Thursday, December 31, 2009

From Nothingness to Everythingness

Can a decade really be nothing? One can always find bright spots, diamonds in the rough, hope for the future, right? After all, it could've never been if those Millennium Bug doom sayers we're right 10 years ago (just imagine my disappointment, waking up with a massive hangover on a beach on the equator in Ecuador, learning that the civilized world hadn't crashed down). While we may have misunderestimated the truthiness of so much we were led to believe, pwned by the meme that bling would bring us happiness, making us look like n00bs I feel some kind of recognition of the success of just having the decade is in order. Therefore today we'll look at the flip-side of nothingness, the top ten everythingnesses of the decade.

10. We haven't blown ourselves up yet, or otherwise completed self-annihilated. It's true, Kim Jong Il blew up a couple little firecrackers, but with over 20,000 warheads in their combined arsenals, Russia and the US could have caused a lot more damage. Negotiations are ongoing to replace the START treaty, which expired earlier this month, with a sitting US president who has stated his desire to see "a world without nuclear weapons". As was the case on July 31, 1991 when the original treaty was signed, the timing of a new agreement could help make the world a safer place. The original treaty was signed during the break up of the USSR and was instrumental in ensuring the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were completely disarmed. Today, in order to have any leverage in negotiations with Iran and North Korea or any other nation, sharp reductions in the numbers of warheads in the world are necessary.

At the same time pressure must be brought to bear upon the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Article 6 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons states that each nation already possessing nuclear weapons "undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control". A strong commitment to reduce current warheads coupled with internationally agreed bans on nuclear tests and on the production of weapons-grade fissile material are desperately needed to avoid seeing the number of nuclear-armed states double in the next decade.

9. We not only speak in terms of trillions for dollars of taxpayer money given to banks but also volts thanks to those folks at CERN. A project that became more famous for it's end of the world potential and chronic problems seems to have finally hit its stride. They've spent the better part of the last 15 years and $10 billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest atom-smasher, a 27-kilometre long tunnel straddling the Franco-Swiss border. The goal of the project is no less than learning what the universe was like at the time of the Big-Bang and discovering what has become known as the God Particle, or the Higgs Boson, theoretically the provider of 70% of the mass of the universe. While no big discoveries have been made yet, they did manage to become the world's most powerful particle accelerator by accelerating its twin proton beams to 1.18 TeV (or 1.18 trillion electron volts).

It's been a strange ride for those wacky scientists over at CERN. The LHC's official start up a little over a year ago was accompanied by as many stories about the end of the universe as the beginning. Some went so far as to try to block it's start-up in court. But something funny happened on the road to discovery. Something kept going wrong. Ever since the British physicist Peter Higgs first postulated the existence of the particle in 1964, attempts to capture it have failed, and often for unexpected, seemingly inexplicable reasons. In 1993, the multibillion-dollar United States Superconducting Supercollider, which was designed to search for the Higgs, was abruptly canceled by Congress. In 2000, scientists at a previous CERN accelerator, LEP, said they were on the verge of discovering the particle when, again, funding dried up. And now there's the LHC. Originally scheduled to start operating in 2006, it has been hit with a series of delays and setbacks, including a sudden explosion between two magnets nine days after the accelerator was first turned on, the arrest of one of its contributing physicists on suspicion of terrorist activity and, most recently, the aerial bread bombardment from a bird.

All this got some deep thinkers deep thinking. In the same way that a coin couldn't keep coming up heads forever, it would be impossible for the LHC to keep breaking down for more and more absurd reasons unless something else was at work. In a twist on the Quantum suicide experiment, the theory is that the particle they are trying to create can travel back through time and undo the universe in such a way that the particle cannot be created. Or put another way, the fact that we exist now meant that the machine wouldn't work. So each time they tried to start it up something would happen to stop them. First a busted magnet then a stray bird, next a lightning strike or falling airplane waste; each time its stopped the series of events that stopped it would become more and more improbable. Alas, with the LHC now showing signs of fulfilling its destiny, perhaps it will disprove time travel at the same time it offers a glimpse of the beginnings of the universe.

8. Of course the LHC wouldn't have been as securely financed if the European Union experiment hadn't similarly moved forward a couple of unsteady steps, now featuring a boatload of new countries and a shiny new currency to boot. Up to 27 countries now and it's starting to look like it won't be one of the new countries this decade, 12 in all, that'll bring it down. Unknown to those member who joined this decade, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta in 2004 and lastly Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the Trojan Horse had already been deposited.

Instead of trying to enter Troy with a huge wooden horse, the Greeks have built a mountain of debt that threatens to collapse the grand experiment. Of course it might not be the Greeks that bring about the unions demise, but being a Eurozone country, (as in using the Euro as currency, the new ones aren't, except for Cyprus, Slovenia and Slovakia, and of course neither is Great Britain, at least 'til the pound completely tanks) their imminent bond default is sure to cause some kind of domino effect. The biggest obstacle to a solution, besides the idiots being too in debt, is that EU members can't give bailouts to each other, only banks. Well, I guess they could bail out non-EU countries, doubt that's covered in the constitution. Added to the financial woes (Ireland, Italy and even Spain aren't all that secure at the moment either) is the specter of religious infighting, from abortion fights in the European court of human rights to crucifixes in school classrooms and of course the whole Turkey question. Oh yeah, the non-democratic constitution forced on us is rather off-putting as well. How did the EU get on this list again?

7. I'm not in Yemen anymore. Having spent part of the last decade there I think I got out while the getting was good. Hey it's my blog, so seeing as I chose to wind up in Poland, perhaps the only EU member to have avoided recession heading into the next decade, that's at least something, if not everything. Seems like the Yemeni government is in a world of hurt in both the north, going so far as to spill into the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and south, where only a couple decades back they were independent of Sana'a. To make matters worse, America seems to have been reminded that Yemen is the home of al-Queda. Things have gotten worse by the day, to the point where some are calling it a third front of the 'war on terror'. Let's see, we've got a slow-motion oil spill, another slow-motion build-up to war, the slow-motion takeover of the world economy by the banksters, the slow-motion demise of the dollar, the slow-motion loss of national powers to the EU. Today I'll add one more - the slow-motion slide to a failed state. Yep, seems like the world may be left without a country beginning with 'Y' if things continue down this path in Yemen.

For years it has been seen as a safe haven for terrorists as most Americans would remember Yemen as the site of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. Travellers know it as a place to avoid in case of kidnapping. Saudi's have known it as a place to steal land from to gain access to black gold. Somali's as a safe haven from complete lawlessness. Yemen, in it's current form hasn't even been around for 2 decades, having seen the North and formerly communist South, centred in Aden, unite May 22, 1990. Twenty unsteady years later and it appears to be coming apart from top to bottom. Up north, fighting has even spilled into, heaven forbid, the Kingdom of oil, the Bush's buddies, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi's were forced to retaliate after incursions by Houthi rebels, named after their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, into their territory. Many fear they are being supported by the Iranians in an attempt to set up a Shi'ite state or perhaps just a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, a permanent thorn in the side of the oily kingdom. 

The US got nervous enough for Obama to order some of those pinpoint accurate cruise missile strikes earlier this month, you know, the kind that only kill around 100 innocent civilians. The situation has led to yet another international refugee crisis that few seem to care about, except for getting the last remaining Jews out of the area. Oh yeah, plus the country is sure to run out of water soon as it currently diverts more than half of this scarce resource to the raising of the national addiction even during drought. Yep, gotta keep the populace and soldiers high on qat all day, otherwise President Ali Abdullah Saleh might have a real uprising on his hands. Now the drumbeat of the war on terror is emanating from the US as it seems Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the Nigerian suspect who tried to ignite explosive chemicals with a syringe sewn into his underwear aboard a US flight, may have been equipped and trained by an al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, AQAP. The US was already hunting Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical Yemeni American cleric linked to the gunman charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., Nov. 5. Welcome to drone attack mayhem Yemen.

6. We've set the table for the world's next superpower. Ha! I can just see you rolling your eyes saying, "just what I need to read right now, another bit about China displacing the USA". Well, ha, ha, again. It's not China, in fact it's not even a country yet. "Whaaaaa? Shane's on the crazy juice again it seems." Nope, wrong again. Well, no more than usual at least. OK, here it is. Greenland. Yep, you heard me right, put all your chips on green for the next spin of the economic roulette wheel because folks, they've struck it rich in rare earth metals.

Oh boy, where to start. The misnomer 'Greenland'? How is it that Greenland is an island while Australia is a continent? What on earth is a rare earth metal? Shouldn't 'earth' be capitalized'? How can it be a superpower if it's not even a country? Questions, questions. First, yeah, it's a bit weird naming it green when 85% is covered in ice, apparently it was the first swampland in Florida type of real estate ploy, pulled off by Erik the Red back in 986. Second, here. Third, and finally we get to the gist of the story. Rare earth metals are:

A collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, namely scandium, yttrium, and the fifteen lanthanoids. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earths since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanoids and exhibit similar chemical properties.
Fourth, no. And fifth, well, in case you missed it, Greenland is on the fast track to full-fledged nation status.

Fortunately, only questions two and five need to be examined closer today, and aren't we lucky, China will play an important part to the story. You see, while rare earth metals aren't really in fact so rare (another misnomer, great), about 93% of the world's supply is currently mined in China. Why do we care? For the simple reason that they are becoming more and more useful in today's technologies. They are essential in the production of smartphones, hybrid cars (the electric motor in a Prius requires 2 to 4 pounds of neodymium), precision weapons, catalytic converters, superconductors and low-energy light bulbs. China mines 99% of the output of the two most needed elements for these applications, dysprosium and terbium. The timing of the recent Greenland find couldn't have been more important as only a couple months ago China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a report which called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. The report, titled "Rare Earths Industry Development Plan, 2009-2015" also said other metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum will be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year, far below global needs. Even crazier, Deng Xiaoping, then China's leader, gave us all fair warning as far back as 1992 saying, "There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China".

Denmark has ruled Greenland since 1776, only conceding limited home rule in 1979. It's been a long road towards independence and I'm sure that the irony of the fact that the melting ice has made the latest steps possible isn't lost on many. Remember, we're talking about the biggest island in the world here, so there's lots of good stuff being revealed by the retreating ice. Gold has been discovered and is already being mined, although so far at a loss, and there are deposits of other minerals such as zinc that could be exploited, and don't forget about the discovery of a 2.4-carat diamond at Garnet lake in west Greenland. Oil giants are negotiating licences to explore blocks of the coastline covering thousands of square miles. Although there are no proven sources, the US Geological Survey estimates there are 31.4 billion barrels of oil off the northeast coast alone. Greenland’s west coast may hold more oil than the North Sea, but harsh conditions could push the cost of extraction as high as $50 a barrel. Oh yeah, melting ice means water and therefore hydro-electricity. The vast lakes and melting ice cap provide enormous potential for electricity free from fossil fuel; in total Greenland holds 10% of the world's freshwater reserves. And now the discovery of rare earth metals.

All this has made independence a near reality as of June 22 of this year, when fireworks and celebrations in the capital, Nuuk, marked the latest step. Six months after 75% of voters (from a total population of 56,000 scattered over an area almost the size of Europe) said 'yes' to claiming control over all areas but defence and foreign policy. Under the self-rule agreement, Greenlanders will be recognized as a distinct people with the right to self-determination and Greenlandic will become the territory's official language. That means they now have full control of their natural resources which will be key to weening the country off the DKr3.4 billion ($590m) annual grant from Denmark which pays for public services like education and health care. Copenhagen and Nuuk have agreed to split profits earned from natural resources. For every two Danish crowns that Greenland earns, Copenhagen will reduce its subsidies by one crown. Greenland additionally will have control over its own justice and police affairs starting next June. As part of the new home-rule agreement, Copenhagen will also consult Nuuk when making foreign affairs and security decisions concerning the island. It may take a bit of time to rise to superpower status, but it's definitely no longer an option to buy Greenland outright, as America tried to do shortly after World War II. In any case, the going rate would be much higher than the $100 million the US offered the Danish government 60 years ago.

5. Americans, as individuals, are actually saving money as a country right now. Yep, maybe the crisis has taught the majority something as the rate, which subtracts what we collectively spend from what we make and then expresses the result in percentage terms, turned positive this year and was 4.4 percent in October. In 2009, it has ranged from a low of 3.4 percent in February to a high of 6.4 percent in May, which was the highest figure since 1993. Quite a turnaround from 2005 when the rate actually fell below zero! Alas, I fear it may be too little too late, like a heroine addict who just can't help himself, the country has dug a hole that may be impossible to get out of. Just last week the US Congress voted to temporarily raise the government debt ceiling to $12.4 trillion, but will need to do it again by February. Now, the US faces a trifecta of headaches: a mountain of new debt, a balloon of short-term borrowings that come due in the months ahead, and interest rates that are sure to climb back to normal. Like the smack addict, they've painted themselves into a corner by shortening the due date on the bills to lower the rate and will now have over $2 trillion in debt coming due in the coming months in addition to the estimated $1.5 trillion in additional debt financing they will need this year. It's no longer just the harbingers of doom prophecising the demise of the dollar, it's Greenspan himself, or at least Greenspan-Guidotti. Remember what happened to the economy when confidence was lost in the banks, try not to imagine what'll happen this year when the same thing happens to governments. How is this good again? Oh yeah, if you bought gold when it was only $1000/oz.

4. Panem et Circenses. Yeah, I know we have to put up with reality TV, but the oh-ohs (2000's, get it? mine, called it) also gave us tons of entertainment. From sports to film, books to music and some video games in between, we've been given some tasty pablum to trigger enough endorphins to keep us docile. Authors such as Orphan Pamuk, Zadie Smith and Khaled Hosseini have woven magical yarns. The Lord of the Rings trilogy wowed even the non Frodofiles on the big screen and we were treated to some bonus Bill Murray's genius and Amelie, even if it was impossible to get that soundtrack out of our head. The cure would've been Coldplay for many, but we also got some cool tunes outta OutKast, Daft Punk and Radiohead. Beyonce was pretty good to look at too. Throw in a Led Zeppelin reunion and the death of the King of Pop and music was covered. Sports team of the decade? The French national football team and Zinedine Zidane went from Euro and World Cup champions to headbutters and handballers, while Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan battled for club supremacy over here and probably those pesky Patriots of New England across the pond. Though I'm sure Red Sox fans would say otherwise having broken the 'Curse of the Bambino'.

3. Science is still pretty cool (and weird). Fifteen years after its discovery, Ardipithecus ramidus or Ardi, the oldest known skeleton of a putative human ancestor, was finally unveiled in 11 papers in print and online in October. The discoverers of the 4.4-million-year-old fossil proposed that she was a new kind of hominin, the family that includes humans and our ancestors but not the ancestors of other living apes. Another step towards the missing link, I know there isn't one, humans did not evolve from chimpanzees but rather through a series of progenitors starting from a distant common ancestor that once occupied the ancient forests of the African Micoene, but it's closer than Ida. This past decade also brought the mapping of us, the Human Genome Project, water missions on Mars and less spectacularly, our own moon, stem cells, commercial space flights, an explosion of planets, of the exo kind outside our galaxy and a new dwarf of our own, poor Pluto. While NASA's space faring potential is set to expire and then hopefully be replaced by Ares, interest in space has slowly been shifting to the private sphere as we saw the first space tourists while Virgin Galactic has inched closer to reality.

2. People Power. Yep, I'll throw the social media thing into this witches brew of good and evil, after all this is supposed to be about everythingness, and if it's anything, social media is everything these days. After all we started the last decade with a dot-com bubble and we ended it with the word 'unfriend' being the Oxford American Dictionary word of the year. Twitter brought us the Green Revolution in Iran, Facebook connected us with our ninth-grade girlfriend, Wikipedia told us everything else, Google not only became a verb it has also become as powerful as Goldman Sachs, and of course blogs and the rest of the internet has empowered us to such an extent that we, an all-knowing populace will be able to make informed decisions about our future.

Huh? What's that you say? People seem to be more interested in retweeting what music their friends are listening to and besides, it doesn't seem like the Green Revolution has brought the Iranian Revolution to an end, I guess it's tough when a mere 0.027% of the population use Twitter; Earth to Gordon Brown, Twitter cannot prevent another Rwanda. Your Facebook wall has become more important than your bedroom wall in expressing who your identity, becoming a black hole for your time, mind and ego. Wikipedia and Google are conspiring to make us stupid. Blogs have provided a forum for the semi-literate to spew their hate while the internet has heralded the demise of journalism. Instead of increasing the spectrum of ideas that users are exposed to, most choose to instead limit their sources of information to a narrow group of like-minded writers. With the huge problems the world is facing right now, progressives should be in position to move society forward, yet we still find ourselves in dangerous times as the bill for cleaning up the mess is still coming in. It may be forgotten that most of the problems of today, ranging from income inequality and lack of mobility, excessive debt, chronic underemployment to inaction on global warming and involvement in intractable wars are all problems to be laid on the doormat of the right-wing nutters. The disinformation experts are still spreading lies attempting to obfuscate the matter of who's to blame and seldom suggesting sane solutions; witness the rise of the warbloggers beating the drums of war, birthers trying to discredit a new president, death panel fear mongers, GW/CC deniers and their ilk.

Yet, it seems that all is not lost. We're still in early days, but there are some positive signs with former apostates of evil getting the message. Reagonomics architect Bruce Bartlett derides the Republicans one note cry of tax cuts. David Frum, who co-wrote with Richard Perle the standard neocon foreign-policy text, An End to Evil, wrote "I cannot be blind to the evidence that we have seen free markets produce some damaging and dangerous results in recent years. Or that the foreign policy I supported has not yielded the success I would have wished to see. Or that traditions must evolve if they are to endure". David Brooks has disowned Sarah Palin. Ronald Bailey saw the light on global warming. With the coming challenges to be faced by the world on climate and globalization and to the US specifically, spiralling debt, an aging population, intractable conflicts, the old answers will no longer solve the problems. No, the internet didn't cause stupidity, it just facilitates its dissemination. Imagine if the status quo had these intertubes back in the day to spread the gossip of the evil that introducing child labour laws, enfranchising women, creating social security and introducing clean-air regulation would bring about the end of the world.

1. Hope. Not the kind served up by the Barack Obama show, but the real kind, the one America voted into the White House. Sure, Time magazine has called the last 10 years the decade from hell, after all it led off with a stolen election in the home of modern democracy, saw a dot-com bust, wound through 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq only to be topped off with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. While this may look bad from an American perspective, it could be good for the rest of the world. Maybe it's a good thing that the last decade was so bad, coming just in time to save us from our own hubris. Perhaps we'll learn to look to ourselves instead of the stars and stripes as it becomes more and more apparent that its empire is in the stage of decline. At the very least, we should start to get the idea that we've going about things the wrong way for awhile now. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil”, it seems the soil of our beliefs needs to be changed.

We began the decade believing we, by that I mean the west, by that I mean America, were on the verge of truly becoming Masters of the Universe. Never ending economic growth, unchallengeable peace, limitless progress in all fields were within our grasp. Instead, the Dow opened the decade around 11,600 and will close around 10,500. Meanwhile, the BRIC nations and other emerging markets zoomed ahead. Cave-dwelling clerics now seem to pull the strings in a global game of whack-a-mole, a war on terror that has us in Iraq and Afghanistan with new fronts constantly threatening to open. While the US and to a lesser extent NATO fights, the Chinese are doing business, investing more in oil extraction in Iraq than the US while also becoming the highest source of tax revenue for the Afghan government. Maybe it's a good thing we've learned that our heroes, from Barry Bonds to Tiger Woods, weren't the ideals we should all aspire to be; that the market isn't infallible, sometimes we do need to be saved from ourselves, or at least Bernie Madoff; or that Elliot Spitzer - even Barack Obama - aren't going to be the ones to do it. Most articles looking back at the past decade either do so scornfully or confusedly, lamenting that we don't even have consensus on a name yet.

Once again, I say the oh-ohs, for while the past decade sucked, at least we recognize it, which is really the first step to fixing it. We've spent the last 10 years caught up in reality TV while being blissfully unaware of the illusions marketed to us from Iraq to the balloon boy. The fact is, from genetics to the environment, we are on the cusp of having the power to control or destroy our world in many novel ways, so it's a damn good thing we've been given a slap in the face that may finally wake us from our slumber. After all, the decade will end on a full moon and being the second one of the month, it's a blue moon, seems stranger things have happened?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Decade of Nothingness

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

         -Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act III, Scene 2

I heard, or rather read, the decade that's now coming to a close referred to as the aught's the other day. Looking back at the disastrous past ten years makes we think we need a more descriptive moniker. The Brits say noughties but maybe we should have something with zero in it seeing as the world hasn't put any points on the scoreboard over the decade, I guess the double zeros would do, or double oh's, the oh-oh's. (Is it the teens next before the 20's, the tens?) For a variety of reasons no one seems to even try to understand the problems we face anymore, instead they rely on some talking head's opinion or blogger's spin. Ten years ago we had the Kyoto Protocol, hopes for a final Mideast peace agreement and an economic boom with no end in sight. How did it all go so wrong? Fear could be one explanation. Fear that our beliefs are wrong, fear that our lifestyles are destroying our world and fear of the other. Fear, the old fight or flight, paralyzes and poisons as it confuses, robbing us of our self-control. Most frustrating of all, faced with the triple threat of climate, finance and terrorism, instead of focusing on facts and solutions, the rhetoric of fear has driven us onto a self-destructive path through lies and misinformation.

The decade of fear brought many global threats, from SARS and swine flu to Jenny McCarthy and Osama Bin Laden. The shadow of 9/11 pushed terrorism into our everyday lives with threat level updates and two intractable, open-ended conflicts. While acknowledging that we were dealing with a new kind of enemy, our leaders responded in the traditional manner, war and increased defence spending. The jingoistic fear factory pumped up the rhetoric as Dubya and his cronies fed a nation's desire for revenge with the Bush Doctrine which imperceptibly altered an entire country's mindset, guiding a bloodthirsty nation to war.
Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.

-Otto von Bismarck
In Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the window that opens between a shock and analysis, a disorientation gap where a new set of beliefs find fertile ground. When planes hit the WTC on September 11th, 2001, that window was blown wide open and a new narrative was created. First in Afghanistan, the "With Us or Against Us" doctrine provided the justification for not only pursuing Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but also for deposing the Taliban. If you ever wonder why no one knows the reason we're still in Afghanistan, don't worry you're not alone, that was the idea. While Condi Rice first came up with the "no distinction" idea, it was Darth Cheney who first started calling it the "Bush Doctrine" in public. Blurring the lines between terrorists and states that harbour them was a propaganda coup. In a November 2001 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cheney offered this definition: "We will hold those who harbor terrorists, those who provide sanctuary to terrorists, responsible for their acts."

It wasn't until the anthrax and smallpox threat hysteria broke out that the justification for war in Iraq achieved critical mass. With a leap of faith, and a huge dose of fabrication (think WMD's and "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."), Iraq was linked with every terror plot ever hatched against the US, giving birth to the war of preemption. Even today, many would link Saddam and Osama in their minds as one and the same threat. Only now, after Obama has picked up his Nobel Peace Prize, do we realize the extent to which the public have become disoriented. Instead of seeing the honour as an incentive to change and repudiate the disastrous actions of the last decade, the US press and public responded like a wounded animal, lashing out, forcing Obama's hand into escalating a war he cannot win.

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We've entered the truly bizarro world where putting an end date on a war is wrong after having wasted more that 8 years ensuring there can be no resolution to the conflict. The cognitive dissonance involved when claiming to promote liberal democracy on the one hand while supporting a corrupt leader who stole an election with the other at a cost of a million dollars per soldier must be painful (yes, 30,000 extra troops will cost about $30 billion a year). I guess it's nothing having fundamentally shifted from the knowledge that torture was wrong with even Reagan signing the UN Convention on Torture to a society that produces Abu Ghraib and believing torture can now be justified and certainly not prosecutable.

Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist
-Warren Buffett
The efficacy of fear as a manipulator has been further tested in the financial world, selling us the need to put capitalism on permanent life support. Taking a page out of the terrorism playbook, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson played a little game of fear tag team with Geithner, Bernanke, Bush, the IMF and Warren Buffet to pull off the greatest transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to the rich in history. Somewhere between $4.7 and $23.7 trillion in the US alone. Buffet, the world’s sometimes richest man, threw his weight behind the programme in order to avoid "an economic Pearl Harbour", then going further, saying "...we were at the brink of something that would have made anything that’s happened in financial history pale...I’m not saying the Paulson plan will eliminate the problem but it’s absolutely necessary, in my view, to avoid going off the precipice." Wasn't there a line about fear during the real Depression, yeah, some Roosevelt quote, er, what was it again? Oh yeah, "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself". How adorable, so folksy, but then again, that was another time. A time when instead of handing the economy over to those who ruined it, rules and policies were implemented to try to ensure it didn't happen again.

This time, normal legislative procedures were bypassed as congressmen were warned of civil unrest, martial law and stock market collapse if they failed to pass the bank bailout. Never mind the true cause of the failure of the economic model, an over-concentration of wealth and power brought about by globalization, tax-policy and focus on short term profits. Instead of fixing the inequity brought about by the failed policies of the past, the world was hoodwinked into transferring trillions over to those who caused the problem. A decade that began with the internet bubble and merger between AOL and Time Warner is ending with their quiet divorce and the entire financial world on life support. The warnings were there all along if we'd of just paid attention and connected the dots from WorldCom to Enron, Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, Tyco to Parmalat (a list of corporate scandals in 2000-2002 only!), putting power in the hands of the few as the world rushed to embrace the madness of the markets. Instead, every action seemed to reinforce bad behaviour; as CEO pay and bonuses grew, taxes were sliced for the privileged few. Those left behind saw their power shrink along with their wages until a breaking point was reached, inequality not seen since the Great Depression. The top 1% of earners now earn a higher percentage of income than anytime since 1928 while income mobility, the chances of being born poor and becoming rich, has shrunk to pre-Horacio Alger levels. Somehow though there isn't enough evidence to convince the true corporate shills, those Ayn Rand dreamers, who wholeheartedly believe in the superiority of the rich, that their financial pyramid is all an illusion. Fear of collapse seems to be enough to keep us all chasing our tails.
"They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent… Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences…. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…”
- Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936
Fear has been the sales tool of the decade. It's worked great for the military industrial complex, selling us two wars. It's worked even better convincing us that we need to have rich, large, powerful corporations controlling our lives. Sadly, we can be fooled into killing foreigners and giving money to bankers but we can't be 'tricked' by those pesky fear-mongering scientists into any kind of real action to prevent a global catastrophe resulting from climate change. It's become clear that this marketing tool doesn't always work as witnessed by the dismal failure to sell the world on the need to save it from ourselves. We've been inundated with stories of melting glaciers, shrinking ice caps, sinking islands and polar bears eating their cubs for the past decade in an attempt to convince the world that we're hurtling towards disaster. So why has shock and awe environmentalism failed so miserably? Why does it seem more important to the deniers that Al Gore may profit from green energy than Goldman Sachs profited from the bailout or Blackwater and Haliburton from the wars of preemption? How can we justify subsidizing an oil based economy that enriches kings in Saudi Arabia over investing in new technologies at home to lessen our reliance on others and spark a real economic recovery? Why is Obama labeled as 'dithering' for delaying a decision to send young men to die in a futile effort while the reality is he's playing the part of the prototypical Danish procrastinator Hamlet in his native land, trying to sell us some more smoke and mirrors wrapped in hope and change and carbon trading, driving us all to the inevitable tragic conclusion of the play?

God, time and money. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein claims to be "doing God's work while the same deity guided Dubya "'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did.". Meanwhile, those pesky scientists are once again questioning the divine by saying that man may actually be influencing his environment. Typical human arrogance, thinking we hold god-like influence over our planet. Fear also fails here due to the time scale, to work it cannot be an implied threat of something too far in the future, or people will lose interest. This is especially true as climate gets mixed up with weather all too easily in people's minds and there are too many cold winter days between now and the tipping point for people to feel any urgency. Given enough time and resources one can convince the majority of folks just about anything. The most remarkable aspect of the deniers success is that they've convinced a large segment of the population that they are really smart because they can recite the rhetoric the global plutocracy has tricked them into believing instead of actually believing in science. Such beauties as: "Remember global cooling", "Medieval Warm Period", "No warming since 1998", "Faulty evidence", "Solar energy output", "Plants need CO2", "Water Vapour is a greenhouse gas"; most have truth to them, but all have been misused and disseminated to the public in order to confuse the masses.

All the while the ultimate fear card is played over and over. "Climate-change policies will destroy jobs and growth". It's here that the real irony starts to hit home. Not only can sharp reductions in emissions be attained with limited impact on growth at low costs, but an agreement in Copenhagen could have been the recipe for real economic recovery. But here's the real kicker. The fear factory may have already cost itself its place at the top of the global pecking order by refusing to see the obvious. Climate change feedback loops are self-reinforcing cycles; problems that echo off each other and quickly spiral out of control. Here’s how it goes: Melting tundra in Siberia releases methane into the atmosphere, which raises the water temperature, which melts sea ice, causing more solar heat to be absorbed by the oceans. As the Arctic has been melting and America has been acting the part of a 2-year old who can close his eyes and make the world go away, Russia and China have put themselves in position to reap the resource rewards, a sort of global power feedback loop. The last lie has been that we'll run out of cheap oil soon enough forcing the market to solve the problem for us. But the effects of a warmer planet are not only making it easier to dig up northern Alberta, it's also thawing the cover off of the final poisoned payload. Not only will we be sailing across the pole, a quarter of the world's mineral wealth will also be accessible, ensuring that we'll keep burning until we're truly burning. At the same time, China has positioned herself to lead the world, if not through some kind of carbon treaty, then she has at least bought up enough of Africa and South America to feed herself during the coming droughts and to maintain a steady supply of resources. Droughts? Let's not even get started on freshwater.

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought 

-Shakespeare Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

Put it all together with the latest "Climategate" (nice name-calling propaganda technique wouldn't you say?) scandal involving the hacked emails and public confidence in climatology is probably at its lowest point in at least the past decade. The facts are simple though. The planet is warming; for 150 years we've known that CO2, even in low concentrations, acts as a greenhouse gas; man is contributing to the increase in CO2. No, we don't know for certain that we are driving the warmth, but as then-Vice President Dick Cheney said when faced with concerns that a Pakistani scientist was offering nuclear-weapons expertise to Al Qaeda "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." Well Dick, I'd say that we're at least 1% sure about us playing a part in global warming, so, shouldn't we respond?

Cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? About $1 trillion to date
Cost of the financial bailout? About $5 trillion
Cost to save the planet? You guessed it...priceless

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nutt Sacked

As in David Nutt, (former) chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in the UK, has been fired for doing his job. Isn't it great to know that we haven't made any progress since Galileo was forced to renounce his work and writings concerning the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, who had suggested that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe almost 400 years ago? Somehow this case seems even more totalitarian. A scientist, whose job is to give advice on drug law, has lost his job for giving the advice he was hired to give because it doesn't fit in with the government's get tough on drugs sales pitch to the deluded public. Yes, it's not only America where you have to blow the populist trumpet hoping that the semi-literate masses will vote for you come election day, the UK it seems is every bit as bad.

It's even worse knowing that things weren't always so bad for the Labour Party and the UK. In fact it was only 2004 when the government actually listened to the advice given to them by their drug experts and downgraded cannabis from a Class B to C (the UK uses a system where A is the most harmful illegal drug and C the least). Since the reclassification didn't result in an upswing of smokers and in fact saved an estimated 199,000 police hours, this action had its predictable reaction - the tabloid press hard sell along the lines of "drugs are bad, how can you be doing this to our children? Will someone please think of the children!" - this time mostly revolving around a scare story involving new and improved skunk weed which was so potent it caused psychosis. Enter a new British PM losing popularity by the day who is easily influenced by the polling numbers and suddenly you had the leader of a nation saying things like, "I think people know my view about cannabis and particularly about this lethal version of it, skunk." Before you know it, the UK found itself back where it started, busting 72-year-old milkmen for delivering weed to old ladies as the government re-upgraded cannabis to Class B in January earlier this year. Of course this move came despite a report at the time from the ACMD recommending that cannabis remain a Class C drug.

So, what do you do when you are a scientist whose job it is to help formulate drug policy by providing unbiased scientific evidence only to see your work ignored? You try to draw attention to your cause, attempting to influence public opinion with facts and evidence; much to the dismay of the British government, David Nutt has been quite good at this. He was head of the team who devised a radical new system for classifying drugs - one based on harm to individuals and society instead of old-wives tales. Ultimately, it was this stance that forced Nutt's resignation as he once again tried to remind people that drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than LSD, ecstasy or cannabis. Additionally, he released a paper pointing out that ecstasy, a Class A drug, is in fact more benign activity than equestrianism. This latter report earned him a rebuke from his boss in the government, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary at the time.

The influence of the tabloid press in Britain is something I don't claim to understand very well. I picture it as having a British version of the Fox News effect in the US, an important tool in ensuring that the semi-literate view the world through a haze of confusion. In the correspondence between Nutt and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, the man responsible for demanding Nutt's resignation, Johnson practically admitted that misinforming the public is part of the plan. Johnson's letter to Nutt stated, "I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD." Huh? Really? If ministers care so little for independent scientific advice, maybe they should save public money by sacking the entire group of experts and instead appoint a committee of tabloid editors. After all, rags like the Daily Mail are onside with the firing, publishing an article comparing Agassi smoking crystal meth to the 'nutty' Professor Nutt. Why do they love that term drug tsar so much?

The pandering of the current Home Secretary to the tabloid press is another sad example of the disconnect between public policy and facts. Alan Johnson and his government now face a mass revolt from the official drug advisory board. As resignations begin to come in, one has to wonder if this is actually what the government wants. Nasty facts get in the way, especially when your nation is facing an epidemic of addiction to legal prescription drugs - there are over 1.5 million over-the-counter addicts in the UK today. Who knows, maybe it's a Scientology plot? Far be it for me to suggest that simply legalizing cannabis would be some kind of panacea but it would be nice if government policy, in all areas, were determined by facts instead of fear. Reefer Madness, here we go again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I Must Be Dreaming

This is far too easy. Way too inviting. Someone pinch me, please. No wait, it's real? Golly, how great is this, I get to write a post about two things I love, NFL football and the joke that is Rush Limbaugh. Cool. Word is the aforementioned sultan of slime, er, pill-popping propagandist, uh, that leader of the lost is joining forces with Dave Checketts, owner of the NHL's St. Louis Blues, to buy the St. Louis Rams of the NFL. A man who has made his living from sowing the seeds of hatred and trumpeting the false propaganda of the right wants to own an NFL franchise. Oh, the sweet delicious irony of it all, where to start?!

He wants to buy the St. Louis Rams, yes the Rams who have lost 15 straight games. At this moment they may be the worst team I've ever seen play, and I remember the first year of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although admittedly, vaguely. BTW those same Bucs along with the Rams, Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs are the only remaining teams without a victory so far this year at 0 and 5. Meanwhile, the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings are at 5 and 0 and along with the New Orleans Saints at 4 and 0, are the last undefeated teams standing.

He wants to buy an entertainment business in a city where he hates, distrusts, reviles and despises over half the population. 51.3% of the population of St. Louis is black. Not to mention the fact that the majority of the assets (players) employed by the team are black. I thought Rush viewed NFL football today as "a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons". Players have already come out to say they would never play for a Rush-owned team. I don't care if Rush claims to be the least racist talk show host, or if some of the quotes attributed to him may be false (try these for starters, then here, or here), there is no denying that he engages in race baiting. It's an tried and true tactic, one that he seems to be perfecting in his anti-Obama campaign. From hoping his president fails to blaming Obama for black kids beating up white kids on buses to stirring up fears of a hidden socialist agenda, it plays on people's fears and it's dangerous.

Despite being so vehemently opposed to Obama's socialist plan, Rush wants to do business in a socialist market. Yes the NFL is socialist, they share about two-thirds of revenues (mostly TV rights) equally among the 32 teams. You see, the NFL understands that capitalism is a beast that in many cases needs to be tethered in order to level the playing field to allow the market to function properly. In order to avoid a world where the powerful elite are allowed to set the rules in order to become even more powerful, the league prefers to see parity amongst the teams, allowing each an opportunity to be successful and thus creating an exciting, competitive atmosphere that attracts a diverse fan base. The analogy this seems to have with the US economy is almost uncanny; if only Reagan (or at least his puppet-masters) and his snake-oil salesmen had known that some controls can actually make for a better product, the entire world would be a much better place today.

Rush can supply all the pain killers the team needs while blaming the users for destroying the country.

He'd also become the only league owner to weigh more than the average of his offensive line.

Oh, I agree with Al Sharpton for once.

Well, actually, on second thought, I don't agree with Reverend Al on much. Sharpton's argument seems to rest on the need for the NFL to hold up to 'standards'. Um, guess he's missed out on what the NFL 'standards' are of late. I mean what kinda crazy juice does Al drink?

A franchise sale would have to be approved by 24 league owners, something that's never going to happen. Think about it, if you owned anything worth over a billion dollars, would you allow anything that could lessen it's value get anywhere near it? Colts owner Jim Irsay came out with this gem, "I myself couldn’t even think of voting for him".

His misogynist attitude will really work well with the NFL's attempt at wooing female fans. Witness the success the league seems to have had promoting Breast Cancer Awareness Month during week 4. I wonder what Rush would have to say about women even watching football, and god forbid they're ugly?

Perhaps the biggest reason Limbaugh's bid will be rejected was his ill-fated short-lived affiliation with the NFL in 2003. He was ultimately forced to resign following comments he made about Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb on Sunday NFL Countdown that included, "I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve". At the time, the Eagles had a 36-22 record in games which McNabb had started and he has gone on to lead his team to 5 NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. As usual, Rush's comments were simply racist and he was only trying to stir up controversy. The irony here is that when Limbaugh's bid gets rejected, he'll play the victim card to the hilt. I can already hear his complaints of being victimized by the liberal media. Yet there he was on his show a couple of years back bemoaning the fact that he had turned McNabb into a victim. You reap what you sow Rush, eat it.

The bottom line is the NFL is too smart to let Limbaugh into it's exclusive club. The ultimate irony is that the other owners may agree with 99% or what Rush spews forth, but will reject his application for purely capitalistic reasons. His admittance to the club would bring down the value of the assets of the entire league, he would be toxic debt that would drag down everything around it. Huh, sounds familiar for some reason.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Isn't life great when you've got the do-over? No matter what goes wrong, what mistake you make, how bad you lose the game, you can always just take a mulligan and tee off again. Unfortunately life doesn't work like that for most of us, but for the Treaty of Lisbon and the EU that's exactly what they did and they took full advantage, knocking they're second drive from the tee right down the middle of the fairway. Isn't it comforting to know that the EU has chosen to go the Zimbabwe route of dealing with election results they don't like.

What a difference 16 months makes. It took that long for the Irish to completely change their minds about the Treaty of Lisbon, a treaty designed to further integrate Europe. Then, 46.6% of Irish voted "Yes" and 53.4% "No"; Saturday, 67.1% of Irish voters approved it, while 32.9% voted "No" - that's more than 2 to 1 in favour. Just look at the swing in those numbers in only 16 months. That's more than just a few people who changed their minds on something a little more important than switching from Coke to Pepsi. Hmmm, I wonder what it could be that made so many voters flip-flop? Was it the fear that they would give away more of their national identities, ceding ever greater control to a more integrated Europe? Or lose the ability to set their own taxes, along with their antiabortion laws and the ability to remain militarily neutral while still retaining their seat on the European Commission? Well, Ireland was given "guarantees" that the treaty wouldn't affect any of these areas, but none have actually been attached to the treaty - just ask Angela Merkel if she thinks the EU will have a standing army. No, the fact is, in today's Ireland, these are all minor worries. The reason the 'Yes' side of the campaign were able to recruit the help of prominent businesses like Intel and Ryanair as well as celebrities such as U2 guitarist The Edge and the poet Seamus Heaney to their side is good old fashioned money.

Probably no country has benefited more economically from the EU than Ireland. Over the quarter of a century since Ireland joined what was then the European Community in 1973 they have witnessed an economic boom that has seen peat bogs and grazing pastures give way to gleaming semiconductor plants and suburbs full of McMansions. While much of the world still holds onto the image of rural Ireland, much of the population has traded in their Guinness pints for Starbucks paper cups (27 stores in Dublin alone!) and stories of the potato famine for talk of real estate prices. Oh, but how quickly things can change. One mighty world economic crisis and the economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger turned into a meltdown.

To be fair, Ireland did achieve financial success in a remarkably short time. In retrospect, it is easy to point out the policy errors that positioned her economy for a precipitous fall, but who wants to be the doomsayer in the middle of a party? Ireland slashed spending in areas such as health expenditures, education, agricultural spending, roads and housing, and the military, while abolishing agencies such as the National Social Services Board, the Health Education Bureau, and regional development organizations. By 1993, government non-interest spending declined to 41 percent of GNP, down from a high of 55 percent of GNP in 1985. Subsequently, it significantly lowered corporate tax rates to 12.5 percent, at a time when the lowest corporate rates in Europe were 30 percent and U.S. rates stood at 35 percent. Since 2004, Ireland also has offered a 20 percent tax credit on research and development. In short, as Paul Krugman put it, Ireland became "just like us (the US), only more so." At the height of the boom in 2006, Ireland was building more homes per head than anywhere else in the world. Why not? Over 10 years, property prices increased five-fold. The Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

Of course, we all know how this story ends. An economy that had become so dependent on construction and banking was doomed to fall. At the time of the first vote, a soft landing at worst was still envisioned, but the bottom fell out. It is thought that the Irish economy will suffer the biggest contraction in the industrialized world since the Great Depression, "something in the order of about 12 or 15 percent". Much like the rest of the world, the Irish government found itself having to take responsibility for the mistakes of private bankers. Ireland again needed the EU as she offered government guarantees on bank liabilities that put tax payers on the hook for potential losses of more than twice the countries GDP, a figure that would be equivalent to $30 trillion for the United States. "Without the steadfast support of the European Central Bank, our financial system would have collapsed," said the finance minister, Brian Lenihan. Without the EU, Ireland would've became another Iceland as they are living well beyond their means, borrowing almost €400 million a week. The Irish voter quickly became repentant, and the 'Yes' vote was a transparent, "sorry sir, we'll fall back into line".

But what is this Treaty of Lisbon really? No one seems to know. MSM articles quickly gloss over it by saying it is aimed at "streamlining decision-making in the 27-nation bloc". Once France and the Netherlands shot down the EU constitution in spring of 2005, EU lawyers went right to work figuring out how to get around those pesky voters. Instead of replacing all earlier EU treaties constitution style, the Lisbon Treaty simply amends the Treaty on the European Union (Maastricht) and the Treaty Establishing the European Community (Rome). Additionally they dropped all references to EU symbols such as the flag, the anthem and the motto, even though in practice these things will continue to exist. Quirky laws allowed every other nation besides Ireland (whose supreme court ruled all major amendments to EU treaties needed referendums in 1987) to simply pass it with a simple parliamentary vote - yes the Irish got to vote twice, everyone else not at all. The Lisbon Treaty is simply a constitution in disguise. Was the treaty necessary to advance the European agenda? Yes. Without out it there would be no hope for growth beyond Croatia and Iceland. It will also make dealing with trans-national issues such as global warming and fixing the banking system far easier. Should we be as leery as many conservative conspiracy theorist loonies in the UK? Maybe. It's hard not to notice that the treaty's biggest external manifestation will be the creation of two new posts, an EU president (which horror of horrors will be the result of back room dealing, without any formal vote and is expected to go to Tony Blair) as well as a High Representative of Foreign Affairs. And of course something called the External Action Service for the EU, with embassies around the world. Hmm, sounds a bit like the makings of a body with real supranational powers.

Perhaps the real answer lies somewhere in between, however it still may be a moot point in the end. See, Poland and the Czech Republic have yet to ratify the treaty which needs the support of all 27 member states. While Poland's acceptance is a mere Lech Kaczynski signature away having already been passed by the Sejm, the Czechs may drag their feet a little longer. President Vaclav Klaus, a confirmed Eurosceptic has stated that he will not sign the treaty until his country's constitutional court pronounces on its validity. He loves that he's controlling the destiny of 500 million people. Making things more interesting is the situation in the UK where an election must be called by next May at the latest and David Cameron's Conservatives are well ahead in the polls, 17 points by last count. Cameron's party has promised to hold a referendum if elected and the treaty has not already been put into force and has therefore written a letter to the Czech president basically asking him to drag his feet for a few more months. Aaaah, isn't life great knowing we can just relax as our future's are being decided through backroom deals?