Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Learning to Live With ENSO

The bad news is that ENSO is expected to get a helluva lot worse.  The worse news is that nobody really cares.

ENSO, the El Nino Southern Oscillation, is a little something that happens every few years in the southern Pacific Ocean. It manifests in cooling waters on one side and warming waters on the other.  It comes in two forms:  El Nino, the boy (commonly thought of as the Christ Child because it usually shows up around Christmas); and La Nina, the girl, El Nino's nasty step-sister.

ENSO changes weather patterns around the world - Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, Australia, pretty much the lot.  El Nino, for example, brings scorching heatwaves and drought to Australia.  It can also bring the relief of rain to the American southwest.

As mentioned, ENSO is second only to the changing of seasons in impact on global weather conditions.  A new report forecasts that, not only are ENSO events going to get a lot more severe this century, but we may see La Nina events double in frequency.  That could greatly exacerbate the drought conditions currently besetting Central America and the US southwest.

Only in Harperland is a Verdict a "Matter of Opinion"

Nice House of Commons You Got Here
It'd Be a Shame if Something Happened to It

Dean del Mastro wants a do-over.  Presumably it has something to do with being on the wrong side of the verdict in the four charges brought against him for campaign spending violations in the 2008 election.

His lawyers want the judge to backpeddle and declare a mistrial instead of going ahead and sentencing their client to the fines and possible jail time he deserves.

As far as Harper's former parliamentary secretary is concerned the court's ruling wasn't a verdict, just a matter of opinion.

Judge Lisa Cameron's ruling "was not a final decision," he said. "I've in no way broken any of the laws governing elections."

"I know what the truth is. That's her opinion. My opinion is quite different."

Will Ted Cruz Become the First Canadian to Run For President?

Something's up.  Ted Cruz, the Republican poster boy for all things far right, has still not ditched his Canadian citizenship.

It's a relatively easy process.  He could probably go into the nearest Service Canada office and get help filling out the forms.  Instead he's had lawyers on this and yet, a year or more later, he's still a citizen of the country of his birth, Canada.  So, what's the hold up?

There is one section, however, that could cause Cruz some trouble, and perhaps that is the reason for his delay. Question 5 instructs the applicant to “attach proof” that he is (or will become) a citizen of a country other than Canada. That may seem like it is none of Canada’s business, but in fact the requirement follows from important principles of international law – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which call upon governments to protect individuals from becoming stateless. Of course, Canada’s requirement of proof was not established with U.S. senators in mind, but it does reflect an admirable intention to ensure that all individuals have national rights in at least one country. And in any event, it is up to Canada to decide how and in what manner its citizenship may be annulled – the U.S. has similar rules – and Cruz has no choice but to follow the necessary protocol.

In order to fulfill his promise to the voters, Cruz must therefore submit proof that he is a U.S. citizen, which will be trickier for him than for most people. Cruz has thus far released only his Canadian birth certificate, which confirms that he was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1970, and additionally states that his mother was born in Wilmington, Dela. The second part is crucial – Cruz’s only claim to U.S. citizenship through his mother – but it is also hearsay. The birth certificate is primary evidence of Cruz’s own birth, but the entry about his mother merely records her assertion to the Alberta Division of Vital Statistics. Even though I don’t personally dispute what he says, “My mother said so” is not what is usually meant by “proof.”

How, then, can Ted Cruz prove his U.S. citizenship to the satisfaction of the Canadian authorities? He could submit his passport, or perhaps the document called a Consular Certificate of Birth Abroad (if his parents obtained one), but those would have the same hearsay problems as his birth certificate. The only sure-fire evidence, therefore, would be his mother’s birth certificate, presumably issued when she was born in Delaware.

But even that presents a problem. Only one of Ted’s parents was a citizen when he was born (his father is a Cuban √©migr√© who did not take U.S. citizenship until 2005), and he therefore falls under a special section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that applies to “Birth Abroad to One Citizen and One Alien Parent.” Under that provision, Cruz only qualifies for American citizenship if his mother was “physically present” in the United States for 10 years prior to his birth, five of which had to be after she reached the age of 14. The only definitive way to prove Eleanor Cruz’s 10 years of physical presence would be with documents such as leases, school registration, utility bills or tax records.

So, Terrible Tempered Ted can only get rid of his Canadian citizenship if he can prove he's entitled to American citizenship and applying to renounce his Canadian citizenship puts the validity of his American citizenship in question, if not in peril.  Which suggests that the team of lawyers Ted has working on this must be having problem getting the documentary evidence that Ted's mom was indeed physically present in the US for 10-years prior to his birth.

I expect that Harper has been approached to waive this technicality and I assume that a guy like Harper would if he could.  Somehow that doesn't seem to be happening and I'm pretty sure Ted's rivals for the Republican nomination won't let this slip through their fingers.

Let the conspiracy theories begin.

Monday, January 26, 2015

What It Takes to Watch FOX (or Sun) News - by John Cleese

Legendary Python, John Cleese, gets down to the basics of what it takes to be a viewer of FOX (and we might add Sun) News.

40 Years of Downsizing Democracy

The Tyee's Murray Dobbins sees signs everywhere that our civilization is heading for collapse.

The exceptionally successful four decades campaign to change the "ideological fabric" of society has put western civilization on a track to irreversible collapse according to a major study sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The study focused on population, climate, water, agriculture and energy as the interrelated factors that determine the collapse or survival of civilizations going back 5000 years.

According to a Guardian report on the study, these factors can coalesce and lead to civilization's collapse if they create two critical social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity... and... the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or 'Commoners') [poor]."

According to the study these two developments played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in the demise of the Roman, Han, Mauryan, Gupta and multiple Mesopotamian Empires as well as the Maya. The study provides convincing "testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."

How far down the road to collapse are we? For my generation not so far that we will see the worst of it. But what is alarming is that all the signs are so dramatically obvious. And while the mainstream media isn't yet talking about the end of our world, the issue of grotesque inequality and unsustainable resource depletion are somewhere in the media almost every week. Indeed inequality in particular has been a hot topic ever since the Occupy movement briefly swept the planet. Yet if you monitor the political debate in this country the two most important trends in our society and the world are virtually never mentioned except rhetorically. There are no serious policy prescriptions. Mass denial reigns. Or, as Freud stated, we are "knowing without knowing."

...Is this really what the geniuses at the Chicago School of Economics like Milton Friedman had in mind? Did he really believe that "a democratic society, once established, destroys a free economy"? Would he have had any qualms about his policy prescriptions resulting in capitalism devolving into neo-feudalism or into Plutonomies -- a term first used by analysts at Citigroup in 2005, to "describe a country that is defined by massive income and wealth inequality.'" The analysts singled out the U.K., Canada, Australia and the United States.

The NASA study is not optimistic about our chances of avoiding eventual collapse given the failure of other civilizations, saying "collapse is difficult to avoid.... Elites grow and consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society."

Warnings go unheeded. The NASA reports says "historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases)."

How close are we to collapse? The study points out that the process can extend over decades and even centuries. Yet some of the supporting empirical studies (by KPMG and the British Office for Science) suggest a perfect storm that involves food, water and energy could occur within 15 years.

The NASA study highlights two trends -- resource depletion and inequality -- as the key factors in civilization collapse. But there is a third and it explains why historically elites have been "oblivious" to their unfolding catastrophes. That factor is the political system of the particular civilization. Designed to govern and manage social and economic life before it became corrupted, and still in the hands of the benefiting elites, these governing systems were simply incapable of incorporating the idea of collapse into their thinking.

A Troubling Disconnect

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticized the bigwigs attending the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos for a lack of focus on green infrastructure investment.

“We see this at the G20 and even here – we need to address this troubling disconnect,” he told a panel which included IMF chief Christine Lagarde and Rwanda president Paul Kagame.

“If we do not we will lock ourselves to bad long term investments which will make it impossible to hit the sustainable development goals and put ourselves at risk of costly climate change.”

Speaking at the same event, the chief executive of consumer goods multinational Unilever Paul Polman said economic growth was already being stifled because of climate change.

Polman – whose business reported a 2.7% downturn in sales for 2014 – said business leaders had a responsibility to declare their commitment to low carbon growth.

“We’ve been too long the silent majority – we have given the voice to the vocal minority,” he said.

Well, They Do Have It Coming

If you can't stand the heat, get out of Australia.  A new report claims that the 'land down unda' will be hit harder by climate change impacts than the rest of the world.

It's a real 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' predicament.  Most of the country is already miserably hot.  Adding another 5.1 degrees Celsius by 2090 would be turning your oven up from 'roast' to 'broil.'

Good thing Aussie prime minister Tony Abbott, the King of Coal, and our own Stephen Harper are BFFs.  At some point Abbott might need Steve's help to get his family out of Australia and into some bearable part of Canada.

Just a Matter of Time

Mini-drones, hand-launched devices that can deliver small payloads on flights of 15-minutes or more.  The Genie is out of the bottle and proof came in the form of a small drone found on the lawns of the White House.

The Secret Service is investigating.  Initial reports say the drone was harmless.

This is a wake-up call.  Technologies already on the market are incredibly sophisticated and they're cheap.  They can fly remotely with GPS guidance or you can control them from your i-Pad or Android phone with a real-time wi-fi video link.

That's the civilian side of micro-drones.  The military stuff is genuinely scary and it's almost certain that, at some point, a rogue state will pass along advanced drones to non-state actors - terrorists, insurgents, criminals you name it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

But Gosh It Sure Looks Purty

One of the great threats facing mankind discussed at this year's World Economic Forum meeting in Davos is algae blooms triggered by agricultural run off into coastal waters and freshwater lakes and rivers.

Some are red, some are green, but the residents of Hong Kong are being treated to a lovely, glowing blue faux algae this year.

The luminescence is an algal bloom created by Noctiluca scintillans, nicknamed "sea sparkle." When disturbed by currents or waves, the bloom glows. "It looks like algae and can act like algae. But it's not quite," wrote Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. "Noctiluca is a type of single-cell life that eats plankton and is eaten by other species."

So why is it toxic? Such blooms are caused by farm pollution. "The plankton and Noctiluca become more abundant when nitrogen and phosphorous from farm run-off increase," Borenstein wrote, "Noctiluca'srole as both prey and predator can eventually magnify the accumulation of algae toxins in the food chain."

The beauty of Noctiluca scintillans is lethal. Such is the case in the Arabian Sea, where a biological dead zone the size of Texas is filled with the species. The resulting "emerald swirls" are large enough to been seen from space.

But Noctiluca scintillans can be lethal to plants and animals. Scientists think the dead zone was created when the species killed off native algae and compromised the fish population. Gwynn Guilford of Quartz wrote: "Few animals can survive 'dead zones' of oxygen-poor water. As the scientists discovered, N. scintillans thrives in these conditions…. And once a dead zone sets in, it's hard for the ocean to recover."

Huge, anoxic "dead zones" have become the new normal in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Oregon.  Inland waters are succumbing to algae also.  In 2013, Lake Winnipeg earned top place as the world's most threatened lake.

“Lake Winnipeg is a symbol of a much larger problem”, says Bob Sandford, chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the U.N. Water for Life Decade. “It is not just Manitoba that deserves a black-eye for this distinction”, he added. “Recent research demonstrates that the toxic bacteria contributing to the declining health of Lake Winnipeg, has now been detected in 246 water bodies across Canada, at levels exceeding guidelines in every province. That these problems exist right across the country is an issue of national health and environmental concern.”

In August, residents of Toledo faced a ban on tap water use when the city's Lake Erie water supply became contaminated with blue-green algae.  The water ban extended to Pelee Islanders the following month.  Beaches were closed and residents were warned not to swim, bathe or cook in the local water.

Most concerning is the notion that the toxins in these algae blooms can pass from prey to predator and, through the process known as bio-concentration, spread through food chains to the very top.

Religion's Twelve Deadly Sins

Alternet's Valerie Tarico has written an insightful piece about 12-concepts, integral to organized religions, that "promote conflict, cruelty, suffering and death rather than love and peace."

First up is the concept of "chosen people" - that separates believers from non-believers, the believers alone linked to God.   Then there's the companion concept of "heretics."  Again, non-believers.  Call for the headsman!

Religions have also introduced us to the notion of Holy War.  Gott Mit Uns, that sort of thing.  When Muslims do it we call it Jihad.  When we do it, it's just getting rid of Satan.  Man has been doing it for thousands of years and, it seems, it never gets old.

Then there's "blasphemy" - the crime of saying things that offend religious doctrine.  The Bible has a cure for that - death.

Religions have also introduced us to the notion of "glorified suffering" and who doesn't love a martyr who suffers agony and death in the name of God.  The Catholic church loves them, makes them saints.  Islam goes a step further and provides them with explosive vests.

"Genital mutilation."  Alright, let's get real - circumcision.  No illustration required.

"Blood sacrifice."  It's more than killing goats.

Then there's the trump card, the ace in the hole, "Hell."  It's an awful place.  It's forever and ever.  And it's where you go if you don't do what the nice man at the front of the church tells you to do.  The nice thing is, it never gets old.  We do and, as we draw ever nearer to our final exit, Hell looms ever larger.

Religions that go the reincarnation route fall back on "Karma."  Stay in line or else you'll pay for it in the next life when you return as a toilet seat.

If life on Earth is brutal and nasty, don't fret, there's always the afterlife.  That's your payoff, "Eternal Life."  Now, don't forget to tithe and, remember, the guy with the keys to Heaven, he's counting.

"Male Ownership of Female Fertility."  I'll let you get this directly from Val:
"The notion of women as brood mares or children as assets likely didn’t originate with religion, but the idea that women were created for this purpose, that if a woman should die of childbearing “she was made to do it,” most certainly did. Traditional religions variously assert that men have a god-ordained right to give women in marriage, take them in war, exclude them from heaven, and kill them if the origins of their offspring can’t be assured. Hence Catholicism’s maniacal obsession with the virginity of Mary and female martyrs."

And last, but by no means least, "Bibliolatry."  This is book worship so integral to all modern religions.  It binds the faithful to notions of what is and isn't, right and wrong, as envisioned way back in ancient times when writing was discovered.  We know that the apostles didn't write their chapters of the New Testament.  Somebody else did.  But, hey, it's in writing so it's magical, divine.

It's particularly prevalent in religious fundamentalism whether Islamic, Judaic or Christian.  There are plenty of Christian fundamentalists who hold a fierce belief in Biblical Inerrancy.  No matter how contradictory, no matter how vague or at odds with reality, it's the Word of God and that's all there is to it.

I urge you to read the entire article here.

A Nation Vexed by Anti-Vaxxers?

There's a cult in the United States that's come to be called the "Anti-Vaxxers." The term describes parents who prevent their kids from receiving ordinary medical vaccinations. They claim the vaccines are a greater threat to their children's health than the diseases they're intended to ward off.

A recent study found that these anti-vaxxers often live in clusters, such as California's Orange County, increasing the prospects for transmission of the diseases against which their children are unprotected.

For the most part the anti-vaxxers are liberals who have allowed themselves to lapse into belief-based instead of fact-based decision making.

Now they've been told to keep their kids clear of Disneyland where 51-measles cases have been linked.

..the deputy director of California’s Center for Infectious Diseases announced that the theme park is no longer safe for the unvaccinated — the status of over 80 percent of those infected. The outbreak has spread to five states and Mexico, and includes six infants who were too young to have received the vaccine. A full quarter of the patients so far had to be hospitalized. And for 24 unvaccinated children in Orange County, where the theme park is located, school is no longer safe, either: They were told to stay home for three weeks after it emerged that an infected student had shown up on campus earlier this month.

So what's considered "the most contagious disease in the world", measles is now spreading from a theme park and into schools and, obviously, into the general community because a gaggle of contrarian parents knew better than the medical professionals.

Don’t expect, in other words, that modern medical advances will protect us from the ravages of measles — vaccines are the modern medical advancement that were doing a fine job of things until the misguided decisions of a few sacrificed the protection of herd immunity for all of us. If anything, the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs could make a modern-day measles epidemic even deadlier. The continual frustration is that measles was effectively eliminated from this country in 2000, but all it took was enough people buying into the junk science telling them that vaccines aren’t safe to give the disease a new foothold.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ditto What Australia Said. America Can Be a "Dangerous Ally"

Former Australian prime minister (1975-83), Malcolm Fraser, fears his country's dependence on the United States could drag Australia into a war not of its own choosing, a war with China.

In Fraser's book, he describes how Australia's blind faith in the UK before World War II left the country unprepared for war. He then goes on to say that currently many feel more vulnerable because of the country's dependence on the United States. What Fraser and many Australian leaders fears most is that the United States will get Australia involved in a coflict not of its own making. "Australia effectively ceded to America the ability to decide when Australia goes to war," said Fraser.

Fraser labelled the United States a "dangerous ally" as Australia has become progressively more enmeshed in American strategic and military affairs since the end of Cold War.

Just as with the armed conflicts in the Middle East, Fraser said that the conflict in Ukraine took place partially due to Washington's attempt to include Ukraine in NATO. He went on to blame the United States lack of historical understanding towards Russia on the matter.

Washington's policy to "contain" China can eventually lead to trouble for Australia. Believing that the United States will eventually use Australia as a base to attack China, Fraser suggested the removal of all American military facilities from Darwin in the north and Pine Gap in the center of the country as soon as possible. The former Australian leader added that the country should be more independent of the United States in both defense and foreign affairs. While recommending that Australia shore up its diplomatic activities throughout Asia and at the UN, he also suggested an increase in defense spending to 3% of the country's GDP.

When All the King's Horses and All the King's Men Can't.

The Atlantic's James Fallows was interviewed on Bill Maher's show last night. The discussion focused on Fallows' article in the latest edition, "The Tragedy of the American Military."

One point that Fallows addresses is how the mightiest, most costly and best equipped military in the world lost America's last two wars - in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Fallows accuses the American people of becoming a Chickenhawk Nation, plenty eager to go to war as long as someone else is sent to do the killing and the dying.

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”

...Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.

Fallows deals with the modern collapse of accountability in top military ranks.

During and after even successful American wars, and certainly after the standoff in Korea and the defeat in Vietnam, the professional military’s leadership and judgment were considered fair game for criticism. Grant saved the Union; McClellan seemed almost to sabotage it—and he was only one of the Union generals Lincoln had to move out of the way. Something similar was true in wars through Vietnam. Some leaders were good; others were bad. Now, for purposes of public discussion, they’re all heroes. In our past decade’s wars, as Thomas Ricks wrote in this magazine in 2012, “hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.” This, he said, was not only a radical break from American tradition but also “an important factor in the failure” of our recent wars.

The author goes on to link the American public's detachment from their military with the madness of modern military procurement.

America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops (see “Gun Trouble,” by Robert H. Scales, in this issue).

We know that technology is our military’s main advantage. Yet the story of the post-9/11 “long wars” is of America’s higher-tech advantages yielding transitory victories that melt away before the older, messier realities of improvised weapons, sectarian resentments, and mounting hostility to occupiers from afar, however well-intentioned. Many of the Pentagon’s most audacious high-tech ventures have been costly and spectacular failures, including (as we will see) the major air-power project of recent years, the F-35. In an America connected to its military, such questions of strategy and implementation would be at least as familiar as, say, the problems with the Common Core education standards.

Fallows reserves special attention for the overpriced, overdue and under-performing F-35.

“Political engineering,” a term popularized by a young Pentagon analyst named Chuck Spinney in the 1970s, is pork-barrel politics on the grandest scale. Cost overruns sound bad if someone else is getting the extra money. They can be good if they are creating business for your company or jobs in your congressional district. Political engineering is the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.

The next big project the Air Force is considering is the Long Range Strike Bomber, a successor to the B-1 and B-2 whose specifications include an ability to do bombing runs deep into China. (A step so wildly reckless that the U.S. didn’t consider it even when fighting Chinese troops during the Korean War.) By the time the plane’s full costs and capabilities become apparent, Chuck Spinney wrote last summer, the airplane, “like the F-35 today, will be unstoppable.” That is because even now its supporters are building the plane’s “social safety net by spreading the subcontracts around the country, or perhaps like the F-35, around the world.”

...In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. [Here is that memo.] He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.

...Seth Moulton, a few days after his victory in last fall’s congressional race, said that the overall quality and morale of people in the military has dramatically improved since the days of a conscript force. “But it’s become populated, especially at the highest ranks, by careerists, people who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks,” he told me. “Some of the finest officers I knew were lieutenants who knew they were getting out, so weren’t afraid to make the right decision. I know an awful lot of senior officers who are very afraid to make a tough choice because they’re worried how it will look on their fitness report.” This may sound like a complaint about life in any big organization, but it’s something more. There’s no rival Army or Marine Corps you can switch to for a new start. There’s almost no surmounting an error or a black mark on the fitness or evaluation reports that are the basis for promotions.

Obviously America's cultural-political-military problems are an order of magnitude greater - and worse - than what  confronts us today in Canada.  Yet we too are a society detached from our military, a people too willing to support sending our soldiers into unwinnable wars by Chickenhawk politicians to suit their own ends and often led by ticket punchers that populate the highest ranks.  

America wasn't alone in losing the Afghan war.  We lost it too.  Every ISAF contingent lost that war.  Yet we don't speak of that.  We'll have no scrutiny of what went wrong and what went right, no post-mortem, without which we're entirely vulnerable to making the same blunders in our eagerness to send other young Canadians into harm's way whenever the coalition horns sound.  

No one has dared ask Harper why we lost.  We have on record his declaration of what we were fighting for in Afghanistan and what we were determined, even bound to achieve.  In that, our prime minister set the bar that determines victory or defeat for our Afghan campaign and, by his boastful criteria, we failed.  We didn't even have a solitary defeat because Harper kept lowering the bar as the war dragged on until, at the end, success was so hollowed out as to become a function of getting our troops and the bulk of our equipment out of Afghanistan. 

It wasn't the sergeants and corporals or the lieutenants and captains who let us down.  They fought admirably.  By elimination that leaves our political and military leadership who must be held accountable but they're not talking. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Said the Man With the 145-Foot Yacht

He made his billions in real estate but Jeff Greene could have had a great career in stand-up.

Greene's private jet was one of 1,700 that conveyed the rich and powerful to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos now underway.

In an interview with Bloomberg, the real estate entrepreneur, 60, with an estimated wealth of $3 billion said Americans have too high expectations of how their lives should be.

"America’s lifestyle expectations are far too high and need to be adjusted so we have less things and a smaller, better existence," he said.

"We need to reinvent our whole system of life."

Greene, who is on the Forbes 400 list, lives in Palm Beach, Florida, where he founded Florida Sunshine Investments, but also owns a string of luxurious properties across the US.

He added: "I’m remarkably long for my level of pessimism.

"Our economy is in deep trouble. We need to be honest with ourselves. We’ve had a realistic level of job destruction, and those jobs aren’t coming back."

"A realistic level of job destruction" indeed.  Of course it's hard to tell just what that means to a guy who raked in billions by gaming the sub-prime mortgage markets.  I expect the world looks a lot different when you're on the top perch of the vaunted 1%.  

It's Three Minutes to Midnight

The Cold War relic, the Doomsday Clock, has been moved two minutes and is now set at three minutes to midnight.

"Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernisation of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity,” said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in Chicago, the group of scientists which set the clock.

Although the clock is essentially a barometer, it is set by a team that includes 17 Nobel Prize winners and is taken extremely seriously.

The committee pointed out that greenhouse gas emissions have soared by 50 per cent since 1990, while more than £660bn of investment floods into fossil fuel infrastructure every year.

“The resulting climate change will harm millions of people and will threaten many key ecological systems on which civilisation relies. This threat looms over all of humanity,” said committee member Richard Somerville.

The report also raised considerable concerns about nuclear weapons.
“Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a cautious optimism about the ability of nuclear weapon states to keep the nuclear arms race in check and to walk back slowly from the precipice of nuclear destruction,” said Sharon Squassoni, a member of the clock committee.

“That optimism has essentially evaporated in the face of two trends: sweeping nuclear weapon modernisation programmes and a disarmament machinery that has ground to a halt,” she added.

The last time the clock read three minutes to midnight was in 1983 when “US-Soviet relations were at their iciest” according to the bulletin.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

CBC Folds, Finally. On-Air Talent Barred from Paid Speaking Gigs.

Was it Amanda Lang's excesses or the scolding Mother Corp got from the Guardian's George Monbiot?

In an email to CBC staff shared with Canada.com, top management told reporters all staff must get approval to appear at conferences or to moderate debates or events. It also notes, “CBC/Radio-Canada will no longer approve paid appearances by its on-air journalistic employees.”

The news comes after a slew of controversies over stars at CBC taking money for speaking at events. From chief business correspondent Amanda Lang to chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, the broadcaster has previously defended the practice as separate from their journalistic activities.

Is Harper Collaborating With the Saudi Princes to Crush Their Shiite Minority?

Stephen Harper is beginning to catch a bit of flack over the sale of 15-billion dollars worth of Canadian-built light armoured fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

At first blush it's hard to understand what Saudi Arabia, that already has a significant armoured force but shows no inclination to use it except to suppress pro-democracy dissidents in places like Bahrain, wants with those LAVs.  Maybe it's got something to do with this, the simmering religious conflict between the Sunni House of Saud and Shiite Iran.  Could the Saudis be gearing up to crush their own Shiite minority?

Last October, Saudi Arabia’s Special Criminal Court sentenced Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr — a popular Shi’ite cleric and outspoken political dissident — to death.

This was not an ordinary criminal trial, even considering Saudi Arabia’s liberal use of capital punishment. Among other charges, the prosecutor sought to convict al-Nimr of “waging war on God” and “aiding terrorists,” even calling for the cleric to be publicly executed by “crucifixion.” In Saudi Arabia, this rare method of execution entails beheading the individual before publicly displaying his decapitated body.

The widely revered Shi’ite cleric was ultimately convicted of “disobeying” the king, waging violence against the state, inviting “foreign meddling” in the kingdom, inciting vandalism and sectarian violence, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s relatives. However, al-Nimr’s family and supportersclaim that the ruling was politically driven and insist that the cleric led a non-violent movement committed to promoting Shi’ite rights, women’s rights, and democratic reform in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian Shi’ites have long complained of state-sponsored discrimination and human rights abuses by conservative Sunni authorities.According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabian Shi’ites “face systematic discrimination in religion, education, justice, and employment.”

In early 2011, anti-government protests erupted in the Qatif district of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is home to nearly all of Saudi Arabia’s 3 million Shi’ite citizens and nearly one-fifth of the world’s oil supply. Throughout 2011 and 2012, al-Nimr was a leader in these protests, in which activists demanded the release of the “forgotten prisoners” — a reference to nine political prisoners who had been detained then for some 16 years.

After Saudi Arabian, Emirati, and Kuwaiti forces entered Bahrain to help quell a non-violent Shi’ite uprising in the tiny island kingdom, Saudi Shi’ites expressed solidarity with their Bahraini counterparts. This prompted officials in Riyadh to fear that growing Shi’ite dissent could trigger a crisis in the strategically vital Eastern Province, which borders several other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations. So between March 2011 and August 2012, the Saudi government waged a harsh crackdown on Shi’ite protestors, killing over 20, injuring several dozen, and detaining over 1,000 others, including 24 children.

Abdullah, the one with the beard, died today, age 90.

When you supply 15-billion dollars worth of armoured fighting vehicles to a gang of double-dealing cutthroats like the House of Saud, you're complicit in whatever they do with them.  Prominent Saudis like Prince Bandar bin Sultan have openly stated that the Saudis are gearing up to exterminate Shia Islam.

Some time before 9/11, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the powerful Saudi ambassador in Washington and head of Saudi intelligence until a few months ago, had a revealing and ominous conversation with the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. Prince Bandar told him: "The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them."

More here, here and here.

Salvaging Order Out of Chaos

I don't want to blame America for this but, somehow, on its unipolar watch, much of the world was set ablaze.

It's not just Afghanistan (along with neighbouring Pakistan) and Iraq although they're both beset by violence by non-state actors they simply cannot quell. Syria, ditto.  Libya, same same.  Lebanon, it's on the cusp.  Yemen, who can tell what's going on there.

Then you've got the African charnel houses.  Central African Republic, check. Congo, check.  Somalia and Sudan, check.

Did I mention Mexico?  Well there's some wholesale carnage going on there.  As for Guatemala and Honduras, they're pretty much out of sight, out of mind for the West.

Southeast and East Asia.  Order more or less prevails, for now, but it's a seller's market for modern instruments of mayhem, especially submarines.  Why the city state of Singapore needs six modern submarines, I'm not sure.  Vietnam is deploying modern Russian u-boats with missile capability and the open secret is they're intended to deter China.  Japan may be on the verge of shredding the last vestiges of its post-WWII pacifism, especially if it can score an order from Australia for new submarines.  The F-35?  Korea's in, so are Japan and Australia. Can't imagine what they've got in mind for those.

Sorry about this but I'm just working off the top of my head.  Apologies to all the hell holes I inadvertently overlooked, places like Ukraine and the Stans.

The bedeviling part of this is that most of these conflicts are what are termed "new wars" to distinguish them from "old wars" of the sort we're familiar with that were typically conducted between state-actors.  New wars are like a floor party at an asylum, everyone's invited and the cutlery drawer is unlocked. They're a melange of state-actors, quasi-state actors, non-state actors and a smattering of garden variety criminals and thugs.

Old wars tended to have winners and losers.  Wars past were ordinarily fought for something discernible that could define victory for the winner and defeat for the less fortunate side.  And there were "sides" which, we're finding, really helps keep the conflict focused.  New wars can be pretty wobbly with the participants pursuing their own objectives that might not be compatible with lasting alliances. Yesterday's ally can be today's adversary.  It's like herding seriously feral cats that are armed to the teeth and are equally skilled in assassination and improvised explosive devices.  In other words it's best not to rely too heavily on the old "my enemy's enemy" rule.

The overall situation is, well, chaotic.  There's really no better word for it.  The global litter box is getting pretty ripe and there are a lot of repeat customers lining up for their next turn.  A report prepared for the World Economic Forum meeting now underway in Davos, Switzerland, warns that the risk of inter-state conflict over resources is looming.  And the focus is on water - who will get it and who will have to go without.

We may have to wait a few years to discover whether those will be fought as new wars or old wars.  Wars of subsistence, wars of survival, resource wars.  It brings a new dimension to "losing."  What do you do after your neighbour gets control of your water?  Move, I suppose, if you can.  Try to get your kids to some place where they've still got water.  Migration.

The World Economic Forum has even released a lovely chart as part of its Global Risks 2015 report that lists threats according to their impact and probability.  It makes pulling double shifts in an ebola ward seem not all that bad.

Surely this is somehow futuristic.  These identified troubles lie well off on the horizon.  Actually, no.  The WEF report is based on a 10-year time frame.  These are calamitous, catastrophic events you can expect to read about over the next decade.

Some of the countries at risk of resource war are already immersed in conflict, usually religion or ethnic-driven.  Others are on the cusp of conflict.  New meat for the butcher.

For a while I hoped this chaos might lead to the emergence of a new, bi-polar world order.  Impaired little states would seek the patronage of either the US or China and we'd be back to something resembling the good old days before the Soviet Union imploded.  I no longer think that's going to happen.

The major players, the US and China, are facing enormous environmental challenges at home.  Both are very vulnerable to catastrophic sea level rise.  Both have major, low-lying coastal cities and infrastructure.  Both face dwindling freshwater reserves.  China has an enormous pollution and contamination threat affecting air, water and its soil.  The United States is bracing for a probable mass-migration out of Central America.  Russia fears China has plans to relocate excess population to sparsely populated Siberia. India and Pakistan fear that China has plans to scoop their shared resource, the Himalayan headwaters.

As for Canada, it might be wise to give up our fantasies of foreign intervention. We have a lot of turf to protect, a lot of resources to secure with, by world standards, a minuscule population.  We must revisit our priorities and perhaps focus more on long-term goals like overhauling and upgrading our essential infrastructure to meet the demands of the harsher climate era, the anthropocene, we're now entering.  We can't even begin to secure our own borders against a determined challenger.  We could start by looking at the world as it is, not the world we delude ourselves into believing we can make it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It's Nearly "Duffy Time" Again

We're just over two months away from the start of the trial of senator Mike Duffy.  It's scheduled to open April 7 and continue to May 12, when it will adjourn to be completed from June 1 to 19.  That's 41 court days in all.

With trial prep, motions and 41 days in court, that adds up to one huge legal bill for a guy who, rumour has it, is somewhat impecunious.

I'm guessing those will be the longest 41 days in the political career of Stephen Joseph Harper.  It could turn into an ordeal for a lot of the players including the PMO types and the Tory Senate leadership.

The known facts raise far more questions than they answer.  People are going to be examined and cross-examined on a number of those issues, some of which go uncomfortably close to the prime minister himself.

I'm surprised this has gone on as long as it has and I'll be even more surprised if the trial proceeds in April.   I thought this might be settled with a quiet plea bargain deal - no time/conditional sentence/various charges withdrawn - over the Christmas break.  Anything, just make it go away soon to put as much distance as possible between Duffy and the next election.

That hasn't happened and I'll spend some time over the next couple of weeks to see if I can find out why.

The Winter That Wasn't

I put a stand of firewood in my garage this year figuring it would spare me having to go out to the woodshed in back on cold winter nights.  I figured it would hold enough firewood to get through maybe six weeks of winter heating. As things are looking now, the modest cache in the garage won't even need refilling this winter.

Crocuses and daffs are coming up.  Trees are budding.  The herbs are re-awakening.  Before long it'll be time to fire up the lawnmower.

I never did get to dig out my snow shovel from the dark recesses of the garden shed.  We had a sprinkling of snow, maybe half an inch, one morning but it was gone as fast as it had arrived.

My daughter has noticed it too.  She figures we've entered a "sweater" climate. Her fireplace now turns her home into an oven so it's easier and more pleasant for all concerned just to throw on a sweater.

It's something of an annual rite of passage out here to needle our Eastern kin with accounts of early spring sprouting while they're still digging out from the latest blizzard.  It used to be good fun.  It's not funny any more.

What does this warming mean?  For urban dwellers it brings some obvious benefits in even lower heating costs and driveways that go from one year to the next without need of clearing.  But we share this big, sparsely populated, island with a great variety of wildlife for which this change may hold ominous consequences.

Warm winters mean reduced mountain snowpack.  That snowpack plays a vital role, especially during our summer "drought" months.  It's essential for salmon to spawn.  Not enough fresh water to dilute the seawater at the mouths of spawning rivers and the salmon will simply not head upstream.  If they do go up and spawn it takes a steady flow of cooling meltwater to keep their eggs from overheating and dying.  And, of course, the salmon spawn is critical for the survival of bears, wolves, eagles and scavengers of all sorts.

Those of us who live along the coasts - Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic - tend to see the changing climate perhaps a little more clearly than the inland population. From early-onset sea level rise to marine species migration there is a range of changes showing up at our doorsteps.  And just noticing it makes you wonder, okay, what's coming next?