Thursday, March 15, 2012


No, it is not something bad, like dysfunctional or dyslexia. It is not a medicine either. A few of us, barring chemistry freaks, may know this from the Periodic Table of Elements, part of a group called Lanthanides. It is an element, like Iron, or Copper. Except that the world manufactures (from natural ores) only about 100 tonnes per annum of this substance. So it is rarer than gold, literally speaking. But strangely, currently worth much less than its weight in gold, at close to $2,500 per kg. Gold is many, many times costlier. So what?
China makes 99 tonnes out of that 100 tonnes. So what? China has restricted its export, along with a clutch of similar improbably named elements collectively called as rare earth metals. China has only 12 years' worth of output (estimated) left in the clay mines that are the source of the ore. Naturally, China wants to conserve its reserves for its own use, and have clamped export limits. The United States, as always, wants China to ease these export restrictions, going to the extent of filing a WTO complaint against China.
Strangely, China has 35% of world reserves but accounts for 97% of current world production of rare earth metal oxides! And guess what, USA has significant rare earth reserves (1/3rd of China's according to the figures put out by the US Geological Survey's Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2010 ) that it is currently not exploiting at all. Indeed, the report notes that “Bastnäsite deposits in China and the United States constitute the largest percentage of the world’s rare-earth economic resources ”. Molycorp Minerals, a mining company, is even as I write this, engaged in a fight with the US Government to get one of its mines re-opened, lying closed since 2002. Australia and the CIS countries also have significant reserves that are currently almost not utilised at all. Why so? The answer may lie in the genesis of the name: Dysprosium is derived from the Greek “dysprositos” that means hard-to-get-at!
Toyota requires 100 grammes per car of this substance to make the drive motors for its hybrid car, Prius. The entire world's current output would be sufficient for only a million hybrid cars. But then, they are not the only guys vying for the substance.
It is used in almost all mobile phones, flat screen TVs and computer monitors, nuclear reactor fuel rods, magnetomechanical sensors, actuators, automotive catalytic converters, high-precision liquid fuel injectors and acoustic and ultrasonic transducers (don't worry about what some of these things are or do – suffice it to say that they generate demand for Dysprosium). Wind power generators require it, as do hard disks. High-intensity commercial lighting and lasers use an alloy including this.
Can we manufacture it synthetically? Not yet! So the world has no alternative to focus on commercializing the existing reserves, and ore-processing capacity.
What if the world runs out of Dysprosium? We can still make do, but any substitutes will most likely be heavier and more inefficient with respect to magnetic properties. So no more sleek iPhones, tablets, netbooks. Non-renewable (nuclear, wind) energy will become costlier. No Prius. Unless we learn to make it synthetically, or find much more efficient magnets not using Dysprosium. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Horror in Panjwai ... and the last 9 years reviewed

It all began with Bush declaring imperiously, "If you're not with us, you're with them".

And then began the sordid, shameful saga in 2003 that has yet to end. Of two more wars that should never have happened. Of a war being waged on a common noun.

It began by the US occupying high moral ground. Of 3000+ innocent victims of terror1. But it led to documented deaths of well over 105,000+ Iraqis. Several times more people injured or violently displaced from their homes. Lancet's 2nd peer-reviewed study of Iraqi casualties indicated 654,965 excess deaths, or 2.5% of Iraq's population. That was in 2006. In 2007, the Opinion Research Business, an independent polling agency located in London, published estimates of the total war casualties in Iraq since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 200 at over 1.2 million deaths (1,220,580). Of these, 48% died from a gunshot wound, 20% from the impact of a car bomb, 9% from aerial bombardment, 6% as a result of an accident and 6% from another blast/ordnance. As of Jan, 2008, this estimate had been revised to 1,033,000. Of course, such findings are contested – none can ever claim accuracy. But then, you get the drift. How many Afghani and Iraqi Arabs should die for each American who died in the WTC Tower crash? All this toll in a war started on the basis of what proved to be a pack of lies told to the whole world!

A country that was ruled ruthlessly for 34 years by a dictator was thrown from that frying pan into an intense fire of an internecine escalating spiral of senseless violence. The situation today is such that now many Iraqis must yearn for the days under a tyrant called Saddam.

Since 2003 when Saddam was deposed by an intense military offensive, death has mostly rained down on Iraq from the air, where no American lives can be lost. When at last the Americans sent in their ground troops, they first created a min-America within Iraq – the heavily fortified Green Zone. And then let loose their maniacs and perverts. Like Lynndie England and Charles Graner in Abu Ghraib, a prison housing 7,500 prisoners in 2004. After their unpardonable acts of perversion, they were escorted safely to the US, where Lynndie gave safe birth to a child conceived in the midst of perversion, and then spent a leisurely 3 years in a swank military prison in the balmy climate of California spread over 19,000 sq mts and meant to house only 400 female prisoners. She served in the prison kitchen as punishment, and lived in that prison for exactly 521 days till she was paroled till her 3-year sentence was over. Now she lives in West Virginia, bringing up her child. Still not repentant for the horrors she took part in. And Graner? He was sentenced to 10 years, but was released in August, 2011 after serving only 6.5 years in a new prison building in Kansas meant for 515 prisoners in a quiet area spread over 51 acres where the bright cells have doors and windows, but no bars. Both were dishonorably discharged – forget the dishonor, discharge is what they probably wanted and got, anyway.

This is what an American soldier gets for visiting unspeakable horrors on thousands of prisoners. Definitely what the US soldier who went on a rampage yesterday in the original war-on-terror theatre, Afghanistan, must have mulled as infinitely preferable to the hell-hole that Afghanistan has become.

Let us go fast forward over the other horrors – the peeing on bodies of dead Taliban fighters; the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers and several hundred civilians through unmanned drone attacks; the random killing of defenceless civilians including a Reuters cameraman in Baghdad by shooting through Apache helicopter gun-sight; the shoot-the-messenger reaction in charging Bradley Manning for leaking this evidence to WikiLeaks; the desecration and burning of copies of the Koran; and so many others – and come straight to yesterday's horror at Panjwai in rural Afghanistan. What happened? 

An American on Afghan soil walks up in the dead of night and shoots and kills 16 Afghan civilians point-blank and coolly walks away. He is arrested – not by Afghan police, but by the NATO forces! 

Now, being a US citizen, he will be tried and brought to justice. In American. In American style. In a closed military court, like England and Graner. In camera, and not in a public trial. That too, many months or years after the public has forgotten this horror. And then, the judgment of the military court will be classified, and not released. And this soldier not hanged, but sentenced to 10-15 years in a swank, comfortable prison, if he is unlucky. And given a dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces. And paroled after a few years. So he can go back to his family. And live happily or unhappily ever after. With only his conscience to trouble him. If he has one, that is.

Obama consoles Karzai, and not the people who are bereaved so suddenly; and senselessly. Not a month ago, he ducked out of sight and refuses to apologize for the Koran burnings. Directing the NATO commander to do that instead. The same President who did not cringe from the cameras after the killing of Osama bin Laden on foreign soil, in flagrant violation of sovereignty of a nation. Is that the face of a Nobel Peace Prize winner that we see?

What about the US Government? Thanks to its formidable spin doctors and the twin forces of powers to conceal the truth and a well-oiled propaganda machine to project a lie as the truth, and of course, a credulous population, it will still manage to hold forth and pontificate against human rights abuses elsewhere in the world. Like it managed to make their shameful retreat from a war that they lost abjectly, secretly under cover of darkness, and then look like a great achievement.

Now I think I begin to understand the depth of loathing that Arabs have for Americans. Loathing not just because of their despicable acts. But in large measure due to the Americans' deep-seated hypocrisy.

1 Even this is being disputed by documentaries like Fahrenheit 911 by Michael Moore and Loose Change 9/11