Newsnotes 2011 05

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Fighting Fragments In Libya

Meantime in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain etc.

Elections [Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Hungary]

BRICS in the wall [Rejecting the idea of ‘G2’]

China Returns To Equality

India – Not So Open

It’s Not Paranoia: They Are Out To Get You [Internet Spying]

Nepal: Red Government

Guantanamo: No Rule Of Law [US torture]

The Space Age and the Space Race [Yuri Gagarin]

Evolution Prevented By Competition

Bewitched: Television From a Lost Era


Fighting Fragments In Libya

No serious political movement should be dependent on outside forces, particularly if it intends to rebuild the state rather than just hijack the existing state structures.

The rebels in Libya seem never to have had any coherent notion beyond hijack what exists. Only the Islamists might have a definite idea, and they are sensibly laying low for now. ‘Anti-corruption’ and ‘anti-tyranny’ have time and again proved to be useless slogans, used to throw out existing rulers in favour of a new crowd who soon become every bit as corrupt and tyrannical.

There was a certain amount of sense in a no-fly zone, if it really was the Libyan air force that made the difference. But it wasn’t. The initial announcement seems to have encouraged the rebels and they pushed along the coastal road as far as Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town. NATO bombed Sirte, enraging the locals who seem to be solid for Gaddafi.

“Sirte is of unique importance to the regime, both as a garrison and for what it represents. Once a poor village, it is now a city of 130,000 people, showered with money and privileges during most of Colonel Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. In 1988 he moved many government departments and the country’s rubber-stamp parliament there from Tripoli, the capital. In 1999 he proposed it as the administrative centre of a ‘United States of Africa’. Western reporters in Sirte say its people’s declarations of devotion to the colonel and their willingness to fight for what they have are sincere.

“That makes things tricky for the coalition. It cannot claim to be protecting local civilians when attacking government forces defending Sirte. But its commanders argue that the colonel’s troops remain a legitimate target in Sirte since they still threaten civilians elsewhere.” [A]

The tide of battle turned and the rebels lost again a lot of what they had won. They also showed a lack of skill and an unwillingness to learn:

“Weapons alone do not make a fighting force. It requires discipline, command and the knowledge of how not only to take, but to hold, ground.

“The rebel army has little of any of these. Zeal, they have in spades. But the rest is sadly lacking.

“Events of the last 24 hours have only exposed how giving them extra weapons is unlikely to be enough to drive them on to Tripoli, especially if training is not provided in how to use them as most in this ad-hoc army have little if any military experience.

As Gaddafi forces went back on the offensive – raining munitions down on the most western of the small towns that the rebels had seized over the weekend – the revolutionaries quickly retreated in increasing panic and disarray.

“Yesterday this was seen in Nawfaliyah and Bin Jawad. Today there are reports they are pulling out of the key oil installation at Ras Lanuf and, in one claim, that Gaddafi’s men are even advancing on a similar installation in Brega.

“In Bin Jawad the scene was one of utter chaos and confusion. One moment the revolutionaries were preparing to storm forward, the next rockets and shells started falling and the pick-up trucks were turning tail with those still on the street running after them to be pulled on board.

“A few hours later they were back and claiming the recapture of the coastal town. There was just time for a revolutionary flag to be hoisted before the rockets came again and the same scene of disorderly flight.

“No one thought to prepare defences. In Iraq I watched US Marines obsessively digging holes every time they secured a new stretch of land.

“In Bin Jawad there was no such forward thinking so when the attack came there was no cover or defences, leaving little choice but to run. The road east was soon clogged with retreating vehicles.

“The revolutionaries know that they have a problem. Mustafah Sacuzay, who has been placed in charge of military training, was blunt in criticising their failure to establish ‘secondary defences’ and ‘support the front line with more fighters’ so that when those at the front broke the withdrawal could be stabilised.” [B]

That was written on the 30th March. Very little has changes since then, except the rebels have maybe got even more chaotic. The magazine Prospect reports signs of this:

“I saw a murder one afternoon in central Benghazi. The victim was a tall, heavily built man in his thirties wearing jeans and a grey sweatshirt…   The victim was a local man irritated by the sound of shooting in his apartment block doorway, where the killer had stood firing aimlessly in the air: a regular pastime in the city. He had asked the gunman to go elsewhere. Instead, the man shot him three times in the head and throat and then fled, pursued by passersby. Over the next two hours, the victim’s family seized the killer’s brother and a friend, who was blind, as hostages. Then two pickup-loads of rebels tried to storm the apartment to release the men but were driven off by heavily armed family members and residents. Guns and rage determined the outcome, not law. I left without seeing it end after the fury became too much to endure…

“That week, dropping by the military headquarters to interview a rebel commander, I watched two groups of fighters embroiled in a mass punch-up. In the melee, the only bullets fired were in the air. That could easily change…

“The restaurant, almost empty, was suddenly ‘secured’ by half a dozen gunmen acting as bodyguards for three important guests: Christopher Prentice, the former British ambassador to Iraq, and two other British officials. I presumed their mission, which involved meeting the PTNC in Benghazi, had been secret or at least low key. We ignored each other, until one of their bodyguards rested his Kalashnikov on his shoe and accidentally blew a hole in his foot. A scramble followed as the others rushed him to hospital, leaving Prentice and colleagues without protection. The debacle—its comedy, embarrassment, good intentions and hopeless amateurishness—seemed the perfect symbol for relations between rebels and their foreign allies.” [AG]

How do the rebels think they are going to win? They think that NATO will do it for them. But NATO has re-discovered what they should have known from the stalemate in Iraq from 1991 to 2003: air power can destroy but not create. Nor is it likely they can send in troops: the war is already seriously unpopular:

“A new opinion poll shows Americans have mixed reactions about U.S. military involvement in Libya.

“The poll, conducted by an independent U.S.- based research group, found that 47 percent of Americans believe the United States was right to carry out airstrikes in Libya. Thirty-six percent said it was the wrong decision, and 17 percent had no opinion.” [C]

That compares with 63% who initially supported the invasion of Iraq. [D] It is similar in Britain: a majority of Britons supported the Iraq war, despite the huge protest march against it. Most of the former war-supporters now accept that it was an error, and there is much less enthusiasm for the Libyan venture:

“A third of people in the UK think going to war in Iraq was justified, but six in 10 believe it was a mistake, a BBC survey suggests.

“When the war began four years ago, two-thirds of Britons backed involvement, but the poll shows a marked decrease in support….

“A similar BBC/ICM poll in 2004 suggested that 46% of Britons were in support of the war and 48% thought British troops needed to remain in Iraq.

“However, by 2005, a third of people wanted British troops to leave Iraq immediately, a survey for BBC Newsnight suggested.” [E]

“A poll for BBC News suggested that two-thirds of people believed Britain’s military involvement in Libya would go on for some time…

“Some 38% of people thought the UK and its allies were right to carry out air strikes, while 35% said it was the wrong decision.” [F]

It could get worse. Britain has deployed its Eurofighters – now renamed Typhoons – and proudly showed a video showing them destroying two Libyan T72 tanks. But were the tanks a suitable target? A report in the Daily Telegraph says that the target was “believed to be an abandoned tank park”. [G] The T72 was a 1970s Soviet model and came in several versions, some of them rather poor. Another source said of the attack:

“The video appears to show a T-72 tank neatly parked, stationary and unmanned: the target was plainly not in use… Many Libyan armoured vehicles are old and not serviceable due to lack of parts and servicing…

“It thus becomes fairly plain that in order to carry out this week’s small-scale attacks, the RAF must have resorted to measures such as pulling weapons instructors out of training units, disrupting the future personnel pipeline and quite possibly delaying the arrival of a proper, sustainable corps of Typhoon pilots capable of all tasks.

“And the service has done all this, seemingly, in order to blow up a couple of abandoned, probably unserviceable 40-year-old tanks (most likely the T-72M ‘monkey model’, as the Russians term the inferior kit they export to despised nominal allies).” [H]


Meantime in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain etc.

The situation keeps changing. Just now (26th April), the Yemeni leader has agreed to leave on terms: the opposition initially thought about holding out for complete surrender, but now seems to accept this. The Syrian leadership has dug in and may be ready to kill any number of protestors, now that limited forms have been rejected – but a protestor-made clip shown on Channel 4 News showed people throwing rocks at a tank and getting away with it. Much less reported by the West, there has been a massive and seemingly successful crack-down in Bahrain, with doctors punished for treating wounded demonstrators. And the USA is now calling Libya a stalemate, which it plainly is.

It’s been said that Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are the only Arab states that are coherent enough to hold together: all of the others might fragment. Several probably will. Morocco is currently under control of its traditional ruler. Tunisia and Egypt are heading gradually for elections which may greatly strengthen the Islamists, and maybe also the left in Tunisia.

Iraq seems determined that US troops will leave on schedule, by the end of this year.

Major blow-ups are almost certain to happen, probably resulting in a Middle East that is more Islamist and much more hostile to Israel.

Israel missed the chance to secure a stable peace in the 1990s when the USA was dominant and all of its opponents demoralised. They could have allowed a Palestinian state that would have kept the peace and might have had legitimacy in the eyes of most Arabs and Muslims. Instead they tried to take chunks of West Bank territory, which was too much. Now, probably, there will be no peace. By humiliating those Arab regimes that were fairly Western in their outlook, and then by making it clear they would be discarded if they ever got into trouble, the West and Israel are aiding the rise of an Islamist movement that seems willing to contemplate the immense destruction that would undoubtedly accompany another Arab war with Israel.


Elections [Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Hungary]

The Ivory Coast is still recovering from the civil war sparked by its election, and which needed direct French military intervention to resolve. The candidate who probably got the most votes is now in power. But the sectarian split remains, with the Christian south feeling it has lost control of its own country.

Nigeria also saw an open split between its Muslim north and Christian south, with the Christian candidate winning. But there was rioting and the delicate balance of power was put at risk.

In Hungary, there are protests after an electoral alliance that indisputably won a two-thirds majority in the 2010 election chose to use its power to rewrite the Hungarian Constitution, which had been a modified version of the Communist-era constitution. The new constitution represents centre-right and Christian values, but that’s what the electorate opted for.

One idea that was briefly floated and then dropped was the idea of giving mothers an extra vote on behalf of their children. [L] It may be tried as a separate law.

The Anglosphere takes the view that competitive elections should be compulsory, but also that there is something badly wrong when this process does not produce two large parties which both support global-Anglo values. This is a broadly foolish idea and is visibly failing.

Amidst some rather muted commemorations of the USA’s 1860s Civil War, I’ve not seen any consideration of how a free electoral process and a free press could have produced such a devastating conflict. Or how about half of the original states could get so committed to the idea of slavery that they fought a war to defend it, under a Confederate constitution that had several clauses upholding it, and was otherwise much like the original 1787 Constitution. [M]

One hundred and fifty years ago, two bad causes met on the battlefields of North America. The Confederacy made a reasonable claim to self-determination, but the main motivation was the extension of slavery westward into new lands. The North was willing to live with slavery in the South, many Northern politicians were ready to see it extended and tried to award Kansas to the slave-owners. The failure to deliver Kansas plus the election of a committed anti-slavery candidate was the trigger. It wasn’t anything Lincoln had done: the initial secession and setting-up of the Confederacy happened in the long months between Lincoln being elected and him actually succeeding the previous President. His idea was just to limit the possible expansion of slavery in the territories. During the war he tried to persuade the non-seceding slave states to abolish slavery gradually, allowing it to last until 1900. Only when moderate offers had been rejected did he go for abolition, and then only in the seceded states. Total abolition was possible only because most former slave states were under military occupation and not allowed to block the relevant constitutional amendment.

Anglo attempts to impose their current political system on the rest of the world have largely failed, mostly because Britain and the USA only made this system operative after many decades of painful evolution and some failures. (Britain failed to accommodate the Irish Catholics and the issue remains live in Northern Ireland.)

Multi-party elections allow people to express their spontaneous feeling. But unless there is a very strong political culture to contain them, what people spontaneously do is quarrel and split.

The notion that all will be well in the Arab World if they just have multi-party elections is amazingly naive. I expect to see it fully disproved in Tunisia and Egypt over the coming months.

[In Egypt it ended with a Western-approved coup against the democratically elected Islamist President. Tunisia has wobbled but so far avoided disaster.]


BRICS in the wall [Rejecting the idea of ‘G2’]

China has so far avoided the trap that the USSR under Khrushchev blundered into. They have resisted suggestions of a ‘G2’, China and the USA getting together to decide about the world.

About half the wealth of the world and maybe one quarter of its population has been permanently aligned with the USA since the end of World War Two. Some states have dropped out of the alliance and others have joined.

The USSR should not have tried to set itself up as an equal alternative. It should also not have imposed its own system on Middle-Europe. Despite which, it was a useful balancing factor against the huge US alignment, which inherited most of the wealth and cultural dominance generated by Western European Imperialism.

Currently, lots of states see China as a useful counter, while still much weaker and a long way from being equal to the global alignment of USA, the European Union and Japan.

‘BRIC’ was a term coined by a Goldman Sachs economist, to cover the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. It has since become a political club, and this year invited South Africa as a new member.

“For now, summits of the world’s rising powers, such as the one that concluded Thursday on the Chinese island of Hainan, remain a side show. Markets didn’t move with the grumpy words the emerged from the meeting, and the Western media gave it little of the attention that it lavishes on gatherings of the world’s (for now) dominant economic powers, the G7.

“But the BRICS, as the grouping is now known after South Africa joined Brazil, Russia, India and China for this week’s summit in the resort city of Sanya, came across Thursday as a willing challenger to the West’s long-standing leadership on global political and economic affairs. One day in the not-too-distant future, they’ll have the economic heft to back up their different vision of how things should be run…

“The five countries collectively account for 40 per cent of the world’s population. Their combined economic output accounted for 18 per cent of the global total last year, but that share is growing fast and is expected to pass the G-7’s output by 2035.” [J]

China by itself is 20% of the world’s population and somewhere between 10% and 14% of the world’s economy. Realistically it can never expect to be more than a fifth of the world’s wealth or population, far too little to dominate without strong allies. BRICS provides those allies, for as long as China’s aims are modest. Bringing in South Africa has also been rational: there may be other larger developing economies, but South Africa links to the rest of Africa, just as Brazil links to the rest of Latin America. South Africa has political usefulness and an attitude independent of the West. Other apparent candidates like Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea or Saudi Arabia are economically similar but are broadly supportive of the US-led hegemony that BRICS is challenging.

The United States, the European Union and Japan are currently a fairly strong alliance and represent about 46% of the world’s wealth, enough to dominate for now. But they are also less than 14% of the world’s population.[K] Exact figures are:

% of global wealth Population % of global population
USA 19.78 313,232,044 4.47
EU 20.02 501,064,211 7.16
Japan 5.83 126,475,664 1.81

Since the world is tending to equalise, this hegemony has a limited life and is already much weaker than it was. It could well be ended by Europe deciding that a US-dominated world has not really worked and that US-orientated European leaders have not really delivered. That has already happened in Latin America. A disastrous end for the current round of intervention in the Arab World could be the trigger.


China Returns To Equality

“China has vowed to raise the wages of Chinese workers by 15 percent annually, in an effort to reach a double figure by the end of its 12th Five-Year-Plan period (2011-2016), Yang Zhiming, vice-minister of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) announced Monday.

“The government stipulated that the wage increase must go in line with the increasing rate of a company’s revenues, and more efforts will be made in controlling exorbitant salaries of CEOs and general managers in state-owned enterprises (SOE).

“The growth of the minimum wage will be raised by at least 13 percent on average every year, based on the minimum wages in different regions of development in the nation. Yang pointed out that 13 provinces and municipalities have raised the minimum wage by 22.8 percent on average so far this year.” [N]

This seems to be another rejection of the Neo-Liberal attitude that was influential in the initial post-Mao era.

“China is to lift the exemption threshold for personal income tax payments in an effort to redistribute the spoils of rapid growth and reduce a widening wealth gap.

“The level at which Chinese citizens must pay income tax will be raised from Rmb2,000 ($305) a month to Rmb3,000, the finance ministry said on Wednesday.

“Raising the threshold to this level will cut the number of taxpayers by about 50m to 350m and reduce government tax revenue by about Rmb99bn.

“The change, which is likely to come in the second half of the year, is one of several policy initiatives intended to alleviate poverty and reduce growing income disparity.

“Other policies include a promise to raise average wages by 15 per cent a year and so double average wages by the end of 2015. The government has been increasing statutory minimum wages over the past year and intends to build 35m units of low-income housing over the next five years.

“The government also has plans to lift its official poverty line from the current income level of $0.50 a day to $0.63.

“This would more than triple the number of people officially living in poverty from 27m to 100m, all of whom would be entitled to rudimentary but improving government welfare assistance. Even after the change, China’s poverty line will be lower than global benchmarks.

“‘The United Nations standard for extreme poverty is less than $1.25 and the standard for relatively poor is $2 a day or less,’ said Hu Xingdou, professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology. By the UN’s measure, some 254m Chinese – or one in five of the population – still live in extreme poverty.” [P]

Chinese are poor, but their standard of living is rising quite fast, and now internal inequalities are being targeted. Perhaps the newly rich are looking at trouble elsewhere and deciding that it’s wise to pass on more of the benefits. Of course most people would have seen their own incomes grow very fast. A contented population would allow the basic balance to be maintained, including quite a lot of unofficial protectionism:

“European businesses have accused China of having a public procurement system which excludes foreign businesses and encourages corruption.

“‘The regulatory framework for government procurement in China is a drag on efficiency and innovation for the Chinese economy as a whole,’ the European Chamber of Commerce in China said in a study to be published on Wednesday.

“‘This represents a missed opportunity the size of the South Korean economy for European business in China’.

“The criticism about accessibility to the Chinese public procurement market, which is estimated to be as big as Rmb7,000bn ($1,072bn) comes as Beijing is preparing another proposal for its long-delayed accession to the Government Procurement Agreement, a group of 40 World Trade Organisation members who allow each other’s companies equal access to their public contracts.

“The chamber said rules that exclude foreign businesses from public contracts continued unabated in provincial and local government procurement despite Beijing’s pledges to end the practice.

“China triggered an outcry from foreign business in late 2009 when it announced that only products with Chinese-owned intellectual property and brands would be eligible for government procurement contracts.

“Following widespread criticism, Beijing suspended that policy. However, the European Chamber said that due to Beijing’s decentralised system of government procurement, the practice had continued for the majority of public contracts issued by institutions outside the central government. The report says a core problem lies in having two different laws on government procurements in China.

“A relatively small range of contracts – such as office equipment and the car fleets of central government ministries – fall under the government procurement law. But the vast majority of what are commonly defined as public contracts in other countries – such as public infrastructure contracts and state-owned enterprise tenders – are governed by the bidding law, which offers much less clarity on eligibility requirements for suppliers.” [Q]

But this sort of ‘openness’ would have prevented China moving up the ladder of industry, producing its own sophisticated products that might initially be worse and more expensive than foreign goods. In the long run it will pay off.

There is also no danger nowadays of China coming under serious pressure to change. The US economy is way out of balance and is increasingly retreating from manufacturing in favour of finance. This lasts only for as long as foreign countries buy their debt, China in particular. And China is expressing doubts:

“The two biggest foreign holders of US Treasuries appear to be taking diverging views of Standard & Poor’s stark warning on the US debt rating.

“S&P on Monday cut its outlook on US debt – which maintains the top triple A rating – from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’ for the first time since it started rating the US 70 years ago.

“While Japan played down concerns about US creditworthiness after the decision, China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday urged Washington to protect investors in its debt. ‘We hope the US government will take responsible policies and measures to safeguard investors’ interests,’ it said.

“The Chinese government has repeatedly called on Washington not intentionally to debase its currency and to protect the interests of foreign investors in its bonds.

“China’s foreign reserves increased by $197bn in the first quarter to $3,050bn, exceeding the symbolic $3,000bn mark for the first time. The reserves are the world’s largest by far and although their exact composition is regarded as a state secret, about two-thirds are believed to be invested in US dollar assets.” [R]

Japan has tied itself to the global hegemony led by the USA. China with BRICS has created an alternative.


India – Not So Open

The Neo-Liberals in the West seem to have bounced back from the near-disaster of 2008. Despite having needed state power to save the financial system, they got the blame shifted to general government expenditure. Items such as health, education and pensions are being attacked as wasteful, while gambling banks are left alone. And there is a continuing drive to push into fresh areas, including the Republic of India. As The Economist explains:

“Most Indians do their shopping at the millions of kirana shops, small independent outfits that are often not much more than a hole in the wall, manned by the owner and maybe a relative, or from handcart hawkers and street vendors. These microbusinesses sell a limited range of goods, in tiny quantities. They are far too small to negotiate good deals with their wholesalers, who are themselves a pretty inefficient bunch. But the majority of Indians, especially in rural areas, shop with them—or send their servants to shop—because kiranas give them credit and are prepared to deliver even the smallest order to their homes. And because they often do not have any choice.

“Indian policymakers have talked about reforming the retail business for the past two decades, with little to show for it. The most obvious, but most politically sensitive, reform would be to scrap the ban on foreign direct investment (FDI) by multi-brand supermarket chains such as America’s Walmart and France’s Carrefour. (Single-brand retailers such as Nike or Reebok can own a 51% stake in their Indian outlets and multi-brand retailers can open wholesale warehouses, as long as they do not sell directly to consumers.)

“Ending the ban is fiercely opposed by the millions of kirana owners and their dependents, who are an important electoral constituency of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. However, the party is not in power at the moment and the ruling Congress party did make encouraging noises by publishing a detailed discussion paper on the benefits of liberalisation last summer. It noted, for example, that heavy investment by big supermarket chains may be the best way to create an efficient ‘chill chain’ in India, to keep food fresh from the farmer’s field to the shopper’s basket, and thus cut the terrible waste of food caused by the absence of such facilities: perhaps a quarter or more of fruit and vegetables is lost, compared with a tenth or less in countries with better cold storage and transport.” [S]

But what would be the social effect? The spread of supermarkets in the UK has undermined a class of small shop-keepers who had very traditionalist values. Most right-wingers fail to connect this with the decay of traditional values that they cherish. This was the link that Marx spotted and explained in the Communist Manifesto. And it has continued to be valid even while socialism is in eclipse as an ideology: traditional values decay as traditional economic structures are undermined. But then as now, The Economist spreads false assurance:

“Retailing employs more than 30m Indians, so some fear social unrest if the admission of foreign chains puts small shops out of business. But given India’s rapid growth there is plenty of space for supermarkets to expand without killing small stores… Indeed, the tiddlers would be better off buying their supplies from foreign supermarkets than from the inefficient, costly middlemen they rely on now. In any case, such worries are greatly outweighed by the potential benefits to Indian consumers: lower prices and better quality, choice and nutrition. Economists in America talk about the beneficial ‘Walmart effect’ that the ubiquitous cheap chain has had on curbing prices. Indians, as they fret over soaring food costs, might find such a thing a godsend.” [T]

Maybe the Indians should reform their distribution system. What they should not do is open up to foreigners and lose control of their own lives.


It’s Not Paranoia: They Are Out To Get You [Internet Spying]

“In the 1991 Gulf war Iraq’s armed forces used American-made colour photocopiers to produce their battle plans. That was a mistake. The circuitry in some of them contained concealed transmitters that revealed their position to American electronic-warfare aircraft, making bomb and missile strikes more precise. The operation, described by David Lindahl, a specialist at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, a government think-tank, highlights a secret front in high-tech warfare: turning enemy assets into liabilities.

“The internet and the growing complexity of electronic circuitry have made it much easier to install what are known as ‘kill switches’ and ‘back doors’, which may disable, betray or blow up the devices in which they are installed. Chips can easily contain 2 billion transistors, leaving plenty of scope to design a few that operate secretly. Testing even a handful of them for anomalies requires weeks of work.

“Kill switches and other remote controls are on the minds of Western governments pondering whether to send weapons such as sophisticated anti-tank missiles, normally tightly policed, to rebels in Libya. Keeping tabs on when and where they are fired will allay fears that they could end up in terrorist hands. Such efforts would not even need to be kept secret. A former CIA official says the rebels could be told: ‘Look, we’re going to give you this, but we want to be able to control it.’…

“Farinaz Koushanfar, a DARPA-funded expert at Texas’s Rice University, says microchip designers would like to be able to switch off their products ‘in the wild’, in case the contractors that make the chips produce some extra ones to sell on the sly. She designs ‘active hardware metering’ chips that, in devices connected to the internet, can remotely identify them and if necessary switch them off.

“An obvious countermeasure is to keep critical defence equipment off the net. But that is only a partial solution. Chips can be designed to break down at a certain date. An innocent-looking component or even a bit of soldering can be a disguised antenna. When it receives the right radio signal, from, say, a mobile-phone network, aircraft or satellite, the device may blow up, shut down, or work differently.

“Old-fashioned spying can reveal technological weaknesses too. Mr Lindahl says Sweden obtained detailed information on circuitry in a heat-seeking missile that at least one potential adversary might, in wartime, shoot at one of its eight C-130 Hercules military-transport planes. A slight but precise change in the ejection tempo of the decoy flares would direct those missiles towards the flame, not the aircraft.” [W]

There’s also the matter of the mysterious failure of most of Argentina’s Exocet missiles in the Falklands War. France made them: France most likely told the British how to make them ineffective.

Of course that’s just military hardware. Nothing for the ordinary individual to worry about. Maybe.

“Security researchers have discovered that Apple’s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronised.

“The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.

“For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010.

“”Apple has made it possible for almost anybody – a jealous spouse, a private detective – with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you’ve been,” said Pete Warden, one of the researchers.

“Only the iPhone records the user’s location in this way, say Warden and Alasdair Allan, the data scientists who discovered the file and are presenting their findings at the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. “Alasdair has looked for similar tracking code in [Google’s] Android phones and couldn’t find any,” said Warden. “We haven’t come across any instances of other phone manufacturers doing this.” [X]

That’s assuming it isn’t cunningly hidden in the hardware, of course,

I always felt that modern electronics and the internet would strengthen the state against individuals, and that the proper answer was to insist on civilised norms. A lot of which were swept aside after 9/11 in the name of anti-terrorism, with legislation that was left vague enough to allow it to be applied to almost anyone, not just fanatics intent on mass slaughter. Notoriously, ‘anti-terrorist’ laws were used against Iceland in a purely financial matter during the banking crisis. My suspicion was that the elite in the Anglosphere were thinking of global control, including repression at home. Except that so far, two or three small countries have proved too much for them. I don’t like the resistance movements in those countries, but they do seem to represent majority opinion there, which is what democracy is supposed to mean. And the future of the world depends on the current wave of globalisation failing.


Nepal: Red Government

After a Maoist insurgency that destroyed the traditional system, Nepal had democratic elections that saw the Maoists emerge as the biggest single party. It also showed what an utterly diverse place Nepal is: many languages and ethnic groups, and a whole host of incompatible political parties.

The Maoists were initially part of the government, along with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which is actually a centre-left party and commonly known as the UML. This got rid of the monarchy and lasted until the Maoist Prime Minister tried to sack the Nepali army chief after he refused to incorporate Maoist fighters in the army, something that had been agreed as part of the peace deal. The President overruled this, so the Maoists went into opposition and a government was formed by the UML and the Nepali Congress. This failed to work: when one Prime Minister resigned in June 2010 it proved impossible to elect another. Or impossible until the UML made a deal with the Maoists which put the UML back into government and gave them the Prime Ministership. [Y] On this basis they may be able to write a constitution and hold new general elections.

And then what? The Maoists got 30% of the vote in 2008, well ahead of any other party. It seems likely that a new election would give them a much bigger share of the vote, perhaps an overall majority and perhaps the two-thirds majority that would let them re-write the constitution as they saw fit. This is one possibility that is being complained about:

“The UCPN-M [Maoist] supremo is confident that this government can give logical end to the peace process and introduce the new constitution in time even if the NC {Nepali Congress] remains outside the government. This is a hint that the two parties, by keeping aside the NC, are going to introduce the new constitution.

“On the issue of integration of the UCPN-M PLAs, the two parties in the government have already agreed to constitute a separate security force and integrate the UCPN-M combatants in the new force…

“The real design of the UCPN-M is to bring under control or make weak the government security organs and civil service by remaining in the government. To please India and the USA, the UCPN-M will accept the parliamentarian model of democracy and accept the constitution as well.

“However, the hidden agenda of the UCPN-M is to accept the parliamentarian modality and go for general elections with the intention of gaining two-thirds majority and then amending the constitution by introducing a communist model. As there has been a secret agreement between JN Khanal and Pushpakamal Dahal for handing over power to Dahal after the introduction of the new constitution, the UCPN-M will get the chance to hold the general elections. In the elections, UCPN-M has the aim to grab two-thirds majority, the strength which will be needed for amending the constitution. The party has already developed the plan for continuously running the country for at least another 20 years.” [Z]

As I said earlier about Hungary, democracy means the people getting what they want, not what the Anglosphere thinks is good for them.

[The stalemate actually lasted till November 2013, when the Maoists lost badly in a new election.]

One other interesting little detail. It seems Christianity is taking off in Nepal, having previously been banned. It has an appeal to those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy

“The Church in Nepal has grown steadily, and by some estimates evangelical Christians are now almost 2% of the population. Though there has been more religious freedom since 1991, proselytising is still illegal. Christian publishing is permitted.” [AA]

“Before 1991, the number of Christians in this Hindu-dominated country was estimated to be around 50,000. Then, a new constitution was adopted following pro-democracy protests that led to a limited multiparty democracy under the monarchy.

“The new constitution retained an existing ban on conversions but also eased some of the restrictions on religious freedom. Consequently, police and State officials stopped prosecuting Christians who engaged in evangelising.

“This led to sudden spurt in the growth of Christians in Nepal, and it is estimated that there are now more than 800,000 Christians in 6,000 independent church congregations among the country’s population of 29 million people.” [AB]


Guantanamo: No Rule Of Law [US torture]

Laws were made for excellent reasons, usually to prevent things that would suit the would-be lawbreaker but would be bad for the whole society in the long run.

The USA has always had the attitude that laws shouldn’t really apply to them, and also that non-white foreigners didn’t really matter. After successfully tilting the balance of power in Afghanistan back towards the northern warlords, they scooped up a collection of prisoners who were described to the world as dangerous al-Qaeda terrorists. And a new category was invented, ‘unlawful combatants’, whom it was decided should have neither the rights of regular criminals nor the rights of prisoners of war.

If they had been viewed as criminals, they should not be held without evidence that would stand up in court. (Or even a seriously biased military tribunals.) If they had been viewed as prisoners of war, they can be held without specific evidence of guilt but should have been treated decently. Torture is illegal and immoral in either case, and the results also tend to be rubbish, with people making up whatever the torturer wishes to hear.

The prisoners were also dumped at a special prison created within the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on Cuba. The base was leased from Cuba in 1903 and the US has hung onto it in the face of Cuban demands that it be handed back. It is also viewed, by some legal jiggery-pokery, as being outside U.S. legal jurisdiction, meaning that prisoners there had no rights. The legal profession – which in the last analysis never forgets that it is an arm of the state and not the upholder of legal abstractions about justice – has so far gone along with this. Even when it turned out that a lot of the captives had merely been foreign sympathisers with the Taliban, there was no pressure to apply normal judicial rules.

“Judge Silberman showed sympathy for counterterrorism analysts who erred on the side of caution. In an ordinary criminal case, a judge may vote to overturn a conviction on evidentiary grounds even if he is virtually certain the defendant is guilty, Judge Silberman wrote. With a potential terrorist, he said, the stakes are different.

“‘When we are dealing with detainees,’ Judge Silberman said, ‘candor obliges me to admit that one can not help but be conscious of the infinitely greater downside risk to our country, and its people, of an order releasing a detainee who is likely to return to terrorism.'” [AC]

“Files obtained by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks have revealed that the US believed many of those held at Guantanamo Bay were innocent or only low-level operatives.

“The files, published in US and European newspapers, are assessments of all 780 people ever held at the facility.

“They show that about 220 were classed as dangerous terrorists, but 150 were innocent Afghans and Pakistanis.

“The Pentagon said the files’ release could damage anti-terrorism efforts.” [AD]

“The Guantanamo files are among hundreds of thousands of documents US soldier Bradley Manning is accused of having turned over to the WikiLeaks website more than a year ago.” [AE]

Treatment of Bradley Manning has also broken all of the norms. The whole ‘anti-terror’ campaign has backfired badly on the USA, destroyed whatever sympathy the world felt after 9/11 and made them look like blundering bullies. Which indeed is just what they are.


The Space Age and the Space Race [Yuri Gagarin]

April 12th saw the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering trip into space. It is being duly celebrated around the world, [AE] though not much in Anglo countries. It was a key event in the Space Race, which culminated in the USA’s successful moon landings from 1969. After which the focus switched to automatic probes: the USA could have gone on to Mars in the 1970s if the will had been there, but it was not.

The reasons go back to the origins of the original Space Race.

In the 1940s and 1950s, people knew that space flight was coming soon. A group of German enthusiasts led by Wernher von Braun led the field with rocketry that was planned for scientific purposes but got easily transformed into the V2 missile program. With the separate development of atomic weapons, people knew that long-range missiles would be significant. But for the Soviet Union it counted more: the USA had bases near the Soviet Union and could hit almost anywhere, whereas the USA was out of reach without an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Soviet team who developed this realised that such a powerful rocket could also be used to put a small satellite into orbit. Thus Sputnik 1 in 1957, suddenly making the USSR seem superior technically to the USA.

It was actually an illusion. The Soviet Union had had to concentrate on very big rockets. The USA hadn’t previously bothered and needed time to adapt. President Eisenhower correctly saw that satellites as they existed then were of little military significance, but public opinion in the USA thought otherwise and there was pressure to match the Soviet achievement. Several existing rockets were stretched beyond their normal capabilities in the hope of launching a satellite, and duly blew up in a burst of embarrassing publicity. They finally managed to get Explorer 1 into orbit in 1958. But 1958 also saw the creation of NASA, with Eisenhower correctly seeing the need to concentrate effort. NASA took time to pull things together, but was boosted by President Kennedy’s decision to go all out for a moon landing. Meantime things rather came apart in the Soviet Union. They did however come close to scooping the lunar landings by an automatic return of moon-rocks. This actually happened a few months after the first lunar landing, but was a pointer to the future. People in space are very expensive and accidents are global tragedies. Since the original aim was to look good, there was excellent reason to scale back.

After the moon landings, almost all of the serious space science has been done by robotic probes. This should continue to be the case: the same investment that could get people to Mars and back – or possibly get them killed or harmed for life by prolonged low gravity – could also send a whole fleet of automatic probes that could discover much more.

The International Space Station is an impressive achievement but not really very significant. The next stage is likely to be space tourism: there have already been tourists but soon they will have their own space rockets produced mostly to cater for them. A space hotel might also be possible, existing just because there are rich people who would pay millions to spend a few days there.

Meantime the space shuttle is being retired. It was a technological dead-end: it turned out to be much easier to produce a rocket that will work fine for its one and only flight, and return the crew or cargo in a small re-entry capsual. Things were much riskier with a heavy spacecraft that must be launched many times and land in a gliding path that can all too easily go wrong.


Evolution Prevented By Competition

Most of the history of life is about changelessness, not evolution. A relentless struggle for existence produces creatures good at winning that particular struggle, not creatures that can open up new possibilities.

Creating novel creatures turns out to be relatively easy, provided that they are free from competitive pressures. This happens on islands, with rare and interesting creatures like the finches and giant turtles of the Galapagos Islands. And it can also happen in isolated lakes:

“Michael Bell has his children to thank for his discovery. Back in 1990, they were getting restless as he was driving past Loberg Lake in Alaska. Bell, a biologist who studies the evolution of sticklebacks, had not planned to collect any fish, as the native sticklebacks had been exterminated in 1982 to improve the lake for anglers. ‘But we saw the lake, and we had to do something,’ Bell says.

“To Bell’s surprise, they found that marine sticklebacks had recolonised the lake. This in itself was not all that unusual: marine sticklebacks can live in fresh water, and most freshwater species are descended from marine ones that colonised streams and lakes as the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age.

“But there was something odd about these sticklebacks. Ten thousand years on from the ice age, freshwater sticklebacks are quite different from their sea-going ancestors. The most obvious change is loss of armour plates, which seem to take longer to develop in fresh water. In lakes, lightly armoured fish may outgrow and outcompete fully armoured fish.

“This trait was assumed to evolve slowly, over thousands of years, so Bell was surprised to find that some of the fish he caught in Loberg Lake had fewer plates. In 1991 he asked a friend to collect some more fish. Sure enough, more had lost their armour.

“Bell, who is based at Stony Brook University in New York, began collecting sticklebacks every year. Each time, he found more lightly armoured fish. By 2007, 90 per cent were of the low-armour form. Far from taking millennia, the trait had evolved in a couple of decades…

“More examples keep turning up. A species of fish in a lake in Nicaragua has split in two in only 100 years. The new variety has evolved a narrower, pointier head and fatter lips, ideal for nibbling insects from crevices. The original variety has sturdier jaws and extra teeth to crack snail shells. Lab studies suggest the strains do not mate with each other even when put together, which would mean they are on their way to becoming separate species…

“As the list of examples grew, Kinnison and his colleagues began to pull them together and look at what they tell us about evolution. ‘We started to realise that maybe this was not the exception, that this was the norm.’

“In fact, he now argues that the term ‘rapid evolution’ is misleading, because it implies evolution is normally slow. Instead, he and his colleagues prefer ‘contemporary evolution’.

“Nowadays, most biologists with a background in evolution appreciate this, Kinnison thinks. Of course, proving that contemporary evolution is the norm in a world of millions of species is a challenge. To those who remain sceptical, though, Kinnison’s response is simple: ‘Take a look.’

“If rapid evolution really is the norm, how come fossil and genetic studies suggest it is slow? The answer may be that new species and traits not only evolve rapidly, they also disappear fast too and do not leave their mark on the fossil or genetic record…

“Put it all together and the picture of evolution that is emerging is radically different to the way most people envisage the process. As Kinnison puts it, the popular view of evolution is upside down. People think evolutionary changes are imperceptible in the short term but add up to big changes over millions of years. In fact, the opposite is true. It now appears that organisms evolve very rapidly in response to any changes in their environment, but in the longer term most evolutionary changes cancel each other out.” [AF]

So much for the ‘struggle for existence’. A fierce struggle produces nothing very new. Spectacular new advances tend to occur on the margins. The ancestors of all land-walking tetrapods were a minor group of fish. Mammals emerged after the death of the dinosaurs from a collection of obscure little creatures that had no mattered before. Humans evolved as part of a minor group of primates, the apes, which on the whole had lost out to the smaller and more versatile monkeys.

I don’t think it’s that different in human culture. People long ago found the benefits of leaving some people alone to do whatever may interest them: most achieve nothing much but just a few achieve something spectacular. Science sprung from this habit and remains dependent on it.


Bewitched: Television From a Lost Era

April 16th saw the death of television writer Sol Saks, chiefly noted as creator of the long-running US comedy series Bewitched. I remember watching it on British television back in the 1960s. And I was struck by my memories of the cheery confident attitudes it showed to the supernatural, a big contrast to the edgy violent mood you find in later US television.

It’s been said that the series owes a lot to a 1942 film called I Married A Witch. I’ve seen that too, and I’d say that the changes in concept were small but crucial. Jennifer in I Married A Witch starts out with evil intentions: she is the classic ‘bad girl turned good’. Samantha in Bewitched is very different, an entirely nice well-meaning person, reluctant to use her powers and sometimes slow to spot hostility or bad intentions. Jennifer starts out working with her father on a scheme of vengeance: when she rejects this he tries to imprison her, only to fail and end up imprisoned by her. In Bewitched, a major theme is relations with Endora, Samantha’s mother. She dislikes this marriage to a normal human, but the two of them are clearly close and you’re confident that neither of them could ever hurt the other. Which provides an underlying logic to the fact that she will play pranks and try to break up the relationship but never go too far. It is also highly comic, reversing expectations by the daughter being responsible and the mother prone to pranks and foolish actions. And it also touches more on a real-life phenomenon in the USA, the children of immigrants or minority groups wanting to wholly integrate and their parents not liking it.

The ending of I Married A Witch lays the groundwork for a sequel, but there was no sequel, despite low production costs that made sequels much easier than nowadays. It wasn’t that great a film, and according to the IMDb the actress who played Jennifer behaved badly and offended the rest of the cast.

Bewitched ran from 1964 to 1972, apparently with a new actor as Samantha’s husband when the original had to quit because of back problems. I didn’t see those, nor the spin-offs, but it was a grand success. So much that a rival network tried a copy with I Dream of Jeanie, with Larry Hangman as the male lead as a very different character from JR in Dallas. Jeanie is a genie whose role is a kind of hybrid of Samantha and Endora: she tries to do good but also plays pranks. It didn’t have the same success.

The influence of Bewitched may even have reached into Star Trek. The gentle well-meaning Deanna Troi from The Next Generation is given an overbearing and embarrassing mother with whom she also has a strong bond. That was Lwaxana Troi, played by Majel Barrett, widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Both of them are members of a non-human species, but Deanna is half human has adapted to human ways. Lwaxana makes a point of being different and upholding her own traditions, though not in her choice of husbands. That relationship worked well as a source of comedy and drama, with Lwaxana brought back several times and becoming the most popular non-cast character apart from Q. I think she was also the only non-cast Star Trek relative seen more than once, apart from Spock’s father and maybe also his mother.

What’s also notable is that the USA nowadays has become edgy and unhappy and could not think about the supernatural as flippantly as Bewitched does. Despite vast material wealth, it is a society at the end of its tether. Something may snap soon.



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[K] [] Wealth is based on Purchasing Parity. Global population is taken to be 7 billion.

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[AF] From issue 2806 of New Scientist magazine, page 32-36.

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