Thursday, August 25, 2005

An Islamic Republic of Iraq? - BBC

Is history repeating itself?
Isn't Iraq heading towards a form of fundamentalist muslim state?
Isn't the country so destabilized by violence that it looks more and more like Lebanon?


An Islamic Republic of Iraq?
By Roger Hardy BBC Middle East analyst

Many Shia leaders want to mould Iraq into a religious state
Is Iraq moving, inch by inch, towards becoming an Islamic republic? it is a prospect that is as unsettling for many Iraqis as it is for George Bush in the White House.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a centralised and largely secular state.
Now, if the Shia religious parties get their way, it will be a decentralised state with a pronounced Islamic identity.
The draft of the new constitution describes Islam as "a main source" of legislation and stipulates that no law may contradict Islamic principles.
It also says a group of provinces is entitled to form a "region", which can then expect a specified share of the national budget.
All this amounts to a radical change, and inevitably it is arousing strong passions.
The two groups who dominate the new Iraq - the Kurds and the Shia religious parties - have an obvious interest in breaking with the past.
Iraq's Sunni neighbours find all of this troubling. The fear is that a weak multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state will go the way of Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s - and descend into civil war
The Kurds want to cement, and if possible extend, the autonomy they have enjoyed in the north for over a decade.
The Shia religious parties want to reverse the secularising policies of Saddam, and they want the mainly Shia south to get a bigger slice of the area's oil wealth.
Some Shia are even calling for a "super-region" stretching from Baghdad to the border with Kuwait and embracing the country's biggest oilfields.
This kind of federalism - with an autonomous Kurdistan in the north and a big oil-rich Shia "region" in the south - leaves the minority Sunni Arabs appalled.
They fear being left with a rump mini-state bereft of oil. They also fear the eventual break-up of the country.
At the same time, secular-minded Iraqis - whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd - are deeply concerned about the direction the country is taking.
In many ways, Iraq is already dramatically different from the place it was just a few years ago.
Mixed marriages between Sunni and Shia, once taken for granted, are becoming problematic.
In many parts of the country, women dare not walk bare-headed in the street.
And reports from parts of the lawless north-west paint a grim picture of Taleban-style rule by radical Sunni militants.
Worried neighbours
Iraq's Sunni neighbours find all of this troubling.
There is no tradition in the Arab world of a successful decentralised state.
The fear is that a weak multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state will go the way of Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s - and descend into civil war.
Sunni rulers in Riyadh, Amman, Cairo and elsewhere believe the one country to benefit from the disintegration of Iraq is Shia Iran.
George Bush, meanwhile, is faced with some unpalatable choices.
He is determined to stick to a tight political timetable which would enable him to start withdrawing US troops from Iraq next year.
But will his rush to come up with an "exit strategy" force him to abandon the aspiration to create a modern secular democracy out of the ashes of the Saddam dictatorship?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Is extreme weather down to climate change? - BBC

The important conclusion of this report is as follows:
We can't blame any "specific" drought/flood/hurricane/typhoon on global warming.
After all, all these forms of natural disasters have already occured in the past decades/centuries/milleniums !
However, on average, more extreme weather conditions have been observed.


Is extreme weather down to climate change?
With fires raging through southern Europe - a region experiencing its worst drought for decades - and some parts of the continent submerged by floods, it is tempting to ascribe such extreme weather to the effects of global warming.

The wildfires are confounding attempts to contain them
But climate change researchers are reluctant to make such links.
"You can say that due to the Earth getting warmer there will be on average more extreme events," said Malcolm Haylock, of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, UK, "but you can't attribute any specific event to climate change."
Dozens of wildfires have been raging out of control across Portugal, confounding attempts to contain them.
Portugal, like other areas of southern Europe and North Africa has been experiencing searing heat and drought this summer.
Meanwhile, floods have brought chaos to a large swathe of central Switzerland, triggering landslides and cutting roads and railway lines.
Growing consensus
There is a growing consensus, based on past climate records and other data, that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the Earth's climate.
Many climate scientists now believe the data points to global temperatures rising by about two tenths of a degree C per decade for the foreseeable future.
But as far as the droughts and floods are concerned, climate scientists have found it more difficult to find long-term trends in rainfall.

Climate models can be used to predict future climate variationEuropean weather is affected by a climate system called the North Atlantic Oscillation. This describes changes in atmospheric pressure at sea level as measured over Iceland and over the Azores.
"Over the last 50 years or so, there's been a trend to lower pressures over Iceland and higher pressures over the Azores in winter," said Dr Haylock.
The impact of this climate system reaches from the upper atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean.
But its most obvious impact over the last half century is a trend towards drier conditions in southern Europe and more extreme rainfall in northern Europe during winter.
But its effects during other seasons, such as summer, are not as clear. Local weather systems seem to play a larger role here.
Computer models
Dr Haylock said that changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation cannot be linked to human-induced climate change.
Scientists simply don't have the long-term measurements to say either way and have not been able to tease out any long-term trends in rainfall on a global scale.
However, computer models suggest that, as the climate gets hotter over the coming decades, the available water in the landmass may be reduced. This may in turn have knock on effects for global temperatures.
"When we run these climate models for future years, we find we were getting very, very hot days. These were so hot, they can't be explained just by more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," said Dr Haylock.
"Water on the ground cools the atmosphere around it a lot, and once this has dried out, the temperatures just accelerate. So there is some concern that these hot days may become more frequent over the next decade, but that is still uncertain."
As for the fires in Portugal, observers point out that poor land management and arson have also played their part in the devastation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Astronomers Gear Up for Historic Asteroid Pass in 2029 -

This is just a reminder of the kind of unusual natural disasters we should get ready to deal with. Fortunately, the "deep impact" mission was a great success.
A collision with such an asteroid would cause local devastations - at least a whole city would be entirely destroyed. More on this:


Astronomers Gear Up for Historic Asteroid Pass in 2029
By Ker Than
Staff Writerposted: 22 August 200506:30 am ET

During the early morning hours of April 13, 2029, observers in Asia and North Africa will have a chance to witness a rare celestial event as an asteroid, 99942 Apophis, passes within 20,000 miles of Earth.
"It's not gonna knock your socks off, and it certainly won't be the brightest object in the sky, but it'll be easily observable with the naked eye," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) Program.
The approach of an asteroid this large -- Apophis is more than 1,000 feet in diameter -- and this close to Earth occurs only about once every 1,500 years.
Scientists are awaiting the close flyby with mixed emotions: excitement at a unique scientific opportunity and uneasiness that it might be a sign of more ominous things to come.
Inside look
A team of researchers headed by Daniel Scheeres, an aerospace engineer from the University of Michigan, hopes to take advantage of Apophis' close approach to learn more about how asteroids are assembled and to gather information about seismic activity inside the rock.
The beauty of this event is that it is a kind of natural experiment that scientists would never be able to recreate, Scheeres told in an email interview.
Tidal forces from Earth's gravity will twist and churn the asteroid's insides and deform its exterior as it passes by the planet. Scheeres said that currently, the plan is to use ground-based radar to monitor the asteroids movements and telescopes to observe changes in its surface features and rotation.
But even the most sophisticated ground-based observations won't be sufficient for gathering detailed information about the interior of the asteroid, Scheeres said.
That kind of detail would require that a network of probes capable of measuring acceleration and seismic activity be embedded in the asteroid's surface. Another possibility would be to place a probe in orbit around the asteroid in order to keep tabs on it and to map its surface. No such space missions are currently in the works, however.
Apophis was discovered last year and is named after a snakelike Egyptian god of darkness and chaos. The name is appropriate. For a brief period of time last winter, scientists had given Apophis, then known as 2004 MN4, a 1-in-40 chance of colliding with Earth in 2029.
Additional observations ruled out the 2029 impact, and scientists now predict there is about a 1-in-10,000 chance that the asteroid will hit Earth in 2036, on yet another of its trips around the Sun on a course that crosses the orbit of Earth.
A large part of the uncertainty surrounding Apophis' movements is due something called the Yarkovsky Effect. When rotating bodies like asteroids pass through our solar system, they absorb solar radiation from the Sun that they then re-radiate.
The miniscule but persistent pressure from this re-radiation can cause a rock to speed up or slow down and change its flight path.
In many ways, the hubbub surrounding Apophis stems from an unusual confluence of events as the detection of near-Earth objects coincides roughly with humanity's demonstrated ability to meet them. Emboldened by the success of recent missions like Stardust and Deep Impact, some scientists think it prudent to launch a space mission to determine whether Apophis poses a significant threat.
Let's go!
Astronomers know that in 2029, Apophis' path will be bent significantly by Earth's gravity. They don't know the exact outcome.
In May, former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart sent a letter to NASA administrator Mike Griffin urging the agency to investigate whether in 2029 Apophis might enter certain gravitational "keyholes" near Earth that would alter the asteroid's flight path in a manner that could put it on a more certain collision course with our planet in 2036.
In order to more accurately track its movements, Schweickart also proposed launching a space mission to place a radio transponder on Apophis. An official to response to Schweickart's letter is expected from NASA within the next few weeks.
As demonstrated by the Deep Impact mission, in which NASA smacked a comet with a small probe, it is possible to strike a fast moving body in space using current technologies.
"You don't have to change the course of the comet very much to miss the keyhole if you do it a number of years in advance," said Clark Chapman, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado who has served on a number of committees concerning near-Earth objects.
Chapman urges caution, however, and said that scientists shouldn't rush to action. "You don't want to nudge it until you know what the nudge is going to do," Chapman said. The worst thing that could happen, of course, would be to nudge the asteroid in the wrong direction, based on the incomplete data now in hand, and actually cause a future collision.
Sooner rather than later
Most scientists agree that 2029 is the absolute deadline if an intervention mission is to be launched. After 2029, the distance Apophis would need to be moved in order to avoid an impact would be too great given current technologies.
In his letter, Schweickart said plans for a space mission to place a transponder on the Apophis should be in place by 2014 and that an intervention mission, should it prove necessary, be launched prior to 2029.
However, Apophis will veer within an observable distance of Earth twice more before 2029 -- once in 2013 and again in 2021. Based on data collected from those two flybys, Yeomans said scientists should be able to conclude with 99.8 percent accuracy whether a future impact scenario can be ruled out and he believes we should therefore wait before launching a mission that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Until then, Yeomans says he won't be losing sleep over Apophis.
"It's an interesting object and it's raised some interesting issues, but a worrisome threat? No," said Yeomans. "We've got plenty of time."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Intelligent Design and Evolution at the White House - SETI/

Intelligent Design and Evolution at the White House By Edna DeVoreDirector of Education and Public Outreach, SETI Instituteposted: 18 August 200507:10 am ET

On August 1, 2005, a group of reporters from Texas met with President Bush in the Roosevelt room for a roundtable interview. The President’s remarks suggest that he believes that both intelligent design and evolution should be taught so that "people are exposed to different schools of thought." There have been so many articles since his remarks that it’s useful to read the relevant portion of published interview:
Q: I wanted to ask you about the -- what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus intelligent design. What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?
THE PRESIDENT: I think—as I said, harking back to my days as my governor—both you and Herman are doing a fine job of dragging me back to the past. (Laughter.) Then, I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.
Q: Both sides should be properly taught?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, people—so people can understand what the debate is about.
Q: So the answer accepts the validity of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution?
THE PRESIDENT: I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I'm not suggesting—you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
(Transcript released by the White House and published on August 2, 2005 at
The reporter got it right: there is an ongoing debate over intelligent design vs. evolution, at least in the media and in politics. There is not a debate in the greater scientific community about the validity of evolution. Further, the vast majority of scientists do not consider intelligent design as a viable alternative to evolution.
Dr. John Marburger III, Presidential Science Advisor, tried to dispel the impact of the President’s comments. On Aug. 2, The New York Times quoted a telephone interview with Marburger in which he said, "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design is not a scientific concept." Certainly, no one doubts where Marburger stands. One might question whether the President takes Marbuger’s scientific advice seriously, or is simply more concerned about pleasing a portion of the electorate.
Marburger also spoke with Dr. Marvin Cohen, President of the American Physical Society, and recipient of the National Medal of Science from President Bush in 2002. In an Aug. 4 release, Cohen explains that the APS is "…happy that the President’s recent comments on the theory of intelligent design have been clarified. As Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger has explained, President Bush does not regard intelligent design as science. If such things are to be taught in the public schools, they belong in a course on comparative religion, which is a particularly appropriate subject for our children given the present state of the world." It would be better to hear this directly from the President. Likely, the intelligent design advocates will ignore Marburger’s explanation. Like the fabled little Dutch boy, Marburger, stuck his finger in the dike in hopes of saving the day.
Unlike the brave boy, Marburger did not prevent the flood of print and electronic coverage that ensued. From August 2 to the present, Google-News tracked more than 1,800 articles, commentaries, and letters to the editor on intelligent design. That’s about 120 per day since the President’s remarks.
In the days following the interview, major educational and scientific organizations issued statements that criticized the President for considering intelligent design as a viable alternative to evolution, for confusing religion with science, and for advocating that intelligent design be taught in schools.
"President Bush, in advocating that the concept of ‘intelligent design’ be taught alongside the theory of evolution, puts America’s schoolchildren at risk," says Fred Spilhaus, Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union. "Americans will need basic understanding of science in order to participate effectively in the 21st century world. It is essential that students on every level learn what science is and how scientific knowledge progresses." (AGU, Aug. 2, 2005) AGU is a scientific society comprising 43,000 Earth and space scientists.
Likewise, the American Institute of Biological Sciences criticized the President: "Intelligent design is not a scientific theory and must not be taught in science classes," said AIBS president Dr. Marvalee Wake. "If we want our students to be able to compete in the global economy, if we want to attract the next generation into the sciences, we must make sure that we are teaching them science. We simply cannot begin to introduce non-scientific concepts into the science curriculum." (AIBS, Aug. 5, 2005) The American Institute of Biological Sciences was established as a national umbrella organization for the biological sciences in 1947 by 11 scientific societies as part of the National Academy of Sciences. An independent non-profit organization since 1954, it has grown to represent more than 80 professional societies and organizations with a combined membership exceeding 240,000 scientists and educators. (AIBS website)
Science educators are equally dismayed. "The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the world’s largest organization of science educators, is stunned and disappointed that President Bush is endorsing the teaching of intelligent design – effectively opening the door for nonscientific ideas to be taught in the nation’s K-12 science classrooms. We stand with the nation’s leading scientific organizations and scientists, including Dr. John Marburger, the president’s top science advisor, in stating that intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design has no place in the science classroom, said Gerry Wheeler, NSTA Executive Director." (NSTA, Aug. 3, 2005) NSTA has 55,000 members who teach science in elementary, middle and high schools as well as college and universities.
The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.3 million pre-K through 12th grade teachers, was even harsher. "President Bush’s misinformed comments on ‘intelligent design’ signal a huge step backward for science education in the United States. The president’s endorsement of such a discredited, nonscientific view is akin to suggesting that students be taught the ‘alternative theory’ that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. Intelligent design does not belong in the science classroom because it is not science." (AFT, Aug. 4, 2005)
There is a problem here. Obviously, scientists and educators understand that intelligent design has no place in the classroom. Intelligent design is, simply, one of several varieties of creationism that offer religious explanations for the origin and current condition of the natural world. As such, it does not merit being taught alongside evolution as a "school of thought." There’s significant legal precedent from US Supreme Court that creationism - in any clothing - does not belong in the American classrooms. Teaching creationism is in violation of the separation of church and state, and has been ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court in several cases. It’s unfortunate that the President apparently does not understand that science is not equivalent to a belief system but is description of how the natural world works. Creationism, including intelligent design, is a religious point of view, not science.
At a time when industrial, academic, and business leaders are calling for more American students to train in engineering, mathematics, science and technology, we need to teach science in science classrooms. Let’s teach the scientific ideas that are supported by overwhelming evidence such as gravitation, relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution. Creationist ideas/beliefs, such as intelligent design, don’t belong in science classrooms. In our haste to leave no child behind, let’s not leave science behind either.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Quotes from astronautes after viewing Earth from space - Reuters /

A recent quote from the shuttle commander, Eileen Collins, reminded us of astronauts unique perspective on the fragility of Earth.


"Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It's very widespread in some parts of the world"
"We would like to see, from the astronauts' point of view, people take good care of the Earth and replace the resources that have been used"
"The atmosphere almost looks like an eggshell on an egg, it's so very thin"
"We know that we don't have much air, we need to protect what we have"

"Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations."- Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

"For those who have seen the Earth from space, and for the hundreds and perhaps thousands more who will, the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us."- Donald Williams, USA

"My first view - a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white - was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing - I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves." - Charles Walker, USA

"Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty - but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That's where life is; that's were all the good stuff is." - Loren Acton, USA

"The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space." - Aleksei Leonov, USSR

"The sun truly "comes up like thunder," and it sets just as fast. Each sunrise and sunset lasts only a few seconds. But in that time you see at least eight different bands of color come and go, from a brilliant red to the brightest and deepest blue. And you see sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets every day you're in space. No sunrise or sunset is ever the same." - Joseph Allen, USA

"The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God." - James Irwin, USA

"Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home." - Edgar Mitchell, USA

"My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity." - Edgar Mitchell, USA

"For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light - our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance." - Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

"A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That's how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. "I could not help but love and cherish her." - Taylor Wang, China/USA

Thursday, August 04, 2005

French Family Values - NYT (Paul Krugman) - August 1, 2005

I found this article interesting.
Yet, some French - if they could choose - might prefer to have less unemployment and less holidays/more income. However, there is no such trade-off. The high unemployment rate is a result, not a cause.


French Family Values

Comments (118)

Americans tend to believe that we do everything better than anyone else. That belief makes it hard for us to learn from others. For example, I've found that many people refuse to believe that Europe has anything to teach us about health care policy. After all, they say, how can Europeans be good at health care when their economies are such failures?
Now, there's no reason a country can't have both an excellent health care system and a troubled economy (or vice versa). But are European economies really doing that badly?
The answer is no. Americans are doing a lot of strutting these days, but a head-to-head comparison between the economies of the United States and Europe - France, in particular - shows that the big difference is in priorities, not performance. We're talking about two highly productive societies that have made a different tradeoff between work and family time. And there's a lot to be said for the French choice.
First things first: given all the bad-mouthing the French receive, you may be surprised that I describe their society as "productive." Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, productivity in France - G.D.P. per hour worked - is actually a bit higher than in the United States.
It's true that France's G.D.P. per person is well below that of the United States. But that's because French workers spend more time with their families.
O.K., I'm oversimplifying a bit. There are several reasons why the French put in fewer hours of work per capita than we do. One is that some of the French would like to work, but can't: France's unemployment rate, which tends to run about four percentage points higher than the U.S. rate, is a real problem. Another is that many French citizens retire early. But the main story is that full-time French workers work shorter weeks and take more vacations than full-time American workers.
The point is that to the extent that the French have less income than we do, it's mainly a matter of choice. And to see the consequences of that choice, let's ask how the situation of a typical middle-class family in France compares with that of its American counterpart.
The French family, without question, has lower disposable income. This translates into lower personal consumption: a smaller car, a smaller house, less eating out.
But there are compensations for this lower level of consumption. Because French schools are good across the country, the French family doesn't have to worry as much about getting its children into a good school district. Nor does the French family, with guaranteed access to excellent health care, have to worry about losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.
Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.
So which society has made the better choice?
I've been looking at a new study of international differences in working hours by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth. The study's main point is that differences in government regulations, rather than culture (or taxes), explain why Europeans work less than Americans.
But the study also suggests that in this case, government regulations actually allow people to make a desirable tradeoff - to modestly lower income in return for more time with friends and family - the kind of deal an individual would find hard to negotiate. The authors write: "It is hard to obtain more vacation for yourself from your employer and even harder, if you do, to coordinate with all your friends to get the same deal and go on vacation together."
And they even offer some statistical evidence that working fewer hours makes Europeans happier, despite the loss of potential income.
It's not a definitive result, and as they note, the whole subject is "politically charged." But let me make an observation: some of that political charge seems to have the wrong sign.
American conservatives despise European welfare states like France. Yet many of them stress the importance of "family values." And whatever else you may say about French economic policies, they seem extremely supportive of the family as an institution. Senator Rick Santorum, are you reading this?
Originally published in The New York Times, 7.29.05