Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Food or Fuel

Spiegel Online:
Food prices are skyrocketing. Arable land is becoming scarce. And forests continue to disappear across the globe. The world must decide between affordable food and biofuels.

Exactly

Gary Younge, of The Nation:
While the Democratic Party's interests may at times coincide with that of the American people, they are clearly not synonymous. The party's raison d'être is to win elections, not to change America. Depending on the time, place and candidate, it may well stand for office but little else. The right understands these limits of electoral politics only too well. Its victories have ended in Washington, but they didn't start there and were not sustained there. The terrible truth about the past seven years is not that the country has been divided but that the wrong side has been winning. The right has fought for its agenda and has never been in doubt about who its enemy is.

It's high time the left did the same. Arguing for policies that eradicate poverty, confront racism and homophobia, tackle economic and gender inequality and corporate excess, normalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants and address the ballooning prison-industrial complex is about being progressive, not divisive. It does, however, mean recognizing that divisions exist and that to resolve them we have to take sides and fight for our beliefs. Unity is not forged by fiat but by struggle. Candidates can talk about "transcending" race, gender, region and party all they like. But before we can talk sensibly about transcending difference, we must first transform the conditions that give these differences meaning. To get beyond race, for example, we must first get rid of racism. Then every day can be like Martin Luther King Day, and black people won't have to watch from the sidelines.

Magic

Science Daily:
ESA’s orbiting gamma-ray observatory, Integral, has made the first unambiguous discovery of highly energetic X-rays coming from a galaxy cluster. The find has shown the cluster to be a giant particle accelerator.

The Ophiuchus galaxy cluster is one of brightest in the sky at X-ray wavelengths. The X-rays detected are too energetic to originate from quiescent hot gas inside the cluster and suggest instead that giant shockwaves must be rippling through the gas. This has turned the galaxy cluster into a giant particle accelerator.

That Iran NIE

Just to keep handy...

At Salon:
A new report takes the wind out of Iran hawks' sails, suggesting that Iran has ceased work on nuclear weapons and can be negotiated with.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Can't Buy Him Love

Tom Robbins, Village Voice:
Michael Bloomberg thinks he hears America calling. He alone hears this call, but that doesn't matter. Unfortunately for us, he is eager to answer.

Fresh from his confab in Oklahoma where he consulted with grizzled wise men, Bloomberg can be expected to announce any day now that he sees no alternative except to bow to this people's draft and place his own name before them on the November ballot.

He needs no stinking caucuses to do this, no treading through New Hampshire snows, no forced smiles through endless living-room chats, no stadium rallies only half-filled with supporters, no late-night flights over frozen cornfields, no town-hall meetings that so easily go awry with one little misspoken word. He need engage in none of these tedious democratic exercises. He will simply buy himself a place on the ballot, just as he did here in New York in 2001.

Through the miracle of the Internet and all the television and mail advertising that a billion expendable dollars or more will buy, he will run his campaign chiefly from the safety and comfort of his East Side mansion, New York City cops standing guard outside.

It doesn't matter that this candidacy will be a project of the utmost vanity, a billionaire's conceit. This kind of self-indulgence of the affluent is a phenomenon that we have no choice but to get used to, like warming oceans and the ceaseless chatter on cell phones. What's worse is that he could even win.


Agence France-Presse:
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could be planning an independent White House bid, but even in his own city, voters would be reluctant to support him, according to a poll released Wednesday.

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey found that despite a popularity rating of 73 percent, Bloomberg could count on only 34 percent of New York City voters if he ran as an independent presidential candidate.

"It's a Democratic town. If he runs for president as an independent, New Yorkers will do what they usually do and vote Democratic," the polling institute's director Maurice Carroll told reporters.

Poort Tweety

Eric Boehlert, of Media Matters:
When Chris Matthews' long-winded monologue at the opening of the January 17 Hardball program eventually touched down with an apology to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) for the way the cable talker had been treating the candidate on the air, the moment represented an unmistakable victory for the liberal blogosphere.

By not only getting Matthews to apologize, but by also forcing the rest of the press -- post-New Hampshire -- to back off its, at-times, overtly sexist coverage of a prominent Democratic contender, the blogs have already had more impact on how the traditional press covers this presidential campaign than they did during the entire 2004 White House run.

Indeed, the way the netroots and the (mostly) online progressive infrastructure have grown in the last four years in terms of battling media malfeasance should give conservatives pause. (Click here to see the anguish and anger the netroots' successful push against Matthews caused right-wing activists.)

Legions of American Imperialism

Check this great resource from the Group News Blog.

Some Thoughts on Bobby Fischer

Fischer’s Epochal Match,
Shelby Lyman’s Star Turn


More Reflections on Bobby Fischer

A Culture Of Impunity

Scott Horton, in Harper's:
Today, Human Rights First released its report “Private Security Contractors at War: Ending the Culture of Impunity”(4MB PDF), which I helped write and edit. The report’s focus is not on the misdeeds of private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather it focuses on the United States Government, and particularly the Department of Justice. The Bush Administration has crafted a culture of impunity for contractors in Iraq. This can be seen in a number of acts and in a policy of official indifference towards violent crime involving contractors. The victims of this policy are Iraqi civilians, coalition military, and members of the contractor force themselves. As a senior general in Iraq recently told one of my colleagues: “The three biggest threats faced by American soldiers in Iraq are IEDs, al Qaeda fighters, and unaccountable contractors.” Repeated hearings and demands for action from Congress are ignored by the Justice Department.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Barney Frank is not happy

Huffington Post:
By historical standards -- or any other -- the Democrats have an excellent set of presidential candidates from which to choose this season, and I look forward to campaigning enthusiastically and without reservation for our nominee. But this does not mean that we should be suppressing the discussion of differences, and it is in this framework that I think it is important to express my discomfort with a major theme of Senator Obama's campaign.

I am referring to his denigration of "the Washington battles of the 1990's" and, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, of those who fought them. My unease is compounded by the very explicit note of generational politics in his approach. I should note that I cannot be accused of self interest in taking exception to those who lament the baneful influence of baby boomers on our current politics, having myself been born well before the boom. Indeed, being much too young to claim membership in the greatest generation and even being a couple of years short of being a depression baby, I am reconciled to being part of a fairly large birth cohort that goes undesignated in our pop sociology. But since I do not have much intellectual respect for generational politics, I can live with this chronological anomie. I say that because generational politics presumes that I should have a different set of political values today than I had in the sixties when I began my political activity. But I cannot think of a cause that I cared deeply about then that I felt it appropriate to abandon as I aged, nor an important issue in which I had no interest then, but which now gets my attention.

This brings me to my particular concern with Senator Obama's vehement disassociation of himself and those he seeks to represent from "the fights of the nineties." I am very proud of many of the fights I engaged in in the nineties, as well as the eighties and before. Senator Obama also bemoans the "same bitter partisanship" of that period and appears to me to be again somewhat critical of those of us who he believes to have been engaged in it.

I agree that it would have been better not to have had to fight over some of the issues that occupied us in the nineties. But there would have been only one way to avoid them -- and that would have been to give up. More importantly, the only way I can think of to avoid "refighting the same fights we had in the 1990's", to quote Senator Obama, is to let our opponents win these fights without a struggle.

Medical plants face extinction

BBC:
Over 50% of prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first identified in plants.

But the Botanic Gardens Conservation International said many were at risk from over-collection and deforestation.

Researchers warned the cures for things such as cancer and HIV may become "extinct before they are ever found".

The group, which represents botanic gardens across 120 countries, surveyed over 600 of its members as well as leading university experts.


They identified 400 plants that were at risk of extinction.

Xenophobia doesn't work, in Hesse

Spiegel Online:
Hesse Governor Roland Koch had pinned his re-election hopes on running what some observers have called a xenophobic campaign. And Germany is indeed talking about him -- but his poll numbers are falling.

Study questions effectiveness of antidepressants

The Oregonian:
The portrayal of antidepressant drugs in medical journals significantly overstates their effectiveness, according to a study led by Oregon researchers.

Nearly a third of the clinical trials of antidepressants carried out by drug companies produced questionable or negative results that never appeared publicly in print, researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The doctor and the patient have only been aware of good news about these drugs in terms of efficacy," said lead author Dr. Erick Turner, a former drug reviewer for the federal Food and Drug Administration who now holds positions at the Portland Veteran Affairs Medical Center and Oregon Health & Science University.

The findings do not imply that the drugs don't work, but rather that doctors and patients lack a full, nuanced picture of their effectiveness.

The results also highlight a widespread bias problem in reporting on drug treatments of all kinds, said Dr. David Liebeskind, associate director of neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Denied access to all completed studies, Liebeskind said, doctors and patients can't make the best possible decisions. Doctors may prescribe drugs that patients don't need or recommend drugs that are less effective than alternatives.

John McCain on the War

Salon:
Early last year, John McCain seemed to lash his political fortune to the success or failure of the troop "surge" in Iraq. Backing the surge fit his carefully tended reputation as a maverick; his allies noted that McCain was bravely risking his political career to do what he believed was right. "I have just finished an election campaign," Sen. Joe Lieberman said last January when he and McCain pushed the surge at a meeting at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "If rumors are correct, he may be starting one," Lieberman said of McCain, standing at his side. "He is not taking the easy way out here. But he is taking the way that he believes is best for the safety of our children and grandchildren and the values and the way of life that America has come to represent."

A year later, leaving aside the question of its long-term effects, the surge has had a tangible short-term security impact in Baghdad. And McCain, in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, isn't going to let us forget that he knew better all along. "I'm proud to have been one of those who played a key role in bringing about one of the most important changes in recent years," McCain trumpeted during the GOP debate in Manchester, N.H., on Jan. 6. "And that was the change in strategy from a failing strategy in Iraq pursued by Secretary Rumsfeld." Two days later, McCain won the Granite State primary.

In fact, lately former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has become quite the punching bag for McCain on the campaign trail. Part of the McCain mantra, whether recited on the stump or to reporters on his campaign bus, is that he knew that Gen. David Petraeus' surge of troops would work better than Rumsfeld's light footprint approach. It's his way of supporting the war while criticizing the way it was executed by the Bush administration without ever uttering the word "Bush." It is also meant to be proof of the gravitas McCain would bring to the job of commander in chief. "I have the knowledge and experience and judgment, as my support of the Petraeus strategy indicated, and my condemnation of the previous Rumsfeld strategy," said McCain in a Jan. 9 NBC "Today" show interview. "No other candidate running for president did that on either side."

But to buy into the McCain-knows-best version of the Iraq war, you have to ignore a lot of history. McCain was among the most aggressive proponents of a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein, cosponsoring the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. He also expressed full faith in the way it would be executed -- a war plan conceived and executed by Rumsfeld.

Patience, patience

Science Daily:
The full recovery of ecological systems, following the most devastating extinction event of all time, took at least 30 million years, according to new research from the University of Bristol.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, a major extinction event killed over 90 per cent of life on earth, including insects, plants, marine animals, amphibians, and reptiles. Ecosystems were destroyed worldwide, communities were restructured and organisms were left struggling to recover. This was the nearest life ever came to being completely wiped out.

Previous work indicates that life bounced back quite quickly, but this was mostly in the form of ‘disaster taxa’ (opportunistic organisms that filled the empty ecospace left behind by the extinction), such as the hardy Lystrosaurus, a barrel-chested herbivorous animal, about the size of a pig.

The most recent research, conducted by Sarda Sahney and Professor Michael Benton at the University of Bristol and recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, indicates that specialised animals forming complex ecosystems, with high biodiversity, complex food webs and a variety of niches, took much longer to recover.

GAO Questions Effectiveness of Iran Sanctions

McClatchy Newspapers:
Two decades' worth of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran appear to have had little impact, Congress' investigative arm said Wednesday, calling into question a key pillar of President Bush's strategy to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism.

A report by the Government Accountability Office says that high oil prices and growing international trade have insulated Iran's leaders from the effect of sanctions. Iranian corporations and banks have switched to currencies other than the dollar and used other "workarounds" to bypass the sanctions, it says.

Iran's government has signed contracts with foreign firms worth roughly $20 billion since 2003 to develop its oil and gas deposits, the report says.

"Iran's global trade ties and leading role in energy production make it difficult for the United States to isolate Iran and pressure it to reduce proliferation and support for terrorism," it says.

Overall, it says, the effect of sanctions is unclear.

Still demonizing Iran

McClatchy Newspapers:
At a news conference Sunday, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said the use of EFPs has returned to "normal levels" after a brief increase in the first weeks of January. He couldn't explain the increase, nor could he say if Iran was behind the delivery of the weapons to Iraq.

Smith, however, said there's evidence that Iran continues to train and support Iraqi Shiite Muslim groups.

"We continue to see a negative influence by Iran," Smith said. "We clearly see their intent of training and financing continues."

Tensions between the Bush administration and Iran remain high. During his Mideast trip this month, President Bush declared, "Iran is a threat," and his administration and the U.S. military have accused Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force of training and equipping Iraqi Shiite militias that attack U.S. soldiers.

Over the past two months, however, U.S. military officials in Iraq have said, the Iranians have smuggled fewer weapons into Iraq, although the officials have said they aren't sure how to explain the decline.

Biofuels may not be the answer

Guardian:
Controversial plans to make cars greener by using fuel made from crops and animal fat will be thrown into doubt this week when MPs are expected to question whether they will do more harm than good.

Biofuels have been hailed as a green alternative to oil by some, but in the US, where there are massive plants converting maize (corn), it has been criticised for making food more expensive and being environmentally unfriendly.

From April, petrol and diesel sold in the UK must have 2.5 per cent biofuels, drawn from sources such as tallow, rapeseed and sugar beet, rising to 5 per cent in two years' time. The EU wants to increase this to 10 per cent by 2020.

But the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is likely to call tomorrow for the schemes to be delayed because of fears that biofuels can have negative consequences. Criticisms include claims that producing some biofuels emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and that habitats such as tropical rainforests are being destroyed to plant the new crops. The report, 'Are Biofuels Sustainable?', is also thought to predict that rising food prices pushed up by competition for land could restrict growth in the industry.

The committee's report follows a separate study last week by the Royal Society calling for strict controls on how biofuels are grown. Stavros Dimas, the EU Environment Commissioner, has also admitted that it might have been premature to press ahead with biofuels, which were fiercely debated at the United Nation's Bali conference on climate change in December.

Astonishingly disgusting

Associated Press:
For now, about 1,500 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been identified by the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 400 of them have taken part in VA programs designed to target homelessness.

The 1,500 are a small, young segment of an estimated 336,000 veterans in the United States who were homeless at some point in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Out of touch, Out to lunch

Think Progress:
At a press conference today unveiling the stimulus proposal, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) justified the conservative plan to give tax breaks to corporations — instead of working Americans — by arguing that people actually like working long hours:

I am so proud to be from the state of Minnesota. We’re the workingest state in the country, and the reason why we are, we have more people that are working longer hours, we have people that are working two jobs.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bloomberg wouldn't even win New York City

WABC:
SurveyUSA conducted an identical survey exclusively for WABC in four separate geographies to measure the awareness of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and possible support for a third-party run for president.

For each survey, approximately 800 registered voters were interviewed, 3,200 voters in all. Surveys were conducted in New York City, the 50 United States, the state of Pennsylvania, and the state of California.

The results do not bode well for the mayor.

Even in the five boroughs of New York City, where Bloomberg is best known by voters know him best, he does not finish above 28 percent no matter who his Democratic or Republican opponents would be.

Legal Mud

New York Times:
Justice Department officials have told Congress that they face serious legal difficulties in pursuing criminal prosecutions of Blackwater security guards involved in a September shooting that left at least 17 Iraqis dead.

In a private briefing in mid-December, officials from the Justice and State Departments met with aides to the House Judiciary Committee and other Congressional staff members and warned them that there were major legal obstacles that might prevent any prosecution. Justice officials were careful not to say whether any decision had been made in the matter, according to two of the Congressional staff members who received the briefing.

The staff members, who asked not to be identified, disclosed details of the meeting in interviews this week.

The December briefing took place after a federal grand jury had been convened in the case, suggesting that prosecutors had decided to begin hearing testimony with potential prosecution problems still unresolved.

Justice Department officials said Tuesday that the briefing had principally been held to answer questions concerning those problems, one of which arose when State Department investigators granted Blackwater employees a limited form of immunity for what they disclosed. There are also questions about whether federal law applies to the Blackwater contractors.

Lisa del Gioconda

Harper's:
It may be the best known portrait ever produced. It was created between 1503 and 1506 by Leonardo da Vinci, crafted in oil on a wooden board. It is known as “Mona Lisa,” but for centuries art historians have expressed uncertainty over the identity of the subject. This week, however, German researchers believe the mystery has been solved. Veit Probst, the director of the Heidelberg University Library, stated in an interview with the German radio network S├╝dwestfunk that it was now “confirmed” that the figure in the painting is the wife of a Florentine merchant, Lisa del Gioconda. The radio report is summarized in the current issue of the Hamburg newsweekly Der Spiegel.


The English version is now up here.

Inquisition

Guardian:
Pope Benedict XVI last night called off a visit to Rome's main university in the face of hostility from some of its academics and students, who accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition's condemnation of Galileo.

The controversy was unparalleled in a country where criticism of the Roman Catholic church is normally muted. The Pope had been due to speak tomorrow during ceremonies marking the start of the academic year at Rome's largest and oldest university, La Sapienza. But the Vatican said last night it had been "considered opportune to postpone" his visit.

The announcement followed a break-in and sit-in at the rector's office yesterday by about 50 students and a furious row over a letter signed by more than 60 of La Sapienza's teachers, asking that the invitation to the Pope be rescinded.

The signatories of the letter said Benedict's presence would be "incongruous". They cited a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, while he was still a cardinal, in which he quoted the judgment of an Austrian philosopher of science who wrote that the church's trial of Galileo was "reasonable and fair".

A Solar Grand Plan

Scientific American:
* A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.
* A vast area of photovoltaic cells would have to be erected in the Southwest. Excess daytime energy would be stored as compressed air in underground caverns to be tapped during nighttime hours.
* Large solar concentrator power plants would be built as well.
* A new direct-current power transmission backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.
* But $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Theory Behind Obama

American Prospect:
The "Theory of Change" Primary

Hope and bipartisanship are not things that Obama naively believes are present and possible -- they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure.

Letting them

Washington Post:
In the year since President Bush announced he was changing course in Iraq with a troop "surge" and a new strategy, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have begun their own quiet policy shift. After countless unsuccessful efforts to push Iraqis toward various political, economic and security goals, they have decided to let the Iraqis figure some things out themselves.

From Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to Army privates and aid workers, officials are expressing their willingness to stand back and help Iraqis develop their own answers. "We try to come up with Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," said Stephen Fakan, the leader of a provincial reconstruction team with U.S. troops in Fallujah.

In many cases -- particularly on the political front -- Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10. "To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis," he pledged. "Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year . . . the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution."

Although some progress has been made and legislation in some cases has begun to slowly work its way through the parliament, none of these benchmarks has been achieved. Nor has the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki taken over security responsibility for all 18 provinces, as Bush forecast it would. Last month's transfer of Basra province by British forces brought to nine the number of provinces under Iraqi control.

Gas

New York Times:
The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and United States military personnel.

Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a riot-control substance the American military in Iraq can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders. An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint.

“This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous,” Capt. Kincy Clark of the Army, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. “It’s not a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and otherwise degrade our awareness.”

Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint were not from the United States military, but were part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bronze Age Beer in Ireland

Spiegel Online:
Two Irish archaeologists have tried to brew beer like their ancestors used to make -- 3,000 years ago -- in an effort to uncover the purpose of common, ancient stone mounds.

It was a rough morning. Hung over after a night out in Galway, archaeologist Billy Quinn was nursing a headache over a hearty Irish breakfast, pondering the mysteries of his excavation site and thinking with a measure of self interest about mankind's age-old quest for mind-altering substances.

Then it hit him: His excavation site was a brewery.

The perfectly ordinary site was a flat, grass-covered earth mound known in Gaelic as a fulacht fiadh (full-oct fi-ah). These sites typically have a depression surrounded by a horseshoe crescent of charred stones. Archaeologists have turned up 4,500 so far across Ireland, and more are identified every year. Radiocarbon dating suggests most fulach fiadh were built between 1,500 and 500 BC.