Thursday, February 24, 2005

 

Toads make the best bureaucrats: Proven

ANNALS OF IMPROBABLE RESEARCH - An editorial in the Winter 2004 Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons reports that a toad provided more correct responses to Medicare policy questions than Medicare customer service representatives. A 2004 GAO study found that 96 percent of the time, customer reps gave the wrong answer to physicians asking how to bill Medicare. In response, Journal editor Lawrence Huntoon MD, PhD asked a toad a series of Medicare questions. A left jump meant a yes answer, a right jump meant no. The toad scored 50 percent.

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The Agony and the EXTASE

To watch President George Bush in Brussels this week was to see how far Europe has to go if it wants to be taken seriously in the world. On the one side, you had Caesar. On the other, the prime minister of Luxembourg. And of Belgium. And the president of the European commission. And the European Union's high representative for foreign policy. And the commissioners for external relations and trade. And dozens of other heads of national governments, different European institutions and departments, all falling over each other to bask in the sunshine of that imperial presence they so often privately deplore.

"If ridicule could kill, there would be bodies piling up in the streets in Brussels," said the Luxembourg prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, who was partly responsible for organising the reception of the US president because the rotating presidency of the EU is held by Luxembourg ("area ... slightly smaller than Rhode Island," says the CIA World Factbook). And he promises us an amusing passage in his memoirs on those intra-European squabbles to gain "face time" with the emperor.

Meanwhile, there was Caesar. Two hours before his keynote speech began, we filed through a shabby back entrance into the Concert Noble, a grand ballroom with crimson drapes, where the Belgian aristocracy still meet once a year for a bal de la noblesse. Gradually the front rows filled with ambassadors and minor dignitaries of the outer empire. A few American tribunes, prefects and great merchants were in evidence. A little later came the proconsuls, men of imperial gravitas, stately courtesy and crisp, regulation haircuts. All wore the Washingtonian toga: sober, dark suit and white shirt.

After a long wait, it was the time of the consuls and high imperial officials, including Condoleezza Rice. Buzz, buzz, went the crowd. Suddenly we found ourselves rising to our feet, led by the imperial household, only to greet Caesar's wife, Laura. A few minutes later, a voice from the loudspeakers announced: "The prime minister of Belgium ... and the president of the United States". We rose again, and there they were, the Belgian prime minister, with specs and floppy hair, loping in like some gangling, outsize schoolboy, and, flanked by his praetorian guard of secret servicemen, the US president, marching like an emperor: Tom and Jerry.

Seizing his moment in the global limelight, the Belgian prime minister welcomed president Bush to "the capital of Belgium and the capital of Europe". He adapted a remark by one of the Belgian founding fathers of the EU, Paul-Henri Spaak, to the effect that Europe consists only of small countries, "but some know it and some don't. Only a united Europe," he said, "can be a reliable partner of the United States". To walk, he concluded, we need two strong legs.

But where is the European leg? When he got to speak, after the Belgian premier's over-long introduction, President Bush laid out an ambitious agenda for what his administration is calling "transformational diplomacy". It contained some significant elements, including the insistence on a Palestinian state with contiguous territory on the West Bank ("a state of scattered territories will not work") and placing "democratic reform" at the heart of our dialogue with Russia. Like this agenda or hate it, you sure as hell know what it is.

Who knows what is Europe's agenda for the world? The question always attributed to Henry Kissinger - "You say Europe, but which number should I call?" - remains posed. The baffling multiplicity of people the American president had to meet in Brussels, including heads of large-minded small countries and small-minded large countries, as well as those of competing institutional parts of the EU, not to mention Nato just up the road, shows how far we still are from an answer.

Yet despite, or perhaps even because of, the enlargement of the EU, we are moving in the right direction - both in theory and in practice. In Ukraine, the EU's designated foreign minister, Javier Solana, worked with the Polish and Lithuanian presidents, in an ad hoc trio, to help secure a peaceful outcome to the orange revolution. In relations with Iran, three countries - France, Germany and Britain - are taking the lead, in close cooperation with Solana. There will surely be more of these improvised intra-European coalitions of the willing.

If the constitutional treaty is approved by all 25 member states, then next autumn Solana will become the EU's foreign minister, chairing the council of national foreign ministers and heading what is to be called, euphemistically, the European External Action Service. The British, and others, did not want it to be called what it really is: a fledgling European diplomatic service. Some friends in the European institutions have been trying to find an attractive acronym to compensate for that cumbersome title. They came up with EXTASE (EXTernal Action SErvice), which evokes suitably un-Eurocratic visions of ecstasy.

To get to Extase, Europe still has to go through a good deal of agony, including some in the original Greek sense of agonia, meaning struggle. The opposition is of two kinds: national and institutional. Many member states, especially Britain and France, don't want to surrender control of foreign policy. As a result, while the constitutional treaty allows for some qualified majority voting in the council of national foreign ministers chaired by the European foreign minister, it also gives every government the right to invoke "vital and stated reasons of national policy". It insists the matter be taken to the European Council of heads of government, where the contentious issue would have to be agreed by unanimity. Eurosceptics lobbying for a no vote in the British referendum are deliberately obscuring this point, suggesting that our foreign policy will now be made by the soulless fiat of faceless Eurocrats. Well, as an old Jewish proverb has it, a half-truth is a whole lie. But with such half-truths they may yet secure a no vote in Britain. Then it would be back to the drawing-board for a European foreign policy.

Seen from Brussels, the institutional obstacles loom almost as large. At the heart of the capital of the EU - not of Europe, as the Belgian prime minister suggested, but of the EU - two huge office blocks glare at each other across the Rue de la Loi. They are the headquarters of the European commission, the attractively revamped Berlaymont, representing the more supra-national side of the union, and those of the council of ministers, the dismal Justus Lipsius building, representing its more inter-governmental side. To make Extase work, officials from these two institutions will have to merge their efforts, building bridges across Law Street. If the EU's foreign policy is to have any real clout, it will also have to find ways of synchronising the most important instruments of EU-ropean power, trade policy, competition policy and enlargement, with the objectives set by member states and the European foreign minister. Boring bureaucratic stuff, but vital.

What comes out at the end will certainly not be another Caesar. The EU is not a new Roman empire; more a post-modern commonwealth. But if all goes well, the next US president may have a rather less confusing experience when he - or she - comes to visit in 2009.


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World wide Aids fight hampered

The fight against Aids is being hampered by a massive shortage of condoms - only about one-tenth of the 10.8bn needed were available in developing countries in 2003 and there seems little chance of meeting a target of 18.6bn by 2015.

The shortfall is partly due to a lack of funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which has had its income slashed by the Bush administration. The American right has lobbied strongly and successfully against giving money to agencies that support family planning clinics offering advice on abortion.

Today the international development minister, Gareth Thomas, will appeal to the EU to use its influence to get reproductive health and the condom issue discussed at the summit on the UN's millennium development goals in September.

"If we are going to try to tackle the Aids crisis in Africa and stop it expanding in Asia, we have got to increase funding for UNFPA and get reproductive health rights discussed," he said.

In a speech at the Overseas Development Institute in London, alongside Louis Michel, the EU development and humanitarian rights commissioner, Mr Thomas will urge Europe to exercise leadership.

Condoms are very effective in protecting men and women from infection with the HIV virus, which leads to Aids. But in Africa only four condoms a year are available for every man between 15 and 59 years old.

The US administration backs the use of condoms in its Aids-defeating mantra ABC - abstinence, be faithful and condoms - although some groups in the US would add, only as a last resort. (more)


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A market for everything

Here is another usual story (Link).

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Pamir in Tajikistan

Here is a neat article about a obscure region of the world, not to mention the usefulness of a worldwide ethnic diaspora (Link).

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Pick your antichrist

My favourite choice isn't on the list.

Link

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War on Drugs losing the hearts and minds

AP - While today's parents were more likely to have used drugs than in previous generations, they see less risk in drug experimentation and are less likely to speak with their children about it, according to a survey released Tuesday. The study of parental attitudes toward teen drug use, conducted by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, found that barely half of the parents would be upset if their children experimented with marijuana. The number of parents who have never spoken with their children about drugs was 12 percent, double what it was just six years ago, the survey found.

While most parents no longer use drugs, 11 percent reported marijuana use in the last year. They still carry attitudes fostered during their teen years, researchers found. This is particularly true about parents who were teenagers in the late '70s and early '80s, when teen drug use was at a high point.

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Give me some good old fashioned God

PURITAN MINISTER JONATHAN EDWARDS - The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathesome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment; it is ascribed to nothing else that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to wake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep; and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell-since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

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Quote

Freedom is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear - George Orwell

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

 

South Korea joins Thailand and Russia

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks sank on Tuesday as oil prices jumped above $51 a barrel and the dollar slid on concerns that other central banks would follow South Korea's lead in diversifying reserves out of U.S. assets.

But crude was the main focus during the session, climbing to a 15-week high amid cold winter weather in Europe and the United States, stoking fears that higher energy costs will hurt corporate profits and curb consumer spending.

The dollar also weighed on markets as the greenback suffered its biggest intraday fall against the euro since August. South Korea's central bank said on Monday it planned to diversify its reserves, the world's fourth largest, into a greater variety of currencies.

The move by South Korea fueled speculation that other central banks would follow suit. Fears of a weaker dollar diminishes foreign investors' appetite for U.S. assets.


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Isreal push US attack on Iran

ROWAN SCARBOROUGH, WASHINGTON TIMES - Israel has been privately pressing Washington to solve the Iran nuclear problem in a hint that Tel Aviv may be left with no choice but to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, defense officials say. Military analysts say the United States "would have no problem" taking out Iran's major nuclear facilities should it decide to launch a pre-emptive strike. The defense officials say Israel isn't putting its concerns about Iran in the form of a "you attack or we do" ultimatum to the United States. But they said senior Israeli officials often have raised the Iran problem during visits to Washington in the past 18 months. Tel Aviv's concerns are one reason the Bush administration in the past year has ratcheted up its rhetoric and its intelligence collection on Iran's clandestine program to build nuclear weapons, including surveillance flights by unmanned U.S. planes.

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For your amusement

SEAGOON: ... Now what's this all about?

MORIARTY: It is the revolution -- everywhere there is an armed rising.

SEAGOON: Are you all in it?

MORIARTY: Right in it -- you see, the united anti-socialist neo-democratic pro-fascist communist party are fighting to overthrow the unilateral democratic united partisan bellicose pacifist cobelligerent tory labour liberal party.

SEAGOON: Whose side are you on?

MORIARTY: There are no sides -- we're all in this together.

Goon Show 1954

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A brilliant book

The title says it all (link). Make sure to read the reviews.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

 

Euphemisms

condition non-conducive to life
going into the fertilizer business
has reservations at the Chateau Eternity
immortally challenged
kicked the oxygen habit
living-impaired
negative patient care outcome
permanently out of print
pushin' up parsley
reformatted by God
retroactive abortion
struck out by the Big Blue Pencil

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Gannon & Eason

What do Jordan Eason and Jeff Gannon have in common? Not much, first initial aside. Until recently Jordan Eason was the respected chief news executive of CNN and Jeff Gannon a.k.a. Jeff Guckert was a prostitute turned propogandist for a republican shill known as the "Talon News Network". Jordan Eason was a Davos man, one of those few hundred who come closest to running the world. Gannon had traded being a military-fetish man-toy for selling his word to the current administration.

They do share the same downfall. They have been hounded into resigning due to pressure from online activists. In each case the story that destoryed them started in the blogosphere. Eason was brought down by a man listening to a panel discussion at the most recent World Economic Forum. Gannon fell after a soft-ball question in the white house press room. Both cases sparked blogstorms, frenzies of interconnected web logs both probing and regurgitating the stories until only the darkest interpretations on the victims actions could be accepted. Gannon was now an example of the corrupt depths to which the Bush administration would go to paint itself in a positive light. Eason was an America-hater and an ally of islamic terror. Gannon's mistake was to try to pull himself out of the escort business by working for a conservative propaganda website, and Eason's mistake was poor word choice when responding to the sanitization of the killing of journalist by american soldier in Iraq.

Neither man should have been hung by the blogosphere. These were witch-hunts. Bloggers smelled blood and ran for it. And in both cases they have succeeded in destroying careers. I hope those responsible have the dignity to be ashamed of their actions. It is exactly th is sort of bullshit blood sport that is driving the cultural rift in the US (the one both sides are losing, but we'll dicuss that another time). Gannon's case is an interesting story, but is it an actual scandal? Is Eason not allowed to challenge the use of euphenisms that gloss over the deaths fifty or so journalists (and tens of thousands of ordinary people)? The scandal here is the lynch mob mentality of the blogosphere.

Scoundrels.

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Big is better.... for fish

World fish stocks are shrinking - literally. Fish are becoming smaller as the largest ones are caught for food. Because bigger, older fish are the most fertile, this also reduces the chance that stocks will recover, scientists warn.

Steven Berkeley, of the University of California Santa Cruz, said that older specimens were more highly prized by fishers - and produced more larvae. A 50cm (20in) rockfish produces 200,000 larvae, an 80cm (30in) one would produce 2m.

After testing rockfish larvae he found that survival rates were three times higher, and growth rates were 3.5 times faster, for larvae from older mothers. "Fishing very quickly removes older fish from a population," he said.

"By eliminating old fish we not only shorten the spawning season, we also eliminate the best spawners, the very fish we need to allow populations to recover."


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Have you seen our submarine?

Lost: much loved robot submarine, last seen under 200 metres of Antarctic ice last Wednesday, answers to the name Autosub - reward. (link)

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Nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash

I admit it I find this story rather amusing. The royal navy is finally acting on its long underground tradition of homosexuality. Now if they they just have to admit to the use of peg boys in the past.

It is a liaison that would once have turned many military top brass purple with rage. Five years after the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces was lifted, the Royal Navy is entering into a partnership with Stonewall and actively seeking gay recruits by advertising in the pink press.

Subject to smutty innuendo ever since Churchill supposedly dismissed Britain's naval tradition as "nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash", the navy will today cast off centuries of repression and inhibition by seeking Stonewall's advice on the recruitment and retention of gay and lesbian sailors. In a transformation likened by activists to turning round a supertanker, the navy will pay the pressure group for advice on curbing prejudice and ensuring gay personnel have equal rights to housing, benefits and pensions. (link)


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Corrupted Intelligence

RAY MCGOVERN, TOM PAINE - I served under nine CIA directors, four of them at close remove. And I watched the system work more often than malfunction. Under their second hat as Director of Central Intelligence, those directors already had the necessary statutory authority to coordinate effectively the various intelligence agencies and ensure that they did not hoard information. All that was needed was a strong leader with integrity, courage, with no felt need to be a "team player," and a president who would back him up when necessary. (Sadly, it has been 24 years since the intelligence community has had a director, and a president, fitting that bill.)

Lost in all the hand wringing about lack of intelligence sharing is the fact that the CIA and the FBI have been kept separate and distinct entities for very good reason-first and foremost, to protect civil liberties. But now, under the intelligence reform legislation, the DNI will have under his aegis not only the entire CIA, whose operatives are skilled at breaking (foreign) law, but also a major part of the FBI, whose agents are carefully trained not to violate constitutional protections or otherwise go beyond the law.(That is why the FBI agents at Guantanamo judged it necessary to report the abuses they saw.). . .

Gen. William Odom, one of the most highly respected and senior intelligence professionals, now retired, put a useful perspective on last summer's politically driven rush into wholesale intelligence reform. In a Washington Post op-ed on August 1 he was typically direct in saying, "No organizational design will compensate for incompetent incumbents." . . .(link)

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