Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why Did the US Media Not Report this Article?

A woman was allowed to die in an Irish hospital because the doctors were not allowed by Irish law to perform an abortion. I did not know this story until I heard one of my favorite comedians report about it in one of his podcast monologues. First the story excerpted from the Guardian, here it is in stark terms: "The abortion ban came into international focus last month after an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, died in Galway university hospital during a miscarriage after she and her husband had repeatedly asked for a termination of her 19-week-old pregnancy. Her husband, Praveen, alleged that medical staff told them "this is a Catholic country" and that they would not carry out the termination." The only good thing to come out of this mess is that due to pressure from the European court there is a hope that a new law will be passed that will allow abortions to be allowed in "limited circumstances"to include where the life of the mother is threatened. Why is the US corporate controlled media not reporting this story?

Peace and Justice Message as We Close 2012

Landfill Harmonic film teaser from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.

My daughters' music teacher showed this to the kids. It made a great impression on my daughter so much so that she wanted to share it with me. There are some remarkable stories that never get told in our western media that would make our lives and worries about things like the fiscal cliff pale into insignificance. It is human nature not to pay much attention to the world beyond us except when it threatens us directly but we should all try harder in the coming new year to do just that. Pay attention to the small under reported stories. Now with the world wide web we can do that. We all know the sites that cover these stories and we should try harder to include them in our browsing and reading in the coming year. But we should not just stick to articles, this video shows more about the power of individual spirit to overcome even the most depressing of circumstances than any journalist can at least in the space of the few minutes it takes to view this footage. Clearly without stating as much it reminds us of our responsibilities here in the affluent west to help work for a more just and peaceful world. How is that for a great holiday message!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Adam Hochschild

I have been reading author and journalist Adam Hochschild recently and have been particularly  impressed with his story of the struggle for human rights in Britain, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. The book impressed me so much that I wanted to interview the author and find out more about what attracted him to his subjects and the way he constructs the stories he tells. The result is a podcast I did with Kate Winchmann that I hope to turn into a series.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Disturbing News from Hungary

Hungary, a landlocked country of just over 10 million is frequently ignored by the media.  Some recent developments suggest attention must be paid in light of a rise of right wing extremism that has led to a public square in Budapest being named after infamous leader Admiral Horthy.  

As the European Jewish Press pointed out,  Elie Weisel has returned his medal in protest at the country’s recent “whitewashing” of its WWII Nazi collusion. In a letter to Hungary’s Parliamentary Speaker Laszlo Kover, the 83-year old wrote:

“It has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past, namely the wartime Hungarian government’s involvement in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens.”
Other incidents include "the Hungarian government ministers’ decision to participate in a ceremony last month to honour controversial wartime Hungarian MP Jozsef Nyiro, as well as a rise in anti-Semitic activity in the country, which saw the former Hungarian Chief Rabbi verbally abused, in addition to reports that renowned Hungarian actor Jozsef Szekhelyi was described as a “filthy Jew” in the official minutes of a local cultural board meeting in the northern town of Eger."
Greece has seen a rise too in anti-semitism as both Hungary and Greece suffer skyrocketing unemployment and bleak economic outlooks.   
We cannot ignore and stand by as the outrageous cruelty that was inflicted on Europe's Jews begins again in the 21st century. Letters must be written to the Prime Minister and to other leading Hungarians to warn them that the world is watching and will not allow history to be repeated either as tragedy or farce.  Hungary, as Randolph Braham, a Hungarian and specialist on the Holocaust in Hungary (whose lecture I attended the the other night at the Holocaust Museum) has still not come to terms with the Holocaust.  As Braham pointed out unlike in Germany where serious attention was given to countering Nazi ideology, the Holocaust has not been taught in the schools and has a long way to go to properly educate and inform its public about the role Hungary played in the destruction of its Jewish population.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Correcting The Harm Global Elites Do

In a brilliantly perceptive piece Chris Hayes wonders why elites are so incompetent. Why they always seemed to create messes of sometimes global proportions behind them. It is due to the tendency of all those in power whether they be left or right wing to leave the mechanics of governing to others.

 Hayes credits Robert Michels,a German social theorist for putting his finger on the mechanism involved.

"At first, he joined the Social Democratic Party, but he ultimately came to view it as too bureaucratic to achieve its stated aims. “Our workers’ organization has become an end in itself,” Michels declared, “a machine which is perfected for its own sake and not for the tasks which it could have performed.”
Any organization must delegate to the few professionals who must run the machine. Sooner or later the professionals become so expert in the machine they cut off conversation with the rest of us and believe that they have the magic solutions to solve complex problems. Meanwhile we cannot understand what they are talking about.

“Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

Within these governing organizations--elite financial, legal and other groups find ways to maintain their power and justify entrance through succeeding in the meritocracy. Intelligence becomes " a vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a Cult of Smartness in which intelligence is the chief virtue, along with a conviction that smartness is rankable and that the hierarchy of intelligence, like the hierarchy of wealth, never plateaus. In a society as stratified as our own, this is a seductive conclusion to reach. Since there are people who make $500,000, $5 million and $5 billion all within the same elite, perhaps there are leaps equal to such orders of magnitude in cognitive ability as well."

Hayes focuses on the way that this cult of intelligence becomes divorced from morality through the example of the one man who was "behind many of the Bush administration’s most disastrous and destructive decisions"  David Addington, counsel and then chief of staff to Dick Cheney.

"Addington was called “Cheney’s Cheney” and “the most powerful man you’ve never heard of.” A former Bush White House lawyer told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that the administration’s legal framework for the “war on terror”—from indefinite detention, to torture, to rejection of the 1949 Geneva Accords, to denial of habeas corpus—was “all Addington.” Addington’s defining trait, as portrayed in numerous profiles, is his hard-edged, ideologically focused intelligence. “The boy seemed terribly, terribly bright,” Addington’s high school history teacher told Mayer. “He was scornful of anyone who said anything that was na├»ve, or less than bright. His sneers were almost palpable.”

And Hayes gives other examples of how the "cult of smartness" ruined the financial industry with such serious consequences for the rest of the world. How to avoid the cult of smartness? How about, as a first step having ordinary people, at the table to ask that simple questions have intelligible answers. Additionally, how about clearer conflict of interest regulations that prevent all the elites thinking that important institutions like government and banks are there for career advantage rather than for a public good. Hayes refers to Janine Wedel's book, the Shadow Elite, about the new global ruling class, who "recalls visiting Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and finding the elites she met there—those at the center of building the new capitalist societies—toting an array of business cards that represented their various roles: one for their job as a member of parliament, another for the start-up business they were running (which was making its money off government contracts), and yet another for the NGO on the board of which they sat. Wedel writes that those “who adapted to the new environment with the most agility and creativity, who tried out novel ways of operating and got away with them, and sometimes were the most ethically challenged, were most rewarded with influence.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

My Interview with Global Change Agent, Hunter Lovins

Hunter Lovins is a person I found about on a TED talk. She gave a passionate lecture on why we it makes business sense to adopt sustainable practices. Lovins is a polymath who is able to communicate clearly and simply her knowledge and understanding of how we now have the technology to correct the environmental imbalances we just need business to understand that it is now in their best interests to adopt the eco-friendly practices.  This is not a religion she says. It just makes pure business sense. You wish you could clone her so every CEO and policy maker work together to save the planet. As she quotes someone saying--'you cannot do business on a dead planet.'

As we talked for about 35 minutes you can get a glimpse as to the range of her expertise.  One interesting topic was the so called "happiness index" that might replace the GDP as a measure of a society's success. She mentions when you interview people making more money is about 4th on the list of wishes, ahead is happiness and health. We also touched on the power of social networking and how she is now engaged in putting a course together which would help people understand the nuts and bolts of sustainable development so the next generation will be able to get it and take advantage of the opportunity to correct our mistakes. She reminds us also during the course of the interview that we don't have very long to correct the imbalances that exist. Maybe we have until 2030 when some strange dynamics kick in if we don't do something soon to correct ourselves. We clearly need to act if not now, very soon. She will be attending the climate change conference in Rio this summer and has a full load of speaking engagements across the planet. Let us wish her the best as she works with many others to change the tide of history.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ross and Friedman DIscuss the Middle East

Tom Friedman and Dennis Ross are two friends who often speak together about their favorite topic Middle East politics. I attended one such recent event and jotted down some notes on their relaxed assessment of the issue du jour--whether Israel will bomb Iran. For Ross the calculation for the Iran Supreme Leader is whether the costs of the nuclear option are worth the economic sacrifice. Iran is currently losing one million barrels a day of oil it cannot sell. The only reason that the sanctions are so effective today is because Israel has made it clear they will not accept an Iranian nuclear threat. They view such a threat in existential terms and the world has to take them seriously on this point. There is much speculation whether the recent elections in Israel strengthens the chance of war with three former heads of the military in the government and a much strengthened majority. Ross felt it makes no difference. The only way to tell whether the Iranians are serious is whether they will agree to regular talks which so far have been sporadic. As far as Mid East peace--Ross said two state solution only solution but lack of belief that will work out. For example when questioned 78% of Israelis favor Clinton peace parameters that Ross helped negotiate but the same number don't think it can happen. What is needed is confidence building measures that would talk about the reality that the settlements are only 1.5% of the available land. Needs to be realistic talk about the peace settlement. Both sides have to own it. Friedman was concerned about the recent $1.3 billion dollar aid package for Egypt--essentially a gift to the Egyptian army when 56 percent of Egyptian women are illiterate and 25 percent of men. Friedman could imagine a better approach but did not spell this out. On the other hand he praised the Iraq democratic process as imperfect as it is and US role as "mid wife." His worry about Syria is that there is no midwife to bring that country to democratic government and that Egypt's spring will be similarly disabled because the immediate result of the Arab spring was to bring the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power and that whereas the other Islamic dictatorships had oil money to buy off the other interest groups --Egypt does not have that luxury. He saw the master narrative in the Middle East as Islam's need to come to terms with modernity. It was going to be a protracted struggle. Turkey is the only model out there to follow. In a question about China's role recent discoveries of natural gas makes us less dependent on foreign oil but China's needs for oil and to therefore cozy up to dictators will increase, question will they align themselves with democratic forces?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Invisible Children Are Now Rising Up to Claim Their Place in the Sun: A Video Goes Viral

The Kony 2012 campaign is truly a highly sophisticated and worthwhile campaign that has already galvanized the attention of millions of young people. As evidence the film was posted on March 5 by March 12 it received 26 million views. It is not surprising--the video is one of the best of its kind--authentic voice, well shot and edited and strong on message designed for an audience that is well targeted. There are some that are highly critical of the film and the associated advocacy project--Ethan Zuckerman for one who provides a pretty informed picture of the in his blog. Still the energy which now captivates so many young people that is born of social networking seems to presage a new tomorrow for global awareness among this generations' youth and a fierce determination to make sure that the efforts encapsulate all the key elements--political as well as cultural forces that need to be part of a strong solution if we are to be effective in solving the challenges that afflict us as a planet.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Time to Question Short Term Perspectives

Sir Martin Rees in his closing comments makes a moving reference to the builders of Ely Cathedral and the way that despite the harshness of their lives they built a structure of enduring magnificence. He draws a nice contrast between that aspiration to provide a legacy to future generations despite their relative lack of knowledge about the world and our current short term approaches to problems. Despite all our scientific knowledge our historical understanding of how failed policies lead to more hunger and poverty we seem fixated on repeating them and not addressing how we can make the planet a safer and healthier place for the billions more people who will occupy our world.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is the Kahn Academy Ready To Change Education Globally?

If Bill Gates is impressed-we should be too. Viewing this TED lecture I am more convinced that we can create a classroom centered on mastery learning and so avoid the problems caused by using other metrics such as time on task. Kahn seems to have moved beyond his neat video tutorials to figuring out how to implement a model of how to use these videos in a real classroom through effective management of who has mastered the concepts and who continues to struggle. Through the use of data collected from his pilot studies in the Los Altos schools we can now see that almost all of the students eventually reached mastery. This is big news. Now the question is can we scale this intervention model of delivering education effectively. Kahn suggests peers who have mastered the concepts can be as effective as a teacher. He may be right and he may well have developed an effective model that can change millions of lives forever. Let's hope so!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

EV Battery Conversions--Game Changing Technology?

The President's call in his recent State of the Union speech for one million electric vehicles by 2015 was pretty much ignored by the media. It was another missed opportunity for both the White House and the media to lead a good discussion about the need to change our ways if we are to successfully confront the challenge of global warming. The congressional deadlock is perhaps to blame for the lack of media interest since the means chosen for reaching the goal is a tax deduction and we know how difficult they are to get enacted before an election year. Some observers like The Verge feel that the deduction will not be enough to move the needle much "As far as the credit’s effect on sales, if our math is right, sales of plug-in vehicles will need to grow by 143 percent each year in order for the President to reach his goal of a million on the road by 2015. If the government’s serious about fostering that kind of EV adoption, it might take a little more than a $2,500 tax credit.

But there maybe help on the way. The latest technology is rapidly becoming within reach of the average consumer. As Les Hamasaki of the Clean Tech Institute states

"The average cost of EV conversion is about $10,000 to $15,000, depending on the battery technology being installed.  That cost will go down by increasing the demand for the lithium ion batteries, motors, and controllers used in EVs as well as the demand for other EV components.   The gasoline savings -- if these goals are met -- will be substantial, especially for low- and moderate-income workers and students.  For example, if one travels 10,000 miles per year at 20 miles per gallon and the cost of gas reaches $5 a gallon, it will cost you $2,500 annually for gas plus the periodic oil change.  On the other hand, if you have an electric car and a solar PV system at your home or multi-family dwelling with a battery backup, your cost may be only 3 to 5 cents a mile, or $300 to 500 per year, and eventually nothing." Already one California school's students are converting cars and making it clear that the technology works. This could be a game changer if we can apply the current tax incentives aimed at boosting the purchase of EV cars to converting gasoline cars.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gates Argues World Governments Now Have a Choice

Bill Gates in his Annual letter believes that the issue confronting the world is mainly about the perception that development aid is wasted whereas in fact it has produced some remarkable results in recent years.

"Right now, just over 1 billion people—about 15 percent of the people in the world—live in extreme poverty. On most days, they worry about whether their family will have enough food to eat. There is irony in this, since most of them live and work on farms. The problem is that their farms, which tend to be just a couple acres in size, don’t produce enough food for a family to live on.
Fifteen percent of the world in extreme poverty actually represents a big improvement. Fifty years ago, about 40 percent of the global population was poor. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, in what is called the “Green Revolution,” Norman Borlaug and other researchers created new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize (corn) that helped many farmers vastly improve their yields. In some places, like East Asia, food intake went up by as much as 50 percent. Globally, the price of wheat dropped by two-thirds. These changes saved countless lives and helped nations develop."

Governments are hesitant about maintaining a 1 percent commitment to foreign aid

"The world faces a clear choice. If we invest relatively modest amounts, many more poor farmers will be able to feed their families. If we don’t, one in seven people will continue living needlessly on the edge of starvation. My annual letter this year is an argument for making the choice to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency.
My concern is not only about farming; it applies to all the areas of global development and global health in which we work. Using the latest tools—seeds, vaccines, AIDS drugs, and contraceptives, for example—we have made impressive progress. However, if we don’t make these success stories widely known, we won’t generate the funding commitments needed to maintain progress and save lives. At stake are the future prospects of one billion human beings."

It comes down to educating the people in each country and whose business is it to help move that forward. But there is also a Spanish prisoner problem here--that it is in everyone's interest for countries to act in unison to fight deprivation and hunger but it is no country's single interest.  How do we get out of that connundrum  I wonder? Who is fighting for the common good of the world? Or for the world's poorest?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hungary and the Perils of Super Nationalists

In a recent New York Times op ed, Gyorgy Konrad reminds us about how quickly, even in our modern post Nazi German era, nationalistic politicians can move to uproot fundamental pillars of democracy.

Viktor Orban the prime minister has replaced the Hungarian Constitution with what he calls Basic Law. What asks Konrad is the point of this "crafty text"? Quite simple, he responds, "It aims to ensure that his rule is as lasting as that of the quasi-fascist Miklos Horthy, from the 1920s to the 1940s, or that of the communist Janos Kadar, who took over after the 1956 revolution and ruled until 1988.

Gone now are intellectual freedoms and "our only independent radio station, with hundreds of thousands of listeners — on a trumped-up pretext. Some of its shows were critical of the government."

Listening to the Republican nominee attacks on the "media elite" and their ultra patriotism suggests that there is a similar lurking desire to move in the Hungarian direction. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Greek Crisis: Austerity is Not Working. Is anyone listening?

In answer to the question does austerity work you only have to look at the Greek crisis and discover the dismal news. In one word No--in fact it makes this short sighted policy makes things worse--much worse. Take a look at the Washington Post report today:
Unemployment has surged to 18.8 percent from 13.3 percent only a year ago. Overburdened public hospitals are facing acute shortages of everything from syringes to bandages because of budget cuts, with hiring freezes forcing the mothballing of operating rooms even as more unemployed are relying on the public health system. Rates of homelessness, suicide, crime and HIV cases from intravenous drug use are jumping."
There is more:
“Conditions have deteriorated so dramatically that doctors in this country now believe that the Greek crisis is no longer just a financial crisis but a humanitarian crisis,” said Dimitris Varnavas, the president of the Federation of Greek Hospital Doctors’ Unions.
Is anyone listening? No. Certainly not the Germans who now control the fate of the Greek people--they want more suffering:
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy turned up the heat on Greece, suggesting that its bailout deal is in danger of unraveling if Athens does not press ahead quicker with pledged budget reforms and seal a deal with bondholders to voluntarily restructure its massive debt. But they also acknowledged that new steps are needed to combat slowing growth in the euro zone, where economists fear a looming regional recession as other indebted nations from Italy to Spain to Ireland also make deep spending cuts to reassure worried investors.
To the people who like to blame the victim--it appears from the Wall Street Journal's evidence that the Greeks work harder than the Germans and the Americans
The most recent data from the OECD covers 2008 and shows that in that year, Greek workers on average worked 48% more than their industrious German neighbors. The OECD data shows the average Greek worker spent 2120 hours at work compared with 1429 hours in Germany. Moreover, Greece is one of the only OECD countries in which workers were working longer in 2008 than in 1998. With 1802 hours at work, the average Italian employee spent more than 25% more time at work than the average German worker.
The question is as the Wall Street Journal reminds "is not the industriousness of the people, but the relative productivity of the economy, which derives from some structural issues that the people can’t help and some that maybe they can (unit labor costs, including those benefits that get people in Germany and the US all worked up). " How about a proper debate about what to do in these circumstances that does not end up causing long term damage to the people and country that you say you want to help.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Can the World Sustain Seven Billion People?

It comes down to this. If we want to build a sustainable world with 7 billion people on the planet --emerging/developing economies will need to stop importing western lifestyles--because if they adopt our high energy (carbon consuming) lifestyle it just wont work. Homi Kharas a Brookings expert says as much in a recent video/podcast interview but what is interesting is that there is no real interest in how to get that message across. Clearly the Indians and Chinese with their explosive growth and need to create huge middle classes in their countries in order to stay politically stable and avoid totalitarian extremes are not listening. We are not going to back away any time soon from our need to "strengthen the middle class" and our desire to build more highways so we can buy more fuel guzzling cars. Where is the discussion about this fact that unless we are serious about becoming a sustainable planet we are going to confront a huge ecological crisis? The politicians and the media seem interested only in catering to short term needs. Where are the world bodies the UN, the World Bank, other organizations to give us a global long term perspective on all this, where are the universities and think tanks?