Saturday, January 31, 2004

Mugabe's Pathetic Self-Defense

Mugabe's regime resorts to the tried-and-trusted "we aren't the worst offenders" argument to defend itself against EU criticism:

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Friday said the European Union should not target his government, arguing that his embattled country was more democratic than the majority of African nations, state media said.

"We are a more democratic country than most African countries and there is really no case the European Union should hold against us," the government Ziana news agency quoted Mugabe as saying.

Mugabe was speaking when he met outgoing French ambassador to Harare, Didier Ferrand, just weeks ahead of the proposed renewal of sanctions by the European Union.

The EU in 2002 imposed travel restrictions on 72 of Zimbabwe's top government and ruling party officials, including Mugabe, accusing them of human rights abuses and electoral fraud after controversial elections that year which saw Mugabe return to power.

The truly sad thing about Mugabe's statement is that it actually is true: Zimbabwe is by no means the worst offender on the continent when it comes to respect for democracy, particularly when the countries of the Maghreb are taken into consideration. One legitimate criticism of the Western focus on Zimbabwe is that there isn't a comparable interest in the wrongdoings occurring in any of the other nations on the continent where there are no white settlers to catch the media's eye. If Zimbabwe is to be criticised for violating human rights, then surely nations like Algeria, Egypt and Sudan ought to meet with even more vehement condemnation, which they never do. Human rights violations in Africa only seem to matter in the Western press when the victims are both white and christian.

An Interesting Conceit

Simon Cozens' idea of transcribing Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book as a blog is truly an inspired one. This just goes to show the wisdom of the Preacher in Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) - "There is nothing new under the sun." No, there isn't, not even blogging.

UPDATE: I've just discovered that Jonathan Delacour wrote a rather interesting and prescient entry on Sei Shonagon way back in April last year. Well worth reading.

Unintended Consequences

What effect did Richard Nixon's decision to take the United States off the gold standard have on the South African economy? Can it be an accident that South Africa's long boom, dating from the 1930s, petered out just about the time that the United States went to a floating currency regime?

If there really was a causal link between the two developments, Nixon's decision will have turned out to be one of those things whose full ramifications remain unclear well after they occur; the apartheid regime's economic prosperity was based on the exploitation of cheap, unskilled black labor, and the shift in the terms of trade away from raw materials exporters served to penalize the South African government for its discriminatory educational policies. Not until white South Africans began to feel the impact of the economic slowdown did sufficient pressure arise to stir Vorster's National Party government from its complacency with regards to African education, and it was the defiance of the students that reawakened what had seemed a completely defeated black opposition.

Of course, there are still quite a few loose ends to be tied up with this conjecture of mine: for one thing, gold prices actually hit their peak in 1980. Nevertheless, it is a fact that South Africa's economy did stagnate during the 1970s, and that this affected all sectors of the country, irrespective of race. What would be most useful in assessing this hypothesis one way or another would be firm statistics about the South African economy during the period in question, statistics I am currently at a loss as to how to obtain.

Friday, January 30, 2004

The Planning Urge

At Samizdata, Frank McGahon asks an interesting question - why are so many architects left-leaning? Now, there are architects who swing to the right rather than the left, some even to the far right (the late Philip Johnson being one example), but it is correct to say that most architects are rather more enamored of big government than one might expect, given their professional profile. McGahon gives four possible reasons why this should be so, but I lean more towards the fourth item on his list rather than the others:

4. Architects are planners. Forgive me yet another obvious assertion but the point is that there is little that the architect imagines cannot be planned. If you can design a house, you can design furniture for that house or the city in which that house is located, so goes the thinking. If a chair, a house, a city, why not an economy?

Looking at the careers of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, I think this tendency obvious. Frank Lloyd Wright's impulse for control was so strong that he even dictated the furnishings for Fallingwater; as for Le Corbusier, no architectural vision contributed more to urban blight in the 20th century than his "Ville Radieuse" ("Radiant City"), to which we owe the soulless, intimidating concrete slums popularly known as "projects" in the United States. Corbusier's totalitarian impulses also gave an impetus to that other 20th century tendency, the yearning for totally planned, brand new, "rational" capital cities; his Chandigarh was the forefather of Brasilia, Abuja, Islamabad and other monumentally ugly wastes of public money that blight the globe.

As one who had harbored an impulse towards architecture in my early youth, I know that one major attraction of the profession is the promise it dangles before one's eyes of being able to impose one's own artistic vision on others someday, if one is sufficiently lucky or successful. The call of the New Jerusalem, La Città Nuova, Germania - an architectural utopia, pristine and orderly, free of the irrational accretions of history, planned to the last detail to provide for the everyday needs of men as well as well as their spiritual and aesthetic requirements - what siren song could be more intoxicating to the mind than this one? Just fix man's physical environment, totally immerse him in the harmonious fruits of one's creative vision, and all else that ails him will be seen to as well, at least to some degree. It is no wonder that architects should look so sympathetically on the grand aspirations of planners in other fields.

South Africa's Inkatha Problem

Here's a news report that makes one appreciate that as bad as Mbeki's management of both the AIDS crisis and the Zimbabwe issue have been, things could have been a lot worse in that part of the world.

South African President Thabo Mbeki was mobbed by scores of opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters, carrying traditional weapons, during a visit to an IFP stronghold in the volatile KwaZulu Natal province on Thursday.

Zulus, carrying assegais (traditional spears) and shields and wearing t-shirts bearing the image of the veteran IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, surged forward surrounding Mbeki’s presidential convoy. They chanted that they were not afraid of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party.

Mbeki’s spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, said the Zulu opponents, traditionally IFP supporters, did not get close to Mbeki’s car which was approaching the small town of Tugela Ferry. Police and security officers had to clear the way for the convoy. There were later reports of another incident when police tried to confiscate a gun from one man.

The president is on a three-day "imbizo," touring KwaZulu Natal, as part of an interactive government programme aimed at putting the country’s political leaders in touch with the people, to discuss policies.

Now, the ANC isn't by any means a party of angels, but I regard Buthelezi and his Inkatha movement as entirely negative in their influence on South African affairs. Buthelezi's main priority since the bad old days of apartheid has always been his own self-aggrandizement, regardless of the cost to his fellow countrymen, and if that meant accepting funding from the apartheid regime to destabilize the country, Buthelezi was more than willing to go along. South African politics certainly needs some competition to the ANC, but I don't see the parochialists of either Inkatha or the ("New") National Party serving in that role. For now, let us at least hope that Buthelezi's desire to retain power doesn't plunge KwaZulu Natal into another round of mass killing.

Unprincipled Conservatism and NEA Funding

Over at NRO, Roger Kimball demonstrates a major difference between libertarians and conservatives when it comes to public funding for the arts: libertarians don't believe in publicly funded art, whatever its merits, while conservatives think its just fine and dandy, as long as it supports their values.

Under normal circumstances, the White House announcement that the president was seeking a big budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts might have been grounds for dismay. Pronounce the acronym "NEA," and most people think Robert Mapplethorpe, photographs of crucifixes floating in urine, and performance artists prancing about naked, smeared with chocolate, and skirling about the evils of patriarchy.

Thanks, but no thanks.

But things have changed, and changed for the better at the NEA. The reason can be summed up in two trochees: Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet and critic who is the Endowment's new chairman.

Within a matter of months, Mr. Gioia has transformed that moribund institution into a vibrant force for the preservation and transmission of artistic culture. He has cut out the cutting edge and put back the art. Instead of supporting repellent "transgressive" freaks, he has instituted an important new program to bring Shakespeare to communities across America. And by Shakespeare I mean Shakespeare, not some PoMo rendition that portrays Hamlet in drag or sets A Midsummer Night's Dream in a concentration camp.

Mr. Gioia is moving on other fronts as well. He has hired a number of able deputies who care about art and understand that what the public wants is more access to good art — opera, poetry, theater, literature — not greater exposure to social pathology dressed up as art. After a couple of decades of cultural schizophrenia, the NEA has become a clear-sighted, robust institution intent on bringing important art to the American people.

What a load of horse manure. How is this any different in principle from the state-directed art of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany? Stalin had his Socialist Realism, Hitler had his Arno Breker and Albert Speer, while for American conservatives the important thing is supporting "real" Shakespeare instead of repellent "transgressive" freaks - a phrase redolent of Nazi complaints about "degenerate art".

I love the arts, I love classical music, painting, sculpture and architecture, I think my life would not be as complete without such things in it, but nevertheless, I refuse to endorse the notion of state-sponsored art. The state simply has no business deciding what constitutes "innovation" or "beauty" in the arts, whether that means praising Shakespeare or Chris Ofili's latest dung-piece. Mr. Kimball may think it self-evident that traditional renditions of Shakespeare's plays are "obviously" better than those set in concentration camps, and he might believe it equally obvious that everyone knows what "good art" is, but I don't see why taxpayer funds have to go to subsidizing his particular aesthetic conceptions as opposed to anyone else's.

The truth is that in aesthetic matters, more than anywhere else, "De gustibus non disputandum est." Shakespeare's art, as celebrated as it is today, was a purely commercial offspring of its own time, full of ribaldry and slapstick of a sort the Roger Kimballs of the day would no doubt have lambasted as "repellent" and "freakish"; the notion that Shakespeare's work would be fetishised in the manner conservatives do today would have struck Elizabethans as the height of absurdity, as ridiculous a notion as some future generation venerating Seinfeld scripts would strike us in our own time. Taxpayer money shouldn't be used to subsidize any art, whether or not it accords with the sensibilities of middlebrow "conservatives" like Roger Kimball.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Resistance-Fighter, Post-War

There's a phrase I learnt from a Jonah Goldberg column back in 2001 that struck me at the time as particularly funny, something about there being so many Frenchmen falsely claiming resistance membership after liberation that a new term had to be invented just for such individuals - "maquis d'apres-guerre" ("resistance fighter, postwar"). What makes it amusing is that there's plenty of truth to it, and if this tendency to historical amnesia was commonplace in France, it has taken on endemic proportions in Germany. It would seem that everyone from that era "secretly opposed Hitler" at the time, if the utterences one hears from German sources are taken at face value, but such claims have always struck me as nonsensical. If everyone either opposed or was indifferent to the man's message, who were those adoring crowds lining the streets of Berlin and Vienna as he was chalking up victory after victory? Who were those fanatical young men chanting "Führer befehl, wir folgen!" ("Leader command, we will follow!") as late as 1943?

Daniel Goldhagen's attempt to get at the truth about German support for Hitler's goals was easily brushed aside as so much hysterical axe-grinding, but Robert Gellately's Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany presents a far more formidable challenge to those who would wish to efface the guilt of most Germans of the time for the record, even as they work to present a deceitful picture of Germany as the innocent victim of the Allied "war crime" of area-bombing. Here's a Publishers Weekly review of Gellately's book that is worth quoting:

Using newspapers and radio broadcasts of the day as evidence, Gellately (The Gestapo and German Society), Strassler Professor in Holocaust History at Clark University, effectively demonstrates how "ordinary Germans" evolved into a powerful base of support for the Nazi regime. Although Hitler and the National Socialists had never garnered an outright majority in elections before 1933, the author convincingly shows that "the great majority of the German people soon became devoted to Hitler and they supported him to the bitter end in 1945." The Nazis achieved this political miracle by "consensus." The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that political regimes could hardly expect to use unlimited terror against their subjects a technique combining the threat of terror and coercion would be more effective. Using Gramscian theory is hardly new in an analysis of Nazi Germany, but Gellately does make a provocative claim: that the Nazi use of terror against certain categories of "undesirables" (first Communists, Socialists and trade unionists, then Catholic and Protestant opponents, then the mentally and/or physically impaired, then the Jews and Gypsies) was purposively public and that most Germans agreed with such policies. Decrees, legislation, police actions and the concentration camps were not meant to be hidden from the German people, but in fact were extensively publicized. Some of the same arguments have been made in Adam Lebor and Roger Boyes's Seduced by Hitler (Forecasts, Mar. 26), but readers will notice that Gellately offers a far more sophisticated argument and more abundant evidence than Daniel Goldhagen's cause celebre, Hitler's Willing Executioners. In truth, Gellately's work is what Goldhagen's book could have been, but wasn't; that is, a closely reasoned and tightly constructed analysis.

I don't believe that the Germans of today should continue to pay penance for the sins of their fathers, but I think the historical reality of broad German support for Hitler's policies worth recalling every so often, if only to fight certain tendencies that are alive today in that country's media. Germany was not in any sense a "victim" of Allied war efforts, but a thoroughly deserving recipient of a much-diluted portion of the bitter medicine it handed out so many millions of non-German origin; nor were the postwar Vertriebenen by any measure "victims" either, as they had been all too happy to enjoy the fruits of overlordship during the brief period of German superiority; finally, to use the German war experience as a blanket condemnation of any war at any time or place, let alone as an excuse for inaction in the face of tyranny, is the height of immorality.

The Economist Endorses John Kerry (Subscription Reqd.)

It's uncanny how often the Economist's take on events turns out to be exactly the same as my own.

WHEN it comes to voting in an election, it is not always easy to decide which candidate you prefer. So why complicate an already difficult choice by trying to work out which candidate most other people might prefer? Mental gymnastics of this sort are coming to dominate the Democratic presidential campaign—and making John Kerry the clear front-runner. This week, as the Democrats in New Hampshire plumped for the senator from Massachusetts, the chiselled New Englander's chief selling-point was once again his apparent “electability”—the idea that he stands the best chance of beating George Bush in November.

In it to win

Good. Democratic America is beginning to think with its head, not its heart. At the beginning of this month, Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont whose fearsome anti-war rhetoric had made him the darling of many Democratic activists, had a 20-point lead in New Hampshire; Mr Kerry, who had voted for the Iraq war, was stuck in third place, behind Wesley Clark, another anti-war outsider. But then doubts about Mr Dean set in. Would America really vote for a man who refused to admit that Saddam Hussein's capture might be helpful and who wanted to repeal all Mr Bush's tax cuts? Democrats began to look at Mr Kerry's years of experience in the Senate and his record as a war hero in Vietnam in a new light.

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

The odds still favour Mr Bush (see article). But on paper at least, a Kerry-Edwards ticket would stand a chance of snatching from the Republicans a Carolina in the south, as well as, say, West Virginia and maybe even New Hampshire. Given Mr Bush's non-existent majority in 2000, that could prove to be enough. Yet first Mr Kerry would have to start landing blows on the president.

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

Mr Kerry's strongest card, though, could prove to be foreign policy. As a supporter of the Iraq war, he can convincingly criticise the White House's exaggerations about weapons of mass destruction. The former war hero can credibly chide the administration for its post-war incompetence, especially if American casualties continue to mount. And, as a foreign-policy expert with a long record of internationalism behind him, he can plausibly broaden the debate, demanding explanations for why Mr Bush's foreign policy has left America so unpopular in so many corners of the world.

Mr Bush ought to be able to summon up good answers to these questions. But it is in America's interest that they are raised and debated by a Democrat who stands a chance of winning. For all his faults, Mr Kerry looks closer to fulfilling that role than any of the current alternatives.

My thoughts exactly. I supported the decision to go to war, and I still think it was the right thing to do, but there are questions about the way the issue was framed to the public, as well as the way in which the aftermath has been handled, that Bush needs to be made to give answers to. He simply must not be allowed to waltz to a landslide re-election.

For Goodness Sake, Why?

What is the Obasanjo administration thinking, to get in bed with the North Koreans, of all the regimes on this planet? And why chose to do so on the matter of missile technology? Here is an administration faced with a host of difficult problems to solve, and it wilfully chooses to compound them by trying to acquire technology it doesn't need from a regime that is universally loathed. Obasanjo must be insane!

NORTH Korea has offered Nigeria missile technology but Abuja has not taken up the offer, a spokesman said yesterday, clarifying an earlier statement that Nigeria was seeking such weapons.

A spokesman for Vice-President Atiku Abubakar said the subject of arms sales had come up at a meeting in Abuja, Tuesday, between Atiku and his North Korean counterpart, Yang Hyong-Sop. Spokesman Onukaba Ojo ,who had earlier said Atiku had met the North Korean delegation to discuss buying missiles , said he had since discussed the matter with Nigerian defence officials and found that the suggestion had come from North Korea.

"They came to us wanting a memorandum of understanding signed with us towards developing missile technology and training and manufacture of ammunition. They were just trying to get us interested," Ojo said.

"There hasn't been any interest shown on our side. We're not interested, but we didn't tell them that that way," he said.

FG's move may annoy Washington

Any move by Nigeria to acquire North Korean ballistic missiles is sure to annoy Washington, which is locked in a bitter stand-off with Pyongyang over its nuclear ambitions and international arms sales.

Kim Jong-Il's regime , which US President George W. Bush regards as a member of a so-called "axis of evil" , earns much of its hard currency by selling and swapping missile and weapons secrets.

North Korea has developed missiles capable of carrying warheads as far as Japan, and is reported to have shared its technology with Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan and Saddam Hussein's former Iraqi regime.

Profits from the proliferation are said by US intelligence to feed back into North Korea's search for a nuclear weapon. Nigeria, by contrast, is seen as a friend of the United States.

Bush visited Abuja last year and praised President Olusegun Obasanjo for his leadership within Africa. Some 15 per cent of the United States' crude oil needs are supplied by Nigeria's burgeoning oil industry.

Ojo insisted that Abuja's talks with Pyongyang should not give Washington cause to worry, and promised that Nigeria was not at all interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

"I'm sure that Nigeria is not dreaming of nuclear weapons at all, just missile technology," he said, adding that the foundry discussed at Tuesday's meeting would be for civilian use. If you're acquiring technology for peaceful purpose I don't think that should make our allies uneasy," he added.

Earlier, Atiku's office had released a statement implying that military links with North Korea were nothing new.

"He assured that government would continue to co-operate with the Korean government in the defence sector, an area in which both Nigeria and North Korea have co-operated over the years," the statement said. (emphasis added)

This Atiku character is talking absolute rubbish. What peaceful use is there for North Korean missile technology? The worst thing about this is that Nigeria faces absolutely no military threats whatsoever from its neighbors, making this not just a boneheaded move from a political perspective, but also an entirely unnecessary one. A sane government would be trying its best to cultivate stronger ties with the United States, rather than choosing the most sensitive issue on the American agenda on which to engage in wayward behavior.

Signal + Noise: This Is Your Brain on Bayes

Christopher Genovese has an interesting post up on the longstanding argument between devotees of the Bayesian and Frequentist schools of statistics.

Paleoconservative Rubbish

Eugene Volokh has a post up dismantling the idiotic rantings of Paul Craig Roberts, "VDare" contributor and recent co-author, with Senator Charles Schumer, of an anti-free trade tract. How one individual manages to harbor so much idiocy within his head is beyond me. Let me give you a flavor of what Volokh has to say:

"In the old feudal system, there were no First Amendment rights. The legally privileged were free to engage in hate speech and to verbally harass others, but any commoner who replied in kind could be sued or have his tongue cut out. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott still has his tongue, but just barely. He used his tongue in a way that gave offense to the new aristocrats. Black Americans have been granted the right to be offended by any words they don't like and to extract retribution. The offending speaker finds himself forced into contrition and humiliating apologies. Often the penalty is a destroyed career. . . . The spectacle proves -- if proof is any longer required -- that the First Amendment has been trumped by the race-based privileges of the new feudalism." Wow -- "black Americans" are "the new aristocrats"; and when a public outcry leads to political damage to a politician (the general way in which free speech often works in a free country), that's somehow the equivalent of "feudalism." (italics added)

What more is there to say? There's plenty more where that came from. Anybody who writes for an outfit like "VDare" is by definition a depraved idiot. Fine company Chuck Schumer's keeping eh? That's what you get for hanging around with anti-globalization kooks.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Heights II - Or the Dangers of Political Vanity

Hot on the heels of the report of Berlusconi's month-long absence from the spotlight due to plastic surgery, comes, via Davids Medienkritik, the amusing image below:

Schroeder on Pedestal

Schröder would have been better off not faking it for the camera, or, better yet, conducting a seated interview, rather than risking this sort of embarrassing revelation.

The height thing really does seem to bother a lot of politicians terribly, though. Berlusconi is even more notorious for his attempts to disguise his diminutiveness (he stands at an estimated 167cm, or 5' 6"), and both Dennis Kucinich (5' 7") and Howard Dean (5' 8") have been the butt of jokes about their stature. I don't know that it matters as much as they think it does, though: the 5' 9" Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford (6' 2"), while George W. Bush (5' 11") defeated (or, depending on your political persuasion, "cheated") Al Gore (6' 1") to obtain the presidency. Still, if height does factor in the presidential elections, the Democratic Party can take comfort in the fact that the present front-runner, John Kerry, stands at an awe-inspiring 6 feet 4 inches.

Untrustworthy Reporting on Genetics

I happened to come across an article on Yahoo containing claims that, if true, would be sensational. Supposedly, a premutation expansion of the Fragile-X Mental Retardation 1 (FMR1) gene, associated in male carriers with several debilitating syndroms in later life, is also associated with higher intelligence in early to mid-life; if this statement is true, it would be revolutionary for two reasons:

  1. it would represent the first gene of which we are aware to have been definitively linked to higher intelligence
  2. it would provide an instance of a human gene providing a benefit during the reproductive years at the cost of lower functioning once those years were past. This mechanism has long been suspected as being implicated in the aging process - why code for immortality at the expense of present reproductive fitness, especially if life expectancy is already limited by predation and other hardships?
Needless to say, however, I am extremely sceptical, not least because of the source of this information.
TUESDAY, Jan. 27 (HealthDayNews) -- Doctors may frequently be confusing Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and similar age-related neurological ailments with the symptoms of a recently discovered genetic disorder that's surprisingly common yet unfamiliar to most physicians.

The illness is called fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome, or FXTAS (pronounced fax-tass). It typically affects men over age 50, causing tremors, balance problems and dementia, which all progressively worsen over time, much like Parkinson's and related conditions. People afflicted by the genetic flaw appear normal through childhood and much of their adult life.

FXTAS is closely related to fragile X syndrome, the leading cause of inherited mental retardation.

Fragile X occurs when cells in the body don't product a protein produced by the fragile X mental retardation 1 gene (FMR1). Men with fragile X syndrome suffer from mental and motor impairment, autism, elongated faces, enlarged ears and testes, and connective tissue problems. In women, retardation may be accompanied by premature menopause in about 25 percent of people.

Previous studies have found that about one in 259 women and one in 813 men in the United States are born with oversized versions of FMR1. The gene is bulged by stretches of repeating DNA, called "premutation expansions," whhich cause cells to think they're not producing enough FMR1.

Rather than cause retardation, this error often leads to high intelligence and achievement, at least in early and mid-life, says Dr. Randi Hagerman, a fragile X expert at the University of California at Davis and a co-author of the study.

"Generally, these individuals are very smart and very productive," Hagerman says. But starting in their 50s and beyond, she adds, they begin to show signs of brain damage -- the result, apparently, of tiny pearl-like protein clusters that accumulate in their neurons.

Rather than take it for granted that HealthDayNews had gotten Dr. Hagerman's words right, I decided to track down the abstract for the actual article, which can be found here. I'm not a JAMA subscriber, so I can't tell what's in the full article, but nothing in the abstract I saw indicated that this gene had anything to do with "high intelligence." The OMIM entry for FMR1 also failed to mention anything about above-normal intelligence, while the PubMed entry for an earlier Am. J. Hum. Gen. article by the same team was similarly uninformative. Now, given as sensational a claim as the one put forward in this article on Yahoo, how likely is that none of the informed sources would have said anything about it?

The full JAMA article will be freely available to the general public in 6 months, but I'm doubtful that the claim that this premutation expansion "often" confers "high intelligence" will be substantiated. At best, I'm sure, it will be revealed that the gene had no appreciable negative impact in early to mid-life, a much weaker claim; nevertheless, a new myth of a putative "intelligence gene" will probably have been born. Such are the fruits of shoddy science reporting.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The Result Trivially Follows ...

A sentence worth committing to memory:

"Whenever a philosopher or mathematician uses words like "easy" and "obvious", that is a sure sign of difficulty."

John F. Sowa, page 58, "Knowledge Representation: Logical, Philosophical and Computational Foundations", 2000, Brooks/Cole.

The Problem With Oil Wealth

Via Jonathan Edelstein, I came across this report on Gabon's declining oil revenues, and the discontent this development is unleashing amongst its secondary-school students. Nothing in this report is surprising to me, as both Nigeria and Saudi Arabia underwent precisely the same economic transition as Gabon is currently undergoing: at first the oil money gushes in so fast that the nation's leaders hardly know what to do with it; then a period of high-living begins, and though native industries wither as the domestic currency appreciates on the international markets ("Dutch Disease"), nobody cares, as the belief starts to take hold that the good times clearly must last forever; but then the party draws to an end, either because oil prices come down from unsustainable heights, oil production falls, or population growth simply outruns the increase in oil revenues.

The problem with transitory windfall wealth is that it engenders high expectations in its beneficiaries that are unsupported by correspondingly high productivity of the people themselves. The Saudis and Nigerians of the 1970s came to believe that the satellite dishes and Mercedes Benzes they flaunted garishly were merely the external appurtenances of their personal merits, and acquired a disdain for all "menial" occupations. Along with this highfalutin' attitude came a conviction that the government, the source of so much largesse during the happy times, was the proper source to which one ought always to look first for a solution to any problem: free university education, free housing, free entertainment, free this, free that - everything could be expected to come free from some government ministry, without the slightest exertion on one's own part, and heaven forbid that any obligations (like, say, paying taxes) be required in return!

Of course, the good times always come to an end sooner or later, and the more rapid the crash, the more severe the difficulties people have in adjusting to the sober new reality. One still meets Nigerians today who are utterly convinced that theirs remains a wealthy country, and if the corruption could only be flushed out of the system, the pie would be big enough to serve generous helpings all round. It takes no more than a back of the envelope calculation* to show the absurdity of this idea. Going by the sorts of complaints made by Saudi expatriates, the illusion of wealth in that country is, if anything, even more tenacious, given the lofty heights of prosperity to which that country once attained. Tough new circumstances would be expected to summon up vigorous measures to adjust to them, but the comfortable old ways of seeing the world stand in the way of their adoption; why should one suddenly be expected to pay for one's own housing, transportation and tertiary education, goes the thinking? The entitlement culture has taken too strong a hold, and the rulers, themselves corrupt and incompetent, are too scared of rebellion to spur their angry subjects to sacrifice. Consequently, things are simply left to rot - potholes appear on once gleaming highways, roofs of government buildings begin to leak, teachers' salaries are withheld for ever longer periods, schoolbooks cease to be revised in order to skimp on printing expenses ... All the proud symbols of yesterday's jackpot acquire the seedy air of a once proud man fallen on hard times due to an addiction to drink.

I know of no easy way out of this cul de sac once a nation has gone down it, and it is for this reason that I break into scornful laughter whenever I hear some ignorant person remark on the "good fortune" some poor country enjoys in being "blessed" with extensive mineral resources. The truth is that all lasting wealth is based on the achievements of the people themselves, their talents, their drive, their wisdom. A resource-poor country with an educated and ambitious populace is better off in the long run than any sheikhdom floating on a sea of oil; the wealth of a nation like Israel, surrounded by oil-rich but impoverished despotisms, is a stinging rebuke to the false notion that abundant natural resources are a route to economic nirvana. If there is one bit of wisdom I feel qualified to share with the poorer nations of the world, it is this - "pray that no easy riches will ever be found either lying beneath your soil or within your coastal waters. If it is too late for you to make such a prayer, at least pray that the riches not be so great as to warp your citizens' values."

*Nigeria's population is estimated at 120 million. Given the current crude oil production capacity of 2.8 million barrels/day, an oil price of $24/barrel, and an extraction cost of $4/barrel, annual oil revenue would come to $20.4 billion, or $170 per person, hardly the stuff of extravagant living.

People are Incredibly Gullible

The BBC's reporting standards must be incredibly low for them to have given as obviously fraudulent an article as this one a public airing.

The finding of a parrot with an almost unparalleled power to communicate with people has brought scientists up short.

The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour.

He invents his own words and phrases if he is confronted with novel ideas with which his existing repertoire cannot cope - just as a human child would do.

N'kisi's remarkable abilities, which are said to include telepathy, feature in the latest BBC Wildlife Magazine.

N'kisi is believed to be one of the most advanced users of human language in the animal world.

About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if N'kisi could read he would be able to cope with a wide range of material.

The mere mention of the word "telepathy" is all the proof I need that this is a scam. James Randi, where are you when we need you?

Monday, January 26, 2004

How are the Mighty Fallen

Ever wondered who the real sources of all those 419 letters you received were? Here's your chance to learn about just one such individual, who goes by the name Fred Ajudua. It turns out he's actually been clapped in jail, which goes to show that Obasanjo can get the the odd thing right now and then. How astonishing it is to learn that Fred - the one and only, the man of the 10-car motorcade, the man of the multi-page spreads in Ovation magazine, the "businessman" so renowned for his exploits that he became known only by his first name, like a Nigerian Cher or Madonna - is sitting in a jail cell in Kirikiri, like a common thief!

DETAINED businessman and Lagos socialite, Chief Fred Ajudua, is among several inmates of Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos, who have picked up teaching appointments under the Africa Resources Initiative Education Foundatiion (ARIEF).

Ajudua, currently standing trial for alleged involvement in advance fee fraud "419" charged, now teaches basic law at the prison.

Ajudua, a lawyer, disclosed to Daily Champion at the school's launch inside the prison, that he was motivated into teaching the course because, "most of the inmates would not have committed the crimes for which they were imprisoned if they had known, for instance, the difference between robbery and armed robbery."

Which of course raises the question why he went in for a life of crime, seeing as he clearly knew full well what he was doing.

He said he had always wished to be a lecturer in Law adding that the establishment of the school has offered him the long-awaited opportunity, stressing that imparting knowledge to fellow inmates gives him satisfaction.

Yeah, right. Knowledge of how to make an end-run around the law, no doubt.

Chief Ajudua expressed optimism that if prisoners were properly educated, they would leave the prisons better citizens and ready to contribute to the improvement of the society.

According to him, the essence of imprisonment is not to punish or degrade but to reform and transform the individual.

Heh. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, he would say that, wouldn't he? And what better example of the transformative powers of prison could there be than the noble Fred Ajudua himself? I suppose we ought to release him straightaway, seeing as he's all reformed and everything. What do you mean you "refuse to take him at his word?"

"It is in the light of this that extra efforts should be made by the prison authorities and Africa Resources Initiative (ARI) to bring the school to the standard obtainable elsewhere. The laudable effort at educating the inmates is commendable because, education or knowledge is something every individual should not be deprived of," he said.

On the benefits of the ARIEF programme, Ajudua said the inmates were lucky that "in their own time, such a programme is put in place for them. It has not been there before. And the way I am seeing things and if the quality of teaching and teachers in the prison is anything to go by, I bet you these students will beat those who are enjoying their freedom outside. This is so because there is absolute concentration and commitment."

He urged the Federal Government to encourage the founder of the school, Lady Doris Anyadoh so that other prison formations across the country could benefit from the programme aimed at ensuring mental development of prisoners.

He hinted that he might continue with teaching any time he leaves the prison.

"I may continue with teaching after leaving here because I am always fulfilled anytime I succeeded in imparting some knowledge to somebody else. I look forward to being an accomplished law lecturer in future," he stressed.

For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, that "hinted" bit comes off more like a threat than anything else. As you can see, Fred does a good line in plausible-sounding bullsh*t. The guy has all the expected talk of reformation down to a science - don't believe a word of it, however.

Comparing life inside and outside prison, Ajudua who once ruled the social wavelength went philosophical:

"Life inside prison or outside of it does not really matter. What matters is the reason behind the design that one must be at a certain place at a certain time. God may send one to prison in order to save one from death at the hands of hired assassins or armed robbers. By being sent to prison, God may be extending one's life by several years.

"What really matters is the impact one is able to make in the environment one finds oneself. How did you help in the growth and development of those you come in contact with anywhere you find yourself? That makes the difference between life in prison and life out of it," he said.

A lot of nice-sounding fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Still, if there's one thing this article makes clear, it is that the conmen behind these 419 letters are by no means all as dumb people think they are. Ajudua is a crook, but he's no dullard, and neither are most of the other 419 experts I've encountered in Lagos. If those pleading letters from Mrs. Sese-Seko and Mariam Abacha are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, consider that these errors were put in intentionally, to lull the gullible into a comforting sense of superiority over those dark-skinned dummies who can't find a way to get $26 million out of the country without the help of clever white men like you, Joe Blow, sitting in your la-z-boy in Peoria, Tx; though this story doesn't mention it, the reason for Mr. Ajudua's arrest was his defrauding of one greedy Dutch gentleman of the grand sum of $1.7 million dollars.

Howard Dean - Iraqis Worse Off After War

I don't know what to make of this guy. He seems to be addicted to making statements that border on the outlandish. One would think he'd have been a bit more cautious after his last gaffe with "the scream", but no, he has to go and make yet another wierdo statement.

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean (news - web sites) said Sunday that the standard of living for Iraqis is a "whole lot worse" since Saddam Hussein's removal from power in last year's American-led invasion.

"You can say that it's great that Saddam is gone and I'm sure that a lot of Iraqis feel it is great that Saddam is gone," said the former Vermont governor, an unflinching critic of the war against Iraq (news - web sites). "But a lot of them gave their lives. And their living standard is a whole lot worse now than it was before."

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

"Now I would never defend Saddam Hussein," Dean told the "Women for Dean" rally. "He's a horrible person. I'm delighted he's gone. Would there not have been a better way to get rid of him in cooperation with the United Nations?"

Dean's comments here simply make no sense. If Iraqis were better off under Saddam than they now are without him, what difference would "cooperation with the United Nations" have made? Would fewer people have died in a UN-approved war? Would less infrastructure have been damaged? War is war, nothing short of war would have removed Saddam, and it makes no difference to a man's chances of survival whether the bomb that flattens his home does so with UN approval or otherwise; Howard Dean is simply spewing dishonest partisan rubbish.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Anti-Trade Stupidity at the New York Times: Episode XXXIV

What is it with the ridiculous anti-globalization slant of New York Times reporters? Why aren't these clowns required to take a few econ courses before being allowed to cover economics-related issues? This article by "Tim Weiner" is so full of biased assumptions it makes one's head spin.

TURRIALBA, Costa Rica, Jan. 22 — The game of baseball is a pure product of America. The ball itself is another matter.

Every baseball used in the major leagues is made here, millions of them. They are handcrafted with the precision of a machine by the men and women of Turrialba and the towns in the green hills beyond.

The baseball workers typically make about $2,750 a year. A baseball player in the United States makes, on average, about $2,377,000, the Players Association says.

To which one must respond "so what?" What does one thing have to do with the other? Is Mr. Weiner suggesting that baseball manufacturers are somehow funnelling the rightful wages of their employees to American baseball players?

"It is hard work, and sometimes it messes up your hands, warps your fingers and hurts your shoulders," said Overly Monge, 37. Temperatures inside the factory can rise to 90 to 95 degrees, he said, and when they do, "we suffocate."

He makes $55 a week after 13 years at the baseball factory, barely above Costa Rica's minimum wage. After he pays for the necessities of life, he has about $2 a day left over for himself, his wife and daughter. His salary, adjusted for inflation, is about the same as when he started.

But that's life, he said with a shrug. Hard work, but far better than no work at all. Many of the coffee and sugar cane plantations around here have collapsed, done in by the forces of globalization.

A loaded statement if ever there was one; there were those poor defenseless plantations just going on about their own business, when the evil "forces of globalization" came on the scene and, totally unprovoked, decided to deal them death-blows! It never occurs to Mr. Weiner that those plantations were also producing goods for export, and as such, were once themselves beneficiaries of the wickedness that is globalization.

There is only one other factory in Turrialba, population 30,000. Without baseballs, Mr. Monge said, life here "would be more like Nicaragua," the poor neighbor to the north.

The baseball workers arrive at 6 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. Peak production pressures have pushed the day deep into the night. Each can make four balls an hour, painstakingly hand-sewing 108 perfect stitches along the seams. They are paid by the ball — on average about 30 cents apiece. Rawlings Sporting Goods, which runs the factory, sells the balls for $14.99 at retail in the United States.

"After I make the first two or three balls each week, they have already paid my salary," Mr. Monge said. "Imagine that."

Yes, as we all know, the rest of that $14.99 is pure capitalist profit, and there are no costs of production to worry about in the baseball manufacturing business. Why, making baseballs is a veritable licence to print money, which explains why Microsoft, Sony and Nokia are rushing to get into this high margin business ...

Rawlings was awarded a 54,000-square-foot free-trade zone by Costa Rica. It pays no taxes. It imports duty-free the makings of millions of baseballs — cores from the Muscle Shoals Rubber Company in Batesville, Miss.; yarn from D&T Spinning in Ludlow, Vt.; cowhide from Tennessee Tanning in Tullahoma, Tenn.

Its operations are a harbinger of a pending free-trade accord between Costa Rica and the United States; negotiations on that agreement, expected to bring more such ventures to Costa Rica, are in their final stages.

"Free trade is excellent for the United States, because they consume so much," Mr. Monge, the Rawlings worker, said. "For other nations, it's more complicated."

That's funny, I could have sworn that high-placed individuals in America were saying precisely the opposite. Pace Senator Charles Schumer, free trade is all fine and dandy for other countries, but American workers need protecting from this grievous evil. Can both parties be right? Could it be that no-one benefits from free trade? Then why does anybody freely engage in such a pernicious practice?

Officials at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York referred questions about the plant to Rawlings. The head of baseball's Players Association, Donald Fehr, said workplace injuries at the plant had not been brought to his attention. Dudley W. Mendenhall, a senior vice president of K2, also said he was unaware of any workplace injuries at the plant.

Few baseball players are aware of where the ball comes from, said Charles Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee, an international workers' rights group based in New York. "But if the players would actually stand up, it would have enormous consequences" for the baseball workers, including better pay, he said.

Just what we need - uninformed baseball players engaging in feelgood social activism. Left unmentioned is the fact that this activism, if successful, would harm both American consumers and Costa Rican baseball-makers, as the resulting price increases would force down demand for baseballs, for which market demand is far from inelastic. No, better for everybody that the prima donnas of baseball stick to their ball-swatting and girl-chasing.

Some past employees say they had to quit after developing repetitive stress injuries, and they have the medical records to prove it.

"The work deforms your fingers and arms," said Maribel Alezondo Brenes, 36, who worked seven years at the plant — until her doctor told her to stop sewing baseballs.

Soledad Castillo, 46, cannot make a fist, or touch her right palm with her middle finger after nine years at Rawlings. Disputing Mr. West's contention that workers are not injured by their labor, she said, "If he ever worked a day sewing, he'd know it's hard."

I genuinely feel for Misses Brenes and Castillo, but the last thing their country needs at this point is the introduction of American-style personal-injury litigation guaranteed to drive away all demand for labor, even it is of the injurious kind. Better grueling work of this sort than leisurely starvation, no? If Rawlings decides to pack up and leave, it isn't as if there's much else to do in town, as the story admits.

Despite their injuries, the two women say they liked the camaraderie and the atmosphere at the Rawlings plant. "I can't complain about the work environment," Ms. Alezondo said. "The ventilation improved over the years," even if the pay did not. There was time to make small talk and good friends.

Still, when she talks about the difference in wages between baseball workers and baseball players, it takes her breath away.

"We sacrifice a lot so they can play," she said. "It's an injustice that we kill ourselves to make these balls perfect, and with one home run, they're gone."

Ah, we see envy, that most human of emotions, at work. There's no way of breaking this gently to you, Ms. Alezondo, but no, you're wrong, this isn't an "injustice", or at least not one that is in any way the fault of your employer. The ugly truth is that anyone can make a baseball, while very, very few people can hit one like Barry Bonds. That's why you get paid what you do, and he gets the sums he does. Rather than blame "globalization", your employer or players like Bonds for this, why not ask your government why it never invested enough in raising your human capital to the point where you could command higher wages on the market, even if not baseball star levels? Hell, even with all my education, I don't command a Barry Bonds salary, but you won't see me moaning about the "injustice" of it all!

Really, though, it isn't so much this woman I'm annoyed at, but "journalists" like Tim Weiner, who seize on every story as an opportunity to paint "globalization" as an evil spectre haunting the globe for fresh victims. This sort of article isn't "journalism", but crude propagandizing of the sort more befitting of a Marxist rag like Workers World. One would think Weiner and others of his ilk were actively conspiring to keep these people poor, in a desire to foment their long-desired anti-capitalist revolution, if one didn't know better; your average "anti globalization" type is much too stupid to be attributed that sort of intellectual subtlety.

Heckscher-Ohlin Theory and Attitudes Towards Globalization

Now here's an interesting paper:

Abstract: The aim of the Paper is to see whether individuals’ attitudes towards globalization are consistent with the predictions of Heckscher-Ohlin theory. The theory predicts that the impact of being skilled or unskilled on attitudes towards trade and immigration should depend on a country’s skill endowments, with the skilled being less anti-trade and anti-immigration in more skill-abundant countries (here taken to be richer countries) than in more unskilled-labour-abundant countries (here taken to be poorer countries). These predictions are confirmed, using survey data for 24 countries. The high-skilled are pro-globalization in rich countries; while in some of the very poorest countries in the sample being high-skilled has a negative (if statistically insignificant) impact on pro-globalization sentiment. More generally, an interaction term between skills and GDP per capita has a negative impact in regressions, explaining anti-globalization sentiment. Furthermore, individuals view protectionism and anti-immigrant policies as complements rather than as substitutes, as they would do in a simple Heckscher-Ohlin world.

Japan as Anything but 'Number One'

It irritates me to no end that people continue to peddle Japan as an example of successful protectionism in practice. To counter this erroneous notion, I can think of no better antidote than to read Jon Woronoff's prescient 1991 book, "Japan as Anything but Number One". Here is a guy who foresaw the stagnation that would become Japan's lot right up till the present time, even as charlatans like Ezra Vogel and fearmongers like Michael Crichton were still playing up the notion of a monolithic, hyper-efficient, infallible "Japan, Inc." Here's hoping that this book awakens a few souls from their dogmatic slumbers.

Mugable Ailing?

Seems Comrade Bob's having a spot of bother:

Robert Mugabe was airlifted to South Africa for emergency medical treatment yesterday after collapsing at his state residence in Harare, a member of his security staff said last night.

The 79-year-old dictator was flown by military aircraft to Johannesburg after a violent vomiting fit. He was accompanied on the flight by his wife Grace, personal doctors and a string of aides.

Robert Mugabe: no details of illness yet

His collapse followed a similar bout of illness three months ago, for which he was also treated in South Africa. Last night, road blocks were set up around Harare, manned by riot police and soldiers to dispel any mass protests. Reinforcements from police, army and militia outside the capital were drafted into Harare to shore up the regime.

"We were ordered not to give any details of the president's illness in case it brought people out on to the streets," a senior member of the 'Green Bombers', the notorious youth brigade created by Mr Mugabe, told The Telegraph. Mr Mugabe is understood to have vomited repeatedly during Friday night then collapsed as he attempted to get out of bed yesterday.

Needless to say, I won't be wishing him a speedy recovery. The best thing that could happen for the people of Zimbabwe would be for Mugabe to hurry on his way to his maker.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

A Story Too Good to Check?

This has all the hallmarks of a hoax, as far as I'm concerned, but hey, why let scientific plausibility get in the way of an entertaining piece of corporation-bashing?

LAST February, Morgan Spurlock decided to become a gastronomical guinea pig.

His mission: To eat three meals a day for 30 days at McDonald's and document the impact on his health.

Scores of cheeseburgers, hundreds of fries and dozens of chocolate shakes later, the formerly strapping 6-foot-2 New Yorker - who started out at a healthy 185 pounds - had packed on 25 pounds.

But his supersized shape was the least of his problems.

Within a few days of beginning his drive-through diet, Spurlock, 33, was vomiting out the window of his car, and doctors who examined him were shocked at how rapidly Spurlock's entire body deteriorated.

"It was really crazy - my body basically fell apart over the course of 30 days," Spurlock told The Post.

His liver became toxic, his cholesterol shot up from a low 165 to 230, his libido flagged and he suffered headaches and depression.

I don't dispute the message he's trying to get across - that making McDonalds happy meals a staple of one's diet is a bad idea - but I just don't believe that this guy is being completely honest. He claims to have gained 25 pounds in 30 days, or about 0.83 pounds/day; assuming that 1 pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, he would have had to be consuming at least that much extra throughout the time period in question, or about 6,000 calories/day for a man of his weight and a moderate level of activity - and this on the extremely dubious assumption that his digestive tract would have extracted every last bit of nutrition from his food intake. I'm extremely doubtful that most of us can synthesize fat quite that rapidly - assuming he isn't lying, most of his weight gain would have come from water retention. As for the liver toxicity claims, I say bullsh*t - who is to say this guy wasn't ingesting other, less orthodox, substances during the period in question?

Friday, January 23, 2004

Lenin Dead From Massive 'Stroke of the People!'

Glorious Lack of Oxygen Distributed Equally Through Brain! Brain Parts Shut Down like Proletarian Workers Laying Down Tools to Paralyze Bourgeois Factory Owner! Cerebral Hemorrhage of Glorious Red Blood Declared 'Heroic Victory for the Communist Vanguard'!

Yup, in case you had any doubt about the matter, the Onion has struck again. Look closely at the whole image, as there are some seriously funny gems scattered about on that page - "Negro Sharecroppers Informed of Nation's Prosperity!"

Atom Feed Enabled!

Blogger has finally enabled Atom syndication; my feed is available at this link.

Now, if we can just get more newsreaders to actually support the new standard ...

What's Wrong With John Kerry?

It appears that not everyone shares my appreciation of John Kerry. Frank McGahon finds him "creepy", and notes that Mickey Kaus is of a similar opinion.

I don't see what there is about Kerry to be creeped out by, and if there's one thing I know about Mickey Kaus, it is that he often likes to be contrary for the sheer sake of it. Kerry's hardly perfect, but at the end of the day, politics is about picking the least bad option from a range of unappealing choices; still, I'd be interested in hearing what gripes people have about him. He's no fire-breathing Howard Dean type, but apart from that, what is there to make him so unappealing?

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Economist - The Jews of Uganda

Now here's a curious story:

STROLL through the foothills of Mount Wanale in central Uganda, and you may be surprised to meet children greeting you with a cheery “Shalom.” The village of Nabugoya is home to one of the world's least-known Jewish communities, replete with its own brick synagogue, marked in chalk with the Star of David.

Unlike the 18,000-odd remaining Ethiopian Jews, whom Israel recently promised to airlift to Tel Aviv, the Abayudaya of Uganda do not claim a lineage dating back to King David. They converted to Judaism less than a century ago. “It began in 1919,” explains Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. A local chief, Semei Kakungule, had—so he says—been promised a kingdom by the British, but they broke their promise, so he took his revenge on British missionaries by rejecting the New Testament for the Old.

At first, Mr Kakungule was forced to improvise, but in 1926 he obtained a Bible in Hebrew and English from two Jewish traders. For the next 35 years, his people studied the scriptures in Hebrew and in complete isolation, before being discovered by Israel's first ambassador to east Africa. By 1961, the Abayudaya had 3,000 members and 30 synagogues.

Then, in 1972, the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin banned Judaism, after a row with his Israeli arms suppliers. The Abayudaya's synagogues were filled with goats and their prayer books burned. All but 300 of them left the faith. Mr Sizomu, a third-generation Jew, and schooled at a rabbinical college in New York, is trying to rebuild the community. It now has six synagogues and 600 members.

Israel has shown no interest in Mr Sizomu's efforts, but he is not too disappointed. “When I read about the violence in Israel, it puts me off,” he says, lounging under a banana-tree on a sunny Sabbath.

It looks like the old (Christian-imposed) aversion to proselytizing still holds for many Jews. Given the frequency with which prominent figures in the Jewish world lament the demographic trends threatening the existence of their religion, one would think they'd welcome developments like this one, even if the origins of this particular community are a bit ... strange. To do otherwise is to buy into the pernicious belief that Judaism is nothing more than an ethnicity masquerading as a religion.

The Democratic Primaries Get Interesting

John Kerry now seems to have a 10-point lead in New Hampshire, which is frankly a good thing in my view. I would rather that Joe Lieberman have been the Democratic candidate, but since that isn't going to happen, better John Kerry than Howard Dean or John Edwards.

The only unknown quantity is Wesley Clark; the guy has no political track record to look at, and although he's a general, it is clear that he was far from universally loved and admired by those who served with him in the army. Domestic policy clearly takes a back-seat to foreign affairs in Clark's consciousness, and while this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it means that one has little idea just what he proposes to do about healthcare, education and all the other day-to-day concerns that can't be subsumed under the War on Terrorism mantle.

As a small "L" libertarian, I'd rather have a candidate who combined social liberalism with fiscally conservative policies, but I realize that it simply isn't going to happen anytime soon. My choice then comes down to picking between a candidate who is more liberal than I'd prefer on things like taxation, but who at least won't be bashing me over the head with his religiousity, or trying to legislate sexual morality, and, on the other hand, a president whose sole nod to libertarian concerns - tax cuts - has been more than compensated for by his reckless spending and willingness to pander to the religious right. Frankly, the latter bothers me more than the former at the present time.

I'd feared that the Democrats were bent on depriving those of us who don't comfortably fit into either the "liberal" or "conservative" slots a true choice in the 2004 elections, by nominating Howard Dean, a candidate so extreme in his rhetoric that even a second Bush term, with all the attendant religiosity, "pro marriage" paternalism, devil-may-care spending and "Patriot Act" heavyhandedness, would seem the only option open to us. It's looking like my fears were overdone, which is bad news for shrill opinionators like Paul Krugman, but good news for American democracy as a whole. Bush is actually going to have to put some real effort into get himself re-elected.

Hitler's Great Blunder

A comment made in response to my earlier post about the upcoming D-Day ceremony led me to thinking about Hitler's decision on to declare war on America, on December 11, 1941. That surely has to rank as one of the greatest blunders in all of history, so needless was it, and so certainly did it seal the demise of the Third Reich. To be sure, America and Germany were already in a barely concealed state of hostilities at that point, as Ribbentrop missive declaring war makes clear enough (though, as with anything said by Hitler for public consumption, the speech contains at least as many falsehoods as true statements) ; nevertheless, a rational person, faced with an awareness of America's industrial might, would have judged it better to remain in a state of low-level hostility than to provoke an America in which isolationist sentiment still prevailed to enter whole-heartedly into the fray. Hitler's decision cannot be rationalized away as being a result of his ignorance, for he was well aware, having been thoroughly briefed by Fritz Todt, of America's vast industrial potential. In Todt's own words, "given the arms and industrial supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon powers, we can no longer militarily win this war."

And yet Hitler went ahead and declared war on America anyway, in fulfillment of a pact with an "ally" (Japan) that felt itself under no obligation to reciprocate the gesture by declaring war on Hitler's primary opponent, the Soviet Union. For the Japanese, Hitler's declaration of war was a godsend - without it, Imperial Japan would certainly have perished long before it actually did - but what did Hitler expect his own side to get out of it? Why did a man who took pride in his having broken every pact he'd signed decide to keep this one in particular? The Soviet Union was far from defeated at that point, as his generals had made abundantly clear to him, and if he had reason to doubt his generals, any doubts about Soviet military reserves ought to have been dispelled by the Red Army counter-attack that began on December 6, 1941. Britain too remained both hostile and undefeated, and had even begun to take the fight right into the German heimat by carrying out bombing raids on industrial targets, sometimes in daylight. All things considered, there is simply no way one can explain Hitler's decision other than as an act of madness, motivated by his intemperate hatred for a nation of "mongrels", too weakened by admixture with Jews and blacks to be worth worrying about, rather than by the sort of cold calculation that is supposed to be the lot of the statesman.

Whatever Hitler's reasons (or lack thereof) for declaring war on America, I must say that I'm glad that he did. It is fashionable these days to declare that the Soviet Union would have won the war even without American intervention, a reaction that is to a great extent understandable, given the irritating American tendency to ignore the vital contributions of other nations to the war effort, not least the Soviet Union, Britain, Canada and Poland; but if it is natural that the self-aggrandizing tendencies exhibited in films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "U-571" tend to provoke an equally emphatic downplaying of America's significance in defeating the Third Reich, that does not make this reaction any more accurate than the attitude that provokes it.

It is true that Britain had begun harrassing Nazi Germany with its bomb raids, but these were little more than annoying pinpricks at the time - not until America entered the war did their scale escalate to the level that would see entire cities riduced to rubble, and the Luftwaffe devoting more resources to defending the homefront than to attacking the Red Army. On the Soviet side, most industrial capacity had been lost to the invaders, while the Red Air Force had been almost completely annihilated in the first days of Operation Barbarossa, losing more than 4,000 aircraft in the first week of battle; losses on such a scale would have been almost impossible for the Soviets to make up had they been forced to rely only on what help they could get from the British. The Red Army's relentless forward drive from late 1943 to the close of the war would simply have been inconceivable without the prodigious quantity of materiel supplied under the Lend-Lease program, as this link makes clear: "From March 1941 until October 1945, the United States provided the Russians with 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, 51,000 jeeps, 375,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 rail wagons, 3 million tons of gasoline, and 15 million pairs of boots." These figures completely exclude the substantial American contribution to the Soviet Union's food supply during the period in question.

In fact, it is safe to say that America's primary contribution to the war in Europe came not from its troops, whose valiant deeds are not to be denigrated, but from its willingness to act as manufacturer in chief, on terms that were extremely generous, to the Soviet Union, a country that had not long before been regarded as a mortal adversary (as it again would be within months of the war's end). Without America's participation in the war, there is no good reason to think that Hitler would not have defeated the Soviet Union outright, even if at a cost far higher than he had initially anticipated. There are those who may wonder why this was an outcome to be regretted any more than that which came about with the spread of communism throughout Eastern Europe and much of East Asia, but I am not one such person. Going by the sorts of things outlined in the Generalplan Ost (also see here and, for an English-language outline, here), the bodycount under the New Order would have made Stalin look like a rank amateur; apart from the annihilation of every single one of the 11 million Jews on the European continent, more than 50 million Slavs would have been "deported" to Western Siberia (with the intention in mind clearly being that they should perish there), to make room for the Herrenvolk, while yet millions more would have been worked and starved to death on the spot for the sake of their new masters. As bad as Stalin was - and he was very, very bad indeed - Hitler would have been far worse had he been given the chance. Some mistakes do turn out for the better, and Hitler's was one of them.

Swords into Ploughshares?

This Guardian article profiles Major General Mahmud Durrani of the Pakistani army, who has supposedly been working to get his country and India talking about a peaceful resolution of issues that are outstanding between, not the least important of which is Kashmir.

The major general's analysis is that the rivalry between the two countries can be geographically located in Kashmir, the Muslim majority state that has been cleaved into two by India and Pakistan. But his insight is that it is the terrain and relief of people¹s minds in both the countries that needs to be changed if peace is to come about.

"Look, I was a soldier, and in the Pakistani army there was a saying that the only good Indian is a dead one. But I have met Indians and I know that all the adjectives that we used about them, they used about us. Yet none ­ that we were devious, sly, dishonest ­ appear to be true."

Maj Gen Durrani's road map to peace, called The Cost of Conflict and the Benefits of Peace, was published just after the Kargil war in 2000 when both countries fought in the world's highest battlefield. It accurately foretold of the detrimental effects of creating a cold war mentality in south Asia. Large defence budgets gobble up money needed for development ­ desperately needed in both countries where tens of millions of people go hungry and even more cannot read or write. The antagonism of both nations has meant that the advantages of regional trade have never materialised ­ as both sides in the past have imposed punitive tariffs on each other.

Official trade between two nations that share a common culture, history and a mutually intelligible language, is paltry. Officially, bilateral trade between India and Pakistan was $200m (£109m) last year, but many analysts put the real figure at around $2bn if India-Pakistan trade routed through third countries is counted. If the barriers come down, the figure could easily top $5bn in a few years, bringing much-needed jobs to both countries.

"We would welcome Indian investment," says Hafeez Shaikh, Pakistan's privatisation minister, a former World Bank economist. "We hope to negotiate all the duties and restrictions between India and Pakistan by 2006."

There's more than a little fluff in this article: one hardly needs to be a strategic genius to understand that Kashmir constitutes the largest bone of contention between India and Pakistan, while the understanding that development efforts in both countries (particularly in Pakistan) were being stymied by outsized defence expenditures dates back long before General Durrani's book came out. Still, the fact that a Pakistani general is willing to go on record as an advocate of peace in the subcontinent is a noteworthy development.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the upcoming meeting between the Kashmir separatists and the Indian government (in the person of L.K. Advani.) Still, I can't see that all that much can be expected from all these talks. The brutal reality is that Pakistan needs peace a lot more than India does - the military burden is heavier for the Pakistanis than it is for the Indians, and the benefits of restored trade links would be much greater proportionally for the Pakistanis than it would be for an India that is already growing quite nicely; then there is the negative fallout from the ongoing revelations about Pakistan's nuclear proliferation activities to consider. India holds all the cards, and the sort of surrender that Musharraf's government would need to undertake for the sake of peace would be too much for him to go along with and stay alive - not that his days aren't already numbered as they are. In any case, even if Musharraf were willing to play the martyr for peace, it is almost a certainty that any new Pakistani government would simply break off talks and resume the Kashmiri "jihad."

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

All Hail Wikipedia

It's amazing the things one can find on Wikipedia; a bit of browsing turns up well-written entries for algebraic varieties, Noetherian rings, class field theory, even Iwasawa theory. In combination with PlanetMath and Eric Weisstein's World of Mathematics (aka MathWorld), Wikipedia provides a surprisingly comprehensive reference for the mathematicians who finds it inconvenient or impossible to consult an appropriate Springer yellow book.

One would have expected the Wikipedia project to have quickly deteriorated into a morass of gibberish and misinformation, yet this evidently has not been the case. Is it just a matter of time before the ignorant hordes run the place over, as they are currently attempting to do with comment spamming of Movable Type blogs? Or is there some deeper principle at work which will preserve the quality of the entries even as increasing popularity brings Wikipedia to the attention of ever greater numbers of people? Reading this essay found by Razib titled "Why Wiki Works", I fail to see what will stop determined spammers from wreaking havoc once they start thinking it worth their while to subvert the project to their own selfish goals. Better enjoy it while it lasts, I suppose.

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.