Archives for January 2012

World lacks enough food, fuel as population soars: U.N.

Reuters reports: The world is running out of time to make sure there is enough food, water and energy to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population and to avoid sending up to 3 billion people into poverty, a U.N. report warned on Monday.

As the world’s population looks set to grow to nearly 9 billion by 2040 from 7 billion now, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially.

Even by 2030, the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water, according to U.N. estimates, at a time when a changing environment is creating new limits to supply.

And if the world fails to tackle these problems, it risks condemning up to 3 billion people into poverty, the report said.

Efforts towards sustainable development are neither fast enough nor deep enough, as well as suffering from a lack of political will, the United Nations’ high-level panel on global sustainability said.

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Video: Wade Davis on “The Wayfinders”

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Music: Nitin Sawhney — ‘Street Guru’

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Newt Gingrich’s deep neocon ties drive his bellicose Middle East policy

Wayne Barrett writes: Casino king Sheldon Adelson’s multi-million-dollar cache of chips-on-the-table for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign has at last made him a household name outside of Las Vegas. But it isn’t just Adelson’s brand of pro-Israel, donor-driven saber-rattling that’s pushing Gingrich into far-out positions on virtually every Middle East-related question, from applauding the assassination of Iranian scientists to painting Palestinians as an historical concoction to requiring loyalty oaths from Muslim governmental appointees.

Since his days in the House, Gingrich has always attached himself to the most extreme neocon elements of American and Israeli politics. Adelson’s $18 million in contributions since 2006 only further fueled draft ducker Newt’s already chronic case of bombast. And as record-making as Adelson’s super PAC and other gifts to Newt are, they wouldn’t cover the cost of a single airstrike on a single Iranian facility. The price tag on what Gingrich calls “maximum covert operations” and possibly a full-scale war on Iran — both acceptable to Gingrich — would surely compete with the human and fiscal costs of the last conflagration he helped drag us into—the war in Iraq that has gone almost wholly unmentioned this primary season.

If elected, Gingrich would be the first American president to emerge from the dark think-tank world born in the Reagan era that gave us the Iraq War and lusts now for an Iranian reprise. A Likudnik version of the Manchurian candidate, Newt has spent much of his post-Congress life in the grasp of warrior colonies like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the think tank where he became a senior fellow two months after he stepped down as speaker in 1999, remained until he declared for president last May, and worked at times alongside Dick and Lynne Cheney, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Michael Ledeen, and Paul Wolfowitz, the first Bush battalion to euphemistically land in Baghdad, self-dispatched well before 9/11.

As if spending three times as much time at AEI than he did as speaker wasn’t enough bloodless abstraction for him, Gingrich simultaneously became a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, where Don Rumsfeld was welcomed with open arms when George Bush finally had had enough of him and where Condoleezza Rice returned as a senior fellow after her eight years in the Bush administration. Gingrich was one of eight Hoover fellows to serve on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, the official war incubator chaired by ringleader Perle, and he also signed on as a board member of the AEI-tied Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a front group recruited by the White House.

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New drone has no pilot anywhere, so who’s accountable?

The Los Angeles Times reports: The Navy’s new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It’s designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers.

What’s even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.

The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.

Although humans would program an autonomous drone’s flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.

“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,” said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. “This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?”

Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.

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U.S. drones patrolling its skies provoke outrage in Iraq

The New York Times reports: A month after the last American troops left Iraq, the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect the United States Embassy and consulates, as well as American personnel. Senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.

The program was described by the department’s diplomatic security branch in a little-noticed section of its most recent annual report and outlined in broad terms in a two-page online prospectus for companies that might bid on a contract to manage the program. It foreshadows a possible expansion of unmanned drone operations into the diplomatic arm of the American government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

American contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering plans to field unarmed surveillance drones in a handful of other potentially “high-threat” countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and in Afghanistan after the bulk of American troops leave in the next two years. State Department officials say that no decisions have been made beyond the drone operations in Iraq.

The drones are the latest example of the State Department’s efforts to take over functions in Iraq that the military used to perform. Some 5,000 private security contractors now protect the embassy’s 11,000-person staff, for example, and typically drive around in heavily armored military vehicles.

When embassy personnel move throughout the country, small helicopters buzz over the convoys to provide support in case of an attack. Often, two contractors armed with machine guns are tethered to the outside of the helicopters. The State Department began operating some drones in Iraq last year on a trial basis, and stepped up their use after the last American troops left Iraq in December, taking the military drones with them.

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This is why the U.S. is #47 in global press freedom rankings

As was reported last week, the United States is now #47 in the annual World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders — not exactly a position which squares with the oft self-applied label, “Leader of the free world”!

Gavin Aronsen reports: On Saturday, Occupy Oakland re-entered the national spotlight during a day-long effort to take over an empty building and transform it into a social center. Oakland police thwarted the efforts, arresting more than 400 people in the process, primarily during a mass nighttime arrest outside a downtown YMCA. That number included at least six journalists, myself included, in direct violation of OPD media relations policy that states “media shall never be targeted for dispersal or enforcement action because of their status.”

After an unsuccessful afternoon effort to occupy a former convention center, the more than 1,000 protesters elected to return to the site of their former encampment outside City Hall. On the way, they clashed with officers, advancing down a street with makeshift shields of corrugated metal and throwing objects at a police line. Officers responded with smoke grenades, tear gas, and bean bag projectiles. After protesters regrouped, they marched through downtown as police pursued and eventually contained a few hundred of them in an enclosed space outside a YMCA. Some entered the gym and were arrested inside.

As soon as it became clear that I would be kettled with the protesters, I displayed my press credentials to a line of officers and asked where to stand to avoid arrest. In past protests, the technique always proved successful. But this time, no officer said a word. One pointed back in the direction of the protesters, refusing to let me leave. Another issued a notice that everyone in the area was under arrest.

I wound up in a back corner of the space between the YMCA and a neighboring building, where I met Vivian Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kristin Hanes of KGO Radio. After it became clear that we would probably have to wait for hours there as police arrested hundreds of people packed tightly in front of us, we maneuvered our way to the front of the kettle to display our press credentials once more.

When Hanes displayed hers, an officer shook his head. “That’s not an Oakland pass,” he told her. “You’re getting arrested.” (She had a press pass issued by San Francisco, but not Oakland, police.) Another officer rejected my credentials, and I began interviewing soon-to-be-arrested protesters standing nearby. About five minutes later, an officer grabbed my arm and zip-tied me. Around the same time, Ho—who did have official OPD credentials—was also apprehended.

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Your body is a community of 100 trillion cells… 10 trillion of them are human

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Bribes, Chinese mob ties alleged at casino of Gingrich money man

ABC News reports: The casino company run by the principal financial backer of Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid, Sheldon Adelson, has been under criminal investigation for the last year by the Department of Justice and the Securities Exchange Commission for alleged bribery of foreign officials, according to corporate documents.

In a separate civil lawsuit, a former executive of the company has alleged that Adelson ordered him to keep quiet about sensitive issues at the Sands casinos on the Chinese island of Macau, including the casinos’ alleged “involvement with Chinese organized crime groups, known as Triads, connected to the junket business.” The triads — Chinese organized crime syndicates — are allegedly involved in organizing high stakes gambling junkets for wealthy Chinese travelers.

In its filings with the SEC, Adelson’s company says it became aware of the investigation in February 2011 when it received a subpoena from the SEC requesting “documents relating to its compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.” The company said it “intends to cooperate with the investigation,” which it said may have been triggered by the allegations in the lawsuit by Steven C. Jacobs, a former Sands executive who says he helped run the Macau operation. The federal investigation was first reported last year by Las Vegas newspapers and the financial press.

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Will Israel really attack Iran?

Gary Sick, responding to the question in the headline, writes: The real answer is no, they will not. But you would never figure that out by reading the New York Times.

The sensationalist article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (Jan. 29) adds to the hysteria surrounding U.S. and Israeli relations with Iran. Ronen Bergman, a columnist with the leading Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, concludes that Israel will probably attack Iran this year.

He draws this fearful conclusion after recounting his discussions with key Israeli military and intelligence officials, present and former, who describe to him in great detail: (1) why Israel is incapable of conducting such an attack; (2) why such a foolhardy action would fail to stop Iran’s nuclear program; and (3) why it would actually leave the situation far worse than it is now.

Say what?

Not only is his conclusion at odds with virtually everything he produces as evidence, but there are some omissions in his analysis that regrettably have become predictably routine in talking about the Iranian nuclear program:

He darkly quotes “the latest intelligence” about the number and current activity of Iran’s centrifuges. Where did he get that secret information? Well, just like you or me, he can read the periodic reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which are published on the web virtually the same day they are handed to member states.

How did the IAEA get that “intelligence?” Not hard: they have inspectors in all the sites where Iran is producing enriched uranium. These inspectors, who make frequent surprise visits, keep cameras in place to watch every move, and they carefully measure Iran’s input of feed stock to the centrifuges and the output of low enriched uranium, which is then placed under seal. You would think that would be worth mentioning, at least in passing, but it gets overlooked by virtually every journalist writing on this subject.

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Syrian army cracks down on protests in Damascus suburbs

The Los Angeles Times reports: Syrian tanks and troops moved Sunday to crush resistance in the rebellious suburbs of Damascus, opposition groups reported, bringing the bloody battle that has ravaged the nation for months to the doorsteps of the nation’s capital.

The fierce fighting reported outside Damascus was the latest sign that Syria’s armed insurgency — long concentrated in provincial hotbeds of revolt like Homs, Hama and Dara — has now reached the edge of the city from which the Assad family has ruled Syria in autocratic fashion for more than 40 years. That reign now appears threatened as never before, raising the prospect of a revamped geopolitical alignment in the heart of the volatile Middle East.

More than 250 people have been killed in clashes nationwide since Thursday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition. The group reported at least 64 deaths on Sunday alone.

The upsurge in violence near Damascus and elsewhere comes as leaders of the Arab League, a 22-member regional confederation, left for New York with hopes of persuading the United Nations Security Council to throw its weight behind a league plan calling on President Bashar Assad to relinquish power. Russia, an ally of Syria that wields veto power on the U.N. Security Council, has said it opposes any international move toward a change in leadership.

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Video: The impact of Twitter’s censorship plan

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Profit vs. principle: the neurobiology of integrity

Wired Science reports: Let your better self rest assured: Dearly held values truly are sacred, and not merely cost-benefit analyses masquerading as nobel intent, concludes a new study on the neurobiology of moral decision-making. Such values are conceived differently, and occur in very different parts of the brain, than utilitarian decisions.

“Why do people do what they do?” said neuroscientist Greg Berns of Emory University. “Asked if they’d kill an innocent human being, most people would say no, but there can be two very different ways of coming to that answer. You could say it would hurt their family, that it would be bad because of the consequences. Or you could take the Ten Commandments view: You just don’t do it. It’s not even a question of going beyond.”

In a study published Jan. 23 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Berns and colleagues posed a series of value-based statements to 27 women and 16 men while using an fMRI machine to map their mental activity. The statements were not necessarily religious, but intended to cover a spectrum of values ranging from frivolous (“You enjoy all colors of M&Ms”) to ostensibly inviolate (“You think it is okay to sell a child”).

After answering, test participants were asked if they’d sign a document stating the opposite of their belief in exchange for a chance at winning up to $100 in cash. If so, they could keep both the money and the document; only their consciences would know.

According to Berns, this methodology was key. The conflict between utilitarian and duty-based moral motivations is a classic philosophical theme, with historical roots in the formulations of Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, and other researchers have studied it — but none, said Berns, had combined both brain imaging and a situation where moral compromise was realistically possible.

“Hypothetical vignettes are presented to people, and they’re asked, ‘How did you arrive at a decision?’ But it’s impossible to really know in a laboratory setting,” said Berns. “Signing your name to something for a price is meaningful. It’s getting into integrity. Even at $100, most all our test subjects put some things into categories they were willing to take money for, and others they wouldn’t.”

When test subjects agreed to sell out, their brains displayed common signatures of activity in regions previously linked to calculating utility. When they refused, activity was concentrated in other parts of their brains: the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is known to be involved in processing and understanding abstract rules, and the right temporoparietal junction, which has been implicated in moral judgement.

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Tame theory: did bonobos domesticate themselves?

Scientific America reports: Time and again humans have domesticated wild animals, producing tame individuals with softer appearances and more docile temperaments, such as dogs and guinea pigs. But a new study suggests that one of our primate cousins—the African ape known as the bonobo—did something similar without human involvement. It domesticated itself.

Anthropologist Brian Hare of Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences noticed that the bonobo looks like a domestic version of its closest living relative, the chimpanzee. The bonobo is less aggressive than the chimp, with a smaller skull and shorter canine teeth. And it spends more time playing and having sex. These traits are very similar to those that separate domestic animals from their wild ancestors. They are all part of a constellation of characteristics known as the domestication syndrome.

The similarities between bonobos and domesticated species dawned on Hare during a large departmental dinner, where he listened to Harvard University anthropologist Richard Wrangham hold forth on bonobos. “He was talking about how bonobos are an evolutionary puzzle,” Hare recalls. “‘They have all these weird traits relative to chimps and we have no idea how to explain them,'” Wrangham had noted. “I said, ‘Oh that’s like the silver foxes!’ Richard turned around and said, ‘What silver foxes?'”

The foxes that Hare mentioned were the legacy of Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev. In the 1950s Belyaev started raising wild silver foxes in captivity and breeding those that were least aggressive toward their human handlers. Within just 20 generations, he had created the fox equivalent of our domestic pooches. Instead of snarling when humans approached, they wagged their tails. At the same time, their ears became floppier, tails curlier and skulls smaller.

Belyaev’s experiments showed that if you select for nicer animals, the other parts of the domestication syndrome follow suit. Hare thinks that a similar process happened in bonobos, albeit without human intervention.

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Video: Bobby McFerrin hacks your brain with music

World Science Festival — Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment? John Schaefer, scientist Daniel Levitin, and musical artist Bobby McFerrin engage in live performances and cross-cultural demonstrations to illustrate music’s noteworthy interaction with the brain and our emotions.

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Music: Michael Brook — a meditation in overtones

Michael Brook, Brian Eno, et al — “Midday” from the album Hybrid (1985):

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An oral history of Occupy Wall Street

Vanity Fair: On September 17, several hundred people marched to an empty square in Lower Manhattan—a place so dull that the bankers and construction workers in the neighborhood barely knew it was there—and camped out on the bare concrete. They would be joined, over the next two months, by thousands of supporters, who erected tents, built makeshift institutions—a field hospital, a library, a department of sanitation, a free-cigarette dispensary—and did a fair amount of drumming.

It was easy to infer from the signs protesters carried what the grievances that gave rise to Occupy Wall Street were: an ever widening gap between rich and poor; a perceived failure by President Obama to hold the financial industry accountable for the crisis of 2008; and a sense that money had taken over politics.

The amazing thing about the Occupy Wall Street movement is not that it started—America was full of fed-up people at the end of 2011—but that it worked. With a vague agenda, a nonexistent leadership structure (many of the protesters were anarchists and didn’t believe in leaders at all), and a minuscule budget (as of December, they’d raised roughly $650,000—one-eighth of Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign haul), the occupiers in Zuccotti Park nevertheless inspired similar protests in hundreds of cities around the country and the world. What they created was, depending on whom you asked, either the most important protest movement since 1968 or an aimless, unwashed, leftist version of the Tea Party.

Occupy Wall Street quickly attracted intellectual celebrities—and, eventually, actual celebrities—but its founders were an unlikely assortment of stifled activists, part-time provocateurs, and people who simply had no place else to turn. There was Kalle Lasn, who ran an obscure Vancouver-based magazine called Adbusters with just 10 employees and an anti-consumerist agenda. Another key organizer, Vlad Teichberg, was a 39-year-old former derivatives trader who spent his weekends and evenings producing activist video art. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the University of London, quickly emerged as the movement’s intellectual force. If he was known at all, it was not for his anarchist theories or for his research into the nature of debt, but for being let go by Yale in 2005—in part, he believes, on account of his political leanings.

It is unclear whether the impact of Occupy Wall Street will be lasting or brief. But the story of how these unlikely organizers—and the activists, students, and homeless people who joined them—managed to seize control of the national conversation is remarkable, miraculous even. This is how it happened.

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How the Inquisition ignited the modern police state

Cullen Murphy writes: On a hot autumn day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate. He examined my credentials, handed them back and saluted smartly. I hadn’t expected the gesture and almost returned the salute instinctively, but then realised it was intended for a cardinal waddling into the Vatican from behind me.

Just inside the gate, at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11, stands a Renaissance palazzo with a ruddy ochre-and-cream complexion. This is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job, in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, promulgated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”. Pastor bonus goes on: “For this reason, everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.” It is an expansive charge. Every significant document or decision emanating from anywhere inside the Vatican must get a sign-off from the CDF. The Congregation has been around for a very long time, although until the Second Vatican Council it was called something else: the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. From the lips of old Vatican hands, one still hears shorthand references to “the Holy Office”, much as one hears “Whitehall”, “Foggy Bottom” or “the Kremlin”.

But before the Congregation became the Holy Office, it went by yet another name: as late as 1908, it was known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Lenny Bruce once joked that there was only one “the Church”. The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition was the headquarters of the Inquisition – the centuries-long effort by the Church to deal with its perceived enemies, within and without, by whatever means necessary, including the most brutal ones available.

The palazzo that today houses the Congregation was originally built to lodge the Inquisition when the papacy, in 1542, amid the onslaught of Protestantism and other noxious ideas, decided that the Church’s intermittent and far-flung inquisitorial investigations needed to be brought under some sort of centralised control – a spiritual Department of Homeland Security, as it were. The Inquisition had begun in the Middle Ages, to deal with Christian heresies, and been revived in Iberia, under state control, to deal with Jews and Moors. Pope Paul III considered the task of his new papal Inquisition so urgent that construction on the basilica of St. Peter’s was suspended and the labourers diverted so that work could be completed on its headquarters. At one time the palazzo held not only clerical offices but also prison cells.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inherited more than the Inquisition’s DNA and its place on the organisational charts. It also inherited much of the paper trail. The Inquisition records are kept mainly in the palazzo itself, and for four and a half centuries that archive was closed to outsiders. Then, in 1998, to the surprise of many, the Vatican decided to make the archive available to scholars.

Any archive is a repository of what some sliver of civilisation has wrought, for good or ill. This one is no exception. The archive may owe its existence to the Inquisition, but it helps explain the world that exists today. In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages”. But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organised systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately seen not as a relic but as a harbinger. [Continue reading…]

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