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

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Space Weapons: Now, There's a Dumb Idea

by Frida Berrigan for Minutemanmedia.org

December 20, 2006

Lately, the Bush administration has been trying to play nice on the global stage—emphasizing collaboration with other countries on issues like nuclear proliferation and the “war on terror.” But the Bush administration’s obsession with domination and control keeps cropping up—most recently in its new space policy, the first new statement of U.S. objectives in outer space to be issued in 10 years. Released quietly on the Friday before Columbus Day, in a move designed to generate little or no media attention, that policy can be summed up in three words: mine, mine, mine.

The 10-page document lays out a scheme focused on establishing, defending and enlarging U.S. control over space resources, arguing for “unhindered” U.S. rights in space that are actively hostile to the concept of collective security enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The opening asserts, “freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.” Alongside earlier documents like the U.S. Space Command’s Vision for 2020 —which articulated a stance of “full spectrum dominance” and insisted that “space superiority is emerging as an essential element of battlefield success and future warfare”—this new policy can been interpreted as an opening shot in the race to militarize space. The administration also throws in some phrases to appeal to Star Trek fans and internationalists. The United States “will seek to cooperate with other nations in the peaceful use of outer space” and “is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity.” But these Captain Kirk-worthy sentiments immediately are contradicted when “peaceful purposes” is clarified to include “U.S. defense and intelligence related activities in pursuit of national interests.” Five of the seven United States policy goals mention “national security” and/or “defending our interests.”

The space policy is clearest when it is explaining why international laws do not apply. For example, the policy states that the Bush administration “Will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.” Space joins global warming, nuclear proliferation and the arms trade as areas where the administration has opted for a unilateralist approach backed by military superiority over an internationalist approach embracing collective security and mutual benefit. Soon after the policy was released, Robert Luaces, U.S. Representative to the U.N. General Assembly on National Space Policy, tried to reassure the world that the United States isn’t trying to weaponize space. He said “One, there is no arms race in space. Two; there is no prospect for one. Three; the United States will protect its access to and use of space.”

This statement is belied by U.S. military funding for space projects. According to the Government Accountability Office, Pentagon funding for military space operations will total $20 billion in 2007. Additionally, a Stimson Center comparison of U.S. and world spending found that the United States expends almost 90 percent of the total global spending on military-related activities in space. There is an arms race in space, but so far the United States is the only country in the running—devoting millions to systems like the Common Aero Vehicle, which is envisioned as a “hypersonic glide vehicle” to “dispense conventional weapons, sensors and payloads worldwide from and through space within one hour” of being fired. The Common Aero was given $33.4 million in funding.

Space-invested nations like Russia, China and India will accelerate their programs to catch up. Other countries may not field their own satellites but can perfect methods of bringing ours down, making many of the space-dependent technologies we take for granted—from accurate weather forecasts to cell phone communication to air traffic control—vulnerable to attack. The only way to win the space arms race is not to run it. And given that problems right here on earth are bedeviling U.S. and world leaders, striking out into the vast and uncharted regions of war in space seems like a very, very bad idea.

[So, with all the problems in the world the American response is to militarise space. Go figure. I guess that they’ve decided they’re obviously not spending quite enough money on weapons these days. You have got to wonder though just how much military hardware does it take for the USA to feel safe?]

Friday, December 29, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The Darwin Wars – The Scientific battle for the Soul of Man by Andrew Brown.

An interesting bit of Christmas reading I thought. This was basically an overview of the infighting and disagreements within the Evolution community – mainly between the followers of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould together with some discussion of the ethical implications of various Darwinian theories.

This was a quick and enjoyable read. Andrew Brown writes in a clear fairly concise way though he did manage to surprise me with some of his pronouncements. One that particularly amazed me (after he admitted to being an atheist) was that the Universe must either be benevolent or malevolent and that a benevolent Universe made more sense. I was astonished that he failed to see a more logical third alternative – that the Universe is indifferent. Despite such lapses he certainly gave me some things to chew over and a helpful list of books to check out. He even prompted me to read the Stephen Gould books that have been collecting dust on my bookshelves. I can recommend this book for anyone interested in the Darwinism debate.
Cartoon Time.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Has Not Been Stolen

By Mary Shaw for AlterNet.

December 20, 2006.

It's that time of the year again. The holiday shopping season is in full swing. The stores and city streets are decked out in all their holiday splendor -- tinseled trees, angels, reindeer, Santa. And, despite these abundant public Christmas displays, the right-wing pundits have begun their annual campaign to convince the faithful that "the liberals", led by the ACLU, have waged a "war on Christmas".

Maybe I'm missing something, but, if there really is a war on Christmas, a quick trip to the local shopping mall should convince any skeptic that Christmas has surely won that battle. And I have yet to see throngs of ACLU members picketing the decorated stores. It looks to me as though the Christmas spirit is alive and thriving, as gaudily obvious as ever. Furthermore, those who think that the evil, godless liberals are out to steal Christmas from them might find it interesting to look at the history of our Christmas traditions. Like many Christian holidays, numerous Christmas customs and symbols have their roots in pagan traditions. Most historians do not believe that Jesus was born on December 25, and there were no pine trees in the desert around Bethlehem. These elements were borrowed from the pagan winter holidays of Saturnalia and Yule. So, ironically enough, the early Christians were the ones who originally stole the holiday. But that's fine, in my opinion. There should be enough holiday spirit for everyone to share.

I admit there are some people who do make a fuss over public displays of religion. They are generally the humorless, militant atheist types who could use a lesson in tolerance (and a big, strong cup of eggnog). Here in the United States of America, we have freedom of religion. While that also includes the right for nonbelievers to practice no religion, they are doing themselves a disservice by trying to interfere with other people's right to observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, or any other holiday of their choice, religious or otherwise. But the right-wing zealots need to realize that these types are a very small minority. The ACLU will go to bat when there are complaints about blatant sectarian displays on tax-funded property. But these are very specific incidents. They pose no threat to Santa at the mall.

That said, I have to question the motives of those pundits who, year after year, whine about this imaginary war on Christmas. Are they really so insecure in their piety that they need to blatantly splash their iconry in every public square? And didn't Jesus himself preach that we should practice our religion in private and secretly, and not in public? According to Matthew 6:5-6, "when thou pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy father which is in secret, and thy father which seeth in secret shall reward thee." I could find nothing in the gospels advocating giant displays of reindeer and mistletoe.

But I will enjoy those displays, even though I am not a Christian. After all, we live in a free country, and it is the multi-cultural nature of our melting-pot society that makes this nation so special.

Happy holidays to all.
Merry Christmas...!

Just got back from visiting my Mum. I'll catch up with my Blog roll over the next few days. Thanks for all your comments over the week. I'll catch up on them too.

I hope you all had a fun time over the festive period.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How the Jews and Secularists Did Not Steal Christmas

by Rabbi Michael Lerner for the San Francisco Chronicle

December 17, 2006

Some leaders of the Christian Right have decided to make an issue of the secularization of Christmas. Objecting to the move by Macy's and some other retailers to wish their shoppers "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," instead of the traditional Merry Christmas, they accuse secularists in general, and, on some of the right-wing talk shows, Jews in particular, of undermining Christmas.

The assault has been led by Bill O'Reilly, the most popular cable newscaster, who told millions of viewers that there was a systematic assault on Christmas by secularists. When challenged by a Jewish caller who said he felt uncomfortable being subject to frequent attempts to convert him by Christians at his college, O'Reilly responded: "All right. Well, what I'm tellin' you is, I think you're takin' it too seriously. You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don't wanna hear about it? Come on -- if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then.'' I told O'Reilly that my grandfather didn't come here from Russia to be in a "Christian country," but rather in a country that welcomes many different faith traditions and officially privileges none.

Meanwhile, Richard Viguerie, the master of right-wing direct-mail campaigns, interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, repeated the charge that Christians were the victims of a systematic secularists assault against Christmas. On MSNBC, William Donahue of the Catholic League insisted, "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It's not a secret, OK? They like to see the public square without nativity scenes." Liberals and civil libertarians would be making a huge mistake to see this as merely the rantings of a few overt anti-Semites and anti-civil-liberties extremists. They articulate a legitimate concern that many Christians say privately: their children have learned that Christmas is about buying -- and the person with the most expensive gifts wins!

There is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the light that gets re-lit in the darkest moments of the year, is beautifully symbolized by the story of a child born of a teenage homeless mother who had to give birth in a manger because no one would give her shelter, and escaping the cruelty of Roman imperial rule and its local surrogate Herod, who already knew that such a child would grow up to challenge the entire imperialist system. To celebrate that vulnerable child as a symbol of hope that eventually the weak would triumph over the rule of the arrogant and powerful is a spiritual celebration with strong analogies to our Jewish Hannukah celebration, which also celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful, and the triumph of hope (symbolized by the Hannukah candles) over fear and the darkness of oppression (both ancient and contemporary).

Many other spiritual traditions around the world have similar celebrations at this time of year around the winter equinox. The loss of this message, its subversion into a frenetic orgy of consumption, rightly disturbs Christians, Jews and other people of faith. Yet, this transformation is not a result of Jewish parents wanting to protect their children from being forced to sing Christmas carols in public school, or secularists sending Season's Greeting cards. It derives, instead, from the power of the capitalist marketplace, operating through television, movies and marketers, to drum into everyone's mind the notion that the only way to be a decent human being at this time of year is to buy and buy more. Thus, the altruistic instinct to give, which could take the form of giving of our time, our skills and our loving energies to people we care about, gets transformed and subverted into a competitive frenzy of consumption.

Not surprisingly, the Christian Right is unwilling to challenge the capitalist marketplace -- because their uncritical support for corporate power is precisely what they had to offer the Right to become part of the conservative coalition. Their loyalty to conservative capitalist economics trumps for them their commitment to serving God. But for those of us who want to prevent a new surge of anti-Semitism and assaults on the First Amendment, our most effective path is to acknowledge what is legitimate in the Christians' concern -- and lead it into a powerful spiritual critique of the ethos of selfishness and materialism fostered by our economic arrangements. It's time for our liberal and progressive Christian leaders and neighbors to stand up again on behalf of Jews and on behalf of their own highest spiritual vision -- and challenge the real Christmas and Hannukah thieves!

Meanwhile, the rest of us can consciously resist by giving gifts of time rather than gifts of things. Give your friends a certificate saying "I'll give you five hours to do... " and then fill in the blanks with something that they might need that you could offer. Teach their child a skill or help that child with homework? Paint part of their home or fix a leaky pipe or mow their lawns or shovel their snow or give child-care time or do food shopping? Sharing your time could be far more meaningful, allow for real contact, etc. For those with whom you don't want that contact, don't buy -- just send them a lovingly written personal note affirming the values you want this season to teach. Resist the pressure to join the orgy of consumption!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Nuclear Arms in the Hands of Any Pose A Global Threat

by Jacqueline Cabasso for the San Francisco Chronicle

June 22, 2006

Even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemns North Korea for threatening to test a new missile that could theoretically deliver a nuclear weapon to the Western Aleutians, the Pentagon is poised to develop its own new generation of nuclear-capable long-range delivery systems. And while President Bush declares a nuclear-armed Iran would pose "a grave threat to the security of the world," the United States is modernizing every weapon type in its vast nuclear arsenal, as Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories pursue America's own arms race.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was founded in 1952 to compete with Los Alamos to develop a hydrogen bomb, a bomb far more powerful than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, under the "Reliable Replacement Warhead" (RRW) program, the labs are competing to design an entirely new warhead. Linton Brooks, head of the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex, has said that in 25 years our arsenal would largely consist of these replacement warheads, and "the weapons design community... revitalized by the RRW program" will be able to produce weapons with new military capabilities, "within three to four years of a decision." If you think this new arms race is endangering, not enhancing, our security, you're in good company.

This month, an independent international commission, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, headed by former chief Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix, released its report, "Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Arms." The commission, whose members include former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, reminds us that the 27,000 existing nuclear weapons are "not an abstract theory," and rejects the hypocritical view that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in other hands they place the world in "mortal jeopardy." The commission holds the United States largely responsible for the current nuclear crisis, in which threats of further proliferation to additional countries and possible terrorist acquisition are inextricably linked to threats from existing nuclear arsenals. "Explanations by the nuclear-haves that the weapons are indispensable to defend their sovereignty are not the best way to convince other sovereign states to renounce the option," states the commission's June report. Reducing the threat and number of existing nuclear weapons -- including the United States' arsenal, "must be addressed with no less vigor than the question of the threat from additional weapons, whether in the hands of existing nuclear-weapon states, proliferating states or terrorists."

Historically, the United States agreed to nuclear disarmament as matter of law, signing the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty obligates the United States to end the arms race "at an early date" and negotiate, "in good faith," the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. But although the treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995, President Bill Clinton reaffirmed threatened first-use of nuclear weapons as the "cornerstone" of U.S. national security in a 1997 directive. At the 2000 Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the nuclear weapon states, including the United States, committed to (under growing pressure from non-nuclear weapon states) an "unequivocal undertaking ... to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals," and "a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk of their use and to facilitate the process of their total elimination." Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

The 2002 Nuclear Posture Review exposed U.S. plans for first-use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks or "surprising military developments," and targeted Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, Syria and Libya. The 2002 U.S. National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction proclaimed "the right to respond with overwhelming force," including "conventional and nuclear," employed, "in appropriate cases through pre-emptive measures." By lowering the policy threshold for using nuclear weapons, walking away from tried-and-true arms control treaties, launching an illegal preventive attack on Iraq in the name of "disarmament," and racing to build new nuclear warheads, we are seriously undermining international law and U.S. and global security.

Blix's commission says any new research on nuclear weapons must be solely for "safety and security -- and demonstrably so," not for new military capabilities, as Linton Brooks envisions. I asked Blix recently whether the International Atomic Energy Agency should inspect the Livermore and Los Alamos labs to verify that the RRW program is "demonstrably" just for safety and security. He chuckled. "We would be delighted if the IAEA would inspect Los Alamos," adding that, at a minimum, nuclear states must not give nuclear weapons new missions, and underscoring that the obligation to move away from nuclear weapons "should start with ... the United States and Russia," the biggest nuclear weapon states. In other words, not only should we not pursue new nuclear weapons, but as the commission spells out in 60 recommendations, nuclear weapons must be outlawed and systematically eliminated, not just in "rogue" states, but everywhere, starting here.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Defense & Proofs of Religion: Sigmund Freud's Response to Apologetics

From About.Com

At times, religious people do make an attempt, or perhaps pretense, of offering rational verification of wishful thinking in the form of "proofs" of their gods. Freud recognized this, and thus spent some time examining them. Unsurprisingly, the defenses against skepticism which he regarded as most common at his time remain very common even today: my religion must be true because it is so old; my religion must be true because of the success of various proofs; my religion is holy, and any attempt to question it is sinful. None of these impressed Freud any more than they impress skeptics today.

Freud was particularly disdainful of attempts to defend religion precisely by relying on its irrationality. The medieval form of this was "Credo quia absurdam" - I believe because it is absurd. The more modern form is the "as if" argument - the idea that a belief is made acceptable when you live your life "as if" it were true and are thereby made happy. The first is meaningless at best - as Freud pointed out, if one absurdity, why not another? If you value absurdity, you cannot rationally choose or prefer any one absurdity over any other. A similar argument can be raised against the second form, since they are not really arguments but evasions from the principle of rationally defending one's assertions.

Freud was particularly dismayed at attempts to defend religious faith by arguing that if they could not be absolutely proven wrong, then people are perfectly justified in believing them anyway. Many seem to think that conviction in the absence of knowledge is fine, but Freud recognized this as a "lame excuse," arguing: Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. In other matters no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions and for the line he takes. It is only in the highest and most sacred things that he allows himself to do so. Another common claim made on behalf of religion is a pragmatic one: namely, that religion is a positive force in human affairs. Today we hear the clarion call from religious leaders for more religion in people's lives in an effort to cure all manner of social ills. Indeed, we often hear that most of these ills would not even exist if it were not for the gradual decline of religion's influence in society over the past few decades.

Freud would find no such arguments credible. Although he noted that both religion and civilization did make important contributions in taming the wild instincts of humanity, he did not find that religion was a particularly strong force for order or morality. On the contrary, he did not find any evidence that religion made people any happier or more moral than nonreligious or less religious peers. He wrote that "It is doubtful whether men were in general happier at a time when religious doctrines held unrestricted sway; more moral they were certainly not. [...] In every age immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has." The implication for Freud was only too obvious: since religion has had thousands of years to show what it can achieve but has not managed to make much improvement in human beings, then reason and irreligion should be given a chance.

Freud regarded science and religion to be mortal enemies, and he never made an effort to hide these feelings. On the contrary, he proclaimed it widely and loudly. Since religion had proven that it was a failure, he hoped the science might be given a chance to show its superiority. The heart of Freud's argument was contrary to the claims of so many who attempt to build bridges between science and religion, namely that their fundamental premises are wholly incompatible. He was perhaps overly optimistic, since science is itself a human institution and hence susceptible to all human weaknesses.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Is the USA the Center of the World?

by Norman Solomon for CommonDreams.org

December 12, 2006

WASHINGTON - There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that the United States is not the center of the world.

The White House had no immediate comment on the reports, which set off a firestorm of controversy in the nation's capital. Speaking on background, a high-ranking official at the State Department discounted the possibility that the reports would turn out to be true. "If that were the case," he said, "don't you think we would have known about it a long time ago?" On Capitol Hill, leaders of both parties were quick to rebut the assertion. "That certain news organizations would run with such a poorly sourced and obviously slanted story tells us that the liberal media are still up to their old tricks, despite the current crisis," a GOP lawmaker fumed. A prominent Democrat, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that classified briefings to congressional intelligence panels had disproved such claims long ago. Scholars at leading think tanks were more restrained, and some said there was a certain amount of literal truth to the essence of the reports. But they pointed out that while it included factual accuracy in a narrow sense, the assertion was out of context and had the potential to damage national unity at a time when the United States could ill afford such a disruption.

The claim evidently originated with a piece by a Lebanese journalist that appeared several days ago in a Beirut magazine. It was then picked up by a pair of left-leaning daily newspapers in London. From there, the story quickly made its way across the Atlantic via the Internet. "It just goes to show how much we need seasoned, professional gatekeepers to separate the journalistic wheat from the chaff before it gains wide attention," remarked the managing editor of one news program at a major U.S. television network. "This is the kind of stuff you see on ideologically driven websites, but that hardly means it belongs on the evening news." A newsmagazine editor agreed, calling the reports "the worst kind of geographical correctness."

None of the major cable networks devoted much air time to reporting the story. At one outlet, a news executive's memo told staffers that any reference to the controversy should include mention of the fact that the United States continues to lead the globe in scientific discoveries. At a more conservative network, anchors and correspondents reminded viewers that English is widely acknowledged to be the international language -- and more people speak English in the U.S. than in any other nation. While government officials voiced acute skepticism about the notion that the United States is not the center of the world, they declined to speak for attribution. "If lightning strikes and it turns out this report has real substance to it," explained one policymaker at the State Department, "we could look very bad, at least in the short run. Until it can be clearly refuted, no one wants to take the chance of leading with their chin and ending up with a hefty serving of Egg McMuffin on their face."

An informal survey of intellectuals with ties to influential magazines of political opinion, running the gamut from The Weekly Standard to The New Republic, indicated that the report was likely to gain little currency in Washington's elite media forums.

"The problem with this kind of shoddy impersonation of reporting is that it's hard to knock down because there are grains of truth," one editor commented. "Sure, who doesn't know that our country includes only small percentages of the planet's land mass and population? But to draw an inference from those isolated facts that somehow the United States of America is not central to the world and its future -- well, that carries postmodernism to a nonsensical extreme." Another well-known American journalist speculated that the controversy will soon pass: "Moral relativism remains a pernicious force in our society, but overall it holds less appeal than ever, even on American campuses. It's not just that we're the only superpower -- we happen to also be the light onto the nations and the key to the world's fate. People who can't accept that reality are not going to have much credibility."

[Hilarious. It can no longer be said that Americans don’t ‘do’ irony.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pulp Art.

From Spicy Adventures magazine, August 1936.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?

By AC Grayling

May 3, 2006

It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase "fundamentalist atheist". What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe - perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time - say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves - and still do?

Christians, among other things, mean by "fundamentalist atheists" those who would deny people the comforts of faith (the old and lonely especially) and the companionship of a benign invisible protector in the dark night of the soul - and who (allegedly) fail to see the staggering beauty in art prompted by the inspirations of belief. Yet, in its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breathtaking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the gullible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen's Sleeper, would not be able to recognise the faith that bears the same name as his own.

For example: vast Nigerian congregations are told that believing will ensure a high income - indeed they are told by Reverend X that they will be luckier and richer if they join his congregation than if they join that of Reverend Y. What happened to the eye of the needle? Oh well, granted: that tiny loophole was closed long ago. What then of "my kingdom is not of this world"? What of the blessedness of poverty and humility? The Church of England officially abolished Hell by an Act of Synod in the 1920s and St Paul's strictures on the place of women in church (which was that they are to sit at the back in silence, with heads covered) are now so far ignored that there are now women vicars, and there will soon be women bishops.

One does not have to venture as far as Nigeria to see the hypocrisies of reinvention at work. Rome will do, where the latest eternal verity to be abandoned is the doctrine of limbo - the place where the souls of unbaptised babies go. Meanwhile, some cardinals are floating the idea that condoms are acceptable, within marital relationships only of course, in countries with high incidences of HIV infection. This latter, which to anyone but an observant Catholic is not merely a plain piece of common sense but a humanitarian imperative, is an amazing development in its context. Sensible Catholics have for generations been ignoring the views on contraception held by reactionary old men in the Vatican, but alas, since it is the business of all religious doctrines to keep their votaries in a state of intellectual infancy (how else do they keep absurdities seeming credible?), insufficient numbers of Catholics have been able to be sensible. Look at Ireland until very recent times for an example of the misery Catholicism inflicts when it can.

"Intellectual infancy": the phrase reminds one that religions survive mainly because they brainwash the young. Three-quarters of Church of England schools are primary schools; all the faiths currently jostling for our tax money to run their "faith-based" schools know that if they do not proselytise intellectually defenceless three and four-year-olds, their grip will eventually loosen. Inculcating the various competing - competing, note - falsehoods of the major faiths into small children is a form of child abuse, and a scandal. Let us challenge religion to leave children alone until they are adults, whereupon they can be presented with the essentials of religion for mature consideration. For example: tell an averagely intelligent adult hitherto free of religious brainwashing that somewhere, invisibly, there is a being somewhat like us, with desires, interests, purposes, memories, and emotions of anger, love, vengefulness and jealousy, yet with the negation of such other of our failings as mortality, weakness, corporeality, visibility, limited knowledge and insight; and that this god magically impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a special being who performs various prodigious feats before departing for heaven. Take your pick of which version of this story to tell: let a King of Heaven impregnate - let's see - Danae or Io or Leda or the Virgin Mary (etc, etc) and let there be resulting heaven-destined progeny (Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Jesus, etc, etc) - or any of the other forms of exactly such tales in Babylonian, Egyptian and other mythologies - then ask which of them he wishes to believe. One can guarantee that such a person would say: none of them.

So, in order not to be a "fundamentalist" atheist, which of the absurdities connoted in the foregoing should an atheist temporise over? Should a "moderate atheist" be one who does not mind how many hundreds of millions of people have been deeply harmed by religion throughout history? Should he or she be one who chuckles indulgently at the antipathy of Sunni for Shia, Christian for Jew, Muslim for Hindu, and all of them for anyone who does not think the universe is controlled by invisible powers? Is an acceptable (to the faithful) atheist one who thinks it is reasonable for people to believe that the gods suspend the laws of nature occasionally in answer to personal prayers, or that to save someone's soul from further sin (especially the sin of heresy) it is in his own interests to be murdered? As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is "naturalist", denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature's laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe - no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves "a-fairyists" or "a-goblinists" as "atheists"; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so. (Most people, though, forget that belief in fairies was widespread until the beginning of the 20th century; the church fought a long hard battle against this competitor superstition, and won, largely because - you guessed it - of the infant and primary church schools founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

By the same token, therefore, people with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists, and it can be left to them to attempt to refute the findings of physics, chemistry and the biological sciences in an effort to justify their alternative claim that the universe was created, and is run, by supernatural beings. Supernaturalists are fond of claiming that some irreligious people turn to prayer when in mortal danger, but naturalists can reply that supernaturalists typically repose great faith in science when they find themselves in (say) a hospital or an aeroplane - and with far greater frequency. But of course, as votaries of the view that everything is consistent with their beliefs - even apparent refutations of them - supernaturalists can claim that science itself is a gift of god, and thus justify doing so. But they should then remember Popper: "A theory that explains everything explains nothing."

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out an allied and characteristic bit of jesuitry employed by folk of faith. This is their attempt to describe naturalism (atheism) as itself a "religion". But, by definition, a religion is something centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it, what they read or see, what they treat as clean and unclean, who they have sex with and how and when; and so for a multitude of other things, like making women invisible beneath enveloping clothing, or strapping little boxes to their foreheads, or iterating formulae by rote five times a day, and so endlessly forth; with threats of punishment for getting any of it wrong.

But naturalism (atheism) by definition does not premise such belief. Any view of the world that does not premise the existence of something supernatural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics. And one can grant that the word "fundamental" does after all apply to this: in the phrase "fundamentally sensible".

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bank deals of 5,000 terror suspects tracked

Mark Townsend for The Observer

September 10, 2006

The bank accounts of more than 5,000 suspected terrorists are being monitored by Britain's biggest financiers following fresh intelligence from MI5. This figure is the security services' highest estimate yet for the number of British-based individuals suspected of involvement in plotting attacks. Senior banking sources have told The Observer that 200 current accounts have recently been frozen as part of the fight against the financing of jihadist terrorism.

The big four banks - Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland, which owns NatWest - have been instructed by MI5 and the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control to monitor 'suspicious' transactions involving named individuals and companies. Sources at Britain's biggest bank, HSBC, said that 'just north' of 5,000 UK accounts had been 'flagged up' and were being watched as part of evidence-gathering against suspects. It has also emerged that financial details provided by banks played a key part in last month's arrests involving an alleged plot to blow up airliners and the more recent arrests linked to an alleged network of training terror camps.

Banks have been told to monitor 'cross-border payments' amid evidence that British-based cells are affiliated to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. A senior banking source said: 'Every cross-border payment passes through an electronic system. The cross-border stuff we are particularly interested in.' Each of the big four banks has frozen the accounts of around 50 individuals who are suspects, according to the source. The sums involved, however, are generally modest, with most terrorists appreciating that moving large amounts through current accounts can attract suspicion. However, the extent of the banks' involvement in neutering the terrorist threat has sparked a fierce backlash from some British Muslims amid claims of mistaken identities and the persecution of innocent account-holders. Ahmed Salama was stunned when his HSBC account was frozen nine days ago. He received a letter informing him that HSBC wished to end their relationship after 11 years.

The decision left Salama unable to pay 12 bills and his mortgage. Despite repeatedly asking for an explanation, HSBC has only told him it detected 'suspicious' payments in his account. Salama, a businessman authorised by the Financial Services Authority whose account was upgraded by the bank only two months ago, said: 'The whole situation has put my whole life in a spin, emotionally and financially. I am a normal Londoner who plays snooker once a week, a little football and cares for the wife and kids. They have taken everything away from me with no real explanation and have not allowed me to pay bills.'

Salama said the only cross-border payment he is aware of making is £20 a month to a British-based charity, which sponsors children in Afghanistan. 'My only conclusion is that, with the majority of people being arrested over alleged terrorism offences having the name of "Ahmed", they think I am one of them or I am laundering money. I can honestly say I am neither,' Salama said. HSBC admitted that cases of mistaken identity do sometimes occur.

[Don’t things like this make you feel all warm and safe?]

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New opinion poll shows British attitudes are increasingly non-religious

From Ekklesia -24/11/06

The claims of established church representatives that Britain remains a predominantly ‘Christian country’ received another blow today, with the publication of an Ipsos MORI poll showing that 36% of people – equivalent to around 17 million adults – share a basically non-religious outlook on life. In the 2001 census 7 out of 10 people ticked the ‘Christian’ box, but with church attendance now below 7% and only 1 in 3 marriages taking place in church in 2004, many have argued that this figure is more about cultural identity than active belief.

According to the survey, released by the British Humanist Association (BHA), 62% of respondents said ‘scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe’ as distinct from 22% who felt ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’. Similarly, 62% chose ‘Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong’, as distinct from 27% who said ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’. Another question found that 41% endorsed the statement: ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’. Fractionally more - 45% - preferred the broad view that ‘when we die we go on and still exist in another way.’

People also base their judgments of right and wrong on ‘the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world’ – a view consonant with some religious as well as non-religious approaches. 42% of respondents said that in their opinion government pays too much attention to ‘religious groups and leaders’. British Humanist Association chief executive Hanne Stinson conceded that this was lower than she might have expected, and said it might be due to “a lingering deference to religion that has outlasted mass religious belief.” She said the poll showed that Britain was “basically a humanist country” and that it needed a “common language” not grounded in religious assumptions.

Andrew Copson, Education Officer at the BHA, said that the result was particularly interesting coming so soon after British government caved in to pressure over faith schools: “The government keeps making the mistake of seeing pressure from religious groups as widespread public opinion… [e]ven though poll after poll has demonstrated wide[spread] public opposition to faith schools”. Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, said that this latest poll “adds further evidence to the argument that Christendom – the era where Christianity had a preserved and privileged space within the public sphere – is coming to an end.” He added that “the time is now ripe for some serious stock-taking by the churches” but also cautioned against “imposing an easy interpretation on what is going on. Britain is a mixed-belief society, and attempts to make it fit any one mould are readily confounded.”

Ekklesia argues that the churches should not feel threatened by the lessening of social and cultural acceptance of Christian convictions, but should use this as an opportunity to engage the social order in a new way. “What people are rejecting is religion as a coercive, arbitrary and esoteric force over and against full human flourishing and understanding. Rightly understood, the Gospel rejects this too,” commented Simon Barrow. He continued: “Christians should be seeking to renew their intellectual, spiritual and social justice traditions through openness and hospitality towards others, rather than by being defensive or expecting special favour.”

Ekklesia argues that the issue of developing “common language” in a diverse society is a matter of encouraging communication between different life-stances, not trying to impose one set of meanings on everybody. Explained Simon Barrow: “The idea that we are all going to agree if religion goes away is as naïve as the view that you cannot have morality without religion. Difference is here to stay. The challenge is how to establish ground rules for fairness and equal treatment in social life and public debate. All people, whether religious or non-religious, as conventionally defined, have a role to play in that.”

Monday, December 04, 2006

Just Finished Reading: Archangel by Robert Harris

In the late 1990’s whilst attending a symposium in Moscow, British historian ‘Fluke’ Kelso learns of the existence of Stalin’s secret diary. Obsessed with anything Russian Kelso determines to recover the diary and crown his academic career. But other less friendly forces have discovered the diaries existence and will stop at nothing to recover or destroy Stalin’s deepest thoughts and eliminate anyone who knows about it. So begins a mad dash across the length of Russia from Moscow to Archangel in search of gold, fame and maybe a little truth.

Harris’s earlier works Fatherland and Enigma where good solid reads. This, his third book, was much more than that. This was excellent. Almost from the first page I felt like I was really there, looking over Kelso’s shoulder as he stumbled his way across a decaying Russia still half in love with its Communist past. This was a very ‘visual’ book with wonderful descriptions of a dilapidated ex-super power struggling to come to terms with its place in the modern world. You could almost taste the vodka and smell the cabbage! The characters who sprinkled the novel where exceedingly well drawn and highly believable from the Russian tourist guide, the hard-line Communist politician, the over ambitious newsman and the ex-KGB officer longing for retirement. This was certainly a thriller to savour. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I think…… Therefore I am?

We are used to doubt. We live, so we are told, in a cynical age. We doubt our leaders. We doubt the intentions of our enemies. Sometimes we doubt our friends, our family and our lovers. But where does the doubt stop? Is there anything we can know for certain?

Philosophers have pondered this very question for centuries. The most famous of these was probably Rene Descartes who said that only one (or actually two) things can be known for certain – that we exist. In his famous saying “I think, therefore I am” Descartes is putting forward the very understandable idea that if we think, then there must be someone actually ‘doing’ the thinking. There can be no thought without a thinker. Therefore the thinker must exist. QED. The only other known Descartes proposed was one that is usually forgotten. He said that God too must exist. This was hardly a surprising statement at the time but one which I shall be ignoring in this post.

The question is, of course, was Descartes right or can we actually doubt our own existence? On the face of it that seems to be a rather silly question. How can I (or anyone else) possibly doubt their own existence? I mean, if I didn’t exist then who exactly is putting this argument forward? How can I think I might not exist if there is someone having those thoughts? It seems pretty air-tight doesn’t it? Maybe not.

I have read that the Buddhists believe that the self, the essential ‘I’, is an illusion that needs to be overcome to reach a state of enlightenment. It’s an interesting idea which, as far as I know, has been shadowed by some scientific work into mental processes. If true then we do not exist in the way we think we do. Descartes himself postulated the idea that all of our sense impressions could be manipulated by a ‘demon’ and, therefore, we should not wholly trust them. This idea probably influenced the creators of The Matrix where evil machines enslaved people by plugging them into a virtual world. Realistically there is no way we can tell if we live in such a world or not. If all of our sensory input is false it would be impossible to tell what was real and what was manufactured. Taking it a step further it is entirely possible that in such a world the people we meet and form relationships with are virtual creations with no independent basis in the ‘real world’. But we are real – right? Maybe not.

If it is impossible to tell if an individual is real or virtual then is it not possible that we might be one of these virtual creations? To appear real to us a virtual person must be programmed to pass a version of the Turing Test. It must be able to respond as we would expect a real person to respond to the many situations that make up what we call reality. If a simulacrum can pass as a person we would undoubtedly treat them as a person. Of course one of the ways to do this is to programme the simulacra to believe that they are real. If the virtual person thinks and believes they are real, then they are much more likely to act as if they are. That being the case, how do we know for a fact that we are real? Is it not possible that we are well programmed simulacra designed to think, feel and believe that we are real in order to present a believable face to others who are in fact real? How could we possibly know the difference between real people and simulacra if the virtual people were manufactured to a high enough standard? If you and I are just sophisticated programming how would we know? Are we certain then that we do actually exist? Does the fact that I think prove my existence? Maybe not.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Controversial new Bible cuts out difficult gospel passages

From Ekklesia -18/10/06

A new Bible translation is causing controversy after it cut out difficult parts surrounding economic justice, possessions and money. The new bible version, released by the Western Bible Foundation in the Netherlands, has created a storm by trying to make the Christian gospel more palatable. According to Chairman Mr. De Rijke the foundation has reacted to a growing wish of many churches to be market-oriented and more attractive. "Jesus was very inspiring for our inner health, but we don't need to take his naïve remarks about money seriously. He didn't study economics, obviously."

According to De Rijke no serious Christian takes these texts literally. "What if all Christians stopped being anxious, for example, and started expecting everything from God? Or gave their possessions to the poor, for that matter. Our economy would be lost. The truth is quite the contrary: a strong economy and a healthy work ethic is a gift from God." The foundation wanted to "boldly go where no one else has gone before" by cutting out the confusing texts. “We don't use them anyway! There's no single Christian selling his possessions and giving them to the poor."

The Western Bible is published – in Dutch only so far – by the well-known Christian publisher Buijten & Schipperheijn. IN it, some of the most important passages of the Bible: the Ten Commandments, sections of Isaiah, Proverbs, and the Sermon on the Mount, contain holes where the original translation urged radical actions around money, justice or affluence. Hundreds of Western Bibles have been sold in the first few weeks, whilst anxious Christians filled newspapers and web logs with their doubts. Sometimes Christians seem to have more anger than humour, however. The names of the board, ‘De Rijke’ (meaning ‘the rich’) and ‘Fortuijn’ (meaning ‘fortune’), as well as the holes in the pages of the Western Bible hint to the truth: the Western Bible is a joke.

It is published by Time to Turn, a network of Christian students and young adults in the Netherlands "who want to choose a sustainable and just way of life, based on their faith in Jesus Christ." They do not believe in a new legalism, or in a utopian state, but in a God who is willing to deliver the world from materialism and injustice. Time to Turn is linked to the international student movement Speak. Frank Mulder, chairman of Time to Turn, is surprised by the commotion. "Many Christians accept the Western lifestyle, including the degradation of creation and the injustice of our trade, and they only take the easy parts of the gospel. But it isn't until we publish this gospel with holes, that they get confused!"

Time to Turn are soon to publish a bible study about the holes.

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……]