Saturday, April 28, 2012
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Clash of Civilisations cotinues...
Friday, January 13, 2006
The End of the Line
I will be posting here from time to time, when I want to go off on tangents that would interest me and me alone or when there are technical problems at the FI blog. Look out for very occasional updates.
Here are some of my favourite posts:
The Bush White House Didn't Create the Fear or Terrorism
Iraqis go to the polls
Fisking a frog filosofer
Are they related?
This one ran and ran: Dick O'Brien doesn't do numbers, it seems
The global village idiots
Questioning the value of public intellectuals
Review of Niall Ferguson's Colossus
My notorious blogroll labels
Indymedia fails to stir the masses
A deft piece of political handicapping by your blogger
Hollywood gives global warming the Tellytubby treatment
I demand my rights!
More IQ shenanigans from Ireland's leading "scientific racist", gaining exposure in a Tory journal
What George Monbiot Misunderstands About Economics (followed up here and here and culminating in this)
Why the Pentagon's Abortive Terrorism Futures Market Was a Good Idea
Friday, January 06, 2006
Rory on the Radio
Monday, January 02, 2006
The British energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, today said the dispute could impact on supplies to the UK, but said the impact "should be less than elsewhere".
He said there was "no immediate threat" to UK supplies, despite the country now being a net importer of gas.
"We need to look at this one very carefully, but we are not a heavy importer of gas from Russia so the effects here should be less than elsewhere," he said.
EU energy ministers will discuss the growing crisis at an emergency meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
Saturday, December 31, 2005
Thoughts for New Year's Eve...
That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. [....] they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.
What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It's hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes-- anything that might be called an errand.
...and offers what will, again, be my own motto for the coming year:
In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they're working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:
Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don't know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming's exercise can be generalized to:
- What are the most important problems in your field?
- Are you working on one of them?
- Why not?What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?Most people will shy away from this question. I shy away from it myself; I see it there on the page and quickly move on to the next sentence. Hamming used to go around actually asking people this, and it didn't make him popular. But it's a question anyone ambitious should face.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
New phone number
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Pipeline profits and politics
"...the economically unclear mechanism for establishing the different prices suggest that while taking measures to increase the profitability of the gas it supplies, Russia wants to continue using gas prices as a tool of political pressure."This is one interpretation offered by a Polish analyst in an International Herald Tribune story among many possible strategic reasons behind price hikes by the Kremlin-controlled giant gas company Gazprom. There are others: In particular, establishing a reputation for unreliability and political interferrence might seriously damage Russia's commercial reputation as a gas exporter.
If we see ExxonMobil with its own nuclear weapons and Microsoft sitting on the UN Security Council, then I might start believing Monbiot, Klein and the rest, but unlike many people with a preference for free markets, I tend to believe that commerce will be overriden by politics more often than the other way around.
Two things strengthen this conviction in the case of Russian energy: First, I inevitably get to see a mad paranoic glint in th eyes of any Pole or Balt I raise this with.
Second, we've just seen the Russian Duma enact a law that classifies NGOs ranging from the Open Society Institute of George Soros to the smallest donkey welfare society as potential enemies of the state.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Scrutinising Scruton Again
The West and the Rest is on my American Foreign Policy reading list and it's erudite and widely-sourced. His own earlier books, on the sectarian constitution of Lebanon, on his personal beliefs and on English nationalism and architecture are all cited.
On the other hand, perhaps he's overgeneralising his analysis of Islam and is less comprehensive in giving references to current events - describing widespread public rejoicing among Western Muslims at 9/11 - where and when is he thinking of? He refers to almost no group among them but the extremist al Muhajiroun groupuscule led by the media-whore Syrian Muslim Brother Omar Bakri Mohammed known to the tabloids as the "Tottenham Ayatollah".
I assumed that he'd oppose the Iraq war also, but he argues in this OpenDemocracy article that Kant's enthroning of reason and proposal for a world republic were not to be assumed feasible until the dawn of universal freedom.
The idea of a world republic is just such a regulative idea. For Kant, it does not indicate a condition that can actually be achieved, but an ÂIdeal of ReasonÂ Â an idea that we must bear in mind, by way of understanding the many ways in which mortal creatures inevitably fall short of it. The principal way in which we fall short is by failing to establish any kind of republic, even at the local level. And Kant is clear that a League of Nations can establish a genuine rule of law only if its members are also republics. Unless that condition is fulfilled, nations remain in the Hobbesian state of nature.
Although Scruton would certainly disapproveove, I've found reading him with this soundtrack is particularly stimulating.
Friday, December 23, 2005
The blackline, the hardline and the online
The reports increase suggested levels of resistance to nearly 10 per cent, or three out of the 31 known human cases of H5N1 treated with Tamiflu, which is marketed by Roche of Switzerland.
The study raises new questions about the drug, which more than 50 governments have ordered in significant quantities in recent months to stockpile as a potential prophylactic and treatment in the case of a flu pandemic.
An accompanying article in the journal reinforced calls for alternative approaches to treatment for a pandemic, including the stockpiling of the rival drug zanamivir, or Relenza.
The lesson here for policy seems to be not that breaking pharmaceutical patents can guarantee supplies of the necessary drugs - as the disease looks likely to need a broad spectrum of therapies, including cutting edge biotech products - but that a big diverse pipeline, which we can expect in an industry with secure intellectual property rights and funding allocated by deep, sophisticated financial markets is the key to fighting a pandemic. More here at TCS.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
A spoonful of sugar
First, high oil prices, concern for the political risk to the global energy industry and the prospect of taxes on greenhouse gas emissions have revived interest in the use of biofuels, made partly or completely from agricultural crops. Cash-poor but sugar-cane rich Brazil pioneered this in the 'seventies and with the prospect of genetic modification to increase crop yields, this looks like a good prospect for other countries too. Talk in London is already of regulations that would require a minimum biofuel content for standard petrol. The economic switching costs should be easily handled by the car industry and fuel suppliers in the medium term. However, opposition from environmentalists worried about mutant ten foot tall stalks of sugar cane taking over the planet a la Day of the Triffids. The IEA comments (p.12)
Looking to the future, the growth of Brazilian ethanol demand will depend on oil prices and continued government support. Brazil is a relatively low-cost producer of ethanol, at some $30-35/bbl, so even if oil prices decline from current levels there is reason to believe that domestic demand for ethanol will remain strong. Estimates of future domestic demand growth are in the range of 20-35 kb/d per annum. Brazil is also pushing to satisfy growing demand in othercountries, such as the United States, which is the second largest producer/consumer of ethanol.Brazil has been one of the strongest advocates of the liberalisation of agricultural trade under the Doha round and it could easily become an exporter of ethanol, given the opportunity:
Analysts have estimated that Brazilian ethanol could be delivered to the US market for a selling price of approximately US$1/gallon, well below the current gasoline price. Although Brazil has some success in increasing exports, currently approximately 45 kb/d, it faces substantial barriers to entry as most foreign ethanol markets are protected in an effort to support domestic agriculture.The IEA is also sanguine on the prospects for the growth in oil supply next year, forecasting a growth of over a million and half barrels of production per day over 2006. Along with a more benign political situation in Iraq, to my mind, this points to crude prices below $50/b, possibly in the low forties, compared with today's level pushing $60.
Terror and Tranquility
My own personal favourite is Tony Kinsella, whose qualifications or experience for gracing the pages of our national paper of record seem obscure, apart from being a old mucker of O'Foole.
Other than the juvenile piece of google vomit Post Washington published this year - which, to be fair to Fintan O'Toole, seems to have had little input from him, judging by the difference between it and his previous books - Kinsella has appeared from time to time to stoke complacency and spread cliche, as in this piece on the risks of terrorism.
Mark Steyn, who may or may not have lost his space in the Irish Times as well, highlights an interesting contrast that had not occured to me before:
...they like to mock Bush, Cheney, Rummy and co as the real terrorists – the ones determined to maintain America in a state of “terror”. Oddly enough, this was how the left chose to live during the Cold War, when the no-nukes crowd expected Armageddon any minute: fear of the phenomenon sold a gazillion posters, plays, books, films and LPs with big scary mushroom clouds on the cover. When nuclear weapons were an elite club of five relatively sane world powers, progressive opinion was convinced the planet was about to go ka-boom and the handful of us who survived would be walking in a nuclear winter wonderland. Now anyone with a few thousand bucks and an unlisted Islamabad number in his Rolodex can get a nuke, and the left is positively blasé.
The other obvious issues left out are Sellafield and the performance of the British nuclear industry, both of which need a great deal more research before I'd feel comfortable in commenting on them in any detail. I suspect that nuclear weapons manufacturing rather than the civilian energy programs may have been a greater source of waste and accidents.
"As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004."
Also, the financial health of the British nuclear industry - including British Nuclear Fuels Limited and British Energy - which owns the power stations - has been fragile, to put it politely.
For my part, I suspect that most of the hostility in Ireland to Sellafield is a combination of the environmentalist scare-mongering together with "green" politics of a more traditional sort, namely that if our wicked colonial overlords across the water are doing it, it must be immoral. After the Good Friday Agreement, this gives a rare opportunity for Brit-bashing while remaining politically respectable.
If you're really interested in the whole subject, the Westminster Energy Forum is running a conference on the regulation of the nuclear power industry in London on January 19th.
Nevertheless, the question remains to be answered: Given this safety-obsessed, nappies-within-nappies society that they've done so much to foster, why aren't Greenpeace being held to account for their publicity stunts, given that they're more dangerous than the nuclear power industry? Feel free to discuss among yourselves....
Taking the uranium out
Scientists have long considered using thorium as a reactor fuel -- and for good reason: The naturally occurring element is more abundant, more efficient and safer to use than uranium. Plus, thorium reactors leave behind very little plutonium
, meaning that governments have access to less material for making nuclear weapons.
But design challenges and a Cold War-era interest in using nuclear waste byproducts in atomic bombs pushed the industry to use uranium as its primary fuel.
Now, as governments look to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms and as environmentalists want to reduce the volume of nuclear waste building up around the world, thorium is again drawing attention.
Over the past several years, studies in the United States and Russia have yielded solutions to some of the issues that troubled earlier researchers. And in January, India -- which has the world's second largest reserve of thorium behind Australia --announced it would begin testing the safety of a design of its own.
Man The Lifeboats
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
My original plan was to do something on water issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but I fell in love with the idea of learning more about controlling WMD. When I was child, I used to have nightmares every so often about living through a nuclear war and its aftermath, which I imagined as death sentence on me and my family. This led to something of a fascination with the topic, so I read some books on it. Coming back to the topic as an adult to study deterrence, cold war history, the international non-proliferation regime and the state of US policy in this area was fascinating.
I argued that the NPT framework, managed by the IAEA had largely failed to prevent any state ruthless or determined enough to get the bomb, even in the face of outside pressure.
My perusal of the literature put out by the disarmers such as Dan Plesch and Joseph Rotblat convinced me that they were inhabiting the same dream-world as they were when pushing the democracies to disarm in the face of the Soviet threat in the eighties.
Last year, I read Thomas Schelling's brilliant book, The Strategy of Conflict. In an appendix, which alone is worth the price of the book, he proposes that nuclear weapons use remains taboo largely because of the uncertainty over how to create a different global consensus about the just use of nuclear weapons. This remains as true today as it was when he wrote it, not long before the Cuban missile crisis.
The veteran strategist Fred Ikle , speaking recently at the CSIS, urged analysts to try to think the unthinkable, and imagine the risks and security strategies necessary in a world following the first post-Nagasaki nuclear use.
I wrote, before discovering this paper, that proliferation brings with it the risk of chains of alliances spanning the globe (or "extended deterrence" in the jargon), poorly understood on all sides that could lead to runaway escalation of conflict among the world's nuclear powers similar to the mobilisation towards disaster in Europe during the summer of 1914 - the nukes of August, if you will.
Given the lack of consensus among the P5 security council members, the holes in the international law and the ponderous pace at which treaties are negotiated and enacted, I've come to think, having pored over their policy documents, that the approach championed by Ambassador-designate John Bolton is sound and sensible. He proposes on coalitions of willing states to police nuclear proliferation, rather than waiting for the UN and International Atomic Energy Agency (which until recently, even had Iran sitting on its governing council, judging its own non-compliance) provides the best solution.
The implicit American role, exercised in Iraq, of guarantor of the UN/IAEA international disarmament machinery also plays a very necessary role. Richard Butler in particular was scathing on Kofi Annan and his team, who tried to manage the relationship between the weapons inspectors and Iraq as a problem of communication and not law-breaking. I theorised that this was an inevitable outcome of bureaucratic politics models, which would predict that the UN can be expected to seek publicity and acclaim as an independent diplomatic actor for "peace" in its own right and champion the diplomatic process it controls over the independent inspectors or military action by the US and UK.
These are just a few thoughts from a quick survey of the field.
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
The Myth of the Myth
Like many leftists, such as Michael Moore or those in the BBC, whose recent Power of Nightmares combined cretinous opinions with the soundtrack from the Magic Roundabout, he picks up the theme that the fear of terror is largely the outcome of the manipulation of public opinion after 9/11 by the Bush administration.
Some evidence on this quesiton, apart from videos of the President's speeches would not go amiss. Luckily, the most recent surveys in the series conducted regularly by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, coming after 9/11 and the Iraq war, shows spreading democracy internationally, perpetually unpopular, last among foreign policy goals, with only 14% of citizens considering it very important (See p.21); among foreign policy experts, support is barely higher (See p.21). Regardless of the merits of the President’s emphasis on spreading democracy, through force if necessary, it ill represents the views of the American people.
The CCFR survey data shows the American public believing (pp.6-12) even in polls taken years prior to both 9/11 and Bush’s election, that WMD and international terrorism were the greatest threats facing the US. While the reported levels of concern had increased, 1998 and 2002, they have consistently remained the gravest foreign policy problems in the eyes of ordinary Americans, with around three quarters feeling it is "very important". Again, the foreign policy elite echo this.
In his address at West Point in 2002, Bush stated, "Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." Later in 2002, Vice President Cheney echoed this alarm about the links between terrorism, WMD and Iraq: Addressing a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he described Hussein as "a murderous dictator" who now had WMD, was, he stated unequivocally, "as great a threat as can be imagined."
From the attitude surveys, it's obvious that the American public came to this view well before President Bush did. So much for the sheepish masses being led astray by media manipulation.
Sunday, March 27, 2005
Misusing Occam's Razor
Ryan considers himself too sophisticated - he is a graduate of UCD, after all - to subscribe to the simple dichotomy of President Bush's challenge to the world after 9/11, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" but his scholarship falls down on a number of points - al-Qaeda, the politics of the Islamic world and the Cold War - which leads him to draw inadequately supported and morally-flawed conclusions. As today's birthday boy said, "Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?" Here it is Ryan rather than Miller who is failing to grasp the nuances of his subject matter.
Occam’s Razor – as applied by al-Qaeda
To begin, who does al-Qaeda consider its enemies? Americans, for certain, especially those representing their government overseas, as in 1998's embassy bombings in Africa. Killing a dozen a US diplomats seems, to their mind, to justify the slaughter of a further 200 innocent bystanders. On its own, this far exceeds in scale and ruthlessness anything ever undertaken by any of Europe's terrorists. Alslo in the firing line have been the UN, which was condemned by bin Laden as "...nothing but a tool of crime.", which presumably justifies the mass murder of its humanitarian staff in Iraq. Neither are tthe aid agencies such as MSF, the ICRC spared from bomb attacks, nor innocents such as Margaret Hassan and Ken Bigley, slaughtered like cattle on video. The same pattern of targeting innocents has been repeated in Bali, Madrid and, but for chance, in Mobassa.
Violence of this sort bespeaks an extremism and indifference to human life that is completely new and untasted for us in the west, but is tragically familiar in the Islamic world. bin Laden's talk of the "tragedy of al Andalus", and his rage at the ending of the genocidal Indonesian occupation of East Timor reinforce the conviction that here we have a murderous fantasist. Gerry Adams and his crew had to concede their shining vision of a 32-county Irish Socialist Republic for some cross-border tourism bodies. The distance for al-Qaeda to travel is far greater.
Civil wars and terrorism in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan and now Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have bear out the analysis of Gilles Kepel and other scholars (which, strangely, Ryan cites in his other work) that Islamist terrorism is more a sign of weakness than strength. Islamists have failed to take power, either through the ballot box or through violence against their own societies, as al Zawahiri admits in his Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, quoted extensively in Kepel's War for Muslim Minds. Isolated from their home societies and exiled, they can only bid desperately for support through violent spectaculars, or "propaganda of the deed" as it was known to the anarchists of early 20th century Europe.
Rather than moving from violence to build a base of mass support, al-Qaeda is working in the opposite direction, as a splinter from the more broadly-based Islamists such as those in Algeria and Egypt. The better Irish analogy should be with Justin Barrett, not Gery Adams.
Islam is very far from being a monolith, as one would expect from a religious tradition with nearly fifteen centuries of history that straddles many cultures around the globe. The only government Bin Laden has held up as an example of his ideal society was that of Afghanistan under the Taliban and Mullah Omar, to whom he sweared alleigance as "commander of the faithful".
There are many other variants. Towards the other end of the spectrum, there are the Muslim politicians of South East Asia, such as former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid ("Gus Dur"), who head the world's largest Muslim organisation and worked tirelessly in office for decentralisation and religious tolerance in that diverse nation. One of his more interesting recent roles, according to a recent New Yorker article, has been to act as a go-between for two of his friends, Iraqi Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Paul Wolfowitz, a one-time US ambassador to Indonesia.
Then, in the murky middle, we have those movements and individuals, who may be abhorent, but are nonetheless represent useful allies, if not friends. One example is the Egyptian-born scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi, who may enjoy the widest reputation among in both popular and clerical opinion. His sanctioning wife-beating, the killing of gays and suicide-bombings against non-combatant Israelis, including women and children, disgust many in the West (although not, predictably, London mayor Ken Livingstone, who lavished praise on him during a recent visit to the city). The Sheik ridicules Osama Bin Laden's scholarship, and signed fatwas supporting the US attack on Afghanistan.
Hamas is in no sense an agent of reform. It's main electoral intervention to date has been in persuading the Israeli public first in 1996 and again in 2001, through a series of no-warning attacks on commuters, night-clubbers and shoppers, that negotiations would not deliver peace, bringing first Netanyahu and then Sharon to to power, followed by the re-occupation of the Palestinian areas after their attack on a Passover function in a hotel killed thirty. Palestinian terrorism may be accorded legitimacy in the wider Middle East, encouraged by the imprimatur of Qaradawi and others, but by now it's hard, after four years of being ground down to ascribe any success to it in furthering the struggle.
The cold war history he presents is bizarre. Bush's rhetoric of good and evil, strategy of democratisation and military intervention is being wielded, in many cases by the same people, as in the late cold war.
He's correct in drawing a contrast between the neo-conservative philosophy and that of Nixon and Kissinger, but this is only continuing Reagan's policies of reversing the growing Soviety military advantage and, just as importantly, abandoning the coldly amoral use of American power that brought such misery to Indonesia, Chile, Cambodia and other countries. In Korea, the Philippines and ultimately in Eastern Europe, this combination of moral clarity and military strength was the essential prerequisite for the overthrow of dictatorships that had seemed permanent. Oh, and thirty and forty-five thousand Americans died in Korea and Vietnam respectively, not "hundreds of thousands".
What will the world look like if non-state actors, ETA, the IRA, AQ, the drug cartels, religious cults like Aum in Japan - overcome the state cartel on holding biological and nuclear weapons. The motivations of its potential users are either so extreme, so obscure or simply so insane that they cannot be bargained with.
In summary, Bagdhad isn't Belfast, in spite of Ryan's impenetrable parochialism. al-Qaeda's terrorists have already killed tens of thousands without scruple in their own countries and 9/11 was just a taste of what may come. Let us hope we don't share the unfortunate fate of the battleground states in the Middle East or even the pale shadow of it that Israel has experienced.
Beijing's Qian Men ("front gate"), at the southern edge of Tiananmen Square
My very first blog postings, written from an internet cafe right by Qianmen in Beijing, are here. At the time, the PRC government were blocking access from the mainland to blogger.com. Bizarrely, I was able to post, but not able to read what I had written. Therefore, showing my usual strength of character, I promptly gave up.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Intrinsically Disordered in Baghdad
Say theword mujahid- or holy warrior - these days and many inhabitants of Baghdad are likely to snigger.
For Iraqis opposed to the predominantly Sunni Islamist insurgency, Terror in the Hands of Justice, which airs twice daily on Iraqi public television, has broken the mystique of a force that used to strike terror into the hearts of anyone working with the Americans or the new government.
In recent weeks, however, the insurgents' confessions have become increasingly at odds with the movement's reputation for stringent Islamic austerity.
One long-bearded preacher known as Abu Tabarek recently confessed that guerrillas had usually held orgies in his mosques, secure in the knowledge that their status as holy warriors would win them forgiveness of their sins.