Monday, January 26, 2009

Missions in Congo; Facebook in Egypt

On Sunday Jan. 25 the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA offered a post-service lunch and slide slow by Dr. Larry Sthreshley about a denomination effort to deliver health care to the Congo in Africa.

The slide show was quite graphic as to showing the living conditions, such as collections attached mud huts in jungle clearings for extended families. A local leaf is a major source of protein, and the cooking process of turning it into pasta is very labor intensive. There are few paved roads in a country one third the area of the continental United States (large than Alaska) and four wheel drives, which still get stuck in mud, must be used. Some areas are accessible only on foot. Fresh water has been provided by tapping three thousand springs with simple technology. The country is divided into health care zones. Family planning is offered, and is controversial in a country in which abortion is illegal (which causes more abortion). The effort seemed to be independent of the Gates Foundation.

The slide show gave the history of the country, with the “pillages” by mutinous soldiers in 1991 and 1993, a very traumatic event. The largest city Kinshasha (formerly Leopoldville) offers electricity for only a small percentage of its residents. The slides showed considerable trash and squalor in the towns.

The slide show also presented relief effort in southern Sudan, apparently south of Darfur.

Also, yesterday, The New York Times Magazine has an important article, p 34, by Samantha M. Shapiro, “Can Social Networking Change Disaffected Young Egyptians into a force for democratic change,” (online title, “Revolution: Facebook style”), link here. A woman named Rashid organized a general strike on Facebook and wound up in jail, but also on talk radio shows; she became known as “The Facebook Girl” (sounds like a movie title, doesn’t it).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama signs XO to close Guantanamo, end questionable interrogation tactics

President Barack Obama, with his left hand, has signed an Executive Order requiring the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within one year. Remember, by the way, that Guantanamo was the site of the core incident in the 1992 film with Tom Cruise, "A Few Good Men."

Obama said that that the interrogation procedures must fall within the Army Field Manual and Geneva Convention. This is material that is taught to every soldier in Basic Training, and was even covered in 1968 when I was in the Army as a draftee. (I specifically recall it.) Obama would discontinue the extra special procedures started during the Bush administration, which apparently included waterboarding and secret “extreme rendition.” (Yes, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Obama likes pie charts.)

The CNN story is here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wireless and broadband in developing world should be a major priority

CNN has recently reported the importance of satellites in providing Internet services to developing parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa. I could not find the story on CNN, but there is a story (Oct 27 2008) by Ian Howard from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) on the controversy over wireless, Information Technology Centers, and phone-based Internet in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where there seems to be a bit of a political struggle. The story is titled “Rural communication: Is there still a need for telecenters now there are mobile phones?” from Montevideo, link here.

Barack Obama has talked a lot about broadband infrastructure in rural areas of the U.S. When volunteer workers go to work on projects (Peace Corps, various private or faith-based engineering or water projects), they will need access to wireless Internet in villages and in the fields. This sounds like a significant political priority in conjunction with international service and volunteerism.

I do know from ad hoc stories that typically wireless is available in Central American towns in cafes, but not always in the remote areas.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Australian author arrested in Thailand for insulting royalty in novel; a warning to travelers

Harry Nicolaides, an Australian writer, was sentenced to three years in prison in Thailand for insulting the country’s royal family, under Thailand’s "Lese Majeste" law. The book was named “Verisimilitude”, dated 2005. The book does not appear on Amazon, and only fifty copies were printed and seven sold.

The authored had lived and worked in Thailand since 2003, but authorities waited until he was leaving, in August 2008, to arrest him. It’s possible that the King could pardon him. Others have been arrested and pardoned. There is a video, hosted by British journalist Dan Rivers, showing Nicolaides in jail.

The CNN link, dated Jan. 19, 2009 is here. The Economist has an article on the Thailand law dated Aug 14, 2008, here.

It’s not clear what in the novel insulted the monarchy, but the passages was small. CNN is not reprinting it, out of fear of endangering employees in Thailand.

I’ve wondered if a controversial blogger who criticized radical Islam could be arrested and held in countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia if he or she visited the country (say, just to see the Pyramids). It would be easy for authorities overseas to locate passages in search engines while the writer was on their soil.

But this case seemed to involved a printed book only.

Thailand has been involved in controversy before. In 2006, it deported ex teacher John Mark Karr, who had made a false confession in the Jon Benet Ramsey case (with no other motive than to communicate his own personal pain or shame), as an “undesirable.”

The US State Department always warns international travelers that they are at the mercy of the laws of the countries they visit, but try to list unusual practices under "travel warnings." The State Department does have a warning about Thailand under "special circumstances" here. "In this connection, it is a criminal offense to make negative comments about the King or other members of the royal family. Thais hold the King in the highest regard, and it is a serious crime to make critical or defamatory comments about him." Likewise about Saudi Arabia the State Department warns "Saudi authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam. Non-Muslims suspected of violating these restrictions have been jailed. Homosexual activity is considered to be a criminal offense and those convicted may be sentenced to lashing, prison, or death."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama's stimulus-related bond sales could fail in China, overseas, raising interest rates, thwarting recovery

The Washington Times, in a front page article this morning (Jan. 15) by Patrice Hill, warns that US bond sales could fail on international markets during the attempt at economic stimulus, raising interest rates. The article suggests that China, especially, will resist purchases four times that of any other one-year debt purchase in history (the record is $455 billion). The story is titled “Debt burden tests global investments; Bond sales risk failure”, link here.

The Washington Times article, about half-way through, states that China (as well as oil states like UAE) began to sell off their holdings in mortgage-related pseudo-companies like Fannie Mae, and that they’re doing so might well have led to the sudden implosion of Lehman Brothers and AIG over a weekend in mid September 2008.

Media stories present inconsistent accounts about what China is likely to do. It seems as though it should not have been so vulnerable to the western financial collapse, but it has indeed faced massive unemployment and the prospect of dangerous political unrest, which its repressive policies (toward dissidence) might stir up further.

See related stories here Jan 11, 13.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

China's economic problems are getting worse, relatively speaking, than we had thought

Even though I wrote on this blog a few days ago that I feared that China could put the squeeze on US debt – and suggested that this could be a major reason why Obama has been suggesting that seniors with means might have to sacrifice some entitlements during the economic stimulus – a story on p A07 of the Tuesday Jan 13 Washington Post indicate that unemployment in China is very serious and may lead to a political crisis. The capitalist “revolution” could quickly unravel and some sort of “moralistic” Maoism – in a country with nukes – could return. The story is by Washington Post Foreign Service writer Ariana Eunjung Cha, and is titled “As China’s Jobless Numbers Mount, Protests Grow Bolder: Economic Woes Shining a Light on Social Issues”, link here.

Perhaps the article would suggest a more libertarian view: a society with “Confucian” social controls of private activity is not necessarily more stable.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Israel, Palestine (including Gaza) and respect for property rights

Even in normal times, if you buy a house (in the United States or any modern country), you have to take out title insurance. Why? You have to do some due diligence to make sure that the property you are “taking” really belongs to the seller, and that it will “really” belong to you. There’s nothing controversial about this in itself; insurance companies have been able to do actuarial calculations on the risk for decades. That compares well to many other new risks in our economy.

Look, then, at the middle East. If you go to live in a kibbutz in the West Bank or any occupied territory, you ought to have good reason to know that a large population of people around you believe that the land will not be “yours.” That’s because, in a series of steps taking several decades of history, land or property was essentially expropriated from the Palestinians and given to the settlers of Israel. There may be a religious justification of some kind extending over centuries or millennia, but the people living there did not cause the problem. (They did not cause the Holocaust.) Okay, maybe one says they should know about it and care about ancestral religious conflicts. Maybe.

But having one’s property and essentially one’s life expropriated by force, being powerless to stop it, is for many people in the region a source of personal shame, a most unacceptable emotion. It’s not surprising that the individual violent acts that follow do make a certain nihilistic statement. Of course, much has been written about what makes terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere “tick” including what explains 9/11.

To libertarian ways of thinking, the Palestinian people living in these areas, like West Bank, Gaza, and some other areas, have a legitimate property right to the land. Of course, one could extend this kind of reasoning into other areas, like native Americans in the United States (and get into a debate about the legal structures around tribal reservations).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

US debt (from stimulus) could get blocked by China; UN Convention on Children stirs conservatives

Barack Obama’s plan for a vigorous stimulus package and his concern about how we will pay for it (there is already talk of cutting into entitlement programs heavily) weighs very heavily overseas.

The biggest concern might be expressed today by the Washington Post story in the Outlook Section Jan. 11 by Greg Ip, “Could the World’s Biggest Economy Go Broke: We’re Borrowing Like Mad? Can the U.S. Pay It Back?” link here. He goes into some technical discussions about how a US default would really occur.

But the problem is that the rest of the world – especially China – might not tolerate us. True, the rest of the world is in our recession (I suppose that in other parts of the Galaxy, business depressions are inter-galactic) but China may have a heads up, and have no reason to keep bankrolling us. Remember, they’re Confucian values and filial piety (they don’t have a Medicare or social security safety net yet) can make them less tolerant of ours pretty quickly, which may be one reason why Barack Obama seems to have targeted entitlements for seniors (at least with some means or other family) so quickly.

And, the oil producing states (Nigeria, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia) can, at some point in the future, decide they need us less, although maybe not now.

UN Convention on the Rights of a Child stirs controversy

On page 17 of the Family Section Washington Times, Michael Smith (in “home schooling today”) has a column “U.N. treaty might weaken families” concerning the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which he says could undermine parental sovereignty over minor children in sensitive areas, like religion. The link appears in Free Republic here. Contender Ministries has a perspective on this issue here.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Russia may cut off US adoptions; natural gas cutoff causing hardship in Ukraine

The free (and somewhat “conservative”, I think) daily DC Examiner has a story today on p. 8 by Freeman Klopott, “Outraged Russians consider cutting off U.S. adoptions”. The trigger was an incident in Purcelville, VA where a man left his adopted son, born in Russia, in a hot car and forgot he was there (to take him to day care) when he went to work. Later a jury acquitted him of involuntary manslaughter.

Russians seem to believe that adopted children in the United States don’t have the same rights as natural children, and could be sought for adoption for body parts, a concept out of horror films (“Clonus”).

The upshot is that Russia may stop allowing Americans to adopt their children.

The Examiner does not yet have a link to the story.

Russia has been growing all the more hostile and belligerent, particularly since the situation in Georgia. Now, over an arcane dispute, it has cut off natural gas supplies to the Ukraine, affecting several other countries (even Austria), forcing people to burn firewood to stay warm in January.

The Examiner link to this story (by Caroline Calais) is here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

International chess makes drug testing a controversy; is it necessary?

International chess has made the mainstream news again. On Wednesday Jan. 7, David R. Sands of The Washington Times wrote a front-page article “Chess masters defy drug test for Olympic bid,” link here. A Chess News page (about American Chess) has a page about motions related to drug testing here; the newsletter is edited by Bill Goichberg (who directed a lot of tournaments that I played in myself three decades ago; he would remember me, I think). Of course, it seems to be stretching things to imagine that drugs would really “improve” tournament performance, in a sport where you have to sit 5 hours at a table and concentrate and calculate (especially in the endgames) in over the board play. It’s interesting that even in 2009 chess hardly seems played out.

There is a new book by Daniel Johnson “How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard” from Houghton-Mifflin, reviewed by Doug Bandow in the Washington Times Sunday January 4 here. I plan to order the book and review it myself later, but Bandow gives a very detailed account of the politics of chess in his review. Those of us who played in tournaments for decades and followed the world championship matches starting in the 60s remember (remember Spassky-Fischer) all this well.

I don’t know whether chess is a paradigm for war specifically as a paradigm for life, and “karma”.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Experts warn about population demographics, particularly in western Europe

Neil Howe and Richard Jackson have an alarming article in the Outlook Section of the Washington Post this morning, Jan. 4, “The World Won’t Be Aging Gracefully: Just the Opposite,” link here.

The authors have a book “The Graying of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century,” published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2008, with authors Keisuke Nakashima and Rebecca Strauss.

The most obvious result of this demographic development is financial: as people live longer, they exhaust savings and working populations, shrinking, have to pay relatively more to support retirement. Obviously, working careers must lengthen and retirement must be delayed, and employers must adjust to hiring more senior workers and keeping them longer.

The authors maintain that the United States may remain in a position of relative leadership because its birthrate and legal immigration rates are higher than in western Europe. The US has a replacement rate of about 2.1, where as in Europe some countries are below 1.5. Whereas western European countries had median ages in the early 30s in 1980, by 2020 the median age could be over 50. Muslim immigration, which is not as well assimilated as in the United States, could dominate European society and undermine liberal social values accepted today. Russian population is imploding, leading to the possibility of an eventual “failed state with nukes” China will have a graying population because of its “one child per family” policy.

The “moral” question that comes up related to the relative value our society places on childrearing and parenting, relative to expressive culture that interests adults apart from children. In the latter part of the 20th Century we came to regard marriage and parenting as a “private choice” for which, in theory, parents own complete responsibility. It’s not clear that we can afford that view too much longer. Already, some countries are adopting pro-natalist policies, and Russia sponsored “conception days”. Some countries with pro-family policies, like Singapore, still have low birth rates, however.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lipman op-ed predicts that Russia can get dangerous

Masha Lipman offers a grim editorial on p A13 of the January 3, 2008 Washington Post, “For Russia, a Dark Horizon”, link here. Falling oil prices have hit Russia with outright depression, and despite the superficial political changes of the last election, Putin is entrenching himself with an even more “vertical” authoritarian rule. We’re all familiar with the story of Garry Kasparov. I’d give the link to Kasparov’s “Other Russia” but McCaffe Site Advisor says it has links to red sites.

Russian “nationalism” was sometimes mentioned in the 1990s as the new threat following communism, and the concerns about it receded only because of the much greater concerns over radical Islam.