Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Summary

This has been a very big week....great speeches at the Democratic Convention by various politicians, humble citizens (many former Republicans...where did the Dems find those!), and of course, Barack Obama's acceptance of the nomination for President and his choice of Joe Biden as his veep.

The subsequent scramble by the Republicans to find someone who will be on the McCain ticket resulted in the hilarious choice of a political light weight from the great State of Alaska: if the Republicans think women will vote Republican just because there is a woman on the ticket...please! Republicans from the State of Washington are not attending the convention and are trying to disguise their republicanness and distance themselves from McCain/Bush by calling themselves GOP, thinking no one will remember that GOP is Republican! There is a very nasty and close race here in the State of Washington for governor, and Republican Dino(as in dinosaur?) Rossi is going all out in his attempt to unseat Christine Gregoire.

Be sure to check out David Horsey's political cartoons from the convention, as well as his cartoons of the Bush Empire.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Science Odds & Ends

I loved the Cave Painting and Music story on PRI's The World because it combines two favourite interests of mine: music and prehistory. Here is some of the transcript from the station's website (to read/hear the whole story go to the link above):

August 13, 2008
The human desire to create art is ancient. Prehistoric cave paintings show the importance of visual imagery to our early ancestors. But a French professor believes such paintings may reveal an ancient love of music as well. And he recently put his theory to the test. .......And he devised a theory: That our ancestors used these sections of the caves as paleolithic cathedrals - decorated with paint and accompanied, he believes, by singing.

But Reznikoff's theory is just that - a theory based on his personal observations. And he has skeptics.
David Lubman is an acoustical consultant from Southern California. Though skeptical, he's intrigued by Reznikoff's theory. So when Lubman came to Paris last month for a scientific meeting on acoustics, he contacted Reznikoff and asked for a demonstration. Reznikoff eagerly agreed and arranged to tour a cave in Burgundy, now owned by the Count of Varonde........It seemed that the areas with cave paintings were ideally suited to singing. But does that mean these spaces were actually used for singing? David Lubman proposed an alternate theory. The ancient artists, he said, may have looked for smooth surfaces for their paintings… and these surfaces may, coincidentally, make for more resonant spaces.......

And the very same week the above was aired, there was also an interview on KUOW with the author of Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin. His new book is out:
"Music can make you laugh, cry, and even love. But can the entire world be summed up in just six songs? Daniel Levitin claims it can. The music scientist, producer and musician joins us to talk about his new book, "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature." What are those six songs? And what do our favorite songs say about who we are and how we think?" To listen to this interview, go to:

Fort Ticonderoga

I visited the Adirondacks and Fort Ticonderoga recently with my brother, Eric. What was most impressive about this Fort was how little had been left of it when the restoration began!...literally parts of walls and lots of rubble: reminded me of many ancient castles lying fallow in Great Britain. The strategic location(and incredible beauty) of this fort in the Hudson Valley when it was commanded by Native Americans, French, English, and then Americans is obvious the moment you step out onto the parapets. This area, including Saratoga to the south, was the scene of crucial turning points in the American Revolution.

Listen to the story below on NPR to hear not only more information, but how the Mars family (as in the chocolate company!) has been the key to the survival. and possible demise, of this historic site.

Fort Ticonderoga In Trouble
by Brian Mann

NPR: All Things Considered, August 29, 2008 · Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York, saw bloody action in the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary Wars But now the privately owned museum and battleground is fighting for its own existence. The fort could be forced to shut down or sell off key artifacts.

Visiting Oregon Wine Country

We spent four days in the area around McMinnville, Oregon visiting about 13 wineries. Driving to the various vineyards and tasting rooms gave a better appreciation for how the AVAs are designated and why such variation in soil structure and content would occur. Meeting the winemakers and growers reinforced the notion that, really, anyone can get into the wine business given enough enthusiasm, passion, a business plan, and some cash! My favourite wineries were: Arcane, Brickhouse, Prive, Methven, Torii Mor, and Tyrus Evans/Ken Wright. I came to these conclusions based on the wines' present taste and potential, interaction with the winemakers and the people staffing the tastings, the general ambiance and setting of the tasting rooms. Of interest were Maysara, Rockblock/Domaine Serene, White Rose, Panther Creek, Sineann, Chehalem, Cristom, and Dobbes. We did not get to Adelsheim, Rexhill (been there before), Patricia Green, Erath, Argyle, Witness Tree, Elk Grove, Owen Roe, Nemaste, Montinore, or Willa Kenzie. We were pleased to learn that there are now 5-6 women winemakers on the McMinnville area, several more than in Walla Walla.

and now onto Mugabe......

Am almost finishing reading Mukiwa, A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin, about growing up in the old Rhodesia, warts and all, as a child of white colonialism. However, going back in the early days of Mugabe rule, the evidence that Godwin substantiated of ethnic cleansing of the Matabeles and others left out of Shona rule, is frightening, foreboding, and so prescient.

dealing with those Russians.....

This commentary by Chrystia Freeland of The Financial Times of London suggests perhaps the most creative, and only way left, of dealing with the Russians in their quest to reassert their sense of power and who they are.

As crazy as it sounds, the oligarchs could save Russia

By Chrystia Freeland

Published: August 22 2008 03:00

One of the great debates about Russia is now over. We no longer need to argue about whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin's reassertion of state power is good for the economy and thus essentially benign. We do not need to ponder whether the selection of the "liberal" Dmitry Medvedev as president means the country will soon, again, become freer. We can cast aside discussions about whether strong-arm Kremlin chiefs will make more reliable partners for the west than the shambolic democrats who preceded them.

The war with democratic Georgia has created a new, sharp consensus across Europe and North America, as voiced with surprising harmony at Nato's emergency summit in Brussels this week. Mr Putin's neo-authoritarian regime - and it is clearly his state and his fight, no matter that we now call him "prime minister" - is a country with which, as the Nato summit concluded, we cannot continue "business as usual".

But this sad conclusion has left us with another, trickier dilemma: what can we do instead? The initial answers have been sobering. Having finally agreed that the new Russia is nasty - and not just to its own journalists or human rights activists - western leaders are also coming to the view that it may be hard to influence, let alone contain.

For one thing, there is Russia's petro-wealth. Your pain at the pump has resurrected Moscow from a humble recipient of International Monetary Fund financing in the 1990s to the swaggering holder of more than $581bn (€310bn, £245bn) in central bank international reserves it is today. Some of that money has gone to the military, which we now remember is vast, has nuclear capability and, as of August 8, is prepared to strike beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. Its actions too are emboldened, at least in part, by what the Kremlin is keen to portray as Washington's morally equivalent foray into Iraq.

Moreover, like long-suffering vegetarians who have rediscovered the pleasures of eating meat, Russian leaders have bitten into their new role as the world's tough guys with relish. They have had all the best lines of the conflict, with even the small and scholarly-looking Mr Medvedev growling that "if anyone thinks they can kill our citizens . . . we will come out with a crushing response".

But, for all the parallels between the current conflict and the stand-offs of the cold war, it is worth remembering that today's Russia has not yet regressed to the days of the USSR. Russians are less free than they were one decade ago, but vastly more free than they were two decades ago. Mr Putin and his siloviki, the security and military forces, have done an impressive job restoring central political control, but they are Amnesty International compared with the comprehensive, totalitarian grip of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

Most importantly, notwithstanding Mr Putin's efforts to reassert state authority over what Lenin called "the commanding heights of the economy", this time Russia has private property, private businesspeople and growing ties with the world economy. Russian capitalism - and, more crucially, Russian capitalists - may be our best bet if we hope to limit Russia's malign actions abroad. Crazy though it may sound to contemplate right now, they could even be critical to Russia's eventual return to a more democratic path.

Of course, thinking of the Russian oligarchs as the good guys will take some getting used to. For one thing, one of the casualties when Russian tanks rolled past Gori was the beguiling "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention" proposed by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist: "No two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other." Alas, you can buy Big Macs in both Moscow and Tbilisi, so we now know a little consumer capitalism is insufficient immunisation against old-fashioned clashes between imperialism and independence.

Moreover, when it comes to the oligarchs themselves, kowtowing to the Kremlin is their first commandment: the ones who did not realise that have long since been subject to expropriation, exile or imprisonment. Indeed, Russia's remaining magnates are those who have figured out how to profit from Mr Putin's neo-authoritarian policies; they would, no doubt, be happy to help harvest whatever economic fruits might come within their reach as a result of any further neo-imperialist incursions.

Yet even with all of those caveats, business is the most progressive force with any remaining power in Russia today. The oligarchs are crony capitalists, but they are global ones, too. Western capital markets, western consumers, western acquisitions and even western MBAs have all become an essential part of the way they do business. That gives them a powerful vested interest in maintaining good relations with the west that the politburo never had, and that the siloviki do not fully share.

Psychologically, they are different, too. Russia's capitalists did not experience the collapse of the USSR as the humiliation that it was to Mr Putin and his KGB comrades. The turning-point year of 1991 transformed the siloviki from being a feared and privileged elite into ill-paid civil servants, and occasionally publicly reviled ones. For Russia's magnates, the end of Soviet rule was a winning ticket in the world's richest lottery, granting them money, power and international prestige.

This brings me to my modest proposal. The west must, of course, be determined in using the few formal tools it has for hemming in a resurgent Russia, particularly denying it membership of the World Trade Organisation and stepping up support for vulnerable neighbours such as Ukraine. But why not take a page from the Kremlin's own unconventional and deviously brilliant play-book? Mr Putin, as we have seen, is not squeamish about direct confrontations, but sometimes Moscow finds it more convenient to harass the countries, companies and non-government organisations on its blacklist with the subtler tools of denied visas and zealous tax inspectors - you could call it the TNK-BP technique, in honour of BP's recent Russian joint venture travails. With their lavish foreign holiday homes, healthy foreign bank accounts and appetite for buying foreign assets, Russia's tycoons are vulnerable to the same pin-pricks. An oligarch recently told me that Mr Putin's tragedy is that he wants to rule like Stalin but live like Roman Abramovich, the Russian plutocrat. We need to make it clear to him and his business buddies that they cannot do both.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008