Thursday, April 23, 2009

Using my powers for good

Have you ever had a penchant, or perhaps even an ability, that you were a little ashamed of? Have you ever had a talent - perhaps not a unique one, but a talent nonetheless - that you loved to flaunt, but often hated yourself afterwards for?

Were you ever thrilled by something, only to find that the experience had left you simultaneously broken and waiting for your next fix of it?

Maybe you know what I'm talking about. Maybe you don't. There is, however, a certain healthy satisfaction that comes from finally being sure that you have - maybe even just once - used your powers for good.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Somali Pirates: And now it all makes sense. . .

From the British Independent, courtesy of an acquaintance:


You are being lied to about


Some are clearly just gangsters. But others are trying to stop illegal dumping and trawling

. . .

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

. . .

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We won't act on those crimes – the only sane solution to this problem – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 per cent of the world's oil supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats.

The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know "what he meant by keeping possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "What [do] you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor." Once again, our great imperial fleets sail – but who is the robber?

Emphasis added. The only way to do it justice, though, would be to read it all on the Independent site.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Shorter David Warren

Article: Truth & consequences

There are many black people who aren't racially entitled, tax-crazed, modern-day Neville Chamberlains.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

How did we get such a weird government?

Article for the British Independent, by the stellar Robert Fisk:

But there's a bigger issue. Canada helped the US send an innocent Canadian citizen, Mahar Arar, to "rendition" in Syria, where he was savagely tortured. Only a few days ago, another Canadian Muslim told me how he was whipped with steel cables in Damascus as his torturers read out questions from the Canadian embassy. Yet another Canadian Muslim citizen, Abousfian Abdelrazik, has been living in the reception of the US embassy in Khartoum for 10 months after Canadian agents asked the enormously democratic Sudanese government to imprison him for terrorism. Now the government won't let him come home unless he's taken off not a Canadian, but a UN "terrorist" list. Cromwellian isn't the word for it. But the mystery is this: how did so many millions of decent Canadians come to be ruled by such a weird government?
EDIT: Abousofian Abdelrazik has been sleeping in the Canadian Embassy in Sudan, not the US Embassy. The factual error does not reflect well on Mr. Fisk, but it does underline the absurdity of the situation more thoroughly. He is a security risk when he comes to Canada, but apparently it's just fine to have him wandering hanging around the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reasons to give

Song by musical comedian Tim Minchin performed at the 2007 Melbourne Comedy Gala Telethon for Oxfam Australia. Lyrics reproduced here for interest's sake, but edited in keeping with this blog's unapologetically prudish sensibilities. If you want the whole song, it's easy to find on YouTube.

I would be a liar if I pretended to admire
The redlight windscreen cleaning empire
That you've built
But my heart is good,
It's not a thing of stone or wood,
I'll give you 50 cents to take away my guilt

I give money to folks who just don't have enough
To try to justify the future purchases of stuff
That I don't need.
I know that one less vodka cranberry tonight
And I could feed some foreign family for a fortnight

But I just might have one more,
After all, what is vodka for,
. . .
But dampening the guilt you feel about your perfect life.


What is all this hoo-hah for?
There only one reason I'll call 1-800-034034
It the force that drove Theresa,
And that school that Oprah built,
I'll give you 50 bucks to take away my guilt.


I'm not pretending anymore,
That I really give two %^$*s,
About some kids in Bangalore,
I'm not interested in seeing the Solomons rebuilt,
But I'll give you 50 bucks to take away my guilt.

It's tremendously cynical and not completely true. For all of us who live easy lives, though, it's true some of the time, and for some of us it's true all of the time. Guilt is not a solely bad thing - only disordered personalities are completely without it. When it is the sole motivation for charity, though, it becomes awfully patronizing.

It is the difference between "I am paying you to absolve me of my guilt for living so well." Instead of "I am giving you this because I know how easily our positions can be reversed." It's the difference between the rather unglamourous work done by an organization like Human Rights Watch, and the current trend amongst Hollywood celebrities to adopt starving African children.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Application to the Office of Miscellaneous Services

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for your interest in our programme, reference #J148TK. As there is high demand for J148TK, we would ask you to file the following 32-page application forms at least 9 months in advance of your need for the services. In the event of an emergency, please describe the nature of the emergency on page 6G and file a minimum of 3 months in advance of your needs.

Be sure to attach appendices A-K, as applicable. There will be a surcharge for unnecessary or wrongly filled appendices, in addition to the $300 non-refundable application fee. Attach cheque or postal money order. The surcharge fee must arrive at our office before your application, in order to ensure timely processing and return to you. The surcharge, however, is refundable, provided that you fill out Appendix L and send it to us exactly 17 business days before the rest of your application arrives. Forms that do not arrive on this date will be disregarded, and an additional surcharge will be applied.

You should attach a photograph that is twice as long and 1.64 times as wide as that seen on a Canadian Passport, notarized in both official languages. Printouts are not acceptable. Unilingual notarization is unacceptable, except for foreign businesses with operations in the Former Yugoslavia. We suggest that you seek out a bilingual notary in advance of filing your application.

Please ensure that your immunizations are up to date and that you are immune to Varicella, Tetanus, Rabes, and Ebola. Documentation of this, with the seal of two physicians, a public health nurse, and a chemotherapy patient will be required. Although we recognise that Ebola outbreaks are rare amongst participants in J148TK, we need to cover our asses, and we know you understand. If you are currently carrying, or have carried, Bubonic Plague, then please file Appendix M. If you have not carried Bubonic Plague, then we encourage you to file a concurrent application to Programme #J148TL, to maximize your chances of success. Please see the responsible office (Miscellaneous Services Office) for more details.

Please also attach a detailed Curriculum Vitae, with references to past experiences in the following areas: Public Sector Experience, Private Sector Experience, Selected Publications, and Ice Fishing Experience. Please provide a verifier for each of these experiences, with an attached photograph and signed affidavit. For Ice Fishing, the provision of a dead fish by courier with a photograph of the fateful moment is acceptable. Please ensure that the fish is not enclosed with the rest of the application, and to save us the stench, please do not file more than 12 months in advance of your needs.

Otherwise, a surcharge will be applied.

For further information, please dial the number available by following the labyrinth of links on an unrelated, unspecified website.

The Office of Miscellaneous Services.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Another failed power grid privatisation

This Dawn Editorial explains why the KESC, which supplies the city of Karachi's electricity, should not have been privatised. We've seen all this before, all over the world - the mantra that government is inefficient, whereas the private sector poses a magical property that can turn those government enterprises around.

Why KESC’s privatisation was bound to fail

. . . It is grave folly to create a private-sector monopoly seemingly answerable to no one. If the logistics of the power sector did not permit breaking up KESC into independent units, then the utility should have been left in government hands.

Without any competitors, KESC could get away with anything — and it did. Little was done to increase generation capacity or check transmission and distribution losses which, according to KESC, stood at over 32 per cent in July-December 2008. Generation was reduced to a fraction of the installed capacity as poorly maintained units frequently broke down. The company’s management was appalling and its technical base weak. As a result, prolonged spells of loadshedding inflicted untold misery on homes, businesses and industrial units alike. Billions were lost as production routinely came to a standstill. Not surprisingly, power riots broke out in Karachi on a number of occasions. . .

I'm not sure that I agree with the editorial's conclusion - that the privatisation should not be reversed under present circumstances - but the first point is sound: it isn't state control that creates inefficiency. It's monopoly.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Protesters killed in Antananarivo, death toll nears 100.

If you don't know where Antananarivo is, I guarantee that you are not alone. I only know because sometime in elementary school I did a project on the country in which it is situated. The facts that have remained with me:

- It is the capital of Madagascar
- It is located in the northern half of the island, which itself is east of Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Madagascar has a lot of unique wildlife
- Whatever the local language is, it employs a large number of "a" sounds.
- In the south of the island there is at least one inactive volcano that is surrounded by extremely sharp rocks called "tsingy"s and the crater of which is now a lush, but threatened jungle that for most of the country's history was inaccessible to large-scale exploitation.

Actually, I'm not sure about that last one, but I know there are tsingys in Madagascar for sure.

They sure look pointy! I also remember that they are called "tsingy" because of the noise they make when you throw a rock against them. A little bit of local onomatopoeia.

At any rate, there has been a lot of turmoil in Madagascar, but you wouldn't know it if you lived in a Western country and watched the news or read the regular press. The president was recently sent into exile by the deposed mayor of the capital, himself a former DJ and talk show host, after the latter somehow took control of the army.

The astute amongst you (or those of you with a lot of time to kill) will have noticed that all of the sources above, are Western sources. It isn't that they aren't reporting the news from the island - it's that nobody really cares. Very few people in North America or Europe (or Egypt or Pakistan, for that matter), wake up in the morning unable to contain their desire to learn about the latest developments in Madagascar, and those that do probably have some sort of connection to the island.

We do, however, seem to take an awfully strong interest in other places. If an Israeli soldier is killed in battle, it isn't long before the whole world knows about it. Gilad Shalit (may God help him), is probably the most famous PoW in history - millions, if not billions, of people now know his name, and lots of people who've never been within 1000km of Gaza have an opinion about what to do about him. In that, I obviously include myself. Lots of middle-class North Americans now run around posing as experts on Pakistan's FATA region, and every time a Muslim detonates a bomb somewhere in the world, you can bet it will make the evening news. If it goes off in a Western country, it will be on page 1 of the paper and all day long on FOX.

And if 100 Chinese miners die in some sort of work-related accident, we'll probably all hear about that too.

It seems like there is a hierarchy, which, after you adjust for things like shared citizenship and same-city habitation, goes something like "North Americas & Western Europeans > Israelis > Australians > Arabs = South Asians > East Asians (except Japanese) = Eastern Europeans = South & Central Amercans > Everybody in Africa who lives south of the Sahara and isn't white.

Obviously, we could make some rearrangements there (who, if anybody, did the killing is also important) , but I think the point is clear enough - we care a whole lot more about people who a) look like us or b) we're scared will hurt us than we do about people who have nothing to do with us.

Why do we talk incessantly about Palestine but not about Sudan? Both the Western press and the Muslim community are guilty of this, even though the death toll in the latter in any given year is clearly higher.

Consensus is probably one contributing factor. Human beings are attracted to conflict - it is entertaining, after all, and news is, for many people, entertainment. Besides a few Arab nationalists, we can all more or less agree that the government of Sudan is not ideal, and that the peoples of southern and western Sudan have legitimate grievances that are being ignored or created by Khatoum. What we do about it is up for debate, but it's clear that almost nobody can take El-Bashir's side and be taken seriously.

Not so with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Especially in the United States, there is a large population of die-hard Zionists who would be able to justify almost anything that served the purposes of their ideology. It is, therefore, the combination of the outrageousness of the injustices, coupled with the volume of propaganda that defends it, that makes the debate heated.

An acquaintance of mine had another explanation - that Jews and Arabs share not an inconsiderable amount of history with Western Europeans, and that, for a variety of reasons, we have a material interest in the conflict. That's obvious enough, and a decent explanation, but it isn't a very good justification.

A fundamental precept of Islam is that all human beings a created equal, and that their moral worth is determined not by their place of birth or their race, but by their actions. "An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action."

Those were the words of the Prophet from his last sermon. It was revolutionary thinking at the time. Reading this blog, and looking at the world in which it exists, I think it still is.

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