tag: United States

Dec 2010


The Irish media is still filled with talk of the IMF, the ECB and the bailout. And the snow of course. It’s remarkable when you think about it; there’s almost nothing the Irish government could have done to distract us from the economy. But a few days of frozen precipitation does the job. Suddenly the news is filled with images of kids on sleds and people standing next to snow-covered cars. I’ve not yet encountered anyone combining the two stories, but it’s surely only a matter of time before columnists start talking about the shroud of snow being “appropriately funereal”, or how a blanket has been drawn over the face of the Irish state.

In the rest of the world however, the fate of Ireland is beginnning to fade a little. And although the IMF thing is still getting the occasional headline, it’s more distant… something in the background. It won’t be so bloody distant if we succeed in bringing down the euro, mind. And if I was a citizen of Portugal I’d be getting a bit concerned right about now. Nor should the people of Italy and Spain be feeling too confident.

As I write, a huge amount of private debt is being shifted onto the Irish public. On top of that, we’re being strip-mined of our remaining assets. Goodbye National Pension Reserve fund, hello Wave of Privatisation. And given how fruitful this asset grab is turning out to be, only a fool would bet on it being the last. The Irish acquiescence, along with the failure of any of our neighbours to demand a halt to this daylight robbery, is actively encouraging the “contagion” that everyone claims to fear. The international markets are instruments of tremendous power, and our political leaders are giving them incentives to topple nations. I’ve gone from wondering whether it’s incompetence or madness driving this policy, to realising it’s both. What ‘The Market’ needs right now is a hefty dose of nationalisations to get it back in line. At the same time our political classes could do with a revolution or two in order to teach them some humility. Preferably dramatic but non-violent revolutions (violence tends to breed chaos and with chaos comes a whole host of unintended consequences, and while only a fool insists violence can never be justified, it should always be considered a last resort).

Isn’t this post supposed to be about Wikileaks, though?

Sorry, got a bit carried away with the intro there. Let’s shift our gaze away from Irish matters and take a glance further afield. Ignoring the snow — which is now news across much of Europe and North America — a look at the internet media suggests much of the world is fixated on the Wikileaks saga. And who can blame them? Suddenly the headline “Website sparks war” doesn’t seem entirely fanciful.

As is so often the case lately, I find myself irritated by the polarisation that has emerged as a result of this issue. Two narratives have emerged which reluctantly I find rather simplistic and lacking nuance. And I say “reluctantly” because many of my friends, plus commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect, are promoting one of those simplistic narratives (the “Julian Assange is a hero and the various charges against him are a big American plot” version). The other narrative — less prevalent amongst those I know, needless to say — being the “Julian Assange is a traitorous rapist who seeks to destabilise democratic governments and should be hunted down and shot like the rabid dog he is” version.

Before I get onto the “hero” narrative, let me say a little something about the “villain” Assange. Now, it goes without saying that I don’t know any more about the rape allegations than anyone else. However, there are two points worth noting that cause me some consternation with respect to them. Firstly, the general murkiness of the allegations and the extreme confusion surrounding them makes them — certainly not unique — but definitely atypical in such cases. The charges were dropped, reactivated, dropped and reactivated again. So the current charges are being handled by the third Swedish prosecutor to get involved in the case. It might be argued that this is a result of the difficulty securing evidence and, hence, convictions in this kind of case. All the same, from what I’ve read it is far from normal for such cases to be passed from prosecutor to prosecutor in this manner. A cynic might suggest that two people looked at the case, concluded it had either no merit or that — rightly or wrongly — it simply could not be successfully prosecuted due to a lack of available evidence, but that a third person took up the case for reasons of political ideology or personal aggrandisement.

I should probably take a moment to state clearly (because unfortunately we live in a world where it cannot be taken as read) that if there really is evidence linking Assange to a rape or sexual assault, he should face trial and suffer the full penalty. It is perfectly possible for a person to behave with honour in one area of his life while being depraved in another and the former simply does not excuse the latter.

Nonetheless, one only has to spend a little time reading about the allegations against Assange before confusion and apparent contradiction arise. This may merely be a result of bad reporting, but given how politically charged this whole situation is, I honestly feel one can be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow while at the same time hoping that justice manages to assert itself (in whatever shape it takes).

The second question that gets raised about the rape allegations is one I first saw enunciated by feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, in her article J’Accuse: Sweden, Britain, and Interpol Insult Rape Victims Worldwide. Wolf, who has campaigned for two decades to raise the profile of — and seek justice for — victims of sexual assault views the treatment meted out to Assange in even more cynical terms than I was prepared to…

… Never in twenty-three years of reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned — for any alleged rape, even the most brutal or easily proven.
… the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation … seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.

Keep Assange in prison without bail until he is questioned, by all means, if we are suddenly in a real feminist worldwide epiphany about the seriousness of the issue of sex crime: but Interpol, Britain and Sweden must, if they are not to be guilty of hateful manipulation of a serious women’s issue for cynical political purposes, imprison as well — at once — the hundreds of thousands of men in Britain, Sweden and around the world world who are accused in far less ambiguous terms of far graver forms of assault.

Anyone who works in supporting women who have been raped knows from this grossly disproportionate response that Britain and Sweden, surely under pressure from the US, are cynically using the serious issue of rape as a fig leaf to cover the shameful issue of mafioso-like global collusion in silencing dissent. That is not the State embracing feminism. That is the State pimping feminism.

It’s a difficult point to argue against. For no matter what you believe about Assange or the crimes he is accused of, it simply cannot be denied that his treatment is completely inconsistent with that of anyone else in the same circumstances. I honestly believe that the authorities in most nations fail to treat sex crimes as seriously as they should do. However, Assange’s experience doesn’t redress that; it merely highlights it further and illustrates the willingness of the judicial systems of Europe to bend to the political will of the United States when it suits them (on a day when “[t]he United States and European nations said the [Khodorkovsky] verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights” an idiom involving pots and kettles springs to mind).

Nonetheless, while the Swedish allegations carry at the very least a whiff of conspiracy and political opportunism, I can’t help but be cynical about Assange’s decision to become “the face” of Wikileaks. A decision that has allowed his personal behaviour to begin overshadowing the work being carried out by Wikileaks. It seems it would have been perfectly possible for Assange to have pursued a different strategy… a small collective of semi-anonymous people (akin to “The Yes Men” perhaps?) could have become the voice of Wikileaks rather than a single figurehead whose personal behaviour — whatever the truth behind the charges — has at the very least opened him up to attack and risked discrediting Wikileaks in the eyes of many.

The sad thing is that what was once a low profile but nonetheless powerful collaborative tool for exposing government and corporate corruption around the world has become one man’s high profile stick with which to beat America. As such it’s less radical and less generally useful. Most worryingly though, it may be starting to inflict some collateral damage of its own.

Because moving away from Assange and the rape allegations there’s a larger issue at stake here. I still possess the remnants of the anarchist idealism of my youth. But it’s long been tempered by a realisation that while information may want to be free, it’s not always in the best interests of people that it should be.

It’s possible, for instance, that the North Koreans already knew China and the United States had discussed — however informally — the desirability of Korean reunification under a Seoul government. But if this is the first they’re hearing about it, then there’s a real possibility Wikileaks might provoke another ship being sunk, or another artillery barrage. Or worse. The politics of the Korean peninsula are complex to say the least, but I don’t think it can be denied that the latest escalation in tension can be at least partly attributed to the actions of Wikileaks. If the publication of these cables turns out to be a contributory factor in a new Korean War can anyone really say that these leaks were worth the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people? It’d certainly take someone seriously committed to anarchism and freedom of information to consider so much death and suffering to be a price worth paying.

Especially when you consider the practical usefulness of the revelations. I mean, who seriously is shocked or surprised by anything they’ve read in the published cables? Or even in the previously published documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? We learnt that US troops callously killed civilians in both nations. There may have been a handful of people in Iowa still resolutely denying that such things happened until that famous video of the gunship firing upon injured civilians hit the internet, but I suspect 98% of those who saw that footage were merely receiving visual confirmation of something they already knew was going on.

Similarly, the news that China and the US were discussing ways of sidelining North Korea, or that the Saudis were agitating for a US attack on Tehran were probably well known by the various parties involved — as well as by most informed members of the public — so the public confirmation merely serves to heighten tension, rather than genuinely inform. And the notion that it will force the US (or China or Saudi Arabia) to moderate their behaviour in the future is beyond naive. It will simply force them to tighten security while simultaneously seeking ways to crack down on internet and press freedom.

Ultimately I find myself deeply ambivalent about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The man appears to be embracing shallow celebrity with a certain eagerness that undercuts his campaign, while the potential usefulness of the website (and the world is indeed improved by a system that facilitates whistle-blowing) is — I would argue — compromised by becoming so highly politicised. It needs to be more discerning, and dare I say it, more responsible, about what it publishes. What was once a facility that could be used to expose government and corporate wrongdoing, has recently become little more than a political powderkeg, helping ratchet up tensions between nations, providing recruitment videos to militant organisations and placing more importance in the ability to access information than in the actual importance of that information.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2010

I’m Lovin’ it

Commercial advertising directed at children is one of the great evils of our age. Benjamin R. Barber’s excellent book, Consumed, examines the phenomenon in detail and presents sobering evidence that the aggressive marketing of consumerism is infantilising adults while simultaneously stripping our young of their childhood; ultimately commodifying even the bonds between human beings so that interpersonal relationships are becoming ever more pathological as new generations are forced to identify more with brands and media imagery than with family or friends.

Gregory Bateson’s work on what he calls deuterolearning (or “learning to learn”) suggests that serious social, cultural and psychological damage can be done when this process is perverted by those seeking to manipulate the development of the psyche for commercial or political gain.

Which is why, despite the fact that California may have let us all down with their failure to pass Proposition 19 yesterday, at least they’ve gotten one thing right this week. The city of San Francisco has passed a law ensuring that fast-food chains are now prohibited from giving away free children’s toys with unhealthy meals. This, by now ubiquitous, trend is a marketing ploy that frankly, is not a million miles away from child abuse.

McDeath logo

After all, the intention of this strategy is to link extremely unhealthy food with the receiving of fun gifts in the minds of children. It is a craven manipulation designed to generate profits at the expense of the health of children. And let’s remember, children are particularly susceptible to this form of emotional and psychological manipulation as they are still learning to learn. Indeed, all marketing aimed at children is no less than a conscious attempt to subvert the development of the young mind and train it to be a less critical consumer. When the marketing involves a product that is so unhealthy, it’s all the worse.

So well done San Francisco, and here’s hoping other places quickly follow suit.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2010

The US Midterms: a dimebag of hope

Well, it looks like the Democrats are going to take a pasting in today’s mid-term elections. Hardly surprising really. The hope and optimism that Obama brought with him into office was so great that he was always going to fall short when it came to delivering on it. A combination of genuine disappointment and being comprehensively outmaneuvered in the media appears to have shifted public opinion against his administration and, by extension, against the Democratic Party.

US politics offers us an object lesson in how people can be manipulated to act against their own longterm interests (it’s the same in every modern captialist democracy, of course, but the United States is so big and powerful that trends get magnified making them easier to identify).

Take the healthcare issue for example. It was the central plank of Obama’s campaign. He spoke about it in almost every speech he made during the run-up to the election. And yet a combination of corporate financial muscle and Republican propaganda seemed to convince the very people the plan was aimed at helping, that it was some kind of socialist hidden agenda being foisted upon America without a mandate. Low-income Americans with no healthcare have been actively denouncing their newly-acquired ability to see a doctor if they get sick. People who, should they find themselves with a serious illness, would have previously been faced with a choice between crippling debt or no treatment are campaigning against “ObamaCare Socialism”.

“America’s not about hand-outs”, they cry, “it’s about working your way to the top!” It seems to me that tens of millions of low-income Americans have been hoodwinked into believing that they’ll be rich one day. That “the top” has room for all if they only work hard enough. So instead of working towards a more equitable society, where even the poorest are taken care of, they instead adopt right-wing quasi-libertarian beliefs that only benefit the wealthy. The rich and powerful have engineered a deluded populace to support their lavish lifestyles… a nation of turkeys campaigning for an early Thanksgiving.

The thing is, every society in history has taken good care of those at the top. There’s nothing unique about that, despite the belief of many Americans that they are in some way socially advanced. Seems to me that a truly Great Society is one that also manages to take care of those at the bottom. Feudalism is alive and well and proudly living in the Unites States. It just has better P.R. these days.

In the end, big business forced Obama to water-down a healthcare plan that had been approved by a majority of US voters. If ever there was an example of how capitalism subverts politics, that was it.

In fact, a mere two years after being elected on that issue (he was elected for many reasons, of course, but healthcare was his number one rallying call), the Democrats are actively distancing themselves from it. Bizarrely in half a presidential term it’s gone from being a vote-winner to a clear vote-loser. As usual, The Onion succinctly captures the current mood among US Democrats with their article, Democrats: ‘If We’re Gonna Lose, Let’s Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We’ve Made’. The only reason for this is the massive Public Relations machine that the US Right set in motion.

It’s sad how easily people can be manipulated into self-destructive behaviour.

No Victim No Crime sticker

No victim no crime
Vote 'Yes!' on Prop 19

My one hope for today’s elections is, it goes without saying, the possibility of California passing Proposition 19. While it’s far from perfect, it might well prove to be the first substantial nail in the coffin of our clinically insane War on Some Drugs. If it is defeated, it will again demonstrate the incredible ability of people to act against their own best interests. Despite the high-profile donations to the pro-legalisation campaign, they are being matched by the anti-Prop 19 campaign. And who are the major backers of the anti-Prop19 campaign? Interestingly, it’s the alcohol industry.

But of course.

We’ll soon know the results of the mid-terms and whether California has voted sensibly on the cannabis issue. A Democratic wipeout is pretty much a given, though it may present a silver lining… some of those Tea Party weirdos are bound to damage the US Right when given a national stage upon which to perform. And the Californians might make it a day to remember for good, as well as bad, reasons. Celebratory bong, anyone?

Well, here’s hoping!

UPDATE 3/11/2010: Well, the Dems lost the House of Representatives and saw their Senate majority whittled down to less than a handful. I’m not suggesting the Democratic Party are anything other than corporate mouthpieces, but the lurch into loony territory currently underway in the Republican Party means the Dems are a marginally better option at the moment. People with Sarah Palin’s view of the world running America? Not a happy thought. On top of all that, the Californians couldn’t even answer a simple Yes/No question correctly. I’m genuinely disappointed by this as it would have presented a real challenge to the madness of our War on Some Drugs. In the end, when asked “do you wish to continue acting in a dangerously psychotic, self-destructive manner?” more than half of Californians replied, “Yes”.


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Sep 2010

The radicals will come out…

I’m watching BBC World News. Currently being broadcast is a debate about Islam, how it’s perceived in the west (particularly America), the “Ground Zero Mosque”, Pastor Terry Jones of Florida threatening to hold a Koran-burning party and other inflammatory issues raised on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

The most depressing thing about the debate is how incredibly predictable it all is. Representing, I suppose, “the average American” is a construction worker whose every utterance seems carefully crafted to further the “insular Yank” stereotype. Knowing, as I do, plenty of intelligent and well-informed Americans, I find myself cringing at the caricature being beamed around the world. And I wonder whether or not this man is genuinely representative of America (more so than those intelligent, well-informed folks of my acquaintance) or whether he has been chosen for his fulfillment of a stereotype prevalent in the media.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the former. Partly based on my inherent cynicism and partly based upon my observations of US media and political policy — a very small minority of which appears to come from a place of informed intelligence.

So the construction worker complains that, while he personally doesn’t want to burn any Korans, the pastor should be permitted to do so because America values freedom of expression. In his next breath he condemns the building of an Islamic cultural centre near the location of the World Trade Centre and wishes to see it halted. Rarely has, what George Orwell called, “doublethink” been so perfectly illustrated.

He then wonders why there’s such widespread condemnation of this Koran-burning stunt while nobody is condemning “the Taliban threats” of reprisals. It seems like a near-decade-long bombing campaign and a ground war waged by the combined militaries of the west against the Taliban does not constitute enough condemnation for this guy.

He also wanted to know why it was only ever America who “stood up to extremism”. Why it was only in America that people were condemning the death-sentence by stoning of the Iranian woman accused of adultery? One wonders how he could possibly have known that it was only in America, as he clearly has no contact with international media (for those not following the story, the loudest and most sustained objections to this Iranian travesty have come from the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys of France, but it’s unlikely that Fox News would ever report such a thing).

Now he’s suggesting that the Koran-burning should go ahead because if it’s only a minority of Moslems who are extremists, then burning the Koran will ensure “the radicals will come out of the woodwork” so that “we can identify them”. His inability to understand that such gratuitous acts of provocation might serve to radicalise further those who are already angry at western policy in Afghanistan is yet another perfect illustration… this time of US foreign policy in general.

On the other hand, it’s heartening to note that a moderate Moslem is arguing against the building of the Islamic Centre, and vaguely amusing that the barbed nature of his reasoning failed to even register on the blue-collared caricature. The Centre, he suggested, could be seen as a celebration of American tolerance and a place where the tensions between cultures could perhaps be overcome. But “Americans aren’t yet ready for that” he suggests, and Moslems should accept this and await a better time to enter into a useful dialogue. He didn’t use the words “you lot just don’t have the emotional maturity to see beyond your ignorance and accept the issue is more complex than Moslems = terrorists and Americans = Number One”. But I could see in his eyes that he wanted to.

Ultimately, Pastor Terry Jones has the right to burn his Korans if that’s the message he wants to send to the world. He’d be a complete idiot and an arsehole to do so, but that would hardly make him unique among southern preachers. In response, no doubt, some idiots and arseholes in the Moslem World would escalate the matter. There’d be (yet more) burnings of American flags and bibles. And a mob would form in some moderate Islamic nation like Egypt and they’d attack a christian church. People would get hurt, perhaps even killed. Then a group of stupid young rednecks in Alabama would beat some random dark-skinned kid to death because he looked Moslem.

Pastor Terry Jones would have blood on his hands. Only a drop, certainly, in the ocean of red that’s been steadily growing these past nine years, since a group of murderers highjacked some planes in North America. But a drop more than any of us need.

Some thoughts…

* I can’t be the only one who, every time Pastor Terry Jones gets a mention in the media, hears “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” in a high-pitched voice.

* The chap on the BBC debate called to mind “local man, Scott Gentries” of The Onion.

* I was recently reading about Bill Hicks and his response to a “Scott Gentries”-type after a gig one night. The irate audience member angrily confronted him regarding his criticism of America. “Love it or leave it buddy!” he snarled, “if you don’t think this country is the greatest in the world, then why don’t you go live somewhere else!?” Bill’s response was glorious… he looked incredulously at the man and responded, “What? And risk becoming a victim of our foreign policy?”

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2010

Expectations born of madness

Top US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been calling for the military to go after the militants in these regions.

All this comes at a time when Pakistan’s government is already under a great deal of domestic criticism.

This is mainly due to increased missile strikes by the US targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas.

These have turned a sometimes ambivalent tribal population against the Pakistan military.

Analysts say the tribesmen see the strikes, which have claimed more lives of civilians than of militants, as contiguous with the military operation.

I was imagining a scenario where the roles were reversed back on September 11th 2001. How different everything would be. If an extremist group of fundamentalist Christians had crashed a cargo plane full of explosives into The Great Mosque in Mecca. And now, almost a decade on, unmanned drones adorned with Islam’s Crescent Moon are levelling homes in Texas and Utah. Sometimes, killing sympathisers and extremists. More often, killing regular American families.

Obama and Hillary Clinton

Embracing the insanity of their predecessor

Can you imagine how much pressure the world would need to put on the US government to make them turn a blind eye to this bombing campaign? Which is exactly what America expects of the Pakistani authorities.

And would the people of America see these raids as justified? Or would they instead swear bloody vengeance on the perpetrators, and view the complicity of their own government as the most despicable betrayal in American history?

Expecting the government of Pakistan to accept the regular killing of innocent civilians — people whose interests they are supposed to represent — by a foreign military. Even when that killing is done in error…

It’s unreasonable. And it is a demonstration, among many, of the psychotic nature of The War Against Terror and of modern politics in general.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

Blessed are the merciful

Less than 12 hours ago the State of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammed. I’m sure most people will recall the killing spree he went on in 2002 when the media dubbed him “The Washington Sniper”. Muhammed stalked the suburbs and, from a concealed location, shot people at random with a high-powered rifle. By the time he was caught ten people were dead and four seriously injured. Prior to his execution, Muhammed expressed no remorse for his actions.

Over at The Guardian, Virginia Moffatt has written a column headlined John Allen Muhammed deserved mercy. But as is so often the case with the work of sub-editors and headline writers, this misrepresents her argument. I don’t believe Moffatt actually suggests that Muhammed deserved mercy. I believe her position is a little more subtle; a fact that escaped both the sub-editor and the legion of commentators on her piece insisting — with, I suspect, no little froth — that Muhammed deserved to die.

Moffatt’s primary objection to the execution of Muhammed, and I suspect to the death penalty in general, is not that murderers deserve to live, but that putting them to death “diminishes our humanity”. To me, this is the crux of the death penalty debate and the reason I too am absolutely opposed to it. Of course, Moffatt goes a little far and damages her own argument by suggesting that the execution of Muhammed “makes us no better than the murderer [himself]”.

Terrorising three states for a period of weeks by randomly killing residents, leaving 14 people dead or injured and co-opting a teenager into your murderous plan… well, that probably counts as a worse crime than catching and killing the person who did it. So I really wish that those who — like me — oppose the death penalty, would stop trotting out the “it makes us no better than them” cliché. It would be a very difficult claim to substantiate even if your audience was comprised entirely of wise moral philosophers with no personal axe to grind. But in the real world, where almost all of us allow our gut feelings and emotions to influence our judgment, it just sounds silly.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick by the first part of Moffatt’s argument, even if it also requires a certain overcoming of our gut reaction. A failure to show mercy does indeed diminish our humanity.

See, this is the bit that most people (judging by the comments on Moffatt’s article) fail to understand. We do not show mercy to people like Muhammed because he deserves mercy. We don’t show mercy because of what it offers him. We do it because of what it offers us. Just as forgiveness — which tends to come a long time after mercy — is less about what it offers those who have harmed us, than it is about healing ourselves.

To show mercy is to grant a victory to compassion over hatred. It reinforces the light while diminishing the darkness. It makes us better people. That is why John Allen Muhammed should not have received a lethal injection last night. Not because he deserved mercy. But because we do.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Awww… it's a little nuke

Over at U-Know! someone posted a link to an article in The Guardian from last November (Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes). The article discusses a technology under development by Hyperion Power Generation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s essentially a small nuclear reactor capable of powering tens of thousands of homes and costing a relatively modest $25m.

A quick search on google news reveals an article on Reuters as recently as this week (Hyperion Has a $100M Valuation for Mini Nuclear Power) which includes the paragraph:

Although nuclear power produces radioactive waste, it doesn’t release greenhouse gases and it has vocal supporters in the new administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. So it’s not so far-fetched for investors to see the potential of Hyperion’s nuclear option.

Now those two articles and a reading of Hyperion’s website (mostly marketing bumpf investor relations) are the extent of my knowledge on this subject, so I don’t know enough about the specifics of their solution to offer a considered critique of the actual technology. However there are some generic criticisms of this approach to energy production that I feel are valid and worth highlighting. All the same, I’m flagging this post in advance as a “first thoughts / first impressions” thing. OK?

And on that basis… yikes!

Small enough to be transported on a ship, truck or train, Hyperion power modules are about the size of a “hot tub” — approximately 1.5 meters wide. Out of sight and safe from nefarious threats, Hyperion power modules are buried far underground and guarded by a security detail. Like a power battery, Hyperion modules have no moving parts to wear down, and are delivered factory sealed. They are never opened on site. Even if one were compromised, the material inside would not be appropriate for proliferation purposes. Further, due to the unique, yet proven science upon which this new technology is based, it is impossible for the module to go supercritical, “melt down” or create any type of emergency situation. If opened, the very small amount of fuel that is enclosed would immediately cool. The waste produced after five years of operation is approximately the size of a softball and is a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Perfect for moderately-sized projects, Hyperion produces only 25 MWe — enough to provide electricity for about 20,000 average American sized homes or its industrial equivalent. Ganged or teamed together, the modules can produce even more consistent energy for larger projects.

The Hyperion team is committed to helping make the clean and safe benefits of nuclear power — benefits that could assist in solving the worst of our planet’s problems — available in even the most remote locations. We hope you will enjoy learning about Hyperion through our web site!

“Nefarious threats”? They make it sound like they’re securing the place against attack from Dr. Evil. Or that we live in a world where the worst thing that could happen is Terry-Thomas might show up and attempt to do something dastardly. Poor copywriting aside, I believe that passage from their website, coupled with some of the claims being made in the media, should raise some serious concerns.

Thousands of little nuclear reactors encased in concrete, scattered all over the world, maintained and secured by the lowest-cost local contractors? There’s a whole bunch of things wrong with that.

First of all, this commits us to a heavily industrialised future which I’m not sure is a sensible decision (i.e. one in which uranium mining and processing is done on a scale that rivals the modern oil industry — how this squares with the claim in the Reuters piece that “nuclear power […] doesn’t release greenhouse gases” is anybody’s guess). I’m not suggesting we abandon technology or automation or electrical energy; merely that we need to scale our usage of these things back dramatically if we wish to use them sustainably. Be far smarter and more selective in the technologies we adopt or continue to use.

Secondly, the waste management issues just give me the head-staggers. It’s one thing having a few secure, essentially semi-militarised, locations where the waste is produced and stored. Even that’s problematic in my view. But to handle a massively distributed network (“available in even the most remote locations”) with a reasonable guarantee that none of the stuff ever ends up in the local reservoirs? Significantly increasing the amount of highly toxic waste we produce when there are alternatives? Future history books will view such decisions as criminally negligent… beyond reprehensible and into pure evil. Always assuming there’s going to be history books chronicling our times and crimes.

Thirdly, I’m always worried when the person selling the technology creates a huge straw man regarding security. What’s he trying to distract us from?

‘You could never have a Chernobyl-type event – there are no moving parts,’ said Deal. ‘You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it’s too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.’Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes, The Guardian

I’m not too worried about someone weaponising this stuff. North Korea’s already done that, and depending upon how the next few years go in Pakistan, some seriously hardline Islamists may get their hands on that technology too. Also, I’m not so sure that we can rely upon Israel to pursue a rational, evidence-based foreign policy and even the countries we view as being a relatively safe pair of hands are more than capable of rationalising a pre-emptive strike one of these days. So the “scary people with nukes” cat is very much out of the bag.

What worries me isn’t a nation state getting hold of this stuff and weaponising it, but a less organised bunch of psychos getting hold of it and poisoning wells and water-tables for several generations. See, I’m not sure exactly what part of “stealing a barbecue with your bare hands” would have prevented the September 11th hijackers doing so if it was part of their mission. For me the security risk of these things is a dedicated group of nutters — some of whom, perhaps, work for a local concrete supply company? — who don’t care about getting their hands burnt, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately it seems there are plenty of people who’d be willing to expose themselves to a lethal dose of radiation as they steal a bunch of uranium “softballs” from one of the more remote clusters of these things.

Even if powdering the stuff and dumping it into a handful of municipal reservoirs was demonstrated to only raise the risk of childhood leukemia by 0.5% in those areas, how soon before you’ve got a bunch of ghost-towns? Ghost-cities? Millions of families won’t make a level-headed and rational assessment of the risks when the headlines scream “Radioactive Reservoir! Al Qaeda dumps uranium in Dallas water supply!”

The whole thing is fraught with the kind of “What Ifs” that just don’t enter the equation when you recommend a combination of renewable energy and a reduction in consumption.

But I’d be interested in having those “What Ifs” answered and I’ll look out for more information on this over the coming months should it start to gain credibility. Maybe this is the magic space dust we’ve been waiting for.

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Dec 2008

Obama's investment strategy

As a short addendum to my previous post, and to indicate exactly why Obama is not going to address the fundamental problems facing America — and the wider world — this article over at the BBC contains a revealing quotation from the man himself.

Now, let me preface this by pointing out that his plan for massive government investment in infrastructure projects is a sound one. The problem comes when you analyse the type of projects he wants to invest in.

We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule — use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.

“New and smarter”. “Roads and bridges”.

Because that’s what America needs in an era of decreasing oil availability. More roads.

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Dec 2008

Short Obama post

I have plenty to say on the new president(-elect) of the United States. But I want to get this single point out of the way. I supported an Obama vote, because I honestly felt that the presence of a member of the Christian Right on the Republican ticket made them too damn dangerous. But I did so with the clear caveat that Barack Obama was merely the lesser of two evils. There is no evidence whatsoever that he intends to — or is even capable of — implementing the kinds of radical policies necessary to address the serious problems facing us today (resource depletion and Climate Change).

It’s certainly nice to see America have it’s own little Portillo-moment, and I do not begrudge in the slightest the celebrations of those Americans who view Obama as a major force for change. The hangover will be painful, just as it was in Britain in the late 90s, but after 8 years of Dubya Bush who can blame folks for having a bit of a piss-up?

Politically speaking, I agree completely with Merrick when he points out that the new boss is the same as the old boss.

See, there is one decision that a western leader could take which would indicate that a fundamental change for the better has occurred. One decision that would send out a powerful signal that we are finally on the right track. And even though it’s a difficult decision, and even though there would be no guarantee that its implementation would be successful, it would be like an announcement to the future that someone had finally understood the problem. Though, what’s remarkable about the decision is that it goes against the ideas of the capitalist right and the traditional socialist / communist left.

It’s the decision to end our fixation with economic growth. We need to decide to scale things back. Less work, less consumption. A managed powerdown. And I’m not talking about some absurd neo-primitivism. This can only happen through intelligent and efficient use of technology.

Anyone really think that’s on Obama’s agenda?


The story is never that simple though. Obama’s election does not herald a major political change (I’d be surprised if it even heralds a minor one). But a huge social change has occurred. And I’m willing to applaud that and support it with all my heart. I lived in Texas for a short time and in the US midwest for a bit longer. The division of the country along race lines was far more pronounced than it was in other places I’d lived. Even when I lived there, during the Clinton years, there was a palpable racial tension.

Now, obviously I’m not saying that the election of Barack Obama means that US racism is a thing of the past. That would be far too easy. But it is a powerful symbol of positive progress. From slavery to the presidency in less than 150 years isn’t to be underestimated.

I’m thinking mostly of those children — both black and white — who will start going to school over the next few years. They’ll open their history books and see pictures of all their presidents. For the first time there’ll be a non-white face among them. The social and psychological message that one, simple picture will send out should not be dismissed, merely because Obama’s politics are business as usual.

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Oct 2008

Vote Obama

I just posted this to an internet forum I occasionally use. It’s a classic hastily-scrawled five minute post, so don’t treat it like some kind of reasoned political treatise. All the same, it needs saying…

Before the Vice-Presidential announcements were made I was not willing to call on Americans to vote for Barack Obama. For lots of reasons, which I don’t need to go into, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to vote for him. That was not an endorsement of McCain of course. I just don’t believe in voting for the lesser of two evils unless there’s a massive gap between them.

Certainly Obama’s performance in the debate — endorsing biofuels and name-checking Henry “war criminal” Kissinger for any reason other than to demand he should be handed over to The Hague for trial — made me very uneasy. I see in Obama no more than a continuation of the corporate empire.

And in McCain I see roughly the same thing. He’s not a neocon like Bush, and the genuine differences between Obama and McCain have more to do with persona than politics. Yes Obama is the lesser of those two evils, but not by much. In those circumstances I’ve always believed in voting for a radical outsider even if they have no realistic chance of winning. Casting a vote shouldn’t be like placing a bet on a horse-race, it should be about stating one’s personal beliefs and nominating someone to speak in your stead. That it almost never works out that way is not a reason (in my idealistic eyes) to allow yourself to get tainted by a corrupt system.

HOWEVER, during the Bush Vs Kerry campaign, I suggested that a Kerry vote would be the best idea. Because although Kerry was indeed just another corporate puppet, he was up against the neoconservative tendency which needed to be opposed.

I saw McCain as being evidence that the Republican Party had ditched that ultra-right bible-thumping stance and returned to being merely the right-of-centre corporate party. Because whatever else you may say about him (and there’s lots to say) McCain isn’t in Dubya’s born-again camp.

But the more I see of Palin, the more I realise that electing McCain will put America within a statistically likely heart-attack of having an even dumber, even more vindictive and virulent religious neocon as president. That woman is incredibly dangerous and McCain is in his 70s. Not a good combination.

So don’t vote Obama because you think he’ll bring hope and change and apple-pie back to the American dream. He won’t.

But do vote Obama to make sure Palin never gets anywhere near the reins of power. She’s a menace and needs to be opposed.

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