Wednesday, December 31, 2003

A Matter of Hygiene

Having spent the last 48 hours laboring under the burden of a rhinovirus infection, I find myself echoing Glenn Reynolds' complaints about how others' poor hygiene can have a negative impact on one's health. The most frustrating thing about catching a cold is that in nearly all cases the spread of the virus could easily be contained if so many people weren't absolute pigs. To quote the NIH website:

Handwashing is the simplest and most effective way to keep from getting rhinovirus colds. Not touching the nose or eyes is another. Individuals with colds should always sneeze or cough into a facial tissue, and promptly throw it away. If possible, one should avoid close, prolonged exposure to persons who have colds.

I wash my hands carefully and regularly, and take care never to touch my face without having done so, but all the care in the world avails one little if one has to work alongside idiots who can't even refrain from sneezing in one's face! (Yes, that's right, I know the exact cretin to blame for my illness.)

There's nothing like having to deal with the piggishness of others to confirm one in the belief that lots of people just weren't raised right. It's bad enough that so many people seem to think that the streets are their personal trashcans, but watching others going about their business in public restrooms is enough to make one retch. It really is astounding the sheer number* of people there are who don't even bother with the pretence of washing their hands after using the toilet, much less taking the time to do it properly; a momentary dousing of the fingers under a briefly opened tap does not constitute good hygiene!

I'll survive this bout of sickness, but I can't help feeling resentment at the fact that someone else's thoughtlessness has ended up costing me several totally wasted days when I might have been doing something productive. I won't go as far as saying that sneezing without covering one's mouth and washing one's hands afterwards should be criminalized, but would it be such a bad idea if employers were to begin to insist that workers with highly contagious illnesses stay home until they are fully recovered? From an economic point of view, it makes no sense to allow such people to come in to work if it means several other employees will also be missing work down the line due to illness.

*Anecdotal evidence aside, the statistics indicate that more than 40 percent of men and 25 percent of women fail to wash their hands after using the toilet. Think about that the next time you consider eating out or shaking some stranger's hand.

Nuts!

This is just too much. Are Richard Perle and David Frum completely insane? What do they want, a state of perpetual war against the entire Arab world? And as for treating the French and the Saudis as "enemies" - God knows I'm not too fond of French obstructionism or Saudi duplicity, but I haven't heard so much rubbish in quite a long time!

President George W Bush was sent a public manifesto yesterday by Washington's hawks, demanding regime change in Syria and Iran and a Cuba-style military blockade of North Korea backed by planning for a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear sites.

The manifesto, presented as a "manual for victory" in the war on terror, also calls for Saudi Arabia and France to be treated not as allies but as rivals and possibly enemies.

The manifesto is contained in a new book by Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser and "intellectual guru" of the hardline neo-conservative movement, and David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter. They give warning of a faltering of the "will to win" in Washington.

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

Their publication, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, coincided with the latest broadside from the hawks' enemy number one, Colin Powell, the secretary of state.

Though on leave recovering from a prostate cancer operation, Mr Powell summoned reporters to his bedside to hail "encouraging" signs of a "new attitude" in Iran and call for the United States to keep open the prospect of dialogue with the Teheran authorities.

I think something will have to be done about Iran's nuclear programme sooner or later, and it will most likely have to involve the use of force of some type or other, but the prospect of starting a full-scale war with yet another muslim country in the name of "regime change" is one I do not relish. Afghanistan and Iraq are enough!

Monday, December 29, 2003

Quantum Field Theory - Lecture Notes

While looking through the IAS website for nothing in particular, I had the good fortune to come across the extensive series of lecture notes on quantum field theory linked to above. This ought to prove interesting to those lunatics amongst you who want to learn what QFT is all about in more detail than is provided by Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. A few words of warning, however: don't expect to get much out of these notes if you don't know what the terms "manifold", "group representation" and "Hilbert space" mean.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

War and the Anti-Liberal Impulse in European Intellectual History

Following is a statement I made in response to a post on Brad DeLong's weblog, which I think is worth reposting on here for posterity's sake.

"Frankly, I don't think there was ever a really peaceful time."

Globally speaking, you'd be correct, but the thing about nearly all the conflicts between 1814 and 1914 was that they either occurred on the periphery of "civilized" Europe (the Crimean War), or in far-off outposts like South Africa and the then United States. Even the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 and the Franco-German conflict of 1871 were relatively short, decisive and bloodless by comparison either with the Napoleonic wars that came before them or the Great War that was to come afterwards.

All of the above considered, it is meaningful, even blindingly obvious, to say that hardly any Europeans alive in 1914 really knew what all-out war was like, even amongst the military classes.* The illusion at the time was that modern science had "solved" the military problem once and for all, and the war would "all be over by Christmas." Why not rush, then, to get a piece of the "manly" fighting action that was to be had, before the whole show was over?

I blame reactionary intellectuals like Hegel, Carlyle and Heinrich von Treitschke for the Great War and all that followed from it, as their poisonous formulations helped poison the minds of entire generations of Europeans that there was something decadent about peace and middle-class commercialism. Even when we look at individuals like Lenin, with his commitment to a revolutionary vanguard, or Hitler, with his belief in the importance of Great Men like Frederick of Prussia, Bismarck and (of course) himself, it is the same elitist, anti-rational, philosophies of violence and strength peddled long before by these men that we see being translated into political programmes.

*I don't consider colonial policing actions against outgunned natives, of the sort characterized by the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, or Kitchener's Sudanese campaign of 1898, to have been "wars" in the modern sense; "lop-sided slaughters" would be a more accurate description in my view.

To get a flavor of Treitschke's thinking, consider the following snippet1 by him:

… One must say with the greatest determination: War is for an afflicted people the only remedy. When the State exclaims: My very existence is at stake! then social self-seeking must disappear and all party hatred be silent. The individual must forget his own ego and feel himself a member of the whole, he must recognize how negligible is his life compared with the good of the whole. Therein lies the greatness of war that the little man completely vanishes before the great thought of the State. The sacrifice of nationalities for one another is nowhere invested with such beauty as in war. At such a time the corn is separated from the chaff. All who lived through 1870 will understand the saying of Niebuhr' with regard to the year 1813, that he then experienced the "bliss of sharing with all his fellow citizens, with the scholar and the ignorant, the one common feeling-no man who enjoyed this experience will to his dying day forget how loving, friendly and strong he felt."

It is indeed political idealism which fosters war, whereas materialism rejects it. What a perversion of morality to want to banish heroism from human life. The heroes of a people are the personalities who fill the youthful souls with delight and enthusiasm, and amongst authors we as boys and youths admire most those whose words sound like a flourish of trumpets. He who cannot take pleasure therein, is too cowardly to take up arms himself for his fatherland. All appeal to Christianity in this matter is perverted. The Bible states expressly that the man in authority shall wield the sword; it states likewise that: "Greater love hath no man than this that he giveth his life for his friend." Those who preach the nonsense about everlasting peace do not understand the life of the Aryan race, the Aryans are before all brave. They have always -been men enough to protect by the sword what they had won by the intellect….

To the historian who lives in the realms of the Will, it is quite clear that the furtherance of an everlasting peace is fundamentally reactionary. He sees that to banish war from history would be to banish all progress and becoming. It is only the periods of exhaustion, weariness and mental stagnation that have dallied with the dream of everlasting peace…. The living God will see to it that war returns again and again as a terrible medicine for humanity.

As you can see, I certainly haven't slandered the man in saying that he was an apostle of a ruinous philosophy that would lead eventually to the deaths of millions of innocents. Kaiser Wilhelm subscribed to most of the nonsense spouted here by Treitschke (on the outbreak of war, he even proclaimed "I recognize no political parties, only Germans!"), and the only thing original about Hitler's thinking was that he was the first elected politician to dare to turn such madness into real policies.

POSTSCRIPT: It has occurred to me that many might wonder why I leave out Nietzsche from my list of blameworthy intellectuals. Wasn't he also an advocate of strength and violence, an elitist and glorifier of war, and a proponent of "master race" theories? Could it not be said with justice that he was even the most important prophet of romantic nihilism in European intellectual life?

I don't agree with such claims about Nietzsche, as it seems obvious to me that he never meant to be taken literally as advocating racialism, war, Social Darwinism or anything along such lines. Nietzsche was neither an anti-semite nor a German chauvinist, and in any case his concern was with the problem of values rather than the political issues of his day. When Nietzsche wrote about "supermen" and "herd morality", he certainly wasn't agitating for the political rule of the strong at the expense of the weak, as did Carlyle, Hegel, and Treitschke (and Fichte, and Bernhardi, and an assortment of other German intellectuals too numerous to mention).

At most, I would say that Nietzsche was guilty of writing in a style too easily misunderstood by literal-minded individuals, and that if he is now popularly regarded as an apostle of racism, anti-semitism and ultra-nationalism, most of the blame should go to his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who used his writings as a convenient vehicle for the popularization of her own peculiar beliefs. At any rate, one can find in this excerpt (again, by Brad DeLong) from William L. Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" an eloquent summary of the customary chargesheet levelled against Friedrich Nietzsche by those who have bought into the identification of Nietzschean philosophy with fascism.

1 - Heinrich von Treitschke, Die Politik, as excerpted in Germany's War Mania (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1915), pages 221-223.

Maybe Microsoft Does Listen Once in a While

I've very much enjoyed programming with the .NET platform, but there's one issue that has led me to avoid committing to Visual Studio.NET as a tool for web development, and that is its' complete disregard for web-standards, and for XHTML in particular. Try as one might to work around Visual Studio's limitations, the damn thing seems to actively work to sabotage one's efforts, and the prospect of having to rewrite all the web controls from scratch to be XHTML-compliant leaves one wondering what benefit there is in bothering with ASP.NET to begin with. If I'm going to go to all that trouble, why not stick with JSP? I'm not going to pass up the benefits of strict XHTML compliance (MathML support, and improved web accessibility for millions of people with disabilities), Microsoft be damned.

Well, it seems that Microsoft may finally have caught on that this cavalier attitude towards standards simply won't wash with a sizable number of developers, and is promising that things will be different with the upcoming "Whidbey" release of Visual Studio.NET.

Visual Studio “Whidbey” enables you to easily build applications that conform to industry and government standards. The development environment includes new tools for supporting W3C standards such as XHTML and government standards such as accessibility standards.

XHTML Compliant Designer
All HTML code generated by Visual Studio “Whidbey” is XHTML compliant. For example, all the formatting options available from the toolbar generate HTML which is fully XHTML compliant. All tags generated by the designer are well-formed and properly cased for XHTML.

In addition to XHTML designer support, Visual Studio “Whidbey” also includes tools for helping you write XHTML compliant code in the source editor. While working in the source editor, you can validate your HTML source code against either the XHTML 1.0 Transitional or XHTML 1.0 Strict standards. When your code doesn't successfully validate, you are provided with an explanation for the validation failure.

Accessibility Checker
Creating accessible Web pages -- Web pages which can be used by persons with disabilities -- is a requirement for many government agencies. Visual Studio “Whidbey” now enables you to easily validate and enforce accessibility standards.

You can use the integrated Visual Studio “Whidbey” Accessibility Checker to quickly identify accessibility problems in your application. The Accessibility Checker validates your ASP.NET pages against both the Section 508 and W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards, and will automatically output warnings and errors to the IDE Task List.

More on the changes that are to accompany the Whidbey release can be found in this MSDN article. As always with Microsoft, one is well advised to wait and see if all the promises pan out. In the meantime, I'll be devoting my attentions to JSP for web development, with .NET being relegated strictly to desktop applications.

Who Howard Dean Reminds Me Of

No, not Barry Goldwater, but William Jennings Bryan!* The same outsider rhetoric, the same angry intensity, the same talent for demagoguery, the same harebrained economic reasoning, even the same willingness to entertain lunatic conspiracy theories - the analogy is a near-perfect one. Here's one more respect in which I am convinced the analogy will hold; like Bryan, Howard Dean will go down to defeat, but continue to haunt his party for years afterwards.

*This may be an unoriginal comparison in the eyes of some, but it certainly came as a revelation to me; I've certainly never seen or heard anyone make the comparison before I did, so I am not indebted to anyone else for the insight.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Why I Won't be Watching (or Reading) Cold Mountain

For the same reason that I've never watched a single episode of Friends through from beginning to end: I don't have the time to waste on entertainment that airbrushes out black people. If it is ridiculous that a show supposedly set in New York could have no blacks, hispanics or Asians as regulars, it is the height of absurdity that an entire movie could be made about the American Civil War without putting any focus on the central issue at stake in that war - black slavery.

Flouncy dresses, Southern honour. Frankly, my dears, I don't ...

Ben MacIntyre

TO THE VICTOR the spoils: among these, usually, is the privilege of writing, and often rewriting, the history of the conflict in order to show that the winners were in the right and the losers were, well, losers, who deserved what they had coming to them. From the Roman conquests to the Second World War to the late unpleasantness in Iraq, the principle is the same: win the war, and you win the history.

The exception to this rule is the American Civil War. The Confederates were vanquished and the South economically ruined, the slave-owners deprived of their immoral human capital and bound back into a union most of them detested. The defeat could not have been more comprehensive.

And yet the great Lost Cause, began to be romanticised from the moment it was lost. Memory of the rebellion was maintained by ritual and nostalgia, the myth of the courageous Southern cavalier was forged, and groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy sprang up to honour the Confederate flag. Robert E. Lee was celebrated as the flower of Southern chivalry, in contrast to the brutal image of the North’s Ulysses S. Grant. The very names of Southern generals such as “Stonewall” Jackson were invested with a heroic twang.

Seen in this rosy but distorted light, the American Civil War was no longer fought over the question of slavery, but over economics and trade tariffs, in defence of states’ rights. Films like Birth of a Nation in 1915 and, even more emphatically, Gone with the Wind in 1939, reinforced the romance and glamour of the Old South as a place of ancient honour, flouncy dresses and fine Southern Gen’lemen.

Yesterday saw the release of Cold Mountain, the film of Charles Frazier’s novel about a Confederate soldier making his way home to the woman he loves. It is a beautiful novel, and the film is getting wildly enthusiastic reviews. But yet again, the Civil War has been shorn of its racial underpinnings and meaning. Indeed, there are virtually no black people in the film.

In Frazier’s book, the returning soldier is asked at one point whether he owns any slaves:

“No, not hardly anybody I knew did,” he replies.

“Then what stirred you up for fighting and dying?”

“Four years ago I maybe could have told you. Now I don’t know. I guess many of us fought to drive off the invaders.”

The war, in as much as its causes are examined at all, is a matter of self-defence, the classic Lost Cause argument. For modern consumption, the story has become one about the supremacy of love over war, a modern preoccupation. This does not prevent Cold Mountain from being a cracking read and an excellent film, but it does stop it from being history.

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

Two distinct strands of symbolism are at work. There are many who genuinely revere the old culture of the South, but there are also many for whom the symbols of the Confederacy are a thinly-disguised racist code. When Strom Thurmond ran his Dixiecrat presidential campaign in 1948 in defence of segregation, the icons and lore of the Confederacy were swiftly appropriated. (The same Strom Thurmond, it has emerged posthumously, fathered an unacknowledged child with a teenage black servant — another seldom-discussed Southern tradition.) As Tony Horwitz noted in his bestselling Civil War exploration Confederates in the Attic, in the market for Confederate memorabilia, the upstanding Robert E. Lee is outsold by Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader and first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

There is a tendency to try to heal the lingering wounds of the Civil War by regarding the two sides as somehow morally co-equal. True, there were racists among the Northerners, and honourable, tolerant individuals among the Southern troops, just as there were other factors behind the rebel cause including independence, economics and a certain doomed gallantry. But the antebellum South also represented a grim culture of white slaveholders who can never be intellectually rehabilitated, and which no amount of retrospective romance and Hollywood gloss should be allowed to obscure.

The South was defending its rights, to be sure, but chief among these was the right to own slaves. To strip away the true significance and cause of the war is to give those who misuse its symbols today a free pass.

Unlike some American wars since, the Civil War had a right side and a wrong side. Whatever the acting performances of Nicole Kidman and Jude Law might have you feel, in the end the Civil War was about much more than just love, actually.

Few things do more to discredit conservatives than their strange reluctance to call it like it is about the Civil War and "Southern Heritage." Not all Southerners are racists - indeed, two of the best friends I have had have been white Southerners - and there are certainly plenty of bigots in the northern states of America, but to pretend that symbols like the Confederate flag, or historical personages like Jefferson Davis, can be shorn of their association with black slavery is as deceitful as to suggest that the Nazi flag or the person of Hermann Goering could someday be thought of merely as stand-ins for "German Pride."

The East Asian IQ Myth

I've just come across a paper that argues that claims of higher East Asian IQ are entirely unfounded, at least when we're talking about East Asians in their own home countries. Following is a reference to said paper:

Harold Stevenson et al., "Cognitive performance of Japanese, Chinese, and American Children," Child Development 56, 1985, pages 718-734.

I don't find this at all surprising. Those who use the high academic and professional achievement of East Asian immigrants to the US as "evidence" of their innate intellectual superiority routinely ignore the fact that as voluntary immigrants, these populations are largely self-selected, a mistake they never make when it comes to downplaying the achievements of black African immigrants. There is simply no good evidence to be found that the average Japanese or Chinese individual is any smarter than his European or American counterparts, and those who claim to have such evidence, like the notorious Richard Lynn, can invariably be shown to have made fundamental errors in their data-gathering and interpretation. See

Charles Lane, "Tainted Sources," pages 133-135, in Russell Jacoby and Noami Glauberman, eds., The Bell Curve Debate (New York: Random House, 1995).

for a critique of Richard Lynn's sampling methodology.

Fisking Bob Herbert

Brad DeLong does an excellent job of pointing out the nonsensical nature of Bob Herbert's latest rant about offshoring.

First of all, it's job shift--not job loss. "[S]ome Americans who otherwise would have had high paying jobs either have no jobs, or else lower paying jobs," but other Americans who would have had no jobs or else lower paying jobs have higher paying jobs, and Americans who buy what they make pay less and so have higher real incomes. We pay for the stuff that Indians sell us by giving them dollars, and those dollars are useless to them unless they use them to buy U.S. exports (or trade them to people who will use them to buy U.S. exports) or invest them in America--thus providing financing for American businesses to expand their productive capacity.

Thus to Bob Herbert the group of non-persons--those who simply do not count--is quite large: it's not just Indians who are non-persons, it's not just American consumers, it's also Americans who work in export industries and Americans whose jobs in construction or capital-goods production are ultimately financed by capital inflows.

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

I wonder about Bob Herbert: is he smart enough to have, when he looked in the mirror this morning, thought, "I see a man who is trying to keep India a desperately poor country?"

If only more on the left were so sensible about the benefits of trade - not that the American right is currently doing any better in practice.

PS: I highly recommend reading the comments accompanying this post, if only for their amusement value. The economic illiteracy displayed by some of the contributors is really staggering! Doesn't it occur to them that there is a reason why Brad DeLong is a tenured Professor of Economics at Berkeley while they aren't? That as a macroeconomist he might actually know a thing or two more about international trade than they do? No, instead we see some directing the sorts of childish insults they usually fire at right-wingers in his direction. Says it all, really.

Friday, December 26, 2003

The Mathematics of Christmas

Marcus de Sautoy has an amusing little article up on the Telegraph website, using the old carol about the 12 days of Christmas to illustrate Gauss' childhood ingenuity in coming up with a formula for summing arithmetic series at the age of 10.

Going along in a mathematical vein, but aiming now at a rather more sophisticated audience, it may be of interest to some of you to learn that Catalan's Conjecture, which states that 8 (=23) and 9 (=32) are the only consecutive perfect powers amongst the natural numbers, has been proven, by Preda Mihailescu. Strange that I've seen no mention of this in any of the major newspapers, given how simple it is to state the problem for laymen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

IQ and Genetics

Just a quick note. I've been carrying on a conversation elsewhere with one individual who's been notable for his commitment to the notion that the International HapMap Project would soon provide the answer to the question to which he presumes to know the answer, namely "are differences in IQ measurements between 'racial' groups a reflection of historical events, or an indicator of fundamental, genetically-mediated, intellectual limitations of some groups by comparison with others?"

This fellow would say "yes," and he expects to be able to say so soon, but the fact is when it comes to attempts to link most complex human traits to particular genetic markers, the record has been a dreadful one. As soon as we go beyond the simple framework of "one gene = one disease" to thinking about complex, multigenic traits, the task of establishing valid correlations between genes and behavior becomes exponentially harder. The embarrasing retraction of Robert Plomin's much ballyhooed claim to have linked extremely high IQ to the IGF2R gene is a case in point. Cases like this lead me to be sceptical that anyone will establish to general satisfaction that certain gene combinations are more common in group A than group B, and that the people in A are therefore indisputably, genetically capable of more intellectual heavy-lifting than those in B.

Hiatus

Those of you who've been reading my blog may be wondering why I've refrained from updating it for what has been, for me, such an unusually long interval. I've been under a tremendous amount of time pressure of late, and I'm writing this missive as a sort of apologia; although I'm not getting paid for keeping up this blog, nor am I under any formal obligation to keep on maintaining it, I do try to keep my readers, such as they are, suitably informed, or, at the very least, amused, and I hope to be back to a more active blogging schedule in the course of the next few days.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Chinese Ultra-Nationalism

Nicholas Kristof touches on an important issue in his latest column, the absurdly exaggerated nature of Chinese touchiness about anything done by the Japanese. If there is one country that has changed utterly since the end of World War 2, it is Japan, and yet one wouldn't know it from the hysterical way in which the Chinese manage to blow up every perceived slight by Japanese people into a national incident.

Is China a threat to the rest of the world?

Perhaps, for rising powers have always spelled trouble for their neighbors, even in the case of democracies like Athens (the Peloponnesian War) and the U.S. (we managed to invade Canada and Mexico in the 1800's.

Yet what worries me about China isn't its upgrade of its nuclear arsenal and its military acquisitions to project power beyond its borders. China's military doctrine is cautious, and President Hu Jintao is leading China toward an increasingly constructive role in international affairs.

No, what troubles me, as one who loves China and is rooting for it to succeed, is the growing nationalism that the government has cultivated among young people.

Americans saw a hint of that when enraged mobs attacked our embassy in Beijing after the U.S. bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and when Chinese students reacted to the horror of 9/11 by filling Internet chat rooms with delighted cheers of shuang — roughly equivalent to "Wow, so cool!"

But it's in attitudes toward the Japanese that we see a leading indicator of the instability that blind nationalism can cause. This fall, three Japanese students in the central Chinese city of Xian performed a bawdy skit, wearing red bras over T-shirts and throwing the stuffing at their audience — and word spread that the Riben guizi, Japanese devils, were mocking China. So a mob of 1,000 people rampaged through town, looking for any Japanese to attack.

In the same vein, fury had erupted around the country a few weeks earlier because of reports that Japanese businessmen had engaged in an orgy with Chinese prostitutes in the southern city of Zhuhai. The Chinese rage was hypocritical in a country where hundreds of thousands of prostitutes blatantly ply their wares — in Zhengzhou last year, an army of prostitutes practically battered down my hotel room door as I cowered inside.

Even the Chinese recounting of history has become hysterical. Take the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, which was so brutal that there's no need to exaggerate it. One appalled witness in the thick of the killing, John Rabe, put the death toll at 50,000 to 60,000. Another, Miner Searle Bates, estimated that 12,000 civilians and 28,000 soldiers had been killed. The Chinese delegate to the League of Nations at the time put the civilian toll at 20,000. A Communist Chinese newspaper of the period put it at 42,000.

Yet China proclaims, based on accounts that stand little scrutiny, that 300,000 or more were killed. Such hyperbole abuses history as much as the denial by Japanese rightists that there was any Rape of Nanjing at all. It nurtures nationalism by defining China as a victim state, the world's punching bag, that must be more aggressive in defending its interests.

What does this add up to? The rising nationalism warps Chinese decision-making and risks conflicts with Japan over, for example, the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It also forces the government to be tough in international disputes — particularly in the case of Taiwan, where a miscalculation could conceivably lead to a war with the U.S.

"Some Chinese military leaders are saying that Japan is secretly behind Taiwan's moves toward a referendum and independence," warned a well-connected Chinese who knows that this is nonsense. "They say it is all a Japanese plot to steal Taiwan from China."

Nationalism has become the opium of China's athiest masses, and there is a real danger that it will lead the world down that same bloody path that Japanese and German nationalism did in the previous century.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Libya Admits to Development of Banned Weapons

I'd say this news is a pretty forceful rebuttal of the argument that Bush's preemption doctrine doesn't work. The willingness to see through the destruction of Saddam's regime in the face of widespread international opposition has obviously put the fear of God in Moammar Ghaddafi.

Filed at 5:46 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- -- Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has admitted trying to develop weapons of mass destruction but now plans to dismantle all such programs, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday.

Bush said Libya's decision -- which would open the country to international weapons inspectors -- would be "of great importance" in stopping weapons of mass destruction in a global fight against terrorism.

Britain and the United States have been talking about the issue with Libya for nine months, Blair said.

"Libya came to us in March following successful negotiations on Lockerbie to see if it could resolve its weapons of mass destruction issue in a similarly cooperative manner," Blair said in England.

At the White House, Bush said the war in Iraq and efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear program had sent a clear message to countries such as Libya that they must abandon weapons programs.

"In word and in action, we have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries," Bush said. That was an apparent reference to Iran and North Korea, two other countries that the United States contends are trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Without naming them, Bush added: "I hope other leaders will find an example" in Libya's action.

If Libya follows through with its commitment, Bush said, "its good faith can be returned."

What was that Dr. Dean said again about Saddam's capture not having made America any safer? The Democrats are almost certainly going to be crushed in 2004; I foresee a disaster of McGovern-Mondale proportions.

The Iowa Electronic Markets on the Democratic Nomination

Ever since the 2000 presidential elections, I've been very impressed by the accuracy with which the Iowa Electronic Markets have been able to predict the outcomes of various polls. The following image from the IEM suggests that I was correct in believing that the Democratic presidential nomination is essentially already in the bag for Howard Dean, barring an act of God or some horrendous misstep on his part.
IEM Graph of Democratic Candidates

UPDATE: Here's a nice Reason article by Ronald Bailey that is helpful in interpreting some of the IEM data. In particular, implicit in the data coming out of the IEM is that the 2004 elections look to be shaping up as a landslide for Bush, and that the of all the serious candidates amongst the Democratic primary challengers, Dean is likely to do worst up against Bush. Al From and the DLC are on to something when they worry about Dean dragging the party leftward to oblivion.

Touchy Arab Pride

If this column is an accurate depiction of the typical Arab's psyche, it indicates that the Middle East is destined to remain mired in backwardness for ages to come.

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Was he an Arab hero or a dictator? This is the question being debated in newspapers in the Middle East and by Arab intellectuals faced with the image of a bearded, bedraggled Saddam Hussein in the hands of American captors.

Many are asking, too, if Saddam's downfall was a humiliation to the entire Arab world, not just to the ousted Iraqi leader. Others say that with Saddam's capture, it's time to drop any expectation that a great hero will unite the Arab world.

``A new humiliation to Arabs'' was the headline on a column this week by Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

``It was a shock for us, and a humiliation to millions of Arabs who saw the TV shots of the Iraqi president being subjected to the humiliating medical checkup. We hoped that he would have fought until the end, and fallen as a martyr like his two sons and grandson or chose Hitler's end,'' Atwan wrote, referring to the Nazi leader's suicide.

But Atwan was quick to find excuses for Saddam's succumbing to U.S. forces without a shot being fired after he was found in a spider-hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

``We only heard the American version of the story. Maybe they drugged him because if Saddam wanted to surrender this way, he would have ... accepted the many offers to leave power,'' Atwan wrote.

Instead, he added, Saddam had chosen ``to stand up to American arrogance.''

Apparently, many Arabs shared Atwan's view of Saddam's arrest on Saturday as a collective humiliation - and an intentional one.

In a telephone poll, the popular Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera asked viewers if showing Saddam being probed by U.S. military doctors was meant to humiliate Arabs. Al-Jazeera said that of the 1,500 people who called in, 97 percent said it was.

Kuwaiti columnist Ahmed al-Robei expressed anger at such talk of a hurt afflicting all Arabs. He wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat that the worst thing on Middle East satellite channels since Saddam's arrest was the idea of ``humiliation to Arab dignity''

He added that Arabs were continuing to ignore that the Iraqi leader was a villain. ``The mass graves are not enough to wake the minds of some of us. Are we people who adore despots? It is a sad question,'' he wrote.

He said he wondered how long Arabs would go on ``glorifying oppressors and despots and portraying them as the saviors and leaders of this (Arab) nation, which is handed over from one executioner to another.''

One can only pity a people that chooses to identify so strongly with its' oppressors. If there is one hopeful sign, it is that most of those who actually had to live under Saddam do not share the view that his capture was any sort of blow to their pride.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Culture Wars are Over - and the Left Won!

I saw an analysis of the American kulturkampf on Keith M. Ellis' blog that I felt I had to share on here:

A fear, or lament, among many Democrats is that the appeal of anti-liberal sentiment among a majority of Americans is indicative that Americans are more conservative and reactionary than we’d like to believe. However, my personal theory is that it indicates, in a sense, the opposite. The truth of the matter is that in the war of political ideology, liberalism is continously triumphant over conservatism. The exception that leftists focus on is the rejection of most forms of socialism and the embrace of market economics. But that’s the exception to the rule. What matters most to people in terms of how they experience their life is culture. And our culture has been marching to the left for a very long time. I think the result of this is that while most Americans are reasonably happy at any given moment with the state of the liberalism of American society, they fear that it will shortly go too far. Culturally, they recognize that we’re not in danger of moving dramatically to the right. They fear the rightist tendency less. This is why, I believe, that anti-liberal sentiment is more effective politically than is anti-conservative sentiment. It’s about latent fear. (People don’t like being told what to do—an essential feature of cultural conservatism; but they are essentially traditionalists unnerved by “too much change”.)

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Seoul Has Big Plans for North Korea (Nightmares, Too)

This story does a good job of highlighting the fundamental problem posed by North Korea's poverty to the South Koreans. One unspoken but extremely important factor in the reluctance of South Koreans to go along with any harsh measures contemplated by Washington has been the fear of precipitating the DPRK's collapse, and thereby unleashing a flood of millions of indigent northerners across the border.

OUL, South Korea — North Korea, so the scenario unfolds, gradually moves to a market economy under the grip of its one-party rule. Its leaders keep tight control on the political and social repercussions of economic reforms, but over time the changes ineluctably lead to more wealth and a more open society.

"We South Koreans do not want abrupt change," said the South Korean foreign minister, Yoon Young Kwan, in a recent interview. "We are not ready to digest sudden change in the political situation in North Korea."

As the prospect of a negotiated end to the nuclear crisis with North Korea inches closer, South Koreans are now thinking seriously about the implications. There is the potential, they realize, for a terrible lesson in getting what you wish for.

Abrupt change conjures up the nightmare image of millions of refugees from North Korea, a crashing economy, war. At the very least, the collapse of the demilitarized zone would be far messier to handle than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The ideal of a gradual transformation to a market economy and a more open society — played out in China, as well as in smaller countries in Asia and South America — lies at the heart of South Korea's approach to North Korea, and is also the source of differences with Washington over how to resolve the crisis.

To the Bush administration, North Korea is part of the "axis of evil" and its leader, Kim Jong Il, an irredeemable "pygmy," as President Bush once said. To Seoul, though, North Korea stands where China did a couple of decades ago, and with the right nudge, here and there, Mr. Kim could metamorphose into Deng Xiaoping.

Asked whether Mr. Kim could assume a role similar to that of the Chinese reformer, Mr. Yoon said without hesitation, "I think so."

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

But there are many doubts, not only in the United States but also in South Korea, about whether North Korea is capable of following in China's footsteps.

The biggest misgiving centers on Kim Jong Il himself. The economic policies carried out in the last two years do not amount yet to evidence that he is fully committed to economic reforms. In fact, the so-called hawks here say that he has not shown any desire for real change, only survival. So Mr. Kim is compared less frequently to Deng than to Deng's predecessor, Mao Zedong.

"Many hope that he will become the next Deng Xiaoping," said Lee Geun, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. "But others argue that change in China happened only after the death of Mao, and that North Korea will not change until Kim Jong Il is eliminated."

Others are unsure whether North Korea's leaders have the flexibility to accept or manage social and political shifts. Although Beijing cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, it was able to direct political changes by first limiting them to areas along China's coast.

Because of its small size, North Korea would find it difficult to restrict the effect of market reforms to a geographic area, said Ha Young Sun, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

"North Korea is very worried about the negative effects of capitalism," Mr. Ha said. "It would view them as a threat to the survival of the regime." (emphasis added)

I highlighted that last sentence because it illustrates that the North Koreans are aware that there was truth to Hayek's claim in The Road to Serfdom that economic and sociopolitical freedom are linked, albeit imperfectly. Once a man is free to choose his employer, or even whether or not he wishes to be employed by someone else, and once he is cognisant of the fact that said employment is immune to some degree from the whims of the state, he begins to attain a measure of freedom that poses an existential threat to regimes like Kim Jong Il's, which rely so heavily on the policing of all thought. The Chinese are undoubtedly far freer today than they were before Deng's reforms began in 1979, even if they still don't enjoy the right to elect their political leadership.

The South Koreans have learned well - perhaps too well - from the example set by Germany's reunfication, and are loath to surrender their hard-won prosperity to the cause of Korean brotherhood, however noble an idea it may be in the abstract. I think the South Korean foreign minister, and others who think as he does, misguided in imagining Kim Jong Il capable of playing a Deng Xiaoping-like role in his Stalinist stronghold, but I can sympathize with them for wishing such a thing were possible. The best solution in the Korean peninsula would not be a war, but everything depends on Comrade Kim, "Lodestar of the North", and he seems hellbent on ensuring that war comes to him.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Privacy Violations in Texas

When I criticize the circumscribed nature of the Supreme Court's privacy ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, it is with idiotic scenarios such as the following in mind (via Instapundit):

A Texas housewife is in big trouble with the law for selling a vibrator to a pair of undercover cops. . . . Joanne Webb, a former fifth-grade teacher and mother of three, was in a county court in Cleburne, Texas, on Monday to answer obscenity charges for selling the vibrator to undercover narcotics officers posing as a dysfunctional married couple in search of a sex aid.

What business is it of any state officials that Joanne Webb is selling vibrators? How can anyone justify this sort of egregious interference in the private affairs of ordinary citizens? The right to privacy ought to be regarded as an absolute, not something to be recognized in the limited circumstances of gay sodomy alone, even if it means that victimless crimes like this one, or even prostitution and pot dealing, can no longer be enforced. In fact, it ought to be recognized as an absolute precisely for that reason.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Zut Alors!

What can explain this sudden outbreak of French reasonableness? Might it be an illustration of the old saying that "nothing succeeds like success?"

PARIS, Dec. 15 — Seizing the initiative a day after the announcement of Saddam Hussein's capture, France said today that it would work with other nations to forgive an unspecified portion of Iraq's immense foreign debt.

The offer was a conciliatory gesture to Washington as much as it was a helping hand to Baghdad.

"France, together with other creditors, believes there could be an agreement in 2004," the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin told reporters after a meeting with members of Iraq's interim Governing Council. He said that if various conditions regarding Iraq's sovereignty and stability were met, his country "could then envisage cancellation of debts in line with Iraq's basic financing capacity."

Mr. de Villepin's statements came a day before James A. Baker III, a former United States secretary of state, was scheduled to arrive in Paris to ask the French for help in relieving Iraq of its crushing financial obligations, estimated at more than $120 billion, excluding war reparations owed to Kuwait and Iran. The United States is eager to lift the debt burden, which would otherwise raise the cost of an Iraqi economic recovery beyond Washington's means.

Jalal Talabani, a Iraqi Kurdish leader and member of Iraqi delegation visiting Paris, called Mr. de Villepin's announcement a "gift."

But by announcing its intention to the Iraqis today, Mr. de Villepin avoided the appearance of answering to Washington's call.

"This way he can say, `I'm not doing it because the Americans are asking for it but because I believe it's the responsible thing to do for the Iraqis,' " said Dominique Moisi, an American expert at the French Institute for International Relations.

It doesn't really matter what the reason is for the premature announcement by de Villepin; what matters is that France is behaving like a responsible power for a change. Let's just hope that this isn't the first step in a base attempt at extracting contracting concessions from the Bush administration. I'll also be waiting to see just how much of Iraq's debt the French are willing to write off before I permanently put them back in the "responsible power" column - to use another trite phrase, "the devil is in the details."

Cobb: Dean and the Black Vote

Cobb has a brilliant piece up on Howard Dean's campaign, and how it relates to the African-American voting polity.

I've written here in Cobb that there is a dirty little secret in black politics. Perhaps some of Dean's campaign team has taken an object lesson. Those African Americans who hold out for hope in the world of politics of all places have apparently been placated by Mr. Dean's clever rhetoric.

What is astounding about this sleight of hand is that Dean has gotten away with getting endorsements without having made one documentable campaign promise. Sensible people expect politicians to dissemble, and those things that are sacrificed first are campaign promises. So what kind of fool gives the benefit of the doubt to a politician whose not even willing to make a promise? There is nothing so irresponsible as a man who makes no promises and states no case, something most of us recognized when pressing Clarence Thomas. But if there is, then it is the voter who trusts such a man. Fools following liars.

As they say in the blogging business, "Read the Whole Thing!" There's a lot more to the post than just this excerpt.

Howard Dean is shaping up to be some sort of Rorschach figure for many; there's something about the guy that seems to encourage all sorts of disparate groups to project their hopes and fantasies unto him without him actually having done much of anything to merit their attentions. This holds in particular for many libertarians (like Reason's Julian Sanchez) and paleoconservatives, and the danger is that it should come to hold for black voters as well. All those groups who vest their hopes in Dean are going to end up extremely disappointed if he should ever find himself ensconced in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - which, God willing, will never happen.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Howard Dean, Hypocrite

The New Republic's TNR Primary uncovers more evidence that Howard Dean isn't a man to be trusted, his claims to straight-talking be damned.

Candidate: Howard Dean
Category: Intellectual Honesty
Grade: F

Deanophiles love to spin their candidate's weaknesses into strengths--arrogance is a sign of conviction, tactlessness is straight-talk, and so forth. So I'm curious to see how they'll spin the latest Dean misstep: hypocrisy.

Turns out that while old Howard has been bashing the coziness of the Bush administration with corporate America, Vermont has quietly become the leading state for a dubious tax-break scheme known as "captive insurance"--under Dean's direction.

As reported in today's Boston Globe, captive insurance is essentially a way to shield corporate profits from state taxes. It starts when a parent company uses one of its own subsidiaries for insurance. The parent company makes premium payments to the subsidiary for the insurance policy, and Vermont takes a piece of those premiums in taxes. So far, so good. But under the Vermont law that Dean pushed, the subsidiary can then reinvest those premiums and keep the resulting profits tax-free. The captive insurance operation may even allow non-Vermont companies to dodge their home states' tax bills.

As a University of Connecticut law school professor told the Globe, "Dean apparently has no problems with tax havens as long as they are in the state of Vermont." And what an operation he's built: by introducing tax breaks and successfully scuttling a proposed Clinton-era regulation designed to stymie the scheme, Dean ensured Vermont is home to more captive insurers than the rest of the country combined. In 2001, he boasted that he wanted Vermont to "overtake Bermuda" as the number one destination for such operations.

Did we mention Enron opened an office in Montpelier to take advantage of the deal? (emphasis added)

The irony of that last sentence is delicious. Who'd have thunk it? Hypocrisy, thy name is Howard Dean!

YES!

This isn't just the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the end. A lot of Bush bashers are going to be having fits over this piece of news. What wonderful news this is for the people of Iraq!

Ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been captured by US forces, says the US chief administrator in Iraq.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," Paul Bremer said at a news conference in the capital, Baghdad, prompting loud cheers from Iraqis in the audience.

The former leader was found hiding in a cellar in a town about 30 kilometres south of his ancestral hometown Tikrit.

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

Saddam Hussein was found following intelligence indicating he was at one of two possible locations south of Tikrit, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq.

A large contingent of US forces conducted extensive searches of the area and found a small rural farmhouse..

A "spider hole" was detected within the house with an entrance camouflaged with bricks and dirt.

When uncovered, US troops found the former Iraqi president in a hole barely six to eight feet (1.8m to 2.5m) deep.

Colonel Sanchez said he offered no resistance.

I have to say that I'm rather disappointed in Saddam, as I felt certain that he'd rather take the Hitler-option and put a bullet in his own head rather than risk capture. I guess it only goes to show that the man is too much of a coward to contemplate suicide. Anyway, now that Saddam's been captured, how do the Americans propose to try him? I sense that this question will soon open up a whole new kettle of worms.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Draft Chimp Genome Assembled

This is very, very big news. With this information a lot of the biggest questions about human nature and our origins will come much closer to getting answers.

BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 10, 2003 – The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), today announced the first draft version of the genome sequence of the chimpanzee and its alignment with the human genome. All of the data have been deposited into free public databases and are now available for use by scientists around the world.

The sequence of the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, was assembled by NHGRI-funded teams led by Eric Lander, Ph.D., at The Eli & Edythe L. Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; and Richard K. Wilson, Ph.D., at the Genome Sequencing Center, Washington University School of Medicine, Saint Louis.

Researchers deposited the initial assembly, which is based on four-fold sequence coverage of the chimp genome, into the NIH-run, public database, GenBank, (www.ncbi.nih.gov/Genbank). In turn, Genbank will distribute the sequence data to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory's Nucleotide Sequence Database, EMBL-Bank (www.ebi.ac.uk/embl/index.html), and the DNA Data Bank of Japan, DDBJ (www.ddbj.nig.ac.jp).

To facilitate biomedical studies comparing regions of the chimp genome with similar regions of the human genome, the researchers also have aligned the draft version of the chimp sequence with the human sequence. Those alignments can be scanned using the University of California, Santa Cruz's Genome Browser, (http://genome.ucsc.edu/cgi-bin/hgGateway); the National Center for Biotechnology Information's Map Viewer, (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/mapview); and the European Bioinformatics Institute's Ensembl system, (http://www.ensembl.org/).

Hats off to Dr. Lander, Dr. Wilson et al! Now perhaps we'll start to get some substantive insights into the nature of human intelligence and how it arose.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Spirit of the (Rule of) Laws

Robert Green Lane of The Economist has a nice essay in TNR reminding us that while putting the formal procedures of democracy in place can occur overnight, getting a hang of the spirit of the thing can often take a long while. The Russian experience is particularly instructive in this respect, for here we have a people who seem to have no great desire for the principles of liberal democracy, yearning instead for the constrained certainties of the authoritarianism that has always been the Russian man's lot.

How long does it take for a democracy to emerge from the shadow of totalitarian dictatorship? That's the question facing American policymakers eager to make a success out of the gamble in Iraq. And if the example of another prominent country making the transition from dictatorship--Russia, which holds legislative elections on December 7--is any indication, the answer is: quite some time.

As both Iraq and the former Soviet Union make clear, the legacy of totalitarianism is utterly debilitating. Not only are there no opportunities for political initiative--such as voting, referenda, political protest--in totalitarian societies; there is no room for individual initiative of any kind. (This is the key difference between a totalitarian society and a merely authoritarian society, like Franco's Spain or Suharto's Indonesia.) Free choice turns out to be a habit, not an inborn human trait. The result is that citizens of formerly totalitarian countries must first learn how to make personal decisions; only then can they even begin to contemplate political decisions. The process can be agonizingly slow.

One corollary is that bringing democracy to a former dictatorship is even more difficult when that country has no experience with it earlier in its history. Many post-authoritarian countries in Europe, including Spain, Greece, and Portugal, as well as many of the former Soviet satellites, enjoyed some form of democracy before their detour into dictatorship. As a result, they managed to throw off their dictatorships relatively painlessly, and were comfortably established as democracies after roughly a decade. Notably, the politically worst-off countries of the former Soviet bloc--Romania and Albania, as well as Russia itself--had little or no democratic experience.

These are two major reasons why, twelve years and four major elections after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia is still barely democratic. In a recent book, Russia experts Michael McFaul of Stanford and Timothy Colton of Harvard politely call Russia a "managed democracy." Freedom House, an NGO that rates political and civil liberties across countries, calls Russia just "partly free." My own publication, The Economist, has flatly said that, "The West should stop pretending Russia is a free democracy."

Lane is undoubtedly correct when he says that the Russian experience should warn us against imagining that some sort of democratic domino theory will hold in the Middle East. While the transition to democracy, if successful, will surely prove an improvement for the Iraqi people on Saddam's regime, there will, for many years to come, still be people from all walks of life who will condemn the wearisome and "useless" cacophony of squabbling in a democratic society, and look fondly back on the strong-man era as being the "good old days." Listening to Iraqis bellyaching about the shortcomings of the American occupation brings to life the veracity of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld's cynical maxims about the human condition.

IdiotMedia Strikes Again

Via Andrew Sullivan, I came across the following fetching little re-interpretation of the American flag on Indymedia:
Indymedia antisemitic flag
Hardly surprising, considering how freely the term "Zionazi" is used on that forum. This ought to serve as a reminder that there is indeed a sizable constituency for whom criticism of Israel serves as little more than an outlet for antisemitic tendencies, even if Israel's defenders are sometimes prone to misusing the "antisemite" label to tar critics.

UPDATE: Also found on the same Indymedia thread was the following:
Riff on the Elders of Zion
Need I say more?

Dean the Chameleon

I'm not the greatest admirer of David Brooks' writing, but I think this column of his has got Howard Dean nailed down to a T.

My moment of illumination about Howard Dean came one day in Iowa when I saw him lean into a crowd and begin a sentence with, "Us rural people. . . ."

Dean grew up on Park Avenue and in East Hampton. If he's a rural person, I'm the Queen of Sheba. Yet he said it with conviction. He said it uninhibited by any fear that someone might laugh at or contradict him.

It was then that I saw how Dean had liberated himself from his past, liberated himself from his record and liberated himself from the restraints that bind conventional politicians. He has freed himself to say anything, to be anybody.

Other candidates run on their biographies or their records. They keep policy staff from their former lives, and they try to keep their policy positions reasonably consistent.

But Dean runs less on biography than any other candidate in recent years. When he began running for president, he left his past behind, along with the encumbrances that go with it. As governor of Vermont, he was a centrist Democrat. But the new Dean who appeared on the campaign trail — a jarring sight for the Vermonters who knew his previous self — is an angry maverick.

The old Dean was a free trader. The new Dean is not. The old Dean was open to Medicare reform. The new Dean says Medicare is off the table. The old Dean courted the N.R.A.; the new Dean has swung in favor of gun control. The old Dean was a pro-business fiscal moderate; the new Dean, sounding like Ralph Nader, declares, "We've allowed our lives to become slaves to the bottom line of multinational corporations all over the world."

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

The newly liberated Dean is uninhibited. A normal person with no defense policy experience would not have the chutzpah to say, "Mr. President, if you'll pardon me, I'll teach you a little about defense." But Dean says it. A normal person, with an eye to past or future relationships, wouldn't compare Congress to "a bunch of cockroaches." Dean did it.

The newly liberated Dean doesn't worry about having a coherent political philosophy. There is a parlor game among Washington pundits called How Liberal Is Howard Dean? One group pores over his speeches, picks out the things no liberal could say and argues that he's actually a centrist. Another group picks out the things no centrist could say and argues that he's quite liberal.

But the liberated Dean is beyond categories like liberal and centrist because he is beyond coherence. He'll make a string of outspoken comments over a period of weeks — on "re-regulating" the economy or gay marriage — but none of them have any relation to the others. When you actually try to pin him down on a policy, you often find there is nothing there.

For example, asked how we should proceed in Iraq, he says hawkishly, "We can't pull out responsibly." Then on another occasion he says dovishly, "Our troops need to come home," and explains, fantastically, that we need to recruit 110,000 foreign troops to take the place of our reserves. Then he says we should not be spending billions more dollars there. Then he says again that we have to stay and finish the job.

At each moment, he appears outspoken, blunt and honest. But over time he is incoherent and contradictory.

Bush has proven to be less than principled in his stance to a lot of issues, not least towards free trade and government spending, but there's no good reason to believe that Howard Dean will be any better. If I'm going to have to make do with a unprincipled panderer in the White House, better it be one who at least pays lip service to the notions of free trade and smaller government. I have a feeling that certain Democrats who are currently inveighing against the "lies" and "incompetence" of the Bush administration will have a great deal to regret if Dean ever gets hold of the presidency, a prospect that is, thankfully, extremely unlikely to occur.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Fear and Loathing of Islam in Germany

This report of what amounts to state-sponsored religious discrimination in Germany really stinks.

The government in Germany's biggest state, Bavaria, has prepared a draft law to ban Muslim teachers from wearing headscarves in schools.

A Bavarian cabinet minister said the aim was to protect school pupils against fundamentalist influences.

The bill is expected to be passed next year in the regional parliament, which is dominated by the Christian Social Union (CSU) party.

Bavaria, after Baden-Wuerttemberg, is the second state to propose a ban.

Bavarian Education Minister Monika Hohlmeier said the headscarf was increasingly used as a political symbol.

"With this law, we are defending pupils against a potential fundamentalist influence and are respecting the wishes of the majority of parents," she said.

Christian and Jewish symbols are not included in the ban.

Ms Hohlmeier said these symbols reflected cultural values
(emphasis added).

Ms. Hohlmeier's excuse for singling out Islam is as ridiculous as they come. This anti-Islamic tendency isn't limited to Germany either, as there are moves afoot in France to initiate similar policies, only on a nationwide scale. Haven't Europeans learnt anything from the history of the 20th century? It is a statement of fact that there really is a clash between certain tenets of Islam and the cultural values of today's western Europe, but I see no need to go in for this sort of ham-fisted approach in dealing with something of so little consequence in the larger scheme of things. If some women want to wear headscarves on the job, why is this some sort of threat to German culture?

CNN - Supreme Court allows Rosa Parks to sue OutKast - Dec. 8, 2003

Rosa Parks did a tremendous amount of good in the past, but this lawsuit is a sure sign that she's gone senile in her old age.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court refused Monday to intervene in a lawsuit over the hit song "Rosa Parks" by the Grammy-winning musical group OutKast.

The action, taken without comment from the justices, means the 90-year-old civil rights figure can go ahead with her lawsuit against the band.

The 1998 song is about the entertainment industry and its lyrics do not refer to Parks by name. The chorus of the song goes, "Ah-ha, hush that fuss. Everybody move to the back of the bus."

Parks claimed that OutKast violated her publicity and trademark rights and defamed her. She lost her first round in federal court, but a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, reinstated part of the lawsuit earlier this year.

The case will now return to a lower federal court judge.

Parks wants all references to her removed from future versions of the record.

OutKast has argued that the song is neither false advertising nor a violation of Parks' publicity rights and is protected by the First Amendment.

What the hell was the Supreme Court thinking not to throw this case out? Was this just a case of 9 media-sensitive justices not wanting to be seen to be ruling against the great Rosa Parks? I don't see that the woman has a leg to stand on - her name isn't a copyright, and Outkast were perfectly within their rights to mention it in the context that they did ("everybody move to the back of the bus").

Monday, December 08, 2003

It's In the Bag - Gore to Endorse Dean

This is all the proof I need that Howard Dean already has the Democratic Party nomination all sewn up. I can now safely make two predictions, namely

  1. that the 2004 election contest is going to be the nastiest seen in America since the days of Goldwater vs. Johnson, and
  2. that Bush is going to be re-elected in a landslide.

I don't think I'll be eating my words any time soon. What a shame the Democrats had to go for this guy.

Phil the Greek Strikes Again

Prince Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, husband to dear old Queen Elizabeth II, is renowned for his uncanny ability to think of just the wrongest possible thing to say in the course of carrying his official duties, and it appears that he's just done it again.

PRINCE PHILIP made another incredible gaffe yesterday by insulting his hosts during a state visit to Africa.

The Royal consort dropped the clanger just hours before he was due to fly home after a four-day tour of Nigeria.

At a ceremony to celebrate the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Abuja he was asked by an Australian reporter what he thought of his African visit.

Bungling Philip said after a long pause: "I will pass on that, if you don't mind."

The remark was seen as a snub to his Nigerian hosts, who were staging the event for the first time.

And it overshadowed the Queen's efforts to retain Britain's strong ties with the Commonwealth, made up mainly of former UK colonies.

Philip's refusal to praise his African hosts was in sharp contrast to her diplomatic performance.

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

A British Council source in Nigeria added: "This kind of thing could set Commonwealth relations back 20 years.

"All he simply had to say was that he had enjoyed his stay in what is an amazing country."

I'm not a republican, partly because of a Burkean conservative streak I have (why mess with something that isn't broken?), and partly because I recognize the allure the British royal family holds as a source of touristic interest, but I must say that the house of Windsor has more than its' fair share of pompous idiots. In fact, other than Queen Elizabeth herself, I can think of hardly a single member of the royal house that isn't in some way a pitiful excuse for a human being. The best thing the whole lot could do would be to emulate the Japanese imperial house, by keeping as low a profile as they can get away with.

Preach On, Brother Kristof

Nicholas Kristof chimes in with a warning against the politics of raw anger:

Watching presidential politics lately, I've been thinking back to when I was 13 years old and had my heart broken for the first time.

It was 1972, and I was antiwar and infatuated with Senator George McGovern. But as I handed out McGovern leaflets in Yamhill County, Ore., I was greeted as if I were the Antichrist. Soon afterward, Mr. McGovern was defeated in a landslide.

As Howard Dean will probably be, if the Democrats nominate him.

It is, of course, the Democrats' privilege to stand on principle, embrace the man they admire most and leap off a cliff together. Political parties have a hoary tradition of committing principled suicide, as the G.O.P. did with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and, most masochistically, the Democrats did three times with William Jennings Bryan from 1896 to 1908.

Yet my guess is that the Democratic faithful are being not so much high-minded as muddle-headed. Many Democrats so despise President Bush that they don't appreciate what a strong candidate he will be in November, and they don't grasp how poorly Mr. Dean is likely to fare in battleground states.

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

If the Democrats are serious about governing, they should remember the words of one of their nominees, Adlai Stevenson. After one of his typically brilliant campaign speeches, someone shouted out to Stevenson from the crowd that he had the votes of all thinking Americans.

Stevenson shouted back, saying that wasn't enough: "I need a majority!"

Obviously, I don't agree with Kristof that voters are too stupid to see Dean's merits, but his warning against indulging in the politics of vitriolic rage is spot on.

Cronaca: More German WW2 revisionism

Cronaca has a very informative post up about a German tendency towards self-pitying revisionism that has been bothering me for about a year now.

Back in January we posted on the recent shift in German attitudes towards the bombardment of their country during WW2, exemplified in Jörg Friedrich's bestselling Der Brand. Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945 (The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment, 1940-45).

Now Friedrich has come out with a book of photographs on the same theme: Brandstätten (Places of Fire), the subject of an essay by Michael Kimmelman in today's NY Times

I suggest reading the whole thing: let it suffice for me to say that I have absolutely no sympathy for any attempts to portray Germans as somehow being victims of a war whose instigator was accorded popular acclaim on so massive a scale as Hitler was, right up until the tide turned in 1942. Had Hitler's gamble succeeded in 1941, it is safe to say that hardly any Germans would have regretted the suffering they would then have meted out to the unfortunate Slavs and Jews falling within their purview: going by the Generalplan Ost, at least 30 million more Slavs would have lost their lives in the New Order, on top of the many millions who did die in the course of the fighting between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. No, the more one thinks about the alternative to the sort of all-out war waged by the allies on Germany, the less inclined one is to tolerate or excuse this ridiculously self-pitying tendency that is discernable in German culture today.

As the old saying goes, "he who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind", and what the Germans reaped was, if anything, far less than they deserved in light of the heinous crimes they collectively (and not just Hitler, as they sometimes like to make out) committed. I have nothing against the Germans in particular, as I am equally unmoved whenever I hear Japanese people moan and groan about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Doomed, I Tell You!

Who Will Be Eaten First?

This Cthulhu-mythos based spoof of a Jack Chick tract was simply too hilarious not to pass on. How dumb does one have to be to be taken in by a Chick piece, anyway? Does his stuff really sway anyone with half a brain, or is it that it gives certain people a warm feeling inside, just knowing that by sponsoring his output, they are helping to do the Lord's work?

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Burning Money on Buck Rogers Fantasies

Matthew Yglesias makes a point that I've long held as self-evidently true: in a world in which the concept of opportunity costs continues to have meaning, it is simply unconscionable to think of wasting money on yet another government-sponsored project to visit the moon.

There is something about space travel that makes normally hard-headed libertarians go soft in the brain, as the typical response they provide to any practical objections one may raise is to churn out the same old discredited economic fallacies that they would find unacceptable in what, to my mind, are actually far more reasonable contexts, like healthcare or education - that the spinoffs from the spending will justify the cost, that a race to the moon will provide jobs, that the research required will help stimulate America's scientific productivity, etc, etc. Should one ever bother to point out that these worthy objectives could be more cheaply achieved by more direct methods not involving space travel, the typical response is to poo-poo the critic's lack of imagination, or to accuse him of hard-heartedness for rubbishing fantasies of space travel cherished since childhood.

I will confess to holding no romantic illusions where manned space travel is concerned, as I think it a complete waste of time and money, as long as it is being done on the government dime. Bullshit rationalizations aside, the overwhelming consensus is that there is precious little scientific justification for sending men into space, whether it be to the moon or (as is much more typical) the low-earth-orbit that is the usual destination of the space shuttle. From a scientific perspective, unmanned probes can do everything men can do in and more, and they can do it for a fraction of the cost, since there is no need to send and bring them back in one piece, or feed and shelter them while they're out there. Any "libertarian" who can pretend to himself that there is some sort of merit in throwing taxpayers' money down the black hole that would be another manned trip to the moon is simply demonstrating that a government program is only seen as a waste of money when the prospect of its' demise threatens no sacred cows of one's own.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Politics of Hate Won't Beat Bush

Susan Estrich points out the obvious - or rather, what ought to be obvious to anyone whose ability to reason hasn't been adversely affected by partisan rage.

The way to defeat Bush is not to advertise how much you hate him. Hard-core ideologues who hate Bush are not going to decide this election. They'll vote for the Democrat, as they do every four years, but there aren't enough of them to elect a Democrat. You need swing voters to do that. Hatred may motivate the left to contribute money, but it is hardly an effective talking point for public consumption if you want to win elections.

Ari Emanuel, a talent agent who represents Larry David and whose brother served in the Clinton White House and now in Congress, knew just how bad the Drudge story was for Democrats. "People are assembling over a political issue -- the 2004 election," he told the press in response to the ruckus about hating Bush. "The invite didn't say 'Hate Bush,' and I don't think (the Drudge story) was productive."

Productive? I bet it produced a lot of money for George Bush. And worse, it helps produce votes for him.

The people whose votes Democrats will need to defeat George Bush don't hate him. On a personal level, they like him. They need to be convinced not to vote for him, for reasons that have to do with the war, or special interests or the economy. "Hate Bush" headlines do just the opposite.

The sad thing about all this is that it would actually be a bad thing for my side if the Democrats were actually to take this criticism on board; from a strictly partisan standpoint, I ought to be glad that they've gone in for the "Bush=Hitler" nonsense, as it virtually guarantees continued Republican control of all levers of power. The thing is, though, that there is more to politics than partisan advantage, at least as I see it. A coherent and credible opposition isn't merely a nuisance but a desirable thing, whether or not one endorses the platform it seeks to advance. To the extent that robust opposition keeps one's side from sliding into complacency and corruption, it is an extremely desirable thing, and there is nothing quite so corrosive of political accountability as the lop-sided dominance of government by a single party - as Britain's Labour Party, with its' virtually unassailable majority, is busy demonstrating.

Brad DeLong on Nanotechnology

When Brad DeLong isn't defending Paul Krugman from (IMHO justified) accusations of shrillness, he can be very, very insightful indeed. This particular post goes to show just why it is his site is one of my daily must-reads:

A Framework for the Economic Analysis of Technological Revolutions, with an Application to Nanotechnology

J. Bradford DeLong

U.C. Berkeley

Let me simply assert that a fruitful way to analyze the social and
economic impact of every technological revolution that has taken place
over the past two and a half centuries is to seek the answers to four
different questions, and then to draw out the implications of those
answers:

  • What commodities--what goods and services--become extraordinarily cheap as a result of the technological revolution?

  • What human activities--what jobs and skills--become key bottlenecks, and thus become remarkably valuable and well-paid?

  • What risks blindside the society as the technology spreads?

  • What risks do people guard against that turn out not to be risks at all?

These are the four questions.

I haven't attempted to excerpt more than the introductory bit of his post here, because I don't think there's any way in which I could do it justice by doing so. I highly recommend that the piece be read in full - extremely thought-provoking stuff.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Russia Kills the Kyoto Treaty

Why am I not surprised by this development? I can't say that I'm displeased either, as the Kyoto Protocol struck me as providing only marginal benefits at tremendous cost in foregone economic growth.

MOSCOW (AP) -- A senior adviser to President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia cannot ratify the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gas emissions, dealing a mortal blow to the pact that required Russia's ratification to take effect.

``In its current form, the Kyoto Protocol places significant limitations on the economic growth of Russia,'' Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, told reporters in the Kremlin. ``Of course, in this current form this protocol can't be ratified.''

Putin had previously cast doubts on Moscow's willingness to ratify the protocol, but hadn't ruled out ratification completely.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol calls for countries to reduce their level of greenhouse-gas emissions, which are seen as a key factor behind global warming.

To come into force, the pact must be ratified by no fewer than 55 countries, accounting for at least 55 percent of global emissions in 1990. Under the treaty's complex rules, the minimum can now only be reached only with Russia's ratification because the United States and several other nations have rejected the treaty.

Leaving aside the fact that the chances of America signing on to the Kyoto Protocol were infinitesimal long before Bush came into power - the Senate having rejected the treaty by a stunning 95-0 vote - it seems the Bush administration has no monopoly on "selfish unilateralism" after all. Will all the usual suspects come out to decry Putin's torpedoing of this poorly thought out agreement, as they surely would have if it were their bete noire who had done it?

Krugman on the Diebold Affair

Paul Krugman seems to be on a roll these days: this is the second time in the space of two weeks that I've found the criticisms he has to make in his column insightful and level-headed. What is going on to usher in such sensible writing on Krugman's part? Has he suddenly discovered an interest in actually winning others over to his arguments?

Inviting Bush supporters to a fund-raiser, the host wrote, "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." No surprise there. But Walden O'Dell — who says that he wasn't talking about his business operations — happens to be the chief executive of Diebold Inc., whose touch-screen voting machines are in increasingly widespread use across the United States.

For example, Georgia — where Republicans scored spectacular upset victories in the 2002 midterm elections — relies exclusively on Diebold machines. To be clear, though there were many anomalies in that 2002 vote, there is no evidence that the machines miscounted. But there is also no evidence that the machines counted correctly. You see, Diebold machines leave no paper trail.

Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, who has introduced a bill requiring that digital voting machines leave a paper trail and that their software be available for public inspection, is occasionally told that systems lacking these safeguards haven't caused problems. "How do you know?" he asks.

What we do know about Diebold does not inspire confidence. The details are technical, but they add up to a picture of a company that was, at the very least, extremely sloppy about security, and may have been trying to cover up product defects.

Early this year Bev Harris, who is writing a book on voting machines, found Diebold software — which the company refuses to make available for public inspection, on the grounds that it's proprietary — on an unprotected server, where anyone could download it. (The software was in a folder titled "rob-Georgia.zip.") The server was used by employees of Diebold Election Systems to update software on its machines. This in itself was an incredible breach of security, offering someone who wanted to hack into the machines both the information and the opportunity to do so.

An analysis of Diebold software by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Rice Universities found it both unreliable and subject to abuse. A later report commissioned by the state of Maryland apparently reached similar conclusions. (It's hard to be sure because the state released only a heavily redacted version.)

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

The attitude seems to be that questions about the integrity of vote counts are divisive at best, paranoid at worst. Even reform advocates like Mr. Holt make a point of dissociating themselves from "conspiracy theories." Instead, they focus on legislation to prevent future abuses.

But there's nothing paranoid about suggesting that political operatives, given the opportunity, might engage in dirty tricks. Indeed, given the intensity of partisanship these days, one suspects that small dirty tricks are common. For example, Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently announced that one of his aides had improperly accessed sensitive Democratic computer files that were leaked to the press.

Krugman's chosen a particularly worthwhile issue to focus his attention on, and it helps that he hasn't attempted to make things out to be as ominous as possible. There is a chance that there is nothing more to Diebold's actions than an attempt to cover up incompetence, but this issue is too important for anyone, regardless of political persuasion, to brush aside. The whole issue of electronic voting is fraught with difficulties, however attractive a solution it may appear, at first glance, to problems like the infamous "hanging chads" debacle of the 2000 presidential elections.