30 January 2007

Hard times at the World Bank

Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, was required to remove his shoes when he visited a mosque in western Turkey recently. Note his socks, or should I say, his toes. His footwear seems to be in the same condition as the advice he gave George Bush when he was deputy secretary of defense. Or for that matter, the advice the World Bank offers developing countries.

Anyway, one would think the bank could advance Paul a few bucks so he can get down to the mall and do some shopping.

The IPCC report on climate change -- first the good news

As bits and pieces of the upcoming report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leak out, a grim picture of the future emerges: massive flooding, food and water shortages, the death of coral reefs, the collapse of forest systems, bigger storms, acidification of the seas, the spreading of deserts, and on it goes.

But will the picture be grim enough? Probably not. The IPCC is a very conservative body. Only those points considered indisputable by all of the hundreds of scientists involved are included in the report. This consensus deflects accusations the IPCC may be exaggerating the threat to the planet, but it also means its reports err on the side of caution.

For example, a serious disagreement has already broken out regarding damage to the Antarctic. Apparently, the report downplays the affect of global warming on the region even though it has suffered the greatest temperature rise on the planet. Many scientists believe not only will the Antarctic be affected in a major way, but global weather patterns will as well. The continent contains the largest mass of ice on Earth and as a result is a major weather driver.

So when the report is released, keep in mind that as bad as the predictions may be, the reality will probably be worse.

26 January 2007

Will the people save us?

I've been an optimist all my life. I've always felt that, even though it may take a crisis to alert people to a problem, they will ultimately do the right thing. And then global warming came along. Or maybe just old age. But I've been starting to think maybe this time we won't do the right thing. This is the biggest threat we have ever faced, or ever will face -- it involves everything, the planet itself -- and if we wait for a crisis it may be too late.

Yet I have been observing little leadership that was prepared to deal with the challenge. The leaders of the world's major polluter, the United states, have shown little concern. Nor did the leaders of the potentially biggest polluters, China and India, seem to take heed. So I have been growing increasingly pessimistic even while I enjoy the warmer winters.

Now, rather suddenly, it seems a little optimism may be justified after all. As leaders have pursued other priorities, often seemingly oblivious to the changing climate, ordinary people have been taking notice. A recent Globe and Mail/CTV survey illustrated the remarkable awakening of Canadians to the growing threat. According to the poll, a year ago only four per cent of us thought the environment was the most critical issue facing the country. Today, 26 per cent do. It's now the major issue in Canadians' minds. According to Allen Gregg, chair of the Strategic Counsel, which conducted the survey, "It's developed a top-of-mind salience the likes of which we've never seen before. In 30 years of tracking, we've never had over 20 per cent saying they think this is the most important issue.” As people recognize the threat, politicians follow, and it seems those two laggards on climate change, Stephen Harper and George Bush, are starting to do just that. As Ralph Klein once said, political leadership is about figuring out where the people are going and then running around to get in front of them.

People in other countries also seem to be coming to grips with global warming, and as they do, and as their politicians scurry to get in front of them, I feel my old optimism returning. It feels good.

25 January 2007

Gay sheep cause ruckus

Charles Roselli is interested in gay sheep. Not, however, in the way those among us with overactive imaginations might think. Dr. Roselli, of the Oregon Health and Science University, is looking for physiological factors to explain why about 8 per cent of rams exclusively choose sex with other rams rather than with ewes. The good doctor says his goal is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of sexual orientation in sheep.

Quite aside from a lot of bad jokes, Dr. Roselli's work has produced a torrent of protest, led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and supplemented by gay tennis star Martina Navratilova. An error-riddled article in London's Sunday Times, which claimed the doctor was "curing" the rams and that critics feared the research would lead to attempts to breed homosexuality out of humans, didn't help. The university and the doctor, whose work is supported by the National Institutes of Health and published in leading scientific journals, are working hard, with some success, to set the record straight.

The fact that most piqued my attention was that 8 per cent of rams are gay. Can anybody still believe it's a lifestyle choice?

24 January 2007

Harper challenges U.S.

The Harper government may be genuflecting to U.S. foreign policy, but it has at least mounted a significant challenge to American trade policy. Canada has registered a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the massive handouts the United States doles out to its farmers. Widespread global anger with American agricultural subsidies and the resultant distortion of world markets has led 32 countries to join us in the challenge with more rushing to get on board. We have been joined by countries from Nicaragua to Brazil to Australia to the 25-country European Union. A coalition of the willing, you might say.

After years of being defensive about the Wheat Board and supply management, it is refreshing to see us go on the offensive. But this is about more than us and our trade buddies. We have recognized for years that open, unsubsidized markets for agricultural products would do the Third World far more good than foreign aid. Other industrialized nations, not just the United States, are guilty of protecting their agricultural sectors, but U.S. protection is particularly egregious because so many of its major crops compete directly with Third World products, e.g. citrus, cotton, sugar, rice, etc. Handouts to American farmers drive prices so low many Third World farmers, whose governments can't afford subsidies, are hard-pressed to make a living.

If our government's action helps to give Third World farmers an even break, it will be a worthy effort indeed.

23 January 2007

China and India - drying up?

According to Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned American economist who heads the UN's Millennium Project, two of the world's great rivers, the Ganges and the Yellow, no longer flow. According to Sachs, due to silting up and water extraction upstream they are essentially stagnant.

This does not bode well for the world's two most populous nations. The agricultural revolution that allowed Asia to feed its expanding populations has relied heavily on greater use of water. The amount of land under irrigation has tripled. And the demand for water only grows as India and China increasingly become industrial powerhouses.

The two Asian giants are not alone in facing serious water shortages. Countries around the world are experiencing shrinking water resources. Here in North America, the great Ogallala aquifer, which underlies parts of eight states and was once thought inexhaustible, is being drained at up to 100 times the replacement rate.

The long-term forecast, it would appear, is warm and dry.

The touch-sensitive revolution: computing sans keyboard and mouse

Take a look at this.

Jeff Han, a researcher at New York University, demonstrates his new touch-sensitive screen, giving hands-on computing a whole new meaning. What with Apple's iphone and its multi-touch screen, a new world of computer interfacing is opening up.

Although limited for text applications, it suggests a new, more intimate relationship with our computers. But will we be able to say goodbye to our mice?

22 January 2007

New Labour gets busted

Police arrived at dawn on Friday to arrest Ruth Turner, Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of government relations. Ms. Turner is charged with perverting the course of justice. The arrest is the latest development in the police investigation of a cash-for-honours scandal in which the Labour government stands accused of offering titles to wealthy patrons in return for loans. Earlier arrests included Lord Levy, Labour's chief fundraiser.

A verbal war quickly broke out between Labour and Scotland Yard with culture secretary Tessa Jowell expressing bewilderment at the police behaviour and former home secretary David Blunkett accusing the police of theatrics. Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Glen Smyth, responded by accusing the politicians of attempting to bring undue pressure on the police. Former president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Chris Fox, suggested political critics were attempting to discredit the inquiry, causing chief constables to fear a threat to police independence.

If Ms. Turner, or any other of Blair's key aides, is formally charged, the Prime Minister's position becomes untenable, and he may be forced to step down before the June or July departure date he has set for himself. For Tony, it seems to be just one damn thing after another these days.

18 January 2007

Israel to generously give Palestinians their own money

In a rare burst of generosity, Israel is going to hand over $100-million to the Palestinians that is rightfully theirs in the first place.

Israel collects customs duties for the Palestinians which it then normally hands over to the Palestinian Authority. However, for the past year, in a fit of pique over the election of Hamas, Israel has arbitrarily refused to give the Authority its money. This contributed to a serious cash-flow crisis as government workers, including police and teachers, went unpaid.

The Israeli generosity has its limits, however. First, they aren't going to release all they owe, retaining over half a billion for further blackmail. Furthermore, they are dictating the rules by which it can be spent. None, for example, can be used to pay those now-desperate civil servants.

Withholding someone else's money, then parceling it out to them in portions, then telling them how they will be allowed to spend it, is I suppose a definition of "chutzpah."

Marriage no longer the norm for American women

In 1950, the heyday of the nuclear family, only about a third of American women lived the unmarried life. Today, according to the latest census data, over 50 per cent do. Single is now the norm.

Women who have been raised to make their own living no longer need the economic security of marriage, and are increasingly willing to live alone or with a partner outside marriage. The trend is particularly pronounced among the young. In 1950, 42 per cent of U.S. women under the age of 24 were married, in 2000 only 16 per cent were.

Wedding bells still ring, but less and less it seems.

17 January 2007

Olé for the Spanish justice minister

Earlier this week, Spanish Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar struck a blow for women straight at the academic heart of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam. Scheduled to deliver a lecture at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, the minister cancelled when he discovered visiting women journalists were to be banned from attending, even if wearing the traditional black abaya and veil.

Ethically, of course, any justice minister worth his salt could hardly do less. A brutal dictatorship that cruelly 0ppresses women is hardly a respectable venue for a politician who purports to represent justice. Nonetheless, Lopez Aguilar deserves full credit for making his very public statement against the rampant misogyny of the benighted Saudi regime.

Ironically, the minister's lecture was to be on terrorism, a subject women in Saudi Arabia might be particularly interested in.

16 January 2007

If the West is leery of Iran, why are they doing it favours?

The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again. For years, the West harangued the Palestinians, insisting they attack corruption and adopt democratic process. So they did both in one fell swoop, elevating Hamas into government in a free and fair election while sweeping out the corrupt Fatah. But, alas, Hamas doesn't meet with the approval of the West. It refuses to recognize Israel and it insists, like every other government in the world, on reserving the right to use violence in defence of its interests. So Israel, the European Union and the United States (and Canada, not that we matter anymore) act to crush the new government by cutting off its funding. Thus both the Palestinians and democracy itself are grievously insulted, and Western nations are shown up as hypocrites.

The plan was to bring Hamas to its knees, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. Hamas has sought funding elsewhere, including in Iran, with some success. Iran has now replaced the EU as the Palestinian Authority's biggest donor.

The West laments Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, then hands it the Palestinians on a platter. If Western nations want to limit Iranian prestige in the region, they might start by treating the Palestinian people and their duly elected government, to say nothing of democracy, with respect.

13 January 2007

Tar sands: a big, dirty business

A pamphlet the Pembina Institute dropped in my mailbox the other day reminded me yet again of the difficulty of comprehending the magnitude of tar sands development. Contemplate the following:
  • The amount of clean natural gas used daily for production would heat more than three million homes.
  • A barrel of oil produced from the sands results in three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional crude.
  • Mining operations are licensed to divert a volume of water from the Athabasca River twice the amount of water used by the City of Calgary. Ninety per cent of it ends up in toxic tailing ponds.
  • An area of boreal forest larger than Vancouver Island has been leased for in situ development.
  • Syncrude's and Suncor's emissions are ranked number one and two among Alberta's largest polluters, helping to make Alberta pollution king of Canada.
I find the first item particularly disturbing. Burning large volumes of clean energy to produce large volumes of dirty energy seems, as one wit observed, like transmuting gold into lead -- an alchemy of madness.

    12 January 2007

    Why did they do this to themselves?

    The United States is a nation of 300 million people, gifted with an abundance of citizens highly accomplished in every field of endeavour: business, science, the arts, academia, the professions, anything you might name. And yet they elected George W. Bush as their president -- twice. Why would a nation of generally sensible citizens choose as their leader a man who, despite being born with all the advantages, never rose above dreary mediocrity?

    Their folly has lead them into one of the greatest mistakes in their history. As they plunge ever deeper into the morass of Iraq, even members of the president's own party begin to despair. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a veteran of Vietnam, responded to President Bush's call for more war with the observation, "I think this speech given last night by this President represents the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder since Vietnam, if it is carried out. I will resist it." In today's Globe and Mail, Roger Morris, former adviser to two presidents, suggests that compared to Vietnam, "not just in the far wider geopolitical ruin, but in sheer blind repetition of behaviour expecting a different result, [Iraq] is worse."

    So the American people are well stuck in it now. But should it surprise them? That if you elect an incompetent, you get incompetence? And if you elect him again, you get disastrous incompetence? What on earth were they thinking when they elevated this poor, stumbling fool to the highest office in the land? Twice?

    09 January 2007

    Fascists form EU caucus

    Europe of the Fatherlands -- proposed name for what will likely be the European Parliament's newest caucus. No motherlands, you'll notice. Not surprising, as the caucus is made up of the parliament's right-wing extremists.

    And a charming group they are: including Corneliu Vadim Tudor, head of the anti-Hungarian, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma Greater Romanian party; Volen Siderov of Bulgaria's Ataka party which campaigns against Gypsies and Turks; Frank Vanhecke, leader of Belgium's Vlaams Belang, a separatist Flemish party; Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito; Dimitar Stoyanov, a Bulgarian MEP who boasted that in Bulgaria you can buy yourself a loving Gypsy wife only 12 or 13 years old." Bruno Gollnisch, deputy leader of France's National Front, is expected to head the caucus. (Gollnisch has been suspended from teaching at his university in France and is awaiting a court verdict for questioning the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis.)

    According to the EU Parliament's rules, an official caucus must have at least 19 MEPs from a minimum of five countries. With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU, the right wingers now satisfy that criteria and are expected to announce the creation of a caucus during the first session of 2007. A formal caucus will mean greater funding for the group.

    Sieg Heil and all that.

    06 January 2007

    Greed unleashed

    Every time you think the greed of corporate managers has reached its limits, yet another record is set. The reigning king of unprincipled pay packets must surely now be Robert Nardelli, recently chairman and CEO of Home Depot. Nardelli walked away (pushed, some say) with a $210-million platinum parachute after heading the company for only six years, nicely topping off the $245-million he received during his reign as top dog. That's almost half a billion American bucks for six years work.

    Much of Nardelli's compensation came in the form of stock options. The point of stock options of course is that if the CEO increases share value, he rewards the shareholders, and they in turn, via the options, reward him. Nardelli did not, however, reward the shareholders (apparently both they and Home Depot employees despised him). During his six-year tenure, a period that saw the biggest home improvement boom in U.S. history, share price fell by eight per cent. (Stock in the company's main rival, Lowe's, rose by 218 per cent in the same period.)

    You might well ask how he managed to make so much money off options if the share price was falling. Good question. Part of the answer may lie in Home Depot's admission it has been back-dating options for decades, part of yet another scandal sweeping through American boardrooms.

    Home Depot shareholder have, however, recently received some good news. Following Nardelli's departure, their stock rose 2.3 per cent.

    05 January 2007

    Lieutenant Ehren Watada: war hero?

    Ehren Watada was perfect officer material for the US army. A top student at university, he enlisted after September 11th, and served with distinction in Korea. Realizing he would eventually be deployed to Iraq, he did something almost unheard of for a young soldier: he researched the legality of the war he was expected enter.

    He concluded it was both illegal and unconstitutional. He volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, but refused to go to Iraq, even though he was offered a non-combat role. He now faces a court-martial both for his refusal to accept an assignment and for comments to a Veterans for Peace convention. In the lieutenant's words:
    First, the war was based on false pretenses. If the president tells us we are there to destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and there are none, why are we there? Then the president said Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and 9/11. That allegation has been proven to be false, too. So why are we going there? The president says we're there to promote democracy, and to liberate the Iraqi people. That isn't happening either.

    Second, the Iraq war is not legal according to domestic and international law. It violates the Constitution and the War Powers Act, which limits the president in his role as commander in chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit. The UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, and the Nuremberg principles all bar wars of aggression.

    Finally, the occupation itself is illegal. If you look at the Army Field Manual, 27-10, which governs the laws of land warfare, it states certain responsibilities for the occupying power. As the occupying power, we have failed to follow a lot of those regulations. There is no justification for why we are there or what we are doing.

    Ultimately, Lt. Watada may not be the only one in the dock. His supporters intend to use his court-martial to put the war itself on trial. And it's about time. Given the hesitance of the new Democratic Congress toward dealing firmly with the president's more egregious sins, it may be up to citizens of conscience to bring this U.S. administration to account.

    04 January 2007

    Mugabe invites whites to return

    Eighteen months ago, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe promised that when his land reform program was complete, there wouldn't be a single white farmer in the country. With Zimbabwe now facing economic collapse and starvation, Mr. Mugabe has changed his tune and is inviting the white farmers he so cruelly dispossessed to return. According to Sam Moyo, a government land adviser, "There could be some 300 whites back on farms by the end of next year."

    Although interest seems high, the pool of candidates has shrunk dramatically. Out of 4,500 white farmers in the country before Mugabe initiated his land seizures, only about 600 are left. In any case, his gesture may do little good. The arbitrary expropriations will continue to discourage investment in farming and the lack of foreign exchange in the country won't help.

    That whites obtained land in the former colony of Rhodesia immorally is without question. That justice was needed to remove this stain on the country's history was also without question. But the answer was not Mugabe's brutal and racist policy. A country feeding itself amply while producing food for export was turned into a beggar country. Whites may have been punished for their sins, real and imaginary, but the major victims are the millions of Zimbabweans who now face starvation.

    03 January 2007

    Afghanistan: the killing ratio

    According to Reuters, 4,000 Afghans died in 2006 as a result of the hostilities in that benighted country, approximately one-quarter of them civilians. About 160 foreign soldiers also died. This means that for every foreign soldier killed, about two dozen Afghans die. If we exclude the fighters, the ratio is about six to one. It is worth keeping in mind that when we mourn the loss of one of our soldiers, Afghans are mourning the loss of six innocents. Or, if we generously include the Taliban, who are Afghans too after all, they are mourning the loss of 24 of their own.

    This is a common pattern in modern war. The estimate of Vietnamese dead during the war in that country ranges up to 3.000.000, the number of Americans 60,000. An article in the British medical journal the Lancet estimated 650,000 Iraqis have died as a consequence of the U.S. occupation compared to 3,000 Americans.

    This poses a question for NATO, and indeed for us as well: How many Afghans are we prepared to sacrifice in order to save them from themselves? Not, I hope, 650,000.

    01 January 2007

    Dirty blogging in Washington

    Jessica Cutler was described by the Washington Post as a "blog slut." With those credentials, she is off to court to defend herself against a $20-million damage suit brought by former senatorial legal counsel Robert Steinbuch. Mr. Steinbuch claims his privacy was violated in a blog Jessica published under the alias Washingtonienne. Cutler closed Washingtonienne down when it was brought to wide public attention by another blog that does the dirty on Washington, Wonkette; however, Ms. Cutler continues to blog under her own name.

    Washingtonienne caused quite a stir in the capitol with references to married men who paid her for sex and juicy tales of spanking, handcuffs and lunch-hour prostitution.

    As the case proceeds, legal scholars look forward to the setting of precedents, Washington salivates at the prospect of some of the hottest gossip since Clinton and Lewinsky manifesting itself in open court, and bloggers apprehensively monitor the case for what it may mean for online gossip.