Why are Arabs so powerless?

June 23rd, 2021


Arab countries MAP/The Economist/Duck Duck Go

For a terrible 11 days in May, the world watched hellfire rain upon the world’s largest open-air prison camp, otherwise known as Gaza. The dazed, bleeding survivors crawling out of the rubble of collapsed buildings have experienced this before. Everyone knows this tragedy will repeat. In faraway Arab cities, as well as here in Pakistan, people glumly watched the unhindered, televised bombing by Israeli jets. But the most they could manage was a few toothless resolutions and a few impotent slogan-chanting demonstrations trampling the Israeli flag.

What makes Israel with nine million people — between one-half and one-third of Karachi’s population — a Goliath of biblical proportions? Equally, notwithstanding their fabulous oil wealth, why are 427m Arabs the pygmies of international politics? GCC Arabs can certainly control what happens in a few miskeen countries like Pakistan; their leaders can be summoned to Riyadh at a moment’s notice and sent back with sackfuls of rice as wages of obedience. But before Israel — which has almost zero natural resources — Arab kings and sheikhs must perforce bow their heads.

Blame the West if you want and, in particular, America. Indeed, from 2000-2019 armaments supplied to Israel by the Western powers (US, UK, France, Spain, Germany) are documented at a hefty $9.6 billion. But within that 20-year period the same document shows this amount is dwarfed by arms sold by the same suppliers to Saudi Arabia ($29.3bn), UAE ($20.1bn), Egypt ($17.5bn), Iraq ($9.1bn), and Qatar ($6bn). And yet these expensive weapons will provide little protection if Israel ever chooses to attack Arab lands again. While the nine-country Saudi-led coalition has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, it is failing dismally against the rag-tag Iran-supported Houthi forces.

Okay, so then let’s blame Palestine’s ill-fortune upon Arab disunity. There’s truth in this: Arabs are indeed bitterly divided. But when were they not? From about AD-634 to AD-750 is the only period in history when they stood together. Then, after Nasser won the Suez War against Britain, Arabs united again for a brief, euphoric moment. But this unity did nothing to avert their crushing defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, that which forever changed borders. And while friends and activists for Palestine — including myself — would love to see Fatah and Hamas patch up their differences, doing so will not change things fundamentally.

The secret of Israel’s strength is not hidden in its weaponry. Instead this still-expanding and still-colonising apartheid settler state uses the same magic that enabled just a handful of 18th-century Englishmen to colonise the entire Indian subcontinent. Let’s recall that in ruling over 200m natives for 250 years, at no time did Britain have more than 50,000 white soldiers on Indian soil. Although better guns and cannons gave them an edge, in fact their real not-so-secret weapon was much bigger.

That weapon was a system of organised thought based upon a rational and secular approach to life, a modern system of justice, and a new set of social relations. This was sustained and enhanced by Enlightenment-era education that de-emphasised rote learning of the scriptures, was this-worldly and future-oriented, and which focused upon problem-solving skills using systematic, scientific thinking. Having invented modern means of communication such as railways and telegraph, a mere island in the North Sea could boast of an empire over which the sun never sets.

In a nutshell, imperialist conquests showed that brains would rule over brawn — a stark truth that got still starker with time. But where are brains produced? Obviously in the womb but it is in schools, colleges and universities where minds are shaped and sharpened. Hence, these days everyone and their uncle rush to one single conclusion: fix education and this will level the playing field, greatly diminishing or perhaps ending the inequalities of power.

Ah! That’s so much easier said than done. To have buildings and classrooms with teachers is one thing but to coax the potential out of a student is altogether different. With their vast wealth, Arab countries have built impressive university campuses with well-equipped laboratories and well-stocked libraries. They have even imported professors from America and Europe. Yet, the needle has barely flickered so far. That’s because attitudes towards learning take forever to change — and only if they are somehow forced to change.

Eqbal Ahmad Center for Public Education for more

Mexico-US: Time to reset relations

June 23rd, 2021


Pendants depicting Jesús Malverde, worshipped as a saint by Mexican drug cartels, October 2018 PHOTO/Rashide Frias · AFP · Getty

Mexico signed an agreement with the United States in 2008 to tackle the cartels and the havoc they wreak. It failed, but opened the door to covert US interference on a grand scale. It’s time to scrap it.

In December 2020 Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (‘Amlo’) congratulated Joe Biden on his election victory, but his message departed from the usual diplomatic niceties. He said he was sure that with Biden as president it would be possible to continue to apply ‘basic principles of foreign policy established in our constitution; especially that of non-intervention and self-determination of the peoples.’ The US State Department, convinced that the security and prosperity of the US are ‘intimately connected with conditions in Mexico’, has long made keeping an eye on its southern neighbour a top priority (1), with scant regard for its sovereignty.

A recent scandal caused particular outrage. The trial of cartel boss Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, which ended in 2019, revealed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — which is supposed to combat firearms trafficking — had misguidedly supplied the Sinaloa drugs cartel with assault rifles (2). Through its Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF enabled smugglers with cartel links to buy guns in the US and take them across the border, intending to track them. Between 2006 and 2011, 2,500 weapons, including semi-automatic and anti-tank rifles, fell into the hands of the cartels, with US agents’ tacit consent. The alarm was raised only when Kalashnikovs acquired under these secret programmes were used to kill US Border Patrol agents.

None of this would have been possible without the Mexican leadership’s approval. In 2002, when President George W Bush established the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) tasked with the command and control of America’s homeland defence efforts, his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox applauded the creation of a North American security perimeter. In 2005, 11 years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) further integrated the two countries’ security policies. In 2007 then-president Felipe Calderón called on the US to do more in the war against drug trafficking; the resulting security cooperation agreement, the Mérida Initiative (2008), became the cornerstone of US-Mexican collaboration.

On paper this programme, funded by the US State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID), was intended to ‘provide tangible support to Mexico’s security and judicial institutions’ and the rule of law; to ‘counter drug-fuelled violence’; and to ‘modernise border security’. It also aimed to ‘galvanise US efforts to stop the flow of weapons, money and the demand for drugs’ (3). More concretely, the initiative took the form of $500m in appropriated funds for the Mexican security forces to buy US equipment (armoured vehicles, maritime patrol aircraft, combat helicopters) and a $3bn fund to augment the US presence in Mexico.

Welcome mat for US security

Calderón had effectively flung open the door to the US intelligence services. His government authorised the Mexico Technical Surveillance System, a programme which allowed the US to ‘intercept, analyse and use intercepted information from all types of communications systems operating in Mexico’. In November 2010, investigative journalists revealed that nine US intelligence agencies had offices in a skyscraper near the US embassy (4), including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA, military intelligence), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO, satellite intelligence) and the National Security Agency (NSA, collection and monitoring of foreign and domestic intelligence data).

Le Monde Diplomatique for more

Collecting beetles in Zhanaozen: Kazakhstan’s hidden tragedy

June 23rd, 2021


Yrysbek Dabei and his novel ‘Qoniz’ PHOTO/Author

Ten years ago, Kazakhstan’s western region of Mangystau was swept by a series of oil workers’ strikes. The mobilisation lasted for more than six months and, at its peak in summer 2011, several thousand workers were involved. The epicentre was Zhanaozen, a city of 150,000 built in the 1960s next to Uzen’, a now-ageing oilfield that was once the country’s largest.

Throughout 2011, labour relations worsened to the extent that the resulting slump in production started to show on company balance sheets. On 16 December, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, clashes erupted between the authorities and striking workers. At least 16 civilians died and hundreds were wounded by police fire. Three dozen workers, union leaders and protesters were sentenced for the violence, while the authorities barred any independent investigation of the events, which the former UK prime minister Tony Blair later helped spin internationally.

The Kazakh writer Yrysbek Dabei sought to capture these events in a novel, ‘Qonyz’ (“the beetle”). Born in China’s Altai region, Dabei moved to Kazakhstan in 2001, publishing collections of poems and essays alongside his work as a journalist. ‘Qonyz’, Dabei’s second novel, revolves around oil workers and the environment of slow and subtle violence that structures their lives in Zhanaozen. Realism is mixed with motifs and characters drawn from Kazakh folklore, placing what became known simply as “the events” within a longer history.

In this interview, the author shares his literary influences, his motivations for writing about Zhanaozen – and what lies behind the novel’s title.

How and when did you decide to write about Zhanaozen?

Zhanaozen is the most dramatic event since Kazakhstan’s independence thirty years ago. As a philologist and writer I read foreign literature, where authors often depict the tragedies that their respective societies face. In Kazakh literature we do not have a school or tradition of writing about these themes. When I read Chines? writers, however, major tragedies are explored in fiction – despite censorship, which is also common in Kazakhstan. These considerations made me think a lot about the Zhanaozen tragedy and encouraged me to write a novel about it.

You mentioned literary inspirations: what do you like reading?

Open Democracy for more

What Bill Gates has wrong about “advanced” nuclear reactors

June 22nd, 2021


Colleen: How do we solve climate change? Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 answers. And if one of the people you ask is Bill Gates, you might hear that we should turn to nuclear energy to help us reach our climate goals. But while generating nuclear power doesn’t create carbon emissions, it does come with a host of other challenges… like affordability, safety, and the unsolved question of how to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

Almost every nuclear reactor operating today is what’s known as a light-water reactor, because they use ordinary water to cool their hot radioactive core. To try and solve the biggest challenges of nuclear energy, the industry is turning away from light water reactors and looking toward new designs that use other materials to cool the core. The industry calls these new designs quote-unquote advanced reactors and claims they will help us build a clean energy future that’s also safe and affordable.

So… are these claims accurate? Today’s guest is Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He just released the report “Advanced isn’t always better,” an independent review of these new designs that cuts through the hype coming from the nuclear industry. Ed wants to make sure we don’t waste money designing and building reactors that aren’t safe and don’t improve on what we already have.

He explains how today’s nuclear reactors work, what’s different about so-called advanced reactors, and whether or not they deliver on the benefits they promise. Ed also tells us about the Natrium reactor being designed by Bill Gates’ company TerraPower… and what he’d say to Bill Gates if they met at a dinner party.

Colleen: Ed, welcome back to the podcast.

Ed: Thank you for having me again.

Colleen: So, we’ve talked in the past about small modular reactors, the Chernobyl disaster. And today, I want to dig into non-light- water reactors. You just published a technical analysis looking at the safety, security, and environmental impacts of this proposed new suite of nuclear reactors. First off, how are they different from the nuclear reactors that the U.S. currently operates?

Ed: Sure. So, the U.S. currently has 94 nuclear reactors to produce electrical power. And they all use ordinary water as a coolant to remove heat from the hot fuel to convey that heat to a power generation system, which generates steam and produces electricity. These reactors have a main characteristic as they don’t use water to cool the fuel, but they use other substances. For instance, you can use a liquid metal like liquid sodium as a coolant, or you can use a gas like helium, or in some cases, the fuel cools itself as a liquid and it cools itself.

Colleen: So, can you run through the new advanced reactors that you evaluated?

Ed: Yes. The first main class of reactors is called fast reactors. And these differ from our existing fleet because they don’t have materials that slow down neutrons. So, when a nucleus of uranium fuel is fissioned, it’s struck by a neutron and it’s split apart, and it releases energy and other neutrons. And those other neutrons will then strike other uranium nuclei, and you have what’s called a chain reaction. And that generates a steady level of heat which can then be used to produce electricity. That’s how the nuclear reactors work.

But in the water-cooled reactors that we have now, those water molecules actually slow down the neutrons. So, when a neutron is produced by fission, it has a certain energy. But as it collides with water molecules, it slows down. It turns out that makes it…essentially, that makes the fission reactions more efficient. So, you can use less concentrated fuel. So, that’s a certain approach to designing a nuclear reactor that we use today.

Monthly Review Online for more

No big pharma company has committed to make the COVID vaccine free or cheap

June 22nd, 2021


Companies are receiving government grants without guaranteeing they will make the vaccine affordable for all. PHOTO/ Andrea Ronchini / NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a business driven by profit, vaccines have a problem. They’re not very profitable — at least not without government subsidies. Pharma companies favor expensive medicines that must be taken repeatedly and generate revenue for years or decades. Vaccines are often given only once or twice. In many parts of the world, established vaccines cost a few dollars per dose or less.

Last year only four companies were making vaccines for the U.S. market, down from more than 20 in the 1970s. As recently as Feb. 11, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, complained that no major drug company had committed to “step up” to make a coronavirus vaccine, calling the situation “very difficult and frustrating.”

Oxford University surprised and pleased advocates of overhauling the vaccine business in April by promising to donate the rights to its promising coronavirus vaccine to any drugmaker.

The idea was to provide medicines preventing or treating COVID-19 at a low cost or free of charge, the British university said. That made sense to people seeking change. The coronavirus was raging. Many agreed that traditional vaccine development, characterized by long lead times, manufacturing monopolies and weak investment, was broken.

“We actually thought they were going to do that,” James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that works to expand access to medical technology, said of Oxford’s pledge. “Why wouldn’t people agree to let everyone have access to the best vaccines possible?”

A few weeks later, Oxford—urged on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—reversed course. It signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca that gave the pharmaceutical giant sole rights and no guarantee of low prices—with the less-publicized potential for Oxford to eventually make millions from the deal and win plenty of prestige.

Other companies working on coronavirus vaccines have followed the same line, collecting billions in government grants, hoarding patents, revealing as little as possible about their deals—and planning to charge up to $37 a dose for potentially hundreds of millions of shots.

Even as governments shower money on an industry that has not made vaccines a priority in the past, critics say, failure to alter the basic model means drug industry executives and their shareholders will get rich with no assurance that future vaccines will be inexpensively available to all.

“If there were ever an opportunity” to change the economics of vaccine development, “this would have been it,” said Ameet Sarpatwari, an epidemiologist and lawyer at Harvard Medical School who studies drug-pricing regulation. Instead, “it is business as usual, where the manufacturers are getting exclusive rights and we are hoping on the basis of public sentiment that they will price their products responsibly.”

Truthout for more

Rebellion on the NFL plantation

June 22nd, 2021


“An alternative league would be the antithesis of the NFL and also take its cue from ‘Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.’”

The National Football League’s new national anthem policy is a breathtaking display of arrogance, racism and disrespect for sincere acts of conscience by players concerned about the epidemic of police violence that plagues black communities. The league’s new rules require players to stand and “show respect” for the flag during the anthem. Players unwilling to cooperate must remain in the locker room.

The NFL really has nerve. Can we even imagine military officials telling a young Muhammad Ali that not only must he enlist, but if he wants to protest the Vietnam War, he may write a polite confidential letter to the Pentagon? Or, suppose that 1968 Olympic officials had told John Carlos and Tommie Smith that they could not raise gloved fists during the awards ceremony, but they could have a private conversation about racial issues with fellow athletes in the Olympic hotel. Neither scenario occurred, but we are safe in assuming that such suggestions would have been met by immediate militant rejection. The heroic character of Ali, Carlos and Smith would not permit them to compromise their principles.

“There may be more than a few players with courage who are willing to risk following Colin Kaepernick into football martyrdom if necessary.”

Although punishment of anthem protests is on hold pending completion of negotiations with the players’ association, the big moment for Africans on the gridiron is nevertheless at hand. When the season begins, the players can boldly ignore the NFL rule and take a defiant knee; or they can meekly comply and pathetically mutter: “I’m just here to play football.” If the protests occurring during pre-season games are any indication, there may be more than a few players with courage who are willing to risk following Colin Kaepernick into football martyrdom if necessary.

Some have suggested that black team ownership is the answer to the anthem protest dilemma. Because of Magic Johnson’s sports ownership interests, and Sean Combs’ public contemplation of an NFL franchise purchase, the concept of team ownership is no longer beyond the imagination of black entrepreneurs. But even though almost 73 percent of the NFL’s players are African, none of the owners are black. In addition, this insular group of primarily white males preserves its own exclusivity and hegemony. “Who owners invite into their fraternity – and it is overwhelmingly a fraternity – is self-selective,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

In the face of an NFL inner circle that will likely continue to resist the anthem protests and also block black ownership, some have suggested starting an entirely new league. The idea of upstart alternative sports leagues is not unprecedented.Perhaps the best example is the American Basketball Association that provided a showcase for Julius Erving and others.

“This insular group of primarily white males preserves its own exclusivity and hegemony.”

Ideally, an alternative league would be the antithesis of the NFL and also take its cue from “Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.” This 1976 Motown film, inspired by Negro League Baseball, is one of Black Cinema’s underappreciated gems. In addition to a stellar cast that included: James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor and others, the movie addressed, in an entertaining way, issues of race and class struggle.

Black Agenda Report for more

What if humans and artificial intelligence teamed up to build better communities?

June 21st, 2021


“The Co-Lab” is a first-of-its-kind collaborative design experience where museumgoers can build virtual future communities in real time, alongside artificial intelligence (A.I.) acting as a design partner. PHOTO/AIB

Humanity has long framed its relationship with artificial intelligence in adversarial terms: the age-old contest of humans vs. machines. A.I.s have bested our most talented chess players, schooled our nerdiest Jeopardy! stars and caused gamers to throw their controllers against the wall in frustration. In the world of science fiction, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina, A.I.s have gone further, again and again transcending their programming to revolt against their human creators.

But while it’s easy to get hung up on this trope of the artificial intelligence-as-villain—we’ve always been an insecure species—the truth is that A.I.s make much better collaborators than combatants. This is the guiding philosophy behind “generative design,” a burgeoning sphere of engineering that relies on harmonious, iterative interactions between humans and A.I.s to rapidly develop prototypes and bring out-of-the-box solutions instantly within reach.

This refreshing outlook on A.I. will be integral to the Smithsonian’s “Futures” exhibition, a celebration of the Institution’s 175th anniversary, which promises to look eagerly at tomorrow’s possibilities in an invigorating World’s Fair-style extravaganza. Launching this November and continuing through July 2022, “Futures” will be held at the historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB), America’s original National Museum. Nicknamed the “Palace of Wonders,” the AIB will be a fitting venue for a show that promises a 32,000-square-foot playground of transformative ideas.

The exhibition space will teem with examples of bold new technologies and feats of engineering, including “The Co-Lab,” a must-see hub for generative design thinking and a striking example of the kind of architecture achievable only through human and A.I. teamwork. Developed by researchers at the tech-driven design company Autodesk alongside Smithsonian curators, “The Co-Lab” is a skeletal lattice of sturdy but lightweight wood. Its aesthetic falls somewhere between origami crane and organic chemistry model. “We’re trying to emphasize the warmth and natural feel,” says Brad MacDonald, AIB’s director of creative media.

Human engineers decided on the rough silhouette of the structure as well as their design priorities—user experience and sustainability—then handed the concept over to A.I. to generate hundreds of viable mock-ups. From there it was a process of back-and-forth refinement, a rewarding loop of parameter-tweaking and A.I. feedback that funneled down to what would become the actual, easy-to-assemble “Co-Lab,” made of just 60 beams and 25 joints. “We made this a pioneering research project on how to build more sustainable structures that are also novel-looking and that enable viewers to see materials in a new way,” says Ray Wang, a senior research scientist at Autodesk. Though fabricated from very little material, the chosen structure supports a quintet of 85-inch monitors while also preserving sightlines to the rest of the exhibition.

But it is within the framework that the real magic happens. Here resides the “Future Communities” interactive, a unique experience in which visitors will be invited to design a futuristic city block from scratch using a digital toolkit—with suggestions from a sophisticated A.I. guiding them along the way. “Users will manually place buildings and parks directly onto the design space,” says Wang of the virtual process, while “the algorithm takes note and suggests other possibilities to them.”

Smithsonian Mag for more

Our first child is due, and I’m already in the clutches of the baby-industrial complex

June 21st, 2021


‘All they do is eat, poop, sleep, repeat.’ PHOTO/Halfpoint/Getty Images/iStockphoto (Posed by model)

Thanks to relentless marketing and advice our tiny apartment is already stuffed full of weird stuff, such as snot-suckers. But do I really need an AI-powered crib to be a good parent?

A boob. A bed. Maybe a bottle? In the early days of my wife’s pregnancy, I naively thought that was all a newborn baby would really need. After all, all they do is eat, poop, sleep, repeat. You don’t need an arsenal of complicated equipment to deal with that, right?

Wrong. Our first child is due imminently and, despite my best efforts to escape the evil clutches of the baby-industrial complex, our tiny New York apartment is stuffed with weird stuff. Reader, I have a snot-sucker. That’s not a euphemism – that’s a real thing you use to suck mucus out of a child’s nose. I asked a friend with kids: “Seriously? Do I actually need this?” She gave me a look a lot of parents have been giving me recently. It’s a look that says: “Damn, you really don’t know what you’re in for.”

I haven’t just become a person who owns a snot-sucker. I’m dismayed to say that I have become a person who knows far too much about the Snoo. The Snoo being a $1,495 (£1,145) artificial-intelligence-powered bassinet that uses algorithms to respond to a baby fussing and rock it back to sleep. “You absolutely need a Snoo,” some people have told me. “It’s a huge waste of money,” others have said. It’s like the Marmite of baby gear. Just a hell of a lot more expensive.

In Finland, supposedly the world’s happiest country, new parents are sent home with a cardboard box for a crib

While you may need slightly more than a boob and a bed to raise a kid, you don’t need an AI-powered crib to be a good parent. In Finland, supposedly the world’s happiest country, new parents are sent home from hospital with a government-issue cardboard box for their babies to sleep in. (In the US, which has the most miserable parents in the western world, according to a 2016 study, you’re sent home from hospital with a massive bill.)

The Guardian for more

Brazil needs vaccines. It also needs Huawei

June 21st, 2021


PHOTO/Pedro Vilela/Getty Images/Leo Schwartz

The article detailed how Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, spurred on by the Trump administration, was set to ban the Chinese telecommunications giant from helping build the country’s 5G network. Then the pandemic came along. With a skyrocketing death toll and in desperate need of China’s CoronaVac vaccine, the Brazilian government abruptly changed face, according to The Times. On February 11, Brazil sentits communications minister to Beijing, and, two weeks later, the Brazilian regulator Anatel announced that Huawei would be allowed to supply equipment for the construction of 5G infrastructure after all. 

Last week, The New York Times published a blockbuster story alleging that China had changed the Brazilian government’s position on Huawei by dangling the promise of vaccines. 

“The precise connection between the vaccine request and Huawei’s inclusion in the 5G auction is unclear, but the timing is striking,” wrote The Times’ Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado. “It is a part of a stark change in Brazil’s stance toward China.”

It is a familiar narrative in Western media — one that depicts China imposing its will through hegemonic might. However, the underlying dynamics are generally more nuanced. Articles like The Times’ flatten the complex reality of emerging markets, where often the most intense jockeying is happening elsewhere. In Brazil’s case, the conflict exists mostly at the domestic level. 

Rest of world for more

Weekend Edition

June 18th, 2021