Articles of Interest: Mercenaries and Fragmented Forests

How private military contractors are changing the future of warfare…

The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Technology allows [private armed groups] to punch above their weight class. And technology’s ever cheaper, ever more available, and so drones and other types of technologies—weapons systems, night-vision goggles—that’s all on the open market as well. So we’ve got an open market for force, swishing around with these markets of technologies. Supply and demand are going to find each other, and that allows a very small group of people to do some big damage.

Forests are fragmenting, at great cost to biodiversity…

[M]ore than 70% of remaining forest is within just 1km (about 0.6 miles) of an edge, while a 100 metre stroll from an edge would enable you to reach 20% of global forests … In Europe and the U.S., the vast majority of forest is within 1km of an edge – some of the most “remote” areas in these regions are a stones throw from human activity.

If you want remote forests on a large scale you’ll have to head to the Amazon, the Congo, or to a lesser degree, central and far eastern Russia, central Borneo and Papua New Guinea.

[B]y drawing together scientific evidence from seven long-term fragmentation experiments, Haddad and colleagues show that fragmentation reduces biodiversity by up to 75%. This exacerbates the extinction risk of millions of forest species, many of which we still don’t know much about.

The survival of large, carbon-rich trees – the building blocks of any intact forest ecosystem – is reduced in smaller and more isolated forest fragments. These patches thus fail to maintain viable populations, which over time are doomed – an “extinction debt” yet to be paid.

There is nothing wrong with technology in the classroom…

Students who have adapted to and now rely on using technology shouldn’t be cut off from this resource in the classroom. Many students use technological tools to overcome learning differences, to organize information, to engage in discussions that help them think through material. And they are more successful because of it. Some students with learning challenges have adapted to using technology without having to report a disability and announce that disability to their classmates or professors. Professors might not know that students in their classrooms are dealing with learning disabilities and are succeeding because of assistive technology. These students may not be registered with the “Office of Disability Services”, they might not be “diagnosed”, and have their learning differences medicalized — but then again, why should they have to in order to use the tools that help them?

Where the world’s economic elites live…

London is on top, besting New York City, which fell to fourth place. San Francisco, previously number four, has fallen out of the top 20 entirely. Singapore rises into the top 10, to number three, and Hong Kong is up three spots from 2013, to five. The top 10 also has two new European entrants: Frankfurt has the sixth most ultra-high-net individuals, and Paris has the seventh. Osaka, Beijing, and Zurich round out the top 10.

The dominance of Asian cities illustrates a larger trend. For the first time, Asia overtook North America as the region with the second-largest growth in ultra-high-net individuals. The wealthy in Asia also now hold more money overall than those in North America: $5.9 trillion compared to $5.5 trillion. However, Europe still reigns supreme, with the greatest growth in the number of super-rich and with the wealthiest super-rich overall. Europe’s high-net individuals hold $6.4 trillion.

[Adjusted for population,] smaller cities dominate. Geneva tops the list, with 144 super-rich individuals per 100,000 residents, followed by Swiss counterpart Zurich, with 71. Home to fabled Swiss banks, these cities have long been the favored locations of global plutocrats. As the table below shows, Singapore and Hong Kong retain their high placement, ranking third and fifth, respectively. London drops to eighth, New York to 19th, Paris to 24th and Tokyo to 32nd.

Two Tragic Blows To Freedom Of Conscience

Over the past weekend, two prominent figures in activism and politics were killed.

On February 26, Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American engineer, writer, columnist, and secular activist, was hacked to death by extremist Islamists while he and his wife were riding home from a book fair in the country’s capital, Dhaka (his spouse survived).

Roy founded and wrote for Mukto-Mona, an Internet community for freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. He was a prominent advocate of free expression in Bangladesh and human rights, coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. He had long received death threats for his taboo works.

The following day, Boris Nemtsov, one of the few major opposition leaders and critics of the Putin administration, was shot in the back by unknown assassins while walking on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow.

A physicist with a storied political career since the tumultuous 1990s, at the time of his death, Nemtsov was working to organize a rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the country’s financial crisis. He was working with Russian journalist Kseniya Sobchak on a report proving the presence of Russian military in eastern Ukraine.

A long-time organizer of protests against the government, Nemtsov came into conflict with the government several times over issues of corruption, human rights violations, and policy abuses. In the weeks before his death, he expressed fear that Putin would have him killed, yet continued with plans to hold the rally. His last tweet called for Russia’s divided opposition to unite for an anti-war march.

The Enduring Lies About The Iraq War

I began systematically to investigate the answers to those and other related questions, enlisting the help of a team of reporters, researchers and other contributors that ultimately included 25 people. Nearly three years later, the Center for Public Integrity published Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word report with an online searchable database. [4] It was released on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was covered extensively by the national and international news media.

Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to US national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. Perhaps most revealing: the number of false statements made by top Bush administration officials dramatically increased from August 2002 to the time of the critical October 2002 congressional approval of the war resolution and spiked even higher between January and March 2003, between Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address before the United Nations General Assembly and the fateful March 19, 2003, invasion.

— Charles Lewis, in an excerpt of 935 Lies available at BillMoyers.com

My Ambivalence on Human Nature

It is astounding how just a cursory glance of the human condition at any given moment can simultaneously yield so much good and evil. Browsing through one day’s worth of news, I can find such a mixed bag of humanity’s best and worst tendencies. It puts my mood in such a flux.

I will read an article about an altruistic act, a peace accord, the lifting of millions from poverty, or some other event on either a micro or macro level that demonstrates moral and social progress. Then right after I see some stomach-churning demonstration of cruelty, whether it is a heinous crime, warfare, or the immiseration of millions by a seemingly impervious regime.

After so many weeks, months, and years of taking it all in, both academically and autodidactically, it is difficult for me to be consistently cynical or optimistic about the course of humanity. Perhaps this is to be expected, since our thoughts and worldviews are shaped by our experience and knowledge, both of which are continuously changing.

As it stands, I suppose I am currently cautiously optimistic, because we have nonetheless come a long way as a species, even if innumerable vices and problems remain. I see the potential for progress and prosperity, even amid so many reminders of our proneness to fallibility, apathy, and hatred.

I think it is worth acknowledging that suffering would remain even with the best intentions. There are still the vagaries of natural disasters, disease, and simple misfortune (accidents and what not). The impact of all these factors can and have been reigned in, but I feel it is only up to a point.

Sorry if my thoughts seem all over the place, this was sort of a stream of consciousness. It goes without saying that I am fortunate to have the luxury to pontificate on such things in so much comfort, largely by an accident of birth.

 

The World in Photos This Week (By Foreign Policy)

In this week’s installment, Russia celebrates the May 9th anniversary of its defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945; India and South Africa undergo momentous elections; Greek civil servants protest another paycut; Afghans recover from deadly mudslides; and more.

These are just a fraction of the stories that play out all around us every second of our lives.

Happy 95th birthday to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

 The South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. One of the most recognizable and beloved figures in the world, he was the first black national in his position, and the first to be elected in a fully representative and multiracial election. 

Working as a lawyer in his youth, he was repeatedly arrested for sedition and prosecuted for treason. Although initially committed to nonviolent protest, he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, which led a bombing campaign against government targets. In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment; he served 27 years before being freed in 1990, amid great civil strife and international pressure (he was released by F. W. de Klerk, who would later work with Mandela and others to end apartheid).

As president, Mandela formed a Government of National Unity to defuse ethnic tensions, established one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, and initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. His administration introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services. He declined to run for a second term, and has since spent his time focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation. 

Mandela was controversial throughout his life, labeled by many critics as a terrorist and communist sympathiser. He was nevertheless the subject of international acclaim for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid stance, as well as for his relaxed charm, humanitarianism, and moral authority. He has subsequently received over 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize (which he shared with de Klerk). 

Unsurprisingly, he is deeply loved in South Africa, where is widely considered to be the father of the nation, and where he is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name of Madiba, or as “Tata,” meaning father. He remains in a hospital for the 41st day, but is said to be steadily improving.

New NPR Special: Losing Our Religion

I’m a big fan of NPR, as it has helped me through many a long and stressful commute with its solid reporting and interesting talk shows. The public broadcaster (which, contrary to popular belief, is overwhelmingly self-sufficient),  never seems to run out of quality programming. Just this past Sunday, it began a new daily special Losing Our Religion, which explores the various issues concerning the secular community here in the United States. Continue reading

Weekly News Wire

According to a Reuters report, if things don’t change, nearly half of all Americans will be obese, leading to unprecedented financial, social, and medical costs. At this rate, the next few generations are projected to be the first in nearly a century that will have a lower life-expectancy than their parents. I’m not sure if the sources cited in the article are valid, but I’ve read similar projections elsewhere.

Meanwhile, another report from Reuters cites a 20-nation study that found that over 100 million people will die by 2030 if climate change isn’t addressed (owing to extreme weather, droughts, rising sea levels, and the spread of tropical diseases). What will it take to get the world to take action on this issue? Even if we wait for all those people to die, by then the damage may be irreperable.

A Foreign Policy article has found that a growing number of Americans have become more hawkish in their foreign policy views, with far more people claiming to approve of torture and assasination of known terrorist now than in 2005 (as opposed to suspected terrorists, which I suppose mitigates things a bit). One of the main culprits of this growing acceptance? Possibly entertainment media: frequent TV watchers were more likely to be pro-torture/assassination than less frequent viewers.

Weekly News Wire

The US healthcare system wastes $750 billion a year, giving lie to the conventional wisdom that the private sector is always more efficient. I think the immense profit motive has a lot to do with it.

Will North Korea’s infamously repressive state ever loosen its grip? It may be inevitable, for if history is any guide, authoritarian regimes don’t last forever (though they sure hang in there). I hope I live to see a united Korea.

Students of poor and working-class backgrounds suffer from timidness and deference to authority.  This is hardly surprising given their situation at home. Unfortunately, it will lead to permanent intellectual and professional stagnation. Yet more reason why the US needs to focus on our unusually high child poverty rate (the second highest in the OECD, in fact). Too bad it’s not as major election issue…

Companies continue to rake in profits while average workers work more for less. Is it still the fault of business regulations and “big” government that these companies refuse to hire or raise wages? The data is clear: companies are making more money but forgoing investing in their workers, and they’re exploiting the desperation for jobs in order to squeeze more out of workers. Yet even many of the victims of this practice seem oblivious as to where the fault lies…

Apparently, arguing with your teenage child can be beneficial in the long run. It teaches them useful debating skills and gives them the courage and confidence to stand up for themselves. I was quite the argumentative one when I was young, so I’d like to think that it’s paid off!

News Wire August 3, 2012