Tuesday, September 09, 2003

More Black Families Choose Homeschooling for Their Kids

Yet another item for the Democrats to consider. Black discontent over the dire quality of public schools can only continue growing, and if liberals imagine that they can keep fobbing off black demands for vouchers indefinitely, without paying any sort of consequence, they are living in a make-believe world. The Democratic Party really needs to ask itself: do children exist to serve the public school system and the teachers' unions, or does public schooling exist to serve children? Whatever the likes of Mary "Georgetown Day" Landrieu and Teddy "Chappaquidick" Kennedy might wish, the tail will not keep wagging the dog forever.

The Falseness of Anti-Americanism

There's a nice essay by Fouad Ajami up on the Foreign Policy website. He does a good job of pointing out the schizoid manner in which so many of those who rail against American culture, goods and policies do so while using the very tools of modernity brought to them by American activities. Take, for instance, the following passage:

In Doha, Qatar, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably Sunni Islam's most influential cleric, at Omar ibn al-Khattab Mosque, a short distance away from the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, delivers a khutba, a Friday sermon. The date is June 13, 2003. The cleric's big theme of the day is the arrogance of the United States and the cruelty of the war it unleashed on Iraq. This cleric, Egyptian born, political to his fingertips, and in full mastery of his craft and of the sensibility of his followers, is particularly agitated in his sermon. Surgery and a period of recovery have kept him away from his pulpit for three months, during which time there has been a big war in the Arab world that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq with stunning speed and effectiveness. The United States was "acting like a god on earth," al-Qaradawi told the faithful. In Iraq, the United States had appointed itself judge and jury. The invading power may have used the language of liberation and enlightenment, but this invasion of Iraq was a 21st-century version of what had befallen Baghdad in the middle years of the 13th century, in 1258 to be exact, when Baghdad, the city of learning and culture, was sacked by the Mongols.

The preacher had his themes, but a great deal of the United States had gone into the preacher's art: Consider his Web site, Qaradawi.net, where the faithful can click and read his fatwas (religious edicts)— the Arabic interwoven with html text— about all matters of modern life, from living in non-Islamic lands to the permissibility of buying houses on mortgage to the follies of Arab rulers who have surrendered to U.S. power. Or what about his way with television? He is a star of the medium, and Al-Jazeera carried an immensely popular program of his. That art form owes a debt, no doubt, to the American "televangelists," as nothing in the sheik's traditional education at Al Azhar University in Cairo prepared him for this wired, portable religion. And then there are the preacher's children: One of his daughters had made her way to the University of Texas where she received a master's degree in biology, a son had earned a Ph.D. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and yet another son had embarked on that quintessential American degree, an MBA at the American University in Cairo. Al-Qaradawi embodies anti-Americanism as the flip side of Americanization.

So then, America is the devil's representative on earth, and yet the good Sheik finds it acceptable for three of his offspring to attend educational institutions of the Great Satan! The hypocrisy of people like this is simply breathtaking. One finds oneself wondering what, if anything, they believe at all, other than money and power can be had by keeping the masses perpetually whipped up into a frenzy of anger.

But wait, there's more! Here's what he has to say about Greek and Turkish anti-Americanism:

Takis Michas, a courageous Greek writer with an eye for his country's temperament, traces this new anti-Americanism to the Orthodox Church itself. A narrative of virtuous and embattled solitude and alienation from Western Christendom has always been integral to the Greek psyche; a fusion of church and nation is natural to the Greek worldview. In the 1990s, the Yugoslav wars gave this sentiment a free run. The church sanctioned and fed the belief that the United States was Satan, bent on destroying the "True Faith," Michas explains, and shoring up Turkey and the Muslims in the Balkans. A neo-Orthodox ideology took hold, slicing through faith and simplifying history. Where the Balkan churches— be they the Bulgars or the Serbs— had been formed in rebellion against the hegemony of the Greek priesthood, the new history made a fetish of the fidelity of Greece to its Orthodox "brethren." Greek paramilitary units fought alongside Bosnian Serbs as part of the Drina Corps under the command of indicted war criminal Gen. Ratko Mladic. The Greek flag was hoisted over the ruins of Srebenica's Orthodox church when the doomed city fell. Serbian war crimes elicited no sense of outrage in Greece; quite to the contrary, sympathy for Serbia and the identification with its war aims and methods were limitless.

Beyond the Yugoslav wars, the neo-Orthodox worldview sanctified the ethnonationalism of Greece, spinning a narrative of Hellenic persecution at the hands of the United States as the standard-bearer of the West. Greece is part of NATO and of the European Union (EU), but an old schism— that of Eastern Orthodoxy's claim against the Latin world— has greater power and a deeper resonance. In the banal narrative of Greek anti-Americanism, this animosity emerges from U.S. support for the junta that reigned over the country from 1967 to 1974. This deeper fury enables the aggrieved to glide over the role the United States played in the defense and rehabilitation of Greece after World War II. Furthermore, it enables them to overlook the lifeline that migration offered to untold numbers of Greeks who are among the United States' most prosperous communities.

Greece loves the idea of its "Westernness"— a place and a culture where the West ends, and some other alien world (Islam) begins. But the political culture of religious nationalism has isolated Greece from the wider currents of Western liberalism. What little modern veneer is used to dress up Greece's anti-Americanism is a pretense. The malady here is, paradoxically, a Greek variant of what plays out in the world of Islam: a belligerent political culture sharpening faith as a political weapon, an abdication of political responsibility for one's own world, and a search for foreign "devils."

Lest they be trumped by their hated Greek rivals, the Turks now give voice to the same anti-Americanism. It is a peculiar sentiment among the Turks, given their pragmatism. They are not prone to the cluster of grievances that empower anti-Americanism in France or among the intelligentsia of the developing world. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gave Turkey a dream of modernity and self-help by pointing his country westward, distancing it from the Arab-Muslim lands to its south and east. But the secular, modernist dream in Turkey has fractured, and oddly, anti-Americanism blows through the cracks from the Arab lands and from Brussels and Berlin.

The fury of the Turkish protests against the United States in the months prior to the war in Iraq exhibited a pathology all its own. It was, at times, nature imitating art: The protesters in the streets burned American flags in the apparent hope that Europeans (real Europeans, that is) would finally take Turkey and the Turks into the fold. The U.S. presence had been benign in Turkish lands, and Americans had been Turkey's staunchest advocates for coveted membership in the EU. But suddenly this relationship that served Turkey so well was no longer good enough. As the "soft" Islamists (there is no such thing, we ought to understand by now) revolted against Pax Americana, the secularists averted their gaze and let stand this new anti-Americanism. The pollsters calling on the Turks found a people in distress, their economy on the ropes, and their polity in an unfamiliar world beyond the simple certainties of Kemalism, yet without new political tools and compass. No dosage of anti-Americanism, the Turks will soon realize, will take Turkey past the gatekeepers of Europe.

So, too bad about the Greeks and the Turks, but what about old allies like the French? Surely their criticisms can be taken at face value:

Much has been made of the sympathy that the French expressed for the United States immediately after the September 11 attacks, as embodied by the famous editorial of Le Monde's publisher Jean-Marie Colombani, "Nous Sommes Tous Américains" ("We are all Americans"). And much has been made of the speed with which the United States presumably squandered that sympathy in the months that followed. But even Colombani's column, written on so searing a day, was not the unalloyed message of sympathy suggested by the title. Even on that very day, Colombani wrote of the United States reaping the whirlwind of its "cynicism"; he recycled the hackneyed charge that Osama bin Laden had been created and nurtured by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Colombani quickly retracted what little sympathy he had expressed when, in December of 2001, he was back with an open letter to "our American friends" and soon thereafter with a short book, Tous Américains? le monde après le 11 septembre 2001 (All Americans? The World After September 11, 2001). By now the sympathy had drained, and the tone was one of belligerent judgment and disapproval. There was nothing to admire in Colombani's United States, which had run roughshod in the world and had been indifferent to the rule of law. Colombani described the U.S. republic as a fundamentalist Christian enterprise, its magistrates too deeply attached to the death penalty, its police cruel to its black population. A republic of this sort could not in good conscience undertake a campaign against Islamism. One can't, Colombani writes, battle the Taliban while trying to introduce prayers in one's own schools; one can't strive to reform Saudi Arabia while refusing to teach Darwinism in the schools of the Bible Belt; and one can't denounce the demands of the sharia (Islamic law) while refusing to outlaw the death penalty. Doubtless, he adds, the United States can't do battle with the Taliban before doing battle against the bigotry that ravages the depths of the United States itself. The United States had not squandered Colombani's sympathy; he never had that sympathy in the first place.

Colombani was hardly alone in the French intellectual class in his enmity toward the United States. On November 3, 2001, in Le Monde, the writer and pundit Jean Baudrillard permitted himself a thought of stunning cynicism. He saw the perpetrators of September 11 acting out his own dreams and the dreams of others like him. He gave those attacks a sort of universal warrant: "How we have dreamt of this event," he wrote, "how all the world without exception dreamt of this event, for no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of a power that has become hegemonic . . . . It is they who acted, but we who wanted the deed." Casting caution and false sympathy aside, Baudrillard saw the terrible attacks on the United States as an "object of desire." The terrorists had been able to draw on a "deep complicity," knowing perfectly well that they were acting out the hidden yearnings of others oppressed by the United States' order and power. To him, morality of the U.S. variety is a sham, and the terrorism directed against it is a legitimate response to the inequities of "globalization."

Oops! On second thought, perhaps not.

I don't wish to give the wrong impression: there really is a great deal to criticize about American foreign policy, but the thing to keep in mind is that the same can be said of the foreign policy of every other nation on this planet. America is uniquely prominent and powerful at this point in time, but it is not uniquely selfish or evil in its' pursuit of its' own interests. To single out America alone as worthy of criticism, even when one's own country is engaged in actions that ought to bring shame to the face of any decent person, is nothing more than a ridiculous prejudice; to seek to blame America for all the evils of the world, or even to accuse it of executing outrages against itself in order to further some sinister agenda, is a marker of rampaging paranoia.

The RIAA Loses its' Mind

From the New York Post (alternatively, see Fox News) comes this charmer of a PR disaster in the making:

The music industry has turned its big legal guns on Internet music-swappers - including a 12-year-old Upper West Side girl who thought downloading songs was fun.

Brianna LaHara said she was frightened to learn she was among the hundreds of people sued yesterday by giant music companies in federal courts around the country.

"I got really scared. My stomach is all turning," Brianna said last night at the city Housing Authority apartment on West 84th Street where she lives with her mom and her 9-year-old brother.

"I thought it was OK to download music because my mom paid a service fee for it. Out of all people, why did they pick me?"

The Recording Industry Association of America - a music-industry lobbying group behind the lawsuits - couldn't answer that question.

"We are taking each individual on a case-by-case basis," said RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss.

Asked if the association knew Brianna was 12 when it decided to sue her, Weiss answered, "We don't have any personal information on any of the individuals."

Brianna's mom, Sylvia Torres, said the lawsuit was "a total shock."

"My daughter was on the verge of tears when she found out about this," Torres said.

The family signed up for the Kazaa music-swapping service three months ago, and paid a $29.99 service charge.

Usually, they listen to songs without recording them. "There's a lot of music there, but we just listen to it and let it go," Torres said.

When reporters visited Brianna's home last night, she was helping her brother with his homework.

Her mom said Brianna's an honors student at St. Gregory the Great, a Catholic school on West 90th Street.

Brianna was among 261 people sued for copying thousands of songs via popular Internet file-sharing software - and thousands more suits could be on the way.

"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," said Cary Sherman, the RIAA's president. "But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action."

What a bunch of heavy-handed dullards! Have they considered it possible that if they'd offered music-on-demand services of their own years ago, none of this might have happened? It hardly took a genius to see where the music industry's future would be going - I saw it clearly enough as far back as 1997.

A Statement Worth Remembering

"Democratic communism is like fried snowballs."
      Leszek Kolakowski.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Double Standards on Religion

Gregg Easterbrook has an interesting post up on the double standards at work in media coverage of religiously motivated political actions, in this case, on the Alabama's Ray Moore of Ten Commandments infamy, even as the religiously inspired efforts of Governor Bob Riley to eliminate state taxes for the poor are ignored. That religion, and the Christian brand of religion in particular, can be as much a force for good as for evil is something that all too many people on the left fail to grasp.

Yes, Christianity has been used to rationalize all sorts of injustices, but the examples of communism and Nazism in the 20th century ought to disabuse us of the notion that religion is at all necessary for the rationalization of inhumanity. A great deal of good has and is being done around the world by people who are driven by religious motivations, and it seems only proper to me to give these people their due, even if one doesn't like, or even respect, the particular religious systems to which they adhere. Religious devotion is not of its' own a mark of intolerance and wickedness.

Certainly, from a purely philosophical point of view, it is more impressive for one to choose to do good and to help one's fellow man without being prompted to do so by a deity, and with neither the fear of hell nor the prospect of heaven to keep one on the straight and narrow, but men are imperfect creatures who find it hard enough to do the right thing as it is, without theoreticians demanding of them a superhuman loftiness of moral vision. If you are moved to act with kindness and decency towards others you encounter, why should I care what moves you to do so?

Hypocrisy in Action

So it turns out that when the issue of vouchers for Washington D.C. came up for a vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee, only Dianne Feinstein and Robert Byrd broke ranks with the Democratic party to support the bill, with Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) abstaining from the vote. This is the same Mary Landrieu of whom the Wall Street Journal said the following some time ago (no link - subscription reqd.):

If Senator Mary Landrieu is mortified about the way her recent flip-flop on school vouchers for Washington, D.C., is playing, we suspect it has something to do with a full-page ad that attracted national attention after it ran in her home state's leading newspaper, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

The ad, the top of which is reproduced below, stems from a hallway encounter the Senator had with nine-year-old Mosiyah Hall in July after Mrs. Landrieu had announced that she wouldn't be supporting vouchers for D.C. schoolchildren this time around. This led young Mosiyah to ask the natural question: Where did the Senator send her own kids?

The Louisiana Democrat answered "Georgetown Day"--one of the district's toniest private academies--and went on to offend the mostly black mothers on hand when she came over to explain that even with this D.C. voucher measure they still wouldn't be able to afford Georgetown Day.

Aww shucks, well I guess that makes it all right then! We can't have all these inner city types getting uppity and forgetting their place! Hypocrisy in educational matters seems to be something of a habit with Washington-dwelling Democrats; let us not forget that Bill Clinton sent his own daughter to a private school as well (Sidwell Friends).

It seems that the Democrats still hope to wreck passage of this bill Perhaps the Democratic party's representatives ought to make their motto "public schools for thine, but not for mine," as that's certainly how it plays out in the real world. Following is what I consider the single best part of the Washington Post article:

In one indication of how heated the debate has become, the District chapter of the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options bought a full-page ad in a New Orleans newspaper accusing Landrieu of turning her back on African Americans and noting that her two children attend the private Georgetown Day School.

Another pro-voucher group, D.C. Parents for School Choice, released the text of a television ad it is to air in the District and Massachusetts that accuses Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) of trying to stop a plan to help black schoolchildren and compares him to segregationist Bull Connor, the Birmingham police chief in the early 1960s.

"Senator Kennedy, your brothers fought for us. Why do you fight against us? Are the unions really more important than these children?" the ad says.

Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said the ad was "outrageous, and I'm not going to dignify it with a response."

After being informed of the ads, Williams last night called on the pro-voucher organizations to halt such attacks, saying, "These ads don't represent our position, they're not helping our cause and they should take them off the air."

Well of course the (dis)honorable Senator for Massachusetts won't "dignify" the ad with a response, as no possible response could ever dignify selling out the futures of thousands poor inner-city children for the sake of unions' dollars. I hope Mayor Williams is being disingenous in his calls for these attacks to cease, because nothing could be more important than to make the Democratic Party understand that black support is not so unconditional that it can be satisfied with mere token gestures. Ted Kennedy is, if anything, worse than Bull Connor, in that he masquarades as "a friend of the Negroes", even as he works to ensure that they will remain poor and stupid for the indefinite future; at least with the likes of Bull Connor, one knew where one stood.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Public Choice Theory in Action

Over at Winds of Change, Armed Liberal has a post up that gives real-life illustrations of how government can fail, whether due to mission creep or gross mismanagement. The cases outlined give support to my previous warning about the need to be cautious in assuming that governments are necessarily free of the selfish motives that plague private agents.

Is Iran Building an Atom Bomb? (German) *

From the German Tagesspiegel am Sonntag (Daily Mirror on Sunday) comes the following news:

Eine Gruppe von 70 bis 90 Wissenschaftlern soll in Iran am Bau einer Atombombe arbeiten. Westliche Sicherheitskreise haben zahlreiche Hinweise auf geheime Aktivitäten. Die Forschung der Experten würde vom Verteidigungsministerium koordiniert.

Wie der Tagesspiegel am Sonntag aus westlichen Sicherheitskreisen erfuhr, habe der Iran in Europa Hochspannungsschalter gekauft, die zum Zünden von Atomsprengköpfen benutzt werden können, heißt es in den Kreisen.

Teheran habe sich zudem besondere Hochgeschwindigkeitskameras und Röntgenblitzgeräte besorgt, mit denen Testexplosionen untersucht werden können.
Translation:
A group of 70 to 90 scientists are working in Iran on the construction of an atomic weapon. Western security circles have numerous hints of secret activity. The research of the experts is being coordinated by the [Iranian] Defense Ministry.

Taggespiegel am Sonntag has learnt from Western security circles that Iran has bought high voltage switches in Europe which can be used in the ignition of atomic explosions.

In addition, Teheran has purchased high-speed cameras and X-Ray-flash equipment with which test explosions can be measured.

I've been saying precisely this for ages now! If this news comes as a surprise to anyone, I'll be quite astonished. Military action is going to have to be taken against Iran, with the aim in mind of totally destroying the facilities at Arak, Bonab, Natanz and even Bushehr. It doesn't matter what the Russians say about the last facility - the Iranians have no real need for nuclear power, and their intentions aren't in the least to be trusted.

What I'm most interested in at present is seeing how the European governments react to the ongoing developments. The things they've had to say thus far have been less than encouraging. Jack Straw keeps waffling on about a meaningless "dialogue" with the Iranians, while as usual France and Germany play the role of facilitators, by arguing against the adoption of stern measures against Iran. Don't the governments of these countries feel the slightest bit of alarm at what Iran is up to? Western Europe is within the planned range of Shahab 4 and 5, after all, and the current fracas in Britain about the arrest of the former Iranian ambassador to Argentina is a vivid reminder that Iran has never constrained its' hostile activities to just the territories of the Great and Little Satans.

*I decided to translate more of the article text, to give those who can't read German more insight into why the article leads one to conclude that Iran's activities are dangerous.

"Exploitation" and Confused Thinking on Globalization

Bjørn Stærk has a very, very good post up on the hypocrisy and muddled thinking of those who complain about the evil multinationals "exploiting" the labor of poor countries. There is a strange circularity to the complaints one hears from such people, who in the name of preventing the "exploitation" of the poor, would actually condemn them to lifetimes of poverty, by denying these unfortunate people the right to work at jobs that, however wretched they may seem in the eyes of most Westerners, are actually a step up in life from those they might have otherwise been employed at - were they lucky enough to be working at all.

The problem with people who want to foist Western labor and environmental standards on poor countries is that they don't seem to understand what this would do for the attractiveness of such countries as investment havens - or perhaps they do understand, and just don't give a damn, being more concerned to protect low-productivity labor at home than to engage in trade that boosts the welfare of both participants, without the indignity of one party playing the generous philanthropist, and the other the grateful supplicant. Corporations are not charities, and cannot be expected to bring jobs to countries that have the high wage and environmental expectations of Westerners without the high worker productivity necessary to back these expectations up, and anyone with a historical perspective will be keenly aware that Third World jobs that strike us today as unbearably toilsome and ill-rewarded are often far easier and better-paid than what was typically on offer in the early days of European and American industrialization. As harsh as working conditions in the Third World may be in many circumstances, the truth is that there is no real way for a people to bypass this stage in industrial relations unless they are the beneficiaries of Saudi-like windfall riches.

It is with these thoughts in mind that the notion of Howard Dean succeeding to the White House fills me with the greatest alarm. As bad as Bush is, he at least belongs to a party that is nominally committed to free and unfettered international trade, and there are many conservatives who are grumbling loudly about his protectionist pandering to the producers of steel, catfish and other uncompetitive domestic products. Despite the excellent free trade record of Bill Clinton, no such counterweight exists in the Democratic party, many of whose members really do seem to believe that by pushing for "fair" trade, they will actually be doing a favor to the citizens of poorer countries, rather than the immense harm they will in truth be engendering.

The Dangers of Judicial Activism

Jeffrey Rosen makes a strong case in the New York Times for the notion that judges should tread carefully in using their powers to short-circuit public debate about controversial issues. Whatever one's political stance may be, it is possible to believe that a ruling is both morally correct and legally unjustifiable, as is so evidently the case with Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas.

One needn't be a fundamentalist, or even a conservative, to accept that there simply isn't anything in the American constitution that confers any sort of right to a first-trimester abortion, and talk of "penumbras" and "emanations" does not suffice to twist the plain text meaning of the document to serve such purposes. The same is true of Lawrence v. Texas, which strikes me as being just plain bad law, and this despite the fact that I think there ought to be a fundamental right to privacy in the constitution, covering not just what five judges on the Supreme Court believe worthy of their protection, but all aspects of everyday life, whether it be one's sexual practices or one's choice of chemical distraction.

It is hypocritical in the extreme for the Supreme Court to rule, as it did, that the implied right to privacy fails to extend to other private transactions such as sex for money, when the moral reasoning against sodomy and prostitution are exactly the same. That a man should be willing to pay for sex when it can so easily be had for free strikes me as pathetic, but my disapproval of such transactions shouldn't be grounds for me to prohibit others engaging in them, and a public debate in the course of which those whose beliefs agreed with mine won over the majority to their stance would have been much preferable to the current situation, in which Supreme Court judges have to go through all sorts of casuistic contortions to justify prohibiting soliciting and prostitution while permitting sodomy. As matters stand, those who would like to legislate on matters of private morality are made to feel like martyrs, and not without reason.

U.S. Surgery Safer than under NHS

Another data point to consider for those who believe that British-style single-payer healthcare systems are the way forward:

Patients who have major operations on the National Health Service are four times more likely to die than Americans undergoing such surgery, according to a new study.

The difference in mortality rates was blamed on long NHS waiting lists, a shortage of specialists and competition for intensive care beds.

The joint study, carried out by University College London and a team from Columbia University in New York, found that patients in Britain who were most at risk of complications after major surgery were not being seen by specialists and were not reaching intensive care units in time to save them.

The study followed 1,100 patients at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth and compared them with 1,000 patients who had undergone similar major surgery at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

The results showed that just under 10 per cent of the British patients died in hospital after major surgery, compared with 2.5 per cent of the American patients.

Each year, more than three million operations are carried out on the NHS and about 350,000 of these are emergencies which carry a higher risk of complications.

Professor Monty Mythen, head of anaesthesia at UCL who led the British side of the research, said: "The main difference seems to be in the quality of post-operative care and who cares."

Prof Mythen, who also oversees the critical care facilities at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said: "In the Manhattan hospital, the care after surgery is delivered largely by a consultant surgeon and an anaesthetist. We know from other research that more than one third of those who die after a major operation in Britain are not seen by a similar consultant.

"In America, everyone would go into a critical care bed - they go into a highly monitored environment. That doesn't happen routinely in the UK."

Health ministers, meanwhile, will present new figures this week showing another annual rise in the number of intensive care beds - although Britain still lags behind America and much of Europe in critical care facilities.

Those who still believe that longevity figures tell the entire story should think carefully about the shortcomings of relying on such a simplistic measure. Life expectancy figures have little to do with the quality of healthcare received as such, given the fact that it is heavily influenced by infant mortality, and the differences in violent deaths between societies. Central planning does not, has never, and will never work, wherever tried.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

A Major Irritant of the Modern Era

Why is it that bands today are so damned unimaginative when it comes to picking names for themselves and their albums? Executing a search on Google for "Death on the Installment Plan" is just as likely to bring up some idiotic record as it is to deliver a link referring to Céline's novel.

Words of Warning to France and Germany

This very nice editorial appeared today in the Daily Telegraph:

!raq is everyone's war

It is hard to resist a sense of déjà vu in the melancholy spectacle of French and German leaders once again threatening to block an American draft Security Council resolution on Iraq. Having failed to sabotage the war, they now seem bent on sabotaging the peace.

Not only is "Old Europe" unwilling to commit its own troops; it also seems determined to prevent other nations from doing so, at any rate under the UN umbrella. One can only guess at the motives of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, but they appear to have more to do with pique and Schadenfreude than any professed concern for the Iraqi people.

There are, however, grounds for hope that a UN resolution will eventually pass. The Russians signalled yesterday that they, while dissatisfied with the American draft, are ready to negotiate. The Germans, too, are eager to mend fences with Washington, and in any case have no veto

A stick-and-carrot approach to both these powers might well reveal surprising flexibility. Only the French are ready to risk diplomatic isolation in order to thwart the Anglo-American coalition. They, of course, not only have a veto, but are also quite willing to use it.

America, for its part, has been reluctant to cede even notional influence to the UN. This is understandable. Having expended blood and treasure in the liberation of Iraq, America is not about to yield control to allies who have hitherto been mere spectators, and hostile ones at that.

It is, though, clear that Iraq has now become the principal theatre of the global war against terrorism, and that the coalition needs reinforcements. American public opinion is reluctant to denude its forces elsewhere. If the Russians, French and Germans are to make a useful contribution to the occupation, they will demand a seat at the top table.

The diplomatic challenge is to find a compromise that would keep ultimate authority in American hands, while conceding enough influence to the allies (in the shape of the UN) to satisfy their amour propre and prepare the way for eventual Iraqi self-government.

Brokering such a deal is a task for which nobody is better suited than Tony Blair. His experience of pre-war shuttle diplomacy has, however, taught him not to underestimate the wiliness of Putin, the weakness of Schröder and the sheer bloody-mindedness of Chirac.

Yet it is surely not beyond Mr Blair's considerable powers of persuasion to bring home to them that the "strategic failure" of which Jack Straw warns would not be in their interests, either; in fact, it would unleash a new wave of Islamist terrorism against, among others, Europe and Russia.

Nor would it serve French interests to be seen as the dog in the manger at the Security Council. Now is the moment when the Americans need the Europeans most. The present security crisis may well be temporary; for when Saddam is found, many of his supporters will give up the unequal struggle.

If the French, having tried to prevent the liberation of Iraq, now seek to obstruct its reconstruction process, they will never be forgiven: not only by the Americans, but also by the Iraqis.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Books on African History

I was extremely annoyed the other day by the claim someone made that Africa had "no ancient civilizations." The statement struck me as ignorance of the crassest sort, and when I pointed out that it was untrue, I was challenged by the person who made it to come up with texts that might dispell that negative impression. That didn't prove at all hard to do, as I was able to discover a wide variety of enlightening references within the course of a single afternoon's browsing at my local bookstore. Following are some of the works I managed to dig up:

  1. "The Cambridge History of Africa" Series
    1. J.D. Fage, "Volume 2 - From c. 500 BC to AD 1050", Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521215927 (Hardback).

    2. R. Oliver, "Volume 3 - From c. 1050 to c. 1600", ISBN 0521209811 (Hardback).

  2. "General History of Africa" Series
    1. I.Hrbek, UNESCO (Eds.), "Volume 3 - Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century [Abridged]", 1992, University of California Press, ISBN 0520066987 (Paperback).

    2. J. Ki-Zerbo, D. T. Niane (Eds.), "Volume 4 - Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century [Abridged]", 1998, University of California Press, ISBN 0520066995 (Paperback).

    3. B. A. Ogot (Ed.), "Volume 5 - Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century [Abridged]", 1999, University of California Press, ISBN 0520067002 (Paperback).

  3. C. Ehret, M. Posnansky (Eds.), "The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History", 1982, University of California Press, ISBN 0783748183 (Paperback).

  4. C. Ehret, "An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400", 1998, University Press of Virginia, ISBN 0813920574 (Paperback).

  5. C. Ehret, "The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800", 2002, University Press of Virginia, ISBN 0813920841.

Let no one say to me in the future that, as he or she isn't aware of African history, it must not exist. Such an argument would be preposterous even without any efforts on my part to counter it, as preposterous as saying "Neptune cannot exist, or I should already have seen it with my own eyes." Astonishing as it may seem, given the sort of thing that is taught about Africa to most Westerners (on the rare occasion when anything at all is taught about Africa), there is a great deal more to African culture and history than slavery and colonialism, and we weren't all sitting around naked in little hamlets until intrepid white men happened to come along.

Hausa as a West African Language

One of the fascinating things about Africa is the way in which linguistic relationships often confound one's expectations. For instance, given that most languages in West-Africa belong to the Niger-Congo family, and given the close proximity of the Hausa to many other Niger-Congo speakers (from whom they are often hard to distinguish by dress or appearance), one would expect that their language would also be of Niger-Congo origin. In fact, nothing of the sort is true.

The real linguistic relatives of Hausa might prove surprising to those who are unacquainted with linguistics (which I imagine would be the case for most people) - the Semitic languages, like Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew, along with several other language subfamilies like the Berber tongues (Tuareg, Kabyla and others), the Cushitic languages (including Somali and Oromo), and the Omotic languages (e.g. Dizi and Gamo). All of the aforementioned languages belong to a single phylum, called Afro-Asiatic, and it is estimated that they began to part ways about 8,000 years ago.

As surprising as it may seem that a West-African lingua franca like Hausa should be more closely related to the languages of the Middle East than to its' closest neighbors, it makes sense when we consider the history of an important geographical feature on the African landscape, namely the Sahara desert. There is abundant evidence indicating that the Sahara was not always the parched place it is today, and it was in fact a fairly lush environment within the last 10,000 years, harboring a wide variety of riverine and lacustrine resources, as well as hippopotami, crocodiles and a now extinct relative of the zebra. Rock art to be found in some quantity throughout the Sahara also supports this belief, depicting men engaged in hunting of various kinds of wildlife now to be found only on the plains of East Africa.

What seems to have happened is that as the Sahara began to dry out, it's inhabitants began to migrate either North towards the Mediterranean, south towards the Atlantic, or east, in the direction of the Nile, carrying with them the closely related languages they had formerly spoken as dwellers in the Sahara region. Apart from explaining the strange geographical distribution of the Afro-Asiatic languages at present, this scenario might also account in part for the rise of the Nile civilization that was to become Egypt: only wth the transition to population-intensive, Nile-oriented agriculture imposed by desertification could the conditions materialize that would give rise to Egyptian culture as it has come to be known.

Another question we can ask ourselves is "Where did the Afro-Asiatic languages originate?" Again, this is a question with a surprising and fairly definite answer. To see how the solution arises, we take into account a method used in biology to trace the origins of species. We begin by drawing a dendrogram, or family tree, of the various languages in the family, and we then ask ourselves "Where are the branches bushiest?" Of course, we mean more by this than to ask which subfamily has the most offshoots, for it might well be that one particular subfamily has been more fecund than the rest, purely by an accident of history, as is true of the Bantu languages within the Niger-Congo context. At any rate, the answer is almost definitely as follows: all Afro-Asiatic languages can trace their common roots back to Africa, and that within the last 10,000 years. Yes, Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Hebrew, of Biblical fame, are of relatively recent African origin!*

The reasoning behind this conclusion is simple enough: of all the subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, including Chadic, Cushitic, Berber, Semitic and Omotic, all but the Semitic languages are confined strictly to the African continent, and even amongst the Semitic languages, several are purely African in reach, some confined to the area around northern Ethiopia. Ancient Egyptian, which merits a separate subfamily all on its' own amongst the Afro-Asiatic languages, is no exception to this pattern.

While I doubt that many of my readers will ever be interested in taking up linguistics of their own accord, I do think the Hausa language well worth knowing if one wishes to learn more about West African culture and history. There is quite an extensive literature in Hausa, though much of it is in the Arabic script that was adopted for writing the language some centuries back (a fact that belies the often advanced claim that writing was entirely unknown in Africa before the coming of European colonizers.) Hausa is widely understood in countries as far apart as Ghana, Benin, Niger and Togo. In addition, Hausa is the common language of daily commerce throughout Northern Nigeria, and often far better understood in the region than English, the nominal official language.


*An answer which ought to surprise certain bigots on the right, many of whom hold at least one of these languages in the highest esteem.

Hey, Buddy, Got a Mainframe I Can Borrow?

Via Slashdot comes this strange tale about the theft of two mainframes:

On the night of Wednesday, August 27, two men dressed as computer technicians and carrying tool bags entered the cargo processing and intelligence centre at Sydney International Airport.

The men, described as being of Pakistani-Indian-Arabic appearance, took a lift to the third floor of the Charles Ulm building in Link Road, next to the customs handling depot and the Qantas Jet Base.

They presented themselves to the security desk as technicians sent by Electronic Data Systems, the outsourced customs computer services provider which regularly sends people to work on computers after normal office hours.

After supplying false names and signatures, they were given access to the top-security mainframe room. They knew the room's location and no directions were needed.

Inside, they spent two hours disconnecting two computers, which they put on trolleys and wheeled out of the room, past the security desk, into the lift and out of the building.

The brazen theft has prompted Australia's top security agencies to conduct emergency damage audits amid fears that terrorists may have gained access to highly sensitive intelligence from the computers.

[............]

The Community and Public Sector Union, which represents customs officers, has asked for guarantees that none of its members is at risk as a result of the theft.

The union expressed fears thatthe lives of undercover agents could be jeopardised after officers claimed that customs officials were covering up the true extent of the damage. Also at risk, they said, are operations against terrorists and international drug cartels in which customs officers watch the movements of suspects and suspicious cargo in and out of the country.

They stressed that terrorists had the most to gain by stealing the servers. "The servers have no value except the information they contain," an officer said. "They would have personal internal email accounts, probably the passwords for those accounts, and any information harboured within them.

"Customs officers use the accounts to communicate volumes of sensitive operational material and intelligence to each other, including information from other agencies such as AFP and ASIO. This would be at risk."

It takes real cajones to carry out such a theft, I must say. Joking aside though, this strikes me as being a mess-up of the highest order. How is it that, in the worldwide climate of hysteria in which calls for national identity cards and biometric security systems have become commonplace, the very people whose identities would seem most in need of verification are so easily able to get access to sensitive installations? This is an airport we're talking about, after all, and these guys did fit the stereotypical profile of the classic "probable terrorist", yet they were waived right through and given two hours to carry out their activities unmolested. As routine a precaution as calling EDS to verify their identities would have been enough to catch them out, yet nobody bothered to do so.

One can only hope that the Australians at least bothered to use strong encryption on their data, and that they bothered to maintain a strict security policy with regards to password length and complexity; given the carelessness on display here, however, I am doubtful that either condition would have held. The sort of bureaucratic incompetence exemplified by this story is worth keeping in mind the next time some politician suggests national ID cards as the universal panacea for all security problems.

Disgraceful!
From the pages of the Guardian:

The European commission yesterday launched a ferocious attack on poor countries and development campaigners when it dismissed calls for big cuts in Europe's farm protection regime as extreme demands couched in "cheap propaganda".

In a move that threatens to shatter the fragile peace ahead of next week's trade talks in Cancun, Mexico, Franz Fischler, the EU agriculture commissioner, said Brussels would strongly defend its farmers.

He said many recent attacks on the EU's much maligned common agricultural policy (CAP) were"intellectually dishonest" PR stunts.

Mr Fischler's comments came as Britain's trade secretary, Patricia Hewitt, warned that failure at Cancun would be "disastrous for the global economy" and a severe setback in the fight against terrorism and poverty.

Britain believes a deal to cut farm subsidies in the west is the key to developing support for a new global trade deal, and Ms Hewitt made it clear that the government saw recent reforms of the CAP as a good basis for negotiation.

"Rich countries can't preach free trade abroad and have protectionism at home. There is a danger of locking developing countries into poverty because we lock them out of our markets," she said.

Mr Fischler, speaking in Brussels, said that although the EU was keen to give developing countries a better deal he warned that they would get nothing if they persisted with their "extreme" proposals.

Washington and Brussels have tabled a joint proposal on agriculture that would involve far smaller cuts in protectionism than developing countries want. The proposal has been countered by a blueprint from leading developing countries that would involve far more aggressive reductions.

"If I look at the recent extreme proposal co-sponsored by Brazil, China, India and others, I cannot help [getting] the impression that they are circling in a different orbit," Mr Fischler reporters.

"If they want to do business, they should come back to mother earth. If they choose to continue their space odyssey they will not get the stars, they will not get the moon, they will end up with empty hands."

Mr Fischler accused developing countries of demanding that developed countries make drastic changes while they themselves did nothing.

Widening the scope of his attack, he accused non-governmental organisations, which frequently claim the CAP damages the developing world, of "cheap propaganda".

He took issue in particular with campaigners who point out that each EU cow receives $2 a day in subsidies.

"This may be a nice PR stunt but unfortunately this argument is not only intellectually dishonest, it is factually irrelevant. Yes, in the developed world we are spending money on many things. Not because we are all stupid, but because our standard of living is higher.

"What next? Criticising governments for spending public money on hospital beds, costly noise protection walls or fancy trees in parks instead of sending it to Africa? Societies around the world must have the right to choose which public goods and services are important to them."

Fischler has got to be mad to make these sorts of statements. Since when has spending money on domestic public infrastructure been comparable to dumping your agricultural produce on the world markets? The man is a complete and utter idiot.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

More Franco-German Cynicism

Chirac and Schröder never miss an opportunity to disappoint:

France, Germany Criticize Iraq Resolution (AP)

By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press Writer

UNITED NATIONS - The United States faces tough negotiations on its proposed U.N. resolution that seeks troops and money from all nations for Iraq (news - web sites)'s postwar reconstruction, but doesn't relinquish political or military control of the country.

France, which led opposition to the war on Iraq, has made clear that if the United States wants to share the burden of restoring peace to Iraq, it must share information, authority, and decision-making. Russia, Germany and other council members are also seeking a a larger U.N. role in Iraq.

Russia, however, sent its first signal Thursday that it was edging closer to Washington in efforts to rebuild Iraq. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov reportedly said Moscow may send peacekeepers to Iraq as part of an international force.

"It all depends on a specific resolution. I wouldn't exclude it outright," Ivanov told Interfax news agency when asked whether Moscow can contribute peacekeepers.

Reaching out to the international community for help restoring security to Iraq, the Bush administration on Wednesday offered the United Nations (news - web sites) a bigger role in Iraq's security, political transition and reconstruction. But whether it is big enough to satisfy members of the U.N. Security Council remains to be seen.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac were expected to focus on Iraq at an informal meeting on Thursday in Dresden, Germany, but it appeared unlikely they would give full endorsement to the draft U.N. resolution.

France's Foreign Ministry said it received a copy of the resolution on Wednesday and was studying it.

"I have no comments at this stage," ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said. "There should be consultations on this subject soon in New York for an initial exchange about this proposal."

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Thursday that the U.S. offer to share Iraq's postwar reconstruction was in line with the objectives of China, which has "actively participated in the endeavor."

The draft resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, would transform the U.S.-led military force in Iraq into a U.N.-authorized multinational force under a unified command. It would also ask the Iraqi Governing Council to cooperate with the United Nations and U.S. officials in Baghdad to produce a timetable and program for drafting a new constitution and holding democratic elections.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites), who outlined the U.S. proposal at a news conference, made clear that "the United States will continue to play a dominant role" both politically and militarily. An American commander will take charge of the multinational force and U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer will keep the top political post, he said.

To council nations that want responsibilities in Iraq to be shared, Powell said, "With the resolution, you're essentially putting the Security Council into the game."

Powell discussed the proposed resolution Wednesday with his Russian, German and French counterparts as well as with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites). France, Britain, Russia and China hold veto power as permanent council members.

Powell said he expected to get reaction and suggestions to the resolution from fellow Security Council members by the end of the week.

"We will see where we are at the beginning of (next) week and push it as aggressively as we can," Powell said.

U.S. diplomats are expected to engage in behind-the-scenes negotiations on the text of the resolution, to ensure it would be agreeable first to the veto-wielding permanent members, then to the rest of the Security Council.

That would enable the U.N.'s most powerful body to project a unanimous international stand on what happens next in Iraq.

Powell said he didn't foresee "an extended process" of negotiations. Other council diplomats said they would like the resolution to be adopted before ministers gather for the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23.

But some European countries are likely to resist, or protest, if the United States continues to try to hold on to all the lucrative and influential ventures — such as oil contracts and the political rebuilding process, according to some council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Council diplomats expect France to take the toughest position, pressing for the United Nations to take charge of Iraq's political transition — though Paris is unlikely to achieve that degree of power for the world body.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, who hadn't yet seen the text, stressed it was "essential" to help Iraqis recover their sovereignty as soon as possible.

Ah, yes, France, indefatigable champion of Third World sovereignty! Not bloody likely - it's all about the oil and the contracts. As if the squabbling over Libyan compensation weren't bad enough! What a sordid diplomatic playbook by which the French operate.

Why Government is not a Universal Panacea

There is a considerable amount of economics literature in existence that confirms that markets are not always optimal, and that they often either fail to take into account undesirable side effects of our actions, or they require certain stringent assumptions for their efficiency that are rarely met in practice. Faced with such instances of market failure, it is always tempting to look for some action that government can take to remedy the shortcomings observed. The problem is that there is often no good reason to believe that any solutions put in effect by government action will not do more harm than the actual problems they are intended to resolve.

Public choice theory teaches us to be wary of the notion that government intervention is the answer to every perceived failure of the market. Governments, like firms, are human institutions, and as such can be expected to display the shortcomings that are the common lot of humanity. That a man works for the government does not automatically free him from the burden of self-interest that the rest of us must labor under, and it is foolish in the extreme to imagine that turf wars, empire building, avoiding responsibility, feather bedding and outright theft will be absent from the halls of bureaucracy simply because its' denizens are nominally beholden to the public as a whole. To the contrary, we can expect all of the ills of corporate life to manifest themselves in the halls of government, with one key difference: where firms are at least subject to the restraint of the market, and may go out of business if misbehavior is left unconstrained, government bureaucrats know no such discipline, and can (and do) pass on the burden of misgovernance to their nominal overlords, without serious fear of personal consequences.

From Econlog we learn about one such instance of government profligacy, which appears in the context of a Washington Post article:

This time of year, it is not uncommon for a shriek and the clang of a bell to rattle the normally staid offices of GTSI Corp., the 20-year-old Chantilly company that serves as one-stop shop for government buyers with tech-heavy shopping lists.

That's how the company's salespeople celebrate another order for laptops, printers or servers -- by screaming in glee, pulling a cord on a small brass bell and jotting the amount of the sale on a communal whiteboard.

Fall is coming, and for GTSI that means the end of the federal fiscal year is approaching and that civil servants are rushing to spend department funds before they revert to the U.S. Treasury on Oct. 1. (emphasis added)

With a new focus on homeland security, Congress gave the federal government its biggest information technology budget ever this year -- $58 billion, up from $49 billion last year. But Congress passed the budget for civilian agencies unusually late, in February instead of October. That compressed the already heavily seasonal business of selling technology products and services to the government.

In September, GTSI's distribution warehouse adds 15 or 20 workers to its usual staff of 45 to 50 people to handle accelerated shipments of computers and networking equipment. By next Monday, the company will begin staying open three hours later, until 9 p.m., so that its sales force can field last-minute calls from customers.

By the middle of the month, the company will extend its hours to 11 p.m. and open its doors on weekends as well. On the last day of the month, administrators and executives will join workers in the warehouse to help check orders for defects and load boxes before the midnight deadline.

"We sell as much on the last day of September as we do in the whole month of January," said M. Dendy Young, chief executive of GTSI.

During the rush, the company's largest suppliers, giants such as Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., usually pay for catered lunches and dinners for the 356 salespeople.

Terri Allen, vice president of sales, jokes that the key to her sales staff's stamina is the "three C's: calories, carbohydrates and caffeine."

Food helps, but it can't hurt that salespeople earn an average of 20 percent of their annual commissions in September. In the July-through-September period of 2002, GTSI earned $3.1 million on revenue of $276 million. In January through March of 2002, GTSI earned $541,000 on revenue of $176.7 million.

GTSI's two main competitors are CDWG, a wholly owned subsidiary of CDW Corp., which has 15 to 20 salespeople in a Lansdowne, Va., office, and Northrop Grumman Corp., which has 459 people working in its reselling division, 338 of them in the Washington area. That division had revenue of $750 million in 2002, Northrop said.

They, too, are scrambling to fill orders at this time of year, said Juli Ballesteros, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman.

What is most revealing is that the focus on spending all department funds by the end of the budget year is not even the central issue in this article. So common is such misbehavior that the article's author hardly thinks it worthy of comment. It isn't as if such shenanigans are unusual in the corporate world, but given shareholders' interest in seeing the maximum return on their investment, along with an active market for corporate control, private employees have a lot less room for irresponsible expenditure than public counterparts enjoy. It takes real effort to get fired from a government job anywhere in the world.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Linguistic Tilting at Windmills

Going by this Ananova article, it appears that the French aren't the only ones who would like to waste energy halting linguistic change in its' tracks.

Anglicisms 'invading Germany'

Linguistics experts in Germany fear the country is being invaded by a hybrid language full of English words.

Experts from the Association of the German Language and the Goethe Institute warn the German language could even die out.

They said German words were continually being replaced by Anglicisms, and in most parts of the country pure German was no longer spoken.

They said "Denglish", a mix of German and English, was now the language most commonly being used.

Erika Steinbach from the Goethe Institute in Berlin said: "Consumer protection has to be extended in order to tackle this problem.

"Every product, from train tickets to fabric softener, has to have their name and instructions in readable German."

Authorities have now been banned from using Denglish in official business and Jutta Limbach, former President of the Federal Constitutional Court, has even founded her own German Language Council.

Given the relationship between English and German, I find these efforts even more stupid than those of the French. For goodness' sake, English and German were the same language only 1000 years ago, so how much change could even an avalanche of English words possibly wreck on German? Take a look, for instance, at the word "Handy", which is used for mobile phones in German: not only is the meaning totally different from its' English counterpart, but the actual root, "Hand", is also a perfectly legitimate German word in its' own right, meaning - yes, you guessed it - "Hand", just as in English!

Africans Outdo Americans in Following AIDS Therapy

Very encouraging news in its' own right, but also another slap in the face for those who like to imagine that everything Africans do must necessarily be inferior to the norm elsewhere.

Contradicting long-held prejudices that have clouded the campaign to bring AIDS drugs to millions of people in Africa, evidence is emerging that AIDS patients there are better at following their pill regimens than Americans are.

Some doctors, politicians and pharmaceutical executives have argued that it is unsafe to send millions of doses of antiretroviral drugs to Africa, for fear that incomplete pill-taking will speed the mutation of drug-resistant strains that could spread around the world.

The danger already exists: nearly 10 percent of all new H.I.V. infections in Europe are resistant to at least one drug.

For Africa, the issue is particularly touchy because it is tinged with racism. In 2001, for example there was an outcry when the director of the United States Agency for International Development said that AIDS drugs "wouldn't work" in Africa because many Africans don't use clocks and "don't know what Western time is."

Now surveys done in Botswana, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa have found that on average, AIDS patients take about 90 percent of their medicine. The average figure in the United States is 70 percent, and it is worse among subgroups like the homeless and drug abusers.

Of course, some countries do better than others (what would Nigeria be without corruption in a government program?), but the trend is undeniably very positive. Nevertheless, the primary focus has to remain on prevention, rather than therapy, and developments on that front are nowhere near as encouraging.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The Interaction of Class and Genes in Determinining IQ Heritability

This report in the Washington Post strikes me as being mere common sense. Why anyone would expect anything different is beyond me. Isn't it obvious that the less held back one is by the circumstances of one's birth, the greater the role one's own inherited qualities will play in one's achievements?

Genes' Sway Over IQ May Vary With Class
Study: Poor More Affected by Environment

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2003; Page A01

Back-to-school pop quiz: Why do poor children, and especially black poor children, score lower on average than their middle-class and white counterparts on IQ tests and other measures of cognitive performance?

It is an old and politically sensitive question, and one that has long fueled claims of racism. As highlighted in the controversial 1994 book "The Bell Curve," studies have repeatedly found that people's genes -- and not their environment -- explain most of the differences in IQ among individuals. That has led a few scholars to advance the hotly disputed notion that minorities' lower scores are evidence of genetic inferiority.

Now a groundbreaking study of the interaction among genes, environment and IQ finds that the influence of genes on intelligence is dependent on class. Genes do explain the vast majority of IQ differences among children in wealthier families, the new work shows. But environmental factors -- not genetic deficits -- explain IQ differences among poor minorities.

The results suggest that early childhood assistance programs such as Head Start can help the poor and are worthy of public support. They also suggest that middle-class and wealthy parents need not feel guilty if they don't purchase the latest Lamaze mobile or other expensive gadgets that are pitched as being so important to their children's development.

"How many books are in the home and how good the teacher is may be questions to consider for a middle-class child, but those questions are much more important when we're talking about children raised in abject poverty," said lead researcher Eric Turkheimer, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

The work, to be published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science, is part of a new wave of research that embraces a more dynamic view of the relationship between genes and environment. Although older research treated nature and nurture as largely independent and additive factors, and saw people as the sum of their genetic endowments and environmental experiences, the emerging view allows that genes can influence the impact of experiences and experiences can influence the "expression," or activity levels, of genes.

In Turkheimer's study, the impact of genes on IQ varied depending on a child's socioeconomic status (SES), a sociological measure that includes household income and other elements of class and social status.

Until recently, Turkheimer and others said, research had indicated that the "heritability" of IQ -- that is, the degree to which genes can explain the differences in IQ scores -- completely dominated environmental influences. That led some to call into question the value of programs such as Head Start, which are based on the assumption that by improving the childhood environment through extra attention, nutrition and care, a child's intellectual future could be improved.

But it turned out that virtually all those studies on the heritability of IQ had been done on middle-class and wealthy families. Only when Turkheimer tested that assumption in a population of poor and mostly black children did it become clear that, in fact, the influence of genes on IQ was significantly lower in conditions of poverty, where environmental deficits overwhelm genetic potential.

"This paper shows how relevant social class is" to children's ability to reach their genetic potential, said Sandra Scarr, a professor emerita of psychology now living in Hawaii, who did seminal work in behavioral genetics at the University of Virginia.

Specifically, the heritability of IQ at the low end of the wealth spectrum was just 0.10 on a scale of zero to one, while it was 0.72 for families of high socioeconomic status. Conversely, the importance of environmental influences on IQ was four times stronger in the poorest families than in the higher status families.

Given the pleasure many people seem to obtain in attributing black performance on IQ tests to supposedly "genetic" influences, it will be interesting to see whether the existence of this report is even acknowledged in certain quarters, much less factored into the claims these parties will make in the future. When we consider how low the heritability estimate is for black Americans growing up in what are, by Third World standards, luxurious conditions, are we not justified in suspecting that the heritability measure in the African context would be essentially zero?

Monday, September 01, 2003

Paradoxes of Human Character

How is it that the Richard Wagner who devoted much of his energies to agitating for the destruction of the Jews could be the same individual who wrote the Siegfried Idyll? Talk about the beauty in the beast!

Pension Liabilities in Nigeria

Here's a story that goes to show that unfunded pension liabilities aren't just a problem for European governments:

Constance Ikokwu
Enugu

Despite efforts being made by the Federal Government to mop the pension backlog, about N2 trillion ($15.2 billion) is still being owed workers, said Professor Julius Ihonv-bere, a presidential adviser on policy and programmes monitoring.

Also, the recent reforms embarked upon by the Federal Government may have reduced the cost of running the administration by about N50 billion in the past 18 months through the "Due Process Mechanism," a system aimed at recovering money from wasted contracts.

Ihonvbere made the disclosure yesterday in Enugu while delivering a lecture titled: "The Obasanjo Second Term in Office: Reinventing and Repo-sitioning Nigeria for Growth, Stability and Development" at the on-going 2003 annual general conference of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).

He said the Due Process Mechanism introduced by the Presidency has ensured that wasted monies are put into capital development, while regretting that greedy contractors, politicians and bureaucrats have milked the country dry over the past decades. He said the recovered money has been channelled into education, water supply, health services, roads, technology and industrial development.

Ihonvbere also disclosed that the monthly pension bill of the Nigeria Railways which stands at N250 million and the monthly wage bill which stands at N210 million is a source of worry to the Federal Government. He added that the income from the corporation is a paltry sum. He also assured that the contributory scheme which will be sent to the National Assembly as a bill will "get the ball rolling."

The special adviser said major nations of the world built their structures and cities from pensions funds that are guaranteed and invested properly, while saying that Nigeria will do the same thing. He criticised politicians, businessmen and other Nigerians who evade tax and those who carry about forged tax payers. "This is ungodly and unpatriotic," he noted.

According to him, the fight against waste has been quite successful as wastage incurred through public officials has been curbed. He disclosed that the former Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim returned 38 cars to the government when he left. And over 78 officers and countless aides attended to him alone. He said there were over 10,000 policemen serving as orderlies to public and private citizens and that government will henceforth no longer pay for maids, drivers, personal assistants, and security guards of public officials. He said some individual and top government officials even had over 14 official cars, thereby constituting a problem whereby over 75 per cent of income is spent on overheads.

To give an idea of how much of a burden the $15.2 billion in pension liabilities is to the Nigerian government, keep in mind that Nigeria's entire GDP is estimated at about $35 billion (unadjusted for PPP). Given the sheer level of waste that goes on in the Nigerian bureaucratic apparatus, I'm willing to bet that the real proportion of spending that is squandered on useless activities is more like 90 percent. When this sort of gross mismanagement is going on, is it any wonder that first world governments look sceptically upon giving aid or cancelling old debts? What on earth does a "Senate President" need 38 cars and 78 officers for? I'll bet that even the President of the United States has nowhere near that many vehicles at his personal disposal, and he's only head of the wealthiest country on the planet!

Mathematical Logic - An Extremely Brief Introduction

This post by Brad DeLong on propositional logic got me thinking again about the course in mathematical logic (mostly of the first order variety) I took back when I was a freshman. Even though I haven't studied the subject since those now distant days, I still recall the mind-blowing effect it had on my understanding of mathematics as a subject.

Of course, having read Douglas Hofstadter's excellent "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" as a high school student, the contents of the subject weren't entirely alien to me. I was already well aware of the importance of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and knew that Gödel numbering was central to a proof of the theorem. I knew that the cardinality of the the reals (usually denoted as c) was greater than that of the rationals* (which is usually written with the Hebrew character aleph as 0), and Cantor's Diagonal Method is simple enough that I could even prove the statement myself. And yet, even with all of this background knowledge at my disposal, many of the notions that I would learn about during the course would turn out to be revelations.

The big difference between first order predicate logic and the more familiar propositional sort encountered in elementary logic classes is the presence of universal (∀) and existential (∃) quantifiers. Universal quantifiers allow us to make statements of along the lines of "For all X, the statement Y holds true", while existential quantifiers permit statements like "There exists an X such that Y is true."

One consequence of the existence of quantifiers in predicate logic is that they rule out the use of truth tables for determining the validity of statements, because any such tables would have to be infinite in size. Fortunately, Gödel's Completeness Theorem comes to the rescue, by allowing us to use proofs to determine validity; it tells us that any statement p that is true of a model** M of a set of axioms T must be deducible from the axiom set T.

Many well-educated people are aware, even if only vaguely, of Gödel's deservedly celebrated Incompleteness Theorem, which tells us that any axiomatic system that is powerful enough to model the theory of numbers must either be incomplete - by which we mean that there are statements that can be made in the theory whose truth or falsity can never be deduced from within it - or inconsistent, which would mean that we could prove both a statement P and its' negation ~P; but this would mean that anything at all could be proven within the system, making it absolutely worthless. The incompleteness theorem has an obvious fascination for all of those who are interested in epistemological issues, but it's infamy means that it tends to crowd out a lot of other interesting results that are also worthy of wider attention.

One such result is the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem, which says that any countable theory that has a model must have a countable model. In addition, it must have models of every cardinality greater than ℵ0. A straightforward consequence of this theorem is that for any first-order axiomatisation of the real numbers there must also be an interpretation that requires only a countable number of objects!

Another interesting consequence is that it establishes the possibility of interesting models of arithmetic like that embodied in Abraham Robinson's nonstandard analysis, in which infinitesimals - numbers that are smaller than any rational number but are nevertheless greater than 0 - make their appearance. Apart from the intrinsic interest nonstandard analysis might have for logicians, one of its' attractions is the ease with which many results that are difficult to obtain in classical analysis can be proven; another is that statements that seem "unnatural" in mainstream analysis, or whose meaning is hard to grasp in this framework, are often far more intuitive in the context of nonstandard analysis. Far from being merely a useful but abstruse aid to mathematicians, one surprising area in which nonstandard analysis has seen application has been in the field of economics (of all subjects!)



*In plain English, that the real numbers and the rationals are both infinitely large sets, but the former is of a "bigger" sort of infinity than the latter. In fact, one can go further, and construct an infinite sequence of infinities of successively increasing size, i.e, ℵ0 < ℵ1 < ℵ2 ...

**A model of a set of statements in first order logic (which are collectively called a theory) is an interpretation of the theory under which all of its' statements are true. Not all theories need have a model, and it is perfectly possible for a single theory to have several, or even an infinite number of models, as indicated by the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem. If M is a model for a theory T, it is common to say that M satisfies T, and the fact that a model exists for T shows that the theory is satisfiable.

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Religious Group to Schwarzenegger: 'Come Clean'

Talk about never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity! To hear the religious right whining about Schwarzenegger, one would think that he was the real enemy, as if Gray Davis or Cruz Bustamante would be willing to lend their opinions any more weight than he would. At least with a republican in office they would at least get into the room, but with these guys it's either the whole enchillada or an empty stomach.

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A prominent U.S. religious group on Saturday stepped up its calls for Arnold Schwarzenegger to set the record straight over a 1977 interview in which the Republican candidate for California governor discussed taking part in an orgy and using marijuana.

``We are very concerned about the report of Arnold's promiscuity and he must come forward and tell us if it stopped when he was 29 or if it continued,'' said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition.

The coalition, based in Anaheim, California, sent a letter on Friday to 20 of the state assembly's 32 Republicans who have endorsed Schwarzenegger, asking them to delay their support for the leading Republican candidate's campaign to become California's next governor.

Sheldon told Reuters by telephone the nation's richest state ``must not go through the same thing as we did with Bill Clinton,'' a reference to the former U.S. president's extramarital dalliances and sexual misdemeanors.

The coalition frames itself as the largest non-denominational, grass-roots church lobby in America with a membership of about 43,000 churches, including most Christian denominations.

It's bad enough that these clowns are completely lacking in political sense, but don't they have anything better to do with their time than investigating Schwarzenegger's sex life? What concern of theirs is it? Where in the Bible does it say that we have a right to know about the sexual pasts of our leaders? What a presumptious bunch of idiots!

Poor Nations Can Purchase Cheap Drugs Under Accord

The WTO finally comes to an agreement on the sale of generic versions of patented drugs to poor countries.

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 — The World Trade Organization agreed today to give poor nations greater access to inexpensive life-saving medicine by altering international trade rules.

After several days of nonstop negotiations and speeches, the trade organization reached unanimous agreement this morning, just as its meeting was concluding, after speeches by several African delegates who said such an agreement could save millions of lives.

Under the accord, poor countries will be able to import generic versions of expensive patented medicines, buying them from countries like India and Brazil without running afoul of trade laws protecting patent rights.

African countries and their supporters in nonprofit health groups have been campaigning for such an agreement for years, saying that moral and political arguments outweigh commercial considerations in the face of epidemics like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

"This will absolutely save millions of lives that would be lost without it," said Faizel Ismail, South Africa's permanent representative at the World Trade Organization, in an interview from Geneva.

The breakthrough came earlier this week when the United States agreed to the original proposal it had rejected last December.

Backed by the powerful American pharmaceutical lobby, the Bush administration had prevented the trade organization from adopting the measure, saying it should be restricted to a handful of diseases and limited to certain countries. The European Union and Switzerland, the other two delegations representing advanced pharmaceutical companies, had accepted the proposal.

Nations from the developing world pointed out that without an agreement, there was little hope for success at new talks in the current trade round scheduled to begin in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

[............]

The United States, however, only agreed to the accord after it won acceptance of an additional statement setting out measures to ensure that countries would not take advantage of it and reap commercial profits rather than meet public health needs.

Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, said in a statement that the Bush administration, "working with other W.T.O. members and our pharmaceutical industry, has strived to bridge the many differences and sought to develop with others constructive ideas about how to move forward."

Several public health groups said, though, that the new statement essentially doomed the accord by encasing it with enough bureaucratic red tape to discourage poor nations from importing the drugs.

"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the U.S. and the Western pharmaceutical industry," said Ellen 't Hoen, of Doctors Without Borders, in a statement released from Paris. "Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines."

One can't help feeling a little irritated by statements like those made by Ellen 't Hoen. Doesn't she realize that pharmaceutical companies aren't charities? It makes economic sense to allow poor countries to import generic copies of patented drugs, as the market for the real thing would have been essentially nonexistent in any case, but any agreement that failed to restrict the possibility of imports into more prosperous markets would be a terrible thing.

Drug development is an extremely expensive, lengthy and risky exercise, and trade agreements that undermine the markets for new drugs, however well-motivated they may be, act as a disincentive to investment in therapies. Sure, one may get the benefit of cheap drugs in the here and now, but this benefit only seems worthwhile if one believes that no new drugs will ever be necessary. Given the rapid evolutionary rates of most bacterial and viral pathogens, such a conviction is simply the height of stupidity.

Friday, August 29, 2003

Good News on US Economic Growth

This Reuters report suggests that the American economy is in for a bonanza quarter, with estimates of up to 7 percent GDP growth. Given Brad DeLong's estimate of the need for better than 4 percent annualized growth for unemployment to drop, George W. Bush's re-election prospects are suddenly looking a lot rosier than previously. Politics aside, if these predictions do pan out, they promise to be a godsend for the rest of the world, as America once again rides to the rescuer as buyer of last resort.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Retail Productivity in Europe and America

Amongst the various blogs I read regularly, I'd have to say that Brad DeLong's is by far my favorite. It isn't because he shares my political sympathies that I enjoy reading him - he supports income redistribution with a lot more fervor than I could ever muster - but because the man is simply brilliant, and what is more, always intellectually honest. By brilliant, I mean to say more than that he is a person of broad learning (which he definitely is), but that his analytical insight into issues often leaves one wanting to say "Bravo!" at the intellectual tour de force laid out before one's eyes.

To get a feel for DeLong's witty style in action, take a look at this fisking of an article by John Kay for the Financial Times, from which I've taken the liberty of extracting the following lengthy excerpt:

When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that retail productivity has increased, they don't see a bunch of people who used to shop at Andronico's now shopping at Costco, divide pounds of beef (or even pounds of Chateaubriand purchased) by dollars spent, and say, "Aha! Productivity has increased!" The economists and the statisticians at the Bureau of Labor Statistics thought and think long and hard about improvements in productivity in customer service-intensive and customer service-spare kinds of retailing, and thought and think long and hard about how much of the increasing share of big box retailers is due to their offering a genuinely better deal to consumers, and how much is simply a zero-sum reduction in money spent that is matched by a reduction in the usefulness of what is bought because of the lower quality of customer service provided.

The BLS is not as stupid as John Kay implies when he writes that "...the quality of retailing is enhanced by a range of outlets and by diversity of product range, congenial surroundings and knowledgeable salespeople. Nevertheless, such analysis is not what economists do..." and that "...national accounts measure not retail output but the volume of retailed goods..." The key is that big-box customer service-spare stores have a larger market share in the U.S. today than they did a generation ago because the price gap between CostCo and Andronico's and between WalMart and Nordstrom's now is much greater than the analogous price gaps were a generation ago. U.S. retail productivity growth is not an illusion created by the sacrifice of customer service for lower prices. U.S. retail productivity growth is due to the fact that information technology has allowed customer service-spare stores to offer consumers a much better--a much cheaper--deal than analogous stores could offer a generation ago.

Now for us the opportunity to shop at CostCo does not matter much. We are far from poor, and we are not huge meat eaters: our beef is unlikely to come from CostCo, and very likely to come from Andronico's. Years sometimes go by between our trips to CostCo.

But for many not-rich Americans it does matter, and matters a lot. For them, the fact that the price gap between CostCo and Safeway (let along Andronico's) looms a lot larger than it did a generation ago plus the opportunity to shop at CostCo is a real boon: you get your meat a lot cheaper, and you can afford a weekend car trip to Yosemite Valley.

The French--and the British (I know: I've shopped in Britain)--are deprived of the opportunity to buy in the equivalent of CostCo and WalMart, and deprived of the opportunity to get lots of good stuff cheap by shopping at high-volume retailers who have taken advantage of the efficiencies of distribution offered by bar codes, POS systems, databases, and all the other information-age inventions that make it possible for retailers and distributors to keep track of stuff.

This doesn't matter much to John Kay: he doesn't have trouble financing his vacation to the Mentonnaise Riviera: "...between Monaco and Italy, the mountains and the sea, Menton is like an island where life flows serenely... Nestled at the foot of the Azur Alps which plunge into the Mediterranean..."

But there are lots of guys living in western Europe for whom the lack of an opportunity to shop at a WalMart equivalent--and thus to shave 50% off the retail margins they pay while shopping in the picturesque marché municipal--is a real loss. True, they would miss out on their "pleasant excursion[s] to pick up some produce in Menton's marché municipal and browse the FT over an espresso in the place Clemenceau." But if they paid less for produce and staples, they might use the money to pay for a better vacation of their own, or perhaps a dishwasher. They are more than picturesque background figures to entertain John Kay's eye: they are people with limited incomes, but with lives and plans of their own.

I heartily recommend that you read the original in full, or you'll miss out on a great deal of context. Brad manages to cut through the fog, and get right to the elitism behind the anti-commercial thinking of most of those who would prohibit the spread of a supposedly ugly "American-style" capitalism to their "unspoilt" shores. Progress is only optional when you've more than enough to spare to begin with.

The Springer GTM Test

All those who have studied mathematics at the undergraduate level or above know Springer Verlag to be the premier publisher of math books in the world, and the sight of one of those yellow-and-white covers in a bookshop is enough to set off a Pavlovian response in any true devotee of the Queen of the Sciences. As such, it was with great pleasure that I came across the Springer GTM Test, which purports to tell you which item in the Graduate Texts in Mathematics series you correspond to. According to the test, the following describes me:



If I were a Springer-Verlag Graduate Text in Mathematics, I would be Frank Warner's Foundations of Differentiable Manifolds and Lie Groups.

I give a clear, detailed, and careful development of the basic facts on manifold theory and Lie Groups. I include differentiable manifolds, tensors and differentiable forms. Lie groups and homogenous spaces, integration on manifolds, and in addition provide a proof of the de Rham theorem via sheaf cohomology theory, and develop the local theory of elliptic operators culminating in a proof of the Hodge theorem. Those interested in any of the diverse areas of mathematics requiring the notion of a differentiable manifold will find me extremely useful.

This is odd, as I don't even particularly like differential topology! The point of the exercise, of course, is to poke fun at all the ridiculous "Which X are You?" tests that are out there - this one has about as much validity as all of the others.

Race, Racism and IQ

I made the following statements in response to comments elicited by a post made by Conrad at Gweilo Diaries:

"... there are neither ancient sub-Saharan African civilizations" [said by a commentator called godlesscapitalist]

This is, frankly, bunk. I should know, since I actually am African and know the history of the continent fairly well. Why don't you stick to what you know something about, rather than perpetuating malicious stereotypes about African inferiority?

I also find it amazing that in the rush to attribute African backwardness to innate genetic inferiority, nobody here has bothered to even consider the arbitrary nature of most sub-saharan African "states". Other than Botswana, hardly a single sub-Saharan African country corresponds to a nation-state in the typical ethnic sense, and virtually none of the elites of these artificial countries feel a sense of greater loyalty to their "nation" as a whole than to their own ethnic compadres. Is it any wonder then that there are so many wars in Africa, and so much time is spent bickering over the spoils of office?

When people bring up Singapore as some sort of damning counterexample to the African dilemma, they forget that Singapore is a majority-Chinese state, and one which was expelled from the union with Malaysia precisely because of ethnic tensions of the very sort that bedevil most African countries today. It isn't an accident that Singapore's growth failed to take off until it left the union - it was a necessity.

Finally, I'd like to point out, for the benefit of those who consider it reasonable that Africans have median IQs bordering on the severely retarded, that I, a full-blooded African, managed a 1590 on the SAT in 1994 (i.e, before recentering), and a 1570 on the GRE's Quantitative and Verbal sections. The old SAT and GRE exams were essentially group IQ tests, and very highly correlated with individual tests like the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler. Given the IQ distributions above, and using the standard assumptions about IQ distribution and variance, what are the odds that someone like myself could possibly exist, assuming Africans really were as dumb as all that?

The truly funny thing is that I'm not even all that exceptional - there are plenty of people of purely African extraction out in the world who are a lot brighter than I am. How such a thing could be possible, assuming there really was some sort of innate genetic difference between Africans and the rest of the world that was holding us back, is hard for me to comprehend.

All in all, I am extremely disappointed both by this post and the discussion it has given rise to. The impression that comes across is of people striking poses as fearless soldiers for Truth, who must tread carefully lest they be brutalized by the marauding hordes of PC Thought Policemen, when the truth of the matter is that all this is about is an opportunity for you to air your own preconceptions about Africans without being criticized for it. If you want to attribute Africa's problems to the genetic deficiencies of its' people, you ought to be ready to take whatever heat comes your way for doing so; don't go on and on about Political Correctness and the like.