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Uncertain futures


Friday, October 26, 2001

Terrorism's ultra-zealots

If you think Bin Laden is extreme - some Muslims want to kill him because he's too soft. And they've already had a go, according to this Sunday Times story.

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Paper junk mail losing out to email spam in the anthrax era

Direct marketers are already moving over from paper to email in the US according to an Associated Press story on Wired News. People are reluctant to open physical mail in the present frightened climate.

This is as you'd expect, but the story suggests the changeover may not be ultra rapid. Paper still has advantages - colour, impact, permanence and broad reach across all age and income groups.

So it's more of a tilting of the balance against paper. Response rates for physical direct mail are already pretty low - one percent says the article, so if any more goes in the bin unopened even the most committed junk mailer is going to have to reconsider tactics.

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

New privacy laws come into effect in UK

The full force of the Data Protection Act, passed three years ago, comes into effect today. This is remarkably bad timing because it's all about enhancing people's privacy - which in the current circumstances could be regarded as 'making the UK a safe haven for terrorists'.

Indeed, the French claim that's already the case).

I dealt with these contradictions further down this page (under Thursday October 11th).

The Register www.theregister.co.uk has some details about what's actually required to comply with the act.

The Register is uncharacteristically forgiving of the bureaucrats in this story. Perhaps it's because they haven't actually visited the link they give at the end - to the badly-organised, unhelpful site of the Information Commissioner's Office.

Just imagine for a moment that you earnestly want to comply with your state's privacy laws. Which would help you more - this up-to-date and clear offering from the US Federal Trade Commission, or this feeble British heap of disorganised documents and threats?

Since navigating through to the relevant material isn't easy, let's hope they don't shuffle through the pile and break these links :
summary of changes to the Act from the 24th of October
The Data Protection Act 1998 - legal guidance (this is a Word document - I hope they've virus-checked it. Right click then save if you trust them).

After the Internet goldrush ...

... another goldrush!

More than half a million dot info (e.g. www.foobar.info) domain names have been registered in the new domain’s first 90 days of operation, according to Afilias, the official dot info registry.

Registration started on a restricted basis at the end of July - at that time people could only register a dot info name if they held related a trademark. However, things eased up in September, and since the beginning of October anyone has been able to register a dot info name online.

I've just done it myself. www.scenarioplanning.info may well be the 500,001st dot info site. (The link probably won't work yet, as it takes a few hours for the domain details to propagate). It cost me 15 quid (UK pounds) from NetWeaver, a local host UK and registrar.

Over half the dot info names registered so far have come from Europe, according to Afilias. This is probably because dot info is the first general-purpose global domain name since dot com. By the time Europeans woke up to the Internet most of the decent dot com names had gone, so they were left with a strange mixture of country names - .co.uk, .ie, .dk, .de and so on.

These makes it difficult for people looking for your site, because people have to remember if you are located in Ireland, Denmark, the UK or wherever, then remember the correct letters to use (e.g. .de for Germany, .ch for Switzerland, but .fi rather than .su for Finland), and then also whether a .co is required too, or just the country letter (it varies).

All this makes the simple global dot info very attractive.

Meanwhile the new dot biz domains (e.g.greedy.biz), at one time scheduled to go live today, will not now come on stream till November 7th. The success of dot info bodes well for dot biz.

And beyond that the dot name domains (e.g. fintan.foobar.name) look like coming on stream just in time for Christmas. These domains come in two parts, so you can't just buy smith.name and then add all you family's first names yourself. Instead the registrars will be able to sell abigail.smith.name separately to abby.smith.name, giving them thousands of revenue-earning combinations just for that one surname.

On the plus side, it does at least mean that the first Stobie to register can't hog all the name space.

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Breaking our addiction to oil

Anatole Kaletsky has a good piece in today's Times arguing that it's perfectly possible for the West to break its dependency on Middle East oil.

The problem with this oil is that it carries an enormous hidden cost - the world economy is put at risk whenever there's an outbreak of 'Middle East madness'. While Kaletsky doesn't have a solution to the region's never-ending political problems, he does think it is possible to decouple the world economy from them.

For a start, if you stop thinking about reserves in the ground and just concentrate on current production, Opec has much less of a stranglehold than many people suppose. 'At present, Middle Eastern Opec members produce 26 per cent of the global supply of crude oil, equivalent to just under 13 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption. Saudi Arabia ...provides just 5 per cent of global energy supply. Iraq and Iran each account for around 1 per cent.'

Kaletsky argues that users can be weaned away further from dependency on this risky, politically-costly energy source with some simple measures. What's required is a combination of taxation, subsidy and regulation:
- taxation changes to shift demand away from oil generally
- subsidies to bring new oil fields outside the Opec area into production and to get non-oil energy sources onstream faster
- regulation to make filling stations offer alternative fuels [hydrogen, methanol or natural gas] for car fuel cells.

What Kaletsky is of course advocating is government intervention in the market. But this market is already heavily rigged, and what's more seems to require regular state intervention in the form of war.

So which would you rather have - a bit of economic meddling in the short-term or a continuing source of global uncertainty and enforced involvement in a turbulent region's endless conflicts?

More on fuel cells:
Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter
Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Investor

Saturday, October 13, 2001

Past, present and future of the camera

Polaroid, the company that until recently was almost synonymous with instant photography, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Although analysts will argue whether it was digital cameras or (more likely) the fast processing offered by High Street mini-labs, in either case the problem was Polaroid's inability to meet the challenge of rival new picture-making technologies.

By chance the BBC tonight broadcast a programme by one of Polaroid's greatest fans that casts a fascinating light on photographic technolgy past and future. Painter David Hockney spent the 1980s making massive collages often composed of multiple Polaroid images. He also liked playing around with the image itself with a sharp object while the print was still soft and developing.

In tonight's programme, made for the BBC Omnibus arts strand, Hockney takes forward an argument he first put forward at the end of 1999. Around 1420 art changed forever as artists in Italy and the Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands) began using simple optical systems to help them paint and draw.

Following a favourable article in the New Yorker in January 2000 (not online), Hockney's theories were challenged and even ridiculed by many art historians. Since then he's been hard at work looking for evidence in the paintings themselves, and talking to optical and architectural experts.

The latest version of the theory is presented in a heavily-illustrated book to be published at the end of this month, which no doubt explains the timing of the BBC show.

But Hockney makes a convincing case in the Omnibus film, reconstructing various apparatus and attempting to use it. With a simple set-up requiring just a convex mirror, the artist can clearly see the folds of clothing or the planes of a sitter's face projected onto the painting surface. This early system required bright lighting and only produced a small image on the canvas - producing a sudden telltale switch to smaller images of squinting sun-drenched people.

Later on suitable glass lenses became available, offering more flexibility in image size. But the resulting images were laterally inverted - which wasn't the case with mirrors. Hockney is able to show a sudden unlikely outburst of left-handedness among people painted at this time.

What has all this to do with the future of photography? Hockney argues that from around 1420 unto the 1830s, when chemical means of getting down the image came on the scene, the artist was essentially inside the camera. The mirror and lens systems required a human in the loop to record the image, and naturally the humans tended to manipulate the image to suit their own purposes.

Only when chemical photography arrived did it become possible - and eventually normal, to remove the human from the loop. Even then, there have always been some people - such as Hockney with his polaroids, who have wanted to intervene more in the process.

Now - with digital photography, Hockney believes this will become normal once again. 'Technology alters the way you make pictures.'

Crushing Bin Laden - a warning from Irish history

The Guardian has a depressing opinion piece by Jonathan Freedland called The war Bin Laden has already won

Freedland is worried that 'we may have played directly into Bin Laden's hands, following a script he's been dreaming up these last five years ... To capture and put Bin Laden on trial would be to create a focus for Islamist anger, and to further inflate his legend. Killing him would create a martyr whose death would have to be gruesomely avenged. Alive he would carry on wreaking murderous havoc. Every option is a victory for him and defeat for us.'

One reason this apparently defeatist stuff is emerging in the UK is because it has the clear example of 'the Irish troubles' close at hand. This shows how a struggle between a religiously-defined nationalism and a more powerful enemy evolves according to different rules to a normal war. If all it took was military victory, the Irish troubles would have ended long ago.

But in reality at various key points in its history militant Irish nationalism has gained enormous impetus from what on paper looked like military defeats.

The prime example is the Easter Rising of 1916 - a clear-cut military win for British forces but one that made a moderate accommodation impossible and popular support for outright independence grow.

This month is the 20th anniversary of another apparent defeat that turned into something a lot like victory - the end of the 1981 hunger strike by republican prisoners. Ten prisoners died in a campaign to force the UK government of Margaret Thatcher to recognise them as having political status. In this they failed - but the struggle itself revitalised the movement and brought it greatly increased political support.

Bobby Sands was elected a Member of the UK's Parliament for a Northern Irish constituency while on hunger strike. When he died a Sinn Fein colleague was elected MP in his place.

So the immediate outcome of British resistance to the demands of hunger strikers was to turn Sinn Fein into a more potent political force. In the longer term this had the effect of opening up a non-military way forward for the republican movement.

It's unlikely Bin Laden will use the political support he's gaining to turn himself into the Gerry Adams of militant Islam. The sadder Irish example of 1916-23 is likely to be more apt - a crushing military defeat leading to polarisation, terrorist acts on all sides and civil war in the countries where his supporters are found.

Are phones the future of the mobile Internet?

The answer appears to be 'yes' in Europe and Japan, and 'no' in the US.

This is one area where Japan - somewhat unusually nowadays, is streets ahead of the rest of the world. Europe is currently stalled with the flop of WAP, but will eventually go the phone route too for Internet access on the move.

But in the US people prefer computers to mobile phones. So widespread mobile use of the Internet will probably take longer to arrive, and then use a wireless networking approach such as WiFi.

The current issue of the Economist has several good articles on the future of the mobile Internet.

Peering round the corner looks at the very large differences in technical approach and user adoption rates on the three continents (most of Asia will probably go the Japanese route).

i-Mode phones have been a runaway success in Japan, thanks to low cost, enthusiastic uptake by teenagers and a business model that enables web-content providers to make money. There are 27 million Japanese using i-Mode phones for Internet access.

The Economist says the latest generation of Japanese phones are much faster, have integrated cameras, and are backward compatible with the earlier i-Mode offering. The only drawbacks are they get hot and drain batteries faster.

Things turned out differently in Europe because a botched WAP launch has made both consumers and content providers wary. Though the technical problems have mostly been sorted, still the customers don't come, preferring instead to play with text messaging. Phone operators are waiting for G3 phones to provide their delayed bonanza.

The American love affair with computers is driven by both economic and cultural factors. PCs and fixed phone lines are relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world, mobile phone use more expensive, says the Economist.

Consequently mobile Internet use in America is more of a corporate thing than in Europe or East Asia, where it is pitched primarily to consumers. Americans tend to drive to work rather than use train or tube, so accessing the Internet while commuting isn't such an attractive idea.

More in WiFi at WECA.

Thursday, October 11, 2001

Bankers visit their future

Top execs from financial service companies are visiting a 30,000-square-foot future demonstration facility in Stamford, Connecticut to get ideas about the future of retail banking, according to an enthusiastic article in this months Fast Company.

The Merlin Center is set up like a city street, with various-size banks and banking kiosks scattered about. John Ryan Co, the consulting firm behind it, says it has spent $15 million on the future simulation so far.

'Our goal is to show them what's coming - what the technology is making not just possible, but inevitable, says Bob Steele, MD of the Merlin Center.

For a more sceptical take on exactly the same center, try Bank Technology News. It puts this kind of showcase facility firmly in the context of the efforts of technology vendors to pitch themselves as solutions providers rather than humble makers of stuff.

'No one claims to provide hardware or software anymore, only "solutions",' moans Bank Tech News with some justification.

Bad timing for UK data protection law

IT managers in the UK are getting conflicting signals from the government about what they should be doing to help combat terrorism. At the root of the confusion is a conflict between the present security clampdown and privacy laws enacted in a more peaceful, liberal era.

Many provisions of a wide-ranging Data Protection Act passed in 1998 are only now coming into force. Companies have until the 24th of October to comply with measures that include beefed up privacy protection for employees and consumers.

The problem is that actions managers may now wish to take for security reasons - such as retaining staff emails and recording customer behaviour on web sites, may be open to legal challenge.

More legislation may be required to sort out the mess. David Blunkett, the UK government minister in charge of policing, has already called for new laws to compel Internet Service Providers, transport carriers and financial institutions to retain transaction records for longer so they can make them available to the authorities if required. He's also suggested the UK should introduce a national identity (ID) card scheme.

Meanwhile IT managers will have to comply with the law as it stands. One thing they can do though it look again at their online privacy policies and employee contracts of employment. These should be modified to spell out when monitoring may take place, which may give managers some protection.

Although it's a US example, the simple privacy statement of Pyra, the company which hosts this site and provides the Blogger software, seems to get the balance about right.

'It is Pyra's policy to respect the privacy of Members. Therefore, Pyra will not disclose to any third party Member's name or contact information. Pyra will also not monitor, edit, or disclose the contents of a Member's information unless required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to: (1) conform to the edicts of the law or comply with legal process served on Pyra; (2) protect and defend the rights or property of Pyra; or (3) act under exigent circumstances to protect the personal safety of Pyra service's users or the public; (4) fix or debug problems with the BlogSpot servers/software/service.'

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Afghanistan 101

Very good background briefing put out by the Irish public service TV station Radio Telefís Éireann. It was filmed before the World Trade Center attack, but it has much still-relevant material on the origins of the present conflict.

'The Taliban are the children of the former Mujahedeen, whose families were in refugee camps in Pakistan. And they were taken, their minds were taken by these fanatical Muslims, usually financed by Saudi Arabia. They were brought up in this new brand of Wahhabi, Saudi-type fanatical Islam. They were then given help by the Pakistanis to go back into Afghanistan and to bring all the Mujahedeen who by now were fighting amongst themselves under control for Pakistan, so that Pakistan would eventually be able to bring Central Asian oil through Afghanistan to the sea.'
Hazhir Teimourian, Middle East analyst

'Interestingly, the wars which the West has fought in the last ten years, the three wars that the West has fought, have all been in defence of Muslim peoples: in the defence of Kuwait, in the defence of the Bosnians, a multi-ethnic society, but mainly Muslims and in the case of Kosovo, who are all Muslims. So curiously, the idea that the West is against Islam is nonsense, and, in the case of Afghanistan, the CIA spent all this money on the Mujahedeen.'
Fred Halliday, Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics

What happens after the war is over?

A team of students and staff at New York University have used scenario planning to think about what the world might be like after the current action.

From all the possibilities considered, five emerged as having the most critical implications.

The key possible futures are:

1. An Empire Stretched Too Thin
- the US is caught in a never-ending quagmire.

2. International McCarthyism
- the US wins, but becomes an oppressive control-oriented state.

3. Black Market World
- war leads to fragmentation, conflict between rich and poor, 'gated nations', and increased black-market activity.

4. Gloom and Boom
Pakistan becomes rabidly Islamic, leading to nuclear attacks and Chernobyls everywhere.

5. Blooming World
In the only optimistic outcome of the five scenarios, the war's imperatives change global culture for the better.

Tuesday, October 09, 2001

Avoiding Bin Laden's trap

How can the US win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims around the world? This opinion piece published in the Pakistan daily Dawn makes interesting reading. The author, Bernard Haykel, is a professor at New York University.

First it explains why Bin Laden has no authority to call a Jihad. 'According to Islamic law there are at least six reasons why Bin Laden's barbaric violence cannot fall under the rubric of jihad ...'

But then it goes on to say that it would be mistake for the West to kill him. 'He has thought about this scenario and desires it ... If he is killed he dies a martyr and symbol of resistance to western domination; he also gets to kill a number of US soldiers and tarnishes the image of America in the minds of ordinary Muslims.'

The best course, the author argues, is to encourage Muslims themselves to take a leading role in the fight against Bin Laden.

Monday, October 08, 2001

Ellison backs ID cards

Larry Ellison, boss of database giant Oracle, has offered to help the US government set up a national identity (ID) card system, even providing the software for free. Ellison acknowledges the civil liberties concerns many feel at such a move, but argues that since people already have numerous special-purpose cards and identity documents they would accept a more integrated system if it made it easier to catch terrorists.

Writing in today's Wall Street Journal under the headline 'Digital IDs Can Help Prevent Terrorism', Ellison says:' The question is not whether the government should issue ID cards and maintain databases; they already do. The question is whether the ones we have can be made more effective, especially when it comes to finding criminals.'

'The single thing we could do to make life tougher for terrorists would be to ensure that all the information in myriad government databases was integrated into a single national file.'

Ellison doesn't think the scheme need be made compulsory to work. 'In fact, a voluntary system of standardized IDs issued by government agencies and private companies could prove more effective than a mandatory system ... We don't need to trade our liberties for our lives.'

The whole subject of ID cards is highly controversial in many English-speaking countries. Thought most countries around the world have long required all citizens to carry government-approved identity documents, neither the US nor the UK do. A debate about whether to introduce ID cards is going on in the UK at the moment too.

The UK did have ID cards during World War II, but once the emergency was over they were scrapped on the grounds that they damaged relations between police and public (see The Guardian Un-British or vital?).

The reasons go back to deep distrust of central government - once ID cards are introduced the fear is they could be used to erode hard-won freedoms. Don't forget that South Africa's version of the ID card, the Pass book, was used to impose racial segregation. It was a demonstration against the Pass system that led to the infamous Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and South Africa's subsequent three decades of civil war.

So the case in favour of ID cards is not clear-cut. People have to trust their governments.

Indeed, Ellison acknowledges these issues in his Wall Street Journal piece. 'Trusting government to maintain a database with our names, addresses, places of work, amounts and sources of income, assets, purchases, travel destinations, and more, seems a huge leap of faith. But we should remember that these databases already exist ... and that that the government already tracks things'.

Friday, October 05, 2001

Flag waving on the web
These rather appealing wind-rippled flags seem to be popping up all over the place at the moment. They come from 3DFlags.com and are free in return for a link.

3DFlags caters to the needs of most nations, with the appropriate design available in several sizes and backgrounds. However, I'm not sure they've managed to get the right image for Afghanistan.
While 3DFlags.com offers a more complex story is told at Afghan Network, a specialist news, entertainment and shopping site operating out of Canada.

In a symptom of the tough times the unfortunate country has been through, Afghanistan's flag seems to change abnormally often. Afghan Network shows ten designs in the last 100 years.

The current flag is plausibly puritanical - plain white with black Islamic inscriptions.

However, a clip shown on the BBC's UK Newsnight programme on Tuesday showed several Taliban supporters enthusiastically waving a black-and-white striped model. So perhaps the flag has changed yet again.

Thursday, October 04, 2001

How Bin Laden escaped from US control

Long extract on Indymedia from what looks like an excellent and timely book. 'Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia', by Ahmed Rashid, published by Yale University Press and available in paperback. The author is a Pakistani journalist who writes for the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Daily Telegraph in London. The book gets lots of positive comments from reviewers on the Amazon site.

It's full of revelations, for example:

'He brought in his company engineers and heavy construction equipment to help build roads and depots for the Mujaheddin. In 1986, he helped build the Khost tunnel complex, which the CIA was funding as a major arms storage depot, training facility and medical center for the Mujaheddin, deep under the mountains close to the Pakistan border. He then set up his own training camp there for "Arab Afghans" [the volunteers flocking in from around the Islamic world to fight the Soviets].

'...Bin Laden later claimed to have taken part in ambushes against Soviet troops, but he mainly used his wealth and Saudi donations to build Mujaheddin projects and spread Wahabbism among the Afghans. After the death of Azam in 1989, he took over Azam's organization and set up Al Qaeda or Military Base, as a service center for Arab-Afghans and their families and to forge a broad-based alliance among them. With the help of Bin Laden, several thousand Arab militants had established bases in the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Badakhshan, but their extreme Wahabbi practices made them intensely disliked by the majority of Afghans.

'...By 1990, Bin Laden was disillusioned by the internal bickering of the Mujaheddin and he returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business. He founded a welfare organization for Arab-Afghan veterans. Some 4,000 of them had settled in Mecca and Medina alone, and Bin Laden gave money to the families of those killed.

'... After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait he lobbied the Royal Family to organize a popular defense of the kingdom and raise a force from the Afghan war veterans to fight Iraq. Instead, King Fahd invited in the Americans. This came as an enormous shock to Bin Laden.

'... In 1992, Bin Laden left for Sudan to take part in the Islamic revolution under way there under the charismatic Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi. Bin Laden's continued criticism of the Saudi Royal Family eventually annoyed them so much that they took the unprecedented step of revoking his citizenship in 1994.

'It was in Sudan, with his wealth and contacts, that Bin Laden gathered around him more veterans of the Afghan war, who were all disgusted by the American victory over Iraq and the attitude of the Arab ruling elites who allowed the US military to remain in the Gulf. As US and Saudi pressure mounted against Sudan for harboring Bin Laden, the Sudanese authorities asked him to leave.

'In May 1996, Bin Laden travelled back to Afghanistan, arriving in Jalalabad in a chartered jet with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants, bodyguards and family members, including three wives and 13 children. Here he lived under the protection of the Jalalabad Shura [an advisory body or assembly], until the conquest of Kabul and Jalalabad by the Taliban in September 1996. In August 1996, he had issued his first declaration of jihad against the Americans, whom he said were occupying Saudi Arabia.

'In early 1997, the CIA constituted a squad that arrived in Peshawar to try to carry out a snatch operation to get Bin Laden out of Afghanistan. The Americans enlisted Afghans and Pakistanis to help them but aborted the operation. The US activity in Peshawar helped persuade Bin Laden to move to the safer confines of Kandahar.

'On 23 February 1998, at a meeting in the original Khost camp, all the groups associated with Al Qaeda issued a manifesto under the aegis of "The International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders".'

More in the full extract.

Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Changing western priorities likely to affect Israel

'The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected', President Bush told reporters after meeting congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday.

Meanwhile over in the UK on the same day Tony Blair in his speech at the ruling Labour Party's annual conference said: 'And the Palestinians must have justice, the chance to prosper and in their own land as equal partners with Israel'.

What's going on here? The short answer is that western, and above all American, priorities have changed.

When the Arab-Israeli dispute was just a matter of distant troubles in a foreign land it could largely be left to interested lobby groups to decide policy. What matters most to western politicians is winning elections, and before September the 11th this implied respecting powerful pro-Israeli sentiment.

But now what happens in the Middle East is central to domestic security. Politicians know they can only hope to win elections if they first meet the public's overwhelming security concerns.

Foreign policy is now being driven directly by the needs of domestic security. And America needs the support of Arab and Islamic states more than it needs the support of Ariel Sharon's government in Israel.

Bush: U.S. endorses a Palestinian state Ha'aretz (Israeli newspaper with a broadly liberal outlook)

Before Attacks, U.S. Was Ready to Say It Backed Palestinian State New York Times

(Note: both links will expire in about a week as both newspapers only offer free access to their most recent issues)

FTC targets pop-up king

The US Federal Trade Commission has taken one John Zuccarini to court for allegedly diverting users to his web sites and then 'mousetrapping' them with pop-up windows.

An FTC investigator entered one of the defendant's copycat domain names, annakurnikova.com, and 29 browser windows opened automatically. Once users are at one of the defendant's sites, says the FTC, it is very difficult for them to leave. Clicks on the close or back buttons just cause new windows to open.

The FTC estimates that Zuccarini earns between $800,000 and $1 million annually from the ad revenue from such schemes.

My take: Good luck to the FTC.
Meanwhile you might find it worth checking out PopUp Killer 1.4, a free software utility. I've had it installed for a few days and it seems to stop a lot of these things.

Experts back startling heroin claims

The Guardian reports on Tony Blair's claim during a speech to the Labour Party's annual congress yesterday that 90% of the heroin sold on British streets comes from Afghanistan. 'The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets', said the UK prime minister. 'That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy.'

Full text of Blair's speech

Why Afghan opium prices are falling According to an earlier Guardian story, existing opium stockpiles had fallen in value because of the prospect of new cultivation. Farmers are ready to exploit the fact that no new post-Taliban administration was likely to be in place in Kabul before next spring.

'All the ingredients for illicit cultivation are there: war, continuing poverty and a breakdown in law and order. We could see a huge resumption in cultivation', says the head of the UN's drugs control programme (UNDCP) in Islamabad. The traditional poppy planting season is from mid-October to late November or early December, so the next few weeks are crucial.

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

How a shock galvanised America into action once before

Sputnik, the first-ever spacecraft, was launched by the USSR on the 4th of October 1957, 44 years ago this Thursday.

'It's difficult to recapture the sense of paranoia and self-doubt that Sputnik created in the US', the New York Times wrote for a commemorative feature on Sputnik written four years ago. But it's a lot easier to do so now.

Though the events of 11th of September 2001 present a very different challenge, the response by the earlier generation of Americans suggests the scale of the changes we may see.

The shock of Sputnik led the US to pour money and people into space research, to reform its education system and to create NASA. These efforts led to giant leaps forward in military and rocket science, and also pushed forward computing, electronics and new business techniques such as project management.

Within four months of Sputnik the US had its own (though much smaller) satellite up in orbit. In 12 years it was carrying out the first manned moon landing.

Among the other eventual outcomes was the Internet - it's a direct descendent of ARPAnet, a computer network set up by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, one of the institutions created in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik.

PBS historians reminisce

Mike Wright: 'The reaction throughout the US was universal: we're all gonna die'

Women's (pear) shape explained
Big bottoms and fat thighs are there to counterbalance the bump at the front during pregnancy, according to research by Boguslaw Pawlowski of the University of Wroclaw quoted by Scientific American. Pointing out that women in traditional societies often have to work hard gathering food right up until the moment of birth, Pawloski suggests that evolution promoted fat buttocks and thighs to balance the baby's load. 'Without a counterbalance, inefficient walking and foraging could have put [early human females] at much greater risk of starvation and predation'.

Next task for science: a theory of the male beer belly.

Pakistan, the CIA and the Taliban
Good article in Jane's International Security News about the key role Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has played and continues to play in supporting the Taliban - at least initially at the CIA's behest.

'The concern now for General Musharraf is whether the ISI will remain loyal to him and provide the US with credible information or continue to pursue its aims of ensuing the Taliban’s continuance in Kabul', Janes quotes one intelligence officer as saying.

The report also notes the way the CIA-ISI operation 'succeeded not only in turning Soviet troops into addicts, but also in boosting heroin sales in Europe and the US'.

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