Saturday, September 29, 2007

The significance of the Spanish Downing Street Memo

The significance of the "revelation" that Saddam in '02 was potentially ready to leave Iraq lies more in the timeline of what Bush was saying about the prospect of war, shortly before the invasion. Click here to watch Olbermann discuss it with Jim Webb. Excerpt (Webb talking) below:
(On the Spanish “Downing Street” memos) There’s no real surprise there. If you look back at where the situation was in ‘02, I and General Tony Zinni and other people were saying that Iraq probably would have been sixth highest in terms of the threats to the United States. In fact, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post five years ago this month, basically saying “Do you really want to be in Iraq for the next 30 years?” and that these people have no exit strategy because they don’t intend to leave.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

In global warming we trust

To call someone a 'believer' is a very curious term of abuse in the context of climate change.

Leo Hickman - CiF.

"Climate change is just a religion. Why are you a believer in it?"

This question was put to me recently and I have to admit that I spluttered a little when trying to answer it. Not because I doubt for one moment that climate change is real - and predominantly being caused by the actions of our species - but because it struck home to me that some people have so much disdain and hatred about "this climate change obsession" that they see its "believers" in much the same way that Richard Dawkins sees the believers of the world's religions - without a shred of rationality or logic to justify their unwavering faith.

But to call someone a "believer" is a very curious term of abuse in the context of climate change (although religion is a convenient metaphor as it allows "non-believers" to continue their argument by saying they don't like being "preached at"). After all, climate change is a reality utterly drunk on Dawkins' favourite tipple - peer-reviewed science. But then again the "believers" have their own odd riposte, too, in that they often like to accuse those who don't sign up to the veracity of climate change as "deniers" - a term dripping with an implicit reference to the Holocaust. Both "believer" and "denier" are ugly, clumsy phrases and, in my view, only act to further polarise what is becoming such an entrenched and spiteful debate.

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But if it helps my questioner's argument then, yes, I am a believer. Just like I "believe" that gravity will cause an apple to fall to the ground. Just like I "believe" that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning. Does that, therefore, make me a "fanatic", as some have also said? (Again, it's an interesting term of abuse, because those that use it know full well what that term means in today's world.)

Well, I would never advocate that the book be closed on further scientific investigation into anything, but I do feel that the "do you believe or not" ever-cyclical debate, whipped up into a vitriolic frenzy by such name-calling, conveniently obscures the real debate: do we have faith in ourselves as a species to actually try and do anything - be it centred on mitigation or adaption - about climate change?

Now that's something that I sometimes struggle to keep believing in.

Bill Orally on Harlem Restaurants

The Giant HeadGoofy's at it again. Is the Giant Head a racist? Of course... He might not be a hater but he belongs to that typical soft-power Jim Crow variety of Whitey, the sort that inherently believes that blacks really have nothing but themselves to blame, because, well, innately they're, well... not white... You find this white superiority complex all over the West with regards to our attitudes to all non-whites, today most prominently with respect to Arabs. And Iraqis, Bill-O has indicated unequivocally, he doesn't like either. They lack that WASPish work ethos I guess. Bill, you're a buffoon. Only on Shox Noise...

From MediaMatters

During the September 19 edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, discussing his recent trip to have dinner with Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia's, a famous restaurant in Harlem, Bill O'Reilly reported that he "had a great time, and all the people up there are tremendously respectful," adding: "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." Later, during a discussion with National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams about the effect of rap on culture, O'Reilly asserted: "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all." O'Reilly also stated: "I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They're getting away from the Sharptons and the [Rev. Jesse] Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They're just trying to figure it out. 'Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it."


Following a commenter's suggestion, I've looked into Bill-O's side of the story and that more or less checks out. Perhaps those words were pulled out of context. But they remain rather puzzling things to say. And Bill hasn't helped himself a lot by promptly going on the counter-attack, instead of perhaps seeking clarification first.

Media-smearing comes from all sides of the political spectrum, it's neither the prerogative of the left or the right.

On this one, I'm inclined to give O'Reilly the benefit of the doubt, perhaps against better judgment (in view of what I've heard from him before), but he said what he said and it sounded very odd, in context or outside of it...

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Haaretz on Ahmadinejad

Rosner on Ahmadinejad (Ha'aretz)

Ahmadinejad and the city

The president of Columbia University apparently believes that he evinced extraordinary courage - not only once, but twice. First, when he faced down his critics and, in the name of "freedom of academic discourse," hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a second time when he insulted his guest. "A petty and cruel dictator," he called him.

Standing at the podium in his university, facing his faculty, protected by American police, Professor Lee Bollinger really is a big hero. However, both the invitation and the insult said more about the host than about the guest. What has become clear beyond all doubt this week, if there had been any doubt, is that Ahmadinejad, petty or not, cruel or not, is above all a world-class celebrity of the sort that a New York backdrop only flatters.

How natural the news broadcasters sounded as they skipped from the Iranian's adventures in the big city to those of O.J. Simpson in Las Vegas on his way to a failed bank robbery. Nonsensical chatter about academic freedom alongside the tabloid Simpson story. Like the publisher that wanted to publish Simpson's book, If I Did It, Columbia University simply could not resist the temptation.

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For three days now, the university's name has been mentioned on every news broadcast. Its backers were invited to be interviewed on every obscure program, and broadcast vehicles were kept ready since early morning to bring that man's words to a thirsty nation. Did they expect that Ahmadinejad would suddenly decide to tell them the truth, of all things? Did they believe themselves when they said that they would ask him "probing questions?" Did they think that he would in fact answer them? Did they know that he would lie, but not care, as long as he came?

It is hard to know which would be worse: The former would be indicative of a degree of stupidity, unacceptable even at academic institutions; the latter would indicate deliberate, ugly cynicism. In either case, the president of Iran received a platform and publicity that others can only dream of.

John Coatsworth, the dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, pressured the president for "a simple yes or no answer" to an important question: Does he want to destroy Israel? And supposing he had answered "yes" or "no," instead of evading the question as is his wont - would that have made any difference?

Continued at source...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fun with Islamophobes...

Sorry guys: you've been punked...

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An Iranian in New York

AhmadinejadAhmadinejad's visit to New York is predictably causing a bit of a stir. Below are the musings of someone who calls himself "an independent with conservative values" (slight oxymoron going on there). He notes here:
It is going to be interesting to see how Ahmadinejad is greeted at Columbia. If the reaction of the students is anything like liberals in general he will receive a heroes welcome. Anyone seen as an enemy of America, whether its Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro or Ahmadinejad, will be treated as best friends by the left.

Keep in mind I am not referring to everyday working Democrats on the street. I am talking about the types you see spewing their vitriol at America at places like, DailyKos of Democratic Underground.

I hope the media puts some of the Democrats on the spot with some hard-hitting questions about Ahmadinejad. He has American blood on his hands. ~RJH

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So, for our "independent Conservative" it's more important to get some political mileage out of another occasion for Democrat bashing than it is to actually grill Ahmadinejad? How very independent... Don't worry RJH, Shox Noise will have a field day with that one. I don't really think I need to watch it, I can picture Horn Shammity on the job denouncing the "traitors", as I'm typing this. Distasteful thought but there you go...

Ahmadinejad has also been refused to pay his respects at ground zero. It's Sacred Ground, apparently...

Who created God?

In a blogpost on Casey's critical thinking blog, I found an interesting titbit regarding the eternal question of God's existence and how to explain it without having to resort to an endless succession of Gods, one creating the next one. Always one for wanting to debate the finer and more universal points of religious thinking, I tried to place a comment but a technical glitch (God?) prevented that. Perhaps the author will notice my link to his writing and surf my way... Here's Casey's point and my response to it:
If you ask an evolutionist what was there before the Big Bang, they’ll likely ask you who created God. Everyone knows that every effect must be preceded by a cause. This only applies, however, when time is a factor. The Bible teaches that God created the universe. The universe is comprised of space, matter and time. For God to have created the universe he would be required to be outside the universe–not part of it. We do not need to ask what was before God, because it is nonsensical to ask what was before what when before the creation of the universe there was no time by which to measure precedence. God is the uncaused cause. He has no beginning because he is outside of time.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that the universe had to have a beginning. The 1st Law tells us that the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant, and the 2nd tells us that the amount of energy available for work is running out. If the total amount of mass and energy is constant and yet the amount of usable energy is decreasing, then the universe cannot possibly have existed forever, or all usable energy would be gone by now.

Everyone knows you can’t get something from nothing. If there was ever nothing, then there would never be anything. There has to be something outside the universe, i.e. supernatural, that brought it about. That something is God, and God has no beginning and no creator.

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Whilst the argument Casey makes isn't without merit, it strikes me as trying to exploit a loophole and then getting stuck a little further down the way.

In the three Abrahamic faiths, God isn't just supposed to be a Creator but also a living God, capable of interfering in Man's affairs (up to the point even of being able to offer redemption and eternal life). How could such an interventionist God exist outside of time and therefore outside of the universe he would have created? The "God outside of space-time" is clearly reminiscent of Platonic and Aristotelean concepts of the Divine, as a Deity unable to intervene in, and possible uninterested in, Man's affairs.

Personally the idea of God as outside of time and space, with no beginning or cause, strikes me as being easily replaced with my preferred notion that the physical world (the Multiverse, of which our own space-time bubble would be part in that scenario) has always been, always is and always will be. This notion also requires no beginning (and possibly no end). But it requires no creator... And expect no salvation either...

I think we also have to be very careful to apply the physical laws that rule our part of the physical world (our universe) to what may lie outside of it, i.e. the totality of the physical world. Certainly physicists agree that our particular set of laws may apply only locally and that other universes may look entirely different.

Democrats can't win

Republicans in the US Senate are prepared to use all its powers to block a resurgence of liberalism

Michael Tomasky - Editor of Guardian US

The two major news events out of Washington last week were the Senate's obstruction of a key Democratic measure on Iraq and Hillary Clinton's unveiling of her new healthcare proposal. At first blush, they don't seem to be related. But the former may yet come to have a great deal to do with the latter, and therein lies a lesson about the modern Republican party that Washington seems never to learn.

The Democratic measure was an amendment offered by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a former military man (and former Republican). His proposal sought to ensure a decent interval of "dwell time" at home for US soldiers before being sent back to Iraq. Democrats thought they had hit on an unassailable formula for being pro-troops while at the same time keeping pressure on the Bush administration. Republicans smelled a plan to render a sustained large troop presence unworkable.

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Now, the US Senate is an oddly conceived body. It was chiefly a constitutional sop to small states with its assurance that each state would have two senators. But it was also designed to allow minorities to halt stampeding majorities. One senator can stop anything. As a result, through most of its history the Senate has been a deeply intransigent body, the reactionaries' last line of defence.

And since the Democrats took over this year, Republicans - under their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky - have stalled so much that they're on pace to set a new record for blocked legislation by a factor of three. Then, having gummed up the works, McConnell et al turn around and accuse the Democrats of running a do-nothing Congress!

This, in a nutshell, is why the Democrats have not been able to end the war. Republican legislators know that, however unpopular the war may be, a united pro-war front might help the party keep the White House in 2008, because they can run on the accusation that the Democrats wish defeat and disgrace upon these great United States of America.

Here, Mrs Clinton enters the picture. Her near flawless campaign last week executed the near flawless unveiling of her healthcare plan. This was much anticipated, partly because of the dramatic failure in 1993-94 under her watch and partly because people wanted to see how ambitious she would be.

Lo and behold, the plan was much more far-reaching than anyone expected (and thus pleasing to liberals), and it avoided some of the errors of the past (thus passing muster with the pundit class). If Clinton actually becomes president, she will have laid a strong foundation from which to spring into action on the great piece of unfinished business of 20th-century American liberalism.

But ... those Republicans, and that Senate. It has gone down in history that Hillary blew healthcare the first time around because of her tone-deafness and unwillingness to compromise. But there's more to the story - much more.

Paul Starr was one of the Clinton administration's leading healthcare reform experts. Writing in The American Prospect, he argues convincingly that conservatives and Republicans were set against allowing the Clintons to pass any healthcare reform "because if it succeeded, it might renew New Deal beliefs in the efficacy of government, whereas a defeat of the health plan could set liberalism back for years".

That is the main reason the Clinton plan failed, just as current GOP obstinacy is the main reason the Democrats can't end the war. And if anything, Republican fear of liberal success is greater today, and will be greater in 2009, than in 1993, and they will fight any Democratic president tooth and nail. And the 47 million without healthcare, and the thousands dying in Iraq? As usual, they are beside the point.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Calling all BlogRush referrers: BlogRush promo video!

Many thanks to those bloggers who joined BlogRush through my referral link. I know some of you have made referrals yourselves, as I already have quite a few second generation and even third generation referrals.

And now there's more good news: one of BlogRush's most important promotional tools, the video presentation, is now available as an embeddable stand-alone on YouTube:

You can use this powerful video in blog posts promoting BlogRush, in ads, or in combination with any other promotional method you want to use to boost your referrals. Not joined BlogRush yet? Then watch the video or read the ad below:

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Islamophobic Britain?

This onslaught risks turning into a racist witch-hunt

The renewed anti-Muslim media campaign is partly driven by a political agenda which seeks to justify war

Seumas Milne

Britons are now more suspicious of Muslims than are Americans or citizens of any other major western European country, including France. According to an international Harris poll last month, nearly 30% of British people believe it's impossible to be both a Muslim and a Briton (compared with 14% who think you can't be French and a Muslim); 38% think the presence of Muslims in the country is a threat to national security (compared with 21% in the US); and 46% believe that Muslims have too much political power in Britain, far above the level of any other surveyed country. You might think that these findings, reported in the Financial Times, would have been the occasion for some soul-searching about where British society is going, the state of community relations, and a new self-restraint in the way Muslim stories are covered in the media.

Not a bit of it. The fact that a large minority of Britons have some of the most Islamophobic attitudes in the western world has passed without comment. Instead, we have since been treated to a renewed barrage of lurid and hostile stories about Muslims which can only have further inflamed anti-Muslim opinion and the community's own sense of being under permanent siege. This isn't just a problem of hate-filled tabloid rants, such as the Express's denunciation of Muslims' "alien and threatening outfits", or Richard Littlejohn's Muslim-baiting in the Mail. For the past three weeks, there has been a stream of hostile coverage in the heavyweight press and on TV current affairs programmes.

This week it is was an hour-long Channel 4 Dispatches about attacks on Muslim converts to Christianity; last week it was the BBC Newsnight programme's 20-minute interview with the latest defector from the non-violent Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir; the week before that it was a Newsnight special on radical Islamist books in east London libraries, complete with sinister music and a round-table debate. The same week there was a Times front-page splash about the "hardline takeover of British mosques", focused on the deeply conservative Deobandi religious movement which has long had a strong presence among British Muslims of Pakistani origin. For both Newsnight programmes, it was apparently felt that Patrick Mercer - the Tory MP sacked by David Cameron for making racially inflammatory remarks and appointed a security adviser by Gordon Brown - was the ideal person to comment on Muslim issues. Meanwhile, the novelist Martin Amis denounced "liberal relativist appeasers" of a "racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitorial, imperialist and genocidal" doctrine.

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The problem isn't necessarily with the stories themselves. There are obviously legitimate issues to report about jihadist or anti-Jewish strains within the Deobandi school, the agenda of a group like Hizb ut-Tahrir that the government originally wanted to ban, or intimidation of converts to any religion. But in a climate of anti-Muslim prejudice, their disproportionate and sensationalist treatment can only feed ethnic tensions ("Christians in Britain are under attack", this week's Dispatches programme began, even if the numbers were tiny). Nor is the record of these kinds of reports impressive - an earlier Dispatches programme on the preaching of hate in British mosques was recently found by the police and Crown Prosecution Service to have "completely distorted" what speakers had said.

The level of Islamophobia highlighted by the Harris poll is obviously partly a response to the July 2005 bombings and later failed terror attacks. But given the fact that most British people have little contact with Muslims, some are bound to be swayed by the media campaigns of the past couple of years - which have not only focused on jihadist groups but also the niqab and multiculturalism. What has given the anti-Muslim onslaught particular force is that many secular liberals have convinced themselves that since Islam is an ideology rather than an ethnicity - and because they see themselves as defending liberal values - they are on the righteous side of racism. In reality, of course, religion isn't only about beliefs, it's also about culture and identity and, as the British National party has worked out, Islam has become a toxic racial proxy.

The relentless public invective against Muslims and Islamism is also clearly fuelled by a political agenda, which seeks to demonstrate that jihadist violence is driven, as Tony Blair and the US neoconservatives always insisted, by a socially disconnected ideology rather than decades of western invasion, occupation and support for dictatorships across the Muslim world. That is certainly the view of Richard Watson, the reporter behind Newsnight's Muslim coverage, who recently wrote that extreme Islamism and terror are the product of a "seductive cult", not western foreign policy, and demanded that British Muslims find new leaders. And the co-author of the thinktank report which formed the basis of Newsnight's programme on Islamist books in Tower Hamlets libraries is the self-proclaimed neocon Douglas Murray.

Gordon Brown is said to want to mimic the clandestine methods used by the CIA against communism during the cold war in the cultural field to win Muslim hearts and minds. If the government's sponsorship of the pliant Sufi Muslim Council is any indication of the way he wants to go, that won't work - nor will any approach that tries to load responsibility for jihadist violence on to the Muslim community while refusing to take responsibility for the government's own role in fanning the flames by supporting aggression and occupation in the Muslim world.

None of this is an argument for refraining from criticising Muslims or their organisations - but it does highlight the need for context and sensitivity in a climate in which Muslims are under a crude assault that would simply not be accepted if targeted on any other community. The relentless media onslaught in Britain on Muslims, their culture and institutions risks turning into a racist witch-hunt. On the ground, it translates into violent attacks - and Crown Prosecution Service figures show that 82% of convictions for identified religiously aggravated offences last year involved attacks on Muslims. Those attacks reportedly spike not only after terrorist incidents but also in response to media feeding frenzies. Some pro-war liberals like to argue that Islamophobia doesn't exist - try telling that to those at the sharp end.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage...

Bookmark this post! No, seriously, sooner or later the simple advice given here will come in handy, I promise you that... Who hasn't gotten that frustrating message "Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage" from time to time? Usually it means very little: either the website you're trying to load a page from is down, or the webpage in question doesn't exist any more, or your computer isn't connected to the Internet or you've copied or typed the page's address wrongly. Nothing that can't be remedied quickly and nothing to worry about. Yet for thousands (and probably many more) the message is a real problem and the source of serious frustration, despair even. And that befell to me a couple of days ago...

It first occurred whilst trying to load the comment section of a post on this blog and access was denied. Nor could I log into Blogger dashboard. I checked service of, which appeared to be down, although all the blogs were up and running and other pages from the domain remained as accessible as ever. I put it down to a fluke and decided not to think much more about it.

But the problem not only persisted, unusual for, which despite very public criticisms is not a service that shows huge amounts of down-time, other problems started to occur as well. It started to dawn on me that I was perhaps the one of the few who couldn't access Blogger, as I could see that others were merrily posting blog posts in Blogger, as well comments, including some in my own inaccessible (well, to me) comment section!

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Other problems typically occurred when trying to log into an account page or drilling down in an eBay page. I was also (and still am today) unable to login to my MSN hotmail account, so I'm a little incommunicado right now.

Googling for notes on this type of problem using "Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage" showed that this is quite a common occurrence, albeit one for which there is no simple remedy. Here are the search results: 1.56 million webpages, including some hyper-detailed trouble-shooting, from many, many different sources. I won't bore you with the details of my own quest to solve this nuisance problem and will cut to the chase quickly. Suffice it to say, I contacted my ISP to check connectivity which was fine, followed Microsoft's own trouble-shooting guide which yielded nothing, eliminated temporary Internet files, then IE history, then IE cookies and even passwords, all to no avail!

Then I found a Yahoo! help group, which suggested something simple by means of a patch: install another browser as an alternative to IE. I chose Netscape Navigator which turned out to be quick to download and easy to install. Bingo, the "missing webpages" were all there! So the problem clearly lies with Internet Explorer although the cause of the problem probably lies elsewhere in a hitherto unknown corner of the innards of my machine...

Right now, this is merely a patch, as I still can't log into my MSN hotmail account, so expect more developments in the coming days...

One possible option to use a Reset Internet Explorer Settings (or RIES), find Microsoft's own recommendations here. From that page:
Windows Internet Explorer 7 for Microsoft Windows XP and Windows Internet Explorer 7 in Microsoft Windows Vista have many security enhancements that make Internet Explorer 7 less susceptible to spyware and to malware. Typically, badly written add-ons can affect the browsing experience in Internet Explorer 7. RIES enables Internet Explorer 7 to recover from such situations.

Needless to say, a RIES eliminates all information stored in IE 7, including temporary Internet files, cookies, history, favourites, form fills and passwords, so it's rather a last resort.

Anyone with similar experience, please share it with us below...

Holocaust miniseries on Iranian TV

Via Huffie.

Yet the series titled "Zero Degree Turn" is clearly sympathetic to the Jews' plight during World War II. It shows men, women and children with yellow stars on their clothes being taken forcibly out of their homes and loaded into trucks by Nazi soldiers.

"Where are they taking them?" the horrified hero, a young Iranian diplomat who works at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, asks someone in a crowd of onlookers.

"The Fascists are taking the Jews to the concentration camps," the man says. The hero, named Habib Parsa, then begins giving Iranian passports to Jews to allow them to flee occupied France to then-Palestine.

Though the Habib character is fictional, it is based on a true story of diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Paris in the 1940s who gave out about 500 Iranian passports for Jews to use to escape.

The show's appearance now may reflect an attempt by Iran's leadership to moderate its image as anti-Semitic and to underline a distinction that Iranian officials often make _ that their conflict is with Israel, not with the Jewish people.

About 25,000 Jews live in Iran, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel. They have one representative in parliament, which is run mostly by Islamic clerics.

The series could not have aired without being condoned by Iran's clerical leadership. The state broadcaster is under the control of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, who has final say in all matters inside Iran.

Moderate conservatives have been gaining ground in Iran, where there is increasing discontent with the ruling hardliners over rising tensions with the West, a worsening economy and price hikes in basic commodities.

The government even allowed the series to break another taboo in Iran: For the first time, many actresses appear without the state-mandated Islamic dress code. The producers wanted to realistically portray 1940s Paris, and thus avoided the headscarves and head-to-foot robes that all women must normally wear on Iranian TV.

Ahmadinejad sparked widespread outrage in 2005 when he made comments casting doubt on the Holocaust and saying the state of Israel should be "wiped from the map." His government organized a conference of Holocaust deniers and skeptics from around the world in December.

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But the series has won support even from hardliners. Some argue that it links the Holocaust with Israel's creation, thus boosting an argument by Ahmadinejad that if the Nazi killing of Jews did take place, the Palestinians who then lived in Palestine should not have had to pay the price for it by the creation of Israel after the war.

"The series differentiates between Jews and Zionism. The ground for forming Israel is prepared when Hitler's army puts pressure on activist Jews. In this sense, it considers Nazism parallel to Zionism," the hard-line newspaper Keyhan said.

However, if the series does aim to make that point, it has not done so overtly.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Making a miniature hot air balloon (not)...

Ever dreamt of making a nifty miniature hot air balloon to amuse your dinner guests with? Something that would neatly float indoors, fuelled only be a few candles or a similar system of "burners"? I have and on the occasion of my wife's birthday while playing around with a birthday helium balloon (and generally making a fool of myself with my helium induced Donald Duck voice) it all kind of came back to me. And I may be a dreamer but I'm not the only one.

So I decided to run a small feasibility study. The objective here was to see if making a small hot air balloon from common household materials such as bin liner and birthday candles could yield something small enough to gain buoyancy indoors.

As this has become a rather long post, I'll divide it into chapters (the links will take you to the relevant sections):

1. Hot air balloons and Archimedes.
2. A practical example.
3. Short-cut for non-geeks.
4. Conclusion.
5. A few mini hot air balloons.

1. Hot air balloons and Archimedes.

Web Mall and Digital MarketplaceWhen it comes to floating or sinking everything boils down to good old
Archimedes. Archimedes' Law basically states that an object submerged in a fluid (the fluid can be a liquid or a gas, that doesn't matter at all) will experience an upward force equal to the weight of the fluid the object displaces. For an object of volume V (l, litre), submerged in a fluid of density d (g/l, gram per litre) this upward force then becomes:

d x V x g (1)

where g is the gravitational acceleration (approx. 10 m/s2, meter per second squared).

The object with a mass m (g, gram) will of course also experience a downward gravitational force, i.e. its weight:

m x g (2)

If the upward force caused by the displacement of the surrounding fluid exceeds the gravitational pull-down, the object will float, so:

d x V x g = m x g (3)

or simply: d x V = m (4)

In the case of the hot air balloon the density of the fluid is da, the density of ambient air (in g/l). V is the volume of the balloon (in l) and m the mass of the balloon (in g).

It's important to note the mass of the balloon is made up of two components: the mass of the equipment, me (in g), including the basket, burner, balloon material, payload etc on the one hand, and the actual weight of the hot air contained in the balloon, mh (in g), on the other hand.

Equation (4) then becomes:

da x V = me + mh (6)

The mass of the hot air contained in the balloon can be calculated from the
Ideal Gas Law, p x V = n x R x T (7) where p is the pressure of the air in the balloon (in atm, atmosphere), n the number of moles of air contained in the balloon, T the temperature of the air in the balloon (in K, Kelvin [Kelvin = Centigrade + 273]) and R the ideal gas constant (0.082 atm.l/mole.K, atmosphere times litre per mole per Kelvin).

With a bit or reworking (7) yields the mass of the hot air contained in the balloon:

mh = p x Mair / (R x T) (8)

Here Mair is the molecular weight of air (approx. 29 g/mole, gram per mole). Factoid: the molecular weight of air is approximately the weight of 1 trillion trillion air molecules (6 x 1023, or 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to be more precise)!

Inserting (8) in (6) and a little more reworking yields:

T = p x Mair x V / [R x (da x V - me)] (9)

Here T is the minimum temperature (in K, Kelvin [Kelvin = Centigrade + 273]) the hot air inside the balloon has to reach for lift-off to occur.

We can simplify this equation by stating:

α = p x Mair / R (10)

Note that in normal conditions (room temperature and atmospheric pressure) α is a constant and approx. 358 (K/l, Kelvin per litre).


β(V) = V / (da x V - me) (11)

Please note that whereas α is a constant, β(V) is not and is a function of the balloon volume V, hence the notation β(V) (β, function of V).

Equation (9) then becomes:

T = α x β(V) (12)

The function β(V) is worth exploring because it shows both a
vertical asymptote and a horizontal asymptote.

The vertical asymptote occurs at Vmin = me / da (13), where the denominator of β(V) becomes zero and β(V) = ∞ (infinity!) This isn't just a mathematical quirk of β(V), no, this asymptote has real physical meaning. It means that the balloon needs a minimum volume Vmin = me / da or else it can never become airborne, no matter what the temperature of the air inside the balloon is. In fact, even at Vmin = me / da, the temperature of the air would still have to be infinitely high, because only then would the mass of air inside the balloon, mh (from (8)), become zero and (very slow) lift-off would occur. (Back to top.)

2. A practical example.

Let's take a practical example. I got the flimsiest plastic carrier bag possible (I recommend Spar shops for this!) and four birthday candles (as "burners"), which gave me a total weight me of 10 g (gram). I didn't measure the volume V of the bag but estimated it to be somewhere between 5 and 10 l (litre).

Now you would think it would be possible to get such lightweight thingy up in the air without too many problems but you'd have thought wrongly. Let's check out (13) with some numbers. The density of dry air at 25 Centigrade is approximately 1.2 g/l (gram per litre), so (13) becomes Vmin = 10 g / 1.2 g/l = 8.33 l. So we'd have a Spar shopping bag of 8.33 l, fired by four birthday candles, getting buoyant when the air inside has reached infinitely high temperature... pardon the pun but that's not going to fly! The balloon in other words needs to be larger to stand a chance.

Here are a few examples for me of 10 g and various volumes and the hot air temperature required for lift-off:

Volume (l) >>>>>>>>>>>> Temperature (Centigrade)

10 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 1,500
15 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 400
20 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 240
25 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 175
50 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 85

Attentive readers may have noticed that there is a bit of a contradiction going on as the balloon weight me cannot be expected to stay constant with ever increasing volume V of the balloon. In fact, it can be shown that in most cases the balloon mass must be a function of V, that is me(V), which is probably directly proportional to V raised to the power 2/3, so something like me(V) = k x V2/3, with k a material constant. This makes the whole scenario even worse as the temperature of the hot air will have to be even higher to compensate for the extra weight for larger balloons but it doesn't invalidate the principles outlined here.

Looking at the horizontal asymptote at β(V) = 1 / da, this simply indicates that for an infinitely large balloon (V = ∞), T = 25 Centigrade. (Back to top.)

3. Short-cut for non-geeks.

For those who find the algebra and physics too nerdy or are still sceptical about the non-feasibility of a truly miniature hot air balloon, try this short-cut. The birthday helium balloon (V about 10 l) that inspired this post was buoyant because the helium has a density of about 0.18 g/l (at room temperature). To reach the same buoyancy by replacing the helium with hot air, the air would have to be hot enough for its density to reach the same value. The density of dry air can be calculated simply from dh = 358 / T (in g/l), so for dh to become 0.18 g/l, T would have to be 1,715 Centigrade (1,990 K)! Had the balloon been filled with hydrogen gas (see also the Hindenburg disaster) with a density about 0.09 g/l at room temperature, the balloon would have been even more buoyant and the air to replace it would have to have been at 3,700 Centigrade (3,980 K)! (Back to top.)

4. Conclusion.

In short, miniature hot air balloons are possible but aren't exactly miniature. From around 50 litres or so a functional hot air balloon becomes feasible but it's not something you could run indoors: use... good old helium balloons for that. (Back to top.)

5. A few mini hot air balloons.

Here are some Frenchmen and their toy hot air balloons. Note the size of these babies!

Here's another homemade mini hot air balloon, this one twice as high as a child...

This here "crafts enthusiast" is full of hot air but manages (not) to make a "hot air balloon" with no heat source in sight. It's just a dangling balloon, dear...

And here's a gentleman who believes Chinese lanterns could be miniature hot air balloons. Chinese lanterns? Flying pigs more like. Pure baloney... The "miniature hot air balloons" this pseudo-historian is referring to are either not so miniature or are in fact kites with lighted candles inside them. To be fair, he might be referring to so-called Kongming lanterns (pictured) but these aren't exactly small either.
(Back to top.)

Finally, here's a miniature self-combusting "hot air balloon": sorry to burn your balloon...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Oh! What a Lovely War on Terror - it's the number the arms dealers love

The biggest threat to our freedoms comes not from al-Qaida but from the security bureaucrats and their cronies

Simon Jenkins - CiF

I admit it is a grim question for a fine autumn weekend, but is liberty in decline? Have we taken the old girl for granted so long that we cannot see her lined face, frayed garments and sagging bosom? The swimming pool in Baghdad's Green Zone may be Liberty Pool and American chips Freedom Fries, but the glory days are over. Sex appeal these days has passed from liberty to power.

Anyone currently visiting the Royal Docks in London's East End will see an extraordinary display. Sleek grey warships nestle close to the vast Excel exhibition of weapons of mass destruction and repression. Hidden away from the heart of the capital, arms buyers from three dozen nations show why Britain is the world's second biggest defence exporter after America.

Business is booming again following the post-cold war decline. Nor is Britain squeamish about what it sells and to whom. Totalitarian China, Saudi Arabia and Libya are welcomed, their purchases subsidised by the British Treasury if need be.

I am no pacifist and support the right of sovereign peoples to defend themselves, but I cannot see how this festival of weaponry meets any foreign policy goal. It defies Britain's UN obligation to reduce global militarisation, and aids repressive and undemocratic regimes. Britain is helping to make the world a more violent place merely because there is money in it, and "if we don't do it then someone else will" - the smuggler's defence down the ages. Governments can think of good reasons for doing anything, but they rarely step back and wonder if they are promoting liberty, or undermining it.

The philosopher AC Grayling is in no doubt of the answer. He has produced the sort of book that meets Chesterton's test of "forcing a man to change philosophies and religions" through a sharp blow to the head. His weapon is history, presented 18th-century style as a sustained tract - Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty & Rights that Made the Modern West. Grayling argues gloomily that the Whig view of history as a steady progress towards human freedom no longer applies. It reached its climax in the second half of the 20th century with the defeat of fascism and communism. We all cheered and declared that history would die.

No chance, says Grayling. Though much about the world continues to improve - like yesterday's reported fall in child mortality - "we are beginning to descend the far side of Parnassus". Our parents would be amazed that, in peacetime Britain, every public space is monitored by police cameras; private movement is traceable by satellites that follow cars and phones; misbehaving citizens can be imprisoned on the say-so of neighbours; easily readable government ID cards will carry a mass of personal information; suspects are incarcerated indefinitely without trial; and torture has returned to the armoury of the state. They might also find it incredible that 21st-century Britain has revived the 19th-century invasion of distant lands because it dislikes their regimes, or "to spread western values".

Grayling's case is that this swelling infringement of personal liberty is not a minor tweaking of law and order but a loss of freedoms that "cost blood and took centuries" to acquire. They drove Milton to war, Paine to exile and Cobbett to jail. Thousands were slain, burned or tortured to death in their cause. Each retreat from such liberty is defended by home secretaries since "the innocent have nothing to fear". Tell that to the Britons who were held in Guantánamo, none of whom has ever been charged.

The justification for all this is the threat of attack from religious fanatics. Yet, as Grayling points out, this is a criminal menace rather than anything on a par with past strategic threats. While the Islamists may declare their ambition to be a "western caliphate", this is as ludicrously implausible as the dreams of 19th-century anarchists. Modern cities are always vulnerable to explosions, but the west is surely robust enough to withstand any serious threat to the character or constitution of its states. The rantings of Osama bin Laden cannot justify reversing the tide of western liberty. Indeed, while arming against communism helped defeat communism, arming against terrorism only feeds the beast.

The noblest testament to freedom is the American constitution, yet, as Grayling points out, the latest statute passed under its aegis runs contrary to its ethos. The mission of the Patriot Act is "to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes". Montesquieu and Madison would have been appalled at such generalised statism. Nor are the act's powers temporary, wartime ones; they are permanent, as are Britain's myriad terrorism laws. By extending state power to curb civil liberty they do the terrorist's job (such as it is) for him. Never was Franklin's maxim more apt, that he who would put security before liberty deserves neither. Freedom cannot be strengthened by being weakened. That is the sophistry of dictatorship.

Commentators have ascribed the chaotically belligerent aftermath of 9/11 to weak western leaders craving popularity in the glamour of war. Tony Blair said he "believed passionately that we are at mortal risk" from Islamism. It was the sort of threat that the risk theorist Ulrich Beck describes as "always an elixir to an ailing leader".

I think more sinister forces are at work: those on display in the Royal Docks. In 1953 America's last true soldier/president, Eisenhower, warned of a "military/industrial complex" in danger of running amok. Its wealth could bend democracy to its will, using paranoia to seize control of budgets and policies alike. The outcome would be "a tragic waste of resources ... humanity hanging on a cross of iron", with armies seeking war for their employment. Elected leaders, said Eisenhower, fed such a complex at their peril.

The growth of Islamist terror, always described as "al-Qaida linked" (as international crime was always "mafia-linked"), meets Eisenhower's thesis. With the threat of communism gone, the military/industrial complex needs a new cause. Allied to a booming police and intelligence bureaucracy, it has grasped eagerly at terrorism. It has no interest in keeping that threat in proportion, and every interest in exaggerating it. To cover the bungles that led to 9/11, this security/industrial complex portrayed the terrorists as awesome and ubiquitous, capable of building vast bomb-proof bunkers in the Hindu Kush, fake plans of which were dumped on a gullible press. State security agencies dance to the tune of Oh! What a Lovely War. They enslave the language of freedom in the cause of repression.

Seen in the light of history, I do not find Grayling's alarmism out of order. It is simply true that in Britain and America arms dealers, in league with security bureaucrats, have fuelled public debate with extreme paranoia. Those who defend liberty are accused of appeasing an unseen enemy. Those who plead democracy are accused of threatening the state. If the freedom show is to get back on the road, some battles must clearly be fought over and again.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ron Paul and Bill Maher

Beard paintin' with Jackie and Osama

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Brussels: the anti-Islamisation demo went ahead

Despite having been prohibited (and an appeal against the ban failing) the "anti-Islamisation" demo in Brussels on 11/9 (well, 9/11) went ahead as planned. Predictably, the unlawful demo led to clashes with the police (no doubt some of the protesters are very grateful for this expected turn of events which has drawn attention to their "plight").

Remains then the question whether the ban was really such a good idea, as in many quarters around the world it will confirm the ridiculous but tenacious stereotype of "Europe falling to Islam". This latter kind of nincompoopery is particularly popular among the far rightwing freedom-luvvin' cousins from across the pond, in particular those who haven't got the slightest clue regarding the modern European situation, or Europe's history.

All is not what it may seem regarding the "peaceful anti-Islamisation movement" in Belgium and I doubt if some of the foreign participants in this demo really understand how Flemish activists have been clamouring for a moratorium on North African immigration to little Belgium (as well as a return of legal immigrants to their former countries) since the early eighties (well before 9/11) and earlier than that. For what are practically former brownshirts like
"Flip" Dewinter (proud to be there, needless to say), a member of the disbanded Vlaams Blok (banned on the basis on Belgian anti-racism laws) and some others who can generally be considered Flemish separatists ("Flanders Flemish!" - and... white!), 9/11 and Radical Islam is simply gefundenes fressen, feeding their racist and bigoted agendas, let there be no doubt about this at all.

Nieuwsbank (Nl):
5 september 2007

The European Parliament Socialist Group today led international support for a ban by the Brussels authorities on an anti-Islam march on 9/11, the anniversary of terrorist plane attacks in the United States.

Group leader Martin Schulz wrote to the Mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, to support the ban on a demonstration entitled "Against the Islamisation of Europe".

In his letter, Mr Schulz says: "Like you, we are convinced that the people behind this demonstration want above all to stigmatise a community for dark racist and xenophobic reasons as is proven by the readiness to lump Islam together with fundamentalist terrorism."

Denouncing the organisers' attitude as "unacceptable", Mr Schulz declares that intercultural dialogue is the best way of dealing with the sources of fundamentalist terrorism. Policy should seek to encourage integration on the basis of mutual respect.

"The European project is founded on this philosophy and it is our duty to pursue this ideal, especially in this year of equality of opportunity and opposition to all forms of discrimination," writes Mr Schulz.

He adds: "Here in the European Parliament, we will fight vigorously against the extreme Right which is trying to using our institution as a platform for promoting this demonstration and contesting your decision."

From Terry Davies:
Statement by Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, on the march “Against the Islamisation of Europe” today in Brussels

Strasbourg, 11.09.2007 - European values are under threat, say the organisers of a protest march under the banner “Against the Islamisation of Europe” which was due to place today in Brussels in spite of the ban by the city Mayor. The fact is that Europe and its values are indeed under threat, but the danger is not coming from Islam. Our common European values are undermined by bigots and radicals, both islamists and islamophobes, who exploit fears and prejudice for their own political objectives.

The self-proclaimed defenders of European values say that the Mayor has violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. The freedom of assembly and the freedom of expression are indeed essential preconditions for democracy, but they should not be regarded as a licence to offend. I will not enter into the discussion about whether the march should have been allowed or not, but I note that the protesters’ reading of the Convention is selective to say the least. It is very important to remember that the freedom of assembly and expression can be restricted to protect the rights and freedoms of others, including the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This applies to everyone in Europe including the millions of Europeans of Islamic faith, who were the main target of today’s shameful display of bigotry and intolerance.

My take on all this? It's unfortunate that a number of innocent but possibly rather naive protesters who simply wanted to express their concern with regards to what they see as the "Islamisation of Europe" weren't allowed to do so. But be in no doubt: many of the organisers had an agenda which is simply the extension of the same anti-immigration, racist and bigoted agenda that Vlaams Blok and other Flemish fringe groups have been pushing for decades prior to bin Laden and his brand of idiots. Belgium once lived under fascist occupation for four long years and a small but not inconsiderable slice of the Flemish population decided during that period to hedge their bets with the Nazi occupiers. Many rightwing Flemish activists are the political legacy of those who so fatally chose the wrong side in the fight against Nazism. Belgium will no longer stand for this kind of thing. Without taking this important but internationally perhaps little known fact seriously into account, it's impossible to judge the decision to ban this "peaceful" demonstration as nothing but a rightful manifestation of fear of a return to Belgium's (and Flanders') darker past.

And those who believe the banning of this anti-Islamisation demo was an example of "Dhimmification" of Europe should realise that they're essentially siding with the remnants of Flemish Fascism. Charming...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Maddy McCann: Britain v. Portugal?

I'd vowed more or less to not dedicate one syllable to the story of the disappearance of Maddy McCann because the extraordinary amount of time and resources the press have already spent on this case. Such cases further underline the adage that 'one is a tragedy, a million is a statistic'. And as happens so often, media-meddling hasn't served enlightenment at all but rather has led to ferocious competition to get a (commercial) slice of Maddy-mania. Some of the clamour for 'information' needed to fill 24/7 newsfeeds resulted in inadvertent comedy, eerily reminiscent of the BBC spoof news show "Broken News". The Sky News reporter waiting endlessly for Mrs McCann's emergence from a Portuguese police station after her latest interview a couple of days ago, could easily have been replaced by the Broken News reporter waiting for what seemed like hours for news on the outbreak of the Tomato Flue...

But what I've been seeing over the course of this drama is what is often seen when a horrendous crime is committed against the citizen of one country on the sovereign soil of another: the protagonists and onlookers tend to divide according to their nationalities.

Almost from the off the McCanns appeared sceptical of the Portuguese police's efforts, although they quickly moderated their stance. Presumably they realised that antagonising the investigating team wasn't in their best interests.

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Conservative parts of the British press corps, as well as members of the great British public, however, have often been less nuanced in their assessment of the investigators and their methods. 'British is best', often against all sounder judgement, remains an attitude that is deeply engrained in parts of the collective British psyche. And so came public calls for the Portuguese to abandon some of their practices and adopt, as it were, a more British approach to the inquiry. In particular, the Portuguese common sense and entirely justifiable approach of secrecy was called into question by many a British Sherlock Holmes wannabe. In this day and age of feeble political public participation, many do delude themselves into thinking that throwing the case wide open and involving the public and the chip wrapper press can somehow influence the outcome of the search positively. But all the publicity, public support and public 'participation' hasn't really furthered the case one iota: at best some shaky leads were generated, none of which lead to finding Maddy, dare I say it, dead or alive.

It was, in short, difficult to avoid the impression that these demands for 'openness' were made only to justify the British press' voracious appetite for commercially valuable 'information' regarding this high profile, emotive and even potentially salacious story.

British outrage very recently reached boiling point when the McCann's were officially declared suspects under Portuguese law. The family's reaction was of course entirely predictable and understandable but hardly rational. And most of the British public's response stems almost completely from miscomprehension of the Portuguese process which in parts appears slightly different from the British system.

Some of the British public's indignation was even more risible: the DNA results, although still largely hidden from that same public, were in certain quarters quickly denounced as 'potentially unreliable', until equally quickly but rather embarrassingly it transpired that the tests had been carried out in... Albion, Birmingham more specifically!

Now the McCanns fear that charges may follow and Mrs McCann, as well as some members of the family, has expressed the feeling that she is being set up, framed even. We may intuitively feel that alleging the McCanns had anything to do with their daughter's disappearance is preposterous (yet stranger things have been known to happen) but the idea that the Portuguese are trying to set the parents up is equally risible and smacks either of gross prejudice or of an ill-advised and hasty attempt at pre-emptive defence.

And it's important to note that a British spokesman for a Portuguese newspaper indicated that getting a conviction without a body would be extremely difficult under Portuguese criminal law. It seems therefore much more likely but perhaps also paradoxical that the McCann's raised status to 'arguido' serves as much to eliminate them from the inquiry as to implicate them further, depending largely on the so far undisclosed evidence and the McCann's own answers to more probing questions. There is after all another 'arguido' who hasn't been charged with anything either.

The McCann's have also indicated anguish about the possibility that all this may mark the beginning of the end of the search for Madeleine McCann. But let's face it: the McCanns must now be among the very few in this world that still believe their daughter is still alive: the probability of Maddy being found alive really is directly inversely proportional to the amount of time lapsed between raising the alarm and the present time. The Portuguese cannot against better judgement be expected to continue a high profile search forever when the chances of a fruitful outcome are diminishing so rapidly.

And although we only have hearsay evidence for this, Mrs McCann seems to have alluded that the Portuguese authorities had hinted at some kind of 'deal' during her last interview. The same spokesman (from The Portuguese Times, if I recall well) clearly stated that a deal was theoretically impossible because such offences under Portuguese law carry a fixed sentence: there is nothing to negotiate with or about. Did Mrs McCann miss something in translation? Did the person who brought up this part of the saga miss something?

Of course the Portuguese press and general public aren't entirely innocent in all this either: the McCanns are apparently suing a Portuguese paper for alleging they are guilty. Mrs McCann has been booed in public by Portuguese spectators: what inspires those people?

Lastly, a sample of British overheated thinking regarding this sad case, by
The Torygraph:

What do you think? Are the McCanns right to be wary of a foreign jurisdiction? Has the saga put you off visiting Portugal? If not, why not?

Well, words failed me but thankfully not this cool-headed British gentleman who wrote in response:

My wife and I go to the Algarve occasionally for a break. We were thinking about going at the beginning of September, and decided we didn't want to be there while the Sky News circus was all over the place. I'm even gladder we didn't now - but we'll probably go in October. So the Maddy thing didn't put us off - but the press did. I'm still horrified by the pictures taken by Sky of the McCanns driving down the motorway; from moving vehicles dogging their every moment; and even in the cabin of the plane. The people who took such photos shouldn't be allowed out of the UK - they're an embarrassment to us all.

Hear, hear...