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Up Against a Wall

I just read an article on the BBC web site about a newly-discovered cave painting in Indonesia.  The cave art at this site is at least as old as the oldest paintings at the famous sites in southern France.  Creative activity of all kinds seems to be normal behavior of our human species.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote about cave art in France and Spain in his essay Up Against a Wall.  This essay documents early attempts to establish a time sequence for the paintings, based on style and quality of the artwork.  They assumed that the sequence followed a progression from primitive to modern that fit well into later development of art in Europe.  Stephen Jay Gould argues that all of the paintings were done by our human species, and that we and our artistic abilities remained the same all the time we were in Europe.  Subsequent radiocarbon dating showed that the highest quality art was also the oldest.  This cave art only shows regional and personal variation, not a general trend at all.

I have a geology book from 1912.  The last chapter of this book has a table of all of the human fossils that were known at that time.  There were only four.  A few years earlier, in Charles Darwin’s time, there were none.  One of the four was the famous Piltdown man, know known to be a fake.  People believed it was real, at least in part, because they were certain that ancient humans existed in England before they migrated to the European continent.  Their hopes were dashed when Piltdown man was shown to be a fake.

Stephen Jay Gould also wrote a book called The Mismeasure of Man, where he described how people attempted to use scientific methods to show that Europeans were superior to all other races of man.  I suppose it seemed natural to them that European civilization, language, and religion were the pinnacle of human development, and that all others were inferior.  All of these attempts failed, but that did not stop people from making finer and finer distinctions to prove what they already knew.  No doubt their descendants in other parts of the world inherited this curious attitude.

If we go back far enough, we are all Africans.  All of the evidence makes it clear now that most, if not all, of human evolution took place in Africa.  There were many radiations of successful human species from Africa to Europe and Asia.  The last one was our species, beginning about 100,000 years ago.  Humans are the same all over the world.  That’s our heritage.


Punishing Suspects

There’s an ancient principle of law, arising from the Roman era:  A person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.  This is a widespread civil right, even for people who are accused of or charged with a crime.  It means that you can’t punish suspects until they have been convicted.  Unfortunately, this principle is being eroded in a variety of situations.

In many places, police can confiscate funds or property if they believe that a crime has been committed.  In Manitoba, it’s mostly small amounts of money from suspected drug dealers.  They call it possible proceeds of illegal activity.  Generally, there’s no further proof and no attempt by the person to retrieve their money.  This article from the Free Press complains about the activity.  In some US states, the practice is even more blatant and widespread.

Some countries revoke the citizenship or the passport of a person who leaves the country with the intention to fight for an enemy group.  Some countries only do this for people with dual citizenship.  The problem, of course, is that they are only suspected of aiding the enemy.  They also can’t oppose this action in court because they can’t re-enter the country without a passport.  This is certainly a case of suspects being punished by limiting their right to travel and return home.  They should at least get their day in court in their own country.

Drone strikes are even worse.  None of the people being killed have been convicted of a crime.  This is a case of suspects being executed without valid legal process.  Sometimes they are not even identified before being killed.  Sometimes innocent civilians die along with the suspect who was the target of the rocket.  The flimsy legal justification can’t be allowed to overrule the ancient legal principle.

Labelling people as members of a reviled group has powerful effects.  It encourages public prejudice.  It makes it easier to deprive people of their civil rights.  The public sees them only as unpatriotic foreigners, different from themselves.  Society must accomodate a diversity of opinion and belief in order to protect itself.

The current epithet is terrorist.  The public seems willing to believe the accusation, even without proof that will stand up in a court of law.  Even well-respected authors invited to address a conference have been barred by such accusations.  Before that it was communist.  Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was kept out of the US because of that one.  Even before that, it was bolshevik.  That was the term used for the strikers in the 1919 general strike in Winnipeg.

You can’t punish suspects.  We must defend anyone who is being punished without being convicted, even if we don’t like the person or the group to which they belong.  It’s the only way.


Ebola Response

I read an article recently saying that the response to the Ebola epidemic in Africa is being led by charities, MSF in particular.  The author was incredulous at that fact, and wondered where the Western governments were.  Where are the governments in this crisis?  I’d expect WHO to be leading the way, but I understand that they don’t have the funding to respond properly.  As a UN agency, the member governments are the only source of funding for WHO.

I see that Canada has pledged another 30 million dollars, with this money going to the Red Cross and similar agencies.  That’s charities again.  The US is sending military units.  At least that’s government this time.  No doubt the people in the affected African countries are  suspicious of this activity.  After all, the US military is also killing people in other parts of Africa.  The US is building field hospitals for treating Ebola patients.  That’s certainly a good thing, and one that’s needed there.  It’s also late in coming.

I’d like to see an international body in charge of the Ebola response.  The UN, through it’s agency WHO, is the obvious choice.  I understand, though, that WHO can’t respond because of funding limitations.  Didn’t Canada cut their contribution to the UN?  Didn’t the US cut theirs?  I wonder if the US wants to bypass WHO and do it itself.

The rest of the world seems to be waiting for a miracle.  I hear mention of an experimental Ebola vaccine in the news frequently, even though it will take months or years for development of an effective vaccine to be completed.  It’s containment that’s needed now to stop the spread of Ebola, and to save the largest number of people from acquiring the disease.  People who do have Ebola need high-quality treatment, even though it can only counteract the symptoms for the time being.

I see that Canada is sending a second Ebola virus testing laboratory to Sierra Leone.  This is certainly something that is needed, something that will save many lives.  It’s also late in coming.


Reasons for Intervention

Why do countries intervene in the affairs of other countries?  At the worst, intervening means finding a reason to attack a sovereign country.  It’s generally a compelling reason.  Often it’s completely false.  Often it’s arbitrary because the same reasoning could apply to many other countries.  Sometimes, it even requires an advertizing campaign to stir up public support for the intervention.  It doesn’t have to be a military attack, of course.  Economic interventions, such as sanctions or blockades, are weapons too and may be more effective than a military campaign.

What reasons have we seen reported?  Weapons of mass destruction is one.  We’ve heard that before, perhaps with slightly different wording.  The danger could be chemical and biological weapons, or nuclear weapons.  How about protection of foreign citizens?  This concept comes from a recent United Nations policy, one that has been widely misused as an excuse to intervene.  Then, of course, are  human rights abuses.  That one could certainly be arbitrary, because there are human rights abuses of various degrees in many countries.  What about a threat to the homeland, that is the country that is going to intervene?  This one plays on fears of the population.  Often the threat is doubtful or even non-existant.  The latest reason is just that this group must be stopped.  The country about to intervene is a force for good who are going to destroy the evil that has appeared in the world.  Sometimes they claim that the leader of the group is insane, and the members are deranged.  Not so long ago, they used to call them savages or unfeeling animals.  Sometimes they still do.

What’s behind all of this?  What are the real reasons?  Age-old and traditional reasons, of course.  I heard that the Roman empire conquered the known world in self-defense.  I heard that the European crusades against cities in the east were simply attempts to extend their territory.  It’s all happening again.

Commercial reasons are at the forefront.  We’ve had lots of examples of shutting down the competition lately.  Western nations are imposing economic sanctions against Russia.  Saudi Arabia is bombing ISIS oil refineries in Iraq.  There are also sanctions against Iran.  Isn’t Russia in the aircraft market?  How about Saudi Arabia and oil?  How about the US and nuclear power plants?  Of course, all of the countries that have intervened want to sell more military equipment.  I heard that cited as  one reason why France was so quick to drop bombs in Libya.  Many interventions are said to be all about oil.  Iraq and Libya are recent examples.  Maybe they really were all about oil.

Sometimes there are hidden motives.  Sometimes people have long memories of past wrongs.  Sometimes they want to make them pay.  Maybe these motives are behind the US blockade of Cuba and their sanctions imposed on Iran.  Sometimes the motives are quite clear, as in the western revulsion over the activities of ISIS.  It seems that everybody is against ISIS.  Attacking them is doubtless a popular move.

The case of economic sanctions is a curious one.  They seem to be used to obtain concessions or favourable treatment.  It’s a bit like saying “I’ll stop hitting you if you say that you like me”.  Nevertheless, it seems to be effective, at least in the examples of US sanctions against Iran or Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian territories.

The real reasons are often political.  Countries often want to build alliances.  For instance, the US wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to be suppressed in Egypt.  They got what they wanted with the new military government there.  Sometimes they want to enable a regime change in another country, usually by covert means.  The West wants al-Assad to step down in Syria.  The US wants a friendly regime in Cuba.  All sides seem to resent a country that tries to be independant of the power blocs.  Iran is an example here.  Of course, if a country leans in one direction, another power bloc will attempt to induce them to change.  Sometimes a political reason is simple, just an attempt to introduce their culture and ideology into another country.  That didn’t work well in Iraq, I understand.  The invading solders expected to be welcomed as liberators, but instead they were met with anger by the ordinary people.

Whatever a country does, it’s always in the self-interest of that country, even if they try to explain that they are intervening for the highest of reasons.  Follow the money trail to know the truth.  Above all, be skeptical.  If all of the news media are saying the same thing, be even more sketpical.


Dairy Product Prices

I read an article on the BBC web site a few days ago that explained why dairy product prices in the US were at a high point.  It stated that the US and Europe used to purchase surplus products when prices were low, but recently they had stopped doing this.  By subsidizing producers at the low points, the governments were able to keep the prices up, but they had to dispose of the product some time later.  I had heard of “mountains of butter” in some European countries years ago, but I didn’t realize that the US was doing the same thing.  According to this article, both the US and Europe were no longer intervening in the market for dairy products.  The result was that prices fluctuated over a wider range, and that they were now at a high point because of demand around the world.

The dairy product market is a textbook example of perfect competition, with many small producers of identical products.  I learned about this in high school.  Each dairy farmer’s milk is the same as every other farmer’s milk.  In that sort of a market, the price declines until each producer is making zero profit.  The low price benefits consumers, of course, but is a hardship on producers.

Canada has a system of supply management with marketing boards for dairy products.  These work by limiting the supply, in this case production and imports of the products.  They do this by setting quotas.  In this sort of market, the price rises as demand outstrips supply.  The higher price benefits producers, of course, but is a hardship on consumers.  Governments also benefit as they don’t have to purchase or sell surplus products.

The US and other countries are now negotiating a series of trade agreements that aim to eliminate tariffs and subsidies, providing a free market across the world.  They’re not entirely about freedom, though; they also seek to harmonize regulations in other countries with US regulations.  Certainly the US sees our supply managment system as a subsidy.  It is, of course.  Is it a sufficiently different or sufficiently necessary sort of subsidy that it must be retained?  I don’t know, although I do know that there’s pressure to eliminate it.  One of the arguments for a free market was that low prices in the US would benefit Canadian consumers.  That argument’s gone for the time being.  I suppose the decision to abandon marketing boards would ultimately depend on the political influence of the producers, because it’s them who are going to be put out of business by the change.


Recycling Glass

I was always skeptical of the claims about recycling glass.  I knew there was no market for it.  The city of Winnipeg told us that their recycling contractor, Emterra, was using waste glass as a base for roads built within the landfill area.  If that’s recycling, it’s surely at the edge of what constitutes recycling.  Now I find out, from a CBC investigation of two city recycling programs, the the contractors are not even doing that.  According to this article, most of the glass goes directly into the landfill.  Some of that is stockpiled, but even that is not recycled.  I don’t know what Emterra does here.

Curiously enough, the Province of Manitoba just announded new funding for recycling programs.  They were concerned about the low diversion rates from landfills in the province.  They wanted to encourage more composing of organic waste.  They were also concerned about the amount of institutional and industrial waste that winds up in the landfill, particularly from renovation and demolition companies.  Cardboard, shingles, and drywall could all be recycled, they concluded.  There was no mention of glass.

In general, the economics of recycling are not good.  There are only a few waste products that are profitable to recycle.  Aluminum cans are the prime success story.  Companies that manufacture thin aluminum sheet will take all of the waste cans that they can get.  That’s because it’s quite expensive to refine aluminum ore into any form of the metal.  Aluminum in metallic form is a much cheaper raw material.  The other success story is PET bottles, which can be manufactured into fabrics quite cheaply.  Waste bottles are a cheaper raw material than the usual petroleum chemicals.

Most recycling is done at a loss, and has to be subsidized.  Paper used to be recycled, but it’s not any more.  Demand for paper is dropping as people continue to convert to electronic communications.  Paper plants are closing.  The ones that are left have to minimize their costs.  They utilize pulp wood as their raw material, rather than employing the more expensive process of de-inking waste paper.  Glass is probably the worst example.  The raw material for manufacture of glass containers is white silica sand.  This is inexpensive and easy to obtain.  Used glass could be used instead, but it would have to be sorted to remove brown glass and green glass.  Coloured glass would have to go someplace else, to a market that doesn’t exist.  All this processing is expensive.  New silica sand is cheaper.

I’m sure I’m not typical.  I never put aluminum cans or PET bottles in my blue cart because I never buy products in those containers.  I don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but I still have paper and cardboard that I recycle.  I try not to purchase products that come is glass containers, but sometimes I have no choice.  Occasionally, I do put glass in my blue cart.  I also recycle steel cans and plastic containers.  I assume the cans are made into new steel.  I suspect that the plastics are mostly made into low-grade products like curbs and fenceposts, rather than into new containers.  As I said, recycling is an expensive process.  The city of Winnipeg does have a good composting program, as far as I can tell.  They get all of my leaves and grass clippings.  I hope that they, at least, are properly recycled.


What Next in Iraq

A few days ago, there was an insightful cartoon in one of the British newspaper sites.  It showed several NATO leaders gathered around a wheel of fortune, with Obama about to give it a spin.  Many different options for NATO in Iraq and neighboring countries were displayed on segments of the wheel.  Maybe that is how they will decide what to do next.

The situation is very complex, with no obviously good choices.  In Iraq, ISIS has provoked a response from the west.  They got the response that they expected.  This has all happened before, except that it was al-Qaeda last time.  The US and the rest of the western countries now have another evil enemy.  The US is attacking ISIS from the air, in support of the Kurdish military.  Some countries in Europe are supplying weapons to the Kurds, even though some Kurdish groups were designated as terrorists not so long ago.  Even Canada is playing a part, transporting weapons by air.  The Kurds are defending their own territory, and doing it very well.  They want their own separate country, including part of Iraq.  They also have oil on their territory, something that’s certainly attractive to western countries.  After this war is over, they will have a great deal of bargaining power with the west.  They may well get their own country.  The US, though, wants an inclusive government in Iraq, one that will govern the entire country fairly.  The US is also supporting shia groups in Iraq as they move against ISIS from the south.  Much depends on how effective their counterattack will turn out to be.

The US is in a delicate position in Syria.  They had wanted al-Assad’s government to step down.  They had supported the sunni rebels in Syria, as long as they were moderate groups.  Now these groups have been replaced by ISIS.  As well, the Syrian government has made itself more legitimate by accepting a Russian proposal to dispose of their chemical weapons.  The US, of course, opposes ISIS.  How do they attack ISIS in Syria without taking the side of the al-Assad government?

Iran supports the shia groups in Iraq.  Members of shia Islam are in the majority in Iraq.  Iran has also been aiding in the fight against ISIS, seeing them as a threat to their own country as well.  Iran has even offered to cooperate with the US military in this operation.  Of course, Iran is a traditional enemy of the US.  Iran is also seeking to rehabilitate their image.  What’s going to happen next?

Turkey is also supporting the Kurds against the threat from ISIS, even though Turkey has previously fought against the Kurds and their desire to form their own country.  Turkey, of course, wants to be seen as a western country.  Is their support for the Kurds just a token, or is it the real thing?

Of course the situation in Iraq will change, and will do it in ways that few people expect.  People are more vigorous in defending their land than it defending their ideology.  Sunni and shia groups may not always be on opposite sides.  After all, the two have lived side by side as good neighbors for many years.  Finally, the public messages coming from the leaders of various countries may be completely different from the private actions of those countries.  Expects surprises and shifting alliances.

Western countries have already allied themselves with various groups in Iraq, in order to oppose ISIS.  What will they do about Syria?  Will they tell us that al-Assad is a good guy after all?  The west and Iran have a common enemy now too.  Will they work together, at least behind the scenes?  I have great doubts about that one, but who knows.  Spin the wheel, Obama.



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