Friday, February 29, 2008

Inside Iraq: Kurdistan

Today's Inside Iraq program on Al Jazeera English (repeating through the weekend; see the website) focused on issues relating to the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq. The Turkish military has withdrawn after significant operations against the PKK, the Kurdish Worker's Party, a group dedicated to creating a unified Kurdistan incorporating Kurd-majority areas in northern Iraq, southern Turkey, and possibly western Iran. However, other issues remain, including allegations that the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has tortured dissidents. Today's spirited discussion featured an official from the KRG and a Kurdish critic living in exile in Britain.

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Happy Leap Day

I couldn't let the first Leap Day of my blogging career pass unremarked. A year is approximately 365¼ days long, so about every 4th year, an extra day is added to the calendar. But that number is actually closer to 365.242374 days than 365.25. For that reason, century years are not leap years unless they are divisible by 400; thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 1900 was not and 2100 will not be. That modification — the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars — results in an average year of 365.2425 days. At that rate, the calendar will be off by a full day in a bit less than 8,000 years, except of course that the astronomical year is gradually getting a little bit longer, just as the day is gradually getting longer.

The day is slowly lengthening, caused primarily by friction as the moon's gravity pulls on the earth's oceans, causing tides but also slightly slowing the earth's rotation. For that reason, it is occasionally necessary to add a "leap second." On those occasions, determined by detailed and precise measurements of the earth's rotation, the normal sequence is modified slightly. Ordinarily, 23:59:59 is followed one second later by 00:00:00 of the following day; when a leap second is added, 23:59:59 is followed by 23:59:60 and then 00:00:00. The last leap second was added at the end of 2005; it will probably be at least a couple of years until the next one, so you won't be able to use leap second as an excuse for being late to work.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Greater Serbia" gets ever smaller

Poor Serbia! First, Yugoslavia, which Serbia dominated, disintegrated after the fall of communism. Croatia, Silesia, Macedonia, and especially Bosnia-Herzegovina couldn't wait to escape from under Serbia's thumb. Brutal wars ensued as ultra-nationalists tried to preserve "Greater Serbia," but the effort was in vain: only Montenegro stayed alongside Serbia in the rump Yugoslavia, renamed "Serbia and Montenegro." Then, in 2006, Montenegro, too, decided to go its own way. This week, the Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo declared itself an independent nation. There is yet another semi-autonomous province in the north of Serbia, Vojvodina; however, it shows no immediate signs of breaking away to form an independent state. All the same, Serbia's history over the last two decades suggests that the more tightly it tries to hold onto its sphere of influence, the faster it slips through its fingers — a lesson other nations would do well to heed.

On the other hand, maybe Serbia just needs some new mouthwash and deodorant.

The graphic (adapted from an image in the Wikipedia commons; this image and any derivative work are uncopyrighted under the terms of the GNU Public License) shows Yugoslavia and later Serbia in red, with other chunks changing color as they split off. First, in 1991, Silesia (yellow), Croatia (dark blue), and Macedonia (purple) split off. Then, in 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina (green) declared independence, sparking a particularly bloody war whose atrocities are still winding through the international justice system. In 1995, at the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina created the Inter-Entity Boundary Line, separating the Republika Srpska (Serbian republic; the northern and eastern parts of the green area) from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the center and west, plus two small enclaves in the north). However, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a single nation, both officially and in practice. In 1999, Kosovo gained substantial autonomy, indicated by the dashed boundary. In 2006, Montenegro (gold), the last remaining Yugoslav republic still aligned with Serbia, voted to dissolve the nation now known as Serbia and Montenegro, and declared full independence. The loss of Montenegro landlocked Serbia. Finally, this week, Kosovo (light blue) declared full independence from Serbia.

All of the other breakaway states are fully recognized by the United Nations, Serbia, Russia, and the rest of the world; Kosovo, for the time being, is recognized only by the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and about a dozen other countries, but not by Serbia, Russia, China, or the United Nations. A few nations, including Spain, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, have withheld recognition due to concerns over the precedent in international law of recognizing the unilateral independence of a breakaway province of a United Nations member state. Although the People's Republic of China does not recognize Kosovo, the Republic of China (Taiwan) does, apparently mostly on the principle of thumbing its nose at Beijing.

Unfortunately, Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence has (predictably) inflamed nationalist sentiment in Serbia. We can only hope that "Greater Serbia" does not erupt into renewed war crimes, atrocities, and ethnic cleansing.

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East Meets West?

I was perusing the headlines on, as I often do, and one caught my eye:

Major Quake Rocks Northwest Nevada

with a link to KRXI, the Fox affiliate in Reno. Northwest Nevada is where the Burning Man festival is held. Imagine my shock and amazement on opening the article when I saw the opening sentence: "A strong earthquake shook rural northeastern Nevada Thursday...." Yes, in fact, the quake was in northeastern Nevada, near the Utah line, nowhere near the Black Rock desert. To their credit, they've already fixed the headline, but I still found it amusing.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy Presidents Day to Me!

Well, hey — my name is Lincoln Madison, so I've always felt a certain personal affinity for this particular holiday, ever since Madison Avenue invented it. True, this holiday generally commemorates Lincoln and Washington, and it's downright antipodal to my birthday, but I can still call it my own.

I've always taken a keen interest in Presidential politics. I watched hour after hour, day after day, as the Watergate hearings crept forward in Congress, even though I was only 11. Two years later, I watched large chunks of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. I was 17 when Reagan was elected, but I watched my older brother campaign for John Anderson, a Republican-turned-independent who broke from the "Conservative Movement" domination of the GOP. When Bill Clinton was elected, I was living abroad, but I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, watching the returns roll in until a winner could be declared. I was utterly dismayed that the American electorate failed to repudiate George W. Bush in 2004, having had a pretty convincing preview of how badly he could fuck up if given another four years. I shall not stand idly by while my country surrenders yet farther to neo-conservative totalitarianism.

I believe wholeheartedly, more fervently than ever before, that our nation's freedom depends upon electing a Democrat in November. I would prefer that it be Barack Obama, but I will support any Democrat against any Republican.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Now, that's just TWISTED!

I was just reading on about the recall of 70,000 tons of beef from a California slaughterhouse — the largest beef recall in U.S. history — because the processing facility did not separate cattle that were unable to walk for closer inspection, required because they are at greater risk of diseases that might be transmissible to humans. One of the sidebars is a list of the products affected by the recall (brief summary: the brand names are Westland Meat Co., King Meat Co., Regal, and Hallmark Meat Packing; details here)

The really twisted part, though: CNN suggested another article I might want to check out — "Create a recipe notebook." Gotta love that artificial intelligence....

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Inside Iraq: Haditha

This week's Inside Iraq program on Al Jazeera English focuses on a docu-drama about the events leading up to the killing of 24 innocent Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha on 2005-11-19. Nick Broomfield, a British filmmaker, has produced Battle for Haditha, an attempt to place the incident in context, showing the perspectives of both the Iraqis and the American soldiers. Host Jasim Azzawi alternates clips of the film with a one-on-one interview with Broomfield. It's difficult to watch, seeing the impossible situations in which people on both sides find themselves, especially knowing the tragic outcome. However, it is a reality from which we must not shy away if we are to have any hope of mitigating the disaster that has followed in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Video clips embedded below the fold.

The Iraq War has been a slow-motion train wreck from the very beginning, but the Bush Administration's response has been "full steam ahead!" The only legitimate questions remaining for the United States are:

  1. How do we get all U.S. troops (sorry, I mean "coalition forces") out of Iraq, as quickly as possible, but with the minimum possible further mayhem left in our wake?

  2. How can we encourage other countries and the Iraqi people themselves to step into the void in a way that helps Iraq return as quickly as possible to security and prosperity?
The idea that our military presence in Iraq for another decade, never mind another century, will somehow magically transform the country into a peaceful, democratic land of milk and honey is nothing but fantasy. There is simply too much bad blood between the Iraqis and the United States, most especially the U.S. military.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Giving Michigan and Florida a Voice

The Democratic Party primaries in Michigan and Florida were advanced before Super Tuesday in violation of Democratic National Committee rules. As a result, the party has ruled that the delegates chosen in those two primaries will not be seated at the national convention. Indeed, the candidates themselves agreed not to campaign in those two states, and Barack Obama withdrew his name from the ballot in Michigan. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton won both contests. In a move smacking of deep cynicism and abject political opportunism, the Clinton campaign is now pressing to have the delegates seated from both primaries.

The party is faced with two unacceptable alternatives: seat delegates from primaries that both candidates agreed in advance were "rogue," or leave the citizens of two major states without a voice in the nominating process. There is only one way to resolve this dilemma. The state party leaders in Michigan and Florida must come up with a way to hold new primaries or caucuses, with both remaining candidates competing on equal footing. That's the only fair, democratic solution — fair to Michigan and Florida, fair to the other states, and fair to both candidates.

I support the candidacy of Barack Obama, but more fundamentally I support the democratic process. Even if these flawed primaries supported my candidate, my concern for the Party, in November and beyond, would outweigh that narrow interest. Unfortunately, short-term political advantage is the only argument on the side of the Clinton campaign's position. Indeed, Clinton's willingness to change the rules mid-game is yet another reason that I support Barack Obama.

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