Monday, June 30, 2008

The Tunguska Event: One hundred years on

Scientists have gathered today in Siberia to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Tunguska Event. One hundred years ago today, a fireball streaking across the sky caused a massive explosion in the Siberian hinterlands which marks the largest recorded collision between Earth and an object from space. Although largely unnoticed at the time, the explosion measured five on the Richter scale and destroyed a 2,500km area of taiga forest. But because of the area’s isolation hardly anyone died and it would take 21 years for a scientific expedition to reach the scene of the devastation.

Tunguska was the largest cosmic impact event on Earth in recent history. At 7:17am local time on 30 June 1908 a shock wave flattened 80 million trees in Siberia near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now the Krasnoyarsk Krai region in central-Eastern Russia. Because of its remoteness no-one is entirely sure what happened. The most likely reason for the explosion is a meteorite which exploded at an energy force of somewhere between 10 and 15 megatons, about a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The shock waves of the Tungunska explosion were monumental. They circled the globe twice and were registered by all observatories. In Irkutsk, 1,500kms away, a seismograph scale went wild. The ground trembled as far as Tashkent in Uzbekistan (Central Asia), Tbilisi in Georgia (South Caucasus) and even Jena, Germany. Barometers in the UK registered atmospheric pressure fluctuations. The blast caused a four-hour magnetic storm which closely resembled the geomagnetic fluctuations registered after high-altitude nuclear blasts. Over the next few days “white nights” and unusual silvery clouds were seen over the vast territory from Siberia to Europe’s western borders.

The Tunguska event is one of the most mysterious and well-studied 20th century phenomena. Evidence is elusive and only a few traces of its existence were found. The most likely explanation is an exploding fragment from a disintegrating meteorite but scientists concluded there was no actual impact. The meteorite was probably travelling at around 34,000 kms per hour when it exploded about 8km above the Earth's surface. According to local accounts a bluish fireball appeared in the sky which was followed by a flash ten minutes later. Then there was a deafening explosion that was heard 500 km away. The ground began shaking as in an earthquake, and a hot wind blew across the land, singeing crops and shattering windows.

Closer to the explosion, the object was seen in the cloudless, daytime sky as a brilliant, sun-like fireball. At distances around 60 km, people were thrown to the ground or even knocked unconscious; windows were broken and crockery knocked off shelves. The closest observers were reindeer herders asleep in their tents in camps about 30 km from the epicentre. They were blown into the air and knocked unconscious; one man was blown into a tree and later died. According to one survivor "Everything around was shrouded in smoke and fog from the burning fallen trees."

Scientists now suspect a stony asteroid exploded in mid-air because of high-pressure air resistance. From the explosion a boulder flew out at a slightly skewed angle which blasted out a crater. Later it filled in with water and sediments that disguise its shape today. New seismic studies show a candidate rock is buried under the lake. This summer Italian scientists will return to the scene at Lake Cheko to check out if this is the asteroid that flattened the forest.

But others are less certain and remain convinced the mystery will survive another hundred years. Wilder theories include an alien spacecraft which blew up, or that a black hole made a freak appearance. The problem is caused by the fact that no evidence was obtained at the time of the blast. Because of the chaotic conditions in Russia at the time, the first scientific expedition to the scene of the explosion did not arrive until Soviet times in 1927. Professor Leonid Kulik led an expedition there but was unable to establish the cause of the conflagration two decades after the fact.

To this date, no-one has found a crater which might identify the ‘ground zero’ for the explosion. But the fallen trees acted as markers pointing away from the epicentre. Kulik’s team estimated the asteroid entered Earth's atmosphere travelling at a speed of about 54,000 km per hour. During its quick plunge, the 100-million-kilo space rock heated the air surrounding it to over 20,000 degrees Celsius releasing the energy of 200 atomic bombs. On average, a Tunguska-sized asteroid will enter Earth's atmosphere once every 300 years, so if statistics are right, we have 200 years to prepare for the next holocaust from space. Equally intriguingly, had the explosion had occurred some five hours later, it would have completely destroyed the then Russian capital of St. Petersburg. How would the 20th century have turned out if the Tsar had died then at the hands of nature instead of a decade later at the hands of the Bolsheviks?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jerusalem inaugurates the Bridge of Strings

The Jerusalem skyline was changed dramatically with the lavish inauguration of a huge new bridge this week. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened the $73 million structure in a gala presentation despite interruptions from ultra-Orthodox Jews who demanded “promiscuous” female dancers be dressed modestly with long skirts and full head cover to cover their hair. The 250 meter long and 120 meter high harp-like structure is known by two names, the “Bridge of Cords” and the “Bridge of Strings”. It has an elevated walkway and will eventually carry a new light rail line. The bridge was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and curves from the city’s main western entrance suspended by 66 white cables attached to a spire. Like all new structures, it has attracted vitriol and praise in equal measure.

Last week, Jerusalem’s opposition leader urged Israel’s President to boycott the lavish inauguration of the bridge. Nir Barkat said Shimon Peres should not attend the ceremony due to its "wasteful" expenditure of public funds. The inauguration is part of the anniversary celebrations of Israel’s 40 year occupation of the entire city which it took from Jordan during the Six Day War. The bridge celebration is eating up a large slice of the anniversary funds. Barkat wrote to Peres that it would have been appropriate for the public funds for the inauguration be invested in “other burning and more pressing needs in the city such as education, children's meals, city sanitation, job projects, and housing for young couples.”

Writing in, Jackie Levy agrees with Barkat. Levy described the building of the new bridge as a “tasteless act” and a luxury Jerusalem could ill afford. He said it was difficult to recall a more “huge, pretentious, expensive and arrogant” work built for the sake of so little. Levy acknowledged the bridge was spectacular and of beautiful design. But it was ill-suited to a poor city where 40 percent of the population (Jewish and Arab) live below the poverty – four times as many as in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Levy said it was a pretentious and wasteful bridge “whose inauguration celebrations alone account for more than half of the city’s annual culture budget.”

Others were more favourable. Calatrava himself had no hesitation in calling it his favourite work. The Spaniard had built over 40 bridges around the world including ones nearing completion on Venice’s Grand Canal. But he described the Jerusalem work his “unquestionable favourite.” He said the most important aspect about the bridge was the fact it was in Jerusalem. “I have always loved Jerusalem, which is a universal city for everyone,” he said. “But now that I know the city I love it even more.”

He said the bridge was a unique engineering challenge. A nearby highway tunnel hindered the building of bridge supports there and the span had to be held by cables suspended from the mast, which was complicated by the sharp turn of the train route. The bridge design also had to accommodate the traditional urban landscape of Jerusalem, where all buildings are faced with local limestone under an ordinance dating to British rule at the end of World War I. The ramps leading to the bridge are being clad in stone, and a pedestrian plaza planned underneath will also feature stone benches and stone-faced light fixtures. Calatrava said the bridge “covers the gap between tradition and modernity.”

However the bridge will remain unused for two years due to delays in the provision of the light rail service. Digging in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Shuafat in North Jerusalem has been held up by the discovery of a first century urban community. Coins found at the site date the community to between 70 and 150 AD and it appears to be a joint Jewish and Roman neighbourhood. While the find delighted archaeologists, it dismayed rail planners of the 15km network which will link Mount Herzl in southern and predominantly Jewish Jerusalem to Pisgat Ze'ev, via Shuafat, in the north. Daniel Seidemann, a Jewish lawyer who promotes Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, described the route of the railway as ideological. "It serves the mantra of the undivided eternal capital that few believe in today,” he said. “Given the reality of life here, and the glass walls between the neighbourhoods, it goes against the grain of how the city works."

But finding a solution for the future of Jerusalem is the most intractable element of the Israel-Palestine peace process. Jews demand it never again be divided as it was from 1948 to 1967 while the ultra-Orthodox demand the right to pray at the Wailing Wall. But there is a steady Jewish exodus of the secular population precisely because of the relentless campaign of the Orthodox to remodel the city in their own image. Meanwhile the Arab percentage of the city is slowly growing. The city is slowly being rundown, its infrastructure has deteriorated, and its narrow lanes have become a giant traffic jam at most times of the day. Writing in Dying For Jerusalem, American Jewish historian Walter Laqueur says that it is a mystery why this “problematic holy city should remain the main bone of contention on the road to peace”. It seems too much to hope for the road to peace to be paved by a bridge of strings.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Foxtel goes into partnership with the BBC

On Wednesday, the BBC announced it had acquired 100 percent ownership of Foxtel’s UK TV from 1 July. The BBC already had 20 percent of the Australian pay TV channel and have now bought out the other two owners Foxtel (who owned 60 percent) and Fremantle Media (who owned the other 20). In addition BBC Worldwide has formed a strategic alliance with Foxtel to roll out three new channels in Australia. The deal is part of an ambitious new BBC strategy to bring its own and others programming to a global audience.

The three new channels are BBC HD, BBC Knowledge and the children’s station CBeebies. BBC HD rolled out this month as part of Foxtel’s HD service which kicked off with live coverage of the Australia v China world cup qualifying match on 22 June. Foxtel chief executive and managing director, Kim Williams, said 15,000 homes are capable of receiving HD broadcast, with that number set to increase now that the service is operational. Foxtel HD will also get content from Discovery, National Geographic, Fox Sports and ESPN.

However it is the new BBC deal that has created the most waves. The BBC paid an undisclosed sum for the buy out rights to UK TV. It is likely the BBC will rebrand UK TV under its existing BBC Entertainment label in the next 12 months. Darren Childs, BBC Worldwide channels' managing director said they would also look to launch other channels from its portfolio. “We felt we needed a bigger stake in the Australian pay-TV market,” he said. “Our content has a huge amount of affinity with Australian audiences, but we only had a small equity stake in UKTV.”

Yesterday Childs was in Sydney to talk up the BBC’s new deal. He told the ABC’s Media Report the new Foxtel stations would be tailored be Australian audiences even though they are using BBC product. Childs also claimed the deal would not harm the long standing relationship between it and its Australian equivalent, the ABC (with both national broadcasters even sharing the same nickname ‘Aunty’). He says that in addition to the large amount of content the ABC already purchases from the BBC there is “thousands and thousands of hours of content that actually never gets to these shores”. Childs says that “what we're actually doing now is again, giving consumers choice and actually bringing them more content.”

But there is no doubt that the BBC and the ABC will be in competition in certain fields. The move to bring in the biggest commercial-free children's channel in Britain, CBeebies, is a direct challenge to the Australian network who has planned to introduce its own children’s network in 2009. The BBC will work with Australian producers to find local hosts for its children's shows, and create an advisers' council of experts in preschool education.

The British broadcaster is increasingly active in Australia having declared it to be one of its key growth markets. In the last 18 months, their acquisitions department has been extremely busy having purchased a 25 percent stake in Australian TV production company Freehand (responsible for My Restaurant Rules, and Missing Persons Unit among others), bought out Lonely Planet, have launched two magazines “Top Gear Australia” and “BBC Australian Good Food Guide” and made a deal with SBS to produce an Australian version of the hit TV show “Top Gear”. It is all part of BBC Worldwide’s wider global strategy to focus on key territories.

While the ABC may be worried by this growth, Foxtel are not. Its CEO Kim Williams called the BBC an “iconic global brand and the world’s largest producer of quality television programming” and said he was “delighted” they had chosen Foxtel as its long-term Australian subscription TV partner. Foxtel is half owned by Telstra and the other 25 percent each by News Corp and Consolidated Media Holdings has now connected 1.5 million Australian homes through cable and satellite.

The Pay TV operator is turning a significant corner having made its first ever profit in 2006 after ten years of losses. It is becoming an increasingly significant player in the Australian television market and regularly challenges the free to air networks on a nightly basis with over 20 percent of the audience share. It is well ahead of the other channels with its conversion to digital and only the controversial anti-siphoning laws (which keep nominated sporting events on Free to Air) stands in its way of outright domination. "It basically says we don't get a seat at the table until the terrestrial networks have passed on what they don't want,” complained Williams about the law. “So, to think of compounding what is already an absurd degree of excessive regulation is disappointing."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Australian Democrats exit Senate stage left

Three of the four outgoing Democrat senators made their farewell speeches in the Australian Senate last night. Andrew Bartlett, Natasha Stott Despoja and party leader Lyn Allison all gave their valedictory addresses to the parliament (the fourth, Andrew Murray, made his final contribution (pdf) the night before) before their term of office expires on 30 June. Allison and Bartlett failed in their bid to be re-elected in last November’s federal election. Murray and Stott Despoja both retired and their successors also lost in what was a dismal electoral failure for the Democrats.

The foursome’s departure marks the end of over 30 years of Democrat representation in Canberra. Most of the media attention centred on the departure of the charismatic 38 year old former leader Natasha Stott Despoja. She announced her retirement in 2006 to spend more time with her husband and children. Her final message to parliament was that Australia needed to do more to encourage women to enter politics. "It's 106 years since women gained the right to vote and stand for parliament and yet look at the numbers,” she said. “Women comprise less than a third of the federal parliament."

Andrew Bartlett used his farewell speech to reflect on his own career and extol the Democrat influence on parliament. Bartlett lamented the fact Queensland (like NSW) now had no representation from the minor parties. He said this loss of diversity was a problem that would mean that some issues may not get on the political agenda. He praised Democrat efforts in bring attention to the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, calls for disarmament, a focus on renewable energies and its pro-independence stance on East Timor. He said the Democrats kept a crucial focus on issues that didn't fit into the dominant political narratives. “Our role in speaking out on issues that are not popular is one that is crucial to a democracy,” he said.

Party leader Lyn Allison finished the round of Democrat valedictory speeches (pdf). She said the Senate’s strength was its encouragement of collaboration and negotiation particularly when neither major party had the numbers to control it. She thanked her three party colleagues for giving her “a smooth ride” in the party leadership and like Stott Despoja, called for more attention to be paid to working women. She criticised “dangerously repressive family planning guidelines [which] are still intact thanks to religious zealotry” and the fact spending on family planning has dropped to one-sixth of what it was 12 years ago. She also berated the lack of action on climate change. “It seems that neither major party has the guts to tell people that high petrol prices are here to stay,” she said. “The inevitable pricing of carbon will push them even further, much less encourage alternatives.”

Allison’s was probably the last ever speech the parliament will hear from her party. Bernard Keane, writing in Crikey today, called it “the death of the Democrats” and said their farewell was testimony to how important getting the right leader was. He cited a number of factors in their demise including Cheryl Kernot’s defection and the party’s “idiotic failure” to get behind the leadership of Stott Despoja. But it was then-party leader Meg Lees decision to support the GST that did the most damage. “That Lees later ran off and failed miserably to start her own party revealed just how badly out of touch she was,” said Keane.

The only seats the party subsequently won was under Stott Despoja’s leadership in 2001. But the rot had already set in. Andrew Bartlett agrees the party was in crisis by then and split into pro- and anti- Lees factions. He told parliament yesterday that the catchcry ‘keep the bastards honest’ turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing for the Democrats. While it was probably the most memorable slogan in Australian political history, it also confined the party to an honest broker role. According to Bartlett “we did a lot more than that”.

But as Andrew Norton points out, the Democrats never found a stable constituency among the ‘concerned’ middle class. “People would vote for them, but vote for someone else next time,” he said. Now, it would appear there will be no next time for the Democrats. From next week onwards, the Senate balance of power passes to the unlikely and unstable grouping of the Greens, Family First and Nick Xenophon. Allison and Bartlett can only wonder what might have been.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cuba announces world's first lung cancer vaccine

Yesterday Cuban scientists announced a vaccine to extend the lives of lung cancer sufferers would be made available to the Cuban Health Service. Speaking in Havana, Gisela Gonzalez said the product, called CimaVax EGF, is the first registered vaccine in the world designed to battle lung cancer. The drug could add five months to a lung cancer sufferer’s life. Gonzales, who heads the medical team that developed the compound, said the vaccine is based on proteins that trigger an immune response from the patient's body and has few side effects compared to chemotherapy because it's a modified protein that attacks only cancer cells.

The CimaVax EGF vaccine is available in Cuba, and will be commercialised in Latin America, starting in Peru. Advanced clinical tests are happening at 18 Cuban hospitals on 579 lung cancer victims. Other tests were carried out in Canada and Britain, while tests are scheduled in Malaysia, Peru, and China. The EGF in the name stands for Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) which is a protein capable of stimulating cellular proliferation but is also a cancer risk. The vaccine links it to another protein that helps the immune system to create the desired immune response against the EGF. The effect is a decrease in tumour growth.

The vaccine has been developed by Havana’s Centre of Molecular Immunology (CIM). The centre’s mission is to produce biopharmaceuticals products to be used in cancer treatments in the Cuban Public Healthcare System. Its products include antibodies for use in organ transplant rejection, treatments for anemia, the blood disorder neutropenia, and tumour imaging as well as antibodies that recognise growth factor receptors for cancer treatment. The centre is part of Cuba's thriving state-run biotechnology sector which includes 50 research and development centres and is one of the most advanced in the developing world.

People from outside Cuba are welcome to come to the island to seek the treatment. The center’s director of clinical investigations, Tania Crombet, said "it's possible to provide this vaccine to any patient, because it's available in Cuba, it's approved by the Cuban drug agency so we can market the vaccine in Cuba and we can receive patients from outside," she said. However she said that the US would be the exception as Americans are restricted from travelling to Cuba travel by the US trade embargo against Cuba in place since 1962. "Even though there is a new therapeutic tool approved in Cuba they probably wouldn't be able to come to Cuba to receive it because of the embargo," Crombet said.

The drug has been approved for clinical trial in the US, but its possible use there is at least two to three years away. In the meantime 160,000 Americans will die of lung cancer annually. Lung cancer is a malignant tumour in the tissue of one or both lungs and is primarily a disease of older people. It is unusual in people under 40 and the risk increases substantially after the age of 50. Smoking causes 90 percent of all known cases. Currently the main treatments are surgery if detected early, or otherwise radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The new vaccine does not prevent cancer but is therapeutic and consolidates the effect of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Doctor Elia Neninger, oncologist participating in the project, said its benefit was that it lacked any side effects and also contributes to reduce the prevailing symptoms of the ailment. That will be good news for the cancer’s million sufferers worldwide.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fiddling and Burning: the corrosive death of the Murray

Imagine Brazil without the Amazon, Egypt without the delta, and a Mississippi missing more than just its four ‘i’s. As implausible as these ideas seem, that seems to be exactly the fate of Australia as a slow truth emerges that the Murray-Darling Basin is almost beyond salvage. The loss would be profound. This astonishing network of water drains one seventh of an arid continent, is over 3,000 kms long, meanders through four states, houses ten percent of the nation’s population; and is the dairy, grain and fruit bowl to half the country. The Murray-Darling Basin is an effective food provider but is a thirsty consumer of water. 70 percent of all Australia’s irrigation takes place in the shadow of Murray floodlands. But now the party is coming to an end. The Murray rivermouth is dying and the nearby lakes are turning acidic.

An acidic river is not a happy specimen. The acid is sulphuric, caused when underwater soils become exposed to the sun. You would not want to wade in a sulphuric acid river, because it is capable of burning flesh. Acidity is also the last stage before a river dies and and there is no known cure. Today, a briefing of scientists was told that if the Council of Australian Government (COAG) didn’t act on the problems in their meeting next week, “we're going to confront an environmental and human catastrophe the like that which we have not seen or even imagined possible 20 years ago.”

The speaker was Peter Cosier of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. Cosier is concerned and he is a passionate campaigner on water. Two weeks ago Cosier was a home town key-note speaker at a Conservation Council of South Australia water policy summit. In his speech (pdf) he described himself as someone who spent much of his professional career fighting for a healthy Murray. He called his audience a “preselected group of people” who were a rare antidote to the bewildering silence elsewhere in Adelaide at the nature of the disaster that lies ahead.

Cosier believes that the current strategy for dealing with drought-related problems is best described as “praying for rain”. He says this autumn has been the fourth-driest on record for the Murray-Darling basis while the river system is in serious decline. Some dairy farmers in NSW are facing a zero water allocation in the irrigation season for the fourth year in a row. This will mean many farms will go under as they have no water to use for irrigation.

But lack of rainfall is not a new problem for a continent prey to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather patterns. Rainfalls have been this low in the past but the river has never been this low. What is new is global warming, as even the usually sceptical The Australian admits. Murray Darling Basin Commission head Wendy Craik told the paper’s rural writer Asa Wahlquist that the higher than average temperatures were causing higher evaporation. Craik says that a rise in temperature of just 1 Celsius each year causes a 15 percent reduction in the river flow. The past three years in the basin were the warmest on record, with last year the warmest yet at 1.1C above average. If Craik’s calculations are correct, there’s almost half the river gone in the last three years alone.

The health of the river affects doesn't just affect humans. The Coorong wetland at the very bottom of the Murray Darling Basin is so hyper saline, that organisms can no longer live in it. Migratory bird numbers are also in freefall. The river system is home to one million shorebirds who begin their 10,000km migration to Siberia from the bottom end of Australia. But a new large scale aerial survey study covering the eastern third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales shows the population has plunged by 75 per cent since 1983. That’s three-quarters of all birds that have disappeared in one generation. Co-author of the study Professor Richard Kingsford says loss of wetlands due to river regulation is a main contributor to the mystery. “But it appears,” he said, “such a threat is largely unrecognised in Australia's conservation plans and international agreements.”

It is unsurprising that birds, like humans, would not thrive in a corrosive environment. Evidently, praying for rain is no substitute for good policy. This will not be easy problem to solve, as witnessed by a century of inaction and almost wilful neglect. And science is not yet agreed on an answer to the problem of southeast rainfall decline. Chris Mitchell would know more than most. He is the director of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a partnership between CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Mitchell's advice is simple. He says we must simply adapt to a drier climate and manage the system according to that downturn.

But as Peter Cosier insists, that means acknowledging the anthropic involvement in global warming. Its extremely likely if the current level of inaction and lack of global political will continues, temperatures will increase by an average four degrees worldwide by the year 2100. This would be the warmest average temperatures on Earth in 40 million years. Even if the world agrees to IPCC’s hopes of cutting global greenhouse emissions by 70 percent in 2050, Cosier says the planet will still be a drastically different place thanks to climate change. Fellow South Australian Gary Sauer-Thompson says the river is dying from the mouth up and the combination of salt and acid will move upstream and progressively contaminate the lower Murray. Cosier says solutions are available, but the pace of political reform is too slow. “We need a long term solution for the lower lakes and we need it before this summer, he said. But he warned his audience they would have to take action themselves to make it happen. “There is no “they”, there is only us,” he said.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sulpicio under investigation after 700 die in Philippines ferry disaster

Over 700 people have been listed as missing after a passenger ferry sunk in a Philippines typhoon. The ship's manifest listed 751 passengers and 111 crew when it left port, Sulpicio Lines said. Rescuers said only 32 people had been found alive so far, and a large-scale search and rescue operation had been launched. The ship ran aground on Saturday 3 kms offshore of the central Filipino island of Sibuyan. The tilt of the upturned bow remained above the waterline yesterday but frogmen found no signs of life aboard. Most died as crowded life rafts were overturned in cold and heavy seas.

The 24,000 tonne Princess of the Stars was stranded near Sibuyan Island with the local coast guard unable mount a rescue bid due to high waves. It was travelling from Manila to Cebu when the accident occurred. One of the few survivors told a local radio station that there was only one onboard warning issued half an hour before the ship started to tilt. "Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," said the survivor identified only as Jesse. "Immediately after I jumped, the ship tilted, the older people were left on the ship".

While initial reports said there were only four survivors, another 28 were rescued by fishermen on a nearby island after drifting for 24 hours. They made it to shore on a life raft to a small coastal village in Quezon province. After their miraculous survival, they told locals that two people had fallen overboard during their ordeal. A US navy ship is heading to the Philippines to help search for the hundreds of people still missing in the disaster.

The ferry was the victim of Typhoon Fengshen (also known as “Frank”) which slammed into the central Philippines on Friday. At least 230 people have died elsewhere as a result of the typhoon. The typhoon caused sea surges and large waves as it moved west northwest over Luzon at 19 km per hour, with maximum winds of 140 kph and gustiness of up to 170 kph. The typhoon struck the ferry at 12.30pm local time Saturday.

The Filipino Government has announced it will form a task force to investigate the cause of the disaster. Led by transportation secretary Leandro Mendoza, the Board of Marine inquiry would coordinate search and rescue efforts and also determine whether the owners Sulpicio Lines were culpable. Its fleet (the largest plying Philippines waters) has been grounded pending results of the investigation. A spokesperson for Sulpicio said it was prepared to cooperate with the inquiry but insisted the ferry was seaworthy and had been allowed to sail despite a storm forecast.

However this was the fourth disaster in two days for Sulpicio and Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has demanded answers. She wants to know why the ferry was allowed to leave port in Manila despite warnings the typhoon was about to hit. She held a conference call with maritime officials which was broadcast live on local radio and asked “Why did you allow it to sail and why was there no ample warning? I want answers."

This morning, an anti-crime and corruption group called Sulpicio a “recidivist” organisation and threatened to file charges against the shipping line. Dante Jimenez, chairman of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), said they would be lodging charges against the 35-year-old shipping company and also seeking to have their operating license revoked. “The license of Sulpicio Lines should already be revoked because to a number of sea mishaps it got involved in where many people have died,” he said.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Israel’s new Intifada Law twists the knife in Palestinians

Last week, the Israeli Knesset approved a first reading of a bill designed to ban Palestinians from claiming compensation for harm caused by military operations. The hugely controversial bill requires two more readings to pass before it is entered into law and would give its troops exemption from liability for any damage caused to people or property. It is the second attempt at such a law after an earlier version was overturned in court two years ago. Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Likud supporter of the new bill, Gideon Sa’ar, called it an end to “an ATM funding terror against [Israel’s] citizens”.

The new bill has been dubbed Intifada Law II. It is aimed at circumventing a ruling that overturned a similar law in 2006. The law exempts the state from responsibility for damages suffered by Palestinians in the Intifada. The original Intifada Law was enacted in 2002 to give the state backdated immunity against Palestinian compensation suits for personal injury or property damage incurred during Israeli operations in the occupied territories. However the High Court of Justice acted on a petition from human rights organisations and ruled it contradicted the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, because it undermined the rights to life, dignity, property and freedom. "Not all ends justify the means," wrote then-court president Aharon Barak in his ruling.

This time round, the bill seeks to expand the definition of the term “military act” under which the state is exempt from being held accountable for damage. It summarily deems residents of the occupied territories to be citizens of “enemy states” and operatives of “terrorist organisations”. So defined, they would be ineligible to seek compensation for damage caused by the IDF because it fell under the legal umbrella of the “military act”. Civil rights organization Adalah (Justice) criticized the amendment proposal. "The bill opposes all logic and principles of Israeli and international law,” it said. “A lack of ability to file claims will result in the impossibility of investigating abuse and property damage cases.”

The original law was a backlash to the Al Aqsa Intifada which began in 2000 after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Then Prime Minister Ehud Barak dispatched a massive military and police presence to the Al Aqsa mosque on the Muslim day of prayer. Several Palestinians were killed and 200 injured in the violence that followed. A UN report into the aftermath found no evidence of Palestinian gunfire with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) responsible for nearly all of the casualties.

The IDF killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and imposed an even more brutal regime than existed prior to the Intifada. The UN Commission of Rights inquiry found the IDF did not suffer a single casualty as a result of Palestinian demonstrations but nevertheless subjected the population to harsh collective punishment and humiliation. The few Israeli casualties occurred at settlement roads and isolated checkpoints and the report said that these should be examined in the light of “settler violence against Palestinian civilians adjoining settlements and of IDF complicity in such violence”.

However the result of this inquiry and others has been virtually ignored in the West. A HRW report on the violence in the West Bank city of Hebron found the IDF had a “disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law”. However its findings that tens of thousands of Palestinians in the city were held as virtual prisoners for months was totally ignored in the US apart from one brief appearance in a Washington Post article five days later. Similarly when Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem accused the IDF of using Palestinian civilians as human shields, its report also sunk without trace in the west.

According to Noam Chomsky it is meaningless to condemn these actions as “Israeli atrocities” in the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. In his essay on Israel’s response to the Intifada in his “Pirates and Emperors Old and New” (2nd edition), he says the conflict should be more properly described as being between US/Israel and Palestine. Helicopters which fired missiles into Palestinian civilian areas are “US helicopters with Israeli pilots”. US supply is critical because as Israel’s own Ministry of Defence admitted “it is impractical to think we can manufacture...major weapons systems of this kind in Israel.”

The US media has been complicit in the one-sided nature of the conflict. As the Electronic Intifada (EI) wrote in 2004, coverage of IDF offensive actions in the occupied territories is scantily reported in the west. It examined the Rafah campaign where Israel bulldozed homes leaving 12 dead and 500 people homeless and found most US coverage read as if they were Israeli press releases. Their damning conclusion is that Palestinians and Israelis continue to die because Americans get a grossly distorted account of events that doesn’t recognise the imbalance of power or any idea of the extent of the US role in the conflict.

EI’s complaint is that the Western media takes Israel at their word and does little to question their side of the story. As EI’s Ali Abunimah says “the basic narrative of Palestine is always subordinated to Israel”. When the Western media describe a 'relative calm' in Israeli-Palestine violence, it usually means that few or no Israelis were being killed during the 'relative calm', but many Palestinians were being killed and injured. As Abunimah describes, “if it wasn't happening to Israelis it wasn't happening at all.” Now Israel's Intifada Law II is about to confirm the non-existence of Palestinian victims of Israeli violence.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Colombia's addiction to coca continues

(Picture credit

A new UN report has shown a marked increase in coca cultivation in the Andes region of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Colombia showed the largest increase in 2007 with a 27 percent rise in the total land under cultivation while the other two countries showed single-digit percentage increases. Despite the increases the total output of coca products remained unchanged last year due to low yields. The region produces 60 per cent of the entire world’s cocaine output with a farm gate value of $1.4 billion in 2007. This is not just a local problem. 88 per cent of all the region’s products ends up in the US via Mexico.

The report was compiled by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Called “Cocoa cultivation in the Andes region” (pdf), it is a study of the drug trade in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Colombia has been the world’s largest producer of cocaine since the 1980s and illicit coca cultivation has expanded steadily since then particularly in remote areas of the Amazon Basin. The farmers either sell the coca leaves, or process them into coca paste or base. The last step is the processing of the cocaine base into cocaine hydrochloride which is not carried out in clandestine laboratories.

The report is the work of UNODC’s Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme (ICMP) which was set up to promote the development of a global network of illicit crop monitoring systems. ICMP is currently active in seven countries: Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Laos, Morocco, Burma and Peru. Until 2006, the coca cultivation areas were monitored by satellite imagery, but in 2007 the methodology was enhanced by the use of very high resolution photos from airplanes.

The findings have raised serious questions about the efficacy of Colombia’s US-backed “war on drugs” campaign. UNODC’s executive director Antonio Maria Costa says the increase is a surprise and a shock. He said it was a surprise because the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca and a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation. Costa said most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents and he compared the situation with Afghanistan’s opium crop where “most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence.” Costa said the best hope for eradication would be the disarray of the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Despite the obvious failure of the existing program, the US has pledged its continued support. The US State Department said it to continue to “work with President Uribe and his government, as well as others in the region, to continue this effort”. America has backed a multi-billion dollar eradication program but its efficiency has been questioned in recent times. Colombia UNODC representative Aldo Lale-Demoz says farmers plant elsewhere in the wake of each eradication program. “They go further afield from their homes,” he said. “They will not tend those plots as well as they did before, so the productivity of those secondary lots is much lower."

In other early reaction, Colombia’s chief of police dismissed the report’s conclusion that Colombia was the world’s cocaine hub. Oscar Naranjo expressed “great surprise and a series of concerns” over the measurement techniques used by the report. He claimed the UN measurement system is based on information from a French satellite that stopped detecting the scale of illegal crops years ago. Earlier last week, the Colombian authorities said that the country has eradicated 31,000 hectares of coca crops since January, surpassing the amount eradicated in the same period of 2007. This still leaves 70,000 hectares under cultivation if the report is correct and does not take into account any new cultivation. This would appear to be Naranjo’s real “series of concerns”.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jake Adelstein defies Yakuza death threats

In a brave article in the Washington Post last month, a Japanese-based American journalist blew the lid on Yakuza activities in Japan and abroad. The article is remarkable for Jake Adelstein’s rare insights into criminal activities that infect every aspect of Japanese society. Its wisdom is also hard won: the article’s author has received death threats from the Yakuza but refuses to be silenced. Adelstein is a rarity; a “gaijin” or foreigner who has immersed himself in the dark world of Japanese organised crime.

While most people outside Japan think of it as a law-abiding country, there are an estimated 1.3 million members of the Yakuza and they infiltrate every aspect of Japanese society. Their origins are shrouded in Japanese history; some believe they emerged from groups of leaderless samurai who either stole or gambled for a living. A group of violent yakuza emerged in Japan during the period of rapid industrialisation that followed World War II and took control of the black market. Various groups took over different industries and most now have very complex organisational structure. The yakuza have also spread to California where they have made alliances with Korean and Vietnamese gangs as well as more traditional partnerships with the Chinese triads. The bonds between members, and the bribes they pay to officials, make information on their activities very hard to come by.

One of the Yakuza’s biggest enemies is a Missouri-born journalist. Jake Adelstein was the first American ever hired as a regular staff writer for a major Japanese newspaper. He came to Japan as a graduate student, took the Japanese press entrance exam and became a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. Yomiuri Shimbun is one of four national newspapers in Japan. This 120 years old institution has a circulation exceeding 10 million papers a day making it the biggest circulation newspaper in the world. Adelstein was one of two thousand journalists employed by Yomiuri and he was placed on their crime beat.

Though he initially knew nothing of organised crime in Japan, it wasn’t long before following Yakuza prostitution and extortion rackets would become part of his life. Adelstein used his charm to befriend cops and criminals alike and got on well with most of them because of his own outsider status. Adelstein noticed that over the last seven years the Yakuza has changed its tactics. It has moved out of traditional money-making schemes such as prostitution, gambling, drugs and protection and into high finance. Tokyo police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies which masquerade as investment and auditing firms, construction companies and even pastry shops. They are now moving money offshore and have set up their own bank in California. Japan's Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission now has an index of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime. Adelstein said the Japanese market is so infested with criminals that Osaka Securities Exchange officials review all listed companies in March this year and expelled those it found to have links with the Yakuza.

Adelstein’s mistake was to alienate Goto Tadamasa, one of the more psychopathic Yakuza bosses. Tadamasa is head of the Tokyo based Goto-Gumi gang and has a reputation as the “John Gotti of Japan”. According to Adelstein, Tadamasa is an unforgiving sort given to “doing things like driving dump trucks into pachinko parlours that won't pay protection money.” In 2005 Adelstein researched a story about Tadamasa’s involvement with the FBI. He found out that four years earlier the mobster agreed to provide information about yamaguchi-gumi (Japan’s largest Yakuza syndicate) activities in America in exchange for a visa to get a liver transplant operation in California. Tadamasa jumped a long queue to receive the life-saving operation from a world-renowned liver surgeon and donated a large amount of money to the hospital in return. Tadamasa threatened to kill Adelstein if he wrote a story about it. One of Tadamasa’s underlings gave the journalist a chilling message: “Erase the story or be erased”.

Adelstein (pictured left) took advice from one of his friends in the police department. He decided discretion was the better part of staying alive. He not only abandoned the scoop but also resigned from the Yomiuri Shimbun two months later. But Adelstein planned to write about it in a book banking on Goto's poor health to ensure he'd be dead by the time it came out. However disaster struck in November 2007 when the book contents were leaked to the media. Now Adelstein and his Japanese wife and child require 24-hour protection from the FBI and Tokyo Police. The book is called Tokyo Vice and will be available for publication in November. Adelstein said his aim in writing the book was the hope "to be such a public target that the calculation of repercussions of whacking me is so detrimental that nobody wants to do it."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fitzgibbon gives go-ahead to start building secret US air base in WA

Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced yesterday that work would begin in the next month on a new US spy base in Western Australia. The satellite ground station will be sited in the existing signal intelligence facility near Geraldton 400km north of Perth. Unlike the existing operation, the new facility will be under US control and will provide satellite communications support for US Navy operations in Iraq and the Gulf. The US Navy had contracted Boeing Australia to provide construction services and when operational in 2011 will comprise of three buildings housing sophisticated electronic infrastructure, three 18m satellite dishes and two smaller antennas.

The deal was originally signed by the Howard Government in February last year after three years of secret negotiation with Washington. At the time, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the facility would provide “a crucial link” for a network of military satellites to assist US's theatre of operations in the Middle East and Asia. They quoted Philip Dorling, a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy who said that the base would make it “almost impossible for Australia to be fully neutral or stand back from any war in which the US was involved”.

Yet today’s confirmation announcement under a Labor Government went almost unnoticed. Tim Dunlop was one of the few to make comment today. Dunlop believes the story shows how defence has dropped off the political radar. He said “I can remember when this story would’ve got a lot more attention than it has” and reckons that in the past it would have generated more complaint from the left. “It’s almost like the alliance hasn’t collapsed since the change of government,” he concluded, presumably sarcastically.

Certainly other US spy bases are a target for left-wing protest, most notably Pine Gap near Alice Springs. This satellite tracking base employs nearly 1,000 American service personnel, mainly from the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office. It remains an extremely sensitive military resource and the US has never fully revealed to Australia its reasons for establishing the base. In the absence of hard information, wild theories have emerged about what is happening at the Gap. One involves the existence of a bore hole 6,000 metres beneath the facility containing an ultra low frequency antenna which is “used for secret experiments supposedly related to Nikola Tesla's resonance theories as well as low frequency communications throughout the world.”

What is true is that Geraldton facility is the first major US defence base to be established in Australia since Pine Gap was build in the 1960s. The new facility is called a Mobile Users Objective System (MUOS). In simple terms, MUOS is a satellite based mobile phone system. More technically it is a collection of high-tech satellites and associated ground facilities providing narrowband communication services for mobile and fixed site terminal users worldwide. It will provide global connectivity for voice, video and data for the US military. That’s as much as can be revealed about the Geraldton operation. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Australian Defence Department and the US Navy is classified. Once again, Australians do not get to find out what others are doing on their soil.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

G8 report says rich nations are failing Africa

A new G8 sponsored report issues a damning indictment of the world’s richest countries saying they are falling short on aid commitments to Africa. The Africa Progress Panel says the first world is falling seriously behind in its commitment to help the continent meet it challenge to escape poverty and debt. The aid problem is exacerbated by rising food prices and the impact of global warming. The report suggested innovative ways to meet the aid shortfall and called for immediate assistance in food production, an end to trade barriers, and a drastic increase in African infrastructure projects.

The report entitled Africa's Development: Promises and Prospects (pdf) cites four different but interlocking crises that dominate the global economy. They are the financial crisis in the West, a worsening energy crisis, the threat of global warming, and high food prices which are affecting the world’s poorest people. While it says the world has missed “early opportunities” to deal with the first two crises, it believes it is imperative “we meet the challenge of the third and take immediate steps to address the fourth”.

The Panel has drawn on the work of various institutions and eminent individuals working on African issues to present an independent assessment of progress. The report focuses on the twin challenges of food crisis and global warming. Many countries are undergoing a reversal of decades of economic growth and 100 million people are being pushed back into poverty. Export bans on key commodities such as rice are adding to the problem. The report issues a dire warning that unless a way can be found to reverse the current trend in food prices there will be a “significant increase in hunger, malnutrition, and infant and child mortality”.

The report calls on developed nations to raise the level of financial assistance to affected countries and aid agencies. It also calls on the rich nations to review economic and financial policies to ensure the production of food is not threatened. In the longer term, the report advocates “substantial new investments raise agricultural productivity and food production” in Africa and the wider world. The report also calls for a review of trade policies concerning biofuel subsidies, grain storage and the need to kick-start fertiliser markets. Africa needs fairer access to protected world markets but multi-lateral trade negotiations have been stalled since the Doha round were deadlocked in 2006. It also pleads for prioritising rural development and giving the poor access to world markets. But it warns that “the delivery of promises on aid for trade must not be held hostage to trade deals”.

The report follows other NGO warnings that Africa is ill-prepared for climate change and will bear the brunt of any negative impact. Climate change will further diminish the means of food production and will play havoc with the lives of the global poor. Already disadvantaged by high food prices, the urban poor in particular will suffer greatly if there is any further loss of agricultural productivity due to climate change. The report recommends increased funding for renewable energy noting solar, wind and geothermal production is “very viable” in Africa. It also lauds a Forest Carbon Partnership Facility to prevent the disappearance of tropical rainforests. The plan involves estimating nation’s forest carbon stocks for emissions estimates and providing financial incentives to reduce emissions below a defined threshold.

Investments in infrastructure are also needed to achieve lasting solutions to the food crisis. Africa requires roads, power and water so that farmers to produce and distribute food. Infrastructure projects will also generate economic growth, jobs and income and will help create a productive private sector currently missing in many African countries. 60 per cent of all enterprises fail to thrive due to lack of basic electricity due to a poor national grid or numerous power outages. The report recommends hydroelectric projects such as Congo’s Grand Inga Dam as having the potential to meet a significant share of the continent’s power needs. Poor roads are also a problem with only 12 percent of Africa’s roads paved and 10 percent of all road deaths worldwide occurring in Sub Saharan countries. The report calls for a Trans-African road network (pdf) linking Dakar, Lagos, Khartoum, Luanda, Mombasa, Windhoek and Gaborone.

The Africa progress panel was an initiative of the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland. The eleven member Panel members has several high profile members including chair Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, Bob Geldof, former International Monetary Fund chief Michel Camdessus, and Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus. The Gleneagles Summit pledged large funds towards debt cancellation and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. But the G8 has been slow to match these pledges with action. It has had success with debt relief but has not yet produced a timetable to progress to the much vaunted goal of doubling aid. The G8 promised $130 billion in aid by 2010 but is likely to fall short by $40 billion.

The report acknowledges that traditional budgetary resources are unlikely to address this shortfall. It suggests innovative new sources of funds such as currency transactions taxes, carbon taxes, taxes on international
air travel and freight transport, a global lottery, and measures to increase private funding of development agencies, Annan and his team say urgent collective work needs to be a priority for the donor community to evaluate these and other options. Africa, they say, is at a critical juncture. It pleads with the G8 to renew its 2002 Canadian Kananaskis Summit goal that no countries genuinely committed to poverty reduction, good governance and economic reform, will be denied the chance to achieve their Millennium Goals through lack of finance. Kofi Annan’s introduction put it best: “the world has a stake in realising the African continent's huge potential to thrive."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cisco underpins China’s Internet censorship

Cisco Systems Inc is the latest IT company forced to deny it has assisted China censor the internet. Last month an official with the Global Internet Freedom Consortium told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that Cisco engineer had offered had offered to teach Chinese authorities how to use its equipment to crack down on Internet sites it wanted banned such as those belonging to Falun Gong. Legal counsel for the Silicon Valley networking and communications giant said “we disavow the implication that this reflects in any way Cisco's views or objectives,” but did not deny it made the presentation to Chinese officials.

Global Internet Freedom Consortium deputy director Shiyu Zhou said the fight against Internet censorship "has been a lonely battle thus far and we are tired of having to fight our fellow American companies." Cisco are not the first and unlikely to be the last US company prepared to lower its standards to access the lucrative Chinese market. Yahoo started the rot in 2002 when it signed a document called the “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry”. The document promised to “inspect and monitor the information on domestic and foreign websites” and refuse access to those that “disseminate harmful information”.

Today, Yahoo not only provides China a full suite of censored products but also assists them with identifying senders of seditious emails from Chinese addresses. Yahoo has rightfully been labelled as a “Chinese police auxiliary”. Yet Yahoo put up with this opprobrium because they know China is a massive market.

The country now has 390 million mobile phone subscribers, over 111 million Internet users, and four million bloggers all with unprecedented access to information not sanctioned by authorities. This large user base (only the US has more Internet subscribers) are watched by 30,000 Internet police drawn from the Information, Security and State Secrets Ministries who manage a sophisticated communications monitoring and filtering regime. Legal and regulatory polices back the technology which block access to foreign sites such as the BBC and Voice of America and filter out search phrases such as “human rights”, “Taiwan”, “Tibetan independence” or “Falun Gong”.

China claims their Internet controls merely follow international practice of blocking “harmful” content related to pornography and terrorism. However the Centre for Strategic and International Studies claim that there are almost 50 cyberdissidents and 32 journalists in detention for posting Internet information critical of the Communist Party. But the government does not try and control everything. It is trying to create an Internet that is free enough to support the world’s fastest growing economy and yet regimented enough to squeeze out political threats to its monopoly on power.

Authors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu say that because of this monitoring allied to linguistic and cultural differences, China’s Internet is pulling away from the rest of the world. In their thought-provoking book “Who Controls the Internet?" Goldsmith and Wu’s book questions the popular wisdom that the Internet is rendering national borders irrelevant. They quote a landmark 1998 speech Jiang Zemin which concentrated on the necessity of absolute information control. To thunderous applause, Zemin promised to uphold China’s political system saying “we must be vigilant against infiltration, subversive activities, and separatist activities of international and domestic forces”. Zemin’s conclusion was blatant: “the Western mode of political systems must never be copied.”

Government Internet policy has been selective imprisonment of high profile cases; a strategy best expressed by the Chinese proverb “killing chickens to scare monkeys”. This is backed up with a sophisticated information barrier, what Goldsmith and Wu call a “semipermeable membrane that lets in what the government wants and blocks what it doesn’t”. This is the famous Great Firewall of China. But this firewall is built with American bricks. To take this article full circle, it was built primarily by Cisco, ironically for its American consumers. The technology was developed in the 1990s for US companies that wanted the Internet but didn’t want their employees wasting their day on sports or sex sites.

The barrier works because Internet data enters and leaves China at a limited number of chokepoints. At each point, Chinese ISPs such as China Telecom deploy Cisco routers to drop information it does not want to get into the country. The government provides a constantly updated access control list to China Telecom which identifies banned sites by their IP address and URL. Any messages from these forbidden addresses are simply dropped by the router and never reach their target. End users get a message saying “site not found” or any one of a number of HTTP error codes, and can never be certain their search was censored. In short,China's Internet filtering regime is the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world. According to OpenNet Initiative “Cisco Systems in particular has been integral to China's Internet development. The core of China's Internet relies on Cisco technology.” For its lawyers to say this doesn’t reflect Cisco's views or objectives is unspeakable hypocrisy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lisboa Constrictors: the fallout of the Irish EU referendum defeat

For the second time in over a month, Ireland has shown a new and healthy disdain for the Eurocracy that infests the EU in its every manifestation. The defeat of Thursday’s referendum by roughly 53 percent to 47 means Ireland and the rest of the EU will not be ratifying the Lisbon Treaty in its current form. The result is a disaster for Ireland's political leaders and follows on from the Ireland’s “disrespectful” entry which the country voted for in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Both people-power events have brought about criticism that Ireland is treating venerable European institutions with contempt.

This is in many ways strange behaviour, as Ireland is far from being Europhobic. For the most part, Ireland does not mind EU rule and has done very well out of it. Having being in the past influenced by Rome and London in equal parts, Brussels is just another city-conqueror. And a seemingly more benevolent one. With previously poverty stricken Ireland’s standards of living now greater than the EU average, there is little serious desire for an anti-European change. Some have argued that fear of immigration caused the defeat, but it is simply more likely to be distaste for the autocratic rule of bureaucracy.

In fast order, Ireland’s one finger signals in the Eurovision Song Contest and the Lisbon Treaty referendum signals the end to a culture of kowtowing to Eurocrats. The spoof song of Dustin the Turkey and the referendum “no” campaign had a very Irish contrariness in common. And the country has always had that tendency in spades. Writer Colm Tóibín says the referendum was a godsend to “every crank in Ireland” left or right. Tóibín supported the treaty but also admitted it was unreadable and filled with legal terms and references to subsections of other treaties.

Politically, Europe has reacted with dismay to the “no” victory. All 27 European member states have to ratify the Lisbon Treaty by January 2009 for it to come into force. So far it has been approved by 18 members, but Ireland is the only country to put it to a public vote. Under pressure British PM Gordon Brown refused to honour Labour's manifesto pledge to put the document to a public vote and now faces a possible backlash as he scrambles to find a negotiated re-settlement that might exclude Ireland.

The British media has also reacted unfavourably to the Irish result. Writing in Spiked on the weekend, editor Brendan O’Neill argues that the concerted media attack on “ungrateful” Irish voters exposes the anti-democratic elitism at the heart of the EU. He quotes the Financial Times's outrage that despite receiving “£40billion in subsidies from Brussels” Irish voters might have the temerity to say ‘No’ to Lisbon, “probably because ‘they do not understand the Treaty’”. Other articles showed their exasperation that the entire fate of the Treaty for 490 million people depended on these pesky three million on the periphery of the action.

Perhaps these writers secretly wished they had a chance to vote down the treaty too. Guido Fawkes skewered the argument that the Irish experience was somehow undemocratic. He points out that as the only country in Europe to actually hold an election involving all of its voters, it was by far the most representative of the lot. Fawkes points out that the total number of parliamentarians in the EU’s other 37 assembly houses (11 bicameral and 15 unicameral) is 9,225. While three million were entitled to vote in Ireland, the fate of the other 490 million was placed in the hands of less than ten thousand people.

However, as Pete Baker points out in Slugger O’Toole, the motley coalition in the "no" camp should beware thinking the result is evidence of actual support for any of their differing agendas. Strict impartiality rules meant that both sides got equal airplay on RTE, the national broadcaster, and that allowed unrepresented groups plenty of time to spread an "extensive menu of anxieties". The result also shows the power of television as the print media was almost one hundred percent behind the “yes” vote.

Yet the politicians only have themselves to blame for failure. They never sat down with the voters and explained what was in it for them. The ruling Fianna Fail party was pre-occupied with the fallout of replacing its longterm leader and realised the danger of defeat too late. One civil servant, Martin Cunningham, told the Irish Independent his mind was made up once he heard Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s admission that even he was not fully briefed on the Treaty document. "Sure he said he didn't even read the thing himself,” said Cunningham. “I decided on my 'No' there and then.”

Last week the “no” side received another significant boost a day ahead of the poll. Dustin the Turkey, whose parody effort “Irelande Douze Points” sunk without trace in the Eurovision Song Contest semi final, explicitly failed to endorse the “yes campaign”. The Turkey apparently told the Irish Sun it preferred a third choice that just said: What? "That way they'd have to go back to the table,” he gobbled, “work out a proper way of explaining the thing, and people would know what it is that's on offer. Even without the “what?” option, it would appear the “no” victory has done exactly that.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dark matters: life, the universe and everything

On Wednesday NASA launched a rocket carrying its new $690 million long distance telescope it hopes will provide answers to some of the universe’s enduring mysteries. The Delta II rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Center carrying aboard the Gamma Ray Large Area Space (GLAST) telescope. After a 75 minute flight, GLAST was deployed into a low Earth orbit and NASA expect it to transmit its first data in three weeks time. “After a 60-day checkout and initial calibration period, we'll begin science operations," said Steve Ritz, project scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington DC. "Glast soon will be telling scientists about many new objects to study, and this information will be available on the internet for the world to see."

GLAST is designed to study high energy sources of radiation in the universe. The project is a five to ten year operation designed to detect high energy gamma ray bursts, pinpoint their origin and shed light on the black holes where they mostly seem to reside. According to NASA, the new telescope will give astronomers a superior tool to “study how black holes, notorious for pulling matter in, can accelerate jets of gas outward at fantastic speeds.” The idea is to use a form of light invisible to the human eye to study and trace the origins of one of the most powerful forms of energy known - gamma ray bursts.

Gamma rays are energy-laden electromagnetic radiation produced by sub-atomic particles. They sit at the lowest end of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond ultraviolet and x-rays with a tiny wavelength of 0.00001 millimetres (ten to the power of minus five). They are found in the hottest areas of the universe and are produced by dramatic events such as supernova explosions, destruction of atoms, and the decay of radioactive material in space. A gamma ray burst release can travel across vast distances of the universe, and are absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere. Gamma ray bursts are spectacular events and can release more energy in ten seconds than the Sun will emit in its entire ten billion year life.

Scientists are particularly interested in gamma ray bursts because they throw light on some of the earliest events in the universe. They are so bright they can be detected as far back as the earliest five percent of the universe’s life time – over 13 billion years ago. One of the aims of GLAST is to investigate the link between gamma rays and dark matter. They hope to confirm that gamma ray bursts from the centre of our galaxy will reveal the presence of dark matter. Although known to science since 1933, dark matter remains one of science’s more hypothetical concepts. Yet it is believed to account for the majority of the mass of the observable universe.

The discovery of dark matter was made by Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky who worked at the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. Zwicky was aware of Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe was expanding. But he was also aware that galaxies tend to cluster in complicated local movements. He measured the red shift from individual galaxies to see what was holding them together. What he found astonished him: a cluster of galaxies can remain bound together for billions of years, but only if it contains enough material to trap the individual members. But when Zwicky calculated the combined gravity of the known components – stars, gas and dust – it was nowhere near sufficient to form the cluster.

Zwicky concluded there must be an extra contribution to the gravitational pull. This unknown force outweighed the visible stuff hundreds of times over. He called this material “dark matter”. While Zwicky’s findings were initially ignored, a gradual weight of evidence emerged to show, as scientist Paul Davies says, “the luminous parts of galaxies represent just the tip of the iceberg, and that most of the matter in the universe is in fact dark”.

It is dark matter that keeps the galaxy in the familiar disk shape and it is dark matter that ensures the Sun stays firm on its 250 million year circuit of the Galaxy. Without it, the Milky Way would unravel like an exploding flywheel. Ever keen to find human significance in the universe, Scientists have come up with bizarre anthropomorphic names to describe the types of dark matter they think might be out there. There are two broad categories: MACHOs and WIMPs. MACHOs are “Massive Compact Halo Objects”. These are concentrations of mass residing in the galactic halo. They include dwarf stars and giant planets as well as smaller objects such as asteroids and comets. These objects are too dim to show up in telescopes but still exist in abundance. Yet MACHOs probably count for only a small percentage of dark matter. The rest are likely to be WIMPs.

WIMPs are Weakly Interactive Massive Particles. They are not so much dark as invisible, mostly passing through ordinary matter without betraying their existence. Because dark matter is concentrated at the centre of galaxies, scientists envisage a thick invisible soup of WIMPs through which stars swim as they perform their loop across the Milky Way. As WIMPs are weakly interacting, they only very rarely hit an ordinary atom; and as they are massive particles, possibly as heavy as a uranium atom they could account for the remaining dark matter in the galaxy.

Most importantly, dark matter played an essential role in shaping the universe. The smoothness of the early life of the universe was removed as regions over-dense in dark matter drew on surrounding material to amplify their denseness. Normal matter alone would have been too feeble to create galaxies, stars and planets and dark matter was needed to assist the clumping process. Peter Michelson, a Stanford astrophysicist and a lead investigator on the GLAST project, describes dark matter as “"mysterious, unseen substance that gravitationally holds the universe together”. He hopes the glimpses of gamma ray bursts will provide clues as to how dark matter formed the universe. "When you look at the night sky with your eyes, it is fairly quiescent and peaceful," Michelson said. "The gamma ray sky is not. It's a very different view of the universe. We're seeing exotic things like black holes and neutron stars and coalescing binary systems at the end of their life when they collapse into a black hole and there's an explosion."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Europe sweats on Ireland's Lisbon Treaty referendum

Polls have opened in Ireland at 7am local time this morning for a crucial vote on the EU Lisbon Treaty. New Taoiseach Brian Cowen is leading a desperate campaign to get out the “yes” vote as opinion polls show the result could go either way. All EU countries are required to ratify the treaty which was signed in Lisbon in December last year and Ireland is the only one of the 27 member states which is allowing its citizens to vote on the matter. The referendum is needed because of a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that any major amendment to an EU treaty requires an amendment to the Irish constitution. With the other 26 parliaments likely to rubberstamp the treaty, Ireland’s three million people will be the defacto decision-makers for the whole of Europe.

Because of this proxy vote factor, the Irish poll has attracted Euro-sceptics from across the continent to campaign for a “no” vote. They have been joined by a motley coalition of strange bedfellows opposed to the treaty. The Times calls them a “bizarre ragbag opposition of maverick businessmen, right wing Roman Catholics, socialists, communists, pacifists and anarchists.” They include minor political parties Sinn Fein and the Socialists; UNITE, the Irish arm of Britain’s biggest trade union and Libertas, a privately funded group set up to fight the treaty.

Libertas claims to be a pro European movement “dedicated to campaigning for greater democratic accountability and transparency in the institutions of the EU”. Chairman Declan Ganley appealed yesterday to Irish people to reject the Lisbon Treaty saying that a "no" vote would "send our leaders back to the drawing board". Ganley said the “yes” campaigners (which include the three main political parties, and most of Ireland’s business and media leaders) have given no good reasons to support the Treaty. “I hope, and I firmly believe,” he said, “that the Irish people will vote "No" tomorrow, and that the work can immediately begin on constructing a better vision of Europe for all its 490 million citizens".

Ganley makes a good point about the “yes” campaign. The Lisbon Treaty is a dense 230 page document which few people in Ireland or elsewhere have read or understood. Essentially it amends the two main existing treaties which govern the EU in order to make the governing of an expanded EU easier. These are the Treaty Establishing the European Community (more commonly known as the EC Treaty); and the Treaty on European Union (known as the Maastricht Treaty). The key changes involve bureaucratic matters such as the appointment of the president of the European Council, a smaller European Commission, a redistribution of voting rights, new justice powers and the removal of key national vetoes.

The Irish referendum question is asking citizens whether they want to change the nation’s constitution to: a) allow Ireland to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon; b) allow Ireland to agree to certain decisions in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice in future with the approval of the Irish parliament; c) allow Ireland to agree at the European Council to certain changes in the EU treaties which might require further referenda or parliamentary approval and d) continue the present arrangements for Ireland’s military neutrality.

If the “no” vote wins, it will be the second time this decade Ireland has scuppered an EU treaty. In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice (pdf) which prepared the ground for EU enlargement. A second vote was required two years later to pass the treaty including a new clause clarifying Irish neutrality. Many voters are just as concerned and bewildered this time about being railroaded into agreeing with something they don’t understand.

A rejection would mark an embarrassing setback for new Irish leader Brian Cowen. Cowen took over the top job after the surprise resignation of long-term Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in April. Since then Cowen has focussed his attentions on convincing the electorate to support the treaty. Cowen is known for his blunt speaking which has earned him the less than flattering nickname “Biffo” (Big Ignorant Fucker From Offaly). A defeat for the referendum would represent a personal defeat for Biffo and a serious blow to his authority as he tries to steer Ireland through some tough economic times ahead. Cowen and the rest of Europe will have fingers crossed as they watch the counting of the vote which takes place tomorrow.