Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bloomberg not running for president

Mayor Mike made it official tonight; he won't be mounting an independent bid for president this year.

It’s really a shame. Bloomberg has done a great job running the nation's largest city (were it a country, it would be the world's 17th largest economy). But more than that, Bloomberg could have taken the first independent run at the White House with a realistic chance of winning since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. I hate to use the overdone term "perfect storm", but it sums up what we have this year - a public fed up with Congress and the White House, a high-profile politician with a proven track record of getting things done, and a war chest of potentially a billion dollars to spend on the election. It’s hard to imagine all of these pieces coming together again any time soon.

There's been a lot of talk about "change" this year – but electing an independent as President? Now that’s real change.
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Estonian President follow up

A couple of days ago I ran a post about a BBC correspondent meeting with the president of Estonia, and how he refuses to speak Russian, despite the fact that Russians make up a quarter of Estonia's population. Now, according to the AFP, President Ilves is in hot water.

Other Estonian politicians said that Ilves was causing unnecessary ethnic tension within the tiny nation. If you listen to the comments of Vladimir Velman, one of Estonia's few ethnic Russian lawmakers, you can see that its a good assessment of the situation. "I will never shake hands with Ilves again," Velman said. "From now on he is not my president."

Estonia was annexed by Russia in 1940. After World War II, many ethnic Russians were relocated to Estonia, when Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, 25% of its population was Russian. Ilves said to the BBC that he viewed using the Russian language as legitimizing the Soviet occupation.

Not only was it a silly statement, it was also one that went against Ilves earlier position where he tried to downplay ethnic tensions between Estonians and Russians. Since becoming president in 2006 he had often stressed that his grandmother was an ethnic Russian.
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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Medvedev vows to work with new US leader, hopes they're not "semi-senile"

Dmitry Medvedev, the man likely to be Russia's next president, promised to work with the new president of the US, but hopes that they will not have "semi-senile views." Medvedev thinks that the US and Russia have much common ground on issues like terrorism and regional security.

"Although, of course, it's easier to work with people who have modern positions, and not with those who have glints of the past in their eyes, who frequently profess such semi-senile views," Medvedev added. He did not elaborate on whether he was referring to John McCain, or just expressing frustration in working with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Meanwhile former chess champion Gary Kasparov, who tried and was blocked in his effort to form an opposition party in Russia urged the West not to accept any offers from Medvedev and not to invite him to the next G8 summit. "If they invite Medvedev that will mean effectively the recognition of this criminal election process," Kasparov said.

Kasparov expects that Medvedev will reach out to the West, but that this will lead to a split within the Kremlin leadership between liberals looking for better relations and hard-liners who want a more confrontational approach.

What's really going on behind the scenes in the Kremlin though is anybody's guess. I went to a talk about Putin's rule in Russia last week. It was really interesting to hear several really smart people who have studied Russia for most of their adult lives admit that they could not guess what was going on behind the scenes with Medvedev and Putin, or be able to give a good prediction on what might happen once Medvedev takes power.
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Russia's NATO envoy says U.S. wants to divide and rule

Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said that recognizing Kosovo's independence was part of America's plan to "divide and rule."

"It's the atomization of the world," Rogozin said on Russia’s state-run Vesti-24 television. "Who benefits from this? Only those who prefer to divide and rule — the old imperial principle. This is first of all the United States of America."

Past the bluster though Rogozin raised a good point - that by recognizing Kosovo outside of the United Nations, Western nations were weakening the system of international law. He warned that Kosovo could prompt other ethnic groups to push for their independence claims. He said that Kosovo is a reason for Russia to build up its military to ensure its security. And while he again stressed Russia's support for Serbia, he said that Russia would not interfere militarily in the Kosovo situation.

Finally Rogozin said that there were "shadowy structures that stand behind Kosovo's independence," including a powerful narcotics mafia. Kosovo's economy currently is in shambles. The European Union puts the unemployment rate at well over 40%, and has said that the economy is largely driven by black market activities.
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Israeli PM doubts deal with Palestinians this year

The chances for a Israel-Palestine peace agreement in 2008 look dim, according to Israeli PM Ehud Olmert.

Despite his gloomy outlook though, Olmert said there was "no better opportunity" to reach a peace deal. "We are determined to make a giant step forward to end this dispute once and for all," he said. "We want to make every possible effort to seize this opportunity."

Right now Olmert is visiting Japan trying to boost Israeli-Japanese relations. He will meet this week with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who is in on a tour of Asia.
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Annan suspends Kenya crisis talks

Kofi Annan, the former head of the United Nations, suspended crisis negotiations in Kenya because the talks were, in his words, going in circles. Annan has spent most of the last month trying to hammer out a power-sharing agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Odinga lost the presidency in December to Kibaki in an election that most observers say was rigged - sparking violent protests and threatening to plunge the country into a civil war.

Both sides so far have agreed on the idea of creating a Prime Minister's post to be filled by the opposition as a way of sharing power. But after weeks of negotiations, they cannot agree on just what the PM will do and what powers he will have. Annan has finally gotten fed up and has called a halt to the talks.

Odinga's opposition movement is now trying to organize a mass protest for Thursday. The government is asking Kenyans to boycott it since past rallies have lead to outbreaks of violence.
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Monday, February 25, 2008

UN climate head: US climate stand a "nonstarter"

For the first time on Monday, the Bush administration said the United States would accept a binding commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions - if major developing nations are included in the agreement.

The White House has long held off on signing the Kyoto Protocols, in the past pushing instead for a system of voluntary targets for greenhouse gas reduction. Part of their resistance has been that when Kyoto was negotiated developing large industrial nations - Brazil, China and India - were left out of the agreement. It was thought that having to meet pollution reduction targets would stall their growing economies and halt their development.

But in the years since Kyoto was negotiated, their economies (and greenhouse gas emissions) have greatly increased - China is now set to overtake the US as the world's top greenhouse gas polluter. Yet they remain opposed to hard limits on emissions, saying that established industrialized nations have a long history of pollution, so its unfair for the newly-developed ones to now be asked to meet the same burden.

"If the intent is to achieve a comparable effort on the part of developing countries, then that is not realistic and not in line with what was agreed in Bali," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN's climate secretariat.

You have to ask why shouldn't they (China especially) be held to the same set of caps as other industrialized countries, if the goal of Kyoto, Bali and other negotiations has been to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions? China is firing up a new coal-burning power plant every few days - plants that pump out tons of greenhouse gases into the air. Unless there is a reason to make air pollution controls a priority (like hard caps on gas emissions) they won't. And in the future the large number of coal-fired plants will be cited as a reason why China can't comply with gas emission limits - it will cost too much to bring all of the existing plants up to code.

We have dealt with a similar problem here in the Northeast for years. Coal-fired power plants in the Midwest cause acid rain to fall in the Northeast, particularly in upstate New York. Acid rain has even killed off some lakes in New York State. The solution is simple, make the power plants in the Midwest cleaner, everyone knows that. Yet it still hasn't happened because it’s said to be too expensive to retrofit all of these plants. It’s the same argument China will make in the future.

Better to lock them into a plan now that requires cleaner power plants and factories to be built from the ground up than to argue about fixing them in the future. If reducing greenhouse gases is the goal, then all the major polluters should have to share the burden.
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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Russia 'causes concern' in West says poll

According to a new poll, people in the G7 industrialized nations believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has harmed democracy and human rights in Russia. 47% of those surveyed in Western Europe thought that Putin has had a negative effect on peace and world security and 56% believe that human rights in Russia have suffered under his presidency. But when the survey is expanded to include two dozen other countries throughout the Middle East and Asia, the view of Putin becomes more popular. In the larger sample just 37% think he has harmed human rights and only one third think Russia has made the world less secure. Most interesting were the results from China. Historically China and Russia have had tense relations, but 69% of the Chinese surveyed thought that Russia plays a positive international role.

Analysts believe that the reason Russia got higher marks from non-G7 countries is that they view Russia as a counter-balance to US dominance of world affairs.

Putin got very high marks from Russians surveyed, with support for human rights being the only category where Putin received a negative rating even making it into double-digits (12%).
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Updates for Sunday

In case you missed the news today -

Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul was unanimously elected as Cuba's president today. He then surprised everyone with his choice of 78-year-old Politburo hardliner Machado Ventura as his vice-president. It was thought Raul may look to pave the way to a younger generation of Cuban leaders.

Meanwhile Turkey's incursion into Iraq is continuing. Turkey is claiming the mission so far is a success, despite losing 15 troops and a helicopter. Turkish officials claim to have killed more than 100 Kurdish rebels so far and believe that many others are retreating from bases along the border.
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Exit whispers buffet Musharraf

It’s looking like Pervez Musharraf's days as president of Pakistan may be numbered.

A story in yesterday's London Sunday Telegraph had Musharraf talking with insiders about resigning within the next few weeks. His office denied the report today, but Musharraf has to see the writing on the wall. The opposition parties won big in last week's elections and are forming a coalition government. Musharraf stepped down as head of the army last year, so he can't count on the backing of the military either - his presidency has little popular support.

The opposition though will not have a large enough majority in the parliament to impeach Musharraf, but they could reinstate the supreme court justices Musharraf dismissed last year (Musharraf declared a state of emergency supposedly to because of terrorist threats, but then used the emergency to dismiss the supreme court - just as they were about to rule on the legality of his presidency). The court, if restored, could just dismiss Musharraf. Or he could choose to resign on his own.

“He may have made many mistakes, but he genuinely tried to build the country and he doesn’t want to destroy it just for the sake of his personal office,” said an official close to the President.

Meanwhile pro-Taliban militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are reaching out to the new Pakistani government. Fundamental religious parties representing the area also lost big in last week's elections. Now they are asking for an end to military action in the territory in support of the War on Terror. Musharraf's defeat was seen in part because of his backing of US policy in the War on Terror, now the opposition has called for a new strategy of economic development and incentives to fight extremists in the border region rather than fighting them with troops and guns.

A cease-fire in 2006 in the Northwest Frontier territories with these same militant groups though failed to end tribal support of pro-Taliban groups and US officials believe it provided the Taliban in Afghanistan with a safe haven where they could flee from NATO operations in southern Afghanistan and regroup.
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Politics of language in Estonia

The BBC regularly publishes small essays under the title From Our Own Correspondent. They tend to be amusing little stories about life in whatever country they cover, like this one about correspondent Tim Whewell's meeting with Estonia's president. Whewell puts a cute spin on it, but at the same time (without realizing it) also shows one of the double standards of the European Union.

President Toomas Ilves it seems refuses to speak Russian, even though one-quarter of Estonia's population is Russian. Ilves believes that his speaking Russian would "mean accepting 50 years of Soviet brutalization"; since most of Estonia's Russian population arrived after the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and its two Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania. All three countries have recently taken steps to reduce the use of Russian in their countries, including banning its use in schools.

And that's where the double standard comes in. The European Union takes great pride in its linguistic diversity (the EU has 27 official languages) and protection of minority groups. The entry of Bulgaria and Romania were nearly halted because the EU felt they were not doing enough to protect the rights of the Roma (the official term for the Gypsies) populations within their countries.

But this concern for minority rights and linguistic diversity stops when it comes to the Russian populations in the Baltic nations. The case that President Ilves makes - that the Russian population was forced upon his country by the Soviets - may be true, but it’s irrelevant. The EU does not take into account how or when minority populations arrived, but it does insist that nations respect their rights - including their right to maintain their own culture and language.

Well, for everyone except the Russians.

The reasons are, of course, likely political - EU/Russian relations have been tense lately, but that makes the European Union look even more petty. If you're going to protect the rights or minority groups, then protect every group; don't ignore those from country's whose governments you have disagreements with.
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Friday, February 22, 2008

Kosovo is "unique" - US State Dept.

I was up early this morning and saw two officials from the US State Department, including Nicholas Burns, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, talk about Kosovo. The State Department line seems to be that Kosovo is a "unique" situation, and therefore not a precedent for other independence-minded ethnic groups to follow. The logic goes that Kosovo was unique because its independence was established as part of a UN-led plan (managed independence it was called) - so while ethnic minorities may be being persecuted in other countries, there are no others in the UN-led "managed independence" category, so therefore they can't use Kosovo as a precedent.

It’s a very neat little argument, but unfortunately it doesn't work.

The UN had been overseeing Kosovo since 1999, and there was a "managed independence" plan on the table, but Serbia was absolutely set against it and their ally Russia threatened to block the plan in the UN Security Council. So rather than allow that to happen (or to try to continue negotiating with Serbia over Kosovo's status), the United States and European Union decided to take the process out of the hands of the UN and recognize Kosovo on their own terms. The rest is, as the saying goes, history.

Kosovo's independence then was not really the result of a UN plan, punching a hole in the State Department's logic. Nice try though.
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Iran disputes atomic arms evidence

IAEA: Iran disputes atomic arms evidence - AP

The International Atomic Energy Agency's report on Iran's nuclear appears to reach some confusing conclusions. On one hand the IAEA says that Iran has not stopped trying to enrich uranium, but the report also shows no evidence that Iran is trying to make nuclear weapons, despite claims from the US and Israel. On that second part, the claims that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons the IAEA report (according to the Associated Press) states that information given by Tehran [regarding weapons programs] is either "consistent with its findings (or) ... not inconsistent with its findings." Clear answer? No, I didn't think so either.

The United States wants the UN to approve a new round of sanctions against Iran. Britain and France on Thursday introduced a resolution — with support from the United States, Russia, China and Germany — that would expand and toughen travel bans and the freeze the assets of Iranian officials linked to their nuclear program.
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Turkish troops launch raids into Iraq

Thousands of Turkish troops have crossed into northern Iraq to attack suspected terrorist hideouts in the Kurdish region of the country. Turkey said so far five of their troops have been killed along with "dozens" of Kurdish rebels.

Turkey has accused Iraq of letting the Kurdish Workers Party (or PKK) use the north of the country as a safe haven to launch attacks into Turkey. The PKK has fought for nearly a quarter of a century to carve out a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. The EU and US have agreed with Turkey's designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey had been launching airstrikes on suspected PKK hideouts in Iraq for the past several months, though this is the first time a large number of ground troops have been used (up to 10,000 troops are involved in the current operation). Turkey's goal is to destroy PKK bases before the spring thaw, when travel in the heavily mountainous region becomes easier and PKK activity in Turkey usually increases.

The United States and UN are both asking Turkey to show restraint in their raids and to avoid civilian casualties.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

US elections: The strange case of Washington State

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” – Will Rogers

Its one of the great quotes about American politics. Sadly its also one that the 2008 presidential primary season is proving to be true. You would think that a political party would have a set of rules for picking its candidates. But the Democrats don’t have one system; they have 50 - each with its own set of rules. Some states hold primary elections, others hold caucuses, and if you’re Washington State, you hold both.

But a strange thing happened in Washington, their primary and caucus yielded quite different results. In the caucus held two weeks ago Barack Obama won a resounding victory over Hillary Clinton, beating her by a margin of 2-1. Yet in last night’s primary Obama squeaked out a slim 50%-47% over Clinton.

A look inside the numbers is even more revealing. In the caucus a total of approximately 30,000 votes were cast, but in last night’s primary, more than 580,000 votes were cast – 19 times as many than were cast in the caucus! And Clinton, who lost basically everywhere in the state during the caucus, won parts of the state in the primary, including in Washington’s second-largest city Spokane.

I may not remember much from my high school chemistry class, but I do recall that if you conduct the same experiment with the same set of variables, you should get the same results. So what gives here?

Part of the difference is the exclusionary nature of the caucus system. In a caucus you have to go to a meeting held at a specific place at a specific time (its not an all-day event like a primary election) and spend a few hours “caucusing.” That’s fine if you don’t have to work, or if you’re not away at school, or if you can get a babysitter, or if you have transportation, or if you’re physically well enough to get yourself to the caucus site, or…well you get the point. There are a lot of reasons why people can’t caucus, but are able to vote in a primary.

Turnout levels prove this point. Look not only at the numbers for Washington, but compare any of the states that have held a caucus and compare the number of votes cast to the number cast in the most recent general election. You’ll see that the number of people casting their votes in a caucus is a fraction (a small fraction) of those cast in the election.

After the Washington primary results though, you have to wonder if the caucuses are giving an accurate picture of the will of the voters. It becomes important when you look at the tight battle between Clinton and Obama. So far Obama has had a huge advantage in caucuses (winning 8 of 10 according to my count), but Clinton (with the exception of Obama’s home state of Illinois) has won in all of the “big” states (California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Florida).

Perhaps in the end it means nothing. Obama did still win in Washington’s primary, even if it was by a much tighter margin than in the caucus. But still, its an odd set or results so far - one that is open to a lot of interpretations. And that’s the problem. The voters deserve a system that gives a clear result. Maybe its time for the Democrats to step beyond Will Rogers quote and organize a better system.
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Will Kosovo divide Europe?

The problems with Kosovo have already begun.

Serbian residents of the new country have burned two posts guarding the border between Kosovo and Serbia, prompting an intervention by NATO troops. Meanwhile, the Serbian government in Belgrade is considering sending in police officers into the Serbian-populated northern part of Kosovo to maintain order. Serbia also claims jurisdiction over the border between Kosovo and Serbia.

Meanwhile Europe is divided over whether or not to officially recognize the new state.

The "big three" of European politics (the UK, France and Germany) were all quick to recognize Kosovo as a nation. But other EU members are not so eager. Countries like Span, Cyprus and Slovakia are among those that are refusing to recognize Kosovo. Their reason is simple; they all fear that by recognizing Kosovo's independence from Serbia, they will encourage ethnic groups within their own countries to make their own declarations (the Catalonian region of Spain, or the Turkish Cypriot area of Cyprus for example).

The problem lies in the way that Kosovo got its independence. The United States and the EU big three's recognition of Kosovo goes against established international law and even violates a specific UN resolution (UN res. 1244) that set the borders of Serbia in 1999. The argument put forward by the US State Department, among others for these drastic actions, is that Kosovo is a "unique" situation that required the extraordinary step of recognizing its independence.

But the problem is that it’s not really "unique." Boil Kosovo down to its barest elements and you get an ethnic/religious minority that was brutally oppressed by a central government, which sought to drive them out of a set area of land (I know the Serbs may disagree with this assessment, but for the sake of argument let's go with it here). Sure it sounds like Kosovo. But it also sounds like Darfur, or the Kurdish region of Iraq, just to cite two examples (remember that Saddam Hussein conducted a long campaign against the Kurds, drove them from the city of Kirkuk, and even used WMDs against them – a step the Serbs cannot be accused of taking). But the US and UK aren't lobbying the world to recognize the nation of Darfur, and have actively worked to keep the Kurds from declaring independence for Kurdistan. Why?

Because Kosovo became a pawn in some large geo-political battles - the Western powers backed Kosovo's independence, while Russia stood with their old ally Serbia in opposing it; the US saw recognizing Kosovo as a way of pushing the UN towards international irrelevancy, and the big three in Europe looked at it as a way of strengthening the foreign policy clout of the European Union. But by focusing on these political policy struggles, they have ignored the practical problems Kosovo's independence brings, like encouraging ethnic groups from Catalonia to Kashmir to make their own claims of independence. They are problems that the world will have to deal with for a long time to come.
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Castro steps down after half a century

Fidel Castro shocked the world yesterday by announcing his retirement after 49 years of rule.

His brother Raul, who has been running the country for the past year and a half, will likely be elected president at Sunday's National Assembly meeting. What changes Raul might bring as president remain to be seen, though as acting leader of Cuba he has taken a somewhat softer tone than his older brother Fidel, and has introduced some limited market reforms.

But one change that should come about is the end of America's nearly half-century boycott of the island.

America steadfastly maintains an embargo on Cuba. I don't know whether this is an example of stubbornness, optimism, or just a move to appease the Cuban-American political lobby, but it is a policy that has long outlived its usefulness. An American embargo is not going to bring the downfall of Cuba's Communist regime, not when Havana's beaches are filled with tourists from Europe, Canada, and South America. I remember seeing a story on CNN not too long ago about crumbling buildings in Havana's historic old quarter that are being rebuilt after years of neglect thanks to these tourists and the money they bring. If there is enough money to repair these buildings, then the economy must not be on the verge of collapse thanks to an American embargo. If five decades of an economic embargo haven’t worked, and if we’re the only major economy still even enforcing it, then what’s the point in continuing?

And recent history shows that when America opens - rather than closes - its doors to Communist nations, changes occur. Look at the improvements in US-Soviet relations in the 1980s, or our relations with Vietnam. When you have access to a society that is when you can affect change, not when you stubbornly refuse to talk with them.

Fidel Castro's resignation marks an opportunity for change for Cuba. Let's hope that it marks a change in US-Cuban relations as well.
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Musharraf's days could be numbered

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suffered a crushing defeat in yesterday's parliamentary elections, winning only 15 percent of the vote. The party of slain candidate Benazir Bhutto won the largest share, taking 33.6 percent of the vote, while the party of former PM Nawaz Sharif (who Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999) took almost 26 percent. The two parties are now talking about forming a coalition government.

All this means that Musharraf is on pretty thin ice. Last year he stepped down as head of the military, when you combine that with the loss of popular support he suffered in the election, it seems like few people are standing behind Musharraf.

An even more interesting result from the election though came from Pakistan's frontier region. These are the tribal areas where support for Muslim extremists and Osama bin Laden are said to be high, yet in the election religious parties representing the area were soundly beaten by secular ones. Musharraf in the past has used the threat of Islamic extremism to bolster Western support for his regime. But could the election results from the frontier region be an indication that Muslim extremists are really a smaller part of Pakistan's population than Musharraf would like us to believe?
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Friday, February 15, 2008

Independent Kosovo? Why not Vermont?

Its a light-hearted look at what Kosovo's independence could mean elsewhere, but it does raise some good points.

Independence movements abound, some fairly silly like those advocating for the "Second Vermont Republic" (Vermont was very briefly an independent country before joining the United States), to the deadly serious, like the separatists trying to wrest the region of Kashmir from India and Pakistan.

Marc Plattner, co-editor of the Washington-based Journal of Democracy, which analyzes movements worldwide, raises a fundamental question - who decides what is a country? "You can let the people decide," he says, "but first you have to decide: Who are the people? This is the great hole in democratic theory. There isn't a sound theoretical or moral answer."
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"Winning" Super Bowl shirts end up in Nicaragua

"Winning" Super Bowl shirts end up in Nicaragua

If you watch a major sports championship - like the Super Bowl - you see that seconds after the game ends, the winning team is shown wearing championship hats and t-shirts with their team’s name printed on them. Of course the league prepares winning gear for both teams. I always wondered where the losing team's stuff went…
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Political analysts warn Kosovo independence could spark regional problems

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warns that Kosovo could signal "the end of Europe".

This piece from the Russian press talks with a few political analysts on Kosovo's impending declaration of independence. Its particularly interesting since little has been mentioned in the Western press about the possible impact Kosovo could have on other international relations. The consensus of these analysts though is Kosovo is likely to spark other claims of independence in Europe and beyond. Kosovo's future - in their opinion - is also likely to be a troubled one and that the region could become a haven for organized crime, and in the worst case, terrorists.
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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Is Kosovo a viable state?

Is Kosovo a viable independent state, asks the BBC today.

In the rush to grant independence to Kosovo (something that will likely come this weekend), I haven't seen the question asked if Kosovo as its own nation even makes sense. A country is more than just an idea in someone's heart, it’s a physical place with roads, and utilities, and police, and a host of other things that need to somehow be paid for.

By European standards Kosovo is dirt poor. Currently the unemployment rate in Kosovo is over 40%, and in the countryside and Serbian-populated areas its over 70%. Kosovo's main source of income is foreign aid from the European Union, that and a thriving black market economy. There are some mineral deposits in Kosovo, but it will take a lot of foreign investment to get them out of the ground. And until stability can be established, foreign investment won't be coming anytime soon.

The solution offered by the European Union isn't encouraging - making it easy for Kosovo's residents to get visas to work in Western Europe. In other words, rather than staying at home to build up their own country, young Kosovars will be imported to work at jobs in the countries pushing for their independence (which kind of makes you wonder why some European countries are pushing so hard for Kosovo's independence in the first place).

It again begs the question is independence really the best thing for Kosovo, rather than becoming an autonomous region within Serbia - who in turn is then on a fast-track to EU membership. I guess we will find out this weekend.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

India's Tata backs air-power car

It sounds like something out of a science fiction story, or a scam ad from the back of a magazine, but India's Tata motors has debuted a five-passenger car that runs on air. Specifically, the car, called the OneCAT, runs on compressed air, which is stored in tanks and used to drive the motor. The air tanks can be charged up at a station or with an on-board compressor. For long trips a small fuel-burning engine supplements the air-driven engine.

When running on compressed air, the OneCAT will emit no greenhouse gases. This will help to make up for the pollution caused by one of Tata's other products, the Nano. You may remember the Nano from a few weeks back when it was introduced as "the world's cheapest car," retailing at under $2,500. It can be sold so cheaply because it cuts back on features found on more expensive cars, like systems to reduce exhaust emissions. Tata is expecting to put the Nano into the hands of thousands of drivers in India's growing middle class, something that is sure to make India's poor air quality even worse.
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Las Vegas could run out of water by 2021

Scientists are predicting that Lake Mead, the main source of water for Las Vegas, could run dry in 13 years. Since we're talking about Vegas, scientists put the odds of this happening at 50-50.

The simple reason for the problem is that more water is being taken out of the lake than is being put in. Increased demands for water for to drink and for irrigation, coupled with a long-term drought have reduced the lake's level by 50%.

This problem is not limited to Lake Mead. In central Asia, the Aral Sea - once one of the largest landlocked bodies of water in the world - has shrunk by almost 90%, causing massive environmental problems. Lake Chad, one of Africa's largest lakes, is also rapidly shrinking.
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Georgian tycoon's death called 'suspicious'

Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili was found dead today in his home in the English countryside less than three months after funding a massive opposition rally in Georgia. British officials are examining the cause of his death.

Patarkatsishvili supported days of public protests against Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, forcing him to call for early elections. Patarkatsishvili then ran as an opposition candidate in elections that the opposition claims were rigged (international observers noted government interference in the December election, but did not seek to overturn the result). After losing Patarkatsishvili moved to England. He claimed to have an audiotape of Georgian officials asking a Chechen warlord to assassinate him, and told colleagues he feared he would soon be killed.

Of course some outlets put a predictable spin on the story, like this headline from the Huffington Post: "Russian Billionaire (And Putin Enemy) Found Dead". In addition to misidentifying Patarkatsishvili as Russian rather than Georgian, the Huff Post also only printed the first few paragraphs of a London Daily Mail story, cutting out all references to Georgia. Stick to US politics Arianna…
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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Russia, China challenge US space arms

Russia and China are pushing for a ban on weapons in space at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament.

The United States is opposing the ban saying it would threaten the deployment of America's missile defense shield. The US also said that the proposed ban would not prevent either Russia or China from developing weapons that could be launched from the ground to destroy satelites in orbit. Last year China tested just such a system - destroying a derelict weather satelite.

The US does not think the Russia/China proposal will be adopted by the conference, but do fear it will turn international support against America's missile shield program.

On a related note, last night I watched a PBS special "Astrospies" that covered the development of US and Soviet spy space stations during the Cold War. If you're interested in the space program, try to catch it, or you can visit the website here.
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Man has 70-year-old bullet extracted

Man has 70-year-old bullet extracted

Faustino Olivera was 18 when he was shot fighting during the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Because the bullet lodged close to an artery, doctors left it in until last week when it caused a buildup of fluid in his side. Doctors finally decided to take it out.

I wanted to link to this story because I'm a history buff and because a former boss of mine was involved with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They were a group of Americans who volunteered to go and fight against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Because many members of the Abraham Lincoln brigade were associated with, or even members of, the communist party, their exploits were largely forgotten during the Cold War. Like many who served together in combat though, the members of the Bridgade remained close throughout their lives, and some remained committed to leftist causes well into their 80s and 90s, including protesting the first Gulf War.
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Iraqi threatens to disband parliament

Iraq's government looks like its teetering on the brink of collapse.

The speaker of the Iraqi parliament threatened to disband the legislature saying its members distrust each other so much that its basically impossible for them to pass any laws. Right now the parliament is trying to pass a budget, but the negotiations are hung up over how much of the government's funds should go to the Kurds. The Kurds want 17%; the percentage of Iraq's population they say is Kurdish. The Sunnis and Shiites say Kurds make up only 14% of the population and want to set the rate at that amount. Iraq has not conducted a census in decades, so how much of the population belongs to each group is only a guess.

There seemed to be a deal worked out on Tuesday, but the Kurds withdrew at the last minute, fearing the other two factions would not keep up their end of the bargain. This prompted the speaker to make his statement that the government is hopelessly broken.

In a stroke of truly bad timing, the possible collapse of the government comes at the one-year anniversary of "the surge" - the increase of US troops in Iraq. While the surge has helped to greatly reduce the level of violence in Iraq, its important to remember that the goal of the surge was to provide the security that would allow Iraq's government to function. But while Iraq's streets may have gotten safer, their government shows no signs of working any better than it has for the past several years.
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Spielberg presses China on Darfur

Steven Spielberg has quit his role as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics this summer to protest China's role in the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. China is widely seen as blocking serious international attempts at sanctions on the Sudanese government. Sudan supplies China with oil, and China needs every drop it can get to fuel its booming economy, so they will not support economic sanctions against Sudan.

Spielberg said his decision was motivated by concerns over human rights. Spielberg is a showman and a storyteller, so I have to give him credit for stepping away from an audience that will number in the billions. But I also have to ask what took him so long to realize what China was doing in Sudan? The crisis in Darfur began in 2003, and since then there has been talk (and more talk) about intervening to stop the conflict, yet little of merit has been done, largely because of China's interference. And if he wants to take a stand on China's human rights record, then why focus only on their indirect role in Darfur and not on their record at home of oppressing dissidents and ethnic minorities?
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Israeli minister plans Arab city

Israel's interior minister has proposed building a new city within Israel for Israeli Arabs.

Arabs (excluding those living in the Palestinian Territories) make up almost 20% of Israel's population. The proposed city would be located near the Sea of Galilee and would be designed to provide young families with affordable homes. The proposal got a positive response from an Israeli Arab in the local government.

Though the news from the region was not all positive. The Israeli government also announced plans for more than 1,000 new homes in East Jerusalem - one of the areas claimed by Palestinians as part of their proposed state. According to the Annapolis agreement signed last December and the "Roadmap to Peace" backed by international negotiators, Israel is suppose to freeze the construction of housing projects on disputed lands.
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Monday, February 11, 2008

Israeli town suing Google

The Israel-Palestine land dispute has reached space. Well, the view from space at least.

The town of Kiryat Yam is threatening to sue internet giant Google for slander over claims that their town was built upon the site of an Arab village.

Google’s Google Earth program lets users post comments on the detailed satellite maps provided by the service. Thameen Darby an amateur historian of Palestinian decent inserted a note on the map of Kiryat Yam saying that it was built upon the earlier Arab village Ghawarina. Darby said this was one of the Arab villages destroyed during 1948’s Arab-Israeli war.

Officials from Kiryat Yam insist that when the town was built in 1945 the land was nothing but sand dunes.

Google meanwhile said that it is not responsible for the accuracy of user-generated comments. Darby said he will remove the notation if he is proved wrong.
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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Putin's address to Russia

Vladimir Putin just gave his last major address as Russia’s president. If you read the Western press, you would think that he walked in, announced there was a new Cold War underway , that Russia was therefore increasing its military budget, and then promptly left the room. Amazingly, Putin did talk about some other topics, giving an interesting insight into Russia’s future domestic policies. Since Putin is all but certain to be Russia’s next prime minister, it might be worth looking at what he actually said about his plan for the future of his country.

Like you would expect from a president giving a major speech at the end of their term, Putin looked back at the accomplishments of his time in office, taking credit for Russia’s transformation from the economic crisis of the late 1990s to the stable and growing economy today. He said that in 2007 Russia became one of the seven largest economies on Earth, passing fellow G8 members France and Italy.

Russia’s challenge now is to make sure all the regions in the vast country share in the economic growth. Putin called for the development of regional “social and economic development centers” across the country, and cited innovation as being the key to future success. “The transition to the innovative way of development will require heavy investments in human resources. The development of the person is the prime goal and an essential condition for progress in modern society,” Putin said.

Frankly, its good to see Putin linking social and economic development. If you studied Russia’s transition from Communism in the 1990s (like I did in grad school), you see that a lot of emphasis was put on the economic transition with the idea that society would just follow along. Leaving the people out of the equation made the transition much harder on many of Russia’s citizens then it had to be - if you were told for your entire life that capitalism was bad, it’s a lot to expect of a person to suddenly become a capitalist over night. But the economic advisors imported into Russia in the 90s didn’t worry too much about the average citizen.

Two other important points raised in his speech were Russia’s problems with demographics and corruption. While life expectancy for Russian women is roughly on a par with that of women in western nations, the average life expectancy for a Russian man is only 58 years. Putin called for making that at least 75 years by 2020. He also signaled his intention to grapple with the petty corruption that plagues everyday life in Russia. I’ve heard a number of versions of the story of someone being told they may be in violation of a law, and that they could go to headquarters and spend hours sorting it our or pay a small “fine” on the spot and go about their day. Addressing corruption, he said, is a major factor in ensuring Russia’s continued development.

And finally a word about the military talk. Yes, it was part of his speech. But, as discussed in several other posts here, the “new Cold War” talk is really pretty silly.

Look at the numbers. For 2005 (the most recent year figures were available), Russia spent about $50 billion on their military. By comparison the US spent about $650 billion, or thirteen times that amount (France and the UK each spent almost as much as Russia on their militaries as well). Russia’s military declined sharply during the last days of the Soviet Union and then in the 1990s, so - according to Russian military officials - an increase in spending is needed just to maintain the readiness of their forces.

Putin accused the West of starting an arms race, based mostly on the expansion of NATO and America’s intention on putting interceptor missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. He promised that Russia would respond with a build-up of their own. But in reality even a sharp increase in military spending would still leave Russia far behind the US. Tough talk though keeps the people at home happy and makes them feel like the government is taking steps to protect them (much like the elaborate layers of security you find at airports here in the US). Readers in the West should realize this and not try to blow a speech up into a new Cold War.
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Biofuels a greenhouse threat?

I’ve read a few reports about problems with biofuels over the last month in the British press, now the New York Times is getting onboard with this report that biofuels could actually be harming the environment.

The logic is pretty simple. As we’re told its now possible to grow your fuel (I’ve heard this line in a couple of TV commercials), the problem is to get the land to grow crops for fuel, rainforests and grasslands are being ploughed under. Cropland absorbs less greenhouse gas than forested land does, so already we’re behind. More fossil fuel then has to be used to convert crops into energy and more still to transport the biofuel. In other words a lot of greenhouse gases are made to produce something that’s suppose to be reducing them.

You may have also noticed food prices going up – another unintended consequence of the biofuel movement. In the US corn prices have gone up sharply, despite there being bumper harvests of corn in the Midwest. The reason? Much of the corn crop is now being used to make ethanol, leaving less for food.

This isn’t to condemn the concept of biofuels. The idea of using a renewable resource for energy is a pretty good one. But clearing naturally carbon-absorbing forests to plant crops for fuel isn’t. Nor is using food crops for fuel. Its better to promote bio-diesel – diesel fuel refined from used cooking oil, where you are turning what’s now a waste product into something useful. Or research into cellulose-based ethanol, where what’s now considered plant waste (like leaves or wood chips) is processed into fuel. Cellulose-based ethanol needs more research to become commercially viable, but it’s money better spent than refining edible corn so you can put it into your gas tank.
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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Russian hockey league takes step forward

Since I’m a big hockey fan, I was really interested in a story this week about a new professional hockey league being launched out of Russia.

The Continental Hockey League hopes to rival the National Hockey League as the world’s premier professional hockey league. Initial plans are for up to 20 teams based in Russia with additional clubs located in foreign cities (most likely in Europe).

Russia’s energy giant Gazprom has made an initial investment of $6 million, with six other state-run (though still unidentified) companies said to be ready to make similar investments.
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"Euros Accepted" in New York City

This one is really a sign of the times. So many tourists are coming to New York City from Europe, that some businesses have begun accepting Euros as payment.

I know that it is not uncommon for towns along the Canadian border to accept Canadian money and some small towns along the Texas/Mexico border will take pesos, but this is the first time I can ever remember a foreign currency being accepted at businesses in New York City. Sure is a change from the time when everyone wanted greenbacks.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

NATO may split up over Afghanistan

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is worried that NATO is dissolving into a “two-tiered alliance” with “some allies willing to fight and die to protect peoples' security, and others who are not.”

His comments come after some European nations refused to send additional troops to serve in Afghanistan. While all NATO member nations have sent some troops to Afghanistan, some nations have recently turned down requests to move their forces into the troubled southern part of the country (where the Taleban is actively fighting both the Afghan government and NATO forces), while other members are looking at bring their troops home.

Gates helped cause this problem a few weeks ago by giving an interview to the LA Times where he seemed to question the quality of some of the NATO troops. Denmark and Canada in particular took offense to Gates’ remarks. Both nations have lost troops during the Afghan mission.

And there is still the larger question of why is NATO is even involved in Afghanistan in the first place? Keep in mind that NATO was formed in the early days of the Cold War to defend Western Europe against an invasion by the Soviet Union. Anti-insurgency operations in a small Central Asian nation are quite a large step away from this original mission, and could be a reason why a number of NATO members are now reluctant to send even more troops to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank is warning that Afghanistan could become a failed state if Taleban-backed militias are not stopped and if reconstruction efforts in the country do not continue.
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Monday, February 4, 2008

Man, this is depressing...

According to a new poll, one quarter of Brits think that Winston Churchill was a myth. Yes, they believe that the former Prime Minister and iconic wartime leader, was actually a work of fiction. And by contrast, more than half believe that the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was real.

Not sure what else there is to say about this one...
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One final word on the US media and politics

Really, I promise that it is. But I felt like I had to make one last comment about the US media and the presidential elections.

A few days ago I wrote a post congratulating MSNBC’s Dan Abrams for his comment about (in his opinion) the US media having a less than objective view of the Clinton-Obama race for the democratic nomination.

After this weekend, I have to take the media to task for their coverage of the Republican side where John McCain seems to be the media’s candidate of choice. You probably didn’t hear but there was a caucus in Maine this weekend, a caucus won by Mitt Romney.

Given the reports that many conservatives within the Republican Party are not at all happy that McCain is in the lead for the presidential nomination (look at the comments from high-profile commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter), and that Maine is a fairly moderate state (presumably then fertile McCain territory), you would think that a Romney victory would be big news. Or at least news. But aside from a few small wire service stories, Romney’s victory went unnoticed.

I’m not saying that Romney’s win in the Maine caucus is a sign of softness in McCain’s support, or a bell-weather of conservatives rallying around Romney as the anti-McCain candidate, but maybe they are. At least you would think it would be a topic of discussion on the endless hours of political analysis on cable and the internet.

But that would interfere with the narrative that McCain will be the Republican nominee. I’ll repeat my request from the Abrams post – its fine to support a candidate, but either keep your objectivity or state your position up front so people can then judge your comments for themselves knowing all the facts. Maybe the race in November will be Obama-McCain, fine, but the media shouldn’t play a role in creating that ticket.
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Iran unveils space center, launches rocket

Iran has claimed that it’s launched its first rocket into space. The missile, called Explorer-1, is part of a $500 million project to make Iran one of less than a dozen countries in the world able to launch objects into space.

Iran’s announcement was met with concern because a rocket capable of making it into space is also capable of hitting a target hundreds, or thousands, of miles away. Iran has said that their space program is meant for peaceful purposes, and in the future will be used to launch communications satellites.

They did not announce how high Explorer-1 flew, raising some doubts over whether it actually made it into space. “Space” is officially defined as an altitude above 62 miles.
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Saturday, February 2, 2008

If you build it, they will come

It’s the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, but for the Maldives it might not be true.

The tiny nation is made up of a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean. As you can imagine, space in the Maldives is somewhat limited. So if you’re a nation of islands, what’s the solution to overcrowding? Build a new island of course - and so Hulhumale (pronounced Hoo-la-MA-lay') was born.

The problem is that few people actually want to live there. Designed to house 150,000 people, after five years only 5,000 people call Hulhumale home. The reasons cited are that Hulhumale lacks the hustle and bustle of the capital city Male, and Maldivians, unaccustomed to communting because their islands are typically so small, are unwilling to put up with a daily 30-minute trip to jobs in the capital.

Hulhumale is an interesting story. Urban planners can come up with all kinds of creative solutions to problems of overcrowding, transportation, etc., but these solutions are useless if people don’t want to take advantage of them.

Hulhumale faces another problem. Its average elevation is only six feet above sea level. While twice the average of other Maldivian islands, its also not high enough if the worst global warming estimates are right. By the end of the century, Hulhumale, and the rest of the Maldives, may be under water.
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