraq. It was reported in the meeting, on the basis of a recent high-level meeting in Washington, that the Bush Administration already considered war with Iraq inevitable.

Here, in a passage that describes the Bush Administration's view, is a shocking admission that the British Government has not repudiated in the two weeks since the memorandum was published:

There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

"The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

For those who have been insisting on seeing the smoking gun, this is it. The Bush Administration was intent on war with Iraq before a public case for that war was articulated. Intelligence was twisted to make it fit the foreordained conclusion.

This is not speculation; it is an undisputed fact revealed in a previously secret memorandum. (Read it here.)

Where is the outrage? Is it okay with Americans for presidents to lie as long as it's about going to war rather than about something important such as sex?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

On to the Senate

The nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is being sent to the Senate without the endorsement of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio joined all eight Democrats on the committee in expressing reservations about Bolton. "It is my opinion that John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," Voinovich said.

Voinovich also said that he would vote against Bolton when the full Senate votes. But with 55 Republicans in the Senate, the Bolton nomination will succeed unless other Republicans break ranks.

Whatever one thinks of Bolton's views, Voinovich is correct: he is no diplomat. The Senate should reject the nomination.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The News from Iraq

Bombs are killing dozens of people almost daily in Iraq. It is clear that little, if any, progress is being made against the insurgency in spite of official statements to the contrary.

Jules Witcover, the Washington bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, offers a trenchant summary of developments in Iraq and their political implications here in the United States.

Election Day

In the British parliamentary election held yesterday, Tony Blair became the first Labour prime minister to win three consecutive general elections, but Labour's share of seats in the House of Commons was dramatically reduced. In fact, Labour won only 36 percent of the vote nationwide, the lowest share for a ruling party in the modern era. Blair acknowledged that "Iraq has been a divisive issue," but urged his party to unite and "look to the future."

For more on the British election, see the BBC News election web site.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Worth Reading

There are a few columns that have appeared in recent days that are well worth reading. Yesterday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the Bush Administration's attempts to kill the Darfur Accountability Act, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House of Representatives. Kristof also notes that President Bush has not uttered the word "Darfur" since January 10.

There are a number of columnists I respect, including Nicholas Kristof, but there is none better than James Carroll. This week he has a beautifully written and compelling column in the Boston Globe about the role that revenge plays in the life (and policies) of our nation. Here's a brief excerpt:

The misbegotten character of the war in Iraq was crystal clear last fall, yet John Kerry was unable to challenge it. Why? The answer has as much to do with the American unconscious as with his. The nation's war establishment, and those who support it, are driven by a motive they cannot admit, even to themselves. Their critics have mostly fallen mute because they have yet to find the language for what is really at work in this war.

Read the entire column here.

On Monday, Jimmy Carter addressed the matter of nuclear proliferation and the NPT Review Conference in this International Herald Tribune commentary.

There's much more out there that is worth reading, but these three essays are a good start toward understanding something of the most important things happening in the world today.

Ten Disasters, More or Less

[I've been relaxing a bit since the end of the semester (and enjoying the Malibu High Sharks great baseball season), so I haven't posted much lately. That will change soon, but meanwhile I'm moving Dr. Kevin Iga's great comment on this post onto the "front page," as it were. Consider him a guest blogger. Welcome, and thanks, Dr. Iga!]

I don't know if I agree with all of that [in "Ten Disasters"]. Some threats are real, like nuclear war or pandemics. But I disagree with a few estimates.

First, the telomere thing. It's telling that they have to cite a single individual, and this is a physician, not a biologist. It is true that our DNA has telomeres as ends, and with each cell division, our telomeres shrink. But the idea that telomeres degrade with each generation is not accepted.

Consider the repercussions if they did shrink. Of all the thousands of species we know about going extinct, not a single one was attributed to telomere depletion. People are not showing signs of aging earlier, and neither are animals or plants or fungi or protozoans.

Given this, what are the chances that this would happen to humans, and that, in the next 100 years?

Asteroid impact: This is a real danger, but the probability of it happening "in the next 70 years" is extremely miniscule, not "medium." Consider that the last time an asteroid impact caused worldwide extinctions was 65 million years ago. At that rate, we should expect the probability of this happening in the next 70 years as about 1 in a million (that's not a figure of speech; I just calculated it).

Robots taking over: This runs the risk of predicting technology. I've heard it said that if you ask someone to predict the future 5 years out, they underestimate change; if you ask them to predict 50 years out, they overestimate it. In 5 years there will likely be occurences that no one could possibly imagine that have drastic consequences. But for 50 years, people predict flying cars.

We have no idea what constitutes intelligence, really. What makes us think we will create artificial ones anytime soon? It is true that the field of artificial intelligence has made dramatic advances since the idea was posed 70 years ago. We have controls that guess at what you want, computers that can play chess, speech recognition, and systems that learn from their mistakes. But every time we reach another milestone of this sort, we discover that intelligence is still far in the distance, like a mirage that keeps moving away as we approach it.

More likely is that computers will allow us to automate our bureaucracies so well that we will be trapped in our own policies--there is no one who can have compassion and tell us, "okay, I feel sorry for you, just this once I'll make an exception, but don't tell the boss." Instead, it will only be, "application for credit denied," "parole denied," "no entry permitted."

Supervolcanoes: They are not both "very high chance" and "danger 7" at the same time. We may very well see another Pinatubo or Krakatoa. That's likely. But catastrophic though it was for the local population, it hardly ranks with the Black Death or such. A sufficiently large volcano could spell trouble, but they are much less likely. It erupting in the Amazon could also wreak havoc with climate but again, that would be very unlikely. We know where most of these hot spots are. They are on edges of tectonic plates, especially in the "ring of fire" in the Pacific.

While we're talking about speculative calamities, I'm surprised they don't list the more prosaic forms.

1. Civil war. Just because Africa has a bunch, and we don't doesn't mean it can't happen to us. Right now the conditions aren't there, but if you think we're immune because we're "more civilized," you should talk to someone from Argentina who lived through the 1980s or from Lebanon who saw their "Jewel of the Mediterranean" go up in flames.

2. Famine. It is possible that our population will outgrow our food supply.

3. Results of overcrowding. This is besides all that is listed with "pandemic" in that site. Of course overcrowding can lead to pandemics. But it can also simply increase the rate of spread of disease. One of the fastest growing diseases in the U.S. is tuberculosis, which depends on overcrowding and stressful conditions. Besides this, there will be higher incidences of murder, pollution-related illnesses, and automobile accidents.

4. Nuclear accident. You don't need a global nuclear war or a terrorist attack to get one of these. There are aging nuclear power plants and an essential moratorium on building new ones; we are dependent on their energy, so when one is on its very last legs, there will be a temptation to try to squeeze a little bit more out of it. Besides this, there could be failures in nuclear weapons.

5. Side effects of genetic engineering. One might argue that we've been doing genetic engineering ever since farmers started breeding plants thousands of years ago. But we're doing this more quickly than ever before, and in an environment where the new genes might spread quickly. A small mistake could make one of our food crops (for instance) susceptible to something that occurs only after the gene has spread.

6. Homogeocene: The species diversity on this earth is depleting rapidly. Species from one part of the world are spreading over the entire world, displacing other species. Not to mention farming practices that choose a single variety of a single species to cover acres, where once many types flourished. This will increase the instability of our biosphere, just as the fact that only the Lumper potato was grown in Ireland made the entire population susceptible when a blight that attacked only the Lumper potato crossed to Ireland. To solve the problem they had to go back to the Andes where the diversity existed. Today, growers of the Russett potato are similarly indebted to the Aymara of Peru as an insurance policy in case the same thing happens to the Russett. But what if those varieties go extinct because of deforestation?

7. Judgment day comes. Like a thief in the night. Sun goes dark, moon turns to blood. God separates the sheep from the goats. All that ....

Anyway, it's not clear where these would rank with respect to the ones listed, but I'd place some of these as better than the ones I criticized them about.

And while we're at it, take a look at this for other reasons the earth might be destroyed. My favorite is "total existence failure."

Sunday, May 01, 2005

More on Bassiouni's Ouster

The New York Times ran a story yesterday on Cherif Bassiouni's removal from his U.N. position investigating the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Asked what he expected would happen in Afghan prisons now that there is no U.N. watchdog, Bassiouni said, "My guess is that torture will go down at the U.S. facilities, but what will go up is torture at the Afghan facilities. It's the usual shell game. The U.S. feels the heat, it tries to discontinue the practice itself, but it finds special forces in the Afghan Army to do its bidding."