Archive for February, 2009

Feeling our way to decision

Emotions don’t impede rational thought, they underpin it, writes Jonah Lehrer in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe. He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after surgery, he was incapable of decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each place to see how busy it was. But Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat. His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.”

rocco-fazzariBut why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist … I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

To test this diagnosis, Damasio hooked Elliot to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands in his palms. (When a person experiences strong emotions, the skin is literally aroused and the hands start to perspire.) Damasio then showed Elliot various photographs that normally triggered an immediate emotional response: a severed foot, a naked woman, a house on fire, a handgun. The results were clear: Elliot felt nothing. No matter how grotesque or aggressive the picture, his palms never got sweaty. He had the emotional life of a mannequin.

This was an unexpected discovery. At the time, neuroscience assumed that human emotions were irrational. A person without emotions should therefore make better decisions. His cognition should be uncorrupted. The charioteer should have complete control. To Damasio, Elliot’s pathology suggested emotions are a crucial part of decision-making. Cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions become impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind.

Damasio began studying other patients with similar brain damage. These all appeared intelligent and showed no deficits on any conventional cognitive tests. And yet they all suffered from the same profound flaw: because they didn’t experience emotion, they had tremendous difficulty making decisions.

In his earlier book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason And The Human Brain, Damasio described trying to set up an appointment with an emotionless patient: alternative dates are suggested and the patient pulls out an appointment book and consults the calendar. For 30 minutes the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about. “He was now walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences. It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop,” Damasio wrote.

orbitofrontalBased on these patients, Damasio began compiling a map of feeling, locating the specific brain regions responsible for generating emotions. Although many cortical areas contribute to this process, one part seemed particularly important – the orbitofrontal cortext, a small circuit of tissue sitting just behind the eyes, in the underbelly of the frontal lobe. If this fragile fold of cells is damaged by a malignant tumour or a hemorrhaging artery, the tragic result is always the same.

After treatment, everything seems normal at first. A full recovery is forecast but little things start to go awry. The patient begins to seem remote, cold, distant. This previously responsible person suddenly starts doing irresponsible things. The mundane choices of everyday life become excruciatingly difficult. It’s as if his very personality – the collection of wants and desires that defined him as an individual – had been systematically erased. His loved ones say it’s like living with a stranger, and one that has no scruples.

The crucial importance of our emotions – the fact that we can’t make decisions without them – contradicts the conventional view of human nature, with its ancient philosophical roots. For most of the 20th century, the ideal of rationality was supported by scientific descriptions of human anatomy.

The brain was envisioned as four separate layers, stacked in ascending order of complexity. (The cortex was like an archaeological site; the deeper you dug, the further back in time you travelled.) Scientists explained the anatomy of the human brain in this manner: at its bottom was the brain stem, which governed the most basic bodily functions. It controlled heart beat, breathing and body temperature. Above that was the diencephalon, which regulated hunger pangs and sleep cycles.

ofc-2Then came the limbic region, which generated animal emotions. It was the source of lust, violence and impulsive behaviour. (Human beings shared these three brain layers with every other mammal.) Finally, there was the magnificent frontal cortex – the masterpiece of evolution – which was responsible for reason, intelligence and morality. These convolutions of grey matter allowed each of us to resist urges and suppress emotions. In other words, the rational fourth layer of the brain allowed us to ignore the first three layers. We were the only species able to rebel against primitive feelings and make decisions that were dispassionate and deliberate.

But this anatomical narrative is false. The expansion of the frontal cortex during human evolution did not turn us into purely rational creatures, able to ignore our impulses. In fact, neuroscience now shows that the opposite is true: a significant part of our frontal cortex is involved with emotion. David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher who delighted in heretical ideas, was right when he declared that reason was “the slave of the passions”.

How does this emotional brain system work? The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the part of the brain that Elliot was missing, is responsible for integrating visceral emotions into decision-making. It connects the feelings generated by the “primitive” brain – areas such as the brain stem and the amygdala, which is in the limbic system – to the stream of conscious thought.

When a person is drawn to a specific receiver, or a certain entree on the menu, or a particular romantic prospect, the mind is trying to tell him that he should choose that option. It has already assessed the alternatives (this analysis takes place outside of conscious awareness) and converted that assessment into a positive emotion. When he smells a food he doesn’t like, or glimpses a former girlfriend, it is the OFC that makes him want to get away. The world is full of things, and it is our feelings that help us choose among them.

When this neural connection is severed – when our OFCs can’t comprehend our own emotions – we lose access to the wealth of opinions we normally rely on. It’s impossible to make decent decisions. This is why the OFC is one of the few cortical regions that are markedly larger in humans than they are in other primates. While Plato and Freud would have guessed that the job of the OFC was to protect us from our emotions, to fortify reason against feeling, its actual function is precisely the opposite. Humans are the most emotional animal of all.

This is an edited extract from Jonah Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment: How The Brain Makes Up Its Mind, to be published next week in Australia by Text Publishing.

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The USA has a new president but an old problem – and nothing typifies it like today’s Ku Klux Klan. The photographer Anthony Karen gained unprecedented access to the ‘Invisible Empire’

Leonard Doyle, The Independent

These images show members of the Ku Klux Klan as they want to be seen, scary and secretive and waiting in the wings for Barack and his colour-blind vision for America to fail. Anthony Karen, a former Marine and self-taught photojournalist was granted access to the innermost sanctum of the Klan. He doesn’t tell us how he did it but he was considered trustworthy enough to be invited into their homes and allowed to photograph their most secretive ceremonies, such as the infamous cross burnings.

When he talks about the Klan members he has encountered he tends not to dwell on the fate of their victims. Karen’s feat is that he takes us to places few photojournalists have been before, into the belly of the beast. The scenes he presents portray a kinder, gentler Klan. The mute photographs present an organisation that is far less threatening than the hate group of our popular imagination. Consciously or otherwise, his photographs hold our imagination in their grip while doing double duty as propaganda for the extremist right, much as Leni Riefenstahl’s work did for the Nazis.

Today the Klan is a mere shadow of what it used to be and there are at least 34 differently named Klan groups. “They are a fairly low-rent bunch of people, many of whom use their local organisations as a way of raising money for themselves,” says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

Photographs of the Klan folk in their hooded regalia aren’t all that rare. The archives of America’s newspapers contain plenty of front-page photographs of lynchings throughout the past century. Three years ago, James Cameron, the last survivor of an attempted lynching died, thankfully of natural causes.

The older generation of Black Americans grew up hearing about Klan lynchings whispered over the dinner table but never mentioned outside the home. At the Klan’s height, around the turn of the 20th century, some 30 to 40 lynchings a year were being recorded. It is believed that there were in fact many more unrecorded deaths, especially in the cotton-growing south where the deaths of black field-hands were often not recorded.

Karen’s photographs show an entirely different side of the far right. He presents a 58-year-old, fifth-generation seamstress he calls “Ms Ruth” and he has photographed her running up an outfit for the “Exalted Cyclops” or head of a local KKK chapter. She gets paid about $140 for her trouble. Karen tells us that she uses the earnings to help care for her 40-year-old quadriplegic daughter, who was injured in a car accident 10 years ago.

Karen’s images of the Klan and its supporters regularly appear on the recruiting websites of the far right. Out of context, the images of hooded Klansmen and their families tell us little of the real story – the inexorable rise in the number of extremist organisations in America.

The number of hate-crime victims in the US is also rising and as America’s middle and working class gets thrown out of work, the hate groups behind the crimes are flourishing. As people lose their homes to foreclosure and, without the benefit of a safety net, find themselves slipping into poverty, there is already a search for scapegoats underway. Immigrants from central and South America have become particular targets as the grim economic times take hold.

Anyone who doubts the capacity of the modern KKK for violence need look no further than the recent case of 43-year-old Cynthia Lynch of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She had never been out of her home state before she travelled to Louisiana to be initiated into the Klan. She was met off the bus by two members of a group that calls itself the Sons of Dixie and taken to a campsite in the woods 60 miles north of New Orleans.

There, Lynch’s head was shaven and after 24 hours of Klan boot camp, including chanting and running with torches, she had had enough and asked to be taken to town. After an argument, the group’s “Grand Lordship”, Chuck Foster, is alleged to have shot her to death. He was charged with second-degree murder and is awaiting trial. Just as shocking is that the event happened in Bogalusa, a backwoods Louisiana town that was once known as the Klan capital of the US.

In the 1960s the Klan operated with impunity in Bogalusa and once held a public meeting to decide which black church to burn down next. Local Klan members were suspected of ambushing two black policemen in 1965, killing one and wounding the other. No one was ever tried for the crimes.

Despite all its notoriety the Klan has been a spent force for decades with nothing like the clout it once wielded. At its peak the KKK boasted four million members and controlled the governor’s mansions and legislatures of several states. Since the 1930s the KKK has been in a state of disorganisation and today it probably has 6,000 members. But the economic crisis is swelling their ranks and already, a month after the inauguration of the first black president, the tidal wave of interracial harmony that greeted Obama’s election is starting to recede.

“Things are certain to get worse,” says Potok. “The ingredients are all there: a dire economy that is certain to get worse; high levels of immigration; the white majority that is soon to turn into a minority and a black man in the White House.”

More than 400 hate-related incidents, from cross-burnings to effigies of President Obama hanging from nooses have been reported, according to law-enforcement authorities and Potok’s organisation, which files lawsuits against hate groups aimed at making them bankrupt.

Late last year, two suspected skinheads who had links to a violent Klan chapter in Kentucky were charged with plotting to kill 88 black students. They were then going to assassinate President Obama by blasting him from a speeding car while wearing white tuxedos and top hats. They were never going to succeed, given the huge security net around Obama, but the fact that they had planned such an outlandish attack may be a harbinger of things to come.

“There is a tremendous backlash to Obama’s election,” says Richard Barrett, the leader of the Nationalist Movement, another white supremacist group. “Many people look at the flag of the Republic of New Africa that was hoisted over the White House as an act of war.

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Our media aren’t always known for unprejudiced reporting, or let’s say a little bit less prejudiced. Piracy of the Somali coast is as much an example as using the unquestioned  the image of the 17 century and peddling half truths. The following Huffington Post article looks a bit deeper at the piracy phenomenon – past and present. “pirate” to cover up for lazy journalism

You Are Being Lied to About Pirates
Johann Hari
Huffington Post

Who imagined that in 2009, the world’s governments would be declaring a new War on Pirates? As you read this, the British Royal Navy – backed by the ships of more than two dozen nations, from the US to China – is sailing into Somalian waters to take on men we still picture as parrot-on-the-shoulder pantomime villains. They will soon be fighting Somalian ships and even chasing the pirates onto land, into one of the most broken countries on earth. But behind the arrr-me-hearties oddness of this tale, there is an untold scandal. The people our governments are labeling as “one of the great menace of our times” have an extraordinary story to tell — and some justice on their side.

pistol-pirate-bustPirates have never been quite who we think they are. In the “golden age of piracy” – from 1650 to 1730 – the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage thief that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda-heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often rescued from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What did they see that we can’t? In his book Villains of All nations, the historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence to find out. If you became a merchant or navy sailor then – plucked from the docks of London’s East End, young and hungry – you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the Cat O’ Nine Tails. If you slacked consistently, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.

Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied against their tyrannical captains – and created a different way of working on the seas. Once they had a ship, the pirates elected their captains, and made all their decisions collectively. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker calls “one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the eighteenth century.” They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The pirates showed “quite clearly – and subversively – that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal navy.” This is why they were popular, despite being unproductive thieves.

The words of one pirate from that lost age – a young British man called William Scott – should echo into this new age of piracy. Just before he was hanged in Charleston, South Carolina, he said: “What I did was to keep me from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirating to live.” In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia’s unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”

piratesThis is the context in which the men we are calling “pirates” have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a ‘tax’ on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and it’s not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was “to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters… We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.” William Scott would understand those words.

No, this doesn’t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But the “pirates” have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking – and it found 70 percent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country’s territorial waters.” During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and America’s founding fathers paid pirates to protect America’s territorial waters, because they had no navy or coastguard of their own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn’t act on those crimes – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world’s oil supply, we begin to shriek about “evil.” If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause – our crimes – before we send in the gun-boats to root out Somalia’s criminals.

The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know “what he meant by keeping possession of the sea.” The pirate smiled, and responded: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.” Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today – but who is the robber?

Good to see that the electric car push is gaining momentum. Governments in Israel, Britain, California, Hawaii and many other places have made a commitment to invest in infrastructure for electric cars (see links below); now Renault has declared its full commitment to the technology – as Autoblog Green reports:


    “While it’s sister company, Nissan, may still be chasing after hybrids and dreaming of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV), reports say that Renault has had enough. It’s dropped the duo and has decided it wants to go steady with electric vehicles. Company COO Patrick Pelata has let it be known that all its research and development resources will be be strictly focused on battery-powered locomotion and that they hope to have a third of the Renault line-up electric in 10 years.
    In the near term, the French automaker will focus on three particular models equipped with batteries from NEC to give them all over 100 miles of range. They include an electric version of the Kangoo, a sedan to fulfill its Better Place commitment in Israel but also with European availability as well as a smaller 5-seat hatchback. Renault is also said to still be flirting with a battery lease and swap model.”
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This site claims to have the world’s best photos of Melbourne’s street art, and given that it probably is the only site of its kind this claim might be hard to dispute. Nevertheless: the quantity of photos and quality of street art presented are indeed absolutely tops. If you like street art, go and visit this site! (The only downside: since the site’s images are simply reference-linked to Flickr sites, there is of course no information about the artists – it’s just a big collection of people’s photos).






A section of the installation: US Army: Return to sender




A section of the installation: US Army: Return to sender

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China certainly follows our failed Western model … more cars, less public transport, more environmental damage …

beijing-car-pollutionThe total number of cars for civilian use in China rose 24.5% in 2008 from 2007 to 24.38 million, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Private-owned cars numbered 19.47 million, representing a 28.0% increase over 2007.

The total number of motor vehicles for civilian use reached 64.67 million (including 14.92 million tri-wheel motor vehicles and low-speed trucks) by the end of 2008, up 13.5%, of which private-owned vehicles numbered 41.73 million, up 18.1%.

Passenger traffic on all modes of transportation climbed 8.2% year-on-year to 23,372.2 million person-kilometers. Of that, highway passenger traffic increased 9.8% to 12,636.0 million person-kilometers, representing 54% of all passenger traffic. Rail passenger traffic increased 7.8% to 7,778.6 million person-kilometers, civil aviation passenger traffic increased 3.3% to 2,882.8 million person-kilometers, and waterway traffic dropped 3.8% to 74.8 million person-kilometers.

China’s GDP grew 9.0% year-on-year in 2008 to 30.067 trillion yuan (US$4.4 trillion), up by 9.0 percent over the previous year. That growth rate represented a sharp drop from the 2006 to 2007 growth of 13.0%.

[Green Car Congress]

By F. William Engdahl
Global Research, February 26, 2009

Despite the problems of the ruble and the weak oil price in recent months for the Russian economy, the Russian Government is pursuing a very active foreign policy strategy. Its elements focus on countering the continuing NATO encirclement policy of Washington, with often clever diplomatic initiatives on its Eurasian periphery. Taking advantage of the cool relations between Washington and longtime NATO ally, Turkey, Moscow has now invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to a four day state visit to discuss a wide array of economic and political cooperation issues.

turkey-russiaIn addition to opening to Turkey, a vital transit route for natural gas to western Europe, Russia is also working to firm an economic space with Belarus and other former Soviet republics to firm its alliances. Moscow delivered a major blow to the US military encirclement strategy in Central Asia when it succeeded earlier this month in convincing Kyrgystan, with the help of major financial aid, to cancel US military airbase rights at Manas, a major blow to US escalation plans in Afghanistan.

In short, Moscow is demonstrating it is far from out of the new Great Game for influence over Eurasia.

Warmer Turkish relations

The Government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has shown increasing impatience with not only Washington policies in the Middle East, but also the refusal of the European Union to seriously consider Turkey’s bid to join the EU. In the situation, it’s natural that Turkey would seek some counterweight to what had been since the Cold War overwhelming US influence in Turkish politics. Russia’s Putin and Medvedev have no problem opening such a dialogue, much to Washington’s dismay.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a four-day visit to the Russian Federation from February 12 to 15, where he met with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and also travelled to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, where he discussed joint investments. Gul was accompanied by his state minister responsible for foreign trade, and Minister of Energy, as well as a large delegation of Turkish businessmen. Foreign Minister Ali Babacan joined the delegation.

Visit to Tatarstan

The fact that Gul’s Moscow visit also included a stop in Tatarstan, the largest autonomous republic in Russian Federation whose population mainly consists of Muslim Tatar Turks, is a sign how much relations between Ankara and Moscow have improved in recent months as Turkey has cooled to Washington foreign policy. In previous years, Moscow was convinced that Turkey was trying to establish Pan-Turanism in the Caucasus and Central Asia and inside the Russian Federation, a huge concern in Moscow. Today clearly Turkish relations with Turk entities inside the Russian Federation are not considered suspicious as it was once, confirming a new mood of mutual trust.

Russia elevated Gul’s trip from the previously announced status of an ‘official visit’ to a ‘state visit,’ the highest level of state protocol, indicating the value Moscow now attaches to Turkey. Gul and Medvedev signed a joint declaration announcing their commitment to deepening mutual friendship and multi-dimensional cooperation. The declaration mirrors a previous ‘Joint Declaration on the Intensification of Friendship and Multidimensional Partnership,’ signed during a 2004 visit by then-President Putin.

DWF15-1088562Turkish-Russian economic ties have greatly expanded over the past decade, with trade volume reaching $32 billion in 2008, making Russia Turkey’s number one partner. Given this background, bilateral economic ties were a major item on Gul’s agenda and both leaders expressed their satisfaction with the growing commerce between their countries.

Cooperation in energy is the major area. Turkey’s gas and oil imports from Russia account for most of the trade volume. Russian press reports indicate that the two sides are interested in improving cooperation in energy transportation lines carrying Russian gas to European markets through Turkey, the project known as Blue Stream-2. Previously Ankara had been cool to the proposal. The recent completion of the Russian Blue Stream gas pipeline under Black Sea increased Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas from 66 percent up to 80 percent. Furthermore, Russia is beginning to see Turkey as a transit country for its energy resources rather than simply an export market, the significance of Blue Stream 2.

Russia is also eager to play a major part in Turkey’s attempts to diversify its energy sources. A Russian-led consortium won the tender for the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant recently, but as the price offered for electricity was above world prices, the future of the project, awaiting parliamentary approval, remains unclear. Prior to Gul’s Moscow trip, the Russian consortium submitted a revised offer, reducing the price by 30 percent. If this revision is found legal under the tender rules, the positive mood during Gul’s trip may indicate the Turkish government is ready to give the go-ahead for the project.

Russia’s market also plays a major role for Turkish overseas investments and exports. Russia is one of the main customers for Turkish construction firms and a major destination for Turkish exports. Similarly, millions of Russian tourists bring significant revenues to Turkey every year.

Importantly, Turkey and Russia may start to use the Turkish lira and the Russian ruble in foreign trade, which could increase Turkish exports to Russia, as well as weakening dependence on dollar mediation.

Post-Cold War tensions reduced

However the main message of Gul’s visit was the fact of the development of stronger political ties between the two. Both leaders repeated the position that, as the two major powers in the area, cooperation between Russia and Turkey was essential to regional peace and stability. That marked a dramatic change from the early 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Washington encouraged Ankara to move into historically Ottoman regions of the former Soviet Union to counter Russia’s influence.

In the 1990’s in sharp contrast to the tranquillity of the Cold War era, talk of regional rivalries, revived ‘Great Games’ in Eurasia, confrontations in the Caucasus and Central Asia were common. Turkey was becoming once more Russia’s natural geopolitical rival as in the 19th Century. Turkey’s quasi-alliance with Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia until recently led Moscow to view Turkey as a formidable rival. The regional military balance developed in favor of Turkey in Black Sea and the Southern Caucasus. After the disintegration of the USSR, the Black Sea became a de facto ‘NATO lake.’ As Russia and Ukraine argued over the division of the Black Sea fleet and status of Sevastopol, the Black Sea became an area for NATO’S Partnership for Peace exercises.

By contrast, at the end of the latest Moscow visit, Gul declared, ‘Russia and Turkey are neighboring countries that are developing their relations on the basis of mutual confidence. I hope this visit will in turn give a new character to our relations.’ Russia praised Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives in the region.

Medvedev commended Turkey’s actions during the Russian-Georgian war last summer and Turkey’s subsequent proposal for the establishment of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP). The Russian President said the Georgia crisis had shown their ability to deal with such problems on their own without the involvement of outside powers, meaning Washington. Turkey had proposed the CSCP, bypassing Washington and not seeking transatlantic consensus on Russia. Since then, Turkey has indicated its intent to follow a more independent foreign policy.

defense-shield-protestThe Russian aim is to use its economic resources to counter the growing NATO encirclement, made severe by the Washington decision to place missile and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic aimed at Moscow. To date the Obama Administration has indicated it will continue the Bush ‘missile defense’ policy. Washington also just agreed to place US Patriot missiles in Poland, clearly not aimed at Germany, but at Russia.

Following Gul’s visit, some press in Turkey described Turkish-Russian relations as a ‘strategic partnership,’ a label traditionally used for Turkish-American relations. Following Gül’s visit, Medyedev will go to Turkey to follow up the issues with concrete cooperation proposals. The Turkish-Russian cooperation is a further indication of how the once overwhelming US influence in Eurasia has been eroded by the events of recent US foreign policy in the region.

Washington is waking up to find it confronted with Sir Halford Mackinder’s ‘worst nightmare.’ Mackinder, the ‘father’ of 20th Century British geopolitics, stressed the importance of Britain (and after 1945 USA) preventing strategic cooperation among the great powers of Eurasia.

F. William Engdahl is author of A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order (Pluto Press) and Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation( ). His new book, Full Spectrum Dominance: Totalitarian Democracy in the New World Order (Third Millennium Press) is doe for release in late Spring 2009. He may be reached via his website: .

Further links:

Of course, that’s not all, but it’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. Reflecting on it now though I have to say that Angus Kidman makes a good point in his Lifehacker post (below). No wonder my photos turn out to be so mediocre … 😉 .


Photography is a visual medium, but that doesn’t mean visual skills are the only ones that matter if you want to take great photographs. According to Paul Hermann, a photographer for 20 years and director of the photography collective Red Eye, the successful photographers he has met all have several traits, including obvious ones like an original vision and a solid work ethic. But as he explained during a presentation on successful freelance photography at the Focus On Imaging conference in Birmingham, they also have a less obvious common trait: they’re all well-read and curious about a wide range of topics. “They all have an interest in the world, they read a lot,” Hermann explained. Being better informed translates into more ideas and more original images. That’s something you don’t need specialised equipment to achieve, and it’s something you can use to stand out in a hyper-crowded market. As Hermann pointed out: “There’s vastly more people who want to become photographers than can be.”

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Edgar Mueller – 3D pavement art

Posted: February 28, 2009 in creativity

My mate Harry sent me a link a couple of days ago to Edgar Mueller’s 3D pavement art (or sidewalk art, chalk art or street painting). It’s street art, and even though from my perspective it doesn’t have the rawness and depth of meaning of graffiti art that I like so much, it nevertheless is impressive in terms of its effect. The following three examples were taken from Mueller’s website, and was the video showing how he creates his work.



On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the international competition of street painters in Geldern (Germany) Edgar Mueller painted a large this three-dimensional picture, creating an apocalyptic scenery which invites people to becoming part of the image as actors (like in this case pretending to reach over to each other across the illusionary gap).


Flash Flood

The first of Edgar Müller’s series of large-sized street paintings was created in Moose Jaw (Canada-Saskatchewan) on the occasion of the Prairie Arts festival in summer 2007. “Turning Riverstreet into a River” is the biggest three-dimensional street painting ever done. 280 m² were covered with paint. With the help of local artists Mueller turned the street into a river ending in an enormous waterfall.


Ice Age

In Dun Laoghaire, at the occasion of the “Festival of World Culture”, Müller continued his series of large-sized 3D Pavement Art. He turned a part of the eastern Pier into the Ice Age. This project was supported by the German Goethe Institute Germany. The video clip below gives some insight into how Mueller creates his work.

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footprintNever trust politicians. The Rudd government’s carbon emission trading scheme is just another example. There are many argument’s that can be made against such schemes in general, like that they have never worked overseas (in Europe for example), they have never reduced carbon emissions, they benefitted the big polluters, despite their ineffectiveness they led to price rises across the board for energy (meaning unadulterated, tax payer and consumer funded profit for the energy sector), etc.. But for the time being we can leave these points aside and focus on another one that demonstrates the Rudd government’s deceitful strategies: the emission reduction’s cap of 5-15% by 2020 based on our emissions in 2000.

Again, apart from the woefulness of such target in the face of scientific evidence on global warming, the scheme is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. We can turn off our lights or appliances on standby, we can change our light globes, we can give money to carbon offset projects (which generally are a rip-off anyway), we can walk and use our bikes instead petrol driven vehicles, find appliances with high energy ratings, turn off our air conditioners, we can even use the free ceiling insulation the government is promising us – it’s all of little avail. The problem is that the cap is not only a ceiling but also a floor; it defines both the upper and the lower limit at the same time. That means that all the energy we save will be made up again by extra emissions from industrial polluters. We reduce, they increase – and they’ll even charge us more money despite their extra emissions, claiming costs incurred by the emission trading scheme.

The government scheme is a zero sum game, and it is designed to support industry and delude the public. And so far the government is doing a good job. The main industrial polluters like steel, aluminium, mining, liquid gas and cement industries,  are being promised free carbon credits (the same thing happened in Europe, which was one reason why the scheme there didn’t work), and the average person in the street so far has been successfully kept in the dark. Here is an example for how the government operates: at the beginning of this week, the minister for climate change, Penny Wong, was not able to explain to viewers of the ABC‘s current affairs program (the) 7.30 Report how her own Carbon Emission Trading Scheme actually worked … well, not being able or not wanting – the effect of course is the same: people were not made wiser.

But the government doesn’t just keep us in the dark on what it sells us as its key environmental policy, it also spruiks the idea that “households and individuals should be able to contribute to reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions“. As part of its 42 billion dollar ‘stimulus package’ it puts at our disposal, as already mentioned, free ceiling insulation and, in addition,  subsidies for hot water systems (our plumber just this week already offered us his unsolicited help). Rudd tells us that this “energy-efficient homes initiative” could “result in reductions of greenhouse emissions by 49.9 million tonnes by 2020, or the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road”. Given that he knows what effect the cap will have, he consciously lies. And, by the way, the main beneficiaries from his promises will be the manufacturers of these products who, as polluters, are also part of the problem the governemnt largesse is pretending to address.

But it’s not just the prime minister who deceives us; Penny Wong does the same. She wrote in a newspaper article at the beginning of this week that the critique of the cap-and-trade-abatement scheme is based on a misunderstanding. “Some argue that household action simply frees up carbon pollution permits for others to use,” she said. “In fact, individual and community action to be more energy efficient not only saves them money, it will contribute directly to Australia meeting our emissions reductions targets. Strong household action also helps make it easier for governments to set even more ambitious targets in the future.” This is typical politician’s weasel speak. Of course, arithmetically speaking, our actions can save money and contribute to reduction targets; but her statement does not address the actual issue: that the reduction in emissions we might create will be eliminated by the increase of emissions generated by polluting industries (like the government’s solar rebate scheme). (And as for “ambitious targets”: the current ones set by the government do not engender much trust in those yet unspecified future trajectories.)

What effects do all these obfuscating lies have on the electorate’s information level? The Australia Institute recently conducted a poll to find out what people think about the effects on greenhouse gas emissions “if every household in Australia reduced their electricity use in the future”. About 8 per cent weren’t sure, but 78 per cent said our total emissions would go down. Only 13 per cent got the right answer, that total emissions would stay the same. That is a seriously misinformed electorate, which means, sadly, that the government’s misleading propaganda is working. Let’s challenge them!


The grass-roots community advocacy organisation GetUp! – Action for Australia is currently running a campaign against the Rudd government’s deceitful policy actions. Click here to go to their website if you want to support their mass mailing efforts to call directly on Kevin Rudd to come clean and change his planned emission reduction policy.

[Further links: check the Australia Institute’s website for a range of papers on this issue]

[Some of the above mentioned quotes and statistics were taken from a Sydney Morning Herald Article by Ross Gittins und the title Emission impossible: the sad truth“]

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