10 January 2004

Herbal medicine boom threatens plants

The multimillion-pound boom in herbal medicine is threatening to wipe out up to a fifth of the plant species on which it depends, wrecking their natural habitats and jeopardising the health of millions of people in developing countries. And yet the herbal medicines industry has been accused of doing nothing about it.

Most people around the globe use herbal medicine for everyday healthcare, with as many as 80 per cent relying on it in some countries. But two-thirds of the 50,000 medicinal plants in use are still harvested from the wild, and research to be published later in 2004 suggests that between 4000 and 10,000 of them may now be endangered.

A study by Alan Hamilton, a plant specialist from the global environment network WWF, will point out that the market for herbal remedies in North America and Europe has been expanding by about 10 per cent a year for the last decade and the world market is now thought to be worth at least �11 billion. Many of the plants are harvested by poor communities in India and China whose livelihoods will suffer if the plants die out.

'It's an extremely serious problem,' Hamilton told New Scientist. He is a member of the World Conservation Union's Medicinal Plants Specialist Group, and has drawn his estimates of the number of species at risk from expert analyses of the IUCN's Red List of threatened plants. His study is due to be published in Biodiversity and Conservation.

Wow. I predict dramatic scenes in Newtown and Glebe as the news spreads.

Fornicating with Mr Darcy

Not long after her extraordinary discovery of the lost sex scenes of Jane Austen, Arielle Eckstut went on radio to discuss her find. She was joined by the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and a mysterious academic called Dr Elfrida Drummond. Both listened, enthralled, as Eckstut recounted the moment when, in a 'grand manor' in Britain, she was battling to open an old window and accidentally dislodged a small wooden box that had been hidden there for almost two centuries.

Inside was something beyond imagining: pages and pages covered in an exacting hand, detailing sex scenes between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Charlotte and Mr Collins, a not entirely successful encounter between Knightley and Churchill from Emma, and more. Austen, an author famed for her control over the unsaid, had apparently said it all, in explicit detail, but the scenes had been excised by a hidebound editor. Austen's heated correspondence with him was in the box, too.

A devotee of Austen's books, Eckstut was astonished and delighted by her discovery, and published a book, Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen. It was introduced by 'the most conservative of all modern Austen scholars', the Oxford-based Drummond, who announced that Eckstut had taken the accepted picture of the great author and turned it on its head. The radio station was inundated with calls from people wanting to find out more, and Eckstut was contacted by a doctoral student at Oxford University, who said he couldn't find Dr Drummond listed on the faculty records. Could Eckstut please supply him with contact details?

Very gently - though with some satisfaction - Eckstut pointed out to the young man that the radio program was broadcast on April 1. Dr Elfrida Drummond was, she explained, a fictitious character played by Eckstut's husband. Eckstut has indeed published a book of sex scenes between the most famous of Austen's characters, but it is a parody, 'a loving homage'.

Mr Darcy hadn't really 'put his hands on Elizabeth's breasts and pushed up each soft globe so that both were near escaping the rim of her chemise'. And Austen certainly didn't write about Charlotte dressing up in one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's old dresses, giving Mr Collins a sound whipping while he crouched on all fours barking 'I have been very, very bad! May I please have another!'

Is nothing sacred anymore?

9 January 2004

I killed people. I did it for my country

SAADI YACEF: Now, for the Arab population, there's really no reason for them to use terrorism. The real terrorism would be to go into the schools and begin to educate people and begin to bring them to a level of more scientific knowledge. You fight for something like this. They want to really apply a religion that's different from the religion of Muhammad. For example, in Algeria in certain places, if you're sitting in a chair and you're eating with a fork, what you're doing is considered to be against Islam. You're the enemy of Islam. Because the Prophet Muhammad didn't eat with a fork -- you have to eat with your fingers! And now there's terrorism in Algeria -- a little -- it's been going on for about 10 years. And children of a few years old are being killed. Why? Why? For what reason? They are free, in a country that's free. We shouldn't have pity for these kinds of people, because these people are really destroyers. What they're doing is not to defend a cause or the truth. If it was for a just cause, then yes. But just to go out and kill, to bring down two towers in New York, what's the result?

SALON: In Iraq, are the bombings of the American soldiers just?

SAADI YACEF: Yes. [Hesitates.] I would've given a lot of money and done a lot to get rid of Saddam. But where is the democracy? Arabs have never been democratic, only in a few countries.

[The allotted interview time ends, and Yacef and his entourage prepare to leave.]

SALON: But is that a problem of the Arabs or a problem of the West?

SAADI YACEF: It's a problem of the whole world. You have to learn to be democratic, developed over time. Somebody can't just come over to you and say, 'Now you have to be democratic.' It must be learned.

Yacef produced, and starred in, The battle of Algiers. He's now an Algerian senator. The interview is disturbing, but fascinating, especially his point that the French kept making the same errors in one colony after another and always insisted they were there for the good of the colonised people. What he does not address is why there was so little Arab opposition to Saddam or the other Arab dictators.

What we don't address is why the governments of the West deal with tyrants.

Deal for Camp X-ray Britons

Some of the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba could be sent back to Britain without a guarantee they will face trial, it emerged yesterday.

Seven of the nine detainees - those deemed medium-risk by the US authorities - could be repatriated if the US is satisfied they would be managed in such a way that the Americans could be certain they posed no threat, Pierre Prosper, the US ambassador at large on war crimes issues said.

US officials suggested that this could include constant monitoring or surveillance by law enforcement agencies.

The softening of the US line could remove what was perceived to be the main stum bling block to repatriation - the inability of the British government to promise that the Guantanamo Britons would be prosecuted on their return to this country. The independent Crown Prosecution Service cannot be ordered to take on a case, while even if it did, equally independent judges have the power to throw cases out on human rights grounds.

What a tragedy for the Bush administration that Britain does not share the Australian government's passion for achieving a preferred judicial outcome.

Is Mars Ours? - The logistics and ethics of colonizing the red planet

But the future peopling of Mars is much more than a scientific endeavor. It is a step of historic and spiritual importance for the human race. Any group that seeks to garner support for human journeys to Mars must reassure people that this goal is broadly humanistic and environmentally conscientious. There is no reason why this can't be the case. The fanatical comments quoted above do not represent the majority view of Mars Society members; some are credible, thoughtful activists with an inclusive vision more likely to win wide support for continued Mars exploration. I hope they succeed in burying the 'pioneering the West' analogy before it does any more damage to the cause. While we're at it, let's retire the word 'colonization,' which carries a permanent stain, and talk instead about the 'cultivation' or 'animation' or 'peopling' of Mars. I know that some of you Mars hounds will dismiss the above as a bunch of PC nonsense. Fine, but it's your movement that is not yet taking the world by storm.

Grinspoon's article beat (but only just) the trial balloon being floated by the White House. As it happens I am enough of a space cadet to think a Mars mission is a fantastic idea. The Bush coterie almost certainly see this as a way to emphasise their boy's vision and not much more (there is after all, not much to emphasise) but even a seed planted for bad reasons can grow into a good thing.

Powell Admits No Hard Proof in Linking Iraq to Al Qaeda

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conceded Thursday that despite his assertions to the United Nations last year, he had no 'smoking gun' proof of a link between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and terrorists of Al Qaeda.

'I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection,' Mr. Powell said, in response to a question at a news conference. 'But I think the possibility of such connections did exist, and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.'

Mr. Powell's remarks on Thursday were a stark admission that there is no definitive evidence to back up administration statements and insinuations that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda, the acknowledged authors of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although President Bush finally acknowledged in September that there was no known connection between Mr. Hussein and the attacks, the impression of a link in the public mind has become widely accepted %u2014 and something administration officials have done little to discourage.

Mr. Powell offered a vigorous defense of his Feb. 5 presentation before the Security Council, in which he voiced the administration's most detailed case to date for war with Iraq. After studying intelligence data, he said that a 'sinister nexus' existed 'between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder.'

Without any additional qualifiers, Mr. Powell continued, 'Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants.'

This is contemptible. If Powell had told the UN he had no hard proof, or if Bush had told Congress he had no hard proof, there would have been no war. Even Howard and Blair might have been reluctant to join the enterprise of Iraq if they had been told there was no hard proof.

US climate policy bigger threat to world than terrorism

Tony Blair's chief scientist has launched a withering attack on President George Bush for failing to tackle climate change, which he says is more serious than terrorism.

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, says in an article today in the journal Science that America, the world's greatest polluter, must take the threat of global warming more seriously.

'In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism,' Sir David says.

The Bush administration was wrong to pull out of the Kyoto protocol, the international effort to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, and wrong to imply the protocol could adversely affect the US economy, Sir David says. 'As the world's only remaining superpower, the United States is accustomed to leading internationally co-ordinated action. But the US government is failing to take up the challenge of global warming.

A war on global warming would be difficult. It would require leadership of a lazy elite that's more used to chest-thumping than thinking.

8 January 2004

Opera House to undergo $9m security upgrade

People who climb, damage or deface the Sydney Opera House could face up to six months jail and hefty fines under new security measures announced by the NSW government today.

NSW Premier Bob Carr today said an additional $9 million in state government funding would be used to upgrade security at Australia's most recognised international icon.

'Sydney is an open city and we are very conscious the Sydney Opera House needs optimal security,' Mr Carr told reporters in Sydney.

The money would be used to improve vehicle security at the building, provide new in-house cameras, and change the locks, which have not been touched since 1973.

The state government will also create a specific offence this year for those contemplating a so-called 'attack' on the building.

The security boost follows the actions of peace activists David Burgess, 33, and Will Saunders, 42, who were convicted of malicious damage after painting 'No War' on the tallest sail of the Sydney Opera House on March 18.

This a bad idea. It's an exact analogy to US proposals for a flagburning amendment. There's an existing offence of malicious damage. Is malicious damage to the Opera House to carry heavier penalties or is it just to be shadow legislation that restates an existing offence in different terms?

Just for the record I do not endorse painting slogans on the Opera House. I also do not endorse bad law made as a campaign tactic.

Iraq and WMDs

SILVER SPRING, MD.: If there were no WMDs, why was Saddam's regime so defiant toward the U.N. weapons inspection process? Did they really not believe that the U.N. or U.S. would eventually take action if Iraq did not comply with U.N. resolutions about their weapons programs?

BARTON GELLMAN: There are all kinds of things that could explain defiance. Most of them are speculative, and I don't spend a lot of time on speculation in my piece. Here are some things we know to be true:

Iraq really was hiding some documents, records and intentions;

Saddam Hussein resented the extraordinary intrusion of UN inspectors into his most sensitive national security institutions.

Saddam Hussein ruled through the perception of invulnerability and strength, and aspired to pan-Arab leadership, and weakness before the UN and the West did not help him there.

Another possibility is suggested by Hans Blix in today's story: You don't have to have a dog to post a 'beware of the dog' sign. With powerful enemies in Israel and Iran, Saddam Hussein may not have minded looking more dangerous than perhaps he was in fact.

The Carnegie Endowment is about to publish a report that confirms Gellman's article Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper on the failure to find WMDs. More when that happens.

I would quit if I lied, Blair tells MPs

Tony Blair was forced on to the defensive yesterday when he admitted that he would have to resign as prime minister if he lied to parliament over his role in the outing of the government scientist, Dr David Kelly.

As Lord Hutton warned Britain's political classes against jumping to conclusions ahead of the publication of his report, the prime minister said he 'of course' accepted that ministers who misled MPs had to quit.

Mr Blair's remarks came after Michael Howard all but accused the prime minister of lying days after the death of Dr Kelly. In their first Commons clash of the new year, Mr Howard asked Mr Blair whether he stood by his statement of July 22, made on board a flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, that he had 'emphatically' not leaked the name of Dr Kelly.

Mr Howard believes the prime minister's declaration may be highly damaging after Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, told the inquiry in October that Mr Blair chaired the key meetings during the 'naming strategy' - the convoluted process which led to the confirmation of the scientist's name. 'Either the permanent secretary or the prime minister is not telling the truth,' Mr Howard said.

Before everyone races to congratulate Tony Blair for this principled stand, I have to say I'll believe it when I see it. My guess is that this means only that Blair will continue to insist he told the truth no matter what evidence is piled up against him.

The Iraq Survey Group is being wound down. It has produced nothing except the interesting theory that ambitions, not weapons, of mass destruction, justify war. Blair's statements to parliament are already exposed as untrue. Expect lots of 'I believed at the time' or 'I don't have a reverse gear'. Do not expect 'Your majesty, I must resign my commission'.

The only thing that will change this is a clear and unambiguous finding by the Hutton inquiry. The Blair government has always denied an al-Qaiida/Saddam link so that issue is not in play. Note the standard of proof for whether the prime minister misled the house seems to be a lot more rigorous than the standard of proof for the actual existence of WMDs.

US orders airline toilet-training

The Chief Executive of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, Warren Bennett, says the directive is impossible to monitor and appears to be US paranoia.

He also says it could restrict passengers from exercising to avoid blood clots and deep-vein thrombosis on the 14 hour flight to the United States.

'It's often the case that passengers, particularly in economy class, where it is not always easy to get up and move about the cabin, they combine the two activities, and walk around the cabin and queue at the toilet, and move their legs, jiggle their feet, stamp their feet and move their arms around a bit to get the exercises that are necessary to ward off the possibility of DVT.'

I am blogging this SBS report purely because of the additional information about DVT. I would never blog something just for its spectacular headline. Promise. Really.

7 January 2004

[US] Toilet queuing ban requires tact

A US demand for airline passengers to be banned from queuing for the toilet would need to be handled tactfully by Qantas, acting Prime Minister John Anderson said today.

Mr Anderson, who is also transport minister, said the government had no plans to similarly ban toilet crowding on incoming flights to Australia.

Qantas began informing passengers last night about the toilet queue ban but said it was too early yet to gauge customer reaction.

'The US Transport Security Administration are now requiring that passengers on flights to the US are not to congregate in groups in any areas of the aircraft, especially around the lavatories,' a Qantas spokeswoman said.

If the new counter-terrorism measure became an international industry standard, it would probably curtail airlines' plans to make bars and duty-free shops new features of in-flight service.

Mr Anderson said the directive seemed hard to handle.

'I guess what the US authorities are looking for is any kind of suspicious congregation of behaviour that might be in some way related to, you know, preparing for something nasty to launch an attack on a plane or something like that,' he said.

'This is going to require a bit of commonsense and a bit of tact.

'I wouldn't want to overreact, but I'd have to say, as the reports at the moment, I have to say do sound a little bit hard to handle.'

Qantas is advising passengers during the safety instructions and the pilot's first public address of the toilet restrictions.

God help anyone who reads an almanac to pass the time while they queue for the toilet. Stupid security measures happen for a lot of reasons. One reason is sanitary imperialism where the US starts issuing peremptory commands about how to use a toilet. If it had been handled in the usual way by government-to-government negotiations half the world might not be laughing so hard.

One hopes the next US diktat will not call for the shooting of any queuers. It's a 14 to 16 hours by air from Oz to the US west coast. A bladder can last only so long. Is jumping up and down with your legs crossed a permissible behaviour? Does the diktat tell us how many people define a queue? Is it hands up or else if you reach the toilet and discover you're not the first arrival?

Perhaps aircrew should just make frequent announcements that anyone who wants to use the toilet should raise their hand and wait for a flight attendant to give them permission.

Anderson was right that this order requires tact. He's a competent acting PM so I trust he'll use it when he discusses this idiocy with the US.

How the 'neo-cons' are taking over the world

There's something else going on, too. The proliferation of media outlets and the segmentation of society have meant that it's much easier for people to hive themselves off into like-minded cliques. Some people live in towns where nobody likes Bush. Others listen to radio networks where nobody likes Bill Clinton.

In these communities, half-truths get circulated and exaggerated. Dark accusations are believed because it is delicious to believe them. The White House aide Vince Foster was murdered. The Saudis warned the Bush Administration before the September 11 attacks.

You get to choose your own reality. You get to believe what makes you feel good. You can ignore inconvenient facts so rigorously your picture of the world is one big distortion.

I am disappointed in the Sydney Morning Herald for carrying Brooks' drivel that opposing neoconservatism makes you an antisemite. However he does make a useful point that the scattered tribes of the blogosphere and elsewhere get to select news that supports their own view of the world.

Brooks could contribute to ending this unhappy situation by not trying to squelch all critique of the Bush foreign policy as recycled antisemitism.

More on this here, here here, and here.

6 January 2004

A great country is being propelled by the wrong forces

SALON: There are two ways that those critical of the war have described the motivations behind it. One interpretation is completely mercenary: It's just about oil. But some of these people -- however much we may disagree with them -- are also motivated by ideals that are, as you put it, often religious in nature. That's what's confusing about it. The left is used to thinking that it has idealism on its side. These people have these ideals that may seem crackpot to us, but they believe they're going to change the world for the better.

LE CARRE: They do. That's what's really terrifying. In order to carry out their campaigns, they have to reduce the world to black and white. They have to arrogate to themselves the right to determine what is a bad state and what is a good state. They also arrogate to themselves not just the right to take preemptive action, but to take preventative action. There's a difference in international law. The effect is that the superpower can say, 'We don't like the look of that country. It has bad intentions, and we will attack it.' It doesn't have to say that the country is threatening us.

The attack on Iraq was planned, we now know, about three or four years before it took place. It was 9/11 that legitimized it. Through an extraordinary trick of public persuasion in which they were greatly assisted by the corporate media, the neoconservative ideologues persuaded the U.S. to a great extent -- one's told seven out of 10 people -- that somehow Saddam was mixed up in the destruction of the twin towers and the attack on the Pentagon. He wasn't. They admit they have no evidence of this. Anyone who's taken even one bus ride through the Middle East would surely know that between the secular Baathists of Iraq and the infuriated fundamentalists that follow Osama bin Laden there is no conceivable bond possible. The religious extremists loathed Saddam because Saddam and the Baath Party were secular and anti-clerical.

I've got a serious weakness for spy novels, and really I expected a review of Le Carr�'s new novel. Instead I got a review of a different kind of fiction. On 24 December the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board is reported to have found:

After reviewing the matter for several months, the intelligence board -- chaired by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft -- has determined that there was "no deliberate effort to fabricate" a story, the source said.

Instead, the source said, the board believes the White House was so eager "to grab onto something affirmative" about Hussein's nuclear ambitions that it disregarded warnings from the intelligence community that the claim was questionable.

The source said that at the time of the State of the Union speech, there was no organized system at the White House to vet intelligence, and the informal system that was followed did not work in the case of that speech. The White House has since established procedures for handling intelligence in presidential speeches by including a CIA officer in the speechwriting process.

The PFIAB finding was leaked on 24 December.

Lies can be defined in two ways. The world is not flat. If I say the world is flat, that statement is untrue. On one view my subjective belief is all that matters and my statement is not a lie. On another view my subjective belief is not sufficient to ground a defence against lying, and I'd need to establish that I arrived at my statement by some valid process.

When a president tells congress about Nigerien uranium, as part of a case for war, there is a clear duty to arrive at any conclusions about Nigerien uranium by some valid process. That did not happen.

John Dean has written:

To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be "a high crime" under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony "to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose."

The Scowcroft defence might work for a private citizen. George Bush is not a private citizen.

Trade talks focus on better deal for farmers

Acting Prime Minister John Anderson today met with a US Congress delegation to discuss a free trade agreement with America.

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott also attended the meeting.

Mr Anderson says the discussions were been fruitful and worthwhile.

He says he made it plain that it's important for Australia to have more access for beef, dairy and sugar in the US markets.

He says he also indicated that the benefits of the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme to Australian consumers should not be diminished.

It's good news that the PBS is off the table. Whether we make any progress on access to the US farm market is another story. Anderson is dead right that an FTA without agriculture is not worth having.

When Canada reported a case of mad cow disease the US immediately banned the import of Canadian beef. That ban stands, while the US delegations travel the world asking for the ban on the import of US beef to be lifted. American exceptionalism seems to have a lot to do with pork as well as beef.

Protest by Nauru

I read with concern Senator Amanda Vanstone's comments (4/1) that 'asylum seekers on Nauru who refused to eat are not the responsibility of the Australian Government.'

Our Memorandum of Understanding obliges Australia to ensure the day-to-day management of asylum seeker facilities, including medical treatment.

Nauru has provided medical attention to the hunger strikers for humanitarian reasons. Australia has not discussed the hunger strike with us, let alone formally seek our assistance.

We have called on Australia for the urgent provision of medical and nursing staff, supplies and equipment.

Not only are the lives of hunger strikers at stake, but also the medical needs of Nauruans, owing to the pressure on our health system.

The Australian Government must act now to recognise its MOU with Nauru as well as its humanitarian obligation by providing adequate care and treatment for the asylum seekers.

K. Clodumar MP, Minister for Finance, Republic of Nauru

The Pacific solution was always an absurdity. What is the advantage of processing refugees outside Australia at greater cost and in worse conditions than processing them within our borders? We should not be surprised we are breaching our own MOU. We are, after all, already breaching the Geneva Convention on Refugees.

5 January 2004

Vice-Regal News

On Friday 2 January 2004, at Cairns International Airport, the Governor-General, His Excellency Major General Michael Jeffery AC, CVO, MC was represented at the arrival in Australia of His Excellency Mr France Albert Rene, President of the Republic of the Seychelles, by Commander N J Wark, RAN, an Honorary Aide-de-Camp.

How on earth did this vital public ceremony escape the notice of the Man of Steel? And why was the governor-general allowed to be represented when the Man of Steel could have graced the occasion?

Seriously, what was the last major public occasion the governor-general was allowed to attend?

Of crocodiles and Steve Irwin

When Steve 'A croc spared my baby' Irwin was heard waxing lyrical about George Bush at John Howard's garden party, we should have realised then that he had absolutely no idea about the world's most dangerous predators.