Thursday, April 30, 2009

Antarctic Wilkins Ice Shelf breaking up, while Obama administration presses for action on ozone

David Rising of the AP has a story, reported on AOL, that a huge, and unprecedented in size, ice body, the Wilkins Ice Shelf, is breaking away from “western” Antarctica, which AOL billed as a “dire prediction” from scientists in its news panels for subscribers this morning, link here.

At the same time, John Helprin, of the AP, reports that the Obama Administration wants the United States to take the lead in getting the 195 nations that had ratified the ozone treaty to agree now to mandatory reductions in hydrofluorocarbons. The story is here.

The original United Nations Environmental Programme press release for the ozone problem is called the “Montreal Protocol” and the September 2007 press release for it is here. The paper considers the agreement on reducing fluorocarbon emission much more successful and aggressive than the Kyoto Protocol for greenhouse gasses.

(Note: the direct link name to this post is misspelled because an initial typo on the word "Antarctic".)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In time of war, avoid giving comfort to the enemy

Cal Thomas has an interesting op-ed in the Tuesday April 28 Washington Times, “Loose Lips or Loose Pics”, link here. It seems as though Eleanor Roosevelt got reprimanded for a column talking about the weather in the United States during World War II. And this was in print only; there was no blogging then.

Thomas goes on to criticize bloggers and civil rights organizations (he names the ACLU) who expose all of America’s sins with Muslim prisoners. (He would probably criticize me for reviewing National Geographic’s Guantanamo). He says we are in a war with an enemy that doesn’t play by our rules and that will take what we let him. He says we are all giving aid and comfort to “enemies”. If you don’t want your liberty (and perhaps progeny) there are others waiting in line to take it away from you. That’s an interesting way to look at morality.

We saw these kinds of comments from Richard Nixon during Vietnam.

It’s true that enemies can tell a lot about us from Myspace, Facebook, etc. But I don’t know if they care to even look.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mexico starts closing publc events because of swine flu; WHO calls it an "emergency"

WHO (the World Health Organization) called the recent outbreak of swine flu “a public health emergency of international concern, under the Regulations”, in a release today by Director-General Margaret Chan, link here.

And Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon issued an order giving him emergency powers to put in place quarantines and other measures. There have been about 1300 cases through late Saturday, with 81 deaths, of H1N1 swine flu. The New York Times story Apr; 25 is by Mark Lacey and Elisabeth Malkin, link here. Mexico has already cancelled many public events.

And in the United States, new cases were reported in Kansas and in a Catholic high school in Queens, New York City. In the U.S. so far, all cases seem to be mild.

The virus is scary because it seems to have mutated significantly in spreading person to person. But it is not clear that it will be particularly virulent in a western population, particularly in warmer months.

I have had flu shots every year except 2006. But in 2002, in February, I caught a URI while in California, which came on suddenly, got better, and relapsed again, with severe cough, starting suddenly as dry with fever, the remnants of which lasted for weeks as phlegm. It was probably a novel strain that had slipped through the vaccines, perhaps similar to this one now. I remember being severely ill at age 15 with “Asian flu” but that as an adult all cases were much milder, even ones which the vaccines missed. After reaching full adulthood, many people find that symptoms of novel influenzas are milder than when they are young, because their bodies have learned how to handle similar viruses. The “new” swine flu is likely to behave this way.

Update: April 27, 2009

Mexico public places will remain closed until May 5 at least.

WHO has declared swine flu at Level 4 (in its Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response, EPR), announcement.

April 29:

Now it's Level 5. The complete index of WHO announcements is here. WHO is still calling it "swine influenza" instead of "H1N1".

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pakistan could convert completely to Sharia, fall into radical hands

Pamela Constable, of the Washington Post Foreign Service, has a comprehensive front page story in the April 20 Washington Post, “Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan: After Reaching Deal in North, Islamists Aim to Install Religious Law Nationwide”. It appears, as was noted on Fareed Zakaria’s “Global Public Square” program Sunday, that the Taliban (of Pashtun origin) is joining with other groups to blackmail the government into concession to religious law, and it appears that religious law may very well be implemented nationwide. The link is here.

The article says that Sharia goes in tandem with the government legal system, somewhat the way it would in a western country or region dominated by one religion (consider Mormonism and Utah). It is influential but does not replace the legal code. The article notes that much of Pakistan embraced tolerance until more recent times. In the United States and Canada, workers from Pakistan often worked in information technology and medicine and blended well into western capitalism; religion almost never came up.

What explains the change? Perhaps the gap between rich and poor, and the psychological experience of meaning that goes with it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Afghanistan and Pakistan revert on treatment of women; China's "one child" policy leads to new crime wave

The New York Times has an important editorial, “Women, Extremism, and Two Key States,” April 14 2009, link here.

It seems like, in Afghanistan, supposed moderate Hamid Karzai signed into law a provision that allows husbands complete control of wives, sanctioning “marital rape” as the Times called it.

In Pakistan, “new” president Asif Ali Zardari signed into law what is essentially the same thing for a region outside the “tribal area”, the Swat, as part of a “peace deal” because he cannot control much of the country. Just calling it “Sharia Law” doesn’t tell the story.

And President Obama has to be concerned with practicality, keeping some control of the region, and keeping nukes out of the hands of the Taliban or other extremists.

Not only this, as the Times also recently pointed out, the Taliban is not shy about playing the “class warfare” card.

The “social reality” is that in other cultures, particularly ancient tribal cultures, men find having complete “control” part of the “fulfillment” of marriage. Radical Islamists, with surprising “rationality”, ask, where are “mothers” better off: where they have freedom, or where men must provide for them? We are left with a cultural and personal value decision, which amounts to (especially for women) “give me liberty or give me death.”

Then, in China, we see a new kind of crime wave. Boys are kidnapped and sold to families willing to pay $2000 or so to have a male heir for the family name, in a country still with a “one child per family” policy. And, oh yes, the Chinese government is finally going after the “customers”, to squelch “demand”. Sound familiar?

The NBC Nightly News video (from Brian Williams) is called “Buying Boys in China”.

Monday, April 13, 2009

European and US telecoms have trouble monitoring governments for abuse of their wireless services (esp. Iran)

Eli Lake has a disturbing story on the front page of the April 13 Washington Times that implicates European and possibly American telecom companies for selling services that foreign governments can jerryrig to spy on dissidents.

The print version this morning was called “Europe’s telecoms aid with spy tech; Dissidents seen as targets”. The online version later in the day was similar but had a more specific title, “Fed contractor, cell phone maker sold siy system to Iran”, link here.

One major problem is that equipment “without a land line switch” would be very difficult for international agencies or manufacturers to monitor. Telecom companies are in a position when monitoring possible hostile foreign governments similar to that with individual web users and terror cells; they cannot afford to “proactively” eliminate unacceptable uses and must respond to complaints. This is just part of the “mashup” that comes with asymmetry, as described so well in Joshua Cooper Ramo’s recent book “The Age of the Unthinkable”.

Perhaps Iran really will misuse these services and live up to the film "Persepolis".

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Western countries ban free speech if it "defames" a religious fatih

Jonathan Turley has an important op-ed in the Easter Sunday Washington Post Outlook section, p B03, “The Free World Bars Free Speech,” link here.

One of the most specific points in Turley’s piece is Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 (Wikipedia article here) which makes it a crime to incite (or 'stir up') hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. That sounds well-meant enough. But a 15 year old boy was arrested for holding up a sign claiming scientology to be a cult (subjunctive mood here), and British police have issued warnings against “insulting” scientology.

Austrian legislator Susanne Winter was fined 24000 euros for the suggestions she made regarding the age at which the prophet Mohammed supposedly consummated his marriage (as well as the age of his bride).

Normally tolerant and liberal Netherlands arrested a cartoonist for parody of Muslim and Christian fundamentalists relative to gay marriage.

Britain denied entry to former Dutch legislator and filmmaker Geert Wilders for his short film “Fitna” (reviewed on my movies blog in March 2008).

Turley writes that United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann (a “suspended Roman Catholic priest who served as Nicaragua's foreign minister in the 1980s under the Sandinista regime”) wants the General Assembly to pass an international ban on all religious defamation, but its hard to see how the United States could go along with it.

There is a totally different perspective by Gabriel Sawma at the Assyria Times, “Religious tolerance forum hosted by Saudi Arabia” here.

Dr. Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. I have reviewed books by his colleague at G.W.U., Daniel Solove.

Friday, April 10, 2009

U.S. (and Obama administration) "no ransom" policy tested in piracy crisis

The latest wrinkle in the “pirates’” saga in the western Indian Ocean, off Somalia and down toward the Horn of Africa, is that Richard Phillips, the skipper of the Maersk Alabama, jumped the lifeboat and tried to swim to the Bainbridge. I suppose that if you work in commercial shipping, you should be able to swim as well as Michael Phelps.

The United States has a policy that it will not pay ransom to terrorists to free civilians, although it will use all other law enforcement and military means. Civilians can be put in harms way for the greater good, and this reminds one of Israel's policy of never negotiating with terrorists to free civilians.

CNN has a forum to allow visitors to respond on how the government is responding, here.

The latest CNN story is from Barbara Starr, reporting from Manama Bahrain, here.

Perhaps this is the first major international crisis for the new Obama administration, as predicted during the primaries last year by now Vice President Joe Biden when he was himself a presidential candidate.

Private shipping companies typically do not like to carry weapons, but use noise (loud enough to pop eardrums) and tasers to try to stop pirates from boarding. But private shipping companies to pay a lot of attention to their own maritime security.

Actually, maritime workers can sometimes be impressed into Naval service. Visitors may want to read about the United States Merchant Marine, and there is a Merchant Marine Academy, which is one of the five service academies, on Long Island, link here. For the Merchant Marine and "don't ask don't tell" see this reference on my GLBT blog for June 2008.

April 11:

A Somali warlord is reportedly negotiating with the Navy to drop the ransom demands in return for "safe passage" for the pirates from the Navy. Is this "giving in"?

Breaking news: Sunday, April 12, 2009, 1:15 PM EDT
. Mr. Phillips has been released (CNN). Follow the media. CNN link is here, and will change with developments today.

Mr. Phillips gradated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1979 (not the Merchant Marine Academy).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Radical Islamist groups overseas use U.S. web hosts, raising possible questions about censorship, security; British security gaffe causes a crisis

The left side of the front page of the Washington Post, Thursday, April 9, 2009, leads off with a most alarming column headline, “Extremist Web Sites Are Using U.S. Hosts: Ease and Anonymity Draw Taliban and Al-Qaeda”, with the detailed story by Joby Warrick and Candace Rondeaux. The link is here. Early Thursday morning, this story was the leading link at the Washington Post.

The gist of the story is at extremist groups overseas (especially from radical Islam) use American hosts because of their reputation for low cost and reliable service, and the “don’t ask don’t tell” practice – that is, a presumption that the customer will abide by the rules and the absence or proactive monitoring. ISP’s named in the story include The Planet, in Houston and Free Web Town from Tulix Systems in Atlanta. The story named sites that gave updates, from the viewpoint of “the enemy”, the progress of fights in Afghanistan. The for-purchase print version (but not online) gave a snapshot of one of the sites with its typical content (on p A7).

The same Washington Post story also appears this morning as a lead story for the Houston Chronicle (which has the byline “Taliban’s battle updates dispatched via Houston”) link here. I could not find a story on this readily on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution yet.

Some such "enemy" sites continue to operate, but at least one was removed after a “complaint” from a particular blogger, and some were removed after complaints from the governments of Pakistan or Afghanistan. These governments claim (or perhaps complain) that the U.S. has allowed the sites to remain up for “intelligence value” but the Rand Corporation (a defense think tank in Santa Monica CA, which developed a well respected study and detailed strategy proposal to the Clinton Administration recommending the lifting of the ban on gays in the military back in 1993), indicated that the sites probably carried few “secrets” and that most of the content of these sites exists for “public affairs” which, when from sites like these, means anti-Western “propaganda.”

The Post story focused on content from overseas groups that admittedly are viewed as “enemies”. Indeed, the headlines (particularly from the Houston paper) tend to stress the connection more to specific wartime enemies than to a more general issue that could compromise legitimate free speech. Probably, it is reasonable to suppose that other groups (like drug cartels in Colombia or Mexico) could run such sites but do not because such information would lead authorities to them. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and still, to some extent, Iraq, the lack of complete control over the areas (especially tribal areas in the Afghan-Pakistan area) make it difficult for military authorities to use information in the sites. In the United States, various extremist groups (especially on the far “right”, and sometimes claiming to be “Christian”) walk the line of what is legally and practically permissible with some of their content, but federal authorities can monitor their activities from their content, sometimes.

ISP’s, publishing services and social networking sites normally require that customers agree to “terms of service” or “acceptable use policies”. Back in the 1990s, AOL had to work hard to explain this concept to its growing customer base and rewrite its “rules of the road” in plain English. Most of the terms of service seem like common sense now, but with “free speech” there will be gray areas. It is not always easy for the public to distinguish “meta speech” (reporting “about” something) from inflammatory advocacy from amateur, free-entry sources (as opposed to stories from the established press, as with the linked Post story) and this could become a problem if web hosting companies are expected to monitor this kind of activity in the future (which they say they cannot afford to do). Publishing services and ISP’s do have automated tools to monitor for spam and certain specific violations but not for violent content as a whole. But, again, the concern in this story specifically seems to be with content written by overseas groups and compromising the security of US and especially foreign (such as Pakistani) military operations against terrorists (or possibly drug cartels).

Right after 9/11, authorities expressed another related but somewhat distinct concern, the idea that ordinary websites (overseas or hosted in the West) could be compromised and hacked to pass along “steganographic” messages. Generally, concern over this possibility seems to have died down. Because of business consolidation after the 2001 recession and dot-com bust, there are fewer small, weakly funded ISP’s, and larger ISP’s have substantially improved their security in the past five years or so (I can tell this from conversations with their tech support). However, inadvertent lapses (such as leaving ports or site commands open) are possible at any ISP.

“Ordinary” people hosting and writing for sites with politically or socially (even through non-violent and generally acceptable) content sometimes attract “tips” that law enforcement and intelligence misses, and the idea of journalist shield laws and the responsibilities of bloggers in these circumstances comes into consideration. I’ve covered this problem on other postings. Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a lot of information for bloggers as journalists; and “amateur” reporting, even on very troubling matters, can add valuable information to public debate (by “connecting more dots”) and even be valuable for intelligence.

Major gaffe in Britain as classified papers are accidentally exposed in public, and leak to web:

The best story on this incident seems to be in the London Times online, by Sean O’Neill, Andrew Norfolk, Russell Jenkins and Michael Evans, link here. Britain's senior counterterrorism officer Bob Quick resigned after allowing a document to show in public as he got out of the car. The document linked to the Internet, with the names and locations of suspects. The Times provides pictures of the document, with the names blocked out, in a slide show. Britain scrambled to make massive arrests immediately, of plans which may have involved Manchester England and Pakistan. Again, the Internet and WWW "cut both ways."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Suggest global tourism be restricted because of icecap melting (or is it just tourism to polar areas?)

On Monday, April 6, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams reported on the rapid melting of the Arctic icecap. The winter ice this year was the 10th smallest in record, and within ten years the Arctic Ocean may be completely ice free by August every year. That will cause the ocean to absorb more heat and give a runaway greenhouse effect, prompting much more melting of the Greenland ice cap.

At the same time, the Wilkins ice field in Antarctica is reported to have fractured and may break away and melt.

I overheard a suggestion, attributed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that the world will have to start restricting global tourism. The comment (reported by Brian Williams) comes at the beginning of the MSNBC video (below) and is attributed to both the Obama Administration and to Clinton herself.

The MSNBC video story is called "Satellites show Arctic literally on thin ice."

But Fox News has a story suggesting that the limit on tourism would apply only to the polar regions (not sure how this would help). The title is "Obama Calls for Limits on Tourism to Antarctica: At a conference Monday in Baltimore, U.S. diplomats will propose expanding the 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty to include restrictions on tourism that are now voluntary", link here.

I wonder what would happen to the ice hotel in Sweden.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

North Korean fires ICBM-like missle, could hit US

North Korea has fired a long range missile at 2:20 AM GMT Sunday, as a test, a device that might have been capable of reaching Alaska or the northern Canadian Coast.

The test is provocative because of Kim Jong-Il’s fetish with nuclear weaponry, which is constantly on and off.

Back in 2002, George Tenet had told Congress that North Korea was capable of lobbing a nuclear weapon with a missile at the United States from its mainland. It might be capable of damage to western US, Canada, and Alaska (and Russia) with an EMP effect even if the blast did no actual physical damage on land. Similar concerns have been expressed before by conservatives (as in The Washington Times) about the idea that Iran could launch a device from a stolen vessel in the Atlantic.

The CNN story is here.

The Washington Times has an early Monday story by Andrew Salmon on the U.N.’s delayed response.

Joe Biden had “promised” that President Obama would face a foreign policy challenge quickly. Put the facts together, please.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

"China: Get out of Tibet" demonstrations held (today)

Today, in North Arlington VA, as I was driving I saw a small demonstration with signs “China: Get out of Tibet” and various flags and placards, walking on the north side of Lee Highway (US 29) toward the District of Columbia. I took some quick photos that will process later (added here 4/17).

This website has a downloadable poster.

I could not find specific media reports of a Pro-Tibet demonstration in the DC area today, but participants in the march may know and be able to tell us where in a comment. Here is an article from Asia News dated March 10, 2009, “Demonstrations around the world to mark Tibet’s uprising,” link here.

Picture: "Various claims on the extent of Tibet", from the University of Texas, in Wikimedia Commons with a GNU "copyleft" license; go here for the original and all attributions.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sarkozy (France) offers op-ed on G-20 Summit

Well, when I took French I in ninth grade, I learned that “k” and “w” were not part of the Latin alphabet. So I always thought that the name of the president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, was a bit of a puzzlement. Sarkozy has been critical of the excessive reward to "capitalists" in all these bailouts and has hinted he could walk out of the G-20 meetings if he doesn't keep his privilege of being listened to.

Sarkozy has an important op-ed on p A21 of the April 1, 2009 Washington Post, “Priority I: World Growth: The Practical Steps the G-20 Summit Must Take”, link here. He seeks a “better regulated” form of democratic capitalism with “morality and solidarity.” That reminds me of an old Mother Jones article (May/June 2004) where he pits “hyperindividualism” against “solidarity” (link). I have to think of “democratic capitalism” as something that nurtures individual talent, and it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s in Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany, or Sarkozy’s France. It really doesn’t matter if it tolerates some moderate “socialism” – especially nationalized health care and some nationalize utilities and public transportation. Actor Dev Patel got to be a superstar at 17 growing up as a minority kid in Britain, playing a whiz-kid with super-determination in India – which in practice has much farther to go in the direction of Sarkozy’s paradigm. (By the way, it seems that many, even most teen actors – such as Gregory Smith -- come from Canada.) And China, for all its capitalist success (and limited resistance to the current downturn) is still an authoritarian Confucian (not quite fascist but ex-communist) state. And “democratic capitalism”, neocons write, is what the Islamic world refuses to try.

I’ll cut and paste Sarkozy’s “four points”, as if a high school kid needed to know them for a government test today: “enhanced coordination and cooperation; the rejection of protectionist measures; the strengthening of regulatory systems in financial markets; and a new global governance.” Sarkozy says we are making progress on the first two.

Barack Obama plays the role of Comforter in Chief.

Everyone writes about the protests outside, as if we expected a repeat of Seattle in November of 1999 (the movie "Battle in Seattle" is reviewed on my movies blog September 2008).

In fact, the major networks showed the vandalism against the Royal Bank of Scotland (which got a huge bailout from the British government the same day that President Obama was inaugurated) and signs screaming "Abolish Money", which sounds like a scenario for the nearest extraterrestrial civilization (as if we needed a blog on UFOs).

The Big PowWow happens Thursday. And "Summit" here does not mean "Summit Entertainment."

But what we need to think about may be more than a contract between countries. It may be revised "social contracts" among people. Back to "Mother Jones," please/