Monday, April 28, 2008

The Best Place to Live?

I'm a Canadian living in Poland. I've seen a good chunk of the world and like to think I know when I've found a good place to live. While most people you could ask would tell you they love Poland and wouldn't consider moving elsewhere, many do leave for a while to work abroad. This is because they don't think you can make enough money here, Poland isn't "rich" enough, and they always add the word "yet". These people that leave will almost all come back in a couple of years, most of them with pounds, euros or even dollars in their pockets, to marry, settle down, buy a house and car and start making babies. These people have two measurements of what makes a good country, one is purely economical, where can you make the most money, and the second is far more subjective, difficult to put your finger on, but it has to do with happiness I suppose.

We've grown accustomed over the years to equating prosperity with happiness, therefore the most common measurement of the "goodness" of a country has become GNP or GDP growth. By this standard, if we make more stuff this year than last, we're happier. Of course this is a flawed approach and has led the world to the brink of self-destruction. The consequences of the mantra of producing more and more has brought with it many of the world's problems today, from global warming due to pollution to the God Car mindset of drive, don't walk. A quick check of 2007 growth rates show us that using this method, Azerbaijan, Timor-Leste, Macau and Angola lead the pack as the best places in the world. Obviously this doesn't make sense, so a variety of other measurements have been devised to help us figure out the best country. Stability if that's what you're looking for, move to the Vatican apparently. "Human Development Index", hop a plane for Iceland. The world map of happiness says that Denmark is the best. Standard of living, get yourself to Norway. Michael Moore seems to favour the Norwegians as well:

By far my favourite though comes from the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness. Upon ascending to the throne unexpectedly in 1972 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck responded to being criticized for the lack of economic growth in his country by committing his nation to a new idea for development. Instead of measuring material growth, a notion that has been leading the planet towards self-destruction, a nation should be judged on the inner happiness of its populace. I can already picture the eye-rolling economist, aghast at the thought of replacing his objective, number-based system with something as subjective and ephemeral as "happiness". The second problem he might point out is the small size of Bhutan, around 700,000 people in a country no larger than Switzerland is much easier to run in a way that is consistent with Buddhist beliefs than say, Brazil. A commitment to the preservation of their culture, education and the environment (60% of the land must be forested, and did I mention there isn't a single traffic light in the country...) seem to be the pillars the system is based on. Some success is clearly evident as although wealth when measured by traditional measures of GDP still ranks low, there was an increase in life expectancy of 19 years between 1984 and 1998. Problems do exist, TV and the internet was just introduced in 1999 and some say it is leading some youth astray, there is a Nepalese minority that is being forced out and democracy is just being introduced. However, in a study conducted by Britain's University of Leicester and featured in Business Week magazine, Bhutan came in 8th place in the World's Happiest Country list. Not bad considering income was a factor and their GDP per capita is only $1400.

So where does this bring us? The 20th century was one where the search for economic growth and material wealth outweighed all other factors. Perhaps the world is beginning to wake up and will try to link these measurements at least in part to sustainable growth. In March 2005, Britain said it would begin developing such an "index of well-being," taking into account not only income but mental illness, civility, access to parks and crime rates. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all also working on new national "wealth" measurements. The biggest obstacle of course is the subjectivity of any measurements such as happiness and spirituality. However, what we can learn from this idea is simple: don't be greedy. Consumerism gone rampant has brought us the weekend zombie mall march and the incessant roar of the endless parade of cars streaming past my flat. As for me, I can still find my happiness, a five day vacation and a camping trip into the wilderness.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


As the Democratic party slowly kills itself in the months (or is it years) running up to the November election, the Republican party has been able to sit back and relax, already knowing John McCain will be on the ballot and secure in the knowledge that Obama and Clinton are doing their dirty work for them. With that in mind, their real work is the transformation of the man once known as John McCain into the man (monster?) that all real Republicans want, someone who will from here on be known as McBush.

Just who is this 71 year-old senator for the state of Arizona, and more importantly what does he believe in? The answers to this question could only be answered if you specified what period of time you were asking about, pre-presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, or the monster that is in the morphing process of becoming McBush. What's the big deal you may ask? Surely the American people won't be duped into voting for a Republican again after eight years of Bush. If you are so certain, your memory is worse than those who will vote for McBush in huge numbers come November as you've already forgotten the 2004 election. At the time I would never have imagined a world where America would vote Bush back into the White House, but they did, in what was a near landslide victory. War in Iraq? Who cares?! Economy sliding into recession? (see stagflation article below) Whatever! Osama Bin Laden nowhere to be found? A mere nuisance! All of this can only be explained by the magic of the American electoral system, one where money and power have far greater influence than ideas and wisdom. Convince the right people that having your man in the oval office will mean more money in their pocket for the next four years, and you win.

Let's rewind to 2001. President Bush pushes his plan for one of the biggest tax cuts in history to jump start the economy. At the time, the man still known as McCain said that he could not "in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans." This was a tax cut aimed directly at the rich, with cuts mostly to capital gains and dividends. He becomes one of only two Republicans to vote against the plan. Along comes 2003 and Bush needs to keep his rich supporters happy before the next election and therefore comes up with another tax cut to match the first. The man still known as McCain called this cut "irresponsible" and saying "At a time of war, at a time of economic stagnation, at a time of rising national debt . . . one might expect our national leaders to pursue policies calling for shared sacrifice to achieve shared benefits. Regrettably, that is not the case." This man went on to be one of only 3 republicans to vote against the cuts, $674 billion that mostly helped the affluent (surprise!). Fast forward to today and a country in far worse economic shape still stuck in a quagmire overseas which will still cost trillions more and we see the outcome of the transformation process. Not only would McBush make the tax cuts introduced by Bush permanent, but his economic plan will add more cuts. This is something that most people would have said was impossible to hear out of the mouth of the man formerly known as McCain (MFKM from here on). Part one of McBush's plan is the suspension of federal taxes on gasoline and diesel from the end of May to the beginning of September to encourage Americans to drive more over the summer holiday, just what the world needs, help for the oil companies. The next part of his plan is based on lowering taxes for the rich (those making between $65,000 and $130,000) and (surprise!) lowering corporate taxes. This plan has been viciously attacked almost across the media spectrum.

Now, I'm not arguing again Keynesian economics, yes, tax cuts can help to stimulate the economy, it's not only Republicans who believe in this principal. I liked this video of JFK explaining his cuts of 1963 to the American people:

I just want to know when the brain operation was performed, or if it's just some kind of slow morphing potion that they fed poor ol' MFKM. The hard core republicans were afraid of a couple of MFKM's "shortcomings", one that he may not of been as "fiscally responsible" as they would like, and two that he was an not an evangelical Christian. Remember that this is a party in which three of the candidates for president openly declared that they did NOT believe in evolution. Reading the transcripts of what was said in the debate on June 5, 2007 in New Hampshire hosted by Wolf Blitzer of CNN:

Senator McCain, do you believe creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the nation’s schools?

SEN. MCCAIN: No, I believe that’s up to the school districts. But I think that every American should be exposed to all theories. But I can’t say it more eloquently than Pastor Huckabee — Governor Huckabee just did, and I admire his description, because I hold that view.

The point is that the time before time — there’s no doubt in my mind that the hand of God was in what we are today. And I do believe that we are unique, and I believe that God loves us. But I also believe that all of our children in school can be taught different views on different issues. But I leave the curricula up to the school boards.

If you're interested in what Mike Huckabee had said earlier, the entire transcript is here. MFKM's response wasn't particularly controversial of course but I just wanted you to know what he thought before the transformation was complete.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How Al-Qaida Saved South America?

"We found those realms in such good order that there was not a thief or a vicious man, nor an adulteress, nor were they an immoral people, being content and honest in their labour...
We have destroyed by our evil behaviour such a government as was enjoyed by these natives... Owing to the bad example we have set them in all things, that these natives from doing no evil have turned into people who can do no good...
There is no more I can do to alleviate these injustices than by my words ... in which I beg God to pardon me..."
Masio Serra de Leguizamon
Last of the Conquistadors
Cuzco, 18 September 1589
Living a world away, one can't be blamed for sometimes losing track of what's going on in that other America, somewhere below the Panama Canal, the twelve independent nations that make up what I know as South America. The Spanish weren't the first to try to impose their way of life on others, and the US won't be the last, but both have definitely had a profound impact on the politics of these countries.

With the election of Fernando Lugo, leader of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, as president of Paraguay, the political transformation of South America can now be called nothing short of revolutionary. Every country short of Colombia now has a president that can be called left-leaning at the very least. This is a situation that could never have happened in the 20th century as the US control ranged from subtle influence to outright coup d'etats to place those they wished to have in power in the presidential offices across most of the continent.

Even before the conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, South America had a long history of contact between their civilizations, sometimes peaceful and of course often violent. However, the arrival of the Spanish brought this destruction to a whole new level. Their destructive path first through the West Indies, then into Central America and finally South America is well documented, but it's still hard to grasp the scale of death caused by their search for new wealth. Germ warfare (smallpox), cultural genocide (the Catholic church) and of course good old-fashioned war, decimated a once thriving culture and finally completely wiped out the indigenous cultures in less than 200 years. Eventually European colonial infighting, Simon Bolivar and finally the US brought about the end of Spanish rule in the Americas, leaving just one power to chart the destiny of an entire hemisphere opening the door to Manifest Destiny.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was brought into existence to protect the new nations of the Americas from the evil European powers, but in typical world power ageing process, benevolent protection turned to aggression through the right of intervention to help "stabilize" a country through amendments to the doctrine such as the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904. 1898 saw a double victory for the US; they put an end to Spanish influence defeating them in the Spanish-American war and then as a bonus Britain gave up their rights to build a canal across the Central American isthmus and thus handed control of the entire hemisphere to the US. This also marked the beginning of American imperialism in South America as Colombia, which was then in control of Panama, refused to sell the rights to the canal for a mere ten million dollars (reportedly they wanted twenty-five million). America's answer, as became their modus operandi when governments refused to give them what they want, support for a Panamanian revolt, which emerged victorious and then gave America the right to build the canal as a gesture of gratitude.

The long history of direct and indirect involvement ranges the entire spectrum from friendly advice to CIA operations, troop deployment and nuclear threat (in Uruguay!) and is far too long a list to get into here. However, the new millennium and the post 9/11 world has brought with it a new threat. With the US bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan in a search for the world's most elusive man, resources may be stretched too tight, or perhaps they are just too distracted to notice what is occurring to the political landscape of South America(a little out of date). OK, not all of the new leaders are as anti-American as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but it's not hard to see a theme developing on the continent. From Lula's unionist roots in Brazil to Tabare Vasquez' first measure as president of Uruguay, the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba, a huge shift has occurred. I for one am excited to see what this vast continent does with it's new found freedom. Will Chavez really become the next Simon Bolivar? Will China or India replace the US as the main influence in the region. One way or another it seems as though were witnessing another stone in the wall of American hegemony being removed.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Starving Billionaires

Hard to decide if I should rant about Zimbabwe, or just democracy in general. They both don't work, both had a lot of promise and both need some kind of revolution. Today marks three weeks since elections were held on the southern African state and we're no closer to knowing the results than we were then. Well, actually, we can be pretty sure of the results that will be reported, but it seems like we'll probably never know who was the real winner. More proof that democracy doesn't work, another stolen election that the world will ignore as soon as the story falls from the headlines.

1980 brought hope to the troubled land known as different variations of names including Rhodesia through the colonial power as the free nation of Zimbabwe emerged with a strong, vibrant former guerrilla leader at the head of government. One has to remember that he was seen as a hero and brought a lot of good to Zimbabwe in the first decade of his rule which I think explains much of the reluctance of neighbouring leaders to step in and try to stop him from driving his country into oblivion. Infant mortality fell from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, under five mortality cut by more than 50% and child malnutrition fell from 22% to 12%, allowing life expectancy to increase from 56 to 64. Zimbabwe was known as "the breadbasket of Africa". It didn't take long for these gains to be lost, how did it happen?

Starting from Mugabe's point of view, it's the fault of the west and of course part of the blame is to be found here. Of course it's not only a western plot, hatched by the British to cripple the economy, but the left overs from colonialism didn't leave the best starting point for a nation. It is true that Zimbabwean whites who made up less than 1% of the population owned more than 70% of the arable land, a situation that was far from equitable. The 80's saw the failure of a program known as "willing seller, willing buyer", which led to a movement to speed up the process. The Land Acquisitions Act of 1992 set the stage for tragedy as the government gave itself the right to set the price for land purchased and then allocated this land where it wished; with most of it going from capable farmers to senior government officials or wealthy indigenous businessmen with no knowledge of farming techniques. Today there are 60 white farmers estimated to be left, all faced with a massive intimidation campaign.

There is also the IMF, arguably the most evil, insidious organization on Earth. Money poured into the country upon independence from the IMF and it's partner henchman, the World Bank to help develop infrastructure and grow the economy. Of course this money comes with a hitch; friendly advice on how to run your finances. It's not for me to decide here which was worse for Zimbabwe, this new found wealth and advice or the lack of follow through on following all of it's guidelines, but the result has clearly been devastating as Zimbabwe is now a virtual pariah on the credit market.

Other reasons sited for Mugabe's growing insanity are as simple as women and disease. His first wife, Sally, died in 1992 and the president replaced her with a woman 40 years his junior with a taste for the high life. But my favourite has to be the syphilis theory. The poor man has been infected with the disease and is in fact slowly going insane, perhaps explaining his violent anti-homosexuality campaign of the past 10 years. Whatever the reasons, there is no question that things are spiralling out of control. Inflation is now running over 165,000% which makes it impossible for the population to obtain the most basic of goods. Now, we have the latest election fiasco. It is widely believed that Mugabe and his men stole the previous elections in 2004, so entering the latest vote, there was an understandable air of mistrust. Before the first vote had been cast, the opposition was already calling foul, and we had to know we were in for another circus.

The almost complete media ban within the country makes knowing what's happening almost impossible. But it's not hard to guess that the recount order was issued to lay the groundwork for either a claim that the results of the election are null and void, or a surprise Mugabe victory. Reports are leaking out of the country of preparations by the government to clamp down on the population, with torture camps being set up and opposition members being beaten. Meanwhile, the world stands by with their hands in their pockets. About the only good story I've read recently was from South Africa where the docker's union refused to unload a Chinese ship full of arms destined for Zimbabwe. Apparently it was a much larger shipment than usual and the workers feared they would be used against the people of Zimbabwe. Of course who should be credited for this small victory (which will be a moot one anyway when the ship gets to Luanda in Angola) depends on whether you read the IHT story or the CNN story (unions are communist inventions in Georgia).

The lack of response to the developing situation in Zimbabwe is shocking. About all we'll get is another round of sanctions and carefully worded condemnations. The sanctions will lead to more suffering for the poor as the elite scramble to find sources of foreign exchange. African leaders will meet to discuss events, the UN will hold an emergency meeting in Ghana to discuss events, the US will issue more travel warnings, but nothing will happen. The government will keep the rich and powerful happy by giving them land and printing larger and larger denomination notes making everyone billionaires with nothing to buy. And eventually, the world's attention will be drawn away from south-east Africa until the next crisis. Even the elephants seem angrier than the rest of the world.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Look out! It's a Dinosaur from the 70's!?

No, I wouldn't worry, it's only stagflation, nowhere near as dangerous as a stegosaurus or some other such creature. That's right, stagflation is back and it's not a dinosaur, but it is a bit of flashback fun last experienced for realsies back in the 1970's. Yes, it's economics, and no it has nothing to do with a stag party. However, it could be as nasty and hard to get rid of as something you might wake up with if you get a little too wild at one of those parties.

Not the girl next to you silly, I mean that seemingly incurable rash that she innocently infected you with. Stagflation comes from the combination of stagnation and inflation. The economy grows slowly (or shrinks, recession), unemployment rises, while prices rise. (Wikipedia told me that this type of word is known as a portmanteau, the fusion of two function words) Prior to the 1970's this situation had been thought to be impossible, or next to it. Modern macroeconomic thought, brought to the world by John Maynard Keynes, told us that in times of slow growth, governments should spend us out of our problems, while in times of inflation, a tight monetary policy of high interest rates would cure what ailed the economy. Both happening at the same time caused a dilemma, how could this happen and what can you do?

The general view of events surrounding the last period of stagflation from 1973-1980 lays the blame on the democratic Carter administration. Those left wing bastards spent us into a fix. The ultimate irony will occur if a democrat is once again voted in to the White House come November and the blame once again gets laid at the feet of the wrong party. That way we'll never learn, and keep believing that the fiscally responsible republicans really know how to run the economy. The reason for this is that today's scenario is eerily reminiscent of what happened back in the early 70's. Let's compare. In August 1971, the Nixon administration imposed wage and price controls in an attempt to control inflationary pressure. While this is unlikely to happen today (we've learnt that these things don't work...), the presumptive republican presidential nominee John McCain has suggested a temporary federal fuel tax suspension in order to control the price of gas. Yes, that should help bring down the price of oil as well as the price controls brought down inflation... as the US entered stagflation in 1973. Staying with oil, in that same year of 1973, US aid of Israel in the Yom Kippur War brought the retribution of the Arab world in the form of an oil embargo against the US. As of now, the US has been fighting a war in Iraq for over 5 years, watching oil prices climb above the $114 mark, while at the same time nagging OPEC to open the taps, flood the market with oil. Funny enough, they're not listening.

Of course, today we're facing even more ominous looking signals than we were in the early 70's. I keep reading about how yes, we may be headed towards stagflation, but it'll be nothing compared to then. Do these people not live in the same world as you and me? Oil is over $114, gold went over $1000/oz a while back, and I already went on about food a couple of blogs back. Commodities are all priced in $US to facilitate world trade a fact that is compounding the problems. The greenback has fallen dramatically over the last six years, today $1 is worth less than 63 Euro cents, on this date in 2002, it was over 1.12 Euros! Of course all of these numbers are inter-related. As the dollar falls against other currencies, it becomes more expensive to buy things on the international market. At the same time investors tend to take their money out of dollars and try to find "safer" options, usually things like gold or other commodities, thus driving up their price further. This vicious circle is similar to the dangers of stagflation. Rising prices lead to wage increases which lead to higher prices on the one hand and job losses and lower output on the other.

So, what does this have to do with those of us not living in the lower 48 or Alaska or Hawaii? Well you see, like it or not, the American economy has a larger than life influence on the global economy. I came across an economics word that at least for me was new as I researched this blog, "decoupling". This theory holds that the world's economies have developed to the point that they no longer rely on the US economy for their growth. A quick look at global markets debunks this theory as value is being lost around the world. Calling America's mortgage crisis the biggest financial shock since the great depression, the IMF has recently said that the global economy has a one in four chance of falling into recession. This is an institution that tends to hedge on the side of safety, which makes the real chances far greater. The US still represents about 21% or the global economy, meaning what happens there is felt around the world. To give this context, four of the economies deemed most vulnerable to an American recession, Japan, Britain, Spain and Singapore together only account for 12% or the global economy.

How did we get to this point? The most common explanation for this economic anomaly is the existence of some kind of "supply shock". In the 70's it was oil, and would you look at that, once again it's the price of oil. Hmmm, I wonder how that happened. The second factor is inappropriate macroeconomic policies, which are controlled for the most part by the Federal Reserve in the US of A. Recessions happen for various reasons, many of which are out of the Feds control, but if the experience of the seventies taught us anything, it was that inflation is caused by expansionary monetary policy (low interest rates, see the graph below, notice that long period between 2002 and 2004, can you say loose money, credit crisis waiting to happen?) and can only be brought under control with a strict tightening of policy (raising of interest rates). The most powerful weapon in the Feds arsenal for this fight is interest rates. Quite simply, lowering them causes a growth in money supply and thus inflationary pressure, but hopefully helps to stimulate the economy. It can be argued that the Fed is faced with a unique situation this time around with the implosion of the housing market and the resulting credit crunch along with a slowing economy, leaving them no choice but to lower rates. However, the main cause for this problem in the first place was the low rate policy for the first part of the decade. So lowering rates seems a little like trying to put out a fire with a flamethrower. Another factor is of course the upcoming presidential election. Many argue that one of the Fed's responsibilities is to ensure that the US economy avoids recession until after an election so as not to be an issue. Guess what? It's too late. McBush, Hot Rod and Hope for Change(McCain, Clinton and Obama) have all made it a big deal. Therefore one has to question the logic of Mr.Bernanke (Fed Chairman) and his cohorts.

As usual, the stupid prize goes to George W himself. Having decided to give away free money to every American ($600) they are now running commercials promoting the idea that everyone should run out to the mall immediately to spend it on something useless. Don't save it to pay for the more expensive goods that you'll need to buy when you're unemployed, but use it to exacerbate the inflation problem! Why use it to pay down your debt, the republican White House would never try to decrease their debt, in fact, they'll probably pay your mortgage back for you, or at least provide enough money to the finance company who lent it to you to stay afloat. It's an economic miracle that could only be made in America.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Well, my blogger address is "the end is always near", and although it just happened to be a line from a Doors' song going around in my head while I signed up, I figured it was high time to post something to do with the topic. So, how might the world end in the near future you may be asking yourself? I'm not talking about aliens, or meteor strikes here, I mean us doing it to ourselves. Terrorists? It's gotta be those guys. The Chinese or Russians, they could do it, no? How about another Pakistan-India war, this time featuring nuclear strikes? No way! It's the French! Well, sorta. At least it's a group of scientists using a French name to form the acronym CERN. That's Conseil europenne pour la recherche nuclaire. Today it's known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (yes, everything's in English nowadays) and it's main area of research is particle physics — the study of the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces acting between them.

Before you laugh about the thought of a bunch of physics geeks destroying the world consider what these guys have done in the past, often putting the whole world in jeopardy. Possibly the most famous event surrounded the Manhattan Project. In reality no one knew exactly what would happen when the first bomb was detonated on July 16th, 1945 at 11:29:45 GMT somewhere in the desert of New Mexico. In fact a betting pool was set up on the results of the test where predictions ranged from nothing would happen to ignition of the atmosphere and incineration of the entire planet. (The bet was won by a physicist named I.I. Rabi) Of course we know that the test was a "success" and energy equivalent to about 20 kilotons of TNT was released. No problem, unless of course you lived in Hiroshima or Nagasaki a few weeks later.

The physicists are no longer only interested in the building blocks of our universe, now they want to find out more about the origins of everything around us. Turn the clock back about 13.7 billion years, if you will, to see what it was like just before everything came about. There are two ways that I can explain what they are doing; simple and slightly less simple. In simple terms, they've built a ginormous (gigantic+enormous) scientific instrument near Geneva, in a cave about 100m underground that spans Switzerland and France. This machine will fire subatomic particles from opposite directions at each other hoping that the smash will recreate conditions that existed moments after the Big Bang. Hopefully this will allow them to learn more about what the universe is made of. Now skip the next paragraph if you don't need to read the slightly less simple explanation.

The Standard Model is the best explanation that physicists have of the 12 basic building blocks of the universe (they have names like charm quark, muon and tau, check it out) and their relationship with three fundamental forces. The problem is there are four of these forces, with gravity being the odd one out. Turns out that this isn't a big deal when trying to describe the subatomic world as it is the weakest of the forces at this level. However, this isn't the only problem with the theory. It also relies on an assumption that all force carrying particles have no mass, which doesn't seem possible. Enter Peter Higgs, Robert Brout and François Englert who came up with the theory that all particles had no mass just after the Big Bang and as the universe cooled an invisible field now called the 'Higgs field' was formed together with 'Higgs boson'. This field is everywhere and all particles are given their mass through their interaction with it and therefore the more they interact, the heavier they become. It is the search for the source of all mass in the universe, 'Higgs boson', or as some have labelled it "the God Particle", that scientists hope to be able to observe through their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) beneath the border between Switzerland and France, somewhere near Geneva. In effect, they are hoping to create a time machine. Other questions they are hoping to answer regard anti-matter, dark matter and dark energy. This isn't Star Trek or Star Wars, this could all happen in the next few months.

All sounds well and good, but apparently there's a hitch. Some people have suggested that smashing protons into each other at speeds 99.999999% of light could cause problems. Specifically they fear the creation of micro black holes, and get ready for this, something called strangelets, which would convert the Earth into a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter". In order to stop the experiments a lawsuit was filed March 21 in Federal District Court.... in Honolulu, yes, Hawaii. They are seeking a temporary restraining order to prohibit CERN from proceeding with their experiments until they have produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. Similar fears to those today were raised when the Brookhaven National Laboratory Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (?!), the world's most powerful particle accelerator at the time, went online in Long Island, New York. Some people predicted that it too would create mini black holes that would grow and engulf the whole world, predictions that obviously haven't come true. Of course CERN claims that this is completely safe and in fact devoted most of the safety page of it's web site to debunking these doomsday possibilities. Read it for yourself and tell me if you agree that it sounds somehow forced, something doesn't seem quite right... Call it a gut feeling, but I'll be watching for the date when they fire this beast up (or more accurately cool it down) and keeping my fingers crossed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

It's Too Early for Halloween...

So what are these Chinese soldiers doing walking around with Tibetan monk robes? Not that I'm a conspiracy theorists, but do you think they could be getting dressed up to look like monks, monks who would be wielding something more dangerous than symbolic ceremonial weapons. But wait a minute, now Chinese police have found 30 firearms in the monastery in Aba prefecture of Sichuan province. Chinese police also detained five air passengers, possibly Tibetans, whose "suspicious remarks" prompted the return of their flight half an hour after take-off from the southern city of Shenzhen. And don't forget the terror plot that China said it cracked, Muslim Uighurs were said to have been behind a plan to kidnap athletes, journalists and tourists at August's Beijing Olympics.

All of these victories for the anti-terror forces coming amidst the backdrop of the Olympic torch relay protests. And what's this? A US resolution to end the crackdown in Tibet is met with a Chinese story linking al Qaeda to claimed plots to attack the Beijing Olympics? Don't the y realize that only a fool wouldn't see the connection between these stories. Coincidence or not, the torch relay story has really fascinated me for some reason. The world has known that the Olympics are to be held in China for the past seven years or so and it hasn't been a secret that China has been asserting it's autonomy over Tibet for more than the past fifty years. So what gives? With only a few moments to devote to each story and a population constantly craving a bigger bang for their buck, there's no bigger stage on which to focus the world's attention than the Olympics. The real winner won't be who wins the most medals, but who screams the loudest. The next few months could be fun as long as you have enough aspirin.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Panem et Circenses

Bread and Circus Games. Formula, political strategy? Whatever it was, the Romans used it to keep the population happy for hundreds of years. So what happens to a system that relies on two basic principles to keep the populace pacified when one of them fails? The Romans gave the people the pleasures of food, gladiators, exotic animals, public baths, chariot races, sports competitions and theatre. Today's equivalent of this empire, a complicated system of inter-relationships between nations who share the ideals of capitalism as a means of distributing wealth and well-being with the USA as its figurehead has maintained a similar system to keep us all happy. But could it all be coming apart at the seams? Could the system that has been created literally snatch the bread from our mouths?

In case you haven't noticed, the world economic system is turmoil. OK, China, India and Russia have become financial powerhouses, the US has lost some clout as the dollar slides into irrelevance, oil is selling for over $100 a barrel and gold has also tripled in value in the last few years, actually breaking the $1000/ounce barrier awhile back. But people don't live on oil, or dollars or gold. We need food and water. So what happens when the price of food gets too high to afford? An economist would argue that this simply couldn't happen. The forces of supply and demand will ensure that prices will remain within a range where people will be able to buy and sell. However, this system seems to be breaking down as new money is pouring into the futures market for grains as investment banks search for new sources of high returns. Interestingly this has lead to a situation where somehow the cash price of certain grains isn't always matching the future contract prices on expiry. (It's a little complicated, NY Times story here). Other factors in the rising prices include, droughts in a few grain exporting nations (Australia), political unrest (Zimbabwe), biofuels being produced from maize, soybeans and palm oil (US, Brazil) and even a massive strike in Argentina. So, the supply side is screwed. The picture looks even starker on the demand side, at least easier to understand, as the world's population spirals out of control. We're also seeing demand for a higher-protein diet in growing economies like China an India. Finally, another wildcard that has to be mentioned, but will not be explored here, climate change.

So, what's the bottom line? When people start to feel nervous about having enough to eat, anything can happen. The same can be said of countries. Food riots caused a change in government in Haiti just this weekend. Investigators in Manila caught profiteers last month who were repackaging 20,000 fifty-kilogram bags of rice from subsidized government supplies for sale as higher-grade grain. The Phillipines, the world's largest rice importer, can't find anyone to sell them rice as China, Egypt, Vietnam and India, representing more than a third of global rice exports, curbed sales this year, and Indonesia says it may do the same. Violent demonstrations against the rising cost of living have been staged in several West African countries, including Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Meanwhile, the government of the Ivory Coast was forced to cut taxes on basic household goods as food rioting threatened to spiral out of control. Here's Thai farmers guarding their crops.

So the price of bread has more than doubled in the past year while rice has skyrocketed 75% in just the last two months. What can be done about it? World Bank president Robert Zoellick called on rich countries including the United States, Japan and European Union to immediately fill a $500 million funding gap at the United Nations World Food Programme to offer food aid to the world's poorest as he warned that soaring food and energy prices were a serious concern that threatened to foster social unrest in an estimated 33 countries. Meanwhile US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned on Sunday that governments should resist the temptation to try to control soaring food costs through price controls, which he said would likely make the situation worse. Hmmm, I wonder if there's anyway to provide this funding to save human lives...

I guess this is where the circus part of the equation comes into play. Not that I would ever equate war to a circus, or heaven forbid a US presidential election, but just a quick look at the numbers reveals what is fundamentally wrong with the world today. At a cost of $5,000 per second, the price tag for what is the quagmire that America has gotten into Iraq would fill the food gap in 100,000 seconds, or a little more than a day (a day, 3 hours and about 45 minutes). OK, yes, those figures on based on the estimated long term cost of the war, but remember that you have to pay the interest on your mortgage too! Barack Obama used the same figures in a recent speech when he said the war was costing each American family $100 a month (In fact the price is a little higher). This is costing the same people who are crying about paying $4 per gallon for gasoline to drive their SUV's to Blockbuster. Staying with the home of the brave and free, the candidates for president later this year have raised a total of over $800 million, so far. Now, whether or not you view any of these two events as a circus, you must admit there are better ways to "entertain" the people.

Where to start?

So where do you start when you finally get off your ass and decide to write something that anyone in the world can look at? There seems to be too much to say, too much to criticize, too much to praise, too much to laugh at, and too much to cry about. I guess it's easiest to start with the biggest and easiest target to hit, the US war in Iraq. I like some of the other names I've read, "Operation Iraqi Freedom", The Gulf War 2, Operation Falconer (in Australia apparently), The Second Iraq War, or even the 3rd Persian Gulf War (after the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88 and whatever it was that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990).
Ostensibly, the US invaded as part of the "war on terror" against a perceived threat from Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction and links with terrorists such as Al-Qaida. The first premise, the weapons of mass destruction was proven false very quickly. To this day, no proof has been found. So obviously the US will keep up the rhetoric of the Al-Qaida threat as the major reason for the war in Iraq. Wrong! While it would be difficult to prove (or disprove) this theory, anyone could figure out that the war has created a bigger threat from Muslim fundamentalists than could possibly have existed within Iraq before the invasion. To add insult to injury General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, today informed congress that the greatest threat in Iraq is no longer Al-Qaida backed millitants, but is in fact now Iran backed "special groups".
During the build up to war, specifically the two-year period that followed September 11th, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan made at least 935 false statements with regard to only these two topics, Iraq and their weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaida. (click for a closer look at these numbers) How is it that they ( the US government) continue to get away with pulling the wool over everyone's eyes? Am I the only one who isn't blind to the next march to war, this time against a much more dangerous and powerful foe? It's an art form that has been perfected over the years as they slowly prepare the public for the next step in trying to control the world's political landscape. Next stop Iran. "The regime in Tehran also has a choice to make...They can live in peace with its neighbor, enjoy strong economic and cultural and religious ties, or it can continue to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran." I guess he was trying to threaten Iran for trying to turn the Iraqi people against themselves... Whatever it was he was trying to say, we haven't heard the last from Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army and in case you haven't heard the name Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and his family and their Shi'ite links in Tehran. We're sure to hear both many times before the inevitable confrontation between the US and Iran. Lest we forget, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists".