Tuesday, September 02, 2014

NATO - You're Not the Master of the Universe. Now, Stand Down.

NATO's outgoing CEO, er Secretary-General, Anders 'Foggy' Rasmussen, should really send caviar and roses to Vladimir Putin.  NATO hasn't done all that well on Foggy's watch - the cock-up in Libya, the hapless adventure in Afghanistan everybody would rather forget, the absorption of new members from eastern Europe more eager to get under NATO's umbrella than to pull their own weight.

Until Putin made his move on the Crimea, NATO had the makings of an alliance without much purpose and a very spotty track record.  Desultory is a word that comes to mind.

NATO needed a real enemy, someone we could all perceive as a direct threat to us, the world. Libyans or Afghans didn't really count. Small potatoes.

Along came Vlad and the Crimea to make our dreams come true.  They're Back!!! Those awful Russians with their awful ways.  Let's mobilize.  Assemble the fleet, set sail.  Prowl the skies with those fighters.  Parade the Legion.  We've got barbarians at the gate - and just in time!

Except I don't know that the people of the "old NATO" nations are up for another nuclear superpower confrontation.   We've done that once.  It was a costly, unproductive, and sometimes worrisome pain in the ass.  One Cuban missile crisis is enough for one lifetime.  We know that there are too many people on our side, people like Foggy Rasmussen, who are just too keen to get a new cold war stoked up.

We've been pushing Russia's buttons ever since George H.W. Bush promised Gorbachev that, if only East Germany was allowed to come into NATO's fold, the alliance would never extend further eastward.  One provocation atop another - until NATO was parked on Moscow's doorstep.

Enough.  The world is going to be up to its alligators in existential threats this century.  We don't need an ersatz cold war added to it.  Let's focus on ways to try to get through this century with mankind more or less intact instead of engineering ways to see there is no next century.  Enough.

Stock Up on AK-47s. They're a Hot Commodity.

They're flying off the shelves of gunstores across the United States.  Russian AK-47 assault rifles have become a hot commodity literally overnight since they were added to Obama's import restrictions as part of America's sanctions.

Thirty-six hours after the Obama administration banned importation of the classic brand of AK-47 assault rifles as part of sanctions against Russia, a Maryland dealer specialising in the weapon took stock of its inventory.

There was nothing left.

Labouring almost nonstop, workers at Atlantic Firearms in Bishopville, a Worcester County community on the Eastern Shore, had shipped hundreds of Russian-made AK-47s — an assault rifle prized by both consumers and despots — as buyers wiped out gun dealers' inventories around the country. The frenzy was brought on, in part, by a suspicion among some gun owners that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was a backdoor excuse to ban guns many Democrats don't like. Some customers bought eight to 10 rifles for nearly $US1000 ($1071) each or more, stockpiling them as investments.

"The gun community moved very, very quickly," said Blaine Bunting, President of Atlantic Firearms. "I don't see this ban going away."

The AK-47 buying frenzy presents yet another example of a paradoxical consequence of trying to limit gun sales: booming demand. During the debate over the measure commonly called the ­Brady Bill in the 1990s, gun purchases skyrocketed. When the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, sales soared again. When President Obama tried to pass sweeping gun control laws after the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, some dealers even sold out of ammunition.

It's Called "Virtual Water"

Water-stressed Israel realized this year ago when it recognized that its exports of Jaffa oranges were really exporting "virtual water."  It took scarce water to grow the orange and when it left the country for overseas markets it was full of water.

Fast forward to 2014 and drought-stricken California.  The BBC reports that California farmers are using billions of gallons of incredibly scarce water to grow alfalfa hay destined for China.

The southern Imperial Valley, which borders Mexico, draws its water from the Colorado River along the blue liquid lifeline of the All American Canal.

It brings the desert alive with hundreds of hectares of lush green fields - much of it alfalfa hay, a water-hungry but nutritious animal feed which once propped up the dairy industry here, and is now doing a similar job in China.

"A hundred billion gallons of water per year is being exported in the form of alfalfa from California," argues Professor Robert Glennon from Arizona College of Law.

"It's a huge amount.  It's enough for a year's supply for a million families - it's a lot of water, particularly when you're looking at the dreadful drought throughout the south-west." 

Why China?  It's because of China's one-way trade with the United States. Chinese goods reach the American mainland in ocean shipping containers that then have to go back empty.  The glut of empty containers makes alfalfa exports to China cheap, cheap, cheap.  It's cheaper to ship Imperial Valley alfalfa to China than to transport it to California's central valley ranchers.

Well, kids, welcome to globalization.

Pentagon Exploits Tensions Over Ukraine, Pushes for Multi-Purpose Sensor Chain Across Canada's Arctic

Arrest that Man, He's From Russia!

They sure know how to pick their opportunities.

At the very moment NATO leaders are in Wales fretting over what to do with Vlad Putin and the future of Ukraine, America's brass are floating the idea of establishing a "multi-purpose sensor chain" across the vast Canadian Arctic.

Exactly what they have in mind isn't immediately clear but would entail sensors that could detect and track aircraft, ships and even cruise missiles as well as a missile attack from North Korea.  It's not the same as stationing missile interceptor batteries on Canadian soil but it would certainly integrate with America's missile defence system.

NORAD commander, US general Charles Jacoby, put it this way:  "If Canada decided not to belong to missile defence, then I'm sure that they would continue to play all of their robust roles that they play in missile warning and in other NORAD missions.  And if they did decide (to join), I'm sure we'd take great advantage of the capabilities and commitment that Canada brings to every mission."

After that one, you just might want to take a wet-nap to your butt cheek.

NATO Leaders Huddle and Fume While Putin Chuckles

NATO's Drang Nach Osten

There'll be an absolute glut of righteous indignation when NATO leaders convene this week in Wales to decide whatever to do with that big bad bully, the Russian Bear, Vladimir Putin.  Meanwhile, as The Guardian's Simon Jenkins writes, Putin will be kicking back in Red Square laughing his ass off.

It is currently impossible to hear a speech or open a newspaper in which defence experts do not beat their breasts, bang their drums and demand "the west stand firm... show resolve... teach Russia a lesson... show Putin who is boss."  They call for more economic sanctions - which have never seemed more counterproductive.  They demand backing for Ukraine, aid for Kiev, support for other border states, more spearhead battalions and seemingly endless rapid reaction forces.  But they all end up asserting "we cannot mean war" and "a diplomatic solution is inevitable.

All intelligence out of Moscow says the same, that this bombast merely emboldens Putin.  He can do what he wants in eastern Ukraine, because he has an army there and it enjoys widespread support among the Russian-speaking population.  There is no question Putin has infringed the integrity of Ukrainian sovereignty. But so did America in its Latin American "sphere of influence" during the cold war.  Meanwhile, Britain kowtowed to China for economic gain and Olympic glory when Beijing was treating Tibet far worse.

Foreign policy always involves double standards.  The best policy is to avoid one's own weaknesses and instead test those of one's opponents.  Peace and trade were slowly eroding the juggernaut of Russian power across eastern Europe. Now Nato's pseudo-support for Kiev has played to Putin's one strength: his support among Russian peoples along his borders.  Kiev, the EU and Nato have played a dangerous game with Russia over Ukraine for years.  Putin has laid down a marker for an armistice, talks on autonomy, one that is bound to look like a victory for him.  It is for Kiev to pick it up.  Nato can go on swilling champagne in Wales.

Mr. Prime Minister, One of These Is Almost Exactly Like the Other

- Steve Bell, The Guardian

Sometimes In Life, It's the Little Things That Matter

It's really a little thing.  A little worse.  A little more frequent.  A little longer lasting.  A little more severe.  A little more damaging.

That's the face of early onset climate change. It's the face of severe weather events of increasing frequency, intensity and duration.  It's weather made a little worse, a little more often, a little longer.  Yet it is, indeed, the little things that can really matter.

A little heavier rain, an extra day or two, once or twice more often per month. The thing is, all these little things add up and they multiply the overall impact and the long-term damage.  For example, metro Detroit got hit with more flash flooding yesterday.  That, by my count, is the fourth or fifth incident in the past two months.  That might even be something of a record.  That area is just full of records.  They experienced a record cold winter thanks to the Polar Vortex. Record snowfalls too.  Now record floods.  They can't seem to catch a break.

The little things count.  In many urban areas, infrastructure was designed and built for another climate from another time when population demands were a good deal less pressing.  With the passage of time and steady growth, infrastructure systems that were once ideal become old and increasingly inadequate to meet demand. Then you compound that with climate change impacts that were never foreseen by planners even twenty years ago and, quite suddenly, you can find yourself overwhelmed, your infrastructure overtaken by events.

Canada's premiers know we need a major infrastructure programme and it's needed urgently.  They're dealing with a prime minister for whom what the provinces and the Canadian people need doesn't matter much.  Why bother about pressing and costly needs at home when you can get all the press you need by howling at Vlad Putin to the delight of the media's trained seals?

Feed'Em or Weep

They're finally figuring it out.  An editorial from The Dallas Morning News warns that unless the US launches a major food relief effort to Central America, the country faces a tsunami of refugees fleeing to the US to escape famine.

The swarm of immigrants who came across the border this year, including more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors, could wind up paling in comparison to an immigration crisis looming on the horizon. Famine is a growing concern across Central America because of persistent drought. 
...The next wave ...could be driven by a much more formidable force: abject hunger. Central America is in the middle of a serious two-year drought. USAID’s Famine Early Warning System stated in early August that Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua are on the verge of a food crisis because of growing, widespread crop failures from scant rainfall. In some areas, rainfall is 50 percent to 75 percent below average.
The drought also is affecting Costa Rica and Panama. Panama Canal operations are on the verge of being curtailed because of declining levels on the freshwater lake that comprises the bulk of the canal route.
Elsewhere, farm output is expected to drop as much as 70 percent. Prices for staple foods like maize and beans are escalating. A coffee bean blight is adding to economic woes. Thousands of Central Americans who rely on subsistence farming no longer know where their meals will come from. The famine report warns that the need for food could cause residents to pack up and leave.
“This situation is particularly critical in northern Nicaragua, where the drought has had the greatest impact,” the famine report says. “These factors will force households in the areas of concern to implement atypical response strategies including atypical migration and sale of household assets.”
The editorial argues for the use of food aid to relieve famine and as an incentive for Central Americans to stay put.

Monday, September 01, 2014

London Has Denounced It. So Has Washington. Why the Complicit Silence from Canada?

Israel has just taken another massive bite out of the Palestinian West Bank homeland.  Britain has condemned the land grab, so has Washington.

As for Canada, "what land grab?"  As Harper reminds us, we don't practice sociology.  It took Mulcair and Trudeau to demonstrate that we don't do integrity either, not when we're suckholing for votes.

Busting the Cartel

this country should no longer tolerate a situation 
where the public interest in so vital a field as information[is] dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen” 

That was the seminal conclusion of the 1969 Davey Commission report into Canada's mass media.  It was a warning about the danger to ordinary Canadians and "the public interest" posed by press barons who dominated the media through concentration of ownership and media cross-ownership.

In today's neoliberal Canada, Davey's warnings are more valid than ever but of no moment whatsoever to either the corporate media cartel or the politicians of all stripes who collude with them.  That's not just Harper's Conservatives either.  You won't hear Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair rise to the defence of the public interest against the predations of the powerful media cartel, a malignancy loose on the land that endangers our democratic freedoms.

For both Mulcair and Trudeau, the status quo suits them.  They court today's corporate media barons in hope that the favour will be reciprocated, that there'll be an electoral reach around for them at the end of the day, preferably when the public gets steered to the voting booths.

In 1990, just 17.3% of Canadian newspapers were independently owned. Troubling as that should be, by 2005 that had plummeted to just 1%.  One per cent, that's it.

A handy summary of the Davey Report and the 1981 Kent Commission report can be found here.  What is most telling about these reports is that almost nothing was done about them, their warnings went unheeded and the deplorable results they predicted have all come to pass.

In psychology it's sometimes called "triangulation" - the outcome that occurs when the relationship among three parties is altered so that two parties come together to the exclusion of the third.  The ousted party usually fares poorly at the hands of the other two.  In Canada, as in other increasingly authoritarian states, triangulation has occurred through the collaboration of powerful media interests and the political classes to the exclusion - and detriment - of the public.

The lone voice in Parliament to address this fiasco is the Green Party's.  That party's platform provides, "Access to information.  Seek true solutions to the increasing corporate control in Canadian journalism.  Whatever is "dumbed down" must be "smartened up." Call it trite, if you will.  Call it banal.  It is the only party to commit to at least easing corporate control in Canadian journalism.

Canada, like any other country, is facing a very challenging century that will require real social cohesion for us to see it through.  That, in turn, demands a highly-informed electorate, people with enough quality information to make the decisions real democracy requires of them.  Achieving that demands the breakup of the corporate media cartel and the compulsory divestiture of their holdings.

Paying the Bagpiper

Few are more familiar with stealth that our own prime minister, Steve Harper. He's a master at incrementalism, the dark art of achieving unacceptable goals by a succession of steps, so small and seemingly innocuous that no one really notices in time to object.  Harper is also a master at saying one thing while doing just the opposite behind the scenes.

Harper is all for Canada having a muscular foreign policy and punching above its weight on the world stage or at least that's how he wants red meat Canadians to see him.  In reality, it's all so much self-serving hot air from our prime ministerial blowhard.

For years, Harper has been stealthily defunding Canada's armed forces.  Spending on the armed forces has now reached a low of just 1% of GDP.  That's half of defence spending levels under Pierre Trudeau.  Half.

The armed forces are paying the price of serving a miserly prime minister. Equipment is wearing out.  Replacement programmes are deferred repeatedly if not canceled outright.  Our CF-18s are nearing the end of their useful life and our naval capability is lower than at any time prior to WWII.  A lot of the army's equipment is beat up from a decade of service in Afghanistan.  To respond to all of this, Harper has gutted defence spending.  Neat trick, eh?

Now Harper wants to contribute Canadian air, naval and land forces to help build up NATO's rapid response force intended to stare down the Russian bear.  Of course what he wants even more is to balance the budget in time for the 2015 election with plenty of money left over for an orgy of pre-election goodies to help Canadians forget why they despise their prime minister.

So it sounds like, when it comes to Canada standing up to the Russian Czar, Vlad, someone has painted himself into a corner.  Think Steve is going to levy big taxes to pump up the defence budget?  Think again.

Besides, there is reason to question the resolve of the NATO alliance in facing up to Russia.  Old NATO, the original crew from the days where we squared off against the Warsaw Pact, is still doing the heavy lifting.  The new kids, who actually used to make up the Warsaw Pact but have since changed sides, haven't shown much interest in contributing to NATO's adventures whether in Afghanistan or in the skies above Libya or elsewhere.  These countries also live in the shadow of Vlad Putin and some of them haven't forgot what happens in their neighbourhood when you get caught on the wrong side of the Kremlin.

Some think this rapid reaction force is another NATO pipe dream:

Steve Saideman, an expert on NATO, is skeptical about how the force would work, given previous missions where countries have insisted on maintaining control over their own troops and imposed restrictions on what they could do.

That was the experience both in Libya, where some countries refused to conduct risky air-to-ground attacks, and in Afghanistan, which saw a handful of countries like Canada, the U.S., Britain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark do most of the fighting.

"I have a hard time imagining a rapid-reaction force being rapid," said Saideman, who is chair of the Paterson School of International Affairs at Ottawa's Carleton University.

"I don't feel confident they'll be able to overcome the problems that have existed and have been baked into NATO." 

Saideman is also unconvinced that Harper is really willing to put his money where his mouth is to cover the considerable costs of maintaining an all-forces contingent to NATO's new standing reaction force.

It sounds tailor-made for a phantom force funded with non-existant dollars, in other words - Harper stealth.

Could America Break Its Own Bank on a Russian Anvil?

The sanctions being plastered on Russia by the US and her allies are already having a rebound effect, especially in Europe.  Russia is not only the major supplier of the natural gas the Europeans will need to get through this winter, it's also a key market for their exports.  In these matters the EU and US are in different boats.  Another key difference is that American sanctions are more heavily weighted on depriving Russia of access to credit - loans.

Here's the rub.  International finance is generally conducted in US dollars, the global reserve currency.  Throughout the post-WWII era that's been a huge advantage to the United States.  US monetary policy can be adjusted to suit America's international interests - think "quantitative easing".

If Russia finds its Western credit facilities cut off the question becomes if there's anyone else willing to meet Russia's loan needs.  China, perhaps?  This is the same China, Peoples Republic whereof, that has, from time to time, groused about the burden of having the US dollar as the world's reserve currency.

Asia Times' columnist, Pepe Escobar, thinks the US may be pushing its luck:

"Moscow, allied with the BRICS, is actively working to bypass the US dollar - which is the anchor of a parallel US war economy based on printing worthless pieces of green paper.  Progress is slow, but tangible' not only the BRICS but BRICS aspirants, the G-77, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the whole Global South is absolutely fed up with the Empire of Chaos' non-stop bullying and want another paradigm in international relations.  The US counts on NATO - which it manipulates at will - and mad dog Israel; and perhaps the GCC, the Sunni petro-monarchies partners in the Gaza carnage, which can be bought/silenced with a slap on the wrist.

With just over $400-billion in Euro-Russian trade at stake, the Euros, already enduring economic and political crisis, have more to lose than the US from an overplayed hand.  As for Ukraine, its gas reserves are running on empty and winter is coming.  If Moscow and Beijing choose to work in concert we could be looking at a new world order not to America's liking.

Restoring the Vox Populi

Some thoughts for this, Labour Day.

The voice of the people.  Oh, how long has it been since that really meant anything?  In Canada and many other advanced countries, polls show that people are being governed without much if any regard to their views, their concerns.

It's sort of like standing, waiting at the civic bus stop for a bus that just keeps passing you by.

Canadians want action on climate change.  Are they going to get it?  No. Canadians want action on inequality.  Are they going to get it?  Don't be ridiculous.

The American people utterly loathe their federal government, their Congress. Does it matter?  Hell no!  The vox populi has been discounted to the point of near total irrelevance.

Governments don't do what we want them to do.  Governments don't deal with things we want dealt with, the things that cause us worry and insecurity.

There used to be a notion that at the heart of democracy lay the consent of the people to be governed.  To the extent that ever meant something it has been superceded by the ascent of neoliberalism and the corporatist state.

You get to vote and that's about all you get.  There is no longer much of a role for the vox populi.  There's still a vox, a voice alright and it is reaching the ear of the political or ruling classes only it's not your voice.  It's the voice of energy and commerce and high finance that has the ear of those you supposedly elect to office.

Think I'm kidding?  Go back four years to the reign of Ignatieff.  Do you remember when he summoned a "thinkers' conference" to map out a new strategy for a Liberal Canada?  The speakers list spoke volumes for it was massively dominated with CEOs and "management consultants."  Ignatieff wasn't there to formulate policies that would resonate with the voting public, solutions to their needs and concerns.  His focus was Bay Street, not Main Street.  As the Ignatieff Liberals turned their backs on ordinary Canadians, so did ordinary Canadians turn their backs in the next election sending the Liberals from Sussex Drive to Stornoway to Motel 6 out on the Gloucester highway.

The simple fact is that you can't consent to be governed without a reasonable understanding of how you're to be governed.  Without that understanding, there's no informed consent to be governed. You're simply consenting to be ruled.  And even that hollow consent is being coerced out of you through the application of misinformation, outright deceit and fear-mongering.

Your vote used to mean something back when parties offered up a real spectrum of vision and policy.  You knew what made one party distinct from the others and they worked to champion policies that might suit the voting public.

Today our body politic lies on the life support of neoliberalism.  Iron lungs all around.  Even the NDP has embraced neoliberalism.  There's a term for what's happening.  It's called "depoliticization."  Politics is being shut down, its place taken over by grey suits stuffed with wet cardboard.  Administrators, not leaders. Mere technocrats, doing sums.  The public, quite conveniently for the corporate state, is disengaging, tuning out. Why bother if no one will speak to your concerns?  Why bother if no one hears your voice?  Even before you begin to tune out you're already out of the loop.

How then do we reverse this?  How do we get their ear?  How are we to get our voices heard by those we elect, those who are duty bound to serve us?  How do we make them responsive to our concerns, our needs?

How indeed?  I don't know.  I do know that we need to get these people we elect to listen to us and that means they need to stop listening like attentive lap dogs to those who do not elect them.  We need to drum into their heads the prescient words spoken by Teddy Roosevelt more than a century ago.  These words:

...our government, national and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests.  Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.  We must drive the special interests out of politics.

...every special interest is entitled to justice but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office.  The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good, but it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

...The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.

There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. 

We no longer "effectively control the mighty commercial forces that we have called into being."  Those mighty commercial forces too often have the ear of those we elect to represent us.

Wresting political control away from these commercial forces may be the key to reclaiming our democratic freedoms.  The thing is I just cannot see that happening under either Trudeau or Mulcair or any other Liberal or New Democrat.  Like others I'm coming to accept that if we cannot rehabilitate the Liberal and New Democratic parties, we need to stop wasting our efforts and put them into building a new party, a genuinely political party, one that speaks for Canadians and speaks to their concerns.  It's pointless to seek solutions in neoliberalism.

India - Superbug Time Bomb

India is the worst but it's not alone.  All of the emerging economic superpowers share the same problem - the abuse of antibiotics.

For India, it's the result of a population coming into new wealth that still has just one doctor for every 1,700 people.  You get sick, you get pills, off you go.  Too often those pills are antibiotic.

Together with India, Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa account for 76% of the global increase in antibiotic use.

If the warnings we get from our medical establishment are accurate, these countries and their societies could be heading for real trouble.  This has the makings of a "perfect storm" - inadequate health care infrastructure, antibiotic abuse, the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases and all the health impacts of climate change including a critical shortage of freshwater for sanitation and personal hygiene as well as pest and disease migration.

And, of course, given our globalized economy, we're hardly immune to what happens on the other side of the Earth.  If you don't understand this, take a look at the Spanish Flu of 1918, where it originated (it wasn't Spain) and how it spread around the globe.  Then remember back then we didn't have 7.6-million air passengers hopping around the world daily.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Coldest-Ever Cold War?

When I stumbled across a report yesterday about NATO raising a 10,000 strong, standing "expeditionary force" and that Canada was interested in contributing soldiers, I thought, "oh Jeebus, not again."

The exped force is pretty obviously being created to respond to Russia.  That much is clear from its membership.  The countries providing the troops include Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia along with Norway, Denmark and Holland all under the command of Britain.  At the same time, Finland and Sweden are preparing to sign "host" agreements to permit NATO forces to operate in their countries. Finland is expected to join NATO and so too may Sweden, ditching the Swedes' historic neutrality.

This has got to be irresistible to the current management.  A standing army of the northern latitudes.  Air, land and sea units - perfect for an ice-free Arctic.  Let the coldest ever Cold War begin.


Then again, we have done this sort of deal before.  In the cemetery in Vladivostok are 14 Canadian war graves marking a long-forgotten military blunder Stephen Harper won't be rejoicing in celebrating.  It was called the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Siberia) and it too operated under overall British Command during the Siberian Intervention of 1918-1922.

Canada's 4-thousand troops, almost half of them conscripts, mainly stayed in Vladivostok and spent less than a year before being withdrawn.  Most of our allies - the UK, US, China, Japan, and Czechoslovakia - were gone a year later as it became clear the White Russians were finished.

Canada's first expeditionary force to Russia was something of a flop.  Perhaps the most notable event was a mutiny - on the streets of Victoria.  French-Canadian conscripts didn't quite get why they were being marched off to war in Russia but they were duly herded back into formation at bayonet point and loaded aboard their transport.  The errant soldiers were going to be charged with mutiny until the Canadian brass realized they probably lacked the authority to send conscripts to fight for Russia.

While the CEF(S) cost the lives of 14-Canadian soldiers in Siberia, almost all of them to disease, it claimed over 100 civilian lives in Victoria, B.C.   Research has discovered that the Siberia-bound troop trains brought the Spanish Flu to the west coast.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

NATO's New Legion - Is Canada In?

NATO is organizing a 10,000 strong "expeditionary force" with an eye clearly on the Ukraine.

The aim is to create a fully functioning, division-sized force for rapid deployment and regular, frequent exercises. Officials involved in the planning say it will have the capacity to increase significantly in size.

The force will incorporate air and naval units as well as ground troops and will be led by British commanders, with other participating nations contributing a range of specialist troops and units. Countries involved at present include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and the Netherlands. Canada has also expressed an interest in taking part.

The Financial Times also reports that Sweden and Finland may soon enter the NATO alliance.

Banging the War Drum - Washington Post

It was earlier this month that the German financial newspaper, Handelsblatt, warned of the dangerous spread of war fever throughout Europe.  The paper found that Europeans were being "mentally mobilized" for war.

Something eerily similar is happening in America.  In today's Washington Post, columnist Anne Applebaum questions whether the European people today are all that different from the complacent, care free Polish population in the summer of 1939.

Instead of celebrating weddings, they [the Poles] should have dropped everything, mobilized, prepared for total war while it was still possible. And now I have to ask: Should Ukrainians, in the summer of 2014, do the same? Should central Europeans join them?

I realize that this question sounds hysterical, and foolishly apocalyptic, to U.S. or Western European readers. But hear me out, if only because this is a conversation many people in the eastern half of Europe are having right now. In the past few days, Russian troops bearing the flag of a previously unknown country, Novorossiya, have marched across the border of southeastern Ukraine. The Russian Academy of Sciences recently announced it will publish a history of Novorossiya this autumn, presumably tracing its origins back to Catherine the Great. Various maps of Novorossiya are said to be circulating in Moscow. Some include Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, cities that are still hundreds of miles away from the fighting. Some place Novorossiya along the coast, so that it connects Russia to Crimea and eventually to Transnistria, the Russian-occupied province of Moldova. Even if it starts out as an unrecognized rump state — Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “states” that Russia carved out of Georgia, are the models here — Novorossiya can grow larger over time.

Applebaum foresees not merely a Russian invasion and conquest of Ukraine but outright genocide of the sort visited on Jews by the Nazis.

Russian soldiers will have to create this state — how many of them depends upon how hard Ukraine fights, and who helps them — but eventually Russia will need more than soldiers to hold this territory. Novorossiya will not be stable as long as it is inhabited by Ukrainians who want it to stay Ukrainian. There is a familiar solution to this, too. A few days ago, Alexander Dugin, an extreme nationalist whose views have helped shape those of the Russian president, issued an extraordinarystatement. “Ukraine must be cleansed of idiots,” he wrote — and then called for the “genocide” of the “race of bastards.”

Applebaum even warns of a sinister plot whereby Putin will rain nuclear weapons on Eastern Europe.

...the dissident Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, has recently published an article arguing, along lines that echo Zhirinovsky’s threats, that Putin really is weighing the possibility of limited nuclear strikes — perhaps against one of the Baltic capitals, perhaps a Polish city — to prove that NATO is a hollow, meaningless entity that won’t dare strike back for fear of a greater catastrophe. Indeed, in military exercises in 2009 and 2013, the Russian army openly “practiced” a nuclear attack on Warsaw.
Is all of this nothing more than the raving of lunatics? Maybe. And maybe Putin is too weak to do any of this, and maybe it’s just scare tactics, and maybe his oligarchs will stop him. But “Mein Kampf” also seemed hysterical to Western and German audiences in 1933. Stalin’s orders to “liquidate” whole classes and social groups within the Soviet Union would have seemed equally insane to us at the time, if we had been able to hear them.
But Stalin kept to his word and carried out the threats, not because he was crazy but because he followed his own logic to its ultimate conclusions with such intense dedication — and because nobody stopped him. Right now, nobody is able to stop Putin, either. So is it hysterical to prepare for total war? Or is it naive not to do so?
Wow from conquest to genocide to nuclear war, Applebaum beats that war drum to death.  Hers is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Friday, August 29, 2014

And a Happy Labour Day Weekend to You, Mr. Harper

The Times Colonist got the Labour Day weekend off to an early start with two op-eds this morning.  Both of them concerned our prime minister, Stephen J. Harper.

Mike Robinson provided a piece exploring Harper's performance as Canada's CEO.  Robinson, who has spent 28-years as CEO of various science and cultural NGOs, concludes that Harper's executive tenure has been a flop.

...in Canada, say the last eight years, corporate dominance has so overshadowed our federal political scene that many question the independence of thought in the Conservative party, and especially the Prime Minister’s Office.
On economic policy and foreign affairs files, Canada now speaks increasingly with the voice of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — the industry’s lobby group — and seems to draw its economic policy from the Fraser Institute, both western organizations with great empathy for profit, small government and tax breaks for corporations.
...What becomes problematic is advancing these causes as the primary purpose of democratic government in a civil society. A majority government, even a plurality majority, has the duty to govern in the best interests of all the citizens and to promote the public good.
These duties require leadership that is comfortable with nuances, that listens and reflects, and has a searching eye for the middle ground. It is not well served by a leader in the thrall of dogmatism, who bases decisions on how they will serve his corporate base. To paraphrase former prime minister Jean Chr├ętien, Canada’s PM cannot be headwaiter to the oil patch.
Robinson goes on to evaluate Harper on several CEO criteria before concluding:L
Overall, our CEO PM has never looked comfortable in the position. If the economy stays flat and the pipelines fizzle; if the PM stays out of the gym; if more stupid mistakes occur; if the vision remains more of the same — this CEO is cruising towards a deserved involuntary dismissal.
Next up is a tale of triumphalism misplaced by our prime ministerial Chicken Hawk by Charlotte Gray, author of nine, non-fiction best sellers and former chairwoman of Canada's History Society.  Without mentioning Harper by name, Gray excoriates those who want to "celebrate" Canada's role in WWI.
Am I the only person feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the tidal wave of articles, ceremonies, television programs and speeches triggered by the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War?
Obviously there is a lot to remember. The extraordinary myopia of kings, emperors and prime ministers who let their countries roll inexorably toward conflict. The helplessness of those caught up in events beyond their control — both the troops and the families they left behind. The terrifying new weapons that ensured that this war would be slaughter on an industrial scale, rather than a limited engagement between professional armies.
And most of all, the bravery of those young men who endured the nightmare of mud, poison gas, rats, disease, hunger, lice, cold, fear and homesickness in the trenches.
Gray writes that there was precious little to celebrate in the outcome of WWI.
As early as October 1914, Maclean’s magazine called the bloody conflict in Europe “the Great War.” But it wasn’t a great war, let alone “the war to end all wars,” as British writer H.G. Wells suggested. It was a failed war. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles was supposed to ensure that the major European powers would never go to war again.
In fact, the Versailles Treaty turned out to be the peace to end all peace. Within 20 years of the treaty being signed, brutal conflict had erupted again in Europe.
The boundaries that the victorious powers slapped onto their maps of the Middle East reflected their own self-interest, rather than the religious and ethnic realities on the ground. The current turmoil in the Arab world can be traced back, in part, to decisions taken in the Hall of Mirrors and subsequent diplomatic get-togethers.
The second reason for my increasing unease is a disturbing thread in some of the First World War commemorations. Military battles are being presented to Canadians as significant moments in our coming of age as a country.
But you only have to read about the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge (see historian Tim Cook’s wonderful Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918) to know that this coming of age was the result of poor military planning by British generals, and involved hundreds of needless deaths.
Among those Canadians who returned, there was an undercurrent of resentment that they had been embroiled in a British imperial crusade.
This is a funny place to start the national mythology.
How much is our past being manipulated for nationalist reasons? Many of the citizens in today’s multicultural Canada have their roots in countries that were either defeated in 1918 or played no part in the conflict. What should the killing fields of Europe mean to them?
Gray has little time for people like Harper who appropriate to themselves the sacrifice made by so many and sully that sacrifice by transforming it into mythical narratives to suit their own purposes.
So, happy Labour Day weekend to you, Mr. Harper, and thank you, Times Colonist, for giving us so much to mull over this holiday.

With Climate Change Sometimes There are Winners and Losers.

Washington State has a water problem.  It's a warm water problem.  A report in The Seattle Times says warmer Pacific waters off Washington are diverting salmon runs to Canada.

Unusually warm water off the Washington coast is sending the vast majority of the sockeye-salmon run to Canadian waters, leaving Puget Sound fishermen with nearly empty nets.
According to data from the Pacific Salmon Commission, nearly 2.9 million sockeye have been caught in Canadian waters, while only about 98,000 have been netted in Washington through Aug. 19.
That means 99 percent of sockeye have gone through the Johnstone Strait around the northern part of Vancouver Island into Canadian waters.
During a typical sockeye-salmon run, about 50 percent of the run goes around the south end of Vancouver Island through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, putting them in U.S. waters, The Bellingham Herald reported.
This year's Fraser River run has been spectacular for B.C. commercial and sports fisherman.

Oh, Crap! Sorry, I Meant the Ukraine.

Vlad Putin, it seems, has a response to the hectoring recently from the likes of Sideshow Steve Harper and John Baird and others - "meet me in the Arctic."

The Guardian reports that Putin has had enough of Western criticism of Russian involvement in the Ukraine whose government he likens to Nazis.

Hours after Barack Obama accused Russia of sending troops into Ukraine and fuelling and upsurge in the separatist war, Putin retorted that the Ukrainian army was the villain of peace, targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union.

...And he made a pointed reference to the Arctic, which with its bounteous energy reserves and thawing waterways is emerging as a new potential conflict between Russia and its western rivals.  "Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic.  And of course we should pay moire attention to issues of development of the Arctic and the strengthening of our position," Putin told a youth camp outside Moscow.

Ukraine's prime minister, Arseny Yetseniuk, meanwhile says he'll try to bring Ukraine into NATO.  Oh no you won't, Arseny.  The "run to NATO" gambit was already tried by Georgia and it failed.  We're not going to fight your war.  Obama has already said America won't be going to war with Russia over Ukraine. Harper/Baird, both classic chicken hawks, love to talk tough but have so defunded Canada's armed forces that we won't be much help beyond hot air.  Besides, we just got put on notice that our problems with Putin aren't in Ukraine.  They're in our own backyard, the Arctic.

How the Right-Wing Media Machine Slimed Michael Brown

Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter - not an ounce, not one ounce of integrity among them.

In the wake of the execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, America's right-wing slime machine struggled to get control of the story.

It's hard to know whether it came from Drudge's brain or Hannity's ass or Coulter's mouth - who can tell them apart - but a couple of weeks after the shooting they came up with another story, this one in which the young black man viciously attacked the cop and tried to get the officer's gun.

This was proven, Fox News reported with an unnamed source, because “the officer had sustained a fractured eye socket in the incident.” Ann Coulter even suggested, incorrectly,that she’d seen X-rays of the fracture. Fox went on to claim “solid proof” of a battle between Wilson and Brown for the officer’s handgun.
It was not long, of course, before CNN and others disproved such bogus claims. But how did such fiction make it all the way to an outlet as major, if intellectually challenged, as Fox News?
It was obviously a total fabrication.  Had anything remotely like a struggle, much less a vicious attack on an officer, occurred that would have been the first thing out of the Ferguson police department chief's mouth at his initial press conferences.

Floods Come and Go But Drought Likes to Climb Onto Your Back and Stay There

We hear lots about California and it's three-year-running drought that has left the State in severe water stress.  Wells are running dry, emergency bottled water has to be brought in to help the poor survive, orchards are being bulldozed as the trees die off, Nestle keeps plundering the state to bottle water for other places, municipalities are finally preparing to recycle waste water, etc., etc.

The "exceptional" drought zone is spreading ever northward, nearing the Oregon border.  Officials from Humboldt County say the Eel River levels are at unprecedented lows and people along the coast are not ready for what's coming.

Coastal areas of Humboldt County have not see the impacts of the drought as directly as inland portions, leading many residents to be unaware of the critical situation, said Dan Ehresman, director of the North Coast Environmental Center.
"People are disconnected from where our water comes from," Ehresman said. "It is easy not to think about the conditions in the rest of the county."
In the wine country, growers have cut back on drip irrigation but still hope their vines will make it through the summer.  It's next year that's on their mind.  They need relief in the form of rainfall over the winter.

Bad as a 3-year drought may be, a report from Cornell University, the University of Arizona and the U.S. Geological Survey concludes that America's southwest is at risk of a 10-year drought this century.

The researchers found that when accounting for climate change, there is a 20-50 percent chance of a 35-year long megadrought in the next century, depending on the region. There is a 5-10 percent chance of a 50-year megadrought, they reported.
The computer models also found that California, Arizona and New Mexico will be at increased risk for drought, but that the risk could decrease for parts of Washington, Montana and Idaho.
Apparel companies are looking for alternatives to replace cotton.
VF Corp. (NYSE:VFC), which makes Lee and Wrangler jeans, Timberland shoes and The North Face fleece jackets, said it started looking to diversify its raw materials several years ago, after bad weather events in China and Pakistan -- two of the world’s largest cotton growers -- hit the company’s cotton supply. While the crop grows especially well in hot climates, it is extremely sensitive to water. Not enough H20, and cotton chokes at the vine; too much, and its roots rot.
In the coming decades, water scarcity spurred by climate change will likely hit cotton the most in China's Xinjian county, Pakistan, Australia and the western United States, according to the International Trade Center, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. Extreme heat waves could also harm cotton crops, as will an abundance of insects, which are expected to adapt and thrive in new environmental conditions.
It's hard to imagine how a modern society like the American southwest could endure a 10-year drought.  A 35 or a 50-year drought would likely render the area uninhabitable.

World's Largest Private Bank, UBS, Says Fossil Energy is Toast

The Swiss banking giant, UBS, says renewable energy is the hands down winner and conventional power generation is finished.

In a briefing paper sent to clients and investors this week, the Zurich-based UBS bank argues that large-scale centralized power stations will soon become extinct because they are too big and inflexible and are "not relevant" for future electricity generation.  Instead the authors expect it to be cheAper and more efficient for households and businesses to generate their own energy to power their cars and to store any surplus energy in their own buildings even without subsidies.

"Solar is at the edge of being a competitive power generation technology.  The biggest drawback has been its intermittency.  This is where batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) come into play.  Battery costs have declined rapidly, and we expect a further decline of more than 50% by 2020. By then a mass [produced] electric vehicle will have almost the same price as a combustion engine car.  But it will save up to 2,000 euros a year on fuel cost, hence, it will begin to pay off almost immediately without any meaningful upfront "investment." This is why we expect a rapidly growing penetration with EVs, in particular in countries with high fossil fuel prices.

The expected 50% reduction in the cost of batteries by 2020 will not just spur electric car sales, but could also lead to exponential growth in demand for stationary batteries to store excess power in buildings, says UBS. "Battery storage should become financially attractive for family homes when combined with a solar system and an electric vehicle.  As a consequence, we expect transformational changes in the utility and auto sectors.  By 2020 investing in a home solar system with a 20-year life span, plus some small-scale home battery technology and an electric car, will pay for itself in six to eight years for the average consumer in Germany, Italy, Spain and much of the rest of Europe."

Australia is already going through something like this.  There, widespread adoption of rooftop solar power systems in residential and commercial properties, is savaging the bottom line of conventional power utilities.   With fossil fuel prices rising and solar costs dropping rapidly along with price breakthroughs in battery technology, the writing could be on the wall especially for high cost/high carbon fossil fuels.  Sorry, Athabasca, but you really should have seen this coming.

Performance Art - High Voltage

Photographer Patrick Hall reveals human emotion at 300,000 volts

Is This the Ultimate Zero-Emissions Urban Transporter?

They can move you along at speeds upwards of 20-miles an hour for distances up to 30-miles at a stretch.  They're computer controlled and host features too numerous to list.  They're e-bikes, electrical power assist bicycles.  You still do the peddling but when the going gets harder on hills, for example, the electric motor kicks in to carry the extra load.

A recent U.S. competition was won by Seattle's Teague "Denny":

But the Denny is just one of a horde of contenders.  Motors by Yamaha, automatic gear boxes by Shimano, designs by Audi, there seems to be no limit to innovation and creativity.

So many terrific designs, so many brilliant ideas.  Now, if someone can just incorporate as many of the greatest features in one bike, we might all be lining up to get it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Remember, It's the IPCC and It Can Never Tell the Whole Truth

The oft-maligned Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change is, admittedly, something of a strange bird.  It doesn't conduct climate change research.  It merely collects the research undertaken by universities, government agencies and NGOs, digests the important stuff and then issues advisory reports to governments.

The IPCC reports are usually off-mark.  They sometimes, albeit rarely, overstate conclusions.  Far more often they understate projections of the arrival, severity and duration of climate change impacts.

Contrary to what denialists claim, the IPCC is, if anything, unduly optimistic. For example, until recently the IPCC was predicting that the Arctic Ocean would be seasonally ice-free by the end of this century, about 85-years from now.  The US Navy now predicts a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2019 at the outside, perhaps as early as 2016.  The Navy's research has the IPCC about 80-years off the mark.

The IPCC reports are the products of a team of "lead authors."  They come to their findings by consensus.  Everybody has to agree and so hold outs can extract compromises on the authors' conclusions.

It's this consensus factor that means it can be important to carefully consider the language that does find its way into the reports.  When the IPCC reports there is an "increasing likelihood" that global warming has already become "irreversible" it's using loaded words.  It's not talking about vague possibilities.  It's speaking of probabilities and it's speaking of probabilities that are increasing, approaching certainty.

When the report speaks of "irreversible" that's also a loaded word.  Irreversible means that global warming is already out of our control.  We can't turn off the tap. We have passed one or more tipping points that lead to runaway global warming, the triggering of natural feedback mechanisms of, as yet, unknown consequence.

So, if the IPCC is to be believed, it's at least somewhat probable and growing increasingly probable that we have triggered irreversible as in runaway global warming.  That's the consensus view.  That's the compromise opinion.

Does that mean we should throw in the towel?  Hardly.  There's much work to do. We need to explore what we can do to safely mitigate this warming, runaway or not.  We need to figure out how people on every corner of this world can live with each other, make common cause.  We need to work out adaptation strategies.

Above all else we need to understand that, while tackling climate change is going to be demanding, expensive and, well, hard, we can still make sure that it's worse for our kids and grandkids, much worse, and that, unfortunately, is easy - for us.

Remember, easy is what got us in this mess in the first place.  It's time to try a different strategy.

Big Summit Next Week - Maybe the Biggest in Years

NATO leaders gather in Wales next week for what could be the alliance's most important summit in years.  Instead of focusing on housekeeping issues to tidy up the not very successful adventure in Afghanistan, alliance members will find their plates full with developing approaches to the Ukrainian chaos and the rampaging Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, writes that, around the world, all eyes will be on NATO and the alliance had better get it right.

...the alliance must embrace deeply uncomfortable truths. In its relationship with Russia, NATO is now in a confrontation with a country it deemed a partner (albeit a difficult one) until only a few months ago. Short-term crisis management passed off smoothly, with a surprising degree of unity among 28 member states that hold very different views on the situation’s security relevance. But now, alliance strategy must shift from crisis management to the long game.
NATO needs to achieve three goals. First, it must provide credible reassurance to those allies that feel threatened by Russia. Second, it should keep the door open for a possible improvement in diplomatic relations. Third, it must make clear that the alliance’s security guarantee does not apply to Ukrainian territory while supporting the government in Kiev in its daunting security sector reforms.
...With respect to IS, NATO’s position is both easier and more difficult at the same time. It is easier because the turmoil in Iraq and Syria does not fall into the alliance’s immediate remit. It is more difficult because the seemingly unstoppable expansion of the jihadists’ reach confronts Europeans and Americans with a daunting question: Will the West eventually have to go to war against IS? If the West’s indirect containment strategy—propping up the Kurdish Peshmerga as the group’s opponents—fails, and if the regional powers remain largely passive, Western troops on the ground may be unavoidable. 
...So far, the West fears the costs and the unintended consequences of intervening in a politically, ethnically, and religiously hypercharged part of the world more than it fears the jihadists’ further expansion. That may change. Don’t expect the Wales summit to tackle this head-on. But do expect this topic to hang over the meeting like a dark cloud.
...A larger-than-usual crowd will tune in when NATO leaders congregate in Wales. The summit will be followed closely not only in Europe but also around the world. It will be used as an indicator of whether the West is still alive. And it will tell audiences in Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Tel Aviv, Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere whether Europeans are still willing to play a military role and how loyal the United States is as an ally.

Driving Round Pegs Into Square Holes - Why We Keep Screwing Up in the Middle East

Since 1918 when the defeat of the Kaiser's Germany triggered the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the West has established a reputation for screwing up in the Middle East.  It can be said to have begun with the French and British carving up the place to suit their interests, drawing straight lines where none existed before, corralling often hostile ethnic groups into artificial countries with names like Iraq, Iran and Syria.

For all of that, we've never screwed up quite on the scale as our adventures in the Middle East/South Asia in the 21st century.

At the start of this business, almost a century ago, there was a fellow we didn't listen to, Colonel T.E. Lawrence, aka "Lawrence of Arabia."  We didn't listen to him then and that was a screw up.  We haven't listened to him ever since and that remains an ongoing screw up.

John Hulsman, president of a global political risk consultancy, writes that it's time we finally accepted the wisdom of Lawrence.

T E Lawrence, a man who through both theory and practice established himself as the regional Middle Eastern expert par excellence in the early twentieth century, followed a very simple but very different analytical route to wisdom: the actual study of others, rather than the narcissistic devotion to being only able to see the world through one’s own point of view.
As Lawrence put it, there is a seminal way to avoid these nasty surprises: “experience of them [local peoples], and knowledge of their prejudices will enable you to foresee their attitude and possible course of action in nearly every case.” In other words, true analysis is more about them, and less about us. US secretary of state John Kerry – a man seemingly perpetually surprised that the world does not operate like a Boston dinner club – would do well to take note.
In psychology, the capacity for taking others’ perspectives onboard is referred to as having a theory of mind, an understanding that others’ internal experiences are different from one’s own. In a common test for autism, a school-aged child is shown a bag of, say, sweets. Then, the child is shown that the sweets have been removed and replaced with pennies. The child is asked, “What would another person think is in the bag?” If the child answers “pennies,” that child has no theory of mind. This deficit can, in extreme forms, render a person almost unable to interact with others in a recognisably social way. The same problem writ large in Western policy has crippled strategy in the Middle East for over a century.
For example, in modern Iraq, failure to determine the true local unit of politics has been the original sin. That unit has remained the fiercely independent ethno-religious groupings of the Sunni, Shia, and the Kurds, rather than the Western preference for some sort of imposed, centralised, Iraqi construct. This analytical failure has unsurprisingly spawned the chaos of the past century.
For example, in modern Iraq, failure to determine the true local unit of politics has been the original sin. That unit has remained the fiercely independent ethno-religious groupings of the Sunni, Shia, and the Kurds, rather than the Western preference for some sort of imposed, centralised, Iraqi construct. This analytical failure has unsurprisingly spawned the chaos of the past century.
For as Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds is how the locals primarily see themselves, rather than as Iraqis, as Westerners desire. The long-time rulers of Mesopotamia, the Ottomans, had known better. They had divided the region up into three separate provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, respectively dominated by the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. For in the end, reality will out.
Lawrence also said that “the beginning and ending of the secret of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them”, at least in part to develop a theory of mind – their mind, to be exact. Until we learn to stand in the shoes of the people of the region and analytically look at the world the way they do, we cannot hope to guess the decisions they will make, the help they will accept, the reforms they will adopt, the deals they will uphold – and the fears to which they will fall prey. Until we demonstrate a theory of mind, Lawrence’s lessons will have to be learned again and again.
Isn't it time we stopped screwing up?