Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tarantino The Great

India & Nuclear Energy

INDIA'S prime minister today signalled a huge push in nuclear power over the coming decades, using an untested technology based on nuclear waste and the radioactive element thorium.

Manmohan Singh, speaking at a conference of atomic scientists in Delhi, announced that 470,000MW of energy could come from Indian nuclear power stations by 2050 — more than 100 times the current output from India's current 17 reactors.

"This will sharply reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and will be a major contribution to global efforts to combat climate change," he said, adding that Asia was now seeing a huge spurt in nuclear plant building. The Indian plan, which relies on untested technology, was criticised by anti-nuclear campaigners as "a nightmare disguised as a dream".

The prime minister said a breakthrough deal with the US, sanctioned by the international community, had opened the door for the country to "think big" and meet the demands of its billion-strong population. He did not say how much the plans would cost, or how they would be paid for.

The intervention comes as talks in Bangkok aimed at resolving the impasse between developing and developed countries over a new climate change deal to replace the Kyoto protocol have stalled. India, one of the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, has been dismayed that its pledges of action – including a dramatic expansion of nuclear power - have been met with inaction from richer nations.

The prime minister's statement also brings Delhi alongside Beijing which has long promoted atomic energy. India's plan would see it leapfrog its northern neighbour. At present China has 11 reactors in operation producing 8,000MW but has proposed that by 2020 this output be increased 10-fold. The UK, by contrast, has an installed capacity of around 12,000MW, much of which is due to go offline and be replaced by a new fleet of reactors in the next decade.

Nuclear power has been a contentious issue in India. Although the country has had a decades-old atomic programme, it was effectively blacklisted from global civilian nuclear trade after testing a nuclear device in 1974. That embargo was lifted in 2008 after negotations with Washington.

The result has been a rush to sign deals – both to supply uranium and to build reactors. France, Russia and the United States have all sought access to the booming Indian market.

India has an ambitious three-stage nuclear programme which it sees as a "silver bullet" to its dire energy shortage. At present 400m people cannot light their homes and the country imports 70% of its oil.

Delhi says that it will be able to surmount these considerable problems and generate clean green power with an atomic programme that "virtuously recycles" the plutonium waste that reactors produce. This radioactive isotope takes thousands of years to be rendered safe and dealing with it is the greatest challenge facing nuclear energy's proponents.

The Indian plan turns this waste into fuel. Using thorium, which is abundant in the country, combined with plutonium, the country aims to produce power and "breed" stockpiles of uranium.

It is a technology that no other country has mastered – and many have dropped – but India still has more than 2,000 scientists working on the technical problems.

Singh said the country had entered "stage two" of the programme and had completed a prototype breeder reactor in southern India.

However campaigners said "if climate change is the problem, nuclear power is not the answer". SP Udayakumar, convenor of India's Alliance for Anti-Nuclear Movements, questioned whether the technology India was pushing would ever be ready.

"The nuclear technology the prime minister talks about is not proven. If we start going ahead then the issue is the amount of carbon emitted by building, maintaining, operating and decommissioning nuclear plants means that (nuclear power) is a hugely polluting technology. If it does not work then we are left with waste that takes 24,000 years to become safe. It is a gamble we will pay for generations to come."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Measuring Happiness...

HOW well off are Americans? Frenchmen? Indians? Ghanaians? An economist’s simplest answer is the gross domestic product, or GDP, per person of each country. To help you compare the figures, he will convert them into dollars, either at market exchange rates or (better) at purchasing-power-parity rates, which allow for the cheapness of, say, haircuts and taxi rides in poorer parts of the world. To be sure, this will give you a fair guide to material standards of living: the Americans and the French, on average, are much richer than Indians and Ghanaians. But you may suspect, and the economist should know, that this is not the whole truth. America’s GDP per head is higher than France’s, but the French spend less time at work, so are they really worse off? An Indian may be desperately poor and yet say he is happy; an American may be well fed yet fed up. GDP was designed to measure only the value of goods and services produced in a country, and it does not even do that precisely. How well off people feel also depends on things GDP does not capture, such as their health or whether they have a job. Environmentalists have long complained that GDP treats the despoliation of the planet as a plus (via the resulting economic output) rather than a minus (forests destroyed).

In recent years economists have therefore been looking at other measures of well-being—even “happiness”, a notion that it once seemed absurd to quantify. Among those convinced that official statisticians should join in is Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president. On September 14th a commission he appointed last year, comprising 25 prominent social scientists, five with Nobel prizes in economics, presented its findings. Joseph Stiglitz, the group’s chairman and one of the laureates, said the 292-page report was a call to abandon “GDP fetishism”. France’s national statistics agency, Mr Sarkozy declared, should broaden its purview.

The commission divided its work into three parts. The first deals with familiar criticisms of GDP as a measure of well-being. It takes no account of the depreciation of capital goods, and so overstates the value of production. Moreover, the value of production is based on market prices, but not everything has a price. The list of such things includes more than the environment. The worth of services not supplied through markets, such as state health care or education, owner-occupied housing or unpaid child care by parents, is “imputed”—estimated, using often rickety assumptions—or left out, even though private health care and schooling, renting and child-minding are directly measured.

The report also argues that official statisticians should concentrate on households’ incomes, consumption and wealth rather than total production. All these adjustments make a difference. In 2005, the commission found, France’s real GDP per person was 73% of America’s. But once government services, household production and leisure are added in, the gap narrows: French households had 87% of the adjusted income of their American counterparts. No wonder Mr Sarkozy is so keen.

Next the commission turns to measures of the “quality of life”. These attempt to capture well-being beyond a mere command of economic resources. One approach quantifies people’s subjective well-being—divided into an overall judgment about their lives (a “ladder of life” score) and moment-by-moment flows of positive and negative feelings. For many years researchers had been spurred on by an apparent paradox: that rising incomes did not make people happier in the long run. Recent studies suggest, though, that countries with higher GDP per person do tend to have higher ladder-of-life scores. Exactly what, beyond income, affects subjective well-being—from health, marital status and age to perceptions of corruption—is much pored over. The unemployed report lower scores, even allowing for their lower incomes. Joblessness hits more than your wallet.

Third, the report examines the well-being of future generations. People alive today will pass on a stock of exhaustible and other natural resources as well as machines, buildings and social institutions. Their children’s human capital (skills and so forth) will depend on investment in education and research today. Economic activity is sustainable if future generations can expect to be at least as well off as today’s. Finding a single measure that captures all this, the report concludes, seems too ambitious. That sounds right. For one thing, statisticians would have to make assumptions about the relative value of, say, the environment and new buildings—not just today, but many years from now. It is probably wiser to look at a wide range of figures.

Some members of the commission believe that the financial crisis and the recession have made a broadening of official statistics more urgent. They think there might have been less euphoria had financial markets and policymakers been less fixated on GDP. That seems far-fetched. Stockmarket indices, soaring house prices and low inflation surely did more to feed bankers’ and borrowers’ exaggerated sense of well-being.

Broadening official statistics is a good idea in its own right. Some countries have already started—notably, tiny Bhutan. There are pitfalls, though. The report justifies wider measures of well-being partly by noting that the public must have trust in official statistics. Quite so; which makes it all the more important that the statisticians are independent of government. The thought of grinning politicians telling people how happy they are is truly Orwellian. Another risk is that a proliferation of measures could be a gift to interest groups, letting them pick numbers that amplify their misery in order to demand a bigger share of the national pie. But these are early days. Meanwhile, get measuring.

Halal Food

JUST before the beginning of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim fast which ends this weekend, an unusual advertisement appeared on French television. Panzani, a pasta-maker, was touting its Zakia line of halal ready-meals. In a secular nation it seemed like “a little revolution”, as Le Parisien, a newspaper, put it. The French can presumably take it in their stride. The trade in halal food is growing fast, and is likely to continue to do so.

Big food producers have long catered to Muslims, a market worth some $630 billion globally according to KasehDia, a consulting company that specialises in the trade. Nestlé has produced halal goods since the 1980s; 75 of its 456 factories now have a halal certification. But only recently have big European shops followed suit. Carrefour, the world’s second-largest retailer, launched a new range of products just in time for Ramadan. Casino, a French supermarket chain, has a halal line, and British outfits Tesco and Sainsbury’s carry halal products. KFC, an American fast-food chain, is conducting a trial of halal food in eight of its British restaurants. All its French ones are already halal certified.

The main reason for growth is demographic. Although many European countries do not tally Muslims or any other religious group (estimates in France range from 4m to 7m) it is clear that Muslim populations have grown quickly as a result of immigration and higher birth rates. Many of the people who sought asylum in Western Europe in the first half of this decade were Muslims from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Mohammed, Muhammad and Mohammad were all among the 100 most popular baby boys’ names in England and Wales last year.

Although Muslims are disproportionately poor, they spend plenty of money on food. Islam is associated with a strong tradition of communal feasting. Antoine Bonnel, who runs the Paris Halal Expo, reckons that the average French Muslim spends a quarter of his or her income on food, compared with 12-14% for non-Muslims.

Nearly a third of the money goes on meat. That demand, which contrasts with a drop in meat-eating among health-conscious Christians and godless folk, has helped transform the global livestock market. The slaughtering of all lamb and goat meat in Australia for export is now done in accordance with halal custom, which involves killing animals with a single cut and draining their blood. A tenth of Australia’s total meat exports, worth about $570m a year, is halal. Brazil dominates the global market with a 54% share of exported halal meat, according to KasehDia.

As the halal market grows, two problems are emerging. The first is the lack of broad standards. Halal regulations vary widely both between countries and within them. In Australia, all slaughter for halal meat is regulated by the government. In France, by contrast, there are over 50 certification bodies, all in competition with one another. Mr Bonnel describes it as “a huge nightmare” that can lead to charges of impurity. The Malaysian government’s Halal Industry Development Corporation has tried to create a global standard, with little success so far.

The second problem is squeamishness among non-Muslims. Animals slaughtered according to halal custom are supposed to be alive when their throats are cut, a practice that animal-rights groups condemn. Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden forbid it outright. Some governments have reached a compromise that allows for animals to be partly stunned before being killed. But not all Muslims are happy with this. The halal market may be buoyant, but the waters are choppy.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Lady Is Staying

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ireland Speaking

Honduras Today

Monday, September 21, 2009

Map Of The Day

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sofia Loren at 75

Picture Of The Day

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You Liers...


"A golden dream by the sea" is how Arnold Schwarzenegger described California, when he was inaugurated as the state's governor six years ago. Cruise down highway 280 from San Francisco, then up over the wooded Santa Cruz mountains to the Pacific coast, with red-tailed hawks soaring across a perfect blue sky, and it still looks like a dream. But underneath, there is this nightmare.

The state that once boasted the best public schools, colleges and highways in America now has some of the worst. Its healthcare is ranked lowest of all the 50 states by the Commonwealth Fund, a respected thinktank; its prisons are overflowing; the energy-guzzling way it meets its water needs takes a staggering 19% of the state's now expensive electricity; it has six of the 10 worst cities in the US for air pollution; its public finances are a disaster. Year after year, its legislature has failed to agree a budget. Its deficits make Italy look like a paragon of fiscal prudence. And this summer, it generated incredulous headlines around the world when the state started issuing IOUs. The government of one of the most richly endowed territories on earth, home to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, a crucible of innovation and the eighth largest economy in the world, was broke.

Why has California got into such a mess? Some analysts say: "Too much democracy!" In California's eccentric version of direct democracy, all kinds of extravagant public spending are mandated by so-called initiatives, proposed by anyone who can gather enough signatures, and passed by a simple majority of those who bother to vote on them, while the state's revenue-gathering possibilities are curbed by the same method. The most famous example was Proposition 13, passed in 1978, which drastically capped property taxes while making California the only state in the union that requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature not just to pass a budget but also to increase taxes.

So extensive is this "ballot-box budgeting " that legislators estimate they control only some 7% to 17% of the state's spending. Troy Senik, author of a new book on the woes of the golden state, says Californians have been living with the delusion that they could be taxed like libertarians and subsidised like socialists.

Yet it's not fair to blame all this on government of the people by the people. Rather, California shows how such experiments in direct democracy can be perverted – and how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. For this framework of initiatives and referendums was established by self-styled progressives in the early 20th century to curb the power of the railway bosses and bring power to the people. A hundred years later, it is today's more diverse special-interest groups – not just billionaires and businesses but also powerful public service unions, especially those representing teachers and prison guards – who play the system to feather their own nests or further their own fads. They hire hands to collect signatures on their chosen initiative, and use advertising muscle to whip in the votes.

The supposedly representative side of California's democracy doesn't work well, either. Electoral districts have been so shamelessly gerrymandered that most voters, most of the time, have no choice. In 2004, for example, 153 state or federal seats were up for election: not one went to another party. As a result, the real political competition occurs in Democrat and Republican primaries, producing politicians whose future depends on pandering to the ideological extremes of their own parties. No wonder it proves impossible to get the bipartisan two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget.

The initiatives have also added to and changed California's constitution, which is now said to be the third longest in the world – outdone only by India and Alabama. If the American constitutional tradition is distinguished by checks and balances, California has a tangle of checks and balances worthy of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It has also created a bureaucratic nightmare of multiple, overlapping and conflicting agencies and competencies. California has been the state where no agency ever dies, and truly a golden dream for special-interest groups. Until, that is, the gold ran out.

Perhaps California's deepest problem is that it has been so superabundantly endowed with both natural and human resources, so blessed by the huge contracts that the second world war and the cold war brought to its industries, so fortunate in the inflow of brilliant innovators, dynamic entrepreneurs and industrious workers from Hitler's Germany, rainy Britain, Vietnam, India, China, Mexico and everywhere else, who have moved here, wooed by its matchless charms and opportunities. A poorer place could not have sustained such an idiotic system for so long.

Imagine a bicycle with brakes permanently biting, gears that make it more difficult, rather than easier, to go uphill and the front wheel permanently askew – and it gets worse every time you take it to the repair shop. Only a giant could keep such a bicycle moving forwards. For more than 30 years, California has done just that. Now even this most dynamic of human societies can't keep the crazy bike on the road. So they need to do a proper repair – or, better still, make a new bike.

That is what Californians are now mobilising to do. A group called California Forward proposes piecemeal repairs; another, though called Repair California, aims to build a whole new bike. In the next fortnight, Repair California is due to announce the proposed wording of two initiatives: one to change the state's constitution to allow the people to call a constitutional convention, the other to have the people actually call that convention. According to its own polling, 71% of Californians support the idea. Once the attorney general has formally agreed the wording, it will have until next April to get 1.6 million signatures – which it aims to do by Obama-style volunteer organising.

If all went according to plan, these proposals would be endorsed by the people at the same time as the next gubernatorial election, in November 2010, the convention would be held in 2011, and the people of California could approve a gleaming new mountain bike of a constitution in November 2012 – which, in case you hadn't noticed, is when president Barack Obama will be bidding for his second term.

And there's the larger story. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin liked to quote the saying "The Jews are just like everyone else – only more so." Well, Californians are just like other Americans – only more so. Of course, some of California's specific difficulties are unique, and most states are better run. But in many ways the golden state's sickness is an extreme, hypertrophied version of the politico-economic problems of the whole United States in the early 21st century. The deeper structure is the same: an accumulation over many decades of systemic burdens – in healthcare, for example – which the country could once carry by a combination of economic dynamism and the advantages of its preeminent place in the international system, but no longer can; a multiplication of checks and balances that makes it extremely difficult to reform. The odds may be against the reformers, but everyone who believes the world needs an open, dynamic America must hope they will succeed.

by Timothy Garton Ash

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Patrick Swayze (RIP)

Align Centre

Monday, September 14, 2009

Roberto Bolaño

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A (late but) Deserved Apology

Gordon Brown has said he is sorry for the "appalling" way World War II code-breaker Alan Turing was treated for being gay.

A petition on the No 10 website had called for a posthumous government apology to the computer pioneer.

In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself.

The campaign was the idea of computer scientist John Graham-Cumming.

He was seeking an apology for the way the mathematician was treated after his conviction. He also wrote to the Queen to ask for Turing to be awarded a posthumous knighthood.

The campaign was backed by author Ian McEwan, scientist Richard Dawkins and gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. The petition posted on the Downing Street website attracted thousands of signatures.

Mr Brown, writing in the Telegraph newspaper, said: "While Mr Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him."

National legacy

He said Mr Turing deserved recognition for his contribution to humankind.

In the statement he said: "So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

A niece of Mr Turing, Inagh Payne, said that at the time she had no idea about his contribution to the war effort because he kept his work "hush-hush".

She was also unaware of his sexuality and his prosecution as the family "kept mum about that sort of thing". She said she was "very grateful" for the apology. "We realise now that he was gay and we think he was treated abominably," she said.

Welcoming Mr Brown's move, Peter Tatchell of gay rights group Outrage! said a similar apology was also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who suffered similar treatment.

"Singling out Turing just because he is famous is wrong," he said.

Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue to work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

He is most famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines.

However, he also made significant contributions to the emerging fields of artificial intelligence and computing.

In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called On Computable Numbers and in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test.

After the war he worked at many institutions including the University of Manchester, where he worked on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers.

There is a memorial statue of him in Manchester's Sackville Gardens which was unveiled in 2001.

Say the "K" word please!

A Turkish university will for the first time teach the Kurdish language, which was banned throughout the country until 1991, Turkish officials say.

Postgraduate studies in Kurdish will begin at Artuklu University, in the southeastern province of Mardin (Kurdistan, FYI).

The language will be offered alongside Farsi, Arabic and Syriac, at a new "Living Languages in Turkey" institute.

Expanding Kurdish language rights is part of a government drive to end years of conflict with armed Kurdish rebels.

In January, Turkey's public broadcaster launched a 24-hour Kurdish-language television channel.

As many as one in five people in Turkey are ethnically Kurdish, most of them living in the country's south-east (BBC means Kurdistan but they don´t mention it in order not to upset Turkey).

The head of Turkey's higher education board, Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, announced the new language course on Thursday, saying the goal would be to train academics to teach the minority languages.

The EU has urged Turkey to do more to improve Kurdish cultural rights, among a package of reforms demanded by the EU as conditions for joining the 27-nation bloc.

Turkey's EU accession talks opened in October 2005, but progress has been slow.

(from the BBC website)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sunday, September 06, 2009

An Impressive Reading

Title: Fidel Castro, My Life. With Ignacio Ramonet.
Original Title: Fidel Castro, Biografia A Dos Voces.
Translated By: Andrew Hurley.
Published By: Penguin.
Number of pages: 724.