Thursday, March 27, 2008

French audio recording may be world's first

Personally, I love little history stories like this one. US audio historians have found a French sound recording called a phonautograph dating back to 1860 - seventeen years before Thomas Edison made his first phonograph record. Phonautographs used a needle to etch a visual record of sound waves onto wax paper. Never intended to be played back like a record; instead they were meant to be a way to study sound waves visually. But when audio historians looked at the phonautograph, they realized it looked similar to the visual image of a sound file (like an mp3) that you would find in a modern sound-editing program.

They wrote a computer program to translate the phonautograph back into sound and produced a 10-second clip of "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot repondit" ("By the light of the moon, Pierrot replied"). The quality of the recording is poor, but it is recognizable as a woman singing, making it the earliest known recording of a human voice.

An mp3 of the recording is available at
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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bush won't boycott Olympics

President Bush has said that he will not change his plans to attend the Summer Games in Beijing, despite the Chinese military crackdown in Tibet.

China's harsh response to protestors in Tibet has drawn criticism from around the world and has again raised fears about human rights within China. Government authorities claim that so far 16 people have been killed in the protests and another 325 injured, but these numbers are impossible to verify since China has imposed a media blackout in Tibet and has tried to expel most foreigners. Tibetans claim that China is trying to wipe out their culture and are calling for autonomy for their region.

Bush has said though that the recent crackdown will not keep him from attending the games, and that the Olympics and politics should be kept separate. I would agree with him except that China is already using the Olympics for political purposes. Hosting the Summer Games in Beijing is a bold way for China to say that it has "arrived" as one of the elite, modern, industrial nations of the world. Its increasingly a way that countries are viewing the Olympics - Russia hopes to use the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi as a way of showing their progress from the days of the Soviet Union, while bids from cities like Istanbul, Buenos Aires and Cape Town all are meant to show that these regions of the world - which have never hosted an Olympics - can put on a modern spectacle along with the most modern cities of Europe or North America. The logic goes that to host an Olympics game means building a lot of stuff - arenas, hotels, the infrastructure to move thousands of people around - so if a city can do that, it can certainly serve as a regional manufacturing or business center.

Getting back to China, when they were awarded the Games they were also told that they were expected to improve their dismal record on human rights. The crackdown in Tibet shows that China still has a long way to go. The international community should show their displeasure in some way. An outright boycott though is unfair to the athletes who have dedicated years of their lives to pursuing the dream of competing. One compromise would be for nations to boycott the opening ceremonies - athletes would still be able to compete, yet the very public image of nations NOT marching into the stadium to start the games would be a visual that even the Chinese government could not hide from their citizens.
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Russian parliament to warn Georgia on NATO entry

Russia is raising the stakes with their neighbor Georgia. Worried that Georgia will begin the process of becoming a full member of NATO next month, the Russian Duma is set to vote on a resolution to urge the Kremlin to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Georgia moves forward with its NATO membership. Russia is arguing that the recognition of Kosovo has set a precedent. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been self-governing for the past 15 years since driving the Georgian government out in short-lived civil wars in the early 1990s. And like in Kosovo, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia claim to be the home of distinct ethnic minorities that were persecuted by the Georgian government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called NATO's consideration of Georgia as a member "a bloc expansion logic of the Cold War era." Relations between Georgia and Russia have been tense for the past several years as Georgia has tried to build ties with the West and has turned away from Russia.

Formally recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could cause problems for Russia at home - it may prompt regions like Chechnya to make their own declarations of independence from Russia.
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Annan warns against conflict with Iran

Former UN chief Kofi Annan didn't pull any punches in a round-table talk with journalists on Thursday.

"We cannot, I'm sure, take on another military action in Iran, and I hope no one is contemplating it. It would be a real disaster," Annan said. He added that he did not have enough information yet to support the UN Security Council's call on Iran to halt uranium enrichment, but did say that talking was the only path forward and that military action could cause the entire Middle East to explode. He cited his own role as mediator in the recent crisis in Kenya, which was brought to a peaceful conclusion after a month of riots that threatened to plunge the country into civil war.

Annan called the Mid East a "very dangerous region" and noted how conflicts in one part of the region can fuel conflict in another. "The international community has to handle that situation very carefully because any miscalculation can lead to very serious explosions," he added. Annan cited Lebanon’s inability to select a president, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq as other major problems in the region.

He also called the international community out on the handling of the situation in Darfur saying that there was "quite a bit of hypocrisy on all sides" of the conflict. Annan pointed out that the African Union has been encouraged by wealthy western nations to take on a peacekeeping role, but that these nations have not agreed to financially support the AU mission, which the AU members cannot afford to fund on their own.
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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Blair: poor nations must cut emissions

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on developing nations to share the burden of cutting global greenhouse gas emissions. "The dilemma is this: how to cut a deal that has both the developed and developing in it, recognizing that the obligations on the one can't be the same as the obligations of the other," Blair said. He went on to say that developed industrial nations - the Untied States, Japan, and the countries of Western Europe - should have the primary responsibility for cutting gas emissions, but that developing economies - particularly China and India - must do their share as well.

I think that Blair is right on this one. China, according to some experts, may already be the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. If not it will soon pass the US to take the top spot. Yet China continues to argue that it deserves exemptions because of its status as a developing nation under the Kyoto Protocols.

But China has grown a lot since Kyoto was negotiated in the early 1990s, and part of the reason they were able to grow so quickly is because pollution-reduction treaties like Kyoto did not hamper them. The result is that China today is horribly polluted, a situation that will only continue to get worse.

If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then all the major producers need to share in the effort, whether they are "developing nations" or not. Besides, it’s much easier (and cost-effective) to build factories and power plants that are environmentally friendly from the beginning rather than to go back and try to retrofit "dirty" facilities. In the long run it’s the smartest move for both China and the planet.
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Monday, March 10, 2008

Two countries at odds over a name

"What's in a name?," the old saying goes - well, a lot for the Greeks if that name is "Macedonia".

Greece has said that it will block NATO membership for its northern neighbor Macedonia if the former republic of Yugoslavia insists on using that name. "Macedonia" is also the name of a province in northern Greece - the historic home of Alexander the Great, and thus a source of great pride to the Greeks. Greece was originally afraid that Macedonia (the country) would one day try to annex Macedonia (the province), though Macedonia (the country) went so far as to amend their constitution to prohibit any expansion of their territory. In referring to their northern neighbor, Greece still uses the name "Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia", or FYROM, and encouraged other nations to use it as well.

Macedonia though isn't satisfied with being called FYROM (I mean really, would you be?). Greece suggested five other potential names, but the Macedonians (the FYROM Macedonians that is) were not impressed.

Meanwhile the name game could also cause problems with Macedonia's application to the European Union. For now, the two sides have agreed to keep talking.
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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Cairo Gaza talks make no progress

Truce talks in Egypt between Israel and Hamas failed to produce a ceasefire. Egypt hoped to get Hamas to agree to halt rocket attacks launched from Gaza, but Hamas refused, saying they could not so long as Gaza was being attacked by Israel.

Failed attempts at ceasefires in the region are nothing new, but there are a couple of reasons for at least a little optimism here.

First, Israel and Hamas actually talked. In the recent past this has been something that Israel has absolutely refused to do. But (like I have discussed in other posts here) it’s a step that no matter how unpleasant it is for Israel has to occur if a meaningful peace deal is ever going to happen between Israel and Palestine.

Second, these talks apparently happened after the United States specifically asked Egypt to try to bring Hamas and Israel together. That's encouraging because it shows that President Bush remains committed to the Israel-Palestine peace process and that he's willing to put some effort into making it happen.

Hamas said that a truce was possible if attacks against Gaza were stopped and if border crossings were reopened.
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Abkhazia appeals for world recognition

In the farthest corner of Europe, along the Black Sea coast the little region of Abkhazia is trying to breakaway from the nation of Georgia to form its own country.

The Abkhaz people contend that they have had their own country for 15 years now, since they drove the government forces out of the northwest corner of Georgia - the problem is that no one else regards Abkhazia as a nation. Even Russia, their neighbor to the north, has refused so far to recognize Abkhazia.

Two things though have happened that Abkhazia hopes will change the situation. First is the recognition of Kosovo's independence last month. The Abkhaz see a similar story in their land - an oppressed ethnic minority, which rose up to drive the government out of their territory - and assume that if its right to recognize Kosovo, then its right to recognize Abkhazia. The second event is a restoration of economic ties between Abkhazia and Russia.

After their war for independence, Abkhazia established economic and political relations with Russia. For years Russia was Abkhazia's only trading partner and Russia granted Russian passports to many of Abkhazia's citizens. In an attempt to improve relations with Georgia, Russia cut its ties to Abkhazia. But last week, Russia changed its mind again and restored its economic links to Abkhazia.

On one hand, reopening their ties to Abkhazia is simply a way for Russia to cause problems for Georgia - relations between the two countries is bad and is getting worse as Georgia tries to join Western bodies like NATO and the European Union. The other reason though for Russia to reopen the ties is the Olympics. The 2014 Winter Games will be held just up the coast in Sochi, Russia. And Russia is hoping to use Abkhazia as a source of both raw materials and cheap labor to help build all the venues you need to hold an Olympic Games. It would be a boom to Abkhazia's economy, which currently relies on a little agriculture and the visits of a few tourists looking for something really off the beaten path.

Recognizing Abkhazia's independence though is a difficult call for Russia. While Russia would love to stick it to Georgia by helping to carve a new country out of its flank, Russia then risks having the same thing happen to them - Russia has for the last decade been fighting to keep the region of Chechnya from breaking away. The Georgians surely would not pass up the chance to cause trouble for Russia then in return by recognizing the claims of the Chechens.

So Abkhazia is likely to remain where its been these last 15 years - not a country, but not part of Georgia either.
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Friday, March 7, 2008

Bush honors "the last doughboy"

If you have a minute, check out this story. President Bush today honored Frank Woodruff Buckles. At 107, Cpl. Buckles is the last surviving American veteran of World War One.

Buckles is one of just a very few surviving WWI veterans. The last German vet died earlier in the year, as did a French veteran, leaving France also with just one living link to the "War to end all Wars." One Canadian and four British veterans still survive, all are well over 100 years old.

Buckles served as an ambulance driver in France during WWI.
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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Putin, Medvedev pledge unified path

In a result that surprised absolutely no one, Dmitry Medvedev has been elected as Russia's next president. Medvedev has received nearly 70% of the votes cast; his nearest challenger, Communist party head Gennady Zyuganov, got just 18%. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party came in third with about 10% of the vote.

Zyuganov has already promised to challenge the results. There have been reports that some voters, particularly college students and people who work for the government, were told to cast their ballots for Medvedev - or risk losing their jobs or positions at school. And two well-known candidates, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and former chess champion Garry Kasparov - both vocal critics of Putin's regime, were kept off the ballot on technicalities.

It’s really a shame that the Kremlin decided to interfere so ham-fistedly in the election. No one believes that Medvedev, under any circumstances, would have lost. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky both had their heyday back in the 1990s, and neither the Communist nor the Liberal Democratic is really at this point attracting new members. Kasyanov is a vocal and well-known critic of Putin, but has little popular support. It’s much the same story for Kasparov, who seemed to be ready to run for president on a platform that consisted entirely of his name not being Vladimir Putin. Finally there is the fact that Putin's policies are genuinely popular among the Russians. While the presidential election here in the US is dominated by the idea of change, in Russia Medvedev's promise was more of the same.

And that was the reason why the Kremlin felt it was so important for Medvedev to win by a landslide – because it would be a validation of Vladimir Putin's eight years at the helm. Unfortunately in doing so they gave their critics, both domestically and abroad, reasons to say the election was unfair and Medvedev's victory illegitimate. Their interference probably only gave Medvedev a few more percentage points on his election total, but cost him much in terms of legitimacy.
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Israel strikes back at Gaza rockets

Things are getting bad again in Gaza. In response to increased rocket attacks from the Palestinian territory that killed an Israeli student on Wednesday, Israel has launched a large-scale military operation that so far has resulted in the deaths of more than 50 Palestinians and at least two Israeli soldiers.

UN General Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel for "excessive and disproportionate" use of force in the Gaza Strip, which has also injured more than 150 Palestinians. This could though be just the beginning of the fighting in Gaza. On Friday Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said the Palestinians risked a "shoah", the Hebrew word that means large-scale disaster but is often associated with the Holocaust, if they did not stop the attacks.

But unfortunately for Israel military action in the past has failed to stop militants from launching rockets. Even on Saturday with the Israeli offensive underway, Gaza militants still shot 50 rockets off into Israel. Part of the reason is that the Qassam rockets usually shot by the militants are crude weapons that can be built with a few tools and some sheet metal in nearly any basement or garage. Hamas, meanwhile, seems to have a remarkable ability to withstand military actions and Israeli sanctions.

That would leave negotiations as the last option. A recent poll by the Haaretz newspaper in Israel has shown a growing willingness among even the most hawkish Israelis for talks with Hamas.

It’s a step Israel should take. The past has shown the military option doesn't work, neither does isolating the Gaza Strip. And Israel should keep Kosovo in mind. One Palestinian lawmaker has already suggested they just declare independence, though the Palestinian government quickly backed away from this idea. But if the "Roadmap for Peace" George Bush has staked so much of his legacy on is once again folded up, is it too hard to imagine the Palestinians taking this step? And what do the other Mid East countries do then? Or the European nations that were so quick to recognize Kosovo?

Like they say on TV - stay tuned...
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