Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A new year's eve recommendation

I bought a lot of Christmas presents on Amazon.com, along with stuff like a new cartridge for our kitchen faucet. Today I spent a few hours writing reviews of the stuff I bought.

As a consumer, Amazon.com reader reviews have benefited me a lot, and anyone who harbors communitarian political ideals should pay back by helping others in this way, just as others have helped us.

It's not only the particular things said that help, but the knowledge they convey that so many people give of their time to help others, with no direct reward. Seeing community spirit nourishes community spirit.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Shoe Throwing: Wrong Question

Newspapers are printing many letters defending throwing shoes at Bush—or being offended by such defenders. Well, they're all wrong. The actual question is whether a journalist should use a press conference as the time and place to make a partisan statement.

If lefties had their wits about them they'd denounce this breach. Civilization depends on us all acting, well, civilized. Its exact essence is people who disagree profoundly agreeing to coexist in a common framework. And the exact test of that civilization is how you treat people you despise.

I despise Bush. (Though I do admire his agility. He dodged both shoes neatly.) But all the shoe-thrower showed was his disregard for his profession and his incomprehension of what we all must do to keep civilization going. Same goes for those who defend his actions.

There's a place to show what you think about Bush: the ballot box. And that worked out pretty well, didn't it? Besides, if you defend the shoe-thrower, then you're defending Cheney cursing out a Senator on the Senate floor.

Think about it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Is it time for revolution in Zimbabwe?

A Zimbabwean senator wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, proposing that powersharing with the Mugabe regime was the only nonviolent option. Here's the comment I posted there:

I'm sure Senator Coltart's assertion is correct: the powersharing agreement is the only nonviolent alternative.

However, that doesn't make it the only alternative.

No one should propose violent revolution lightly, and I don't. My own country--America--tried everything before resorting to revolution, and in that revolution, many people died or suffered grievously. And in our case perhaps it wasn't necessary. Certainly Canada and Australia and New Zealand all transitioned to independence peacefully--as did Zimbabwe's southern neighbor, to the astonishment of the rest of the world.

That said, surely we all agree that there are conditions under which violent revolution is the least worst alternative. the question is whether this is true in the case of Zimbabwe, and, sadly, I'm afraid it is.

Mugabe has become a tick firmly embedded in his country's body, bleeding it dry. He has stated recently that Zimbabwe is his personal possession. He appears to have veered into clinical megalomania. And an insane dictator is even more dangerous than your ordinary despot.

And in this case it really looks as though Mugabe and his cronies are already at war with the people of Zimbabwe. Maybe we just have to recognize this fact.

But then the question is will South Africa's government stop aiding and abetting the Mugabe dictatorship? This quiet collusion is shameful and flies directly in the face of S.A.'s own commitment to democracy.

Of course there's the issue of Africa's general inability to transcend its bitter memories of the colonial era. Mugabe fought colonialism, therefore he's a fine fellow. Well, the colonial era ended several generations ago. Africa needs to get out of reactive mode and deal with the present in terms of the present.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Somali Piracy--should we fish or cut bait?

We can't leave Somalia alone, notwithstanding Bush's blunders and regardless of whether you think America is the Great Shaitan or the world's last best hope for international peace--for the simple fact that Somali piracy is wreaking havoc on international shipping. 

The pirate's apologists can rant all they want about how it's all our fault and they're just peaceful fishermen forced into this. Whether we played a role in their turning to piracy or not, and whether they'd (re)turn to fishing after making hundreds of millions of dollars from piracy (yeah, right), they're a menace to navigation and must be stopped. 

The Somalis do have a legitimate grievance against many other nations: foreign trawlers have not only removed most of the fish Somalis used to catch but have also destroyed the fishes' breeding grounds (that's what trawling does). 

But to the no doubt disappointment of those who think America's to blame for everything, those foreign trawlers aren't American. They're Portuguese, Taiwanese etc. 

Yes, Somali piracy is doubtless symptomatic of other stuff, and I doubt that stopping the piracy will do anything to fix that other stuff, and I agree that the other stuff needs sorting out--perhaps with a UN mandate, since self-determination would only be possible if you disarmed the warlords' militias so that traditional Somali institutions could function again. 

But we can't wait for that other stuff to get sorted out. Nor is an unfleet of warships from various countries--some of which are countries the poaching trawlers come from--working out so well.

We need a unified command imposing order on Somali waters--one that would both stop the pirates and expel the foreign poachers. International law needs to be updated to explicitly enable captains of ships who capture pirates to try them on board, sentence them to death, execute them on the spot and dump their bodies in the sea. All the Somalis on shore need know is that pirates go out and don't come back. 

This is also a perfect area for new technology like UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). UAVs could patrol Somalia's long coastline and notify patrolling vessels when pirates set out in skiffs (easily recognizable) or in motherships (which could then be interdicted and boarded by warships and/or choppers).

The ships now being held by the pirates (almost always under the control of several warlords) must be boarded and retaken--all simultaneously in a large operation. Some crewmen will die, but it's worth it in the long run.

Many left wingers quail at the brutal realities of the world. They believe in a Star Trek universe where everything is solved by sweet reason. The irony is that to the extent that they get control of nations' foreign policies they often cause as much human suffering as right wing warmongers do.

International peace isn't a freebie. If you study history, you'll sea that it has only been brought about by a tough, dominant nation, often administered unfairly and brutally--but better than the chaos that's the only alternative. The Romans did it. Now it's our turn. Bush gave war a bad name, but that's not because war isn't the only answer sometimes. It was because he's a fool in the purest sense of the term.

None of what I've said justifies Bush's blunders. I'm just trying to deliver a wake-up call to those who let their ideologies swamp their ability to perceive things as they really are, for better and for worse.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Coral reefs dying

A recent NYTimes science blog discussed the existential threat to the Earth's coral reefs, coming from a variety of sources, including acidification of the oceans due to carbon dioxide absorption, reef bombing, overfishing, etc. Here's my comment:

One thing individuals can do to help–odd as it sounds–is to become scuba divers.

We divers are eye witnesses to what’s going on beneath the surface of our seas. Talking to older divers reveals how greatly diminished many reef habitats are now.

Yet speaking as someone who only started diving in 1994, I’ve still seen–and continue to see–amazing beauty underwater, from the Caribbean to Indonesia and elsewhere.

I’ve also heard reef bombing going on, seen poachers at work in national parks, seen the devastation caused by humankind’s wasteful and destructive treatment of the ocean’s resources. And since I’ve seen and heard these things myself, I can be a more compelling advocate.

Humans understand specifics more than statistics. That’s just the way it is.

Also, the more divers take themselves and their money to tropical destinations, the more the locals have an incentive to conserve our reefs. I’ve seen what a huge difference this can make. It won’t help with acidification directly but it can ameliorate the situation in other ways.

True, diving is dangerous. In fact it’s as dangerous as driving a car on a freeway. Oh, wait. You do do that, though, right?

In fact, as long as you stick to sport diving parameters, you can get life insurance (unlike sky divers, for example). Insurance company actuaries are a great source of information as to which activities are reasonably safe, and which are not.

The key is training and common sense. Don’t get one of those InstaDiver resort courses. Take a proper course from a proper dive shop, and don’t do stupid things like partying ’till 3am then diving at 8am. I’ve been on over 400 dives worldwide in many conditions and have never had a problem, apart from a jellyfish sting twice on my lip–about as painful as a thistle sting. That’s it.

So go dive, enjoy one of the most exciting activities you can do, become a witness, help our planet.