Finally making some connections to other environmentally inclined people

Statue in BathAfter the interview for the mood study and our qualitative methods class, I attended a talk delivered as part of the Linacre Lecture Series, as run by the Environmental Change Institute. It was given by John Gummer MP, of whom I had no prior knowledge, but whose presentation I found quite impressive. He managed to convey a great deal of useful information about environmental policymaking in a way that wasn’t obscured through the excessive use of jargon. While some of the solutions he presented may have been a bit over-simplified, his overall tone of optimism and humour was very much appreciated. Especially interesting was his mini-tirade at the end against an environmental perspective founded in what he described as a Puritanical ideal of misery and self-denial.

While the speech was heavily focused on domestic policy – in areas like energy, waste management, and transport – it nevertheless made points that were more broadly applicable. When I asked him afterwards about fisheries – having learned that he is Chairman of the Marine Stewardship Council as well having served as UK Environmental Secretary from 1993-1997 – he expressed both a severe concern and a realistic perspective on the prospect for improvement. Another international matter that came up a number of times during the questions was that of cheap airline flights. He made the strong point that taxing the fuel that makes up 10% of the cost of a £20 ticket isn’t going to change anyone’s behaviour. His long-term idea of a personal carbon allowance, which could be traded or used against things like such flights, was a more inventive answer that you expect to hear at the end of such a speech.

In summary, the speech was effective and humorous. Very well captured was the essential concept that it isn’t enough to make people aware of environmental issues – or even to make them care about them in a general sense. What is necessary is the creation of institutional and legal mechanisms that make it both easy and economically efficient to behave in an environmentally responsible manner and both difficult and expensive to do otherwise. That happens through things like internalizing the full cost of transport or waste production.

Afterwards, I found myself in a cluster of wool-clad Canadians, most of them doing Master’s degrees over at the Environmental Change Institute. That is to say, the degree that I sometimes wish I had chosen to do, particularly after spending whole days reading about elements of large-I large-R International Relations that are only tangentially related to my intended research topic. It was particularly interesting to meet Erin Freeland, from Yellowknife, who is doing a Master’s with the ECI and with whom I’ve agreed to swap notes on the respective programs. A bit more interchange between the Department of Politics and IR and the ECI would serve both quite well, I think.

Now I am off to try and convince a recalcitrant external hard drive (not mine) to exchange data with a computer that has so far proven unwilling to speak to it.

PS. Speaking with Edwina – a D.Phil student in the DPIR and friend and collegemate of Claire’s – and Shohei during the period between qualitative methods and the John Gummer talk was both intriguing and valuable.

PPS. I am buying a bike with my brain scan experiment money. Does anyone know which place in Oxford is best for getting a decent used bike, as well as lights and a helmet (to protect the brain for future scans)?

Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence

Apparently, under the Harper government, there is new talk about Canada joining the American missile defence system. I believe that doing so would be unwise for a number of reasons, with the only real advantage of participation being the possibility of improved relations with the US.

Technically infeasible

The first reason to doubt the plan is that there is no reason to believe it will work. Past efforts at both theatre missile defence, the attempt to protect specific assets in a narrow geographical area, and umbrella missile defence have been failures. During the first Gulf War, the much lauded Patriot missile batteries never actually shot down a Scud – though they did shoot down two British planes by mistake. The Scud is essentially a modified V2: not exactly a modern missile.

Shooting down an ICBM is even more difficult. Lasers are infeasible given the difficulty of tracking the missile with such precision and the potential of reflective coatings and accelerated missile rotation mitigating their destructive effects. This reality is reflected in the new focus on kinetic kill systems, where a missile is meant to be used to knock the first missile apart. Of course, this risks showering the area below with radioactive fallout. Better than having a city hit, perhaps, but certainly not a good option.

There are three major stages in the flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or its submarine launched equivalent (SLBM). There is a boost phase, where the missile is launched from its silo or missile tube. It is the infrared emission from the launch, as well as the appearance on radar screens, that would first alert the United States to the fact that the missile is in the air. Barring the extensive deployment of space-based weapons, it is impossible to destroy the missile at this stage. The current missile defence plans do not attempt to do so.

The midcourse stage of the missile flight is suborbital, and takes place at an altitude of 1200km. During this phase, the missile can employ a large number of possible countermeasures: electronic signal jamming; the use of decoy warheads, chaff, and flares; and the deployment of metallic balloons that interfere with radar. It would either be at this stage or during the re-entry phase – when the warhead is travelling about 4km per second or about Mach 12 – that the kinetic kill would need to take place.

Even rigged tests that have taken place so far, where the missile trajectory is known in advance, no countermeasures are used, and a beacon is actually fitted in the warhead, have not resulted in success.

Strategic error I

The supposed contemporary enemies of the United States are not ICBM type entities. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are highly sophisticated pieces of hardware. Expensive and technically demanding to produce, they also require an extensive launch infrastructure. While they seem to be increasingly within the reach of states like North Korea and Pakistan, they are definitely not available to any terrorist group.

Moreover, if the United States went to the extreme expense of building an effective missile defence system, it would remain possible to deliver a small number of nuclear weapons by other means. They could be smuggled onto fishing boats or into storage containers. Maintaining a strategic focus on stopping potential missiles with a hypothetical system only tangentially addresses the problem of nuclear proliferation.

Strategic error II

The two hostile states that do have large numbers of ICBMs are Russia and China. Russia has so many, along with SLBMs, that it needn’t be concerned about the kind of missile defence system that is being proposed. That said, it could be used as an excuse to upgrade and modernize existing nuclear forces – especially if the United States resumes the development of its own nuclear weapons, as has been proposed by this administration.

The bigger concern is China. While the exact numbers are secret, it’s probable that China has about 20 missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States. The CIA apparently thinks that North Korea could have around five nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine a system that would be likely to stop five missiles, but that wouldn’t concern another state with only a small multiple of that number. Deploying missile defence might encourage China to build more missiles, begin putting missiles on submarines, begin fitting multiple independently-guided warheads upon missiles, or developing and deploying more effective countermeasures. It may, in any case, send entirely the wrong message to a state that is emerging as a larger military and industrial power.

Reasons for deployment

From the American position, there are two major reasons to deploy missile defence.

Firstly, it makes it look as though you are doing something to combat a threat almost universally regarded as very serious. This needn’t be an entirely cynical calculation. Given the incredible faith in technological progress within both the American public and the government and military, there is a belief that with enough brains and dollars, the thing can be made to work. It’s a mindset that goes along well with the notions of transformation that keep coming out of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

Secondly, developing and building such a system will put billions of dollars into the hands of military contractors. Boeing, Lockheed-Matin, Raytheon, and the rest of them all stand to gain enormously. That has political relevance for the representatives of states where they employ a large section of the population – think of Colorado. It also has importance in a political system largely driven by multi-million dollar campaign contributions. Also, increasingly extensive direct connections exist between the military and military contractors. As such, disentangling their agendas is becoming increasingly difficult.

Potentially, some of the above could apply to Canada. If we were to join on, some contracts would doubtless flow to Canadian firms. I do not, however, think this would be a net benefit to Canada. Spending on defence industries – even if largely paid for by the United States – really doesn’t boost national welfare, at the same time as it would increase national insecurity.

The Canadian military does seem to broadly support missile defence. I can think of seven different reasons for which either the military specifically or the Canadian government generally might back the plan:

  1. The American armed forces are putting pressure on them to support Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) plans. In some sense, this is almost certainly true. It’s worth remembering the extent to which things like a lack of strategic airlift capability make the Canadian Forces (CF) heavily dependent upon our allies, and especially the United States, in order to be able to deploy. We are also highly reliant upon their military intelligence capabilities.
  2. They are concerned that a future terrorist attack could take place through Canada. If that happened, it was seriously sour relations between the two countries, or at least risk doing so. By participating in American initiatives like missile defence, Canada could stress how we have been doing everything possible to counter terrorist threats. Support for BMD could therefore be a kind of pre-emptive damage control.
  3. The shared military culture of the United States and Canada means that both sets of armed forces are working from similar premises and using logic familiar to each. One issue here is that of non-proliferation. The Bush administration clearly doesn’t have much faith in treaty based mechanisms like the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (a point made in the 5th report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence). Do members of the CF see BMD as unlikely to undermine non-proliferation efforts?
  4. The CF sees participation in BMD as a way of maintaining or enlarging the Canadian role in North American security cooperation decision making. Given how much the Americans want to do this, we could get a lot of capital out of it for little cost. It’s worth a lot to the US just to have things look non-unilateral (think of the Iraq coalition).
  5. Strategic considerations are getting trumped by trade. Backing the Americans on missile defence is a way to keep trucks and containers flowing across the border with less trouble and suspicion. Also, Canadian defence firms with BMD related contracts in mind could have lobbied the CF to support the project.
  6. The Americans are going to set up a BMD system anyways. By participating, we at least get the illusion of sovereignty. At best, we might be able to restrain them from doing things that we really don’t want to see happen.
  7. The length of time this has been worked on has generated such a force of bureaucratic momentum that BMD was supported by default. Since the Second World War and, especially since the Cold War, military strategists have increasingly seen North America as a bloc to be defended all together. From that perspective, BMD might look obvious.

Admittedly, some of these are good reasons – at least potentially. Overall, however, I think the concept of dealing with the danger of proliferation by hiding behind a technical shield is profoundly misguided. It leaves the rest of NATO out in the cold, it encourages the development of further nuclear technology by states already so armed, and it contributes to a military-industrial complex that is already hugely expensive and influential.

On balance, I think Canada would be far better off for continuing to decline. While it might be a diplomatic faux pas, it may also be worth publicly pointing out why.

Music and frustration: copy protection schemes

Chained pig, BathHaving spent the last few minutes explaining to a friend why a brand-new, legitimately purchased CD will not play in her computer due to the copy protection EMI has included, I am reminded of my considerable indignation about how the music industry is treating their customers. Yes, in this case, it was possible to disable the copy protection program just by holding shift as the CD was inserted into a Windows computer, but there is no guarantee at all that music you buy today is either usable or safe.

In the worst case, such as the notorious Sony BMG rootkit, inserting a legitimate music CD into your computer intentionally breaks it. It also causes it to report what you listen to to Sony, even if you choose ‘no’ when a screen comes up asking for permission to install software. It also creates really sneaky back doors into your system that can be exploited for any number of purposes, by Sony or random others. While Sony is currently facing lawsuits for this particular, infamous piece of malware, it isn’t nearly enough to put my mind at ease. If some 16 year old had written something comparably dangerous, they would probably be in jail.

Legitimately downloaded music is little better. Songs you buy from the iTunes music store may work with your iPod today, but they won’t work with another portable player. They won’t even play in software other than iTunes, and there is no guarantee that they will still work at some point in the future. Spending a great deal of money on songs from there (and they’ve just had their billionth download), is therefore probably not very wise. You don’t actually own the music you are buying – you’re just buying the right to use it on someone else’s terms: terms that they have considerable freedom to change.

Personally, I will not buy any CD that contains copy protection software. I will not buy a Sony BMG CD, regardless of whether it does or not, nor will I be buying any of Sony’s electronics in the near future. This is a business model that needs to change.

Nuclear Test Sites

As we were both experimenting with Google Earth tonight, Neal pointed out an area in Nevada to me. You can see the crater where an atomic bomb in the 100 kiloton range was tested:

Nuclear test site

Surrounding it are more test sites:

They sure felt the need to make sure these things would work:

Many test sites

It definitely makes you more certain that Eisenhower was on to something when he talked about a military-industrial complex in his farewell address:

Yet more

In the words of Ike: “Every gun that is made every warship that is launched every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed”

Final shot, the whole area

It really defies all belief, doesn’t it?

[Update: 5 November 2005] Here are some more of my posts on nuclear weapons.

Random vignettes

Censored by Google

UK Pub Smoking Ban

The major reason for which I dislike spending time in most British pubs is apparently soon to be eliminated; I mean, of course, the carcinogenic clouds that seem to be a feature therein. It’s amazing, actually, that people persist in an activity that kills about half a million Americans every year, according to the Centres for Disease Control and World Health Organization. People should consider a pass-time that kills only a tiny fraction of that number: like serving in Iraq. Whatever enjoyment people derive from it, it clearly doesn’t make sense in cost-benefit terms. It demonstrates the extent to which the rational actor model fails in the face of various biochemical and sociological factors.

While my inclinations generally run in a libertarian direction, smoking is largely exempted from the categories of things legitimately subject only to personal choice. Especially in the case of commercial venues, smoking involves exposing other people – including employees who are there night by night – to the myriad dangers involved in the practice. From a personal perspective, it will make it more enjoyable to go to pubs – which is an activity with almost monolithic power, when it comes to the ways in which students relate socially in groups here.

In two words: I approve.

Olympic commentary

Mica informs me that Canada now has eleven Olympic medals. Well done, I say. That said, the only really intense Olympic experience I ever had was during my second year in Totem Park, where the whole undergraduate resident student body became caught up in Canada’s successful race for the men’s and women’s gold medals in hockey. I even watched the game between Belarus and unknown country X (where unknown country X is the one everyone expected to win) where the puck bounced off the goalie’s mask and into the net. Almost all of the time, sports are really boring. Sports and nationalism together: occasionally interesting.

In two words: why not?

Productivity, etc

I finished this week’s Economist today, as well as several of the readings on constructivism for next week’s core seminar. Medium-term projects now include:

  1. Finishing two more scholarship applications
  2. Arranging transport and accommodation for Sarah Johnston’s March 18th wedding in Chichester
  3. Sort out accommodation for next year
  4. Get a wedding gift for Sarah and a birthday gift for my mother

Without a looming essay deadline to motivate, I will need to learn to focus energies on the basis of other kinds of deadlines. While it might require an enormous personal adjustment, it’s just the king of thing that’s necessary in order to exist as a crude proxy of the kind of ‘highly effective people’ whose habits are written about. Thankfully, since my habits are written about almost exclusively by me, nobody need know about the instances where I wander ever so slightly from the path of enlightenment through massive doses of academic prose.

In two words: read more!

Dead Wolf Marketplace

Up on South Parks Road, there is a sheet-metal covered barrier that is at least twelve feet high – topped with several strands of razor wire. In front, there are concrete blocks and along the top there are fixed and movable security cameras. This barricade is built around the Oxford Animal Lab, which hundreds of people have been protesting and which has gone through several building contractors because they keep getting scared off by death threats. The builders now wear balaclavas, for fear of being harassed when off the site.

Less than a kilometer away, as I was walking through the covered market in search of a shop where Louise told me I might find more kinds of tofu, I passed six dead wolves hanging from hooks. I was astonished. Six headless, fur-covered, quadrupedal corpses split down the middle and hanging along the edge of a pathway that people bustle down with bags of new shoes.

The obvious charge is one of hypocrisy, but my response to the dead creatures was nowhere near so rational. It was a shock and disgust that persists hours later – despite efforts to wash it away with organic cola (disgusting) and ciabatta with cheese and roast veggies.

Along with the rows of dead rabbits (their heads in plastic bags so as to help people avoid anthropomorphizing them), the quail, and all the rest of the meat, they produce a smell that permeates the whole market and that lingers in my nostrils. Colour me confirmed in my vegetarianism.

[Edited: 7:46pm] Having consulted a wolf expert in circumstances too strange to go into, the consensus if that the aforementioned quadrupeds are assuredly not wolves. My imperfect photos reveal fur that is the right colour, but legs that are decidedly too thick. Headless, they remain unidentified.

Cartoons and cultural clashes

A quick comment regarding the continuing row about the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed. No collective response to an incident becomes this big or carries on this long without some kind of coordination and organization. While the whole situation is clearly based on a great deal of legitimate anger, it is nonetheless sentiment that is being excited and manipulated. That’s not to imply that some kind of global conspiracy is at work, but simply to say that I don’t accept that these protests are spontaneous or free of manipulation. Given their destructive nature, I think it will be instructive to eventually determine what forces have been trying to exploit this issue, through what means, and to what level of success.

As I was discussing with Tristan earlier today, the symbolic character of conflict is an essential dimension for understanding it. It’s one that requires examination both of individual psychology and the ways in which groups of people think. One excellent book I can recall from Brian Job’s security studies class at UBC is Kaufman’s Modern hatreds: the symbolic politics of ethnic war. Those wanting a far better explanation of some of these issues than I can provide should have a look.

Mohammed comics follow-up

By now, it has become obvious that the response of many people in the Muslim world, and elsewhere, to the Danish comics has exceeded all reasonable bounds. To take umbrage against a perceived slight is perfectly acceptable in a free society. To start burning down embassies and calling for the murder of the nationals of the countries where the comics have been printed is insane. It’s not something that can be defended according to any reasonable system of ethics – by which I do mean to say that a religious ethic that required such a thing would be indefensible – and it’s not something that can be construed as acceptable conduct.

To actually believe that there is a God who would require or encourage such conduct is to effectively close out the possibility of their being a God who is both omnipotent and benevolent to humanity in general. It has always been absurd to say that you could have a God benevolent to all mankind yet still insistent on the practice of a particular faith. A benevolent being would not condemn to damnation worshippers in cultures where a different faith is the norm. Given that the faith of your parents is by far the best predictor of the faith you will adopt, it simply doesn’t hold water to say that anyone could be expected to convert to the ‘one true faith.’ It contradicts good sense and basic ideas of fairness.

A being that required people to adopt a certain faith in order to be treated decently would either be non-benevolent, and therefore not worthy of veneration as such, or simply incomprehensible and equally unworthy of respect or admiration. A being with ethics that cannot be understood or shared by human beings is no more worthy of veneration than a bolt of lightning, which is similarly powerful and lacking in comprehensible ethical purpose. A vengeful God is potentially consistent with the character of the world: a charitable one, much less so – and perhaps not at all.


Idolatry and modernity

I’ve been thinking about the Danish cartoon row during the course of reading today, and I find it a difficult problem to deal with. My automatic response is to side with the Danes and others who are protecting the ideal of freedom of speech. It seems outside all proportion to be threatening violence in response to political cartoons.

That said, I really can’t imagine a mindset from which the simple depiction of a figure in such a way could create such outrage. The satirical modification of various symbols and icons is part of the stock and trade of western media and art. While such depictions can sometimes exceed the bounds of good taste, it’s hard to imagine them creating genuine anger – at least among the relatively level headed. Because I can’t imagine such agitation being a legitimate response, it seems like a contrived or artificial over-inflation to me: a sub-conscious conclusion based upon my own assumptions rather than an understanding of the situation, from the perspective of many of those involved.

The biggest question raised is about the appropriate boundaries on religious tolerance. At what point can we legitimately call a belief that someone holds unacceptable, at least insofar as it isn’t allowable to act upon it. A religious duty to make human sacrifices, for instance, few people would object to curtailing. On a matter like this, where there is a genuine schism of values between different groups, it’s much more difficult to make that kind of a call.

To me, it seems as though mature ideologies – whether political, ethical, religious, or otherwise – need to be able to stand up to legitimate criticism. That’s perhaps the defining characteristic of their maturity. While it may be incredible patronizing to say that Islam needs to develop an internal dialogue about the direction it is to take in the future, it still seems to me that such is the case. I hasten to add that a similar dialogue is necessary on the part of other ideologies that serve as a source of normative directions about how to behave in the world. Just like we need to rethink nationalism (if not abolish it entirely), there must be self reflection and fairness within ideologies that expect respect from those outside of them.

All in all, it’s an area I feel particularly hesitant about. I would be especially interested to hear what people think.

Seventeen days until the equinox

Sheldonian head

During our qualitative methods class today, on institutions, Dr. Ngaire Woods made an excellent point. Each of us has a year to become an expert on a particular subject. There are hardly any people in the entire world who ever have the chance to devote such time and attention to an issue and there is a good chance that, at the end, we will know more about our subject than anyone in the world. This underscores both the importance of choosing a topic well and of really committing yourself to writing something excellent. Producing something that will be read by people beyond the examination committee and people kind enough to edit it for me would also be a big advantage.

The institutions section of the qualitative methods course is much better than the scattershot attempt at foreign policy analysis that came before it. That is welcome, especially since I have a take-home exam to write on the course between the 9th and 13th of this month – most inconvenient timing. Hopefully, I will be able to get the thing mostly done next Friday, leaving the weekend relatively unencumbered.

After class, this afternoon, I had coffee with Claire, Josiah, and another of her St. Cross friends who I am embarassed to be unable to remember the name of. Followed that closely was tea with Joelle Faulkner. We tried the Tieguanyin tea that Neal sent. It’s more subtle than I expected, though not nearly so much so as the Jamine Pearl tea that Kate once gave me. I am going to try making it with bottled water, in the knowledge that the amount of dissolved minerals in Oxford tap water is quite substantial.

Hopefully, tomorrow I will be able to finish most of Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffer’s Democracy, Liberalism, and War, William Connolly’s The Terms of Political Discourse, and what remains of this week’s readings on institutions. I have a paper due for Dr. Hurrell on Wednesday, evaluating the democratic peace theory. I will also have a new issue of The Economist upon which to complete a preliminary read.

I’ve now finished the first book of The Wind up Bird Chronicle and perhaps the first tenth of Democracy in America. I don’t know if it’s an overly self-serving thing to believe, but I don’t think that any kind of reading is irrelevant or a distraction. While there are certainly things that it is more urgent for me to read, to neglect other areas of interest would ultimately be counterproductive and unwise. Neither American democracy nor Japanese literature are even distantly divorced from the question of democratic peace, and good writing is never irrelevant.


25 things I am:Canoeist, geek, webmaster, environmentalist, caucasian,
student, heterosexual, reader, writer, photographer,
Czech, Ukranian, atheist, Oxfordian, skeptic,
liberal, vegetarian, single, Canadian, hiker,
bilingual, healthy, rich, educated, male.