Friday, May 30, 2008

New CNN show on Sunday

This is a bit of welcome news. On Sunday at 1pm CNN is launching "Fareed Zakaria GPS", a one-hour show dedicated to covering international news. "GPS" in this case stands for "Global Public Square".

Zakaria, an editor at Newsweek, said he wanted to do the show to cover what's happening in the rest of the world, something he feels is being ignored on American news. He went on to say that there's a vicious circle at work - networks show little intrenational news because they think viewers aren't interested in it, but because viewers see so little world news, they tend not to be that interested when it is on.

I think I've said something similar a couple of times here. Seems like I'm on the same page as Fareed in another way - he said that he wants GPS compelling and not like a college lecture that you try hard to skip.

We'll see how he does this Sunday.
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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Five countries agree to talk about the Arctic

Diplomats from five of the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean have agreed to meet over how to share the top of the globe.

Ironically, global warming - and the melting of the ice pack that normally covers the Arctic Ocean - is giving these nations the chance for vast new economic possibilities. Ice-free seas could open up new, quicker shipping routes from Europe to Asia, and give access to reserves of oil and natural gas believed to exist under the Arctic ice.

As the ice recedes, countries have been quick to make their claims. Canada announced plans for new ships and a naval base in the far north of the country to patrol the Arctic ocean, while last summer Russia dramatically planed a small Russian flag on the sea floor at the North Pole - land they claim is linked to the Russian mainland.

While diplomats have agreed to talk about how these resources will be used, the New York Times article linked above gives the impression that this is the end of the story and that everyone will be able to freely use the Arctic. What the diplomats agreed to was to use the Convention on the Law of the Sea (CLOS), which is the main international treaty regarding the use of the world's oceans, as the guide to resolving future disputes. Under CLOS though one nation can be given the exclusive rights to the use of huge areas of the sea. For example, both Russia and Denmark plan to present claims under CLOS that the North Pole is physically linked to their territory via a ridge running under the ocean. If either claim is proven true, that country can be given the exclusive rights to access the sea flood and all the mineral wealth it contains.

The United States, meanwhile, has never ratified the CLOS treaty. US policy has long been to follow the rulings of CLOS, but (officially at least) the US does not have to be part of any negotiations since we have never ratified the treaty.
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Isolated tribe spotted in Brazil

It’s really amazing that in the 21st century tribes like this can still exist. But government officials in Brazil say that this tribe is legitimate, and that they are one of a few dozen primitive tribes believed to be living along the Brazil/Peru border. These tribes have never been in contact with outsiders.

The footage, shot from an airplane, shows several men, their bodies painted (red, brown and one solid black) coming out of thatch huts. They seem upset by the plane and several try to shoot arrows at it.

Brazil released the footage of the tribe to prove that isolated tribes like these do still exist. They are increasingly at risk from illegal logging operations in the Amazonian basin. In the past isolated tribes have not fared well after contact with outsiders. They often have no resistance to diseases brought by outsiders; even a common cold can be fatal.

Survival International - a group that supports primitive tribal cultures worldwide - estimates that only about 100 tribes like these still exist, about half are believed to be in the Amazon basin.
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Iraq is "stepping back from abyss"

That's the word from UN head Ban Ki-moon at a donor's conference in Sweden on Thursday. Ban said that the word he would use to describe the current situation in Iraq as "hopeful" but added that it "remains fragile."

The optimism comes from an improving security situation in Iraq, with some ceasefires in hotspots like Sadr City in Baghdad and the southern city of Mosul, and reports of al-Qaeda in Iraq losing support with Iraqi insurgents. Ban added that people in Iraq seem to be more willing to work with the elected government. Iraq's oil production is also recovering, with a published report this weekend putting it at the same level as 2003 for the first time since the US-led coalition invasion.

The purpose of the Sweden donor conference was to try to reduce Iraq's crippling foreign debt. Iraq owes more than $60 billion - the majority of it to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but with 100 other nations also holding IOUs. The huge level of debt is standing in the way of reconstruction efforts. The UN is hoping that these nations will forgive Iraq's debts.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also on hand for the meeting. She agreed with Ban that things are improving, but said "challenges” remain and urged other countries not to abandon Iraq when progress is being made.
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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

UN Says Russia Downed Georgian Drone

If you've been following the recent unpleasantries between Russia and Georgia, you may recall Georgia's claim last month that Russia shot down one of its unmanned recon planes flying over the disputed Abkhazia region. After taking a look at the evidence UN investigators have concluded that Russia did indeed shoot down the drone. Investigators looked at eyewitness reports, radar evidence and video from the drone itself and found that an aircraft that then flew into Russian airspace shot down the Georgian drone. Officials in Abkhazia claimed they shot down the drone from the ground.

Georgia has said that this is proof of Russian aggression. The UN ruled that aggressive action by the Russians undercuts their role as peacekeepers in Abkhazia. But they didn't let Georgia off the hook either. The UN Observer Mission in Georgia said the recon flight was a violation of the 1994 cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia.

The latest step in this dance between Russia and Georgia came on Sunday when Russia announced it was sending 300 unarmed troops into Abkhazia to help rebuild the regions railway network to improve humanitarian conditions.
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Our Democratic debacle stumbles on...

The latest chapter in the never-ending struggle that is the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process will take place on Saturday when the DNC’s (Democratic National Committee) rules committee meets to decide the fate of Florida and Michigan’s delegates.

To very briefly recap, both Florida and Michigan moved up the dates of their primary elections so, they thought, they could be more of a factor in the nominating process. But the DNC ruled that they were holding their primaries TOO early and as punishment told both states they would be stripped of their delegates to the nominating convention. Without delegates, both states are effectively eliminated from the process. The states violated the rules, according to the DNC, so they must pay the price.

There has been a lot (and I do mean A LOT) written and talked about this matter. But the one thing I find missing from all the chatter is mention of the utter hypocrisy of the Democratic Party.

Think back to Florida eight years ago, during the presidential election of 2000. Florida used punch cards to record votes – voters poked holes in a card to select a candidate, those cards were then fed into a machine that read the cards and counted the votes. The problem was that sometimes the hole didn’t poke through cleanly, leaving behind a little piece of paper called a chad. The chads fouled the vote-reading machines, causing them to reject the ballot and not count those votes. This was an acceptable outcome according to Florida’s election rules.

But wait, the Democrats said. They argued it was clear WHOM the voter wanted to choose, the problem was the machine was failing to read their ballots. The Democrats argued the voter’s intent trumped the “rules” of the election set out by Florida, and for six weeks the country waited to find out who would be our next president.

In 2008 though the Democrats are arguing just the opposite – forget the intent of the voters in Florida and Michigan who went to the polls in good faith, their votes cannot count because the two states broke the rules.


But this is the heart of the argument many Democrats are making. Forget what the voters want, following party rules is the most important thing. I saw a wonderful bit of irony over at the Huffington Post, where a column arguing against Michigan and Florida was on the same page as an ad for the HBO movie “Recount”, which deals with the 2000 Florida recount fight and Democratic efforts to, as they said at the time, “count every vote.”

Of course the Democrats could have avoided this whole mess by following the Republican Party model – they also punished Michigan and Florida for holding primaries too early, but they only stripped each state of half their delegates. Both states had their roles in the process diminished, but the will of their voters could still be expressed, a fair compromise.

The Democrats though have managed though to screw up the entire nominating process. Look at the system – some states hold primaries, some caucuses (and for some reason Texas holds both), each operates under its own set of rules, delegates are awarded according to percentage formulas so even losing candidates can get delegates (sometimes nearly as many as the “winner”), the formulas also differ from state to state, with some states giving extra delegates to districts that they think are more important or more loyal than others in their state, and the whole process is stretched out over six months. Then there are the “superdelegates” who are elected by no one, but have a significant role in the process…Who in their right mind creates a system like that to select a person for the most important office in the land?

By now you may be asking what exactly does any of this have to do with world affairs? Well, the United States likes to think of itself as the beacon of democracy to the world. President Bush has made spreading democracy around the world a priority of his administration – the three remaining presidential candidates have all also talked about the importance of spreading democracy in their campaigns.

So given that we set ourselves up as the model of democracy to the world, we have a responsibility to get it right at home. The 2008 Presidential race shows we have a lot of work to do.
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Italy condemned for growing racism

Amnesty International has taken Italy to task for what it says is a "climate of discrimination" growing in the country. Its main targets are illegal immigrants and the Roma (or Gypsy) community, both of whom Italians blame for rising crime rates.

New laws make illegal immigration punishable by up to four years in jail and say that suspected illegal immigrants can be held for up to 18 months in detention centers. Amnesty International has also called on the Italian government to investigate arson attacks on two Roma communities in the past month.

The new attitude isn't surprising when you look at the new Italian government. Silvio Berlusconi is back for his third tour as Prime Minister, leading a coalition that includes the Northern League and Alleanza Nazionale. The Northern League has long railed against foreigners (which by their definition can include some southern Italians), while the BBC describes the Alleanza Nazionale as a "post-Fascist" party. The new mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, who is also a member of Alleanza Nazionale, was greeted with chants of "Il Duce" - the nickname of the WWII Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini - and Mussolini-era Fascist salutes.

Berlusconi's coalition pledged during the campaign to tackle illegal immigration, while Alemanno said he would expel 20,000 from Rome if elected mayor.

What will be interesting is to see if the European Union makes any comments about Italy. The EU has made human rights and the protection of minority groups two of its core principles. They have even held up the entry of some nations into the bloc because the EU felt the countries were not doing enough to protect their minority groups. I wonder if the EU will be as willing to call out one of its core members?
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Electric car hits the road in fuel-starved Gaza

Cars in Gaza are starting to go green, though the motivation isn’t exactly to save the environment.

An electric car built by two Palestinian engineers made its debut on Tuesday in the streets of Gaza City to the approval of many onlookers. The car is powered by 32 batteries and can run for up to 120 miles on a single charge.

After its first drive through the city, many car owners were said to be asking its makers to switch their cars over to battery power.

The Gaza Strip relies on Israel for its fuel supply. But for the last few months, to punish Gaza’s Hamas-led government, Israel has imposed fuel blockades on Gaza, forcing many gas stations to close. Some Gazans have resorted to using cooking oil to fuel their cars. Fayez Anan, one of the electric car’s creators, said the bad smell of cooking oil-powered autos rolling through the city motivated him to build the electric car.

The conversion cost about $2,500.
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Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones makes Russian communists see red

The Communist Party of Russia is slamming "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" for casting Soviet-era communists as the bad guys in the latest episode of the popular series.

Set in 1957, "Crystal Skull" pits our hero Indiana against dastardly Soviet agents in a race to possess a powerful artifact. And like you would expect from the bad guys in a big-budget action flick, the Soviets are continually meeting bad ends at the hands of Jones.

Some members of the Communist Party are upset that young people today may confuse "Crystal Skull" with the real events of 1957. Other members though seemed to take real personal offense at being portrayed at having Soviets portrayed cartoonish villains after Russia supported the United States. "What galls is how together with America we defeated Hitler, and how we sympathized when Bin Laden hit them," said Viktor Perov, a Communist Party member in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg. "But they go ahead and scare kids with Communists. These people have no shame."

In the past few years Russia has been taking a look at its Soviet past. Right after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia turned its back on the previous seven decades of Soviet history as they looked to embrace western systems of government and economics. Under Vladimir Putin though Russia started to remember with pride some of the achievements of the old Soviet Union, particularly the Red Army's defeat of Nazi Germany and the success of the Soviet space program, which launched the first satellite and sent the first man into orbit. Coming to terms with the legacy of the Soviet Union is an ongoing process in Russia today.

Getting back to Indiana Jones - despite the protests of the Communist Party, the movie had the largest opening of any Hollywood movie ever in Russia, appearing in more than 800 theaters across the country. Most moviegoers I saw interviewed seemed able to separate history from the story of "Crystal Skull".
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Trouble in the pipeline

If you think that $130 for a barrel of oil is bad, it could get much worse.

According to The Economist, the Russian oil industry is in trouble. For the past few years the demand for more oil from the growing economies of India and China have been met by increased production from Russia, keeping things roughly in balance. But the output from Russia's oil fields have started to drop, meaning that they likely have passed their peak level of production.

Revenues from oil and gas sales have let Russia go from an economic collapse in 1998 to become one of the world’s largest economies just ten years later. They have also helped to stabilize the world's oil supply. But the growth of Russia's oil industry was something of an illusion.

Much of the oil industry in Russia fell apart during the end of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. In the 1990's, Russia was able to have their oil production steadily grow simply by repairing the oil drilling and pumping equipment they already had and by drilling more wells in fields that were already known and established. But now those fields are pumping out as much oil as they possibly can.

There's more oil to find in Russia, a lot more, some experts think as much as 100 billion barrels worth. But much of it is locked away in remote locations in the Russian Far East, meaning it will take a lot of effort (and money) to get it out of the ground and into the world oil market. The Russian government also has compelled foreign companies into partnership agreements with Russian firms to work the fields - in some cases renegotiating deals that were made during the 1990’s, which the Russian government felt were not fair to Russia. The result is that exploration in these new fields has been delayed. High taxes levied by the government on new oilfields also have not helped bring them online.

So it seems the world cannot count on increased oil production from Russia to offset higher and higher demand - so expect to see the prices for a barrel of the black stuff to creep even higher. The oil situation could also be a problem for President Medvedev, since oil and gas are currently the two pillars of the Russian economy. He already is dealing with complaints about higher domestic fuel prices and inflation. Less oil coming out of the ground is the last thing he needs.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The "$100 laptop" now with Windows XP

I wrote a couple of months ago about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative that was trying to sell a durable laptop computer for no more than $100. The goal of OLPC is to overcome the growing digital divide in the world, where some people – or entire countries - are left behind in the Information Age because they cannot afford access to a computer.

OLPC designed a rugged, easy to use computer called the XO that is aimed at children in the developing world. While governments in a number of nations have bought the computers, OLPC is still lagging behind its goal of producing a $100 computer. OLPC can reach the magic $100 price point only if they can sell the XO in large enough numbers to offset the production costs (often in business the more of a thing you make the cheaper it is to produce each individual one). So far the project has sold 600,000 units at a price tag of $188 each - still cheap, though not as cheap as the project's founder Professor Nicholas Negroponte hoped.

So to meet customer demand, he has made a change to the XO. Initially, to keep costs down, the XO ran a free version of the Linux operating system. Now XO laptops will be available with a version of Windows XP. "Certain countries around the world... have always been very, very insistent that they want Windows as an option," Negroponte told the BBC.

Some critics though say using Windows undermines the OLPC project, saying if children grew up using a computer with a different operating system it would feel natural to them and they would not miss windows since they never would have used it. On a more practical level machines using Windows do not have access to one of the XO's more innovative features - what OLPC calls the "mesh" network, a wireless network that sets up automatically when a group of XO laptops are within range of each other.

Still offering Windows is prompting some additional nations to buy XO laptops, like Egypt, which had held out for the Microsoft OS. Negroponte said he has orders for an additional 400,000 XO laptops, which will bring the total to one million machines sold in the OLPC initiative.
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U.S. ranks in lower half of Global Peace Index

Another day, another formula for ranking the nations of the world.

Today's is the Global Peace Index, a metric created by Steve Killelea, an Australian businessman and philanthropist that is designed to measure how "peaceful" the nations of the world are. According to Vision of Humanity, the organization that compiled the index, peacefulness is defined as: "harmony achieved by the absence of war or conflict."

If you want to be peaceful then go to Iceland, which was ranked the first out of 140 nations surveyed. The United States came in at a rather disappointing 97th. The US was weighed down by one key statistic considered in the survey – the number of homicides per 100,000 people.

Bringing up the bottom of the list were Sudan, Somalia and Iraq. The full Global Peace Index for 2008, along with a full explanation of their methodology, can be found here.
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Mugabe accuses opponents of violence, MPs arrested

If you think that the presidential race in the United States is getting bitter, then check out what's going on in Zimbabwe.

Campaigning for the runoff election between current president Robert Mugabe and challenger Morgan Tsvangirai has gotten underway (Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the first round, but fell just short of the 50% plus one majority needed to avoid a runoff). Mugabe is attacking the opposition MDC party as agents of Great Britain looking to bring Zimbabwe back under colonial control. He is also telling his supporters to ignore claims that the police are abusing opposition candidates.

Those claims have come after two newly-elected members of parliament from the opposition MDC party were arrested in what they say is a campaign to intimidate their party before the June 27 runoff election. Tsvangirai, meanwhile, delayed a return to Zimbabwe because of information he received that Mugabe's government was planning to assassinate him.

The situation in Zimbabwe is showing signs of spinning out of control. The International Crisis Group, a non-partisan think tank that focuses on the world's hotspots, is warning that the Zimbabwean military could launch a coup if Mugabe is ousted from power.

For Zimbabwe's people conditions in the country are grim. The unemployment rate is now estimated to be 80%, while inflation is reported to have hit an unbelievable one million percent.
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Background on the Georgian/Russian conflict

The BBC recently ran two good background pieces on the simmering conflict between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two regions vying for independence from Georgia. The first piece gives some background into Abkhazia and the difference in views between those looking for closer ties with Georgia and those looking for independence from it. The second is a brief history of the conflict in these two regions, which dates back to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Since this situation isn't likely to be resolved anytime soon, it's worth a read.
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Turkmenistan to build $70M monument in capital

So much for ending the cult of personality…

Turkmenistan’s first president Saparmurat Niyazov was far from a humble man – in addition to crowning himself “Turkimbashi” (or father of all Turkmen), he also named a month after himself. After Niyazov passed away in 2006, the new president, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, promised to move the formerly isolated Central Asian nation closer to the world community, which makes his most recent decision a bit odd.

Berdymukhamedov announced this week a plan to build the country’s tallest tower, a 607-foot tower that will be a monument to Niyazov, crowned with a golden statue of the man himself that will rotate to meet the rays of the sun. Berdymukhamedov said that the tower would be a symbol of transition.

While currently a poor nation, Turkmenistan is believed to hold vast reserves of natural gas.
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Friday, May 16, 2008

Oh CNN...

I was watching CNN when one of their silly “human interest” stories by Jeanie Moos (their mistress of fluff) came on. I have nothing against these stories – they can be a nice break from the heavy news of the day, but there was a little problem with this one.

The story itself was simple enough. It was about a man who was so taken with the Democratic presidential primary that he got a portrait of Hillary Clinton tattooed on his thigh. There were a few jokes, a few comments, a brief interview with the man with the tattoo, and then the suggestion that rather than being a democrat, he was a dermocrat (a play off the word epidermis – the layer of skin used in tattooing). And there’s the problem.

I am guessing that the ears of the Russian-speakers in the audience pricked up since “dermo” is the Russian word for shit.

In addition to being a profanity, the term “dermocrats” also has a political connotation in Russian. During the economic crisis of 1998 it was the title applied to the liberal market reformers in the Russian government – in other words that the country had gone to shit under their rule. Part of the reason that liberal parties have all but disappeared from the Russian political scene today is that they were blamed for the economic collapse in 1998.

I’m not expecting everyone at CNN to be an expert at everything, but Russian isn’t an arcane language, and the economic collapse Russia went through wasn’t a small event (I even seem to remember CNN covering it at the time). For a network that touts itself as a global news source though it was kind of an obvious thing to let slip through the cracks.
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Zimbabwe update - presidential runoff set

Its election time, round two.

On June 27 Morgan Tsvangirai will again face-off against Zimbabwe's long-time president Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai's opposition MDC party received the most votes in the first round of elections in March, but fell short of the 50% plus one majority needed to gain the presidency outright.

That is if the results announced by the government are to be believed - Tsvangirai for one thinks that he won the election outright and that Mugabe's government worked for weeks to rig the results. Tsvangirai announced yesterday that he would return to Zimbabwe to stand in the run-off election. For the past two weeks he and his supporters debated whether to run or not and he has been in a brief self-imposed exile. Mugabe's security forces have been accused of widespread attacks on opposition supporters following the March election.

Even now there is a lot of doubt over whether a fair election can be held. By law the runoff should take place within three weeks of the posting of the results from the first round - since the results were posted on May 2, the runoff should take place by May 23. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party though has delayed the runoff until June 27 for security reasons. The opposition though claims that it is just a ploy to give the government more time to intimidate the opposition.

Tsvangirai has called on the 15-nation Southern African Development Community to send election monitors for the June 27 vote. Mugabe's government though resisted calls for international vote monitors for the first round.
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Thursday, May 15, 2008

You mean that law applies to me?

Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates lit up a cigarette on a flight on Thursday. What makes this newsworthy is that just five months ago Sócrates signed a law banning smoking in all public places in Portugal - including airplanes. The law was passed for public health reasons and was designed to reduce tobacco consumption.

Sócrates excuse for his transgression was, well, lame. "I didn't think I was breaking the law," he said. "I thought I could smoke. I always did before." It seems like Sócrates missed the point of the ban.
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Russia, Georgia spar over talk on Abkhazia base

This is how wars get started by mistake.

Russia and Georgia are already squaring off over Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region - with Russia supporting the would-be Abkhaz government, and Georgia wanting to bring the territory back under its control. Things briefly got very tense on Thursday when the chief of Russia's air force agreed to a statement made by an Abkhaz lawmaker, who wanted Russia to sign a military treaty with the region and build permanent bases there. Col.-Gen. Alexander Zelin was quoted as saying that he thought this would improve Russia's air-defense capabilities.

This came as a surprise to Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of Russia's armed forces (and Col.-Gen. Zelin's boss). He quickly said that he was aware of no such plan, reducing tensions between the two countries - at least for now.

The latest escalation of Russia and Georgia's war of words came a few weeks ago when Russia sent additional peacekeepers to Abkhazia in response to a build-up of Georgian troops on the border. Relations between Russia and Georgia have been sour for the past few years as Georgia actively courts the West, hoping to join both NATO and the EU.

The situation in Abkhazia even made it into the congratulatory phone call placed by President Bush to the newly installed President Dmitri Medvedev. Bush expressed his concern over the conflict between Georgia and Russia and urged Medvedev to work to reduce tensions in the region.
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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Vatican says aliens could exist

Father Gabriel Funes, the Vatican's chief astronomer (yes, the Vatican does have a chief astronomer) wrote in the Vatican newspaper that life could exist on other worlds, and that if this life does exist that it is also part of God's plan. Funes' article was titled "Aliens Are My Brother."

In the middle ages, the church condemned the famed Italian astronomer Galileo for saying that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and burned the lesser-known Giordano Bruno at the stake for suggesting that the stars in the sky may be the home to planets like Earth. Father Funes replied by saying that in the past mistakes were made, and that it was better now to look towards the future.

Frankly, I have never understood why some religions (not only the Catholic Church) have thought the idea of extraterrestrial life went against church teachings. The Book of Genesis opens with God creating the Heavens and the Earth - that would seem to cover all the bases to me.
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Monday, May 12, 2008

Are they nuts?

Is my response to Time magazine's question "Is It Time to Invade Burma?"

Yes, the actions of the military rulers of Burma (a.k.a Myanmar) have been atrocious - basically denying the victims of a cyclone international aid because they fear the presence of foreign relief workers on their soil, but to seriously discuss military action in this situation is ridiculous.

Yet it is discussed at least somewhat seriously here. But somehow attacking a disaster-stricken country to provide its citizens aid, just doesn't quite make sense. Not to mention that with forces committed to the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and the global war on terror, where these troops for Burma would come from is another question that Time doesn't even try to answer.

The situation in Myanmar/Burma is both sad and shocking - how a government could care so little for its own people when foreign countries stand ready to offer aid is pretty unbelievable. But to advocate using the military to force aid onto their country makes no sense. The aggressive, paranoid military in Myanmar would not stand by while foreign troops set foot in their country, even if their intentions (from our point of view at least) were good. The ruling junta would look at it as an invasion and would react accordingly.

The last thing that the victims of the cyclone need is to have a war take place around them.
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Big guns in Red Square

For the first time since the days of the Soviet Union tanks, missiles and troop transports were a part of Russia's Victory Day parade through Red Square. Victory Day marked the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany and remains one of the biggest public holidays on the Russian calendar.

I was expecting the western press to be filled with more stories about Russia's rising militarism, the start of a new Cold War, etc., etc., though to my surprise the parade passed with little note - probably because US media outlets were more fixated Friday on the cyclone in Myanmar and the presidential primary season that will not end.

The Victory Day parade was the first public outing for new President Dmitri Medvedev. The analyst/pundit class still can't seem to agree on what to make of Medvedev - and his relation with the former President and now current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which brings back another pastime from the Soviet era - Kremlinology.

This was the term for the obsessive analysis of pictures and films taken of the members of the Soviet hierarchy. Being a secretive bunch with total control over the media, finding out what was really going on with the leadership of the Soviet Union was often an impossible task for outsiders. So analysts would pour over pictures to see who was standing next to whom, which members of the Secretariat looked well, or who looked sick and so on as a way of guessing who might be on their way up and who on their way down.

Now the process is being repeated with Medvedev and Putin. It was noted that Medvedev’s speech after his swearing in lasted about 20 minutes, while Putin’s speech after accepting the PM spot was closer to 45. Putin was described as looking grim, while Medvedev said a few words during the Victory Day parade, and so on.

Medvedev is thought by many to be a figurehead for Putin. But Medvedev, so far, has promised to chart a different course than his old boss. He is talking about a foreign policy that is less confrontational with the West than Putin’s has been, and he has made tackling corruption and enforcing the rule of law two of his top priorities.

Hopefully Medvedev will follow through on these promises. Corruption plagues all levels of life in Russia, while the perception is widespread that the laws are flexible depending on who you are or who you know. Both stand in the way of Russia developing a middle class, something that would help to bring long-term stability to the country.

One indication on whether Medvedev is president or puppet will be how he interacts with other world leaders over the next few months. As president foreign affairs are his responsibility alone. If Putin manages to loom large in Russia’s international affairs (like the upcoming G8 summit), then Medvedev’s presidency may be as hollow as many fear.
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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Revealed! Obama's secret plan for victory in November

At a campaign stop in Oregon on Friday, Barack Obama inadvertently let slip how he will win the presidential election in November.

He told the audience that he had already campaigned in 57 states. Fifty-seven states!

This, of course, will all but guarantee him victory over presumptive Republican nominee John McCain who seems to be pursuing the more traditional fifty state strategy followed by most presidential nominees, thus meaning Obama will run virtually unopposed in seven states - an amount sure to give him victory.

In a possible sign of favoritism most mainstream media outlets did not report on Obama's secret strategy, though his statement can be seen here.

Residents of Old Hampshire, East Virginia and the other seven states also refrained from comment.
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Monday, May 5, 2008

Bolivian vote challenges president's populist agenda

Is the leftist tide starting to turn in South America?

President Evo Morales made history in 2005 by becoming the first indigenous person to rule Bolivia. He campaigned on a platform stressing communal values, and looked to redistribute the country's gas and mineral wealth to the, often poor, native population.

Bolivia's most-prosperous state, Santa Cruz, though could have put a stop to those plans by voting last weekend for a greater degree of autonomy from the federal government. Residents of the eastern state were driven by a belief that Morales' policies favored the indigenous populations at the expense of other ethnic groups, and a desire to keep more of the state's natural gas revenues at home to deal with a booming population.

Morales was deeply upset at the autonomy vote, calling it illegal and noting that it took place despite an order from the country's supreme court postponing it. Bolivia has a strong central government, which dominates the country's economic planning. Santa Cruz's actions will take away some of the central government's powers. Worse for Morales, three more of Bolivia's nine states are looking to hold similar autonomy referendums.
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Secretary of State Rice presses Israel on roadblocks

I do have to give the Bush administration credit for sticking with the Israel-Palestine peace process. Last weekend Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to the region for face-to-face talks with the leaders on both sides.

And in response to complaints from the Palestinians, she raised the issue of roadblocks and settlements with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Rice told the Israelis of the need to create "an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiations."

In the diplomatic niceties that surround these negotiations it was pretty blunt talk. The Palestinians think the Israeli settlements are nothing but an attempt at stealing their land, and say that the checkpoints (which the Israelis say are necessary to maintain security and protect from terror attacks) make normal life in the territories nearly impossible. They also claim that their presence is slowing the peace negotiations.

President Bush inadvertently got an up-close view of the checkpoints during his visit to Israel and the West Bank when bad weather forced him to take a motorcade, rather than a helicopter, into the Palestinian Territory. While his motorcade was sped through the checkpoints, he saw the lines where Palestinians can spend hours waiting to pass through.

I wondered at the time if the experience would give him a different perspective on the peace process. Sec. Rice's trip makes me think that it has.
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Kurdish rebels threaten suicide attacks against US

And just when you thought there were enough problems in Iraq...

On Sunday, a representative of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (or PKK) threatened that the group would use suicide attacks against American interests in the area in response to American support for Turkey in their battle against the PKK.

The PKK has long fought for a Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Turkey has accused the PKK of using northern Iraq as a safe haven to launch attacks into southern Turkey. For the past few months Turkey has been launching air strikes and ground raids against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq, including air strikes over the weekend that Turkey claimed killed more than 150 PKK fighters.

Peritan Derseem, a representative for an Iran-based faction of the PKK, said that the Turkish raids were conducted with information gathered from the United States, so now the group was considering retaliation not against the Turks, but against the US. She claimed that some members of the groups now were looking to join suicide squads, and that for now the group was against such attacks, in the future that feeling could change.

The Kurdish north of Iraq, in drastic contrast to other parts of the country, has been relatively calm since the 2003 invasion.
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Carter on CNN

I saw former President Jimmy Carter on CNN Sunday morning with Wolf Blitzer. The big news of the interview was Carter's repeating his claim that he had negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas last month. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip portion of the Palestinian Territories and has launched rocket attacks into Israel almost daily.

Carter met with the leadership of Hamas during his controversial trip to the Mid East. Both the United States and Israel were angry over Carter's meeting with Hamas since they are considered by both governments to be a terrorist organization.

He said that during a meeting with Hamas' leaders in Syria, the group agreed to stop attacks on Israel and begin negotiations. Carter had made this claim during his trip. The next day a Hamas spokesman said Carter's statement was false. But the former President told Blitzer that this spokesman was not speaking for the group and that he (Carter) had confirmed with the leaders of Hamas their desire to talk. Israel rejected their offer.
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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Russians protest the price of food

It almost sounds like the kind of headline you would hear in the years right after the end of the Soviet Union. The spiraling global food prices have hit Russia as well, and Russians aren't happy.

Several thousand took to the streets of St. Petersburg on Thursday to protest high food prices - among other rising costs of living. High oil prices have buoyed Russia's economy, which has grown for ten straight years now, and have helped to raise the standard of living for Russians. But along with more wealth has come inflation, and many Russians feel that their wages are not keeping pace with the increasing cost of living. Students and pensioners complain that they are unable to buy enough to eat with their government payments. Protestors called for the government to step in and control prices.

Inflation could be an early challenge to Dmitry Medvedev, who takes over the presidency on Wednesday.
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Rome mayor vows to remove museum

Gianni Alemanno, Rome's brand new mayor, whose supporters greeted his election with the old fascist chants of "Duce! Duce!" has decided he wants to put his mark on the city by tearing down a piece of it.

Specifically Alemanno wants to tear down the Ara Pacis Museum that was completed only in 2006. He says that the modern museum does not fit in with the baroque buildings that surround it. Since its opening two years ago, the museum has proven to be a major tourist attraction.

The Ara Pacis Museum was the first major construction project in central Rome since the time of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (though I am sure that's just a coincidence).
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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Changing of the guard in Moscow

As Putin apprentice takes over, Russians weigh an enigma

Expect to see pieces like the one above between now and Wednesday when Dmitry Medvedev will be sworn in as President of Russia. Medvedev takes over for Vladimir Putin, whose eight-year run as president saw Russia shake off its economic woes of the 1990s and retake its place as a power on the world stage.

Where Russia goes from here though is anybody's guess. Medvedev is a young man (only 42) who has never held an elected office before. His first act after winning the presidency was to offer the position of prime minister to Putin. This has led many to wonder what's really going on in the Kremlin.

One popular thought is that Medvedev is Putin's puppet who's only keeping the seat warm until Putin can run again in four years or, more conspiratorially, is only a placeholder who will step down after a few months in office, allowing Putin to skirt the term limits law and become president again. Another theory is that Putin took the PM job as a way to hang onto power, while yet another holds that he agreed to take the PM job as a way to ease himself out of the Kremlin, having grown tired of fighting to hang onto power.

Most observers agree that there are constant power struggles going on within the Kremlin between different factions. As I talked about in an earlier post, I think this might explain the Medvedev/Putin partnership. Many of the people currently within government, like Putin himself, have a background in the Russian security services (the FSB, the post-Soviet version of the KGB). They wanted another of their own to follow Putin. Medvedev isn't in that club - he is a lawyer of St. Petersburg. Without support from this faction within the Kremlin, Medvedev would likely be president in name only. So Putin has agreed to remain in government as prime minister using his own personal popularity to give Medvedev a base of power.

It’s the solution that makes the most sense. If Putin had just wanted to stay in power, that would have been simple enough. Lawmakers in the Duma proposed removing the term limits provision and with his party, United Russia, holding the majority of seats, Putin would have the votes to make it happen. With a popularity rating in the 70-80% range, Putin would have won a third term easily.

Of course just because it’s a solution that makes sense, it doesn't mean that it's correct. And it doesn't address the bigger question of how well the Medvedev-Putin partnership will work in practice. Medvedev broadly wants to continue Putin's political platform, though there are some important differences.

Medvedev has called for better relations with the West, less of the confrontation that has marked Putin's foreign policy, especially in the past few years. He also wants to crackdown on corruption and to make sure that all parts of the nation share in the profits from oil and gas sales. They are necessary steps if Russia is to continue its economic growth and to develop a middle class, which was one of Putin's main goals. But they are also moves that will put Medvedev at odds with the powerful oligarch class, as well as some members of his own government.

It’s why some analysts believe that despite the wild oil and gas revenues flowing into the country, Russia could be facing a period of instability.

For Russia, the future starts Wednesday.
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Friday, May 2, 2008

From Zimbabwe, finally results

At long last the presidential election results from Zimbabwe have finally been released.

They show opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai taking 47.9% of the vote to President Robert Mugabe's 43.2%, short of the 50% plus one margin needed to avoid a runoff election.

At this point though, it’s hard to believe that these results are accurate. Zimbabwe held their elections on March 29 - more than five weeks ago, and in that time they were able to count and then recount the vote cast for the country's parliament, yet held off on releasing the presidential vote. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party has been claiming for weeks that he won the election outright and that Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has been trying to steal the election. Human Rights Watch has accused the government in the weeks following the election of a campaign of violence and intimidation against the opposition, which has left over 100 people dead across the country.

Whether a fair and honest runoff is even possible at this point, given the attacks on the opposition, is something most outside observers doubt. "It's pretty hard to see how there could be a meaningful runoff in Zimbabwe when the government has done everything it can to both delay and obscure the results," said US State Department spokesman Tom Casey on Friday.

Tsvangirai and the opposition though are in a bind - either run in what's likely to be a rigged election, or not bother and let Mugabe retain power unopposed. The MDC has said they will make their decision on Saturday.
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Lesbians are angry at lesbians

Three residents of the Greek island of Lesbos have sued the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece over that group's use of the term "lesbian." Residents of Lesbos are also known as Lesbians. The three plaintiffs say use of the term to describe female homosexuals gives people the wrong idea about the residents of Lesbos.

"My sister can't say she is a Lesbian," said Dimitris Lambrou, one of the plaintiffs. "Our geographical designation has been usurped by certain ladies who have no connection whatsoever with Lesbos," he said. Lambrou went on to say that the lawsuit is not meant to be anti-gay, and invites gay women to visit the island, just don't use the term lesbian to describe themselves.

Greeks have been taking names seriously lately. A few weeks ago Greece blocked the former Yugoslavian state of Macedonia's bid to become a member of NATO because of that country's use of the name "Macedonia", which is also the name of a state in northern Greece.
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