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

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Vatican shift on contraception could signal hope for millions

From Ekklesia -24/11/06

A new study commissioned by Pope Benedict contemplates the possibility of allowing married Catholic couples to use condoms if one of them is HIV positive, according to La Repubblica newspaper. If true, this could be the first major adjustment to the Roman Catholic teaching on contraception which the Church claims preserves the integrity of family values, and which critics (including a growing band of Catholics with significant pastoral responsibilities) say has condemned millions to disease and death. Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, who heads up the papal department responsible for health issues, said earlier this week that he had completed the first stage of the review.

The resulting 200-page report, reflecting diverse opinion within the church, had been sent to the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which enforces official doctrine, and was formerly headed up by Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. Barragan has not revealed the report's conclusions, but he is known to favour of reform himself. It is still possible, however, that the CDF or the pontiff himself will block change. But senior theologians have been arguing for some time that a softening of their line of contraception would not impact any other major issues of Catholic belief.

There has been some speculation that Pope Benedict would discuss this issue privately with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. But Vatican watchers are sanguine about this. Dr Williams himself has explored sexuality in a more radical way, through an earlier lecture and booklet called The Body's Grace. This not only affirmed the Christian appropriateness of contraception, but said that the same arguments that supported it also removed central theological objections to faithful gay relationships.

It was this view, albeit rooted in the orthodox Christian tradition, which caused so much controversy among hardliners when Dr Williams was elected 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. He has since declined to elaborate further on his personal theological views on homosexuality, saying his priority is to hold the Church together in the midst of its often vituperative disputes. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict seems to be following his Anglican colleague in differentiating between personal and official views. He has written a scholarly meditation on Jesus to be published in Spring 2007, which he says is open to criticism and is not a work of Catholic doctrine – though it upholds the traditional view of Christ from a historical and narrative argument.

[At least it’s good to see the Catholic Church join the rest of us in the reality of the 21st Century. Baby steps to be sure but they are slowly moving in the right direction.]

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Police to fingerprint on streets

From the BBC.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Police across England and Wales are to begin taking fingerprints while on patrol using mobile electronic devices. The portable gadgets - similar to a pocket PC and linked to a database of 6.5m prints - will enable officers to identify suspects within minutes. Police say they will particularly help identify people using false identities, although fingerprints can be taken only if a person gives permission. Ten forces, starting with Beds, will pilot the machines over the next year. The equipment will be also distributed among the forces in Essex, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, North Wales, Northamptonshire, West Midlands and West Yorkshire, as well as to British Transport Police and the Metropolitan Police, over the next two months.

Police Minister Tony McNulty said: "The new technology will speed up the time it takes for police to identify individuals at the roadside, enabling them to spend more time on the frontline and reducing any inconvenience for innocent members of the public." Under the pilot, codenamed Lantern, police officers will be able to check the fingerprints from both index fingers of the suspect against a central computer database, with a response within a few minutes. "The handheld, capture device is little bigger than a PDA," said Chris Wheeler, head of fingerprint identification at the Police Information Technology Organisation PITO. He continued: "Screening on the street means they [police] can check an identity and verify it. And if they verify it on the street and the person is currently not wanted by anyone but is known to the system for a reason - that is sufficient for fixed penalty notices." Currently an officer has to arrest a person and take them to a custody suite to fingerprint them.

Bedfordshire Police is the first force to rollout the trial. The device will be used with the Automatic Number Plate Recognition team, who identify vehicles of interest. If a vehicle is stopped, police will be able to identify the driver and passengers. At present about 60 per cent of drivers stopped do not give their true identity. The device has an accuracy of 94-95% and will be used for identification purposes only. It sends encrypted data to the national ID system using GPRS - a wireless system used by many mobile phones. More than 6.5 million fingerprints are cross-referenced and sent back to the officer. "It's a first to search a national database and get a response back in a couple of minutes," said Mr Wheeler. The information on the device is encrypted and there are electronic safeguards to prevent misuse, if the machine was lost or stolen.

Electronic "live scan" machines used in police stations remain the principal method for fingerprinting suspects for evidence. Live scan machines have a 99.5% accuracy rate and are used in conjunction with a fingerprint expert. "We have a national programme which will mean by the middle of January 2007 every custody suite in England and Wales and most in Scotland will have a live scan unit installed," said Mr Wheeler. He likened the mobile device to breathalysers used by officers on patrol. "It's simply a screening device. It's the same as using a breathalyser on the street and using a calibrated one back at the station." PITO provides technology such as the National Automated Fingerprint ID System, called Ident1, to the police.

[..and another tool enters the armoury of a potential Police State with hardly a ripple. I wonder how long before the fingerprinting becomes compulsory and they are kept – for record purposes only of course – on the police database? Not long I’m guessing.]

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The London Vampire Panic by Michael Romkey

At the height of Victorian London the city is threatened by a series of inexplicable deaths. Bodies mysteriously drained of blood leave the police baffled and as the death toll raises so does the panic in the darkened streets. When the word ‘Vampire’ is mentioned the panic reaches new heights. Stung into action the British government form a Special Committee to deal with the situation before the centre of the Empire descends into chaos. But all is not what it at first appears and even some members of the Committee are not what they seem.

As a long time fan of Vampire fiction I was initially somewhat disappointed with this book. Romkey seemed to have more interest in Victorian name dropping than in producing an original vampire tale. That all changed at the half way mark when my complacency (and to be honest expectations about vampire fiction) where summarily blown out of the water by a twist I really didn’t see coming. Suddenly lurching in a whole new direction I soon realised that anything could happen here and I was more than satisfied by the way things turned out. This was certainly an interesting if unconventional addition to vampire mythology but probably not for the traditionalist who might dislike Romkey’s, at times shocking, tampering with the Nosferatu myth.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

98 Percent of Cluster Bomb Victims are Civilians

by Ann De Ron for the Inter Press Service

November 3, 2006

Ninety-eight percent of registered victims of cluster bombs are civilians, Handicap International, a UK-based NGO said in a report published Thursday. The report Fatal Footprint was launched in several countries ahead of an international conference on conventional weapons starting in Geneva Nov. 7

Among others the report cites the case of Adnan's family. He was not quite seven years old when it happened. On August 11, 1999, shortly after some of the worst of the fighting in Kosovo in the Balkans, he went swimming with his family in a lake a few kilometres from their village. He picked up a yellow metal can on the bank and took it to show to his family. Adnan's older brother Gazmend dropped the can. The explosion killed him and his father immediately, and their sister died the next day. Adnan was wounded on his left arm and leg. Today his left arm is still weak. He remains disturbed, and gets bad grades at school.

Adnan is one of 11,044 victims of cluster munitions in 23 countries registered by Handicap International in its report. The large majority of the victims are boys and young men. "Until now we only had stories of victims -- now we have hard figures that show that these bombs kill mainly civilians," Handicap International Director General Angelo Simonazzi said at the launch. Cluster bombs continue to kill long after they are dropped. Illustrating this, Simonazzi showed a striking picture from Vietnam of unexploded cluster munitions lying among recently replanted paddies.

Handicap International estimates that there are more than 100,000 victims of cluster bombs worldwide. More than 360 million sub-munitions of this kind have been dropped. Arsenals around the world contain an estimated stock of 4 billion pieces, Handicap says. This year they were used in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. "The U.S. and Israel have used old stocks in Iraq and Lebanon -- which helps to explain why so many sub-munitions have not exploded immediately on impact," says Simonazzi. "In Iraq the coalition forced led by the U.S. have used 13 million cluster sub-munitions," says Hildegarde Vansintjan of Handicap International Belgium. "Assuming that one out of ten do not explode on impact, there are a million bombs lying around. The coalition troops give very little information."

During the recent conflict between Israel and Lebanon, Israel dropped about 4 million cluster sub-munitions, according to Handicap. Unexploded bombs now lie all over the place. In Lebanon, Handicap has listed 494 registered victims till Oct. 9. In Israel the organisation lists 13 victims of cluster munitions dropped by Hezbollah. Handicap International is lobbying for an international ban on cluster munitions, following the 1997 treaty against landmines - that many countries have not signed.

The European Parliament had urged EU member states in October 2004 to vote an immediate moratorium on cluster bombs, and Belgium took the lead this year in becoming the first country to vote a law that forbids cluster munitions. The law entered into force Jun. 9. About 20 other countries are taking similar steps. But there is little hope that there will be sufficient support for a worldwide ban next week at the Geneva conference. Large producers like the United States, China, India and Russia oppose a ban.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Intelligent, Emotional, Ingenious: the Amazing Truth about Whales and Dolphins

by Michael McCarthy for the Independent

October 5, 2006

Although we have always instinctively thought that cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - are special members of the animal kingdom, scientific evidence is piling up that they are truly out of the ordinary in terms of their intelligence. A growing number of behavioural studies strongly suggest that whale and dolphin brain power is matched only by the higher primates, including man, according to a new review of the scientific literature by one of Britain's leading save-the-whale campaigners.

It means that the potential impact of whaling may be far greater than it appears, and we should adopt a new approach to the conservation of these species which takes into account their intelligence, societies, culture - and potential to suffer, says Mark Simmonds, director of science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. In a scientific paper published this month, Mr Simmonds surveys recent cetacean research and highlights striking examples which have been observed of whale and dolphin behaviour. For instance, captive animals have been shown unequivocally to be able to recognise themselves in a mirror, which was previously known to be the domain only of humans and the great apes.

There are many other examples of intelligence, Mr Simmonds reports in his paper Into the brains of whales, being published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Dolphins can "point" at objects with their heads to guide humans to them, and they can also manipulate objects spontaneously, despite their lack of fingers and thumbs. There is a well-documented use of tools in an Australian population of wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, he says. "The animals (almost exclusively females) are often seen carrying sponges on the ends of their beaks, probably to protect them while they forage in the sediments on the sea floor where spiny sea urchins might otherwise cause puncture wounds." They show remarkably human-like emotions, ranging from joy to grief to care for the injured. Mr Simmonds quotes a case of a 30-strong pod of false killer whales which remained with an injured member in shallows for three days, exposing themselves to sunburn and the risk of stranding, until it died.

Group living, in fact, is at the centre of cetacean existence, perhaps because the sea has few refuges from predators, and many species "have nothing to hide behind but each other". It has led to the evolution of many types of sophisticated co-operative behaviour, from hunting, to young males banding together to secure mating partners. And there is an "emerging but compelling argument", Mr Simmonds says, that some cetacean species exhibit culture - behaviour that is acquired through social learning. He points out that since commercial whaling was put on hold in 1986, some of the devastated populations have recovered, but some have not. It is plausible, he says, that the whalers destroyed "not just numerous individuals, but also the cultural knowledge that they harboured relating to how to exploit certain habitats and areas." But the jury is still out, he says, on whether the vast range of sounds emitted by whales and dolphins constitutes language.

[It saddens me how we treat the other animals we share this planet with, but it saddens me deeply how we treat the cetaceans most of all. Not only are they almost universally beautiful creatures but they may be on a par with human intelligence – given their obvious ‘handicaps’ of having no manipulative hands. The evidence has been accumulating for decades that whales and dolphins are likely to be sentient creatures and yet we still hunt and kill them for the most trivial of reasons. Maybe one day it will stop before we kill them all. I do hope so.]

Saturday, November 18, 2006

How do you fight an Idea?

Ideas are funny things. Once they have emerged it is almost as if they have a life of their own. They grow, change, mutate and sometimes fade away and die. But is it possible to hasten the death of an idea? Is it possible to kill one? Or are ideas merely fought with the fittest surviving longest?

There have been many ‘wars of ideas’ if you give it some thought. Christianity Vs Paganism, Christianity Vs Islam, Capitalism Vs Communism, Tyranny Vs Democracy and so on ad infinitum. Presently we are apparently in the middle of another war of ideas – the so-called War on Terror. Terrorism is the idea that you can use terror to influence political decisions. Terrorism is a tactic usually employed by the weak against the strong but in its broadest sense it can be used by the strong against the weak too. Think of the terror raids against cities in World War Two, the use on nuclear weapons against Japan or the more recent ‘shock and awe’ of the Second Gulf War. States are certainly not above using terror against their enemies foreign or domestic. The terror used against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein is clearly an example of this. More debatable is the use of fear as a tactic of the US and UK governments (amongst others) directed at their own citizens.

The question is: How do we fight against the idea, the tactic, of terrorism? How do we wage war on terror?

I suppose that the obvious answer is that you fight an idea with a better idea. Isn’t that how Capitalism finally triumphed over Communism? Capitalism was surely a better idea, a better way of ordering society to achieve the aims of its people. The same is surely true about Democracy? People want to be free and naturally strive for that freedom. Though seeing that most of the planet is far from Democratic this appears less than clear cut. So what idea would we use against terrorism? Freedom? Democracy? Capitalism? Are the promises of these ideas in action enough to fight the terrorist? Are these ideas seductive enough to stop the death and destruction brought about by the actions of these people? Somehow I doubt it.

Of course another way is to go directly to the source of the idea and fight it at that point. Ideas exist for the most part in peoples minds. But we all know how difficult it is to change people’s beliefs about things. Can you imagine arguing with terrorists (or people who believe in the utility of terrorism) and convincing them of the error of their ways? That sounds pretty much like a definition of futility. Of course there is a much more direct route to ‘changing’ someone’s mind permanently on an issue – by blowing their brains out. No brain, no mind, no crazy idea. Unfortunately, apart from the moral implications of such a course of action, killing terrorists usually results in the recruitment of more like minded people. It’s kind of counter-productive on the whole.

So then, how do we fight terrorism? With bombs, guns and military invasion of state sponsors of terror? Well that doesn’t seem to be working does it? Maybe we can go back to the tried, tested and effective way of fighting terror. After all, the Europeans have had decades of experience fighting home grown terrorists from the IRA to Bader Meinhof and the Red Brigades. How where these groups defeated? Usually by good police work, use of the Intelligence Services and the occasional use of Special Forces. Of course the ‘idea’ of terrorism persists though many of its practitioners are either dead or in prison. Such an idea, that an act of terror can achieve political ends, will probably always be with us. Waging a war against it is pointless and dangerously counter-productive. Ideas are often quite bullet proof.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

It's my cross and I'm proud to bare it

By Cristina Odone for The Observer

Sunday October 22, 2006

I have worn a small gold cross almost every day of my life. It's discreet enough not to catch a mugger's eye and light enough for me to be unconscious of it most of the time. I am very conscious of it these days, though: wearing a cross has become as controversial as wearing a single earring or going bra-less used to be. No one would seize upon gays or feminists for expressing their allegiances today, yet in institutions as British as the BBC and British Airways, wearing a cross is now tantamount to throwing down a gauntlet. It says: 'Here I stand - against everything the rest of you believe in.'

Those who say that wearing the cross should be banned lest it offend Muslims are being disingenuous. Muslims don't mind obvious symbols of faith: they simply want to be allowed to wear their own, thank you very much. Diktats against the cross are fuelled not by concern for minorities, but by a secularism so rampant that it prefers a cross-dresser to a cross wearer, a plumber's bum to a veil. Secularists argue that obvious signs of religious faith in public life have no place in a nation where fewer than 10 per cent attend any religious service. (Yarmulkes are notably exempt from criticism, but then six million Jews had to be exterminated for their progeny to gain the right to wear a symbol of their faith.)

They don't want to come across a veil on their way to Tesco or bump into someone with a cross as they step out of the gym, because these emblems emphasise the wearer's 'difference'. Yes, the cross and veil brigade are different. They believe in eternity, sacrifice, humility and obedience, concepts as alien as equal pay and gay rights used to be. Individual difference, in what was once a tolerant society, was accepted, if not always celebrated. Nowadays, you can only be different in carefully circumscribed areas, like what you watch on a Saturday night or where you shop for food.

Belief, even if its tenets are as innocent as turning the other cheek and self-sacrifice, is frowned upon as too subversive. We have to ask whether we would prefer to live in a secular society or a tolerant society. Religious freedom used to be sacred. Now, it is so negligible that an MP can tell a constituent wearing a niqab that she should dress differently and the BBC can frown on Fiona Bruce wearing a cross. In the long run, perhaps Christians and Muslims need not despair: across college campuses, the hammer and sickle, once condemned as the symbols of communism, have been rehabilitated into chic elements of student decor, as popular as a Che Guevara poster or a copy of No Logo. Maybe, one day, the same will be true of the cross and the niqab.

[I really don’t understand this issue. Personally I have no problem with people wearing symbols that reflect their beliefs. Why should that be a problem to anyone? Does it bother me, as an atheist, that people wear crosses or the niqab? Certainly not. I don’t think it’s a Secular society trying to impose atheistic values on its citizens nor is it some kind of perverted Political Correctness. I’m not sure what it is.]

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The Protector’s War by S. M. Stirling

This was the sequel to Dies the Fire in which an as yet unexplained event rendered all advanced technology useless and stopped firearms (and steam engines) from working.

It’s now Change Year Eight and the book divides itself between continuing the story of Mike Havel, Juniper Mackenzie and the Lord Protector Norman Arminger together with a thread about the fate of Europe. Here King Charles the 3rd rules most of Southern England together with parts of France & Spain. Trouble brews when the Queen falls out with a group of Nobles and they flee for their lives. Meanwhile in Oregon the clouds of war gather as Arminger gathers his forces for a final push against his neighbours with a terrifying new weapon at his disposal.

Much like the previous instalment this is a well written fantasy tale (feeling like a wish fulfilment at times) of heroic people thrust into strange circumstances. Yet despite the skill in delivery I find it impossible to take the series seriously. Though the characters are well drawn and often likeable they are just too perfect. The overarching message in the subtext is that modern civilisation is somehow deeply flawed and that only a vast cleansing can get us back to how we should be – in a mythical simpler time when all things where clearer. This did stick in my craw somewhat as Stirling was hardly subtle in his apparent distain for modern living. By far the biggest problem I had with both his books in the trilogy so far is the incredible speed that human civilisation fell apart after the Change. Whole societies collapsed in weeks if not days and quickly descended into chaos, cannibalism and plague. This is so unbelievable (although an understandable plot device to get the numbers of characters and situations down to a manageable size) that it made any suspension of disbelief – so vital to reading any work of Sci-Fi or Fantasy – quite frankly impossible.

Despite all of the above I did enjoy The Protector’s War and look forward to reading the final instalment when it comes out in paperback at some point next year. I am hoping for some explanation of what exactly brought the Change about. Juggling Mother (who I discussed this with recently) thinks that the author will use God to explain things. Maybe the trilogy is a retelling of the Great Flood myth? My first thought was that aliens had used a device to disrupt technology as a pre-invasion strike… but no aliens have appeared, at least not yet. Thinking about some of the sub-text though I’m forming an opinion that it might be the Old Gods making reappearance on the scene. There does seem to be a heavy dose of mysticism throughout the second book that, in my mind at least, points in this direction. I guess we’ll all find out soon enough.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Millions of children to be fingerprinted

Jamie Doward for The Observer

Sunday July 30, 2006

British children, possibly as young as six, will be subjected to compulsory fingerprinting under European Union rules being drawn up in secret. The prints will be stored on a database which could be shared with countries around the world.

The prospect has alarmed civil liberties groups who fear it represents a 'sea change' in the state's relationship with children and one that may lead to juveniles being erroneously accused of crimes. Under laws being drawn up behind closed doors by the European Commission's 'Article Six' committee, which is composed of representatives of the European Union's 25 member states, all children will have to attend a finger-printing centre to obtain an EU passport by June 2009 at the latest.

The use of fingerprints and other biometric data is designed to prevent passport fraud and allow European member states to meet US entry visa requirements, but the decision to fingerprint children has disturbed human rights groups. The civil liberties group Statewatch last night accused EU governments of taking decisions in which 'people and parliaments have no say'. It said the committee's decisions were simply based on 'technological possibilities - not on the moral and political questions of whether it is right or desirable.'

'This is a sea change,' said Ben Hayes, spokesman for Statewatch. 'We are going from fingerprinting criminals to universal fingerprinting without any real debate. In the long term everyone's fingerprints will be stored on a central database. You have to ask what will be the costs to a person's privacy.' According to secret documents obtained by Statewatch, the committee will make it compulsory for all children from the age of 12 to be fingerprinted. However, several of the committee's member states are lobbying to bring the compulsory age limit down. Sweden tells the committee it 'could agree with a minimum age of six years for passports'. The UK, meanwhile, observes that it has collected the fingerprints of five-year-old asylum seekers with no 'significant problems'. Since February the Home Office has been fingerprinting children as young as five at asylum centres in Croydon and Liverpool. It took the decision amid concerns children were being registered by several families in order to claim more benefits.

Refugee support groups, including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, have described the action as 'intrusive'. The JCWI also expressed concerns that fingerprints kept on file could be held against children if they tried to return to the UK in later life. Fingerprinting young children is considered difficult because their fingers have yet to fully develop. The European Commission notes: 'Scientific tests have confirmed that the paillary ridges on the fingers are not sufficiently developed to allow biometric capture and analysis until the age of six.' A commission spokesman said initially only member states would have access to their citizens' fingerprint data. However, after the Madrid bombings the commission signalled its intention for all fingerprints to be stored on one database that could one day be accessed by each EU state. 'Whether access for third countries will be allowed has to be decided by the EC at a later stage,' the spokesman said. 'Nevertheless, full interoperability is ensured, should the EU decide to give access to third countries.'

Such a move opens up the possibility that the fingerprints of British children could one day be accessed by foreign intelligence services. 'Secure passports make a lot more sense than ID cards,' said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty. 'But only as long as the information that is kept is no more than necessary and is not shared with other countries.

[I'm now waiting for my offical letter 'requesting' me to visit my friendly local polic station so I can be fingerprinted & DNA swabbed - for my own protection, of course....... ]

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ban organised religion: Sir Elton

From the BBC.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Sir Elton John has said he would like to see all organised religion banned and accused it of trying to "turn hatred towards gay people". Organised religion lacked compassion and turned people into "hateful lemmings", he told the Observer. But the musician said he loved the idea of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the beautiful stories about it which he had learned at Sunday school. And he said there were many gays he knew who loved their religion.

His comments were made in a special gay edition of the Observer Music Monthly Magazine, where he was interviewed by Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears. "I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people," he said. "Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays. But there are so many people I know who are gay and love their religion." According to the singer-songwriter, 59, his solution would be to "ban religion completely, even though there are some wonderful things about it". He added: "I love the idea of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the beautiful stories about it, which I loved in Sunday school and I collected all the little stickers and put them in my book. But the reality is that organised religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate." He also said that the problems experienced by many gays in former nations of the Soviet bloc, such as Poland, Latvia and Russia were caused by the church supporting anti-gay movements.

And he called on the leaders of major religions to hold a "conclave" to discuss the fate of the world - which he said was "near escalating to World War Three". "I said this after 9/11 and people thought I was nuts," he said. "It's all got to be dialogue - that's the only way. Get everybody from each religion together and say 'Listen, this can't go on. Why do we have all this hatred?'

"We are all God's people; we have to get along and the [religious leaders] have to lead the way. If they don't do it, who else is going to do it? They're not going to do it and it's left to musicians or to someone else to deal with it." He also said he would continue to campaign for gay rights. I'm going to fight for them, whether I do it silently behind the scenes or so vocally that I get locked up."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Is US Winning? Army Chief Is at a Loss

by Peter Spiegel for the Los Angeles Times

July 15, 2006

WASHINGTON — It seemed like a routine question, one that military leaders involved in prosecuting the war in Iraq must ask themselves with some regularity: Is the U.S. winning? But for Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff known for his straight-shooting bluntness, it proved a hard one to answer. During a Capitol Hill briefing for an audience mostly of congressional aides, Schoomaker paused for more than 10 seconds after he was asked the question — lips pursed and brow furrowed — before venturing: "I think I would answer that by telling you I don't think we're losing."

It was a small but telling window into the thinking of the Army's top uniformed officer and one of the military's most important commanders: Despite the progress being made by the new Iraqi government and the continuing improvement of local security forces, the outcome in Iraq, in many ways, is growing more uncertain by the day. "The challenge … is becoming more complex, and it's going to continue to be," Schoomaker mused. "That's why I'll tell you I think we're closer to the beginning than we are to the end of all this." Schoomaker's candor is not unusual for a man who, by his own admission, was lured out of retirement to take the Army's top job reluctantly. He has repeatedly told audiences that he was content in his Wyoming retirement when he got the call from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to return to active service.

It is a candor that appears to be contagious. The Army's top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., acknowledged this week that the recent increase in sectarian violence in Baghdad might mean the U.S. has to increase the number of soldiers in the Iraqi capital — rather than the long-awaited decrease for which commanders had hoped. For his part, Schoomaker was quick to note that his uncertainty did not mean that he was pessimistic. He noted that the creation of the new Iraqi government was an important achievement, although he cautioned that convincing Iraqis to use nonviolent, political means instead of guns and bombs to achieve their ends would be a "tough shift."

"I think we are making significant progress; I think the challenges continue to come," he concluded. "I do not believe that we are losing, but where I think we are on the scale of winning is very difficult, and time's going to tell."

[So, what do you think? Is the US winning or losing in Iraq? Personally I think they’re getting their asses kicked.]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Britain is 'surveillance society'

From the BBC.

Thursday, 2 November 2006, 15:40 GMT

Fears that the UK would "sleep-walk into a surveillance society" have become a reality, the government's information commissioner has said. Richard Thomas, who said he raised concerns two years ago, spoke after research found people's actions were increasingly being monitored. Researchers highlight "dataveillance", the use of credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information, and CCTV. Monitoring of work rates, travel and telecommunications is also rising.

There are up to 4.2m CCTV cameras in Britain - about one for every 14 people. But surveillance ranges from US security agencies monitoring telecommunications traffic passing through Britain, to key stroke information used to gauge work rates and GPS information tracking company vehicles, the Report on the Surveillance Society says. It predicts that by 2016 shoppers could be scanned as they enter stores, schools could bring in cards allowing parents to monitor what their children eat, and jobs may be refused to applicants who are seen as a health risk. Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network, the report was presented to the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners' Conference in London, hosted by the Information Commissioner's Office. The office is an independent body established to promote access to official data and to protect personal details.

The report's co-writer Dr David Murakami-Wood told BBC News that, compared to other industrialised Western states, the UK was ‘the most surveilled country’. "We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection," he said. "We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us." The report coincides with the publication by the human rights group Privacy International of figures that suggest Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy. The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with "endemic surveillance". Mr Thomas called for a debate about the risks if information gathered is wrong or falls into the wrong hands.

"We've got to say where do we want the lines to be drawn? How much do we want to have surveillance changing the nature of society in a democratic nation?" he told the BBC. "We're not luddites, we're not technophobes, but we are saying not least don't forget the fundamental importance of data protection, which I'm responsible for. Sometimes it gets dismissed as something which is rather bureaucratic, it stops you sorting out your granny's electricity bills. People grumble about data protection, but boy is it important in this new age. When data protection puts those fundamental safeguards in place, we must make sure that some of these lines are not crossed."

The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) said there needed to be a balance between sharing information responsibly and respecting the citizen's rights. A spokesman said: "Massive social and technological advances have occurred in the last few decades and will continue in the years to come. We must rise to the challenges and seize the opportunities it provides for individual citizens and society as a whole." Graham Gerrard from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said there were safeguards against the abuse of surveillance by officers. "The police use of surveillance is probably the most regulated of any group in society," he told the BBC. "Richard Thomas was particularly concerned about unseen, uncontrolled or excessive surveillance. Well, any of the police surveillance that is unseen is in fact controlled and has to be proportionate otherwise it would never get authorised."

[At least its nice to see my paranoia confirmed from the horses mouth……]

Monday, November 06, 2006

Poll Finds Waning Faith in Military Interventions

by Jim Lobe for the Inter Press Service

September 7, 2006

WASHINGTON - Five years after "9/11", the U.S. public is considerably less enthusiastic about projecting military power abroad, according to a major new survey, the first of a spate of polls that are likely to released in the run-up to Monday's fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press here, found that Republicans remained substantially more supportive of military deployments overseas than both Democrats and independents who also believe -- by a three to one margin -- that the U.S. has lost respect in the world over the last few years.

The survey of more than 1,500 randomly selected adults also found that nearly half (46 percent) of the respondents consider U.S. support for Israel a "major reason" for the rise in anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, a significant increase since Pew last posed the question 10 months ago. Significantly, that view was held by similar percentages of self-described Republicans and Democrats who, on most other foreign policy questions, showed wide partisan differences.

The survey, however, was conducted Aug. 9-13, just before the ceasefire that ended the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, when international pressure on Washington to persuade the Jewish State to stop its bombing campaign in Lebanon was at its height. Publication of the Pew survey coincided with the release of a second poll released Wednesday by CNN which found widespread scepticism over claims by the administration of President George W. Bush that the U.S. is making progress in the war on Iraq and that the war is related to the larger "global war on terrorism" launched after 9/11.

Only one in four respondents in that poll, which was conducted Aug. 30 to Sep. 2, thought that Washington and its allies were winning the war, compared to 13 percent who said the insurgents were winning and 62 percent who said that the war was essentially stalemated. Despite repeated and increasingly frequent assertions by Bush that the war in Iraq has become the "central front" in the war on terrorism, a majority of 53 percent said it was "an entirely separate military action." A larger majority of 58 percent said they opposed the war, compared to 39 percent who said they favoured it -- a margin that has not changed substantially over recent months.

The most interesting finding of the latest Pew poll appeared to be the growing public disillusionment with U.S. military intervention. By a 45 percent to 32 percent margin, respondents said they believed that the most effective way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to "decrease" rather than "increase" Washington's military presence abroad. As noted in an accompanying analysis by the Pew Centre, that finding marks a "stark reversal" from the public's position on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At that time, a plurality of 48 percent of the public said expanding U.S. military deployments overseas was the best way to protect against future attacks, while 29 percent called for reducing such commitments.

Similarly, according to the new survey, 43 percent of respondents today say they believed that "military strikes" against nations that were trying to develop nuclear weapons was a very important way to reduce future terrorism -- a reduction of 15 percent compared to a Pew survey taken in October 2002 when Bush was trying to win Congressional approval for a resolution authorising him to take military action against Iraq. The new survey also suggested a more general desire to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East compared to four years ago. Asked to identify what would be a "very important" step in reducing terrorism, attacking nuclear facilities was rated the highest (58 percent) in a group of five options. It was followed by increasing defence spending and decreasing dependence on Mideast oil (53 percent) and "not get(ting) involved in other countries' problems (32 percent).

In the most recent poll, however, attacking nuclear facilities ranked third, far behind decreasing dependence on Mideast oil (67 percent) and increasing defence spending (52 percent), and just two points ahead of the non-involvement option, which rose (41 percent). The increase in what some would describe as "isolationist" sentiment echoed a similar finding in another poll conducted by Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2005. Forty-two percent of respondents said they believed Washington should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own", compared to only 30 percent who took that position in December 2002. Democrats and independents account for much of these changes. In the summer of 2002, for example, Democrats by an eight-point margin favoured an increased military presence overseas. They now favour by a diminished presence by a nearly three-to-one margin.. Support for a decreased military presence among independents has also dropped sharply, by some 17 percentage points, to a 49 percent plurality.

On the question of why the U.S. has lost support around the world, more than two-thirds of respondents identified a "major reason" as the Iraq war, 58 percent cited "America's wealth and power"; 49 percent, "the U.S.-led war on terror"; and 46 percent, "U..S. support for Israel". Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to cite the Iraq war and the war on terrorism, while Republicans were more likely to cite "America's wealth and power." The survey also found a gradual increase in the view that the 9/11 attacks signified the beginning of a major conflict between the West and the Islamic world. In October 2001, for example, only 28 percent of respondents agreed with that view; in August 2002, 35 percent expressed agreement, and, in the most recent poll, 40 percent took that position.

Conversely, the percentage of those who agreed with the proposition that 9/11 represented only a conflict with a "small, radical group" has fallen from 63 percent to 49 percent over the same five-year period. Still, 47 percent of respondents today said that 9/11 attacks were equal in seriousness to the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, that launched the U.S. into World War II, while 35 percent said they were "more serious." Younger respondents, however, were significantly more likely to say they were "more serious" than older respondents.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Just Finished Reading: Worldwar – Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove.

This was the 8th book in the epic series starting with Worldwar – In the Balance which related the tale of an alien invasion of Earth back in 1942. Needless to say this series was Alternate History [grin].

This rather long, and to be honest fairly dull, 600 page volume was the climax of the story. In it the surviving unoccupied human countries are gradually surpassing the alien lizards in technology causing them to think the unthinkable. Is it best for the Empire to destroy the Earth now or risk a delay and allow humans to gain the upper hand? The question becomes all the more urgent when the USA manages to send its first interstellar ship successfully to the lizard Homeworld.

As I’ve probably said before, Harry Turtledove has several annoying habits not least of which is his constant repetition of ‘facts’ we already know from his previous works. This book is no exception to that and although the book does move the story on to a conclusion of sorts it does leave a few things hanging for a possible 9th book. This book was a bit of a struggle, not because it was difficult reading but because very little seemed to happen. We learnt something about Homeworld and a little about the history of the lizards but we already knew most of that. The story wandered & meandered gently on for a good 300 pages before anything substantial happened – and the ‘surprise’ ending was pretty much telegraphed well in advance. I guess the main reason I finished the book was that (apart from paying good money for it) I had read the other seven books in the series so felt obligated to finish the last one. Only recommended for die-hard Turtledove fans.
Poster Time.