Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Harvard Prof Scams $600,000, Hands it to 419ers

Uh oh. Looks like even Harvard men aren't immune to Nigerian mind-games.

A US scientist who collected $600,000 for SARS research in China from students, colleagues and friends, actually handed the money over to Nigerian 419ers, the Boston Herald reports.

Former Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researcher and Harvard University professor Weldong Xu, 38, was contacted by the lads from Lagos and promised $50m in quick profit.

We assume that the usual "unforseen expenses" scenario soon kicked in, since Xu began to solicit funds for his philanthropic far-eastern venture.

Among the 35 individuals who fell for the scam was a friend who remortgaged his house to support Xu's initiative. Boston police detective Steve Blair noted: "These are co-workers who trusted him and believed in him and took him for his word."

Xu was uncovered after employers Dana-Farber fingered him to police over the affair. Unhappily for the criminal mastermind, he was spotted arguing with one scammee in the Dana-Farber canteen by another victim who was at the time being interviewed by police.

The cuffs slapped on, Xu 'fessed up and handed police a book containing details of his shameful fleecings.

Xu would not, however, admit that he had himself been played like a cheap violin by the Nigerians. "The scammer's been scammed," said detective Blair. "He wouldn't acknowledge he'd been scammed. I tried to tell him he'd been scammed, but he never caught on."

I don't know who to be more irritated by when I read stories like this one: the scammers who help to give all of their fellow Nigerians an ugly reputation, or the greedy fools who allow themselves to be taken in by their pitches. This was a Harvard professor, for goodness sake!

Guardian - Clinton Chose to Ignore Rwandan Genocide

No, this isn't really news, but it is worth repeating, if only to emphasize the hollow nature of the routine proclamations of "never again!" one hears from even supposedly caring public figures. Even if one grants the International Answer and Indymedia crowd's claims that Bush has the blood of thousands of innocent Iraqis on his hands (which I do not), it is just as easily pointed out that Clinton has the blood of hundreds of thousands on his. That doesn't make Bush any less culpable for any failings he may have, but it does make a nonsense of any supposition that his is a regime particularly careless with the lives of others.

President Bill Clinton's administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time.

Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.

Intelligence reports obtained using the US Freedom of Information Act show the cabinet and almost certainly the president had been told of a planned "final solution to eliminate all Tutsis" before the slaughter reached its peak.

It took Hutu death squads three months from April 6 to murder an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus and at each stage accurate, detailed reports were reaching Washington's top policymakers.

The documents undermine claims by Mr Clinton and his senior officials that they did not fully appreciate the scale and speed of the killings.

"It's powerful proof that they knew," said Alison des Forges, a Human Rights Watch researcher and authority on the genocide.

The National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute based in Washington DC, went to court to obtain the material.

It discovered that the CIA's national intelligence daily, a secret briefing circulated to Mr Clinton, the then vice-president, Al Gore, and hundreds of senior officials, included almost daily reports on Rwanda. One, dated April 23, said rebels would continue fighting to "stop the genocide, which ... is spreading south".

Three days later the state department's intelligence briefing for former secretary of state Warren Christopher and other officials noted "genocide and partition" and reported declarations of a "final solution to eliminate all Tutsis".

However, the administration did not publicly use the word genocide until May 25 and even then diluted its impact by saying "acts of genocide".

Ms Des Forges said: "They feared this word would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn't want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination."

The administration did not want to repeat the fiasco of US intervention in Somalia, where US troops became sucked into fighting. It also felt the US had no interests in Rwanda, a small central African country with no minerals or strategic value.

William Ferroggiaro, of the National Security Archive, said the system had worked. "Diplomats, intelligence agencies, defence and military officials - even aid workers - provided timely information up the chain," he said.

"That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda."

Many analysts and historians fault Washington and other western capitals not just for failing to support the token force of overwhelmed UN peacekeepers but for failing to speak out more forcefully during the slaughter.

Some of the Hutu extremists orchestrating events might have heeded such warnings, they have suggested.

Mr Clinton has apologised for those failures but the declassified documents undermine his defence of ignorance. "The level of US intelligence is really amazing," said Mr Ferroggiaro. "A vast array of information was available."

Despicable. Bush may or may not be mistaken in his invasion of Iraq, but at least he was willing to sacrifice political capital to carry it through. Clinton certainly got what he wanted - re-election - even if the deaths of 800,000 people was part of the price to be paid for it to happen.

No Honor Amongst Thieves

Is this an instance of those who live by the sword dying by it? One can only hope so.

Security police detained Sudan's leading Islamic opposition leader Hassan Turabi early Wednesday, his wife said.

Wisal el-Mahdi told The Associated Press that a large squad of police came to their Khartoum home at about 1:30 a.m. local time and arrested her husband, saying he was "was wanted by the authorities."

The arrest came days after the government detained members of Turabi's Popular National Congress and some military officers in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the government of President Omar el-Bashir.

"We were expecting this arrest" because of the alleged coup attempt, Wisal el-Mahdi said.

Turabi was once a close ally of el-Bashir and the main ideologue of the Islamic fundamentalist government set up after el-Bashir seized power in 1989.

Both el-Bashir and Turabi are murderous scum. I won't shed any tears if one or both of them bump each other off.

George Bush Invites Buhari to America

An ... interesting development. Buhari is probably the least democratic Nigerian alive, so anyone inviting him to visit has to do so with his eyes wide open. Still, this might have a salutary effect in restraining the worst impulses of Buhari's supporters, if the prospect of having good relations with the White House means anything to Buhari. There can few things more flattering to someone in his position than to have the ear of the American President, his Secretary of State and his National Security adviser.

Opposition leader and presidential candidate of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) in the 2003 general elections, Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd), has been invited to Washington by the US President, George W. Bush.

The invitation, according to sources this morning, follows America's increasing concern about the spate of political assassinations, repression and electoral violence in Nigeria.

ources hinted that General Buhari is expected to leave Nigeria and will meet Secretary of State, Colin Powell and National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, apart from President Bush.

General Buhari will be accompanied on the trip by former Army chief, Gen. Victor Malu, Chief Ogbonnaya Onu, Miss Joy Yowika, a lawyer, Mr. Sam Mbah Isaiah and AVM Mukhtar Muhammed.

Also on the entourage is Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim, the ANPP governorship candidate in Ondo State.

"The meeting is not unconnected with America's concern about democracy in Nigeria and its direction," said a source close to the ANPP presidential candidate in the 2003 general elections.

It's good to see American concern for stability in West Africa extend beyond the usual after-the-fact wrangling in the United Nations about how to best handle some disaster or another - though I'm sure that Nigeria's position as the world's 6th largest oil exporter, in a period of high oil prices, does have a little bit to do with this solicitous attitude.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Did Lucy Have a Soul?

What is it about religion that makes otherwise sensible people lose control of their faculties of reasoning? I recently came across a post in a discussion of archaeological evidence relating to toolmaking and the evolution of our species in which the most clearsighted thinking on the significance of what has been found is tail-ended by the weirdest segue into batty theological speculations. Below is an excerpt of the most significant parts of the post in question:

One of the valid criticisms of my view has concerned the lack of cultural remains found in times earlier than when the genus Homo first appeared, around 2.4 million years ago. In the recent years, this gap has begun to disappear. Tools have been found at African sites such as Gona, Ethiopia, as old as 2.6 million years, with only Australopithecus being present. This raises the possibility that a being not of our genus, much less our species, was making and useing stone tools.

One of the interesting things about these finds is the light they shed on the mental capacities of these early hominids. First, obviously, these creatures had the ability to know that stones could be fashioned into tools. Secondly, they had more knowledge of rock mechanics than chimpanzees are able to master. Toth tried to teach a bonobo, Kanzi, how to make stone tools. Kanzi never mastered the ability to strike the stone tool at the optimum angle for the maufacture of a sharp edge. He took to smashing stones on the floor and looking for sharp flakes produced by accident. But the early tool maker from 2.6 million years ago had the knowledge as his tools are not made by accident.(Ian Tattersall, The Fossil Trail (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.207; Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth, Making Silent Stones Speak, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 136)

Secondly, it meant that the creature had to know WHERE to find appropriate rocks and what rocks were suitable for making stone tools and which weren't. Limestone is not good for making stone tools. Neither is sandstone. Thus, this being 2.6 million years ago needed to be able to tell the difference between igneous and other fine grained rocks and coarse sandstones, conglomberates and limestone--thus he was the first primitive mineralogist.

Thirdly, these beings acted like you and I do in the presence of abundance--they are wasteful in the presence of abundance. One sees great
outdoor fountains in rainy areas but rarely in dry deserts where water is precious. I will cite Heinzelin et al,

"At the nearby Gona site, abundant Oldowan tools were made and discarded immediately adjacent to cobble conglomberates that offered excellent, easily accessible raw materials for stone-tool manufacture. It has been suggested that the surprisingly advanced character of this earliest Oldowan technology was conditioned by the ease of access to appropriate fine-grained raw materials at Gona. Along the Karari escarpmetn at Koobi Fora, the basin margin at Fejej, and the lake margin at Olduvai Gorge, hominids also had easy access to nearby outcrops of raw material. In contrast, the diminutive nature of the Oldowan assemblages in the lower Omo [made on tiny quartz pebbles] was apparently conditioned by a lack of available large clasts."
Jean de Heinzelin et al, "Environment and Behavior of 2.5-Million-Year-Old Bouri Hominids" Science 284(1999):629

Fourthly, there is evidence of great planning abilities and forethought, which is the most important trait we can find in these hominids because it is precisely this which allows us to follow moral commands (see Morton, G. R. (1999) Planning Ahead: Requirement for Moral Accountability, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 51:3:176-179 )

When the Bouri hominids, that Hinzelin et al are describing and which are of the same age as the Gona hominids, are faced with scarcity, their behavior is different in a typically human way. There are no great heaps of thrown away tools at Bouri, just an occasional tool. Yet we know that they were using stone tools to butcher animals because they left cut marks on the bones.

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

If these creatures, whoever it is, were carrying tools 59 kilometers, that is about a 2 day walk and means that the creature could plan 2 days in advance. For comparison, a chimp can plan only about 20 minutes ahead. That is the longest time they have been observed carrying a stone with which to break open coula nuts. Clearly the people living 2.5 million years ago, were far away more advanced than a chimp. And given their ability to plan ahead for at least 2 days, it strongly implies that they would have understood consequences (i.e. make tool, carry tool to Bouri lake, kill animal, use tool to butcher animal) They didn't miss sight of the consequence of killing the animal and then going to Gona to make a tool and come back with it to butcher the animal. The animal would have been eaten or rotted by the time they came back.

The fact that they carried their tools away with them means that they understood the consequence of not having the tool and planned ahead for future kills.

Interestingly, the only creature found at Bouri, was Australopithecus garhi--a creature not of our species but whose hands were very human like in their abilities:

“This new Australopithecus hand seems, like that of the modern human, to be relatively unspecialized in that it has a short palm and fingers compared with those of apes.” Ron Clark, “Discovery of Complete Arm and Hand of the 3.3 Million-Year-Old Australopithecus Skeleton From Sterkfontein,” South African Journal of Science, 95(1999):477-480, p. 480

What is the importance of this planning ahead? It implies that this
creature, one we don't even allow into our genus, was capable of understanding moral imperatives and the consequences of not obeying a
command of God. I have long argued that Adam was much longer ago than most theologians want to accept. Here is evidence that a creature existed 2.5-2.6 million years ago who could manufacture complex tools, who could plan ahead, who could act like a human in response to plenty, and who could understand consequences be they physical or moral. What more is needed to be able to call this creature, Man (or Adam in the Hebrew)?
(emphasis added)

Here's a fellow who's making insightful, persuasive points about what conclusions can be drawn about the mindsets of late australopithecines, given evidence for their usage and curation of stone tools, and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, he starts leaping to conclusions about the supposed capacity for morality of said creatures, and the existence of the biblical Adam. What is going on in such a person's head? Tool use and the capacity to plan ahead say nothing whatsoever about one's capacity for moral thought and behavior - the average sociopath seems to get along just fine with the mechanical aspects of life despite lacking anything in the way of an internal moral compass.

The need to believe in the religious precepts one is taught early in life seems to be so great in many people that they're willing to surrender their critical faculties at the first hurdle in order to keep believing. If we say the likes of Lucy and the Turkana Boy were moral creatures in the same sense as most of us are today, we might as well throw in the towel and grant the same right to all of the other great apes right now. There's very little that distinguishes an australopithecine from a chimpanzee other than the ability to walk upright.

Andrew Sullivan on the Case for Gay Marriage

Having recently bashed Sullivan for his characterization of male circumcision as "genital mutilation", it's only fair for me to point out a piece on which I think he makes a very convincing argument. A lot of the arguments we're seeing against gay marriage have been seen before, and if we found them false then, we are logically bound to find them false today.

Marriage rights for homosexuals have not been dressed up as a civil rights issue as a means to sell them to the broader public. The original arguments were often socially conservative ones--namely, that encouraging stability, fidelity, and family among homosexuals was a tangible social good. But when the matter came before the courts, they really had no alternative but to address the matter in a civil rights context. "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men," wrote Earl Warren in Loving v. Virginia, the landmark miscegenation case in 1967. "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man' ..." The right to marry whomever you wish is a fundamental civil right. That is not contestable in the history of this country's jurisprudence. Now you may argue that marriage is definitionally heterosexual and therefore such civil rights only apply to heterosexuals. But you have to make that case--that civil marriage as currently practiced and enforced is inherently heterosexual--before you can dismiss the notion that it is a matter of civil rights. And there is some irony in the fact that the very same arguments that Steele is now using against civil marriage for gays--that it is not a civil right--were once used to argue in defense of anti-miscegenation statutes. The anti-miscegenationists argued that marriage was about procreation and that mixed-race marriages would lead to "mongrel" offspring; and, besides, blacks were already as free to marry as whites were, as long as they married someone of the same race. There was no discrimination involved, the opponents argued, and no civil rights being denied. This was merely an extremely awkward issue having to do with the compatibility of racial mixing and the institution of marriage, which had always been uni-racial in much of the United States. (emphasis added)

Opponents of gay marriage are going to have to do better than this if they're to retain any claims to intellectual respectability. Personally, I think the government plays far too prominent a role in marriage as it is, and that a lot of the benefits bestowed on marriage couples are both discriminatory and unnecessary, in as far as there are already advantages of scale to having any two income earners living together under the same roof. I see no reason for the government to discriminate between gay marriage, straight marriage, or even exotic (by Western standards) combinations like polyandry and polygyny, as long as there's no coercion involved.

Of course, saying that last bit puts me on the fringe of Western public opinion, but I don't really see why polygamous family units should be regarded as more abhorrent than any others, once the element of coercion is removed, and as long as all partners get to have a say in deciding whether or not to bring other parties into the arrangement. If a woman thinks her life would be improved by having a companion to share the domestic chores and overheated attentions of her husband, who are we to argue with her? Or if a man feels like sharing his wife's charms with another man of her desiring, what business is it of anyone else, as long as no one else's tax dollars are going to subsidize the arrangement? Polygamy may make a lot of people feel squeamish, but mere squeamishness is no basis on which to make public policy. The thought of touching, let alone eating, amphibians makes me nauseous, but I don't imagine that this is reason enough to ban frogs' legs.

Monday, March 29, 2004

The Golden Rule - In Hebrew

My apologies to those who follow the link above only to see the name of a certain heretical former resident of Nazareth mentioned on the page linked to, but I simply haven't been able to find a Hebrew-to-English translation of the passage below anywhere else.

שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד
שבא לפני שמאי
אמר לו: גיירני על מנת
שתלמדני כל התורה כולה
כשאני עומד על רגל אחת.י
דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו.
בא לפני הלל
גייריה.י
אמר לו דעלך סני
לחברך לא תעביד
זו היא כל התורה כולה
ואידך - פירושה הוא.י
זיל גמור!י

"Why is this here?" you ask me, and I'll respond that there are two reasons for it, neither of which has anything to do with any religious belief on my part. The first is that it's interesting to state what is the forerunner of the Kantian rule that is the credo of those who are opposed to utilitarianism (as am I, for the most part, though far less so than some), given the recent debate I've been participating in below about the pros and cons of male circumcision. The second is that I'm a language-nut who likes learning new languages for the sake of it, and right now I'm trying to get my Hebrew up to scratch. That's reason enough, isn't it?

Teach Yourself Macroeconomics

Now, it goes without saying that Brad DeLong and I are not anywhere near each other on the political spectrum, so it may seem strange to some people that I happen to have such a high opinion of the guy despite my opposition to a lot of what he believes in politically. This really isn't all that strange, at least not in my eyes, as long as one keeps in mind the distinction between positive and normative economics, between what is and what one feels ought to be (see here for a definition of both terms.)

I don't buy into Brad DeLong's concern for income inequality as a thing in itself, preferring to concentrate my attentions on absolute levels of income; if the poorest tenth could be made 15 percent better off only if the richest tenth could be made 150 percent better off, I would be more than happy to go along with such an arrangement, though I imagine that Dr. DeLong would not. Where I completely agree with, and in fact mostly defer to the good Professor is where the positive economics is concerned, as there's just no doubting that he knows his stuff on that score - Berkeley is very lucky to have him. Anyone who's still in doubt as to his understanding of his subject would do well to check out these online macroeconomics resources he's so generously provided gratis for all the world to learn from.

Not everyone can afford to get a decent macroeconomics textbook, nor do we all have access to decent libraries from which such books can easily be borrowed, but these notes ought at least to give the curious a head-start in learning how economies work, as seen from the viewpoint of those who get paid to think about the subject. For those of you who've engaged in sniping about the conclusions of economists in the past without having studied the subject in any depth, you just might discover that there's rather more to what these "Ivory Tower" intellectuals get up to than you'd imagined from your perch as armchair critics. As the great הלל once said, "now go and study!"

Outsourcing Hysteria in Perspective

This CNET piece being carried in the NYT, asking if India is pricing itself out of the offshoring market puts the lie to any notion of a there being such a surfeit of talent in India that IT wage levels are doomed to sink to Third World subsistence levels. If these gloomy scenarios were on the mark, how would it be possible for Indian IT workers to be enjoying double-digit salary increases?

The U.S. technology industry's demand for offshore services is apparently beginning to drive up pay rates in India, raising questions about the long-term benefits of outsourcing work to that country.

Information technology workers in India reported double-digit salary growth in 2003, according to recent research, while pay for similar work within U.S. borders has been relatively stagnant if not declining. Although India's salaries generally remain significantly lower than U.S. averages, the narrowing wage gap and other unforeseen factors are leading at least some American companies to reassess the cost savings to be had by sending work offshore.

"Expectations about the benefits of outsourcing are becoming more realistic," according to a report by DiamonCluster International, a Chicago-based consulting firm, which recently released a survey of more than 180 companies involved in offshore outsourcing. "Most buyers in the previous study expected gains in efficiency in the range of 50 percent. Today, those expectations have declined to 10 to 20 percent."

India's wage inflation, which approached an estimated 14 percent last year, is a natural byproduct of a classic supply-and-demand scenario. Although projections for outsourcing remain highly speculative, Forrester Research has estimated that 3.3 million American jobs will be moved to other countries by 2015. But as far back as a year ago, India technology trade association Nasscom (National Association of Software and Services Companies) was already concerned that India would fall short of demand for workers by as many as 235,000 professionals.

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

India reported gains of 12.8 percent and 13.7 percent last year for positions in categories labeled "IT solution provider" and "software development," according to an annual Asia-Pacific survey of more than 500 companies by Hewitt Associates, an international business consultancy. The numbers, which reverse a six-year decline in pay raises in India, are far more than any increases reported among other nations surveyed.

By region, India's highest increases were reported in Chennai, at an average of 13.5 percent, followed by Bangalore, with 12.5 percent, and Kolkata, with 11.5 percent. For 2004, the study predicts that average wages will rise again, as much as 13.4 percent.

There you go - I, Brad DeLong, Daniel Drezner, and everyone else who's insisted that outsourcing is greatly overrated as a "destroyer" of American jobs, are being proven correct. It's just plain stupid to look at per capita GDP in India, compare it with America's, and then draw the conclusion that there are 1 billion Indians with MCSEs willing to work for $450 a year. Hysteria over outsourcing is being driven by little more than a sense of entitlement brought on by the technology bubble, coupled with racist fears of innumerable brown-skinned hordes just waiting to take our jobs and wimmin.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

BBC - Aids risk 'cut by circumcision'

The evidence for this has been accumulating for quite some time now, and I'd say that the precautionary principle requires that it be taken on board in attempting to restrict the spread of HIV. A little prevention now is worth any amount of free anti-retrovirals down the line.

Men who have been circumcised may be six times less likely to contract the HIV virus than uncircumcised men, research carried out in India suggests.

The study in the Lancet journal says that the thin foreskin tissue could be highly prone to HIV infection.
The latest study, which backs up earlier research in Africa, was carried out among 2,000-plus men in India.
Researchers say circumcision only reduces the risk of HIV infection - other sexual diseases are not affected.
A number of studies have shown that circumcision appears to lower the chances of contracting HIV.

Different susceptibility

When Aids first began to emerge in Africa, researchers found that it was more prevalent in the east and south of the continent than in the west.
Differences in sexual behaviour were widely thought to be reason for this.
But some scientists argued that as circumcision was more common in west Africa, it could be reducing the risk of HIV infection, as the foreskin could be more susceptible to the virus than other parts of penis.
This latest research, looking at more than 2,000 men in India, suggests exactly that.

The actual Lancet article can be found here. Following is a summary of the paper's findings:

Circumcised men have a lower risk of HIV-1 infection than uncircumcised men. Laboratory findings suggest that the foreskin is enriched with HIV-1 target cells. However, some data suggest that circumcision could simply be a marker for low-risk behaviours. In a prospective study of 2298 HIV-uninfected men attending sexually transmitted infection clinics in India, we noted that circumcision was strongly protective against HIV-1 infection (adjusted relative risk 0·15; 95% CI 0·04-0·62; p=0·0089); however, we noted no protective effect against herpes simplex virus type 2, syphilis, or gonorrhoea. The specificity of this relation suggests a biological rather than behavioural explanation for the protective effect of male circumcision against HIV-1.

Perhaps this piece of news will bring an end to anti-circumcision crusades of the sort perpetuated in the past* by Andrew Sullivan. So what if circumcision leads to some hypothetical loss of sensitivity? There's more to life than sheer physical pleasure, particularly when the pleasure at issue is one that can't be missed, never having been experienced. In any case, circumcised men still seem to find enough pleasure in the sexual act to seek out copulative possibilities, so Sullivan and other opponents of male circumcision are making a big deal out of very little, while the consequences in increased mortality of paying heed to them are likely to be steep indeed. I suspect it's meagre consolation to a South African dying of AIDS in his mid-30s that at least he got to enjoy superior orgasms before prematurely shuffling off his mortal coil.

*Google fails to turn up a link to the original comment on Sullivan's website, indicating that he's since had the good sense to remove that particular post from the face of the earth; what's problematic is that none of the dummies who quoted Sullivan on the subject bothered to actually use a permalink to record where exactly he said it, while Sullivan himself doesn't seem to bother with a link to archives of his older posts on his website.

Economic Illiteracy 101

Reading the responses to this post on outsourcing by Brad DeLong, in which he makes the following innocuous remarks

But--holding real GDP constant--a decline in the wages of high-skill workers is a rise in the wages of low-skill workers (and a rise in profits). Isn't there a chance that the yuppies facing competition from Bangalore will be a highly positive development, pushing U.S. wage levels together and raising the real wages of those at the bottom?

makes me weep for the irrationality of my fellow human beings. Rarely does one come across as nauseating a mixture of ignorance and arrogance as that displayed by most of the commenters on that post, the vast majority of whom seem to think poisoning the well constitutes the epitome of devastating criticism. What is it about outsourcing that brings out the very worst tendencies in pampered middle-class types? Do they think international competition is something only blue-collar workers deserve to worry about?

As a matter of fact, what Brad said was mathematically obvious: if American GDP isn't shrinking - and there's zero evidence that it is - while the share of GDP going to highly-skilled workers is shrinking, then it clearly must be true that the share going to capital + low-skilled workers is rising. If the share of income going to capital showed a long-term upwards trend, stock market valuations would be expected to rise sharply in reflection of the anticipated long-term gains in profits, a trend that is most certainly not in evidence. The conclusion is therefore inescapable that the current outsourcing trend augurs well for the lower-skilled, something one would expect "progressives" to celebrate.

I've stopped reading Brad DeLong's blog nearly as much as I used to, as I've found his partisanship ever-increasingly strident and unbalanced, but on trade issues at least, he continues to make sense. It's always eye-opening to read his comments sections on those occasions when he departs from the usual Democratic Party talking-points to state the case for trade, only for him to be called a drunk, a corporate stooge and a Bush stooge by those who are usually more than happy to cheer on his attacks on Bush as the works of a mind of genius. Heaven forbid I ever accumulate such "supporters"!

Friday, March 26, 2004

Books I HAVE to Buy

I really have to acquire personal copies of the following two books sometime soon.

So many books, so little time! Or, as קהלת put it, "Of making many books, there is no end." I already have a fairly definite picture in my mind of what works and what doesn't work in terms of getting poor countries to grow, but it's always nice to have a firm theoretical and empirical backing for one's ideas.



Economist - The al-Sauds Resist Reform

I've always found it strange that critics of the Bush administration's middle-eastern policy have harped on the need to address the "root causes" of terrorism, while at the same time disparaging any attempts to implant liberal constitutionalism in a soil in which it supposedly can bear no fruit. If one accepts that the misrule of oppressive governments is largely to blame for terrorism, doesn't consistency demand that one support efforts to get such governments to change their ways?

With that in mind, the nascent attempts at peacefully challenging the status quo in Saudi Arabia outlined by this Economist article are well worth watching, and eminently deserving of further encouragement. Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, and any direct attempts at regime change would provoke deep outrage from all of the world's muslims; what is more, it is also the world's largest oil producer by some distance, giving the al-Sauds a powerful chokehold on the global economy. Any change that will occur in that country will have to come from within, and if a few liberal voices are raised within its borders, we ought at least to make it known that we will not stand quietly by as they are stifled.

IF YOU thought that change was coming soon to Saudi Arabia, think again. Consider the six prominent Saudi liberals who have spent the past week in jail. Their crime is that, unlike seven colleagues arrested at the same time but freed soon afterwards, these recalcitrants refused to pledge that they will stop pestering the country's rulers to reform.

There are other countries where simply asking politely for more rights—in this case, by signing several petitions—can land you in prison. But Saudi Arabia had lately shed some of its aura of arch-autocracy. A mix of pressures—home-grown terrorism, criticism from abroad, and the general restlessness of their mostly youthful subjects—appeared to have awakened Saudi princes to the incongruity of running a large, modern state like a family ranch. The past few years have seen the start of a wide-ranging dialogue, in the press and in government-sponsored forums, to find ways to devolve at least a measure of power to commoners.

Tensions were bound to emerge, particularly in the absence of any elected assembly to air differences or frame a legislative agenda. Reform-minded citizens took to probing, to see just how far the establishment, which in Saudi Arabia means the 10,000-odd princes of the al-Saud family and their pampered traditional allies, the Wahhabi clerical hierarchy, would let them go. They soon encountered red lines.

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

But a strong popular backlash against religious extremism following recent terror attacks, and the tacit backing of some senior princes, had lately encouraged the kingdom's normally quiescent liberals to further boldness. Despite warnings from the authorities, one group of them had the temerity to prepare yet another petition, demanding the right to set up a human-rights commission.

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

These are the men, most of them academics, now in jail. But their fate is not the only signal that hard-line princes are losing patience. The minister of defence and second-in-line to the throne, Prince Sultan, this week dismissed any idea that the Shura Council, an appointed body that vets laws, might become an elected legislature ... For his part, the chief mufti of the kingdom, Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, declared that liberals were as much of a danger as militant religious extremists.

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

Liberal reformists have not despaired yet. While one group launched yet another petition, to demand the release of their colleagues, others met Prince Nayef, the owlish interior minister, to make the request personally. Participants at the dawn meeting said that the prince assured them that royal doors would always be open to citizens' complaints but that “foreign agencies” were exploiting the reformers' platform in order to damage Saudi national unity. In other words, to call openly for domestic change is tantamount to treason.

If those who accuse Bush of negligence in failing to put more pressure on the Saudis mean what they say, here's an excellent opportunity to put him under the spotlight. The likes of Mubarak and the al-Sauds have used the excuse of Islamic extremism to perpetuate their despotisms for too, and Tony Blair's nauseating photo-opportunity appears to promise more of the same sort of nonsense from Ghaddafi's regime. Bush needs to put the lie to the accusation that the "War on Terror" is merely an excuse to shore up autocrats indefinitely.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Suharto 'most corrupt leader'

Is Suharto really the most corrupt leader of the last 20 years? If so, it's only because he had more time to loot than some. Nigeria's own Sani Abacha managed to loot $4 billion in the space of 4 years - at that rate, he'd have more than doubled Suharto's hoard had he enjoyed 32 years in power. Even Mobutu only managed to extract $5 billion from the Western taxpayer and his long-suffering subjects, despite also enjoying 32 years at the top. In terms of intensity of looting, Abacha really has no competitors.

Indonesia's former president MOHAMED SUHARTO holds the dubious title of being the most corrupt world leader in recent history, a leading anti-corruption organisation said in a "top10 " of graft published yesterday.

Plundering a family fortune estimated at anything between $15 billion (BD5.6bn) and35 bn during his32 -year reign from1967 , Suharto was a clear winner, according to British-based Transparency International.

The group gave a corruption "top10 " for global political leaders over the past 20 years, released to coincide with the release of its annual Global Corruption Report, a round-up of government graft worldwide.

In second place was former Philippine president FERDINAND MARCOS, deposed in1986 , who plundered between five and 10 billion dollars, Transparency International estimated.

The Philippines has the unfortunate boast of featuring two of its former presidents in the top10 , with Joseph Estrada, ousted in2001 , making the final spot with a haul of $78m to $80m.

Coming in third was late dictator MOBUTU SESE SEKO, who acquired around $5bn when he ruled Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - from 1965 to1997 , despite an average income per capita which even now is only $ 80per year.

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

The top 10 corrupt leaders are:

Mohamed Suharto, Indonesia, $15bn to $35bn; Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines, $5bn to $10bn; Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire, $5bn; Sani Abacha, Nigeria, $2bn to $5bn; Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia/Yugoslavia, $1bn; Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti, $300m to $800m; Alberto Fujimori, Peru, $600m; Pavlo Lazarenko, Ukraine, $114m to $200m; Arnoldo Aleman, Nicaragua, $100m; Joseph Estrada, Philippines, $78m to $80m.

This list has at least one glaring hole in it - where is the name of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida on it? This is a guy whose government managed to mysteriously "lose" some $12 billion in windfall oil revenue from the Gulf War, and he doesn't even get a mention, while wannabes like Fujimori and Estrada do? Geez, a big-time kleptocrat can't even catch a fair break these days.

Genes and Human Evolution

From reports like this one and this one, it seems clear that the decision to sequence the chimpanzee genome is quickly paying scientific dividends, just as I expected it would.

Touching off a scientific furor, researchers say they may have discovered the mutation that caused the earliest humans to branch off from their apelike ancestors — a gene that led to smaller, weaker jaws and, ultimately, bigger brains.

Smaller jaws would have fundamentally changed the structure of the skull, they contend, by eliminating thick muscles that worked like bungee cords to anchor a huge jaw to the crown of the head. The change would have allowed the cranium to grow larger and led to the development of a bigger brain capable of tool-making and language.

The mutation is reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature, not by anthropologists, but by a team of biologists and plastic surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The report provoked strong reactions throughout the hotly contested field of human origins with one scientist declaring it "counter to the fundamentals of evolution" and another pronouncing it "super."

The Pennsylvania researchers said their estimate of when this mutation first occurred — about 2.4 million years ago, in the grasslands of East Africa, the cradle of humanity — generally overlaps with the first fossils of prehistoric humans featuring rounder skulls, flatter faces, smaller teeth and weaker jaws.

And the remarkable genetic mutation persists to this day in every person, they said.

Nonhuman primates — including our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee — still carry the original big-jaw gene and the apparatus enabling them to bite and grind the toughest food

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

University of Michigan biological anthropologist Milford Wolpoff called the research "just super."

"The other thing that was happening 21/2 million years ago is that people were beginning to make tools, which enabled them to prepare food outside their mouths," he said. "This is a confluence of genetic and fossil evidence."

Other researchers strenuously disagreed that human evolution could literally hinge on a single mutation affecting jaw muscles, and that once those muscles were reduced, the brain suddenly could grow unfettered.

"Such a claim is counter to the fundamentals of evolution," said C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University. "These kinds of mutations probably are of little consequence."

Under normal circumstances, the endorsement of anything by Milford Wolpoff would be enough to make me doubt its veracity. Wolpoff's stubborn defense of his multiregionalist theory, long after the genetic and archeological evidence against it has become crushingly overwhelming, and his overeager misinterpretation of the Mungo Man fossil find, have long marked him in my mind as the anthropological equivalent of Alan Feduccia, whose dogged insistence on denying the theropod ancestry of birds against all evidence brings him awfully close to the mindset of creationists.

Despite Wolpoff's enthusiastic endorsement of this paper, however, I think that there really is something to what the researchers have managed to find, Owen Lovejoy's claims to the contrary; whether that something is quite what Stedman et. al. think they've found is something else altogether. It isn't at all clear to me why jaw musclature should have been some sort of barrier to brain growth, and it seems a lot more likely to me that the actual direction of causality has been reversed here: it wasn't the loss of jaw muscles that enabled brains to grow, but an increase in intelligence that enabled our ancestors to get higher quality food than the tough vegetation that other primates must make do with, removing the selective restraint against a weakening of jaw muscles.

One good reason for believing this to be the correct order of events, rather than that posited by Stedman and co., is that without any increase in food gathering capacity, there would have been no good reason for strong jaw muscles to have been any less vital than they'd been for millions of years previously. If our ancestors were still no brighter than Australopithecines when this change is supposed to have occurred, how could they have possibly eked out a living in the interim while their brains were supposed to have been growing? Indeed, here's another paper that indicates that hominids were already using stone tools 2.5 million years ago, or about the very time when loss of function of the MYH16 gene is estimated to have taken place.

NB - An abstract of the actual research paper can be found here. A discussion of the paper is already underway at The Panda's Thumb

A Blog to Watch Out For

Mrs. Tilton and Razib have already covered this, but P.Z. Myers and a bunch of other scientific heavy-hitters from Talkdesign have gotten together to launch The Panda's Thumb, dedicated to dealing serious blows to creationism and other sorts of nonsensical quackery masquerading as science. Add this one to your blogroll, now!

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Ethnic Cleansing in Darfur

Bravo to Nicholas Kristof for bringing attention to this issue. I know that Bush is eager to get the Sudanese government to sign on to a peace deal, but he shouldn't let his eagerness get in the way of reining in that government's malevolent behavior towards Sudan's non-Arab citizens.

ALONG THE SUDAN-CHAD BORDER — The most vicious ethnic cleansing you've never heard of is unfolding here in the southeastern fringes of the Sahara Desert. It's a campaign of murder, rape and pillage by Sudan's Arab rulers that has forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages.

The desert is strewn with the carcasses of cattle and goats, as well as fresh refugee graves that are covered with brush so wild animals will not dig them up. Refugees crowd around overused wells, which now run dry, and they mourn loved ones whose bodies they cannot recover.

Western and African countries need to intervene urgently. Sudan's leaders should not be able to get away with mass murder just because they are shrewd enough to choose victims who inhabit a poor region without airports, electricity or paved roads.

The culprit is the Sudanese government, one of the world's nastiest. Its Arab leaders have been fighting a civil war for more than 20 years against its rebellious black African south. Lately it has armed lighter-skinned Arab raiders, the Janjaweed, who are killing or driving out blacks in the Darfur region near Chad.

"They came at 4 a.m. on horseback, on camels, in vehicles, with two helicopters overhead," recalled Idris Abu Moussa, a 26-year-old Sudanese farmer. "They killed 50 people in my village. My father, grandmother, uncle and two brothers were all killed."

"They don't want any blacks left," he added.

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

The U.N.'s Sudan coordinator, Mukesh Kapila, described the situation in a BBC interview on Friday as similar in character, if not scale, to the Rwanda genocide of 1994. "This is ethnic cleansing," he said. "This is the world's greatest humanitarian crisis, and I don't know why the world isn't doing more about it."

Countless thousands of black Sudanese have been murdered, and 600,000 victims of this ethnic cleansing have fled to other parts of Sudan and are suffering from malnutrition and disease. The 110,000 who have fled into Chad are better off because of the magnificent response of the Chadian peasants. Chadians are desperately poor themselves, but they share what little food and water is available with the Sudanese refugees.

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

To his credit, President Bush has already led the drive for peace in Sudan, doing far more to achieve a peace than all his predecessors put together. Now he should show the same resolve in confronting this latest menace.

In the 21st century, no government should be allowed to carry out ethnic cleansing, driving 700,000 people from their homes. If we turn away simply because the victims are African tribespeople who have the misfortune to speak no English, have no phones and live in one of the most remote parts of the globe, then shame on us.

What's truly disgraceful about the domestic response to the atrocities going on in Sudan is that it's been mostly the Religious Right, whose influence has been baleful in other arenas of American life, that's been putting any real pressure on the American government to do something to end the bloodshed. Preserving the lives and property of black Sudanese just doesn't seem to carry the same cachet as marching against Israel or chanting "No war for oil!" does in the minds of so many complacent, self-styled "liberals." Hey, Indymediots, Sudan has oil too! If you can come out to march everytime a killer like Saddam or Ahmed Yassin gets his due, surely you can spare a moment or two for the 700,000 Sudanese driven from their homes! What's that you say? Too busy inveighing against "Zionazi" Sharon and Bushitler™?

Nicholas Kristof is a genuine liberal, in the best sense of that word; those whose "liberalism" consists only of advocating higher taxes on the rich, but can't be bothered about the sufferings of other human beings outside their borders, are nothing of the sort.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Zaha Hadid Wins the Pritzker

And I'm less than surprised - which isn't to say that I think she's undeserving. Hadid's conceptual creations were so striking to my eye when I first saw them that I instantly knew that this was someone to watch out for. What a change a few years can make: it wasn't so long ago that she couldn't find anyone to build her work, especially in Britain.

The Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid has been selected to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize for 2004, considered the profession's highest honor. She is the first woman to receive it.

The prize, which carries a grant of $100,000, is to be awarded at a ceremony on May 31 at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was announced today by Thomas J. Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, the award's sponsor.

Movement, curvature, porosity, extreme horizontal elongation: these are some of the aesthetic properties that helped to establish Ms. Hadid, 53, as a major influence in her field well before she began to build. The powerful forms of her unbuilt projects, like the Cardiff Bay Opera House (1994), were widely published. Typically presented in the form of paintings, these projects have been publicly exhibited in the United States and abroad.

Ms. Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950. She studied mathematics in Beirut before moving to London to study architecture at the Architectural Association School. After graduating in 1977, she worked with Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis at the fledgling Office for Metropolitan Architecture, a practice that subsequently moved to Rotterdam under Mr. Koolhaas's direction. She is now based in London and is a British citizen.

Ms. Hadid's personal charisma has also helped to publicize her work, though to mixed effect. Beloved by journalists and members of her own profession for what is frequently described as her diva presence, Ms. Hadid has only recently found the clients willing to look beyond her reputation for being difficult. She reached a professional high point last year, with the completion of her first building in the United States, the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. An immediate critical and popular success, the Rosenthal Center presaged a string of major commissions now at various stages of construction and design development. These include two buildings in Germany: the BMW Central Building in Leipzig and the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg; and two projects in Italy: Maxxi, the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Rome, and a high-speed train station in Naples. Design work is under way for a second American building, an addition to the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Okla.

Hadid does indeed enjoy a reputation for being a "difficult" person, but this hardly marks her out from a lot of high-profile architects. The real reason for her meeting with such resistance seems to have been the sheer innovativeness (or, if you prefer, strangeness) of her conceptions, which were typically thought to be unbuildable, little more than high-concept architectural fantasies in the manner of a Hugh Ferriss or an Antonio Sant'Elia.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's a link to an old 2blowhards post that happens to have links to some of Hugh Ferriss' illustrations, which really ought to be seen to be believed. The same post also has links to images of drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (more of whose work can be seen here)and Claude Nicolas Ledoux (see here for more), two other masters of architectural fantasy. I won't bother providing links to the works of Zaha Hadid or Antonio Sant'Elia on here, as I'm feeling lazy, and it's easy enough to find a surfeit of images for either of the two anyway with a bit of Googling.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is Dead

Good riddance. The man was as much a murderer as any of the thugs he incited to kill on his behalf.

ERUSALEM, Monday, March 22 — Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader and founder of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, was killed early Monday by an Israeli missile that struck him as he left a mosque in Gaza City, his family and Hamas officials said. They said at least two bodyguards had been killed with him.

Sheik Yassin, a symbol to Palestinians of resistance to Israel and to Israelis of Palestinian terrorism, was by far the most significant Palestinian militant killed by Israel in more than three years of conflict.

Black smoke curled over Gaza City as Palestinians began burning tires in the streets and demonstrators chanted for revenge. Mosque loudspeakers blared a message across Gaza of mourning for Sheik Yassin in the name of Hamas and another militant group, Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

The Israeli military confirmed the killing, saying in a statement that the sheik was "responsible for numerous murderous terror attacks, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, both Israeli and foreign."

The army said it had targeted a car carrying Sheik Yassin, but Palestinians at the scene said that the Sheik was not in car when he was hit.

The Israeli weapons punctured the pavement of the street where Sheik Yassin, a quadriplegic, was being escorted home. Blood spattered the walls of surrounding buildings. "I could not recognize the sheik, only his wheelchair," said one witness, Maher al-Beek.

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

Hamas is officially committed to Israel's destruction, not just a withdrawal from the occupied territories. The word means "zeal" in Arabic, and that is an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement.

The group runs a network of low-cost clinics and schools that have broadened its ideological reach while helping to give its popularity a boost among Palestinians. Israeli security officials regard it as the most organized and disciplined of the militant groups.

This man possibly did more to set back the cause of Palestinian independence than anyone but Yasser Arafat himself. Still, I don't really expect to see a change in direction from Hamas, not unless Israel seriously steps up the pressure by getting rid of all of the organization's upper management.

Democracy vs. "Democracy"

I rarely find National Review palatable reading, but this Victor Davis Hanson column touches on a point I've also elaborated upon many times in the past: the need to distinguish between democracy as a merely formal matter of holding votes every so often, and democracy as a total package that includes freedom of speech, association and religion, stable laws, an independent judiciary, and security of persons and property, with voting being arguably the least important item in the package. Iran, Venezuela, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt may be "democratic" in the purely formal sense, but they certainly aren't anything of the sort under any interpretation of the word that is really worth having.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Unilateralism in Historical Context

A lot of the criticism of the war in Iraq has focused on Bush's "unilateralism", the assumption being that "unilateralism" in foreign policy is so obviously a grievous shortcoming as to be a condemnation in itself. To those who agree with such a notion, I pose a simple question: what would they have made of Britain's genuinely unilateral decision in the 19th century to militarily interfere in the affairs of many other nations across the globe, in order to bring about the end of slavery? Was this an evil too? If not, why not? And if American intervention in Iraq is inexcusable because of the cost to the American taxpayer, why should British policy in the 19th century have been any more forgivable? After all, the average Briton then was a lot poorer than the average American is today, and the "needless" expenditure of British funds abroad in pursuit of a moral crusade would therefore have been felt far more keenly.

I personally am more than grateful that Britain unilaterally decided upon the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, even taking into account all the other evils of which the British Empire was guilty; as such, I cannot bring myself to adopt the position of those who argue that it was somehow more "immoral" to invade Saddam's Iraq without French and Russian acquiescence than it was to leave the Iraqis under the rule of the Hussein family. It's a strange sort of morality that accords more weight to the concerns of European politicians than to the sufferings of 23 million people.

My Kingdom for an IP Lawyer!

I just happened to be reading the above NYT article on namespace and copyright clashes in the Internet age, when a particular statement in it (highlighted below) caught my attention, for a reason I shall explain shortly.

Certain namespaces have grown dangerously overcrowded. Pharmaceutical names are a special case: a subindustry has emerged to coin them, research them and vet them. The Food and Drug Administration now reviews proposed drug names for possible collisions, and this process is complex and subjective. Rigor may be impossible, and mistakes cause death. METHADONE (for opiate dependence) has been administered in place of METHYLPHENIDATE (for attention-deficit disorder), and TAXOL (a cancer drug) for TAXOTERE (another cancer drug). Doctors fear both look-alike errors and sound-alike errors: ZANTAC/XANAX; VERELAN/VIRILON. Linguists are devising scientific measures of the ''distance'' between drug names. But LAMICTAL and LAMISIL and LUDIOMIL and LOMOTIL are all approved drug names. Meanwhile, of course, drug companies have other worries; they spend millions on market research to make sure their names are both serious and sexy. ROGAINE, the hair-growth treatment, was deliberately chosen to make you think ''regain.''

Now, this article is interesting in its own right, but as I've said, that isn't why I'm mentioning it. The real reason for focusing on it here is that the particular sentence highlighted happens to deal with an issue I myself dealt with a few years back while doing research on information retrieval - how does one determine a method for measuring similarity between words, in the sense of imposing a metric on them, where "metric" is meant in the strict mathematical sense? By this I mean that given any words ABC, DEF and GHI, and using D(X,Y) to denote the distance between X and Y,

  1. D(ABC,DEF) ≥ 0
  2. D(ABC,ABC) = 0
  3. D(ABC,DEF)=0 ⇒ ABC=DEF
  4. D(ABC,DEF) = D(DEF,ABC)
  5. D(ABC,GHI) ≤ D(ABC,DEF) + D(DEF,GHI)

The preceding properties are very nice to have for mathematical reasons, as they are in fact an abstraction of the properties enjoyed by our conventional notions of distance, and therefore well-studied. As it turns out, I did actually find a satisfactory (and non-obvious) solution, and, perhaps most importantly, one that wasn't too computationally costly to be worthwhile. It was clear to me at the time that this was an idea worth getting intellectual protection for, but I lacked the resources to do so at the time. Maybe I ought to write James Gleick to find out exactly was looking for the the distance measures he wrote about ...

BBC - Student 'Sells Virginity' via Web

I'd say she got far more than fair value for it too. A whole evening with a high class escort would have cost perhaps £2,000 at most, so anyone who'd pay a whining, plain, cheapskate student £8,400 for the act obviously enjoys throwing his money away.

A lesbian university student who auctioned her virginity on the internet to pay for her studies is reported to have had sex with the highest bidder.

Rosie Reid, 18, from London, slept with a 44-year-old BT engineer in a hotel room in Euston after he paid her £8,400, the News of the World reports.

But she told the newspaper: "It was horrible... I felt nervous and scared."

She hatched the plan to avoid graduating with debts of £15,000 from her Bristol University degree course.

Banker's draft

Ms Reid, from Dulwich, had sex with the divorced father-of-two after he gave her a banker's draft, according to the News of the World.

Her partner, Jess Cameron, stayed in the same hotel while she went through with the act nearly three weeks ago.

She told the newspaper: "I felt obliged... to please him as he had just paid all this money."

But she added: "It didn't feel like it was happening to me. I felt like I was watching it happen to someone else.

"I was just so relieved when it was over... I was desperate to get back to Jess as I felt so uncomfortable."

The next morning she said she joined her partner and they "just cried and cried".

'Drastic action'

The social policy student put herself on offer in January, saying she would rather sleep with a stranger than face years of comparative poverty.

The horror! She actually had to sleep with a man! Well, wait a minute, no she didn't ... She came up with the bright idea of selling her body, and she chose to follow through with it, so why exactly are we supposed to be sympathetic to her whining about the experience? And she did get paid for it too! What an idiot.

Marginal Revolution: Born to Sue?

Alex Tabarrok has posted a story about legal intimidation and intellectual dishonesty that deserves to get wider circulation.

Frank Sulloway's Born to Rebel (BTR) was a smash hit when it was published in 1996. Sulloway's thesis, that laterborns are born to rebel while first-borns are conformist defenders of the status quo, was initially greeted with some skepticism among experts who knew of an earlier review of the large literature on birth order that had found little evidence for an effect on personality. The thesis struck a cord with the public, however, and Sulloway seemed to have gathered so much data from so many different sources (including scientific revolutions, political revolutions, religious revolutions etc.) that with a few exceptions (such as the great Judith Harris) the book won over skeptics and carried the day. Michael Shermer, Mr. Skepticism himself, said, for example, that Born to Rebel was "the most rigorously scientific work of history every written."

Two devastating studies of BTR, however, have just now been published in the September 2000 issue of Politics and the Life Sciences (alas this issue is not online, perhaps for reasons discussed below). After exhaustive efforts, the studies failed to replicate key results in BTR - that is the authors tried to replicate what Sulloway said he did, on the data that he said he used and they could not reproduce anything close to his results. Now, you may be asking, how it is that the September 2000 issue of PLS has only now been published? And therein lies a story.

When Politics and the Life Sciences decided to publish the initial critique of BTR by Frederic Townsend, after peer review by four referees, it invited Sulloway to respond along with a number of others in a roundtable format that they had used in previous debates. Sulloway was guaranteed ample room to respond to Townsend and was invited to submit his own names for roundtable participants. He initially agreed but shortly thereafter he wrote to Gary Johnson, the editor of the journal, threatening that if the critique were published he would sue both the journal and the editor personally for what he considered to be defamation.

I suggest reading the rest of Tabarrok's post. I'll just add that I find it amazing that individuals can be so brazenly dishonest, publishers can be so cowardly, and the American legal system so open to abuse that this sort of intimidatory behavior can be used to effectively stifle criticism.

NB - On an entirely different note, this post by Tyler Cowen on this study of health outcomes in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe points to some interesting conclusions, perhaps the most notable of which is that "capitalism" per se is not to blame for Russia's decline in life expectancy - contrary to the arguments of many on the far left. This ought to have been obvious a long time ago, had anyone previously bothered to compare Russian health outcomes with those in states like Poland and the Czech Republic.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

History Repeats Itself

It's looking like Taiwan is about to have a retread of the "Hanging Chads" fiasco of America's 2000 presidential elections.

HONG KONG, March 21 (UPI) -- Taiwan was thrown into political chaos following the presidential election Saturday, after President Chen Shui-bian won re-election by a narrow margin and opposition candidate Lien Chan declared the poll invalid and called for a recount.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, crowds still milled in the streets of Taipei and riot police remained on alert should violence erupt among rival political camps.

Kuomintang leader Lien Chan refused to concede defeat after the final results showed Chen the winner by a margin of less than 30,000 votes. Lien said there had been too many irregularities surrounding the election, in which more than 80 percent of the island's 16 million eligible voters participated. He asked the Election Commission to seal the ballot boxes and re-examine the votes.

The final count was 6,471,970 votes for Chen, with 6,442,452 for Lien. In addition, more than 300,000 votes were declared invalid, a number more than ten times larger than the margin of difference between the two candidates. Within hours after the vote, the Kuomintang filed a complaint with the Supreme Court contesting the validity of the election.

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

The challenge to the election result and the failure of the referendum will be welcome news to China's leaders.

This is the second failed presidential attempt for Kuomintang leader Lien Chan and his running mate, James Soong, who ran on separate tickets in the last election in 2000. They expected an easy win after pooling their parties to run against Chen.

Speaking to his supporters after the election, a clearly agitated Lien said that events surrounding the election were highly questionable. He pointed out that no details on the shooting had emerged, and that the number of votes declared invalid should be investigated. He said his party would pursue legal means to have the vote declared null and void.

Suspicions abound that the attempted assassination of Chen on Friday was staged, with members of different camps accusing each other. Kuomintang supporters dredged up reports that the hospital where Chen was taken had been preparing Friday morning for a VIP visitor, and asked why pictures said to be of Chen's wounded stomach did not show his face.

At a late-night press conference on Friday, police said they had found two bullets, which they believed to have been fired by a trained marksman using what appeared to be a homemade weapon. By late Saturday they still had no suspect in the case.

In Chinese-language chat rooms, conspiracy theories were relayed and embellished from Taiwan to mainland China and Hong Kong. "The whole thing is just too bizarre to be real," said a Hong Kong resident surnamed Yu.

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

There were no reports of violence, despite the strong police presence. An outbreak of violence would be particularly worrying in Taiwan, as it could invite intervention from Chinese forces. China has said it would send troops to Taiwan under any of three conditions: should the island declare independence from China, should foreign forces interfere in its affairs, or should riots occur in the territory.

Here I have to agree with this Yu person, whoever he or she may be. These clowns need to get their act together quickly: the last thing Taiwan or the rest of the world needs is an excuse for China to attempt to invade to "restore order." Any such action would be almost certain to provoke a Sino-American war.

Nigerien Government Report Clashes With Islamic Militants

This news item ought to shake a few people out of the complacent assumption that Islamic militancy in West Africa can safely be ignored as a merely regional issue. Borders in Africa are extremely porous, and many of the peoples of the regions bordering the Sahara have been linked by Islam for centuries, well before there was any substantial European footprint on the continent.

Government troops and members of an armed Islamic group have clashed in recent weeks in the north of Niger, Defence Minister Hassane Bonto told parliament on Tuesday.

Bonto said there were three clashes between the armed forces and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC - le groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat) between 22 February and 5 March.

The first two occurred in Midal, over 600 km north of the capital, Niamey, and in the Air Mountains in the extreme north.

The latest clash came after the armed forces received a tip-off that GSPC members were about 100 km from a military outpost in the northeast. "After troop reinforcements were sent," Bonto said, "our forces pursued the GSPC elements to the Chadian border, around Tchigai region" in the extreme northeast.

He said 43 GSPC militants were killed and five were taken prisoner, including one Niger national. Three Chadian soldiers died and 18 were wounded, while the Niger armed forces did not register any casualties, according to the minister.

Caught between the Chadian and Niger armies, the militants fled, leaving five vehicles - four of them equipped with 14.5-mm anti-aircraft guns - six mortars, six Thuraya satellite phones, two night-vision binoculars, mortars, AK-47s and a sizeable quantity of other arms and ammunition.

Bonto said the GSPC arrived recently in northern Niger after being dismantled in southern Algeria and Mali as part of efforts to fight terrorism. The group, he said, was working hand-in-hand with armed bandits from Niger and was using hideouts and caches left over from a rebellion in the 1990s by Tuareg nomads.

And here's another story on the clashes, illustrating the diverse origins of the militants being fought in the region.

N'DJAMENA, March 11 (Reuters) - Chad's army has killed 43 Islamic "terrorists" during two days of heavy fighting near the border with Niger, the government said on Thursday.

The government said in a statement that those killed belonged to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a hardline Algerian Islamic militant group which recently pledged its allegiance to al Qaeda.

"The government forces have neutralised the threat from the terrorists," the statement said.

U.S. military experts recently began training soldiers in Mali and Algeria to fight the potential threat from Islamic militants believed to be roaming freely along ancient trade routes across the Sahara desert.

Washington has also vowed to assist Mauritania, Niger and Chad to combat security threats.

Chad said among the dead Islamic militants were nine Algerians and nationals from Niger, Nigeria and Mali -- all countries where the United States fears al Qaeda is recruiting militants and setting up cells. (emphasis added)

As can be seen from the passage in bold, Nigerians are already involved in fighting for Islamist groups outside of their nation's borders. This shouldn't really be all that surprising: as long ago as 1995, Nigerian volunteers were already to be found fighting in Kashmir, of all places. Anyone who thinks the Bush administration is overplaying the Islamist threat in West Africa is seriously in head-in-sand mode.

UPDATE: Here's a May 2001* PDF article by Peter Bergen that also mentions Nigerian membership in al Qaeda; in particular, one K.K. Mohamed is mentioned by name. No doubt there are more than a few others. It is simply wishful thinking to imagine that al Qaeda, and those who wish to emulate it, respect any of the artificial boundaries of race and nation that we imagine all people are somehow bound to acknowledge. Theirs is an explicitly global Ummah, and we ought to take them at their word when they say so.

*Which is to say, written before any hysteria associated with September 11 could have gotten off the ground.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Conspiranoia in Taiwan

It seems that Europe and America aren't the only parts of the world plagued by the conspiracy mindset at the moment. The reaction of supporters of Taiwan's Nationalist Party to the shooting of President Chen Shui-bian betrays a level of cynicism and suspicion that is hard to credit.

The president and vice president of Taiwan were shot in this southern Taiwan city Friday afternoon on the eve of bitterly contested national elections, but neither suffered life-threatening injuries and the central election commission said that the vote would proceed as scheduled today.

President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu were standing next to each other in an open-roofed red Jeep being driving slowly through streets crowded with supporters in Tainan, the president's hometown, when the president was struck in the stomach by a bullet, the police and government spokesmen said.

Supporters lining the route of the motorcade were discharging large numbers of firecrackers, and the president initially thought he had been hit by one of them, only to find his stomach becoming wet with blood, Chiou I-Jen, the secretary general of the presidential office, said at a news briefing in Taipei. The president and vice president were taken to the Chi Mei Medical Center in Tainan, where they were treated and released. They returned Friday night.

The precise circumstances of the shooting, which many observers surmised could affect voting in the tight race, remained unclear through Friday night. There was even speculation that the shootings might have been staged in an effort to increase support for Mr. Chen.

A bullet was found lodged between the skin of the president's stomach and his undershirt, having apparently torn a wound four inches long, an inch wide and an inch deep, Dr. Steve Chan, the medical center's president, said in a televised briefing.

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

Mr. Lien and other top Nationalist Party officials repeatedly called for calm and emphasized that they were mainly concerned with the health of the president. But they also called for a full explanation of the shooting.

Some supporters of the Nationalist Party, speaking on television call-in shows, in Internet chat rooms and in street interviews, raised the possibility that the incident was arranged in advance to generate a last-minute sympathy vote for Mr. Chen. Several people said the event reminded them of a "ku rou ji," an ancient Chinese term for a self-inflicted wound intended to trick a foe. (emphases added)

One would have to be pretty gutsy to stage a "trick" of this nature, where the difference between survival and certain death would only be a matter of a few inches. We can chuck that theory in the bin right away, alongside the "Bush knew in advance" and "Clinton killed Vince Foster" nonsense with which we've had to deal in this part of the world. I have to give the Nationalist Party supporters espousing this theory their rightful due, however: it takes real chutzpah to attempt the rhetorical jujitsu of using Chen Shiu-bian's close brush with death against him.

Reuters - Irate Muslims Burn Four Churches in North Nigeria

Another timely reminder of why I'm not as sanguine as some about the influence of Islamic extremists in West Africa. What possible legitimate grievances could there be to address here? What "root causes" should one be looking for? What diplomatic initiative should one expect to have any impact on such people?

LAGOS, March 18 (Reuters) - Islamic militants burnt down four churches and a hotel in the northern Nigerian town of Dutse after a magistrate denied bail to a Muslim youth charged with setting another church on fire, police said on Thursday.

Police in the predominantly Muslim state of Jigawa said irate youths went on the rampage late on Wednesday in the provincial capital, southeast of Kano -- Nigeria's second largest city where hundreds have died in religious clashes in the past three years.

"The miscreants were angered by the court ruling, they went around the town and burnt down four churches and one hotel," a senior officer told Reuters by phone from Dutse.

The officer said the town was calm and that the police were investigating the violence, the second in the state in the last five months. He said no arrests have yet been made.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in religious violence in northern Nigeria in the past four years since the introduction of strict Islamic sharia penal code in 12 states.

It's understandable that some people should doubt that the appropriate response to Islamic extremism is force - one should always look for peaceful ways of settling disputes where feasible. Nevertheless, though such a sentiment may be understandable, it strikes me as gravely mistaken. These people want to kill or intimidate those who don't agree that their way is the only way, and with such people there's no reasoning or debating to be done. All too common incidents of Islamist thuggery like this one are the reason why I'll always scoff at anyone mouthing empty platitudes of the sort Spain's prime-minister elect has been engaging in; only someone who hasn't lived in proximity to such religious extremism can subscribe to that sort of fluffy rhetoric.

Reuters - US-Trained Malian Troops Ready for Desert Battle

America's seriously stepping up its effort to take the battle to the Islamists, even in West Africa. Good.

Thursday marks the final day of training with U.S. Special Forces for Mali's troops in the Sahara desert, patrolling a region roughly the size of Texas where Washington says Islamic extremists are roaming freely along ancient trading routes.

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

U.S. military experts have been in Timbuktu since January, giving basic weapons training and teaching Malian troops how to move effectively in platoons and ambush the enemy.

The aim is to help the former French colony's army to police massive swathes of sand and stop what the United States calls terror networks criss-crossing the desert and setting up cells.

Washington is most worried about the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a hardline Algerian Islamic militant movement that has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.

The armies of Mali, one of Algeria's southern neighbours, and Chad say they have clashed with GSPC members in recent months.

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

Colonel Younoussa Barazi Maiga, who heads the Malian forces that cover the huge region north of Timbuktu, said his troops had chased up to 100 GSPC members out of Mali in January.

"They had some bases towards the west and we attacked them. There were about 20 vehicles with around four or five people in each," he said, watching his troops complete an ambush exercise.

"They have never done any harm to our people but we don't want them here," he said, adding they had fled to Niger and Chad.

SHADOWS IN THE SAND

Chad's government said earlier this month its army had killed 43 Islamic militants in two days of heavy fighting. It said those killed were GSPC members and included nine Algerians and nationals from Niger, Nigeria and Mali.

The armies of Chad and neighbouring Niger will receive U.S. training, like their counterparts in Mali and Mauritania.

U.S. satellites are also helping pinpoint suspected militants.

I knew Nigerian involvement had to show up sooner or later. With scum like Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau and Sheikh Ibrahim el Zak Zaky (a Shiite protege of the Iranian government) doing their best to foment religious strife in the country. Add Algerian, Chadian and Nigerian oil into the mix and you have all the ingredients for big time trouble.

Tennessee County Retreat from Gay Ban

What a bunch of idiots! How could these people ever have seriously entertained the notion of "banning" homosexuals from their county?

The county that was the site of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" over the teaching of evolution Thursday reversed its call to ban homosexuals.

Rhea County commissioners took about three minutes to retreat from a request to amend state law so the county can charge homosexuals with crimes against nature. The Tuesday measure passed 8-0.

County attorney Gary Fritts said the initial vote triggered a "wildfire" of reaction. "I've never seen nothing like this," he said Thursday.

But Fritts said it was all a misunderstanding.

"They wanted to send a message to our (state) representative and senator that Rhea County supports the ban on same-sex marriage," he said. "Same-sex marriage is what it was all about. It was to stop people from coming here and getting married and living in Rhea County."

Not that the issue of banning homosexuals didn't arise.

"I'm not saying it wasn't discussed," Fritts said. "Sometimes you had five or six people talking."

Fritts said he advised the commissioners they cannot ban homosexuals or make them subject to criminal charges. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down Texas' sodomy laws as a violation of adults' privacy.

Fritts said he doesn't believe the issue will come up again.

"I think they got all the publicity they need about it," he said.

The bit about the Scopes "Monkey Trial" doesn't surprise me in the least. It looks like Rhea County has long made a specialty of stupidity.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Economist Echoes My Thinking on the Spanish Elections

I find that this Economist article lays out eloquently my very own thoughts about the attacks in Spain and their electoral aftermath. That magazine continues to justify its high reputation for insightful commentary.

IF YOU carry out a well planned atrocity, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than a thousand, and three days later the government that supported an invasion to which you object is unexpectedly defeated in a general election, you are entitled to consider the venture to have been a success. So although Spain's high voting turnout on March 14th, and many Spaniards' apparent ire at the way José María Aznar's government had prematurely blamed Basque terrorists for the outrage, can be taken as healthily democratic signs (see article), there is no escaping the fact that the biggest triumph has been that of the terrorists. Assuming, as is likely, that they are indeed linked to or are members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, they scored another success when the new Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said he would withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq. This may only be a symbolic move, for that is a mere 1% of the American-led coalition's forces there, but symbols and emotions are what terrorism is all about.

To say all that is not to say that it is wrong to vote out governments that supported the invasion of Iraq a year ago. In some cases, such as Spain, they did so against a huge majority of public opinion. In all cases, their claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of dangerous weapons now look to be a blunder, a gamble or a deception. This year both George Bush himself and John Howard, Australia's prime minister, face re-election contests and next year Britain's Tony Blair is also expected to do so. There is now a real possibility that all three could follow Mr Aznar's party into defeat—though Mr Blair may be saved by the fact that his Tory opposition supported the war strongly, too. Such defeats would be natural, in democratic terms. But the tragedy of Madrid is that the terrorists in effect cast the swing vote, given that Mr Aznar's party had looked set to win a comfortable victory, despite opposition to the war, and that such success may now stimulate more terrorism during the other three electoral campaigns. The big question, if such defeats occur, is whether successor governments would be more effective in pursuing al-Qaeda and stabilising the regions within which its terrorists thrive—or less.

Some critics of the war in Iraq say that there is no such danger. There was no genuine link between toppling Saddam and fighting al-Qaeda, so to punish governments for what opponents claim was an illegal invasion is a quite separate matter. Mr Zapatero even appears to think that pulling troops out of Iraq will make things better, on the view that the occupation is itself the cause of terrorism. Yet that policy is irresponsible, because it increases the risk of civil war in Iraq. Even those who opposed the war should now want to help make Iraq secure enough for Iraqis themselves to take back their sovereignty. If other new governments copy Mr Zapatero and prove their anti-war point by withdrawing from Iraq, they will make everyone less safe as a result. And it is a delusion to claim, as Mr Zapatero does, that all would be well if the UN were to take over from the Americans. Few Iraqis think so. It is as well to recall the Dutch UN peacekeepers who looked on helplessly during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995.

Moreover, withdrawal would put the rest of the Middle East at greater risk, too. For even if there was no direct link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the connection was always indirect and much more long-term: that while he remained in power to threaten his neighbours and required bombing and sanctions to contain him, it would be impossible to move towards a wider peace and modernisation of that whole troubled region. To advocates of the war, including The Economist, sticking with the status quo looked a more dangerous option than toppling Saddam.

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

The right grounds on which to criticise and even condemn the perpetrators of regime change in Iraq now lie in that slow or non-existent regional progress. They, especially the Bush administration, do deserve criticism for their mishandling of the post-war situation in Iraq, but the correct response is to strengthen the effort to rebuild and secure Iraq, not weaken it. They deserve much more criticism, though, for having so far failed to turn the strategic change represented by the fall of Saddam into a wider and more profound set of changes: notably, a restoration of full relations with Iran and the establishment of some sort of Arab-American alliance to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Such things could never have happened overnight and many a previous attempt, whether American or European, has foundered amid the blood of the Middle East. Yet as the terror in Madrid showed, time is on no one's side. In contrast to its urgency over invading Iraq, the Bush administration has shown little urgency in trying to achieve these wider goals.

Yes, Bush and Blair erred in their selling of the war in Iraq, but that still doesn't mean that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a bad thing. What is more, Zapatero's accusations notwithstanding, the Iraqi people themselves don't seem to agree with his assessment of Iraq being a "fiasco," nor do they seem at all eager to see the sort of hasty pullout that Spain's prime minister elect is advocating. Whatever one feels about the truthfulness of Bush and Blair's campaign to remove Saddam from office, I think it inconceivable that any truly moral human being could argue that leaving him be would have been the proper course of action, or that pulling out of Iraq and leaving it's people to suffer intimidatory violence is a just cause of action. That is precisely what Jose Louis Rodriguez Zapatero is doing, and why I consider him and those swing voters* who won him office appeasers and capitulationists whose confused ideas can only give heart to advocates of terrorism everywhere. Leaders like Bush, Blair and Aznar ought to be held accountable for what they say, but not if that means throwing them out of office and replacing them with unserious individuals like Zapatero, whose rash promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq has been (commendably) condemned even by his preferred occupant of the White House, John Kerry.

*It is a fact that the great majority of the Spanish election did not allow the incidents of March 11 to affect their vote, and that the POSE's electoral victory owes largely to what one might the "young and dumb" contingent - that mass of apathetic under-30s individuals who hold all the usual trite far-left views but are usually too lazy to bother to vote. Their baleful influence in bringing to power such a deluded individual is yet another argument against the notion that more political participation is always better, regardless of the circumstances.

There's a Method to His Madness

How the Onion keeps finding inspiration week-in week-out is beyond me.

STANFORD, CA—Known throughout the community for his verbal outbursts and his shopping cart full of trash, area street denizen "Cosmic Stan" must have studied advanced physics at some point, sources reported Monday.

"Where's my cheese? Don't take my rowboat! Got no room!" the lunatic screamed from his regular spot near the Campus Drive bus stop. "I need space! Gimme space! Infinite dimensional separable Hilbert space!"

Though his rants seem nonsensical to most passersby, some astute listeners say they contain evidence of higher learning.

"I'd always see him around that bus stop, dressed in his ragged wool clothes, duct-taped shoes, and that plastic sheeting covered over with symbols drawn in magic-marker," Stanford Ph.D. candidate James Willard said. "Then, a few days ago, he was out there waving his tin-foil wand at random strangers, and I heard him yell, 'I demand that you buy me an ice-cream cone! My third-favorite flavor is strange! My second-favorite is top! My favorite flavor is anti-charmed!' Suddenly, I realized the guy was talking about quarks."

Willard said he spent the next several minutes listening to Cosmic Stan's rant.

"Mixed in with the usual stuff about CIA mind-control beams, talking dogs, and monkey-people, I heard him mention beta decay, instantons, density matrix, and subspaces of n-dimensional Riemannian manifolds," Willard said. "I'm not sure where he got it, but he definitely seems to have had extensive schooling in theoretical physics. Man, what could've happened to him?"

Stanford theoretical physicist Carl Lundergaard seconded Willard's theory on the loonball.

"He's definitely had some advanced training, though I'm not surprised that it went unnoticed for so long," Lundergaard said. "It's hard for the layperson to differentiate schizophrenic ramblings like 'Modernity chunk where the sink goes flying on the ping-pang' from legitimate terminology like 'Unstable equilibria lie on the nodal points of a separatrix in phase space.'"

Lundergaard said he first became intrigued by Cosmic Stan in December 1999, when the homeless man threw a chicken bone at him and said, "Components of the Weyl conformal curvature tensor." (emphasis added)

Yes, I think that highlighted bit is key here. If a lunatic were to dress in a nice suit and tie but kept spouting the same nonsense, how would the average Joe be able to tell him apart from a perfectly sane if somewhat self-absorbed scientist going on about his favorite subject? The experience of listening in on a conversation in some lunatic's private language is one I'm sure many a bewildered freshman struggling with calculus can relate to.

As an aside, I feel compelled to mention that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I once enjoyed(?) the acquaintance of the infamous Archimedes Plutonium, who liked, as did I, to hang around the Dartmouth mathematics department's library. The most noticeable difference between the two of us at the time was that he was a dishwasher at the Hanover Inn, while I was merely an undergraduate. Needless to say, I found his ramblings, such as they were (he being of the taciturn variety of lunatic) rather less entertaining and erudite than those of the fictional "Cosmic Stan" detailed above. Here was one case in which the reality did actually fall short of the imaginary alternative.