Monday, August 31, 2009

Europe Says Goodbye to the Bulb

Starting tomorrow the European Union will start phasing out incandescent light bulbs in favor of compact florescent lights (CFLs). The bad news is that the United States will launch its own ban on the bulb in January of 2014 in another case of replacing a reliable old technology with an inferior modern one.

We're all familiar with florescent lights - they hang above our office cubicles, doctor's offices and bus station waiting rooms. Unfortunately CFLs will soon bathe our homes in the same harsh light as our offices, waiting rooms and bus stations, apparently whether we want them to or not. Migraine sufferers complain that CFLs also trigger their headaches, though the lighting industry disputes this. But perhaps what's worst about the CFL is what's inside of them - namely mercury. So if you drop a CFL in your house, you've got your own hazardous waste spill to clean up.

Seriously, the EPA even has a webpage of instructions on how to clean up a CFL, that includes: evacuating the room for 15 minutes, disposing of the broken bulb in a sealed container, disposing of any rags/cloths you use to clean up the broken bulb in another sealed container, and if you get any broken glass dust from the bulb on your clothes, you should probably throw them out as well (honestly). A study by Maine's Dept. of Environmental Protection even found that if a CFL breaks on your carpet, the carpet can still release mercury vapors months later (so maybe throwing the rug out isn't a bad idea either).

By now you're probably asking, there must be a reason why we're being compelled to use CFLs? We're told they'll save energy, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Earth Policy Institute even claims that if all incandescent light bulbs in the USA were replaced with CFLs, we could shut down 80 coal-fired power plants - which is roughly the number of coal-fired power plants that China will open this year alone. And therein lies my biggest problem with CFLs - we could replace all of our light bulbs, we could even walk around our houses in the dark for that matter, but the energy and related greenhouse gas savings for the global environment are meaningless so long as China keeps opening coal-fired power plants at the rate of one or two a week, which is China's policy into the forseeable future. CFLs only provide our politicians a way to make it look like they're 'doing something for the environment' when really they're not and for big business to make another quick buck by pretending to be 'green'.
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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Should We Just Learn To Love The Bomb?

That question is at the heart of an essay in this week’s issue of Newsweek. The conventional wisdom has been that the world would be much better off if there were no nuclear weapons, even the great ‘Cold Warrior’ Ronald Reagan himself worked towards the goal of a nuclear-free globe. In a few weeks, as heads of state gather for the general assembly of the United Nations, President Obama is expected to make his own push towards eliminating nukes. But should he?

According to Jonathan Tepperman in Newsweek, maybe not. And there are some interesting facts that back up this unconventional point of view. One is that nearly 65 years after the US detonated the first nuclear bomb, the much-feared mass proliferation of these weapons hasn’t occurred. Today there are fewer than a dozen nuclear-armed states, and several countries (Kazakhstan, Belarus, Canada and South Africa) have actually given up their nukes.

Fear of a nuclear war between two nuclear-armed states is another fear that drives the ban the bomb movement but, again, Tepperman argues, nuclear states seem less likely to go to war, because they know the horrible consequences a nuclear war would bring. He cites the example of India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars since independence from Great Britain, but none since Pakistan got the bomb back in 1998, even after a brief conflict in the disputed Kashmir region in 1999 and Pakistan’s involvement in the terror attacks that rocked Mumbai last year.

Critics say that the world has just been exceptionally lucky in the nuclear era and that we’re putting a lot of faith in some sketchy leaders (Kim Jong-Il anyone?) not to go nuclear. But I think Tepperman makes some good points, and one problem I’ve had with the nuclear-free world campaign is that it’s just not going to happen. Russia’s not about to give up its nukes, nor China, and Israel (that won’t even admit it has them in the first place)? Forget it. And now a consensus seems to be building in the international community for “crippling sanctions” against Iran to make them give up their nuclear bomb project. But considering that we’re also still hoping to encourage pro-democracy, pro-western reformers within Iran (the folks who took to the streets in protest this summer), you have to wonder if sanctions that will wreck Iran’s already fragile economy is really the best idea right now. Especially when the alternative might not be all that bad.
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The Next Big Comeback - Dinosaurs?

Americans tend to look at Canada like the cousin you see at family reunions - nice, polite (maybe a little too polite), friendly, but just a little dull. Maybe we should rethink that assessment because, according to MacLean's Magazine, the scientists at Montreal's McGill University are involved in some pretty freaky stuff, namely trying to turn a chicken into a dinosaur.

Yeah, you read that right. The project is the convergence of some new studies in biology, genetics and evolutionary theory, with a little Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure. But unlike Jurassic Park, the scientists at McGill aren't trying to make a dinosaur by putting together fragments of fossilized DNA, instead they are trying to make one by turning off some of your average chicken's genes.

Apparently, for a brief stage in its development, an embryonic chicken looks like a little dinosaur - complete with fingers, claws, teeth and a tail. Then, in the space of a few hours, all these traits transform into wings, feathers and a beak. Scientists think that the embryo goes through its own mini-evolution, where the ancient dinosaur traits are replaced by the modern chicken ones. But, they theorize, if you can turn off this evolution-in-an-egg at just the right time, what will hatch will be a dinosaur - albeit a chicken-sized one.

The scientists are pretty convinced they will be able to do this in the near future, along with re-creating a host of extinct animals like the wooly mammoth and the Tasmanian Tiger. Of course whether they should do this is another question open to a lot of debate, it seems to me like the whole message of Jurassic Park was that experiments like this can go horribly awry (even if the thought of a zoo full of dinosaurs and mammoths is pretty cool).
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Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Visit to the ABC Republic

I wanted to link to this story from Der Spiegel about Abkhazia (abrieviated 'ABC' in diplomatic circles), the region of Georgia trying to breakaway and become an independent nation in its own right.

Abkhazia, in case you don't know from earlier posts here, is a land of about 300,000 people along the Black Sea that was once referred to as the "Côte d'Azur of the Soviet Union" or more simply as the "Soviet Riviera" since it was part of the only sub-tropical climate to be found anywhere in the massive landmass of the Soviet Union (which itself covered 1/6th of the globe). Georgia hasn't exercised any real control over the region since losing a brief civil war in 1993, yet still insists that Abkhazia remains a part of Georgia. The Abkhaz people, meanwhile, have managed to do a fairly good job of governing themselves, according to the Der Spiegel piece. Ten years ago the capital Sukhumi (or Sukhum as the Abkhaz spell it) was a city devastated by the civil war with Georgia. Today, Der Speigel notes: "Nowadays there are electric buses in the streets, banks are open and adolescents in school uniforms congregate in front of the Pushkin High School. A Louis de Funès film with Abkhazian subtitles is playing at a local cinema. There are traffic lights, a children's library and speed limits."

But so far only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized Abkhazia's independence. The reason is largely political - the 'Western' powers (the US, UK, France, Germany) all back Georgia, so they refuse to participate in carving a new state out from its flanks - even though they have no misgivings about carving an independent state of Kosovo out of Serbia. Others, like China, don't want to recognize any new ethnically-based states for fear of encouraging restless (and often oppressed) ethnic groups within their own borders.

So Abkhazia remains trapped in a kind of Twilight Zone of international politics - existing as a functioning nation in everything but name.
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And How Many National Anthems Did You Write?

This week Russia marked the passing of Sergei Mikhalkov, the man who had the unique distinction of writing the lyrics to the Russian national anthem not once, but three times during his life.

Mikhalkov first penned the lyrics of the anthem of the then-Soviet Union back in 1943 under the orders of Josef Stalin. But by the 1970's the anthem's references to the great leader Stalin seemed a bit out of place, so Mikhalkov was called upon again to re-write them.

After the end of the Soviet Union, the anthem, also full of references to Communism, was pitched all together as being not representative of the times (again). The problem was that Russia was never able to find a suitable replacement, so for awhile the stirring music of the Soviet anthem was brought back, sans lyrics. But the story goes that during the 2000 Olympics, President Vladimir Putin didn't like the fact that Russian gold medal winners had nothing to sing during the medal ceremony, so he ordered that new lyrics again be written, and again Mikhalkov picked up his pen.

Sergei Mikhalkov was 96 at the time of his death, in addition to writing and re-writing the Russian national anthem, he also was a respected writer of children's literature in the Soviet Union.
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Thursday, August 27, 2009

GM Worries About Russia Stealing Secrets

Now that things have gotten a little better for General Motors - the company is fresh out of bankruptcy and enjoying a boost in car sales - they are balking at a deal to sell off their European brand, Opel.

Back in May, GM struck a deal to sell their struggling European brand to a partnership between Canadian-based auto parts maker Magna and a Russian state-run bank, Sberbank. And therein lies the problem: Sberbank has close ties to the Russian government, so too does one of Russia's largest domestic automakers, GAZ. GM is worried that since Sberbank and GAZ are both close buddies with the folks in the Kremlin, the technology Opel uses to build their line of small and mid-sized cars could wind up in the hands of GAZ. Right now GM is the #2 brand in the Russian market, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been busy this year launching a series of initiatives to prop up Russia's ailing domestic auto manufacturers, including one very unpopular move of slapping a 50% tariff on used cars imported from abroad (Russia's far east port city Vladivostok for one had a thriving cottage industry in importing and reselling used cars from Japan).

GM is now trying to pull out of the Magna/Sberbank deal in favor of an earlier bid from a Brussels-based company, or they may even try to keep Opel now that GM's fortunes are improving. Germany though, which has close economic ties with Russia, isn't so keen on letting GM back out of the deal, neither is Russia. And some analysts say that GM's industrial espionage fears are overblown. In 2006 GAZ bought the entire production line for the Sebring sedan from Chrysler and shipped it to their plant in Nizhny Novgorod - immediately this second-hand production line became the most modern domestic auto plant in Russia. So even if GAZ were to get its hands on Opel's technology, the analysts say, it's unlikely they could quickly bring their existing production lines up to speed, the technology gap that exists at the moment is just too great. Not to mention a modern, automated line could put tens of thousands of Russian auto workers out of their jobs, something Russia would like to avoid in the current economic crisis.
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Google Goes Hawaiian

If you've always dreamed of using Google's website in Hawaiian, here's your chance.

Actually Hawaiian is one of 125 "interface languages" now supported by Google. But aside from being one of the curiosities of the web, it's also being viewed as another boost for Hawaiian culture. Native Hawaiians have struggled for years to find ways to make Hawaiian language and culture relevant to modern-day Hawaiians. For more than a century traditional Hawaiian culture was actively oppressed by the United States government, laws banning the teaching of the Hawaiian language in schools were only overturned in the 1980s. This has all left many Hawaiians feeling disconnected from their native culture and led the United Nations to list Hawaiian as a "critically endangered" language.

In recent years though things have improved, with schools on the islands launching Hawaiian language and culture courses, and even a university-level degree program in Hawaiian Studies. Now Google has put its weight behind the Hawaiian language. Users can use their site and receive search results in Hawaiian. Beyond translating the site into Hawaiian, another challenge was to come up with words to describe terms like "surfing the web" in a language that pre-dates the era of modern technology.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

US Pledges To Buy Dirty Canadian Oil

The United States has a new source of oil. Last Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inked a deal with our neighbors to the north to build the "Alberta Clipper", a pipeline that, when finished, will send up to 800,000 barrels a day of Western Canadian oil south to the USA.

The problem is where this oil comes from. Environmental groups urged Clinton not to sign the deal because the oil is a product of Canada's vast tar sands (also called oil sands) deposits in Alberta. Like you might guess from the name, the oil that comes from this region, instead of being trapped in pools deep underground, is locked into sand banks at the surface. This makes getting oil from the tar sands a complex, and dirty process: instead of being drilled, tar sands oil is mined - strip mined from huge pits in the Alberta prairie - the sand is then cooked to release a sludge that is then refined into a kind of crude oil that THEN can be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products.

As you can imagine, it's a long, dirty process that sends chills down the spines of most environmentalists. But the people most directly affected by the tar sands industry are members of Canada's 'First Nations', the native tribes that lived on the Western prairies long before the arrival of the first European settlers. The Cree First Nations' ancestral home is near Fort Chipewyan, now the center of Alberta's tar sands industry. They claim that the mining of the tar sands is destroying the prairies and forests, polluting the air and water, and, according to George Poitras, a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the tar sands mining/processing has led to a sudden, dramatic spike in cancer among the Cree.

The First Nations Cree are aggressively trying to fight back. Members of the Cree First Nation traveled to London last week to join in environmental protests against BP and the Royal Bank of Scotland - two companies that through their investment in dozens of smaller companies are largely bankrolling the tar sands industry in Alberta, hoping to bring more attention to what they call "the biggest environmental crime on the planet."

So was Clinton right to sign the Alberta Clipper deal? Even if the United States whole-heartedly started today the process of getting all of its energy needs only from renewable sources, it would still be decades before we used our last barrel of oil. And a lot of the oil we use today comes from places that aren't very stable or are places that don't like us very much, so the opportunity to buy more oil from one of our closest allies seems like a no-brainer. But at the same time, you don't spend billions of dollars to build a pipeline only to use it for a year or two. The Alberta Clipper then will commit us to buying oil for decades to come from the dirtiest, most destructive source in the entire petroleum industry. There has to be a better way to meet our oil needs.
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Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Bad Week for Russia

Maybe that's putting things lightly - during the past week Russia was rocked by two events that point to some severe long-term problems for the country.

The event that even managed to even make the news here in the United States, was the disaster that struck the massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant in southern Siberia. An explosion in the powerhouse at the base of the dam killed more than 70 people and caused electric shortages across the region. A friend sent me the picture of the dam (pre-accident) below:

Just to get an idea of how big the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam is - it stands more than 600 feet tall and stretches over a half-mile, holding back the Yenisei, one of the biggest rivers in Russia (think of it on a par with Hoover Dam in Nevada). Officials are still investigating what exactly caused the accident (the site EnglishRussia has a number of post-blast photos here), but speculation is that one of the dam's massive electric-generating turbines malfunctioned leading to a sudden release of water pressure that blew apart the powerhouse, killing some 70 people working inside. A spokeswoman for Power Machines, the firm that installed the turbines at the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam when it was opened in 1978 said that the turbines had long exceeded their working lifespans and shouldn't have still been in use.

And that's the bigger problem that the blast at Sayano-Shushenskaya underlines, the poor state of much of Russia's infrastructure. A few boom years this decade haven't provided nearly enough money to repair all of the Russian infrastructure that was neglected during the two previous decades (not to mention that a lot of money never even made it to their earmarked projects thanks to rampant corruption). Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pledging to repair Sayano-Shushenskaya, even though early projections put the repair cost at more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile the city of Nazran, Ingushetia, in the volatile North Caucasus region, was rocked by a massive truck bombing against a local police headquarters that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100 others. While it was the largest terrorist bombing in the region in years, its far from the first. In June, the president of Ingushetia was badly wounded in an suicide bomb-assassination attempt; he survived but several of his bodyguards did not.

The North Caucasus is also home to Chechnya, where Russia's fought two bloody wars since the end of the Soviet Union, and from where Chechen terrorists launched a campaign of high-profile attacks across Russia in the mid-2000s. A sort of peace came to Chechnya after Russia turned control of the republic over to Chechen President/strongman Ramzan Kadyrov (who is accused of massive human rights violations in his campaign to subdue Chechnya). But the situation is like squeezing a balloon - a crackdown in Chechnya seems to have just driven insurgents into the neighboring territories of Ingushetia and Dagestan where they're continuing their terror campaign.

Even worse for Russia is that now there are signs that their strategy of just turning Chechnya over to Kadyrov and ignoring whatever he does so long as it brings peace, might not be working. Days after the Ingushetia blast there were smaller bombings within Chechnya, some say as a direct challenge to the rule of Pres. Kadyrov. Meanwhile Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev is vowing to destroy the North Caucasus terrorists, saying they must be "liquidated without emotion."

That's the kind of tough talk that could set the stage for a third Russian war in the North Caucasus, something Russia would desperately like to avoid since it would quickly devolve into a guerrilla war that they can't possibly win (insert your comparisons to Afghanistan here). Though Medvedev has also said that poverty is a main cause of unrest in the North Caucasus and slammed the police in Ingushetia for not doing a better job at protecting themselves.

Big events in Russia for sure, but sadly a possible indication of things to come.
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No Results Yet, But Charges of Vote-Rigging Fly in Afghanistan

The election in Afghanistan that looked like it would be wracked with fraud is starting to shape up that way. Former Foreign Minister and now the top challenger to President Hamid Karzai, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, leveled charges of fraud against Karzai and the Afghani government on Saturday. Abdullah's accusations focused on several provinces in the south of the country where Karzai was expected to do well but where there was also little oversight of the election due to recent attacks by the Taliban. The allegations are that Karzai's government is using the Taliban attacks as cover to rig the election returns in these southern provinces and boost his overall vote totals.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has dismissed the fraud claims. The only problem is that the members of the "Independent Election Commission" are appointed by Karzai, which seems to defeat the whole "independent" idea of the commmission. US and European observers, meanwhile, have cataloged a large number of 'irregularities' as they're calling them, but so far have stopped short of calling the election a fraud.

For his part, Abdullah isn't trying to claim an outright victory, but he is building his case that Karzai couldn't have legitimately received the 51% of the vote he needs to avoid a run-off against the #2 candidate, which will presumably be Abdullah. He is said to be contacting some of the three dozen other presidential candidates to build a broad-based coalition to oppose Karzai in a possible run-off.
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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Government Questions Eurovision Voters

And you thought there were controversies with the voting on American Idol...

News last week out of Azerbaijan is that officers from their national security ministry have questioned several dozen Azeris over their votes in the recent Eurovision song contest. In case you don't know, Eurovision is a pan-European (and Israel) song competition where each nation sends an act though a series of competitions that are voted on by viewers across the continent all to select the Eurovision champion. The winning act's home country then has the honor of hosting the following year's final.

The Azerbaijan officials though are questioning several dozen of their countrymen for apparently voting not for the Azeri act, but instead for the entry from neighboring Armenia instead. After the Soviet Union dissolved Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war in the early 1990s over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is fully within Azerbaijan. More than a decade later, the two nations still have not come to a deal over Nagorno-Karabakh, a very tense and fragile peace remains.

So relations between the two nations aren't great, but investigating people over their Eurovision votes? Apparently the folks in Azerbaijan were serious about this - one official told the BBC that the wayward Eurovision enthusiasts were merely 'invited to explain' their votes, but some of those interrogated said that the questioning was more serious than that, including allegations that they "weren't patriotic."

And, just to make things more complex, some of those questioned said that the Armenian entry sounded "more Azeri" anyway, and that Azerbaijan's entry, a duet, included a singer who wasn't even Azeri, one person even said they voted against Azerbaijan in protest.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Canada To Do Some Far North Muscle-Flexing

In another indication that global warming is changing more than the climate, Canada today is starting a large-scale military exercise in their Arctic region.

Actually, Canada is referring to Operation Nanook as a "sovereignty operation" - in other words, to show that Canada is in full control over their Arctic Sea coastline and the dozens of Canadian islands that stretch up towards the North Pole. This is one of the least densely populated parts of the globe, one that had been home mostly to scattered Inuit villages that eeked out a subsistence living from the sea. But as warmer temperatures have melted sea ice, natural gas deposits in the Far North are becoming economically viable.

So too is the fabled Northwestern Passage - the sea lane between Europe and Asia across the top of the North American continent, a route that could cut weeks off the current trip. To make the trip, a ship would have to weave between islands in the Arctic Sea. Those islands belong to Canada, so the Canadians say they control the Northwestern Passage and can decide who can and can't use it. The United States feels differently, that the Northwestern Passage is an international sea lane open to all nations. When the Arctic Sea was choked with ice this was an academic argument, now that the ice is melting, well you get the idea.

Operation Nanook is meant then to show that Canada is firmly in control of its northern coastline; Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to drop in on the military exercises later in the week. And his government has pledged to build a new deep water port on the Arctic Sea as well as a new icebreaker to serve as the flagship of the Arctic fleet. But military analysts argue that Canada does not have a large enough military (even with PM Harper's proposed projects) to protect their northern interests full-time.
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Monday, August 17, 2009

Wrapping Up Hillary's Trip To Africa

You would think that the Secretary of State’s arguably most important trip to date - Hillary Clinton’s seven-nation tour of Africa - would have gotten a little better news coverage given Africa’s growing role in US foreign policy. Keep in mind that the US now gets about as much oil from Western Africa as we do from the Persian Gulf, and that by the middle of the next decade, Africa should be our biggest supplier; and there’s always the threat of terrorism, recent intelligence indicates that al-Qaeda is hoping to make the Horn of Africa their new base of operations.

But Clinton had a hard time breaking through the wall-to-wall coverage of the health care debate (there’s some irony there, given that as First Lady Hillary tried to lead the Clinton Administration’s attempt at reforming that beast), so here’s a brief recap of her trip.

The big theme from her tour was one that echoed President Obama’s speech in Ghana back in July: that African governments need to be more responsible and transparent in their operations, and that Africans need to hold their elected leaders accountable, not just accept corruption and incompetence as the normal way of doing business. It was a theme she hit on a number of stops – in Kenya, where a power-sharing agreement has led to a year and a half of political stagnation; Nigeria, regarded as one of Africa’s most-corrupt states; and Angola, where there haven’t been presidential elections since 1992. She capped off her trip, like Obama did, by granting a state visit to one of Africa’s smaller, but best run states, the tiny island nation of Cape Verde – the clear message being that well-run places in Africa will get the benefit of America’s friendship.

Clinton also made a couple of other important stops – in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hillary made a point of visiting women who were the victims of brutal crimes against them as part of the decade of warfare that has engulfed one of Africa’s largest countries (in the Congo rape is often used as a tool of war). Millions have been killed amid fighting between several neighboring countries, insurgents, tribal militias and the Congolese army in what’s sometimes called ‘Africa’s world war’. She also stopped off in Liberia, where another brutal civil war ended only a few years ago and where Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is facing calls to step down over support years ago for a Liberian warlord, despite her leading her country to several years of growth and peace.

It was good to see Sec. Clinton throw US support behind bringing people to justice for the horrible crimes being committed in the Congo and in backing Pres. Sirleaf in Liberia. The stopover in Cape Verde was a nice touch, to visit an often-overlooked part of Africa, promoting it as a model other countries will hopefully follow. It’s also nice to see Clinton continue the Obama message of good governance to Africa – lecturing not only those in power, but also telling African citizens they need to demand better of their leaders. What remains to be seen is how well those leaders listen. Kenya’s Raila Odinga and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma both seemed a little put off by her call to do a better job leading. And then there’s the China factor in Africa – while the US is calling for good government reforms, the message being that the US could withhold aid or trade agreements with faltering states, China doesn’t particularly care about how African leaders run their countries and has been throwing a lot of money in aid and trade around the continent.
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Two More Perspectives On Africa

While the TV outlets did a generally poor job of following Secretary Clinton's African trip (see above), there has been some good reporting from the news weeklies, including these two stories:

Before her trip began, Time magazine ran this piece about "blood computers", a play off the term "blood diamonds" - illegally-mined / illegally-sold rocks that helped fund the bloody, decades-long civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Now, according to Time, there's a new illicit trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (one of Sec. Clinton's stops) in rare minerals used in the manufacture of all the electronic goods we think we can't live without (cell phones, laptops, etc.). Building these devices requires some extremely rare minerals (found in big deposits in the DRC), so illegal mining operations of them are very lucrative, and an underlying cause of the fighting that has wracked the Congo for the past decade.

Meanwhile, Newsweek asked if South Africa had gone from a beacon of democracy to a 'rogue state'. Their story centered on the actions of President Jacob Zuma - his support for the oppressive regime of Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe along with weapons sales to a host of questionable governments around the world. Newsweek goes on to ask if the US should really continue to seek a close relationship with South Africa, so long as Zuma seems to stray further and further from the path of respect for democracy and human rights laid down by former President Nelson Mandela.
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Russian Air Show Disaster

You might have heard over the weekend that two Russian Air Force Su-27 jets collided while practicing for an upcoming air show outside of Moscow. The planes belonged to the “Russian Knights” acrobatics team – basically Russia’s version of the USAF’s Thunderbirds. Two pilots ejected safely from the wrecked aircraft, but a third crewmember did not and was killed; four people on the ground were also badly injured when one jet crashed into a house and sparked a major fire. has a collection of photos of the accident (including some amazing ones of the pilots ejecting), along with speculation that the crash might have occurred after one of the jets was struck by a bird.
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Russian Ship Found But Mystery Remains

The drama surrounding the Arctic Sea – the cargo ship with the Russian crew that went missing two weeks ago in the Atlantic – is over, even though the mystery is not.

Russia’s Defense Minister announced earlier today that the Arctic Sea had been found 300 miles off the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic more than 1,000 miles away from the port it was suppose to arrive at on August 4th, Bejala, Algeria. The 15-member crew was transferred to a Russian Navy ship and are said to be in good condition.

So the question still remains about just what the heck happened to them during these past two weeks. Over the weekend, the Arctic Sea’s owners in Finland reported they received a ransom demand for the ship and crew, but they couldn’t confirm if the demand was legitimate or not. The ship’s crew reported that they were boarded by armed men claiming to be police shortly after leaving port, and according to some reports the ship may have been boarded a second time off the coast of Portugal. Russian officials said they are talking with the crew about the events of the last two weeks, but had no further comment. Speculation has ranged from the ship being in the middle of a bare-knuckles business dispute to it being the target of a pirate attack.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Battle Shows There Are Worse Things Than Hamas

Big news this weekend out of the Gaza Strip. Hamas, the ruling government of Gaza, got into a day-long gun battle with Jund Ansar Allah (which translates into: "Warriors of the Companions of God") an al-Qaeda-inspired militant organization, that left more than 20 people dead.

The fighting started when Jund Ansar Allah's leader, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Moussa used Friday's prayer services in the Gazan city of Rafah to declare the "the birth of an Islamic emirate" in the city, basically seceding from Gaza and pledging his loyalty to Osama bin Laden. That was enough for Hamas, which sent in their troops and fought a pitched battle against Jund Ansar Allah in and around the Rafah Mosque they used as their headquarters. In the end, Jund Ansar Allah was defeated after a long gun fight, its leader Sheikh Moussa was dead, according to some reports from Hamas, after blowing himself up with a suicide bomb vest, killing a Hamas negotiator in the process.

Much of the coverage of the Hamas/Jund Ansar Allah battle focused on two things: one, speculation that Hamas is losing control over Gaza following last January's three-week battle with Israel, and that extremist groups are growing in popularity among Palestinians; and two, that Hamas' crackdown against Jund Ansar Allah shows that the group is unwilling to accept any challenges to their authority in the Gaza Strip.

But I think the story points to something else - that there are worse alternatives than having Gaza run by Hamas. Israel is dead set against having any part of the Palestinian Territories run by Hamas and they've opposed any attempts to form a coalition government between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian faction that runs the West Bank. So far the international community (namely the US) hasn't pushed for a Hamas/Fatah unity government either. And there's no denying that Hamas has launched terrorist attacks against Israel (notably the crude, ineffective rockets their forces fired into Southern Israel by the dozens, prompting last January's conflict with Israel). Hamas claims these are all acts against an enemy occupying their lands that they are, in effect, 'freedom fighters'.

By contrast, the folks allied with Jund Ansar Allah are hardcore Islamic Jihadists; sharing the same 12th-century worldview as their spiritual head, bin Laden. Sheikh Moussa's goal was to see Gaza put under sharia law, many of his followers sported the long beards and headdresses you see on Taliban jihadis in Afghanistan, and, according to Hamas, Jund Ansar Allah were behind a series of recent attacks in Gaza against music shops and a wedding party - all things they deemed "un-Islamic" (not to mention attempting to launch a suicide bomb attack on horseback against Israel a few months ago).

In that light, it seems like it would be much better to deal with Hamas, a group with a clear goal behind their actions - a Palestinian homeland - than it would be to deal with groups like Jund Ansar Allah, who are nothing more than nihilists seeking the destruction of everything they deem "against Islam". In fact, two weeks ago Hamas' leader, Khaled Meshal announced his group would accept a Palestinian State based on the borders as they existed in 1967, before the Six Day War that led to Israel's occupying the West Bank and Gaza.
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Green Methods = Better Coffee

Thought I'd start the day with a little coffee, well a story about coffee at least. Growers in Ethiopia are finding that environmentally-friendly methods are producing better beans for farmers, beans that can be sold as premium, thus fetching higher prices for the growers. The big difference is in letting the beans grow among native trees - this makes for a more labor-intensive harvest than clear-cut fields, but allowing the coffee beans to grow in the shade of trees produces less-bitter, higher-quality beans and uses less water. And better prices have led to better lives for the farmers, think about that over your morning cuppa joe.
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Friday, August 14, 2009

Cyxymu - Sound and Fury Over Nothing?

Yesterday I decided to check out the blog of Cyxymu. 'Cyxymu' is the handle of Georgian blogger Georgy Jakhaia, even if you've never heard of him, you're probably aware of his existence - a massive denial-of-service attack on his various social media accounts brought Twitter, Facebook and other sites to a screeching halt last week, an event Wired breathlessly called the "Twitpocalypse" (seriously, I think the headline writers over at need to get out more). With that in mind I surfed over to his Livejournal page (Livejournal is one of the most popular Russian-language blogging platforms).

So what's the site of the world's most notorious blogger like? In a lot of ways, probably a lot like your own Facebook page - there are photos of Tbilisi in summertime, talk about his upcoming vacation plans, links to articles about Georgian cooking and slang, and then among all that some commentary on last year's Russian-Georgian war and its aftermath.

Being a Georgian, it's not surprising then that Cyxymu's take on recent events are basically pro-Georgian/anti-Russian. He in one post refers to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as 'liliputin', a common play on his name among his critics; a few stories about Georgian refugees driven from the disputed Abkhazia region; stories about Russian aircraft shot down by their own troops during the war; and some speculation that Russia is trying to goad Georgia into a second conflict this summer. Many of the stories are taken from Georgian/Russian news sites, and most are things I've read before, sometimes many months ago like in the case of the Russian Air Force friendly-fire incident.

In short, Cyxymu is offering a mildly-interesting, though fairly-partisan view of a year-old conflict. So why all the fuss? He's certainly not some Iranian blogger huddled over his computer in a basement in Tehran, dodging the Basiji militias, trying to get out the unknown stories of the recent pro-democracy protests. Had it not been for the massive DOS attack against his accounts, much of the blogosphere would be blissfully unaware of his existence (one report I read said pre-DOS attack, his Livejournal page had a little over 50 followers). So again, you have to ask, why all the fuss?

Most likely he was the target of a handful of pro-Russian hackers who (for some reason) were annoyed by his posts and rather than just ignore them, decided to engage in some cyber-harassment. Because their efforts shut down the latest infatuation of journalists - Twitter - suddenly this bit of cyber-activism became an important story. It is also possible that the Kremlin ordered the cyber-hit on Cyxymu, yes it's like using a hand grenade to get rid of a mosquito, but Moscow has done that sort of thing in the past - like interfering in elections their candidate was sure to win anyway (Cyxymu has called on Russia to launch an investigation into the attacks on his sites). Of course it's also possible, indulge my conspiracy theories for a moment, that the Georgian government launched the attack themselves as a way of garnering more support for their side at a time when it seems to be waning amid ever-growing evidence that it was the actions of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili that sparked last year's war in the first place.

Really, the takeaway from the Cyxymu affair should be to put things in perspective in the world of new media. Georgy Jakhaia runs a few sorta interesting, fairly partisan sites, nothing more; and there are worse things in the world than the occasional Twitter/Facebook crash.
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Should Women Be Allowed To Vote In Afghanistan?

Got your attention with that headline, didn't I? The reality of the situation though is that Afghanistan is holding a presidential election next week, one that is all but certain to be a fraud, and the role of women is a big part of the reason.

Election officials are reporting "suspiciously high" numbers of women registering to vote in Paktia, Khost and Logar, some of Afghanistan's most rural, most conservative provinces. Actually in many cases it's the male head of the household coming in to register his 10 or 15 wives to vote, saying that they can't come in themselves of course since it's inappropriate for them to talk with men outside their families...You have to wonder then if they'll be allowed to vote, or if hubby will just show up on election day expecting to vote 10 or 15 times 'for his wives'. And even if they do show up, will the women be allowed to vote for the candidate of their choice, or will they have to vote as their told by their husband? Or will the women who show up even be the women who are registered (or even be women for that matter)? Anyone could be beneath a burka, including a man's underage sons.

Paktia, Khost and Logar happen to be predominantly Pashtun areas - the same tribe as the current Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and thanks to recent Taliban attacks, they're also places that are expected to have the fewest vote monitors, all in all a situation ripe for voter fraud.

And that's ok with the US and international monitors, at least up to a point. If there's anything more disturbing about the Afghani election than the likely wholesale disenfranchisement of women, it's how accepting the international community is about the prospect of wide-spread voter fraud. Yes, Afghanistan is a mess and holding an election will be difficult, but that shouldn't mean its alright to have a sham election. Jandad Spinghar, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent election monitoring group said "if the level of corruption or violation is under 10 percent, it will be acceptable for me." Really? In a nation where 17 million people are registered to vote, that works out to a whopping 1.7 million bogus votes being "okay" in the minds of the election monitors.

Right now President Karzai is deeply unpopular and is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from his former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The worst outcome for Afghanistan is one where Karzai wins, but no one believes the validity of the vote - but that looks just like the scenario we're heading for.
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Soviet Smokes Set To Return

According to the folks over at, some brands of cigarettes popular in Russia during Soviet times are set for a comeback. The cigarette manufacturer BAT Russia relaunched the brand "The Golden Fleece" (or Zolotoye Runo in the original Russian) back in April. Other former Soviet brands: Arktika, Troika and Leningad have all recently seen a spike in their sales. Part of the reason is price - all are 'bargain' brands - but nostalgia is also a factor.

This, actually, is nothing new. After the markets opened up in formerly Communist nations across Europe in the 1990's, people flocked to Western brands that were previously banned in their countries. But an odd thing happened, after awhile, people started missing the more humble, state-run goods they grew up with and started seeking them out (the ones that were still in business at least). In fact there's a term for it: 'Ostalgie', the term comes from the German nickname 'Ossie' for people from formerly Communist East Germany. Now, apparently ostalgia is spreading to Soviet cigarettes as well.

And if you're interested in the whole 'ostalgie' idea, check out the wonderful German film Good Bye Lenin!
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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's Gore vs. Gorby for the Ecology

The former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, and the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, are battling it out for control of the ecology. Well, not the ecology, but the new 'green' Internet domain, ".eco".

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the folks that bring order to the Internet, have created the domain ".eco" for environmentally-focused companies and organizations who want a pro-green presence on the 'Net. The ".eco" domain is set to go live in early 2010, and ICANN wants to sell the operation of it to a private firm. That's where the Gore/Gorby fight begins.

Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection wants to run ".eco", but so to does Gorbachev's Green Cross International, which has a partnership agreement with a Canadian web company, Big Room. And both are saying they'll do a better job as the Web's green guardians - each say they'll let the public decide who's green and who's not (and thus deserving of the ".eco" at the end of their web address) and will donate a portion of their revenues to environmental causes. The price tag for ".eco" is $100,000, but it could be worth billions as companies and organizations pay to register their sites in the ".eco" domain, thinking it will be a quick and very public way to broadcast their pro-environment status.
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Pirates of the Atlantic?

On Sunday I posted a link to this story about the Arctic Sea, a Russian-crewed cargo ship that suddenly went missing off the coast of Portugal last week. Now officials are thinking that the Arctic Sea has been the first big ship to fall victim to pirates off the coast of Europe in, well, as long as anyone can remember.

That, at least, is the leading theory in what happened to the Arctic Sea. The ship was due to arrive in Algeria with a cargo of lumber (nothing particularly valuable there) on August 4, but never did, nor was it seen sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar, meaning it's likely still somewhere in the Atlantic. Analysts say that the Arctic Sea may wind up being repainted - basically given a ship face-lift, to turn it into a 'new' vessel that would then be used to haul illicit cargoes (drugs, weapons, you name it). Another possibility is that the ship was grabbed as part of a business dispute - there have been some 'aggressive' tactics used to settle Russian business disputes in the past (like bombings), that was especially true during the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is taking the whole Arctic Sea incident seriously enough to order ships from Russia's Black Sea and Baltic Sea fleets to head to the Atlantic to search for the missing ship and its crew of 13.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Arctic Ice Vanishes in State-Sized Chunks

During July of this year, a patch of the Arctic ice cap the size of Indiana melted every day, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. That's a rate of shrinkage equal to 2007, when the ice cap retreated to the smallest size ever recorded. In Canada's Arctic Sea outpost of Tuktoyaktuk (which should be familiar to viewers of History's Ice Road Truckers), the edge of the ice pack is now 80 miles away from the coast, double the summertime distance from a few decades ago, and the water is so warm (that being a relative term of course), that kids have gone swimming in the ocean this summer.

Scientists said that while global temperatures, on average, have risen by a degree during the past century, that rate of increase has been double in the Arctic. They are also seeing the thick, permanent ice of the cap being replaced by a thinner ice sheet that melts each summer before refreezing as winter sets in. What this will mean to the environment in the long-term remains to be seen, but it's affect on polar bears is already becoming evident (they're getting thinner and having to spend more time swimming to get to the ice packs that they use for hunting seals).

Meanwhile on the other side of the globe a Russian-Swedish expedition is setting off from the Russian port of Murmansk on a cruise of the North East Passage around Russia's northern coastline to highlight the effects of global warming on that part of the world. Normally portions of the Passage are only open for about eight weeks a year, but this year - thanks to the retreat of the ice pack - the crew of the sailboat "Explorer of Sweden" expect to be able to sail through passages usually sealed off by ice.
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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hillary in Africa, Shakes Fist at Eritrea

During her Kenyan stopover during her African tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took some time out to threaten Eritrea over their support for Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia. The US has long accused the government of Eritrea of supporting al-Shabab ("The Youth") in their ongoing battle with the Somali transitional government for control of the capital, Mogadishu. The two sides have been slugging it out for weeks now, displacing tens of thousands of civilians in the process.

Clinton said that "it is long past time for Eritrea to cease and desist its support for al-Shabab", adding that Eritrea's actions were "unacceptable" and that the US would "take action" if they didn't cut their support of al-Shabab. The US position is that if al-Shabab were to take over Somalia, it would become al-Qaeda's new base of operations.
This isn't the first time that the US has threatened Eritrea, the tough talk with the East African nation goes back to the Bush administration, as do the fears of Somalia becoming a terrorist state, though so far the US hasn't done much in the way of action besides occasionally calling out the Eritrean government like Clinton just did again.

Of course maybe it would be a good idea to first wrap up one of the existing battlefields of the Global War on Terror, before looking to open a new one. The US still has more than 100,000 troops in Iraq, mostly sitting around on bases since the agreement with the Iraqi government pulling US troops back from the cities went into effect this summer, meanwhile we are sending more troops into Afghanistan, even though top commanders admit that al-Qaeda has largely left the country and the government of Hamid Karzai (our man in Kabul) is hopelessly corrupt and inept. I think that the case for the US staying in either place in large numbers is getting pretty weak.

Meanwhile Ahmed Egal, a founding member of the Somali National Movement (SNM) is putting forward his own radical idea for bringing peace to the region - recognize the area of Somaliland as an independent nation. No, it's not some East African theme park, Somaliland is the northernmost part of Somalia, a region that broke away from Somalia in 1991 and set up its own state, one that so far no other country on Earth has recognized as an independent nation.

But unlike Somalia, which in the nearly 20 years since 1991 has been a battleground for dueling warlords and Islamic militants as well as a pirate hideout, Somaliland (a land of 3.5 million) has been at peace and relatively prosperous. Egal says that for this exact reason, the world should recognize Somaliland as a state, then use Somaliland as a base of operations to help reestablish Somalia as a fully functioning country.

Sure, Egal's suggestion is self-serving (getting the world to recognize his erstwhile country in the process), but it makes more sense than the current strategy of supporting pathetically weak "transitional governments" in Mogadishu. Ethiopia backed the last transitional government for two years before deciding that they were tired of constantly fighting against local Islamic militias and called their troops home. Hillary Clinton while in Kenya, pledged more military equipment to the current Somali government - that may help them fight off al-Shabab for now, but it's not going restore Somalia as a real, functioning country.
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Russian Mystery At Sea

I came across this odd story this morning about a ship disappearance that can't be blamed on our ol' friends the Somali pirates. RIA Novosti is reporting that a Maltese-owned, Russian-crewed cargo ship, the Arctic Sea, has gone missing in the Atlantic off the coast of Portugal. The ship was due in the port of Bejaia, Algeria last Wednesday, but no one has heard from them since July 28 - the ship has apparently disappeared.

What makes this story even stranger is that while sailing in the Baltic Sea a few days earlier, the Arctic Sea was boarded by a group of men claiming to be the police, who tied up the crew and searched the ship for 12 hours before releasing them.

We'll keep following this pretty weird story...
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Clinton's Visit - An African Perspective

Quick link here to a story on about Sec. Clinton's tour of the continent. The big takeaway from the article, besides some details on her visit to South Africa, is that the Obama Administration's attitude towards Africa is to work with local leaders to come up with solutions to problems like corruption and disease, rather than to dictate to them how they should run their affairs.
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Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Cultural Implications of Vladimir Beefcake, er, Putin

It's summer in Russia, which means it's time for Vladimir Putin's annual Siberian get-away, and thus time for the Kremlin to release a photo album of the boss' vacation snaps, which this year include a bare-chested Putin swimming in a Siberian river, a bare-chested Putin horseback riding, and just to show his sensitive side, a bare-chested Putin feeding his horse.

There's a none-too-subtle message in these photos, which also include shots of him diving in a submarine to the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, and at-sea petting a whale - that Putin is a strong leader for a strong country (though the BBC suggests that some of the photos are also reminiscent of the gay cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain).

But there's a second important message that Putin is trying to send to his countrymen. Putin is 56 years old, and obviously in excellent shape, the average life expectancy for Russian men though is just 59 years (life expectancy for Russian women is around 74 years, roughly comparable with life expectancies for women in Western Europe). The reason for the poor life expectancy of Russian men is due in large part to poor diets, lack of exercise, smoking and most of all, heavy drinking.

So instead of just dismissing Putin's beefcake shots with a giggle, think of them as an effort to combat the demographic crisis facing Russia (some projections have Russia's population falling to 100 million by mid-century). They are license for Russian wives to nag their husbands about not taking better care of themselves, imagine the conversation going on in living rooms across Russia: "look at Vladimir Vladimirovich, he swims! he rides horses! what are you doing but sitting on the couch with your cigarettes and vodka?"

Just a thought...
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Media Fight Over The Georgian War

Today is the one-year anniversary of the five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And a new battle is on, though thankfully this time it’s in the opinion pages.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili yesterday published an op-ed in the Washington Post, while Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, Presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia respectively, took to the UK's Guardian to make their case for their would-be countries. As you'd expect there's a fair amount of spin going on from both sides.

Saakashvili casts last year's events as nothing short of a Russian invasion of Georgia, conveniently ignoring the (now) fairly well-established fact that it was Georgia's shelling of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia that started the fighting in the first place. He also goes on to commit himself to democratic reforms - presumably the same reforms he's promised to deliver in 2003, 2007 and 2008. Not to be outdone, Bagapsh and Kokoity make the case that theirs are legitimate countries trying to escape Georgian oppression and welcome the world to take a look at what they've done so far (though they'd prefer you not ask any questions about the tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians driven from their homes, I presume).

That last part is why getting involved in affairs in the Caucasus region is such a tricky thing (hopefully you're reading this post Mr. Vice President). Georgia says they have thousands of refugees driven from their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ask the other side though, and the Abkhaz and Ossetians will point to Georgian attempts at ethnic cleansing in the 1990s and 1920s when the Soviet Union grafted their territories onto the Georgian SSR. Keep talking and you're likely to get stories (like one BBC reporter did) of pogroms dating back to the 11th century, or earlier.

And, as I've stated in other posts, the United States comes off as fairly hypocritical supporting Georgia's 'territorial integrity' (keeping Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the fold) when we've argued so forcefully against Serbia's territorial integrity by recognizing the independence of their breakaway region, Kosovo.

But at least the leaders of the respective sides are doing their fighting this time with op-eds and not bullets. For now at least.
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Friday, August 7, 2009

Twitter, Facebook Outages, Latest Battle in the Russia/Georgia War

So were you wondering why your Google, Twitter or (like me) Facebook account was acting strange yesterday? The trouble has been apparently traced to the account of a single blogger who goes by the screen name "CYXYMU".

More accurately, the problems were because of a series of cyber-attacks against CYXYMU's accounts on various blogging platforms. A little backstory - CYXYMU is the handle of a Georgian blogger, likely from the disputed Abkhazia region (CYXYMU is based on the Cyrillic-text name of Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi). He/she has been a vocal critic of the actions of the Georgian and Russian governments over last year's conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is apparently what put CYXYMU in the cyber-attacker's crosshairs yesterday.

But as Evgeny Morozov points out on the blog Net Effect, CYXYMU isn't a crusading investigative journalist and, in Morozov's opinion (he has also followed CYXYMU's postings on LiveJournal, the most popular blogging site in Russia and where CYXYMU does a lot of their writing), not terribly interesting. So, Morozov suggests, that the coordinated cyber-attack was more an exercise in showing off on the part of the attackers than a real attempt to silence CYXYMU.

In his commentary, Morozov asks if CYXYMU could become the first, as he calls it, "digital refugee". A blogging platform (Twitter, Blogger, LiveJournal, take your pick) when faced with a problematic user, in this case CYXYMU, could just choose to shut down their account in order to keep the service operating smoothly. It's not censorship, per se, rather a business decision to not disrupt the habits of millions of other users, though the end effect is the same.

It is an interesting take on the future of free speech in the world of new media.
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Britain's 'Last Tommy' Laid To Rest

I felt bad about not commenting on the passing, two weeks ago of Britain's Last Tommy, and last surviving veteran of World War I, Harry Patch ('Tommy' was to the Brits what ‘GI Joe’ is to Americans, Mr. Patch was the last living member of Britain's WWI army). Mr. Patch was laid to rest today in a ceremony with full military honors.

Like his countryman and fellow British WWI vet, Henry Allingham who passed away a few weeks earlier, Mr. Patch didn't talk about his wartime experiences for eight decades, not until he was one of the last veterans left, when he felt a responsibility to speak for all those who no longer could. When he did his message was decidedly anti-war, recounting the horrors of the trench warfare that killed millions on both sides during years of what was basically a stalemate between the two sides.

Patch thought that Remembrance Day (British Veteran's Day) was just "show business", he instead paid his respects on Sept. 22, the day in 1917 when a bomb blew three of his best friends to bits and grievously wounded him. Along those lines, an amazing tribute was offered to the 111-year old vet by the British pop band Radiohead who issued "Harry Patch (in memory of)", setting lines from his Autobiography "The Last Fighting Tommy" to music (I haven't heard it yet, but from what I've heard, it's pretty moving). The song includes the lines:
I am the only one that got through
The others died wherever they fell
It was an ambush
They came up from all sides
Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves
I've seen devils coming up from the ground
I've seen hell upon this earth

For the record, there are only three known WWI veterans left, including 108-year old American Frank Buckles who drove an ambulance on the battlefields of France.
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Americans Still Favor The Atomic Bomb

Sixty-four years ago today a single American aircraft obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima with the first nuclear weapon ever used in war (three days later we used a second A-Bomb to wipe out the city of Nagasaki), and a new poll by Quinnipiac University finds that 61% of Americans still think dropping the bomb was the right thing to do.

The Quinnipiac poll finds men, Republicans and those over-55 favor the use of the A-Bomb more than women, Democrats or people under 35, going further into the data, the only demographic to say using nuclear weapons was wrong were Blacks, 36% to 34% who said it was the right thing to do. Hispanics supported the use of the bomb 44% to 43%.

Americans still feel that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives. The US military had plans on the table for a 1946 ground invasion of Japan, but they thought it would be incredibly costly - with American casualties of perhaps more than 100,000, while casualties among the Japanese (military and civilian) were projected into the millions. There is also a train of thought though that suggests another reason for using the nuclear bomb was to send a none-to-subtle message to the Soviet Union about how power in the world would be divided once the war was finally over (though the Soviets developed their own bomb just a few years later).

While 61% is still a solid majority, it is a drop from the 85% approval rate that pollsters found among Americans shortly after the war.
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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Make Friends, Influence People - Hillary In Africa

It looks like reports of the political demise of the Clinton machine have been greatly exaggerated. This morning former President Bill Clinton capped off his mission to North Korea with the tearful reunion of two imprisoned US journalists with their overjoyed families, meanwhile current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a more low-key start to her seven-nation mission to Africa. And while her arrival may have lacked the live TV coverage of Bill’s return, it holds a lot of importance to America’s future.

Her trip is a sign of the importance the continent will play in the coming years to the United States’ foreign and energy policies, and is an admission that right now, the US is trailing China, and to a lesser degree the European Union, Russia and India in making friends in the region. Secretary Clinton is going to try to build on the good feelings that President Obama spread last month during his visit to Ghana, but her trip will include a few doses of tough love as well.

Clinton is (again) prodding the ever-squabbling leaders of Kenya to set aside their differences and get down to the business of actually running their country. Following the disputed presidential election at the end of 2007, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki have shared power, but have gotten little done in the country, preferring to let their respective sides snipe at each other (she said in Nairobi earlier today that she is disappointed the two men have not set up a tribunal to investigate the violence that rocked the country for weeks following the 2007 election). Clinton will also push South Africa to try to exert some influence on their neighbor, Zimbabwe, to move forward on promised democratic and economic reforms in that country as well.

Other stops on the itinerary include the oil-rich states of Angola and Nigeria (the why there is pretty self-explanatory), the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and a stop in at the Cape Verde islands off the West Coast of Africa, which like Ghana, the Obama Administration is hoping to promote as a model of democracy and stability for the rest of Africa.

But what remains to be seen is how well Africa takes to the new American attention. The Kenyans were upset that Obama passed them up (his father, of course, was born in Kenya) for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa; meanwhile other countries, most notably China, have been throwing money around in Africa without strings – like expecting the recipient countries to respect human rights or the rule of law – attached. So you have to wonder if some of Africa’s more dubious regimes (Zimbabwe for one) will take the American call to reform when they know there are countries out there willing to do business with them no matter how heinously they behave.
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Russian Subs and Sloppy Reporting

You may have heard this morning that two Russian submarines have been tracked sailing in international waters far off the East Coast of the United States. Patrols like these were once common, but have been far less so since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, mostly because throughout the 1990’s the Russian Navy couldn’t afford to stage them.

Of course this isn’t stopping some commentators (notably those on Fox News) for asking if the Cold War is on again – ignoring the fact that the world’s larger navies routinely sail about in the ocean on maneuvers. One of the Russian subs is reported to currently be making a port call in Havana, Cuba.

The main reason though I’m even mentioning this is because of some sloppy reporting by Reuters (the source of the wire story I happened to read on the event). Reuters said the subs were identified as Akula-class boats and that ‘Akula’ was the NATO designation for this class of submarine (Akula is also Russian for “shark”). So far, so good. Reuters then goes on to say that the Russian designation for the Akula is “Nerpa”, which is totally wrong. The Soviet/Russian name for the Akula is “Shchuka” (Russian for “pike”, a type of fish); the Nerpa is a recently-built submarine in the Shchuka-class, but not the name for the entire line of subs (it also happened to suffer a malfunction of its fire fighting system during sea trials that killed 20 workers, a fact Reuters does get right).

Ok, so why the nit-picking? Because in journalism it’s important to get the facts right, this is especially important for a wire service like Reuters, whose stories will be picked up by possibly hundreds of news outlets and run, usually without the news outlets fact-checking the story on their own. And as my first journalism professor once explained, if you get the small details wrong then why should the reader believe you on the big ones?

I knew the class of submarines wasn’t called the Nerpa, it took me all of two minutes online to find a link confirming that fact. I’d expect that a huge organization like Reuters could at least do the same. As for what the Russian subs were doing off the coast in the first place, Russia is trying to finalize an agreement to lease the newly-finished Nerpa to the Indian Navy for about a billion rubles - nothing like a few mentions in the US media to help seal the deal.
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Now That’s A Birthday Present (for Obama)

Barack Obama’s birthday was yesterday, and to commemorate the event, the Prime Minister of the Caribbean island nation of Antigua renamed his country’s tallest mountain in his honor – so now 1,300 foot tall Boggy Peak will be henceforth known as ‘Mount Obama’.

Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer unveiled the name change at a ceremony attended by the US’ charge d’affaires for the Eastern Caribbean, Brent Hardt, as well as Antigua’s reigning calypso monarch, Trevor “Zacari” King, who played his rendition of “For You Barack” for the occasion. PM Spencer said that he was inspired to do something “symbolic and inspiring” after seeing Obama elected last November and said that Obama embodied “excellence, triumph, hope and dignity for all people.”

Of course nothing like this ever happens without its critics, in this case Antigua’s opposition Labour Party who called the name change “silly”, others said that it was important to remember the contributions of all people of African descent, not only to honor the first black American President. But on the whole, the move was well-received in Antigua, where Obama is very popular.

PM Spencer also announced plans to create a national park on the newly-christened Mt. Obama.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Another Example Of Why Stopping Climate Change Can't Happen Without China

If you think that there can be a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions without China, think again. According to a new report by Greenpeace, China's three biggest power companies emit more greenhouse gas than the entire nation of Great Britain. And China is also reported to have recently passed the United States as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gasses.

The reason is China's reliance on burning coal to produce electricity, nearly 60% of their electricity comes from coal, while Chinese power plants are far less efficient, pumping out more CO2 than their Western counterparts.

China though has been reluctant to take greenhouse gas reduction seriously. During recent talks on a follow up agreement to the Kyoto Protocols, the agreement aimed at tackling global warming that is set to expire in 2012, China continued to argue that as a 'developing economy' they shouldn't be held to the same standards as the United States/Western Europe/Japan and refused to agree to any hard targets for greenhouse gas reduction. This despite the fact that China, by most accounts, has passed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy.

While the Chinese government has ambitious plans for hydroelectric, nuclear and wind-power generation, they are still, on average, opening one or two new coal-fired power plants per week to fuel their expanding economy.
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Twitter - Really Nothing New

In today's New York Times, Ben Schott makes the case that Twitter's 140-character limit is really no different than limits imposed by other communications technologies from SMS text messaging to 19th Century-era telegrams.

On that note, Schott includes selections from the “The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code”, a book published in 1891 of shorthand ways to express complex thoughts in just a few characters (and thus cheaply). The code ranges from the seemingly useful (to journalists at least) 'Orangeman' for "what is the opinion on the street?", to the fortune cookie-sounding 'Acuate' for "you will accomplish but little", to the downright odd 'Hub' for "can you recommend a competent housekeeper?"

Check out the Times piece then try to work a few into your daily Twittering/Texting, just be ready to give explanations to your puzzled readers.
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Monday, August 3, 2009

Georgia vs. Russia, Round 2

Summer is sequel season, so perhaps it's inevitable that as we approach the one year anniversary of the Russia-Georgia conflict (this coming Saturday for those of you keeping score) the two sides are talking bluntly about another conflict.

Georgia is warning of a new wave of Russian aggression after Russian troops briefly set up and then removed an observation post on what the Georgians say is their side of the poorly-defined Georgia-South Ossetia border. The Georgians were quick to call this an attempted land grab. The Russians, meanwhile, say that Georgian forces have twice shot mortars towards the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Monitors from the European Union in the area couldn't confirm either allegation, though Russia's Defense Ministry was quick to announce that they would use force to protect Russian peacekeeping forces and South Ossetian citizens from Georgian "aggression".

All of this is sounding a lot like the situation last year, when both sides spent months trying to provoke the other, mostly over Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia. On a number of occasions, Georgia flew drone aircraft over Abkhazia, in direct violation of a cease-fire agreement; while Russia sent in troops to upgrade a railroad that runs between Russia and Abkhazia. In the end, the conflict started over South Ossetia after Georgian forces shelled Tskhinvali on the night of August 7/8. The five day conflict devastated Georgia's military forces (while also illuminating some of the weaknesses of the Russian side as well), and ended with Russian troops stationed in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow then recognized as independent states.

Back in May I wrote that it was fairly likely there could be a new Russian-Georgian conflict this summer, mostly because every side involved could rationalize an upside to a renewal of fighting. That's why it's important to look at these events along the border not just as minor nuisances, but as potentially the start of something big.
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The Greening of Greenland

Sometimes the biggest signs of change are the smallest. The BBC's Stephen Sackur found this out while visiting Greenland when he was served a dinner with a side order of leeks, leeks that were grown in the chef's garden just outside the kitchen.

The idea that anything could grow in Greenland - which despite the name is mostly covered in ice - is a clear indication of how at the same time global climate change is likely spelling doom for some island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives, for places like Greenland, it could lead to huge new opportunities.

Greenland is thought to be teeming with oil, natural gas and precious metal deposits that until now were locked under the Arctic ice. But by some projections, within the next two decades, Greenland could be exploiting and exporting these riches, promising a boon to the 56,000 Greenlanders. But according to Sackur, Greenlanders right now seem most excited about the prospects of growing their own vegetables and planting a forest of Siberian Larch on their treeless island.
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Make The Cybraphon Happy!

From the folks at Wired magazine comes this story of three UK-based artists and their musical creation. With a steampunk ethic they loaded up an antique wardrobe with a collection of musical instruments, programmed a MacBook to play them all and dubbed the thing the "Cybraphon". That itself would make this a mildly interesting story, but thankfully artists Kirby, Ziggy Campbell and Tommy Perman took the next step and hooked the Cybraphon into the Internet.

Not only did they do that, but they programmed it to constantly scan Twitter, MySpace and Facebook looking for references of itself - the more references the Cybraphon sees, the 'happier' it gets and its musical performance reacts accordingly; the fewer the references, the Cybraphon starts feeling unloved and its mood is reflected in its music. But even popularity gets to the Cybraphon eventually, and it will invariably slip into 'depression'. “We modeled it on an insecure, egotistical band,” Kirby explains. So in essence the Kirby, Ziggy and Tommy have created an automated teenager.

If you want to have a go at cheering the Cybraphon up you can follow it on Twitter or Facebook.
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