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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: June 28, 2008

“Irrational fear of improbable safety breaches is responsible for most opposition to nuclear power in this country…(such fears) have become so outsized in the American imagination that our perception of actual risk has been completely distorted…As with anything that’s exotic, potentially dangerous and little understood, it becomes more frightening in mythology…We can’t afford to be afraid any more.”—Elizabeth Spiers in Fortune.

HOW VICIOUSLY CAN a country behave towards its citizens before another country might be justified in trying to alleviate the suffering? Are murder and starvation enough reasons? And are Zimbabwe and Burma bad enough examples? “Tension between those two principles — sovereignty versus intervention — has been palpable for decades”  declares the Economist which points out that applicable UN resolutions were intended only for such matters as war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing and not “ordinary” human rights violations. “Responsibility to protect” will probably never be more than an empty slogan, the mag suggests, adding: ”Many people felt that the disastrous outcome in Iraq discredited the entire idea of intervention for ’altruistic’ purposes.”

Writing about the $5,000 paid by some of the thousands of Westerners who every year climb Mount Kilimanjaro on the “charity challenge circuit,” columnist Melanie Reid wrote in the Times that such charity trekking should more aptly be described as “adventure imperialism.”

Up to 20 young guides (paid $10 a day) and porters ($3) die on Africa’s highest mountain from altitude sickness, hypothermia, and pneumonia, she writes — more than double the number of tourists who die.

IT’S NOT FAR-FETCHED to imagine that our planet will be hit by a random object from space one of these days considering how many are floating around out there. “Our solar system” warns the Atlantic, “appears to be a far more dangerous place than was previously believed.” It’s happened before although usually, the intruder landed in the ocean, with researchers believing that in 2,800 BC one such caused a tsunami 600 feet high, big enough to wipe out most of the world’s coastal cities if it happened today.  Meanwhile, says the mag, NASA’s concentration is on spending “hundreds of billions on a manned moon base that has little apparent justification (and has) no intention of diverting funds from existing projects.”

WHAT HAPPENS TO a small independent company boasting of its organic or natural foods credentials when it sells out to a big multi-national? Well, it depends on how much control the original owners retain and for how long. Inc. reports on the fate of the “socially responsible” Honest Tea company which was bought by Coca-Cola a couple of months ago, being accused by one fan of “sign(ing) a deal with the devil”. Company founder Seth Goldman argues that the decision allows Honest Tea to get wider distribution, but another industry critic comments: “That business is safe only as long as the senior management permits it to be so. It’s my experience that whoever owns the equity rules the day.” Inc. points to other “pure” companies that have been absorbed by giants — Ben & Jerry’s by Unilever, Burt’s Bees by Chlorox, Tom’s of Maine by Colgate Palmolive — and says the trend is growing.

THE COLD WAR may be but a memory but Russia and the U.S. are on opposite sides of the fence over armaments, proclaims Popular Mechanics which lists six examples of half a dozen paired countries — “21st-century battlefields” — matching different weapons. The opposing combatants are Venezuela vs. Colombia (helicopters from U.S. and Russia); Chile vs. Peru (air-to-air missiles from both); Israel vs. Syria; Israel vs. Iran (bunker-busting bombs from the US, anti-aircraft equipment from Russia); Pakistan vs. India (missile-launching submarines from Russia, maritime surveillance aircraft from the US); and Taiwan vs. China  (US destroyers, Russian submarines).

HUNDREDS OF KNOCK-OUT pictures tell the story of China from 1949 to today in Taschen’s $60 book which heads an enticing list of titles in its incomparable spring/summer issue. There’s the company’s usual vast range from Sex to Sexty (“the most vulgar magazine ever published”) and The Fascinating Phallus (“the big penis never goes out of fashion”) to a $150 book containing everything created by the great American architect Harold Meir (the Getty Pavilion, Rome’s Jubilee Church) and what is surely the most magnificent book ever about The Circus. Superlatives are unavoidable when discussing Taschen whose oeuvre includes hundreds of books about film, architecture, art, design, travel, and style. One can imagine a newly-minted hedge fund billionaire needing a complete education instantly in the culture…such a fellow might just find it easiest to buy every book in Taschen’s collection, a task made easier by their sale next week in Beverly Hills and New York.

THE WILCOCK WEB: If they banned speculation in oil futures, surely people wouldn’t stop buying and selling it? But the price would drop…. Nevada’s Renewal Fuels is selling a machine ($3,100) that allows anybody to convert used cooking oil into bio-diesel fuel….  A psychologist at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, Professor Adrian North, claims that music influences our sense of taste because the brain, when stimulated by “powerful sounds,” is more ready “to confer power on what is being tasted”…..A Maine seafood firm allows lobster lovers to buy the rights to an individual trap ($3,000) and have shipped to them the 40 to 60 lobsters it captures each year….The Feds says they discovered a restaurant where nine people got salmonella from tainted tomatoes but that they can’t trace the source. Ever think of asking the restaurant where they got the tomatoes?…. A coalition of store owners including Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Macy’s are lobbying for legislation requiring auction sites to disclose more information about high-volume sellers after disclosures that about 18% (around $5.4 billion) of all stolen goods are sold via the Internet….. Arguing for better use of phonetics instead of teaching “15th-century spelling to 21st-century pupils” teachers attending a conference at Coventry University seek to change confusion over words like “caught and court” and “cough and through”….A letter writer in the London Times says that the fig leaf is unlikely to have covered Adam and Eve’s sensitive body parts because it contains “an extremely powerful enzyme — ficin….so powerful it burns earthworms which crawl over the leaves”. …. Popular Science magazine’s Reader Idea of the Month is the man who says because millions of office and shop doors are opened and closed every day, generators could be attached to charge batteries…..“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).