Friday, 31 July 2009

Chilling pics Bush tried to hide

AIR travel, the internet, nuclear power – they’re all spin-offs from essentially military developments. I dare say the first wheel was created for purposes of war.
Frying-pans famously got their non-stick quality from spacecraft development. But then space travel itself got its start from rockets designed by Hitler’s scientists for attacking London.
And you could argue that even before Ronald Reagan’s barmy “Star Wars” scheme the space race was just the coolest part of the Cold War.
A more acceptable face of the superpower posturing that also filled the world with enough nuclear weaponry to destroy us all many times over.
What a tragic comment on humankind that so much of our inventiveness should have been driven by the desire for ever bigger and “better” ways of killing each other.
But military technology can have its uses.
It was spy satellites launched and operated by the US military that showed in greatest detail the extent of polar meltdown.
These two photos, taken in July 2006 and 12 months later, bring it home starkly.
Both show the Arctic port of Barrow, Alaska from exactly the same angle. In the earlier shot, the port is almost sealed off by sea ice. A year later all the ice has gone.
And this is, as it were, just the tip of the iceberg. Between those two dates, more than a million square kilometres of sea ice was lost.
The pictures don’t just illustrate global warming. They also show clearly how it gets worse – literally, in black and white.
In the earlier, icier, picture there’s a lot of reflective white – bouncing the sun’s rays back out into space.
The later image is dominated by dark, almost black sea. And we all know how much more of the sun’s warmth is absorbed by dark surfaces.
So it’s a vicious circle. The warmer the planet, the more ice melts. The more ice melts, the darker the surface. The darker the surface, the warmer the planet.
And here’s another scary thing: Under George W Bush’s presidency, these pictures and all others like them were kept secret.
They have just been released by Barack Obama’s administration.
The difference?
For political reasons – mainly business reasons – Bush didn’t want to take action against global warming. So it suited him to deny it. And that meant the evidence had to be covered up.
Obama believes the truth is too important to hide. And, incidentally, that politics is about more important things than mere business.
Melting ice-caps are not just bad for polar bears – though it’s pretty devastating for them.
When all the ice melts, an awful lot of the places humans live now will be under water.
Which may be harder to grasp than mere economics. Partly because it’s a whole lot bigger.

A NEWS story caught my eye the other day that sickened me more than the latest stats on knife crime or fat-cat bankers’ bonuses.
A story at least as telling about the twisted times we live in.
Two zoos in Boston, USA, were reported to be facing closure after cuts in their subsidy from the state of Massachusetts.
In the words of local TV station The Boston Channel: “The zoos would be forced to lay off most of their 165 employees and attempt to find new homes for more than 1,000 animals.
“Zoo officials estimated 20 percent of the animals would not find homes and could be euthanized.”
It was that last word, as much as the fate of the poor animals, that sent a chill through me.
Euthanasia ought to imply an act of mercy. In this case it was used the way the Nazis employed it – as a euphemism, an evasion of the correct word, ‘killed’.
Creatures that have been raised by man, kept in captivity, with no option but to rely on man for food and life, were to die for man’s convenience. For mere economic reasons.
Money, once again, the motive for murder.
It may be only a couple of hundred individual animals. And that may be small beer indeed alongside the whole species that are being struck down around the world by our rapacity and greed.
By over-fishing – and negligent fishing that kills far more than the haul it brings in. By pollution. By industrialised farming. By destruction of habitats on an unprecedented scale.
It may be insignificant alongside such devastation.
But the fate of those unwanted zoo animals in Boston was a savage symbol of the callous way one species wields its power over all others.
Or so it appeared. Now it seems the strength of public reaction to the story could change things.
Startled by the bad press it received, Massachusetts may not swing its axe quite so hard – or find other things on the budget to cut instead.
That, and a wave of public subscriptions, may yet save the zoos. Let’s wait and see.
And meantime let’s wish all the other creatures around the world that are endangered by human activity could be so easily saved.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Is your old PC killing children?

HAVE you bought a new telly, or a new computer, at any time lately? More to the point, have you scrapped an old one?
If you did, do you know what became of the unwanted carcass?
Last time I upgraded, my old TV was snapped up on Freecycle and as far as I know is still doing service in a teenager’s bedroom.
My last defunct PC was demolished by someone who knows about these things, its valuable parts salvaged to be used again.
But with more and more new machines flooding the market, ever more powerful and ever cheaper, there’s an inevitable limit to how much can be recycled or reused.
So where do old electronic beasts go to die? And what becomes of their rotting corpses?
We know that tipping them into burgeoning landfill sites is no kind of solution.
Responsible folk take them to recycling centres such as the one at Foxhall and place them carefully in the appropriate skip. Then drive away and forget about them, duty done.
Meanwhile, in impoverished African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia, piles of dumped electronic goods heap up in slum areas.
There they cause toxic pollution of a kind that would never be allowed in the countries, such as ours, from which they have been shipped.
And there a very basic form of recycling takes place.
Children as young as five pick over the piles, extract and sort tiny quantities of valuable metals and compounds including:
• Antimony oxide (causes heart and lung problems, diarrhoea, vomiting, eye irritation)
• Beryllium (can cause a fatal lung disease)
• Cadmium (causes lung cancer, damages kidneys and bones)
And that’s just A, B and C on the danger-list. A single CRT computer monitor can contain 3kg of lead – long known here for its dangerous impact on young brains.
For the kids who make a lethal living picking over what is known as e-waste, the easy way to get to the precious metals is to burn off the surrounding plastic. Releasing a fearful cocktail of poisons into the air they breathe. And indirectly into the water they drink.
This is the shocking, Dickensian end of the trade that brings the ever-smarter, ever-cleverer electronic toys into your home.
A number of British companies are now under investigation for their part in this international scandal.
The Environment Agency has taken on a team of 20 detectives to probe illegal waste shipments. And though no one has yet been charged, a series of raids on various sites is expected.
Whether this team is anywhere near large enough, or equipped enough, to really tackle a massive problem is another question.
Of the 900,000 tonnes of electrical items thrown away in Britain last year, more than half is thought to have been either dumped illegally in the UK or sent abroad.
A computer from the UK Ministry of Defence has been found on a deadly dump in Ghana.
So is YOUR old PC killing kids in Africa right now?
That’s the question I wanted an urgent answer to. And the answer I discovered was a resounding ‘no’. As long as you did the right thing and took your junk to a council disposal centre, that is.
In fact, it seems Suffolk is leading the way in showing others – including the MoD – how to turn a problem into an opportunity.
Every old computer taken to Foxhall, Portman’s Walk, Carr Road Felixstowe or any of the county’s other recycling centres ends up at Highpoint Prison, near Newmarket.
There it is checked to see if it works or can be repaired. If it can be, it’s put back into use.
If not, it’s dismantled, safely and carefully, and its components sold for re-use.
The best part is that the skilled work is carried out by inmates as part of an electronic engineering course. So not only is it done safely and responsibly, but it helps in the vital re-skilling of offenders.
And all within Suffolk.

WHAT about computers that haven’t been scrapped, but confiscated?
Suffolk Trading Standards recently gave a lot of PCs, seized during investigations, to the registered charity Computer Aid International.
The computers were wiped of all information and refurbished before being sent to schools, weather stations, hospitals and community organisations in developing countries including Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Anja ffrench from Computer Aid International said: “The most effective way to maximise the number of people with access to ICT in developing countries is by re-using existing equipment all the way through to the end of its life.
“Less than half of PCs are re-used. Donors like Suffolk Trading Standards are addressing this balance and ensuring a sustainable outcome for their old equipment.”
So it seems, one way or another, your old PC could well end up in Africa.
Whether it ruins children’s lives there, or enhances them, is at least partly up to you.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Can Tony's faith save the planet?

GLIB. Smug. Blue-eyed, vapid, slightly open-mouthed stare, almost life-size, from the Sunday supplements.
Yes, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is back among us. Hard to believe it’s two years since he went away.
Hard to believe such a light-weight was so record-breakingly successful as leader of the party that had been Labour.
That he ever had the political clout to take Britain to war against the wishes of so many of its electorate – and its elected.
That he should have become the world’s most highly-paid after-dinner speaker (one speech roughly equivalent to a week’s work for the world’s best footballer).
That having been seen (rightly, in my view) as one of the villains of the Iraq war, he could then see himself as a potential saviour of the Middle East.
That he could ever be so self-deluding as to see himself as a world statesman. And, more astonishingly, be taken at that face value by other world leaders.
Maybe that’s the thing about leaders. Look at them closely and you see how ordinary, how essentially second-rate, most of them are.
Adolf Hitler was a failed sign-painter with an insignificant background, mediocre school report and paltry war record.
Josef Stalin was a provincial thug, gang-leader and bank-robber.
Ronald Reagan was a B-movie actor who once co-starred with a chimp.
And Tony Blair was a pushy kid from a minor public (i.e. private) school where, according to his biographer John Rentoul: “All the teachers I spoke to said he was a complete pain in the backside and they were very glad to see the back of him.”
As we all were in 2007 after enduring ten years of his patronising, Tony-knows-best leadership.
The thing is, I think Tony really does believe he knows best.
Changing the rules of the Labour Party to strengthen his position as leader? For the best.
Deleting the party’s defining commitment to public ownership in order to flog off or give away more of the country’s assets than even Maggie Thatcher countenanced? For the best, obviously (well, it was probably obvious to Tony).
Lying about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction? Not really a lie, ladies and gentlemen, because we had to get rid of that nasty Mr Hussein anyway, didn’t we? So it was all for the best.
And now here he is back, after two years of being conspicuous by his invisibility in his role as Middle East envoy.
Back in the old messianic mode. Back to save the world again. Back to tell us, once again, what must be done.
And you know what? He’s right. Sort of.
The trouble is, as he starts lecturing us about climate change and the need to do something about it, can we forget his past record for self-aggrandisement? For glib untruths?
When he says that, recession or no recession, “we will just have to find a way” to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions he’s absolutely right.
But of course with Blair you can never get away from the self-preening personal pronoun.
“I first put climate change on the G8 agenda in 2005,” he says.
True – up to a point. It was hardly a new issue in 2005. It had been on the agenda of serious science for at least 40 years by then and could hardly have been news even to politicians.
Now he says: “For years, the emphasis has rightly been on persuading people that there must be sufficient will to tackle climate change. But leaders, struggling to cope with this challenge even amid economic crisis, need to know that there is also a way.”
Again, this is true – up to a point.
And the point is that Blair – the man who had faith in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq, faith enough to convert to Catholicism, faith above all in himself – is again relying on faith.
Faith in science, and the application of science, that goes far beyond that of almost all scientists.
For, incredibly, he appears to believe that global warming can be staved off without anyone having to give up their excessive lifestyles. Without greed and consumerism being reined in.
“The answer to climate change is the development of science and technology. Yes, we will get changes in the way we consume but we will be consuming differently, not necessarily less.”
Ah, so that’s OK then. We can leave it all to the scientists. And of course to good old Tony and all those other wonderful world leaders.
Oh no, we can’t.
Not just because their record up to now has been so woeful.
And not just because they’re all as fallible, self-deluding and selfish as the rest of us.
But because while technology does have to play a part in whatever future we may have – so do we. Every last one of us.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Off-the-wall thriller was bound to be bad

ONE of the first questions I heard about Michael Jackson’s death (after the rather cruel “How could they tell?”) was: “So what? Why should his death matter more than those of the 40,000 or so people who died today of their poverty?”
And the answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter any more than any single one of those other deaths.
The difference, though, is that most of us knew nothing about most of those other individuals – not even their names. Whereas we all knew something about Michael Jackson, or thought we did.
His life was never private, from an age when most kids are still in primary school. And that, far more than his death, is his real tragedy.
His music, though quite catchy at times, was never good enough or original enough to justify his extraordinary fame.
It was his personal life, his luridly unhinged response to extreme fame and fortune, that made him an extreme example of the rubber-necking principle.
If his life was squalid – and, by heck, it was – it was no more so than our fascination with him.
He was a living freakshow. Car-crash TV in slow motion.
And as such he was the perfect emblem for our voyeuristic times.
Within a few hours of his death he occupied the top 15 places on the chart of Amazon’s CD sales. Despite the fact that he only ever made six bona-fide solo albums – the best of them (Off The Wall) 30 years ago, the most successful (Thriller) three years later.
Fans were downloading tracks they already owned out of a sense, apparently, of “moral support”.
Support of whom, one wonders? It was a bit late for Michael. As if more sales were what he needed anyway.
I find this morbid rush to buy the works of the newly dead baffling and distasteful. Though of course it’s nothing new.
Otis Redding, Jim Reeves, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon are just the first to spring to mind who had possibly their biggest hits when newly posthumous.
I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me, if the same applied to Glenn Miller. Maybe Mozart.
If Diana, Princess of Wales had ever made a record it would have broken all others.
Of course I feel sorry for all those who die of poverty, illness or accident. But I feel it intellectually. I don’t have emotional room to grieve for so many.
I don’t really have room to grieve for Jackson either. In fact I felt a lot sorrier for him in his life than I do in his death.
Those I feel most for are his children, the weirdly named (and even more weirdly raised) Prince Michael (a.k.a. Prince), Prince Michael II (a.k.a. Blanket), and Paris.
If their dad was barmy because of his strange upbringing, what chance of sanity do they have?
Mind you, I also fear slightly for my own sanity in the wake of the deluge of Jackson music, Jackson videos, Jackson pictures and Jackson stories that his death was always bound to unleash.
I didn’t mean to add to the pile by writing a word about him myself. I truly didn’t.


AN IRANIAN woman is shot dead during pro-democracy protests in Tehran and in a very short time not only photos but video footage of her death is seen around the world.
Via privately-owned camera and the internet, the world’s media is rapidly onto a story the Iranian media might well never have run – or even known about.
Within less than 24 hours she has her own page on Wikipedia.
By such means the old idea of a news blackout has been rendered virtually obsolete.
It’s no doubt harder than it once was for public misdemeanours such as the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan to be hushed up.
But it’s a fast-moving world out there – and on your desktop too. And with so much information coming at us who can possibly keep on top of it all?
Take your eye off the news for a moment and you miss something.
But who is to police it all? Who is to determine the genuine from the fake, the trivial from the important, the merely entertaining from that which needs action? And what action are they to take?
These questions are interesting – but they are also a worry.
Meanwhile, here’s another little example I’ve just noticed of the all-enveloping way the web is wrapping itself around us.
I do a search for information about car roofboxes and the next, totally unrelated, site I visit is delivering me ads for roofboxes.
Then as I research this column by reading about Neda Agha-Soltan on a worthy American news site I find myself being offered “Iranian girls in UK for dating and marriage”.
I don’t know whether the ad-server thinks (so far as such automated systems can be said to “think”) that I’m Iranian.
Or whether the offer is similar to those rather grubby ads for “beautiful Russian wives” that periodically find their way into my inbox alongside those for (presumably fake) Rolex watches, body-part enlargements, Viagra and other “meds”.
Or exactly what either possibility says about the nature of the world we live in.