Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Pro-business" China cracks down even harder right before Olympics


The latest, from many media sources, is that Beijing is really cracking down now to look good for the Olympics. 90% of cars must stay off the road, factories close (maybe fewer computer hard drives for us here) and people bike and congregate in public spaces. That may be good. The air still looks smoggy on TV.

But the worst news is that the Chinese government (Communist and corporatist at the same time, according to Ted Koppel) is forcing hotels to install new Internet filtering systems. Corporate and media executives are being told to leave their laptops home (how will they report an communicate?) It seems as though the Chinese muzzling of parents with payouts and censorship of Internet searches and blogs in place now isn’t enough to protect a collective corporatocracy. We will see what China wants us to see.

Politically, this is going to be a bizarre Olympic event compared to all those of the past (at least since Moscow in 1980, when Carter made the US boycott (link ) because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

It’s interesting, too, how Singapore and Kuala Lumpur now look so razzle dazzle in government films. For all their glitter, Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing look at bit frayed in comparison, even with Chinese propaganda. Malaysia’s president is advertising the fact that his country is “pro-business” too. Only Singapore (always “pro-business”), with a heavy Malay population, is really immaculate.

Apparently, the Olympic Committee has finally bypassed tricky politics of the new Iraq and will let the team from Iraq participate.

Update: Aug. 1


Later media reports indicate that China is backing down on some of its restrictions to websites with political protest during the Olumpics.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

China could dump US financial holdings


The Washington Times has a major Sunday magazine Cover Story (July 27) on p 5, by David M. Dickson, “China’s Economic ‘Bargaining Chip’: Massive holdings in U.S. create ‘financial muscle’”. In fact the newspaper’s cover reads “Balance of financial terror.” The link for the story is here.

In 2004, China held about $450 billion in “foreign currencies” and about $300 billion in American securities. Since then, the US has added $1.2 trillion in budget deficits and $3 million in trade deficits.

The basic concern is that China could “dump” its holdings, further driving down the U.S. dollar, and escalating the price of oil again. But then Chinese exports would go down. This might not be in China’s “self interest” according to a “mutually assured destruction” theory. But, given international pressures to improve wages and worker conditions in China, which might increase with the Olympics even given Chinese internal censorship, it would sound that such a scenario could develop.

Although China vigorously suppresses criticism and dissent in its own country, it would sound plausible that worldwide criticism of its practices could also trigger this sort of behavior.

China is also under some pressure from world health authorities, not only because of its performance after the earthquake, but because of agricultural practices in rural areas that increase the risk of avian influenza and similar pandemics resulting from viral mutations when people and livestock mix.

In the past, there has been considerable similar concern about Arab holdings in US companies.

Donal Trump reports that foreign (Chinese and Arab) purchases of condos and office buildings are keeping Manhattan real estate prices booming even during the subprime crisis.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

China offers hush money to buy silence from parents grieving from earthquake


The New York Times this morning (July 24, 2008) runs a major front page story about the tendency of the Chinese to suppress speech to cover up corruption and government problems. Authored by Edward Wong, the story is titled “China Presses Grieving Parents to Take Hush Money on Quake”, link here.

The Chinese government has been offering pensions and cash payments to parents who lost children or who have injured children. The government has sent agents door-to-door in villages offering contracts which obligate the parents to silence. The government has been criticized for its response to the earthquake; it's easy to compare on the one hand to American response to Hurricane Katrina and to Myanmar's response to the cyclone in May. The government has been allowing couples who lost their only child (under the “one child per family” policy) to have another child.

The government seems especially concerned about press from its problems before the Olympics, as it is taking all kinds of measures to look better and protect visitors and athletes from its air pollution and unsafe food practices.

The tone of the newspaper article is somewhat angry. It maintains that the Chinese government is acting like a mega-corporation itself, buying silence and immunity from product liability suits for poorly constructed school buildings and other infrastructure. The government has poured billions into Beijing, Shanghai (and now Chongqing) but allowed the poor people in mountainous area or flood-prone villages to remain out of sight.

This story appears shortly after Ted Koppel’s four-part series on the Discovery Channel, “The Peoples Republic of Capitalism,” reviewed on my TV blog (July 10).

China has been criticized for its suppression of political speech, particularly on the Internet, even forcing American and western software and Internet companies to comply with its political censorship rules when doing business within China. It’s hard to say if this is a leftover from Maoist days, or something in Confucian culture that demands more reverence for familial, social and political structures than is accepted now in the West.

I can see the censorship in my own Urchin reports from my own websites and blogs. I get traffic from the Middle East (where you would think I would be censored, but apparently am not) and even Saudi Arabia, but not from China, which considers me subversive.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Two different war crimes actions take place today


On the heels of the warrant for the president of Sudan for war crimes in Darfur, the former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic was arrested from hiding today by Serbian authorities for war crimes. Presumably, he will be first government official tried in Europe for war crimes since the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis after World War II. He would face life in prison.

Among his crimes was a massacre of 8000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. He is said to have regarded himself as a “Robin Hood” for the Serbs. The CNN story is here.

Serbia is expected to cooperate with war crimes investigations as a requirement for eventual membership in the European Union.

And the first 9/11-related military tribunal in Guantanamo started today, with a not guilty plea from Salim Yamdan, a supposed former bodyguard and driver for Osama bin Laden. He is said to be the first person to face a US war crimes trial since World War II. The AP story appears on MSNBC here. A subsequent breaking story indicates that the judge will not allow evidence obtained under duress ("rendition") to be used at the trial.

In another story today, the New York Times send back an essay submitted to it on the Iraq war by John McCain, when it had published Barack Obana’s. It claimed that McCain did not add new information of his own but was merely responding defensively; it would be willing to work with him on adding more new information. This sounds like an object lesson on all writers for published essays, even blog entries. The CNN story is here.

Picture: Sample Guantanamo, Cuba cell displayed in the National Mall in late June, 2008. Ironically, the movie "A Few Good Men" (1992) starts with an incident set in Guantanamo.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Food crisis hits women in Africa particularly hard


Perhaps not many people could identify Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in what was French West Africa in the 1950s. The capital has a name of onomatopoeia: Ougadougou. You can look this up in the World Fact Book at cia.gov and see it is about 400 miles wide and has poor prospects. It is directly west of Niger (not to be confused with Nigeria), and above the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo.

The front page of The Washington Post this morning has a major story by Kevin Sullivan, “Africa’s Last and Least: Cultural Expectations Ensure Women and Hit Hardest by Burgeoning Food Crisis.” The story discusses a particular woman, Fanta Lagini The story online is accompanied by a 2:30 video “A Day in Fanta Langini’s Life.” She is one of three wives of a retired civil servant. Apparently, polygamy is common in this part of Africa, possibly because of the loss of men to violence and AIDS. One of the wives is blind and does not work. Fanta works two mornings a week sweeping city streets and is expected to feed herself and children on what she earns. A year ago there was enough money to buy a healthful, balance diet for the family which has many children. With the run-up in food prices, now the diet consists of mostly rice and gruel, and after the kids are fed, she has only a few bites left for herself. Women are last in line to take care of themselves after taking care of the children, and it seems the men are not around; they are out doing what they want.

The link is here.

Food prices have risen because of global demand, and because of conversion of much land to growing biofuels, as well as because of increased trucking costs associated with higher oil prices.

On Saturday, CNN reported about a family (the Selwan family) in Atlanta that was selling its 1912 McMansion, and would take half the proceeds to start a food charity in Ghana, and take the children over for a year. But the house had not yet sold. The website is called Hannah's Lunchbox and has a Youtube video and short film of the same name directed by teen Joseph Selwan.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Obama on Homeland Security


Barack Obama has recently called loose nuclear material and the possibility that it would fall into the hands of terrorists the single most serious security threat we have. A similar threat exists with biological weapons. Obama has also suggested that much more military attention should be placed on Afghanistan and the border areas with Pakistan, and less with Iraq. A typical media story about Obama’s national security plan is authored by Josh Meyer and Peter Nicholas in the Los Angeles Times July 16, “Obama Unveils New Plan to Protect U.S. from 21st Century Threats,” link here. The link offers several relevant short video clips of both McCain and Obama.

Much of this is summarized in Obama’s own “Homeland Security Fact Sheet: Strengthening Homeland Security: Protecting Americans”, link here. Much of the position paper is actually dedicated to protecting some civil liberties, such as the right to habeas corpus. Obama points out that he introduced the Spent Nuclear Fuel Tracking and Accountability Act of 2005, during the 109th Congress. This was S 1194, with the govtrack reference here.

There was a similar “Spent Nuclear Fuel On-Site Security Storage Act of 2005” S 2099 (also HR 4538), now dead, link here.

Wikipedia has a list of bills sponsored by Barack Obama here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Saudi Arabia changing its ways -- maybe?


Faiza Saleh Ambah, foreign service writer, provided the Washington Post with news about the underwhelming rise in oil production that Saudi Arabia promised in June, and today he has a story “Saudis Look Beyond Oil to New Economy in Desert,” on p A1, link here.

The tone of the story is that Saudi Arabia is starting to slip into 80s style thinking in a manner reminiscent of its behavior in the mid 1980s in response to Ronald Reagan. Then, it increased oil production, and oil prices fell in the US, precipitating a localized real estate and banking recession in Texas and encouraging a “short term thinking” style of extreme capitalism. This time, there seem to signs that the Saudis fear that the development of alternative energy in the West really could undermine their economy. They may be willing to increase production in the short term, even if that shortens their “peak oil” tip-over.

The kingdom is also considering relaxing religious rules, especially the social mixing of unrelated men and women, at least for foreign visitors. In the past, religious police have enforced Islamic rules even on compounds where westerners work, creating issues for employers. I remember being told this around 1980 when in Texas by someone who had worked there in the 1970s in information technology.

The kingdom is considering building several new cities with cultural centers, perhaps looking like smaller scale versions of Dubai.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Washington Times commentaries push awareness of the bioweapons threat


The Washington Times company certainly played up the WMD issue this weekend. It ran a commentary by Claude Salhani (editor of the Middle East Times) titled “Will terrorists go nuclear” in its Sunday print edition (on p B5), at its online website, and on its “The World and I” site, which it advised readers of (including me, as I signed up) by email Saturday night. The links are this (World an I) or this (Times). The short of it is that, in the view of the columnist and perhaps the Times, bio is the most dangerous WMD of all.

While in the Army and in stateside barracks with little to do, I wrote a novel manuscript called “The Proles” (some of it did wind up in my first book, the portion on stripmining) and in one sequence I imagined a “Commie” attack on a college campus (this predates Kent State). There was one line that got cackles from all the guys in the barracks TV room. “It was botulism, of course.” The biggest laugh came from another soldier who had a Berkeley doctorate in Biochemistry and called himself “Rado Suhl”. There was indeed a bit of “Rolling Stone” atmosphere in those barracks. Salhani proposes a scary scenario that could be implemented with the botulinum bacillus and resulting toxin. (It’s rather like the scenario in my 1969 manuscript.) There are many such possibilities involving a “typhoid Mary.” In 2002, British filmmaker Daniel Percival made “Smallpox: Silent Weapon” for Fox and gave cable viewers a horrific scenario. I won’t repeat the details of Salhani’s scenario on a public blog, but I hardly think it “gives people ideas.” I think it tells us what we have to be on guard for.

“The World and I” is a thick, expensive monthly with many detailed and well illustrated articles about culture around the world, generally from a conservative perspective but with some degree of balance. It is published by the Washington Times and has been around since the late 1980s.

None of this should minimize the important writings by Graham Allsion, Sam Nunn, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative as discussed here in earlier postings.

Nor should we discount the remote possibility that some evidence of bio WMD's may show up in Iraq some day, even if we haven't found them. I wonder if Saddam Hussein could have shipped them out, through Syria, before playing possum and coming to his capitulation.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cartoon Controversy II: this time in Holland; the tables are turned


There’s another “cartoon controversy” in Europe, a sort of Cartoons II, and this time the country is The Netherlands. The Dutch, supposedly the model for openness, suddenly take on the roles of oppressors of free speech.

It seems that Gregorius Neskot (a pseudonym, perhaps in the sense that “Bill” is for me, posted some unflattering or racy cartoon images of Muslims and perhaps members of other minorities on a personal blog. The URL is this. It still loads today. It is in Dutch and has some rather suggestive images to be sure, and has a banner in English “Graphic Images, Strong Language.” Curiously, the HTML does not have a title. In May, six plainclothesmen visited his Amsterdam apartment and arrested him. Previously, establishment publications had shunned him, and now he is a “hot” commodity, attracting a hundred thousand hits a day.

The cartoonist is critical of the Dutch government’s “political correctness industry,” which comprises state-funded groups that protect minorities from insult. In theory, the standards of speech regarding groups normally in opposition (say Muslims and gays) would be the same, but the practical problems are different.

Others, recalling the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy in Denmark, speak of a struggle of ideas going on in Europe. Some say that the native population birth dearth will lead to the loss of political freedom and loss of the continent to the new Muslim immigrants who do not assimilate. On the other hand, there is a good question as to whether a religious minority should be protected from “insults” in essentially broadcast media (including blogs – published in the open but not sent to specific recipients) when the terms of offense are defined by the minority itself rather than by the majority culture as a whole. Normally, in the U.S., privately owned ISP’s have their own “terms of service” that are generally based on generally held norms of social acceptability, not the quirks in sensitivity of one specific group or person, although generally accepted norms are influenced by history (such as with respect to race and more recently, religion and sexual orientation).

There is some speculation that authorities are trying to respond to anger over the Internet release of a short film “Fitna” (reviewed in my movies blog in March here. by former legislator Geert Wilders, who ironically seemed to support the arrest of Neskot.

The Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Higgins appears on p W1 of the Weekend Journal here and is titled “Why Islam Is Unfunny for a Cartoonist”. Nevertheless, a lot of other cultural niches may be unfunny for cartoonists in Europe now.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Crimes Against Humanity warrant issued against sitting head of state of Sudan


In a move recalling to mind the post World War II trials at Nuremberg, an arrest warrant for war crimes will be issued, and now, for the first time in world history, against a “sitting” head of state. On Monday July 14, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, prosecutor for the Internationals Criminal Court will seek a warrant against Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan for genocide and crimes against humanity for atrocities in Darfur. The Washington Post front page story today (link here) is by Colum Lynch and Nora Boustany. It was not clear how enforceable such a warrant would be, or whether trying to issue it could instigate further atrocities.

I had reviewed two films about Darfur “The Devil Came on Horseback” and “Darfur Now” on Sept. 12, 2007, on my movies blog, here.

Another blogger recently gave me credit for writing about the Hakama singers, on Freemuse (“Freedom of Musical Expression”), here. That was “Music and the Darfur conflict” (and the mention of the video “Singing for Peace”) posted on this blog June 19, 2008 (please see Archive links).

Update: July 20


CBS "60 Minutes" aired tonight a report "Searching For Jacob: Scott Pelley Reports On The Genocide In Darfur". The gist of the story is that the United States may have been looking the other way on Bashir's crimes because Sudan has dribbled some intelligence on Osama bin Laden, who stayed in Sudan in the 1990s. The journalists traveled by bush plane to Hangala, across the border from Chad, to a village that had been destroyed, and then to a refugee camp. John Prendergast, from the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, also was on the trip. The link is here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Iran fires missle tests, possibly escalating tensions with Israel and jeopardizing oil exports from entire region


Iran ran up to nine tests of a long range missile capable of reaching Israel yesterday, multiple media reports say. General Hossein Salami of the Revolutionary Guard reportedly said, “Our finger is on the trigger.” The missiles included the “Shahab-3” and several other designs.

Crude oil had dropped $9 over the past two sessions but had risen slightly Wednesday morning by about 60 cents, to $136.44. 40% of world oil exports pass through the Straits of Hormuz (including those from Saudi Arabia). The tests were conducted from a launch pad geographically near the Straits.

Armed conflict between Israel and Iran would almost certainly lead to blockade of the Strait and enormous runnup of oil prices further, following the spirit of the CNN report “We Were Warned: Out of Gas.”

Coincidentally, there was a shootout near a U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, that a US ambassador has called an act of terrorism. Turkey attracts attention as a much more moderate and democratic Islamic country, possibly a model for the rest of the Islamic world. However, the Kurdish minority and the possibility that it could split off with Kurds in northern Iraq could create tensions. Much of the recent hit independent film “Edge of Heaven” was filmed on the streets of Istanbul.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

News reports about animal rights activists provide an example of a disturbing trend


There appeared a particularly disturbing report from AP on AOL, Yahoo! and ABC News, by reporter Marcus Wohlsen, that some research scientists in California are being targeted personally by animal rights activists. The AOL headline characterized the activity as "personal." This is also reported in Australia. Similar activities have occurred in the US with abortion providers, and sometimes with judges who have tried organized crime cases. In Europe (and Britain), this sort of thing generally has been a problem with “free speech” (not always as well protected as in the U.S.) in any media (books, film, or political cartoons). Examples would include threats against authors (Salman Rushdie) or filmmakers Theo Van Gogh (who was assassinated in Amsterdam), or the activities that led to the pulling of another Islam-critical film Fitna by Geert Wilders, from Livelink. Still another example is the Jyllands-Posten-Muhammad Cartoon Controversy in Denmark in 2005.

The ABC copy of the story appears here in its “The Law” section.

Whatever the issue, countries should treat such incidents as terrorism and prosecute them accordingly. Back in the 60s and the 70s, such behavior (as with the Weathermen, the kidnappers of Patty Hearst, etc.) was sometimes seen among the far Left who saw anyone associated with the “system” as “enemies” of the “people.” At one point, in 1972, the Peoples Party of New Jersey had adopted a platform provision indicating that it would take matters of justice into its own hands if it had to. And in the 50s and 60s, Communism was distinguished from democratic Socialism by the idea that (in Communism) force (instead of legitimate democratic political processes) could be used to impose an “equalizing” political system in everyone. In the past, the use of force was associated with establishing new authoritarian or totalitarian states; in recent history the use of “force” or aggression has emphasized asymmetry and non-state or rogue state actors. This is an evolving, rather than a new, troubling concept.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Access Hollywood presents celebs in international charities, especially related to AIDS and to Myanmar


On Tuesday, July 1, Access Hollywood ran a brief segment about stars raising money for charities to fight AIDS in Africa. The show said the segment would be on its website, but I could not find it. The video showed 12 and 13 year old children raising younger siblings alone, without parents, in Kenya or other poor countries where adults are decimate by AIDS.

I did find some related older links. For example Access Hollywood’s blog carries an AP story about model Gisele Bundchen from Kenya, and about Bono’s earlier AIDS fundraising efforts. The story is called “Kenyarn recalls Gisele Photo Shoot, but Prefers Cows,” link here.

A contemporary story is “Clooney, Pitt and Damon Launch Ad Campaign for Myanmar,” from NBC, link here.

Most of the blog stories there have embedded videos of the original broadcast segments.

The show Tuesday also feinted a fake "feud" between Leonardo Di Caprio and his half-a-generation "reincarnation" Zac Efron. Would they perhaps collaborate later on global warming? Maybe an Oprah appearance in the cards?

Picture: a replica of Liberty Bell, sponsored by Providence Forum.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Iran and Israel word war fires up again today


There are various spins around on the war of words from Israel against Iran, reported earlier here (on June 8, 2008) but today someone in DOD apparently speculated increasing likelihood that Israel would attack Iran to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and the State Department immediately rebuked the “anonymous” speaker. MSNBC runs the Reuters story (which does not show up easily on Reuters itself) here. The page offers several NBC videos about Iran, which interprets any action against it by Israel as action by the United States.

However, Reuters has a Factbox, “What would Iran do if pushed into conflict?” here. It’s pretty clear that Iran could try to block the Strait of Hormuz. It could access Hamas or Hezbollah in areas from Lebanon to Gaza. And oil industry analysts predict that oil would go to $400 a barrel!

The word wars helped push and keep oil prices over $140 a barrel today.

Iran had threatened the Strait of Hormuz in September of 1980, a development which led the United States to side with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Navy Orion flyer Keith Meinhold, later to become well known in the attempt to lift the military gay ban in the 1990s, actually flew missions during this period over the Strait. We know this is just one of many unfortunate ironies of history.

Also, July 2, NBC Nightly News recalled a 1999 prediction by Osama Bin Laden that oil at $144 a barrel would break the West.