Saturday, October 31, 2009

America's Climate Change Kiln

America's farmers and their representatives are rallying to fiercely oppose the climate and energy bill now before Congress. McClatchey Newspapers reports that farmers fear the legislation will undermine their bottom line by raising prices on electricity, gasoline and natural-gas based fertilizers.

It's no small irony that the states that stand to be most severely impacted by global warming include most of America's key agricultural zones. The news service published this graphic of the changes to come - with or without major emissions cuts - and it's not good news for the south and midwest.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

National Post's National Lampoon Moment

That 21st century media farce known as CanWest warns the bankruptcy court that it'll shut down The National Post if it's not allowed to roll the paper in with its other er, cough, newspapers. In other words, you play ball judge or you'll be throwing 280 people out of work.

Wait a second. Those of us old enough to remember have smelled this scam before. Why, yes, it was The National Lampoon that did the very same thing 36-years ago.

Bring CSIS Back to Earth

Canada's intelligence service is in trouble if its boss, Dick Fadden, is any indication. In a speech at a security-intelligence conference, the new CSIS director revealed that he has a strange, even bizarre grasp of the Canadian people.

Fadden, reports The Globe & Mail, has it firmly in his pointy little bureaucrat's head that the Canadian public readily embraces terrorists as "folk heroes." Apparently having spent far too little time in the real world, Fadden fantasizes about a "loose partnership" of non-governmental organizations, advocacy journalists and lawyers having warped the Canadian public's sanity about terrorists.

Herr Direktor Fadden asked why those accused of terrorists offences are so often portrayed in our media as 'quasi folk heroes'? Say what?

I don't know about you or your community or your news outlets but I'm not aware of anybody in my little world who casts terrorism suspects in the light of folk heroes. I think Mr. Fadden would do well to get his medications reviewed.

We Need To Talk

While we can hope that the departure of Ian Davey as Ignatieff chief of staff will somehow lift the LPC leader's sagging fortunes, there's a real risk that it's too little, too late. lt's good that the leader has gone for an experienced hand but I'm not sure that Donolo has ever had the challenge he's now facing. He never had to rescue Jean Chretien from Jean Chretien. His former boss was a political veteran, a skilled campaigner.

I think one of the first things Donolo should do is teach the Liberal leader to talk. Mr. Ignatieff needs to speak to the Canadian people, to present them an array of ideas and policies they can support. Day care, arts funding... blah, blah, blah. I'm sure they're all wonderful and deserving but they hardly rank among the existential crises facing Canada and the world.

Just because Harper doesn't want to talk about the serious stuff - and he doesn't if only because that would mean he might have to do something - doesn't mean the Liberal leader should follow suit.

I think the Canadian public realizes that bad stuff happens, that it is happening and that no one in Ottawa is even talking about that much less dealing with it. If the future of Canada and the fate of future generations of Canadians is a political potato too hot to handle, why have a national government at all?

We need to talk about things that matter to the Canadian public - things such as the security of our healthcare system, the rapidly growing gap between rich and poor, Canada's position and role in the world and every aspect of the global warming problem. Those are just for starters. We have to discuss these and, in the process, remind everyone of what liberalism is supposed to mean.

This isn't about polls or electoral tactics. It's about the heart and soul of the Liberal Party. It's about deciding whether the LPC is going to cleave to its liberal roots or content itself with being transformed into centre-right Democrats to the Tory's far-right Republicans.

Michael, let's talk.

Gore Vidal - Crazy As A Cut Cat

Gore Vidal has finally lost it.

You remember that 13-year old girl that Roman Polanski drugged and sodomized? Well Vidal has come to Polanski's defence, smearing the victim as a disgruntled whore. From Air America:

"I really don't give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker thinks she's been taken advantage of?"

Vidal went on to dismiss those who condemn Polanski as the usual "anti-Jew ...anti-fag" types.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Afghanistan In A Nutshell

"Like the Soviets we continue to bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people."
That's the utterly prescient synopsis of the West's dilemma in Afghanistan by former US foreign service officer Matthew Hoh in his letter in which he resigned in protest over the AfPak war.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hoh has nailed it. Like the Soviets before us, in their turn, we're trying to convert what is essentially a feudal state into a modern state in our own image. But didn't MacArthur do just that in Japan? Sure he did but only after Japan was militarily defeated, its people's morale crushed and the country occupied. We never defeated Afghanistan. We simply helped the rebellious Northern Alliance warlords send the Taliban packing. There's a huge difference in that. We didn't dismantle the warlord structure. We didn't conquer the Afghani people and the miniscule force we did deploy to their country was anything but a post-WWII style occupation. Trying to draw parallels between today's Afghanistan and post-war Germany or Japan is ridiculous.
You can't fight an insurgency "on the cheap" (Petraeus) and that's just what we've been doing these past eight years. We have squandered opportunities that we just can't get back. In this type of warfare you don't get do-overs (Petraeus). The current honcho, General McChrystal says he wants to start all over again. You can't do that. You'll always be stuck with the baggage of those eight lost years. You have gone from being seen as liberator/defender to occupier/oppressor (Petraeus). Your "best before" date has lapsed. These are the inescapable consequences of eight years of screwing up. You can't start over unless you can reverse time. The enemy you face today is not the enemy of 2001-2002. The eager, welcoming civilian population you had in 2001-2002 is no more. The government you installed in the wake of the ouster of the old regime has defied your every hope and expectation. You stood amidst the most warlike people in that region, if not the world, a culture that has driven out one omnipotent invader after another and yet, after eight years, were unable to build an adequate army. The country has lapsed into a failed state and you have neither the resources nor the will to turn that around.
It's over.
Hoh is right. The situation today is merely a continuation of a 35-year old civil war. We have no business fighting another country's civil war - because we can't win it. We've been babysitting this civil war for eight years. It's time to hand it back.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

B'Eau Pal - The Third World's Answer to Designer Water

Isn't the bottle elegant? B'eau Pal, the West's gift to the Indian people. The literature says it all:

The unique qualities of our water come from 25 years of slow-leaching toxins at the site of the world's largest industrial accident.

From Foreign Policy in Focus:

...B'eau Pal? That sounds rather familiar. You look at the label more carefully. The top of the label reads: "25 years of pollution." The picture on the label isn't an exotic location after all. It's…the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that poisoned a half a million people and killed thousands back in 1984 when it accidentally released tons of methyl isocyanate.

B'eau Pal is the work of the Yes Men, the dynamic duo of disinformation. Five years ago, one of the pair, Andy Bichlbaum, appeared on BBC as a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, to announce that his company would provide $12 billion in medical care for the 120,000 victims of the Bhopal calamity and fully clean up the site. Dow lost $2 billion in market value in 20 minutes. That's how long it took before the hoax was exposed.

"We demonstrated what would happen if Dow did do the right thing in Bhopal," Bichlbaum told Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Mark Engler in
Pranksters Fixing the World. "What happened? The stock market punished Dow. And if it had really happened, the stock market would have kept punishing Dow. The guy who made the decision would have lost his job. Or he would have been sued by the shareholders, which happens."

The Yes Men's point: The heads of major corporations won't suddenly do the right thing even if someone — somehow, somewhere, some day — manages to reveal to them the errors of their ways. Now five years later, Dow blathers on about the importance of clean water even as it does nothing for the residents of Bhopal, who are suffering from a drought. To catch the attention of all those who have forgotten about Bhopal — virtually everyone except the people of Bhopal and a handful of
dedicated activists — the Yes Men created B'eau Pal, a critique wrapped in a jest and shrouded in faux-corporate hype.

Afghanistan Is Not "Our" Civil War!

John McCain and John Kerry have a lot in common. They're both Vietnam War combat vets and that seems to have given both of them pretty flawed approaches to the AfPak War. Both of them see the AfPak war in the context of America's perceived interests.

Kerry recently left Hamid Karzai's political prospects in the gutter when he forced the Afghan president to accept a runoff election, an acknowledgement of failure and a profound humiliation of Karzai before Afghan voters.

Now Kerry is warning that an American pullout from Afghanistan would trigger a civil war between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Trigger a civil war? Just what does Kerry think is underway in Afghanistan right now if not a civil war? Just because we're filling in as Kabul's foreign mercenaries doesn't change the essential nature of the conflict being waged.

It began as a garden-variety insurgency but that changed when the Taliban started actually taking over territory, imposing political, administrative and judicial authority in regions we couldn't or wouldn't contest. It's the evolution of a rival government structure that morphs what began as an insurgency into today's civil war. John Kerry either doesn't or doesn't want to see that.

Someone who sees that all too well is Matthew Hoh, a former combat Marine captain turned Foreign Service Officer who just resigned in protest over Afghanistan. This guy is not some disgruntled crank either.

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

... But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.

...With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

So seriously was his resignation taken that Hoh was brought to Kabul by U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and induced to accept a post there. When that failed, noneother than Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, tried to convince Hoh to stay by offering him a policy post in Washington. The Washington Post reports that even the top brass took Hoh's resignation letter to heart:

"We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer," Holbrooke said in an interview. "We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him."

While he did not share Hoh's view that the war "wasn't worth the fight," Holbrooke said, "I agreed with much of his analysis."

International Crisis Group Sounds Alarm on Afghanistan

"The international community must now realise that stabilising Afghanistan requires a drastic overhaul of the institutions they have helped put in place and subsequently supported."

The International Crisis Group has issued a dire warning to the West on Afghanistan - reform the Kabul government from the ground up immediately or hand the insurgency/rebellion the very victory they've been fighting to achieve.

Afghanistan faces a critical test in the run-off between President Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah on 7 November and afterwards. A flawed second round will hand Taliban insurgents a significant strategic victory and erode public confidence in the electoral process and the international commitment to the country’s democratic institutions. Reforming and strengthening state institutions and establishing genuine constitutional governance must be tackled as the top priority if the political rot is to be stemmed and the insurgents denied yet another opportunity to exploit the crisis of legitimacy that is the product of a dysfunctional political order.

What the ICG is calling for seems impossible, the wholesale reformation of the Afghan government and its constitution. They may be right, they probably are. But in a country fractured by tribalism and crippled by warlordism that sucks power away from Kabul into the hands of fuedal warlords, this call for reform may be a desperate pipedream at best. Despite the very real constitutional crisis, the central government has been unable to consolidate its power beyond the capital. Much of the countryside is controlled either by warlords or by the rebels. The central government's realm seems to be shrinking fast.

Put simply, I think the International Crisis Group is sounding an alarm that is much too little, much too late. Afghanistan constantly defies attempts to solve its inherent failures by tweaking this or reforming that.

I watched an interesting documentary yesterday about Alexander's campaign to conquer India that touched on his previous efforts in what is now Afghanistan. What he found was that there was no country to defeat or subdue - just a mishmash of tribes of constantly shifting allegiances. For Alexander it was very much the problem of herding cats. How little has changed. Power in Afghanistan isn't won at the voting booth, it's brokered - often very briefly - among warlords who stand ready to ally with - or fight - any other. Just as Alexander couldn't unite the tribes, neither can we. We're beating our heads against a mudbrick wall.

Risky Business - Harper Turns Cdn Government into World's Biggest Subprime Lender

As the rest of the world was being slammed by the fiscal sledgehammer of securitized subprime mortgages, the subpar economist who calls himself prime minister was throwing the Canadian government headlong down that same well.

Writing in this weeks's Tyee, Murray Dobbin reveals how Harper has transformed your government and mine into the world's largest subprime lender and argues that we're in for our own meltdown when the current, made-in-Ottawa housing boom goes bust.

...what few Canadians realize is that the housing market has avoided collapse (prices are down 32 per cent in the U.S.) because the Harper Conservatives directed the CMHC to change the mortgage rules to effectively make the Canadian government the biggest sub-prime lender in the world.

...The facts are that over 90 per cent of existing mortgages in Canada are "securitized." That is the practice of pooling mortgages (or other assets) and then issuing new securities backed by the pool -- MBSs, or Mortgage Backed Securities.

... So long as borrowing requirements were tight, the percentage of loans that were securitized remained modest. But in 2007 the Harper government allowed the CMHC to dramatically change its rules: it dropped the down payment requirement to zero per cent and extended the amortization period to 40 years. In light of the mortgage meltdown in the U.S., Finance Minister Flaherty moderated those rules in August 2008 (it's now five per cent down and 35 years). But these are still relatively very loose requirements and securitization has taken off.

By the end of 2007 there were $138 billion in NHA securitized pools outstanding and guaranteed by CMHC --17.8 per cent of all outstanding mortgages. By June 30, 2009, that figure was $290 billion, a figure [National Bank Financial advisor David] Lepoidevin says, "exceeds the total value of mortgages offered by CMHC in its 57 years of existence!" CMHC's stated goal was to guarantee $340 billion by the end of this year and is on track to reach $500 billion by the end of 2010. Total mortgage credit in Canada will grow by 12-14 per cent of GDP in 2009.

In an effort to prop up the real estate market in 2008 (when affordability nosedived), the Harper government directed the CMHC to approve as many high-risk borrowers as possible and to keep credit flowing. CMHC described these risky loans as "high ratio homeowner units approved to address less-served markets and/or to serve specific government priorities." The approval rate for these risky loans went from 33 per cent in 2007 to 42 per cent in 2008. By mid-2007, average equity as a share of home value was down to six per cent -- from 48 per cent in 2003. At the peak of the U.S. housing bubble, just before it burst, house prices were five times the average American income; in Canada today that ratio is 7.4:1 -- almost 50 per cent higher.

...This is the ticking time bomb Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tossed at the Canadian taxpayer. Why? So that he can maintain the fiction that he is a good economic manager and win a majority in the next election.

Dobbin accuses the opposition of sitting on this scandal out of rank cowardice and political opportunism. No one wants to be seen as the one who set collapse in motion by pointing out that the Tory Emperor is running about without his pants on.

This affects each and every one of us. It affects our kids and their future. It whipsaws the housing market, inflating it for temporary political gain with astonishingly arrogant indifference to the price all Canadians will pay for it at the end. Look at it this way. Harper has pledged your good credit and mine to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. He has set up countless droves of young, hopeful Canadian first-time home buyers for an awful fall and he's undermined the stability of house values for the rest of us in the bargain. And he's done it all for the greater glorification and political opportunism of Stephen Joseph Harper.

The Canadian people have been betrayed by Harper, the Conservative Party and also by every opposition politician who has sat mute while the PMO perpetrated this scam on us. It's time these opposition leaders accepted that their duty is to protect us, not themselves. Too bad Harper is their puppeteer.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Did Obama Just Lose the AfPak War?

Anyone who has travelled much has run into culture clash. Different peoples have different values, different perspectives, different customs. When you're a tourist you have to pretty much figure out what's what and get along with it. Conquering armies, however, aren't so quick to grasp cultural nuances of the places they occupy, and so it is with Afghanistan.

According to one expert on that region, former Indian ambassador, M K Bhadrakumar, the White House may have inadvertently caused irreparable damage to the West's efforts in Afghanistan by its handling or perhaps "mauling" of Hamid Karzai. From Asia Times Online:

...One look at CNN on Tuesday afternoon was sufficient to see the misery on the face of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he lined up for a photo-op announcing that he had been stripped of the votes that would have given him victory in the presidential election, and a runoff against Abdullah Abdullah will be held on November 7. A cultural mishap has taken place. The Americans didn't seem to care it was unprecedented for a Popolzai chief to be made to admit defeat in front of his people.

Karzai insisted until last weekend he would not accept interference by foreigners in deciding the outcome of the election, which he claimed he won in August's first round. On Tuesday, he retracted in public view without offering an explanation. Karzai caved in, realizing he had irretrievably lost that gravitas without which he cannot hope to be a ruler in Afghanistan.

...In their triumphalism, however, the Western capitals haven't quite grasped that Afghans will not respect those incapable of giving steadfast friendship, either. Whether Karzai was efficient or corrupt is no more the issue. The issue is the Afghan perception that Westerners use their friends like condoms - to be discarded after use.

This will have implications for the much-touted "Afghanization" strategy. Surely, any "Afghanization" of the war in the Hindu Kush needed to be built around the phallic power of an alpha male - figuratively put, of course - and that has become impossible now. No matter who wins the November 7 runoff, he will carry the cross of being an American puppet, which undercuts the "Afghanization" strategy.

Arguably, the only feasible way of "Afghanization" was the route Karzai took - via coalitions with local commanders, warlords, mujahideen, tribal maliks (chiefs) and the mullahs. "Afghanization" depended on a key Pashtun figure with the capacity to network. Between Karzai and Abdullah, the choice is limited as that figure can only be Karzai.

Talk about "damned if you do, damned if you don't." The Americans needed a runoff election if they were to have any hope of salvaging enough support to keep the AfPak war going. But the price for that was to undermine the viability of the Afghan leadership and drive an enormous wedge between the Afghan people and the West. That's the curse of counterinsurgency - there are so many ways to lose these wars and so precious few ways to win.

Petraeus, back when he still had an ounce of integrity, warned that when you're fighting an insurgency, you're fighting for the hearts and minds of the civilian population and, once you lost that contest, you were defeated, it was over. You can still wage war, you're just not going to win. At that point all you're doing is killing.

Faster Than the Speed of Light?

Chuck Yeager may have been the first person to break sound barrier but that's kids' stuff compared to two German scientists who claim to have broken the light barrier, the 186,000 mile per second speed of light. From The Telegraph:

According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, it would require an infinite amount of energy to propel an object at more than 186,000 miles per second.

However, Dr Gunter Nimtz and Dr Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Koblenz, say they may have breached a key tenet of that theory.

The pair say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons - energetic packets of light - travelled "instantaneously" between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 3ft apart.

Unfortunately the report doesn't even attempt a guess at what speed was reached. Is it even possible to measure "instantaneous"?

America's Sick Healthcare System

A growing majority of Americans want a new, public healthcare system but the bloated and entrenched "for profit" healthcare industry is fighting back aided by an army of lobbyists, a powerful propaganda machine and heavily corrupted, "on the take" Congress.

Those who oppose public healthcare freely resort to scare tactics and claim that a government-administered system would be wasteful - money down the drain. These reprobates aren't going to be very happy with a report out today that shows that their system squanders up to 850-billion health care dollars a year. From Reuters:

The U.S. healthcare system wastes between $505 billion and $850 billion every year, the report from Robert Kelley, vice president of healthcare analytics at Thomson Reuters, found.

...One example -- a paper-based system that discourages sharing of medical records accounts for 6 percent of annual overspending.

"It is waste when caregivers duplicate tests because results recorded in a patient's record with one provider are not available to another or when medical staff provides inappropriate treatment because relevant history of previous treatment cannot be accessed," the report reads.

Some other findings in the report from Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Reuters:

* Unnecessary care such as the overuse of antibiotics and lab tests to protect against malpractice exposure makes up 37 percent of healthcare waste or $200 to $300 a year.

* Fraud makes up 22 percent of healthcare waste, or up to $200 billion a year in fraudulent Medicare claims, kickbacks for referrals for unnecessary services and other scams.

* Administrative inefficiency and redundant paperwork account for 18 percent of healthcare waste.

* Medical mistakes account for $50 billion to $100 billion in unnecessary spending each year, or 11 percent of the total.

* Preventable conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes cost $30 billion to $50 billion a year.

That last point is especially telling. Republicans use "preventable conditions" as a straw man to blunt demands for healthcare reform. They argue that the American health care system is simply a victim of preventable conditions such as obesity. Out of $850-billion wasted health care dollars, the Reuters Thomson report finds a very small fraction - $30-50 billion - the result of preventable conditions. In other words, the Republican's key argument is just so much lobbyist/kickback-driven bullshit.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Searing Truth About Afghanistan

We're all caught up in a George Bush hangover and it's time to sober up. Writing in the November issue of Harper's, retired US army officer and now professor of international relations, AJ Bacevich, warns we're still afflicted by the Bush malaise. In The War We Can't Win, professor Bacevich argues that, if the United States wants to salvage a failing state, why not focus on Mexico?

History deals rudely with the pretensions of those who presume to determine its course. In an American context, this describes the fate of those falling prey to the Wilsonian Conceit. Yet the damage done by that conceit outlives its perpetrators.

...So it is today with Afghanistan, the conflict that George W. Bush began, then ignored, and finally bequeathed to his successor. Barack Obama has embraced that conflict as “the war we must win.”

...What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the -survival of South Vietnam. Today, as then, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

...Fixing Afghanistan is not only unnecessary, it’s also likely to prove impossible. Not for nothing has the place acquired the nickname Graveyard of Empires. Americans, insistent that the dominion over which they preside does not meet the definition of empire, evince little interest in how the British, Russians, or others have fared in attempting to impose their will on the Afghans. As General David McKiernan, until recently the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it, “There’s always an inclination to relate what we’re doing now with previous nations,” adding, “I think that’s a very unhealthy comparison.” McKiernan was expressing a view common among the ranks of the political and military elite: We’re Americans. We’re different. Therefore, the experience of others does not apply.

...Take the case of Iraq, now bizarrely trumpeted in some quarters as a “success” and even more bizarrely seen as offering a template for how to turn Afghanistan around. Much has been made of the United States Army’s rediscovery of (and growing infatuation with) counterinsurgency doctrine, applied in Iraq beginning in early 2007 when President Bush launched his so-called surge and anointed General David Petraeus as the senior U.S. commander in Baghdad. Yet technique is no substitute for strategy. Violence in Iraq may be down, but evidence of the promised political reconciliation that the surge was intended to produce remains elusive. America’s Mesopotamian misadventure continues. Pretending that the surge has redeemed the Iraq war is akin to claiming that when Andy Jackson “caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans” he thereby enabled the United States to emerge victorious from the War of 1812. Such a judgment works well as folklore but ignores an abundance of contrary evidence.

...For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.

...Any pundit proposing that the United States assume responsibility for eliminating the corruption endemic in Mexican politics while establishing in Mexico City effective mechanisms of governance would have his license to pontificate revoked. Anyone suggesting that the United States possesses the wisdom and the wherewithal to solve the problem of Mexican drug trafficking, to endow Mexico with competent security forces, and to reform the Mexican school system (while protecting the rights of Mexican women) would be dismissed as a lunatic. Meanwhile, those who promote such programs for Afghanistan, ignoring questions of cost and ignoring as well the corruption and ineffectiveness that pervade our own institutions, are treated like sages.

It's a great article, alone worth the newsstand price of the November issue of Harper's. Check it out.

This Is Your Captain Sleeping...

It's beginning to look like the cockpit crew of Northwest Flight 188 were asleep at the controls of their aircraft when they overflew their destination and Minneapolis-St. Paul international.

The flight crew may have been in the arms of Morpheus for as much as an hour before they discovered they'd overshot their destination by 240 kms. The pilot and co-pilot said they became distracted by a lively debate of airline policy but no one seems to be buying that. From CBC News:

Aviation experts say the pilots should have had numerous warnings as they approached and passed Minneapolis: cockpit displays, controllers trying repeatedly to reach them by radio, data messages and the city lights twinkling below.

Yet the pilots didn't discover their mistake until a flight attendant in the cabin contacted them by intercom, a source close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

"It just doesn't make any sense," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. "The pilots are saying they were involved in a heated conversation. Well, that was a very long conversation."

US aviation authorities want in on the crew's debate. They're about to listen to the cockpit voice recorders which, if the pilots have any hope of saving their skins, should have their every word on tape.

What's missing from this report is the real issue - the airline industry, due to deregulation, has become such a cut-throat business that flight crews are atrociously underpaid and overworked, often having to take a second, ground job to make ends meet.

Global Warming Deniers Losing Grip on "Little Ice Age"

The persistent cadre of global warming deniers invariably points to the Little Ice Age to argue that sharp fluctuations in the planet's climate are normal, even routine. Until now.

The tinfoil hat brigade will be sad to learn that the Little Ice Age itself is now seen as anthropogenic or "man made." Okay, the global warming theory goes that man's rampant emissions of greenhouse gases causes the earth's climate to heat up but how on earth could man trigger a mini-ice age? Easy, we died off - in droves.

The revised theory holds that the Athropocene began, not with the discovery of coal power, but much earlier with mankind's implementation of agriculture. It was then we began clearing forests for fields and breeding all manner of livestock. It was deforestation on a grand scale and it spread quickly around the world. With steady and abundant food stocks man's population burgeoned and our carbon emissions steadily increased until one day, in the early 1300's, it didn't.

Enter the Black Death. The bubonic plague (the first of a variety of infectious disease epidemics that hit mankind back then) stripped much of Europe of half its population within a handful of years. The place became depopulated. In the centuries that followed, forests reclaimed farmland and wildlife returned to replace livestock. Abruptly, an agrarian society's carbon emissions yielded to an influx of carbon sinks - trees. This initiated a cooling. Cooler oceans absorb more carbon dioxide. Between the reforestation and increased oceanic absorption, scientists are now able to solve the mystery of the 10 ppm drop in carbon emissions during these centuries. That 10 ppm drop, caused by culling the mankind herd, created the climate phenomenon we know as the Little Ice Age.

The story of the Little Ice Age can be found in The Cold We Caused by Steven Stoll published in the November issue of Harper's. Here are excerpts from Stoll's article:

...What would happen to carbon dioxide and methane if humans disappeared? The answer is a tale not of drought but of rain, not of warming but of cooling. Its relevant technology consisted not of internal combustion and the steam engine but of horse collars and the moldboard plow. Excavate the Middle Ages, and one unearths a geological event with enormous implications for how we think about and respond to climate. ...the Northern Hemisphere fell into a frigid rut around 1350 that lasted until the nineteenth century. .

..Although we think of carbon dioxide and methane as the exhalations of industrial production, air bubbles trapped in Arctic ice say otherwise. In fact, the increase started 8,000 years ago, with the proliferation of agriculture. Forests burned by humans, whether for fuel or to clear for planting, released tons of stored carbon. Three thousand years later, rice paddies and domesticated cattle began to let off methane, which traps heat twenty-one times better than carbon dioxide does. And yet temperatures barely changed during these eight millennia. But around 1400, gases and temperatures both plunged, then recovered, then plunged again after 1500. Atmospheric carbon declined by a statistically significant 10 parts per million (ppm) in a period only slightly longer than a single human lifetime.

...The Little Ice Age coincided with a series of astonishing pandemics. The best documented began in October of 1347. Twelve galleys, heavy with trade from Caffa, sailed into the port of Messina, their Genoese crews groaning from sickness in the holds. At least one came ashore. The first Sicilian he greeted received a bacterial infection from a sneeze or a vaulting flea. A week later the Genoese sailor was dead, along with every Sicilian who had stood close enough to smell his breath. The afflicted buckled with fever and hard, bleeding ulcers: the first European victims of the Black Death.

Over the next four years, as many as 50 million people perished—representing half the inhabitants of Italy, the Balkans, Hungary, Lithuania, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, England, Norway, Sweden, Syria, and Palestine, as well as parts of Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and Azerbaijan.

...the deaths of so many in such a short time, over terrain extending from the Po Valley to the Incan Empire, left hundreds of millions of hectares abandoned to reforestation. The rebounding woodland devoured 13.8 billon tons of carbon, accounting for more than half the missing 10 ppm. The oceans ate the rest, probably as part of a feedback loop set off by the die-off. (Cold water stores more CO2 than warm water, so falling temperatures would have created an ever more efficient carbon sink, leading to falling temperatures, before something broke the loop.)

And then mankind rebounded:

...Between 1700 and 1920 the world’s forests lost 537 million hectares, as agrarian societies increased their land use more than threefold. The carbon in all of those trees—together with soil itself, the greatest source on the surface of Earth—wafted up to thicken the eight-mile-high envelope that distinguishes this planet from Mercury.

Taking responsibility for the consequences of agriculture, capitalism, and industrialism is not the same thing as believing that humans control the tilt and wobble of the globe. It requires us to wield what control we have through public policy. ...It heralds the end, or so we can hope, of an approach to our atmosphere—as an infinite sink—that has financed industrial capitalism since soot turned the birds black in Manchester.

...By confirming the human role in climate change, and by declaring a warming world injurious to the public good, the EPA has swung a club against perhaps the grandest capitalist conceit of the twentieth century: that society forms part of the economy, not the other way around.

Ecology becomes policy when our responsibility becomes undeniable. So completely cultivated, walked over, and settled up is our planet that it no longer makes sense to regard any part of it as lying beyond human influence. To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we are the climate, and we might as well get good at it.

It's a great article. Get your hands on a copy of the November issue of Harper's.

Friday, October 23, 2009

You've Come a Long Way Baby. Why So Glum?

I try to stay out of women's issues but I found an interesting column by Judith Warner in today's New York Times about claims that, despite the progress women have made over the past four decades, they're less happy today than they were in the early 70's.

There appears to be a raging argument over whether success has made women less happy. My question is, "compared to what?"

How many of us are happier today than we were in the early 1970's? My guess is that, unless you were lying in a heap at Kent State or suited up in combat fatigues in Vietnam, chances are you were considerably happier back then.

For starters, life was simpler. Global warming meant Fort Lauderdale for spring break. There weren't really many existential crises other than the prospect of nuclear Armaggedon. We weren't as sensitized to issues like inequality nor as desensitized to horror and carnage and mass mayhem. We actually believed tomorrow would bring a better day and that our children would have better lives than we did.

Come to think of it, I think I'd rather be back in 1970.

Kyle Unger - Why We Don't Execute Convicted Murderers

There are plenty of ways for an innocent person to wind up convicted of murder. Lazy or dishonest cops, incompetent prosecutors and defence counsel, botched forensics, a bad judge or an even worse jury - it happens and it happens all too often to run around topping people based on the reliability of our judicial system.

Kyle Unger knows what it means to be wrongly convicted of murder. After wasting 14-years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the Winnipeg man has been cleared.

The evidence against Unger in the killing of a young girl at a rock concert included the testimony of a forensics expert who testified that a hair found on the victim's body was Unger's. Guess what? It wasn't. It didn't belong to Unger. In fact the Crown Attorney today admitted there was no trace of Unger on the deceased's body.

Harper and his redneck supporters don't much care about the Ungers who get wrongly caught up in the system. To them, executing innocents is just a cost of doing business in a real, red-meat, law & order nation.

Let's Train Afghan Soldiers - Here

We don't have to train soldiers for the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan. It's safer, easier, and probably cheaper to train them right here in Canada. Look at it this way, if we can thoroughly train our own soldiers at Canadian bases for combat in Afghanistan, we can do precisely the same for Afghan recruits. The Canadian Forces have decades of highly successful experience training foreign soldiers in Canada. There's nothing new to this.

Why not run basic infantry, mechanized infantry, artillery and logistics training at a couple of our splendid Canadian facilities? Instead of pumping mountains of money on supporting a training operation in Afghanistan, let's invest that money in a training operation in our own country. Think of it as real stimulus spending.

Would you rather pay the cost of flying a couple of thousand Afghan recruits to and from Canada or fly hundreds of Canadian trainers into harm's way to train these same recruits in Afghanistan? They don't have to get their entire training in Canada but we can teach them most of what they'll need to know without Canadian instructors being exposed to IEDs, suicide bombers and Taliban ambushes.

The Last Squawk of Rick Hillier?

I've had about enough of Rick Hillier and his delusions of grandeur.

The safely retired, ex-general seems to have found a perch where, like one of those really annoyingly loud parrots, he can squawk and scream at his former masters. Perhaps sensing that he still has the Canadian public on his side, Hillier is using his store of political capital to, well, politic.

Hillier doesn't seem to like the politicians we elect - of any stripe. The Liberals were bad, Harper is maniacal. Don't listen to them, don't trust them, he tells us. Apparently he thinks that parliament is going to sell us out on Afghanistan as if Canada's supposed military leadership hasn't done a good enough job of that already.

It's remarkable how readily and fulsomely Hillier can find fault, incompetence and dishonesty in the Canadian public's elected representatives and yet recognize so little fault in his own leadership of the Afghanistan mission. Memo to Rick - politicians alone can't screw up the Afghan gig as thoroughly as it is. It takes deeply flawed political and military leadership to pull off a mess like Afghanistan.

It seems Hillier's solution to Afghanistan is more of the same. Yeah, Rick, and just how well has that worked so far? Are you looking to repeat the Hundred Years War?

Rick Hillier is known to have a great affinity for his American counterparts so it's not surprising that he acts so much like them. Ever notice how many US generals have become astonishingly candid and outspoken about places like Iraq and Afghanistan but only after they have reached the safety of retirement? It's all "yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir" while they're still in the driver's seat but the gloves come off just as soon as they're safely buckled up in the backseat. And we all really love those backseat drivers, don't we?

Man, Hillier makes me yearn for the good old days when the only retired generals who castigated politicians were those who had actually won a war or two.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On NATO, Rick Hillier's Wrong - Dead Wrong

Rick Hillier has seen his place in Canadian history, and he doesn't like what he sees.

Hillier, the ex-general who, curiously, now denies being the architect of Canada's deeply flawed military mission to Afghanistan is, not surprisingly, indulging in America's post-Vietnam sport of ducking responsibility and deflecting blame onto others.

In his memoirs, the ex-general claims the decision to send a Canadian force barely a tenth the size needed to secure Kandahar province from a resurgent Taliban threat had almost nothing to do with him. The whole thing had been a done deal between the Department of National Defence and the office of prime minister Martin before Hillier got involved - he maintains, now that the stench of failure is inescapable.

After bemoaning that the whole mess isn't his fault, Hillier goes on to spew vitriol at NATO, claiming the alliance is done unless someone breathes air through its "rotten lips into those putrescent lungs." In Hillier's remarkable mind, if NATO can't win in Afghanistan it might as well be scrapped altogether.

Besides being self-serving, I believe Hillier's NATO remarks are seriously wrong-headed to boot. This guy would define an alliance that served the West remarkably well through a half-century of existential Cold War by how well it performs in a hopeless cause it was never intended to fight.

The problem isn't with NATO, it's with the political and military leadership of the alliance since the demise of the Soviet Union. No one, it seems, knew what to do with NATO after the Soviet threat receded and so it drifted, aimlessly, until some halfwit in the White House decided it'd make a dandy American Foreign Legion.

The core of NATO, the raison d'etre for the whole business, has always been mutual self-defence of any member state under attack. Now from what I've learned, America was never attacked by Afghanistan. Nine years after the Taliban were sent packing there's not been one scintilla of evidence suggesting they even were aware of the al-Qaeda 9/11 plot that was orchestrated out of Germany by a gang of mainly Saudi fundamentalists. Put that all together and it just doesn't correspond to NATO's mutual defence rationale. So what really happened?

In the wake of 9/11, we lost our senses and our backbone. The world's sole superpower was insistent on waging war against someplace and war-fighting tools are really pretty useless against criminal organizations, non-state actors like al-Qaeda. Washington couldn't bomb Germany for letting al-Qaeda plotters gather there. Couldn't bomb the House of Saud for its complicity in buying off the Wahabist extremists so long as they stayed out of Saudi Arabia. It couldn't bomb Florida for allowing al-Qaeda killers to leisurely while away their time at American flight schools either. Who are you gonna bomb? What's better than a fundamentalist Muslim regime, especially an extremist, contrarian bunch like the Taliban? Hey, if it's the best you've got, it's the best you've got.

NATO's mistake was in bending its own rules, actually tossing the rule book out the window. And so some NATO members, not all by any means, saw fit to send small packets of troops to aid the Americans in Afghanistan.

At first it was just routine security work defending the newly-installed Karzai government in the capital of Kabul. But then we looked up and saw that Bush and Cheney and Blair were in full rut to conquer Iraq and were pressuring everybody to lube up and jump into that mess with them.

Canada didn't want to go to Iraq. It was a bad idea from the outset. It was never sanctioned by the UN Security Council which made it illegal in any case. The political leadership behind it - Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Blair and Straw - were doubtful starters at best. From the outset they were talking like school children about a war that would be over in 60-days and cost a few score billion at the outside. That's the sort of talk you hear from the bearded lunatic with the torn coat and soiled pants sitting at the back of the bus. You don't let that sort drag you into a war, especially not a war of choice based on the flimsiest of contrivances and prevarications.

But, of course, America's war-dodging War President was on a rampage, telling friend and foe alike that "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists!" Sadly no one had the guts to stand up and say, "George, you're nuts. Go fuck yourself." No, we dutifully fell into line behind the lunatic.

We weren't going to dive into the empty pool that was Iraq but, rather than risk being seen by the Americans as "Surrender Monkeys" we opted to assume some sort of combat role in Afghanistan. We would be the American army's place holders while they stepped out for a moment to set all straight in Iraq. We'd even fire guns and drop bombs and everything. Right.

Even then it was all wink, wink/nudge, nudge. We, Canada, decided to take over and secure Kandahar province, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, with a force of but 2,500 soldiers, most of them support types. That was the first clue that we weren't serious. Why? One of the fundamental precepts of counterinsurgency warfare is that it's enormously labour-intensive. To succeed, according to the Pentagon's own doctrine, you need to commit a force of one counterinsurgent (fighting soldier) for every 25-50 civilians you must protect and secure. In Kandahar province that would represent a minimum fighting force of 20,000 combat soldiers (with the requisite support troops backing them up). We had but 2,500 all in - support and fighting troops.

The second sign that we weren't serious was that our minuscule force strength remained static even as the Taliban numbers swelled. We crafted the mission according to the resources we poured into it, not according to the threat we were up against.

Missing during these several years was Hillier's voice. He was outspoken about just about everything else but he never spoke out publicly saying that Canada's force could not hold the Taliban and secure Kandahar without major reinforcement. He never said that we were losing. Yes, we were shooting up people and shelling and bombing the hell out of them but we were losing control of territory which is one way the insurgents win this type of war. We weren't keeping the population's villages safe at night, from the insurgents or from their own government's predations.

Yet, despite this track record, Hillier condemns NATO for failing to "win" in Afghanistan. Just what would winning look like? I'm not sure anyone really knows any longer. It's not the secure, secular and democratic state our delusional leaders fantasized about when this sorry business began. The Kabul government that we're propping up is what Chatham House, the Royal Institute itself, describes as a "criminal enterprise." Experience has shown us there has never been a viable Muslim state that didn't first overcome tribalism and warlordism and, when it comes to Afghanistan, those problems are both manifest and not even on the table for discussion. We know that, since we drove out the Taliban, Afghanistan has reverted to a narco-state. We know the Afghan government is so poor that it can't begin to afford the type and size of a national army it would need to secure its own territory.

Gee Rick, just what is there for NATO to win in Afghanistan or haven't you been reading the papers?

The fact is that neither Hillier nor anyone else can condemn NATO for Afghanistan when there is no proper role for the alliance in that country. It's entirely conceivable that the Taliban's war, the political war waged by all insurgencies, has already been decided - in their favour. Lord knows we didn't put up much of a fight in their war just as we fumed when they refused to fight our war, the military war.

But what of NATO and the future of the alliance? Is there any reason for its continued existence? What can it do for us? Despite Hillier's badmouthing, we're entering an era in which NATO may be more critical to the West than it ever has been even at the height of the Cold War.

Take climate change, desertification, deforestation, resource (particularly freshwater) depletion and exhaustion, species migration and extinction, air/land/water contamination, overpopulation and population displacement and migration, nuclear proliferation and global terrorism - add water, toss'em in a pressure cooker and turn the burner on "high." That is the world we're soon to be facing and that is why the West, or at least the original alliance members, need a NATO that is redefined, rationalized, refocused and reconstituted and we need to be giving that our immediate attention.

Both the British Ministry of Defence and Pentagon planners have released reports on the impacts of environmental threats on global security. The Pentagon is soon to release its Quadrennial Defense Review in which climate change will be identified as presenting a major security threat to the United States.

Are these threats real? Of course they are and they're already beginning. Are they serious? Ditto. In little more than a month the nations and blocs of nations that make up our world will be assembling in Copenhagen to seek consensus on some effective means to fight global warming. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that almost nobody believes Copenhagen will succeed, skip back two paragraphs to the list of challenges set out there. Global warming is the very first, listed as "climate change." Copenhagen isn't going to begin to resolve any of the other issues that are set out.

We're about to face a world in turmoil and upheaval and that has major security implications for the West, the industrialized nations that will ironically be the last and least impacted by the consequences of our own industry and consumption. Put bluntly, we may well need to defend ourselves as we never have before. For that we will need collective security, a revitalized North American Treaty Organization.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Extending Lifespans - Enough Already!

It's not that we can't significantly extend man's longevity, the question is should we?

In a world running headlong into the wall of finite, dwindling and even exhausted resources, what are the costs associated with engineering man to live 100 rather than merely 75-years?

BBC News reports that fully half of the babies now born in the UK will live to 100 years of age:

To achieve "50 active years after 50", experts at Leeds University are spending £50m over five years looking at innovative solutions.

They plan to provide pensioners with own-grown tissues and durable implants.
New hips, knees and heart valves are the starting points, but eventually they envisage most of the body parts that flounder with age could be upgraded.

...Professor Eileen Ingham and her team have developed a unique way to allow the body to enhance itself.

The concept is to make transplantable tissues, and eventually organs, that the body can make its own, getting round the problem of rejection.

What these scientists (and the BBC) ignore is the effect that extended longevity will have on a world with finite resources. Who is going to pay for all the drugs and laboratory and surgical procedures needed to keep Old Wobbly going that extra 20-30 years? We're already reeling under the healthcare cost impacts of longevity increases obtained since the 50's. Surely extended longevity will become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy subsidized by others.

Then there's the question of how you feed and maintain that person, how you deal with the extension of their carbon emissions and associated problems. Britain feeds itself with other nations' foodstuffs. Last year Britons consumed their entire nation's annual stocks of renewables by Easter. After that, they were relying on imports. A lot of those imports are coming from countries that are already hard-pressed to meet the subsistence needs of their own people. Their people can't economically compete with Westerners for the food they grow. And we're going to add a longevity layer to that burden?

The world is already overpopulated. We don't need greater longevity but smaller numbers, fewer mouths to feed. The resources that would have to be poured into keeping grandpa going those extra decades are already badly needed elsewhere.

This is madness.

One Slippery Cod

Safely retired ex-general Rick Hillier is worried. If, as some aides of former prime minister Paul Martin maintain, Canada's Afghan mission was Hillier's baby, the ex-gen has reason to be worried. His baby, after all, has turned out to be mainly one big, dirty diaper. Who wants that hanging around their neck?

So Hillier is fighting back. The Kandahar Khaos wasn't his idea at all he claims in his newly released memoir. It was a done deal between the Department of National Defence and the Martin government before he ever got the job. Hillier - why he was just following orders but he really thought Canadian forces should stick to the safe job of defending Kabul.

But, but, but... the Martin camp have been saying all along that Hillier lobbied for the Kandahar gig and only got PMPM's go-ahead on his assurance that Canadian Forces could do that job and have enough of everything left over to tackle another big mission somewhere else.

At first blush it appears that someone has a convenient take on history. Had the Afghan mission turned out to be a magnificent success would Rick Hillier have "blamed" the credit on others? Somehow I don't think so. Hillier was all too happy to wear the cloak of Afghanistan on his shoulders - until he wasn't. This excerpt of an article from McLeans at Hillier's retirement doesn't square with the Big Cod's account either:

...Hillier's chance to test a new role for the Forces and restore its public image came in another failed state: Afghanistan. Even before he was named Canada's top general, his Afghan credentials gave a serious claim to a place in Canadian military history. In 2003, he was chosen to head the UN-mandated coalition's mission, called ISAF, in Kabul. "That was the most significant command a Canadian general had held since the 1956 Suez Crisis," says Eugene Lang, who saw Hillier in action close-up as a chief of staff to two Liberal defence ministers, and also wrote extensively about him as co-author of Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. Hillier distinguished himself in Kabul, Lang says, by helping pave the way for Afghan elections, forging close bonds with Afghan leaders including President Hamid Karzai.

He came home with a personal commitment to Afghanistan that brought out a slightly romantic, somewhat sentimental streak not uncommon among successful soldiers. "I was enthralled by the Afghan people," he told Maclean's in 2005. "You had to experience their version of friendship to understand it." He expressed admiration for warlords seen by others as obstacles to a stable Afghan government. Even some who dabbled in the opium trade Hillier was inclined to excuse as motivated by insecurity about their place in Afghanistan's future. Anyway, they were all fine warriors. "They beat the Russians pretty fairly and squarely, at the end of the day they were responsible for thumping the Taliban and throwing them out along with a significant number of al-Qaeda folks," Hillier said. "I saw the finest leaders that I've ever had the opportunity to meet."

Given his intense attachment to Afghanistan, it's little wonder Hillier pushed for the chance to shift Canada's focus from the relative safety of Kabul to much more challenging Kandahar. Although the decision was approved by Martin and sustained by Harper, Hillier was the driving force behind Canada's mission to take on the violent Taliban heartland. "He's the architect of that," Lang says, "and he's the most outspoken voice for it in Canada." The job has certainly needed a passionate champion: from 2002 to 2005, Canada lost eight troops in Afghanistan; 74 have died since the move to Kandahar in 2006. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for Hillier's personal connection to Canadians and Canadian troops is that, despite that heavy toll, his popularity hasn't noticeably suffered.

Hillier has long known that he's been heralded as the architect and promoter of the Kandahar fiasco. He's had plenty of opportunity before to correct the record. He had many, many chances to pass the credit along to others but he didn't. To the contrary he appeared to revel in the notion of transforming his soldiers from a peacekeeping to a warfighting force. Does anyone remember at the outset of this business when Hillier puffed himself up and told eager reporters that his soldiers were marching on Kandahar to exterminate a "few dozen... ...detestable murderers and scumbags"? Remember those ultra-macho television ads about "Fight... With the Canadian Forces"?

So, unless and until Hillier can produce some smoking gun proof that Kandahar wasn't his idea, his gross miscalculation, I'll have a lot of trouble buying his 11th hour attempt to shift responsibility for "the mission."

But wait, there's more:

Just in case he can't shift responsibility for the Canadian mission onto someone else's shoulders, Hillier also wants to put NATO to the sword. From the Toronto Star:

The NATO military alliance is a decomposing corpse that should be disbanded if it cannot find a winning strategy for the Afghan war, says former chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier.

In his new autobiography, obtained by the Star, Hillier opines that unless somebody breathes air through NATO's "rotten lips into those putrescent lungs" the alliance will be done.

Once again, Hillier seems to be blowing smoke. Just what "winning strategy" does the Big Cod have in mind? What winning strategy did Hillier have in mind when he conjured up the Kandahar mission? It strikes me that there's never been anything remotely resembling a winning strategy in Afghanistan, never in the nine years this farce has continued.

Hillier wants to take swipes at NATO, presumably to avoid pointing fingers at his Pentagon buddies. After all, Afghanistan is America's war. Although there's never been a shred of evidence even suggesting Afghan or Taliban complicity in the 9/11 attacks, the Americans decided to topple the Afghan government. Even though the US was not under attack by Afghanistan it invoked the NATO charter to get the alliance on board. And then Washington promptly forgot about Afhganistan because it chose to play in that other sandbox, Iraq, instead. The United States walked out on us, on NATO, because the Bush regime needed to use 9/11 as a pretext for toppling Saddam.

If Hillier is looking for a "winning strategy" for Afghanistan he might do well to read the US military's counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24. The pearls of wisdom it contains reveal that both the American and Hillier's Canadian mission to Afghanistan ignored and neglected almost every fundamental precept of counterinsurgency warfare. But rather than examine the fundamental failings of Canadian military leadership in the Afghan affair, Hillier chooses to blame NATO instead for failing to come up with a winning strategy. To me that simply further undermines this character's crediblity.

No, Rick, I'm sorry but from everything I've seen and read the credit/blame for what's happened in Kandahar is very much yours. You may be the Big Cod but you're not getting off the hook that easy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ditching the Fix - The Case Against Geo-Engineering Our Way Out of Global Warming

Sensing (quite correctly) that we really don't want to abandon our carbon addiction, the "fixers", those who want technological solutions to the plight our technology has created, are gaining momentum. These are people who claim the best solution is to geo-engineer our way out of global warming. Even though mankind has plainly shown that we weren't able to control the side-effects of the technology that got us in this mess, the fixers argue that doesn't matter, we can still control the technology to realign the climate of our planet.

The fixers are hatching all sorts of nutty schemes - from seeding the oceans with iron filings to placing enormous mirrors in earth orbit. One by one these cheap and dirty fixes have been debunked, usually because their advocates overlook the inevitable or at least likely side-effects.

One persistent proposal is to spread sulphur dioxide through the upper atmosphere where the particles will oxidize into aerosols that will block some of the sunlight reaching earth. The good folks at have posted a response to the lunacy of geo-engineering that argues our best hope is to change our behaviour.

Is geo-engineering a fix?

In a word, no. To be fair, if the planet was a single column with completely homogeneous properties from the surface to the top of the atmosphere and the only free variable was the surface temperature, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with
early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

Those who advocate geo-engineering, and we can expect to see that spreading at the political level before long, are trying to tackle global warming on the cheap. Make that the "cheap and dirty." By leaving climate change unresolved until it's too late, by refusing to decarbonize our economies, there's every reason to expect our "leaders" will come to us at the 11th hour when solutions other than geo-engineering have been foreclosed by their inaction. In other words, they're going to put us in a climate change trap.

As I've written many times before, there are many solutions to the global warming problem. The best of these passed back as far as the 60's when we really didn't know better. At some point we are going to reach out to grasp a solution, some answer, but it won't be the best answer. That's the answer we have today - decarbonize the global economy right now. That's the best solution if only our leaders were altruistic enough to act on it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Your Call. Do You Want a Viable World for Your Grandkids? Yes or No?

Here's your personal quota for carbon emissions. 2.8 tons per year. That's five thousand, six hundred pounds of carbon dioxide you can emit from all sources of energy consumption. That includes the obvious - driving your car and heating your home, for example - and the less obvious including the production, processing, packaging and transportation of the food products you pluck from your grocer's shelves to the electricity that's powering the computer you're using to read this.

2.8 tons sounds like a lot. That's 15.3 pounds or roughly 7 kilograms per day. The problem is we North Americans exhaust that quota very quickly. In fact, we generate about 200-tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita annually. So we're producing about seven times more emissions than we ought to but what's the rush? I know, ask the Germans!

German climate scientists have been crunching the numbers just like you would expect from a bunch of Germans, very bluntly. None of that IPCC consensus fudging, just the plain, brutal truth. Their conclusion is that the carbon emission cuts recommended by the IPCC (which our politicians don't have the will to meet in any case) fall far short of what is needed, within the next ten years, to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Did you get that? Within the next ten years. You are living in the make it or break it moment that will decide the fate of your children and grandchildren.

The German Advisory Council on Global Warming has released their report available here in PDF format. Entitled Solving the Climate Dilemma: the Budget Approach, the council argues that budgeting (i.e. rationing) carbon emissions is our species' only hope. They've taken a global, per capita approach - count all the legs and divide by two. That means you're entitled to the same emissions quota as somebody from India or the Sahel of Africa.

The German government's top climate scientist, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, discussed his council's findings at a recent conference at New Mexico's Santa Fe Institute. AlterNet has an interesting report on the presentation by Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation:

Schellnhuber and his WBGU colleagues go a giant step beyond the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body whose scientific reports are constrained because the world's governments must approve their contents. The IPCC says that by 2020 rich industrial countries must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent (compared with 1990) if the world is to have a fair chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. By contrast, the WBGU study says the United States must cut emissions 100 percent by 2020 -- in other words, quit carbon entirely within ten years. Germany and other industrial nations must do the same by 2025 to 2030. China only has until 2035, and the world as a whole must be carbon free by 2050. The study adds that big polluters can delay their day of reckoning by "buying" emissions rights from developing countries, a step the study estimates would extend some countries' deadlines by a decade or so.

Say what? The United States must be at zero emissions by 2020? As the late Billy May would say, "But wait, there's more!":

Schellnhuber, addressing the Santa Fe conference, joked that the G-8 leaders agreed to the 2C limit "probably because they don't know what it means." In fact, even the "brutal" timeline of the WBGU study, Schellnhuber cautioned, would not guarantee staying within the 2 C target. It would merely give humanity a two out of three chance of doing so -- "worse odds than Russian roulette," he wryly noted. "But it is the best we can do." To have a three out of four chance, countries would have to quit carbon even sooner. Likewise, we could wait another decade or so to halt all greenhouse emissions, but this lowers the odds of hitting the 2 C target to fifty-fifty. "What kind of precautionary principle is that?" Schellnhuber asked.

"I myself was terrified when I saw these numbers," Schellnhuber told me. He urges governments to agree in Copenhagen to launch "a Green Apollo Project." Like John Kennedy's pledge to land a man on the moon in ten years, a global Green Apollo Project would aim to put leading economies on a trajectory of zero carbon emissions within ten years. Combined with carbon trading with low-emissions countries, Schellnhuber says, such a "wartime mobilization" might still save us from the worst impacts of climate change. The alternative is more and more "Oh, shit" moments for all of us.

What I find most troubling about Schellnhuber's report is the reality that this is a threat that isn't going to be met without political will. You and I can't do this on our own. The American people, even if they were so inclined, can't do this on their own either. Only our politicians can mobilize the resources needed for something of this magnitude. In Canada that means Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton - three total duds. If there are many more world leaders of the miserable calibre we've accepted in Canada, well we're all hooped.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Afghanistan - Herding Cats

Oh it's all so simple - send more troops to Afghanistan and we win! I wish.

Actually the awful truth is that Obama's best generals, including David Petraeus and Stan "Westmoreland" McChrystal, can't spell out what it's going to take to win. The best The Best can do is tell Obama what it's supposedly going to take not to lose.

Fact One - Obama's military isn't fighting to win in Afghanistan, it's fighting - by its own admission - not to lose.

Fact Two - Obama's military, the most powerful in the world by far, doesn't know how to win the war in Afghanistan. They know what they'd like to try, but they don't know how to win. They know what they'd like to try but, then again, so has every bemedalled stuffed uniform who has driven this clown car since they arrived in 2001.

So the strategy Petraeus/McChrystal have dropped on Obama (and NATO) is to throw more kindling on the fire in order to stay warm while they hope something, somehow turns around. That's the plan. Pretty lousy plan, don't you think?

In fact, the plan is so lousy that I don't think it's a battle plan at all. What Obama's really been given is a plan to stick him with the blame for the defeat these jackasses have already achieved. I've said it before, I'll say it again. In this peculiar sort of warfare, the issue is often decided years before the government side realizes it has lost. The fighting keeps going on well after the real war is effectively over. And I'm pretty sure we're in that surreal interval right now.

If, eight years down the road, the best plan they can come up with is a strategy not aimed at winning but merely at "not losing", they're telling you they've lost.

Remember when we knew it as the "Taliban insurgency"? That's changed. It's now the "Taliban-led insurgency." It's the Taliban plus, plus, plus... It's the Taliban plus Haqqani and plus Hezb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar's outfit) and plus sundry nationalists and plus aggrieved locals out for revenge and plus various criminal organizations who find it expedient to make common cause against Kabul and its Western patrons. By the time Karzai's fraudulent election win is finalized, there'll be plenty more to swell the Taliban Plus ranks. By American estimates, the bad guys have grown by 25% over the past year alone. From McClatchey Newspapers:

"The rise can be attributed to, among other things, a sense that the central government in Kabul isn't delivering (on services), increased local support for insurgent groups, and the perception that the Taliban and others are gaining a firmer foothold and expanding their capabilities," the U.S. official said.

"They (the insurgents) don't need to win a popularity contest," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the center-left Brookings Institution in Washington. "They are actually doing a good job in creating a complex psychological brew. The first part is building on frustration with the government. The second part is increasing their own appeal or at least taking the edge off of the hatred that people had felt for them before. But on top of that they are selectively using intimidation to stoke a climate of fear. And on top of that they have momentum."

James Dobbins, a retired ambassador who served as the first U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, said the new estimate shows how the war, which entered its ninth year this month, has been intensifying.

"It tells you that things are getting worse, and that would suggest that the current (U.S.-led troop) levels are inadequate," Dobbins said. "But it doesn't lead you to a formula that tells you what the adequate troop levels should be."

The estimated increase in the insurgents' ranks occurred as the numbers of U.S., British and other Western troops also increased, possibly suggesting that the growth in international forces is bolstering an impression among many Afghans that they're under foreign occupation.

McClatchey also reports that Obama has begun retaliatating against his general's subterfuge by fighting leak with leak. Someone high up in the Pentagon sought to screw Obama by leaking Westmoreland-McChrystal's warning that, without 40,000 more American troops, the Afghan war could be lost within a year. Now Obama's team is turning the tables, leaking that what McChrystal has actually requested is not just 40,000 more soldiers but 80,000.

...[McChrystal's] resourcing plan offers President Barack Obama three options based on the estimated risk, said two U.S. military officials, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly and because the proposal remains classified.

The low risk option, which McChrystal has said offers the best chance to contain the Taliban-led insurgency and stabilize Afghanistan, calls for 80,000 additional U.S. troops, while his medium risk option puts the number at 40,000 to 45,000, the officials said.

"This is a fully resourced COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy with the low-risk option," one official said. The current Army counterinsurgency manual, however, estimates that an all-out COIN campaign in a country with Afghanistan's population would require about 600,000 troops.

So, even if McChrystal did get his extra 80,000 US troops and NATO's numbers somehow hold, he'll still have about one-third the number of counterinsurgent troops prescribed by his army's own doctrine. And, with one-third of the prescribed force strength, he's going to take on a rapidly resurgent Taliban-led insurgency plus secure the civilian population in the countryside plus straighten out Kabul plus fight corruption by Afghan authorities in the field.

Kids, this guy is blowing smoke and even if you can't feel it, you can sure as hell see it.

I Know, I Know - Harper's a Shit!

Yeah, yeah, Harper's a shit - got it. Yeah, yeah, Harper's cabinet are all shits - check. Yeah, yeah, the entire Conservative caucus are shits - ditto.

How many times can we rail at Harper's craven ambition? How many times can we 'expose' the hypocricy, manipulation, abuse and mean-spirited partisanship that are the hallmarks of the Tories? How many times can we bemoan their cultural shallowness and pathetically narrow vision?


You see, all that bitching is meaningless, unsustaining, absent clear and convincing policy laying out how we would do better. You just can't say "We can do better." Even if that comes from Michael Ignatieff hisself, that's crap and nothing more. If there's one thing the Liberal Party has had in abundance, it's crap from Michael Ignatieff. We've had enough hollow rhetoric, empty threats. No one believes Mikey's dire pronouncements any more because, time and again, they've proven to be crap. He stands up, makes loud noises and then slinks away into a corner as soon as Harper calls his bluff.

There was a time when Steve Harper was actually worried about Michael Ignatieff. That didn't last long - only until Steve got the measure of Mike. Steve, with the extremely fortuitous aid of the Governor-General, managed to see his way through Michael Ignatieff and it's been pretty much clear sailing for the Tory leader ever since.

When Parliament reconvened, Mike's end-of-prorogue gift to Steve was an opposition not simply divided but utterly fractured. Mikey puffed himself up and made loud noises about putting the Harper government "on probation" (how juvenile was that?) but Steve knew that, with the Left and Centre-Left at each other's throats, he'd been given something similar to the old Tory-Reform fiasco only on the other side.

Mike continued to scold Steve even as he continued to prop up Steve's government, allowing Jack to excoriate the Liberal leader until his credibility seeped out of his pores. When Mike decided to stand on the other foot, Jack was there to do the same dance, both of them hopping like puppets at the end of strings being handled by Steve.

What a dark farce.

Here's what Steve knows. He knows that, with today's Liberal and NDP opposition, he's safe. Power is his to lose. The Libs are obsessed with defeating the Conservatives instead of winning the support of the voting public. Instead of speaking to the Canadian people, presenting them policies they can embrace, the IgLibs are yelling at the Canadian people, hounding them to expel the Tories. If the voting public is responding at all, it's to ask "why?"

Why indeed.

If Dion and Ignatieff mark the Liberal Party of the 21st century, it has become a party that is just beginning a long decline.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dear President Obama - Get It In Writing

And please ensure it has Stan McChrystal's and David Petraeus' signatures on the bottom of the page. Word is that President Barack Obama has given in to the thinly veiled arm-twisting of Afghan commander, General Stan McChrystal, and Stan's boss, even bigger General and future Republican presidential hopeful, David Petraeus, and will send another 40-45,000 American troops to Afghanistan.

As far as I can tell, the Pentagon is trying to play "Pin the Debacle" on the new president by leaving him two choices (carefully leaked to the media of course): give us another 40,000 troops or take personal responsibility for our failure in Afghanistan for the past eight years.

Perhaps Obama sees what they have in store for him if he doesn't give in to their tantrum. Well he's not the first political leader and he won't be the last to get strongarmed by incompetent military bosses. But that doesn't mean that he can't - and shouldn't - demand a few concessions of his own.

David Petraeus. This guy has some explaining to do. Make that a lot of explaining. He's been stirring the pot over there since the first Bush term. Why wasn't he twisting Bush's arm for more troops four or five years ago when the Taliban resurgence began? Just what has he been doing these past five years? Oh that's right, the "surge" in Iraq, a fine bit of sleight of hand by which Petraeus could claim the victor's laurels for pretty much nothing. Why 40,000 and why now? I think Obama should ask Petraeus to respond to those questions in essay form.

And Stan McChrystal. This character says he needs 40,000 troops or else America loses Afghanistan. But Stan is long on dire threats and fantastically short on promises. Stan needs to explain just what he promises (that's right, p-r-o-m-i-s-e) to achieve with those 40,000 soldiers. Something tangible, something measurable. So far none of these Pentagon jackasses, not one, has done what they were sent there to do. One after another, they've all put in their time, got their ticket punched, and handed the mess off to the next guy just in time to retire.

Somebody from the Pentagon, preferrably McChrystal and Petraeus, should explain how the omnipotent United States military screwed this up so badly for the past eight years. (We should also get a few answers from Canada's military brass to the same questions) There's this pattern of consistent failure evidenced in the West's military leadership. Somehow, some way they've become dysfunctional, worse than useless.

The way I see it, not one of these bemedalled clowns is willing to admit that they haven't got a clue how to 'win' anything in Afghanistan which is why they've lowered the bar to a goal of simply "not failing." These guys are shooting for a low D, not a B, not even a C. All their threats and warnings and advice are given in the context of hoping to achieve a low D. Yeah, that's some winning team, no?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

BC's Newest Arrivals - Giant Humboldt Squid

When they washed up in their hundreds on the beaches of Tofino in August most everybody thought it was some sort of fluke. How could the voracious Humboldt squid, denizen of
Mexico's Sea of Cortez and other tropical waters find their way en masse into the North Pacific? When they appeared again in droves in September it began looking as if they might just be here to stay.

CBC News reports that marine scientists are now planning to place tracking devices on some of these creatures to try to find out just what is going on:

...The Humboldt is a species of squid that, up to now, has been associated with waters warmer than those found off Vancouver Island.

"The whole town was talking about it — 'have you seen the squid, have you seen the squid?'" said marine biologist Josie Anderson of the Raincoast Education Society.

"And they were asking, 'what are these,' because most people, myself included, we had never seen them before."

...John Payne, a marine biologist with the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Project (POST), said the events show that oceans are changing. "And I think we're going to see a lot more strandings."

There's more than an academic interest in the squid's wandering ways. The animal is a voracious predator, said Payne, and fishermen off the Pacific coast are concerned about the impact of the squid on their fish catch.

"Hake trolls off the coast of Washington are catching 30 tonnes of squid, some of them as much as 80 tonnes," said Payne.

Hmm, we've got salmon stocks simply vanishing without a trace at the same time we're seeing the arrival of masses of new predator species migrating out of warmer, southern waters. Yes indeed, the oceans are changing and a lot more rapidly than anyone expected.

So what is the government of the day doing about it? Good question. I guess Steve might be roused from his perpetual nap when these things start attacking divers and swimmers. Attack? Yes, without hesitation. Scott Cassel of Escondido, California has been attacked repeatedly by Humboldts while filming documentaries. The nature of the Humboldt is evident in the outfit he's wearing:

...Cassell researched Humboldt squid for two years before he began diving with them. Humboldts, named for a current in the eastern Pacific, have a sharp beak, eight muscular arms and two retractable feeding tentacles that they use to attack their prey with more than 40,000 needle-sharp teeth at once.

“They shred you when they grab you,” Cassell said. “The fishermen in Mexico would rather fall into the water with a feeding frenzy of sharks than Humboldt squid.”

Cassell made his first dive with a group of Humboldts that were feeding off Baja California. The squid, which often grow to be 6 feet or longer, immediately attacked, Cassell said, pulling his right shoulder out of its socket, yanking him down so fast his right eardrum ruptured and cutting him so badly his wet suit was destroyed.

...“They're not just attacking you to scare you,” Cassell said. “They are attacking you to eat you, not necessarily to kill you. They don't care if you live or die as long as they get to eat.”

...Humboldts are the most alien-like creatures on the planet, Cassell said, because they have three hearts, blue blood that is copper-based, the ability to swim at about 24 mph and excellent problem-solving skills. They live in water as deep as 3,000 feet, are as smart as dogs and are able to communicate with one another by changing their skin color from white to various shades of red, he said.