Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Global Warming: the Good Side

Ah, fuck 'em.

Hi guys, it's been a while. Because I'm out in the Far East again, researching articles on Gecko Vodka (and other Weird Drinks), Black Magic in Thai Politics, and the Vicious Muslim Insurgency on the Thai-Malay Border. And I'm writing my memoirs, second volume.

Life is never dull. Especially not when you are about to enter a civil war zone, like that in Yala province, 500 klicks south of Bangkok. Twenty seven bombs went off thereyesterday. Yup - 27. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, here's a spot of cheering environmental hackwork that I did for online magazine thefirstpost.

The Advantages of Global Warming

Belief in global warming is nowadays almost universal, and for a good reason. The evidence exists. But there is another widespread belief which is less justifiable: that global warming will have only negative effects.

Consider the distant past. Two hundred million years ago the earth was much warmer than it is now: dinosaurs roamed the Antarctic, which was then lush and tropical. No one claims that this warming was terrible for velociraptors. So why is a warmer earth seen as a disaster for man?

Of course, we all know global warming is going to cause dislocation. Increased storminess, desertification, and inundation from raised sea-levels are serious and understandable fears. There will inevitably be major costs as we adapt to our new environment. But maybe there will be swift and enormous gains as well.

One look at a world map shows that vast tracts of land - in Siberia and Canada, in Tibet and elsewhere - are at present too cold for widespread cultivation and settlement. With global warming these regions of the earth will, presumably, become fruitful.

But you wouldn't know it by listening to the doomsayers of climate change. The way some people speak about global warming, and the damage it will wreak on the status quo, it's almost as if tundra and glaciers are intrinsically good things.

These global warming benefits might stretch further south. In Britain, areas that are now windy and cold - highland Scotland, the Pennines, Dartmoor - should become more hospitable. Intriguingly, Dartmoor was once fertile and widely settled, so this won't be the first time. Farmers will probably have longer growing periods, British summers will be drier and brighter, and so forth.

We are also told that many species will die out because of global warming. But can we know this for sure? It is arguable that many species will adapt, and previously threatened species may thrive. That, after all, is the Theory of Evolution. What is bad for snowgeese could be great for hummingbirds.

Such claims may sound like wishful thinking. But many experts are ready to think along similar lines.

One of the most prominent is Thomas Moore, an economist at Stanford University. He's studied the potential impact of global warning and shown that death rates might actually decrease - as bronchitis, influenza, and other cold-weather ailments decline. A warmer world will also need less fuel for heating. And crop failures might become a thing of the past at higher latitudes.

Likewise, climatologist Bjorn Lomberg has talked about the upside, when those vast northerly areas (Canada and Siberia, etc) become cultivatable. Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, takes an even broader perspective: "From a purely evolutionary point of view, warm periods have been exceptionally good to mankind. Cold periods have been the troublesome ages."

The Arctic Council is another authority seeing benefits in a warmer planet. Oil and gas deposits hidden under ice will become accessible. Previously frozen sea lanes will open up: it is estimated that the sea-journey from Tokyo to London will be reduced by twelve days. The fabled Northwest passage, over the top of Canada, will finally be a reality. Grass has already started growing in the Antarctic, for the first time in many thousands of years.

There's more. Storms may become more widespread, but extra rainfall could benefit drought-stricken areas. In other regions, marshes will dry out and become lucrative farmland. As for the threatened spread of malaria, and other diseases, this may be an overblown problem. Singapore is in the tropics yet has low malaria rates: it's all about hygiene and sanitation, says Moore.

Will global warming ultimately be good or bad? The truthful answer is: no one knows. But 'The end of the world is nigh' makes a much better headline.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Toffeewomble Diet Triumph

A picture of me relaxing by the vacuum cleaner, yesterday.

Here's a secret. Inside this relatively stocky guy, me, is a big fat blobster just screaming to be let out. I think in my heart of hearts I am a fat bloke. I love food, I love reading about food, I love talking about food, I love food, I love eating food, I love foody TV programmes, I love going to new restaurants to simultaneously talk about food whilst eating food. I love food.

All of which means I have a tendency to pile on the pounds unless I am massively strict with myself. This isn't helped by a slow metabolism (ah, the excuses) - my resting pulserate is about 55, which is nice inasmuch as that's the supposed pulserate of an Olympic athlete, it's not so good when it comes to burning off the kilocalories. One choux bun and I look like a Sumo Wrestler with a beergut.

Anyway. All of this came to a head about three months ago when I just looked at a photo of myself and thought: You Fat Bastard. After several minutes of self loathing I got on the scales and finally faced the facts: I was notably over 14 stone - i.e. around 200 pounds (for my American readers).

In any language, that's FAT. 14 stone! 200 bloody pounds!! I was hefty. Portly. Corpulent. Butterball-esque. Triple-chinned. Lardy. Weighty. Big boned. FAT.

So I decided to go on a diet. Of course I'm always on some kind of diet, due to that dramatic tendency to chub out I mentioned earlier. But usually my diets consist of not eating anything for two days, walking several hundred miles, drinking a lot of booze (because I think I've earned it) and then returning to normal. Probably not the healthiest or most efficacious of slimming techniques.

This time on the fatty-go-round, therefore, I decided to be a bit more scientific and determined. And persistent.

So I thought about some of the diets that I could try. Like Atkins. Or the F Plan. Or the weightwatchers regime. Or Belsen-type starvation. But none of them really appealed, so I devised my own diet. The Official Toffeewomble Diet.

Here's what I did. I didn't eat lunch. And that's about it. I skipped lunch. OK I did a bit more exercise, but not a great deal more. And maybe I was a little more careful with massive puddings. But really, the only big difference was - I skipped lunch. Every day. I had the same breakfast - a pain au raisin, a cinnamon danish, or a smoke salmon croissant (I'm a bit weird). I had the same dinner - Thai curry, salad nicoise, Tescos fish thingy, whatever. I drank as much as normal - a bottle of red wine almost every night.

And you know what - it's worked! It's fucking worked! This morning I got on the scales and I was under thirteen stone. I was twelve stone twelve to be precise - 180 pounds. I've lost a stone and a half - 20 pounds - in about ten weeks.

Hooray! So that's all you have to do, fatsos. Skip lunch. Just say no. Lunch is for wimps, remember? It's not even that hard. At first you do notice the hunger, and the gurgling stomach, and the intense hyopglycaemic depression around 4pm - but in those situations I allowed myself some fruit. Moreoever, after a few weeks I stopped noticing the hunger so much, and my blood sugar dips got less severe. I guess my stomach shrank or went into suicidal hibernation or something.

So that's that. I'm officially not overweight anymore. No longer Mister Blobby. Sayonara Fat Man. I'm bidding goodbye to Blubber City. I'm out of the Lardzone.

To celebrate my success this morning I had a big fat All Day Breakfast Sandwich and a full fat cappuccino.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Closure and The Killing Fields

Near the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.

OK, I didn't just eat tarantulas and crickets when I was in Southeast Asia. I also did some serious-ish journalism. I even took proper pictures. Here's an example.

Cambodia's Endless Agony

By their very nature, trials for genocide take time. Nonetheless, the judicial proceedings in Cambodia, against the communist murderers of the Khmer Rouge, are surely breaking records for slowness.

Just this week another legal hitch was encountered, which will set back the UN-funded hearings by months, if not years. A committee of judges, some foreign, some Cambodian, admitted on Thursday that they had failed to resolve crucial disagreements. The differences relate to the proposed tribunal, and the way it might integrate Cambodian and international law.

It sounds arcane. But what it really means is this: the foreign authorities believe the Cambodian judges are ill-trained and corruptible; the Cambodians resent the outsiders as insensitive and overbearing. Deep down many suspect that the Cambodian government is stalling.

The sorry result of these ongoing disputes is that, so far, not a single witness has been heard. And yet the Khmer Rouge fell from power as long ago as 1979.

You might think such a time lapse would make the trials irrelevant, almost ancient history. Not so. Cambodia still visibly aches with the pain inflicted by Pol Pot's Angkar - "The Organisation".

For instance, if you visit - as I did this week - the Khmer Rouge torture garden, Tuol Sleng, in the drowsy suburbs of Phnom Penh, you can still see the iron bedsteads on which ten thousand people were flayed, beaten, electrocuted and raped. In fact you can still see the bloodstains from some poor victim sprayed across the ceiling.

Alternatively if you talk - as I have this week - to average Cambodians in the street, you'll soon hear the most appalling litanies of sorrow. Tuk tuk drivers, hotel staff, bank tellers, fish-sauce sellers: they all have the same harrowing stories: "the Khmer Rouge killed my mother", "they took my brother and sister", "I've never seen my children since".

This universality of this refrain is not surprising, when you consider the statistics. It is reliably estimated that, in their lunatic pursuit of an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge killed two million Cambodians - through starvation, abuse, and outright extermination. Two million Cambodians constituted about a quarter of the nation's population. The equivalent in the UK would be the deaths of fifteen million Britons.

This is why the Khmer Rouge trials are so important, and so relevant to ordinary Cambodians. This is why the delays are so frustrating.

The Cambodian government, for its part, baulks at any criticism. Chea Sim, president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, said last week: "We wish that those entities who constantly look at the process in a negative way would take a more balanced approach." He added: "The Cambodia People's Party undertook the struggle to save the people, and has constantly searched for justice for the victims of the genocidal regime".

Which is all well and good, if it weren't for the fact that, if the trials take much longer, there will be no one left to convict. Pol Pot died a squalid but peaceful death nearly a decade back. Ta Mok, "the butcher", expired last year. The various other Khmer Rouge suspects are now in their seventies and eighties. Remarkably, most of them are at liberty, which is rather like Himmler and Goring still walking the streets of Munich in the 1960s.

Why are the trials truly taking so long? Some say the Chinese, very influential here, want to forget their embarrassing association with Pol Pot, and are pressuring the Cambodians to avoid a proper hearing. Others blame high-ups in the Cambodian government, which still contains Khmer Rouge "sympathisers". A final theory says that the entire nation would, subconsciously at least, rather bury the past than relive it.

This is understandable, of course. And yet it isn't good enough for Cambodia. It isn't good enough for humanity. And it isn't good enough for that person whose blood is sprayed across the ceiling of Tuol Sleng.

The balcony of a Tuol Sleng cellblock. The barbed wire was to stop attempted suicides leaping from the upper floors.
One of the iron bedsteads of Tuol Sleng, on which ten thousand people were beaten, flayed, electrocuted and raped.

A blood flecked ceiling, in one of the torture rooms of Tuol Sleng.