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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Cartoon Time.
The Value of George Orwell

by Charley Reese for King Features Syndicate

March 6, 2006

George Orwell remains a valuable writer, though he died in 1950. He was a man who was an active participant in his times, and since the new century appears to be going down the same road as the last one, we can still learn from him. His essay "Politics and the English Language" ought to be read by every journalist and by everyone who reads journalists or listens to the babble on television. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," he wrote. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. "In our age, there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia," Orwell wrote. Earlier in the essay he had said, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."

Our time and his time remain the same. We invade a sovereign nation based on lies, destroy its infrastructure, depose its government and kill 30,000 of its people, and we call that "spreading democracy" or "defending freedom." The phrase "war on terror" is a phony metaphor. We are not at war. Ninety-nine and 99/100ths percent of the American people are living the same way they've always lived. We have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting an insurrection that our invasions of those countries caused. They are at war – a war of their own country's making – but the rest of us are not. Waving a flag or putting a bumper sticker on one's car cannot be called a war effort. The "war" is being relegated to the inside pages, and it's a safe bet that no matter what happens in Baghdad, the Academy Awards will receive more coverage and notice than the war. In our nutty society, the choice of a comedian to emcee a Hollywood trade show is considered big, national news. What distinguishes us from other animals is language, and when we use language not to communicate truth as best we can determine it, but to deceive, mislead, obfuscate and obscure the facts, then we are committing the ultimate sin against humanity. We are playing a dangerous game with our own sanity.

Our own journalists sanitize even their skimpy coverage of the war. The American people must not be allowed to see the real face of war, lest they withdraw their support. The real face of war, of course, is broken bodies, blood, splattered brains and innards, horrible burns and other mutilations. There are no pleasant aspects of war. So, Americans are allowed to see soldiers giving candy to children, and occasionally an explosion on the horizon or the wreckage after the bodies have been removed. In the meantime, the president and his folks blather on in carefully chosen euphemisms and newspeak just as if they were characters in an Orwell novel. At least the American people are at last beginning to catch on, and Bush's approval rating is 34 percent and his vice president's rating is 18 percent. That speaks well of the American people. They do trust their politicians, though that trust is often abused, but eventually they begin to check actions against words, facts against claims. Once they realized they've been bamboozled, then all the fancy words and euphemisms in the world won't restore their trust.

Bush has been in trouble in Iraq and Europe and Asia, and now he appears to be in trouble at home. He has three more years, so it would be a great help if this year one or both of the houses of Congress shifted to Democratic control. That would restore the checks and balances so necessary to preserve liberty, not that Democrats are any prize. That doesn't matter. The genius of our Founding Fathers is that they realized that as long as government fights itself, the liberty of the people is safe.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Vatican 'may relax condom rules'

From the BBC

24 April 2006

The Vatican is preparing to publish a statement on the use of condoms by people who have Aids, a senior Roman Catholic official has said. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan told La Repubblica newspaper that Pope Benedict XVI asked the Vatican's council for health care to study the issue. The Vatican says abstinence is the best way to tackle HIV/Aids. But last week, a retired archbishop backed the use of condoms for married couples to prevent Aids transmission. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who used to be Archbishop of Milan, said that in couples where one partner had HIV/Aids, the use of condoms was "a lesser evil".

Cardinal Barragan told the newspaper: "Soon the Vatican will issue a document about the use of condoms by persons who have grave diseases, starting with Aids." He said his department was studying the document, along with the scientists and theologians who wrote it. "It is Benedict XVI who asked us for a study on this particular aspect of using a condom by those afflicted with Aids, and by those with infectious diseases," he added. Asked whether he agreed with Cardinal Martini's views, Cardinal Barragan said: "It is a very difficult and delicate subject which warrants prudence." He said he preferred not to comment on Cardinal Martini's remarks, so as "to not anticipate the study". It is not clear when the document will be published. The Vatican has made no official comment.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Poster Time.
Fossils fill gap in human lineage

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

12 April 2006

Fossil hunters have found remains of a probable direct ancestor of humans that lived more than four million years ago. The specimens of this ancient creature are helping bridge a long gap during a crucial phase of human evolution. Professor Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues unearthed the cache of fossils in the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia. They describe the finds, which belong to the species Australopithecus anamensis, in the journal Nature. Australopithecus is an important ancient genus of humanlike creatures, or hominids.

Our own genus, Homo, is widely thought to have evolved from this group. So the relationship of Australopithecus to even earlier bipedal hominids is crucial to understanding where we all ultimately come from. When placed together with other fossils from the same general area of Ethiopia, the 4.1-million-year-old anamensis specimens appear to establish an evolutionary succession between earlier and later species. "The fact anamensis is sandwiched between earlier and later hominids is what is really significant about this Ethiopian sequence," Tim White told the BBC News website.

The finds close the gap between a more ancient species known as Ardipithecus ramidus, which is found at 4.4 million years and a later species known as Australopithecus afarensis, which is present in the Middle Awash 3.4 million years ago. Australopithecus anamensis is intermediate between the two not only chronologically but also in terms of its anatomy. The anamensis species is not new, but, say the researchers, "this is the first time that these three species have been shown to be time-successive in a single place".

One explanation is that one species simply evolved into the other - so-called phyletic evolution. Another possibility is that Australopithecus first emerged as a side branch of Ardipithecus. Under this scheme the mother species would have lived alongside the daughter species for some period of time before the mother species died out. But no overlap between any of the three species has been found in Ethiopia. "I think you could argue, fairly, that the circumstantial evidence based on geography and habitat is of one evolving phyletically into the other and what we're monitoring here is the genesis of that second stage of human evolution - the genesis of Australopithecus," White explained. But, he added: "We cannot disprove the alternative hypothesis just yet."

The new discoveries go some way to bridging the gap between Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, but do not entirely plug it. "The gaps don't get entirely filled; you fill a big gap and create two smaller ones," said Professor White. "Now we're looking at a gap between 4.4 million and 4.1 million. That's 300,000 years; an awful lot of time when measured on a human timescale, but not that long on a geological one." The fossils represent at least eight individuals and include the largest hominid canine ever found, the earliest known Australopithecus thigh bone as well as hand and foot bones.

The excavation at Asa Issie also uncovered the remains of pigs, monkeys and big cats. The fauna suggest that anamensis was living in a closed, wooded habitat. Australopithecus anamensis had a significantly thicker layer of enamel on its teeth than Ardipithecus, suggesting the later hominid was adapting to eating a more abrasive diet of roots. In many species, this is a fallback food when resources are scarce, but it is not clear what caused the diet shift in this case. The Turkana Basin in Kenya has also yielded Australopithecus anamensis fossils. Australopithecus afarensis was first recognised in the 1970s on the basis of the now famous "Lucy" skeleton from Hadar, Ethiopia, and footprints preserved in volcanic ash at Laetoli, Tanzania. Tim White, Gen Suwa and Berhane Asfaw discovered the first Ardipithecus ramidus fossils in the 1990s.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

British Brigadier Attacks America's John Wayne Generals

by Thomas Harding for the Telegraph

April 21, 2006

A senior British officer has criticised "shoulder-holster" American generals for trying to emulate film stars. Brig Alan Sharpe, who worked alongside Americans in Baghdad, said there was a "strong streak of Hollywood" with officers trying to portray themselves as Sylvester Stallone or John Wayne.

He wrote the comments in a paper on Britain's influence on US foreign relations and the essay is likely to strain the "special relationship" further, coming after other British officers' criticism of the American approach. An important part to being a successful American officer was to be able to combine the "real and acted heroics" of Audie Murphy, the "newsreel antics" of Gen Douglas MacArthur and the "movie performances" of Hollywood actors, the brigadier wrote. While this might look good on television at home, the brigadier suggested that "loud voices, full body armour, wrap-around sunglasses, air strikes and daily broadcasts from shoulder-holster wearing brigadier-generals proudly announcing how many Iraqis have been killed by US forces today" was no "hearts-and-minds winning tool".

But US officers he is working with as commander of British Forces in the Balkans will not be impressed by references to the early US regime in Iraq as "autocratic" and an "interim dictatorship". By contrast British servicemen, although under-equipped, were "undemonstrative, phlegmatic and pragmatic", patrolled on foot where possible and were keen to interact with locals. Arguing that the Army's 500 years of experience gave it a marked edge over the Americans in insurgency operations, Brig Sharpe said the senior British officers in Baghdad should continue with their moderating influence.

Rather than Britain punching above its weight it should "stand in the corner, with a bucket and towel, advising the undisputed heavyweight champion about who and how to fight". He referred to America as a "hyper power" in the paper, written during a year-long course with other leading military figures from around the world, run by the Royal College of Defence Studies. Brig Sharpe said the most effective way of passing on British experience was to place capable officers "with a feel for the British way of doing business" into positions of influence alongside American officers where they could "practically influence the decisions, plans and conduct on the ground of US adventures in world policing".

Tony Blair should not try to secure influence by providing "hollowed-out formations with little real capability". Brig Sharpe gave the "last word" to an anecdote about a "subjugated Iraqi" just before his release from detention. The Ba'athist was loudly lectured by an American officer, who was accompanied by a quiet British brigadier, on the dangers of returning to his "previously nefarious ways". As the Iraqi left he said: "Hey, Mr American, next time before you shout so much you should speak to him. He is British - they know how to invade a country." The Ministry of Defence said the thesis reflected Brig Sharpe's "personal views" but it was the object of the college course to "stimulate debate".

Monday, April 24, 2006

And so the moral of our story is ...

Cristina Odone for The Observer

Sunday April 2, 2006

Man is a moral animal, claimed Robert Wright, the evolutionary psychologist. In 1995 Wright proposed that humans were programmed by evolution to be protective of partners and children in order to secure the proliferation of their genes. Man was moral because his survival depended on it.

Woman, a recent study shows, is also that way disposed: nine in 10 women, when asked what they thought about having a one-night stand, replied that it was wrong. Three thousand years after Moses came down from Mount Sinai, we are attempting to shape a new, contemporary code of conduct. In forging our moral contract, we seem to look to Darwin as well as to the divine, for much of it does seem based, as Wright suggested, on reproduction. One-night stands, with their potential for exposure to disease and disappointment, betrayal and unwanted children, could affect the all-important progeny. Adultery continues to be a no-no: upset the family unit, and you risk hurting the children.

Any revision of the Ten Commandments would now probably include precepts about dealing with the environment. Thou shalt not turn up the heating to 70 degrees, or pull faces at the sight of wind farms, or indulge in too many Ryanair flights, or opt out of recycling because it's a bore. This green code means to protect the planet for the next generation. Equally, sins such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse are also rooted in the desire to shield our genes.

But not every moral position we take up today is. Both sides in the war in Iraq couched their rhetoric in morality: the question was of trust, injustice, and responsibility for those outside one's own family. Both supporters and opponents spluttered with indignation, seeing their determination to wage or end the war as a question of right over wrong. Tolerance is also not prompted by concern over our genes but rather by a commendable altruism that seeks others' ease in our multi-faith culture. This acceptance of other people's gods is a million miles removed from the first commandment of Judaeo-Christian tradition, which forbids the worship of any deity other than Yahweh.

History suggests that whatever our moral code is today, it will be decried as censorious tomorrow. The Puritans, the Victorians, the 1950s: we have seen off plenty of 'new' moralities, with their hairshirts, covered piano legs and book banning. Our own moral code will probably be scoffed at by our heirs. They may well feel that overpopulation does away with the imperative to reproduce, and one night stands are an acceptable form of relationship-testing. Then they too will try and construct a set of guidelines to rein in the basest instincts and bring forth the best in all of us.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Gosh…! This Cyberkitten’s a Boy!

I’ve been thinking about ‘outing’ myself for sometime now. But after some comments back and forth on foilwomans diary (see links) I’ve decided that now is that time.

[Takes deep breath]. Hi, my names Cyberkitten…. And I’m [gulp] a guy. Phew, at least that bits over with. I know that several, many…. most(?) of you thought I was a girl…. But it’s not the case I’m afraid. I’m sorry if there’s been any misunderstanding. It certainly hasn’t been my intention to masquerade as a girl – despite my Blogging ‘handle’ – it’s just that I’m not the kind of guy who constantly needs to assert his masculinity by spraying testosterone around the room. I mean, I’ve seen cats do that and its not pretty or hygienic. I did go out with the intention of having a ‘gender neutral’ Blog (as much as I could) but haven’t gone out of my way (much) to hide what gender I am.

Actually, as things progressed I became more and more intrigued as to why people thought I was a girl. After all I don’t think this is a ‘typical’ girl Blog – if there is such a thing. I mean, the main topics of conversation are religion and politics. There’s been precious little relationship stuff and hardly anything that I would consider traditional women’s issues. Is it just the name ‘Cyberkitten’….? Would your impressions of me be different if it had been ‘Cybercat’ or ‘Cyberdog’ or even ‘Cyberdude’?

So, if you’re willing, let me know why you thought I was a girl? I’m very interested to know. It might explain why a number of the people I know thought I was gay on first meeting. Maybe it’s that I’m thoughtful, that I don’t like sport, that I read a lot, that when I talk to a woman I look at her face and not at her breasts? Maybe it’s that I’m too in control (see my Spock post). Maybe some of my readers will be able to explain things to me. Go on. Give it a go.

Finally I can only say I’m sorry if people out there feel deceived or misled in someway. It was certainly completely unintentional. I apologise unreservedly and hope it doesn’t change things – once you get used to the idea.
Poster Time.
My Hero: Mr Spock.

Mr Spock saved my life – or at least my sanity. Well, that’s what I like to believe anyway. I found my teenage years rather… difficult. I wasn’t beaten (much) and wasn’t abused but I found it very difficult indeed coping with all those pesky emotions and hormones raging through my system. I honestly thought that I was going to either go mad, explode or kill myself…. Fortunately I took neither option – OK, the madness thing is up for debate (or maybe not for those who know me IRL).

Anyway, back to Mr Spock. It seems to be one of those defining questions people get asked as parties: Star Wars or Star Trek? For me that’s an easy question. Star Trek – for all of its (many) faults – rocks. One of the reasons that the Original Series did it for me was Leonard Nimoy. He’s not exactly the greatest actor in the world but the character of Spock really spoke to me. He valued reason, logic and science above all (putting to one side his emotional outbursts and so on). But the thing I really admired him for was his self control. While the rest of the crew – and in particular Dr McCoy – went all emotional and frantic, what did Spock do? Raised an eyebrow!

If only (I thought as a teenager) I could be that in control! So I tried, and tried and tried again. Finally I gained more and more control of myself. This may have been just a natural process of growing up and increasing maturity (stop sniggering at the back) but I still put it down to Mr Spock – mostly.

Of course it causes problems – as it did for Spock. I’m sometimes accused of being unfeeling or unemotional, though I’m also praised for being calm and refusing to panic. I certainly feel emotions – I just don’t wear them on my sleeve. I certainly don’t ‘get off’ on displaying my emotions in public. But sometimes I go too far and probably come across as being detached and callous. I need to watch that. Maybe lighten up a little. Let the human side of me out to play a bit more?

I still think Spock Rocks though. That Vulcan saved my life. May he Live Long and Prosper.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

War Costs Approach $10 Billion a Month

by Jonathan Weisman for the San Francisco Chronicle

April 20, 2006

Annual war expenditures in Iraq will almost certainly come close to doubling since the U.S. invasion, as the military confronts the rapidly escalating cost of repairing, rebuilding and replacing equipment chewed up by three years of combat. The cost of the war in U.S. fatalities has declined this year, but the cost in treasure continues to rise -- from $48 billion in 2003 to $59 billion in 2004 to $81 billion in 2005 to an anticipated $94 billion in 2006, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The U.S. government is now spending nearly $10 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from $8.2 billion a year ago, a new Congressional Research Service report found. Annual war costs in Iraq are easily outpacing the $61 billion a year that the United States spent in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972, in today's dollars. The Iraq invasion's "shock and awe" phase of high-tech laser-guided bombs, cruise missiles and stealth aircraft has long faded, but the costs of even those early months are just coming into view as the military confronts equipment repair and rebuilding costs it has avoided and procurement costs it never expected.

"We did not predict early on that we would have the number of electronic jammers that we've got. We did not predict we'd have as many (heavily) armored vehicles that we have, nor did we have a good prediction about what our battle losses would be," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If you look at the earlier estimates of anticipated costs, this war is a lot more expensive than it should be based on past conflicts," said Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent defense think tank.

The issue will be hotly debated next week when the Senate takes up a record $106.5 billion emergency spending bill that includes $72.4 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House passed a $92 billion version of the bill last month that included $68 billion in war funding. That comes on top of $50 billion already allocated for the war this fiscal year. The bill is the fifth emergency defense request since the Iraq invasion in March 2003. Senate Democrats say that, in the end, they will vote for the measure, which congressional leaders plan to deliver to President Bush by Memorial Day. But the upcoming debate will offer opponents of the war ample opportunity to question the Bush administration's funding priorities. At roughly $15 billion, personnel costs will actually drop 14 percent this year. But Pentagon officials and budget analysts point to a simple, unavoidable driver of the escalating costs -- the cost of repairing and replacing equipment and developing new war-fighting materiel has exploded. In the first year of the invasion, such costs totaled $2.4 billion, then rose to $5.2 billion in 2004. This year, they will hit $26 billion, and could go as high as $30 billion, Kosiak said.

Total operations and maintenance budgets will rise 33 percent this year, while investment in new technologies will climb 25 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. The helicopters, tanks, personnel carriers and even small arms "have required more maintenance than we planned for," said Gary Motsek, director of support operations at the Army Materiel Command. "We're working them to death." In the first years of the war, Army and Marine units rotating out of Iraq left behind usable equipment for the next units rolling in. But even the working equipment is now being shipped back to the Army's five depots, where they are refurbished and upgraded.

Last year, the depots repaired and upgraded 600 helicopter engines. This year, they will see 700, Motsek said. A total of 318 Bradley fighting vehicles went through the depots in 2005; 600 will be cycled through in 2006. Last year, depot workers upgraded 5,000 humvees with new engines and new transmissions to support ever-heavier armor. This year, they will see close to 9,000. They also will have to patch up 7,000 more machine guns, 5,000 more tank tracks and 100 more M1A1 Abrams tanks. In 2001, the depots logged 11 million labor hours. Last year, that reached 20 million, and this year, it will total 24 million, Motsek said. And that is only the work being done in the United States. In and around Iraq, 53,000 people -- 52,000 of them contractors -- are maintaining and rebuilding lightly damaged equipment, a senior Senate defense aide said. Indian workers are refurbishing U.S. humvees for $6 an hour. "The equipment is wearing out five times faster than (in) normal operations," said Jeremiah Gertler, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former House Armed Services Committee staffer. What cannot be repaired has to be replaced. Procurement costs were a fraction of the initial emergency war requests, Kosiak said. This year, new equipment purchases will consume 20 percent of the war funds. Such costs were always there, Gertler said, but Bush administration officials and members of Congress put off maintenance and procurement expenditures to keep the war price tag down.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Picture Time.

Is it possible though? Peace through 'Superior Firepower'.... Not if recently history is anything to go by.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Religion - The Antithesis To Science

by Peter Atkins

Many consider that the conflict of religion and science is a temporary phase, and that in due course the two mighty rivers of human understanding will merge into an even mightier Amazon of comprehension. I take the opposite view, that reconciliation is impossible. I consider that Science is mightier than the Word, and that the river of religion will (or, at least, should) atrophy and die. The basis of my belief that reconciliation is impossible is that the techniques and criteria of religion and science are so extraordinarily different. Science seeks simplicity publicly and encourages the overthrow of authority; religion accepts complexity privately and encourages deference to authority.

There are, of course, many who regard the concept of God as an exceedingly simple explanation of everything, and who regard scientific elucidations as either incomplete or ponderous. However, that is a self-delusion. Such views are generally held by people who do not understand the scientific method. Indeed, to believe that the assertion that God is an explanation (of anything, let alone everything) is intellectually contemptible, for it amounts to an admission of ignorance packaged into the pretence of an explanation. To aver that 'God did it' is worse than an admission of ignorance, for it shrouds ignorance in deceit. We scientists know that it is immensely difficult to trace the deep, simple ideas of science out into the world of phenomena. Those ignorant of scientific procedures, or simply antagonistic to them, often mistake this for impotence. Scientists know that the complexity of the world is the outcome of huge numbers of sometimes conflicting simple events.

The biochemical mechanism of organisms is one example of how the principles at work are well known, and if not well known, determinable and expressible in principle in terms of familiar (to us chemists) processes. That is certainly true of the physiological processes that sustain us, and only the blackest of pessimists would not extend that view to the workings of our brains. Yet we also know that even the simplest organism is so extraordinarily complicated that unravelling its biochemistry is immensely difficult. But that difficulty is not defeat. Nor should our inability to predict the course of biochemical processes, let alone build a novel organism, be construed as failure. Indeed, it should be a source of pride in the power of the human intellect that it has gone so far in understanding in such a short time.

The challenge of elucidating living processes - including consciousness and all its baggage which we bundle together as 'the human spirit' - is only one example of a challenge where hard work is paying off and science does not need to accept the false explanations peddled by religions. There are other, perhaps more challenging problems, including the origin of everything. In no case, though, is there any indication that science is grinding to a halt and coming up against a barrier to further explanation. There is certainly no justification for asserting that the powers of science are circumscribed and that beyond the boundary the only recourse to comprehension is God.

Many will accept that science can indeed deliver on all these promises, but will maintain, nevertheless, that it provides an incomplete account of the full dimension of being human. For them, science's merciless stare is one-eyed. For them, there are aspects of the world that science, with its reliance on public examination of evidence and the affixation of number to events, can never touch. They point at joy, misery, aesthetic appreciation, love, death, and above all the sense of cosmic purpose, and feel confident that these transcendent spiritual aspects of the physical will lie for ever beyond science's reach. I disagree with this pessimistic vision. I consider that there are two types of spiritual question. One concerns topics like joy, pertaining to physical states of the brain in conjunction with a variety of physiological states of the body, not least of our endocrine systems. I see no reason at all to regard these states as outside the boundaries of scientific discourse.

Some will regard the scientific analysis of such topics, which include bestiality as well as love, creativity and gullibility (such as so often results in religious belief), as an erosion of delight. I think the opposite is true: while scientific understanding adds depth to our delight, it does not intrude into the acts of delight. That we may understand passion, that we may understand iniquity, and that we may grope towards an understanding of what it means to be human, that we may look within ourselves with vision unclouded by mysticism, seems to me to add to our wonder at this amazing yet explicable world. Then there is a second group of deep questions that many would wish to protect from science's glare. These questions are the more cosmic of those beloved by religion, including the purpose of our existence, the role of evil, free will and the prospect of life eternal.

I believe that such questions have been invented, and do not represent really challenging problems for us to solve. It would indeed be fascinating if the universe did have a purpose; it would probably be pleasant for there to be life after death. However, there is not one scrap of evidence in favour of either speculation. As it is easy to understand why people crave for cosmic purpose and life eternal, and there is no evidence for either, it seems to me an inescapable conclusion that neither exists. All there is for science to explain about these matters is the psychology of brains that maintain them as actualities. My conclusion is stark and uncompromising. Religion is the antithesis of science; science is competent to illuminate all the deep questions of existence, and does so in a manner that makes full use of, and respects the human intellect. I see neither need nor sign of any future reconciliation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Judicial Green Light for Torture

The New York Times

Sunday 26 February 2006

The administration's tendency to dodge accountability for lawless actions by resorting to secrecy and claims of national security is on sharp display in the case of a Syrian-born Canadian, Maher Arar, who pent months under torture because of United States action. A federal trial judge in Brooklyn has refused to stand up to the executive branch, in a decision that is both chilling and ripe for prompt overturning.

Mr. Arar, a 35-year-old software engineer whose case has been detailed in a pair of columns by Bob Herbert, was detained at Kennedy Airport in 2002 while on his way home from a family vacation. He was held in solitary confinement in a Brooklyn detention center and interrogated without proper access to legal counsel. Finally, he was shipped off to a Syrian prison. There, he was held for 10 months in an underground rat-infested dungeon and brutally tortured because officials suspected that he was a member of Al Qaeda. All this was part of a morally and legally unsupportable United States practice known as "extraordinary rendition," in which the federal government outsources interrogations to regimes known to use torture and lacking fundamental human rights protections.

The maltreatment of Mr. Arar would be reprehensible - and illegal under the United States Constitution and applicable treaties - even had the suspicions of terrorist involvement proven true. But no link to any terrorist organization or activity emerged, which is why the Syrians eventually released him. Mr. Arar then sued for damages. The judge in the case, David Trager of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, did not dispute that United States officials had reason to know that Mr. Arar faced a likelihood of torture in Syria. But he took the rare step of blocking the lawsuit entirely, saying that the use of torture in rendition cases is a foreign policy question not appropriate for court review, and that going forward would mean disclosing state secrets.

It is hard to see why resolving Mr. Arar's case would necessitate the revelation of privileged material. Moreover, as the Supreme Court made clear in a pair of 2004 decisions rebuking the government for its policies of holding foreign terrorism suspects in an indefinite legal limbo in Guantnamo and elsewhere, even during the war on terror, the government's actions are subject to court review and must adhere to the rule of law. With the Bush administration claiming imperial powers to detain, spy on and even torture people, and the Republican Congress stuck largely in enabling mode, the role of judges in checking executive branch excesses becomes all the more crucial. If the courts collapse when confronted with spurious government claims about the needs of national security, so will basic American liberties.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Poster Time.
Archbishop rejects mystery mania

From the BBC - 16 April 2006

Conspiracy theories or the discovery of ancient texts will not weaken the Gospel, the Archbishop of Canterbury will say in his Easter Sunday sermon. The Gospel of Judas and the Da Vinci Code foster a sense of mystery, but the Easter message lives in Christian experience, Dr Rowan Williams will say. Many Christians are putting their lives at risk for their faith, he adds. Meanwhile, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu has baptised four adults in a pool outside a York church. Seventeen others were also confirmed in the service, aired on Radio 4. The truth of the Resurrection is strengthened by Christian experience across the globe, Dr Rowan Williams will say in his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral.

"The Bible is not the authorised code of a society managed by priests and preachers for their private purposes, but the set of human words through which the call of God is still uniquely immediate to human beings today; human words with divine energy behind them. There are places in our world where conversion to Christianity is literally a matter of putting your life on the line. We have all been following the story of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan and we know that his story is not unique," he says - referring to the Afghan who was threatened with death for converting to Christianity.

"We can say with absolute certainty that whatever the Gospel means in circumstances like that, it isn't a cover-up for the sake of the powerful." The Da Vinci Code has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and has been made into a film starring Tom Hanks. It alleges the Church suppressed the "truth" that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, and this bloodline was the real Holy Grail. The Gospel of Judas, a papyrus document from the 3rd or 4th Century AD, casts the fallen disciple as a benevolent figure, helping Jesus to save mankind.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Dublin commemorates Easter Rising

From the BBC - Sunday, 16 April 2006

Tens of thousands of people have attended a parade in Dublin commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. The Easter Sunday parade, which features 2,500 military personnel, is the first in Dublin for 37 years. Wreaths have been laid and a minute's silence was held in commemoration of all civilian and military personnel, including the British, killed in 1916. Irish premier Bertie Ahern and President Mary McAleese attended. Mr Ahern said the commemorations would give an opportunity for "remembrance, reconciliation and renewal".

He said those participating would "fittingly commemorate the patriotism and vision of those who set in train an unstoppable process" which led to Ireland's political independence. The ceremony marked the start of events in the Irish Republic to commemorate the rising. Military personnel, some saluting atop tanks and others marching with fixed bayonets, paraded past the bullet-scarred spot where rebels mounted the rebellion. The streets along the route were lined by tens of thousands of spectators, while hundreds of thousands more watched live on television.

Mr Ahern laid a wreath in Kilmainham Jail as a mark of respect to the men executed after the revolt. The BBC's James Helm in Dublin said the parade had stirred up debate about the revolt and how Dublin should mark its anniversary. In the early 1970s, during the Troubles, the military parades were stopped and official commemorations became more low key. The 1916 Easter Rising saw Irish rebels attempt to seize the capital from British imperial forces. British troops put down the rebellion and many of its ringleaders were captured and executed.
Why is Easter Sunday a movable feast?

From Somewhere on the Web

Easter is an annual festival observed throughout the Christian world. The date for Easter shifts every year within the Gregorian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar is the standard international calendar for civil use. In addition, it regulates the ceremonial cycle of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The current Gregorian ecclesiastical rules that determine the date of Easter trace back to 325 CE at the First Council of Nicaea convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine. At that time the Roman world used the Julian Calendar (put in place by Julius Caesar). The Council decided to keep Easter on a Sunday, the same Sunday throughout the world. To fix incontrovertibly the date for Easter, and to make it determinable indefinitely in advance, the Council constructed special tables to compute the date. These tables were revised in the following few centuries resulting eventually in the tables constructed by the 6th century Abbot of Scythia, Dionysis Exiguus. Nonetheless, different means of calculations continued in use throughout the Christian world.

In 1582 Gregory XIII (Pope of the Roman Catholic Church) completed a reconstruction of the Julian calendar and produced new Easter tables. One major difference between the Julian and Gregorian Calendar is the "leap year rule". Universal adoption of this Gregorian calendar occurred slowly. By the 1700's, though, most of western Europe had adopted the Gregorian Calendar. The Eastern Christian churches still determine the Easter dates using the older Julian Calendar method. The usual statement, that Easter Day is the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs next after the vernal equinox, is not a precise statement of the actual ecclesiastical rules. The full moon involved is not the astronomical Full Moon but an ecclesiastical moon (determined from tables) that keeps, more or less, in step with the astronomical Moon.

The ecclesiastical rules are:

Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox; this particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon); and the vernal equinox is fixed as March 21.

Thus resulting in that Easter can never occur before March 22 or later than April 25. The Gregorian dates for the ecclesiastical full moon come from the Gregorian tables. Therefore, the civil date of Easter depends upon which tables - Gregorian or pre-Gregorian - are used. The western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christian churches use the Gregorian tables; many eastern (Orthodox) Christian churches use the older tables based on the Julian Calendar. In a congress held in 1923, the eastern churches adopted a modified Gregorian Calendar and decided to set the date of Easter according to the astronomical Full Moon for the meridian of Jerusalem. However, a variety of practices remain among the eastern churches.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Flying the Flag.

A few days ago (Wednesday I think) it was announced that the Union Flag (also called the Union Jack) was 400 years old. They had a small piece on it on the morning news and that was basically it. No fanfare, no celebrations.

I was rather surprised by this lack of national enthusiasm but not particularly disappointed. You see I’m not a Nationalist and never have been. Now don’t get me wrong, I like living here. England is one of the best places on the planet to live. We don’t get hurricanes (often) or revolutions (often). Everything’s pretty stable – OK, maybe not the weather but nearly everything. There are certainly a lot less pleasant places to live. But do I think that England is the best place to live? No, I don’t. I’ve visited other countries and thought to myself “I could live here” without any qualms or pangs of disloyalty.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself a patriot – whatever that means. I don’t have the attitude ‘My Country - right or wrong’. We have done many questionable things in our history and will probably continue to do so. I’m not the kind of person who would happily go off to war on the say so of our Government. Again I think that we have one of the best ‘systems’ in the world but I don’t think that our traditions are worth dying or killing for. Would I lose a nights sleep over the loss of the Pound if it was replaced by the Euro? No. I certainly didn’t have any problems over ‘decimalisation’ back in the 70’s or the ‘loss’ of imperial weights and measures. I certainly don’t see it as a threat to our ‘national identity’.

What IS our national identity anyway? The Government and some NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organisations) have been trying, and failing, to somehow divine and codify what it means to be British. I’m not even sure that such a ‘national identity’ even exists and I wonder if it ever did. Personally I regard my nation as fairly low down on my list of personal identifications. Firstly I regard myself as a European. Then as a human being from planet Earth – for want of a better word a Terran (sounds silly I know), then as a Liverpudlian/Scouser (originating from Liverpool) and finally as British/English.

Nationalism probably served a function in centuries gone by. Now I think that the nation-state causes far more problems than it solves. Today the world is far too small, far too fragile and far too heavily armed for nationalism and the following of national interests to continue in its present form. We may have already passed the point where nationalism serves any useful purpose. With luck the nation-state will fade away of its own accord though I’m guessing that some are more likely to be swept away in tides of blood.

Being proud of your nation is one thing, defending your nation from attack is one thing but using the idea of ‘national interests’ to dominate others is, and should forever be, unacceptable. Be a patriot by all means but be a questioning patriot.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Poster Time.
Bringing God into politics

By Nick Assinder for the BBC.

4 March 2006

Tony Blair's spin chief Alastair Campbell famously declared "we don't do God". And the prime minister got very cross with Jeremy Paxman when he asked if he prayed with George Bush. Meanwhile the US President attracted serious criticism when he suggested God told him to "end the tyranny" in Iraq. So it must come as no surprise to Tony Blair that his remarks - made on ITV1's Parkinson programme - about being judged by God for his actions in Iraq have sparked a storm of protest. It raises the prospect of inflaming Arab opinion which often links Christian western leaders with suggestions of a "crusade" - a charge already levelled at President Bush. Others have asked how a Christian can defend war and sending soldiers and civilians to their death. It has already seen some pointing out that, for elected politicians, the British people have a role in delivering judgements.

And it has raised a very old and very thorny question over the role of religion in politics. Supporters, such as MP Steven Pound, have pointed out the prime minister is no longer facing election and was simply telling the truth about his personal beliefs. The other side of that coin is the suggestion from others that the prime minister did not "do God" previously because he feared it might damage him in the polls. Mr Blair's faith has never been a secret, indeed there have long been suggestions that he may have pursued a career in the church as easily as in politics.

And his passion for ending poverty in Africa is regularly seen as an example of his faith at work. But the British people have long appeared cautious, if not downright suspicious, of politicians who claim to be motivated by faith. Clearly many will insist this is nobody's business but the prime minister's and that there are many positives for a leader who has a moral code. But it is surprising that Mr Blair has chosen to raise the issue at this point in his prime ministerial career. These are now questions that it will be difficult for the prime minister to avoid answering in future. Having volunteered the information during his Parkinson interview, it will be extremely difficult for him ever again to declare: "We don't do God".

Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's all about MeMe.

My first Meme - after being tagged by Jewish Atheist.

Accent: Some people say that I have an accent but some don’t. I think I have a slight ‘Scouse’ (Liverpudlian) twang when I get excited, drunk or tired.

Booze: Not as much as I used to. Normally Vodka or Real Ale these days.

Chore I hate: Housework.

Dogs/cats: Like Dogs but love Cats.

Essential Electronics: Computer (of course). DVD player. Big TV.

Favorite Perfume/Cologne: Not my thing, never has been.

Gold and silver: Not my thing either. Bought a nice ring once with Runes on it. Lost it 3 weeks later. Took that as a lesson.

Hometown: Born in Liverpool many years ago. Been pretty much all over since.

Insomnia: Unfortunately yes. More & more as I get older.

Job Title: Classified.

Kids: I like ‘em as long as you can give them back when they start crying or need changing.

Living Arrangements: My own house.

Most Admired Trait: Honesty.

Number of Sexual Partners: More than one, less than ten.

Overnight Hospital Stays: Nope. Hope I never will.

Phobia: Nothing that I can think of.

Religion: Yeah, right! Haven’t you been reading my Blog. I think that the whole thing is just silly.

Siblings: Yes.

Time I usually wake up: 6:30am... and then again around 7:20am.

Unusual Talent: Not sure if it’s unusual – but I can make a chicken out of a Tea Towel.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: Cucumber. Is that a vegetable?

Worst Habit: Never doing today what I can put off till tomorrow.

X-Rays: Teeth. I think.

Yummy Foods I Make: I used to make very nice Chili, oh and I can bake buscuits too.

Zodiac Sign: Aries. Hence very sceptical about the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Imperial Overreach is Accelerating the Global Decline of America

by Martin Jacques for the Guardian - March 28, 2006

"Our power, then, has the grave liability of rendering our theories about the world immune from failure. But by becoming deaf to easily discerned warning signs, we may ignore long-term costs that result from our actions and dismiss reverses that should lead to a re-examination of our goals and means."

These are the words of Henry Hyde, chairman of the House international relations committee and a Republican congressman, in a recent speech. Hyde argues that such is the overweening power of the US that it may not hear or recognize the signals when its policy goes badly wrong, a thinly veiled reference to Iraq. He then takes issue with the idea that the US can export democracy around the world as deeply misguided and potentially dangerous. He argues: "A broad and energetic promotion of democracy in other countries that will not enjoy our long-term and guiding presence may equate not to peace and stability but to revolution ... There is no evidence that we or anyone can guide from afar revolutions we have set in motion. We can more easily destabilize friends and others and give life to chaos and to avowed enemies than ensure outcomes in service of our interests and security."

It is clear that the US occupation of Iraq has been a disaster from almost every angle one can think of, most of all for the Iraqi people, not least for American foreign policy. The unpicking of the imperial logic that led to it has already commenced: Hyde's speech is an example, and so is Francis Fukuyama's new book After the Neocons, a merciless critique of Bush's foreign policy and the school of thought that lay behind it. The war was a delayed product of the end of the cold war and the triumphalist mentality that imbued the neocons and eventually seduced the US. But triumphalism is a dangerous brew, more suited to intoxication than hard-headed analysis. And so it has proved. The US still has to reap the whirlwind for its stunning feat of imperial overreach.

In becoming so catastrophically engaged in the Middle East, making the region its overwhelming global priority, it downgraded the importance of everywhere else, taking its eye off the ball in a crucial region such as east Asia, which in the long run will be far more important to the US's strategic interests than the Middle East. As such, the Iraqi adventure represented a major misreading of global trends and how they are likely to impact on the US. Hyde is clearly thinking in these terms: "We are well advanced into an unformed era in which new and unfamiliar enemies are gathering forces, where a phalanx of aspiring competitors must inevitably constrain and focus options. In a world where the ratios of strength narrow, the consequences of miscalculation will become progressively more debilitating. The costs of golden theories [by which he means the worldwide promotion of democracy] will be paid for in the base coin of our interests."

The promotion of the idea of the war against terror as the central priority of US policy had little to do with the actual threat posed by al-Qaida, which was always hugely exaggerated by the Bush administration, as events over the last four and a half years have shown. Al-Qaida never posed a threat to the US except in terms of the odd terrorist outrage. Making it the central thrust of US foreign policy, in other words, had nothing to do with the al-Qaida threat and everything to do with the Bush administration seeking to mobilize US public opinion behind a neoconservative foreign policy. There followed the tenuous - in reality nonexistent - link with Saddam, which provided in large measure the justification for the invasion of Iraq, an act which now threatens to unravel the bizarre adventurism, personified by Donald Rumsfeld, which has been the hallmark of Bush foreign policy since 9/11. The latter has come unstuck in the killing fields of Iraq in the most profound way imaginable.

Hyde alludes to a new "unformed" world and "a phalanx of aspiring competitors". On this he is absolutely right. The world is in the midst of a monumental process of change that, within the next 10 years or so, could leave the US as only the second largest economy in the world after China and commanding, with the rise of China and India, a steadily contracting share of global output. It will no longer be able to boss the world around in the fashion of the neoconservative dream: its power to do so will be constrained by the power of others, notably China, while it will also find it increasingly difficult to fund the military and diplomatic costs of being the world's sole superpower. If the US is already under financial pressure from its twin deficits and the ballooning costs of Iraq, then imagine the difficulties it will find itself in within two decades in a very different kind of world.

Hyde concludes by warning against the delusions of triumphalism and cautioning that the future should not be seen as an extension of the present: "A few brief years ago, history was proclaimed to be at an end, our victory engraved in unyielding stone, our pre-eminence garlanded with permanence. But we must remember that Britain's majestic rule vanished in a few short years, undermined by unforeseen catastrophic events and by new threats that eventually overwhelmed the palisades of the past. The life of pre-eminence, as with all life on this planet, has a mortal end. To allow our enormous power to delude us into seeing the world as a passive thing waiting for us to recreate it in an image of our choosing will hasten the day when we have little freedom to choose anything at all."

That the world will be very different within the next two decades, if not rather sooner, is clear; yet there is scant recognition of this fact and what it might mean - not least in our own increasingly provincial country. The overwhelming preoccupation of the Bush administration (and Blair for that matter) with Iraq, the Middle East and Islam, speaks of a failure to understand the deeper forces that are reshaping the world and an overriding obsession with realising and exploiting the US's temporary status as the sole global superpower. Such a myopic view can only hasten the decline of the US as a global power, a process that has already started. The Bush administration stands guilty of an extraordinary act of imperial overreach which has left the US more internationally isolated than ever before, seriously stretched financially, and guilty of neglect in east Asia and elsewhere. Iraq was supposed to signal the US's new global might: in fact, it may well prove to be a harbinger of its decline. And that decline could be far more precipitous than anyone has previously reckoned. Once the bubble of US power has been pricked, in a global context already tilting in other directions, it could deflate rather more quickly than has been imagined. Hyde's warnings should be taken seriously.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Cyberkitten Recommends……

In a recent discussion I promised dbackdad some modern Science Fiction & Fantasy books to try out. So here are some of my recommendations:

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Mars Trilogy (Red, Green & Blue), The Years of Rice and Salt, The Gold Coast.

Iain M Banks: The Culture Novels (Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Look to Windward).

Greg Bear: Blood Music, Eon, Anvil of Stars.

Alan Dean Foster: A Call to Arms, The False Mirror, The Spoils of War, The Tar-Aiym Krang, Icerigger.

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War, Worlds, The Long Habit of Living.

James P Hogan: The Proteus Operation, Paths to Otherwhere.

Frederik Pohl: Gateway, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, Heechee Rendezvous.

Tim Powers: Earthquake Weather.

Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials Trilogy (Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass).

W T Quick: Dreams of Gods and Men, Dreams of Flesh and Sand.

Rudy Rucker: Software, Wetware.

Brian Stableford: The Werewolves of London, The Angel of Pain, The Carnival of Destruction, The Empire of Fear.

Bruce Sterling: Islands in the Net.

Sherri S Tepper: Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Walter Jon Williams: The Praxis, Hardwired.

Picture Time.

I was going to post this as part of my Blog about being a vegetarian – but it didn’t seem appropriate. So here it is. Made me laugh anyway…

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Of God and the case for unintelligent design

by Lisa Fullam for the San Francisco Chronicle

August 4, 2005

As the theory of intelligent design again hits the news with President Bush's encouragement this week that the theory be taught in schools alongside evolution, I have one question: What about unintelligent design?

Take rabbit digestion, for example. As herbivores, rabbits need help from bacteria to break down the cell walls of the plants they eat, so, cleverly enough, they have a large section of intestine where such bacterial fermentation takes place. The catch is, it's at the far end of the small intestine, beyond where efficient absorption of nutrients can happen. A sensible system -- as we see in ruminant animals like cattle and deer -- ferments before the small intestine, maximizing nutrient absorption. Rabbits, having to make do with an unintelligent system, instead eat some of their own faeces after one trip through, sending half-digested food back through the small intestine for re-digestion.

Horses are similarly badly put together: They ferment their food in a large, blind-ended cecum after the small intestine. Unlike rabbits, they don't recycle their feces -- they're just inefficient. Moreover, those big sections of hind gut are a frequent location for gut blockages and twists that, absent prompt veterinary intervention, lead to slow and excruciating death for the poor horse. The psalmist writes: "God takes no delight in horses' power." Clearly, if God works in creation according to the simplistic schemes of the intelligent design folks, God not only doesn't delight in horses, but seems positively to have it in for them. Furthermore, why wouldn't an intelligent designer make it possible for animals to digest their natural food without playing host to huge populations of bacteria in the first place: Couldn't mammals have been equipped with their own enzymes to do the job?

But that's not all: Consider mammalian testicles. In order to function optimally, they need to be slightly cooler than the rest of the body and so are carried outside the body wall in the scrotum. Why would one carry one's whole genetic potential in such a vulnerable position? Clearly it's not a gonad problem in general -- ovaries work just fine at body temperature and are snuggled safely within the pelvic girdle for protection. But for testicles, nope -- the scrotum is jerry-rigged to allow for a warm-blooded animal to keep his testicles cool. Surely an intelligent designer could have figured out a way for testicles to work at body temperature, as ovaries do.

Here's another: Do you know anyone beyond the age of 20 or so who has not had a backache? Let's face it: The human body is that of a quadruped tipped up on end to walk on only two legs. The delicate and beautiful cantilever curve of the human spine compensates (but not enough) for the odd stresses that result from our unusual posture. Perhaps the God of intelligent design has a special place in his plan for chiropractors? And what about the knee? Between the secure ball-and-socket of the hip and the omnidirectional versatility of the ankle is a simple hinge joint, held together only by ligaments (including the anterior cruciate ligament) whose names are known to athletes and sports fans because they're so easily and frequently injured. Again, unintelligent design. The real problem with intelligent design is that it fails to account for the obvious anatomical and physiological making-do that is evident of so much of the natural world. Evolutionarily minded folks see this as the result of genetic limitations and adaptations accumulated in specialization for certain environments, while the intelligent design folks are left with a designer who clearly cannot have been paying close attention.

While there are extremely precise and fine-tuned mechanisms in nature, there is also lots of evidence of organisms just cobbled together. For instance, take marsupials, who give birth to what in other animals are analogous to fetuses, then have to carry them around in what amounts to an exterior uterus until the offspring are ready to face the world. As a theist who sees natural evolution not as a theory but as well- established observation, I take comfort in the catch-as-catch-can of the natural world. I have every confidence that an all-loving creator walks in and with the natural world as it struggles to fruition, cheering on our evolutionary triumphs (let's hear it for the opposable thumb!) and standing in solidarity with the evolutionary misfits and misfires, like rabbit guts and horses generally. Isn't this how God walks in and with us in our individual lives as well, cheering us on, emboldening us and consoling us in our often misguided attempts to live well and do right, and standing in compassion and solidarity with us when we fail, and loving us into trying again? And isn't this a more compelling vision of God, and truer to the biblical God who comes again and again to offer salvation to erring humankind, than that of a designer who can't quite seem to get things right?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Claims of victory over religious hatred bill questioned -01/02/06

From Ekklesia

Claims of victory over the government's controversial religious hatred bill have today been questioned. Conservative Christian groups who have campaigned for special protections for the Christian faith, and lobbied against the extension of those protections to other faiths, have heralded last night's Government's defeat over amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill as a 'victory for free speech'. The Evangelical Alliance and the charity CARE are amongst those today claiming credit for last night's vote by MP’s to accept a series of amendments made by the House of Lords.

The Bill has now been stripped of measures to allow ‘abusive and insulting’ language as well as the crime of ‘recklessness’ in actions that incite religious hatred. The new offence will be restricted to ‘threatening’ words and behaviour, which the groups say will ensure that freedom of speech for religious groups can be protected. Commentators are however pointing out that these same groups have previously campaigned for the maintenance of special protections for the Christian faith, whilst resisting their extension to other faiths, calling into question claims about freedom of speech.

In evidence to a House of Lords Select Committee which looked at religious offences in the run up to publication of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, the Evangelical Alliance urged the government to retain the law on blasphemy which protects only the Christian faith. They have also resisted moves to extend the blasphemy law to other faiths, with the Alliance suggesting that Muslim's should instead be "less sensitive" about their faith. Many conservative Christians who belong to the organisations have even recently campaigned to ban what they perceived to be abusive and insulting portrayals of their religion such as the BBC 2 broadcast of 'Jerry Springer the Opera'.

Nola Leach, General Director of CARE said: "We welcome this defeat and thank God that we have not crossed a boundary which could have dangerous consequences for freedom of speech. The debate was lively and the result shows that many MP’s were, right up to the last minute, influenced by the letters and meetings with Christians in their constituency. This should encourage us not to give up." The Evangelical Alliance also suggested that it had "campaigned vigorously to defend everyone’s right to freedom of speech".

Joel Edwards, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, said, “We are immensely relieved that the political leaders of this country voted to protect every British citizen’s right to free speech. We are pleased that the bill, which will now go for royal assent, is the one that has been substantially amended by the House of Lords.” In a statement the Alliance said it had "worked tirelessly with other organisations over the last few months to win the argument and persuade MPs of the dangers of the Government’s proposed legislation." The Alliance is now calling on "Christians and those involved in the coalition to build on the lessons learnt for future campaigns."

Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, said, “This is a victory for working together constructively and intelligently, for taking the argument to those who make decisions. However, we mustn’t be complacent. Although free speech won the day on this occasion we need to be committed to participating in the democratic process for a free society, where views can be expressed without fear. This result shows what Christians and others can do when they make common cause” he added. But Jonathan Bartley, director of the thinktank Ekklesia which has monitored the campaigns by religious groups on both sides of the debate, suggested a time of reflection on how recent campaigns had been conducted and the messages that were being sent off. "To many, the actions by Christian groups who on the one hand have attempted to retain special privileges for the Christian faith, whilst on the other claiming that they are for 'free speech for all' will smack of double standards."

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Poster Time.
325,000 Names on U.S. Terror Suspect List: Report

by JoAnne Allen for Reuters - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

WASHINGTON - A government database of alleged international terrorism suspects or associates includes 325,000 names, four times more than when the central list was created in 2003, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing counterterrorism officials. The list maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, contains far more names in a single government database than has previously been disclosed, the newspaper said.

But the report cited NCTC officials as saying the true number of individuals listed is estimated to be more than 200,000 because the same person may show up under different spellings or aliases. A NCTC official, speaking on condition of anonymity told the newspaper that the vast majority of those listed are "non-U.S. persons and do not live in the U.S." The report quoted an administration official, who asked not to be identified, as saying that "only a very, very small fraction" of those named were U.S. citizens.

The NCTC name repository began under its predecessor agency in 2003 with 75,000 names, The Washington Post said. The Post reported that civil liberties advocates and privacy experts expressed surprise over the size of the NCTC database and said it heightened concerns that large numbers of innocent people may be included on government terrorism lists. The NCTC database is a compilation of reports supplied by the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and other agencies, the report said. The newspaper said officials refused to say how many names on the list were linked to the NSA's controversial domestic eavesdropping program.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Religious Fanaticism Out of Control

by Dave Zweifel for the Madison Capital Times

March 21, 2006

In case you're still not sure just how destructive the Bush administration has become to this country, you need to read Michael Specter's piece in the March 13 issue of the New Yorker magazine. It's enough to give you the willies. Specter documents how the Bush people have stacked the Food and Drug Administration with fanatics who regularly trump science to advance their own religious beliefs. It reads like a modern-day Galileo being persecuted by the Catholic Church because he maintained Earth was round. Although Specter cites several examples of religious beliefs thwarting scientific advances by key appointees to the FDA and other divisions of the Department of Health and Human Services (Tommy Thompson's old department), one of the most egregious has been to block a vaccine designed to thwart cervical cancer.

Two of the country's bigger pharmaceutical companies Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have developed and proven the safety of a vaccine that prevents a common sexually transmitted disease called human papillomavirus (HPV). Strains of HPV are known to cause cervical cancer in early adulthood. The vaccine needs to be administered to girls before they become sexually active, which is an average age of 17. And therein lies the rub for the religious base of the Republican Party that George Bush and company have installed in crucial posts in the health department. That base and George W. Bush himself steadfastly adheres to the proposition that kids need to practice abstinence. In their eyes, anything from promoting the use of condoms to giving young girls vaccinations against sexually transmitted diseases only encourages promiscuity among young people.

These people refuse to believe results of the numerous scientific studies that have shown the availability of condoms, for instance, has absolutely no impact on the rate of teen sex, or that young people who pledge to abstain actually engage in sex as often as those who don't take a pledge. Their religion maintains that premarital sex is a sin, period, which is fine except that Bush has created a situation where those overzealous religious beliefs instead of scientific fact determine national policy. "Since George W. Bush became president, the United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on abstinence programs, and it has cut almost that much in aid to groups that support abortion and the use of condoms as a primary method of birth control," Specter pointed out.

But, who would believe they would actually block approval of a vaccine that can prevent cancer? The role that religion is playing in important health decisions has caused several career FDA doctors and staff to quit their jobs in disgust. It isn't just an insane war. It's the anti-environment policies, the unjust tax policies, the ceaseless trashing of civil liberties and the subjugation of solid medical science for religious zealotry that is tearing down an America that was based on fairness and truth. Can we really survive nearly three more years of this destruction?

Monday, April 03, 2006

UN urged by Vatican to examine arms trade -11/01/06

From Ekklesia

The Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations in New York, has for called for an investigation into why there is such a massive trade in small arms around the world. It comes after Pope Benedict urged cuts in arms spending in his new year speech, and highlighted the global instability that the commercial trade in weapons contributes to. Archbishop Celestino Migliore addressed the Preparatory Committee for the UN Conference to review progress made to implement the 'Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons'(SALW) in all its Aspects.'

The nuncio described the conference as the most important meeting since the adoption in 2001 of the Program - which he said, was "having important repercussions on the promotion of disarmament, peace and post-conflict reconstruction, the fight against terrorism and large - and small-scale organized crime." He went on: "The 2006 conference should agree to establish major international cooperative programs and mechanisms to promote key parts of the Program of Action, which may include stockpile management and security, weapons and ammunitions collection and their safe and secure destruction, and national controls on SALW production and transfers. It would therefore be most useful to start a serious reflection on the possibility of negotiating a legally binding instrument on international arms trade ... based on the more important principles of international law."

"The 2006 review conference could take useful steps to promote effective engagement on SALW, ... by launching a process enabling interested States and relevant organizations to flesh out principles, policies and programs that address the links between efforts to prevent and reduce SALW trafficking, proliferation and misuse. Often this process has focused its attention on the supply side of arms sale," added the permanent observer. "However, if we consider both the humanitarian costs of SALW and the profound connection between them, and the process of human and sustainable development, then it becomes clear that greater attention now needs to be paid to reducing the demand for SALW. To reduce drastically the demand for small arms requires not only political will but better focused research into the dynamics of conflicts, crimes and violence. This obliges us to act responsibly to promote a real culture of peace and life among all members of society.

"Adequate international norms and programs to address the question of demand are also needed urgently, as well as the implementation of educational and awareness activities through, among other things, the involvement of civil society."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Churchill tops time travel list

From the BBC

Sunday, 2 April 2006

Winston Churchill is the historical figure people would most like to travel back in time to meet, a poll suggests. Elvis Presley is second behind Britain's World War II leader. Physicist Albert Einstein is the third favourite, the poll for the magazine Doctor Who Adventures found. Screen legend Marilyn Monroe is fourth. The poll of 1,000 people also finds the Swinging Sixties, the era of The Beatles and the sexual revolution, is the period people most want to visit.

MOST POPULAR FIGURES

1 Winston Churchill 2 Elvis Presley 3 Albert Einstein 4 Marilyn Monroe 5 Martin Luther King

Source: Doctor Who Adventures magazine.

Indian independence leader Mahatma Ghandi came sixth in the list, followed by the late Princess Diana. Former South African president and human rights activist Nelson Mandela takes eighth place - despite still being alive. Isaac Newton, the British scientist who first formulated the laws of gravity, is joint ninth with Elizabeth I and Beatle John Lennon. The year 2006 was the second-most popular period people wanted to experience, with the Victorian era third and 1966, the year of England's victory at the World Cup, fourth.

[So, who would you like to meet or when would you like to visit? I always regret not seeing The Beatles play in their hometown despite living there at the time. I think being in Paris in 1968 would be ‘interesting’ too! As to people I’d like to meet… I guess that Darwin is far too obvious! I’d like to spend a few hours with Socrates, the Buddha, Che Guevara, and Napoleon…. To name but a few.]
My Passionate Nature.

I have often wondered where my passions come from. Supposedly our behaviour is a mixture of nature and nurture – a mix of our genes and our upbringing, but I wonder. For example, I am truly passionate about redheads. Trivial I know, but it’s a good place to start. The question is, why? I have known very few redheads in my life and have, rather unfortunately, slept with none of them. There are no redheads in my family and haven’t been for at least three generations so it’s not as if I formed an attachment to a family member which later translated into passion (thank you Freud for that idea). So where does it come from? I’m intrigued. The only possible thing I can think of, and it’s a bit of a stretch I know, is that my family are from Ireland (not too long ago) where I assume redheads are more common. Can my genes from generations ago really by driving my passion for red hair?

My passion (or addiction) for books is fairly easy to explain. My farther was always a big believer in books and our house was overflowing with them long before I left. It’s the same with movies. This I think was my fathers defining passion. He loved the cinema and has clearly passed on this love to me. Movies and books are constantly competing for my time and attention and it’s unusual not to see me with my nose in a book or lining up at the cinema.

It’s more difficult to explain other things though. Why do I love a certain small percentage of the music I hear around me and not a different small percentage? I remember hearing Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor many years ago (featured in the great movie Rollerball) but it was probably ten years later that I actually found out what it was called & immediately bought the CD. I am actually rather passionate about this piece and in the right frame of mind it can reduce me to tears it’s just so…. I don’t actually have the words to describe it. Why is it that I love particular works of art? I’ve read that great art has something to do with mathematics – the same with music – but whilst interesting it doesn’t really go far in answering the question of why I LOVE certain things and not others. If it was that easy then everyone would agree on great works of art though clearly they do not.

So it goes on. Can we explain what drives us? Is it psychological, genetic, cultural, do we derive our passions from our peers, our family, our personal experiences? Are they simply a combination of all of the above? I suppose in another way I’m asking the question: What makes us… us?

Where do you think your passions come from?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Poster Time.
US Group Implants Electronic Tags in Workers

by Richard Waters for the Financial Times - February 13, 2006

An Ohio company has embedded silicon chips in two of its employees - the first known case in which US workers have been “tagged” electronically as a way of identifying them. CityWatcher.com, a private video surveillance company, said it was testing the technology as a way of controlling access to a room where it holds security video footage for government agencies and the police. Embedding slivers of silicon in workers is likely to add to the controversy over RFID technology, widely seen as one of the next big growth industries.

RFID chips – inexpensive radio transmitters that give off a unique identifying signal – have been implanted in pets or attached to goods so they can be tracked in transit. “There are very serious privacy and civil liberty issues of having people permanently numbered,” said Liz McIntyre, who campaigns against the use of identification technology. But Sean Darks, chief executive of CityWatcher, said the glass-encased chips were like identity cards. They are planted in the upper right arm of the recipient, and “read” by a device similar to a cardreader. “There’s nothing pulsing or sending out a signal,” said Mr Darks, who has had a chip in his own arm. “It’s not a GPS chip. My wife can’t tell where I am.”

The technology’s defenders say it is acceptable as long as it is not compulsory. But critics say any implanted device could be used to track the “wearer” without their knowledge. VeriChip – the US company that made the devices and claims to have the only chips that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration – said the implants were designed primarily for medical purposes. So far around 70 people in the US have had the implants, the company said.