Monday, December 28, 2009

My Predictions for Major World Events in 2010

Just for fun, here are some speculative predictions, along with their probability ranges:

- Iran's government is overtaken by events, possibly including by air strikes made by Israel. 60-65%

- China openly breaks with North Korea. 50-70%

- N. Korea undergoes a leadership crisis due to Kim's medical incapacitation or death. 60-75%

- The PLA masses along the border with N. Korea, prepared to move in if complete collapse becomes imminent -- a strong possibility -- with international backing and blessings. 50-55%

- Mexico request American military intervention in its drug wars. 50-60%

_ America responds by heavily fortifying the border, ratcheting up material aid several orders of magnitude, and shares much more intelligence; lending covert units through the back door and stationing of attack and observation drons possible to likely. 50-60% (wider spread for some possibilities)

- Venezuela's Chavez makes a military move against at least one other country. 65-75%

- U.S. gives serious consideration to ending the Cuban embargo, but doesn't in 2010. 60-65%

- Pakistan gets far more hostile towards the U.S. than it already is. 70-80%

- China beefs up its South China Sea forces in direct response to Vietnam's just-announced purchase of primarily aircraft and naval equipment from Russia, including six submarines. 75-90%

- Cap-and-trade is defeated in U.S. Congress. 50-60%

Of course, in a year, I'll be reaching for a towel to wipe the egg off my face!!!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Allowing Coments: To Let, or Not To Let; That Is the Question

When I first started this blog some seven weeks ago, I struggled with the question, "Should I allow feedback in the form of reader commentary -- or not?"

For those who might not routinely read readers' comments sometimes allowed at blogs, news stories, columns, etc., let me explain.

Sometimes, I learn as much or more from what readers say about a particular topic than I did from the original story. But much more often, discussion threads -- the string of comments following a story -- are overwhelmed by people who fall into one, several, or -- may the gods help us -- all these catagories (in no particular order):

     (1.) Unwilling or unable to use logic.
     (2.) Unwilling or unable even to entertain another reader's logic.
     (3.) Has a particular agenda to push -- and does so even when it has nothing to do with the story.
     (4.) Is rude to another reader or other readers, resorting to name-calling and the like.
     (5.) Is rude to or about third parties.
     (6.) Refuses to stay on-topic -- i.e., to talk about the story at hand.
     (7.) Posts an commercial advertisement. ("Make YOUR boobs bigger today!")

Well, you get the idea.

Some topics seem to lend themselves to these sorts of abuses than others. Here's a partial list of examples of such topics:

- Where was President Obama born?
- Is President Obama an American citizen?
- What is President Obama's religion?
- "Renditions": are they legal or illegal?
- Who's responsible for the exploding U.S. national debt?
- What should our view of China be, and what should our relationship with it be?
- What is the nature of Islam?
- What should we do about illegal immigration in the U.S.? (Works with other countries, too.)
- Should we have public health care?
- What is the nature of climate change?
- What should the goals of our [U.S.] space program be?

Anyone who hasn't been isolated deep in a cave the past year or two will be at least somewhat aware that discussions centered on these topics (and any that equally excite passions and debate) often get out of control and become the verbal equivalent of what military folks call "total war": completely destroy "the enemy, by any means possible, with no quarter shown."

Perhaps my own personal most "unfavorite" approach is when someone simply refuses to use reason in his argument, or refuses to acknowledge the reason in another person's argument, or, worse still, both. I remember one time I spent about a week gathering a ton of data, including links to the sources (which were from all over the world and included public and private organizations) to refute another reader's completely illogical assertions on a certain topic. After I posted it, the person whose argument I was refuting responded something like this: "I'm not going to bother looking at all that junk. Obviously, you agree with them -- and if they support you, then they're fools, liars, or both."

Back to my conundrum: Should I allow comments -- or should I not?

My natural inclinations are biased towards free speech, despite the concerns I have about some people abusing that freedom, people who apparently don't grasp the plot when it comes to understanding that with freedom come responsibilities.

Therefore, I'm going to open up *this* entry -- only, for now -- and ask, "What do you think? Should I open all my blog entries to feedback and cross-discussion between and among readers?"

I've not advertised this blog at all, so I may not get a single reply. Will just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China to Rule the World Anytime Soon? Not.

China's extraordinary development since the late Deng Xiao Ping declared the "Open Policy," as it's called in Chinese (better known in English as the "Open Door Policy") has led a great many people to assume (or fear, in some instances) that China will be a major global military power in the next one to two decades and that it will increasingly flex its muscle on a global scale.

These predictions are based, in part, on the fact that China's economic development has bordered on the unbelievable-if-you-didn't-see-it.

The apples and oranges model is useful here. Though those two fruits are distinct fruits, they both are, after all, fruits. Similarly, a strong military requires buckets of money, money that won't be there unless the economy is strong.

But a strong economy doesn't mean a strong military is an automatic result. Consider Germany, for example (ignoring the current economic crisis; I'm looking at a longer time stretch). Over the years, Germany has had an essentially strong economy, yet does not have a major military in the global sense.

Consider naval forces. China is building "rapidly," but that's a relative term. For instance, the USS Carl Vinson, has just completed a refitting -- it was already built. And just to get it refitted took four years. Building a modern aircraft carrier takes much longer than that.

Even if they could snap their fingers and have a complete fleet identical to that the U.S. has, they still wouldn't be able to project globally anytime soon. Why? Because of the human factor. It takes many years to develop qualified, experienced personnel, which in terms of projecting globally, or even just in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, they have little of. Yes, they're participating in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, but that's about as far as they've projected so far.

Another factor is their nuclear capability. China famously hides its military expenditures (but then we have our own black budget), making it impossible to know the precise number of nuclear weapons they possess, but the numerous expert sources I've read say they have somewhere around 200 operational warheads. In contrast, the U.S. and Russia have somewhere in the range of 20,000 nuclear weapons, counting tactical and stockpiled ones. That's 100 times as many as China has.

Not that 200 weapons is anything to shrug off, especially since some of those are ICBM's with global reach. But it would be suicide for China to launch -- and they're not stupid. Also, just how many of its nuclear weapons are ready to fire is unknown. I remember reading that when the U.S. spy aircraft and a Chinese fighter collided, leading the the Chinese forcing our plane down on Hainan Island, China was estimated to have only about 18 ready-to-launch ICBM's. (I think I read that at Jane's Information Group, the world's leading source of military information such as this. That's an active link to it, by the way.)

My point isn't that China has plenty of economic muscle to flex; it does. But that's simply not the same thing as being able to sail fleets into San Francisco and New York at will.

Some analysts point to the U.S.'s swift ascent in every sphere between 1914 and 1945. True enough -- but that was helped along by those two dustups, WW I and WW II. That buildup was incredibly rapid, but still we're talking about 31 years -- fewer, really, since the U.S. was a late entrant into WW I. If China develops that quickly, we're talking 2040, not 2020, as I've read some claim.

And I flat don't think they can pull it off that fast, not with their huge population and myriad social issues they're going to have to address, whether they like it or not.

Look, I'm not a China-basher; after all, I lived there about eight years (in three hitches, and if you count four years in Macau before Portugal returned the colony back to China -- I do count it, since it's essentially a Chinese city). I could happily live there again in the right circumstances, and very nearly returned there to teach last year.

But these within-a-decade-or-so predictions strike me as fantasy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The Knights Carbonic"

For copyright reasons, I can't simply copy and paste a wonderful piece in The Guardian I just read. It addresses the climate debate, and takes aim squarely at skeptics and deniers -- but I believe the writer means to be criticizing those who refuse to apply reason, not to those who do use reason but still stand fast.

Anyway, here's the link:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Copenhagen 2009, or, "We Started a Joke"

Well the climate conference held in Copenhagen the past two weeks has whimpered to its miserable end. Even those trying to find something good have to settle for a handful of straw.

Let me tell a little parable.

Two guys shared a house, although they quarreled all the time. One day Joe turned on a burner on their gas stove and made a pot of stew, which he then put on to simmer. Joe didn't know the gas pipe in the kitchen had a tiny leak.

Sometime later, as Joe and Sam, his housemate, sat in the living room watching TV, there was an explosion in the kitchen. They rushed to see what happened, and found the kitchen burning mightily. Joe called the fire department, though the station was at least half an hour away, even for a fire truck using its lights and siren. Then he told Sam they needed to get outside and turn on two water hoses they had so they could stand outside and spray water inside to try to impede or put out the fire.

Sam snarled, "No. You started it, so you put it out yourself."

Startled and angered, Joe retorted, "But I didn't start it on purpose, and this is your home, too!"

Sam still refused, angering Joe further, to the point he shouted, "Fine! I'M not doing anything, either!"

They went outside as the fire spread.

By the time the firemen arrived, the house was pretty much destroyed. The firemen squirted their hoses until the remains were completely extinguished and cooled. Once it was safe, the fire captain walked around the outside of the house, and we he returned, he exclaimed, "I saw two hoses already hooked up, long enough to have reached the kitchen! You could have maybe kept the fire contained to the kitchen and still have someplace to live. True, you might have to go out to eat, or maybe buy a camp stove until your kitchen could be rebuilt, but to just let the house burn to the ground makes no sense!"

Joe and Sam began hurling accusations at each other, each saying the other was responsible for the destruction of their home.

Finally, the firemen left in disgust.

This parable isn't a perfect one for Copenhagen, but it'll do. Joe is the U.S., and Sam is China.  More broadly, Joe is the developed world and Sam is the Third World together with the developing world.

It's true that the developed world is historically responsible for damaging the environment more than the rest of the world, if we go back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or so, though in the latter half of the 20th century some Third World countries began rising, increasing their own contributions. The one defense of the developed world is that when people began burning coal and oil in the early part of the 19th century, no one had any idea that way down the road this would lead to trouble, potentially catastrophic trouble, for the climate.

But for the countries outside the currently accepted "developed world" to say, "You guys blew it for nearly two centuries, but that provided the engine for your economic growth, so you have no right to tell us we have to cut our emissions drastically. It's OUR turn to 'drill, baby, drill' and 'burn, baby, burn' is downright stupid.

On the other hand, it's equally stupid of countries that are developed to childishly say, "Okay! I'm taking my dolly and going home! So there!"

But that's essentially what happened at Copenhagen.

Complicating matters was the attitude of the "Group of 77," a loose coalition on the world's poorest and less-developed nations. Their spokesman, a gentleman from Sudan, led the charge for rich nations to promise far more financial aid than they've tentatively agreed to provide (and there is considerable justification for that complaint) -- but without any accountability or transparency.

Yeah, right. We've been down Boondoggle Road before, giving foreign aid to some banana republic's central government only to discover later it ended up in Swiss bank accounts and the like, with little, if any, of the jackpot reaching the intended recipients. I don't mind my tax money going for foreign aid -- but I mind immensely when it's stolen.

Then there's the whole debate about what, if any, role humans play in climate change. Those in the debate fall into one of two basic groups, each of those further divided into two sub-groups:

1. Believes humans play a significant role in climate change
     (A.) Those who have a political agenda
     (B.) Those who believe, based on science, we do play a role

2. Questions whether human-induced climate change is real
     (A.) Skeptics who say "it's not clear"
     (B.) Deniers

I have no time for 1. (A.) and 2. (B.) The first includes, among others, scientists on the payrolls of companies in the fossil fuel industry. They're about as trustworthy as the scientists on the payrolls of the tobacco industry who some years back swore up and down tobacco at the very least was harmless to health, and arguably (they claimed) actually good for it. Again: yeah, right. The second is a bit more complex. There are people in it who have listened to the arguments and sincerely concluded the evidence of a human role simply isn't there -- but the weakness of their position is they start with the intent to reach that conclusion, though they're loathe to admit it. Then there are those who come up with nonsensical arguments, such as "Look! Podunk, Somewhere had a record cold winter!" and "The climate's changing all the time and has been since the beginning of the planet!"

To argue that such-and-such a place had a record-cold winter is pointless, as undoubtedly some other place had a record-hot summer. Climate change doesn't say that every single square inch of the planet will be warming (or, in earlier ages and undoubtedly in future ones, cooling). It says the global average is now increasing, and doing so at an alarming rate, and that it's doing so because of human activity.

As for the argument that the climate is always changing, no one disputes that. The several Ice Ages and the warmer periods in between them prove that the climate is in a constant state of flux. However, there's a difference between change over millenia and change over decades.

Now, someone's going to pop up and point out, for instance, the Mini Ice Age that lasted from about 1500 to around 1800 (estimates vary a bit) and the preceding Medieval Warm Period. Those events absolutely occurred, and evidence is available in many places around the world. And they had significant regional effects. They also were relatively short-lived.

And someone's going to pop up and mention Climategate. The scientists involved claimed they were just blowing off steam in the ridicule they heaped on other scientists in their e-mails; I don't know. But it's clear that while a number of scientists were involved in this episode -- and it was an episode, not a global conspiracy involving countless tens of thousands of scientists -- the number involved was relatively tiny. Nor does it in anyway detract from the underlying science, including much derived using other data and other software, nor many other studies involving none of the scientists in Climategate.

This leaves us with 1. (B.), those who believe humans are making a significant contribution to global change, and 2. (A.), those who are, we might say, straddling the fence, if leaning a bit towards disbelief in any role for humans.

Both these groups include thoughtful people, including trained scientists, though there are far fewer scientists in the skeptical group than in the group that does believe we play a significant role. Still, they merit attention. After all, climate science remains very inexact; for instance, just a few years ago, the best estimate for when the Arctic would become basically ice-free during the summer was sometime around 2100. Now, the worst-case scenario is in the next five or six years, while the most "rosy" is about 20 years.

Back to Copenhagen. China and the U.S. together produce about 40% of the world's greenhouse gases. If just those two countries were to join hands and actually do something truly significant, they would accomplish two things: (1.) start along the road towards significant efforts, and, (2.) shame other countries into following suit.

But what have they done? China has promised to reduce it's emissions relative to each unit of production. What does that mean? It means that China's increased emissions by 2050 will be "only" around 80% (according to articles citing scientific estimates I've read) higher than now -- instead of several times that. As for the U.S., we're promising a 14%-17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. But consider what Japan has put on offer: to reduce its emissions by 25%-35% from 1990 levels -- not the much higher 2005 levels -- by 2020.

Kind of puts China and the U.S. to shame.

But let's step away from the whole contentious climate change business and consider simple environmental pleasantness.

Anyone who has been to any of the world's major largest cities knows that smog is a huge problem. It affects people's health -- even China doesn't deny that (and China has more of the worst-polluted cities than any other country on Earth). Bangkok is no paradise when it comes to this, especially in central Bangkok, where on some days when the weather is itself clear, the smog is so bad you can barely see the Sun. The air stinks. And the smog contributes to polluting the soil and water. Even if climate change is an Al Gore myth or lie, I plain would like to have clean air.

Wouldn't you?

By the way, what are we going to say to the citizens of island nations such as the Maldives and Tuvalu as the last of their islands disappear beneath the waves? What are we going to say to people forced to move inland as the sea encroaches into the world's great coastal cities (as is happening right here in Bangkok -- I've seen it)?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Islam's Cyberwar

Well-respected New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has an Op-Ed column in Wednesday's edition of the paper which he titled "" It's an interesting -- if controversial -- piece, drawing 232 readers' comments in a matter of hours (and the comments section is now closed).

Friedman's basic thesis is that the cyberwar Islamic extremists are waging is more important than the "real" war in Afghanistan, and countless terrorist groups use the Internet to spread their poisonous ideas and to recruit new members. He then goes a step further and says this is about a war of ideas within Islam and as such can be waged only internally.

I am surprised at this column, coming, as it does, from a columnist I respect and often agree with. But he's dropped the ball to considerable degree this time, a view shared by many of the other readers commenting on the column.

First, he reduces the situation to a simplistic "us-against-them" construction. One need not be a scholar of Islam to recognize that not only is this simplistic, but dangerously overly so.

Second, he ignores the fact that there have been numerous calls by moderate Islamic religious leaders to resist extremists.

Third, he omits reference to the role we in the non-Islamic West have played in fanning the flames of extreme Islam.

On the plus side, I think he's right that there needs to be more leadership from leaders in Islam, and not just religious ones but also secular ones, such as Afghanistan's President Karzai. He needs to clean up his government's act -- and his own. In other words, Islamic religious leaders' words will fall on deaf ears if their secular counterparts don't strive more to provide whatever it is their populous want -- and that will vary from place to place, though the underlying principles are the same everywhere: food, clothing, shelter, some measure of individual freedom (if not necessarily democracy per se), peace and stability, and opportunity.

Does that mean the West, particularly the U.S., has no role to play, as Friedman seems to be saying? I believe he has missed the mark and that it does have an important role to play.

For starters, while President Obama is as constrained as any President by diplomatic demands, perhaps he could speak a little more than he apparently has been, maybe speak behind closed doors.

Second, we have some capability to wage our own cyberwar aimed at those extremist web sites. Because of alleged excesses committed in the fairly recent past by our intelligence agencies, this is a rather hard sell, but that doesn't mean it isn't necessary.

I'm not forgetting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I'm not sure what more we can do there. After all, we and others have brought pressure to bear for decades, with little to show for it. But I have an idea that isn't popular: make two points crystal-clear to everyone in the Middle East, namely, (1.) that a direct attack on Israel by another nation (Syria, Iran, etc.) will ensure that we give Israel full backing, including militarily, and, (2.) make clear to Israel that if it doesn't make an accommodation with the Palestinians they can swallow, it risks seeing us reduce our support, both materially and diplomatically. (This second includes making clear to the Israeli leaders that attacks on the Palestinians that aren't clearly warranted will also carry a heavy price for their country, though not an attack by us.)

Friedman doesn't discuss that, either. It's an extraordinary omission.

A point about some of the readers comments: they call for us to withdraw to our own shores and, in essence, shut out the world. That would be an unmitigated disaster. I don't want to live in a "Fortress America." That would be about the same as living in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao's China, and the like.

Friedman got a lot of criticism over this particular column, and much of it is thoughtful and, I believe, correct.

But read it for yourself:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Scientists Lie

You might want to read this New York Times editorial before reading on here: "E-mail Fracas Shows Peril of Trying to Spin Science."

Here's the short version: a group of British and American scientists engaged in what charitably can be called "dubious scientific practices" in seeking to promote their thesis that the planet is warming dangerously and we are contributing to it. Less charitably -- more more accurately, in my view -- they lied, primarily by omission. Further, and compounding their intellectual sin, they disparaged skeptics and sought revenge on journals and editors who gave skeptics any time and space at all.

Naturally, those who argue that global warming is a lie are reacting with glee, announcing that this episode proves it and that it further proves that the Earth has in fact been cooling since the late 1990's.

Well, in brief -- no, it doesn't. To say it does is akin to the "logic" critics of the Iraq war used in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which some U.S. military personnel grossly mistreated prisoners. That is, war critics said the scandal "proved" that all U.S. armed forces in the country wee abusive and so on. And that's patent nonsense. Further, it in no way addresses the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the war.

However, it does prove this: because one group of scientists have manipulated the data with which they were working, cherry-picking from a buffet of data sources, mixing those sources, so now the entire data set needs re-checking, at least by sampling if not exhaustively.

What these scientists did is this: they were assembling data to make a chart to show a sharp rise in temperatures over the last century or so, but their chart went further back than the temperature records, so they were using indirect temperature records, in this case, tree rings. However, they came to a time period covering recent years where the tree rings stubbornly indicated a different trend. So, they simply substituted direct temperature records -- but (1.) only for that part of the chart for which the tree-ring record was contradictory, and did so (2.) without indicating they had done so.

This is reprehensible. We all know that no one climate model is perfect, and that all of them need constant tweaking. Ignoring -- even suppressing -- inconvenient contradictory data flies in the face of solid (and honest) science.

Policy makers around the globe are struggling with just how to approach climate change. Not much of anyone disputes there is a change in climate occurring; the only arguments are (1.) is it warming or cooling, (2.) what, if any, role people play in climate change, and, (3.) if people play a role, how great that role is.

If policy makers are convinced that we do play a role, a significant one we can try to correct, then they will consider what to do. And whatever they decide is bound to be expensive, so they need the best, most accurate information and recommendations science can provide.

I can understand select use of data by non-scientists, whichever side of the argument they support. For instance, the temperature in London yesterday got up to about 6 degrees C/43 degrees F, which a person who says global warming is a myth and the planet is cooling, citing the London temperature, might say. But a person who believes in global warming could snort and point at the temperature in Moscow yesterday -- which was about 12 degrees C/53 degrees F. But both are extremely localized and for a single day, so alone are worthless in trying to determine long-term, global trends.

Though the editorial I linked above doesn't mention this next point, it needs consideration. On some of the websites that seek to prove global warming is at best a myth and at worst a lie I've read that the software used to crunch the data is also flawed. It's not clear to me if that software was used only by this group of scientists or if it is widely used. In any case, now that the allegation has been made, that software needs to be examined to see if it is, indeed, faulty. And if how widely it is used isn't known, that needs to be established as well.

There are three groups of scientists, generally, involved in this debate. On one side is that group under the sway of industry and who therefore help promote industry's political agenda. On the other side is that group with the opposing political agenda. Both these groups manipulate and massage the data dishonestly, so can be -- and deserve to be -- dismissed. The third group is made up of the vast majority of scientists who are conducting honest scientific research to determine what's going on -- indeed, if anything is going on.

I feel I should say where I stand on climate change. I believe it's occurring, that it involves warming, and that humans play a significant role in that warming. This scandal alone has not changed my views. But I do hope that many teams of scientists from the third group I mentioned, i.e., those with no political agenda, re-examine the data -- and if they decide their best call is either that there is no climate change occurring or that cooling is occurring, then fine -- I will gladly accept solid, honest science.

I bet that a re-examination will show that on a global scale warming is occurring and that we play a significant role in it. That doesn't mean I dismiss natural changes; after all, there have been numerous ice ages interspersed with much warmer periods since long before humans arose on the planet. Since I'm acknowledging that, you might reasonably wonder why I still suggest humans are playing a role, a significant one.

Basically, it has to do with time scales. Scientists tell us the last Ice Age took on the order of 4,000 years to end. Yet the changes we've seen just since the start of the Industrial Revolution have been on the same order as the changes that gradually came about as the last Ice Age ended. And the Industrial Revolution began under 200 years ago. In other words, same change but over 20 times faster.

There have been anomalies.

For example, there was what is called the "Little Ice Age." There is some disagreement about just when this began and ended, but a rule of thumb is from about the mid-16th century to the mid-19th century, with some overall minor temperature shifts.

This followed a somewhat warmer stretch known as the "Medieval Warm Period" that covered the time span 800-1300 AD, roughly speaking. Scientists disagree over whether this and the Little Ice Age were global events or a great many regional ones. There is evidence of anomalies in different places in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Another example is "The Year with No Summer," i.e., 1816, which followed a massive explosion of the Tambora volcano in present-day Indonesia in 1815. On  the Volcano Explosivity Index, which is a scale of 0-8 similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, Tambora ranked 7; only five such explosions are known to have occurred in the past 10,000 years, though two more are suspected. Tambora is estimated to have ejected about 160 cubic kilometers/64 cubic miles of material -- about four times as powerful as the later Krakatoa explosion late in the 19th century. To make it easier to visualize just how much ejecta we're talking about, formed into a cube with all three sides of equal length, it would measure about 12.65 kilometers/8 miles per side.

[Note: the source I'm looking at is internally contradictory. They say 160 cubic km/38 cubic miles -- but if the kilometer measurement is correct, then that's 64 cubic miles, not 38. And if the 38 cubic miles is correct, then the kilometer dimensions are correspondingly less. However, I'm going with the 160/64 numbers because they work out more accurately than starting with the 38 number across the sources I'm reading.]

Anyway, in parts of the world, in the northern hemisphere in 1816 in the northern hemisphere summer, there was frost. Crops were lost, especially in Europe. But again, the effects, while widespread, were not truly global. By the way, some scientists, but not many, suggest Tambora was in fact an 8 -- a once-in-10,000-years blast. As I said, the VEI works the same way as the Richter Scale, i.e., a 1 is 10 times more powerful than a 0, a 2 is 10 times more powerful than a 1 (and 100 times a 0), and so on. So, whether Tambora was "just" a 7 or actually and 8, it was a major explosion.

Clearly, nature plays a role, and likely one more significant than we play.

Back to the scientists at the heart of this scandal. It's too bad there's no equivalent of a court martial in the scientific world!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Terrorists Denounce Terrorism

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leadership has released a new set of guidelines for jihadi -- and they are a direct challenge to al Qaeda generally and Osama bin Laden particularly.

There have been moderate voices raised in the world of Islam denouncing terrorism, but for the LNG to make a formal declaration is especially significant, particularly given that group's own bloody past.

You can read the excellent CNN story here: New jihad code threatens al Qaeda

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What's Hun Sen Thinking, Anyway???

Whatever anyone thinks about former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin, even his supporters must be wondering just what Cambodian PM Sen was thinking when he invited Khun Thaksin to take up the parallel posts of economic adviser and adviser to the PM.

The question is especially pertinent now, a time when Cambodia and Thailand have a serious, ongoing quarrel about the border.

Maybe the Cambodians have some legitimate concerns about the border issues (and maybe not), but surely the wily Hun Sen knows that appointing Thaksin is throwing gas on the fire, even if Thaksin is able to provide the guidance he wants.

And it is an insult to Thailand. The Thai government has bent in a whole lot of ways to try to accommodate Phnom Penh's wishes, yet this is their reward.

I know two people who personally know Hun Sen, including one who serves as an adviser to the Cambodian PM (and whose wife serves as an adviser to hun Sen's wife). They both say (my friends -- I don't know the wife) that Hun Sen comes across as a perfectly polite, likeable individual.

I could sort of see it were Hun Sen to offer Thaksin sanctuary, given their close personal relationship (though even that would understandbly and utterly justifiably upset the Thai government, no doubt).

Hun Sen is difficult to pin down. A former major figure in the Khmer Rouge, he has managed to continue a prosperous (in more ways than one) political life, despite his debatable orgins.

Anyway, now the Thai government's panties are all twisted, and I don't blame them one little bit. An honest dispute about the border is one thing; a completely unprovoked and unnecessary slap in the face -- and make no mistake, that's what this is -- is an entirely different matter.

Some damage has been done already. I hope no more occurs, and that one damage has been done can be repaired. After all, the two kingdoms are neighbors, and it's nice for neighbors to get along. . . .

President Obama's Visit to Asia

U.S. President Obama is set to visit East and Southeast Asia. He will have summit meetings in Japan, South Korea, China, and in the context of APEC, Singapore.

Some regional papers are editorially questioning why the President didn't put Jakarta on his list of destinations, and there is some reason to wonder why he's not visiting (for now) the world's largest Muslim nation, one that has swiftly become a thriving democracy, and one in which he spent part of his childhood.

Well, those plaints are a bit misplaced. I'm amazed he's squeezing in as many stops and summits as he is, given the mountains of problems and cat fights he has back home. But I'm glad he's coming, and hope his entire trip turns out to have great benefits for all concerned.

I do hope that President Obama can find time to get back out this way by mid-2010 or so. Maybe he could aim to visit Indonesia, for starters. India and Australia would be high on my list were I his trip planner. It would be nice if he could pop by Bangkok while knocking around this part of the globe, but no national leader can be gone for any truly lengthy period of time, especially not the leader of any major country, which means not just the U.S. China's President Hu can't very well go sunbathe on Bali for a month, now, can he?

Of course, President Obama's detractors will be braying loudly, the most extreme probably set to speculate about to which country he will sign a surrender. Well, let the Mr. Corpulent Limbaugh and his ilk have their day; gets 'em good ratings from the wingnuts.

But back to the President's trip and his omission of Indonesia from his visits. Right now, the thorny problems of the location of a U.S. military air base and the related Status of Forces agreement loom at the top of the U.S.-Japan alliance, one of the most important for us and the world, we have. Then there is the situation involving the Fruitcake People's Democratic Republic -- North Korea. Whatever else Dear Leader Kim has achieved, he sure has managed to keep attention focused on his wretched country, including that of the world's major powers, even those not directly involved in the Six-Party talks.

Further, the President can't put off making a decision about what to do in Afghanistan much longer. He asked General McChrystal for a recommendation and got one, so he'll have to decide one way or the other -- soon. Like maybe next week or the week after.

For self-evident and not-so-self-evident reasons, I'd like to see the President visit Thailand, too. Thailand has been one of our staunchest allies anywhere for decades, most notably during the Vietnam War. Yes, the Kingdom benefitted enormously from our military presence here, not least from the soldiers who came on leave here (and many times ended up marrying a local lady, and sometimes making their lives here thereafter). But Thailand provided us a giant "aircraft carrier" from which to launch aerial assualts against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. I feel we owe it to the Thai people to show them respect of a visit from my President. Of course, I'm biased in favor of the Thai people, but I'm not going to apologize for loving the country that has given me so much these past 15+ years.

All that said, maybe Thailand can't be on President Obama's must-see list in the near future. But let's say this: "Please come sometime during your term, Mr. President. Even if just for a day."

Anyway, I'm damned glad the President is tending to some important business in this part of the world, both for the bloddless pragmatic reason that we have one hell of a lot of interests here and the human reason of promoting people-to-people relationships.

Look at what President Nixon accomplished with his extraordinary visit to China -- Commie China. Who else but a staunch anti-communist could have pulled it off?

I applaud anytime it's appropriate, something like I salute a brave fallen -- enemy -- soldier. Not, I hasten to add, that I regard President Nixon as an enemy, no matter how much he went on to disgrace himself and his office.

3G Services, and the Internet, in Thailand

Read a news story today that the TOT (Telephone Organization of Thailand) is set to let five local companies launch #G services -- in Bangkok, at least -- early next month.

That'll be great . . . if  it happens.

This service has met with many delays, and not just those imposed by the necessity to install the necessary infrastructure.

More than one government agency, which the TOT is, has some jurisdiction in this, nd not all have signed aboard for the proposed service, so I simply don't know if the service will really and truly be introduced anytime soon, though I hope it is.

One really intriguing aspect of the story is that prices could be up to 10 times less than current ones -- and current prices, especially in contrast to those of just a fes years ago are quite reasonable now, at least in my opinion. For instance, when I arrived in the Kingdom in mid-1994, the cheapest rate to call the U.S. was THB32.50 per minute, or US$1.30 at the then-exchange rate. Todfay, I can call the U.S. 24/7 for a flat THB5.00 per minute, a tiny fraction under US$.15! And the top rate way back when was a wallet-killing THB82.00 per minute, or US$3.28! Today's rate is under 5% of that previous top one. Heck, when I got my first hand phone back in the Age of Dinosaurs, I was paying THB5.00 per minute for local calls, so I'm sure not complaining now.

Internet service here, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. It's extremely uneven in terms of speed. I essentially couldn't get on anywhere without repeated efforts and, I suspect, a lot of luck. And this is in spuite of the fact that True Internet customers with a 512kbps pacjage -- including me -- got a free upgrade to 3 mbps, 6 times faster. Chucle, chuckle. Right.

My friends who don't use the Internet (and in most cases, can't even turn on a computer) make fun of me for whining about this, pointing out that until not much more than a decade ago, we didn't even have stuff like e-mail. And that's true. But in my mind, that mockery is akin to that of someone who insisted on continuing to walk or ride a horse after the car came into use when Mr. Cowboy would mock a car-owning friend for complaining his car had some mechanical problem. In fact, it's same-same, different age.

And, no doubt, as technology moves forward and enters into our daily lives, we'll have complaints we can't even imagine now. Sure, our friends who live in a sod hut in the middle of the prairie can laugh at us for moaning about our utility bills and so on -- but we don't freeze in winter and burn up in summer, nor do we have to walk a mile to the nearest creek to fetch water and bathe, now, do we???

Though Thailand is light years away from being the technology hub it would love to be, credit must be given for the almost unthinkable strides the country has made over the past decade or so. I remember when the first Internet cafe opened here in Bangkok; it caused a huge sensation. Now there are more Internet cafes than there are bars, and that's saying something!!!

So you Cave People go right ahead and laugh . . . while you're out trying to kill a bear or deer to make yourself a blanket against the winter's snow and cold - - and see who gets the last laugh! :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wingnuts & Co. Are Fast Becoming Nazis

The President and Eric Holder are Black Panthers? -- well, according to one wingnut I just read, absolutely.

And the lady police sergeant who shot and stopped the Army major at Fort Hood ought to be brought up on charges for not killing him on the spot? Excuse me, since when were cops required to do double-duty as cold-blooded murderers? But so another wingnut holds.

Oh. I forgot. We're a white, Christian, God-fearing nation -- to hell with every other American who has been here as long or longer than us. Kill 'em. Jail 'em. And get that damned n****r out of the White House before he betrays us to Somalia or someone.

Excuse me while I puke.

Wanna bitch? Go to Langley and bitch they (1.) knew months ago Mr. Major Nut was trying to contact al-Qeada but they saw fit not to pass it along to the Army and (2.) they reportedly refuse to brief the appropriate congressional intelligence committees about the situation.

"Refuse? REFUSE? Your butt's fired, and your agency's shut down. We'll start from scratch, but don't you bother to re-apply."

Reminds me of when "The Agency" saw fit not to tell President Bush that, um, oh, maybe Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction after all -- despite the President demanding of the Director of the day in the final hours before he (Bush) ordered the invasion to bring him absolutely up to date.

But apparently such a briefing was above the President's security-clearance level and pay-grade. After all, he was only POTUS.

Let me stop so I can go puke some more.

Okay, back. No doubt the wingnuts love this stuff.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Mojo and Space Exploration: Washington Has Lost the Plot

For anyone unfamiliar with the term "mojo," one definition is "the magic touch." Another way to put it is the title of the splendid 1983 movie "The Right Stuff" about the U.S. manned space program.

And to be an astronaut (or cosmonaut or taikonaut), a person has to have it. Even people with advanced degrees who are in excellent physical condition with thousands of hours flying jet fighters sometimes come up short of mojo, of The Right Stuff.

Happily, none of our astronauts (or Russian cosmonauts or Chinese taikonauts) have turned out lacking, to the best of my knowledge. And that applies to current space farers, those who crew the International Space Station, fly in the American Space Shuttle fleet, and ride up in Russian Soyuz space capsules. And, of course, the two flown-in-space-already Chinese taikonauts.

You know it's dangerous, this business of blasting off into space, even into the lowest of low-Earth orbits. The fatal fire in Apollo 1, the near complete loss of Apollo 13 (though those three astronauts narrowly escaped back to Earth from the Moon), and the deaths of two entire shuttle crews all testify to that for the Americans, as does the undisclosed number of Russian cosmonauts who met their ends pushing the envelope into what the famous television and movie franchise "Star Trek" famously and memorably calls "Space: The Final Frontier."

But our space farers still have it, as I said.

But what's happened with NASA???

Well, as an avid and constant follower of space exploration, I'm convinced that NASA, and it counterparts in other countries, still would have the required mojo -- if they had clear missions with proper funding. My concern, as an American, is particularly with NASA, of course.

When President Bush directed NASA to get us back to the Moon by 2020, I was thrilled speechless. But one little critical detail escaped my attention at the time: a mission was given -- but no money to execute it.

Whose fault was that? The President's? Our Congress? NASA's top leaders? Bureaucrats?

I don't know. But my money's on the President, Congress, or both. I doubt NASA's bosses would willingly take on more than the agency could accomplish with available resources. As for bureaucrats, when the program is big enough -- and colonizing the Moon is pretty damned big, by any measure -- bureaucrats can and do get squished.

And now NASA has been left slowly twisting in the wind, a day late and a dollar short. It can't possibly keep the Space Shuttles flying and the International Space Station orbiting beyond their present use-by dates, and begin to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, and venture beyond the Moon -- the asteroid belt? one of Mars' tiny moons? Mars itself? -- when it's got a beer budget and a champagne assignment. Or series of wanna-do stuff, I should say.

Yeah, we could go with robotic missions, and certainly there are many excellent reasons to continue those, whatever's decided to do regarding the next two or three decades' manned space exploration. There are compelling examples of the value of unmanned craft. Among the best-known are the Hubble Space Telescope, which has brought the universe to tens of millions for the first time, often enthralling them with its spectacular images. Then there are the extraordinary twin Mars rovers, each with an initial mission of 90 days -- and that was a keep-our-fingers-crossed hope: five years on, they're still functioning, even if one is stuck in the sand. The list goes on, and includes the venerable two Pioneer spacecraft launched to cruise in space forever, now well beyond the orbit of Pluto, the outermost planet. (I still am unpersuaded by the arguments to demote it from planetary status.)

Yes, when we look at the total price tag, the number is big: NASA needs about $3 billion extra per year just to fly the Shuttle a little longer and get a crew back to the Moon -- but by about 2025, not 2020. But think of it another way: that works out to roughly $10 per year per American.

Besides, why not push for the commercialization of near-space even harder, so private companies can take over stuff like ferrying astronauts up to the ISS and resupplying it? That could be part of an international effort -- after all, the ISS itself is run (and funded by) a consortium of 16 nations, though that group is led by the U.S.

Of course, it's not simply a question of Washington opening up the spigot -- not when politicians are involved, which of course they are. Each wants the biggest slice of the pie to go to his district or state, even if that means paying a vastly inflated price -- gotta keep the voters happy, the rest of the country be damned, you know?

It doesn't help that some folks, both in and out of government, feel the space program is nothing more than (1.) a terribly expensive boondoggle (2.) whose funding could be better used to fund programs here on Earth, (3.) which translates to pork and payola for politicos and their pals (4.) and which utterly ignores the countless benefits we Earthlings have gotten as a direct result of the space program -- both its manned and unmanned missions and the related research.

Of course, even politicians can sing more than one song. If a vote comes up for some launch site in, say, Virginia (there is one), just ask a Florida CongressCritter or Senator about that -- he or she will scream bloody murder; after all, think of the jobs that could go to Cape Canaveral. Wanna move Mission Control out of Houston to some other state? -- well, better duck; I bet every single member of the Texas delegation would be reaching for their six-shooters.

Sure, Representatives and Senators are supposed to represent their respective districts and states first -- but I grew up believing that elected officials of our national government are also supposed to consider the national benefits (or negatives) as national representatives.

Silly me.

NASA had mojo right up through the end of the Apollo program (the final flights of which President Nixon canceled, by the way). The space shuttle program has been plagued before the first shuttle even flew with cost overruns -- enormous ones -- and, once it began flying, serious safety concerns. (See: Space Shuttle Challenger, January 28, 1986 and Space Shuttle Columbia, February 1, 2003.)

But how many ships and sailors were lost at sea, especially during the Age of Exploration? Our astronauts know, way down in their bones, that when they strap on a towering rocket ship to blast themselves into space, there's a very real risk their ride will be one-way, a very brief, as in the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which explode a mere 73 seconds or so after liftoff.

And what's happened to our spirit? Our ancestors had mojo when they boarded tiny, rickety ships to cross the Atlantic, as did their descendants who pushed the Westward Expansion across the continent? Sometimes, we seem like "America, the Land of the Scared and Sissys." No wonder our politicians pander to us. . . .

On Politicians and Hypocrisy

Anyone following the U.S. cat fight regarding health care reform proposals knows the fight has been long and bitter -- and it's not over yet. The House narrowly passed its version over the weekend with a 220-215 vote; the Senate is up next. If the Senate approves a version -- a very, very big "if" -- then a joint committee of the two chambers will hammer out differences, after which both chambers will vote one way or another. Should the legislation pass, it will be up to President Obama to sign it into law, which of course he badly wants to do, as this was one of his main campaign planks.

There's plenty of room for many legitimate concerns in this debate, regardless of where one stands on it at the end of the day. It's a dead certainty that neither of the extreme ends of the political spectrum will be satisfied; on the left are those that want to see so-called "single-payer health care," period, i.e., government-run health care, while their mortal opponents on the far right want government to stay entirely out of health care.

But talk about hypocrisy in the extreme. Sure, the Left would *love* to have universal, government-sponsored health care -- so long as someone else pays for it. (That means you and me, not him or her.) And sure, the  Right would love for government to stay out of health care . . . except for programs such as Medicare -- a government-run medical program for older Americans -- and, more to the point and more hypocritically, the top-flight health care provided to all members of Congress.

The Right has provided far more sound-bites during this veritable war than has the Left (but don't worry; the Left will get its chance, if not on this issue, then another one). For instance, one Republican member of Congress has rather famously viscerally opposed health care legislation -- but the other day boasted how he loves the medical care available to him in the U.S. Capitol building -- health care paid for by the American taxpayer. In other words, what this Congresscritter would call "socialized medicine" or "communist medicine that takes away our freedoms!" (Even some of his fellow members of Congress and others in his party have been reported as hanging their heads and rubbing their brows.)

Then there's the hoopla about what former Vice-Presidential candidate and Alaska governor Palin dubbed "death panels" -- panels, she claimed, manned by government bureaucrats who would tell us to "pull the plug on Granny." Never mind that the proposed panel's actual purpose is to examine the effectiveness of different approaches to a given medical problem to try to rank them by effectiveness in context of a variety of factors, including, yes, costs. But the panel, if instituted, will have no authority to impose a given course of treatment; in fact, such authority will be explicitly denied it.

Besides, insurance companies already do this -- as they should. What are they supposed to do? Write each possibility on a piece of paper, collect the slips, stir them up in a hat, and have a lottery, in effect, to decide???

But "death panels" has a splendid ring to it that any other description lacks.

Not that some Democrats haven't made their own bids for sound-bite fame and glory, mind you. One representative said -- on the floor of the House, no less, that the Republicans' proposal is for sick Americans to just "DIE!" (his emphasis).

What crap.

The guiding principle for way too many folks, both in and out of Congress, is this: "My mind's made UP!!! -- Don't confuse me with the FACTS!!!"

Yeah, no need for either extreme to bother themselves with those pesky little critters, "facts." They might borrow from President Clinton's campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid" re-cast as "It's the votes, stupid."

Do I know how to fix our increasingly dysfunctional and increasingly expensive heakth care system? -- nope. We spend about double per capita compared to what other industrialized nations spend on their citizens, yet we rank somewhere around 16th (last I read the other day) in quality of medical care. So, something's wrong. And that's not even mentioning the roughly 46 million Americans with no medical insurance.

No matter what we do, someone's going to get slammed. But no one wants to talk about that -- a medical care version of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," so to speak. (That's not an endorsement of the former Vice-President's environmental views, just a theft of his book's memorable title.)

In other words, no compassion for the poor devils slammed by whatever some faction supports. Hell no -- let hypocrisy rule the day.

Just like always.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Blogger Rewards and the U.S. Government

The U.S. government's Federal Trade Commission has turned its attentions to bloggers who review or endorse products and services; also of interest are the ads that appear on some blogs; Google's Adsense is one wildly program that attempts to display ads relevant to your postings -- and you get (a very little) commission if a visitor initiates and completes a purchase starting from your blog.

The FTC apparently thinks there's a danger some readers won't realize the commercial relationship between you, the blogger, and your reader. I guess the folks at FTC think all bloggers are (1.) wealthy enough they don't even want to make money from their blogs and (2.) an alarming number of blog visitors might be fooled.

Before I go on, here are the URL's to the story that first alerted me to the new rules, which take effect this coming December 1st, and to the FTC announcement on its website:

FTC Takes on Pay-per-Post

FTC Press Release

Some of the concerns of the FTC do make sense. For instance, here's one point from their press release:

[A]dvertisements that feature a consumer and convey his or her experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect. In contrast to the 1980 version of the Guides – which allowed advertisers to describe unusual results in a testimonial as long as they included a disclaimer such as “results not typical” – the revised Guides no longer contain this safe harbor.

There's also a concern that a blogger and an advertiser may have a commercial relationship of some type that a reader "would not expect," in the words of the press release.

Those of you who aren't based in the U.S. and maybe don't write about U.S.-related subjects anyway may snort and think you're free of worry.

Well, maybe not; read on.

Disclaimer: I'm NOT an attorney nor in any way at all formally qualified to interpret laws in any jurisdiction. Therefore, I assume no responsibility for your interaction with the laws of any and all jurisdictions. (This sort of "Keep-me-out-of-trouble" statement is absolutely essential these days.)

I'm not sure how this might work, but let's say you stay in a property owned by the Hotel XXX international chain on your holiday to Bali. And let's say Hotel XXX has one or more properties in the U.S. And let's further say the chain's website allows booking into any of its properties anywhere in the world by anyone located anywhere who has computer and Internet access -- and that person books a stay in the U.S. outpost.

If I'm understanding this development properly, should the above scenario happen *and* you get any sort of material reward for it -- a commission, goods-in-kind, and so on, then you must explicitly disclose you will accrue said benefit should your visitor click on through and (in this example) book a room.

Irksome to have to disclaim here, disclaim there, disclaim, disclaim, disclaim everywhere, isn't it?

There's another aspect that occurred to me that the story and press release don't mention: U.S. taxes. You can be 100% certain that should you receive any material reward for carrying an advertisement, endorsing a product or service in your blog, or both, and that reward comes from anyone or any company based on U.S. soil, then the friendly folks at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service will want to know about that. And they may want a piece of your pie. Or they may not; perhaps there are minimum amounts you must surpass before being liable for any tax. Again, I'm not a lawyer so don't know. Heck, even if I *were* a qualified tax attorney, I'd be unsure, most likely, as even top experts squabble about the meaning of the tax code all the time.

Predictably, and, in my view, quite understandably, just about All Bloggers Great and Small are objecting to this, seeing it as an infringement on free speech. (Apologies to the late but still wonderful author James Herriot for appropriating his books' titles.)

There's another potential point of trouble I thought about. Let's say I find some great ethnic restaurant in Podunk, Texas and write a rave review. But I didn't identify myself to anyone in the restaurant. However, the owner runs across my review then on my next visit happens to recognize me, and gives me some portion or perhaps all my meal free, as a token of gratitude for the review.

Do I need to yank out a Blackberry and post that right away, or at least rush to the nearest computer I can access and do so? Or does the legal principle of "ex post facto" apply? That principle holds that a person who does something that's perfectly legal today then next week the government passes a new law making that action illegal henceforth, the person who did it a week ago can't be dragged into court over it -- the law is ex post facto, or "after the fact." Or that's how my untrained mind grasps the concept, anyway.

My brain hurts; this stuff is downright tiresome, wearying.

Long-time readers of mine know I do go a considerable extra mile to clarify my relationships with the subjects of anything I write, if that's somehow worth mentioning. Just last week in a column I do at another URL I had two or three stories in which I decided to point out I wasn't getting one darned thing for writing what I wrote. On the other hand, if I do get some benefit for a piece I write -- even if that benefit isn't even offered until "ex post facto," I mention *that.*

Further, a number of times I've been asked to visit and review some place, mostly restaurants and bars, in exchange for free food, drinks, or both. But my personal rule is to decline the offer. I may well visit then write about the place -- but I won't accept whatever was offered, insisting on paying my bill. Why? Because I don't want to feel beholden. The owner or manager will feel cheated if I get something free then write anything negative. But if there are negatives, I intend to mention them (within the limits of various libel laws, that is, regarding which I err well this side of caution.)

Fact is, a great many bloggers won't ever be bothered by this, since they often make little or no money or any other reward. And that's likely true of bloggers based on U.S. soil who write exclusively about U.S. stuff.

BUT -- but -- these new rules do cast a pall on the blogosphere, and they do open the door a crack further. And that's always worth watching.

Monday, November 9, 2009