The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. -- John Kenneth Galbraith
Saturday, March 19, 2005
G8 deal on illegal logging
An agreement by the G8 group of industrialised countries to control illegal logging of forests by only buying timber from legal sources was hailed as a breakthrough yesterday by Hilary Benn, the development secretary.
The US, which has resisted the deal, accepted pressure from the environment and development ministers meeting in Derby on condition the curbs on timber purchases did not interfere with free trade.
Developing countries, beset by corruption and widespread mafia operations to steal timber from their forests, have appealed to developed countries to impose controls to stop the lucrative illegal log trade.
By preventing government departments, local authorities and all public contractors buying timber without legal certification, ministers hope to put pressure on the timber industry to get its suppliers to become legitimate. Goverments also undertook to "influence the private sector" to use only legally sourced timber.
Mr Benn, who "welcomed enormously" the agreement, said that a second part of the process was to help developing countries to police their logging industries and introduce proper certification and labelling schemes, and to stamp out corruption. "We have to work at this problem from both ends if we are to succeed", he said, "but this is a tremendous start." (More)
Being above it all is no longer a viable defence.
The corporate world felt a seismic shift when a New York jury found Bernie Ebbers guilty.
Ignorance may be bliss, but legal precedent now suggests that a chief executive will never be able to enjoy this state of serenity. Whenever he feels the warm glow of a knowledge vacuum beginning to suffuse him, he should be instantly chilled by the realisation that no right-minded observer will accord him this luxury. It is impossible to be blissful because ignorant outsiders automatically assume your complete grasp of all the facts.
The legal precedent, if it be such, was created this week with the conviction in the US of the collapsed WorldCom's chief executive, Bernie Ebbers. Fraud to the tune of $11bn (£5.8bn) bankrupted the telecoms high flyer in 2001. Ebbers had relied on a defence characterised as "aw shucks" - that he was above the detail of his business, and that all of the corruption took place beneath his station and his knowledge. Only if his likely appeal succeeds, and he avoids a possible 85-year jail term, will his ignorance (real or imagined) prove to have been blissful.
To those outside the business world it may seem extraordinary that Ebbers could have hoped to pull off such an eye-popping legal coup de thétre. However, it is not quite as extraordinary to those who have experienced the particular interplay between finance directors and the chief executives to whom they report. The prosecutors in the WorldCom case were helped by wringing a plea bargain out of the company's former chief financial officer. It is impossible to conceive of a witness in a more pivotal position to be swung against the accused.
The role of finance director or chief financial officer brings with it a range of responsibilities that are often hard to reconcile. On the one hand, he has a duty to provide an accurate representation of the business's financial performance and health. On the other, he has a key part in the company's future growth and development, as well as its financing, and is likely to be incentivised accordingly. In reality, few major strategic and tactical decisions are likely to be taken without not only the CFO's input as a bean counter, but also as a businessman.
Modern financial regimes - involving regulation, accounting standards, taxation and the money markets - are so complex that a detailed understanding of them is beyond any but the most expert. The average chief executive is unlikely to have sufficient expertise to find his way through these mazes. His finance director may himself be wanting. Nevertheless it is his responsibility to corral the necessary experts (within the firm and from outside advisers) to make the best for the business from the opportunities and pitfalls that abound.
It is no wonder that, in practice, chief executives with the (supposed) strategic leadership skills that have (supposedly) got them where they are rely heavily on their CFOs to have a complete grasp of the numbers and all necessary accoutrements. The chief executive will concentrate on finding a finance director who is up to this task, and crucially with whom he can get on, and then leave him to it.
Leaving him to it, though, involves an intimate, continuous working relationship in which each trusts the other to fulfil his half of the corporate responsibilities. Such is the reality of corporate life. The best businesses are topped by a duo with complementary skills and personalities. It is no coincidence that the two career paths tend to be separate, few CFOs make it into the top seat.
Ebbers' guilty verdicts have been generally interpreted as an indication that the jurors concluded that he was not ignorant of the fraud perpetrated on WorldCom's shareholders. One might ask, however, whether it would or should have made any difference had Ebbers indeed been blissfully ignorant. After all, one of the most fundamental "crimes" that any chief executive can commit is to misjudge the character of his finance director.
In the UK, where there is almost always a splitting of the posts of chairman and chief executive, the chairman has a crucial role to play in setting the objectives of both the chief executive and his CFO. And in assessing their performance. One might wonder, then, whether the British buck should stop at the chairman, and not the chief executive beneath him. This thought might send a chill down the spine of many a part-time chairman who fears the tougher regulatory environment, but currently sleeps easy with the thought that his chief executive will catch the deadly bullet while he might merely find his reputation winged.
The common sense evident in a New York jury room this week could, in time, perform a valuable service to the cause of corporate governance around the world. At the same time, though, it will raise the risk bar even higher for those contemplating the highest corporate office and the necessary faith in fellow executives that goes with it.
Clueless on the Bank
Troops unwilling to fight a seecond stint in Iraq
At the same time that Kevin Benderman's unit was called up for a second tour in Iraq with the Third Infantry Division, two soldiers tried to kill themselves and another had a relative shoot him in the leg. Seventeen went awol or ran off to Canada, and Sergeant Benderman, whose family has sent a son to every war since the American revolution, defied his genes and nine years of military training and followed his conscience.
As the division packed its gear to leave Fort Stewart, Sgt Benderman applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector - an act seen as a betrayal by many in a military unit considered the heart of the US army, the "Walking Pride of Uncle Sam".
Two years ago today, the columns of the Third ID roared up from the Kuwaiti desert for the push towards Baghdad. When the city fell, the Marines controlled the neighbourhoods on the east side of the Tigris and the Third ID had the west. It was, according to the army command, an occasion for pride.
Some of the men and women who were there remain unconvinced. Like Sgt Benderman, who served six months in Iraq at the start of the war, they were scarred by their experience, and angry at being called again to combat so soon.
They may not be part of any organised anti-war movement, but the conscientious objectors, runaways, and other irregular protesters suggest that, two years on, the war is taking a heavy toll. "They can't train you for the reality. You can't have a mass grave with dogs eating the people in it," Sgt Benderman told the Guardian. "It's not like practising for a football game, or cramming for a test in college. You can go out there and train, but until you actually experience war first hand you don't know what it's like."
A large man in his uniform, with blue eyes and a southern drawl, the 40-year-old is every inch the soldier. He has spent nearly 10 years in the army, signing up for a second stint in 2000 because he felt he had not done his duty to his country. The war did away with that feeling, with the sergeant horrified by Iraqi civilian deaths and the behaviour of the young menhe commanded, who he said treated war like bumping off targets in a video game. (Link)
World bank staff to join the protesters
There is no way that the U.S. can ram Wolfowwitz's nomination through because the U.S. only has 16.39% of the vote (The largest single voting bloc by far). I haven't done the math to see if Europe can block the nomination by itself. The Bush administration will need some diplomacy to get this through, and diplomacy is not their strong suit. When they figure out that threats, bluster and insults are not the stuff of diplomacy they might actually be a threat. Here is a nation by nation break down of the world bank voting regime.
Washington's nomination of Paul Wolfowitz as the World Bank's next president has triggered an outcry among the bank's staff, who have demanded the right to have a say in his confirmation, it emerged yesterday.
The staff association has met the bank's executives to voice its concerns after it was swamped with complaints from employees over the selection of Mr Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary and one of the architects of the Iraq war.
One bank employee said yesterday: "When you work for the bank you have to be a compromise-seeker. Everyone sees him as a divisive figure."
In an email to members, the staff association's chairwoman, Alison Cave, said: "While recognising that the selection and confirmation of the next World Bank president is the prerogative of the shareholders, staff are asking that their views be taken into consideration and taken seriously by the decision-makers."
"The staff association is preparing to act as a conduit for these views, and the executive committee is urgently considering the most effective way to help staff be heard."
Staff representatives met the outgoing bank president, James Wolfensohn, on Thursday to express the level of alarm. A bank official said: "There have been wild emails about petitions and rallies, but the association has assured us it definitively is not going to involved in any of that."
Mr Wolfowitz's relationship with a member of World Bank staff, Shaha Ali Riza, a Tunisian-born British citizen who works as a communications adviser for the Middle East and North Africa department, also appears to have become an issue.
Ms Riza, a divorcee like Mr Wolfowitz, does not work directly for the bank president's office and their relationship would not be prohibited by the banks internal guidelines.
But one official said yesterday: "It should be covered [by World Bank rules], because the bank president does have a lot of power." A colleague of Ms Riza said: "There's no obvious reason she should lose her job just because her boyfriend is made president." Ms Riza did not return calls yesterday.
Staff at the World Bank fear Mr Wolfowitz might push through longstanding US proposals to make it an organisation that gives out grants rather than loans. "It's much easier to politicise grants," an official said. "Loans have to be economically feasible."
Sebastian Mallaby, the author of The World's Banker, a profile of Mr Wolfensohn, said: "All incoming bank presidents face scepticism and hostility from an entrenched and proud staff of development professionals who think they know ten times as much as the new president."
The World Bank's executive directors, representing its shareholder nations, announced yesterday they would be interviewing Mr Wolfowitz in the next few days before making a final decision.
Mr Mallaby said he expected European states to block the appointment.
He said Mr Wolfowitz's biggest problem would be that his reputation would be the focus of the World Bank's enemies once he took up the job.
"The permanent establishment of World Bank critics - who had been diverted to protesting [about] the Iraq war - can now do both at once," Mr Mallaby said. "It's like Christmas for them."Not every bank official was up in arms yesterday. One said: "It's better to have someone dynamic and [who] knows about development than somebody who has just been put out to pasture. I would rather be led strongly even if I don't agree with[ him]."
U.S. companies can now keep deadly secrets
Actually, I just had a stray thought, could the accumlated pro-corporate precedents in law be caused by the tendency of big businesses to be able to afford better lawyers. No corruption, just a little gain every time because they have more success in their arguements. As I said a stray thought.
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - Consider the following scenario. A drug company's research determines that one of its drugs already on the market is dangerous. The company decides the research results are proprietary trade secrets and bottles them up. It's clear that the public would be served by a conscientious insider leaking the research data to the media.
But after a ruling that could limit the public's access to vital information, insiders may now be reluctant to leak that kind of information. That's because Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg said a reporter's promise of confidentiality may not be worth anything when the leak involves trade secrets.
That wrongheaded decision came in a case in which Apple sought to compel several Web sites that published leaked information about upcoming products to reveal their sources. The ruling flies in the face of First Amendment guarantees and the California Shield Law, which allows journalists to keep sources confidential. . .
The ruling is deeply troubling on many levels. First of all, companies have wide latitude to determine what is a trade secret. Anything they don't want published could potentially qualify. Second, the media have long been protected when releasing leaked trade secrets, such as internal tobacco company documents. The media's role in a free society is to publish information that is accurate and of interest to the public, not to protect the commercial interests of private companies.
What's more, Kleinberg seems to indicate that he's in a position to decide what is newsworthy. Saying that "an interested public is not the same as the public interest," he suggests that information about upcoming Apple products is little more than gossip. That's a dangerous precedent. Would a leak last month about Hewlett-Packard's imminent firing of Carly Fiorina be news or mere gossip? Could a wide swath of information about private businesses become off-limits to reporters? (Link)
Climate Change will be more difficult to deal with
NEW SCIENTIST - No matter how well the world controls emissions of greenhouse gases, global climate change is inevitable, warn two new studies which take into account the oceans' slow response to warming.
Even if greenhouse gases never rise beyond their present level, temperatures and sea levels will continue rising for another century or more because of a time lag in the oceans' response to atmospheric temperatures, say researchers.
This time lag means policymakers cannot afford to wait to tackle climate change until its consequences become painful, because by then they will already be committed to further change, they urge. "The feeling is that if things are getting bad, you hit the stop button. But even if you do, the climate continues to change," says Gerald Meehl, a climatologist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
Meehl and his colleagues used two sophisticated computer models of global climate to predict what would happen under various scenarios for greenhouse gas emission controls, taking into account the oceanic time lag. Their most optimistic scenario - in which atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are capped at year 2000 levels - would require severe cuts in CO2 emissions, far beyond those set in the Kyoto protocol. (Link)
The Wisdom of H.L. Mencken
A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.
A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers.
All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.
All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else.
Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.
Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.
I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.
In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell.
It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man.
It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf.
It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
The Top Ten Most Often Repeated Remarks At The Conservative Party Convention:
9) Gee, the new animatronic Stephen Harper looks even more like-like than the last one.
8) When do we get to see Belinda strip naked?
7) Why yes, I will be attending the ceremonial Canadian flag burning later this evening.
6) Eh heh heh, huh huh, eh heh heh, he said butt.
5) O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hail'd, at the twilight's last gleaming. . .
4) All I want to know is why in the hell are we in Montreal?
3) All my cheering has been pre-approved by Stephen Harper.
2) We wantsss the preciousss. Nasty librulssess hasss the preciousss. The preciousss is oursss, preciousss.
And the number one most often repeated remark at the Conservative Party convention;
1) Nananananananana BATMAN! I mean LEADER!
I wish I was that good. (Link)
Friday, March 18, 2005
Seaweed farming in Tanzania
Innovation does not help much. Though the information is interesting.
Cultivating her new crop at Vumawimbi beach on the northern tip of Pemba island, she hopes it will supplement the meagre income she earns from other sources.
"We don't yet know how successful it will be as we have not sold any yet," says Fatima.
"But we think it will help us to earn a little money, which we can invest in other small businesses. We are not rich, sometimes we don't even have the money to buy enough food, so selling seaweed will help."
Fatima is one of an estimated 5,000 farmers who are cultivating seaweed on the small island of Pemba.
All along the Tanzanian coast and around its many islands, other farmers are doing the same.
They are meeting a worldwide demand for seaweed, which is being used as an ingredient in everything from cosmetics to cheeses, and fertilizers to shampoos. (More)
Wolfowitz lobbies Bono
The orginal article is here. Some amusing commentary is here.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Paul Wolfowitz, whose nomination as World Bank president has stirred controversy, discussed poverty and development issues with Irish rock star Bono in two phone conversations on Thursday, an adviser said.
Wolfowitz adviser Kevin Kellems told Reuters the deputy U.S. defense secretary initiated the lengthy conversations with the lead singer of the rock group U2, whose name had been bandied about for the World Bank presidency.
President Bush on Wednesday named Wolfowitz, a key architect of the Iraq war, to be the next World Bank president, but the choice has been controversial, especially in Europe.
An endorsement by Bono, who campaigns extensively for African aid and debt relief, could defuse some of the criticism of Wolfowitz.
Kellems said the discussions "were incredibly substantive about reducing poverty, about development, about the opportunity to help people that the World Bank presidency provides and about charitable giving and social progress around the globe.
"They clicked. They were very enthusiastic, detailed and lengthy conversations," Kellems said.
Tom Hart, government relations director for DATA -- Debt, AIDS, Trade and Africa -- the lobby group co-founded by Bono, said the rock star believed it was important to share his views on Africa and poverty with Wolfowitz.
"Bono thought it was important that he put forward the issues that are critical to the World Bank, like debt cancellation, aid effectiveness and a real focus on poverty reduction," Hart said.
Wolfowitz first telephoned Bono on Wednesday to schedule the conversations. In the past 24 hours, Wolfowitz had spoken with a broad range of foreign leaders, bank officials and advocates for poverty reduction and international development, aides said.
Two plans to steal oil
By the way this is a really juicy story.
The Bush administration made plans for war and for Iraq's oil before the 9/11 attacks, sparking a policy battle between neo-cons and Big Oil, BBC's Newsnight has revealed.
Two years ago today - when President George Bush announced US, British and Allied forces would begin to bomb Baghdad - protesters claimed the US had a secret plan for Iraq's oil once Saddam had been conquered.
In fact there were two conflicting plans, setting off a hidden policy war between neo-conservatives at the Pentagon, on one side, versus a combination of "Big Oil" executives and US State Department "pragmatists".
"Big Oil" appears to have won. The latest plan, obtained by Newsnight from the US State Department was, we learned, drafted with the help of American oil industry consultants.
Insiders told Newsnight that planning began "within weeks" of Bush's first taking office in 2001, long before the September 11th attack on the US.
An Iraqi-born oil industry consultant, Falah Aljibury, says he took part in the secret meetings in California, Washington and the Middle East. He described a State Department plan for a forced coup d'etat.
Mr Aljibury himself told Newsnight that he interviewed potential successors to Saddam Hussein on behalf of the Bush administration.
The industry-favoured plan was pushed aside by a secret plan, drafted just before the invasion in 2003, which called for the sell-off of all of Iraq's oil fields. The new plan was crafted by neo-conservatives intent on using Iraq's oil to destroy the Opec cartel through massive increases in production above Opec quotas.
The sell-off was given the green light in a secret meeting in London headed by Ahmed Chalabi shortly after the US entered Baghdad, according to Robert Ebel.
Wolfowitz at the bank
PROGRESS REPORT - The White House floated Wolfowitz's name to the international community a couple of weeks ago. The Bank's board made it clear to U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow that their response "was unfavorable." According to the New York Times, after the U.S. suggested Wolfowitz, the Europeans also asked "that more than one name be presented." So what did President Bush do? He ignored their request completely and instead publicly announced Wolfowitz as his choice. One source "close to the Bank" charged the appointment shows that the U.S. government "couldn't care less what the rest of the world thinks."
The United States is the largest shareholder in the World Bank; thus, the institution traditionally defers to the U.S. when it comes to the presidency. Wolfowitz, however, is such an unpopular choice that his nomination is already meeting rare resistance. The Times of London reports the surprising nomination "sparked howls of outrage from foes and a distinct lack of enthusiasm from friends" abroad, predicting a "potentially bruising fight with Washington over the post." The Washington Post agrees, reporting "speculation that a Wolfowitz candidacy could be torpedoed by the board of the bank." As German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said, "The storm of enthusiasm in old Europe is muted."
Paul Wolfowitz stubbornly refused to listen to others going into Iraq and his myopic views led to egregious mistakes. Remember, he's the one who infamously told Congress the war would basically pay for itself, saying, "we are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon." Since then, the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has reached nearly $300 billion. He attacked Gen. Eric Shinseki for suggesting the reconstruction of Iraq would take a couple hundred thousand troops, saying he was "wildly off the mark." Wolfowitz also has been criticized for pressuring intelligence agencies to produce false links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and reportedly approved unethical interrogation methods that led to torture in U.S. prisons. (Link - slow)
The problem with high gas prices
BUSH BERNARD, TENNESSEAN - As average prices for regular unleaded topped the $2 mark in Nashville yesterday, there's been a growing demand for the number 2 from some convenience-store and gas-station owners, said Bobby Joslin of Joslin and Son Sign Co. "The large numbers cost about $150 each, so stores don't keep a large inventory of them around," Joslin said yesterday. . .
A few rural stations may run into problems with older mechanical pumps that don't have digital readouts and can't display revolving prices higher than $1.99 a gallon.
Why Hawaiian Sentors voted to pillage Alaska
A Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill would give Hawaiians the same right to self-government as American Indians and Native Alaskans, but would not create new race-based preferences, Hawai'i lawmakers said yesterday. The Hawai'i congressional delegation introduced the legislation for the third time since 2000, and began the difficult political groundwork to overcome skeptical Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration.
"Extending the federal policy of self-determination and self-governance to Native Hawaiians is indispensable to further the process of reconciliation between Native Hawaiians and the United States,'" said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i.
The bill, identical to a version that stalled last session, would recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with an inherent right to form a government that could have government-to-government relations with the United States. The bill also would establish a Native Hawaiian office in the Department of Interior and an interagency coordinating group to follow Hawaiian issues and programs in the federal government.
Bush to "contain" Chavez
Geez Louise, you would think they would realize that pushing Chavez is a good way of losing influence in all of South America given the rise of left throughout the region. Any leftist government would want Chavez in power and being his Loud and abnoxious self because it provides them with cover. Push him and most of South America will back him. Nutbars, not an ounce of political acumen amoungst them.
FINANCIAL TIMES - Senior US administration officials are working on a policy to "contain" Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, and what they allege is his drive to "subvert" Latin America's least stable states. A strategy aimed at fencing in the government of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter is being prepared at the request of President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, senior US officials say. The move signals a renewed interest by the administration in a region that has been relatively neglected in recent years.
Mr Chavez, whose government has enjoyed bumper export revenues during his six years in office thanks to high oil prices, has denied that he is aiding insurgent groups in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. But a tougher stance from the US appears to be in the offing, a move that is likely to worsen strained bilateral relations. . .
Mr Chavez has threatened to suspend oil shipments to the US if it attempts to oust him. He and Fidel Castro, the Cuban president, have alleged, without offering proof, that the Bush administration was plotting to assassinate the Venezuelan leader, an allegation that US officials have dismissed as "wild."
Mercyhurst will guard the U.S.
CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY - A tiny college located in the hometown of ex-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is negotiating a no-bid contract to train intelligence analysts for the sprawling agency. In doing so, the agency is short-circuiting a selection process that would normally include a host of bigger and better known institutions already working in that field such as George Washington University and Georgetown University. Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security filed notice it was entering into negotiations on a sole source basis with Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., to develop and run an intelligence analyst certificate program for the department. Mercyhurst is a liberal arts, private, Catholic school located on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. The school has an enrollment of about 3,100. (Link)
Quote - Some people hav style
This doesn't makes sense
In the early 90's Dr Evgeny Podkletnov was experimenting with YBCO superconductors suspended in magnetic fields. He found that if the superconductor was rotated any object placed above the superconductor had its weight decrease. After examining a spectacular number of potential causes, he was left with the conclusion that gravity was decreasing above the superconductor. He published his results in Physics Review D (I think) and was largely ignored. When I did a web search I found a few anecdotal accounts of successes in replicating the results but no published article.
1 The Placebo Effect
DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.
This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.
So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don't know.
Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson's disease (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 587). He and his team measured the activity of neurons in the patients' brains as they administered the saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson's symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and with fewer "bursts" of firing - another feature associated with Parkinson's. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.
We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says, but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body's biochemistry. "The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction," he says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know.
2 The Horison Problem
Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so there is no way heat radiation could have travelled between the two horizons to even out the hot and cold spots created in the big bang and leave the thermal equilibrium we see now.
This "horizon problem" is a big headache for cosmologists, so big that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions. "Inflation", for example.
You can solve the horizon problem by having the universe expand ultra-fast for a time, just after the big bang, blowing up by a factor of 1050 in 10-33 seconds. But is that just wishful thinking? "Inflation would be an explanation if it occurred," says University of Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees. The trouble is that no one knows what could have made that happen.
So, in effect, inflation solves one mystery only to invoke another. A variation in the speed of light could also solve the horizon problem - but this too is impotent in the face of the question "why?" In scientific terms, the uniform temperature of the background radiation remains an anomaly.
3 Ultra-energetic Cosmic Rays
As cosmic-ray particles travel through space, they lose energy in collisions with the low-energy photons that pervade the universe, such as those of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Einstein's special theory of relativity dictates that any cosmic rays reaching Earth from a source outside our galaxy will have suffered so many energy-shedding collisions that their maximum possible energy is 5 × 1019 electronvolts. This is known as the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin limit.
Over the past decade, however, the University of Tokyo's Akeno Giant Air Shower Array - 111 particle detectors spread out over 100 square kilometres - has detected several cosmic rays above the GZK limit. In theory, they can only have come from within our galaxy, avoiding an energy-sapping journey across the cosmos. However, astronomers can find no source for these cosmic rays in our galaxy. So what is going on?
One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno results. Another is that Einstein was wrong. His special theory of relativity says that space is the same in all directions, but what if particles found it easier to move in certain directions? Then the cosmic rays could retain more of their energy, allowing them to beat the GZK limit.
Physicists at the Pierre Auger experiment in Mendoza, Argentina, are now working on this problem. Using 1600 detectors spread over 3000 square kilometres, Auger should be able to determine the energies of incoming cosmic rays and shed more light on the Akeno results.
Alan Watson, an astronomer at the University of Leeds, UK, and spokesman for the Pierre Auger project, is already convinced there is something worth following up here. "I have no doubts that events above 1020 electronvolts exist. There are sufficient examples to convince me," he says. The question now is, what are they? How many of these particles are coming in, and what direction are they coming from? Until we get that information, there's no telling how exotic the true explanation could be.
4 Belfast Homoepathy Results
In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.
So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.
You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.
5 Dark Matter
Vera Rubin, an astronomer working at the Carnegie Institution's department of terrestrial magnetism in Washington DC, spotted this anomaly in the late 1970s. The best response from physicists was to suggest there is more stuff out there than we can see. The trouble was, nobody could explain what this "dark matter" was.
And they still can't. Although researchers have made many suggestions about what kind of particles might make up dark matter, there is no consensus. It's an embarrassing hole in our understanding. Astronomical observations suggest that dark matter must make up about 90 per cent of the mass in the universe, yet we are astonishingly ignorant what that 90 per cent is.
Maybe we can't work out what dark matter is because it doesn't actually exist. That's certainly the way Rubin would like it to turn out. "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances," she says. "That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle."
6 Viking Methane
Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the nutrients, metabolising them, and then belching out gas laced with carbon-14.
So why no party?
Because another instrument, designed to identify organic molecules considered essential signs of life, found nothing. Almost all the mission scientists erred on the side of caution and declared Viking's discovery a false positive. But was it?
The arguments continue to rage, but results from NASA's latest rovers show that the surface of Mars was almost certainly wet in the past and therefore hospitable to life. And there is plenty more evidence where that came from, Levin says. "Every mission to Mars has produced evidence supporting my conclusion. None has contradicted it."
Levin stands by his claim, and he is no longer alone. Joe Miller, a cell biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has re-analysed the data and he thinks that the emissions show evidence of a circadian cycle. That is highly suggestive of life.
Levin is petitioning ESA and NASA to fly a modified version of his mission to look for "chiral" molecules. These come in left or right-handed versions: they are mirror images of each other. While biological processes tend to produce molecules that favour one chirality over the other, non-living processes create left and right-handed versions in equal numbers. If a future mission to Mars were to find that Martian "metabolism" also prefers one chiral form of a molecule to the other, that would be the best indication yet of life on Mars.
Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei together.
The team fired beryllium nuclei at a small carbon target and analysed the debris that shot into surrounding particle detectors. They expected to see evidence for four separate neutrons hitting their detectors. Instead the Ganil team found just one flash of light in one detector. And the energy of this flash suggested that four neutrons were arriving together at the detector. Of course, their finding could have been an accident: four neutrons might just have arrived in the same place at the same time by coincidence. But that's ridiculously improbable.
Not as improbable as tetraneutrons, some might say, because in the standard model of particle physics tetraneutrons simply can't exist. According to the Pauli exclusion principle, not even two protons or neutrons in the same system can have identical quantum properties. In fact, the strong nuclear force that would hold them together is tuned in such a way that it can't even hold two lone neutrons together, let alone four. Marquès and his team were so bemused by their result that they buried the data in a research paper that was ostensibly about the possibility of finding tetraneutrons in the future (Physical Review C, vol 65, p 44006).
And there are still more compelling reasons to doubt the existence of tetraneutrons. If you tweak the laws of physics to allow four neutrons to bind together, all kinds of chaos ensues (Journal of Physics G, vol 29, L9). It would mean that the mix of elements formed after the big bang was inconsistent with what we now observe and, even worse, the elements formed would have quickly become far too heavy for the cosmos to cope. "Maybe the universe would have collapsed before it had any chance to expand," says Natalia Timofeyuk, a theorist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK.
There are, however, a couple of holes in this reasoning. Established theory does allow the tetraneutron to exist - though only as a ridiculously short-lived particle. "This could be a reason for four neutrons hitting the Ganil detectors simultaneously," Timofeyuk says. And there is other evidence that supports the idea of matter composed of multiple neutrons: neutron stars. These bodies, which contain an enormous number of bound neutrons, suggest that as yet unexplained forces come into play when neutrons gather en masse.
8 The Pioneer Anomaly
That's because something has been pulling - or pushing - on them, causing them to speed up. The resulting acceleration is tiny, less than a nanometre per second per second. That's equivalent to just one ten-billionth of the gravity at Earth's surface, but it is enough to have shifted Pioneer 10 some 400,000 kilometres off track. NASA lost touch with Pioneer 11 in 1995, but up to that point it was experiencing exactly the same deviation as its sister probe. So what is causing it?
Nobody knows. Some possible explanations have already been ruled out, including software errors, the solar wind or a fuel leak. If the cause is some gravitational effect, it is not one we know anything about. In fact, physicists are so completely at a loss that some have resorted to linking this mystery with other inexplicable phenomena.
Bruce Bassett of the University of Portsmouth, UK, has suggested that the Pioneer conundrum might have something to do with variations in alpha, the fine structure constant. Others have talked about it as arising from dark matter - but since we don't know what dark matter is, that doesn't help much either. "This is all so maddeningly intriguing," says Michael Martin Nieto of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We only have proposals, none of which has been demonstrated."
Nieto has called for a new analysis of the early trajectory data from the craft, which he says might yield fresh clues. But to get to the bottom of the problem what scientists really need is a mission designed specifically to test unusual gravitational effects in the outer reaches of the solar system. Such a probe would cost between $300 million and $500 million and could piggyback on a future mission to the outer reaches of the solar system.
"An explanation will be found eventually," Nieto says. "Of course I hope it is due to new physics - how stupendous that would be. But once a physicist starts working on the basis of hope he is heading for a fall." Disappointing as it may seem, Nieto thinks the explanation for the Pioneer anomaly will eventually be found in some mundane effect, such as an unnoticed source of heat on board the craft.
9 Dark Energy
One suggestion is that some property of empty space is responsible - cosmologists call it dark energy. But all attempts to pin it down have fallen woefully short. It's also possible that Einstein's theory of general relativity may need to be tweaked when applied to the very largest scales of the universe. "The field is still wide open," Freese says.
10 The Kuiper Cliff
Astronomers call this boundary the Kuiper cliff, because the density of space rocks drops off so steeply. What caused it? The only answer seems to be a 10th planet. We're not talking about Quaoar or Sedna: this is a massive object, as big as Earth or Mars, that has swept the area clean of debris.
The evidence for the existence of "Planet X" is compelling, says Alan Stern, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. But although calculations show that such a body could account for the Kuiper cliff (Icarus, vol 160, p 32), no one has ever seen this fabled 10th planet.
There's a good reason for that. The Kuiper belt is just too far away for us to get a decent view. We need to get out there and have a look before we can say anything about the region. And that won't be possible for another decade, at least. NASA's New Horizons probe, which will head out to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, is scheduled for launch in January 2006. It won't reach Pluto until 2015, so if you are looking for an explanation of the vast, empty gulf of the Kuiper cliff, watch this space.
11 The Wow Signal
Coming from the direction of Sagittarius, the pulse of radiation was confined to a narrow range of radio frequencies around 1420 megahertz. This frequency is in a part of the radio spectrum in which all transmissions are prohibited by international agreement. Natural sources of radiation, such as the thermal emissions from planets, usually cover a much broader sweep of frequencies. So what caused it?
The nearest star in that direction is 220 light years away. If that is where is came from, it would have had to be a pretty powerful astronomical event - or an advanced alien civilisation using an astonishingly large and powerful transmitter.
The fact that hundreds of sweeps over the same patch of sky have found nothing like the Wow signal doesn't mean it's not aliens. When you consider the fact that the Big Ear telescope covers only one-millionth of the sky at any time, and an alien transmitter would also likely beam out over the same fraction of sky, the chances of spotting the signal again are remote, to say the least.
Others think there must be a mundane explanation. Dan Wertheimer, chief scientist for the SETI@home project, says the Wow signal was almost certainly pollution: radio-frequency interference from Earth-based transmissions. "We've seen many signals like this, and these sorts of signals have always turned out to be interference," he says. The debate continues.
12 Not-so-constant constant
If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light passed through the clouds.
But that's heresy. Alpha is an extremely important constant that determines how light interacts with matter - and it shouldn't be able to change. Its value depends on, among other things, the charge on the electron, the speed of light and Planck's constant. Could one of these really have changed?
No one in physics wanted to believe the measurements. Webb and his team have been trying for years to find an error in their results. But so far they have failed.
Webb's are not the only results that suggest something is missing from our understanding of alpha. A recent analysis of the only known natural nuclear reactor, which was active nearly 2 billion years ago at what is now Oklo in Gabon, also suggests something about light's interaction with matter has changed.
The ratio of certain radioactive isotopes produced within such a reactor depends on alpha, and so looking at the fission products left behind in the ground at Oklo provides a way to work out the value of the constant at the time of their formation. Using this method, Steve Lamoreaux and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico suggest that alpha may have decreased by more than 4 per cent since Oklo started up (Physical Review D, vol 69, p 121701).
There are gainsayers who still dispute any change in alpha. Patrick Petitjean, an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, led a team that analysed quasar light picked up by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and found no evidence that alpha has changed. But Webb, who is now looking at the VLT measurements, says that they require a more complex analysis than Petitjean's team has carried out. Webb's group is working on that now, and may be in a position to declare the anomaly resolved - or not - later this year.
"It's difficult to say how long it's going to take," says team member Michael Murphy of the University of Cambridge. "The more we look at these new data, the more difficulties we see." But whatever the answer, the work will still be valuable. An analysis of the way light passes through distant molecular clouds will reveal more about how the elements were produced early in the universe's history.
13 Cold Fusion
AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.
With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.
That's quite a turnaround. The DoE's first report on the subject, published 15 years ago, concluded that the original cold fusion results, produced by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and unveiled at a press conference in 1989, were impossible to reproduce, and thus probably false.
The basic claim of cold fusion is that dunking palladium electrodes into heavy water - in which oxygen is combined with the hydrogen isotope deuterium - can release a large amount of energy. Placing a voltage across the electrodes supposedly allows deuterium nuclei to move into palladium's molecular lattice, enabling them to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together, releasing a blast of energy. The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed impossible by every accepted scientific theory.
That doesn't matter, according to David Nagel, an engineer at George Washington University in Washington DC. Superconductors took 40 years to explain, he points out, so there's no reason to dismiss cold fusion. "The experimental case is bulletproof," he says. "You can't make it go away."
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Dis the Diary
Diary of a Mad Black Woman may turn out to be one of 2005's worst films -- a balled-up airplane vomit bag of puerile comedy, gum-grating melodrama and putrefying Christian sentiment -- but it's important to put things into perspective. Diary of a Black Woman never murdered anyone. Diary of a Black Woman did not invade Iraq under false pretenses. Diary of a Mad Black Woman does not star Ashton Kutcher. Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a harmless movie for harmless folks. But boy, does it ever reek.
Black hole sun
A fireball created in a US particle accelerator has the characteristics of a black hole, a physicist has said.
It was generated at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in New York, US, which smashes beams of gold nuclei together at near light speeds.
Horatiu Nastase says his calculations show that the core of the fireball has a striking similarity to a black hole.
His work has been published on the pre-print website arxiv.org and is reported in New Scientist magazine.
When the gold nuclei smash into each other they are broken down into particles called quarks and gluons.
These form a ball of plasma about 300 times hotter than the surface of the Sun. It can be detected because it absorbs jets of particles produced by the beam collisions.
But Nastase, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, says there is something unusual about this fireball.
Ten times as many jets were being absorbed by the fireball as were predicted by calculations.
The Brown researcher thinks the particles are disappearing into the fireball's core and reappearing as thermal radiation, just as matter falls into a black hole and comes out as "Hawking" radiation. (link)
Franco gets put on ice
The Madrid authorities have removed the city's last statue of former military ruler General Francisco Franco.
Before dawn, to jeers and cheers from fascist and anti-fascist supporters, a crane lifted the statue of the general mounted on a horse from its plinth.
There had been no notice that the 1959 statue would be removed.
The Spanish public works ministry told national radio it was removed to enable building work in the area and because "most Madrid citizens didn't like it".
Some of the Franco supporters watching the removal in San Juan de la Cruz Square sang the Spanish fascist anthem Cara al Sol [Face to the Sun] - to insults from other bystanders.
Gaspar Llamazares, of the Izquierda Unida [United Left] party, welcomed the removal of the statue, which he described as an "anachronism". (link)
Lebanon for the Lebanese
Monday was officially the last protest, at least for the opposition. Politicians and, to a certain degree, ordinary people agree that Lebanon needs to get back into its regular weekly rhythm. With shops and schools closing and streets blocked off on days of each protest, life has been incapacitated, as if by a massive but short attack of hiccups.
I asked one protester what she felt about what might be the last hurrah for the opposition: "Well, we have to get on with our lives", she said.
As for the outcome, she echoed what many think: "We are here for our independence and our freedom. We are here for a united Lebanon, and I hope we can achieve this. But, I don't know. I hope." She pointed to the back of her head, "There always the fear, a doubt. But I hope."
Pointing to the back of the head is a new tick in town - the new gesture that expresses doubt about a positive outcome. The same fear also resounds in the story of a young bartender I spoke to, who was just about to open his own business in Beirut, when suddenly he decided to leave. His brother will be following shortly after. Emigration, not uncommon prior to Hariri's death, may be accelerating into an exodus as economic downturn and insecurity unveil themselves.
When I asked why he was leaving, the bartender smiled uneasily and said that things were not as well as they seemed.
In a typically Lebanese way, tangled in paradox and contradiction, the fear is both real and irrational.
The country, while divided over precisely what to do with the Syrians and the government, generally adheres to a new Lebanese nationalism shaping itself on the streets: regardless of the differences, the voices of both camps at least agree on the idea of Lebanon for the Lebanese. It is the birth pangs of this consensus that are exciting the population and terrifying it at the same time.
As I got closer to the heart of the protest it started to feel like a giant street fair, with people milling around with children; soldiers lounging and chatting on sunny benches; the odd group of 20-year-olds chanting as if for a football team. The streets weren't barricaded. It was a glorious spring day.
The whole downtown area had been taken over by protesters. The closer one got to what seemed to be the centre, the more difficult it was to move as each inch of free space was filled with bodies. It came to the point where buildings got in the way of people, driven onward, at least in part, by the need to show the pro-Syrian demonstrators of the previous week that size does matter.
As one protester said in a perfect West Virginian accent, picked up after 27 years abroad: "We gotta show them who's the boss."
The protest was so large, that it seemed only natural that it be the last. No one could sustain such an escalating competition without bringing the country to a standstill, or worse.
But what was remarkable and shocking to the Lebanese as much as to the onlooker, was that in the crush to get to the heart of the protest, there was no aggression and very little tension in the crowd. As if four weeks of demonstration have made people more comfortable and confident in their fight for democracy and with each other. And it is the comfort zone which is creating unease. How long will it last? And is it real or will it all fall apart if there is a political stalemate in the upcoming elections?
There are unnerving currents moving through town. There are rumours: that the Mukhabarat - the secret police - are everywhere; that people are heading to the Palestinian camps to buy weapons; that old quarrels are being reignited. And if this is true, the question arises of who would turn on whom? There is a unifying mood on the street. Where would the conflict begin?
The stones that pave Lebanon's road to democracy are unsteady. They could easily by torn up and thrown in anger to destabilize the process. There have been flashpoints. Sparks near the tinder, like the fight last week near Martyr Square where opposition members beat up two pro-Syrian lads in retaliation for a shooting that took place ten days before. The heat of the sun chases the rain away, but it also dries the kindling for starting fires.
One protester told me: "I wish I was born in Sweden or something. The problem is that this region is about conflict and has been so for the past 2000 years ... It is an emotional place but I hope we can make it." (Link)
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Mything the point on Overstretch
David H. Levey and Stuart S. Brown wrote an article for the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. This article, called "The Overstretch Myth" attempted to show that double deficits that America is experiencing are not a threat to U.S. economic hegemony. In my rebuttal I demonstrate that Levey and Brown have ignored the major threat to the U.S. economy, namely the Bush administration's own fiscal policy.
Would-be Cassandras have been predicting the imminent downfall of the American imperium ever since its inception.
For every Cassandras there is also a Pollyanna.
A new threat to the sustainability of
Nice attempt to concentrate on the doomsday version of the “debt crisis”. This ignores the gradual decline which is more likely.
Despite the persistence and pervasiveness of this doomsday prophecy,
This lead is being challenged by the rise of research spending in
The dollar's role as the global monetary standard is not threatened, and the risk to
Has someone missed the appearance off a currency that is backed by an economy larger then that of the
Discussion of the
This is true and it represents significant advantage for the
[Its] economy remains on the frontier of global technological innovation, attracting foreign capital as well as immigrant labor with its rapid growth and the high returns it generates for investors.
Those returns are limited by a declining dollar. As long as the dollar declines
The statistic at the center of the foreign debt debate is the net international investment position (NIIP), the value of foreign assets owned by
Interesting, because all of the concern I have read about has revolved around the total debt of the
Unpacking the NIIP gives a better sense of the risk it actually poses.
If you missed it, the issue is total debt and the rate it is increasing.
In the next section titled “False Alarm” Levey and Brown discuss why
A SOFTER LANDING
Whichever perspective on the current account one favors, the United States cannot escape a growing external debt. The "hegemony skeptics" fear such debt will lead to a collapse of the U.S. dollar triggered by a precipitous unloading of
Another area to watch is the oil markets, though it is unlikely that anyone will try to force the
But even if such a sharp break occurs -- which is less likely than a gradual adjustment of exchange rates and interest rates -- market-based adjustments will mitigate the consequences. Responding to a relative price decline in U.S. assets and likely Federal Reserve action to raise interest rates, U.S. investors (arguably accompanied by bargain-hunting foreign investors) would repatriate some of their $4 trillion in foreign holdings in order to buy (now undervalued) assets, tempering the price decline for domestic stocks and bonds.
For foreign central banks (as well as commercial financial institutions), U.S. Treasury bonds, government-supported agency bonds, and deposits in highly rated banks will remain, for the foreseeable future, the chief sources of liquid reserve assets. Many analysts have pointed to the euro as a threat to the dollar's status as the world's central reserve currency. But the continuing strength of the