Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Blog Maintenance

I've decided to do a bit of housecleaning, by removing as many hardwired links to blogs as I can get away with and placing them on the Blogrolling list instead, as that way it'll be obvious when any of the blogs have had a recent update. I'll be moving the non-blog links in the opposite direction in the next day or two.

Ontologies

Edward Hugh has moved, forsaking Blogger for a much nicer setup, so it's time to do some link updating. He also has a new post up on the Semantic Web, and the importance of metadata. The vision of the Semantic Web is an alluring one, and it constitutes a major incentive for the adoption of XML, as well as the move away from HTML towards standards-compliant XHTML (which is really an XML-language that happens to look a lot like crufty old HTML).

Given my own work in dealing with the problem of knowledge representation, there's a great deal I'd like to say about all of this, but as I don't have the energy to do so right now, I'll just say that anybody interested in learning about the problems faced by the creators of ontologies, or even why ontologies are important, would do well to read Borges' Analytical Language of John Wilkins (truth be told, Borges has a great deal to say about the problems of knowledge representation and information in general).

Goodbye Gephardt

And I have to say, good riddance. His poor showing, and Howard Dean's weak finish, seem to signal a Democratic Party shift against the sort of shrill, ultra-negative politics advocated by the likes of Paul Krugman. Perhaps we'll now have a real political debate about the big issues, rather than "Dr. No" style grandstanding.

ES MOINES, Iowa Jan. 19 — Rep. Dick Gephardt signaled his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race Monday night after a devastating fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

"My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end," Gephardt said in a post-caucus speech that sounded like a political farewell.

The Missouri lawmaker offered his congratulations to his presidential rivals, and in a campaign concession, said one of them would wind up with the party's nomination to challenge President Bush this fall.

He pledged he would support that person "in any way I can," but did not indicate whether he would endorse anyone while the nominating campaign proceeds.

Nor did Gephardt say whether he intends to serve out his current term in Congress, his 14th and last.

The conventional thing to do at a moment like this one is to emphasize the good things about a politician's career while playing down all his failings, but I'm going to buck that convention and say that I'm glad Richard Gephardt's career is over. His political legacy has mostly been a negative one, and one can only hope (probably in vain) that the protectionist and anti-market forces in the Democratic Party will be weakened by his departure. There've been far worse politicians in recent times (Jesse Helms and Strum Thurmond spring to mind), but as Democrats go, Gephardt was pretty bad. Don't let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya, Dick.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Attack of the Prudes

Is the Irish government so utterly bereft of new ideas for its presidency that it should float as silly a scheme as this one? And isn't it surprising that the proposed legislation should have been spurred by a report from the ultimate nanny-state?

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ireland, current president of the European Union, said Monday it would propose a ban on paying for sex throughout the EU but held out little hope of agreement among the 15-nation bloc.

"(It) has not been discussed in any meaningful way at European level yet, but certainly it is something which will have to be considered during the Irish presidency," Willie O'Dea, minister of state at the Irish Department of Justice, told reporters.

O'Dea was responding to questions from reporters about a report on the multibillion dollar sex industry drawn up by Swedish European Parliament member Marianne Eriksson, which suggested a ban on paying for sex. Sweden is the only EU state where it is illegal to pay for sex.

"I would envisage that it is one of those controversial proposals where it will be difficult to find common ground, but I certainly think it should be put up for discussion," O'Dea said.

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

"We are faced with a very wealthy and powerful industry, one of the richest in the world, which is quoted on several stock exchanges," Eriksson said.

Making Germans accountable

She recommended that the EU should ban companies such as German sex shop chain Beate Uhse Ag and Sweden's Private Media Group Inc., from being listed.

Reacting to the report, a spokeswoman for Private Media Group said being listed meant it was more accountable and regulators had greater control of the company.

"Banning or trying to build barriers won't necessarily enable a greater control over the industry. There is an enhanced risk of pushing it underground," said spokeswoman Alex Moore.

Wonderful. Europe-wide legislation to block voluntary transactions between willing adults, just because their activities don't accord with the proprieties of a few politicians? The sheer cheek of the proposal beggars the mind. It simply doesn't cross the minds of certain people that some things just aren't their business, whether they approve of them or not. Really, how difficult is the concept to grasp? As for the defense put forward by the Private Media Group representative - it just goes to show how compliant so many Europeans have become that they should think of defending their freedoms by phrasing things in terms of being under more regulatory control, rather than insisting on their rights to trade wherever and with whomever they please.

It will be interesting see just how far this proposal gets - let's just hope that the Dutch and the Germans don't feel themselves obliged to make the Irish presidency "successful" by selling their citizens' freedoms down the river. The last thing Europe needs is the imposition of Swedish-style prudery across the entire continent.

A Strange Enthusiasm

Brad DeLong seems to think that all of the leading candidates in the Democratic primary "are of the quality to be a very good president" - a stance towards which I find myself shaking my head in puzzlement. How can DeLong, as a committed free-trader, and one who played a personal role in the administration that gave us NAFTA, give his blessings to the likes of Howard Dean, who would cripple the competitiveness of Third World countries by imposing crippling labor and environmental standards on them? In his own words "We ought not to be in the business of having free and open borders with countries that don't have the same environmental, labor and human rights standards." How can Brad DeLong endorse the candidacy of John Edwards, who supported the very same steel tariffs DeLong castigated Bush for, who voted against the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and who even the Daily Kos regards as an arch-protectionist? How can Brad DeLong in good conscience endorse the candidacy of a knuckle-dragging anti-free-trader like Dick Gephardt, who agitates for an international minimum wage, who rejected NAFTA, who voted against a trade agreement with Chile, and who has always been staunchly opposed to granting China MFN status?

Bush has a terrible record on free-trade issues, and his fiscal profligacy threatens to mire future generations of America in debt, but I fail to see how the likes of John Edwards, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt would in any way be improvements on him; where Bush at least pretends to virtue on trade, these Democratic candidates wear their antagonism to unfettered free-trade with pride, as if it were a medal of honor. Opposition to Bush's remaining in office I can certainly understand, but actual enthusiasm for these three individuals? As far as I'm concerned, there are only two Democrats in the race whose positions on trade issues are in any way supportable - Joe Lieberman and John Kerry. The rest are enemies of the American consumer and the Third World poor at worst, and shameless panderers to the extreme left at best.

SAT-3/WASC - Nigeria's Well-Kept Secret

Here's an IEEE article from a few months back discussing the fact that Nigerians are still starving for high bandwidth, low latency connections to the rest of the world, even though the SAT-3 undersea fiber-optic cable, with 120Gbps capacity, has long been completed.

20 June 2003, Lagos, Nigeria–It lies 7 meters beneath the sand, protected by four concrete walls, painted sky blue but topped with concertina wire, and surrounded by snack shacks and concession stands. It’s the sealed access point to the so-called SAT-3 sub-sea communications cable, now the country’s major broadband link to the outside world. The terminus is covered by a concrete slab, strewn with garbage and an omolangidi female idol carved out of driftwood. But most Nigerians have no inkling of the cable’s existence–even those who make their living around the landfall site, on this beach on Victoria Island, one of four islands that make up the sprawling city of Lagos, with some 13 million inhabitants.

Built and laid at a cost of US $640 million, the submarine SAT-3 fiber-optic cable is 14 350 km long and links 9 African countries. It connects to the wider world just outside of Cape Town, South Africa, via a cable that terminates in Cochin, India, and Penang, Malaysia. SAT-3 has a capacity of 120 Gb/s, enough to carry 5.8 million phone calls simultaneously, and the link to Nigeria was established here on Victoria Island a year ago. Yet after a year’s availability, it has just one confirmed customer, Shell Oil, with another oil company, Chevron, showing some interest.

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

In a story published earlier this week in Nigeria’s largest-circulation newspaper, The Vanguard, communications columnist Reuben Muoka claims that recently re-inaugurated Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is considering wresting control of the cable from NITEL and handing it over to Globacom, the second national carrier. (Muoka is a stakeholder in MTS, a small private telephone company here.)

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

Confronting its critics, NITEL talks a good game. U. I. Nwokocha, director of transmission for the NITEL International Submarine Cable Gateway, speaking with IEEE Spectrum, said plans call for NITEL to "launch Nigeria into ISDN [integrated-services digital network]" for applications like telemedicine and inter-univerisity communications. Nwokocha said a public awareness campaign is planned for the SAT-3, which he said no one here knows about–except, apparently, all those Nigerians who are frustrated by their inability to get on it.

Yet Chife and Muoka are scarcely the only ones skeptical about whether NITEL ever will be able to truly deliver. Titi Omo-Ettu, a telecommunications consultant, a director of the IT training center Executive Cyberschuul, and a former NITEL engineer, feels that NITEL has poorly serviced all 130 million Nigerians. He thinks that as a government entity, it doesn’t have the business and marketing acumen to provide mass access to the SAT-3.

Omo-Ettu doesn’t like the idea of turning SAT-3 over to Globalcom, because this would just put the cable into the hands of a different ill-regulated national monopoly. Vanguard columnist Muoka, agreeing, has written that "no private operator should be given the undue benefit that also conveys ownership in the shape of a monopoly, as is being proposed to your [Obasanjo’s] exalted office. It would amount to transparency in reverse if Mr. President uses his office to sign off a national asset into private pockets."

So, Muoka and Omo-Ettu do not think that unbridled privatization is the answer. Omu-Ettu argues, rather, that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) needs to demand more from the companies it licenses.

For instance, none of the cellular networks are interconnected, meaning that many business people carry two and even three mobile phones that operate on MTN, Econet, and NITEL. A more active NCC should encourage, if not enforce, interconnectivity, says Omo-Ettu.(emphases added)

The telecommunications business, in which increasing returns are ubiquitous, is one industry in which a dogmatic libertarianism simply will not do. Some measure of regulation is required, but the problem is getting the balance right, as governments are far more likely to impose too many regulations than too few. Miss Omo-Ettu is right in criticizing any policy that would privatize infrastructure while leaving the NITEL monopoly's current structure intact, but I wouldn't take quite the same route as the one she endorses. I think NITEL ought to be privatized, but where access to the SAT-3 cable is concerned, there ought to be a separation of infrastructure maintenance from access provision. Barring the maintenance firm from providing any retail voice or data services would remove the perverse incentive currently in place to keep bandwidth artificially scarce and expensive, in order to protect monopoly profits on international voice calls.

As for the mobile phone networks, well ... there it gets a bit more difficult. My initial inclination would be to let them do as they please, and allow the market to push them in the right direction; forcing them to interconnect will have a dampening effect on the will to construct network infrastructure, as part of the allure of building an extensive network is the prospect of enjoying monopolistic profits if one is able to outlast the competition. It just isn't clear to me that the gains from mandating interconnection would outweigh the losses in terms of foregone network construction. I am open to alternative approaches, however.

Playing Politics With D-Day

Glad to see that even the New York Times feels that there's something offensive about Chirac's decision to invite Schröder to the D-Day celebrations. A more blatant display of ingratitude could hardly be imagined.

his June, for the first time, a German chancellor will attend ceremonies in Normandy marking the anniversary of D-Day. Gerhard Schröder has declared himself "very pleased" at the invitation he received from President Jacques Chirac of France to join other leaders for the 60th anniversary of the Allied landings. On the face of it, this appears to be a welcome signal that Europe has put its last great war behind it, and that the Germans are now viewed as an integral part of the European family. Ten years ago, Helmut Kohl, then chancellor of Germany, was frustrated in his efforts to secure just such an invitation.

Still, there's something not quite right with this picture. It's not that the Germans need to be ceaselessly reminded of their Nazi past. Few nations in history have so sincerely and deeply looked into the evils of their past and worked as hard to come to terms with them. Germany is, and deserves to be, a full and equal partner in everything Europe does, without being made to feel that it bears a permanent taint. The trouble is that Mr. Chirac's invitation smacks more of politics than reconciliation. France and Germany have found common cause on a number of issues of late, ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the future of the European Union, and Mr. Chirac was apparently anxious to parade this alliance.

The ceremonies in Normandy are meant to honor the Americans, British and Canadians who stormed the beaches on June 6, 1944, dying by the thousands to liberate France and the rest of Europe from a German yoke. No one who has visited the Allied cemeteries in Normandy, row after row of graves, can fail to be moved by this sacrifice. This is therefore not the place for France and Germany to play a political duet, any more than the anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11 is an event for the Republican Party to co-opt for its political convention.

Apart from the obvious fact that playing politics with such anniversaries is an insult to their heroes and victims, doing so is counterproductive. There are plenty of venues where Mr. Chirac could demonstrate, and has demonstrated, his rapport with Mr. Schröder. At the D-Day commemorations, the German chancellor will only prompt the sort of commentaries and reactions so memorably spoofed in the "Fawlty Towers" television show: "Just don't mention the war!" However admirable Germany's soul searching, World War II still hangs heavily over all European activities. It was painfully obvious in the outcry when Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, referred to a German heckler as a concentration-camp guard, and when Poland reacted angrily to Germany's objections to the size of Poland's vote in the E.U.

The Fawlty Towers reference is particularly on the mark. Chirac must be thoroughly lacking in both shame and historical awareness to parade his new alliance with the three-time (1870, 1914, 1940) invaders of his nation in front of the leaders of the very nations that twice saved the French from German subjugation.

Google-Japan Weirdness

Why does doing a search for 白人 ("hakujin") return porn sites for the first 30 results? Either the term has come to carry a much lewder connotation than I remember it having, or Google's quality-control on its' Japanese-language portal is a lot lower than with the European-language sites. There's a business opportunity in there for the right person ... 今はお金持ちになりたい人の時。

Sunday, January 18, 2004

The Stono Rebellion

A comment made in response to my earlier post about the Yoruba language led me to thinking about the Stono Rebellion of 1739, as well as the numerous other slave revolts that followed on its' heels. One consequence of this particular revolt was the imposition of a ban on the ownership by Africans of "talking drums", which may not qualify as the worst thing in the world that could have happened; the Southern reaction to succeeding rebellions was to have far-reaching effects with which we are still living today.

Between 1800 and 1831, African Americans instigated several ambitious rebellions in the American South. Among these were Gabriel's Revolt, which began north of Richmond, Virginia, on August 30, 1800, and Vesey's Rebellion, an 1822 conspiracy to incite as many 9000 plantation and urban slaves in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. Nat Turner's Rebellion, the most effectual slave revolt, erupted in Southampton County, Virginia on the night of August 21, 1831. Nat Turner and his followers killed nearly sixty white people as they moved toward an armory at Jerusalem, Virginia. Halted mere miles from their goal, the approximately seventy-five insurgents were soon killed or captured by the militia. Turner's November execution failed to assuage fears of continued insurrection. Across the South, renewed legislative efforts to forbid education and greatly restrict movement and assembly further constrained the lives of enslaved people (emphasis added)

That final sentence ought to be kept in mind when people go on about African-Americans' (supposedly innate) disinclination for academic study. When you spend hundreds of years discouraging self-improvement* and ambition in a down-trodden people, when you forbid them to learn reading and writing lest they become capable of rebellion, the last thing you ought to do is complain once your efforts have attained a measure of success. The same thing can be said for illegitimacy amongst African-Americans; it should come as no surprise to any thinking person that the family as an institution should lack the solidity one might wish it did, given the ease and the frequency with which slave families were torn apart.

Breezy speculation about innate black inferiority is the easiest thing in the world to do, and those who engage in it deceive themselves if they imagine they are somehow fearless pioneers struggling against a suffocating tide of Political Correctness™, as theirs is in truth an old and well-furrowed path. There is nothing easier in the world than for those children of privilege who have known nothing of either the horrors of slavery or the humiliations of Jim Crow to simply say "but racism is dead! That these people aren't flourishing is proof that they just don't have what it takes!" Bad habits acquired through long practice can take a long time to cast aside, and it is naïve in the extreme to expect the less attractive aspects of African-American culture to simply disappear after a single generation of true equality. Neither the Irish nor the Italians were instant successes on their arrival to America's shores, and they at least had the option of either returning home (as a surprisingly large percentage of immigrants ended up doing) or leaving behind their old names and cultures in an attempt to pass into the mainstream - neither option of which is available to most African-Americans.

*Some specific instances of legislation forbidding the teaching of reading and writing African-Americans of which I am aware include the Missouri Literacy Law of 1819 and the Georgia Literacy Laws of 1829 and 1833.

The Axiom of Choice and Assumptions in Applied Mathematics

Via Jacques Distler, I came across this extremely informative discussion of the Axiom of Choice by Eric Schechter. The Axiom of Choice (or AoC, as I'll call it from here on) is justly notorious for being easy to state, seemingly obviously true, and yet leading to some very strange conclusions:

Let C be a collection of nonempty sets. Then we can choose a member from each set in that collection. In other words, there exists a function f defined on C with the property that, for each set S in the collection, f(S) is a member of S.

Straightforward enough, right? And there are even more seemingly obvious formulations, such as the following one:

Given any two sets, one set has cardinality less than or equal to that of the other set -- i.e., one set is in one-to-one correspondence with some subset of the other.

Or try the following equivalent statement:

Every vector space has a basis.

Now, what could seem more obvious than that? The problem is that buying into any of these equivalent formulations of the AoC means buying into results like the Banach-Tarski Decomposition Theorem, which basically says that it is possible to take a solid ball, cut it up into no more than five pieces, and then re-arrange these pieces to obtain two balls of the same size as the original! Either the old saying about being able to get something for nothing is false, and the conservation laws of physics do not hold, or something is very wrong in our mathematical assumptions.

The traditional reaction most mathematicians have had to the Banach-Tarski "Paradox" has been to either regard it as grounds to reject the AoC outright, or, finding it too useful to do without, to argue that theirs is simply a formalist enterprise, mere symbol manipulation without any consideration for the meanings of the symbols being studied; in fact, whatever they might say to the contrary, few mathematicians either believe or act like they believe in formalism while going about their business - as the old saying goes, "platonism on weekdays, formalism on weekends."

The unvarnished truth is that the AoC is simply too obviously true, and too fruitful to mathematics, for most mathematicians to spend serious time doubting its veracity, and a little consideration shows that the Banach-Tarski "Paradox" (quote-unquote) actually gives us no reason to do so; for there is another assumption on which Stefan Banach and Alfred Tarski's strange theorem relies, an assumption of a much more dubious nature where the world about us is concerned - that there exists such a thing as a physical manifestation of the continuum.1

The assumption that various phenomena are continuous in nature has been an extremely fruitful one in science and engineering, and it is only natural that engineers, economists and other users of mathematics should have come to take it for granted that any phenomena of interest to them can be treated as being continuous. The problem, however, is that nature apparently is not continuous, particularly not at the smallest scales. Both string theory and loop quantum gravity, the main competitors for a unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity, tell us that the universe is fundamentally discrete at the lowest levels - that spacetime is quantized, and cannot come in the arbitarily sized bundles demanded by the assumption of continuity.

For economists going about analyses of market behavior, or engineers working on aircraft design, such reconceptualizations of the nature of the universe are of no practical impact, but I think that they, in combination with the Banach-Tarski result, ought at least to make one a little more cautious in jumping to the conclusion that continuity is always a safe assumption to make. It is almost certainly the case that one other assumption that engineers and economists are fond of, namely that linear differential equations provide a good approximation of the phenomena they wish to study, has sometimes proven in practice to be catastrophically flawed.2

What does all of this mean for those for whom mathematics is merely a tool rather than an end in itself? Does it mean that engineering types should be expected to add courses on the foundations of mathematics to their curricula? Not at all. I'd just say that they would do well to be more conservative both in the assumptions they choose to make as well as in their estimates of the applicability of the models they create. Too much engineering mathematics is little more than a "plug and chug" application of formulas learned by rote, with little understanding evident of the domain of applicability of the techniques being used. The seductions of extrapolating from limited data, with little to rely on other than the conviction that continuity must hold, must also be resisted; even when continuity does hold, it is dangerous to imagine that changes can happen only in a constrained3 manner; finally, simplicity does not always imply predictability - a point well illustrated by the behavior of the logistic equation.

In summary, engineers, economists and other heavy users of mathematics would do well to take a bit of mathematical rigor on board themselves, rather than imagining it as only of importance for pure mathematicians working in their ivory castles.

1 - In plain English, the real line, which consists not just of the rationals, their nth roots and the rest of the algebraic numbers, but also transcendantal numbers like e and π. (In fact, nearly all numbers on the real line are transcendental, as the algebraic numbers, being countable, have zero measure.)

2 - McKenna, P.J. 1999. "Large torsional oscillations in suspension bridges revisited: Fixing an old approximation." American Mathematical Monthly 106(January):1. See this MathTrek article by Ivars Peterson for an overview of McKenna's paper.

3 - I.e., that functions must be uniformly continuous, or, even more optimistically, Lipschitz continuous.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Oprah and the Indian Bride Who Said 'No'

With all the fuss in recent months about arranged marriages and the negative impact they have on the integration of muslim immigrants into Western societies, it might come as a surprise to some that muslims aren't the only ones with marriage practices that may strike Westerners as less than attractive.

NEW DELHI - When an Indian is flown specially from India to feature in the Oprah Winfrey show in the United States it becomes an occasion to revisit all that the person stands for. Such is the case of 22-year-old Nisha Sharma.

Nisha did something different, she dared to fight back when threatened with possible death, in this case, a dowry death. Ever since, she has become a symbol of the new Indian woman.

Nisha called the police when the family of her husband-to-be demanded extra dowry on the day of her marriage in June last year, and turned into an overnight heroine in India. Nisha chose to stand up to a man who was to be her husband, and also took on his family. In India, this can be close to staring death in the eye. For such behavior, girls have been ostracized by their own families and killed by their husband's family. According to government figures, in 2001, angry husbands and in-laws killed over 7,000 women over small dowry payments. Nisha's not-to-be husband has been quoted as saying that if he had ended up marrying her he would probably have thrown her off the terrace.

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

It should be noted at this point that Nisha and her family had accepted the original dowry. The problem arose when the groom's family suddenly demanded more. Both families were in breach of the law. In India, the punishment for demanding a dowry is imprisonment for not less than six months and up to two years, and/or a fine that is up to 10,000 rupees ($215). The punishment for giving or taking dowry is worse: imprisonment for not less than five years and a fine of 15,000 rupees, or the value of the dowry, or more. In this case, the groom's family is in jail, but Nisha's is not.

What followed though was an outpouring of emotion, support, commercial interest and now Oprah, whose show featuring Nisha was scheduled to be run on Tuesday. Bollywood bigwigs and television producers wanted Nisha's story; politicians of every leaning lined up at her house to congratulate her, inviting her to join their party. TV news channels ran a ticker to accommodate the thousands of salutations from a fan club that has cut across class, geographic and gender barriers. Many men have written letters offering their hand in marriage.

Traditionally in India the script for Nisha's story would have gone another way. The father would probably have died of a heart attack on hearing of the fresh demand for money, or worse, begged the boy's family to go ahead with the marriage, allowing him some time to somehow arrange the money. He would have gone to any extent to save his izzat (honor) as nobody would marry his daughter after they found that she had been lined up to marry someone else. The girl, to protect the izzat of her father, would marry, then be tortured, probably killed. Nisha had other ideas.

While it is important to note that this young woman's plight met with a favorable reception amongst the great and the good in India - a positive development one wishes were also the rule in the Islamic world - it is still the case that what brought about a crisis was not the notion of having to pay a dowry as such, but the decision by the groom's family to renege on the sum initially agreed to. If one finds the notion of forced marriages between cousins abhorrent, one also ought to be repelled at the prospect of forced marriages in which the bride represents little more than an unpleasant burden some other family must be bribed to take off her parents' hands.

Shilling for Manned Space Flight

I prophesied that there'd be no shortage of conservatives willing to come forward as apologists for the irresponsible direction in which NASA's space programme is heading, and sure enough, the WSJ's been kind enough to make space on its opinion pages for just such a character.

Since the Apollo moon program ended, I think it's fair to say that our federal space program has muddled along without much purpose or conviction. But this week President Bush changed all that when he unveiled a straightforward plan directing NASA to explore the solar system and especially Mars with robotic spacecraft. The space agency is also to construct a human-tended laboratory on the moon. Then, if we learn enough on the moon, and if our robots on Mars have piqued our interest enough, NASA will be told to send people to Mars to investigate. We will proceed in a logical sequence, in our own good time, and with a reasonable amount of money spent each year over many years.

In my estimation, that's a pretty darned good plan. We've never had one like it. Even Apollo didn't plan beyond landing a man on the moon in the 1960s and returning him safely. This is, as the students who write me all the time would say, "so cool."

Sadly, a lot of my fellow Americans won't think it's so cool. You'll be able to recognize them pretty easily.[Grinches!] They'll be the ones moaning about how awful it is we might spend a federal buck on something other than their favorite federally-subsidized program and how it's going to add to the deficit something awful. In an Associated Press story that put the cost of a Mars mission at "nearly $1 trillion," one politician quipped, "They want to send the red ink to the red planet." [Damned tightwads, worrying about how taxpayer money's being spent! How dare they!]

All I've got to say is please, for pity's sake, stop worrying about NASA stealing money from your favorite federal program and adding to the deficit. Out of a $2 trillion-plus budget in 2004, human resources programs (Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Social Security, etc.) will get an astounding 34%! In contrast, NASA has the smallest budget of all the major agencies in the federal government. In fact, its budget has represented less than 1% of the total budget each year since 1977 and it will probably never get more than a fraction above that, even with this new plan. [What's a few billion dollars in the grand scheme of things? Live a little, dude!]

This Homer Hickam character is as pathetic as he is predictable. One could use the very same sort of reasoning he's peddling to sell oneself on the merits of absolutely any pie in the sky program whatsoever: the real reason for his enthusiasm has nothing to do with science or return on investment, but because, as he himself admits, he thinks manned space flight is "cool." Amazing the nonsense one can pick up by watching too much pulp science-fiction.

Misplaced Priorities in Space Research

I've just learnt that one casualty of America's ridiculous emphasis on manned spaceflight will be the Hubble Space Telescope, which NASA is to allow to fall into desrepair by ceasing all maintenance.

Why is Nasa abandoning one of the most productive scientific instruments of all time?

Safety first

The main reason is safety. It is said that the decision was made solely by Nasa's chief, Sean O'Keefe, and that it was not related to President George Bush's new space plan for a return to the Moon and missions to Mars. Money was not an issue.

Following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in February last year, all shuttle fights will now be to the International Space Station (ISS).

This is so that the shuttle crew have a lifeboat in space if there are any problems.

But Hubble is not in an orbit from which it is possible to get to the ISS. New safety and inspection procedures would have had to be developed just for this one mission and it was deemed unfeasible.

Hubble's next servicing mission was due in 2005. During it two major instruments - the Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrometer - would have been installed. They would have been magnificent additions to Hubble, significantly boosting its performance.

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

Although some of Hubble's scientists are reported to be preparing job applications at other institutes, there is still a lot of science Hubble can do. But with the announcement that it will not be re-serviced, most of its science is now behind it and it could cease working altogether at any time.

Hubble has six gyroscopes which control its pointing. Only four are working. In normal circumstances it requires three for normal operations (though some science can be done with two). So if any more fail, as they are bound to do eventually, that could spell the end its life.

Oh well. Who cares that an invaluable source of scientific data is about to be lost, as long as we can send men into low earth orbit! And take pretty pictures of them silhoutted against the Earth! Woo hoo! What other justification do you need - fire up them thar dilithium crystals, Scotty!

There'll be no shortage of conservatives and "libertarians" to cheer on this rubbish, of course. What a ridiculous bunch of infantile scientific ignoramuses! A willigness to applaud either the ISS or Bush's new proposals is a surefire sign that one is an unprincipled, financially irresponsible, pseudo-science worshipping hack.

Pharyngula: Adaptive evolution of ASPM

P.Z. Myers has had the good fortune to have received a copy of the ASPM paper by Evans et al. that appeared recently in Human Molecular Genetics, and he's been able to put up a more informative post on the contents of the paper than I've been able to find anywhere else. If only I had as solicitous a reader as he does - I would certainly love to have a full read of the report myself.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Yorùbá

Ever wanted to see what written Yorùbá looks like? Well here's your chance! The link above is to a translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from which I provide an excerpt consisting of the first two articles, along with the Yorùbá translation. First the English language bit,

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

and then the Yorùbá equivalent:

Abala kìíní.

Gbogbo ènìyàn ni a bí ní òmìnira; iyì àti è̟tó̟ kò̟ò̟kan sì dó̟gba. Wó̟n ní è̟bùn ti làákàyè àti ti è̟rí-o̟kàn, ó sì ye̟ kí wo̟n ó máa hùwà sí ara wo̟n gé̟gé̟ bí o̟mo̟ ìyá.

Abala kejì.

E̟nì kò̟ò̟kan ló ní àǹfàní sí gbogbo è̟tó̟ àti òmìnira tí a ti gbé kalè̟ nínú ìkéde yìí láìfi ti ò̟rò̟ ìyàtò̟ è̟yà kankan s̟e; ìyàtò̟ bí i ti è̟yà ènìyàn, àwò̟̟̟, ako̟-n̅-bábo, èdè, è̟sìn, ètò ìs̟èlú tàbí ìyàtò̟ nípa èrò e̟ni, orílè̟-èdè e̟ni, orírun e̟ni, ohun ìní e̟ni, ìbí e̟ni tàbí ìyàtò̟̟ mìíràn yòówù kó jé̟. Síwájú sí i, a kò gbo̟dò̟ ya e̟nìké̟ni só̟tò̟ nítorí irú ìjo̟ba orílè̟-èdè rè̟ ní àwùjo̟ àwo̟n orílè̟-èdè tàbí nítorí ètò-ìs̟èlú tàbí ètò-ìdájó̟ orílè̟-èdè rè̟; orílè̟-èdè náà ìbáà wà ní òmìnira tàbí kí ó wà lábé̟ ìs̟àkóso ilè̟ mìíràn, wo̟n ìbáà má dàá ìjo̟ba ara wo̟n s̟e tàbí kí wó̟n wà lábé̟ ìkáni-lápá-kò yòówù tí ìbáà fé̟ dí òmìnira wo̟n ló̟wó̟ gé̟gé̟ bí orílè̟-èdè.

If your eyes are hurting from all the diacritical marks above and below the vowels of each word, it's because Yorùbá, like Chinese, is a tonal language; in consequence, one has to know the exact pitch of a word to grasp its' meaning, and speaking Yoruba therefore has a lot in common with singing. For instance, depending on the pitch of the last vowel, the word "oko" can mean either "forest" (plain "oko"), or "penis" ("okó").

NB - If you're using Internet Explorer and the above looks like garbage, make sure to set your encoding (look under the "View" menu) to "UTF-8"; afterwards, click on
"Tools->Internet Options", and in the resulting dialog box, click on the "Fonts" button; then, under the "Latin based" language-script option, set the "Web page font" to "Arial Unicode MS". Mozilla and Firebird users shouldn't need to do anything to see this post as intended.

The Geographic Distribution of Fulfulde Dialects

Those interested in learning a bit more about Fulfulde, the language spoken by the Fulani, may be interested in taking a look at the report linked to above, which is accompanied by some very nice and highly detailed maps showing the geographical distribution of the various dialects constituting the language. The extensive bibliography, which draws on literature available in both English and French, will also prove extremely handy for those wishing to learn more.

PS: One curious thing worth noting about the Fulani is that although they show evidence of substantial admixture with the peoples of North Africa - or, perhaps more accurately, are midway in appearance along the continuum that runs from the West African coast to the North African shoreline - they, unlike the darker-skinned, Afro-Asiatic speaking Hausa, have a Niger-Congo language. Why this should be so, I have no idea.

Michael Kinsley on Free Trade "Butters"

I just came across this excellent column by Michael Kinsely, whose views on economic policy I have often violently idisagreed. He rips apart the ridiculous arguments made by "fair trade" advocates against unrestricted free trade.

The "but" of Howard Dean's "free trade but" is more traditional (see the trade section of his Web site for a concise summary). He professes concern about lost blue-collar jobs here in America; about scandalously low pay and miserable working conditions in Third World factories that export to American consumers; about the ravaging of the environment by these same factories. Dean endorses the principles of the International Labor Organization, which include freedom to organize and bargain collectively, abolition of slave and child labor, and non-discrimination. He says he's all for trade—he just wants a "level playing field."

This package of concerns and rhetoric is more or less state-of-the-art for a mainstream Democratic presidential candidate. But it confuses, either naively or purposely, two different issues: guaranteed minimum standards for labor and equivalent standards in the United States and elsewhere. The hard-core free-trade position is that working conditions in other countries are none of our business. If someone wants to sell us stuff for a price we want to pay, that's all we need to know. Trade and the rising prosperity it brings will, if anything, increase the pressure for capitalism and democracy.

The reasonable free-trade position (i.e., mine) is that buying a product does implicate you to some extent in the process by which it was made. And there are working conditions so wretched and wages so low and practices, like child labor, so heartless that you do want your own government to ban imports of the product at issue, to avoid the taint of association and, with luck, to pressure the exporting nation to change.

But this is very different from demanding a "level playing field" on environmental regulations, worker health and safety, and so on. American standards on these things are a luxury of affluence. If we had insisted on these standards for our own economy while we were becoming affluent, we never would have gotten there. And indeed, the effect of a "level playing field" rule—blocking imports that weren't produced in accord with American-level regulatory standards—will not be to make jobs in poor countries as well-paying, safe, and good for the environment as jobs in America. The effect will be to wipe out those jobs.

And that is not just the effect of the "level playing field" concept. It is the very purpose. "Level playing field" advocates—including, most prominently, the labor unions—say that it will prevent American jobs from being stolen. Another way to say this is that it will prevent jobs in poor countries from being created. Essentially, the "level playing field" concept forbids poor countries to take advantage of their poverty. When poverty is their main asset, this is no favor. (emphasis added)

Couldn't have put it better myself. It's one thing to be against free-trade because you're interested in preserving your job, domestic consumers and foreign workers be damned; such a stance has a certain selfish integrity to it, however unconvincing it may be as a sales-pitch for protectionism. What is something else altogether, and far more offensive, is to claim to be in favor of "fair trade" for the benefit of the world's poor, when in reality the effect of your policies will be to keep these unfortunates mired in poverty - which I suppose does have its benefits for the "fair trade" crowd, in that it ensures that foreign-aid programmes, famine-relief efforts and anti-poverty NGOs will never run out of work to do.

Learning to Love Bill Clinton

Thanks to George W. Bush's fiscal profligacy, Andrew Sullivan is gaining a newfound appreciation of just how good fiscal conservatives had it under Clinton's tenure.

Here's the truth: If you take defense and entitlement spending out of the picture altogether (and they have, of course, gone through the roof), Bush and the Republican Congress have upped domestic spending by a whopping 21 percent in three years. That compares with an actual decrease in such spending of 0.7 percent in the first three years of Bill Clinton. Spending on education is up 61 percent; on energy 22 percent; on health and human services 22 percent; on the Labor Department a massive 56 percent. There really is no spinning of this. Bill Clinton was a fiscal conservative. George W. Bush is a fiscal liberal of a kind we haven't seen since LBJ.

Astounding, isn't it? If there's one criticism of Bush in which liberals are absolutely on the money, it is that he is recklessly piling up debt for America's children to pay off.

I can never absolve Bill Clinton of his irresponsible attitude towards the Rwandan massacre (which extended beyond a mere refusal to militarily intervene, to actively blocking the authorization of UN peacekeeper reinforcements while abetting the slaughter by refusing to jam the "Radio Machete" station that did so much to incite the killing of Tutsis); I think that Hillary Clinton's healthcare proposals would have been a disaster for America, a stance on which I am in rather surprising company; I found it rather distasteful that a self-proclaimed champion of female equality should have taken a sexual interest in a White House intern young enough to be his own daughter, or sought to discredit the accusations of harassment made against him by having the accusers tarred as "bimbos" or "trailer trash" (the "nuts and sluts" defense); yet, when it comes to economic management, I think it beyond all doubt that Bill Clinton was a far better steward of the nation's finances than George W. Bush has turned out to be, and a truly courageous champion of free trade, which Bush most certainly is not.

On international affairs, Bush has been much more assertive than Clinton ever was, which I think a good thing for the most part. A definitive resolution of the whole Iraq mess was long overdue, and better for both the wider world and the citizens of Iraq that America went to war to overthrow Saddam, than that France and Russia should have had their way, with sanctions being lifted and Saddam finally at peace to restart his weapons programmes and Kurd-killing; the Kyoto Treaty was a dead letter in America long before Bush came into office; the Clinton administration's attitude towards North Korea was unbelievably naïve, better described as wishful thinking than realistic policy; and the virtues of multilateralism are often overrated, as even the most committed Bush-bashers are willing to note when partisanship isn't clouding their thinking.

Ultimately, however, the separation of foreign policy from economic policy is a largely artificial one. America's ability to realize its foreign policy goals, regardless of the willingness or unwillingness of allies, depends very much on its' economic strength, which Bush's fiscal recklessness threatens to undermine in the long-term. Stealth bombers, cruise missiles and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers cost huge amounts of money, and only an America that can afford to pay for such costly weapons will be able to continue to make its weight felt around the world. When considered in this light, it can be argued that by falling down so badly on the financial front, Bush is actually working to undo all his foreign policy achievements over the longer term - it could well be the judgement of history that Clinton was the better leader on both the economic and foreign policy fronts.

Dennis Miller is a Smart Guy

This NYT profile makes clear that Dennis Miller is far more intelligent than the average media personality, and I'm not just saying that because he appears to be a libertarian (not a conservative, as the NYT writer seems to think). Anybody who can make casual references to Pliny the Elder and Franz Kafka in the course of a single conversation, and even use the word "novella" without sounding pretentious, has a lot more going on upstairs than your run-of-the-mill celebrity.

I can't say it's all that surprising that the more reflective Hollywood personalities tend to tilt libertarian rather than right or left. I don't mean to imply that libertarianism is the only obvious choice for intelligent people - the existence of extremely smart liberals like Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong puts that notion to rest - but it seems to me that it takes more intellectual subtlety than a lot of people possess to realize that one can be for the toleration of a thing, whether it be free speech for neo-Nazis, the freedom to wear the hijab, gay marriage, marijuana usage or abortion, without necessarily endorsing it as a positive good. The conservative attitude towards things that run against the traditional grain is simply to seek to have them banned outright, "for the good of the ignorant masses", while the liberal attitude is to say "no, you're wrong, these are good things, and only your lack of enlightenment obscures recognition of this"; both stances are equally condescending in their own way, as they strive to impose one viewpoint on the rest of society.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Sense and Nonsense on Clean Energy

Over at Gene Expression, Godlesscapitalist has given an unexpectedly warm appraisal of the Apollo Alliance's 10-point plan for energy independence. I must say that I cannot share his enthusiasm, as all the items on the list strike me as little more than excuses to peddle programs greenies and labor unions bought into a long time ago for self-interested and/or ideological reasons, rather than as practical steps for promoting the supposed goal of energy independence.

If energy independence really were the goal, environmentalists would be pushing for a more radical but ultimately far more promising solution to the problem, to wit, nuclear fusion. Sustainable nuclear fusion, if attained, would mean a permanent end to the leverage the nations of OPEC currently have over the rest of the world, and it would make irrelevant all the effort currently being expended on energy conservation; what is more, it would also achieve the long-desired goal of utilizing non-polluting energy sources, as the end-product of hydrogen fusion, helium, is an inert gas.1

Critics of fusion research on the grounds of its having promised so much for decades, but having yet to deliver on said promises, are undoubtedly correct in their criticisms, but they can nevertheless be faulted for having missed the wood for the trees. The reality is that fusion energy is no chimera or philosopher's stone we chase at our peril, but a fact of the natural world on which all life on our planet ultimately depends. The existence of our sun is a daily reminder that the endgoal is a practical one, however arduous the road to the destination. The big question isn't one of feasibility, but one of will, and the requisite will to see fusion research through to ultimate success has not been sufficiently present in the industrialized world ever since the end of the last oil shock in the early 1980s.

As it turns out, there is currently a big push underway to build a nuclear reactor with the requisite scale to achieve criticality, or a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, a joint venture by an international consortium consisting of America, the EU, Russia, Japan, China, Canada and South Korea, has been in the planning stages since 1986, and this year was to see the selection of a site for the construction of the reactor. Given the potential benefits of the project, one would have expected environmentalists to have been hopeful of its success and given their full backing to it, but as it transpires, this is not what happened, at least not in Canada. Far from being enthused by the prospect of limitless, clean energy, the leaders of Greenpeace Canada, the Sierra Club of Canada and several other environmental organizations teamed up to write a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien saying (in their own words) "STOP ITER – SAY NO TO FUSION SUBSIDIES – SUPPORT GREEN ENERGY"!

What grievous fault, one might have wondered, could have provoked such an outburst? What possible evil could have moved these self-proclaimed wardens of the earth to such passionate opposition? Was it really, as they claimed, their concerns about "significant government spending and risk", "cost overruns" or "uncertain scientific benefits"? If so, then surely these advocates of fiscal responsibility and scientific conservatism should have been similarly opposed to research on other "renewable energy and efficiency programs", virtually every single one of which is just as vulnerable to the dangers they claimed to wish to guard against. Furthermore, such concern for costs surely cannot be squared with the gung-ho enthusiasm for the extremely economically costly Kyoto Treaty which these noble souls displayed within the very same missive.

And what of their scientific objections? Perhaps these should have been taken seriously, even if their financial objections couldn't be? These consisted of a bald, unsupported assertion about the possibilities of fusion research ("A prototype fusion power plant is not possible for another 40 years"), and another statement essentially saying "you haven't supported fusion research for the last eight years, so why start now?"2 Now, for the life of me, I cannot see where the heads of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace acquired the expertise to determine with such certainty what will and will not be possible in fusion plant design over the coming four decades, while the second argument is simply too absurd to take at all seriously. What it comes down to, then, is that these so-called friends of clean energy lacked a single good reason for their opposition to the ITER programme!

Now, as this story makes clear, the self-styled "friends of the earth" did eventually get their way in Canada, as that nation eventually pulled out of ITER altogether; and the opposition of these "environmentalists" could in fact have easily been predicted, had one factored in certain peculiarities of their way of thinking, the most important of which is the totemic religious role that the mere word "nuclear" plays in their thinking. For the religiously committed greenie, the term "nuclear" has as much power to terrify as the words "Satan" or "Hell" do for an ardent fundamentalist Christian; any project with a phrase like "nuclear fusion" at its heart could therefore have been expected to set their teeth on edge, as ITER ended up doing. Only if one subscribes to the naïve notion that these individuals actually desire the taking of practical steps towards "sustainable" or "clean" energy, rather than merely the imposition of anti-growth measures, does their opposition to fusion research seem mystifying, and I will always be averse to endorsing any environmentalist campaign for "energy independence" as long as I know that such magical thinking is the rule rather than the exception amonst those who belong to these movements.

1 - More information on the physics of fusion can be found on this page.
2 - "Fusion has not been a scientific priority for Canada since funding was eliminated in the 1995 Program Review", sayeth the greenies.

A Troubling Development in South Korea

This is not good news. Roh Moo-Hyun appears hellbent on indulging his anti-American instincts at just about the worst possible time. The DPRK's leadership will no doubt be pleased by this latest turn of events.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's foreign minister resigned Thursday because of a rift between ministry officials and President Roh Moo-hyun over the country's close ties to the United States.

The division comes at a critical time as South Korea and the United States wrangle with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs and discuss sending South Korean troops to help the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

Roh accepted the resignation of Yoon Young-kwan, saying the Foreign Ministry was not fully backing his administration's policy of independence from Washington. The human rights lawyer-turned-politician took office a year ago promising not to ``kowtow to the Americans'' and gain equal footing with the country's top ally.

``Some Foreign Ministry officials have failed to shake off the old foreign policy that tended to depend on foreign countries, failed to fully understand the spirit and course of the (Roh) government's new foreign policy of independence, and repeatedly made remarks that went against national interests in private and public occasions,'' said Roh senior aide Jeong Chan-yong.

Local media reported that several officials in the ministry's elite North American affairs division, which handles U.S. relations, criticized Roh's policy as unrealistic.

Jeong said the foreign minister resigned to take responsibility for failing to rein in those critics.

Roh said Wednesday he would transfer those officials who criticized his foreign policy.

``Several times, they have been asked to follow the president's policy,'' Roh said. ``Some of them responded with objections to the president's foreign policy and expressed their discontent with insulting comments.''

The Yonhap news agency said some members of Roh's National Security Council accused the foreign minister of leaning too much toward the United States.

Yoon defended the importance of the U.S. alliance, saying relations with Washington were ``very useful'' in resolving such issues the standoff with North Korea.

Yoon noted that the divided Koreas are still technically at war since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a cease-fire and not a treaty.

``So far we have maintained peace (on the peninsula) through alliance (with the United States) and I had said the alliance was important as we are in a situation where complete peace between the two Koreas has not yet been achieved,'' he said. (emphasis added)

How strange of President Roh to speak of "kowtowing" and "equal footing" in the context of a hostile North Korea with which it is officially still not at peace and 37,000 American troops risking their lives along the DMZ; one might be forgiven for thinking that the risks of war with the DPRK were shared equally between the two countries, and the South Koreans were doing America a favor by allowing its' troops to be stationed on their soil. At times like this, one almost wishes the anti-American elements in South Korea could have their way, and the American military presence in the country could be withdrawn entirely, to leave them to get on with defending their own country unassisted.

Height

Matthew Yglesias has recently been taking pains to dispel the notion that he's in any way vertically challenged, though, strangely enough, he doesn't bother to actually tell us what his actual height is. From what I can gather from the comments left on both posts, he's about 6' 0" or thereabouts, which, while not lifting him into the ranks of potential NBA-draftees, does put him well above the average American male (who measures about 5 foot 9 inches, a number that seems not to have changed since the late 1960s.)

Unlike most of the other commenters on Matthew's blog, I was far from surprised to learn that he wasn't a diminutive individual, as it seemed obvious to me that anyone with his social background (Movie industry father, high-profile economist uncle, Dalton/Harvard graduate) could be expected to be taller than average. Even in a society as affluent as modern America, the quality of dietary intake between the richest and poorest echelons of society differs enough that this translates into an appreciable height difference. Indeed, as one commenter pointed out, to an average person milling about Harvard yard, the place would likely seem to be populated by a race of giants, so marked would the relationship between social class and physical stature be.

Of course, all of this holds only on average, and for all one knew, it well might have turned out that Matthew was a runt* of a fellow; still, statistically speaking, it would have been a safe bet to make. I'm even willing to bet that the trend holds true for the blogosphere taken as a whole, i.e, that most bloggers, particularly in the English-speaking world, are likely above average in the height stakes when compared to their compatriots as a whole, simply because they are more affluent than average, and social mobility isn't so high in the anglosphere that the correlation between height and adult income has completely broken down. I suspect that things would be rather different if we restricted our attention to Dutch or Swedish bloggers, however.

*No offense intended to anyone reading who isn't a hulking brute!

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

BBC - Imam Rapped for Wife-Beating Book

Now here's a real test of one's commitment to the principle of free speech.

A Muslim cleric who wrote a book that advised men how to beat up their wives without leaving incriminating marks has been sentenced by a Spanish court.

Mohamed Kamal Mustafa was given 15 months in jail, which he will not serve as Spanish law suspends sentences of under two years for first offences.

Mustafa's book, Women in Islam, sparked outrage among women's groups when it was published three years ago.

In his defence, the imam said he was interpreting passages from the Koran.

A jury in Barcelona found Mustafa guilty of inciting violence against women, lawyer Jose Luis Bravo told reporters.

He was also fined euros 2,160 ($2,735).

Removed

In his book, Mustafa wrote that in disciplining a disobedient wife: "The blows should be concentrated on the hands and feet using a rod that is thin and light so that it does not leave scars or bruises on the body."

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

The book incensed women's groups and, in July 2000, around 90 groups filed a lawsuit in a Barcelona court to have the book withdrawn.

The book - some 3,000 copies of which had already been distributed - was removed from Islamic cultural centres around Spain.

Needless to say, my sympathies are entirely with the critics of this so-called "Imam", but having said that, I still think it abominable that Spain should think this sort of thing worthy of banning, much less criminalizing. The man is a moral reprobate, to be certain, but he still ought to have the right to peddle his rubbish in my opinion.

BBC - Japanese Manga Ruled Obscene

Here's a ruling that illustrates a contradiction in Japanese attitudes towards sexually explicit media. On the one hand, erotica and pornography are everywhere in Japan, and much of it takes forms most Westerners would find scandalous - good old-fashioned "lolicon" ("lolita complex", or the fetishization of teenage schoolgirls), anime with tentacle-rape demons (whose victims of choice are, again, teenage schoolgirls), "cosplay" ("costume play", or people dressing up as anime characters for erotic adventures) and other such weirdness; on the other hand, Japanese law forbids the explicit display of genitals in pornographic movies, which goes some way to explain the otherwise inexplicable (to me, anyway) appeal of "bukkake" videos.*

A Tokyo court has ruled a Japanese cartoon book obscene, in a landmark court case that sparked debate on freedom of expression and the position of the country's ubiquitous 'manga' cartoons.

Monotori Kishi, a 54-year-old publisher, was handed a one-year prison sentence, suspended for three years, for violating Japan's penal code on the sale and distribution of obscene literature.

Presiding Judge Yujiro Nakatani said Misshitsu, or Honey Room, was too graphic.

"Bodies were drawn in a lifelike manner with little attention to concealment (of genitalia), making for sexually explicit expression and deeming the book pornographic matter," Mr Nakatani said.

About 45% of all books and periodicals sold in Japan are manga. They often contain sexual material.

"Given what's available it seems an extraordinary decision," said the BBC's Tokyo correspondent, Jonathan Head.

"There is so much pornography available in Japan in every form - in films, computer games, cartoons and famously manga and anime - those books of cartoons you can see men reading openly on the train everyday," he told the East Asia Today programme.

*I realize that this sort of thing has now made its way to the West, but given the sheer variety of sexually-explicit alternatives available over here, the fact that anyone in the US or Europe would plump for such a thing is, if anything, far more perverse than that it should appeal to the Japanese.

Something to Admire About Howard Dean

The fact that he doesn't drag his wife around as a campaign prop is actually a pretty positive thing in my eyes. I just don't see what the point of that sort of thing is; what does a man's choice of wife tell you about his fitness for office, particularly when said wife seems as uninterested in politics as Dean's? One might even say that, like Dennis Thatcher before her, she constitutes the ideal political spouse, one who doesn't make the mistake of thinking that an electoral vote for her partner is one for her as well.

In 23 years of marriage, 18 of which Dr. Dean has spent running for, or serving in, office, his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, has developed an unusual role for the political spouse: invisible.

During Dr. Dean's two years of relentless campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dr. Steinberg has stood by her husband's side at a political event exactly once, at his official announcement speech here in June. A country doctor who still makes the occasional house call and attends PTA meetings, Dr. Steinberg has given about a dozen interviews — none televised — two fund-raising letters and a cameo on a half-hour advertisement.

She has never been to Iowa.

It is a reprise of her performance as first lady of Vermont. When Dr. Dean became governor, Dr. Steinberg reluctantly danced through the first two inaugural balls, in 1993 and 1995, but that event was soon cut from the state capital calendar and replaced with an open house, which she skipped. Dr. Dean, for his part, rarely uttered her name, even to say thanks, in public speeches.

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

"I do not intend to drag her around because I think I need her as a prop on the campaign trail," Dr. Dean said last week in Iowa. "If she wanted to do it, it'd be great, but she doesn't want to do it, and therefore if she does do it, it won't be great. I just think she should do what she needs to do for her own happiness and satisfaction."

The woman has a full life of her own, shows none of the telltale traits of power-lust, is, if anything, probably a better doctor than Dean ever could have been, and yet some people seem to think there's a problem with her for not playing the political cheerleader for her husband? I just don't get the interest some people have in prying into the private lives of others. If there's one issue on which I am in complete agreement with Howard Dean, it's this one - people should leave the woman alone, and concentrate on what's important, Dean's own record and stance on the issues.

UPDATE: It seems that opinion amongst the commenters over at Tacitus is almost uniformly in accord with mine. I think it's a good thing that even those who intensely dislike the man's politics are able to separate their aversion to him as a politician from their attitude towards him as a family man. Not all of the blogosphere is given to the sort of fits of personalized hatred characterized by, say, John Derbyshire's hit piece on Chelsea Clinton, or the shameless attacks on the Bush twins carried out by so many on the left.

Mars: Meaningless Step for Man, Giant Waste for Mankind

This column by Anne Applebaum captures well my stance towards Bush's proposal for a manned mission to Mars: it's a damned silly idea, especially in this time of gigantic budget deficits stretching as far as the eye can see.

The first colour pictures from the NASA space probe expedition to Mars have now been published. They look like - well, they look like pictures of a lifeless, distant planet. They show blank, empty landscapes. They show craters and boulders; red sand.

Death Valley, the most desolate of American deserts, at least contains strange cacti, vicious scorpions, the odd oasis. Mars has far less than that. Not only does the planet have no life, it has no air, no water, no warmth. The temperature on the Martian surface hardly rises much above minus 18 degrees, and can drop more than 100 degrees below that.

Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, is not the kind of place to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there is the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut travelling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body.

"Space is not Star Trek, " said one NASA scientist, "but the public certainly doesn't understand that."

No, the public does not understand that. And no, not all scientists, or all politicians, are trying terribly hard to explain it either. Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner; that a manned Mars mission is next; that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible. One actual Star Trek actor, Robert Picardo, the ship's holographic doctor, enthused this week that "we really should have a timetable to send a man to Mars . . . Mars should be part of our travel plans." Naive, perhaps, but fundamentally not much different from President George Bush's grandiloquent words after the Columbia disaster: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."

But why should it go on? Or, at least, why should the human travel part of it go on? Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak. Also somehow played down is the fact that the search for "life" on Mars - proof, as the enthusiasts have it, that we are "not alone" in the universe - is not a search for sentient beings but rather a search for evidence that billions of years ago there might possibly have been a few microbes. It is hard to see how that sort of information is going to heal our cosmic loneliness, let alone lead to the construction of condo units on Mars.

Any so-called advocate of small government who is excited by this Mars nonsense ought to turn in his conservative/libertarian credentials and go find some other political home to call his own. Manned space-flight on the government dime, in any incarnation, is a waste of money, of essentially no lasting scientific value, and a trip to either the moon or Mars would be especially wasteful. I would rather that governments cease altogether regarding their citizens' hard-earned money as theirs to toss at whatever grand schemes they please, but if politicians are so determined to throw vast sums around in the name of science, there are far better ways of doing so than funding manned space programs, and I'm even willing to offer a suggestion of my own; revive the Superconducting Super Collider.

Even at twice the one-time projected cost of $20 billion, the SSC would still be far more affordable than any mission to Mars ever would be, and the prospects of learning something profound about our universe would actually be pretty good - which is a lot more than can be said to any retread of the Apollo program. But what are the odds of this happening? Fundamental breakthroughs in particle physics are not "sexy" in the simple-minded way in which space programs are sexy; they don't capture the imaginations of children of all ages - especially "grown-up" children - in the manner that Buck Rogers daydreams do; they are therefore of little use in getting politicians re-elected, and are apt to be sacrificed for the sake of worthless rubbish like the International Space Station, or hare-brained missions to Mars, at the first opportunity.

UPDATE: Here's what John Van Allen (he of the Van Allen radiation belt) has to say about Bush's Mars proposal:

James Van Allen, the namesake for the Van Allen Belts of intense radiation that encircle the earth, said Monday that such manned space missions have become too expensive and better results can be gained by robotic spacecraft.

"I'm quite unimpressed by any arguments for it," Van Allen, 89, said in an interview from his office at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

"I'm one of the most durable and fervent advocates of space exploration, but my take is that we could do it robotically at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results," he said.

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

Van Allen said he doesn't have any direct knowledge of Bush's plans yet. But he thinks the time has passed for the usefulness of manned space flight.

"These days, it's really been uninteresting except when disasters occur," Van Allen said. "I think we need someone in a responsible political position to have the courage to say, 'Let's terminate human spaceflight.'"

Needless to say, Bush isn't that man of courage, but what about the Democratic challengers? Does any of them have the cojones to come out and say "this scheme would be an insane waste of money", or are they all too scared of being thought visionless killjoys?

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Immigration Enforcement, Singapore-Style

America and Europe aren't the only places in the world where the enforcement of immigration laws are an issue, as this Hindustan Times article makes clear.

Fourteen men from Tamil Nadu, who had overstayed in Singapore, returned to Chennai on Friday after being whipped and having their heads shaved.

"Our only guilt was that we overstayed," said Balayian, a construction worker who had gone to Singapore on a six-month visa. "For this we were treated worse than animals before being deported."

Balayian said that after being rounded up for overstaying, Indians, particularly Tamils, were stripped down to their underwear and forced to live in the compound of the immigration office in Singapore. They were not even allowed to bathe or shave.

"We spent three months in jail where we were whipped and then our heads were shaved before we were deported," said Chandrabose, another Indian worker.

The workers' savings were taken from them and their suitcases smashed by the authorities, the workers complained.

I don't doubt that the sort of thing detailed in this article has the desired deterrent effect, but then again, so do the amputations and beheadings prescribed according to some readings of Sharia. There are some measures that are simply a bit much for decent people to stomach, even if they work as intended. Would we really want to go back to the Code of Hammurabi, or the harsh Legalism of the Ch'in Dynasty, however efficacious they might be shown to be?

Monday, January 12, 2004

Good News on Trade?

An unexpected initiative from the Bush administration to get the WTO talks moving again. As usual, it leaves the EU and Japan as the major obstructionists when it comes to opening markets for developing countries.

GENEVA (Reuters) - Washington drew praise Monday for an unexpected bid to breathe life into struggling free trade talks, but risked tensions with its ally the European Union over a call to end controversial farm export subsidies.

The negotiations, whose success the World Bank says would give a huge boost to the global economy, have floundered since September when a WTO ministers' meeting collapsed, partly due to deep divisions over agriculture.

Trade officials and analysts had feared that with nobody ready to make concessions and many nations, not just the United States, facing elections or busy negotiating bilateral trade deals, there was little chance of progress at the WTO this year.

But in letters to the World Trade Organization's (WTO) 146 member states and senior trade officials, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick made it clear that he did not want 2004 to be a "lost year."

"This is clearly positive and somewhat unexpected," said former Canadian trade envoy John Weekes of Geneva-based law firm Sidley, Austin, Brown and Wood.

But in a potential blow to Washington's negotiating alliance with the EU, Zoellick said talks would go nowhere without a deal to end farm export subsidies, something the EU has resisted.

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

n his first significant contribution to the debate since the Cancun ministerial failure, Zoellick urged WTO countries to set a mid-year deadline for reaching outline accords and said he would visit a number of capitals in the search for deals.

He added that farm trade reform, including slashing the massive production subsidies rich states pay their farmers and agreeing lower import duties, was so crucial that members should focus first on securing a breakthrough there before tackling other parts of the trade agenda.

In another sign of discord with Brussels, Zoellick said he was willing to see negotiations begun on customs reform, but opposed the demand of the EU and allies such as Japan to see more new issues added such as investment and competition policy.

Zoellick's emphasis on obtaining progress on agricultural trade issues to the initial exclusion of other areas, as well as his opposition to the EU and Japan's attempt to torpedo the entire enterprise by tacking on negotiations about investment and competition policy, are strong indicators that this new initiative is actually meant to achieve something, rather than being a hollow effort whose sole rationale is to make the administration look good.

Guardian - The Looting of Benin

One West African civilization I neglected to mention was Benin (not to be confused with the modern state formerly called Dahomey). The artistic legacy of Benin is substantial in its own right, and although it shares a great deal in common with that of Ife (with which Benin shared many close links other than the merely artistic), the Edo people gave it an interesting, less realist, interpretation all their own. How fortuitous it is, then, that I came across the above Guardian article, from which the following excerpt is taken:

We set fire to the Queen Mother's house and those of several chiefs; the fire spread uncontrollably and destroyed a large part of the city. The royal palace was also burnt, although we claimed this was accidental. The royal palace of Benin was one of the great cultural complexes of Africa, a continent that, according to Victorians, wasn't supposed to have anything like it. It was a court as big as a European town.

"It is divided into many palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers," reads Olfert Dapper's enthusiastic 1668 account, "and comprises beautiful and long square galleries... resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles... Every roof is decorated with a small turret ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings."

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

The best ye breed. Ralph Moor, governor of Britain's west African Niger Coast Protectorate, had a problem. British traders were outraged that Oba Ovoranmwen, ruler of the still-independent Benin, demanded customs duties from them. A British officer, Lt James Phillips, set out under Moor's authority to lay down the law to the oba. As Phillips approached Benin City - with eight British officers, 200 porters and a band - he was ambushed. The British officers were killed. Moor now had a casus belli for the annexation of another bit of Africa. The punitive expedition set out two months later, led by Sir Harry Rawson with 1,200 British troops. Oba Ovoranmwen was put on trial and exiled.

It resembles one of those episodes of cultural misunderstanding that anthropologists love to tell. In fact, Benin had been dealing successfully with Europeans since the 15th century, when the Portuguese began to trade in west Africa. Oba Ovoranmwen had every reason to think he could maintain favourable trading terms with the British. He reckoned without the hysteria of late-Victorian empire-building.

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

A photograph taken in 1897 shows these very best men sitting among the ruins of Benin, smoking, smiling. On the ground in front of them are treasures of 16th-century art: brass plaques that decorated the pillars of the oba's palace. Nine hundred of these plaques were found in a storehouse, having been removed during redecoration of the palace. Along with these powerful pictorial reliefs, the punitive expedition discovered the rich artistic culture of Benin going back well before Portuguese contact: heads of Queen Mothers and other ancestors - such as the elegant, stately and vigorously alive 16th-century head of a Queen Mother, now in the British Museum - and snakes and hunters, all cast in brass by the lost wax process. Some of these treasures were privately looted. But many were taken back to Britain officially as "reparations".

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

It was the looting of Benin that made African art visible to Europeans. When the seized artefacts were sold, entering the collections of museums, there was a sense of surprise and mystification. Although travellers had written descriptions of Benin City, this was the first time anyone outside Africa comprehended the scale of Benin's artistic achievement. So the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius set out to study and collect African sculpture, while in Britain, serious publications - including, in 1899, the British Museum's catalogue of its Benin acquisitions - laid the foundations for the history of the art of Benin and that of Africa.

There were plenty of ambiguities. Frobenius could not believe that the 12th- to 15th-century brass heads of Ife, which are earlier than the art of Benin, were of African origin; he speculated that they were the work of ancient Greeks from the lost city of Atlantis. And in 1903 Henry Ling Roth published a pioneering book on Benin called Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors. (emphasis added)

Leo Frobenius' attitude towards African culture is hardly dead in our time, as even now there are numerous people all too happy to accredit the creations of black Africans to nonexistent light-skinned invaders. It is simply taken as a given in many quarters that Africans cannot ever have come up with anything worth noticing on their own, without the guiding hand of some white man to lead them on the road to entitlement. The possibility that black Africans weren't all residing in caves or isolated mud huts is simply dismissed out of hand; one would never guess that such peoples could be capable of constructing structures of the sort over which Olfert Dapper rhapsodized in 1668. Another little-known fact is that Benin possesses the world's longest known series of earthworks, extending to more than 16,000 km in length and covering an area of more than 6,500 square km; they are also the world's second largest man-made architectural feature, after the Great Wall of China - quite a planning achievement for people supposed by some to possess IQs characteristic of mental retards!

PS: A short Wikipedia entry on the Punitive Expedition of 1897 can be found here; the page also provides a link to a more detailed portrayal of what happened in the course of that little imperial adventure. Although I normally wouldn't put too much trust in any site with a name like "Race and History", this article on the Edo people, the founders of Benin, seems mostly accurate, and actually appears to have been written by an Edo person (the name "Osamuyimen" being very much in the typical Edo style).

Met: Ife (from ca. 350 B.C.)

A small but illuminating piece about the history of Ife, the city regarded by the Yoruba with the same special fondness that Jews do Jerusalem, along with some images of traditional Yoruba art, can be found on the Met Museum page linked to above.

Ife Shrine Head

As you can see from reading both the page above and this one, Ife's history dates back a considerable while, predating the origin of "Heian-kyo" (Kyoto) by about a thousand years. People who say things like "Africa has no indegenous civilizations" are simply spouting rubbish.

Tada Seated Figure: 13-14th century

Does the above work of art look like the fruit of an "uncivilized" people, or one with an "average IQ" of 67 (as one so-called "researcher" claims for Nigeria) to you? Nor were the Yoruba alone in displaying such creativity: the bronze Igbo-Ukwu bowl pictured below has been dated to the 9th-10th century period,

Bowl on a Stand: 9th-10th century

as has the following roped pot, also of Igbo-Ukwu origin.

Roped Pot on a Stand: 9th-10th century

Lest it be assumed that sophisticated art only began to be created in sub-Saharan Africa in the Igbo-Ukwu era, I present the following Nok terracotta, dated to c. 250BC - making it contemporaneous with the far-better known "terracotta army" of Chinese Emperor Chin Shin Huang Ti.



Now, when one is talking about peoples who have founded cities dating back more than 2,000 years, who were already using pottery-shard pavement in said cities 1,000 years ago, who were producing sophisticated works of art in bronze and copper from just as far back, and masterful terracottas from well before the birth of the Roman Empire, who, as with the Yoruba state of Oyo, had (in the Oyo Mesi) constitutional checks on monarchical power long predating their first substantial contacts with Europeans - when one considers all the preceding, what is it other than a manifestation of prejudice or woeful ignorance to label such peoples "uncivilized", to refer to them as "tribes", or to breezily attribute to them average levels of intelligence below that considered indicative of mental retardation in Western countries?

Ignorance of African culture and history amongst Westerners is to some extent understandable, but it is difficult to interpret a willingness to make grand claims about the "innate" capacities of Africans coupled with a refusal to correct the deficiencies in one's knowledge as anything other than malicious in nature. It isn't as if there is any shortage of decent books on African history, after all. Such obstinacy from the usual sorts of kooks and nutcases who hang around places like "Stormfront" I can understand - some souls are so far gone that one might as well write them off - but for anyone with claims to "scientist" status to do so ...

NB - For this post, I have entirely disregarded the ancient states of the Horn of Africa region i.e, Kush, Meroe, Aksum and so forth, not because they weren't "real" African states, but for two reasons, the first being that the states of West Africa are the ones I know best, and the second being the annoying tendency of Africa-bashers to capriciously exclude such states from the "black African" counter whenever it suits them (even though the very same crowd will happily lump Ethiopians along with the Ijaw whenever they can make Africa look worse by so doing - the Ethiopians, descendants of the inhabitants of the state of Aksum, are accorded a jaw-dropping "average IQ" of 63 by the eminent "researcher" named Richard Lynn). I have also avoided talking about the states of Ghana, Mali and Songhai for similar reasons - their achievements are all too easily "explained" away as owing entirely to Arabs.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Acceptance Of Sharia Law In Nigeria

Here's yet more information to illustrate the manner in which ethnicity manages to play a role in virtually every conflict that occurs in Nigeria. What might seem at first to be purely a religious phenomenon - the increasing militancy of Nigerian muslims and the attendent calls for the imposition of Sharia - turns out to have a substantial underlying ethnic component. This isn't surprising, as the primary utility of Sharia for the Northern political class has been as an instrument for defying President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian.

To measure the degree of acceptance of Sharia law among Nigerians, RMS Media Services inserted some questions in the political section of its omnibus survey 1. The following pages present the key findings of the survey.

Nigerians’ opinion on the introduction of Sharia in Zamfara State is largely unfavourable: while 38% approve, 49% reject the implementation. About one tenth (9%) had no opinion on the issue. Quite expectedly, disapproval was unanimous across the entire South; surprisingly, however, even in the North, Zamfara’s move meets with opposition with one third (32%) rejecting it. Unfortunately, we don’t know the opinion of the people in Zamfara itself; the Sharia system prevented fieldwork in this state.

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

The spread of Sharia into other states is widely rejected by Nigerians. 50% are opposed, 6% remain neutral and an additional 8% had not yet formed an opinion. Thus, a bare 36% of Nigerians favour the implementation of Sharia in other states. Even among Muslims, about one in five reject the further spread of Sharia.

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

The entire South, i.e. Lagos, the Yoruba West and Igbo and ethnic minority East, are strongly opposed to more states joining the league of Sharia states. In the North, the scenario varies considerably from state to state.

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

The list of problems, which are faced acutely by the better part of Nigerians, remains remarkably consistent across all demographic breakdowns, e.g. sex, age, region etc. Thus, the introduction of Sharia law may well be interpreted as a move to detract from the severe economic and infrastructural crisis, which no government, federal or state, could hope to solve within the foreseeable future. To fire up the populace’s religious sentiments, on the other hand, can be achieved practically overnight. Complementary to this strategy, the debate surrounding Sharia points at regional and ethnic conflicts, which, suppressed by consecutive military regimes, have never been resolved and now erupt violently.

Consent to implementation of Sharia depends more on ethnicity than religious affiliation. Whereas 89% of Hausa Muslims (88% Kanuri, 79% Fulani) approve of Sharia law, less than a third (32%) of Yoruba Muslims (the one Southern ethnic group with the highest proportion of Muslims) concur. Christian (or canon) law is likewise rejected by Yoruba Christians (24% approval), strongly pointing at the Yoruba’s desire for secular rule. Slight majorities in favour of Christian law can be found only among Igbo (52%) and Ijaw (62%) Christians.

Almost simultaneously with the introduction of Sharia in Zamfara, militant groups have entered the political scene in all corners of the country; e.g. Oodua People’s Congress, Arewa People’s Congress etc. Sharia may, therefore, be an expression of social and political disintegration rather than a debate over religious dogma; it seems to aim at ethnic segregation more than at a quest for a religious lifestyle. The states, which have declared their intention to implement Sharia law (and in which majorities would facilitate such a move), are concentrated in the North-Western sector of the country.

Now, what was that again about ethnic heterogeneity being an "ad hoc" explanation for the woes of African states like Nigeria?

Putting such claims aside for the moment, this sort of ethno-religious split is one reason why an African "Swiss Confederation" model is bound to fail. If one group believes it is duty bound by Allah to impose Islamic religious law on the entire nation, while another group believes that faithfulness to the Bible demands Canon Law be the universal legal system, and yet a third group desires no legal code other than a purely secular one, what hope can there be for amity, even under a confederation? Sharia, Canon Law and the Common Law tradition cannot be reconciled, and there is little hope is for any confederation, however loose, if even the basic framework of the law cannot be agreed upon. To say that not every ethnic group in Africa has the numbers to constitute a state in its own right is not to establish that states like Nigeria ought to remain whole, even if as loose federations.