Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ethnic Groups That Look The Same Don't Play Nice

After listing several examples (Ireland vs. Northern Ireland, India vs. Pakistan, Uzbekistan vs. Kyrgyzstan, Turks vs. Greeks, etc.), Christopher Hitchens makes this valid point:

One of the great advantages possessed by Homo sapiens is the amazing lack of variation between its different "branches." Since we left Africa, we have diverged as a species hardly at all. If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed. We do not suffer from the enormous differences that separate other primates, let alone other mammals. As if to spite this huge natural gift, and to disfigure what could be our overwhelming solidarity, we manage to find excuses for chauvinism and racism on the most minor of occasions and then to make the most of them. This is why condemnation of bigotry and superstition is not just a moral question but a matter of survival.
Yet bigotry continues.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Mexico, They Lobby Political Candidates With Bullets

Why was a Mexican candidate for governor killed by a drug cartel hit squad? Permanent political influence.

The timing of the assassination sends a message to candidates of all parties that they may be called upon to collaborate with the traffickers, or perish, as currently happens with law enforcement officials, say analysts.
“The cartels don't seek a failed state. Rather they want ‘dual sovereignty’ – that is, to pay off public officials in return for their closing their eyes to criminality,” says George W. Grayson, a Mexico counternarcotics expert and professor of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
While this is sure to scare of reform-minded Mexican candidates and voters alike, the fact that this story is making the rounds in US media outlets (and the fact that the state of Tamaulipas is right across from Texas) is sure to add fuel to the growing backlash against the rising Latino presence in the United States.

Perhaps it will also pressure the Obama administration to put more effort into cracking down on cartel activity along the US-Mexico border.

Monday, June 28, 2010

iPolitics: The Global Impact of Smart Phones

Foreign Policy lists five ways the iPhone and similar technologies are reshaping geopolitics.
Something to ponder:

But for that twenty percent or so of the planet living in the (over) developed western nations — thanks to colonial plundering for resources, and later, world banking scams — the limits of the natural world have never sunk in. Not really. Oh, ecological limits can be intellectually real to us, and we can have discussions about them. And being comparatively rich, we can build wind turbines and solar panels, and tell ourselves smug lies about "sustainable energy" and "green solutions." However, in our daily world, the affective one that governs our behavior, the one that tells us what we honestly need to deal with and what we do not, there are no apparent limits or potential end of anything. For example, if you wanted a glass of ice water right now, you could walk over to a refrigerator and get it. Most of the world cannot.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Ebbs and Flows of the International Drug Trade

Increased demand in Europe has re-routed the cocaine trade through West Africa instead of the Americas.
"People snorting coke in Europe are killing the pristine forests of the Andean countries and corrupting governments in West Africa," UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said.

The number of cocaine users in Europe has doubled in the last decade and the market is now worth $34 billion, almost as much as that in North America, the world's biggest consumer of the drug.

Europe's around 4 million cocaine users consumed about one quarter of global production in 2008.
Extraditing drug criminals from Colombia to the United States is weakening the Colombian legal system. 

But extradition is not universally good -- it is best used only when a criminal has fled to a place of relative impunity or the state itself is incapable of prosecuting the crimes. In Colombia, however, this is not the case. The country's justice system is now hailed as one of the region's best, so strong that its investigators and prosecutors tour throughout Latin America training their counterparts. A recent wave of convictions against a handful of military and congressional officials for egregious human rights violations is proof that, backed by political will, the system is fully capable of reaching sound convictions. Extraditions, however, achieve the opposite: They discredit the courts, with a chilling effect on the local administration of justice.
The paramilitary extraditions are a case in point. In 2003, the Uribe government promised to suspend extraditions so that demobilized paramilitaries could proceed through a special criminal process, known as Justice and Peace. In exchange for slap-on-the-wrist sentences, paramilitary forces were asked to confess their crimes and reveal information about criminal networks. Although not without flaws, the demobilizations saw a number of paramilitaries confess to atrocities, which led to the exhumation of disappeared persons and provided leads for criminal cases against top intelligence and military leaders and dozens of nationally elected officials. Things were moving forward -- until the May 2008 extraditions of the top paramilitary bosses brought the confessions to a standstill.
Moscow blames NATO for not preventing the flow of Afghan heroin into Russia.

"Further assistance to the coalition must be predicated upon a more active position in the fight against drug production in Afghanistan," Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the delegates, suggesting that NATO's vital supply route through Russia could be cut if the destruction of poppy fields didn't resume.
In its way, Russia is making an important point. Between 2005 and 2009, Afghanistan's yearly opium output jumped from 4,000 to 7,000 tons, and it now accounts for more than 90% of global supply, according to the United Nations. Russian state statistics say that opiates such as heroin and morphine kill around 30,000 Russians every year, three times more than the total number of Soviets killed during their 10-year war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And the U.N. also says that the $65 billion earned every year from the sale of opiates partly goes to finance terrorists around the world, including the Taliban militants that the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan.

And drug violence and sheer brutality in Mexico show no signs of slowing down.
And while the cartels are known for using especially brutal tactics against civilians, the Mexican military has also been accused of scores of human rights abuses including rape, torture and extrajudicial killings. Many units are also believed to be working with the cartels. On Monday, Calderon issued a 5,000 word essay to defend his handling of the war, in which he wrote: "It's worth the effort to continue on with this fight. It's worthwhile in order to build a free and safe country." He added that "we will win."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Billion Dollar Language Barrier in Afghanistan

Between accusations of US money being funneled to the Taliban, the almost comical incompetency of the Afghan military forces, and talks within Afghanistan's government to reconcile with the Taliban, it appears the United States and its allies have not been successful in quelling the violence and destroying the Taliban forces throughout Afghanistan.

What's the main reason behind this? A lack of understanding the culture (and by that, I mean language).

"They [the Taliban] know their own people -- they are culturally accurate. We know the facts but we are culturally inaccurate. The main message in the reports is that we don't fully understand our enemy and we are not clearly communicating our message to the people." 
...Military officials involved in civil affairs work highlight other issues in Afghanistan: There are not enough civilian workers to help complete promised construction projects, local governments steal project funding, there are not enough Pashtun interpreters, security concerns inhibit local workers from taking coalition jobs.

Afghanistan, whose modern borders were essentially created by a truce between the British Empire and Russia, has a large mix of languages and ethnic groups cobbled together. Below is a map compiled by the CIA during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

So having known the linguistic/ethnic breakdown of this country for over 25 years, how are we still having problems with being "culturally inaccurate"? 

Futhermore, after nine years and billions of dollars spent on military operations in Afghanistan, how many U.S Armed Services members can fluently read, speak, and write in Pashto/Pashtun? Or Dari? Or the several other languages that permeate Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the rest of the "Central Asiastan" region? 

And I don't mean Category II translators who often too old or weak to reasonably deploy with combat brigades...

U.S. troops say companies that recruit military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are unprepared to serve in combat, even as hundreds more are needed to support the growing number of troops.
Some translators are in their 60s and 70s and in poor physical condition — and some don’t even speak the right language.
“I’ve met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren’t in the proper physical shape,” said Gunnery Sgt. James Spangler, who is in charge of linguists at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base in Helmand province.

Here's a thought - maybe the Taliban can better understand Afghani culture because their fighters can actually speak Afghani languages.

Here's another thought - instead of shipping these translators straight to Afghanistan military bases, and then straight back to where they came from, how about shipping them to military training bases and intelligence bases to teach US soldiers the basics of these languages?

The US Army does, in fact, hire and train translators and linguists. However, it appears that we're also relying on third-party companies to under-pay local translators:

Samim, a Pashtun translator from eastern Afghanistan who previously worked for MEP, says: "God forgive them, but there are many interpreters who have been killed but [their families] haven’t been compensated. Even if they did get any compensation, they got it after long arguments." He ticks some of them off from memory: "There was Hamid who was killed in Nuristan. Emran was killed in the Devangal Valley in Kunar Province, and another in Paktia," he says. 
Samim, who asked that his full name be withheld for personal safety reasons, also says that MEP pays local translators less than their predecessor. A Titan translator who had spent two years with the company could expect 1,050 dollars a month, but MEP slashed this to 900 dollars or less. New employees who do not travel with the troops make just 650 dollars a month.

Let's do some quick math with the statistics provided by the above article:
MEP was awarded a five-year contract in September 2007 by the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) to provide 1,691 translators in Afghanistan. MEP defeated the incumbent contractor, San Diego, California- based Titan Corporation. The contract is worth up to 414 million dollars. 
If you divide a 414 million dollar contract by 1,691 Afghanistan translators, that comes out to $244,825.55 per translator. If we divide that dollar amount by the $900/month pay-rate for these translators, it comes out to us paying for 272 months, or 22.7 years worth of translating per translator. Even factoring in the larger amounts of money Mission Essential Personnel is paying for native-speaking residents in Western countries, training infrastructure, and other expenses, you have to wonder how effectively this contracted money has been spent on linguists (and why cap-off at such an arbitrary number like 1,691?).

As as this Wired article points out, MEP has received another no-bid contract for $679 million as of May 2010. 414 million + 679 million = 1,093,000,000. So in other words, 1.1 billion dollars have been awarded to a third-party company in the last three years to provide translators for Afghanistan operations, and we're still having communication problems with the population.

And that's just one contractor in Afghanistan. Almost five times that (and probably more) has been spent on Iraqi translation services.

The US Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) oversees a multi-billion contract to provide linguists services in Iraq. The contract dates back to 1999, when the INSCOM Contracting Office awarded a $4.5 billion, 5-year Worldwide Linguist Support Services (WLSS) contract to BTG, which was purchased by Titan Corp. in 2001. 

...But to be fair, if you look at an MEP job posting for a Category II Pashto Linguist, you can see some of the other hiring caveats at work that reduce the American citizen translator pool:
(a) Minimum required: 3/3 or higher in Pashto language proficiency rating. Must possess a current FINAL SECRET security clearance. Must have the ability to obtain a TOP SECRET security clearance with access to Specialized Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). The ability to read and translate handwritten material. 

(b) Desired: Extensive subject matter expertise (SME) of the content being processed, i.e. some sort of military science background, training or experience is needed to transcribe military communications. A thorough knowledge of the cultural, geopolitical, and economic issues of the source country and region involved. Technical automated information system skills, such as word processing and data entry, to be used in conjunction with written translations, as well as the ability to use advanced language software programs. 

a) Minimum required: Previous Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) experience, preferably with duty as a transcriber. An excellent command of Pashto, as well as excellent verbal and written American English language capabilities (grammar, vocabulary, idioms, spelling) because linguist work products are prepared in both languages. 

Must be: U.S. citizenship, current TS/SCI clearance or Final Secret (clearable to TS/SCI), plus a willingness to take and pass a counterintelligence (CI) polygraph.
Call me naive, but shouldn't someone this qualified and credentialed already be working in the US Armed Forces? 


In any case, now that the champion of counterinsurgency theory in Afghanistan has been placed back in charge of military operations in the region, maybe we'll see a renewed effort in the most essential part of the theory:

In counterinsurgency, the most important thing is winning over the local population. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in charge of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, was right to warn that a “crisis of confidence among Afghans” imperils the effort to rebuild the country. For most American troops, however, the only connection they have to the locals — whether soldiers in the Afghan army or villagers they’re trying to secure — is through their interpreters.
Small Wars Journal offers some advice on how to handle your unit's assigned interpreter:

Respect them: Often interpreters are treated as tools vs. people. Summoned to meetings, disregarded after, and often treated as a necessity vs. a personality, the potential for a rift between you and your HNL’s is real. They face the same risk of death or injury as you do during missions and do so unarmed. Additionally, they, and their families are often singled out for attacks due to their cooperation with and support of ISAF and the Afghan government. Do your best to include them in unit events and treat them appropriately.

So, in other words, the backbone to our counterinsurgency plan is to tell our soldiers to treat their translators like human beings. Great.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Global New Media and Advertising Round-Up (June 22rd)

In Japan, you can now read the news in comic book form.

The Chinese Communist Party's new iPhone newspaper app - the i-Party.

An American company seeks to install screens in supermarket aisles to advertise featured products.

Hyper-consumption and beauty-care advertising backlash in Brazil and Britain.

An Italian priest created an iPad app to replace the traditional books used by priests to lead mass.

Inspired by Argentinian Coach Diego Maradona's promise to run around Buenos Aires naked if his team wins the World Cup, Pepsi bottles will follow suit by running "naked" (label-less) for a week throughout the country.

Geopolitics Round-Up for June 22nd

Most of the blogs I read do daily round-ups of interesting reads that they don't expand into blog posts. My inbox is filled with  links I never get around to expanding on, so here we go:
  • Collapsitarianism - the impending deterioration of modern civilization or a trendy fantasy in niche circles?

Expect "link round-up" type posts for different categories (geopolitics, media, culture clashes, trends, etc.), in the future, along with longer blog posts and more content in the works.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Qu'ran Forbids Everything That Keeps Stores Open In Poor Communities

Chicago Muslim convenience and grocery store owners and their dilemma over selling booze, lottery tickets, and Slim Jims:
Falah Farhoudeh, owner of Pay Less Grocery, near 69th Street and Ashland Avenue, is one of those trailblazers. Farhoudeh has never sold liquor or lottery tickets. The sandwich shop he runs out of the back of his store doesn't serve pork. But he prominently displays pork skins and soda pop at the front of his store instead of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The United States of Islam? Or Divided Islamic States?

An Iranian cleric is calling for the creation of a "greater Iran" or "United States of Islam".
He said he envisioned a Greater Iran that would stretch from Afghanistan to Israel, bringing about the destruction of the Jewish state.

He also said its formation would be a prelude to the reappearance of the Mahdi, a revered ninth-century saint known as the Hidden Imam, whom Muslims believe will reappear before judgment day to end tyranny and promote justice in the world.

“The Islamic United States will be an introduction to the formation of the global village of the oppressed and that will be a prelude to the single global rule of the Mahdi,” the Hezbollah newspaper quoted him as saying.

Besides Israel, he said the union would also destroy Shiite Iran’s other regional adversaries, whom he called “cancerous tumors.” He singled out secular Arab nationalists such as members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in Iraq, as well as followers of the austere version of Sunni Islam practiced primarily in Saudi Arabia that is known as Wahabism.
Meanwhile, an international political organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir is sponsoring a conference in the Chicago suburbs advocating the creation of a Khilafah (aka Caliphate) to rule North America under Islamic jurisprudence.

A few thoughts here:

Although the statement and video both seem to advocate similar end goals - all people all over the world under Muslim rule to create a utopian society - they are vastly different in their assumptions. The Khilafah Conference 2010 assumes a pan-Islamic state that provides free healthcare, education, and food for the poor is both possible and practical. All admirable government services in of themselves, but they fail to mention which interpretation of Islam would rule these Caliphates (not to mention how these services would be fairly distributed among 6-7 billion people).

The folly of ignoring the sectarian divide throughout Islamic history comes to light with Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Kharrazi's statement. By explicitly naming Shia Islam and condemning both secular Arab goverments as well as fundamentalist Sunni thought, the cleric's rhetoric indicates that pan-Islamism is far, far away.

In fact, aside from universal resentment towards Israel and US foreign policy encroachments, the global Islamic "umma" is far from unified, as we can see with: name but a few examples of groups of self-described Muslims fighting and killing each other (or otherwise dividing apart) at the moment. Islamist groups can proselytize away in English, but the Islamic world is nowhere near close to geopolitical unity.

And in the unlikely event that the "great Satans" were suddenly "destroyed," I imagine some sort of Islamic Cold War would emerge - Iran-led Shiites and Saudi-led Sunnis geopolitically positioning themselves against each other, stocking up on weapons, competing for converts in Europe, America, and beyond, soliciting powerful regional allies (Russia, China, perhaps India) until the inevitable overt Sunni-Shia clashes emerge.

Kinda like what almost happened with global Communism.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sorry BBC: Brazil and China Are Taking Over Global Television

Call it "propaganda", call it "soft power", call it whatever, but Brazil and China have both recently launched state-run, international television stations targeting certain countries and cultures.

International TV Brazil aims to be the hub of Portuguese-language culture worldwide, particularly in Africa. Though Western countries, China, and India all already have footholds on the continent, Brazil has a special connection to the continent that may work in it's favor:
Brazil has the largest black population outside of Africa; nearly fifty percent of Brazilians classify themselves as having some degree of African origin. International TV Brazil is a way for Brasília to bring itself closer to Africa.

The channel is expected to attract large audiences in Portuguese-speaking nations such as Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Santo Tomé and Principe. 
Brazil has even struck up a partnership with Mozambique to broadcast Brazilian programming to African households for free.
The Brazilian government has signed a contract with Africa-Multichoice, a major African cable provider. The channel will be based in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, and will be available to cable subscribers at no extra cost.
But perhaps there's more to International Brazil TV's aims than spreading culture...could the channel also serve as a counterbalance to powerful Brazilian Globo network?

Lula is highly critical of this station, insisting that it portrays Brazil negatively and inaccurately. More specifically, Lula claims that the administration projected on Globo International isn't representative of the actual government and that International TV Brazil will be the remedy for this malady.
However, despite Lula's claims, the news portrayed by Globo isn't necessarily biased or inaccurate. Globo International is well known and is trusted by viewers everywhere to be fairly accurate and at least highly professional. Globo is also popular around the world for its novelas and enjoys a large market share for their exports, attracting large audiences in places such as South Korea and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, China's CCTV will begin to broadcast Chinese news and cultural programming subtitled in Arabic.

“But in essence this [channel’s purpose] is to voice the Chinese view and our government’s position.  
“We haven’t done enough to air our own voice previously because we were a weak nation. Now we’re stronger. 
“The mainstream media [is] dominated by the western media like the BBC and CNN, and we want to be part of the mainstream voice in international affairs.
Whether or not anyone tunes in is a different question. But it all comes full circle in the end. 
Mr Li admitted CCTV puts more resources into its English-language news channel than its Arabic or other foreign language services, which in future will also include a Portuguese channel.
A Portuguese channel, eh? Wonder who China is trying to target there?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tortilla Economics in Mexico

Labor-intensive maize production in Mexico (traditionally done by women), has been replaced with mechanized tortilla production. Consequently, Mexican society has opted for economic upward mobility in exchange for flavor:
Mexican women that I have talked to are very explicit about this trade-off. They know it doesn't taste as good; they don't care. Because if they want to have time, if they want to work, if they want to send their kids to school, then taste is less important than having that bit of extra money, and moving into the middle class. They have very self-consciously made this decision. In the last ten years, the number of women working in Mexico has gone up from about thirty-three percent to nearly fifty percent. One reason for that - it's not the only reason, but it is a very important reason - is that we've had a revolution in the processing of maize for tortillas.

The Medina Muhammad Would Not Approve Of

A Chilean/Danish pop singer by the name of Medina was recently heckled and had eggs thrown at her by a group of youth at public concert.

Their reason for attacking the songstress? Apart from taking exception to Medina’s hot pants and sexually suggestive song lyrics, it appears that the gang were provoked by the singer’s stage name which is also coincidentally the name of the second holiest city in Islam and the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.
Coincidence? As it turns out, given the Islamic occupation of the Iberian peninsula for several centuries, the use of the word "medina" for "town" became common among the Iberian people, and eventually adopted as a surname.

So to sum up: Muslim-identifying individuals whose families immigrated to a formerly-Christian country in Europe were offended by a pop singer's name derived from a Christian European group's adoption of a word used by their Muslim conquerers a millennium ago. History comes full-circle.

Lebanese Skype Ban And the French-Canadian Connection

While reading this article about Lebanon's upcoming Skype ban due to it's technical illegality under the country's telecom laws, one particular passage struck me:

For all of those hard-working folks slaving away in hellish places like Dubai, the Congo, and Quebec, Skype is a lifeline. Rather than sinking all of your savings into expensive telephone calls to Mama, Baba, Teta, and Jido, the internet has made staying in touch with the motherland affordable. As a result, so the theory goes, more people are likely to send more money home. Now, thanks to the Telecommunications ministry, remittances are likely to take a hit.
Dubai is bad with border-line slave labor, the Congo goes without saying, but Quebec? Really?
In the mid-1970s, during the height of the Lebanese civil war, Canada was one of the very few western countries to adopt special immigration measures to assist those Lebanese fleeing the conflict. It later even set up emergency visa offices in Cyprus to help with family reunification and refugee applications.
That was in 1989 and the result was a spectacular increase in Lebanese immigration in the early 1990s. The 1991 census records only 54,605 Canadians of Lebanese extraction. A decade later there would be 144,000, according to the 2001 census. But in a 2002 report to La Francophonie, the federal government said there were over 250,000 Lebanese in Canada, not all of whom, of course, would be French speaking.
Many of these newcomers, French-speaking Arabs, ended up in Montreal, which boasts Canada's largest Lebanese community. 
Sure sounds a whole lot better be Lebanese in Quebec than most places.

Well, Here's One Way to Hunt Terrorists in Pakistan...

When the world's wealthiest military fails to find Osama bin Laden after 9 years, it's time to take matters into your own hands and bring him to the least effective way possible.
"Who says, 'Why do I rob banks? Because that's where the money is," Dr. Faulkner asked. He said his brother went to Pakistan because "that's wehre Osama is."
The current trip was roughly Mr. Faulkner's sixth to Pakistan since 2002, Dr. Faulkner said. The physician said he drove his brother to the airport, and that MR. Faulkner wasn't carrying any weapons when he boarded the plane. "He did not have a sword, although that is his weapon of choice in Pakistan," said Dr. Faulkner, who said he thought his brother obtained the sword in Pakistan."
Of course, this approach to counter-insurgency in the Af-Pak region does have historical precedent in recent US military history:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"White Guy In A Tie" Is A Hot Chinese Business Trend

One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.”

Sailing the Seas of Polyethylene

While unrefined petroleum continues to flow out of the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico, concentrated areas of (mostly) plastic garbage have been found in the Pacific:

...and the North Atlantic:

"In 15 minutes we saw more garbage than at any time during our journey," recalled naval engineer Yann Geffriaud, 27, speaking from his yacht a few hours after the crew's return on Saturday.
"It was truly a shock, when in the middle of nowhere we came across 10 to 20 pieces of garbage every five minutes."
The Sargasso Sea, where currents between Florida and Bermuda converge, is named for a brown seaweed -- sargassum -- that proliferates on its surface, entrapping any floating trash.
Too bad nearly everything related to contemporary society has been sealed, coated, modeled out of or otherwise made with plastic. Expect this trend to only grow as populations increase worldwide and more international markets "emerge" to buy more high-end electronics and material goods, until methods for safely breaking down plastics become both viable and scalable.

Biodegradable packaging would also be a plus, especially considering it can be made from something as cheap as starch.

Who Do Those Bloody Brits Think They Are?

As it turns out, rudeness has been a part of English culture for a while now.
The social satires of 18th-century Britain – the heyday of Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson as well as Hogarth – are the result of this empowerment, this freedom to be rude to the highest in the land, this thumbing of the popular nose at monarchy and authority. It was beyond belief that such an attitude could have flourished in France after the return of the Bourbon monarchy, or in Italy, Spain or Germany. But it took root in England. The 18th-century Englishman was a remarkable figure, an aggressive, imperialist merchant revelling in the prosperity of the age and the greatness of his nation over other continentals; he was also suspicious of the new power-brokers who had replaced the old hierarchy of the royal court. He wasn't sure if the people representing him in Parliament were quite up to scratch; and he reserved the right to hold them to account, to confront and abuse them, should the occasion demand. And thus was born the Rude Briton.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Chicago Suburbs Are Ruining the Gulf of Mexico

So in case you were wondering where exactly all the horribly incompetent corporate decisions about the Gulf of Mexico oil leak are being made, here's a little hint.

View Larger Map

On the above map, you can see that the North American research headquarters of BP, and the corporate headquarters of Nalco, the company that makes the highly toxic COREXIT oil dispersant used by BP, are a about a 5-minute drive away from each other.

Four more fun facts:

1. A consortium including Goldman Sachs purchased Nalco for $4.2 billion in 2003.

2. Goldman Sachs (along with other brokerage firms) sold $250 million in BP stock months before the disaster. According to Morningstar market research firm:
"BP's valuation carries more uncertainty than ExxonMobil's or Shell's because the firm is less integrated, with more of its earnings coming from the [exploration and production] business than from potentially offsetting refining operations...Disruptions caused by environmental and operational constraints could further limit earnings potential."
3. Naperville, Illinois - home of Nalco Corporate and several BP buildings - buys its electricity from Goldman Sachs subsidiary, J. Aron Company.

4. Former BP Chairman part was once Goldman Sachs Chairman at same time - up until 2009.

Coincidence? Conspiracy? Or just an unfortunate-looking set of links between all parties involved? You decide.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Will A Belgium Break-up Lead to More European Secession?

Belgium, home of the European Union, may split into separate countries, if the front-runner for the parliamentary election has his way.
Despite its status as the home of the European Union, Belgium itself has long struggled with divisions between its 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones but until recently talk of a breakup has been limited to extremists....
...The consequences of a precedent-setting split would be felt as far away as Spain: wealthy Catalonia has engaged in a long-standing campaign for independence and Basque separatists still set off bombs in their quest for autonomy.
Italy's Northern League, which is in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party, has also advocated a split between the rich north and the impoverished south.
Then there's the euro — what would happen to the European common currency if one of its founding members fell apart? Would prosperous Flanders be allowed to join but poorer Wallonia be kept out? Or would both inherit Belgium's right to the currency — even though Belgium itself now no longer meets criteria on issues like the deficit? 

Lady Topo: Is Gaga's "Alejandro" A Jodorowsky Homage?

Many critics have dismissed United States pop artist, Lady Gaga, as an imitator of Madonna, particularly in regards to the shared use of religious imagery and homosexual eroticism in their music videos (and similar musical style).

Her video for "Alejandro" draws on both of these themes, and as Gaga herself explained, the video intended to have a "homoerotic military theme."

However, perhaps in this video, Gaga is actually paying homage to a very specific Alejandro Jodorosky, Chilean director and artist who, in many ways, was the original visual provocateur of religious imagery, blatant sexuality, and overall weirdness.

Just compare the above screen shot of "Alejandro" with this still from "The Holy Mountain"...

Coincidence? Maybe, but how many times do you really hear the Spanish name "Alejandro" in an English-language setting? Yes, MTV news compiled a list of Alejandros you may have heard of, but I would imagine a visual art-savvy popstar would be at least familiar with Jodorowsky's work...otherwise, it's time for her to go back to art school.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Blurring the Line Between Social Media and Reality

Zynga, creators of popular Facebook games FarmVille and Mafia Wars, have reached a licensing deal with 7-11 to stock game-inspired products.
Seven thousand 7-11 stores will offer around 30 branded items, including Slurpees and ice cream, among other things. When a customer buys one of the promotional products, he or she will then be directed to perform some special task in the game world to acquire one of the 7-11 items.

BP has bought links to various words and phrases surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil leak on Google and Yahoo, to redirect searchers to official BP sources.

"If you look at it from BP's perspective it's a brilliant move," Ryan said. "The other option BP had was to just not do this and let the news interpret what's going on.
..."The search terms, everything, it's probably not a bad idea for the company to do," he said. "Is it right? Is buying these terms ethical? That's another question." 

A game involving people forcing each other to ironically drink Smirnoff Ice has gone from college joke to an internet meme blowing up across the United States...and advertising agencies are taking note.
"We're gonna see more of this," says Smallens. "Now that everything can be delivered through digital media, what's the last authentic thing? Spontaneous experience." These bros, he says, are at the vanguard of the next phase in social media: real life.

Digital media supplementing real-life human experiences: welcome to the new frontier of advertising.

Space Weather Will Destroy Us All

Or at the very least, our electrical grid:
"Electric power is modern society's cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend," the report notes. Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Chinese Economic (Cancerous) Growing Pains

As Chinese manufacturers begin to raise wages, many speculate that the cost of goods worldwide will rise and China's manufacturing base will shift away from low-end products.
Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at Georgetown University and the author of “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy,” says the effects of rising labor costs will vary by industry, perhaps with lower-valued goods like garments being forced to move to western China or even to Vietnam and Bangladesh.
But she says high-end electronics like smartphones are likely to remain, because they command high profit margins and because China has built a sophisticated infrastructure and quality-control system.
However neatly China can adjust its economy away from an export-based economy and towards more internal consumption, the "externalities" of global industrial supply and demand are taking a noticeable toll on the population.
Since last year, there has been an explosion of lead poisoning cases close to smelting plants. Studies have shown that communities that recycle electronic waste are exposed to cadmium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. Elsewhere, there have been protests against chemical factories that are blamed for carcinogens that enter water supplies and the food chain.
Nationwide, cancer rates have surged since the 1990s to become the nation's biggest killer. In 2007, the disease was responsible for one in five deaths, up 80% since the start of economic reforms 30 years earlier.
But whether China can even sustain its economic growth remains to be seen.

Japan's Strange Re-appropriation of Western Fashion Trends

During the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), Japan adopted Western fashions and industrial development earlier than most non-European/American lands. Thus, Japanese culture has been well-acquainted with technology and cultural imagery traditionally associated with the "West" for almost a century-and-a-half.

However, to many non-Japanese observers, pockets of young Japanese fashionistas interpret Western imagery in seemingly bizarre ways - and thus, everything from 80's hair metal to Victorian English women's fashion has become part of a Japanese youth subculture, even after being discarded in Europe or the United States.

And if you're feeling academic, you can even study these subcultures at a few American universities.

iPhone 4: Life Imitates 60's Cartoons

"I grew up with the Jetsons dreaming about video phones," said Jobs. "It's real now."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Underwater Fossil Fuels Are Still Pretty Popular

(via BBC)

While the Gulf of Mexico continues to gush out oil, two countries announced major finds off of their own coasts:

Petrobras, Brazil's state-owned oil company, has found reserves estimated to have 8 to 10 billion recoverable barrels of oil off the Brazilian coast near Rio de Janeiro.
The senior minister in charge of the cabinet, Dilma Rousseff, said if the deposits turned out to be as significant as first thought, it would place Brazil in the same league as Venezuela and countries in the Arab world. 
With a reserve like this, the country could be transformed into an exporter of petroleum, she said.
"This has changed our reality," she said.
Meanwhile, an Israeli consortium has discovered large natural gas reserves (with the possibility of oil) off the coast of Israel.
Speaking to Channel 2 news, Uzi Landau, Minister of National Infrastructure said that "we have enough gas to supply all our needs for the next 50 to 70 years.
Let's hope they don't spring any more leaks.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The White British Working Class is Out of Work

...and the rest of the demographic trends aren't so rosy.
In Britain today white, working-class children now seem to do worse in school than immigrants. A 2003 Home Office study found white men more likely to admit breaking the law than racial minorities; they are also more likely to take dangerous drugs. London School of Economics scholar Dick Hobbs, who grew in a hardscabble section of east London, traces yobism in large part to the decline of blue-collar opportunities throughout Britain. "The social capital that was there went [away]," he suggests. "And so did the power of the labor force. People lost their confidence and never got it back."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Today Is Not a Good Day to Be Important In Saudi Arabia

American television pundit, Glenn Beck, recently blamed Prince Alwaleed Bin Tala Alsaud of Saudi Arabia for playing a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Only one problem:
As it happens, the Prince is a major investor in News Corporation; at seven percent of the company's shares, he's second only to Rupert Murdoch himself. Fox News is just one piece of the massive corporation. Murdoch, likewise, owns nine percent of the Prince's Arab media empire Rotana.
Most people would call the situation awkward, to say the least.
Al-Qaeda has also threatened Saudi royalty over the kidnapping of a female operative:
In an audiotape played on al Arabiya, an al Qaeda regional commander threatened "major operations" against the kingdom following the arrest of Haylah al-Qassir.
Qassir was believed to be responsible for recruiting women to the global militant group as well as handling money issues, the Arab satellite television channel said.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Chatroulette and the Non-Existent Russian Technology Boom

Why the Russian teenager who created the worldwide internet phenomenon, Chatroulette, moved to the United States instead of staying in Russia.
Ternovskiy also has reason to be skeptical of the Kremlin’s recent interest in grooming intellectual talent, given the exodus of scientists from the country—by 2002, more than half a million had left—and the pitiful state of Russia’s intelligentsia since the fall of Communism. Andrey’s parents are exactly the kind of people Russia might be cultivating in its modernization drive, yet Vladimir makes only five hundred dollars a month and Elena three hundred. Official talk of modernization and innovation rankles Vladimir, who supplements his income with work for Russian Souvenirs. “It’s demagoguery,” he says. Recently, he sent a project proposal to Rusnano: no response. “These projects don’t interest them. The Internet doesn’t interest them. If I proposed something else, like cutting down some forest in the Far East, that would instantly interest them. There’s no support from the government. It’s completely absent. And Andrey knows that if he stays here no one will support him. The country doesn’t need people like him.”

Corruption in the Chinese Business World

Seeing as there are economic incentives in ripping off your clients and business partners from time to time, this is why I believe in a moderate level of government regulation in markets. So, you know, contracts actually get enforced so global trade can actually function in a smooth manner.
In their desperation, the Mouazzens begin conducting their own investigations. They discover, for example, that the address of their Chinese "partners" listed in the contract is incorrect. Suddenly no one is answering any of the mobile phone numbers the Mouazzens were given, and the interpreter, who attended every meeting, is supposedly in the hospital. The shipping agent who transported the crane to the port starts shouting at the Mouazzens when he sees them approaching from a distance. He claims that neither the truck nor its driver belonged to his company.

Erasing Chinese Cultural History With Shopping Malls

Over the past decade, Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai rapidly expanded under the new era of capitalist prosperity and American-pioneered architectural styles took hold.

However, in the rush to mimic Western Capitalism, China's own millenia-long cultural heritage is being thrown out by corrupt businessmen and eager construction firms. One man (and a growing number of supporters) is trying to reverse the rampant destruction of centuries-old Chinese architecture throughout the country.

Now He and his volunteers are trying to stop authorities from redeveloping the streets surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers in Beijing, which were used to tell the time from the 13th century Yuan dynasty until the 1920s.
The five-billion-yuan (732-million-dollar) redevelopment project plans to turn the district into a "Beijing Time Cultural City" with shopping malls and car parks.
"The district is very rare in Beijing and even in the country and should be preserved as it is and in its entirety," said He.

Google Public Data Is Easy To Use

Google now has access to public data for all of you statistics nerds to play around with. Here's one example.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Just Another Beautiful May in Somalia

A failed state so perfect(ly dysfunctional), even German mercenaries had to be brought in.

Asgaard German Security Group said it would supply up to 100 mercenaries, among them former Bundeswehr soldiers, to Somali warlord Abdinur Ahmed Darman as soon as he returns to Somalia. Darman lives in exile but claims he is the country's real president.

Also, Russia demonstrates one way to deal with pirates (these particular ones being Somali):

On the 6th May, eleven Somali pirates jijacked the Liberian-flagged Russian oil tanker, MV Moscow University, carrying 86,000 tonnes of crude oil worth $US52 million in the Gulf of Aden. The anti-submarine destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov was notified and dispatched a helicopter which disrupted the pirates while commandos on speed boats stormed the tanker. The Russians have killed all eleven pirates and have destroyed their boats according to the pirate spokesman.

Wes Anderson demonstrates another:

The Terrorist Ties of the Gaza Flotilla "Peace Activists"

As the propaganda blame game between Israel and the international media rages on, a clearer picture has emerged of some of the recently-freed activists attacked on the flotilla to Gaza.

It appears a handful of Turkish activists may have been jihadis looking for martyrdom.
Media reports in Ankara on Wednesday revealed that three out of the four Turkish citizens that were killed during the raid declared their wishes to become shahids (martyrs). Another Dutch report claimed a Dutch activist, who was arrested by the IDF is suspected of being a senior Hamas operative.
Although it is unclear whether this is true or fabricated as part of the public spin, the Jerusalem Post is claiming weapons were found on board the flotilla.

Furthermore, the Turkish aid group behind the flotilla, Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (or IHH in Turkish) has links to Hamas and Osama bin Laden.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Wednesday that "we know that IHH representatives have met with senior Hamas officials in Turkey, Syria, and Gaza over the past three years. That is obviously of great concern to us."
I don't doubt that some of the hundreds of people on board the aid ships had innocent, humanitarian intentions towards the people on the Gaza Strip. However, connecting some of the dots behind the scenes shows anti-Israel forces may be using this to wage a propaganda war against Israel, and further weaken its international credibility among country's whose citizens were attacked and captured

And obviously, it looks bad to a national government when their citizens seemingly get killed by another country's forces. However, if some of these European and Turkish citizens have been tracked and investigated for their ties to Hamas, then it makes you start to wonder what exactly they were doing on these ships.

Israel is no humanitarian regime, but Hamas is a terrorist group (loosely linked to many other Fundamentalist Islamic groups) that uses Palestinians deaths to further their agenda. Neither the majority of the Israeli or Palestinian people have any direct say over the dark intentions of the well-armed, provocative minority that controls all sides of the conflict. If we're lucky, this doesn't end in mass regional warfare.

(via Jihad Watch)

Michael Jordan: Legendary Mayan Hero?

The similarities between the Looney Tunes/Michael Jordan film, Space Jam, and the ancient Mayan myth of the Popol Vuh outlined in an essay. While outer space amusement parks have not been discovered yet, scientists may have discovered the entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

In related news, the world's most beloved athlete recently appeared in an underwear commercial sporting facial hair similar to Adolf Hitler.

(via AV Club Chicago)

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