Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Hilarious Quote of the Day

From a commenter at Crooked Timber:

Ask for a recommendation for a book, and you’ll get 37 suggestions apiece from 400 people, half of them scholarly peacocks eager to make a vulgar display of learning, and the other half sadists looking to inflict Pynchon and Habermas on an innocent.

French National Assembly Bans the Veil

I predict that the French will come to regret this move. Few courses of action could be better designed to alienate France's muslim citizens from their government.

PARIS (Reuters) - An overwhelming majority of France's National Assembly has voted to ban religious emblems in state schools, a measure Paris wants to keep tensions between Muslim and Jewish minorities out of public classrooms.

Deputies voted 494 to 36 on Tuesday to ban Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from state schools and threaten pupils who insisted on wearing them with expulsion.

The government insists the ban does not single out any religion, but cabinet ministers admit its main targets are the Islamic headscarves and anti-Semitic remarks from Muslim pupils that teachers say have become more frequent in recent years.

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

In Washington, 47 members of the United States Congress protested to the French ambassador on Monday in a letter saying: "The proposed law threatens the religious rights of French children by forcing them to choose between school and religious practices that are central to their core values.""What is at issue here is the clear affirmation that public school is a place for learning and not for militant activity or proselytism," Assembly Speaker Jean-Louis Debre said.

Mr. Debre's statement is blatantly nonsensical. What is "militant" or "proselytizing" about simply covering one's head? And in order to maintain the charade that this is anything other than an anti-islamic measure, yarmulkes are now to be banned as well? Then there are the Sikhs to consider. This is state-sponsored religious discrimination, pure and simple, and those who champion such a measure in the name of "liberty" don't understand the meaning of that word. Liberty means the freedom to practice one's religion without actively harming others, not just freedom from religion.

I've long held that the true test of one's commitment to a principle is a willingness to champion it even when doing so would be to the benefit of people or ideas one dislikes; as such I was interested in knowing whether, given the events of September the 11th, 2001, the American government would be willing to abide by principle by clearly stating its opposition to this French initiative. It is disheartening, but not surprising, to read that only 47 members of congress were willing to protest the ban to the French ambassador; most people, whatever their station in life, don't really believe in the notion of permitting the expression of beliefs they find disagreeable.

More on Halliburton in Nigeria

The African Oil Politics blog has more comprehensive coverage of Halliburton's Nigerian activities than I've provided so far, with this , this and this post being particularly pertinent.

Dartmouth is Dean Country

Well, well, things have certainly changed since my time if the students at Dartmouth can tilt so heavily towards Howard Dean.

Jan. 17 - Dartmouth is Dean country. The former Vermont governor won over the college's hemp-necklace-wearing-bootleg-tape-trading set long ago. But now, even the students salivating for Wall Street internships are stumping for the good doctor. HOWARD DEAN FOR AMERICA signs are affixed to dorm windows. As the Democrats prepare to descend on the small New Hampshire town of Hanover for a Jan. 25 debate, backpacks on campus and off are festooned with buttons that read THE DOCTOR IS IN.

This might surprise some outsiders who think of Dartmouth as a conservative school. But the triumph of liberal sentiment in this election season isn't just anecdotal—there is mathematical evidence, too. The Dartmouth, the college's student newspaper, paired a story headlined ADMISSIONS OFFICE CONFRONTS CONSERVATIVE STEREOTYPE with a student-conducted poll reporting that only 22 percent of the Dartmouth community approves of the job being done by President George W. Bush—this while Bush's national approval rating stood solidly near 60 percent. And Dean's popularity isn't merely youthful idealism: Just 3 percent of Dartmouth professors back Bush.

Though it was never as quite as right-wing a school as some made it out to be, Dartmouth used to be the one place in the Ivy League where one could say "I am a conservative" without feeling the least bit of embarrasment. President James Wright has had to have done a real job with the admissions process to get a student body that's so heavily left-leaning.

Evolutionary Biology and Religion

P.Z. Myers has an excellent post up on the points of conflict between religion and the science of evolutionary biology. Suffice it to say that while the creationists are utterly wrong, those who claim that there are no points of conflict between religion and evolutionary biology are peddling a comforting falsehood.

In fact, I'd say Myers actually pulls his punches a bit. It would be nice to believe that one could hold onto one's religious faith with just a few tweaks to accomodate Darwinism, but on this point the creationists are more insightful than many of their opponents. The reality is that certain sorts of religious systems, like deism or pantheism, are more easily reconciled with evolution than others with more interventionist deities. The more one knows about evolutionary biology, and the better one understands the history of life on this planet of ours, the more difficult one will find it to reconcile the notion of benevolent supernatural entities with the reality of a capricious, arbitrary and vicious natural world, in which suffering and brutality have been the norm rather than the exception. Why should a God who cares about us in particular have created a universe in which no life existed for 14 billion years, or a planet on which no life-forms more complex than bacteria were to be found for the first 2 of its 4.5 billion years of existence? Why was a deity so concerned with the affairs of men prepared to wait out the 550 million years from the emergence of creatures like Myllokunmingia and Pikaia and beings like ourselves? Was God on holiday throughout this period or something? And if we Homo Sapiens have souls, what about Homo Erectus or the Neandertals? What about Homo Habilis, or going yet further back, Australopithecus Afarensis? But if we are willing to grant souls to all of these creatures, I see no reason not to extend the courtesy to chimpanzees, gorillas and all of our other fellow apes.

Of course, one needn't be acquainted with evolutionary biology to realize that there are intellectual difficulties inherent in all of the traditional monotheistic religions. The old problem of evil sufficed to shake me from my religious faith early in my teenage years, and I still am yet to come across a convincing explanation of how God's omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence can be reconciled. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, contrary to the claims of those who try to fight creationism by claiming an easy conexistence between religion and science, the claims of evolutionary biology do indeed inflict mortal damage on the traditional religious conceptions with which most in the Western world are familiar. There is no place for an activist, benevolent God in Darwin's universe.

John Derbyshire in His Own Words

Some people took issue with my characterization of John Derbyshire as a bigot. Well then, what better proof of my claim can there be than the man's own words about himself? From the above link:

I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one, and those things are going to be illegal pretty soon, the way we are going.

Leave out the self-pitying nonsense about PC bogeymen, and what do we have, other than a confession of the obvious? Would-be Derbyshire defenders who assume that my problem with him is that he is "a white male writing for a conservative journal" ought to ask themselves why I haven't bothered to accuse any of the numerous other such National Review writers of the same failing; last I heard, Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Stuttaford, David Frum and Victor Davis-Hanson were all white males writing for a conservative journal.

The Natives are Restless

Discontent with Bush is clearly building across all sections of the Right. If Andrew Sullivan's takedown of his interview with Tim Russert wasn't evidence enough, this NYT article ought to dispell all doubt about the matter.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 — For most of his presidency, George W. Bush has counted on a chorus of conservative newspaper columnists, radio hosts and television commentators to give powerful punctuation to his initiatives, proposals and defenses.

But in recent days, there has been an uptick in criticism of Mr. Bush from those quarters, underscoring strains between him and the Republican base that has so faithfully defended him in the past.

For example, Peggy Noonan, the Reagan speechwriter, had this to say on Sunday in opinionjournal.com about Mr. Bush's "Meet the Press" interview: "The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse."

George Will, the conservative columnist, wrote in his syndicated column on Sunday, "It is surreal for a Republican president to submit a budget to a Republican-controlled Congress and have Republican legislators vow to remove the `waste' that he has included and that they have hitherto funded."

While most conservatives remain squarely behind Mr. Bush, the united front has not been quite as united.

Columnists like Robert Novak, conservative television hosts like Joe Scarborough of MSNBC and others on local radio and the Internet have raised questions about Mr. Bush.

"It's a critical departure," said J. David Hoeveler, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who said last week that he believed that his local conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, had begun sounding less exuberant about Mr. Bush. "Generally it's been whole-heartedly Republican," Mr. Hoeveler said of the tenor of the conservative media. "It would suggest that those who would call themselves Republicans are quite possibly breaking ranks."

Bush campaign officials say the frustration stems from an eagerness among his supporters to take on the Democrats aggressively, which they say he will begin to do soon. And some columnists and commentators who have voiced criticism of the president insisted on Monday that they were not breaking ranks and that he remained their standard-bearer.

That line strikes me as being a mixture of spin and wishful thinking. The problem with Bush isn't so much that he's unwilling to "take on the Democrats aggressively", it's that he's violating most of the principles conservatism supposedly represents. Certainly, for the libertarian wing of the GOP, Bush has absolutely nothing to offer. But let's read on:

Many critiques go beyond politics. For instance, until recently Mr. Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, was as energetic a booster of Mr. Bush as anyone. He said he began speaking out against the Bush fiscal policy about two months ago, as he grew alarmed by the growing deficit and what he said were needlessly expensive proposals, like a manned Mars expedition and an increase in financing for the National Endowment of the Arts.

"When I first started doing it, I had Republicans calling me up and saying `Hey, why are you knocking a guy who's from your party?' " he said. "Two months later, everybody seems to be saying it. There's been no fiscal restraint and that's hurting the party and it's hurting the conservative cause."

In one column last week, Mr. Novak criticized Mr. Bush for giving "the most ineffective State of the Union address in recent years." And, he wrote, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the admission that the president's plan to expand Medicare would cost more than initially estimated were "a double blow to his credibility."

These criticisms get to the heart of the matter: a spending spree so reckless that many on the Right are now openly acknowledging the Clinton years as a golden era of fiscal restraint, coupled with a war advanced using arguments that have now been shown to have been manifestly untrue. I still think Saddam needed taking out, as he would have eventually gotten round to rebuilding his arsenal once all sanctions against his regime had been lifted, but that does not excuse the fact that the administration was willing to perpetuate falsehoods to achieve that objective. American credibility abroad has been seriously damaged by the failure to find any WMDs, and at this point, I'd say that anybody expecting some to be found is living in a dream world.

When Howard Dean was surging in the polls, I feared that I'd have no choice but to hold my nose and support Bush, whatever his failings on the domestic front, but now that Dean is effectively history, I think the Democratic Party once more presents a credible alternative. The old TINA (There Is No Alternative) rhetoric may work to keep the religious right on the reservation, but as a libertarian I have absolutely no reason at this point to prefer Bush to Kerry or Edwards; Bush is no free-trader, he seems not to understand the meaning of the term "spending restraint", and his social conservatism leaves me utterly cold. With a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, one can at least hope that deadlock will serve to keep the worst instincts of either side in check.

Monday, February 09, 2004

John Derbyshire Says Something Sensible!

Who'd have thunk it? I actually am in full agreement with what John Derbyshire has to say for once.

Yes, I got a lot of e-mail about my postings too, some of it angry. Who the heck do I think I am, criticizing Bush's performance? Etc., etc. Well, I'm a citizen, and this is not North Korea. I want GWB to win the general election in November. I wish him well. I think a Kerry presidency would be a horrible disaster. I do not, though, agree with Peggy Noonan that it's fine for a President to be this bad in an interview format, so long as he gives good speeches. Being good in an interview format is part of the job requirement, and I don't anyway think GWB gives particularly good speeches.

And just read that transcript. Sure, not everyone can think on his feet. I'm not much good at it myself. Remember the writer Oliver Goldsmith, who apologized for his lousy conversational skills by saying: "I have only sixpence in my pocket, but I can draw on a thousand pounds." GWB's speaking skills don't even amount to sixpence, though. Can you tell me what questions the President is responding to in the following three cases?

(A) Listen, we got some five let me let me, again, just give you a sense of where I am on the intelligence systems of America. First of all, I strongly believe the CIA is ably led by George Tenet. He comes and briefs me on a regular basis about what he and his analysts see in the world.

(B) And this is all in the context of war, and the more we learn about, you know, what took place in the past, the more we are going to be able to better prepare for future attacks.

(C) And the President of the United States' most solemn responsibility is to keep this country secure. And the man was a threat, and we dealt with him, and we dealt with him because we cannot hope for the best. We can't say, Let's don't deal with Saddam Hussein. Let's hope he changes his stripes, or let's trust in the goodwill of Saddam Hussein. Let's let us, kind of, try to contain him. Containment doesn't work with a man who is a madman.

Answers: (A) Will you testify before the commission [on intelligence failures]? (B) Same question. (C) In what way [was Saddam Hussein a danger to America]?

Now, the answers don't bear any relation to the questions. They are just incoherent babbling. Sure, the guy's heart is in the right place on national security -- I don't doubt that for a minute. "Language is the dress of thought," though, and we are entitled to suspect that a man who can't answer a question reasonably straight can't think straight.

As for the lese majeste accusation: Shove it. This is a republic. (emphases added)

It's nice to see that even a right-wing bigot from Central Casting like John Derbyshire is willing to think for himself on occasion. The idolatry of George W. Bush by many on the right is downright creepy.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Dick Cheney's Nigerian Connection

This is hot news; I wonder why it's gotten so little play amongst even the left-leaning bloggerati?

Feb. 4 - The Justice Department has opened up an inquiry into whether Halliburton Co. was involved in the payment of $180 million in possible kickbacks to obtain contracts to build a natural gas plant in Nigeria during a period in the late 1990’s when Vice President Dick Cheney was chairman of the company, Newsweek has learned.

There is no evidence that Cheney was aware of the payments in question and an aide said today the vice president has not been contacted about the probe. Still, the inquiry by the Justice Department’s fraud section—which prosecutes federal anti-bribery law violations—is likely to bring new public attention to the vice president’s past at the giant oil-services firm. Halliburton has been under intense scrutiny in recent months over its handling of hundreds of millions of dollars contracts relating to the rebuilding of Iraq.

The Justice inquiry, along with a related probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission, parallels a separate investigation into the Nigerian payments that is being conducted by a French magistrate and has received widespread attention in recent months in the European press. But the Justice Department and SEC probes have not previously been reported, although they were briefly mentioned by Halliburton last week near the end of a lengthy filing with the SEC.

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

The Justice Department inquiry involves a trail of payments to unknown recipients that were routed through off-shore bank accounts and were allegedly handled by a longtime Halliburton lawyer in London who, according to French press reports, was also a financial advisor to Nigeria’s late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. The payments were made in connection with the construction of a giant liquefied natural gas plant on a remote island in Nigeria.

The plant, one of the largest in the world, was built by TSKJ, a consortium of four major international construction firms, including Kellogg, Brown & Root, a major Halliburton subsidiary that has been the principal recipient of the company’s contracts in Iraq. Halliburton touted its role in the Nigerian project in a March, 2000 press release headlined: “Four Industry Leaders United to Execute World Class Project in Nigeria.”

The question Justice is probing is how exactly Halliburton’s subsidiary came to play that role. According to lengthy accounts of the probe in the French newspaper, Le Figaro, the TSKJ consortium in 1994 had created a subsidiary called LNG Services on Madeira, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic where companies are not required to pay any taxes. The French investigation was triggered, according to Le Figaro, when an official of one of the consortium’s French partners, Technip, was charged two years ago with embezzlement growing out of a separate, long-running corruption case involving the French oil company Elf Aquitaine.

According to Le Figaro, George Krammer, the accused Technip official, was outraged when Technip refused to defend him and turned state’s evidence. The paper reported that he told French authorities about an alleged $180 million “slush fund” that TSKJ maintained to bribe Nigerian officials relating to the natural gas plant in Nigeria. French authorities then tracked close to the same amount in “support contracts” from LNG Services—the subsidiary on the Portuguese island—to yet another obscure entity called Tri-Star, which was located on the British tax haven of Gibraltar. Tri Star, according to Le Figaro, was headed by a London lawyer named Jeffrey Tesler, who has long done work for Halliburton, and was known to have close relations with officials in Abacha’s Nigerian government. Tesler did not respond to a request for comment from NEWSWEEK.

If there's one thing that can be said for sure about the oil business in Nigeria, it's that it is out of the question for one to be a major player without paying massive bribes as a matter of course. This was especially true during the 1995 to 1997 period, when Abacha was in office - and Cheney was Halliburton CEO. This report actually underplays Jeffrey Tesler's connections with the military junta ruling Nigeria at the time, as Tesler was actually Abacha's personal financial advisor. I have a feeling that the Justice Department enquiry won't really go anywhere, given the GOP's hold on all levers of power and the apathetic nature of Democratic opposition. Still, it will be interesting to see where the French probe leads.

UPDATE: The Nigerian government has also launched its own investigation into Halliburton's activities.

The Argument from Nature

One of the most common fallacies in reasoning committed by supposedly sophisticated people is the identification of the "natural" with the "good", and the "unnatural" with the "bad." That this is a fallacy ought to be obvious when we consider how many things which are entirely natural are harmful to us, like viruses, toxins in uncooked food, or natural disasters like droughts and tornados, while in contrast many of the activities that make our lives worthwhile are deeply unnatural - bathing with soap, brushing with toothpaste, vaccinations, taking antibiotics, even reading books. In light of the manifestly false assumptions on which such arguments are built, it strikes me as a poor tactic for a political movement to resort to them to bolster its arguments, yet that is precisely what this New York Times article on homosexuality in animals proceeds to do, despite a half-hearted attempt to question the logic of such reasoning.

Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, are completely devoted to each other. For nearly six years now, they have been inseparable. They exhibit what in penguin parlance is called "ecstatic behavior": that is, they entwine their necks, they vocalize to each other, they have sex. Silo and Roy are, to anthropomorphize a bit, gay penguins. When offered female companionship, they have adamantly refused it. And the females aren't interested in them, either.

At one time, the two seemed so desperate to incubate an egg together that they put a rock in their nest and sat on it, keeping it warm in the folds of their abdomens, said their chief keeper, Rob Gramzay. Finally, he gave them a fertile egg that needed care to hatch. Things went perfectly. Roy and Silo sat on it for the typical 34 days until a chick, Tango, was born. For the next two and a half months they raised Tango, keeping her warm and feeding her food from their beaks until she could go out into the world on her own. Mr. Gramzay is full of praise for them.

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

Roy and Silo are hardly unusual. Milou and Squawk, two young males, are also beginning to exhibit courtship behavior, hanging out with each other, billing and bowing. Before them, the Central Park Zoo had Georgey and Mickey, two female Gentoo penguins who tried to incubate eggs together. And Wendell and Cass, a devoted male African penguin pair, live at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. Indeed, scientists have found homosexual behavior throughout the animal world.

This growing body of science has been increasingly drawn into charged debates about homosexuality in American society, on subjects from gay marriage to sodomy laws, despite reluctance from experts in the field to extrapolate from animals to humans. Gay groups argue that if homosexual behavior occurs in animals, it is natural, and therefore the rights of homosexuals should be protected. On the other hand, some conservative religious groups have condemned the same practices in the past, calling them "animalistic."

Even if it could be established that homosexuality was rampant in other animal species, that would still tell us nothing about whether we as humans ought to endorse it: after all, cannibalism is rampant amongst animals too, but we refrain from giving it our approval. On the other hand, even if it could be shown that in no other species had homosexuality ever occurred, we would have no justification for ruling it out in our own - no other species builds skyscrapers, drives cars or watches movies, either. Rather than waste time and energy on a spurious appeal to an ill-defined concept of what is "natural" or otherwise, I think gay activists are better off taking the libertarian position: "it's my life, I'm not forcing you to join me, so leave me alone." Appeals to homosexual behavior in penguins are all too easily swatted away by the opposed as simply an indicator that certain mental illnesses aren't confined to humans.

UPDATE: In an amazing stroke of luck, I've just come across an old Reason article by Virginia Postrel that makes exactly the same point I'm making - that the argument from nature is a trap to be avoided, whatever the state of affairs in the rest of the animal kingdom.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Dating South African Rock Art

Given how much attention is paid to the cave art of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira and other European sites, one might be forgiven for imagining that the so-called "Creative Explosion" characterised by Paleolithic art was a uniquely European phenomenon. In truth, such art is to be found in copious quantities across the entire globe, wherever men have resided. If the historical record of the distant past is more poorly preserved in some places than others, it owes more to unfavorable climatic conditions than to any artistic shortcomings of those who lived in those regions. At any rate, this article about the San art of South Africa's uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park provides a bit of a corrective to the conventional wisdom.

New radio-carbon dating technology shows some South African rock art to be three times older than previously believed, Newcastle University in the United Kingdom said.
A study by archaeologists at the institution estimated that rock art at the World Heritage Site of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal could be 3,000 years old.
Their age was originally put at 1,000 years, university spokeswoman Claire Jordan said in a statement to Sapa.
Archaeologists from the Australian National University in Canberra participated in the study.
"The findings, published in the current edition of the academic journal South African Humanities, have major implications for our understanding of how the rock artists lived and the social changes that were taking place over the last three millennia," Jordan said.
The mountainous uKhahlamba-Drakensberg region was considered to be one of the best areas in the world for rock art.
It has the largest and most concentrated group of painting in Africa south of the Sahara, with over 40,000 paintings, said Jordan.
San hunter-gatherers, who settled in the area about 8,000 years ago, created the artwork using mainly black, white, red and orange pigments.

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

The research team were able to analyse salt samples taken from the painted rocks using a highly-refined radio-carbon dating technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry.
The results show some of the paintings are at least 3,000 years old.
Jordan said: "Experts suspect they could be even older due to the San people's long occupation of the area but say they need to carry out further tests to prove this theory."

As the passage makes clear, there is a tremendous wealth of material in this region that has been paid little attention in the West. In addition, the ancient settlement date attributed to the San, and the prodigious quantities of art testifying to their continuous habitation of the region, ought to dispel any doubts that the old Afrikaner propaganda about South Africa being an "empty" land, which one still often encounters today, has any basis in reality. Even if Bantu settlement hadn't long predated the arrival of any Europeans (as in fact it did), South Africa still wouldn't have been a land without a people. "Scarcely populated," sure, but hardly "empty."

No, James Lileks, YOU Have Jumped the Shark!

James Lileks is extremely overrated, and this latest rant of his provides a perfect example of what I'm talking about. You have to be pretty darned clueless to equate wasting public money on manned space programs with private expenditure on movies and theater productions.

"I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilizations out onto other planets," Stewart said.

Oh: right. Actor talking. “Get this place right.” What would that look like, exactly? And how would we know? If in 2079 there’s one monomanical Marxist sub-saharan leader starving his people for political gain, does this obligate other nations to shut down their rocketry programs until the guy dies and crop production returns to pre-tyrant levels?

Note the implicit stereotyping there: if in 2079 there's a monomaniacal Marxist leader in power somewhere, it can be taken for granted that he'll be "sub-saharan" (i.e, Black African). Nice work.

The 63-year-old British actor says manned missions are too expensive. "It would take up so many resources, which I personally feel should be directed at our own planet," he said.

Making movies takes up many resources which could be directed at our own planet. For that matter, millions of pounds are spent in England annually for theater productions – I propose a ten-year moratorium on all stage shows, with the money distributed directly to our own planet. And after we have gotten things right on this planet we can get back to such frivolous luxuries as theater. What’s that, you say – theater employs many people? Theater inspires imaginations, adds to our store of knowledge, helps us define what it means to be human?

This is so stupid I don't even know where to begin, and the worst thing is that it's coming from a so-called "fiscal conservative"! Listen buster, your childish daydreams about spacemen with shiny rayguns is in no way a justification for throwing American taxpayer money up into space. If your imagination so badly needs inspiration, I have a far cheaper suggestion for you - go find yourself some peyote or LSD and take a drug trip! I'm tired of listening to petulant morons like this guy whine about their precious Mars fantasies when real scientific research is being given the shaft to satisfy their delusional yearnings. Where was Lileks' ire when the abandonment of the Hubble was announced?

I don't entirely agree with Stewart's statements, but he is mostly right, and James Lileks is hopelessly wrong. From a scientific viewpoint, nothing could be more damaging to the search for life on Mars than contaminating (yes, Lileks, contaminating!) the place with the millions of germs any human traveller would inevitably bring along on the journey. That Lileks is unaware of such an elementary fact only goes to show how little his annoyance has to do with any real interest in scientific understanding per se, as opposed to living out the sort of nonsense imbibed by watching too many cheesy space operas. If public money isn't going to go to worthwhile scientific endeavors, it ought to be returned to the public, not burnt up in an exercise that will add little to our knowledge of the universe.

Five Nigerians Charged in $242 Million '419' Fraud

I can't help feeling a touch of perverse pride at the sheer scale of the crime these chaps have committed - what was that again about dumb Africans and their illiterate missives? When Nigerians go in for crime, they don't bother with the small stuff, and they never deign to sully themselves by engaging in crimes of violence. No, the Nigerian way is the Enron way - white collar and obscenely lucrative.

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigerian prosecutors leveled 86 counts of fraud and conspiracy against five people Thursday for allegedly swindling a Brazilian bank of $242 million, in the biggest crackdown yet on the West African nation's advance-fee fraud or "419" scams.

The five are accused of luring an employee of Sao Paulo's Banco Noroeste into siphoning off the funds from his employer, persuading him he could land a share in a lucrative Nigerian construction contract if he just paid enough handling fees up front.

The five appeared in court in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, in handcuffs to hear the charges Thursday. All the suspects, including housewife Amaka Anajemba, lawyer Obum Osakwe, and businessman Emmanuel Nwude -- described by prosecutors as "a major shareholder" in a leading Nigerian bank -- pleaded innocent.

Penalties for each of the counts range between seven and 10 years.

Four Nigerian companies -- Ocean Marketing, Fynbaz, Emrus, and the African Shelter Bureau -- also accused of involvement in the alleged crime were not represented in court.

Presiding Judge Lawal Gumi entered innocent pleas on behalf of the companies and postponed proceedings until Wednesday, when he will consider requests for bond.

There was mild drama in court when suspect Nzeribe Okoli, while making his plea, declared he would make "shocking revelations" during the trial.

"There are so many hidden things which Nigerians should know," Okoli said before he was interrupted by the judge, who told him to restrict his answers to the questions he was asked.

An interesting fact that needs pointing out is that all the accused are Igbo, which goes to show that there is some truth to the notion of a special Igbo enterpreneurial flair; here they are, blazing trails others will be hard-pressed to follow!

Playing Politics with People's Lives

The immorality of the American government obstructionism over peacekeeping in Ivory Coast is simply astonishing. What motive can there be for it, other than a desire to score a petty point against the French?

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 4 — The United States on Wednesday blocked the dispatching of United Nations peacekeepers to Ivory Coast for at least a month even as France argued that the mission was essential to peace.

The American ambassador, John D. Negroponte, in a closed meeting of the Security Council, questioned a United Nations estimate that 6,240 peacekeeping soldiers were needed for the job and expressed concern that the mission might lead to a de facto partitioning of the country.

It would be one thing if the American government were obliged to provide troops for any peacekeeping force, but this doesn't seem to be the case. What is more, a partitioning of Ivory Coast, "de facto" or otherwise, is arguably precisely what is needed to resolve the ethnic tensions there.

The Charade of Russian Democracy

Old habits are hard to break. Here's yet more evidence that Russia is still just a one-party dictatorship garlanded with the trappings of democracy.

MOSCOW, Feb. 5 — The Russian Parliament on Thursday unexpectedly scheduled a vote this month on a long-ignored bill that would extend the presidential term to seven years, even though President Vladimir V. Putin has publicly opposed such constitutional changes.

The legislation was introduced by a group of regional lawmakers in 2002 but languished. As written, it could allow Mr. Putin to run for two new terms, conceivably keeping him in power until 2018.

The committee that controls Parliament's legislative agenda, which scheduled the vote, called for lawmakers and others to suggest any amendments by next Thursday and to prepare for a vote this month — before the presidential elections scheduled for March 14, which Mr. Putin is universally expected to win.

Mr. Putin, traveling in central Russia, said Thursday evening that he opposed the legislation but understood that its proponents were "guided by a desire to create more stable conditions for the country" and were supported by a "majority of the population."

That last statement is right out of Joe Stalin's playbook; the brazen quality of Putin's lying mock humility reminds me of nothing so much as Uncle Joe's infamous Dizzy with Success Pravda propaganda piece from the 1930s. What is happening in Russia is truly nauseating to behold - the personality cult, the craven sycophancy of the parliament and the press, the crackdown on any independent centers of power. To call Russia a "democracy" merely because it goes through the formality of holding elections makes as much sense as saying the Soviet Union was a democracy - after all, it too held elections as regularly as clockwork, and voting was even compulsory.

Stating the Obvious

Does Pervez Musharraf really expect anyone to believe that Abdul Qadeer Khan was a rogue proliferator operating without the knowledge and approval of his superiors? It's a transparent lie, and the IAEA isn't buying it.

A Pakistani scientist who has admitted to being at the centre of a network selling nuclear technology to other countries was yesterday called "the tip of an iceberg" by the head of the United Nations' atomic agency.

On Tuesday Abdul Qadeer Khan, so-called father of Pakistan's bomb, made a televised admission of his role in leaking nuclear technology to other countries. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, said yesterday he would pardon Mr Khan.

But Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: "Dr Khan was not working alone," adding that there was a lot more work to do in unraveling the network.

The network's shape has become clearer this week. The Scomi Group, a company controlled by the son of Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia's prime minister, has admitted supplying components usable in uranium enrichment centrifuges to Gulf Technical Industries, a Dubai-based trading company.

Components from Scomi were seized in October aboard a German ship bound for Libya. The Dubai company specialises in trading of special and carbon steels, and is controlled by BSA Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman who is in Malaysia.

It was described by a Vienna-based diplomat yesterday as an essential "gateway" between suppliers and buyers, although the manufacturers may not have known who the end-users were. Mr Khan has admitted a role in supplying technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran. The IAEA believes his black-market network involves companies or individuals in at least five countries.

The Pakistani authorities have denied that its military and intelligence officials have played a role in the network.

The true state of affairs, as far as I can make out, is that the Pakistani government is scared of incurring Washington's wrath, and has essentially asked Khan to fall on his sword like a modern day Varus. That is the only plausible explanation for the rapidity with which he has been granted a pardon by his government, barely a day after his confession on television.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Feb. 5 — Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, granted a full pardon on Thursday to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, a day after Dr. Khan appeared on television and confessed to sharing nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea and Libya.

As a result, Dr. Khan, 67, will not face prison, a fine or any other punishment.

In a 90-minute news conference at army headquarters here, General Musharraf said Pakistan would not hand over all documents from its investigation to international nuclear inspectors. He said it would not order an independent investigation into the Pakistani Army's role in the proliferation, calling the idea "rubbish." And he said he would never allow United Nations supervision of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

"Negative to all three," General Musharraf said, raising his voice. "It is an independent nation. Nobody comes inside and checks our things. We check them ourselves."

The White House praised General Musharraf for breaking up the network linked to Dr. Khan, which appears to have been one of the largest ever discovered, but made little mention of the pardon and declined to say whether it would insist that Pakistan sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

Pakistan presents a real test to the Bush administration; should America keep dealing on friendly terms with a country that is a confirmed nuclear proliferator, run by a military dictator? I've pointed out before the perverse incentive Pakistan's reckless dealings present to its commitment to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but it bears repeating once more: nothing would suit Musharraf's government more than that the hunt for Bin Laden should continue indefinitely, for the day that Al Qaeda's operations in that part of the world are shut down will be the day when Pakistan's sole source of leverage in the White House will be lost. It is useless to expect any substantive results from a "realpolitik" alliance with such a dubious regime.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Cockroaches Come Out to Feast

Like Blattaria taking advantage of the fall of darkness to help themselves, the ridiculous tempest in a teapot over Janet Jackson's breast has seen the emergence of its own parasites.

A Knoxville woman filed a proposed class action lawsuit Wednesday against Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, MTV, CBS and Viacom, contending she and other viewers were injured by their lewd actions during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Terri Carlin filed her lawsuit "on behalf of all Americans who watched the halftime show" in federal court in Knoxville.
The lawsuit stems from Sunday's now infamous exposure of one of Jackson's breasts when Timberlake ripped off part of her costume during their performance on the CBS network.
Viacom International Inc. owns both CBS and MTV. MTV produced the show.
Carlin, who works at a Knoxville bank, said the exposure and "sexually explicit conduct" by other performers during the show injured viewers.
"As a direct and proximate result of the broadcast of the acts, (Carlin) and millions of others saw the acts and were caused to suffer outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury," the lawsuit filed by Knoxville attorney Wayne A. Ritchie II states.
It doesn't specify the type of serious injury.
"All of the defendants knew that the Super Bowl, the pre-eminent sports event in the United States, would be watched by millions of families and children," Ritchie wrote. "Nevertheless, (they) included in the halftime show sexually explicit acts solely designed to garner publicity and, ultimately, to increase profits for themselves."

I haven't seen such a hue and cry about nothing in ages. Skimpily dressed cheerleaders flouncing about and dogs biting men's genitals aren't worth commenting on, but the mere sight of Janet Jackson's right breast (and not even the full thing) is cause for injury? Something is seriously wrong with American culture if such an innocuous event can draw out so many opportunists and schoolmarms, especially when there are so many far weightier issues in need of some attention. Juvenal's insight into Roman life still holds true in our time - the canaille dearly loves its panem et circenses.

UPDATE: This BBC article gives a decent view of just how crazy the outrage about this incident must seem from a European perspective. If there's one aspect of life Europeans have a saner perspective on, it's this one.

The Allure of Realpolitik

Matthew Yglesias has a post up on the administration's support for Uzbekistan's government in its "anti-terrorist" activities. I shall have a lot more to say about this later, but for now I'll content myself with saying that the American government seems to be making a mistake it has all too frequently made in the past, by resorting too dogmatically to a simple-minded notion that "Islamist/Leftist = Evil", therefore "Their Opponents = Good." It may seem like hard-headed realpolitik to give sustenance to vile regimes that indulge in the rhetoric of "anti-terrorism", but in the long run this is a terrible idea, as the hatred this sort of lazy thinking gives rise to can take a long time to die down. We are still dealing with the consequences of support for the Shah today; there's no need to further inflame the muslim world by making the false assumption that every islamic movement must necessarily be worse than a secular autocracy. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a nasty piece of work, but then again, so is the Uzbek government.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

itex2MML Binary for Windows

I'd expect anyone looking for this to have spotted the link the binary posted on Jacques Distler's blog, but just in case not, I'll post the link here again:

itex2MML for Windows (Compiled with GCC 3.3.1 on Cygwin)

The zip archive contains both the binary and the "cygwin1.dll" shared library required to run it. You should only need the shared library if you aren't planning to install Cygwin and run itex2MML from within it. Use of the program is straightforward: just run
itex2MML.exe < input.xhtml > output.xhtml
to obtain a file with the itex markup translated into MathML. Remember to use the following doctype
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.1 plus MathML 2.0//EN"       "http://www.w3.org/Math/DTD/mathml2/xhtml-math11-f.dtd" >
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en">

before the <head> tag, and to serve any pages with MathML content with a MIME-type of "application/xhtml+xml" if you want Mozilla to display the equations as they were meant to be seen.

Go Howard Dean!

I'm by no means the greatest Dean fan out there, but I really have to hand it to him for pointing out the absurdity of the outcry over the Janet Jackson breast incident. To hear the self-appointed advocates of virtue fulminate, one would think all these hypocrites had never seen a female mammary gland before or something.

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Sometimes a breast is just a breast.

Howard Dean, a physician and a Democratic presidential candidate, on Monday dismissed as "silly" a government inquiry into whether indecency rules were broken during the broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show when pop diva Janet Jackson's bodice was ripped to expose her right breast.

"I find that to be a bit of a flap about nothing," the former Vermont governor said. "I'm probably affected in some ways by the fact that I'm a doctor, so it's not exactly an unusual phenomenon for me."

During the break in the National Football League's championship game, singer Justin Timberlake reached for Jackson as they sang a duet and tore off part of her black leather bustier.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell promised a "thorough and swift" investigation of the stunt aired during one of the most popular American television broadcasts, which also attracts a major worldwide audience.

"In general, I think the FCC does have a role in promoting some reasonable standard of decency," Dean told reporters aboard his campaign plane. "However, considering what's on television these days, I think the FCC is being pretty silly about investigating this."

Dean, who does not have cable television at his home in Burlington, Vermont, said Americans could inadvertently turn on "far worse things" while "cruising through cable at regular viewing hours."

"I don't find it terribly shocking relative to some of the things you can find on standard cable television," he added. "I think the FCC probably has a lot of other things they should be pursuing."

Howard Dean is right - these people need to get a life! I still don't like Dean's pandering to protectionist sentiment, but this boosts my respect for the guy by a huge amount.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

How Prevalent is HIV in Africa?

It seems reporter Rian Malan, grandson of apartheid creator Daniel F. Malan and author of My Traitor's Heart, has been doing some investigative work on the way in which South Africa's HIV/AIDS statistics are being collected, and has come to the conclusion that the statistics being bandied about for Southern Africa are "grotesquely exaggerated". Rather than rely entirely on the Wired article (which, despite conceding Malan's point about the ASSA 2000 model, and further corroborating his criticisms by citing statistics about the results of a Kenyan AIDS survey, still manages to give an image of Malan as some sort of paranoid AIDS-denier), I thought it best to read his article myself. Following is some of what Malan has to say about the real situation:

It was an article from The Spectator describing the bizarre sex practices that contribute to HIV’s rampage across the continent. ‘One in five of us here in Zambia is HIV positive,’ said the report. ‘In 1993 our neighbour Botswana had an estimated population of 1.4 million. Today that figure is under a million and heading downwards. Doom merchants predict that Botswana may soon become the first nation in modern times literally to die out. This is Aids in Africa.’

Really? Botswana has just concluded a census that shows population growing at about 2.7 per cent a year, in spite of what is usually described as the worst Aids problem on the planet. Total population has risen to 1.7 million in just a decade. If anything, Botswana is experiencing a minor population explosion.

There is similar bad news for the doomsayers in Tanzania’s new census, which shows population growing at 2.9 per cent a year. Professional pessimists will be particularly discomforted by developments in the swamplands west of Lake Victoria, where HIV first emerged, and where the depopulated villages of popular mythology are supposedly located. Here, in the district of Kagera, population grew at 2.7 per cent a year before 1988, only to accelerate to 3.1 per cent even as the Aids epidemic was supposedly peaking. Uganda’s latest census tells a broadly similar story, as does South Africa’s.

Now, there are many criticisms that can be levelled against Malan's statements here, not the least important being that the sources of error in these projections he dismisses may have been some other parameters than the HIV prevalence rate. Nevertheless, Malan's statistics, if they can be trusted, do indeed suggest that something is very wrong with the models in use. Malan lays the blame on the use of a simulation called Epimodel:

In 1985, a science journal estimated that 1.7 million Americans were already infected, with ‘three to five million’ soon likely to follow suit. Oprah Winfrey told the nation that by 1990 ‘one in five heterosexuals will be dead of Aids’.

We now know that these estimates were vastly and indeed deliberately exaggerated, but they achieved the desired end: Aids was catapulted to the top of the West’s spending agenda, and the estimators turned their attention elsewhere. India’s epidemic was likened to ‘a volcano waiting to explode’. Africa faced ‘a tidal wave of death’. By 1992 they were estimating that ‘Aids could clear the whole planet’.

Who were they, these estimators? For the most part, they worked in Geneva for WHO or UNAIDS, using a computer simulator called Epimodel. Every year, all over Africa, blood would be taken from a small sample of pregnant women and screened for signs of HIV infection. The results would be programmed into Epimodel, which transmuted them into estimates. If so many women were infected, it followed that a similar proportion of their husbands and lovers must be infected, too. These numbers would be extrapolated out into the general population, enabling the computer modellers to arrive at seemingly precise tallies of the doomed, the dying and the orphans left behind.

Because Africa is disorganised and, in some parts, unknowable, we had little choice other than to accept these projections. (‘We’ always expect the worst of Africa anyway.) Reporting on Aids in Africa became a quest for anecdotes to support Geneva’s estimates, and the estimates grew ever more terrible: 9.6 million cumulative Aids deaths by 1997, rising to 17 million three years later.

Or so we were told. When I visited the worst affected parts of Tanzania and Uganda in 2001, I was overwhelmed with stories about the horrors of what locals called ‘Slims’, but statistical corroboration was hard to come by. According to government census bureaux, death rates in these areas had been in decline since the second world war. Aids-era mortality studies yielded some of the lowest overall death rates ever measured. Populations seemed to have exploded even as the epidemic was peaking.

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

In the year 2000, Timaeus joined a team of South African researchers bent on eliminating all doubts about the magnitude of Aids’ impact on South African mortality. Sponsored by the Medical Research Council, the team’s mission was to validate (for the first time ever) the output of Aids computer models against actual death registration in an African setting. Towards this end, the MRC team was granted privileged access to death reports as they streamed into Pretoria. The first results became available in 2001, and they ran thus: 339,000 adult deaths in 1998, 375,000 in 1999 and 410,000 in 2000.

This was grimly consistent with predictions of rising mortality, but the scale was problematic. Epimodel estimated 250,000 Aids deaths in 1999, but there were only 375,000 adult deaths in total that year — far too few to accommodate the UN’s claims on behalf of the HIV virus. In short, Epimodel had failed its reality check. It was quietly shelved in favour of a more sophisticated local model, ASSA 600, which yielded a ‘more realistic’ death toll from Aids of 143,000 for the calendar year 1999.

At this level, Aids deaths were about 40 per cent of the total — still a bit high, considering there were only 232,000 deaths left to distribute among all other causes. The MRC team solved the problem by stating that deaths from ordinary disease had declined at the cumulatively massive rate of nearly 3 per cent per annum since 1985. This seemed very odd. How could deaths decrease in the face of new cholera and malaria epidemics, mounting poverty, the widespread emergence of drug-resistant killer microbes, and a state health system reported to be in ‘terminal decline’?

But things get more interesting still, as model replaces model, with the number of AIDS deaths declining sharply with each revision:

Towards the end of 2001, the vaunted ASSA 600 model was replaced by ASSA 2000, which produced estimates even lower than its predecessor: for the calendar year 1999, only 92,000 Aids deaths in total. This was just more than a third of the original UN figure, but no matter; the boffins claimed ASSA 2000 was so accurate that further reference to actual death reports ‘will be of limited usefulness’. A bit eerie, I thought, being told that virtual reality was about to render the real thing superfluous, but if these experts said the new model was infallible, it surely was infallible.

Only it wasn’t. Last December ASSA 2000 was retired, too. A note on the MRC website explained that modelling was an inexact science, and that ‘the number of people dying of Aids has only now started to increase’. Furthermore, said the MRC, there was a new model in the works, one that would ‘probably’ produce estimates ‘about 10 per cent lower’ than those presently on the table. The exercise was not strictly valid, but I persuaded my scientist pal Rodney Richards to run the revised data on his own simulator and see what he came up with for 1999. The answer, very crudely, was an Aids death toll somewhere around 65,000 — a far cry indeed from the 250,000 initially put forth by UNAIDS.

There is a lot more to this article, but I've quoted more than enough of it already, so I'll just say that if one grants that everything Malan says is true, it gives grounds, not just for extreme scepticism about the scale of the AIDS crisis in Africa, but also for cynicism about all statistical modelling that is based on simple extrapolations of current trends. This is an issue I've mentioned before, but the issues Malan raises are as vivid a real-life illustration of what I was going on about as one can get. When one has researchers saying things like the following

"The nature of statistics is that we don't know," said Mary Crewe, director of the Centre for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria. "Modeling is to some extent guesswork ... and in a way it doesn't matter if you're working on a figure of 10 percent or 20 percent of the population. It's still an appalling number of people who are dying."

one has a serious problem on one's hands, as the danger with crying wolf is that people stop believing you even when you're speaking the truth. Yes, a 10 percent figure is atrocious, but there is a difference between 10 and 20 percent, and it does matter. As Malan points out, AIDS is far from being the only preventable cause of illness and death in Africa, but diseases like malaria and tuberculosis get nowhere near the funding AIDS treatment does. It makes no sense to spend $400 on anti-retroviral drugs to keep a single person alive when 20 other lives could be saved with exactly the same amount of money.

Unlike Rian Malan, I'm not willing to attribute the tendency to overstate the HIV epidemic entirely to self-seeking advocates obsessed with their cause to the exclusion of all else - though I do think this is a major issue, as with all advocacy. I think Malan's numbers are at least partly wrong, and that there really is an incipient epidemic occurring in Southern Africa, even if not quite on the scale most sources have made it out to be. The danger with the sort of position Malan is pushing is that a lot of people who are bent on denying that there even is an AIDS problem (like, say, Thabo Mbeki) will take what he has to say as vindication of their beliefs, rather than as the criticism of simplistic extrapolations that Malan meant it to be, but even if this comes to pass, the blame will still have to rest primarily on the shoulders of those who relied on sloppy guesswork to make overblown claims. Scientists shouldn't be in the business of perpetuating falsehoods, even if they are doing so for what seem to be noble causes.

Quality Control Problems at the NYT

I'd actually spotted this earlier in the day, but it wasn't until I came across a post by PZ Myers that it came back into mind: what on earth is the New York Times doing running an editorial on astrology, of all things?

I'd originally ignored the op-ed as a spoof, not even bothering to read what I thought would be a lame attempt at humor, but from Crooked Timber I've learnt that the contributor of the article, a certain Erin Sullivan, has actually written an entire book on the subject titled Saturn in Transit, and nothing in the reviews gives any indication that this work was meant to be taken other than seriously. With that in mind, I think any notion that this was an NYT joke has to be cast aside. This sort of pseudoscientific trash has as much business being in the supposed Newspaper of Record as an editorial on phrenology, and I'd say someone on the Times' editorial team is in serious need of an acquaintance with Popperian falsificationism.

Outsourcing and the Importance of Language

One issue that tends to get overlooked when talking about offshore outsourcing is the importance of language issues in determining who gets what business. It is a commonplace that China is set to follow on the heels of India in the outsourcing business, but those who imagine that the Chinese can do anything the Indians can fail to reckon with an important reality: English is an official language of India, with a constituency of several million speakers within that country, while most Chinese are as resolutely monoglot as the typical American or Englishman. It is easy to imagine that all that is required is a few Chinese-English intermediaries, but this is quickly seen to be a fantasy when the nature of most work that is outsourced is considered - call centers, document writing, and even software programming are all occupations that require native-level English fluency, and China simply doesn't have people with such skills in the numbers required to consitute a threat. Even within India itself, the English fluency issue represents a serious impediment to the growth of outsourcing, as the number of fluent speakers of the language is estimated at no more than 50 to 100 million individuals, depending on whom one asks. That still constitutes a very large pool of talent, but, to put the number in perspective, it is at most equivalent to the combined population of the UK, Ireland and Canada.

I don't mean to portray the competitive pressures presented by the offshore outsourcing trend as non-existent; indeed, the pool of cheap English-language speakers stretches well beyond India alone, to embrace not just other South Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also ex-American colonies like the Philippines, and all of the former British colonies in Africa. Still, the same limitation faced by India is present in all these other places, with at most a minority of the native population possessing the requisite level of English-speaking ability to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. This may change in the long term, but as anyone who has ever tried to study a second language will know, such skills cannot be acquired in the space of a few months, unlike, say, an MCSE certification. It is a mistake, though an understandable one, for embattled IT workers to see in the vast populations of the Third World a "swart gevaar" that simply isn't there; competitive pressures do exist, but not quite to the degree that is feared.

One corollary of all the above that is also worth mentioning is that in the long-run the trend to offshore outsourcing actually presents a competitive advantage for the English-speaking nations of the developed world. Workers in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, and even larger ones like Italy, which are lacking in great numbers of foreign speakers, will be under far less competitive pressure than those in the Anglosphere, Spain, Portugal, France, and, to a lesser extent, Germany*, which may be good for the job security of workers in certain sectors of those nations' economies, but will have adverse effects for the productivity, and therefore the prosperity, of the countries as a whole. Ethnic pride being what it is, there is simply no prospect of the Norwegians or the Finns being happy to have all of their day-to-day interactions with their own governments, schools, banks, hospitals and so on being done in English, but the ever-increasing price to be paid for this linguistic stubborness will be in terms of foregone growth.

*Germany was the traditional lingua-franca of central Europe until the unfortunate events of the 1930s and 1940s, and a good knowledge of German is still a nice thing to have in Eastern Europe. As such, these nations are potential beneficiaries of outsourcing tendencies in Germany proper.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Much Ado About Outsourcing

I originally made the following remarks while commenting on a post made by Edward Hugh:

I'm not as pessimistic as a lot of people seem to be about the future of software development in the Western world, for a very simple reason: IT salaries in India are rising sharply, recording the highest increases in all of Asia in 2003 - about 17 percent if my memory serves me correctly - and this from a base that is by no means as low as India's per capita GDP might suggest. What this tells me is that we're a lot closer to an equilibrium situation than the current angst lets on.

Now, a naive reading of the facts might suggest that if the average Indian programmer is earning $10,000 and his American counterpart is earning $60,000, we wouldn't expect equilibrium until the two's salaries had equalized, but there's clearly a lot more to programmer productivity than a reading of skillsets might indicate. India is a country with serious shortcomings in infrastructure and the legal system, and as such programmer productivity there will be considerably lower than in the US, even if Indian programmers are individually as skilled as their American counterparts.

Assuming the laws of economics still hold, at equilibrium we should expect American and Indian developers to earn the same amount per unit of output; what this means in plain English is that if Indian programmers are only half as productive, corporations should be indifferent between hiring IT staff in the US or India, once Indian salaries are at half American levels. Once the low hanging fruit is gone, as the rapid rise in salaries indicates is already happening, expect all the hype about outsourcing to cease as suddenly as it took off.

The idea that India's 1 billion-strong population represents a limitless pool of IT talent to draw upon lies behind much of the worry about offshore outsourcing, but all the evidence indicates that such worries are considerably overdone. If India were as chock-full of IT talent as the doom-mongers make out, one wouldn't expect salaries to be rising much, if at all, in stark contrast to what has actually been transpiring. Currently, average programmer salaries in India seem to be running at about $10-$20,000 per year, which might seem miniscule in comparison to what American developers have come to expect, but when one factors in all the hassles of doing business in India, it seems clear that there actually isn't all that much room left before Indian labor becomes too expensive to justify moving more work there; If anything, I'd say a lot of the jobs currently being moved to India will soon end up back in America, as companies realize that the cost savings are more than made up for by the drop in productivity.

I can imagine someone saying in response to all the above "Very well, the Indian job market is currently tightening up, but what happens in the longer term, as India starts churning out limitless quantities of new programmers?" To this I can only respond that It takes a lot of time and money to train decent programmers, and I see no reason to imagine that India enjoys some sort of superiority in talent development that makes it any easier over there than here in the West. In fact, I'd say precisely the opposite is true.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

It's Microsoft, So it Must be Guilty

God knows I don't like Microsoft - I think it's a rapacious monopoly, and Thomas Penfield Jackson's initial verdict was more on the mark than the slap on the wrist imposed by Colleen Kollar-Kotelly - but this article accusing Microsoft of culpability in Communist China's suppression of free speech seems totally off the mark to me.

Technology sold by Microsoft to the Chinese government has been used by Beijing to censor the internet, and resulted in the jailing of its political opponents.

An Amnesty International report has cited Microsoft among a clutch of leading computer firms heavily criticised for helping to fuel 'a dramatic rise in the number of people detained or sentenced for internet-related offences'.

The human rights group has slated Bill Gates's company for an 'inadequate response' to escalating abuses in China. 'We don't believe this is appropriate or responsible,' said Mark Allison, an Amnesty International researcher who wrote the report. '[Microsoft] should be more concerned about human rights abuses and should be using its influence to lift restrictions on freedom of expression and get people out of prison. It is worrying that they don't seem to have raised these issues.'

Amnesty believes Microsoft is in violation of a new United Nations Human Rights code for multinationals which says businesses should 'seek to ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights'.

It would be one thing if Microsoft had actually collaborated with the Chinese government in specifically designing systems for monitoring and shutting down dissidents, but as far as I can tell, the firm's activities in China amount to nothing more than the same old struggle to ship boxed-product, nothing to get excited about. Castigating Microsoft for selling Windows XP or Office 2003 to the Chinese government makes about as much sense as bashing farmers for selling wheat to the Communist regime - the items being sold are hardly crucial to the repressive activities of the government, and it isn't as if they can't be bought elsewhere. Anything being done by the Chinese government with Microsoft's products could just as easily be done with open source alternatives like OpenOffice and Linux. There is absolutely nothing newsworthy about this story other than the fact that "Microsoft" and "human rights" are being mentioned in the same article.

Time to Give Mark Twain a Second Look

I came across the following wonderful passage from Huckleberry Finn via a comment made by a visitor on Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal. Thanks in large part to over-exposure to a televised version of the novel in my early youth, I hadn't given Mark Twain's writing much consideration in the past, but I guess it's time I got round to doing so.

"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this nigger put up at auction and sold?—that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the State six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now—that's a specimen. They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and—"

Pap was agoing on so he never noticed where his old limber legs was taking him to, so he went head over heels over the tub of salt pork and barked both shins, and the rest of his speech was all the hottest kind of language—mostly hove at the nigger and the govment, though he give the tub some, too, all along, here and there. He hopped around the cabin, first on one leg and then on the other, first one shin and then the other one, and at last he let out with his left foot all of a sudden and fetched the tub a rattling kick. But it warn't good judgment, because that was the boot that had a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end of it; so now he raised a howl that fairly made a body's hair raise, and down he went in the dirt, and rolled there, and held his toes; and the cussing he done then laid over anything he had ever done previous. He said so his own self . He had heard old Sowberry Hagan in his best days, and he said it laid over him, too; but I reckon that was sort of piling it on, maybe.

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.