Monday, December 24, 2007

In Bethlehem

From the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, in Ha'aretz:

"A new peace effort was begun these last few weeks. In order for it to succeed, there must be a firm willingness to make peace. Until now, there has been no peace, simply because there has been no willingness to make it: "Peace, peace! they say, though there is no peace" (Jer 6, 14).

The strong party, the one with everything in hand, the one who is imposing occupation on the other, has the obligation to see what is just for everyone and to carry it out courageously. "O God, with your judgment endow the king," with your justice endow our governments so that they can govern your people with justice (Ps 72).

In recent times, there has been some talk about creating "religious" states in this land. But in this land, which is holy for three religions and for two peoples, religious states cannot be established because they would exclude or place in an i
nferior position the believers of the other religions. A state that would exclude or discriminate against the other religions is not suitable for this land made holy by God for all of humanity."

This year's Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem saw a modest recovery in tourism, but life in the Palestinian city has certain unshakable facts.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Proud Islamist Christmas

Of course, such a thing would be a peculiar celebration. Christmas, as celebrated today, has relatively little to do with the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him), and more to do with the innovations of the Church, or, if you're a more secular type, an orgy of consumerism. Of course, you can use your holiday to do a lot of good things, but that's like any day off.

That said, I don't mind Christmas - in fact I prefer for those people who celebrate it to call it what it is, and not just some random "Winter Holiday." I don't want my Christian or Jewish colleagues to feel uncomfortable if I practice my religion around them, and so I don't feel offended or upset if they practice theirs around me. Merry Christmas.

And now for a little Islamist Grinchitude.

This year, I have been approached on behalf of three separate groups to donate toys to poor children as gifts. Two of them were organizations that I have actively supported. The first two times, I thought a little bit about it, and then hesitantly declined. The third time occurred at a Friday prayer, when an announcement was made asking for donations of toys for Eid-ul-Adha, which happened to fall in late December this year. This time I had no hesitation in rejecting the plea.

I believe that Muslim kids have a right to play just as much as any other kids, but the context put the question into focus.

The problem is that if you know anything about kids, you know that they don't actually need toys to play - they are endlessly imaginative and creative creatures, whose ability to pretend is so much more potent than those of adults. It's not true that children can't grasp abstractions as well as adults can; really they just don't conceive of them as parts of a formal system. Do children today enjoy their play any more than children 50 years ago, or children in poverty-stricken circumstances? Probably no more than adults enjoy themselves more today than in past decades; we have so many more ways to entertain ourselves, but human beings aren't wired to be permanently happy.

Visiting a cemetery in Pakistan (or, as it is poetically known in Urdu, "khabrstan," the "land of the grave") one thing striking contrast with the same in North America is the number of children. I don't mean the unsettling number of 1m x 0.3m graves that one sees crammed into the available spaces, but the number of living children who inhabit the place.

Growing up in a cemetery. What could be more bleak?

But there is very little about these children that could inform the passing observer that they are preoccupied with that aspect of their situation. They beg, sell garlands and flowers, and offer, in exchange for money, to water or plant whatever green piece of life the relatives have brought for the sake of their dead. I can't say I did a detailed study, but these children don't seem depressed. They play, they push, they bully, they steal, they laugh, they cry, and they run about. In short, they do all the things that kids do. The fact that they are urchins might expose them to all kinds of harm and suffering, but their circumstances alone do not destroy their spirit.

Would toys make them happy? Yes, maybe for a little while, but I think you'd be hard pressed to argue that they would make any sort of lasting impression. And if it did, what would the impression be? That one needs material goods to celebrate, to be happy?

So, the Grinch (Al-Gerinich?) has a point, doesn't he? While poverty is a question of equality, and not just material possessions, no underprivileged child in North America is going to benefit from a toy any more than the graveyard gang in Pakistan would. And both have much more pressing concerns.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

As usual, they lie.

Or at least, they are very dishonest.

"They" refers to CanWest Global media, who, in their hysterical search for bogeymen for us to spend the Two Minutes Hate - Canadian Edition (it's Orwell week on the TheProudIslamist) with, were beating the drum two weeks ago about Hugo Chavez's impending victory to become Venezuela's Communist-Dictator-for-Life by "extending his term indefinitely." And they seemed so sure he'd win, because, they assumed, he'd fix the results, or the opposition would hold a principled boycott, and nastiness in Venezuela would triumph over the goodness represented by . . . hmmmm. . . oh right, us.

Here is the article that appeared in the Financial Post, the National Post, other CanWest newspapers, and, apparently, the New Zealand Herald. It is sourced to Reuters.

Now here is the article that appeared in most other publications, including on Reuters website.

This interesting little paragraph appears in the CanWest/New Zealand version, but not anywhere else:

"Fuelled by record oil prices, the economy is booming and consumers are flush with cash. But state controls over prices and currency exchange have distorted the free market, causing periodic shortages of basic goods such as milk and eggs."

Funny that Reuters wouldn't want to publish such an important factual observation. After all, everyone knows that it's morally unjustifiable to "distort the free market." Good thing CanWest picked up the slack to avoid embarrassing the wire service. There are other things published in the CanWest version that don't appear anywhere on the the Reuters website, or in any other reproduction thereof, besides the New Zealand one.

Chavez, by the way, lost the referendum. At which point we stopped hearing too much about the supposed communist dictator sitting threateningly perched atop our Venezuelan oil. Good thing too! Who knows what mayhem would be unleashed if a head of state were to run for re-election as many times as he . . . oh.

Even if Reuters ever published something so conveniently trite, CanWest Global have a mottled history when it comes to playing fast-and-loose with wire stories. There was, for instance, this unsettling episode from 2004 when Associated Press's own editors complained that CWG was renaming all the parties in the Middle East as either US, Israel, or Terrorist.

And who could forget the time the National Post didn't even bother with pretending it was a wire story, but essentially invented a hoax about Iran forcing Jews to wear Nazi-style yellow badges. The report was quickly dispelled by Iranian legislator Maurice Motamed, who is himself Jewish.

So next time you read a wire service story in a CanWest newspaper, assume that it has been played with. Or should I say that the editors have taken the liberty to "edit[] for style...editing so that [they] have clear consistent language to describe what's going on in the world."

It's Orwell week alright.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Puzzling Interlude

I like puzzles. Here's an oldie, but a goodie:

Three travelers stop at an inn and ask for a room. The clerk tells them that the rate for a room with 3 beds is $30, so they pay $10 each, and head off to sleep. The clerk realizes that he has made a mistake, and that the actual cost of the room is $25, so he sends up a $5 refund with the bellboy.

Now this bellboy is a bit of a shady character, and thinks to himself: "How are 3 people going to split $5? Wait. I have a solution to this problem!" So he pockets $2 and brings the travelers $1 each, so that each of them has now paid $9.

Now, 3 x $9 = $27

The bellboy took $2.

That's a total of $29. $1 is missing.

Where did it go?

NB: If you are looking for some sort of political allegory, this story is really about 1st-world trade deficits in the post-colonial period.

No it isn't.

Now find that dollar!

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Imagine a boot stomping on a human face.

Orwell is overused and much-abused. But there were a lot of things he was right about.

Article in the Washington Post:

If things go as planned, data will beamed to the Biometric Fusion Center to check against more than a million Iraqi fingerprints. Hundreds of Marines are learning how to process a crime scene, "an unheard-of tactic . . . snapping on rubber gloves," Betro said.

The next stage is to miniaturize, create "a backpack lab," so that soldiers who encounter a suspect "could find out within minutes" if he's on a terrorist watch list, Duong said. "A war fighter needs to know one of three things: Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot? In Vietnam, our guys didn't have this tool."

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A little amateur climatology

Well surprise, surprise: US and Canadian negotiators have rejected the idea of imposing greenhouse gas emissions targets as a part of the Bali negotiations. Cutting GHG emissions means using less energy, and no matter what you say, using less energy means making less money, having less fun, doing less travelling, and buying fewer things. And that would just be cray-zee.

Worse still, in order to curb our baser instincts to do all of those things, government would have to enact policies to make it so. Even if a majority of the population were theoretically on side with that, doing nothing is electorally safer than doing something that could be perceived as a disaster. The notion that individual, average, citizens shouldn't be permitted to pursue self-interest over the global public good is pretty foreign to politics in the United States, and unfortunately, we're losing touch with it in Canada as well. But, as usual, I digress.

Of course, the entire problem with the global warming argument is that no conclusive proof that it is anthropogenic has ever been presented. I didn't see Al Gore's movie, but I don't think I really need to - even if we were to have 10 Earth-like planets and pump them all full of CO2 over the course of 50 years, and even if they were all to turn into Venus at year 51, the study could still be criticized for having too many confounders - and it would be empirical evidence. Today we're trying to draw conclusions from incomplete observation of one planet. You can never satisfy everyone even with good data - with shaky data the argument that this is "just a phase we're going through" is only strengthened.

But to those who are firmly convinced that human beings aren't changing the climate of this planet, here's a few numbers that I've calculated for you - not to convince you to support any policy or conclusion, but just to make you stop and ask yourself how sure you are of your position.

According to the CIA Factbook, this species consumes roughly 63,180,000 barrels of oil every day (2004 figures - it's gone up since then). So, in 2004 alone, we consumed about 23,060,700,000 barrels of oil. A barrel of Brent Crude, which is an average sort of oil that is found in the North Sea (but like all the rest of the stuff, it's running out), has a volume of about 158L, and, using a density of 0.835kg/L, would have a mass of about 133kg.

So in 2004, we burned 3,061,024,174,616 - or 3 trillion, 61 billion, 24 million, 175 thousand, to round it off - kg of crude oil. Let's be conservative now say that oh, 50% of that mass is pure carbon, and let the rest be impurities, hydrogen, and other elements. So we have about 1.53 trillion kg of carbon. Let's further say that 10% of it doesn't get burned (plastics and what-have-you). So we have 1.38 trillion kg of carbon released into the atmosphere in 2004.

Stay with me now.

So the first question is, where did all that carbon go? Well, the obvious answer is that it was photosynthesized back into virgin Brazilian rainforest, which have been expanding at an alarming rate. Curbing this expansion will be the next great challenge faced by the human race.

Remember I'm just talking about oil here. I haven't said a word about wood, coal, natural gas, or any of the other things that this pyromaniacal species likes to turn into smoke.

But let's stick with oil, and imagine that we did 10 years like 2004 - we've been burning more since, but we burned less per annum in the '90s, and let's pretend that before that, we didn't burn anything at all.

So we have 13.8 trillion kg of carbon. As CO2, that's going to have a mass of about 50.6 trillion kg. Let's convert to tonnes and say 50.6 billion tonnes. The total mass of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 2.9 trillion tonnes. So that's an increase of about 1.7%, attributable to just oil, in just 10 years.

So we've had this party for 10 years, and guess what, it's only changed our atmospheric CO2 by 1.7% (I'm sure you can actually find better figures on the web somewhere). This is, however, a ridiculously conservative estimate, as you'll remember that I left out every other fuel, assumed that only 50% of the barrel was carbon, that only 90% of it wound up the atmosphere, and that 100% of that was cleanly burned into CO2 - instead of the thousands of other worse compounds that pour out of tailpipes and smokestacks.

The second question, however, is: how much longer do we intend to do this? How long until we've really fundamentally changed the composition of the atmosphere? I'm not a climate scientist or a policy wonk - but if anyone tells you that the notion is just an unfounded assertion, you know they're either lying or dumb.

The third question is, do we need to worry about this? After all, the oil is going to run out.

Unless all that brand new Brazilian rainforest gets fossilized in time.

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Annapolis - Conventional wisdom finally gets it right.

Because so far, the conventional wisdom all around is that nothing will come of it.

One of those exceedingly lucid writers for Ha'aretz is right that the "experts" on the Middle East, who regale us with their predictions and "analysis" on North American TV sets and in our newspaper oligopoly, tend to get it wrong. I agree. They do tend to get it wrong, mostly because their business is more about telling people what they want to hear than it is about thinking independently about the situation. That, however, is another post.

He is wrong, however, about them on one issue - Annapolis. Everyone knows it's doomed to failure - all the photo-ops of high-level of diplomacy, but no actual diplomacy. As much as everyone wants a negotiated peace, only a complete reversal from one party would make it happen - and it isn't the Palestinians who need to reverse, since no matter what Abbas agrees to give away this time, the fact remains that the Palestinians have nothing left to give and he no longer speaks for them, if he ever did. Hurray. Conventional wisdom finally prevails.

The man who sees most clearly on the Middle East - more clearly than any other British or American journalist I've ever read - is Robert Fisk. He laid Annapolis bare two weeks ago in the UK's The Independent.

Annapolis will not work for all the reason he has laid out and one more: which readers of this blog will have to get used to hearing. Say it with me now, "Two-State Won't Work."

Israel cannot afford to offer the Palestinians a genuine, sovereign, territorially contiguous state, with its own government, own immigration , own trade, own water, own airspace, and own army. Offering the Palestinians any one of those things would completely undermine the economy and security of the entire Zionist enterprise. Offering any two of them would lead to a colonist revolt east of the Green Line, and offering the latter 3 would necessitate moving thousands of them back West of it. And you thought the Gaza withdrawal was hard for the IDF.

On the other hand, not offering all of them means not giving the Palestinians an actual state. Not offering all of them means the occupation goes on; you can't enforce those kinds of restrictions on a nation without resorting to military force. And no matter what Abbas says, they will never accept a trade that has them renounce all moral and legal legitimacy in return for a piece of paper that may as well have been used to buy Manhattan, figuratively speaking.

Olmert sees the writing on the wall, which is what Sharon saw when he made the decision to dismantle the Gaza colonies. Sharon thought, though, that it would give him the excuse to forestall the inevitable in the West Bank, and solidify the zionist position there. Olmert must have known he was wrong, because even Olmert knew what would happen when two-state collapsed:

"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished. . . The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us"

Of course, it IS going to collapse, and so Olmert's challenge is now to make the playing cards look like concrete, just long enough to convince the Western media that the house he builds with them is not going to fall, and let the occupation go on.


Just as a side note:

If I were the sort of responsible person who used his time wisely, I wouldn't read the comments at the bottom of Ha'aretz stories. Sometimes though, something lucid is said. One commentor made the observation (and so I can't take credit for it) that Hamas men could have just sold the drugs, and pocketed the cash. Alternatively, the Hamas government could have sold the drugs, and exchanged the cash for guns. They did neither. Dare we hope that it is because they, unlike anyone else in this world, are trying to provide the Palestinians (who elected them) with a real government?

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Layers of Meaning

While randomly flipping through, looking for something else.

"The likeness of the life
Of the Present is
As the rain which We
Send down from the skies:
By its mingling arises
The produce of the earth --
Which provides food
For men and animals:
(It grows) till the earth
Is clad with its golden
Ornaments and is decked out
(In beauty): the people to whom
It belongs think they have
All powers of disposal over it:
There reaches it Our command
By night or by day,
And We make it
Like a harvest clean-mown,
As if it had not flourished
Only the day before!
Thus do We explain
The Signs in detail
For those who reflect."

--Qur'an, 10:24. Trans.: A. Yusuf Ali (1938).

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Yay! Iraqi children are saved!

Or should that be "Saved" with a capital S?

In a mood to increase the oatmeal content of my brain, I turned on my ancient TV set and flipped to CNN, where Larry King was interviewing "Real American Heroes." This was the intro piece for the interview I saw.

Americans have finally found a solution to the health and welfare crisis in Iraq that their government created!* Have American soldiers adopt ALL the Iraqi children! As Major Southworth said during the interview, "We came to Iraq not only to replace a democracy with a dictatorship, but to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. And one way of showing how much we love and care about them was to volunteer at that orphanage."

A murderer who only kills on Tuesdays is still a murderer, no matter how many orphans he helps on Mondays and Wednesdays.

*with an almost psychopathic determination and deliberation.

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