Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sovereign democracy, a new paradigm proposed by Russian professor

The Washington Post today (Oct. 31, 2007) included a paid advertising supplement from Russia, called "Kremlin Kiss-In".

There is an interesting essay on p H4 by Leonid Pokykarov, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. It is called “Sovereign Democracy as a Concept for Russia.” The term “democratic capitalism” is tossed around in the United States by neoconservatives as a prescription for the Middle East, and Pokykarov is hinting at the idea, already discussed earlier by Robert Reich, that democracy and capitalism can be somewhat antagonistic concepts. Instead he associates populist democracy with nationalism and sovereignty, and considers it ("sovereign democracy") a practical and political luxury that only 12 to 15 nations around the world can afford. He would view the members of the European Union as having given up “sovereignty” (except maybe Britain). Likewise, after the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the proposed “Commonwealth of Independent States” fell apart quickly, and worked out as well as the American Articles of Confederation in the 18th Century. He would seem to have some faith in Putin’s idea of “sovereign democracy” despite the progressive challenges of chess champion Garry Kasparov, and the rise of various extremist nationalist groups in Russia that could be seen as destabilizing and dangerous. He believes that large powers like the U.S. should be pragmatic in addressing problems in other countries (obviously Iraq) and not insist on the ideology of "democracy" until it at least recognizes the right of people to their own national identity and sovereignty.

Page J5 has an article by Alexander Yakovenko on global warming, “The Basic Principles of the Russian Approach,” which seem pretty generic. The underlying conflict will be between well developed consumer countries (the US and Europe) and developing countries (China) counted on for cheap labor.

Update: Nov. 14, 2007

The Washington Post has a second paid insert from Russia today. On page H5 there is a provocative article about life in Siberia, "Grandpa: All You Need is Love ... and Perhaps a Little Bit of Land," by Marina Kkariss. The article presents the shrinking population in the immense countryside as a threat to national sovereignty for Russia (which could break up into its autonomous regions). There is pressure that every household have "at least three children." The article discusses an elderly man who has a son with 12 children and a daughter with 12 children. There is emphasis placed on working the land and on sharing of chores among siblings, and on blood loyalty as a whole.

Philip Longman had discussed the problem of shrinking birthrates in many countries in his 2004 book "The Empty Cradle."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Newsweek, NBC Nightly News make alarming report on conditions in Pakistan

A cover story on this week’s Newsweek (“Where the Jihad Lives Now”) calls Pakistan the world’s most dangerous nation (it isn’t Iraq). The link for the story is this.

NBC Nightly News tonight had a detailed report by Richard Engel covering the story. The three minute spot showed the town of Peshawar, about 200 miles west of Islamabad, with a home in which Osama bin Laden lived, and supposedly the town is the “birthplace of Al Qaeda.” The spot discussed the rapid growth of madrasah ‘s, and showed one with about 800 students, who spend hours memorizing the Koran. There are about 20000 of these in the country. A headmaster of one of the madrasahs characterized the United States as the “enemy” intending to make “slaves” of Muslim (e.g., “family slaves”). (NBC and MSNBC normally work closely with Newsweek.) The CIA unclassified public link and map for Pakistan is here.

The spot also showed a bit of coastal city Karachi (where much of “A Mighty Heart” dealing with Daniel Pearl takes place), where Osama bin Laden was known to frequent before 9/11. Extremism has found roots in many poorer neighborhoods of that city, with threats against businesses that sell western movies and music, and (to enforce visual conformity) barber shops that shave beards (although shaving sometimes has been reportedly used in purification rituals).

The story reminded us that Pakistan is a nuclear nation, in conjunction with the attempt on former prime minister Bhuto last week in Karachi.

In my own information technology career, it was common to encounter men who had come from Pakistan, often before 1980. During the 80s and 90s there was almost never any discussion of Muslim religious ideas in the workplace, and workers seemed well integrated into American capitalism, consumerism, and workplace technology and professionalism. Many physicians in PPO’s come from Pakistan and India both. One worker told me what IT jobs were like in Pakistan as far back as 1970, where there were many programmers for few jobs (no females worked) and where the number of compiles or tests allowed to get a job running was limited.

(See blog entry on Ignatius article Oct. 18.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reich has essay questioning the concept "democratic capitalism"

In the months after 9/11, conservative columnists constantly repeated mantra-like criticisms of radical Islam-ist countries as not having tried "democratic capitalism." Before, in this column, in noting the success of youthful prodigies from around the world, I noted that the one thing they had in common was relative freedom, a market economy, and democratic governments, whatever the ideological details of local politics on some areas like health care.

Now, Foreign Policy, in Oct. 2007, has, on p 38, a probing essay by Dr. Robert F. Reich, former (and in his own way flamboyant) Secretary of Labor for the Clinton Administration. It is "How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy." The subtitle is "Free markets were supposed to lead to free societies. Instead, today's supercharged global economy is eroding the power of the people in democracies around the globe. Welcome to a world where the bottom line trumps the common good and government takes a back seat to big business." To him, the neo-conservative phrase, "democratic capitalism", however uplifting overseas, is a bit of an oxymoron (make like "gay 'marriage'", if you follow the conservative The Washington Times 's practice of putting the second word in quotes).

The tone of the essay certainly reminds me of Mother Jones or of The Nation. He echoes the tone of David Callahan's 2004 book "The Cheating Culture" in his critique of extreme capitalism, on a global scale. He seems at odds with Alan Greenspan ("The Age of Turbulence") in maintaining that some sense of the greater good needs to underly public behavior and policy.

He is critical of placing to much confidence on corporate generosity (although a bit more from well organized companies like Wal-Mart can certainly help people rebuild from Katrina and the wild fires --instead the LDS Church seems to lead the pack in organized help). Companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize investors' bottom lines. Generosity comes from individuals. But people need to think further ahead, and realize their consumer interests (like the cheapest possible electronics or clothes) may not be in the best interest of world peace and long term economic stability, let alone moral fairness. He thinks people should give a little, almost in Biblical charity, and protect their neighbors. No real argument. But absolute selfishness is not a virtue.

He is especially critical of corporate lobbying and corporate welfare, and the tendency of corporations to manipulate public speech. Both conservatives and liberals weigh in on pork barrel a lot. Because of the Internet, speech has become much more individualized, which means lone individuals can make a real difference in the outcome of subtle social and political debates. But even that raises new ethical questions about conflict of interest, and corporate America has tended to view personal Internet use more as a tool for social networking (which they want to exploit) and for publication of ideas.

I didn't see this article online, but it's worth picking up at the newsstand or in the library in hard copy. Sometimes we still need the world of print.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

David Ignatius on a possibly nuclear Al Qaeda

Today, Oct. 18, 2007, there are multiple copies of a syndicated column by David Ignatius, “Al Qaeda’s Search for Nukes” at PrairiePundit is a typical example. Here is the link.

The column is alarming, with evidence of attempts by Al Qaeda to try to acquire such weapons as early as 1993, and with the interpretation of a called-off cyanide attack in 2003 as meaning something bigger was coming.

The article discusses Department of Energy official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who he says "is paid to think about the unthinkable." There is very little of Mowatt-Larssen's work directly accessible on the Net. However, this is a link to a counterintelligence plan, and it describes such measures as polygraph tests (which will probably be replaced eventually with MRI "brain scan" lie detection technology discussed recently in the media).

In a sense, however, some of this is familiar. As far back as 1999, ABC Nightline had simulated an anthrax subway attack, two years before 9/11. One week before 9/11 Popular Science had described a scenario for an electromagnetic pulse attack. The media and Internet have been filled with stories as to how nuclear weapons (about the size of a refrigerator) could be manufactured and hidden by lead to escape port security, or be assembled in clandestine fashion somewhere in the US. There have been stories of “suitcase nukes” missing from Russia (and some of them in possession of Pakistan, which could fall into terrorist hands if Musharraf falls). Sam Nunn and others have set up a group called Last Best Chance aimed at security loose nuclear material from around the world, especially in former Soviet republics. A recent strike by Israel into Syria sounds like a security step to control proliferation. One of the most important books on this risk is Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Times Books, 2004).

The control of access to loose material seems like an item of highest priority, and questions about the stability of Russia (as raised by Garry Kasparov) make one wonder how completely successful an attempt to account for everything can be. Stability of old enemies like Russia and China, as well as the continued issue of North Korea, are major concerns in preventing some future huge tragedy.

Late today, major media outlets reported an assassination attempt, with many fatalities, on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned to Pakistan and visited the large coastal city Karachi. She left in 1999. She was well known to support US efforts to root Al Qaeda out of Pakistan. Even though the deepest support for bin Laden is thought to be in the rural Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, many activities supporting Al Qaeda may have taken place in that city over the years (as depicted in the movie A Mighty Heart this year). Bin Laden is known to have visited there various times before 9/11 and could conceivably escape on the Indian Ocean there.

Pakistan, remember, is a nuclear power, with some smaller or suitcase nukes in its possession, and these could fall into the wrong hands quickly. Musharraf himself is a military dictator, an ally of the U.S. when in uniform for mainly temporary political reasons. Alan Greenspan, in his new book The Age of Turbulence, writes in a cursory footnote on p 469, "A nuclear detonation on U.S. soil, I fear, could temporarily unhinge our economy." Euphemism to be sure.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Chinese police monitor Internet users as well as censor content

Internet censorship in China seems to continue unabated. According to a story in PC World by Steven Schwankert of the IDG News Service, “Press Group Slams Chinese Internet Censorship”, the Chinese quasi-Communist government uses thousands of police to monitor the activities or ordinary users. The link is here. There is a report from “Reporters Without Borders” called “Journey to the Heart of Internet Censorship (here, in pdf format) that the government itself is trying to prevent from disseminated.

Journalists are told not to discuss certain topics, and many overseas servers of sporadically blocked and time out. Many Chinese ISPs and sites have shut down, sometimes intermittently.

It’s interesting that the government believes it is so vulnerable to what bloggers and journalists may say. It must have a lot to hide. Of course, American companies like Microsoft have been accused of cooperating with the Chinese government’s censorship activities in order to do business there. Here is a typical story, from BBC, “Microsoft Censors Chinese blogs: Chinese bloggers posting their thoughts via Microsoft's net service face restrictions on what they can write” from June 2005.

Update: Oct. 24, 2007

Foreign Policy online has a web-extra in October, "How to Do It: Circumventing the Censors,: here. The underlying concept seems to be to use tools to render your identity anonymous.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Libel Tourism": British law tempts Islamists to quash speech globally

Michael J. Broyde and Debdorah E. Lipstadt have a disturbing op-ed on p. A27 of The New York Times, today, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007, “Home Court Advantage” with the insert headline, “American authors need to be protected from libel tourism.” Here is the link. It may require registration or purchase.

There are two issues at stake. One is that suddenly, authors and publishers have found that some countries, Britain, at least, will honor lawsuits against them for books not published in those countries but ordered by at least one citizen of the country online. This seems to be new with the Ehdrenfeld case, discussed below. The other issue is something like “full faith and credit” among the states in the United States”: courts are now considering where libel judgments from foreign countries can be collected from Americans without being brought in American courts. It is surprising to me that they could be. The op-ed authors encourage Congress to pass a law preventing state or federal courts from enforcing overseas judgments without be brought in American courts. Even without such a law, however, one would expect current and future defendants to find support to take this to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Right now, a district court in New York is considering whether a judgment against Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author, whose book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It,” published in 2003, tries to establish that a certain Saudi sheik (named in the op-ed; I’ll decline to name him here for right now) has financed radical Islamic terrorism, apparently through charities. A 2005 version of the book (with a "Preface to the Expanded Edition" that discusses the UK litigation) is available from Amazon (despite a supposed agreement to destroy the book). I ordered the book today. However, another book from Cambridge University press by , J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, “Alms for Jihad,” was withdrawn by the publisher without giving the authors a chance to defend, but this book apparently (given the name of the publisher) was published in the United Kingdom. Amazon offers only a review of that book as an e-doc. In practice, the American justice system seems to have gone after "false store front" charities with some vigor, sometimes prosecuting innocent businessmen here.

One important factor is that Britain demands much more of defendants when there are libel claims. Kitty Kelly, author of the “The Royals,” warned the media that “truth is not an absolute defense to libel in Britain” as it is supposed to be in the United States. Furthermore, in Britain, a plaintiff does not have to show that the libel was done with malice. Libel claims in Britain, however, have typically occurred in the past with books published in Britain and been made by British subjects or about incidents involving British subjects (such as the Princess Diana tragedy, about which rumors abound). For interests in other countries or parties (especially radical Islam) to use British courts to suppress worldwide speech, especially against defendants in other countries when these defendants have no practical ability to afford to defend themselves in Britain, is particularly sinister and this is something Congress should take up immediately.

The op-ed referred to books, but one wonders about websites, such as blogs and social networking profiles. Could Saudi businessmen try to shut down blogs that criticize them?

This sounds like a critical legal issue that bears careful watching, for detailed progress of specific cases and any bills in Congress.

Update: Jan. 9, 2008

The new "unauthorized biography" of Tom Cruise by Andrew Morton, to be published by St. Martin's Press Jan. 15, 2008, will not be published in Britain, where libel is harder to defend (at least according to Kitty Kelly). Nevertheless, couldn't the same sort of action be brought in Britain against this book anyway, given the example set here by the book about Khalid bin Mahfouz?

Update: Aug. 31, 2008

The Washington Times, on p B3, published an op-ed by Clifford May, "Free Speech Under Fire," about libel tourism, and discussed the propsoed Free Speech Protection Act of 2008 (introduced by New York representatives Peter King, a Republican, and Anthony Weiner, Democrat) link here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bloggers get Al Qaeda web sites shut down

The Washington Times has an provocative story today (Wednesday October 10, 2007) about “blogger” vigilantes in the international scene, on p A1, by Audrey Hudson, “Blogs target jihadis online: Force servers (even those overseas) to close sites.” The link is this. The story lists nineteen sites in a box called “Jihad Bookmarks,” sites put up by Al Qaeda or sympathizers with violent rhetoric and images, some of them of insurgency in Iraq.

Individual bloggers have sometimes pressured ISPs to close down sites with violent rhetoric, which the story says has pressured Al Qaeda to place more effort on sending tapes to the major media outlets with risky land courier operations. The story mentions Dr. Rusty "John Doe" Shackleford who runs the “Jawa Report,” here.

The story reports that bloggers sometimes contact the FBI, and often want to, in contrast to the recent controversy over reporters’ guarding confidential sources and shield laws. I have done so myself a few times. Sometimes parties with axes to grind contact individual bloggers instead of the major media or law enforcement, and sometimes these parties may want to see others caught.

“Vigilante” activity on the Internet has attracted attention in other areas, such as Peej and NBC Dateline with its notorious TCAP series, or Lane Hudson, whose anonymous blog helped bring down Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley in 2006 and may have had a material effect on the midterm Congressional elections. I’ve noticed this consistently: sometimes obscure materials reported by bloggers or individual websites get picked up by major media, or sometimes even get written into fictitious settings as in television series and soaps.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

European Union action on lead in computers could complicate "tin whiskers" reliability problem

Jordan Robertson, an Associated Press Technology writer, has a story about tin whiskers on Yahoo! today. The title is “Tiny Tin Whiskers Imperil Electronics.” The link is here or here.

The problem of microscopic frays on tin solder connections has been known for decades, and electronics and computer manufacturers have generally added a slight amount of lead into the alloy to combat that physical property of tin.

Recently the European Union banned this practice. The concern is that computer or electronics parts wind up in landfills or dumps and can contribute to lead poisoning of children. The moral question sounds like a “technology v. people” one, although a reported like John Stossel would probably contest that.

Silver and copper might substitute for lead, but require much higher temperatures. This still sounds like a significant engineering problem.

It is unclear how the European Union ban would affect overseas products intended for sale in the United States. Potentially, it could make computers purchased in the future less stable. Hard drives and other components have become much more dependable (as well has have much higher storage capacity for less money) during the past ten years.

Here is NASA’s link on tin whiskers:

Here is an article on lead-free electronics from Advanced Packaging.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Tensions in Afghanistan cause postponement of movie release

This evening, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007, NBC Nightly News reported that Paramount has decided to delay release of the film "The Kite Runner" because of concerns over possible reprisals in Afghanistan. The film was to released by "Paramount Vantage" (the trademark that Paramount now uses for its independent films) and was produced with the help of Dreamworks SKG. The director is Marc Forster, and it is based on the well known book by Khaled Hosseini. The book was published in 2004 by Riverside (Amazon link). The screenplay adaptation is by David Benioff.

The NBC news story indicated that the release might be delayed by as much as six weeks. There was no immediate web reference on MSNBC, but it will probably appear shortly. But Reuters has a story "Studio Acts to Shield Child Stars of 'Kite Runner'" by Steve Gorman, here.

The Washington Post had a story in the Style Section, page C1, Oct. 5, 2007, by John Ward Anderson and William Booth, "'Kite Runner': Danger On and Off the Screen", link here.
The story says that Paramount Vantage has pushed the release back to Dec. 14, limited in a few cities until January. The movie will not be shown in Afghanistan, but DVDs will probably show up there. The movie was filmed in China. The story indicates that the danger could increase if the Taliban becomes stronger again because Bush administration policies turn out not to be effective enough.

The story in the film has some violence that would reflect poorly on the perpetrators. But it is fiction, the book is a novel. The story cites Afghanistan's 28% literacy rate, and then reads, quoting Abdul Latif Ahmadi, president of Afghan Film, "This is the mentality of the people in Afghanistan... People don't realize that it's not true. When they watch a film, they accept it -- it's real, why did they do it?" This gets into the "Touching Doctrine" that I discussed on my main blog (check my Profile) on July 27, 2007.

It is extremely disturbing, even to a freelance writer like me, that a major media company has to delay distribution of a film because of fear of reprisals for speech. This, to a western mind, sounds like giving in to bullying.

We have seen other films about serious international issues (two films recently about Darfur, for example).

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

NY Times Science Issue on Arctic Ice Melt

Andrew C. Revkin has written and assembled a large report on the unexpectedly summer icecap melt in the Arctic in the Tuesday Oct. 2, 2007 The New York Times, section D. The story is called "Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts", with the link here. There are multiple photographs, and maps showing meterological explanations for the melt. But it seems unquestionable that fossil fuel burning has led to a much more rapid summer melt of the arctic ice cap (including Greenland) than had been expected, even in Al Gore's and Leonardo Di Caprio's films. The rise in sea level could occur even more rapidly. The refreeze in the autumn will take longer (although at the North Pole the sun sets for six months around Sept. 22). The lack of ice can increase global warming and approach the "tipping point" because blue water does not reflect summer sunlight the way ice does. On the other hand, a sudden melt could affect ocean currents (the Gulf Stream and feedback loop) in such a way as to compromise western Europe's relatively mild winters. All pretty sobering stuff.

Update: Oct. 7, 2007

Bjorn Lomborg has a large pragmatic essay in the Outlook Section of The Washington Post today, "Chill out. Stop fighting over global warming -- here's the smart way to attack it," link here.