Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Moving to TypePad

I've been having problems posting to Blogger all day, and this has finally given me the incentive to do something I'd been pondering for quite a while now, namely moving this blog over to TypePad. To the extent that Blogger's service interruptions permit, I still intend to be making posts both here and on there at least for the next week or two, but in time I plan to simply make a redirect from this URL to the new service. Just to iterate, the best place to look for my posts going forward will be at:

UPDATE: It doesn't look like I'll have the time to make posts both here and on the new blog, so please head on over there if you're interested in reading what I have to say. I'll wait to put a redirect on here for another day or two for the sake of those who'd like to read something here without using a permalink, but from Saturday evening you'll be redirected to the new location automatically.

What to Do With Former Dictators

Daniel Freedman raises an important issue in an editorial in today's European WSJ: how do we try ex-dictators like Charles Taylor without increasing the likelihood that future dictators will cling resolutely to power for fear of facing prosecution afterwards? This is a problem as old as they come - G. Julius Caesar's motivation for crossing the Rubicon was his desire to preserve himself from his enemies by retaining public office and the associated immunity from prosecution.

Forget Milosevic and Saddam. The trial of a former dictator to watch is that of Liberia's Charles Taylor. At least this is the trial the world's other despots -- and their oppressed subjects -- will be following the most closely.

In a deal brokered by Nigeria in August last year, Taylor was granted asylum in exchange for renouncing power. This was done despite his being indicted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed special court in Sierra Leone. He is accused of arming and training the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels in exchange for "blood diamonds" during the country's civil war. Because of the indictment, Nigeria has been under increasing international pressure to hand over Taylor to the court.

The asylum guarantee is also under domestic attack. Two Nigerian men -- mutilated in Sierra Leone by the rebels Taylor is accused of supporting -- are challenging the asylum in a Nigerian court. They argue that under international law asylum should not be given to war criminals. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, however, responds that he gained international agreement on the asylum deal, and so international strictures do not apply. He insists that the right thing for the country to do is to honor its promise to Taylor. This case comes up again September 15.

This in itself is an important debate. The president argues that justice lies in keeping your word -- irrespective of who it's given to. The other side counters that the justice of an evil man being held accountable for his crimes trumps the other "justice."

But this isn't only about Taylor. What happens in this case has direct ramifications for other despots -- and naturally their populations as well. If Nigeria is forced to break its promise to Taylor, other dictators will inevitably second-guess any offer to step down on a promise of asylum. Such offers will be seen as ploys to remove them from power, after which they're at the mercy of their hosts -- who can be forced to break their word.

Tyrants will therefore calculate that they are safest remaining in power in their own country. They'll hold onto power for as long as they can -- destroying their country and killing thousands in the process if need be. Handing over Taylor therefore means that millions around the world living unbearable lives will have less chance of ever being freed in a bloodless transition of power. The only way out will be rebellion or outside intervention.
As much as it pains me to say so, Mr. Freedman's argument strikes me as being correct. Charles Taylor is undoubtedly a bastard of the worst kind, but this issue is bigger than the immediate fate of one sadistic ex-warlord. In the absence of the international will to remove tyrants by force, there is little choice but to abide by agreements like that made with Taylor, however galling it may be to do so.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Trinitarianism - Vexatious Nonsense

In talking about the problems with much of contemporary Islamic practice, it is easy to overlook the sorry history of the faith one's own side is most familiar with, namely Christianity. How absurd is it to think, for instance, that men once came to blows and worse because of pointless hairsplitting over the difference between homoousios1 (ηομοουσιος) and homoiousios2 (ηομοιουσιος)? What is even more disheartening is to learn that not only did the former, more illogical alternative triumph over the latter, despite lacking entirely in scriptural support, and thus burdening an already self-contradictory creed with even more unreason, but that it did so purely on the say-so of a Roman Emperor for whom spiritual concerns were the farthest thing from his mind, concerned as he was mostly with stigmatizing a version of Christianity that had taken on great popularity amongst his Gothic enemies, all the better to set up an "Us vs. Them" dichotomy based on religious hatred.

Reading about the intellectual history of Christianity really is an eye-opening experience, and I find it impossible to believe that any reasonable and intellectually honest person could learn how the faith we know today came to be and still maintain his adherence to that religion. For the religiously observant Christian, ignorance really is bliss.

1 - “Of the same substance”
2 - “Of similar substance”

What a Surprise

The Congressional Budget Office is reporting that there isn't a chance in hell that Bush can fulfill his promise to cut the deficit in half over 5 years. No one can defy the laws of arithmetic.

ASHINGTON, Sept. 7 — Almost regardless of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush is very unlikely to fulfill his promise of reducing the federal budget deficit by half within five years, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said today.

In the last independent assessment of Mr. Bush's fiscal legacy before the elections, the Congressional agency said that if there were no change to existing law, the federal deficit would decline only modestly from a record of $422 billion in 2004 to about $312 billion in 2009.

If Mr. Bush persuades Congress to make his tax cuts permanent, he will fall even farther short of his promise. The federal deficit could reach nearly $500 billion in 2009 and the federal debt could swell by $4.8 trillion over the next decade.

The new estimate is the first time that the Congressional agency has projected that President Bush will not be able to fulfill his promise, made last February, to cut the deficit by half.

Budget projections, by Congress as well as the administration, have been notoriously wrong in the past — failing to anticipate a flood of tax revenue during the last 1990's and then badly underestimating a plunge in revenue after the stock market collapsed in 2000.

But the new report is sobering because it arrives at similar conclusions even when analysts made extremely optimistic assumptions about war costs in Iraq and robust economic growth.

"The message is that you cannot grow your way out of this," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who is director of the Congressional Budget Office and a former chief economist on President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. (emphasis added)
America under Bush is heading for a train-wreck, but nobody on the right seems to want to pay attention. Even if one accepts unreservedly that the war in Iraq ought to remain the prime focus of public policy, weapons and soldiers still must be paid for somehow, and with that in mind Bush's fiscal recklessness is actually a threat to the national security goals he claims to be focusing on. Where is the outrage on the right, other than from Andrew Sullivan?

I Guess I Don't Qualify

If this Girl's Guide to Geek Guys is anything to go by, I don't meet the requirements to call myself a "geek." I don't spend my free time discussing hardware, don't do Bill Gates impressions (and don't want to), have never worn a t-shirt with a software company's logo, find "cyberdating" a pointless exercise, don't watch Star Trek (or much of anything else, for that matter), and put aside my video game obsession around the age of 17. The term "nerd" seems to be a better fit, though again I hardly match the stereotypical image of a socially-awkward guy with thick black glasses and a pocket protector.

PS: I just wondered - can't a great deal of the appeal of Spiderman 2 be explained by its appeal to the teenage fantasies of nerds everywhere? Actually, it seems rather obvious that it must be so: which socially isolated bright young man hasn't daydreamed at some point in his life of getting the upper hand on the beauty queens and popular athletes someday? The movie certainly works as a love story in its own right - even more so than as an action adventure - but the added backdrop of the old "ugly-duckling" tale definitely adds a certain frisson.

The Problem with Wikipedia

Ed Felten gets to the heart of what is problematic about relying on Wikipedia as a reference. [Via Boing Boing]

Overall verdict: Wikipedia's advantage is in having more, longer, and more current entries ... Britannica's advantage is in having lower variance in the quality of its entries.
The key word here is variance: when Wikipedia articles are good, they can be very good indeed, a treasure trove of information that won't easily be found elsewhere, but when they're bad, they can be absolutely awful. If what one is looking for a reference of first resort, then Wikipedia will not fit the bill, as the key criterion in such a circumstance would be that the information one gets meets a certain minimum level of accuracy; the Encyclopedia Britannica is still the premier authority in this case. As an alternative take on a subject one for which one already knows at least the outlines, however, Wikipedia often can't be beaten.

As a practical illustration of what I'm talking about, let us look at the Niger-Congo languages, of which Yoruba, the language of my ancestors, is a member of the Benue-Congo branch. The Wikipedia entry for this extremely large family is disappointly light on content, as are the entries for Benue-Congo and Yoruba, and what little information there is in both of the latter entries is present largely because of my own efforts, though I am no professional linguist. The Britannica entry (pay only) for Niger-Congo, on the other hand, includes not just useful information on the common and distinguishing features of the various branches, but also helpful maps showing the distribution of the member languages. This discrepancy between the two sources is present throughout all subject areas dwelling on matters related to Africa.

When we turn our attention to mathematics, on the other hand, a very different picture emerges. Take the Wikipedia entry for algebraic geometry, for instance; not only is it accurate and concise, but it also provides references to all of the standard texts on the subject, and it links to entries for topics like Gröbner bases, sheaves, schemes and other related topics is such as would be unthinkable to find in a generalist work like the Britannica. As a mathematics reference, Wikipedia is very often better than even a carefully curated resource like Eric Weisstein's World of Mathematics. The Britannica too has an entry for algebraic geometry, but while it again shows that the curators have done their job of keeping errors to a minimum, it does not bear real comparison with the Wikipedia version, not least because one cannot learn very much more about the subject from the Britannica entry without going beyond the confines of said encyclopedia.

It is only natural to wonder what other interesting statistical properties the Wikipedia's entries may have. In terms of quality, what does the distribution of the articles look like, beyond just having a broader range of variation than one would find in a traditional encyclopedia? Is it normal, bimodal, chi-squared or one of the beta family of distributions? Does it skew one way or another? What is its kurtosis, or in other words, how flat or peaky is it? Is it even possible to devise a scale which will be widely agreed upon on which articles can be more finely rated than "good" and "bad"? The Wikipedia Statistics page provides lots of info on raw data like article and word-count, number of daily edits and the like, but I don't see any evidence that the sorts of questions I'm raising here are being addressed.

An Arab Journalist Reflects on Islamic Terror

This is a surprisingly thoughtful and self-critical article coming from someone working for the BBC; it evinces a refreshing scepticism about the old "small minority" defense, and no attempt to justify terrorism on the basis of Western misdeeds, real or imagined.

A leading Saudi journalist has caused a stir by launching a scathing attack on Muslim clerics who justify the killing of innocent civilians in the name of jihad, or holy war.
In an editorial on the hostage crisis in Beslan, Abdelrahman al-Rashid, the managing director of the satellite channel al-Arabiyya, wrote: "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims."
He laid the blame for Islamist violence around the world on radical Muslim clerics, whom he accused of hijacking what is essentially a peace-loving and tolerant faith.


Mr Rashid's views are not new or unique. Several Arab writers have been calling on Arab societies to examine themselves and stop blaming external forces for their misfortunes.
But coming this time from a journalist as prominent as Mr Rashid they are likely to infuriate an Islamic public that is firmly convinced that that it is Muslims who are the victims of what many see as state-sponsored violence, whether it is in Chechnya, the occupied Palestinian territories, or in Algeria.
Mr Rashid's comments employ what has become a standard defence of the Muslim faith, namely, that the problem is not Islam itself, but a small number of Muslims.
That may very well be true as far as the number of Islamic militants go. But this analysis does not address the fact that radical clerics, like Mr Qaradwi, remain widely popular.
The problem of Islamist violence appears to go well beyond the views of a small, albeit influential, minority.
(emphasis added)
Oh glorious day! I never thought I'd live to see something like this from a BBC journalist: I guess it takes being of Arab descent oneself (as Magdi Abdelhadi seems to be) to have the freedom to say such things whilst in the employ of the Beeb. If only more of their reporters would follow suit, instead of engaging in contorted attempts to see "the other side" whenever some thug strikes in the name of Islam.

Beyers Naude is Dead

And it grieves us to hear it, as he was a man who showed rare moral courage and a willingness to undergo personal sacrifices for his principles.

Beyers Naude, an Afrikaner cleric who spent half his life using the bible to justify apartheid before becoming one of the anti-apartheid movement's most important moral voices, died early Tuesday, a family spokesman said. He was 89.


Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naude was born in 1915 to a leading Afrikaner nationalist cleric who fought the British in the Boer War and helped found the Broederbond, or ``Brotherhood,'' a secret society of Afrikaner leaders that eventually became synonymous with the apartheid government.
Naude followed his father's path, getting a degree in theology from the University of Stellenbosch, a center of Afrikaner nationalism, and becoming the youngest member of the Broederbond.
As a cleric in South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church, Naude spent years as an unquestioning spiritual leader for Afrikaners -- the descendants of Dutch and French settlers -- and their deeply religious National Party.
The church, which created biblical justifications for South Africa's brutal apartheid racism, was often called ``the National Party at prayer,'' and Naude was seen as a rising religious and political star.
But after attending mixed-race church services in the 1950s, he began to have doubts about his church's doctrine.
The 1960 Sharpeville massacres, where government troops killed 69 black demonstrators, sent Naude into an intense bout of soul searching and Bible study ending with his development of an alternative church theology that condemned racism.
When, with Naude's support, the World Council of Churches issued a statement rejecting apartheid, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd led a protest that ended with the South African church withdrawing from the council. Naude refused to change his position.
``It was the beginning of loneliness and isolation, something that I would experience again and again in the years ahead,'' Naude once said.
He later helped found the Christian Institute, an organization that worked to promote reconciliation through interfaith dialogue.
In punishment, the church stripped him of his status as a minister. The government harassed him, and security police raided his home.
In 1977, authorities ``banned'' Naude for five years, a punishment that severely restricted his movement and his ability to meet with people.
Here was a genuine Afrikaner hero, one of the few who stood for something greater than narrow group interest at the expense of others. He will be sorely missed.

More on Growth and Convergence

Another information-packed post on growth and the empirical evidence (or lack thereof) for growth convergence is up at Mahalanobis. There isn't much for me to add at this point, other than to suggest that those who are interested also take a look at this 1988 paper by Brad DeLong.

NB - The Lucas paper is well worth reading, and can be had for a much more reasonable price - $5 instead of the $30 requested by Elsevier - through SSRN.


In an exchange between PZ Myers and Godless-You-Know-Who, the professor scores a unanimous knockout.

I’m going to single out just one example of Mr Godless’s astonishing lack of comprehension, the example of a hilarious and pathetic remark from one of his colleagues, who said, “can anyone really believe that feminist studies has anything relevant to tell us about ‘the social construction’ of male-female interaction when degree recipients aren’t even required to know the difference between the chemical structure of estrogen vs. that of testosterone, let alone anything about the comparative genomics of the X and Y chromosomes?” My reply was “What kind of geek would think that knowing that estrogen’s C19 is unmethylated while its A ring is aromatic gives him any insight at all into the different behaviors of the sexes?”

His rebuttal?
You see, steroid hormones like estrogen and testosterone do their job by slipping through the plasma membrane and turning on various genes…and different side groups mean that different genes get turned on in men and women. These differing patterns of gene expression produce the physiological and behavioral differences between the sexes.
Zoom, right over his head, and he geekily plods on, compounding the error. I’m sorry, guy, but knowing the methylation state of one of the carbons in a steroid hormone tells me nothing about social and sexual differences between men and women; there’s a whole world of stuff going on between the chemistry and the behavior that emerges. It’s like listening to a typography nerd earnestly explaining what a ‘serif’ is, who concludes that he has now explained all of Shakespeare, and that by demonstrating the irrefutable existence of type he has proven his superiority over me, the guy who doesn’t believe in the alphabet. I think I’ll stand by my belief that I’ll get more insight on the matter by talking to a radical feminist humanities professor (who will recognize that I know my ABCs) than I will wasting my time with the uneducated boy in the print shop.
Now that is a roasting. Stick a fork in him folks, he's done, very well done. The most delicious thing about witnessing such a putdown is that it's occurring in a field in which he'd like to claim to have some special expertise, and at the hands of someone he can't use an appeal to authority against - not from his position of anonymity, at any rate.

PS: The following remark made by Myers in his comment section mirrors findings many others have made in the course of arguments with this fellow:
He’s a very good squinker — great at throwing up a barrage of irrelevant factlets — but he’s not so good on comprehension, or actually listening to what the other guy has to say, and it looks like arguing with him is pointless, since he’s just going to distort everything to fit his preconceptions.
Straw men + Loads of pointless references: that's the Godlesscapitalist formula in a nutshell, and it wouldn't work half as well as it does if those who were most susceptible to the appeal of his fixations weren't so damned lazy and/or unintelligent themselves.

It's a Small World

Who would have thought that the Sean Healy who Frank McGahon was complaining about was related to Crooked Timber's very own Kieran Healy? For the Healys, at least, it seems that politics (in their case, left-wing politics) is indeed a hereditary matter.

Better Late than Never

This renewed polio elimination drive in Nigeria hasn't come a moment too soon. It's a shame that Islamist politicking should have held up the eradication of a disease which has given rise to so much needless suffering.

Some 13 million children in northern Nigeria are being vaccinated against polio in a bid to wipe out the disease.
About 250,000 technicians are making house calls to reach all children under five in eight states, which have become the world's polio epicentre.
Last year, an immunisation campaign was halted in northern Nigeria after Islamic clerics said it was unsafe.
Nigeria now accounts for about 80% of new cases and 12 previously polio-free African nations have been reinfected.

Fertility fears

Vaccinations were restarted in July after the clerics were satisfied with vaccines shipped in from Indonesia.
But July's campaign only reached some 60% of the region's children.
The clerics, based in northern Nigeria's biggest city Kano, had said that the original vaccine was part of a US plot to make Muslim women infertile.


Once the new programme is completed, Nigeria will prepare for a synchronised vaccination campaign - which will run in 22 countries - at the beginning of October as part of final efforts to rescue the WHO goal of wiping out polio worldwide by 2005.
I don't have time for those who insist that Islam is by definition an "evil" religion, but incidents like the one above give the lie to the claim that only a "few" extremists are holding a gentle, tolerant and open-minded religion hostage; thousands of children throughout Africa have been crippled for life because of the actions of Islamist politicians who enjoyed broad popular support from their co-religionists. All religion is nonsense, but some strains of nonsense are more dangerous than others, and Islam currently has more than its fair share of such madness.

Meme Watch

Damn! I hadn't expected the "Nuke Mecca" brigade to start chanting "Nuke Chechnya" quite so quickly. No matter how low you think people aren't capable of sinking, there will always be those who find a way to disappoint you.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Breeding for Conservatism?

Jason Soon links to an interesting article in the Washington Post suggesting that religion-minded conservatives are outbreeding liberals by a mile. The kicker is the concluding passage excerpted below:

If Gore's America (and presumably John Kerry's) is reproducing at a slower pace than Bush's America, what does this imply for the future? Well, as the comedian Dick Cavett remarked, "If your parents never had children, chances are you won't either." When secular-minded Americans decide to have few if any children, they unwittingly give a strong evolutionary advantage to the other side of the culture divide. Sure, some children who grow up in fundamentalist families will become secularists, and vice versa. But most people, particularly if they have children, wind up with pretty much the same religious and political orientations as their parents. If "Metros" don't start having more children, America's future is "Retro."
This, to my mind, is clearly nonsensical based on the empirical evidence we have to hand. It's safe to say that in the West, the highly religious have been outbreeding their wealthier and more liberal counterparts in places like the US and Britain for at least a century now*, and arguably a century and a half in the British case, and yet the trend in both countries has been towards liberalism rather than away from it. Were the thesis outlined here correct, we ought to have seen a monotonic increase in social conservatism throughout the 20th century, and that this is not the case illustrates why it is always helpful with arguments like this one to state one's assumptions in an explicit mathematical form, as the devil is always in the details. Saying "most people, particularly if they have children, wind up with pretty much the same religious and political orientations as their parents" is a uselessly vague prop for the conclusion the article's author seeks to draw from it.

As an aside, one thing mentioned in the WaPo article struck me as both surprising and doubtful. In particular,
African Americans, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, now have a lower average fertility rate than whites, and they are no longer producing enough children to replace their population.
Where can such numbers be found? Looking here, the claim seems untrue, at least as of 1999, while this document, which has figures for 2002, also contradicts the claim made above, giving a general fertility rate (GFR) of 57.4 per 1,000 for non-Hispanic white women, 67.4 per 1,000 for non-Hispanic black women, 58.0 per 1,000 for Native American women, 64.1 per 1,000 for Asian & Pacific Islanders, and 94.4 for Hispanic** women. The closest that the latter document comes to supporting the dubious claim made above is in suggesting that black and white fertility rates are converging, as non-Hispanic white women recorded a decline in GFR of 8-9% over the 1990-2002 period, while non-Hispanic black women recorded a 24 % decline over the same period. I don't see why anyone should trust in this guy's reasoning when even his data seems of dubious provenance.

*Few people seem to remember for instance that the 1920s and 1930s also witnessed a low in Western fertility rates, and this was only reversed after World War 2. Birth control did not begin in the 1960s with the pill.

**"Reconquista" paranoiacs would do well to note that while GFR declined 14% for Mexican women and 21% for Puerto Rican women over the period in question, the one Hispanic subgroup for which it rose was for the Cubans (i.e. predominantly GOP-voting whites), and that by a hefty 12%.

You Can't Get Something for Nothing

Via Arnold Kling comes this fact quoted by Ben Muse:

Having reached a peak of 58 percent in 1970, wages and salaries have declined to only 52 percent of national income in 2003. However, if we consider total compensation—including employer social insurance contributions and benefits—labor’s share has shown very little variation. By this measure, labor’s share of national income has averaged 70.5 percent over the past 50 years and has remained within a narrow range of that average
Kling then asks rhetorically:
Is this consistent with my claim that "If employers bear the cost of health insurance, then I'm the Easter Bunny"?
There shouldn't be anything surprising about all this, as no employer will pay more for labor than it is worth to him or her, whatever some government might mandate; all such regulations succeed in doing is depriving those who'd like to spend more of their income on something other than healthcare of any choice in the matter. This information also puts a very different spin on the often quoted "fact" that in the US, labor's share of national income is supposedly in decline thanks to unrestricted corporate "greed."

NB - The post on Growth Theory and "Stylized Facts" at Mahalanobis also makes for interesting reading, not least because it ties into the work of several economists whose work I very much admire. As far as I'm concerned, there is no question in economics more important than how to get poor countries to grow faster and in a more sustained fashion.

This Has to be a Joke

Does the Indiana University have some sort of September Fools' Day tradition the rest of the world doesn't know about? I don't know how to make sense of this report otherwise.

A five-year study run by Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction proves what many in the scientific community have always suspected: having children significantly lowers the IQ of both male and female parents.

Researchers at the Kinsey Institute began their study in 1999 by giving 200 married couples who were planning on starting families within the next four years Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. By 2003, all but 27 of these couples had conceived.

Another IQ test was given to each set of parents successful in conceiving and birthing a baby six months after their child was born. These results were compared to the previous intelligence tests.

In every single one of the 173 cases, both parents scored at least twelve points lower on the second IQ test, with the majority of parents losing twenty or more IQ points.

Dr. Hosung Lee, director of the study, was not surprised with the findings. “The research proved that our hypothesis was correct. Having children does retard one’s brain activity, and since both parents lost intelligence, we must assume that this loss has a psychological rather than biological cause.”

The IQ tests show that when a child is born, the part of the brain that makes one think objectively takes the biggest hit when it comes to losing brainpower. “This explains why every parent thinks their child is the smartest kid in class or the best athlete, even if that child is as dumb as a box of rocks or needs a calendar to time their forty-yard dash. People who before were intelligent and open-minded turn into raving lunatics who want to blame a teacher or coach every time their mediocre child fails,” said Lee.
And they say Americans have no feel for deadpan humor ...

"Sunshine Policy" = Plain Old Appeasement

This story on South Korea's 'Sunshine Policy' is a must-read. I won't quote any of it as I have other matters to attend to, but it really does give the lie to the notion that said policy is anything other than a craven surrender to North Korean demands, for which South Korea gets absolutely nothing in return. Pathetic.

French Reporters Soon to be Free?

So says Die Welt:

Bagdad/Paris - Die vor zwei Wochen im Irak verschleppten französischen Journalisten sind nach Informationen des französischen Nachrichtensenders LCI außer Gefahr. Die beiden Reporter Christian Chesnot und Georges Malbrunot seien auf dem Weg von Falludscha nach Bagdad, berichtete der Sender am Freitag.
The French journalists who had been held captive in Iraq for two weeks are now out of danger, according to information from the French news agency LCI. Both of reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are on the way from Falluja to Baghdad, reported the agency on Friday.
Assuming it's true, I'll be happy for them, but the circumstances surrounding the appeal for their release are such that one can't also help feeling a certain foreboding as to the message that the French have sent to Islamic extremists everywhere. As David Aaronovitch so well puts it
The same group has been holding the two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, whose appeals to the French government to repeal the school hijab ban were broadcast on al-Jazeera. The French have naturally refused to comply with the repeal demand, but they did something else instead. Communications Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres appealed to the kidnappers, arguing that, 'We do not understand why journalists (were taken hostage ... when our country, in terms of Iraq, expressed with immense force in the United Nations the necessity of respecting international law to restore peace.'

I sympathise entirely with the desire to free these two men from the threat of death, but isn't de Vabres's position essentially that he quite understands why these groups kill Italians, murder some miserable Nepalese and execute a few Turks, but that it just isn't fair to do it to the French?

So the Islamic Action Front of Jordan (currently attempting to prevent proper penalties against so-called 'honour killers' in that country) says that the journalists' lives should be spared 'Because of France's distinguished position in rejecting the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.' Not because you shouldn't murder journalists. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza agreed, arguing that freeing the Frenchmen would increase the isolation of Israel and the US. Not because you shouldn't kill journalists. The French argument, regrettably, amounts to the same thing.

Or, to put it another way, if you leave well alone you should be able to avoid being terrorised. (emphases added)
So much for claims that the French position on Iraqi terrorism was being "distorted." This is as dishonorable and cowardly a stance to take as it is an exercise in futility: they may leave one alone for the moment, but once the tide is firmly turned their way, one can be sure that they'll be back with new demands. Today it's the headscarf, and tomorrow it'll be Sharia as the sole law for the French Republic.

PS: This report suggests that the handover of the two journalists hasn't actually occurred yet; talks are now said to be in the "delivery phase" (whatever that means).

Clinton Gives Some Sound Advice

It's staggering that it should take a message from a Bill Clinton awaiting surgery for it to get across to the Kerry campaign that the fixation on Vietnam is actually harming his election effort, not helping it.

Former President Bill Clinton, in a 90-minute telephone conversation from his hospital room, offered John Kerry detailed advice on Saturday night on how to reinvigorate his candidacy, as Mr. Kerry enlisted more Clinton advisers to help shape his strategy and message for the remainder of the campaign.

In an expansive conversation, Mr. Clinton, who is awaiting heart surgery, told Mr. Kerry that he should move away from talking about Vietnam, which had been the central theme of his candidacy, and focus instead on drawing contrasts with President Bush on job creation and health care policies, officials with knowledge of the conversation said.

The conversation and the recruitment of old Clinton hands came amid rising concern among Democrats about the state of Mr. Kerry's campaign and criticism that he had been too slow to respond to attacks on his military record or to engage Mr. Bush on domestic policy. Among the better-known former Clinton aides who are expected to play an increasingly prominent role are James Carville, Paul Begala and Stanley Greenberg, campaign aides said.
This is all very sound advice. Here we are with a President whose last four years in office have been a farrago of poorly thought through policies poorly executed, and yet the challenger is struggling to overcome an 11-point polling deficit a mere 60 days before the election? Talk about throwing away an excellent hand! Kerry should never have made refighting Vietnam the central issue of his campaign; instead he should have concentrated on articulating what his planned policies for the future were and how he differed from Bush on the issues. That he failed to do so suggests that he doesn't actually have a positive vision of the future to sell to voters, other than "I'm not Bush."

Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis

What can I say other than "Told you so"? The Russian authoritities seem congenitally incapable of telling the truth.

MOSCOW, Sept. 5 -- The Russian government admitted Sunday that it lied to its people about the scale of the hostage crisis that ended with more than 300 children, parents and teachers dead in southern Russia, making an extraordinary admission through state television after days of intense criticism from citizens.

As the bereaved families of Beslan began to lay their loved ones to rest Sunday, the Kremlin-controlled Rossiya network aired gripping, gruesome footage it had withheld from the public for days and said government officials had deliberately deceived the world about the number of hostages inside School No. 1.

"At such moments," anchor Sergei Brilyov declared, "society needs the truth."

The admission of an effort to minimize the magnitude of a hostage crisis that ensnared about 1,200 people, most of them children, marked a sharp turnabout for the government of President Vladimir Putin. In previous crises with mass fatalities, such as the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 and the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, officials covered up key facts as well, but afterward never acknowledged doing so.

"It doesn't suit our president," a Kremlin political consultant, Gleb Pavlovsky, said on the broadcast. "Lies, which really acted in the terrorists' favor, did not suit him at all. Lies were weakening us and making the terrorists more violent."

The broadcast included no apology and referred only to the most blatant misstatement by officials, the claim that only 354 hostages were inside the school. It did not acknowledge that the hostage-takers had demanded an end to the war in Chechnya or that the government continues to give conflicting information about whether any of the guerrillas remain at large, who they were and how many were killed.

Nor did it mention that many residents of Beslan have been outraged that the government now appears to be understating the death toll, which stood officially at 338 Sunday night, although nearly 200 people are still unaccounted for.

As for the hostage-takers, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said authoritatively on Saturday there were 26 of them, and all had been killed. On Sunday, he said there were 32 -- 30 of them dead -- and bragged about the capture of one "member of the gang" who was to be charged in court on Monday.
Given this much dishonesty thus far, I'd say that the odds that the hostage-takers actually set off the bloodletting has just declined to 10% at best. I expect to see even more embarrassing revelations emerge in the coming days.

Turkey Takes a Step Backward

If Turkey's ruling party goes through with its law criminalizing adultery, not only will it do great harm to its bid for EU membership, but it will also become unworthy of belonging to said grouping. This sort of retrograde legislation is a godsend to all those who've been saying that Turkish culture is fundamentally incompatible with Western values.

Turkey's devout Muslim leader, Tayyip Erdogan, has defended his government's plans to criminalise adultery, despite protests that have shown the issue is dividing the country.

Mr Erdogan, whose AK party has its roots in political Islam, said at the weekend that outlawing marital infidelity is a vital step towards preserving the family and "human honour". Although Turkey aspires to join the European Union it did not have to adopt its "imperfect" western morals, he insisted.

"The family is a sacred institution for us. The stronger the family, the stronger the country. If the family is weakened, that country is doomed to destruction," the prime minister said in an interview with Turkey's Sabah newspaper.

The proposal, which has infuriated feminists and much of the media, is likely to cloud talks in Ankara today between Mr Erdogan and the European enlargement commissioner, Günter Verheugen.
Mr Erdogan sounds just like your average socially conservative Republican in having so little faith in the decency of his fellow human beings that he feels the need to use the state to police their private lives; unfortunately for the Turks, theirs is not a state in which the sorts of safeguards against theocracy possessed by the USA can be counted upon to hold the line.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Appalling Beyond Words

I'd tried earlier to stay away from the Ossetian hostage crisis for lack of a full understanding of what exactly was going on, but as news continues to come in, the sheer scale of the massacre that is being revealed is simply too great to allow the event to pass unnoticed.

The death toll in the Russian hostage crisis has climbed beyond 350 as President Vladimir Putin denounced the massacre as "an attack on our country."


North Ossetia government spokesman Lev Dzugayev told CNN that 323 hostages, including 156 children, died in the siege in the southern town.
In addition, 26 hostage-takers -- including 10 people from Arab countries -- and at least 10 Russian Special Forces troops died.
Chechens have been affiliated with the al Qaeda terror network, and an Arab connection suggests a further link between the Chechen rebel movement and international terrorism. Chechen rebels have been fighting Russian troops for a decade, seeking independence.
More than 700 people were wounded, officials said.
Dzugayev said Saturday evening that 448 people were still in hospitals in the region, including 248 children. Among the total hospitalized, 69 were in serious condition.
Of course the hostage takers are primarily to blame - it takes a special sort of ruthlessness to take elementary school children hostage - but the Russian security forces must also take their share of culpability for the loss of lives that took place. From the start I had forebodings that they'd show the same sort of impetuosity as they did in the Moscow hostage drama that that took place in 2002, and given the Russian government's record of dishonesty in public matters, I am utterly unable to take its spokesmen at their word when they say things like the following:
Most of the dead were killed when a bomb exploded in the gymnasium, Dzugayev said.
Of those who died from gunshot wounds, most were shot in the back as they fled the gymnasium, he said.
It all sounds much too convenient to be true, and after the lies that accompanied both the sinking of the Kursk* and the 2002 hostage crisis, I'd be a fool to buy their story on such an embarrassing occasion. Who is to say that what actually happened isn't that the Russians misinterpreted some action by the hostage takers, began shooting, and then all hell broke loose?

But leaving aside for now the question of whether or not the Russian security forces bungled yet another hostage rescue, there remains the far more vexing question of what exactly to do about the ever worsening rounds of terrorism being carried out by Chechen separatists. As this story makes clear, it cannot be portrayed as a simple "Russians, Chechens bad" tale, and the Chechens definitely have legitimate grievances: the events that have transpired since they tried to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990 ought to serve as a lesson for all those who think that territorial integrity ought always to be maintained whatever the wishes of the people in question.

Having said all that, the worst possible course of action the Russians could take at this very moment would be to accede to Chechen demands, as it would only encourage yet more of the same, only worse, as the following excerpt from the Slate article hints at.
A shocking and important event preceded the Russian pullout from Chechnya. In June 1995, a group of rebels emerged from what seemed at the time to be a nearly defeated Chechnya and tried to take over the small Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Dozens of armed men ended up barricading themselves in the local hospital, where the patients, including women with their newborns, became their hostages. Russian troops tried to storm the building but aborted the attack quickly. In the end, Moscow negotiated a cease-fire in Chechnya and let the terrorists get away in exchange for the hostages' release. Immediately after Budyonnovsk, Russia started peace negotiations with the Chechen rebels, making the hospital siege probably the most successful act of terrorism in history. It is also the only large-scale hostage-taking that didn't end in a storm.
If concessions must be ruled out to discourage the idea that terrorism can yield major benefits, and if the brutality which seems to be the sole response Putin's government is capable of only generates yet more bitterness upon which terrorism can feed, where do things go from here? It is beyond doubt that with sufficient brutality even Chechen separatism can be crushed - simply killing every last Chechen would do the job - but one would like to think that Putin's Russia isn't Stalin's, however strong the nostalgia for Uncle Joe's rule might be; as such, however much indifference the Russians might feign to Western criticism, the fact that they must pay some heed to it means that I can't see any escape hatch short of eventually letting the Chechens go their own way - even if it might be interpreted as "submitting to terrorism." All that can really be done to alleviate the latter threat is to do what Ariel Sharon has been doing in the Gaza Strip - strike back hard against the insurgents even as you prepare your retreat - and even then there's no guarantee that your opponents won't succeed in putting an unfavorable spin on events.

*And the subsequent drugging by security agents of a protester which was surreptitiously captured on camera.

Inaction on Darfur

Prometheus 6 links to a WaPo editorial lamenting the absence of any real international will to do something meaningful about the ongoing crisis in Darfur. As usual, the United Nations is proving itself impotent in putting a stop to a bloodbath, sticking to the issuance of meaningless resolutions that aren't backed up by anything more potent than threats of more of the same.

I wish I could say that I'm surprised by the lack of action on this issue, but I'd be lying if I did. I've maintained from the start that in issuing that resolution giving Sudan 30 days to act to end the killing and expulsions in Darfur, what most international parties were actually hoping for was that the "ethnic cleansing" campaign would be completed by then so that they could turn their attention to other, less taxing matters, and everything that's occurred since has vindicated my cynicism.

A Vexing Question

Kieran Healey asks:

Why is it that in Europe (at least in my experience) patients with a sprained ankle or whatever are typically issued with forearm crutches whereas in the U.S. you get underarm crutches. It seems clear to me that the underarm kind is inferior in every important respect. So why does it survive in the U.S.?
He then offers several possible answers, and solicits more. I can think of two myself:
  1. Marxist. American underarm crutches are a sign of the inevitable immiseration of the working classes (who are disproportionatelly likely to suffer injuries requiring them) under a regime of unrestrained capitalist exploitation.
  2. Anti-Globalist. Underarm crutches are bigger, a giveaway of the degree to which the corporate media has brainwashed the American sheeple into uncritically adopting a SuperSize™ mentality in all areas of life.
Anyone else have some suggestions?

The Gilded Cage

In light of the torments she's had to go through since her marriage to Prince Naruhito, one can well understand why the former Masako Owada turned down his marriage proposals at least twice. It has to take a lot to transform a formerly vivacious, intelligent and cosmopolitan woman into a nervous wreck, but the Imperial Household seems to have managed it just fine.

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Crown Princess Masako emerged briefly on Saturday from months of seclusion to visit the emperor, but officials said it might be difficult for her to resume her official duties this year.

Masako, who the palace said in July was suffering from stress-related depression caused by having to adjust to royal life, was accompanied by Crown Prince Naruhito for the short trip, her first venture outside palace grounds for around four months.

Television footage showed the 40-year-old princess smiling and bowing from behind the car window as she and Naruhito were driven from the palace where they live to the nearby residence of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

"I believe she went to thank the emperor and empress for their good wishes and hopes for her recovery during her illness," said a spokesman at the Imperial Household Agency, which handles the royal family's affairs.


Her husband set off a furor last spring when he said that Masako, once a cheerful and outgoing career diplomat, had become totally exhausted by 10 years of efforts to adapt to palace life.

There were hints in July that her health might be improving when palace officials reported that she had begun playing tennis with the crown prince, but they warned even then that it was too early to say she was truly recovering.

At the end of July, though, officials announced that she was experiencing anxiety and depressive moods, and that her doctors felt it would be difficult for her to carry out official duties.

Royal watchers say much of the stress comes from pressure on her to produce a male heir and from moves to prevent her from acting as a sort of "royal envoy" overseas.
Perhaps because Princess Masako was so much more accomplished than Diana, and not at all the self-promoter that the latter woman turned out to be, I find myself feeling much more sympathetic towards her than I ever did to Lady Di of the Glamourous Friendships and Playboy Boyfriends. Still, looking at the way in which both of these marriages have turned out, one has to wonder what it is women who dream of marrying a prince on a white horse think they're getting themselves into. Are fetters less stifling simply because they're golden?

Stockholm Syndrome

This has got to be the strangest editorial I have ever laid eyes upon. Could anyone really be so naive? Talk of "nuclear double standards" and the complete abolition of nuclear weapons is the sort of thing one expects to hear from teenagers, not from supposedly mature advocates of public policy.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Michelle Malkin, Revisionist

Eric Muller has been doing a phenomenal job at taking apart the ridiculous claims made by Malkin in her book on the internment of Japanese-Americans, and this latest post packs a particularly powerful punch. I'll quote a few excerpts:

Let's consider a hypothetical. Suppose an author were to publish a book revisiting the pogroms across Germany in November of 1938 that we know as "Kristallnacht." Suppose that author's thesis went something like this: "Yes, German and Austrian Jews certainly and regrettably suffered in the attacks of November 9 and 10, 1938, and in the incarceration of some 26,000 in concentration camps for a period of many weeks that followed. We have seen, time and again, the images of the broken storefront windows and the burning synagogues that the Jewish grievance community and politically correct academics want us to see. We have been led to believe that this was an unprovoked outburst of baseless hatred on the part of the German people. But what Jews and academics do not tell you, and do not want you to know, is that the so-called Kristallnacht had a real cause: A Jew did, in fact, murder the German official Ernst vom Rath in Paris on November 7, 1938, at the German Embassy, and documents from the time show that Josef Goebbels knew this and saw the murder as proof of a larger Jewish threat to the Reich."

This, in the context of the Holocaust, is the precise analogue of Malkin's thesis about the Japanese American internment. Please note that I'm not suggesting that Malkin herself believes or has ever said any such thing about Kristallnacht specifically, or the Holocaust generally. I am sure she does not. believe such a thing. I am also not comparing Kristallnacht to the eviction of Japanese Americans. I am instead making a point about the nature--the architecture, if you will--of her argument. It is this: you have been led to believe that what seems to be a groundless, racist government action lacked any foundation and can therefore be explained only as an expression of hatred, but that is not so; in fact, there was a real threat to the government that supplied a foundation for what they did.

So, to return to Timothy Burke's observation: suppose that a mediagenic author were to publish such a work. Would MSNBC, CNBC, Fox, C-SPAN, HBO, and countless radio programs present that work at all? If they did so, would they present it uncritically, and without rebuttal?

Of course they wouldn't. And so the question is: why the difference?

A couple of possible answers suggest themselves to me, and neither is very attractive.

One is that it's easier for us to recognize malevolence in others' ancestors (the Nazis) than in our own. Thus, what seems incontestably unjustifiable in the history of others remains debatable in our own. (emphasis added)
This is a point I've made before. But let's see what he has to say in the update he provides, as the insults from the usual quarters come pouring in:
Update: The comments over at my blog have started to pour in, as I knew they would, calling me vile and reprehensible for comparing Michelle Malkin to a Holocaust revisionist. A careful reader of what I wrote will, I am confident, understand what I actually do. I construct a hypothetical about one episode from 1938 Nazi Germany about which there is historical consensus ... I imagine a book that depicts the consensus as a "myth" by a similar mode of argument, and with a similar type of evidence, that Malkin's book uses to depict the consensus about the internment as a "myth." I postulate that such a book about 1938 Nazi Germany, published today, would not receive uncritical attention from American major media. And I ask why Malkin's has, and suggest a couple of possible answers.

To those who are rushing over to my blog to call me names for insulting Michelle Malkin, I hope that on their way over they'll think for a moment about the insult that Malkin's book represents to many thousands of loyal, patriotic, and innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry who had to endure the questioning of their loyalty 60 years ago, and now, thanks to Malkin's book and the uncritical attention the media has lavished upon it, are having to endure it again.
I think Muller is asking too much to expect these sorts of individuals to reflect on how insulting the claims of their heroine are to those who are the subjects of her book; after all, these are the very same sorts who will whine on and on about the racism of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even as they indulge in the vilest rhetoric about "ragheads", "welfare parasites" and "wetba .." ahem, "illegals" who just "keep coming" and "multiply like rabbits." To morons like these, it's only racism when it's in their direction.

Private Life of the Romans

A most informative work dating back to 1932 on that other and much less well known aspect of Roman life, by Harold and Mary Johnston; yet another item to remind one of the importance of finite limits on the validity of copyrights.

There's plenty here that should prove eye-opening to those whose knowledge of Roman history is confined mostly to the typical accounts of the doings of senators, emperors and generals, from the section on naming conventions (do you know the difference between a praenomen, a nomen and a cognomen?) to the marriage customs of the various classes, to the relationships between masters & slaves, patrons & clients, and plenty else besides.

Contrary to what many maintain to be an excessive, politically correct contemporary focus on teaching about women, slaves and the like at the expense of great generals and statesmen, I think the importance of gaining an understanding of the mundane aspects of a people's existence is still underplayed rather than the opposite. Knowing this sort of thing is what makes the difference between, say, a foreigner thinking he understands American life simply because he's seen a lot of Hollywood movies, and actually living and working amongst Americans and thereby coming to appreciate that contrary to what videotapes might imply, most do not live in a glamorous and dangerous world of handsome self-made millionaires, promiscuous blonde bombshells, cocky but brilliant young lawyers, rogue cops with integrity and taciturn cowboys who are quick on the draw, and that most Americans share the exact same concerns as do people anywhere else - making a living, raising a family, maintaining friendships, finding distractions, provisioning for old age, etc.

The Syrian Candidate

Michael Young provides a timely reminder of the charade that is Lebanese independence, as the country's constitution is modified to permit Syrian toady Emile Lahoud an extra three years in office. With all the screaming and whining about the Golan Heights one hears from the Syrians, one would be forgiven for forgetting that they in turn are occupiers of disputed territory - except in their case it's an entire nation that's under contention, rather than a small patch of land.

Friday, September 03, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

I finally brought myself around to seeing the movie about which so much had been said, and what a surprise it turned out to be. I don't want to go into the problems I have with it or with the tenets of Christianity right now - there'll be time enough for all that later - but one thing I will say is that I don't see where the accusations of anti-semitism come from.

To be sure, the portrait painted of most of the High Priests of the Jerusalem Temple isn't a flattering one (though a few are portrayed as having opposed the prosecution of Jesus at the start), while Pontius Pilate is given far more flattering treatment than the historical record would indicate he deserves (this was a man removed from his post for cruelty by Tiberius, of all people), but by far the most sadistic individuals in the movie turn out to be the Roman guards, while nearly all the ordinary people who show kindness to Jesus are Jews - one of whom is even sneeringly called a "Iudeaus" by one of the Roman legionaries, as if he were an SS man in antiquarian guise. If anything, Gibson's treatment of the Passion is actually kinder than what is recorded in the Gospels - the infamous verses from Matthew 27:25 aren't even transcribed into English, for instance.

If there's one object lesson to take from all this, I suppose it's never to judge a movie based purely on word of mouth. I'm not going to say that Christianity makes any more sense to me than it did before I watched Gibson's movie, but I'm willing to go on the record as saying that most of the bad press it received looks undeserved. Maybe being a long-lapsed Christian helps in seeing it with a sympathetic eye, but I can well understand why those who still cling to that faith would find the film so moving.

If This is Conservatism ...

... then what does liberalism look like? I'm glad to see that I'm far from alone in my distaste for the nonsensical, spendthrift program being advanced by the GOP for a second Bush term. Andrew Sullivan has every right to be disillusioned, and I think he's hit upon the right description for what's on offer here - Bismarckian Wilsonianism, or kulturkampf + corporatism + liberal internationalism.

The Wilsonian part of the vision I can live with (though it's clear that very many libertarians cannot), but not the Bismarckian aspect of it, and in Bismarck's favor, it must be said that at least he recognized that budgets must conform to the laws of arithmetic. How can anybody with a respect for freedom sign up to an agenda that looks like something out of the dreams of General Franco?

If there's anything at all that leaves me the slightest bit hesitant about rooting all out for a Kerry victory, it is anxiety about his willingess to anger his base by using force if need be, especially with regards to Iran. Contrary to what some on the right would like to make out, Kerry's plan to call Iran's bluff by offering it the fuel it claims to need is actually strategically quite sound, and certainly more substantive than anything Bush has managed to put forward as to what to do about that country. What worries me is what happens after the Iranian bluff is called, as it surely will be - does Kerry really intend to allow the UN Security Council to hold him hostage at that point, or will he find the gumption to strike while there's still a chance to wreck serious damage to the Iranian nuclear programme?

The Higgs Boson

Or, how to fake an understanding of the Standard Model at cocktail parties. Brian Doss of Catallarchy links to a page offering five one-page explanations of what exactly the Higgs particle is. All five are surprisingly clear and accessible, and even fervent math-haters should find them easygoing.

Those in need of a more nuts and bolts treatment are welcome to look here for a more (much more) mathematically demanding treatment; you'll find there all the group symmetries, gauge transformations, tensors and Lagrangians you could ever want.

Well Said

An excellent response by Oliver Willis to the increasing idiocy on racial matters issuing forth from the hypocritical, sanctimonious and frankly bigoted Dean Esmay. Esmay wants to have the freedom to crack "nigger" jokes, but goes ballistic when Andrew Sullivan points out how Zell Miller does his darndest to live up to stereotypes about Southerners; he sees nothing wrong in lecturing blacks about how racism is so 1970s and we all just need to get over it, calling Oliver Willis a "spoiled brat" despite knowing nothing about the guy's background, even as he uses his own hardscrabble background as the ultimate trump card in discussions on racial issues. It's well past time somebody gave this loudmouthed idiot who goes around calling people "race hustlers" a clue, and for doing so, I say a hearty "Thank You" to Oliver Willis.

NB - In case you're wondering how to get at all the Esmay material I refer to above, just follow through to Willis' site; I refuse to dignify a loudmouth like Esmay with a direct link, sorry.

Unfit to Rule

The ongoing revelations about the alleged coup plot in which Mark Thatcher has supposedly been implicated do not cast a favorable light on the British upper classes. If anything, they make it seem as if P.J. Wodehouse wasn't so much writing satire as factually setting out a description of a particular milieu.

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 2 - They say the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Alas, the same appears not to be true of coups in Equatorial Guinea.

A week ago, South African prosecutors tied the patrician son of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, to an improbable, botched coup in Equatorial Guinea, a minuscule, humid, African dictatorship. Now others in England's political and boarding-school elite are being dragged, over furious denials, into what is becoming a black eye for the British, whose colonialist image in Africa has been waning.

The would-be coup's ever more byzantine story, redolent of greed, stupidity, code names like Smelly and Scratcher, and "a large splodge of wonga" - apparently an Etonism for money - is providing a field day for South Africa's splashy press and its British mentors.

"It's an incredible tale of intrigue and scandal and embarrassment," Patrick Smith, the editor of the London newsletter Africa Confidential and the affair's reigning authority, said in a telephone interview. "It's kind of our silly season here and, in the absence of real events, it's captured the public imagination."

Recent revelations center on Sir Mark Thatcher, 51, Lady Thatcher's son and a graduate of Eton's 432-year-old archrival, Harrow. South Africa's anticorruption police unit, known as the Scorpions, arrested him last week on a charge of illegally helping to finance the Guinea coup. He faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted. In an interview, Peter Hodes, one of his lawyers, called the charges "rubbish."

Two Etonians have also been linked to the plot. One is Simon Mann, military adventurer and scion of the Watley Ale brewing fortune, who now sits in a prison in Zimbabwe, one of 70 men arrested as mercenaries in March when their northbound jet landed in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, to pick up weapons. The other is David Hart, millionaire and onetime adviser to Lady Thatcher, who turned up in a note Mr. Mann wrote from jail seeking help.
And what is one to make of the following, other than to interpret it as a mark of the terminal childishness and blundering of upper-class twits?
Locked in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, facing years there or extradition to a potential death sentence in Malabo, Mr. Mann smuggled a plea to his wife. "Our situation is not good and very URGENT," it stated. "We need heavy influence of the sort that ... Smelly, Scratcher ... David Hart, and it needs to be used heavily and now.

"It may be that getting us out comes down to a large splodge of wonga! Of course, investors did not think this would happen. Did I?"

The note, with its tantalizing reference to "investors," reached the Scorpions, who concluded that "Smelly" was Mr. Calil and that "Scratcher" was Sir Mark, a neighbor of Mr. Mann in Cape Town. Yet, for all its innuendo, the note could be read as a cry by Mr. Mann for rich friends to rescue him.
I say this is childish not just because of the use of silly code names like "Smelly" and "Scratcher", but because Mr. Mann, despite supposedly having headed Executive Outcomes for however many years, seems to have been so unaware of the importance of maintaining secrecy that he didn't even bother to encrypt his message; couldn't he have used a Vigenere cipher, even if something more difficult to crack were beyond his reach in prison? The military playing field must have been childishly low in Central and Southern Africa for a firm run by such an incompetent to have thrived for so long in the region.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Niall Ferguson: Republicans for Kerry

Niall Ferguson's excellent WSJ editorial has at last made its way unto a platform where anyone can read it. There's plenty of material there to give a lot of conservatives heartburn, but I think the questions Ferguson asks deserve to be taken seriously. Are theocracy, the big brother state and incestuous links between government and favored corporations to become the defining traits of the conservative movement? What profiteth a party if it holds on to power but loses all its ideals? [Via Crooked Timber]

Immigration Reform and the GOP

The WSJ has a very good editorial today on Bush's immigration proposals. What a shame that it's for subscribers only.

President Bush and the party's growth wing ... believe that the best way to fix our illegal alien problem is to address the underlying causes: the economy's demand for low-skilled labor, the proximity of willing foreign workers in search of a better life and the dearth of legal channels to enter the U.S.

"A growing economy requires a growing number of workers," reads the GOP platform, "and President Bush has proposed a new temporary worker program that applies when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs." Mr. Bush also recognizes that post-9/11 it's important to know who's already here. His proposal would allow undocumented workers "who currently hold jobs to come out of the shadows and participate legally in America's economy."

The President's decision to take on an issue that so divides the party is admirable, not least because he's doing so in the middle of a close re-election race in which base turnout is key to a November victory. He is also thinking long term. Newcomers, especially when they're young, tend to stick to the political allegiances they first make. At the turn of the last century, Republicans made the mistake of signaling that immigrants from Ireland and Italy weren't welcome in the GOP. Asian-Americans in Hawaii after World War II got a similar message. Dispelling such notions can take generations, and Mr. Bush is trying to ensure that his party doesn't have to relearn that lesson with Hispanics.


The reality is that, aside from the country's immigrant tradition, flexible labor markets help economies grow. Better to concentrate government efforts on expanding America's economic pie, not preventing others from coming here to earn their piece.
How eminently sensible, from the economic, political and national security viewpoints. The battle against illegal immigration is about as winnable as that against drug use, and for the same reasons: when there's a large enough demand for something, the market will find a way to provide it.

Anwar Ibrahim is Free

Jonathan Edelstein reports that former Malalysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's conviction has been thrown out by the Malaysian Federal Court. This is a long overdue development: it was clear from the start that the case against Ibrahim was trumped up and nothing but a convenient way for Mahathir Mohamad to destroy an inconvenient political rival.

Halliburton - The Nigerian Connection

This has got to be the most underplayed story in the blogosphere over the last year; why hasn't it been able to get any traction even in the most anti-Bush quarters? One would think people who claim to loathe Halliburton would jump at a bona fide story about corruption when the opportunity arises, but no ...

Halliburton Co. said an internal investigation has uncovered documents indicating officials of a consortium it now leads discussed bribing public officials in Nigeria in order to secure a multibillion-dollar contract there.

The investigation centers on the construction of a gargantuan natural-gas liquefaction plant on the Nigerian coast, beginning in January 1996 and continuing today. A consortium led by a company later acquired by Halliburton won the lucrative contract, which will be valued at a total of $8.1 billion when the project is completed.

In the past 10 days, Halliburton says, its lawyers discovered notes written between 1993 and 1998 that suggest consortium executives discussed bribes to Nigerian officials to win their support and ensure that the consortium won the contract. Halliburton says it has turned over the evidence to investigators in the U.S., France and Nigeria, who already had been investigating the consortium. Halliburton declined to reveal the names and positions of the people who discussed the bribery scheme.


The documents, described as contemporaneous notes of conversations and meetings, indicate "people may at the time have been planning or contemplating the necessity of money for the purpose of making bribes. There is no way to read these materials and not be concerned about that," says James Doty, an attorney with Baker Botts LLP, an outside law firm brought in by Halliburton this year to examine the matter.

The notes end in 1998, shortly after Halliburton acquired Dresser Industries Inc., which led the consortium through its M.W. Kellogg Co. unit. The consortium, called TSKJ, also includes France's Technip SA, the Snamprogetti unit of Italy's ENI SpA, andJGC Corp. of Japan.

The merger was overseen by Halliburton's then-chief executive, Dick Cheney, now the nation's vice president. There is no indication that Mr. Cheney knew of the improper activity, according to company officials. (emphasis added)
They would say that, wouldn't they? How could a chief executive of a company like Halliburton not have known about $140 million in bribe money being paid to top Nigerian politicians? At worst, the claim of ignorance is an outright lie, and at best it says that Cheney was in flagrant dereliction of his duty as CEO, an ominous thing to learn given the current administration's pitch for re-election, based as it is on alertness amidst insecurity.

Man is a Political Animal

As this NYT story on the emerging struggle and policy divisions between Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin's factions illustrates, not even a one-party totalitarian state can succeed in abolishing politics.

Purported differences between the men are often exaggerated in China's rumor-filled political discourse. But people in the government and party hierarchy, including a few who say they were skeptical about the possibility of a power struggle until recent months, say they see signs that the two leaders have associated themselves with opposing schools of thought.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Hu is seen as embracing the idea that China needs to focus more on populist social problems, like corruption, health care, income inequality and environmental pollution, while Mr. Jiang has often spoken about the importance of maintaining a high rate of economic growth as the first priority.

Mr. Jiang is viewed as more supportive of China's private sector and of delegating power to the provinces to control their economies. Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have been using central government controls to reduce wasteful state spending, curtail lending to cool the overheated economy, and support the largest state-owed conglomerates.

Several people also said that Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang have also begun to diverge subtly on foreign policy, with Mr. Hu working to forge closer ties to European nations, especially France and Germany, and Mr. Jiang emphasizing the relatively cordial relationship he built with the United States in the late 1990's.
It's funny how the left-right splits in domestic policy are also echoed in the differences in preferred foreign friendships, isn't it? This consistency would argue against the idea that the differences between the two men are entirely a matter of unprincipled power-grabbing; China's leadership seems genuinely split along ideological lines.

US Climate Change Report 2004

The latest report is available here, and ought to make for interesting reading for anyone who'd like to know what the state of the evidence for global warming is. Needless to say, the evidence still seems to support the notion that the warming that the Earth has witnessed in the last 50 years is mostly man-made, but as this story points out, there are methodological difficulties with computer modelling that can't easily be resolved one way or another.

Those working in the field agree that the models need refinement. Most important, they say, is improving understanding of the aerosols spewed by smokestacks, unfiltered tailpipes and volcanoes. They were once presumed only to have a cooling influence. Now, however, aerosols are known to cause both cooling and warming, depending on their color and composition and how they affect clouds. Those properties are slowly being incorporated in the simulations.

But several experts on aerosols published a paper in the journal Science last year warning that such particles were so poorly understood that there was no way to incorporate them into models without adding greatly to uncertainty in the results.

Given the uncertainties, the authors, led by Dr. Theodore L. Anderson of the University of Washington, said the one-degree warming in the last century could just as easily have been caused by inherent variability in the climate system as by greenhouse gases.

Dr. Richard S. Lindzen, an M.I.T. meteorologist and longtime critic of climate models, said the designers essentially chose values that produced the desired result: significant future warming trends.

Model designers defend their work, saying there is no way to choose values for the forces affecting climate that produce a desired curve.

Ronald J. Stouffer, a modeler at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., noted that many competing simulations had been created by independent teams using different methods - and they all showed warming.

"It is the sum of all the papers and analysis that convinces me" that humans are altering the climate, Mr. Stouffer said.
As I've said before, I think the weight of the evidence is clearly on the side of those who propose that human activities are now the main driver of the rise in global temperatures, but as this excerpt shows, not all critics of the models used can be easily dismissed as ignorant know-nothings with axes to grind, as so many scientifically-illiterate activists are wont to do. The problem with modelling anything as complex as long-term global weather is that no matter how well one's model may fit with the data one already has, there's no easy way of knowing ahead of time whether the correspondence with reality will continue going forward, or whether all one has is just a fancier form of Ptolemy's epicycles, equants and deferents, lacking in any underlying physical justification and unlikely to hold up in future without ever more fudges to keep it in sync with the facts.

Andrew Sullivan Takes Down Zell Miller

And in a most resounding fashion too; this really is a must read. Here's one excerpt:

Here's another slur:
No one should dare to even think about being the Commander in Chief of this country if he doesn't believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home. But don't waste your breath telling that to the leaders of my party today. In their warped way of thinking America is the problem, not the solution. They don't believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.
Yes, that describes some on the left, but it is a calumny against Democrats who voted for war in Afghanistan and Iraq and whose sincerity, as John McCain urged, should not be in question. I have never heard Kerry say that 9/11 was America's fault; if I had, it would be inconceivable to consider supporting him. And so this was, in truth, another lie, another cheap, faux-patriotic smear. Miller has absolutely every right to lambaste John Kerry's record on defense in the Senate. It's ripe for criticism, and, for my part, I disagree with almost all of it (and as a pro-Reagan, pro-Contra, pro-SDI, pro-Gulf War conservative, I find Kerry's record deeply troubling). But that doesn't mean he's a traitor or hates America's troops or believes that the U.S. is responsible for global terror. And the attempt to say so is a despicable attempt to smear someone's very patriotism.
And here's another:
Another lie: "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide." Miller might have found some shred of ancient rhetoric that will give him cover on this, but in Kerry's very acceptance speech, he declared the opposite conviction - that he would never seek permission to defend this country. Another lie: "John Kerry wants to re-fight yesterday's war." Kerry didn't want to do that. Yes, he used his military service in the campaign - but it was his opponents who decided to dredge up the divisions of the Vietnam war in order to describe Kerry as a Commie-loving traitor who faked his own medals. What's remarkable about the Republicans is their utter indifference to fairness in their own attacks. Smearing opponents as traitors to their country, as unfit to be commander-in-chief, as agents of foreign powers (France) is now fair game. Appealing to the crudest form of patriotism and the easiest smears is wrong when it is performed by the lying Michael Moore and it is wrong when it is spat out by Zell Miller. Last night was therefore a revealing night for me. I watched a Democrat at a GOP Convention convince me that I could never be a Republican. If they wheel out lying, angry old men like this as their keynote, I'll take Obama. Any day.
I'm glad to see that Sullivan for one hasn't mortgaged his sanity or his respect for truth to partisanship. Have both the Republicans and the Democrats lost their minds? "Bush is an idiot", "Kerry's a traitor", "Bush knew in advance that 9/11 would happen", "Kerry shot himself to get a purple heart" - back and forth, back and forth, just one damned idiotic lie after another, with no concern whatsoever to come to terms with matters of substance. A pox on both their houses, I say.

Juan Cole Goes Wild

Juan Cole, every Bush hater's favorite Middle East specialist (with Robert Fisk running a close second) reveals himself to be willing to lean on the most dubious sources if they provide a justification to indulge in feverish speculations about AIPAC, Mossad, Israel and high-placed neocons with "dual loyalties." Why am I not surprised by any of this? More importantly, why is this man taken so seriously? Is it because he happens to be a professor at the University of Michigan, or because he likes to say the sorts of things people who dislike American foreign policy prefer to be told?

Innuendo about the loyalties of Paul Wolfowitz seems especially off-base to me seeing as he was booed for mentioning the sufferings of Palestinians at a pro-Israel rally not so long ago; his concern for democratic change in the Arab world also seems to have roots dating a long way back, while his recently revealed relationship with an Iraqi woman named Shaha Ali Riza speaks against any interpretation of the man as a sworn enemy of all Arabs. If Wolfowitz is truly "guilty" of anything, it would seem to me to be a naive optimism about human nature, rather than disloyalty to his country, and the only reason I can think of for people to keep dragging his name up in insinuations about "dual loyalties" is purely because of his ethnicity, which tells you everything you need to know about those who make such charges.

What a Surprise ...

So Ms. KF* decided to drop her case against Kobe Bryant once it became clear that she wasn't going to be able to use the "rape shield" law to steamroller her way to victory, eh?

he Kobe Bryant rape case was dismissed yesterday in Eagle, Colo., after prosecutors said the woman who had accused Mr. Bryant of sexual assault was unwilling to testify, leaving the state no option but to drop all charges.

The decision, which capped a yearlong drama of legal maneuvering and debate about the nation's rape laws - going to Colorado's highest court three times and to the United States Supreme Court once - came after meetings with the woman, her family and her lawyers, the district attorney in the case, Mark Hurlbert, said. Mr. Hurlbert said in a statement that he wanted to pursue the case and that his decision should not be seen as any reflection on Mr. Bryant's accuser or his office's belief in her account.

"The victim has informed us, after much of her own labored deliberation, that she does not want to proceed with this trial," Mr. Hurlbert said. "For this reason, and this reason only, the case is being dismissed."

The dissolution of the criminal trial, which veered from melodrama to farce and back during preliminary hearings, was not entirely unexpected. Legal scholars who have closely followed it say the prosecutor's case had been steadily weakening in the last month after rulings by Judge W. Terry Ruckriegle, the accidental release of sealed information about Mr. Bryant's accuser and, not least, the woman's own decision in early August to sue Mr. Bryant in civil court.

The civil suit was a particularly devastating blow to the prosecution because it would have allowed Mr. Bryant's lawyers to portray the woman, whose name has not been officially released, as driven by greed, not a quest for justice.
Was she so impatient for her payday that she couldn't even wait for the criminal suit to reach its conclusion? Surely the Eagle country DA must feel betrayed by the fecklessness of this young woman in wasting all their efforts on her behalf in such a manner. But let's look at what this all means for Kobe Bryant's public image:
As Mr. Hurlbert suggested in his comments, many questions raised by the case live on in the civil suit.

And now the collapse of the criminal case raises major questions of its own, in particular whether prosecutors were rash in filing charges in the first place, or whether the evidence looked weaker than it had at first.

Even Mr. Hurlbert's tone in dropping the case against Mr. Bryant was criticized by some legal experts who said it showed a lack of grace.

"I don't think it was appropriate for him to keep saying the word victim over and over again in his statement today," said Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has followed this case closely and who once taught Mr. Hurlbert. "He's quasi-announcing that Kobe Bryant is a rapist and that's the way it is," Mr. Campos said.
Professor Campos is right; that is exactly what Mr. Hulbert is doing, calling Bryant a rapist despite his client's unwillingness to submit to the demands of the legal system in a lawsuit she herself chose to bring. It is nauseating in the extreme that such irresponsible behavior should have been made cost-free by a feminist double-standard enshrined in legislation: the "rape shield" laws need either to be modified to grant anonymity to both sides or to simply be dropped altogether.

In any case, the civil trial collapses, and there KF will have no recourse to "rape shield" style anonymity; let the shakedown commence ...

*Come on, we all know who she is by now, don't we? And why are women (and only women) allowed to make anonymous accusations of rape without fear of repercussions to their reputations anyway?

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

On the Value of a Liberal Education

PZ Myers has an excellent post up on why it is so wrongheaded to view education simply in terms of acquiring the skills to do well in some particular trade. Occupations come and go, but the ability to think critically is a skill that benefits one in all walks of life to the end of one's days.

Apple is Making a Strategic Error

The WSJ is reporting that Apple no longer considers the iMac central to its business strategy. I think this is an error of alarming proportions.

The last time Apple Computer Inc. introduced an all-new iMac computer, back in January 2002, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs was featured smiling with the desktop on the cover of Time magazine. In order to give the iMac maximum exposure, Mr. Jobs even changed the date of the computer's unveiling to coincide with the publication of the Time story.

But yesterday, when Apple revealed its first new iMac in more than two years, there were no splashy magazine covers. Mr. Jobs, who is recovering from cancer surgery, wasn't there to promote the new flat-panel desktop. While Apple heralded the machine as a "breakthrough," the company didn't bother to have a live Webcast of the event, which took place in Paris at an Apple Expo conference.

The low-key unveiling highlights how much Apple has now moved beyond what was once its flagship product.


Computers still remain Apple's key revenue source, but the company's business and product strategy has since evolved away from the iMac. Indeed, sales of the computer peaked in the quarter ended in late December 1999.

Apple now relies heavily on its portable laptops, such as the iBook and PowerBook, which formed more than 50% of the company's computer revenue in its last quarter. Graphic designers and other professionals favor high-end models, such as the Power Mac G5, which are easy to upgrade with accessory hardware.

What's more, Apple is increasingly focused on its faster-growing business of digital music, which includes the white-hot iPod music player and the online iTunes Music Store.
Mac fanatics like to make the BMW vs. General Motors analogy to justify Apple's focus on selling high-priced, high-margin hardware, but in doing so they overlook a crucial difference between the computer business and the automotive industry, namely the importance of sheer market size.

Nobody buys a computer simply to have it sit there, but to run software, and by far the most important consideration developers who are aiming to sell shrink-wrapped must make is the potential size of the market they're targeting: given the choice between writing software for a platform with a market share of 3% and one with 93%, it's a no-brainer which one most professional developers will make. With that in mind, it is positively suicidal for Apple to write off the low-end market as unimportant, however slim margins might be in that section of its business.

The rise of the web as a platform has weakened the case for grabbing market share somewhat, as has the increasing prominence of primarily UNIX-oriented free software, but neither of these two developments has entirely removed the argument in favor of pushing aggressively for a wider installed base, and in any case, relying on open source UNIX-heads is far from being an ideal way to promote the use of the APIs that are specific to the Macintosh platform. I don't know that Mac users will be content to lean ever more heavily on Apple to fill the holes in the application market that will appear as Apple's market share continues its steady decline, and even if Apple were willing to play the role of developer of last resort forever, it cannot be a good thing for software quality that there should be only a single vendor catering to the needs of the user base - and that holds true whether we're talking about Apple or Microsoft.