Monthly Archives: April 2015

Tesla claims new battery is world-changing

To hear the company chief tell it, Tesla’s new battery will change the world.

Tesla Motors Inc. CEO Elon Musk announced the release, at an event live-streamed online, of a new Tesla battery design he described as “like a beautiful sculpture on a wall,” and of a scalable technology Musk said is capable of providing clean power for all human needs globally.

The Tesla "Powerwall" battery.

The Tesla “Powerwall” battery.

The need to store renewable energy was the missing piece for a carbon-free future world, Musk told a cheering audience in Hawthorne, California. All previous battery designs “suck,” said Musk. “They’re stinky … They’re bad in every way.”

A company press release said Tesla’s batteries are based on systems in Tesla electric vehicles. It described them as turn-key energy storage systems that integrate batteries, power electronics, thermal management and controls, and essentially plug into solar panels.

Tesla said its lithium-ion batteries are immediately for sale via its web site, teslaenergy.com, for $3,500 (U.S.) for a home unit, not including installation  provided in the U.S. by a list of approved partners. Purchased batteries will be delivered later this year, said Tesla.

The company said the batteries will allow residences, businesses and utilities “to store sustainable and renewable energy to manage power demand, provide backup power and increase grid resilience.”

“You don’t need to have a battery room. A normal household can mount it on their garage, or the outside wall of their house,” said Musk. “You can, if you want, go completely off grid,” or provide inexpensive, convenient power in remote areas far from electricity transmission lines.

Musk said larger versions of the battery technology, called Power Packs, can fuel entire cities — and 2 billion of them could provide all the electrical energy needed for the entire world.

Two billion sounds like a lot, said Musk, but noted there are already some 2 billion cars and trucks globally. “This is actually within the power of humanity to do. We have done things like this before. It’s not impossible.”

The patents on the technology are open, Musk announced to cheers, so any other company can use them to build the batteries, and move the world to sustainable energy.

“That’s the future we need to have,” said Musk. “It’s something that we must do, that we can do, and we will do.”

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation, by clicking below; by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

Posted in Current Affairs Tagged , , , |

Canada’s Queen of Suspense: L.R. (Bunny) Wright

 

BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
May 2015

Bunny Wright. Photo courtesy of of Johnna Wright

“I’m not very comfortable about being in the limelight,” Bunny Wright told Brian Brennan. Photo courtesy of Johnna Wright

Mourning was widespread for mystery writer Bunny Wright when she died of breast cancer at age 61 in February 2001. Fellow writers penned personal tributes that were published in newspapers across Canada. Her two daughters, who had worked on the final copy-edit of their mother’s last novel, Menace, while she was in the hospital, also published touching newspaper tributes.

What would Wright have thought of all this adulation? She likely would not have been comfortable with it. Such was the impression I got from the one and only interview I ever did with her, and from the interviews she later did with other journalists. Bunny Wright did not like being the focus of public attention. As a former journalist, she was happier asking the questions than answering them.

I interviewed her in 1978 after she had won the Alberta Culture search-for-a-new-novelist competition. I knew her as a former colleague, who had worked as a reporter at the Calgary Herald when I was starting out as an arts writer in the mid-1970s. We had also connected outside of the paper when she and husband John and daughters Katey and Johnna moved to Edmonton in 1977. My wife Zelda and I bought their house in inner-city Calgary.

The Alberta Culture award, which included a publishing contract with Macmillan and a $4,000 cash prize, came on the heels of another, much larger first-novel award – the national $50,000 Seal Award – which had gone to fellow Alberta author Aritha van Herk earlier in 1978. Van Herk said she felt “more like a commodity than a writer” when reporters began pestering her for quotes. Wright told me she hoped the Alberta award wouldn’t bring the same kind of promotional hoopla. “I’m sort of hoping Aritha gets all the publicity so there’s none left over for me. I’m not very good at interviews and I’m not very comfortable about being in the limelight.” Wright planned to spend the prize money on a vacation trip to London and was hoping the fuss would have died down by the time she got back.

Wright was then 39 and had been writing fiction seriously for about two years. She would have started earlier, she said, but she had to earn a living first. So she developed her writing skills by working as a reporter for 10 years. Her first novel, Neighbours, evolved from a short story about mental illness that she wrote when Wright took time away from the Herald job to attend a summer creative writing workshop at the Banff Centre. She expanded the story into a novel when husband John was offered a television management job in Edmonton and she was able to quit journalism and devote all her time to fiction. “Edmonton isolated me and kept me from making excuses to do something other than write,” she told me. “In Calgary, I could always find something else to do and kept putting it off.”

She said her journalism experience helped with her fiction because it corrected any tendency she might have to over-write or to be unduly sentimental in her writing. Wright was also helped by the experience she had as a young professional actress before going into journalism. “The link between the two is closer than you might think because both involve pretending you’re somebody else.”

Neighbours was about the relationships between a mentally disturbed woman and the people around her. It wasn’t autobiographical, as first novels often tend to be, but it was set in Calgary and – I was delighted to discover – had my house, the author’s former home, featured as a character in the book. She wrote that the house, located just north of Memorial Drive in the West Hillhurst neighbourhood, needed to be painted (which was still true!) but was graced by the presence of a splendid tree in the yard.

Published under her legal name Laurali Wright, Neighbours was the first of three mainstream novels she wrote before achieving national and international attention as a crime novelist with a book called The Suspect. By that time she had moved to Burnaby, British Columbia, and become L.R. (for Laurali Rose) Wright. The publishers didn’t want to put her childhood nickname, Bunny, on the book covers because they thought it too cutesy. They suggested that using her initials would give the name the appropriate gravitas for a crime writer.

Wright didn’t set out to write The Suspect as a crime novel. It just happened to turn out that way. It started out with an 80-year-old old man killing his 85-year-old crony for no apparent reason in the seaside village of Sechelt on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. When she introduced an RCMP officer to investigate the killing, and saw the possibility of turning him into a major figure, Wright knew she had a crime novel in the works. The policeman, named Karl Alberg, would appear in eight more of her novels before Wright retired him from the force in 1997.

The Suspect brought Wright the 1986 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, which put her in pretty heady company. Two of the other four books nominated in her category were by Ruth Rendell, who happened to be a writing heroine of Wright’s. “It was the last category of 14 to be announced, so it was a nerve-racking experience,” Wright told The Globe and Mail. She was the first Canadian to win the coveted genre award.

Because of the success of The Suspect, which was translated into eight languages, Wright was able to live entirely on her book earnings from 1986 onwards. She continued to write mainstream novels but they never did as well as the mystery novels. She was particularly disappointed when Doubleday Canada, which had published all of her mystery novels, refused to take on a mainstream novel that Wright had written in the 1990s about poverty and homelessness in East Vancouver. There was some suggestion after her death in 2001 that the mainstream novel might be published posthumously but her Doubleday editor, John Pearce, told the Edmonton Journal that this would not be the case. “Menace, sadly, will be the last Bunny Wright book we will publish,” said Pearce.

The breast cancer, diagnosed in 1995 when Wright was 56, went into remission for two years. When it returned, metastasized, Wright was pensioning off her policeman hero Alberg and introducing a new investigator, Sergeant Edwina Henderson. “It was time to bring in an important character who was a female,” Wright told Victoria’s January magazine. She recalled that when she started the Alberg series in 1985 there had been no women RCMP staff sergeants in all of Canada, so she had to make her protagonist a man. “They’ve really made progress since then.”

Menace was the second novel in the Edwina Henderson series. Wright finished the final draft in November 2000 and went into palliative care in January. Her daughters took over the copy-editing when she became too frail to continue. “It is not an overstatement to say that Menace kept L.R. Wright alive for a good while after her body was ready to quit,” her daughter Katey wrote in a “Note to Reader” appended to Menace, which was published posthumously. Wright wrote the following line about her terminal illness, which her family included in the obit: “As for her fierce battle with cancer and the manner of her death,” read the obit, “Bunny has this to say: ‘She died and the cancer died with her. It was a draw.’”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015

 

Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.

  

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

Posted in Current Affairs

Earthquake postpones Nepal’s bright dawn

Bhaktapur, Nepal, in the wake of the April 25 earthquake. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi/UNDP

Bhaktapur, Nepal, in the wake of the April 25 earthquake. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi/UNDP

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs 
April 30, 2015

The United Nations and Nepal government are among agencies appealing for relief funds. Above, people in the Katmandu Valley form a line to move debris and reach trapped survivors. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi/UNDP

The United Nations and the Nepal government are among agencies appealing for relief funds after Nepal’s earthquake. Above, people in the Katmandu Valley form a line to move debris and reach trapped survivors. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi/UNDP

Mother Nature has devastated Nepal just as the country was beginning to dig itself out from two decades of havoc unleashed by tectonic rifts in its human society.

The earthquake that struck a week ago has set back for at least a decade the early stages of Nepal’s climb out from the basement of global economic development, where it has languished for generations. Those brighter prospects followed the 2005 end of the 10-year civil war against Maoist insurgents in which tens of thousands of people died and much of the country remained ungovernable. And the last years of the civil war coincided with a convulsive political shift from absolute monarchy to democracy. This began in 2001 when the Crown Prince exploded into murderous rage and killed his father, the king, and seven other members of the royal family.

Many will doubt whether Nepal’s fledgling democratic institutions are robust enough to manage the onslaught of the well-meaning, but often destructive, attentions of international aid agencies that will now batter the country. But there are reasons to be optimistic. The late 2004 earthquake and tsunami that threw Indonesia into turmoil not only led to the end of the separatist insurgency in devastated Aceh province, it also helped propel the democratic transition that had started five years before. Against all odds, Indonesia is now arguably the most vibrant democracy among the 10 countries of Southeast Asia.

Nepal was always a ramshackle monarchy. It was formed in war out of several Himalayan mini-kingdoms by the founder of the ethnic Shah dynasty of the Gorkha group in 1768, but the clan and caste divides of its creation continued to be rupture points in Nepalese society. A key moment came in 1815 with the invasion and defeat of the British, coming up from India to the south. For the British, this began a two-hundred-year fascination with the “Gurkhas,” the incomparable infantry soldiers recruited from Nepal’s mountain villages whose brigades continue to serve in both the British and Indian armies. On the part of the Shahs, it bred a love for and loyalty to the British, which was crucial to the survival of London’s Indian Empire on several occasions. But with admiration for British institutions came a yearning for democracy, especially after independence in 1949 for India, whose own ruling Congress Party strongly influenced the Nepali Congress Party.

The Shahs, however, were not natural constitutional monarchs, and in 1955 King Mahendra tired of quarrels with parliament and dumped the experiment. The response came many years later, in 1996 with the formation of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), whose demands for an end to the monarchy quickly slid into civil war. This was a nasty and brutal affair in which at least 12,000 of the country’s 26 million people were killed. The slaughter that changed the course of the uprising didn’t happen on the battlefield, however. It happened in the royal palace of Narayanhiti in the capital, Kathmandu, on the night of June 1, 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra, then approaching his 30th birthday, was disgruntled, to say the least, with his family. Dipendra wanted to marry Devyani Rana, who he had met when both were living in Britain in the late 1980s. But Devyani is from the Rana clan, who by killing much of the royal household in the Kot Massacre of 1846, became hereditary prime ministers, and perpetual challengers to the power of the monarch. The most vehement opponent of the marriage between Dipendra and Devyani was the Crown Prince’s mother, Queen Aishwarya. Why she was so opposed has never been fully explained because she herself came from the Rana clan. In any event, her opposition and successful lobbying of her husband, King Birendra, to block the marriage pushed Dipendra over the edge.

Dipendra Sha. Photo: Government of Nepal, public domain

Nepal Crown Prince Dipendra Sha. Photo: Government of Nepal, public domain

Dipendra had what we would now call “anger management issues” at the best of times. He was given to temper tantrums and is reported to have broken a door in rage in 1990 when his father agreed to popular demands for a restoration of a form of constitutional monarchy. Dipendra saw this as a debasement of his inheritance. The prince was also an avid gun collector. His quarters in the palace are said to have been packed with pistols, rifles and submachine guns. So, when on the evening of June 1, 2001, primed with a massive intake of alcohol and marijuana, Dipendra finally lost all patience with his family, he was well-prepared. Armed with several guns, he went into the living room where the family was gathered. He first shot his father, the king, then his mother, who was so disfigured by her son’s gunfire that at the state funeral her face had to be covered by a mask bearing her likeness. Dipendra went on to shoot his brothers and sister as well as three cousins before shooting himself.

The bloodbath brought King Birendra’s brother and Crown Prince Dipendra’s uncle, Gyanendra, to the throne.

Inevitably, the palace massacre has become the stuff of conspiracy theories. Many felt the week-long investigation into the massacre by a committee of officials, which concluded Dipendra alone was responsible, failed to address key questions. There are, then, almost countless speculations about why and even if Dipendra wiped out his family. The most credible of the theories is that Gyanendra somehow engineered Dipendra’s murderous rampage. One view is that he could have entered into a conspiracy with the prince to kill the king. Another is that he played on the young man’s hot temper by bombarding him with stories about the declining power of the monarchy under King Birendra and the increasing worthlessness of the prince’s inheritance.

If those notions aren’t Shakespearean enough, one of the most outlandish theories is that the killing wasn’t done by Prince Dipendra at all. In 2008 a palace guard told a Kathmandu newspaper he was on duty at the palace the night of the killings. He says he saw Paras, son of Gyanendra, come to the palace accompanied by a man wearing a Dipendra look-alike mask. The army guard said the masked man first shot and killed Dipendra in the prince’s apartnment and then killed the other royals. The soldier said that when he made a statement about what he had seen, he was arrested by the army and held in detention for a month.

The conspiracy theories bubbled so vigorously that at one point Gyanendra was forced to hold a press conference to deny the allegations he had had a hand in his brother’s murder.

But in the meantime the entire complexion of Nepali politics had changed. Gyanendra inherited not only a bloody throne, but also absolute deadlock in the war with the Maoist insurgents. The communist guerrillas held a good deal of rural Nepal while the government forces held the towns. Neither was strong enough to dislodge the other. Gyanendra tried to break the stalemate early in 2005 by dismissing the government and parliament, and assuming dictatorial powers. This sort of worked because by the end of the year the Maoists had taken the peace initiative by declaring a three-month ceasefire and volunteering negotiations. But at the same time, much of the urban populace in government-held regions was unhappy and a pro-democracy movement was taking to the streets at every opportunity. In April, 2006, King Gyanendra reluctantly gave up his dictatorial powers and recalled the House of Representatives he had dismissed the previous year. Once back in session the House of Representatives began dismantling the king’s power and then ended Nepal’s age-old status as a Hindu kingdom. The second boot dropped in December, 2007, when the House changed the constitution to make Nepal a republic.

"'Tragically it is too late for the victims of Saturday’s major earthquake, but it is never too late to resolve to reduce the risk of future disasters and act accordingly,' blogged Helen Clark of the United Nations Development Program. Above, UN officials on an "Earthquake Walk"  April 29. Photo by Bikash Rauniyar/UNDP

“‘Tragically it is too late for the victims of Saturday’s major earthquake, but it is never too late to resolve to reduce the risk of future disasters and act accordingly,‘ blogged Helen Clark of the United Nations Development Program. Above, UN officials on an “Earthquake Walk” in Nepal April 29. Photo by Bikash Rauniyar/UNDP

Elections were held in May, 2008, and 560 of the 564 members of the new National Assembly voted to confirm Nepal as a secular democratic republic. Ex-king Gyanendra was given two weeks to move out of the palace. He moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Kathmandu.

These transitions from autocracy to some form of representative and accountable government are seldom smooth, and Nepal’s was more tempestuous than most. In May, 2009, a year after the Maoist-led government had come to power, it was toppled in the National Assembly and a different brand of communist government came to power. In a move reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and the bitter conflict between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was replaced by a government led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). This did not bring stability, however, and after going through a couple of unsuccessful prime ministers, in August 2011 the Unified Marxist-Leninists were forced to give way to a return of the Maoists. But the Assembly was unable to complete its first order of business – writing a new constitution – in the stipulated time, and new elections had to be held. This finally produced a stable coalition government in February last year led by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party.

Writing a new constitution remains top of the agenda, and that remains a fraught and highly divisive issue. There are three main bones of contention. One is whether Nepal should remain a secular state. There are strong feelings among Nepalis that the country should resume its historic self-definition as a Hindu state. This movement has been fed by the coming to power in neighbouring India of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But over 20 per cent of Nepalis are not Hindus. About 10 per cent are Buddhist, five per cent are Muslim and the rest are either animists or Christians.

On the electoral front, there is a major debate over whether the new constitution should adopt the classic Westminster first-past-the-post form, or if it should opt for a system of proportional representation to better reflect the country’s diversity.

The third and most explosive constitutional issue is the size and extent of new provinces. At the moment, Nepal has five “development regions,” 14 “zones” and 75 “districts.” Many of the rivalries that have flared up over the size and boundaries of proposed provinces go straight back to the minor kingdoms from which the country was formed in the 18th century.

Despite the political turbulence, Nepal’s economy has been growing by five per cent a year in recent years. But much of that growth and 23 per cent of the country’s gross national product comes from remittances sent home by Nepalis working abroad. These include Gurkha soldiers in the British and Indian armies, and other Nepalis doing various jobs in the Middle East, the United States and Europe.

Even so, the percentage of Nepalis living below the United Nations-defined poverty line of $US1.25 a day has halved over the last seven years. This improvement is also reflected in drops in the child mortality rate and better nutrition.

Hopefully, the awful reality of the aftermath of the earthquake and the need to start rebuilding will concentrate the minds, as it did in Indonesia, and petty political rivalries will get buried in the rubble.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Further reading on F&O:

Nepal’s Predictable Agony, by Deborah Jones

The science behind the Nepal earthquake, by Mike Sanford, CP Rajendra, Kristin Morell

  

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Thank you for your patronage, and please tell others about us.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged |

Matters of Media

What’s new in media matters: Charlie Hebdo; the state of American media; attacks on the press; and Jon Stewart’s next mission.

Protesters marched for freedom of expression worldwide after the January slaughter of journalists and police by extremists at Charlie Hebdo's Paris office. Above, protesters in Vancouver carry "Je Suis" signs for Ahmed, a Muslim police officer killed, and "Charlie." © Deborah Jones 2015

Protesters marched for freedom of expression worldwide after the January slaughter of journalists and police by extremists at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office.  © Deborah Jones 2015

The illustrations of Muhammad, which sparked such incendiary controversy by Muslims whose faith prohibits images of their prophet, may have run their course in the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. Extremists apparently protesting the illustrations slaughtered 10 journalists and two police officers outside Charlie Hebdo’s Paris headquarters in January, sparking global support for freedom of expression. 

Now cartoonist Renald Luzier, whose pen name is “Luz,” told French magazine les inRocks  he is no longer interested in creating images of Muhammad. He said he has grown tired of drawing Muhammad, as he had grown tired of drawing previous subjects. The statement was newsworthy (see BBC report here) because Charlie Hebdo is again controversial news: PEN America’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo, with a Freedom of Expression Courage Award next month, sparked a protest by two dozen writers.

The protesting writers, including Michael Ondaatje and Joyce Carol Oates, wrote they support freedom of expression but the honour is unwarranted because Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “intended to cause further humiliation and suffering” for already-marginalized Muslims. PEN America disagreed in a rebuttal, Rejecting the Assasin’s Veto — but added, “we are  very privileged to live in an environment where strong and diverse views on complex issues such as these can take place both respectfully and safely.”

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The Journalism Project of the Pew Research Center in the United States this week released its 12th annual report, State of the News Media 2015. There is good, bad, and ugly. A lot of ugly. Highlights:

  • Mobile devices trump desktop computers for the audience of digital news media – but only desktop users linger.
  • Financially the newspaper industry continues to bleed. 
  • Local and network TV enjoyed greater ad revenue and audience; cable companies suffered.
  • Digital outlets continue to face financial and journalistic challenges — though a few are thriving.

The Good (?): “Digital news entrants and experimentation, whether from longtime providers or new, are on the one hand now so numerous and varied that they are difficult to keep track of. On the other hand, the pace of technological evolution and the multiplicity of choices – from platforms to devices to pathways – show no sign of slowing down.”   Plus, podcasting is booming. That’s something. 

The Bad:  More Americans receive journalism in quick hits via mobile devices. (Oh, look: SQUIRREL!!!)

The Ugly: Tech industries, especially the top five companies, are eating journalism’s lunch. “Five technology companies took in half of all display ad revenue, with Facebook alone accounting for 24%.”  Plus: “Nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms. ” 

Who cares? What does it matter? Pew’s Journalism Project offers a succinct answer: 

“Americans’ changing news habits have a tremendous impact on how and to what extent our country functions within an informed society. So too does the state of the organizations producing the news and making it available to citizens day in and day out ….”  

“Understanding the industry in turn allows researchers to ask and answer important questions about the relationship between information and democracy – whether this means exploring the degree to which like-minded consumers gravitate to the same sources, the opportunities consumers have or don’t have to stay on top of the activities of their elected officials, or how connected residents feel to their local communities.”

Click here to read State of the News Media 2015 on the Pew site.

 

© Greg Locke 2013

© Greg Locke 2013

This week the Committee to Protect Journalists released a major report, Attacks on the Press. Citing slaughters, beatings and imprisonments, from Pakistan to Paraguay, Paris to Egypt, journalists face danger, wrote Christiane Amanpour in a foreward. “From government surveillance and censorship to computer hacking, from physical attacks to imprisonment, kidnapping, and murder, the aim is to limit or otherwise control the flow of information–an increasingly complicated effort, with higher and higher stakes.”

On Thursday, the United Nations appointed Amanpour, an American journalist, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression. The issue needs an ambassador. As Amanpour notes in the CPJ report, dangers to journalism “are expanding in seemingly every direction, morphing in new and disturbing ways. At stake are not only journalists’ lives but also the public’s ability to know what’s going on around them.”

Click here to read Attacks on the Press on the CPJ site.  (And in case you missed it,  Reporters Without Borders/Reporters sans Frontieres released its 2014 World Press Freedom Index. earlier this year. Finland again ranked first for press freedom, with Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Austria, Canada, Jamaica and Estonia also making the top ten.  Least free are Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. France is 38th, the United States 49th, Russia 152nd, Iran 173rd and China 176th.)

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Last but not least, there may be an answer to America’s intense speculation about what its favourite and arguably most effective “journalist” — comedian Jon Stewart — will do when he retires from The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Reportedly Stewart is swapping incisive political commentary about humanity for saving animals, on a New Jersey farm his family recently purchased as an animal refuge (Philly.com story here).

And on that note, here is a photo of my own rescue cat. Because. apparently, catz are what media are for these days.

Poppy the rescue cat, 1985-2006

Poppy, 1985-2005

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation, by clicking below; by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

Posted in Gyroscope Tagged , , , , |

Nepal: Facts, Opinions, and an unforgettable video

Nepal’s Predictable Agony. By Deborah Jones

The massive earthquake that shattered Nepal on April 25, 20115, came as no surprise to anyone. The country sits atop one of the world’s most seismically dangerous places. There have been countless warnings about Nepal’s rickety infrastructure, haphazard housing, lax building codes, and rampant urban development. There was even a warning a few weeks ago that a quake was imminent, precisely where it occurred.

 

image-20150427-18138-1ovy9gzThe science behind the Nepal earthquake. By Mike Sandiford, CP Rajendran, and Kristin Morell

Nepal is particularly prone to earthquakes. It sits on the boundary of two massive tectonic plates – the Indo-Australian and Asian plates. It is the collision of these plates that has produced the Himalaya mountains, and with them, earthquakes. The April 25 quake measured 7.8 on the moment magnitude scale, the largest since the 1934 Bihar quake, which measured 8.2 and killed around 10,000 people. Another quake in Kashmir in 2005, measuring 7.6, killed around 80,000 people. These quakes are a dramatic manifestation of the ongoing convergence between the Indo-Australian and Asian tectonic plates that has progressively built the Himalayas over the last 50 million years.

 

 

This video was shot by hikers on Everest just as an avalanche swept onto their camp. It was posted to YouTube by German climber Jost Kobusch;  it’s not clear if he was one of the climbers. 

 

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope Tagged , , |

New on Facts and Opinions

 

On April, 1980, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space aboard the shuttle Discovery. In the quarter century since then, it has changed our view, and understanding, of the universe. Above, NASA released an image called Celestial Fireworks to celebrate the Hubble 25th Anniversary. It reveals a vast cluster of some 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2, discovered in the 1960s by  Swedish astronomer Bengt Westerlund. They are 20,000 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Carina.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space aboard the shuttle Discovery 25 years ago this week. In the quarter century since its launch, April 24, 1990, Hubble has changed our view, and understanding, of the universe.  NASA released the image above, called Celestial Fireworks, to celebrate the anniversary. It reveals a vast cluster of some 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2, discovered in the 1960s by Swedish astronomer Bengt Westerlund. They are 20,000 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Carina.

New on F&O this week:

VERBATIM: The prescriptive Happiness Report. By Michael Sasges

9781485315_b8a5bc80de_bThe recently released World Happiness Report 2015 both describes and prescribes. The people of Togo and Burundi and Syria and Benin and Rwanda are the unhappiest people in the world, and the people of Switzerland and Iceland and Denmark and Norway and Canada are the happiest. The unhappy, however, can change their circumstances, by emulating the experiences of the happy, in the opinion of one of the three editors of the report, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University. 

TV Comedy for Intelligent Viewers: Bob Newhart. A Brief Encounter, by Brian Brennan (paywall)

“I last played here 18 years ago,” Bob Newhart told the reporters at a Toronto press conference in 1978 when he announced his return to stand-up comedy. “I think the act went over well because, as you can see, they invited me back.” It was the kind of dead-panned wisecrack one would have expected from Dr. Bob Hartley, the stammering psychologist Newhart played for six years on television from 1972 onwards. That’s where his press conference shtick began and ended, however. Like many comedians, Newhart saved his best jokes for his stage and screen performances. Now in his 80′s, Newhart continues to perform.

~~~

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Italy / boat people / The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.   / UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 14, 2015

Eritreans are fleeing to Europe, risking the dangers of trafficker’s boats  in the Mediterranean in favour of their own government. Jonathan Manthorpe explains why. Above, migrants rescued from Mediterranean waters when their ship sank disembark from the Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti. Photo by F. Malavolta, © UNHCR

Eritreans take perils of the Mediterranean over torment at home, analysis by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

Something has gone desperately wrong in Eritrea since the promise of the early 1990s, when  the Eritreans stood out as one of the most remarkable people and societies in Africa. Now, among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. The United Nations reckons that at least 4,000,  almost all of them young, Eritreans a month are fleeing their country.  What happened? To put it simply, Eritrea’s zealously Maoist President Isayas Afewerki is what happened.

Canada's Bill C-51 skillfully exploits "security psychosis" for partisan politics, argues Tom Regan. © Deborah Jones, 2014

Canada’s prime minister skillfully exploits “security psychosis” for partisan politics, argues Tom Regan.

 The end is NOT nigh, commentary by Tom Regan

It’s enough to give a person permanent hypertension.  Russian president Vladimir Putin likes to flex his military muscles more than a steroid pumped-up body builder. China wants to challenge the United States for dominance in Asia. North Korea’s top leadership is, well, crazy. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are messing up the Middle East and threatening citizens around the world. And what ISIS and Al-Qaeda aren’t doing to destabilize the region, Iran is. It looks like the world is more dangerous that it has ever been for Uncle Sam, and Canada.  Except that … it’s not.  

Why Comcast Walked Away, report by Leticia Miranda

 Comcast announced that the company is walking away from its proposed $45.2 billion merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast had recently met with the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission. The deal had been troubled for weeks. The Justice Department and FCC had reason to carefully evaluate the merger, which was first announced in Feb. 2014 and had been expected at the time to be completed by the end of 2014 or early 2015.

 

 

Recommended elsewhere:

Said the late Carl Sagan, “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” To remind us of our place in the universe on Earth Day, April 22, NASA presented a gallery of space images,  Celebrating Earth’s Beauty. 

~~~

Long Live Europe, by Roger Cohen, New York Times

The doomsayers about Europe are rampant. But, writes Cohen, Europe is very much alive. An excerpt:

(Europe) looks more like 2015, a borderless market of more than half a billion people between whom war has become impossible, so attractive to much of humankind that thousands die trying to get into it, a Continent where entitlements including universal health care are seen not as socialist indulgence but basic humanity, and a magnet to states outside the European Union that long to be part of this security-conferring entity.

Entities are unsexy. They do not send a shiver down the spine or cause a telltale tremor. But the entity without precedent that is the 28-member Union has delivered. It has delivered peace above all, prosperity however frayed, and freedom to former inmates of the Soviet imperium. It has also created an awareness of European identity that falls short of European patriotism but is nonetheless a counterweight to the primal nationalism that stained the Continent with so much blood.

~~~

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope

VERBATIM: The prescriptive Happiness Report

One prescription for happiness, says Jeffrey Saches, is xxxx. Above, Canadians dance at an event at the University of British Columbia.  © Gavin Kennedy 2014

Happiness, writes Jeffrey Saches, can be promoted with a clear set of prescriptions, including education and joining to discuss and debate public policy issues in detail. Above, happy participants at an event held to celebrate, discuss agricultural issues and support a farm at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Photo by Gavin Kennedy © 2014

The recently released World Happiness Report 2015 both describes and prescribes. The people of Togo and Burundi and Syria and Benin and Rwanda are the unhappiest people in the world, and the people of Switzerland and Iceland and Denmark and Norway and Canada are the happiest. The unhappy, however, can change their circumstances, by emulating the experiences of the happy, in the opinion of one of the three editors of the report, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University. Here is some of what he writes:

The growing body of evidence on the importance of social capital to wellbeing and economic success is leading again to the question of how best to forge the virtues of the citizenry to achieve desirable society-wide outcomes.

We are returning full circle to the question asked by Aristotle, and Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and other ancient sages: how best to achieve pro-sociality, through interpersonal trust, moral codes, education and compassion training, and effective public institutions.

. . . we can expect many different approaches to this challenge in the years ahead, each of which provides a different way of investing in social capital.

First, as per Aristotle, society should pay attention to moral training in the schools. . . . Educational programs that teach about social dilemmas and the potential gains of cooperation could create an improved environment for cooperation. . . .

Second, universal access to education more generally is likely to promote social capital in many additional ways, by raising awareness of social dilemmas, reducing social and economic inequalities, fostering a better understanding of public policy debates, raising individual skill levels, and creating an educated citizenry that can keep government in check.

Third, specialized training in compassion, and in traditional techniques such as meditation to develop mindfulness, may be effective pathways at the individual level to greater compassion and thereby to social capital.

Fourth, the professions should establish codes of ethics that emphasize pro-sociality. We have seen that the modern banking sector currently lacks such a code of conduct. This was made vivid by the claim by Goldman Sachs after the 2008 financial crisis that it was justified in selling toxic securities to clients because those clients were “sophisticated” and therefore should have protected themselves against bad investment decisions. In other words, said Goldman, its counterparties are on their own, without any obligation by Goldman to disclose the truth about the securities it marketed. The assumption is pure egoism in the pursuit of profits. Ironically, the credit markets are named after the Latin root “credere,” to trust.

Fifth, more effective regulation by the state against dangerous anti-social behaviour 
(e.g. financial fraud, pollution, etc.) could help to give confidence in interpersonal trust . . . . Governments should disqualify bankers and others who have played by dirty rules, as not having the ethical standards to remain in practice. This kind of policing is within reach of bank regulators, but has rarely been used. One major NY hedge fund owner has been allowed to continue investing on his own account even after his firm and several of his top associates pled guilty to insider trading and other financial crimes. Another major firm, J.P. Morgan, has paid around $35 billion US in fines to the U.S. government during the period 2011-14 for a large number of financial abuses, yet the senior management has stayed in place and has continued to receive enormous bonuses.

Sixth, a focused effort to reduce public-sector corruption could help to rebuild social capital, for the same reasons as just outlined. We have noted repeatedly that high-trust societies are also low-corruption societies. . . .

Seventh, public policies to narrow income and wealth inequalities could raise social capital on the grounds that class inequalities are a major detriment to interpersonal trust . . . .

Eighth, the adoption of universal social benefits and strong social safety nets (as in Scandinavia) rather than means testing can have the effect of raising social trust. Means testing, according to [some researchers], foments distrust by making the recipients of such aid a suspect class, tending “to stigmatize recipients as ‘welfare clients.’” Strong social insurance protects individuals from the heavy psychological and economic burdens of adverse shocks. . . .

Ninth, the recovery of moral discourse in society more generally – calling out illegal and immoral behavior by powerful companies and individuals – can increase the reputational benefits of pro-social behavior. Leading stakeholders in societies that suffer from pervasive corruption and lack of generalized trust should recognize that their societies are likely caught in a self-reinforcing social trap. Ethical leaders should help their societies to shift the ethical equilibrium by raising the social opprobrium to corruption, and by celebrating local leaders who defend pro-social values and behaviors.

Tenth, the strengthening of deliberative democracy, in which individuals meet face to face or in virtual online groups to discuss and debate public policy issues in detail, may well foster generalized trust, reputational benefits of pro-sociality, and more ethical framing of policy issues. The consistent evidence that effective democracy fosters generalized trust is a powerful indication that good governance not only reduces transaction costs in the economic sphere (i.e. lowers the costs of doing business), but also produces social capital with myriad direct and indirect benefits. [A] fascinating new study suggest[s] that democracy can restrain egoistic behavior by enforcing majority rule to curb the behavior of non-cooperators in the minority of the voting population.

Eleventh, the accurate reporting of pro-social behavior may build social trust. For example, the actual rate of return of cash-bearing wallets found by strangers in downtown Toronto has been found to be three times as great as people believe. Return of a lost wallet is a genuinely benevolent act, and people are far happier to live in a community where they think such a return is likely. Correcting falsely pessimistic views of social mores, through better communication based on more extensive evidence, would provide a powerful step to build, or to rebuild, social capital.

Michael Sasges

The full report is here: worldhappiness.report/ed/2015/

The report generated plenty of journalism. By noon Eastern Daylight Time time Friday, April 24, more than 240 English-language stories had been posted on the Internet, according to Google News.

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation, by clicking below; by telling others about us; or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

Posted in Uncategorized

Television Comedy for Intelligent Viewers: Bob Newhart

BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS 
April, 2015    

“I last played here 18 years ago,” Bob Newhart told the reporters at a Toronto press conference in 1978 when he announced his return to stand-up comedy. “I think the act went over well because, as you can see, they invited me back.”

SI Neg. 2002-22477.32a. Date: 10/30/2002...Comedian Bob Newhart, recipient of the 2002 Kennedy Center Mark Twain Award for American Humor, speaking at the National Press Club. ..Credit: Jim Wallace (Smithsonian Institution)

Now in his 80s, comedian Bob Newhart continues to perform. Above, after receiving the 2002 Kennedy Center Mark Twain Award for American Humor, he speaks at the National Press Club. Photo by Jim Wallace, Smithsonian Institution

It was the kind of dead-panned wisecrack one would have expected from Dr. Bob Hartley, the stammering psychologist Newhart played for six years on television from 1972 onwards. That’s where his press conference shtick began and ended, however. Like many comedians, Newhart saved his best jokes for his stage and screen performances.

He had pulled the plug on The Bob Newhart Show, he told the reporters, because he thought his type of low-key humour was losing popularity, and he wanted to call it quits while he was still ahead.

“Much of today’s television humour is more fast-paced,” he said. “The Monty Python style of non-commentary humour, zaniness and absurdity has affected society. People don’t want to listen to messages any more. They just want to be entertained.”

Newhart felt The Bob Newhart Show would not have sustained its popularity had it continued on television for a few more years. “I didn’t want to take a chance on the show getting less successful. It would be terrible to limp off after so many good years.” He had tried to end the series a year earlier, because the ratings were starting to drop. Plus, he was disappointed that the show, at the height of its popularity, had never been nominated for an Emmy Award. But Newhart was contracted by CBS to do one more season in 1977-78, and so this sophisticated situation comedy, which had been highly praised by Time magazine and TV Guide notwithstanding the show’s lack of Emmy recognition, had one last hurrah in prime time before fading to black.

Newhart had no regrets about The Bob Newhart Show going off the air. The show had been based on character and situations, not on easy laughs, and there no longer seemed to be a big market for that kind of humour. As one of the Newhart show’s writers, David Davis, put it, “we were selling class and charm and wit.” Judging by the new comedy shows then emerging, Newhart said there seemed to be an exodus away from television by the more intelligent viewers. “Have you seen the new Ted Knight Show?” he asked. “Mindless and derivative.”

Asked what he planned to do next, Newhart said he would still be appearing on the small screen from time to time. He had completed negotiations with CBS to do one comedy special a year, and was on standby to replace Johnny Carson whenever the Tonight Show host went on one of his extended vacations.

Newhart also planned to do more stand-up comedy. But he wouldn’t be reprising the familiar one-sided telephone conversation with which he had first made his name as a a comedian in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The harried driving instructors, army sergeants and suicidal help-line callers had been retired from active service. In their place, Newhart would be using comic routines drawn from his daily interactions with ordinary people, and from the stories he was reading in the newspapers.

He picked up a newspaper and pointed to a story about a threatened strike by Air Canada pilots. “Have you read this?” he asked the reporters. “What’s the difference between first and second-class seats anyhow? If they guaranteed that the first-class passengers would be saved when the plane goes down, then I could see it. But what’s the difference?” He smiled as he considered the humorous possibilities.

I asked him if he would ever consider doing another sitcom. “Not right now,” he said. “But you never say never. In a few years time, people might be ready again for my kind of humour.”

By 1982, it seemed the people were ready again. Newhart returned to television with a new sitcom, titled simply Newhart. It ran for eight seasons and closed with an episode that cleverly reintroduced actress Suzanne Pleshette, who had played Newhart’s wife in the first series. It was followed in 1992 by Bob, a show that never caught on and was cancelled after the start of its second season. Newhart joked on the Tonight Show that he had now used up all the variations on his name, so his next show would be called simply The. In 1997, he returned for one more shot at sitcom glory with a show, George and Leo, that died during its first season.

In 2005, with reality television dominating the airwaves, Newhart told The New York Times he regretted the loss of air time for new scripted shows. Aside from leaving writers in the lurch, reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor were taking over the time slots previously reserved for both new scripts and reruns of old favourites, a development Newhart called “television eating its young.”

But even with the range of options becoming more and more limited, the veteran comic was still in demand as a sitcom actor. In 2013, at age 84, Newhart guest-starred in three episodes of The Big Bang Theory playing a down-on-his-luck former children’s TV science-show host named Professor Proton. For one of the episodes, Newhart finally won his first Primetime Emmy Award. He wept as he accepted the trophy. “This is my seventh shot at this,” he said. “For the longest time, I felt that the kind of stuff I do just doesn’t win awards.”

He continues to perform. This past week, according to his Facebook page, Newhart was scheduled to do his stand-up routine at a concert hall in Anchorage, Alaska.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015 

Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.

  

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged |

Eritreans take perils of the Mediterranean over torment at home

Near Ethiopia's coastal city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound full of stacks of ammunition boxes of bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. © Jonathan Manthorpe 1993

Near Ethiopia’s coastal city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound full of stacks of ammunition boxes of bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. © Jonathan Manthorpe 1993

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs  
April 24, 2015  

As independence approached in 1993 Eritreans, like these women carrying rocks to build a dam, were happy to volunteer for reconstruction work. Now they are drafted into unending years of servitude. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe, © 1993

As independence approached in 1993 Eritreans, like these women carrying rocks to build a dam, were happy to volunteer for reconstruction work. Now they are drafted into unending years of servitude. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe © 1993

“If the world had any sense,” began my friend and fellow Africa correspondent Remer Tyson as we hunkered down behind a thick wall in Mogadishu to avoid the stray bullets whistling overhead in the early rounds of Somalia’s civil war.

“If the world had any sense,” he continued, “it would give this place to the Eritreans to sort out.” It was a few weeks after the January, 1991, ouster of Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre by an uneasy alliance of clan militias, whose unity quickly dissolved into a civil war, a war which, nearly a quarter of a century later, is still going on.

Meanwhile, next door in Ethiopia another civil war was approaching its climax as rebels led by fighters from the northern territory of Eritrea closed in on the capital Addis Ababa to depose dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. This they did a few weeks later, in May, 1991, and Remer and I had the good fun of riding into Mengistu’s palace with the rebel tanks.

At that time the Eritreans stood out as one of the most remarkable people and societies in Africa. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) started their fight in the 1960s for the liberation of their territory bordering the Red Sea.

They were remarkable for many reasons. Unlike most of the liberation armies in Africa, a third of the EPLF fighters were women. This influence was profound. The EPLF had a reputation for exemplary treatment of Megistu regime’s soldiers it captured. Many were even taught useful trades such as vehicle maintenance.

One of the more extraordinary accomplishments of the EPLF was to construct and run underground hospitals, even in territory still theoretically occupied above ground by the Ethiopian forces. And it wasn’t just subterranean hospitals the EPLF made. They had pharmaceutical factories in tunnels and even underground workshops for fixing captured government battle tanks and other armoured vehicles.

Eritrea map via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Eritrea via Wikipedia, Public Domain

But most crucially, the EPLF was perhaps the best infantry army in Africa at that time. The courage and stamina of the regular foot soldiers as well as the strategic and tactical skills of their commanders – all Chinese trained – were legendary. All the EPLF fighters wore the same simple uniform – shorts, a T-shirt and sandals whose soles were cut from old truck tires, a highly practical fashion statement borrowed from the Viet Cong in Vietnam. They carried enough food, water and ammunition to sustain them for several days and could move regiments across country with devastating speed.

So there was a lot of logic in Remer’s comment. Judged against the shambles that were African rebel movements in those days, and especially the utter murderous chaos in Somalia, the Eritreans stood out as a disciplined, ordered and effective society. But the chances of the World in the shape of the United Nations or what was then the Organization for Africa Unity, now the African Union, taking up Remer’s suggestion were nil. As he said as we waited for a good moment to leave our refuge: “the trouble is the Eritreans are far too sensible to take the job.”

And that good sense seemed destined for a fine future. As a reward for leading the charge to take Addis Ababa in 1991, the new government of Ethiopia, led by Meles Zenawi, gave Eritrea its independence in 1993.

But something has gone desperately wrong in Eritrea in the 22 years since.

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. The United Nations reckons that at least 4,000 young Eritreans a month are fleeing their country. Many used to cross the Red Sea to Yemen, but since that country has become the battlefield of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Eritrean refugees have found it marginally safer to cross Sudan into Libya. After the deposing and murder of leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya too is in the grip of civil war. However, people traffickers have been established in Libya since well before 2011. They are skilled in taking advantage of chaos to ply their deadly trade.

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Italy / boat people / The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.   / UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 14, 2015

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Above, migrants disembark April 14 from the  Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti, survivors of vessels that sunk in the Mediterranean. Photo by F. Malavolta, © UNHCR

The common denominator among the Eritrean refugees is that they are almost all young people fleeing forcible recruitment for indefinite periods into the country’s armed forces. Unlike when the EPLF was a model liberation army, Eritrea’s modern military is a brutal operation. Draftees are often rounded up from homes, schools or workplaces by press gangs, and kept in harsh conditions and without any end to their service in sight. The conscripts, collected from both men and women aged under 50, are held in isolated barracks in the arid hinterland and used as forced labour to build roads and other construction projects. Release depends on the whim of the commander, and some studies have found that most conscripts serve between six and 12 years before they are allowed to leave.

Donald Rumsfeld with Isaias Afwerki. Photo by Helene C. Stikkel, United States defence department.

Donald Rumsfeld, former United States defence secretary, with Isaias Afwerki in 2002. Photo by Helene C. Stikkel, US defence department.

The irrational use and degradation of Eritrea’s military, now the largest in Africa, is symbolic of what has happened to the country as a whole. Far from fulfilling its promise of becoming a beacon for what can be achieved in Africa, Eritrea has gone in the other direction entirely. As a social and economic community Eritrea now most resembles North Korea. The economy is controlled by a destructive Maoist ideology. About 80 per cent of the six million Eritreans live by peasant agriculture using what one foreign diplomat called “Dark Age technology.” The regime meets even the whiff of dissent with arbitrary detention, usually involving torture and on the brink of disaster.

What happened?

To put it simply, Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki is what happened. I interviewed Isayas in the capital, Asmara, in April, 1993, shortly before the referendum which gave overwhelming support for the country’s independence from Ethiopia. I remember thinking he was a distant, cheerless and difficult man. He struck me as an impressive orator, but not an inspirational leader. But I thought he would be a coolly competent administrator who could set Eritrea on the right track.

That seemed to be the case for the first few years of independence until. But appearances are almost always deceptive.

Isayas had been sent by the EPLF to China in the 1960s to be trained as a political commissar. There, as a Chinese ambassador to Asmara was later to tell an American diplomat, “he learned all the wrong things.” Isayas returned as a deeply committed Maoist communist of the most fanatical kind, though this, and his extraordinary catalogue of personality faults, were not evident until 1996.

It was that year when he and his family were returning from a beach holiday in Kenya that something snapped. They stopped off in Addis Ababa, where his ally in the war of liberation, President Meles, offered Isayas and his entourage one of the Ethiopian government planes to fly back to Asmara. But en route the plane caught fire, and, with much luck, managed to return to Addis Ababa safely. It was a traumatic experience, but Isayas was convinced it was an assassination attempt engineered by Meles. From this has flowed Isayas’ deep hatred and mistrust of Meles and of the United States, which the Eritrean leader sees as the dark hand behind all many conspiracies against him.

If the plane fire, which many think unhinged Isayas, had only awakened his dormant personality disorders, he might be manageable. But he is the leader of an important country in a highly volatile corner of Africa – and that is saying something. Isayas’ paranoia, unbridled temper tantrums, vindictiveness, and quickness to take offence – he once stormed, insulted, out of a meeting with diplomats after being offered cherry tomatoes rather than the full-sized version – have dire consequences not only for his six million subjects, but for the region at large.

Isayas’ post traumatic stress disorder – if that’s what ails him – has spawned one still unresolved war with Ethiopia, led to the perpetuation of another in Somalia and turned Eritrea into what many human rights organizations agree is among the world’s worst dictatorships.

It is no wonder that thousands of young Eritreans prefer the risks of dealing with unscrupulous people traffickers and the perils of the Mediterranean with the hope of a life in Europe rather than continuing to languish under Isayas’ heel.

Isayas was elected President by the National Assembly after 1993 independence from Ethiopia. All elections since have been cancelled and Isayas operates a one-man, one-party despotism. Indeed, in 2001 staged his own “coup” against what remained of a collective leadership. Almost all his government ministers, including the Vice-President, were imprisoned as were almost all journalists working for private newspapers. None has been heard from since.

Near Eritrea's coast city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound with stacks of boxes of human bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe © 1993

Near Eritrea’s coast city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound with stacks of boxes of human bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe © 1993

Isayas’ hatred of Meles came to a head in 1997 when the goverments were unable to agree the border line between the two countries and several Eritrean officials were killed in the town of Badme in the disputed territory of Tigray. On May 12, 1998, two brigades of Eritrean troops backed by tanks and artillery occupied Badme and continued their advance into undisputed Ethiopian territory. Ethiopia quickly mobilised its army and airforce, and the fighting swiftly escalated into all-out war.

Despite attempts at mediation by various international bodies, the war went on until a peace agreement was finally signed in December 2000. Reliable estimates say about 100,000 people were killed in the fighting and about 70,000 Eritreans of Ethiopian origin were detained. Fifteen years later, about 8,000 remain imprisoned in Eritrea, unable to raise the money to buy their freedom. Meanwhile, Isayas continues to dispute the results of an attempted international arbitration of the border line. Both armies still face each other across the divide. They remain on high alert, there are frequent skirmishes, and resumption of the war is always only a few minutes away.

Isayas also takes every opportunity to goad Addis Ababa. One chance surfaced in 2006 when Meles bowed to United States pressure and sent the Ethiopian army to invade Somalia. Meles’ task was to oust the radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a Taliban-like organization from which the even more radical al-Shabaab group has emerged. The ICU had taken over much of the country and introduced a draconian form of Sharia religious law. Since then Isayas has, according to countless reports from many sources, been sending arms and other aid to al-Shabaab, now best known for its terrorist attacks in Kenya and continued violent efforts to stop a workable government being formed in Somalia.

This is deeply ironic considering my friend, Remer’s comment. Far from being a solution to Somalia’s problems, Isayas’ Eritrea has become an agent of perpetual chaos. But backing al-Shabaab is a risky bet for Isayas and is a measure of his virulent mistrust of the Ethiopian government. (Meles died in August, 2012, but Isayas’ hatred of Addis Ababa continues.) Eritrea’s six million people are roughly divided between Christians and Muslims and Isayas runs a strictly secular regime. But by backing al-Shabaab, Isayas has picked sides in the Islamic fury that is sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Shabaab is closely linked to al-Qaida, and is now being courted by the Islamic State group known as ISIS.

Thus Isayas is playing a dangerous game. There have already been several attempts to depose him, most recently in a mutiny by some army units in 2012. But for the moment Isayas looks as securely in power as he has since 1993.

But one of the qualities of totalitarian states is that they are brittle. They look solid, but can shatter with extraordinary speed.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Thank you for your patronage, and please tell others about us.

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Our Pale Blue Dot

 

Image from NASA's gallery Celebrating Earth's Beauty. A composite of captures from the satellite Suomi-NPP, April 9, 2015, created by: Norman Kuring, NASA

Image from NASA’s gallery Celebrating Earth’s Beauty. A composite of captures from the satellite Suomi-NPP, April 9, 2015, created by: Norman Kuring, NASA

“There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves” — Carl Sagan.

Happy Earth Day.

Posted in Gyroscope