Sunday, April 29, 2012

Africa’s next big war?

    Sunday, April 29, 2012   No comments

BADLY drawn imperialist borders that cut across tribes or lumped too many diverse people unhappily together once fuelled much violence in Africa. Half a century after independence full-blown wars are much rarer, even if some borders still irritate. One of the last open wounds appeared to close on July 9th 2011, when the mainly Christian and animist south of Sudan seceded from the predominantly Muslim north. After decades of fighting that killed some 2m people, partition seemed to mark a success for both African and Western mediators.

Yet now that success is overshadowed by the threat of war. Over the past nine months the two Sudanese successor states were supposed to find a way to divide up such things as oil revenues, border posts and the rights of people living on one side of the border who wish to be citizens on the other. Both sides made outsized demands and engaged in extreme brinkmanship. New sparks flew when the south announced plans to build a pipeline to the Indian Ocean, through Kenya to the south-east, which would cut the north out of most of the oil trade. Militias, often proxies of the old rump state or the new southern one, attacked each other. International mediators, vital as brokers of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that paved the way for partition, stood aside, though Ethiopia and Egypt organised some talks and the UN proffered advice. Barack Obama last week made a stirring appeal for calm.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Human Rights in the UAE

    Friday, April 27, 2012   No comments

by Rori Donaghy
Rights of foreign workers in UAE in focus
The UAE. A place famous for tax-free shopping, stunning feats of construction and beautiful beaches. So much so that one million Britons visit each year. Scratch beneath the aesthetics of opulent Dubai however, and a much darker story begins to emerge.

In the past, the rulers have distributed wealth amongst their citizens in exchange for political acquiescence. Following the advent of the Arab Spring, this has begun to unravel as the lack of democratic institutions has become clear. Of course, when the indigenous population makes up less than 10% of the population it is a little easier to ignore or suppress any whispers for democratic reform.

Last year, the case of the UAE 5 gained some traction in the West as five individuals were prosecuted for undermining state security after calling for increased democratic accountability in their country. After the international community's gaze fleetingly turned towards the UAE, the five were granted pardons and the focus swiftly moved onto other matters.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex

    Thursday, April 26, 2012   No comments

by Massimo Pigliucci

I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch, with the likes of Einstein and Bohr doing not only brilliant scientific research, but also interested, respectful of, and conversant in other branches of knowledge, particularly philosophy. These days it is much more likely to encounter physicists like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking, who merrily go about dismissing philosophy for the wrong reasons, and quite obviously out of a combination of profound ignorance and hubris (the two often go together, as I’m sure Plato would happily point out). The latest such bore is Lawrence Krauss, of Arizona State University.

I have been ignoring Krauss’ nonsense about philosophy for a while, even though it had occasionally appeared on my Twitter or G+ radars. But the other day my friend Michael De Dora pointed me to this interview Krauss just did with The Atlantic, and now I feel obliged to comment, for the little good that it may do. And before I continue, kudos to Ross Andersen, who conducted the interview, for pressing Krauss on several of his non sequiturs. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Krauss is proud (if a bit coy) of the fact that Richard Dawkins referred to his latest book, entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing,” as comparable to Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” on the grounds that it upends the “last trump card of the theologian.” Well, leave it to Dawkins to engage in that sort of silly hyperbolic rhetoric. (Dawkins still appears to be convinced that religion will be defeated by rationality alone. Were that the case, David Hume would have sufficed.) The fact is, Krauss’s book is aimed at a general audience, popularizing other people’s (as well as his own) work, and is not the kind of revelation of novel scientific findings that Darwin put out in his opus, and that makes all the difference.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tom Friedman’s War on Humanity

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012   No comments

Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, once offered the following insight into his modus operandi: “I often begin writing columns by interviewing myself.”

Some might see this as an unsurprising revelation in light of Edward Said’s appraisal: “It’s as if … what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks.”

According to Friedman, the purpose of the auto-interviews is merely to analyze his feelings on certain issues. Given that his feelings tend to undergo drastic inter- and sometimes intra-columnar modifications, one potentially convenient byproduct of such an approach to journalism is the impression that Friedman interviews many more people than he actually does.

Wrong Formula: Bahrain races ahead with Formula One, but reverses on reform

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012   No comments

THE Bahrain Grand Prix is back. Across the tiny island kingdom, posters trumpet joy at the return of the Formula One race: “UniF1ed: One Nation in Celebration”. But although cars, crews and cameras have indeed arrived for the event from April 20th to 22nd, the slogan rings hollow. A year on from an uprising against Bahrain’s ruling family that prompted a brutally efficient military crackdown, more than 50 deaths and the cancellation of last year’s race, the atmosphere in Bahrain remains poisonous.

Activists have gleefully torched posters for the race, and vow to disrupt it however they can. Government troops, tanks and armoured cars are enforcing a forbidding cordon around the desert circuit. Night after night, riot vans sweep into villages on the outskirts of the capital, Manama. Activist ringleaders are dragged from their homes, beaten in front of their families and carted off.

France's presidential election: It's Hollande's to lose

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012   No comments

THERE were scenes of jubilation outside the Socialist Party headquarters in Paris last night, after François Hollande topped the first round of the presidential election with 28.6% of the vote. As the night went on, his lead over Nicolas Sarkozy narrowed slightly. Official results now put the incumbent president on 27.1%. These two candidates will go on to face each other in the run-off on May 6th. 

Some analysts are now suggesting that Mr Hollande’s slender lead leaves the race wide open. It is certainly true that it would be a mistake to underestimate the campaigning skills of the energetic Mr Sarkozy. But I just don’t see how at this late stage he can pull it off. 

The argument in his favour is based on the disappointing score achieved yesterday by the Communist-backed contender, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He ended up with 11.1% when some polls had credited him with 15%, and suggested that he might even come in third place. 

By contrast, on the far right, and as previously predicted, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen did better than polls had suggested, scooping up 18% of the vote. This figure, while not quite as much as some early exit polls suggested last night, is still more than her father, Jean-Marie, managed when he made it into the second round in 2002; indeed, it is the Front’s best-ever score in a presidential election.

Add up the score of the "right" (including a minor nationalist candidate), goes the argument, and you get 46.9%; more than the combined score of the left, at 44%. Ergo, all that Mr Sarkozy needs to secure a majority is half the centrist voters who backed François Bayrou, who got 9.1% Sunday.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What a Hollande Victory Would Mean for Merkel

    Sunday, April 22, 2012   No comments

By Veit Medick and Severin Weiland
German Chancellor Merkel has made it clear that she would like to see French President Nicolas Sarkozy win a second term. Indeed, if his challenger François Hollande emerges victorious in the country's upcoming election, she could face isolation in Europe. But a Sarkozy re-election might be problematic, too.

As Europe continues to integrate both economically and politically, the outcomes of national elections have grown in importance to reach beyond their own borders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that, and it's why she will travel on Sunday to Paris, where voters will be heading to the polls in the first round of the French presidential elections.

Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for a second term, but he has a strong opponent. The Socialist candidate, François Hollande, has a good chance of moving into the Élysée Palace. The latest polls show Hollande leading in the first round of voting, as well as in the possible run-off vote on May 6.
For Merkel, this is an election like no other, and one that is even more important to her than many German state elections. Whoever wins in France will help drive European policy by her side. If the victor proves to be Hollande, who differs with Merkel's closely allied partner Sarkozy on many issues, not the least of which involve rescuing of the euro, things could become uncomfortable for her, both in Brussels and at home in Berlin.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Did Humans Invent Music?

    Thursday, April 19, 2012   No comments


Did Neanderthals sing? Is there a "music gene"? Two scientists debate whether our capacity to make and enjoy songs comes from biological evolution or from the advent of civilization.

Music is everywhere, but it remains an evolutionary enigma. In recent years, archaeologists have dug up prehistoric instruments, neuroscientists have uncovered brain areas that are involved in improvisation, and geneticists have identified genes that might help in the learning of music. Yet basic questions persist: Is music a deep biological adaptation in its own right, or is it a cultural invention based mostly on our other capacities for language, learning, and emotion? And if music is an adaptation, did it really evolve to promote mating success as Darwin thought, or other for benefits such as group cooperation or mother-infant bonding?

Here, scientists Gary Marcus and Geoffrey Miller debate these issues. Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and The Science of Learning and Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of The Human Mind, argues that music is best seen as a cultural invention. Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature and Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, makes the case that music is the product of sexual selection and an adaptation that's been with humans for millennia.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Tribute to Islam, Earthen but Transcendent

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012   No comments

DJENNÉ, Mali — As in so much of the Islamic world, “insha’Allah” — “if God wills it” — is how people punctuate conversations in this predominantly Muslim West African country. If you speak of starting a project, or taking a trip, or trying to pay a debt, the outcome is always understood to be conditional.

Recently Malians have had to trust heaven more than usual. The year’s millet crop arrived too early and much too thin. In late fall and winter there were attacks on Europeans by a Qaeda affiliate. The military overthrow of the government in Bamako, the nation’s capital, left one of Africa’s poorest nations shut off from the world. Meanwhile Tuareg rebels and Islamist forces have seized the northern half of the country, including Timbuktu.

Tourism, so vital to the economy, has been reduced to a trickle, though West Africa has never attracted the kind of monument-hungry crowds that flood into Egypt. Most travelers who come here are in search of “black” Africa — the Africa of so-called tribal art — and many are only dimly aware of the extraordinary vitality of Islamic culture, old and new, below the Sahara.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Idiosyncrasy as a Tool of Knowledge: Social Criticism in the Age of the Normalized Intellectual

    Saturday, April 14, 2012   No comments

Axel Honneth, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and Columbia University

Contrary to repeated claims of the disappearance of the intellectuals, their participation in public discussion has never been livelier than in today’s advanced democracies, Axel Honneth argues. Instead, he traces an epochal transformation that has brought about two fairly distinct types of reflexive positions: the constantly growing number of normalized intellectuals as the cultural byproduct and manifestation of the successful establishment of a democratic public sphere on one hand, and the marginal position of the social critic on the other. The public learning processes initiated by the latter are of much greater persistence and durability than any day-to-day intervention of normalized intellectuals could bring about, Honneth argues. His essay for our Academia & the Public Sphere Essay Series comes from the concluding chapter of his most recent translated essay collection.–ed.

In an article with the suggestive title “Courage, Sympathy, and a Good Eye,” Michael Walzer energetically sets the debate about social criticism on the track of virtue ethics.[1] The argument with which he grounds this reorientation initially sounds as plausible as it is timely. Since social theory can provide neither necessary nor sufficient grounds for successful social criticism, its quality cannot be measured primarily by the merits of its theoretical content but, rather, more urgently by the qualities of the critic. According to Walzer, he or she must have developed a capacity for sympathy and finally a sense of proportion when applying it.

What sounds plausible in this conclusion is the fact that the forcefulness and practical effect of social criticism seldom results from the measure of the theory in which it is invested but, rather, from the perspicuity of its central concern. And today this results in a turn to the virtues of the critic, since it feeds the devaluation of sociological knowledge and meets up with the tendency to personalize intellectual contexts. All the same, the self-evidence with which Walzer still regards even the intellectuals of our day as born governors of social criticism is surprising. He does not speak of bold Enlighteners—we might think of figures on the model of Émile Zola—but of the ubiquitous sort of author who participates with generalizing arguments in the debates of a democratic public sphere. Is this normalized intellectual, a spiritual agent in the fora of public opinion formation, really the natural representative today of what was once called “social criticism”? Here I first trace an epochal transformation in the form of the intellectual before outlining a completely different physiognomy of the social critic than that found in Walzer’s work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The World From Berlin: "Israel's Government Has Reacted Absurdly"

    Wednesday, April 11, 2012   No comments

German politicians across the spectrum are criticizing Israel's travel ban on author Günter Grass after the publication of his controversial poem. Editorialists condemn the decision, and some are alarmed over what the development could mean for traditionally close ties between the two nations.
The publication of German Nobel laureate Günter Grass's controversial poem last week may have sparked an international uproar, but the reaction by Israel, the target of his critical verse, has also come under heavy fire.

On Sunday Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai banned the 84-year-old author from entering his country. The move came after the Thursday release of a poem in which Grass described Israel as a threat to world peace and insinuated the country might "annihilate" the Iranian population.
In a statement, Yishai said that Grass, a former Waffen SS soldier in World War II, was a "persona non grata" in Israel after publishing the poem, entitled "What Must Be Said." But in both Israel and Germany, many voices -- including those who have been critical of Grass' poem -- are describing the response as "exaggerated."

Yishai heads an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, and the leftist Israeli daily Haaretz wrote that the interior minister's declaration "simply smacks of populism."

In Germany, deputy head of the Social Democrats' parliamentary group Gernot Erler called the move "wrong and counterproductive." Grass has strongly aligned himself with the center-left party in the past, often campaigning on their behalf.

Renate Künast, co-leader of the enviromentalist Greens in parliament, said the ban was a shame. "In the end, everyone will now be talking about (Grass') travel ban and no longer about the content of the poem," she said. German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which shares power in government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Party, told daily Die Welt that the action had been "totally excessive."

And Israel's former ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, told public broadcaster ARD that Jerusalem's response had been "exaggerated, a little bit hysterical or populist -- in any case, not justified."


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber

    Sunday, April 08, 2012   No comments

by Eric Garland

An industry that once told hard truths to corporate and government clients now mostly just tells them what they want to hear, making it harder for us all to adapt to a changing world -- and that's why I'm leaving it.

A lone worker looks out the window at an otherwise empty London office. Reuters
I recently quit my job as a "futurist" and "strategic intelligence analyst" after a successful 15-year career of writing books and consulting to corporations and governments around the world. I spent a decade and a half analyzing disruptive new technologies, predicting the effects of the Internet on the international construction industry, helping executives decide whether to spend billions in the nuclear power market, profiling the customer of the future -- and training thousands of executives to do likewise for their own companies. It was exciting and fulfilling, but this is the end of the road.  My employment status is interesting to nobody except my wife and I, but why I am leaving the business of intelligence is important to everybody, because it stems from the endemic corruption of how decisions are made in our most critical institutions.

I am not quitting this industry for lack of passion, as I still believe -- more than ever -- in using good information and sophisticated analytical techniques to decode the future and make decisions. The problem is, the market for intelligence is now largely about providing information that makes decision makers feel better, rather than bringing true insights about risk and opportunity. Our future is now being planned by people who seem to put their emotional comfort ahead of making decisions based on real -- and often uncomfortable -- information. Perhaps one day, the discipline of real intelligence will return triumphantly to the world's executive suites. Until then, high-priced providers of "strategic intelligence" are only making it harder for their clients -- for all of us -- to adapt by shielding them from painful truths.

Many people have not encountered the job title, "intelligence analyst." For the past 50 years, since the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency as a clearing house for information about the Soviet Union, this has been a job that involves researching trends, analyzing their potential impact, and reporting the possibilities to decision-makers. In the age of nuclear weapons, the world was changing too fast for leaders to make decisions based only on their own outdated assumptions. Organizations learned to critically assess their futures -- or literally lead humanity into possible mass extinction. The model mostly worked, and eventually the CIA was joined by other agencies, as well as for-profit consulting companies, which mimicked many of the techniques pioneered in the Cold War. Since the middle part of the 20th century, both corporations and governments have used strategic intelligence, forecasting, scenario planning, and other intelligence tools that keep decision-makers informed and ready to lead their institutions safely through tumultuous periods.

According to the private intelligence industry's view of itself, a phalanx of analysts collect data, assess the risks and opportunities inherent in trends, and provide a series of scenarios that help their clients make contingency plans, such that no matter what future arrives, people will thrive. But the reality of 2012 is quite different. A large number of people promise these services, from generalist mega-consultancies such as Booz Allen, Accenture, and McKinsey, to more boutique providers such as Global Business Network, the Institute for the Future, Frost & Sullivan, and countless individual practitioners. And many executives claim to practice state-of-the-art strategic management, dutifully using the insights of these providers in their day-to-day operations. Still, the culture of intelligence has been in free-fall since the financial crisis of 2008. While people may be pretending to follow intelligence, impostors in both the analyst and executive camps actually follow shallow, fake processes that justify their existing decisions and past investments.

U.S. intelligence gains in Iran seen as boost to confidence

    Sunday, April 08, 2012   No comments

More than three years ago, the CIA dispatched a stealth surveillance drone into the skies over Iran.
U.S. spy drone downed in Iran in 2011.
The bat-winged aircraft penetrated more than 600 miles inside the country, captured images of Iran’s secret nuclear facility at Qom and then flew home. All the while, analysts at the CIA and other agencies watched carefully for any sign that the craft, dubbed the RQ-170 Sentinel, had been detected by Tehran’s air defenses on its maiden voyage.

U.S. officials say Iran's leaders are gathering the materials for a nuclear bomb but have not decided to build one. If they do, they'l have to overcome technical hurdles and risk having their work discovered by outsiders. Here are steps Iran might follow to make its first weapon.
“There was never even a ripple,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official involved in the previously undisclosed mission.

CIA stealth drones scoured dozens of sites throughout Iran, making hundreds of passes over suspicious facilities, before a version of the RQ-170 crashed inside Iran’s borders in December. The surveillance has been part of what current and former U.S. officials describe as an intelligence surge that is aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and that has been gaining momentum since the final years of George W. Bush’s administration.

The effort has included ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts and an expanded network of spies, current and former U.S. officials said.

At a time of renewed debate over whether stopping Iran might require military strikes, the expanded intelligence collection has reinforced the view within the White House that it will have early warning of any move by Iran to assemble a nuclear bomb, officials said.

“There is confidence that we would see activity indicating that a decision had been made,” said a senior U.S. official involved in high-level discussions about Iran policy. “Across the board, our access has been significantly improved.”

The expanded intelligence effort has coincided with a covert campaign by the CIA and other agencies to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and has enabled an escalation in the use of targeted economic sanctions by the United States and its allies to weaken Iran’s resolve.

The Obama administration has cited new intelligence reports in arguing against a preemptive military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Turkey has one of the world’s zippiest economies, but it is too reliant on hot money

    Saturday, April 07, 2012   No comments

Visitors to the top of the Galata Tower in Istanbul are treated to a panoramic view of the old town across the Bosphorus. Originally a wooden lighthouse dating from the sixth century, the tower was rebuilt from stone in 1348 by Genoese merchants. It is an enduring symbol of the benefits of foreign capital to Turkey.

Bustling below is a city of 15m that lies at the heart of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Figures released on April 2nd showed that Turkey’s GDP rose by 8.5% in 2011 after a 9% increase in 2010 (see chart 1). These are the sort of growth rates that mighty China would be pleased with. Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, who coined the acronym BRIC to denote the big emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, has included Turkey in MIST, a second tier of biggish rising stars, alongside Mexico, Indonesia and South Korea.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Obama’s signal to Iran

    Friday, April 06, 2012   No comments

By David Ignatius
President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation “will never pursue nuclear weapons.”

This verbal message was sent through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Khamenei last week. A few days before traveling to Iran, Erdogan had held a two-hour meeting with Obama in Seoul, in which they discussed what Erdogan would tell the ayatollah about the nuclear issue and Syria.

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