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How Google Earth explains the financial crisis

Want to get a sense of just how bad things are? Take a spin on Google Earth.

The latest issue of International Economy, edited by FP contributor David Smick, has a clever graphic showing the depth of the economic crisis, so I thought I'd share.

The above image, pulled today from Vesseltracker.com's Google Earth file, shows container ships languishing off the Singapore coast. Welcome to the  largest parking lot on Earth. International Economy explains:

The world's busiest port for container traffic, Singapore saw its year-over-year volume drop by 19.6 percent in January 2009, followed by a 19.8 percent drop in February. As of mid-March 2009, 11.3 percent of the world's shipping capacity, sat idle, a record.

It's a rough time to be an Asian tiger, or to be in the shipping business. The IMF projects that Singapore's economy will shrink significantly in 2009. Globally, bulk shipping rates have dropped more than 80 percent in the past year on weak demand, and orders for new shipping vessels are cratering. In Busan, South Korea, the fifth-largest port in the world, empty shipping containers are piling up faster than officials can manage.

"Things have really started to get bad -- laborers spend their entire day waiting for a call from the docks that they have a job," Kim Sang Cheul, a dockworker at Busan, told Bloomberg. "People spend all day staring at their phone as if staring at it can make it ring. You’re lucky if you get a call."

Green shoots? Not so much.

(For another view of Singapore's port, you can check out Vesseltracker's Microsoft Virtual Earth mashup map.)

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How does Interpol define 'political'?

Agim Ceku, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army who was attending a conference on demobilizing guerilla movments in Colombia, has been expelled from the country after he was placed on an Interpol "red list" at the request of Serbia:

The director of Colombia's DAS security agency, Felipe Munoz, told the AP that Serbia sought the expulsion after Ceku's arrival for the conference, which was organized by President Alvaro Uribe's peace commissioner and attended by Uribe himself as well as by Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom.

The Interpol-issued notices alert member nations that a person is wanted for possible extradition but does not force them to arrest or expel the individual. Munoz said Colombian law compelled the Ceku expulsion.

During the 1998-99 Kosovo war Ceku was the military head of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army.

Ceku says Serbia wanted him expelled because he was the "hero of the conference" and getting too much attention. 

This comes two weeks after Interpol redlisted Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales who has sought refuge in Peru after being charged with corruption by Hugo Chávez's government.

To my mind, these two cases raise the question of whether Interpol is allowing itself to be used by governments to crack down on political opponents. Interpol's constitution states:

It is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.

I don't know enough about Ceku or Rosales to form an opinion on their guilt or innocence, but I think it's fairly indisputable that both indictments at least have a "political character." With Chávez requesting that a second political opponent be redlisted, it might be time for the organization to review its procedures.