Thursday, December 31, 2009

Radical Islam's "electronic caliphate" is an oxymoron

On the edition of the “old” Washington Times, Dec. 31, 2009, Arnaud de Borchgrave has a major commentary piece on p A15, “Unholy war in cyberspace: Real battleground is no longer Afghanistan”, link here.

The writer pulls our thinking away from George W.’s Iraq and even Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, to focus on the legions of privileged but religiously or ideologically disenchanted young Muslim men all over Europe and especially rogue elements back in poor sections of Pakistan. He talks about the Taliban as a “shadow government” ready to go again, and Al Qaeda as having evaporated or sublimed into forming a “second life” caliphate over cyberspace. The battle between Sunnis and Shiites becomes a small detail for the caliphate to overcome, even if it has gone on for centuries. Remember, different sectors of radical Islam hate each other as much as they hate the West (we found that out in Iraq, as if we didn’t already know).

The ideology of radical Islam is itself curious. It seems to show how the extreme right and extreme left come together on the unseen side of the world, whether religion is involved or not. Stalin and Hitler were more alike than they were different (even if they became military enemies – again an irony), that the results of their behavior for humanity was similar.

But there is a curious paradox in the notion of an “electronic caliphate”. The Internet was born out of individualism and the idea that anyone can invent himself or herself as a celebrity. The “caliphate” itself becomes an oxymoron, where the Web is captured as a propaganda tool, serving an ideology that feeds on notions of need and “worthiness” (along with the view that the world is a zero-sum game), the two pillars that authoritarianism feeds upon.

Nevertheless, the use of the Web to seed terror plots becomes a serious issue that could undermine the freedom of speech for all of us. We heard this before, right after 9/11, with talk that ordinary home computers or amateur websites could inadvertently host “steganographic” instructions placed by hackers. And it does seem that some young men, perhaps almost schizoid in temperatment, with little satisfaction in family or social connection as we understand it run to the extremist ideology on the web.

Update: Jan. 1

CNN is describing Anwar al Alwaki as the "Osama bin Laden" of the Internet, with ties to both the Detroit and Fort Hood incidents through his Internet propaganda.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Climate change: population arguments can go both ways

Max Schulz has a “Manhattan Moment” op-ed in the Washington Examiner, p. 18, today, Wednesday, Dec. 30, “Population control: an ugly solution to climate change”, link here.

The article points with some cynicism to Time’s award to Peggy Liu, chairperson of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, as a “Hero of the Environment 2008”, link here for praising China’s one-child policy for reducing future energy demands.

Of course, authoritarian governments can more easily “do anything they want” (like the “Grant” character in the movie “Bugcrush”). But the notion that population control is part of a climate change strategy (discussed by Al Gore, too) runs into a psychological paradox: generativity. When people have kids, they are presumably more likely to care about the world that succeeds them. That notion leads some social conservatives to believe that participation is family responsibility ought to be mandatory and is indeed a critical component of future sustainability. Of course, a lower population society could work if the aged stayed healthy and remained employed longer.

The religious right has always had to deal with some paradoxes on this. The Apostle Paul thought that the end of the world was soon, and said “it is better to marry than to burn” but hinted that childlessness was maybe a good thing. If the Rapture is coming (pre-Tribulation, especially), does it make sense to have kids? I suppose if “2012” really was going to happen, or if we were to discover that the Earth is being approached by a black hole or brown dwarf, sustainability would take on a wholly different meaning (as it does in Emerich’s movie). Indeed, one day mankind will have to move to another planet (at least Mars) as the Sun will fry Earth in a few billion years when the Sun becomes a red giant.

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA picture of Betelgeuse

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Web posts, while documenting world history at the grass roots level, give up valuable evidences and clues of "precrime" like in "Minority Report"

Autobiographical posts by suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from the Christmas Day Detroit Incident show depression, and obsession with a certain way at looking at radical Islamic values. The Washington Post story is Phillip Rucker and Julie Tate, Dec. 29, link here.

Many of the suspect’s postings were in forums hosted by others, a practice more common ten years ago before blogs and social networking sites took off. Some were on the “Islamic Forum”, URL here. But some of his sentiments were also found on Facebook. Will authorities starting trolling the web for "precrime" like in the movie "Minority Report"?

Generally, personal history postings, common on blogs, do enrich a serious “social science” researcher’s understanding of what is going on in a society at a grass roots level, way beyond what “professional media” report. But sometimes they communicate a preoccupation with ideology or belief for its own sake, a dislike of familial or social attachments developed by others. The media is reporting that a significant number of young Muslim men are persuaded to develop radical belief systems, with many of these men in the West (especially Britain and Europe) and many persuaded in part by what they find on the Internet.

Circumstantial evidence and interrogation (not rendition) so far suggests that the suspect, after shunning his wealthy family, was “trained” in Yemen, as indicated also by a statement by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano maintains that there is no evidence yet that the plot is bigger, other evidence suggests extensive planning in Yemen (headline Post story today by Carrie Johnson).

The front page of the Tuesday Washington Post also has an article by Greg Jaffe on the way blogs can communicate the sense of sacrifice by some military families, in this case the Yllescas family, with their blog here. The Post link is here. Read the seven year old’s blunt question there. It would be hard for me personally to imagine putting myself in that position.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mexican cartels vicious with hit-style reprisals in border towns (Juarez)

The drug cartel situation in Mexico, especially in the border towns (especially Juarez), as reported in the past especially by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, has become even more critical, according to a particularly shocking story on Wednesday December 23 in the Wall Street Journal by Jose de Cordoba and David Luhnow. The story refers to reprisals against family members (not just children) of police officers and members of the military in Mexico, link here.

A relevant film is “Bordertown” (ThinkFilm), reviewed in my movies blog March 2009.

William Booth and Stephen Fainaru have a similar story in the Sunday Dec. 27 Washington Post, “Mexico weights options as lawlessness continues to grip Ciudad Juarez”, link here, in a series called "Mexico at War".

Wikipedia attribution link for public domain picture of Rio Bravo, Juarez.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Serious incident at Detroit airport today; CNN has complete coverage

CNN has complete video coverage of an apparent attempt by a man from Nigeria to ignite a device on a flight landing in Detroit Christmas day. The man had traveled from Nigeria through Amsterdam. The CNN link for the story is here.

The suspect was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and apparently was not on any no-fly list, and apparently was not rescreened in Amsterdam.

I personally last passed through Schiphol in May 2001, returning to Minneapolis on Northwest. On that occasion, the Dalai Lama passed right by me as I was waiting to board.

The Los Angeles Times
reports that other passengers overpowered the suspect, story here. (See my TV blog Dec. 26).

CNN is also characterizing terrorism as the weapon of the weak: it seems to come from the notion that if one has a grudge or has been "wronged", one is entitled to anything, almost as in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Wikipedia attribution link for Schiphol indoor picture.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Prince William does a dress rehearsal on homelessness

Prince William of Wales spent a night on the streets of London Dec. 22, when the temperature dropped below freezing, in order to demonstrate what it is like for the homeless. William has been associated with a group called Centerpoint, and at one point was almost run over by a streetsweeper.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


Phil Han has a similar story on CNN here. (I could not get the CNN video to embed).

The Prince did have a warm breakfast and shower waiting the next morning.

Attribution link for Wikipedia p.d. picture of London after 1940 Blitz.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Philippines volcano could undergo explosive eruption; maybe global cooling?

AP and ABC News have a story Monday morning warning that the Philippines volcano Mayon could have an explosive eruption soon. The story is here.

A major eruption could actually temporarily cool the Earth’s climate, as Mount Pinatubo did in 1991. Recently scientists like Nathan Myhrvold have suggested countering global warming by pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere at high latitudes.

Wikipedia attribution link for USGS picture of Pinatubo.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

National Geographic explains how Singapore works: does authoritarianism "work"?

I’d recommend the January 2010 issue of National Geographic for its end story by Mark Jacobson, “The Sinagpore Solution: How did a sleepy little island transform into a high tech powerhouse in one generation? It was all in the plan ,” photographs (many) by David McLain, link here.

It didn’t become independent from Britain until 1963, and this little city-state, almost on the Equator, is sometimes compared to Switzerland, having a higher standard of living than much of Europe.

But the culture is somewhat authoritarian, well known for the strict rules about cleanliness in public places, caning, and censorship. Lee Kuan Yew has a somewhat Calvinist moral philosophy and believes that people need rules, even if they are secular and not as inflexible as in most fundamentalist religion of any kind.

There is in Singaporean culture a certain competitive attitude called kiasu, of “afraid to lose”, which can lead to existential moral dilemmas familiar to me, at least. Perhaps the culture has a slight bite of fascism.

Partly as a result of kiasu, Singapore has a low birthrate, despite pro-natalist initiatives by Yew's government.

Back in the 1980s, the Sinagpore Symphony Orchestra was quite helpful in bringing a lot of obscure romantic works to compact disc on the Marco Polo label.

Attribution link for Wikipedia map of Singapore.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Copenhagen reaches weak deal; Sea levels were 25 higher 125000 years ago

An AP story, reproduced on MSNBC, reports that global sea levels were about 25 feet higher than they are today about 125000 years ago, during the Eemian Stage. The last warm spell started about 10000 years ago, but man’s activity is definitely accelerating the melt-off of polar ice caps and mountain glaciers. The MSNBC link is here.
All of this is reported in the Dec. 16 issue of Nature, which has a Climate Feedback blog here.

The president returns home from Copenhagen, his landing complicated suddenly and ironically by an East Coast Noreaster, after signing a non-binding “mutual inspection” deal between the US, China, Brazil, India and South Africa.

Here is MSNBC’s video of the president’s speech in Copenhagen.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Here is a PDF of the accord, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (link).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Northern Virginia "5" (arrested in Pakistan) shows that younger American, as well as European, men can be drawn to radical ideology

The recent arrests in Pakistan of northern Virginia men Waqar Khan, Ramy Zamzam, Umar Chaudhry, Ahmad Minni, and Amman Yamer has led to numerous media reports suggesting that sometimes young American men, while generally more assimilated than comparable men in Europe, still are attracted to radical ideology, often from what they find on “foreign” websites. Bruce Bawer had examined this problem a few years ago with his book "While Europe Slept", a book by a gay conservative who had lived in Amdsterdam and journaled what was happening around the time of 9/11.

The role of the Internet in hosting “propaganda” has long been a concern ever since 9/11 (the steganography concern) , and this time Facebook figured into the bust of the five as the FBI tracked the case down with Pakistan.

Brian Ross of ABC News has a typical report here.

Colbert L. King has a perspective on the situation on p A15 of the Washington Post today, link here. There is a concern that young men, particularly those with some difficulties in social competition, will get drawn to absolutist ideology found online. She makes this amazing statement. “The men who pulled off the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were motivated by something apart from greed, lust or a thirst for power. Their malice sprang from a belief that the world in which they lived could not be reconciled with the wider world around them.” Others have simply characterized this fanaticism as simply directed a “infidels” and a world that is either “us or them” in which there is only one version of “the Law” for everyone allowed to exist (sound like the 1930s?). But absolute virtue has always been a seductive trap for some, going back to the writings of Sayyid Qtub.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Britain considers revising defamation laws to stop "libel tourism"

Sarah Lyall has a front page story in the New York Times about English libel tourism, Friday Dec. 11, “Britain, Long a Libel Mecca, Reviews Laws,” link here.

Parliament is considering requiring the plaintiff to show that harm in England before bringing suit, under England’s “one hit” system that has attracted suits against books with very few sales in Britain and even web sites viewable in Britain. Judgments could be obtained against foreigners, who then could not enter the country. The US is considering refusing to recognize British libel judgments, as do many states.

In Britain, the defendant has the onerous of proving truth; the presumption is that the plaintiff’s complaint of falsity would hold. In the US, the plaintiff must prove beyond a 51% chance that the statements are false, malicious, and recklessly disregard the truth. In the US, it is possible to libel oneself, , which can lead to bizarre situations with implicit content.

Scotland has its own system.

British libel law was drawn up in the 19th Century along the lines of Victorian society.

The story mentions several famous plaintiffs, such as Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, Incelandic businessman Jon Olafson, and NMT Medical Company in Boston.

In the US, despite much stricter rules, “SLAPP” libel suits have been very troublesome in some areas, like those filed by real estate developers in eminent domain cases.

Attribution Wikipedia link for picture of Parliament

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Russian missle test creates UFO effect with spiral arms over Norway

An endless night (land of the midday moon) UFO over Norway stirred up speculation, as it showed spiral arms, as if coming from an astronomical black hole. It turns out to be a Russian missile test.

Back in 1995, Norway thought that a Russian missile launch could be the “real thing” and false alarms can be a real security problem.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Attribution link for Wikipedia map of Russian regions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

World depends on Chinese rare earths for green technology

Here’s an MSNBC video on the world’s dependence on China for rare earth metals, used in green technology, but polluting the Chinese countryside.

Are we trading one kind of dependence for another?

Rare earths confound every high school student on the Periodic Chart.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Wikipedia attribution link for Periodic Table here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Amanda Knox conviction: travelers, when abroad, be careful: the justice system of the country you visit applies

The conviction of Amanda Know in Perugia, Italy, for the murder of a British roommate, brings up the issue that Americans must bear in mind when they travel, even in western countries: they are bound by the laws and legal procedures of the countries they visit.

It does seem at first glance that Italian criminal justice may have fewer protections, in shielding jurors from global (including Internet) publicity and in presuming innocence, than does the American system. Nevertheless, Knox will spend 25 years in prison unless her conviction is overturned. And it seems as if the DNA and other physical evidence could be questioned more. If she returns to the US, she would have to serve the full sentence here.

There are other issues. People sued in Britain under “libel tourism” practices can never visit the UK.

Can gay people active on the Web safely visit many Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia (or worse, Iran), when their postings can be found by authorities? Could they be arrested and held forever? What about people who have criticized China online (written about Tibet) who then travel to China?

Any ideas? I don’t recall the State Department’s comments on this matter.

Attribution link for map of Italy on Wikipedia.

In Italy a criminal jury has 8 people, with 2 judges and 6 ordinary people. There is a presumption of innocence, but not the same concept of reasonable doubt. Even in a jury trial, the judge(s) have to write an opinion in Italy.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Update: December 10. Stephanie Gosk reports about the conditions of Italian women's prison for Amanda Knox.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Friday, December 4, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan: military will have to work with tribal culture, testing its own cohesion

There’s a lot of post-mortem on President Obama’s Tuesday night speech at West Point on Afghanistan, but Michael Gerson’s column on p A27 of the Friday Dec. 4 Washington Post, “Obama’s Case to Make”, link here, goes into a little more subtlety.

The military (mainly the Army, including allies like the Brits, Prince Harry included perhaps) has a task related to its own issues of “unit cohesion” (so often mentioned in conjunction with “don’t ask don’t tell”): it has to comingle and become socialized with the people and break up the primitive tribalistic culture than enables the nighttime “letter threats” that Gerson talks about. He also talks about a warlord culture developing in Afghanistan, like that well known from Somalia (ironically mentioned in the ABC series “FlashForward”).