Sunday, April 27, 2008

Saudi blogger held without charge, finally released

Faiza Salek Ambah, of the Washington Post (Foreign Service), has a story on p A14 of the Washington Post, Sunday April 27, “Saudi Activist Blogger Freed After 14 Months in Jail Without Charge,” link here. Fouad af-Farhan was held on Dec. 10 after criticizing political corruption in his blog. He finally was released April 26. He had blogged under his own name, where as most bloggers in Saudi Arabia do not. In the United States, many people (especially the young) like the limelight they get from blogging, but recently some career counselor have been encouraging that speech be anonymous because of intrusive employers worried about online reputation in front of clients. Anonymous speech has always been vigorously defended as a First Amendment right in the US, although sometimes political speech is much more effective when a name and identity is behind it, giving it conviction.

The Saudi government accused Fouad and supporters of encouraging terrorism.

There have been major issues with bloggers being shut down or arrested in other countries, including Egypt and Cuba.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Harrison Ford provides the ultimate metaphor for global deforestation (food v fuels crisis)

Today major news outlets played up the global “competition” between fuel and food. Globally, grain prices are rising because of increased demand from developing countries (like China) wanting out diet, and because more arable land is being used to grow biofuels. In the United States, corn prices are at all time highs, whereas in the 1980s farmers were losing their farms because of low prices (sometimes growing marijuana to make ends meet, illegally, as on one 20/20 segment in the early 90s.)

This has catalyzed a new international political crisis, causing some countries to threaten stopping exports of rice, and some threatening economic action against the US. Even Britain has protested the US new "addiction" to protested biofuels.

It sounds like a canard. A good question is why developing countries cannot grow more of their own food. But global warming and rising seal levels (as in southern Asia) will be a factor. So will deforestation, as in Brazil and the Amazon, which reduces CO-2 re-absorption. Brazil uses a lot of its flat pampas to grow sugar cane for biofuel, and is largely independent of imported oil. Remember, corn is probably not the best crop; biofuels could be efficient to produce one day with sawgrass.

So, in steps actor Harrison Ford, who was a young man, and apparently smooth, in his first Star Wars movie. Now, at age 65, he has his chest waxed on camera (on Access Hollywood (episode link) on NBC) to provide a visual metaphor for deforestation. (The “Sherwood forest” anyone?) No one thought of this a couple of years ago when Steve Carell made the manly sacrifice. Or one of the Geeks in a beauty makeover designed by the devious mind of Ashton Kutcher. Or even John Travolta “Staying Alive.” (It ain’t cool.) Somehow I remember a funny sermon in Lawrence Kansas in 1967, “What does it mean to be a man?” in the days of the James Bond movies. Remember Sean Connery? Then, we remember that the Taliban and other areas of radical Islam insist on preserving the male beard at all times, yet a couple of the 9/11 TV films showed the hijackers shaving down completely in the motel the morning of their horrific deeds.

I can certainly imagine discos having "deforestation" parties, particularly on the circuits in Palm Springs. Inevitably, this feat will be replicated on Saturday Night Live, perhaps with an SNL Digital Short, teddy bears included.

In any case, it seems that the West is facing the sudden competition of the rest of the world for resources. We’ve heard this all before, as far back as the 70s with the Arab oil embargo then. This time it seems like it is for real. In the grand scheme of things, we live on a small planet, and it is our only home.

Update: April 27

The front page of the Washington Post has a major story with illustrations, by Anthony Faiola, "The New Economics of Hunger: A brutal convergence of events has hit an unprepared global market, and grain prices are sky high. The world's poor suffer most," link here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Graham Allison writes another alarming column on a possible future Hiroshima

Today, April 23, 2008, The Washington Times ran, in its “Briefing/Middle East” page, another alarming article by Graham Allison, following up on an earlier piece from March 30. The headline reads “Nuclear attack: a worst-case reality?” and the article is titled “Terrorist strike is ‘inevitable’ by preventable, author insists.” The implication of that sentence is that a lot is left undone in rounding up the leftovers from nuclear proliferation. The link is here (moved 4/24 to a new link).

Admittedly, the presentation in the newspaper is a bit sensational in tone, and The Washington Times is known for alarming and strident presentations (in comparison to the Post). This time, it’s necessary to be alarmed.

Allison had written in 2004, “I offer my own considered judgment that if all governments stay on autopilot, doing no more and no less than they are doing today, a nuclear 9/11 is more likely than not within a decade” – by 2014. Richard Garwin, who helped to design the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s, is quoted as estimating a 20% per year probability of a nuclear explosion somewhere in North America or Europe every year (starting in 2007). Imagine calculating the probability within ten years as a probability and statistics homework assignment.

The print version of the paper has a diagram simulating the impact of an incident centered near the White House with a 10 kiloton Hiroshima-sized device. (It also has a bw photo of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud.) Total destruction exists for about four blocks in any direction. On a weekday, 100000 people would be killed. Fallout would spread over a wide area, depending on wind. A northeast wind common with winter coastal storms would blow fallout into Arlington and Northern Virginia. Cham E. Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense, says “It would be wishful to think it won’t happen by 20 years.” I couldn't find the map on line, so apparently the newspaper wants you to buy the $.25 hardcopy. Have at it. Or visit Allison's website for the maps, here (requires I.E. to work properly).

Allison believes that the greatest threat stems from the political and economic damage that Al Qaeda inflict with a single device anywhere in the West. Either a crude weapon crafted with HEU or possibly a stolen loose suitcase nuke (the “24” scenario) could lead to that result. He seems less concerned about the idea of a series of incidents coming with demands, as that has not been Al Qaeda’s MO (and as it may be less achievable), although that could be the case with other future enemies.

In the same issue of The Washington Times today, on p A3, Sara A. Carter has a consolidated article “Al-Zawahri threatened U.S., allies in tape,” link here. This has become “old hat.” But what is perplexing is the boldness of otherwise reactionary and anti-modernist enemies using the Internet, and being able to cover their tracks well enough that the source escapes detection. In this regard, Morgan Spurlock’s recent film “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden” (review here ) bears watching.

Update: April 24

The Washington Times today has more stories about nuclear proliferation in the Islamic world. "Syria's nuke facility was nearly finished" by Nicholas Kralev and Sara A. Carter (when Israel struck it from the air), link here.
and "Intelligence panel decries secrecy on North Korea - Syria nukes link" by Nicholas Kralev and Sean Lengell, link here; also the print version adds the headline "N. Korea ceased help after bombing".

When I was working on my first book in 1997, I considered terrorism a threat in discussing military service, but I actually thought then that North Korea, not radical Islam, was the greatest threat, as long as the possibility of the resurgence of pseudo-Communism (Russia, China, SE Asia).

CNN Politics has a story today " White House: Syria reactor not for 'peaceful' purposes," link here.

The ABC News story today by Kirit Radia "N. Korea Linked to Syrian Nukes: White House Unveils Video and Images That Draw a Connection," link here.

April 26:

An article by Marc Fisher "Washington's Future, A History," in The Washington Post Magazine, Apr. 26, speculates on a small nuclear device going off in midtown Manhattan in 2016; the print version contains a photo that approximates what Graham Allison's model predicts; link.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Iran and Al Qaeda: what gives?

Last week there were vague media reports to the effect that some officials now consider Iran to be the main threat, not "Al Qaeda." Okay, Sunnis v. Shiites, perhaps.

But then there was the flap over John McCain's claims that Iran has been taking in Al Qaeda operatives, as on the thinkprogress blog, here, and here, where McCain admits he mixed up Al Qaeda and Iraq.

Now, Adam Zagorin and Joe Klein write in Time on April 21, 2008, "9/11 Commission Finds Ties Between al-Qaeda and Iran," link here.

But, four years ago, the news flapped on stories that Iran was holding top Al Qaeda leaders as prisoners, as here (July 28, 2003) on the Christian Science Monitor.

The Morgan Spurlock, in his recent film "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden" makes the argument that Al Qaeda would have died with Afghanistan and the Taliban had we not gone into Iraq, link here.

When is the enemy of my enemy my friend? Go figure. Apparently not in Iraq.

Friday, April 18, 2008

China: National Geographic issue "Inside the Dragon"

The May 2008 issue of National Geographic is a special issue, "China: Inside the Dragon". The issue includes a standard wall map, and many spectacular and disturbing still photos, such as one of a manmade desert in northern China where sand dunes are 1500 feet high and unstable. The main article is by Peter Hessler with photographs by Franz Hoffman.

One banner page reports that China's "one-child policy created a generation of only children that numbers 90 million" of "little emperors" or "little professors." The male to female birth ratio is 1.19, and excess unmarried men are called "bare branches" (as if to echo George Gilder from the 1980s). 45% of Chinese women don't want to get married and disrupt their careers (p 54).

China will bypass the United States as the world's largest economy by 2018, and alreayd has the world's largest death rate from air pollution.

On page 46, "Chinese history has become the story of average citizens. But there are risks when a nation depends on individual dreams of 1.3 billion people rather than a coherent political system with a clear rule of law." It is a bit of a paradox that China suppresses free speech and individual liberty, then.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Russian oil production: could it have peaked already?

An article in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday April 15, front page in print, vy Guy Chazan and Neil King, Jr., “Russian Oil Slump Stirs Supply Jitters: Production Decline First in 10 Years: Squeeze in Siberia,” link here(may require registration or subscription) highlights concerns that oil discovery and then oil production can go into decline. This may help explain some of the recent runup in oil futures, as well as gasoline prices. The International Energy Agency has predicted that production will resume later. The web link is this, and Russia is actually not a member of OECD in using this site.

The problem of oil production peaks is presented in the 2007 Netflix Red Envelope film “A Crude Awakening” directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack. Associated with that is a website World Without Oil which has a seven-minute video about an “alternate reality game” in which people practice living without petroleum and blog or make videos about their experience (it reminds me of the PBS “1900 House”). Of course, they do need a high tech communications infrastructure running without oil (solar power or wind) and made with products that don’t use petroleum (less likely). WWO has a "lesson plans for teachers" link.

Picture (unrelated): “The Jolly Green Giant” trademark character (Green Giant Food Company from Blue Earth, MN) from USPTO show.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Global food crisis: 45% increase in prices in less than a year

Tonight, Thursday April 10, ABC "World News Tonight" will present a report on the global food crisis (Bob Gibson).

This morning, The Washington Times runs a front page headline "Global food riots turn deadly," with a story by David Sands, "Clashes likely to persist with soaring prices," link here.
Food prices have risen by 45% in the last nine months, with problems scattered around the world: Haiti (in the Caribbean), Bukina Faso and Cameroon (in Central Africa), Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, and the Philippines. In a few of theses countries offshoots of Al Qaeda are active, and this crisis only spurs things. Causes include conversion of land to ethanol production and competition from China and India, and much higher fuel prices for trucking.

Brazil has been the biggest grower of ethanol, but grows sugar cane rather than corn, which is a more efficient process. (Sawgrass could be even more efficient). As a result, Brazilian drivers do not need to depend on Mideast oil. However, some forests in the Amazon area are cleared for this reason.

Update: April 12

AOL reported in a big story called "The Rewind" "Experts Deliver Global Warning" in a detailed article here with slide show, predicting global food shortages because of floods in coastal areas and droughts inland, due to global warming.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Cuban citizen blogger back on line

Cuban blogger Yoani Sabchez has been able to move her blog "Generacion Y" to an offshore server and it is available again (in Spanish) here. She had received over 1.2 million visits before being shut down in Cuba, even though few Cubans have Internet access. Michael Moore, remember, had celebrated the Cuban health care system in his documentary "Sicko".

Raul Castro is supposedly lifting restrictions on the purchase of high tech devices inside Cuba. But nevertheless the clampdown on Internet expression had continued after Fidel's death, just as it has in other totalitarian and Muslim countries (like Egypt).

Family member Aldofo Fernandez Sainz had been one of 75 citizen journalists jailed five years ago.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

China draws ire as Olympics approaches: Pelosi

Ed O’Keefe has a story from ABC’s “Good Morning America” “Pelosi: Bush should consider boycott of Olympics’ opening; on homefront, Democratic Speaker says fight should ‘run its course’”, April 1, 2008, link here.

Pelosi said this morning that the United States should participate in the Olympics as an amateur sports event, but that Bush should consider skipping the opening ceremony.

Pelosi said that the United States must work to see an improvement in China’s behavior, in terms of worker wages and product safety, and treatment of ethnic minorities, especially in Tibet. China needs to improve its environmental policies (as in Anderson Cooper’s film “Planet in Peril”). Likewise, China has drawn ire for censorship of dissent on the Internet and for “blackmailing” American companies into complicity. China is still a post-Communist state.

China has also been criticized for brutal use of "eminent domain," clearing away land for the Olympics and other projects without properly compensating property owners or residents.

There is also an issue of protests about Sudan's behavior in Darfur. Katie Thomas has a front page story this morning in The New York Times "Issue for Athletes: Protest on Darfur at Olympics," link here. I have a blog entry reviewing movies from 2007 dealing with the Darfur problem, here.

Many readers remember Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, spurred by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which, as we know, still has ramifications today. A typical blog entry is by Ronald Smothers back from 1996 at the New York Times, “Olympics: Bitterness lingering over Carter’s Boycott”, here.