Friday, April 30, 2004

Zamfara State Government Orders Demolition of all Churches

Maybe this article (also available here) is just another example of me letting my loathing of "anything vaguely resembling Islamic radicalism" get in the way of seeing things clearly ...

Governor Ahmed Sani of Zamfara State, has ordered the demolition of all churches in the state, as he launched the second phase of his Sharia project yesterday.

Speaking at the launch in Gusau, the state capital, Governor Sani disclosed that time was ripe for full implementation of the programme as enshrined in the Holy Quran.

He added that his government would soon embark on demolition of all places of worship of unbelievers in the state, in line with Islamic injunction to fight them wherever they are found.

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

It would be recalled that Governor Sani introduced the Sharia Legal Code in the state in the year 2000, despite opposition from the federal government and religious groups.

The implementation of the system led to the amputation of the wrist of a cow thief, Malam Jangedi.

Governor Sani also made the retention of a long beard a condition for securing juicy contracts from the state government.

I'm not about to turn into an LGF imitator and start making the claims that all Muslims are evil, that Islam is inherently dangerous, or even that Islam has a bloodier history than that supposedly peaceful religion called Christianity (going by a purely numerical tally of victims, this is almost certainly false); what I will reiterate that there are serious problems with the way Islam is being interpreted and practiced throughout much of the world today, and that contrary to the claims of some well-intentioned people, these problems are not confined to a "small fringe" of the religion's practitioners. Governor Ahmed Sani, like fellow Islamist and Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shakerau, was popularly elected on a platform promising to do precisely what he's now intent on carrying out, so the word "fringe" has no role to play here whatsoever.

Similarly, throughout much of the Islamic world, from the Sudan to Pakistan to Indonesia, hardline Islamists enjoy bases of popular support that are both deep and surprisingly wide, especially in light of claims that those who subscribe to their ideals constitute a "fringe." Few Muslims may be willing in practice to take up arms and risk their own lives for the sake of violent struggle against "unbelievers", but that is only an indicator that most men are far from willing to pay the ultimate price even for ideas in which they sincerely believe; as such, to say that hardline Islamist notions meet with approval only amongst a marginal number is a gross distortion of the facts. If it is acceptable to point out that America has a problem with a powerful fundamentalist right (and I certainly believe it is acceptable), there's no good reason why pointing out the far more serious issues bedevilling the Islamic world should meet with criticism, as long as it's done in a level-headed manner.

Separatist Dreams and Economic Reality

Via Southern Cross, I came across this story on the launch of an independent currency by the Afrikaner separatist community of Orania.

The white homeland of Orania on the banks of the Orange River will be launching its own currency in the enclave's community centre on Thursday to a cautious reception by the Reserve Bank.

The currency will be known as the "Ora" and consists of a range of four denominations -- Ora 10, Ora 20, Ora 50 and Ora 100 -- Eleanor Lombard, spokesperson for the Orania Movement, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Lombard said that during Thursday's unveiling, special momento packages would be on sale.

"The symbols on the Ora 10 note showed the Afrikaner's history, the Ora 20 note his art, the Ora 50 note his culture and the Ora 100 note depicted Orania," said Lombard.

She said the advantages of the town having its own currency was among others -- available cash being replaced with proof of cash and the cash earning interest in the bank; buying power remaining in the community because the currency was only accepted in the town; because the currency could only be spent locally it was safer than cash.

Meanwhile, Reserve Bank spokesperson Themba Hlengani said the voucher or currency must not resemble the South African bank note, in whole or part.

"For instance, it shouldn't be the same colour or font as any of the South African bank notes," he said.

He said this was regulated in terms of South African Reserve Bank Act of 1989.

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

According to Lombard the idea for the currency was first mooted by a Prof Johan van Zyl during a conference by the Orania Movement in 2002.

Van Zyl apparently emphasised that a community which wanted to empower itself needed to do so with as many instruments as possible to further enhance its self determination, and having its own currency unit was good example of this.

Let's leave aside for now all discussion of the rights and wrongs of the attempt by the Oranians to perpetuate the old dream of an Afrikaner-only state; for now, the settlement remains confined to private property, and they ought to be free to do with themselves as they wish, as long as no one outside their community is dragooned into it to serve in some subordinate role. My real interest here is in the economic thinking behind the launch of the "Ora", and what that implies for the future economic viability of Orania.

Analyzing the consequences of the new Oranian currency is pretty straightforward, once we take on the fact that the Ora is actually intended to be non-convertible, which is what all the stuff about it being "spent locally" implies. In the real world, non-convertibility has been a condition that virtually every one of the (exceedingly rare) governments that has desired it has proven difficult to enforce, as all it takes to circumvent such a restriction is some tangible commodity that can be used as an intermediate store of value; if gold and diamonds will not do, vegetable produce like cabbage and potatoes will also suffice, though their bulk will make them less convenient for such purposes. But Orania is a small, remote community of like-minded people, so even if it proves impossible in practice to completely prevent Oras from being traded for Rands, it is likely that the members will be able to get close enough to the goal (at least in the outset) for us to ignore this difficulty in our analysis.

Now, on the assumption that Professor Johan van Zyl's vision of a state in which "buying power [remains] in the community" is achieved, what will this mean for the economic well-being of the Oranians? Will the Ora then usher in a golden age of prosperity for the people who are thereby "empowered" by its existence? I can give an unequivocal answer on to this question, and it is a categorical NO. All that will be achieved by keeping "buying power within the community" will be to shut Orania off from all economic exchange with the rest of the world, a state of affairs better known by the term autarky. It will mean Oranians foregoing all of the benefits of trade with the outer world, including the chance to make use of outsiders' specialized skills and the opportunity to purchase resources unavailable within Orania's borders, and the ability to partake in the advantages of scale that make it possible for most Westerners to enjoy a quality of life even the Caesars and the Pharoahs might envy. Not only will Oranians have to grow all of their own food and make their own clothes, but they'll also have to create the very hoes and ploughs to use in their farming, and set up textile mills to weave the very cloth; worse yet, they'll have to mine the raw iron ore themselves, and even on the unlikely assumption that Orania has great reserves of iron lying about idle, they'll then have to set up their own ironworks and steelmills, and build their own (steam?) engines to power these operations!

I think all of the above ought to make it clear that Orania's currency scheme is bound to fail in its current incarnation, as it would lead in the space of a few years to a standard of living so low that even Zimbabweans might start to pity the Oranians' lot. Autarky has failed everywhere it has been tried, and one has only to look at North Korea for one example of how bad things can get even when it is imperfectly applied. There's a good reason why it's been far more common for governments to strive to get their currencies accepted at face value rather than the reverse, and the denizens of Orania are likely to quickly discover that whatever field Professor van Zyl's academic credentials might be in, it certainly cannot be the subject of economics. South Africa's government would be wise to let this harebrained scheme play out to its logical conclusion - just as long as the Oranians pay their taxes of course (and speaking of taxes, how do they propose to pay these to the South African government if their currency isn't convertible?)

On a final note*, I'll also add that it is for the very same reasons I've outlined here that I've always scoffed at those black activists who tell other black people to keep money "within the community" by patronizing black-owned establishments - the idea is just plain stupid. It's true enough that some individuals would benefit from the scheme, but the gains to those individuals who would be able to command higher prices for inferior goods and services would be more than outweighed by the losses incurred by their customers, and the net result would be that the black community as a whole would actually be poorer for keeping its money "within the community" than by just operating as individuals looking for the best value for their money. Anyone who allows himself to be guilt-tripped into patronizing black-owned businesses when better bargains can be had elsewhere is not only a fool, but a traitor to the cause of "black empowerment" he thinks he's serving. Keeping money "within the community" only makes sense if one subscribes to the daft notion that there's only a fixed amount of wealth to go around, and that outsiders' gains can only be at the loss of those "within the community."

*Pun intended.

Up or Out!

Nice to see that the old Europhile penchant for threats and blackmail hasn't given up the ghost. We've already had Neil Kinnock and Michael Heseltine do their best to bluster the strangely unenthusiastic British into supporting the proposed constitution, or else ...; now it's His Serene Highness Jacques Chirac's turn to browbeat the Brits into yielding to the "inevitable."

BRITAIN could be forced to leave the European Union if its voters reject the proposed new constitution in a referendum, President Chirac suggested yesterday.

The French leader, who is resisting pressure to commit himself to a referendum, noted that states that fail to ratify the constitutional treaty would be scuppering the agreement for the whole EU.

At a press conference to convince France of the merits of the expanded EU, M Chirac referred to proposals aired in Brussels and Berlin that would require member nations to ratify the constitution or leave the EU. This could be a “positive solution”, M Chirac said. “I am not against the idea of using methods of friendly pressure with countries that are refusing the constitution because that blocks all the others.”

M Chirac’s remarks reflected his exasperation over Tony Blair’s decision to put the constitution to a risky plebiscite.

Damn that Tony Blair for giving the British people a say! What sort of game does he think he's up to, giving the French canaille ideas well above their station?

Pressure is building from across the French political spectrum for a popular vote on the EU constitution. According to polls, 75 per cent of the public want a popular ballot.

The President is reluctant to hold one because of the strong possibility of a “no” vote from a public that is unhappy with his presidency. But Mr Blair’s pledge of a referendum has raised the stakes for M Chirac, whose personal popularity has sunk 11 points to 44 per cent over the past month.

A more diplomatic version of events than M Chirac’s was voiced in London yesterday by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President who led drafting of the constitution treaty. In the case of a “no” vote, “Britain will not be in the core of the system, but at the margin”, he said.

Under a “ratify-or-leave” scheme devised by the EU Commission, the 25 member states would first approve and ratify a separate treaty which would give countries two years to endorse the constitution or give up membership. Departing states would retain their existing EU rights on trade and movement as associate members. However, this scheme is highly unlikely to come about because of the initial need for approval by all member states.

M Chirac’s comments followed a suggestion by Chancellor Schröder of Germany that a mechanism must be found for putting the treaty into operation even if Britain or other states blocked it with a “no”.

Herr Schröder tells us that Ordnung muss sein; orders are orders, and once the enlightened rulers of Europe have decided on a constitution, the people of Europe are bloody well going to have it, whatever they might decide to the contrary. Why is it that so many European politicians have difficulty grasping the concept that the larger the EU gets, the looser a body it has to become if it is to prosper in the long run? Why should Spaniards get to legislate on German sausages, or Germans on the constituents of "genuine" British Ale?

To the free movement of people and goods, I say an emphatic yes; to a European "state" with a single foreign policy, a single tax regime and a single criminal code, I say three times no! National laws fit poorly to cover all of the regions they legislate for as it is, and it is the height of hubris and insanity to imagine that Europe-wide laws are going to be any better. Only a fool would think it likely that a union of the sort of which certain federalists dream could act as a catalyst for anything other than greater conflict between the peoples of Europe, seeing as regions like Catalonia, Corsica and Scotland are already thorns in the flesh of the much smaller political units of which they remain parts.

Predictably, in light of how terrible the idea of a European "state" is, the New York Times is only too happy to endorse it, anything that involves the surrender of sovereignty on the altar of "multilateralism" being ipso facto a good thing according to the NYT worldview.

Least Mysterious Development Ever

Via Glenn Reynolds, I came across this story; frankly, the real shocker here is that anyone should have expected something different to transpire.

April 29, 2004 -- WASHINGTON - The vast majority of the United Nations' oil-for-food contracts in Iraq have mysteriously vanished, crippling investigators trying to uncover fraud in the program, a government report charged yesterday.

The General Accounting Office report, presented at a congressional hearing into the scandal-plagued program, determined that 80 percent of U.N. records had not been turned over.

The world body claims it transferred all information it had - including 3,059 contracts worth about $6.2 billion for delivery of food and other civilian goods to the post-Saddam governing body, the Coalition Provisional Authority.

But the GAO report also found that a database the U.N. transferred to the authority was "unreliable because it contained mathematical and currency errors in calculation of contract costs," the report found.

The GAO findings, which were aired at a hearing of the House International Relations Committee, raise new questions about corruption and mismanagement in the biggest-ever U.N. aid program - and what has been called the biggest financial scandal in history. An earlier GAO report said Saddam ripped off over $10 billion.

The "biggest financial scandal" bit only holds if we dismiss all cases of corruption within the constituent members of the UN, as I can rattle off the top of my head more than a dozen countries in Africa and Asia where that figure has been outdone several times over. Still, there can be no doubt that the United Nations is a deeply rotten organization, as is only to be expected of any body the majority of whose membership consists of kleptocrats and strongmen ruling tinpot kingdoms and banana republics.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

"Great" Works of Fiction I've Read

Mrs Tilton presents her own list of 100 books and challenges the rest of us to put up lists of our own. In response to the challenge, I present some titles I've read below. This is a non-exhaustive collection of books I've read that I'd think might reasonably be mentioned as "important", either according to literary criteria, or in terms of the impact of the ideas they present of some larger culture (and not necessarily a Western one, either.)

To be honest, I adhere to the old notion that "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est" - aesthetic tastes are inherently subjective, and not really amenable to simple rank orderings of the "best" anything - which is why I put "Great" in scare quotes in the title of this post. All one sees below is an incomplete record of the idiosyncratic and historically contingent reading of one individual, not some measure by which anyone else's standard of "culture" is to be ascertained.

Achebe, Chinue - Things Fall Apart
Borges, Jorge-Louis - Collected Fictions
Burroughs, William - Naked Lunch
Calvino, Italo - Invisible Cities
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Celine, Louis-Ferdinand - Journey to the End of Night
Chabon, Michael - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Dick, Philip K. - The Man in the High Castle
Dostoevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Dostoevsky, Fyodor - Notes from Underground
Dostoevsky, Fyodor - The Brothers Karamazov
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Eliot, George - Silas Marner
Ellis, Brett Easton - American Psycho
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Faulkner, William - Absalom, Absalom
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - Go Down, Moses
Faulkner, William - Light in August
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Last Tycoon
Foster-Wallace, David - Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Foster-Wallace, David - Infinite Jest
Gibson, William - Mona Lisa Overdrive
Gibson, William - Neuromancer
Hemingway, Ernest - The Sun Also Rises
Hesse, Hermann - Siddhartha
Hesse, Hermann - Steppenwolf
Hesse, Hermann - The Glass Bead Game
Hesse, Hermann - The Journey to the East
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ishiguro, Kazuo - A Pale View of the Hills
Ishiguro, Kazuo - The Remains of the Day
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - Amerika
Kafka, Franz - Metamorphosis and Other Stories
Kafka, Franz - The Castle
Kafka, Franz - The Trial
Kawabata, Yasunari - Snow Country
Kawabata, Yasunari - The Sound of the Mountain
Mann, Thomas - Buddenbrooks
Mann, Thomas - Death in Venice and Other Stories
Mann, Thomas - Doctor Faustus
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel-Garcia - 100 Years of Solitude
Marquez, Gabriel-Garcia - Autumn of the Patriarch
Marquez, Gabriel-Garcia - Love in the Time of Cholera
Melville, Hermann - Moby Dick
Miller, Henry - Tropic of Cancer
Mishima, Yukio - Confessions of a Mask
Mishima, Yukio - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Musil, Robert - The Man Without Qualities
Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita
Nabokov, Vladimir - The Luzhin Defense
Orwell, George - 1984
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Proust, Marcel - Remembrance of Things Past (Start to Finish!)
Ryonosuke, Akutagawa - Rashomon and Other Stories
Saikaku, Ihara - The Life of an Amorous Man
Sartre, Jean-Paul - Nausea
Shikibu, Murasaki - The Tale of Genji
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Soseki, Natsume - Kokoro
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Tanizaki, Junichiro - Some Prefer Nettles
Thiongo, Ngugi wa - Weep Not, Child
Tolstoy, Leo - The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Wells, H.G. - The Time Machine
Wells, H.G. - War of the Worlds
Wright, Richard - Black Boy
Wright, Richard - Native Son
Zamyatin, Yevgeny - We

Do note that I've intentionally excluded all plays and non-fictional works from the list; drawing on inspiration from some titles mentioned by Frank McGahon, I'm working on yet another list of books, this time non-fictional works that I've personally found of world-shaking importance. It isn't likely to be half as long as this list, but my intention is that every item mentioned should be an intellectual gem in its own right, at least by my criteria.

itex2MML 0.8 for Windows

I've just compiled a Windows binary of Jacques Distler's latest revision to the itex2MML program, and the binary can be downloaded as a ZIP archive from this link.

I've also been thinking of distributing the binary as an MSI package, to facilitate an easier and cleaner install/uninstall process, but it isn't clear to me that anyone cares enough for it to be worth the effort on my part. Feedback on this point would be most appreciated.

New York Times - Hyundai Near Top of Quality Ranking

This really is momentous, as it was indeed no more than a decade ago that Hyundai cars were derided as low-quality vehicles. Like Japan before it, Korea continues to climb the quality ladder, leaving behind raw price competition to the likes of the Chinese.

DETROIT, April 28 - For the first time, new-car buyers ranked Hyundai, the South Korean automaker, higher in initial quality than any domestic or European manufacturer, according to a survey released on Wednesday by J. D. Power & Associates

The result was a coup for Hyundai, which has been trying hard to upgrade its image from cheap to classy, or at least respectable, and close the gap between it and Toyota Motor and Honda Motor.

"A decade ago, as Korean manufacturers struggled with a universally poor reputation for vehicle quality," said Joe Ivers, executive director of quality and customer satisfaction at J. D. Power, a research firm, "no one would have predicted they could not only keep the pace, but actually pass domestics and other imports in terms of initial quality."

As a company, Toyota ranked first, followed closely by Honda and Hyundai, tied for second.

There are caveats, however. Hyundai's Kia brand continues to be a subpar performer in the initial-quality rankings. And in J. D. Power's most recent study of long-term reliability, which many in the industry consider to be a more important barometer, the Hyundai brand ranks near the bottom of the industry and Kia is dead last.

Chris Hosford, a spokesman for Hyundai, said improvements in initial quality inevitably contribute to longer-term improvements.

"One leads the other," he said. "We really want people to see us as a great value automobile. Part of value is price. Part of value is getting a lot of features and equipment for what you spend. And part of it is definitely having a great quality car."

So what, exactly, is initial quality? In February and March, J. D. Power asked 51,000 buyers of new cars and trucks in the United States whether they had experienced any of 135 problems during the first three months after purchase.

The most common complaint was wind noise audible inside the car. Poor fuel economy was a top 10 complaint, but less so than in last year's survey, even though gasoline prices are higher now than in 2003.

"It suggests consumers are adjusting to higher fuel prices," said Brian Walters, J. D. Power's senior director of vehicle research.

The annual survey data is closely watched by the auto industry, though the differences between the best and worst automakers have narrowed in recent years.

"Because it's so darn close, I don't think it has the same importance it had 10 or 20 years ago," said Louise Goeser, vice president for quality at Ford Motor.

The range is much wider in long-term reliability, which affects how automobiles retain value. Still, the initial-quality report is an important reflection of how well new cars and trucks live up to customer expectations.

As a group, Japanese brands scored best in the latest survey, averaging 111 problems for each 100 vehicles. Korean brands were next, with 117; European brands had 122; and domestic brands 123. In 1998, the Korean brands were worst, with 272 problems for each 100 vehicles, and European brands best, with 156.

Hyundai and the other Korean car-makers still have quite a lot of work ahead of them to change their brand perception in the eyes of customers in the West, but I have no doubt that they'll succeed on that front as well, sooner or later. Samsung has already shown in the field of electronics that "Korean-made" and "excellent" can be identified in the public eye with enough effort. As for American car-makers, would it be uncouth of me to suggest that they might be better off working on their quality-control problems rather than expending vast amounts of effort whining about and lobbying against foreign competition, as they have over the last two decades?

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Libertarian Alliance - Atlas Winced

I've just discovered this lengthy but truly excellent takedown of Ayn Rand's fiction and "philosophy", and I've included some excerpts from the second half below:

The various speeches and allusions in Atlas Shrugged - so obviously far-fetched and logically slipshod, but perhaps defensible as rhetoric within a novel - are themselves quoted at length in Rand's fiction essays on philosophy, art and politics. The horrible, pitiful truth finally dawned: this is all there is to Rand. She really believes that this mouth-frothing sloganeering is philosophy, is reasoning, is the way to persuade rational people.

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

Of all modern tendencies in fiction, Rand's novels are closest in spirit to the socialist realist works favoured by the Stalinist regime. Stalin said: "Artists are engineers of the soul." Rand said: "Art is the technology of the soul."

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

According to Gait's speech, in a passage singled out by Branden, "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non- existence - and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms." This is false. Any class of matter (atoms. crystals. stars, etc.), not just living organisms, may exist or not exist. Galt (Rand) also emphasises that: "to think is an act of choice ... man is a being of volitional consciousness." This too is false. Thinking is involuntary, like digestion or blood clotting. If you don't believe this, try to stop thinking for a few seconds. Galt (Rand) also keeps insisting that "existence exists". This seems to he of momentous importance to Galt (Rand), but in the only sense I can make of it (that 'existence' is something which exists in addition to all the things which exist) it is not evident, and I believe it is false. (If what is meant is that "Things which exist exist' - existence exists - then that is trite and has never been denied by anyone.) And so it goes on, 58 pages of it. one pompous vacuity after another.

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

Randism was and is a religious cult. ('Religion' is 'a system of faith and worship'.) Branden has often described Objectivism as a cult, but in this book she withdraws this label. She now states that although Objectivism has some of the features of a cult, it cannot be a cult because of its commitment to reason and individualism (352). Well, there is a lot of talk about reason and individualism, just as among Bolsheviks there is a lot of talk about science. But reason does not consist in shrieking the word 'reason' all the time. It consists in subjecting one's ideas to rational criticism, holding every position tentatively, and being prepared to abandon any position if it is successfully criticised. Reason consists, as Socrates put it, in 'following the argument wherever it leads', especially. of course, if it leads where you don't want to go. There is no evidence that the Randists understood the most elementary requirements of rational discourse. Branden quotes Sidney Hook, from his review of Rand's For the New Intellectual: "Despite the great play with the word 'reason', one is struck by the absence of any serious argument in this unique combination of tautology and extravagant absurdity." (321) That is exactly right. The Objectivists, no less than the devotees of a theistic sect, are engaged in abusing their minds by reiterating articles of faith. As for their individualism, it reminds me of the individualism of the mob in The Life of Brian. Trying to get the crowd to stop worshipping him, Brian shouts: "You are all individuals." The crowd drones back ecstatically. "We are all individuals." Unlike Brian, Rand was addicted to the idolatry of her besotted admirers.

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

Rand asserts that ethics is entirely based on reason, and that the supreme moral virtue is selfishness. or rational self-interest. This is developed at times (See the 'Objectivist Ethics' in The Virtue of Selfishness) by biological, or biological-sounding, arguments. What is good for an organism is what contributes to that organism's survival and well-being. This seems clear enough: it is moral to do what is to one's advantage, and immoral to do what is against one's advantage. It follows that it is moral to cheat, murder, and steal, on those occasions where a rational analysis shows this to be to one's advantage. But no such conclusion is drawn by Rand. Respecting other people's lives and property, even when this hurts one's bank balance or survival prospects, is stated to be in one's rational self-interest. From a biological point of view - maximising one's chances of survival, good health, or reproduction - this is obviously not always the case. Rand explains that the standard of ethics is not the individual's bodily or biological survival, but the survival of man qua man", or man as a rational being. Thus, all Rand's biological- sounding arguments go by the board: it may even be 'selfish', in her redefinition of the term, to court death for the sake of a 'cherished value'. But there is no clear stipulation of how the nature of man as a rational being, or the values which it is permissible for a rational egoist to cherish. are to be determined. The outcome is that Rand appears to be urging egoism. but is actually urging unselfish sacrifice of one's interests to what she tells us is the life proper to a rational being. All this terrible confusion and double-talk arises because Rand cannot stomach the manifest truth that it can be to a person's advantage to violate the rights of another person. If ethics is to tell us that people's rights may not he violated, it must tell us that we ought sometimes to do things against our own interests. (emphases added)

A thoroughgoing demolition job, and this, mind you, from a libertarian website, and as such, hardly to be dismissed as motivated by "collectivist" bile. I especially like the fact that the author also noticed the aesthetic resemblance of Randianism to the Socialist-Realist worldview. Objectivism is a steaming pile of extremely contradictory claptrap cooked up by a writer of political potboilers tinged with sadomasochist fantasizing.

One question I can easily envision being asked is why I and other subscribers to libertarianism would be so antagonistic to the work of someone who subscribes to largely the same set of values we do - individualism, a healthy respect for self-interest, and a belief in free-markets as the right way to go. I can't say with confidence that my answer will necessarily be typical of that offered by other libertarians, but for me at least, all questions of literary merit aside, I do not believe that my cause is really furthered in the long-run by fallacious and simple-minded arguments; what is more, I find the cultish tendencies of the Randroids extremely disturbing as a believer in individualism. If I were intent on discrediting libertarianism as a body of ideas, I could think of no easier and surer way to do so than to allow it to become associated in the public mind with Objectivism, neo-Confederate "paleolibertarianism", gold-standard fetishism, and other kooky movements that would give pause to any reasonable person who was exposed to them. The more sensible liberals were wise enough to recognize the folly of the notion that there could be "no enemies on the left", and sensible libertarians likewise recognize that there are movements that aren't worth associating with.

The Fountainhead - A Parody

I've never understood what so many people see in Ayn Rand's fiction, as I found the doorstops she put out as novels unbearably tedious reading, while her claims to originality as a philosopher are extremely overstated, what with her ideas being little more than warmed-over and dumbed-down Nietzscheanism. How is it that anyone who's outgrown his teenage years is able to find an iota of pleasure wading through the pulpy mess that is Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, with their didactic, cardboard cutout figures of impossibly dynamic men and beautiful high-born damsels eager to submit to their brute strength?

Given my intense distaste for both Rand's ouvre and the groupies who worship her, this Fountainhead parody was right up my alley, and while we're at it, lovers of kitsch everywhere will thrill to the sight of this example of objectivist painting (courtesy of Reason's Julian Sanchez.) That Socialist Realis ... ahem, Objectivist aesthetic really is something, isn't it?

Oreo! Hankie Head! Sellout!

I figured that my earlier critique of Bob Herbert's fetishization of racial integration of schools as an end-in-itself would get one or two fully paid-up members of the Authenticity Police on my behind, and sure enough, that's just what happened:

Foreign Dispatches, shows it's true colors. And seems more concerned with White-Americans reaction to diversity in the schools than education itself.

I've been found out! Yup, that's me, always on hands and knees thinking about what I can do to please The Man™. Hopefully, if I'm good enough, after a lifetime of service I'll get honorary white-man status or something.

Give me a break! I suppose it was my urge to "sell-out" that made me put up posts like this one or this one. Just because I don't happen to believe that every single idea that's on the Democratic Party platform is necessarily good for black people doesn't make me any sort of "sellout" or "Uncle Tom", unless those terms are taken to mean that one has the temerity to do one's own thinking. I've been through too much, and seen too much despair and suffering of a sort most Westerners of any color will struggle to imagine possible, for me to take ridiculous challenges to my motives and loyalties from any quarter as anything more than insults born of profound ignorance. If anyone has a problem with the ideas I put forward, critique them on their own merits, methodically dismantle them, savage them if you're able, rather than indulge in daft insinuations about my motives. Unless you were born and raised in the shanties of Kinshasa or something, you'll never be "blacker" or "realer" than I am.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

How Well-Read Are You?

P.Z. Myers and Mrs Tilton both give coverage to the following list of books that's been making the rounds. The idea is to highlight all the items on the list you've read; I find myself faring surprisingly poorly, though I'm not sure I ought at all to be embarrassed, for reasons already well-explained by Mrs T.

Author - Title

Beowulf
Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
Dante - Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth

Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels

Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

What can I say? There are some unforgiveable lacunae in my reading, though there are also more than a few items on this list I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading of my own free will. Some of the titles on this list are tainted for me by their association with Disney animations and children's movies, while others are the sorts of dry 19th century stuff to be found on many a list of "improving works" that are guaranteed to glaze one's eyes over before quickly dispatching one to the land of Nod.

One thing I've just noticed about the volumes I've read is that only a single female writer is among the authors in my set of choices. This is partly an artifact of the arbitariness of the selection offered - for example, I've read Eliot's Silas Marner - but I think it's also partly a matter of my own literary sensibilities. There's just something about the works of the likes of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters that I find impossible to take an interest in; why should I care that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is a chap with a handsome fortune and in need of a wife of good family? It isn't that I don't like books about closely observed social situations, as I wouldn't have enjoyed Proust's work so much if I didn't. It's more a matter of my not sharing much in terms of worldview or aspirations with those by and for whom these sorts of works seem to have been written.

When it comes to the output of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, what goes for the Austens and Brontës is twice as applicable. As strange as it may sound, the fact that the former three are closer in time to me than the latter writers actually serves to make their writings more alien to me rather than less. Woolf, like Proust, moved in a very high-toned milieu indeed, but unlike Proust, she seemed to lack a healthy disrespect for her own status pretentions; while Proust knew he was a social climber, was unfailingly kind to menials and willing to exchange confidences with them, and rounded it all off by being a tipper of legendary generosity, Virginia Woolf was an unreconstructed snob. As for Sylvia Plath, patron saint of navel-gazing coeds and angst-ridden teenage girls throughout America, the less said of her self-indulgent scribblings the better. Toni Morrison's books, I've heard, are actually rather decent, but I'm afraid that her association in my mind with a certain sort of hectoring academic political-correctness has always made me averse to making the effort to find out for myself. Why bother when there are so many other books out there, and I've only one life to read them all?

Having said all the above, I'll also admit that I've every intention of reading Edith Wharton's books once I get the free time. First Wharton, then Henry James.

Guardian - Why let in Le Pen but ban Farrakhan?

For once, a Guardian opinion piece I'm in complete agreement with. Here's a clearcut case of a double-standard in operation. What's worse yet is that black separatists constitute a minute proportion of a tiny minority of Britain's population, and that minority is easily outnumbered by the sorts of bigots for whom the message of Le Pen and the BNP are music to the ears.

"At a time of simmering racial tension in some of our northern towns and cities, the last thing Britain needs is a visit from the high priest of racial divisiveness." So read a Daily Mail leader. Sadly, though, this wasn't taken from yesterday's paper, which offered no condemnation of Jean-Marie Le Pen's weekend stay in the UK. The quotation is from August 2001, and refers to the prospect of a visit by Louis Farrakhan, of the US-based Nation of Islam.

Fortunately for the Mail, David Blunkett was also exercised about Farrakhan, and went to the appeal court to ensure that his exclusion order against the American was not revoked. However, in the case of Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, the home secretary's hotline to his lawyers went cold. Blunkett told Sunday's Breakfast with Frost that "If [Le Pen] behaves himself, he's free to come and go as any other citizen in Europe" - forgetting that he does have the power to exclude EU citizens if their presence is against the public interest.

Both Farrakhan and Le Pen have been rightly condemned for their slurs against Jewish people (though only Le Pen seeks the suppression of millions from minority groups as a point of principle); so why is our home secretary hellbent on ensuring one never gets near our country, and yet so relaxed about the other? Why does one have such powerful enemies, and the other not? Guess which one's black, and which one's white.

When Farrakhan's right to entry was being contested, Blunkett's QC, Monica Carss-Frisk, said: "Mr Farrakhan is well known for expressing anti-semitic and racially divisive views, particularly at a time of unrest in the Middle East. To allow him into the country would pose a significant threat to community relations and public order."

Fine sentiments, you might say, but even more valid in the case of Le Pen, who arrived at a time when the Middle East was more tense than ever. Moreover, he came specifically to gain publicity and votes for the British National party, which is putting up candidates for the European elections. The BNP's Oldham and Burnley strongholds are just miles from where its grinning leader, Nick Griffin, ecstatic at the national exposure he was receiving, welcomed Le Pen.

Phil Edwards, a BNP spokesman, said of Le Pen's visit: "It raises our profile that an internationally important figure is interested in helping our campaign. It shows that we are real and we are significant."

In a region where racial tensions are already high, and in a national climate where the daily tabloid scapegoating of Muslims and migrants has pushed the issue of asylum seekers above schools, health and transport - not to mention Iraq - in most voters' minds, it takes little imagination to predict the impact of this "higher profile". Suffice to say, it goes way beyond votes in ballot boxes. Starry-eyed Griffin had his guest protected by Warren Bennett, formerly of the far-right terror group Combat 18, and would no doubt have introduced him to Tony Lecomber, the BNP national organiser, who has 12 convictions, some under the Explosives Act.

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

Unlike Le Pen, who has at least six convictions for racist and anti-semitic incitement, Farrakhan has no criminal record. He has never been banned from any other country - even Israel let him in - and his visits have never provoked violence.

Mr Justice Turner, the high court judge who ruled in 2001 against the exclusion order, said that there was a "complete absence of evidence" of religious or ethnic tension between the UK's black Muslim and Jewish communities to justify continuing the ban.

Blunkett's appeal against this judgment was allowed on the basis that it should be for a "democratically accountable" politician, rather than a judge, to make the exclusion decision. Nevertheless, the appeal judges criticised the home secretary for refusing to reveal the information on which his banning order had been based. (emphasis added)

It's noteworthy that despite the block on Farrakhan's entry into the UK having been made on grounds of his anti-semitism, even Israel, where one would think people would have taken much more umbrage to what he had to say, saw fit to let him in. I say bullshit, opposition to anti-semitism had nothing to do with it, or the UK wouldn't have so many imported radical Islamists openly parading around and calling for "jihad" against "Zionists and Crusaders", even while collecting welfare benefits. Blunkett's action was nothing more than an attempt to appeal to the sort of bigoted "middle England" fools who read the Daily Wail, where it's always 5 minutes before midnight and the imaginary tens of millions of angry negroes are about to Mugabe-ize the Blessed Isle.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Bob Herbert Misses the Point

As usual. His hysterical ranting about federal courts "being gleefully packed with reactionaries" and "a betrayal of America" completely misses the point about the whole education dilemma. Leaving aside the issue of whether things are as dire as he makes them out to be, for Herbert, having black kids sitting next to white kids is in and itself so wonderful and so necessary that all other good things will be added unto black people if only this one goal is achieved; this is a mere fetishization of race, rather than a well-reasoned policy proposal.

One thing Herbert doesn't consider at all is that, barring measures more appropriate to a communist state than to a liberal democracy, all the legislation in the world will not force white parents with the means to choose their places of residence to send their children to schools in which black children constitute more than a small minority, whatever rulings may be handed down by a Supreme Court even to Herbert's own liking; were New York City successful in merging with the white suburbs to form a single gigantic school district, and were it then to mandate busing within said district, what would likely occur would be a flight of parents from the region, and any white parents who couldn't stomach the prospect of having their children in schools full of blacks and Hispanics would simply sell up and move to, say, Scottsdale, Arizona.

But all of this leaves aside an important question, which is, to the degree that resegregation really is occurring, and not just one more piece of statistical sleight-of-hand cooked up by social research Jeremiahs, how do we know that it doesn't owe as much to black and Hispanic desires for schools where "their own kind" predominate as to any white aversion to racial integration? It seems to be an unquestionable assumption on the part of many people who think like Bob Herbert that African-Americans would never willingly congregate together if they were given the chance to join all-white groups, but that is in itself a prejudiced and false assumption. The reality is that there is more to being African-American than just skin-color, there is a well-defined, broad, deep and largely thriving culture as well, and it's eminently reasonable that a lot of African-Americans should wish to raise their families in neighborhoods in which said culture can be expressed freely without fear of misunderstanding by, or tension with, a white majority. If Jews, the Irish and others can have their own enclaves, what is innately so wrong about mostly-black neighborhoods with mostly-black schools, assuming such neighborhoods voluntarily come into being?

One final factor for the (hypothetical) resegegration that Herbert fails to address is the possibility that even if it may be occurring, and even on the assumption that it isn't simply a matter of different groups wanting to live and study amongst others who share their cultures, it may be that there is something at work driving many white parents to move their children out of predominantly black schools, even when said parents have the most liberal impulses towards racial integration: the fear of crime, violence, drugs and poor school performance. The unpleasant truth is that the difference between good and bad schools is often as much a matter of the makeup of the student body as that of the teachers, both of which matter far more for educational purposes than, say, the quality of the physical plant, or any of the other purely material things that liberals often prefer to look at to the exclusion of more human matters.

It's one thing to put a handful of poor children from the projects in a middle class school, and quite another to expect middle-class parents of any hue to wish to keep their own offspring in any school in which such children are to be found in sufficient numbers to set the tone. Like it or not, middle-class norms and those of the urban poor are often very different, and at least for the purposes of learning, the former are much to be preferred to the latter; and if there's one area in which one can expect empirical facts to defeat ideological hopes even in the most committed of white liberals, it's in the matter of doing well by their own children. Even if John and Jane Doe marched in Selma and were hosed down by Bull Connor himself, only a fool would imagine that they'd sacrifice their children on the alter of integration if ghetto kids were beating the stuffing out of them on a daily basis.

I'm not going to make the claim that the last factor is the most important one in any resegregation that may or may not be occurring, though I'm sure many on the right will leap to it as the only possible answer; for one thing, it isn't at all clear to me that the phenomenon identified by Herbert is real, and even if it is, I don't know that it isn't more a case of even prosperous racial minorities looking to be with others who look like them. What I do know is that merely sitting next to a white child isn't automatically going to do anything to increase the educational prospects of black children on its own, and that chasing after this false god is likely to prove little more than a distraction that only serves to unnecessarily inflame racial tensions. Racism isn't dead by any means, and Rehnquist is no "friend of the coloured folks", but the makeup of the Supreme Court isn't what we ought to be looking at to fix problems with American education.

Is Obesity an Overhyped Threat?

This Guardian story provides much food for thought, and the criticisms it has to make are actually rather convincing in parts, but the sheer breathlessness of the reporting, and the ease with which misconceptions about the effects of obesity are attributed to an Evil Corporate Conspiracy™, make me hesitant to buy into the thrust of this story just yet.

Sure, BMI is a hopelessly crude way of measuring obesity that fails to distinguish between muscle and fat, as anyone who's ever engaged in weightlifting would already be well aware, and it makes plenty of sense that the mere fact of carrying extra body-fat isn't likely to be dangerous in itself, since fat isn't some sort of poison that must slowly kill off those who have plenty of it in their adipose tissue. The emphasis on sheer weight-loss as opposed to increased physical activity is also clearly wrong-headed; for example, liposuction in of itself does nothing to improve the health of those who undergo it if unaccompanied by changes in behavior. This article is right to stress all of these points, but it also strikes me as disingenuous to some extent to pretend that carrying around lots of excess body fat won't prove an extra disincentive to a more active lifestyle, while even a marginal increase in physical activity, if sustained over the long term, will likely lead to a great deal of weight loss in those who undergo the behavioral transition. As such, there's something seriously out of whack about speaking of a "fat con" as if obesity and activity levels could so easily be disassociated.

I may turn out to be wrong, but I suspect that this is one of those supposed shockers that will wither into nothingness under the sustained scrutiny of experts.* In the meantime, it will be received extremely favorably by a lot of people who would like to deceive themselves that their ballooning waistlines are of no consequence for their health.

POSTSCRIPT: After carefully rereading the article, I noticed that the piece is actually an excerpt from a book called "The Obesity Myth" that's about to be published in the USA. That is the explanation for the paranoid and accusatory tone; like a Naomi Klein of the weight-loss industry, the author is in intent on selling lots of books by getting us all to think that we've all been had by a gigantic swindle being dished out to us to force us to consume things we don't "really" need.

*In fact, though I'm hardly an expert on the issue of obesity, I can already see one glaring error in the reasoning employed in the article; that deaths from heart disease have been "plunging" even while obesity rates have continued their rise does not in itself disprove the notion that increased obesity is linked to higher levels of heart disease, as it is possible (and as an empirical matter, I'd say almost certain) that what is going on is that the rate at which medical treatment of cardiac problems has been advancing has simply outpaced the rate at which self-indulgent lifestyles have been pushing Americans to the brink of coronaries.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

"Compensated Dating" in Japan

Here's an interesting RealMedia BBC Report on the Japanese phenomenon of "enjo kosai" ("compensated dating"), a euphemism for schoolgirl prostitution. It's one thing for young women from Third World countries to migrate to Europe in search of easy money, and something else again for teenage girls from well-off homes, living in one of the world's most affluent countries, to be selling themselves in order to buy frivolous items like Prada bags and Malono Blahnik pumps.

Although one of the girls profiled in the report began participating in such activities at the age of 14, and two of the others are 16 and 17 years old respectively, one can't really call this "underage" prostitution, as Article 177 of the Japanese Penal Code sets the age of consent for sexual activity at 13 years. Many from English-speaking countries will likely feel uneasy that the age of consent should be so low, but one can argue that the Japanese way is actually better, in so far as it acknowledges that few people wait till they're 18 to engage in sexual activity, and it is better not to needlessly criminalize large numbers of people for deeds participated in willingly. In any case, the age of consent in 15 in France and Sweden, 14 in Iceland (as long as neither partner is older than 24) and Canada, and 13 in Spain, so this isn't a matter of exceptional Japanese sexual attitudes at work. If anything, the American tendency to set the age of consent at 18 strikes me as deeply unrealistic, and a reflection of the same puritan ethos that has young people unable to legally drink until they're 21.

Unbelievable!

It's articles like this one on the vote by the UN Human Rights Commission that strengthen me in the conviction that the United Nations is absolutely the last organization anyone should be looking up to as some sort of moral exemplar.

Dramatic new allegations have been made about a massacre allegedly committed by pro-government forces in western Sudan.

New York-based group, Human Rights Watch says it has established that pro-government militias executed 136 men in a coordinated operation last month.

The allegation comes as the United Nations Human Rights Commission adopted a watered down statement on Darfur.

The United States had pushed for a much harder hitting resolution criticising Sudanese government abuses.

Unlike the original draft resolution, the text does not go into details about the targeting of civilians by the Arab militias in Sudan, or mention rape, sexual assault and forced removals of black communities in the area.

Rather than condemning Sudan, it expresses solidarity with the country in overcoming the present situation.

Critics say this is a considerable climb-down by the UN and the resolution was voted against by the US.

"We fear a terrible famine to come when tens of thousands may well perish," the US envoy Richard Williamson said. "The commission so far has failed to meet its responsibility today." (emphasis added)

Absolutely incredible! Instead of condemning Sudanese actions, the UN "Human Rights" Commission actually decided on a message of solidarity with the Sudanese government! Tell me why I should give a damn what the UN says about absolutely anything ever again? The United Nations is a worthless organization.

UPDATE: This VOA article entitled "Human Rights Commission Losing Credibility, NGOs Warn" is also worth reading; frankly, I'd say the Human Rights Commission and the parent UN lost their credibility a very long time ago, and only now are the NGOs belatedly waking up to that reality. The wonder is that anyone should have expected better from an organization in which the great majority of members are dictatorships or kleptocracies of some form or another; just because a thing is "international" or "multilateral" doesn't magically make it virtuous or worthwhile.

The Top 100 German-Language Blogs

According to Blogstats anyway (found via Heiko Hebig.) It really is amazing how little overlap there seems to be between the German and English-language blogging worlds, though thanks to a few highly connected individuals like Jeff Jarvis, the separation isn't actually total; for instance, I've been aware of Hebig's blog for some time, mainly through reading tech-oriented bloggers, while I've read Der Schockwellenreiter ("The Shock Wave Rider") in the past on more than one occasion. Still, the blogosphere demonstrates in a powerful manner the importance of language in connecting people together: the average British, Canadian or American reader is probably exposed to more of the output of bloggers from Britain's former colonies in Africa and Asia than he or she is to what is going on in the Continental European blogging scene.

A noteworthy oddity of this top-100 list is that one German blog that is widely-read by English-speakers isn't even mentioned: Davids Medienkritik, which almost certainly deserves the No. 1 or No. 2 spot on that list. I suppose the secret to popularity for German-language bloggers is to write from a right-wing perspective for an English audience.

Things are Different in Norway

Very different. I just came across this Nettavisen story by following a link put up by Tyler Cowen that will no doubt confirm many sexually-deprived males that all their Scandinavian sex fantasies have some basis in truth.

26 seniors from two high schools in Oslo are going to participate in a porn film staring Norwegian porn actor Rocco in order to finance their end of the year parties.

Two of the girls are going to participate in a sex scene which will be taped in the girl’s bus, according to the Norwegian paper VG.

It is a Norwegian tradition that high school seniors, so-called russ, throw themselves into a month of partying to celebrate the fact that 13-years of schooling is drawing to an end. Many graduating russ buy old vans or buses which they drive during the month of partying, but everything has its costs and it is far from cheap. It’s common for students to acquire sponsorships from local business by putting their logos on their means of transportation in order to help finance their partying.

The girls have signed a contract with 21-year-old porn star Thomas Rocco Hansen to tape a scene for a porn film in their own bus as they lack other types of sponsorships to finance their party costs. They are also going to be interviewed regarding their sexual habits and sex fantasies. The girls will be paid about NOK 20,000 (USD 2900).

«We are in a hard spot, and I’m doing it for my friends,» explained the 18-year-old girl who has agreed to participate in a sex scene, to the paper VG. «I felt that some of us had to do a sex scene because then we would get more money to the bus. I have an agreement with the girls that the money will be used for the bus.»

She is aware that the sex scene may mean that she must have sex with Rocco.

«Yes, I am. I have really never viewed the porn industry as a filthy industry, but I sort of feel the pressure now,» she said to VG. «I am one of the few girls who dare to do this, and I will do it to help my friends. We need the money.»

Hey, the girls want make money to party by ... partying! There's a certain consistency in that - party girls will be party girls after all. Anyway, it would be interesting to see what native Norwegians make of all this, particularly with regards to the way in which it seems to confirm all the old clichés.

PS: Those looking for fodder for their onanistic daydreams will enjoy reading this Aftenposten article from September 2003, according to which Norwegians are world-beaters (pun intended) in terms of one-night stands, bested only by the Vietnamese and their fellow Nordics in Iceland.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Schoenberg Isn't So Bad After All

After an interlude of several years, I finally brought myself to give Arnold Schoenberg's Transfigured Night another hearing, and it turns out to be surprisingly listenable. Here's at least one counterexample to the dictum that one gets more conservative in one's tastes with the passage of time. At any rate, passionate haters of Anton Webern's output will be pleased to read this shocking exposé of the origins of 12-tone music!

Friday, April 23, 2004

Getting the "Law of One Price" Wrong

Matthew Yglesias has been putting up posts on the Law of One Price, in which both he and the great majority of his commenters make very clear that they don't get what this economic principle is really about.

In a way, I can't really blame them for their error, as the mistake is a natural assumption of assuming that the Law of One Price really does make the claim that commodities everywhere will converge to a single price, thanks to free trade. In fact, the Law of One Price says something considerably weaker and far less controversial: that under a free trade regime, commodity prices will converge so that there are no profit opportunities for would be arbitrageurs. One implication of this weaker statement is that price differences will not vanish in as far as they reflect transportation costs, quality differences and so on. In particular one shouldn't expect even prices for materials like crude oil and gold to converge to a single global value, only that whatever price differences remain at equilibrium will not be great enough to present profit opportunities for those willing to, say, buy low quality Saudi oil instead of Nigeria's "Bonny Light" premium variety.

As for the original claim by Yglesias that his boss Robert Kuttner was wrong to say the following:

One of the most fundamental laws of economics is the law of one price. If Exxon is selling gas for $1.60 a gallon and Gulf tries to sell it for $2.60, everyone will go to Exxon.

I have to say that for once, Kuttner is on the side of the righteous, which is a rarity indeed on matters economic. Yglesias' example of two gas stations, one charging $2.00 and offering no queues, while the other offers $1.50 and long waiting times, only makes sense if the two stations' proprietors are so blind that both fail to see that they're leaving cash on the table by not altering their prices; and in equilibrium, the price that must entail at both establishments will be identical, and will lie somewhere between $1.50 and $2.00 - assuming that differences in service quality and costs of transportation to both establishment are insignificant, assumptions that are likely to be violated in practice, ergo the existence in real life of small variations in price between stations. The "time value of money" argument Matthew tries to make simply won't work here.

One more thing I find worthy of comment is the arrogance displayed by some (though, in fairness, by no means all) of the commenters in their dismissals of the Law of One Price as just so much worthless economic dogma being pushed by Economic quacks beholden to a free-market orthodoxy, an argument that is all the more ridiculous in that this is one of the single notions most copiously supported by empirical data. Not all criticisms of standard economic theory are meritless, but is it so unreasonable to insist that one actually has to understand a theory to point out its supposed shortcomings? It is precisely in their eagerness to skip the years of hard slog and get straight to the bitching and moaning that most opponents of standard economic wisdom come undone.

For the Love of Money

Here's an Economist article detailing a trend that highlights the degree to which the worship of financial prosperity, however ill-gotten, has come to dominate many aspects of Nigerian life.

THE market in Benin City sells just about everything: ladies' pants and bras, plastic bags, padlocks and second-hand clothes known locally as “fairly used”. But this city in south-eastern Nigeria also thrives on a less wholesome trade: people-trafficking. Those who are trafficked are mostly young, female and destined to work as prostitutes in Europe.

No one knows how many are shipped out each year, but everyone in Benin City knows someone who has gone. The most popular destination appears to be Italy, where Nigerian girls in tight jeans can be seen lolling on many a street corner.

It is an organised and lucrative trade. The girls are recruited by local “sponsors”, who pay up-front for transport. The girls therefore start out thousands of dollars in debt. Before they leave Nigeria, they are taken to a witchdoctor and sworn to repay their debt and keep quiet. The shaman typically keeps a lock of their hair or some toenail clippings, and warns them that they will die if they break their oath.

Some are tricked: they believe they will work as hairdressers, or further their studies. Others know they will have to sell themselves, but are seduced by the prospect of more money than they could ever earn swabbing floors or tending yams back home. They leave Nigeria along well-established trading routes, often by road across the Sahara. Some end up in other west African countries. Others make it to Europe or Saudi Arabia.

A striking aspect of this dirty business is that it provokes so little moral outrage in Nigeria. On the contrary. Rita, an articulate young woman, was 16 when her mother sent her away to “work in Canada”. She found herself in Gabon (one of Africa's richest states) instead, where her sponsor, who said she owed her $45,000, ordered her to prostitute herself. She escaped and fled home. Her mother was furious. “She said I didn't want to make money for her. She said other girls go for three months and buy cars for their parents.”

It is a common refrain. Girls who repay their sponsors often do return home with cash to spare, which wins them the admiration of the community. “Everyone respects them,” says one 15-year-old girl in Benin City. “They have the best houses and the best cars; they are on top.”

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

The Nigerian government admits that human trafficking is a problem. It banned it last year, and set up an agency to curb it. Local charities, some with help from outsiders such as Unicef, try to pitch in. But it is not an easy task. Laws in Nigeria are laxly enforced. Officials are often ignorant, or can be bribed to turn a blind eye. Most important, it is hard to stamp out a practice when so few Nigerians think it wrong. It seems that the country's get-rich-quick culture, fuelled by a generation-long oil boom, has trickled right down to the bottom, unlike the oil money itself. (emphasis added)

One thing that needs to be mentioned is that while this article talks about the phenomenon of foreign prostitution as if it were a Nigeria-wide issue, I'm extremely doubtful that this is true; for instance, whatever the other failings of the northern Hausa-Fulani, I'd bet that hardly any of the women to be found on the streets of Italy are from that part of the country. In fact, both this article from South Africa's Sunday Times and another from a source I'm currently unable to pin down suggest that the overwhelming majority of these young women are actually of Edo* origin, leading to the suspicion that there might be Edo cultural peculiarities at work here. Still, that a mother should condemn her daughter for refusing to engage in prostitution is rather shocking, whatever the ethnic background of the family involved.

The Economist's correspondent is guilty of over-generalizing when (s)he claims that "few Nigerians" think having their women go abroad to serve as prostitutes is wrong; at best, one might say that few of the Edo seem to think it shameful, and even that would be doubtful outside of the urban areas. Where the correspondent is correct is in stating that Nigeria is saturated by a get-rich-quick mentality, and that this mindset owes largely to the oil-boom era of the 1970s, when billions were made without effort, and even less effort was put into seeing the money spent wisely. As staggering a sum as the $87 billion George W. Bush budgeted for Iraqi reconstruction might seem, what is even more mindboggling is to consider that Nigeria has earned over $260 billion in oil revenues over the years, and yet the average Nigerian is actually worse off today than he was just before oil exports took off, thanks mostly to the greed of the political class.

It is that sort of unrestrained self-aggrandisement by the political elite that has made it acceptable in the minds of so many Nigerians to engage in criminal activities in the pursuit of wealth, especially in an era in which there's a lot less loot to divvy up, even though the short-cuts taken will vary with the ethnic group under scrutiny. The Hausa-Fulani, and to a lesser extent, the Yoruba, need not seek abroad for their ill-gotten gains, given their access to the Nigerian treasury; the Igbo, losers both in the Nigerian civil war and in politics thereafter, resort to international drug-pushing and the swindling of greedy foreigners; the Edo, it would seem, have hit upon sending their daughters to Italy to serve as prostitutes as the road to financial success. What was that about oil being some sort of blessing again?

*The ethnic group that constitutes most of the populace of Benin City (from which the Economist journalist was writing) and its environs.

An American Cultural Peculiarity

As I was writing down my thoughts about the difference between American and British perceptions of adversarial interviewing, another notable cultural oddity of Americans occurred to me; the penchant for smiling at strangers, and, more incredible yet, attempting to engage them in conversation. I've grown accustomed to it with time, but I have to say that, having been resident in the UK in the years preceding my move to the United States, I found this American friendliness rather grating on first encounter, as if others couldn't recognize the boundaries of my own personal space and were wilfully trying to intrude on it. The only reasonable explanation that could occur to me for an individual to smile at strangers at a train station or in a supermarket was that the person must either be a mental case, a boorish extrovert or a conman on the make! Looking back, it is obvious that I'd internalized the British attitude to a "T"; I've long lost track of the number of times I've been asked why I'm so glum by an American, when as far as I was aware, my expression was completely neutral.

Of course, having since adapted to the American way, it's now the sulky demeanor of Old World types that I often find distasteful, the worst offenders in that category being undoubtedly those from Slavic and (unsurprisingly) German-speaking countries.* I know it's engaging in stereotypes to say this, as there are warm and outgoing people from those parts, of whom I've met more than a few, but as a rule Russians, Poles, Czechs and other Slavic-language speakers tend to have a morose look in casual interactions with strangers, while with Germans and Austrians one often gets an impression of annoyance, though I'm sure that's far from an accurate perception of how they really feel. Still, there is one aspect of daily life in which I continue to prefer to the European approach, and that is in dealing with people in the service industries. Few things get on my nerves more than an over-attentive, talkative shop assistant or waiter, particularly when all one has on one's mind is quickly getting the shopping over and done with in order to be somewhere else, or when all one desires is a few moments of quiet reflection while having supper.

*Thought I'd say the French, didn't you? It's true that the French aren't big on smiling either, but they don't tend to go in for the glum Slavic expression or for German curtness either. It's been my experience that most French people will readily say "Merci" and smile after being done a kindness or shown a courtesy, while with Germans as much a reluctant half-grimace is really pushing it.

The BBC Interviews Tommy Lapid

I've just finished watching BBC Hardtalk host Tim Sebastian's interview with Yosef Tommy Lapid, Shinui leader and Justice Minister in the current Sharon cabinet. I learnt about the interview by following this link, which I in turn discovered in the comments section of a post by Jonathan Edelstein.

I have to say that as interviews go, that really was something. For sheer confrontation, aggressiveness and for the number of leading questions, Sebastian's interview goes down in my book as one of the most unpleasant I've seen in a long time. Having said that, I think Lapid handled himself excellently under the circumstances, giving well-thought out answers and keeping his cool where less even-tempered individuals might simply have thrown the microphone and walked out of the studio.

Contrary to what most Israelis and Americans might think, however, I'm not willing to attribute Sebastian's confrontational style entirely to anti-Israel bias on the part of the BBC, which isn't to say that such bias doesn't exist; anyone who's seen Orla Guerin in action either in Jenin or while covering the case of Hassam Abdu (the retarded 16-year-old boy caught on camera with explosives strapped to his body) will know that the BBC's reporters often display a level of identification with the Palestinian cause that makes them little than al-Jazeera for those seeking a more objective take on events.

Getting back to the Lapid interview, however, I think that one has to have an appreciation of British coverage of politics to understand how an interviewer can operate in a manner that so flagrantly seems to imply that the interviewee must be guilty of every sin under the book. The fact is that this sort of relentlessly sceptical questioning of politicians is nothing new on British television, and it certainly isn't out of the ordinary either. British current affairs programmes and news shows take it as a matter of course that politicians are "lying bastards", and as long ago as 1997, Jeremy Paxman, the exemplar of this school of TV journalism, was to be seen on Newsnight submitting Michael Howard, then home secretary, to an interrogation so searching that it has gone down in infamy; Paxman asked Howard if he'd ever overruled Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, and when Howard failed to answer to his satisfaction, Paxman repeated the same question over and over again a total of 14 times.

This British penchant for interrogation-style interviews is one that I can see no American politician tolerating, but British public figures come in for it as a matter of course, and the British public laps it up; I daresay that American television could certainly use a touch of this gloves-off style as well, though I suppose the sheer competitiveness of the American TV market and the much less cynical nature of the average American* by comparison with Her Majesty's subjects makes this unlikely ever to happen. Still, I can see how it must seem like a blatant attempt at denigration in the eyes of those who aren't used to this sort of aggressiveness on their airwaves. The true test of bias in a situation like this would be to see whether or not Sebastian softballed his questioning of those on the Palestinian side of the conflict.

UPDATE: Here's a transcript of an interview Tim Sebastian had in Beirut with Khaled Meshaal, the new leader of Hamas. To my eyes at least, the transcript doesn't seem at all to bear out the notion that Sebastian's confrontational interview with Lapid was a manifestation of anti-Israel bias on his part. Read the following excerrpt and judge for yourself: better yet, read the whole transcript and then decide.

TIM SEBASTIAN - Khaled Meshaal. A very warm welcome to the programme. In the wake of the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Yassin, is Hamas planning yet another cycle of pointless revenge violence?

KHALED MESHAAL- In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful. Bloodshed in Palestine is going on because of the Israeli crimes before and it didn't begin after the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The Zionist crime requests a Palestinian response. This is something very ordinary. This reciprocity is acknowledged by all human and spiritual laws and legislations.

T S - Where does it get you? Where does it get you, this retaliation? It doesn't change anything. It doesn't get you anywhere does it? More people die. More of your people die, more Israelis die. No progress is made. Haven't you got anything else to offer to the process?

KM: Our goal is to end the occupation and not kill people. If the world was able to be fair with us and give us back our land and rights, we won't need anymore fighting and resistance

TS- And when you take this revenge and you see the bodies of Israeli women and children on the streets, does that make you feel better?

KM: We feel better when the occupation ends. We hope that no blood will fall in Palestine but the one who began with aggression is the one to be held responsible for it. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a religious cleric paralysed and despite that, he was targeted by Zionist missiles which are American weapons. The Palestinian people have the right to respond to this aggression.

TS- Sheikh Yassin is a man who ordered killings of civilians - Israeli civilians. You can hardly complain when in a war he himself is killed can you?

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

TS- Mr Meshaal, you're not defending anybody are you. Your tactics are not defending your people at all. There is not one single Palestinian you can defend against Israeli attacks from F16's and from tanks, can you?

KM: We are defending our people even if the balance of power is unequal, even if the Israeli weapons are much ore superior. The Israeli occupying enemy must understand that each crime from their end would bring a Palestinian response.

TS- You target women and children. That is terrorism of the most brutal kind.

KM: We are not targeting civilians and we are not targeting children. From the beginning the Palestinian resistance was focusing on military targets and on settlers

TS- So the suicide bombs on buses aren't for civilians? The children and women who die on buses? I don't notice the suicide bombers allowing civilians off the bus before they blow it up.

And on an on it goes in the same accusatory and condemning manner. I don't see the slightest trace of respect here on the part of Tim Sebastian for his interviewee, and this despite the fact that the interview was being conducted on Hamas' own turf, in a location neither Sebastian nor his bosses in the BBC could have been pinpointed, were his life to have been threatened. Examples of BBC bias there are aplenty, and as I've said, the Lapid interview was quite unpleasant in tone at many points, but as far as bias goes, in this case at least, the charge must be regarded as without foundation.

UPDATE 2: Here's an article dating back to 1998, written by a BBC journalist while she was serving as a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, in which much the same point about the difference between British and American TV journalism is made. Watching televised coverage of political interviews or press conferences in America can often be a deadly dull business, so earnest and deferential is the tone most of the time. American television journalists seem to confuse the concept of objectivity with that of "niceness" and a false neutrality, and I think it's largely by doing away with this charade that Fox News** has risen in popularity so high and so quickly. What's the point of watching Larry King or Paula Zahn verbally genuflecting before some politico as if he were God's representative on Earth?

*I know Americans reading this will feel like scoffing, but it really is true; to British eyes, American manifestations of patriotism through flag-waving and anthem-singing seem like so much simple-minded hokum, while the American failure of Anne Robinson's Weakest Link is said to have owed in large part to American viewers' distaste for her sarcastic putdowns of losing contestants. The US reception of American Idol's Simon Cowell is another example of this difference in attitudes at work.

**Note that I'm not making the obviously false claim that Fox News is in any way "objective"; the point is that none of the news broadcasters are objective (CNN, for instance, has a liberal bias that is rather obvious to me), but at least Fox News does away with excessive politeness towards (liberal) interviewees in pursuit of a facade of objectivity.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Slashdot - Spammer Sentencing Guidelines Released

Barely had I wished it, when my wish was answered! Does this mean I'm wrong about the whole "God" thing, and there's some big guy up in the sky with a beard who's watching after me? But if so, why hasn't he acted on my long-outstanding request for BillG to send me millions of dollars on a whim, while in the throes of extreme feelings of generosity?

The United States Sentencing Commission has issued its guidelines for punishment under the CAN-SPAM act (PDF, beginning on page 155). You can get 5 years for a second offense or if you're spamming for fraud, child porn or other felony, or 1 to 3 years depending on how much spam you send. If Congress doesn't say otherwise, it goes into effect November 1.

On a serious note, the problem isn't that there's been a lack of sentencing guidelines for spammers, or even that the requisite legislation to act against spammers was lacking before the (extremely poorly written) CAN-SPAM act. The real problem has always been a lack of the will to enforce the pre-existing laws against fraud and misrepresentation: most spammers are criminals almost by definition, and between cracking down on the peddlers of "enl4rg3ment pills" and those who install zombies on the machines of unsuspecting users for use in mailing out their garbage, this problem could quickly be dealt with in an effective manner.

It isn't as if we don't know who the top spammers are and where they're located - a quick visit to the Spamhaus Project website is all it takes to discover the 200 or so operations responsible for fully 90 percent of all spam received in Europe and North America, and - what do you know? - it turns out that with less than 10 or so exceptions, every single one of them is either operating within the United States, or out of a country that has extradition agreements with the US for dealing with financial criminals.

Out of the Loop

You know you're seriously out of touch with the popular culture when everyone but you is ogling the celebrity standing in line in front of you at the supermarket.

There I was, waiting patiently, when a guy next to me nudges be with his shoulder and directs my gaze to some nondescript looking young man; "look, whatsisname!" the fellow says to me, and in response I give a puzzled look effectively saying "who?", though I don't get around to actually mouthing a vocal response. My companion (? associate ?) gives me an even more befuddled look and asks me "don't you recognize him?", as if to say "which planet are you from?" He waits for Mr. Celebrity to leave, and then asks everyone around, including the cashier "you know who that was, didn't you?", and indeed they do; he's supposedly a famous comedian or something on some show. Through it all I just keep beaming an embarrassed smile, as I can't bring myself to proffer as an explanation that magic phrase that's guaranteed to cause maximum social difficulty - "the thing is, you see, I don't watch television!" Nope, I just smile and keep my mouth closed - better to be thought somewhat clueless than to be considered - horror of horrors - a snob.

What is it about refraining from watching TV that grates so severely on people's nerves anyway? I've never been able to grasp the assumption that being less than an enthusiastic devotee of television is a surefire sign of either mental illness or elitism. The truly funny thing about the whole experience is that I still have no clue who Mr. Famous is supposed to have been. Whoever he is, he's clearly not on the "A" list of beautiful people even out of touch people like myself recognize on sight.

Europhilia and Anti-Democratic Instincts

This Guardian story really says it all about the attitude of most "pro-European" politicians towards the views of the British electorate: essentially, they see them as fools who don't know enough to defer to their betters on the wisdom of surrendering their soverereignty on the altar of that supposed inevitability that is to be the European superstate.

Tony Blair came under attack from the pro-European flank this morning, as he prepared to defend his volte-face on an EU referendum before MPs at prime minister's questions.

The former Conservative deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, warned that the referendum will lead to a rash of "scare stories" about Europe, while EU commissioner Neil Kinnock expressed fears that a no vote would "destabilise" the country.

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

This morning the trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt, insisted the "real argument" in the referendum was whether Britain wanted to pull out of the EU.

"That is why I believe we are so right to have made this decision and say we are going to have a referendum," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

But she refused to reveal when the cabinet was told of Mr Blair's u-turn, and denied all knowledge of the leaks to two Rupert Murdoch papers - the Sun and then the Times - which first published reports of the decision. There had been discussion over recent days running up to yesterday's announcement but the issue had been debated for months, she said.

Ms Hewitt admitted: "There is a very real issue of a lack of engagement, of a lack of trust.

"It is why, amongst other things, I think it is so important that we have decided to have a referendum on the constitution because Europe can't be a project for political elites across Europe.

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

However, Britain's senior European commissioner, Mr Kinnock, warned last night that a victory for the no campaign would prove hugely damaging to Britain's standing in Europe.

The former Labour leader said that a referendum was not even necessary as the constitution would not change the way that Britain was governed.

"What could be destabilising, and grievously so, is a no vote ... putting in question our engagement in the Europe defined by the shape of the constitutional treaty," he said.

Mr Heseltine last night told Newsnight: "We will have the most appalling scare stories and gross exaggerations.

"Rupert Murdoch [owner of the Sun and Times newspapers] will decide what Britain should think and what Britain should be told."

Patricia Hewitt understands something that Messrs. Heseltine and Kinnock seem not to - that any population of free individuals will naturally deeply resent efforts by their political leadership to bounce them into an arrangement of such moment, and which is likely to prove impossible to pull out of without suffering massive consequences.

The real scare stories here aren't coming from Rupert Murdoch, but from the likes of Heseltine and Kinnock who insist on pushing the same old tired arguments about "destabilisation" and "losing influence in Europe"; what is more, if Kinnock really does believe the lie he's pushing when he claims that "the constitution would not change the way that Britain was governed", he ought not be afraid of putting his case before the public; the fact that he's been reduced to claiming that the constitution is of little consequence, even as he contradictorilly insists that a no vote would lead to serious difficulties, argues strongly against the notion that the proposed constitution is any sort of "tidying up exercise", as one other lying Europhile put it a while back.

As for Blair's u-turn on holding a referendum, I can only say that I find it puzzling that he should ever have held out against the idea, if he really were as serious about defending British prerogatives as he claimed to have been. Considered strategically, the prospect of a referendum would actually have strengthened Blair's hand tremendously during the negotiations over the content of the constitution, as it would have enabled Blair to say "Look, you know I'd love to go along with this, but my voters simply won't stand for it!" whenever some particularly offensive suggestion was floated by the other parties at the negotiating table. That Blair did not take advantage of this strategic opportunity cannot have been due to a failure to recognize that it was there, as Tony Blair may be many things, but an idiot he certainly is not. The conclusion one must come to is that Tony Blair himself is eager to yield far more British sovereignty to the European Union than the majority of Britons would desire, were the choice up to them; all the better to bind Britain permanently to the social-democratic yoke, he must imagine.

UPDATE: Here's a Telegraph article that points out the same thing I have, that by agreeing to hold a referendum, Blair has given himself tremendous leverage in negotiations. There really can't be any explanation for his earlier unwilligness to hold one, other than that he wanted to have an excuse for surrendering a lot more sovereignty than he was willing to let on to the British public.