Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A Farewell to Ignorance

It appears that Kano State's Islamists have finally dropped their ignorant and obstructionist stance towards polio immunization, and the polio elimination drive will soon be resumed. What a pity so many children's lives have been needlessly destroyed while we were waiting for these madman to come to their senses.

The northern Nigerian state of Kano has confirmed it is to resume polio vaccination in early July, the World Health Organization says.
An immunisation campaign was suspended there last year following objections from religious leaders.
The announcement that Kano will start vaccinating again comes as a huge relief to the WHO in Geneva.
In the past year officials have watched the spread of polio from Nigeria with mounting concern and frustration.


The WHO hopes this will put its campaign to eradicate polio worldwide by 2005 back on track, but the renewed vaccination campaign still comes too late for the 257 Nigerian children who have been paralysed by polio since the start of this year.
257 children needlessly paralyzed in Nigeria alone! Kano's religious and political leaders must be so proud of themselves.

One Example of Why Indefinite Copyright is a Bad Idea

A languagehat post informs us that a comprehensive Jewish Encyclopedia published at the start of the 20th century has just come online.

This website contains the complete contents of the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia, which was originally published between 1901-1906. The Jewish Encyclopedia, which recently became part of the public domain, contains over 15,000 articles and illustrations.

This online version contains the unedited contents of the original encyclopedia. Since the original work was completed almost 100 years ago, it does not cover a significant portion of modern Jewish History (e.g., the creation of Israel, the Holocaust, etc.). However, it does contain an incredible amount of information that is remarkably relevant today.
If Disney and the other media companies had their way, nothing of the world's cultural heritage from the 1920s on would ever become freely available to the public. Who knows just how many forgotten or little-known gems remain locked away in dusty archives because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act? There's a fine line between protecting intellectual property to encourage creativity and sheer rent-seeking for the sake of it.

Those with an interest in the history of writing will likely be interested in this detailed article on the process by which the modern Hebrew characters arose from the ancient Phoenician script. One thing to keep in mind when reading the article is that there's been tremendous progress in the state of knowledge since it was originally written - to give just one example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls wouldn't occur until 1947 - and as such it cannot be taken as an authoritative survey of the topic. Having said that much, the majority of the material in the article seems to have held up fairly well despite the passage of an entire century.

Still in Denial

Via P6, I've just come across this Time magazine article that gives a more recent look at the Hemings-Jefferson connection, and the state of relations between the two branches of the family.

This was the first time in six years that the Monticello Association, which comprises some 700 descendants of Jefferson, had held its annual reunion without a horde of reporters and photographers in attendance—or the extended family members who had triggered the controversy. The once obscure association, which administers the graveyard at Monticello, got caught in a media storm in 1998, after a DNA study confirmed to the satisfaction of many that a male member of Jefferson's family had fathered at least one child with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings (she gave birth to at least six, and possibly seven, children in all). If that Jefferson was the third President, as many historians believe, it means at least some of Sally Hemings' descendants were Thomas Jefferson's too. After a very public invitation on The Oprah Winfrey Show in November 1998 by an association member, dozens of Hemings began attending the group's annual reunion, albeit as guests, not members.

Getting invited, as it turned out, wasn't the same as being welcome. While a handful of association members supported the Hemings' inclusion, most did not. In 2002, the group voted 74 to 6 to deny them full membership. The already strained relations turned decidedly frigid last year when the association restricted the number of Hemings allowed to attend its reunion and attempted to bar them from setting foot inside the graveyard at Monticello. Paulie Abeles, the wife of the association's president at the time, even admitted to having secretly infiltrated an online discussion group that the Hemings had been using, in order to spy on their messages. "It was just an ugly, ugly situation," says Lucian Truscott IV, the Jefferson descendant and association member who originally invited the Hemings.

So, what began as an extended-family reunion has disintegrated into a bitter family feud between Jefferson's white family and his black one. For the first time since the DNA results came out, not a single Hemings attended the association's annual reunion this past May.


It would be easy to chalk up the entire family squabble to racism. After all, a primary reason the Hemings liaison was widely doubted before the DNA results were published was that testimony from former black slaves was dismissed by white historians as unreliable gossip. Blacks were not the only ones who supported the story, however. Numerous white journalists in Jefferson's time reported the story and believed it to be true. Jefferson's fellow Founding Father John Adams, who had seen Hemings' beauty firsthand (she was known as "Dashing Sally"), also seemed to believe that Jefferson had had an affair with her and called it a "natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character—Negro slavery." But even today, several Jefferson descendants interviewed by Time said they could not believe that he would become sexually involved with a slave, even one as young and beautiful as Hemings. "Jefferson could date any eligible woman in the world," says John Works, a white descendant. "Why would he have an affair with a 15-year-old slave?"
Why indeed? Perhaps because she was young, beautiful and close at hand (and completely under his thumb)? It would indeed "be easy to chalk up the entire family squabble to racism", but in this case, it would also be right. I don't think it's the only reason for the rejection of the Hemings clan by the officially recognized descendants - there's probably also a desire to preserve the secular sainthood of the man from whom they all seem to draw so much of their self-esteem, a halo which would be tarnished by evidence that he wasn't above sexually exploiting a slave and denying the paternity of the resulting children - but it would be highly surprising if racism weren't also a major factor behind the chilly reception the Hemings have recieved. The stigma of having black blood or black relations is still so strong in many eyes that to acknowledge such a thing would wreck havoc with many people's self-respect.

Happy Days are Here Again

The US recovery continues to pick up steam, as the latest consumer confidence index comes in well above expectations.

US consumer confidence is at a two-year high, according to a survey from a private forecasting group.
The Conference Board said its index of shoppers' confidence rose to 101.9 in June, from 93.1 in May.
This was well above expectations for a reading of 95.0 this month, and the highest since June 2002.
The New York-based group said the new outlook was largely down to an improved jobs situation, and that consumers expected "healthy" economic growth.

Favourable outlook
Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of all US economic activity.
"Looking ahead, consumers expect the economy to continue to grow at a healthy clip and to continue to generate additional jobs," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's consumer research centre.
"And with prices at the pump beginning to ease, the short-term outlook remains favorable," she added.
The board said that the percentage of consumers who said jobs were hard to get fell to 26.5 from 30.3, the lowest in 2004, while those saying jobs were plentiful rose to 18.0 from 16.6.
This really is wonderful news, not just for America but for the rest of the world, and as I've said before, it's looking increasingly likely that the upcoming presidential elections will be fought primarily over foreign policy rather than the state of the economy.

What's particularly encouraging is that despite a recent statistical blip or two, the picture in Japan is also looking quite positive on the whole.
Japan's economy expanded at an annualised rate of 6.1% in the first three months of this year, compared with 3.9% in the US.
Japan has been benefiting from strong economic growth in Asia, and particularly in China.
A Finance Ministry report showed last week that the value of Japan's exports exceeded that of its imports by 934 billion yen ($8.6bn) in May, a 35% increase on the year.
That foreign demand has helped to drive growth at a time when Japan's domestic demand is stubbornly subdued.


Bright spot
The best jobless figures in almost 4 years, however, helped to buoy optimism on Tuesday that consumers will pick up their spending in coming months.
According to the Home Affairs Ministry, the unemployment rate fell to 4.6% in May from 4.7% the previous month.
"The job data was very strong," said Hiroshi Yokotani, an economist at Tokio Marine Asset Management.
"This is the first time the jobless rate has been on a declining trend since the bursting of the economic bubble (at the start of the 1990s)," he added.
With the world's two biggest economies enjoying a revival at the same time, it's reasonable to expect that some of the economic good news will touch Continental Europe as well. Whether the continent's structural rigidities will permit the mass of the unemployed to benefit from the improving global economy is another question altogether.

Museveni Rejects Referendum Ruling

Seeing as I've just been speaking about nations whose rulers refuse to abide by restraints that are taken for granted in civilized nations, what a coincidence it is that Uganda's Museveni has just provided an excellent example of the very sort of behavior I'm talking about. Then again, seeing as this is Africa we're talking about, perhaps it isn't such a coincidence after all ...

President Yoweri Museveni last night rejected the Constitutional Court ruling that nullified the 2000 Referendum, saying the government will not accept the contents of the ruling.

"The Government will not allow any authority including the courts to usurp people's power in anyway. We shall not accept this. It will not happen. This is absurd and unacceptable," the President said in a Radio and TV address to the nation.

The five judges of Constitutional Court on Friday annulled the Referendum (Political System) Act 2000 and the June 29, 2000 referendum because Parliament did not follow the Constitutional procedure when enacting the Act.

Court also ruled that no other mandatory referendum can be held, because article 271 of the Constitution that provided for the referendum was not complied with and had expired, rendering article 74 that should have been activated for the purpose of changing into another political system redundant.

General Museveni said a closer look at the ruling reveals an absurdity and shocks the general moral of common sense.

The President said under the 2000 Referendum, Ugandans exercised their right to choose a political system. He said these rights are not given to the people by the judges.

"The work of the judges is to interprete the Constitution or the laws but not to enact the laws," he said. "The power of the people to choose how they should be governed lies with the people themselves. We chased Idi Amin and Obote because they wanted to grab this power and this is re-affirmed by our revolutionary struggle against those foolish people who thought they could usurp that power," Museveni said.

He said judges had no power to change this arrangement, saying that they were even less qualified than the people.


The President said he couldn't believe the fact that the court that derives its authority from the people could turn around and usurp their power.

He cited article 126(1) on administration of justice, which provides that "Judicial power is derived from the people and shall be exercised by the courts in the name of the people in conformity with the norms and aspirations of the people." He said this was a decision the judiciary must respect.

The President assured Ugandans that there was no cause for alarm, saying the world of anarchy ended and the Movement restored constitutionalism and the rule of law. He said this was the reason why judges could even make decisions against the government.

He said if these judges made such a ruling during the past regimes, they would not live to see the next day. "This government has changed all this and we don't want to get back to those days. There is total adherence to the rule of law and constitutionalism under the Movement," he said.
One can accept that it is "The People" on whose behalf Museveni really is speaking only if one interprets "The People" to mean "Yoweri Museveni", while his barely veiled threat on the lives of Uganda's justices surely merits the man an award for combining menace and self-promotion so artfully: since when has it been a mark of exemplary statesmanship to show more respect for human life than Idi Amin and Milton Obote?

It's this sort of brazen nonsense that makes it hard for the rest of the world to take the pronouncements of most African leaders on affairs beyond their borders seriously, and the sad thing about Museveni is that in spite of his shameless drive to appoint himself ruler for life, he's actually one of the better rulers on the continent. If there's anything positive that can be said about African strongmen like Museveni, Kerekou, Obiang, Mugabe, Nujoma, etc, etc, it's that they at least aren't in the business of exporting terrorism to the rest of the world under the cover of religion or political ideology; I doubt their subjects will fund much in the way of consolation from this insight, however.

Some Questions for Islamic Apologists

I'd like to pose some questions for those who'd like to insist on the pretence that Islam as practiced in most of the world is in anyway as "peaceful", "tolerant" or blame-free a religion as they'd like to make it out to be. If this really is so, why then is it the case, I wonder, that religious proselytizing by non-Muslims is such a dangerous activity even in the few predominantly Muslim countries in which it isn't outright illegal? Why is it that being accused of besmirching a copy of the Koran or the Prophet Mohammed is such a surefire way to at once get lynched and to instigate a riot? Why is it that questioning the infallibility of the Koran in most Muslim countries is about as about as health-giving as resting one's neck on a live chainsaw? Why is apostasy from Islam so widely punishable by imprisonment or death?

Europeans had to go through centuries of religiously-motivated warfare before all the zeal for piety managed to work its way out of their systems; my hope is that it doesn't take the same kind of bloodletting for the inhabitants of the Islamic world to work it out of theirs. A God that is as powerful and all-seeing as the one the adherents of the chief monotheistic religions claim to believe in shouldn't need human champions killing others on His behalf.

Phobia, Schmobia

Having been forced to clean up after one blogroach who couldn't muster anything better to refute my arguments against Mohamed ElBaradei's objectivity than to make nonsensical insinuations of prejudice on my part, I feel driven to talk about an issue that's long gotten on my nerves, which is the flagrant and all-too-frequent misuse by Arabs and Muslims of accusations of "racism" and "Islamophobia" to muffle any individuals who point out some of the glaring deficits in their cultures and systems of belief.

One can criticize Judaism and Christianity at length without raising anyone's hackles overmuch, but just dare to hint that there might just be something unacceptable about certain ideas that are prevalent in much of the Islamic world today, and you can be sure that it won't take long for some self-pitying headcase to show up and accuse you of "Islamophobia"; lambast black Africans, Russians, the British, the Irish, the French, the Japanese and the Americans all you want, and you're fine, but show the temerity to suggest that there's anything wrong with the Arab world, and, regular as clockwork, some professional Mr. Angry will show up to berate you for your supposed "racism." Why is it acceptable to point out that Mugabe and Kim Jong Il are thoroughly deserving of the hangman's noose, but a mark of "racial" prejudice to point out that the same holds equally for virtually every single leader of a Middle Eastern country?

It's well past time Arabs and Muslims got over the ridiculous attitude that criticism ought to be a one-way street, with them at liberty to say anything and everything about the rest of humanity's supposed shortcomings, while we're to keep our mouths shut or at least stick to pleading mea culpa. The LGFers and the "anti-Idiotarians" definitely have it wrong when they make blanket condemnations of all Arabs and Muslims as terrorists and religious fanatics, but the ugly truth is that their message wouldn't have any resonance if there weren't a large measure of truth to it. Not a single one of the major Arab nations can yet boast of a regime that can be considered to adhere to civilized standards of conduct towards even its own citizens, and states like Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia, Saudia Arabia and Iran are no more deserving of the epithet "civilized" than are tyrannocracies like Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea.

If a regime cannot even be made to account to its own citizens, why should the outside world expect to be treated any better? And if one can expect nothing more from a state than capricious breaches of trust, seemingly random acts of hostility and intimidation, and depressingly reliable threats of destruction of the Infidel West and the Great Satan, why are we obliged to pretend that its rulers are any less savages than the likes of Theodoro Obiang and the late Sani Abacha? And what are we to say for the supposedly "devout" Muslims who cheer on such nasty brutes as Saddam, Khomeini and the myriads of Islamist suicide bombers as "champions" of Arab/Muslim pride and self-determination? If we are to hand out the label "civilized" to individuals who attempt to excuse the slitting of the throats of civilians who came to help their countrymen as being justified in the name of "resistance" to "occupation", we might as well stop using the word "civilized" once and for all, so thoroughly will it have lost all meaning.

Islam is no more or less inherently a religion of terror than is Christianity - both have been far from "peaceful", historically speaking, both were spread largely by the sword, and both have always harbored a strong drive to monopoly wherever they have captured the reins of power - but at least with Christianity one can take comfort in the fact that few in the West now sufficiently believe in the religion to wish to kill others for it; with Islam, unfortunately, that is still far from being the case. It is patently dishonest to wish to disclaim honor killings, throat slittings, hijackings and the rest as having nothing to do with the "real" Islam, just as it is plain dishonest for non-fundamentalist Christians to try to pretend that those bible-thumpers trying to force their 6,000-year-old Earth myth into the biology curriculum are less than "genuine" Christians; a religion is whatever the mass of its adherents make of it, not what some "holy" text says it must be, and the Islam that discouragingly many Muslims subscribe to is a violent, intolerant and plain backward system of belief that is undeserving of being humored as "civilized."

In the same vein, states that cannot be trusted to give their own people the freedom to speak, much less submit their leaderships to the discipline of constitutions, law courts and ballot boxes, are not in the least worthy of being regarded as responsible enough to trust with nuclear weapons. I should as soon trust a single Middle Eastern state outside of Israel with nuclear weapons as I would trust any state in sub-Saharan Africa outside of the possible exception of Botswana and South Africa, i.e, not an iota. These states all undoubtedly contain large numbers of individuals who are civilized in the normal sense of the term, but as units of political organization, not one of them comes close to deserving such a label.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

A Victory for Freedom of Speech

It's great to see the Supremes holding the schoolmarms in check: the AP is reporting that they've just struck down the Porn-Shield Law (aka COPA). This ridiculous law is just the sort of thing that ensures I will never be comfortable in the company of social conservatives.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law meant to punish pornographers who peddle dirty pictures to Web-surfing kids is probably an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.

The high court divided 5-to-4 over a law passed in 1998, signed by then-President Clinton and now backed by the Bush administration. The majority said a lower court was correct to block the law from taking effect because it likely violates the First Amendment.

In considering the issue a third time, the court did not end a long fight, however. The majority voted to send the case back to a lower court for a trial that could give the government a chance to prove the law does not go too far.


The law, which never took effect, would have authorized fines up to $50,000 for the crime of placing material that is "harmful to minors" within the easy reach of children on the Internet.

The law also would have required adults to use access codes and or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online.
"Won't someone think about the children?" Nowadays the first refuge of political scoundrels seems to be claim that their favorite new initiatives are "for the children", and this is no exception: someone really ought to tell these people "If you don't want your kids surfing porn, don't buy them a PC!"

That the surfing habits of other peoples' children should be permitted to interfere with what adults are permitted to see and discuss is a manifest absurdity, but it all becomes easier to understand if one appreciates that Ashcroft's efforts to go after pornographers has nothing at all to do with "the children", and everything to do with forcing the religious norms of one section of the populace down the throats of all the rest. One would think someone with a plate as full as Ashcroft's would have better things to do with his time than harrass people for posting smutty pictures - aren't there enough terrorists and other assorted bad guys out there to keep him busy?

Sex and Propaganda

A fascinating short history of the uses towards which sexual propaganda were put by both sides in the Second World War, copiously illustrated of course.

The girl you left behind

Fest steckt's und treu der Fremdarbeiter rein

There are few things as guaranteed to get men's dander up as the notion that someone else - especially some shifty foreign type - might be playing footsie with "their" women, and this fear of cuckoldry is what all of the very many propaganda pictures on the page linked to seek to play on. One thing that confuses me though - why is it that men everywhere seem to find it so much more upsetting that "foreign", strange looking men are sleeping with "their" partners, given that one is equally cuckolded whatever the origins of the other man? It can't simply be the fear of not "measuring up", as that test is already failed if one's partner is cheating on one, regardless of who she's doing it with.

Constructive Engagement Bears Fruit

Here's a story that ought to give pause to those who think Iran's nuclear ambitions can be kept in check by words alone. Note the source - hardly a rabid pro-war rag.

Iran is to resume elements of its uranium enrichment programme tomorrow in a move which worsens the confrontation with the west over Tehran's suspected ambition to develop a nuclear bomb.

Withdrawing from previous pledges to freeze all uranium-enrichment activities, Tehran said yesterday it would resume manufacturing parts for centrifuges tomorrow and would also restart the assembly of the centrifuges, the machines that refine crude uranium into bomb-grade material or nuclear fuel for power stations.

Iran's decision was criticised yesterday by the EU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and the White House. It will fuel further suspicions about Iran's nuclear programme and increase mistrust at the IAEA, whose 35-strong governing board regularly seeks to come up with a policy towards Iran.

The announcement was a blow to Britain, France and Germany which reached the Tehran Agreement last October, an accord under which Iran promised to freeze its enrichment activity.


Germany trumpeted October's deal as a triumph for European diplomacy, implicitly criticising Washington's more confrontational approach.

The Iranians wrote to the EU troika last week serving notice that the deal was now void. Unlike Washington, which urges that Tehran be reported to and punished by the UN security council, the EU has been eager to avoid a showdown, keep the channels open to Tehran and hope to mitigate Iranian behaviour. As a result of the latest Iranian move the Europeans may take a harder line.

Iran's foreign ministry said: "Europeans failed to respect their commitments. There is no reason for us to keep our moral promise."
"Moral promise"! I like that, it's a really nice touch from the Iranians. Anyway, seeing as ye olde-fashioned sabre-rattling's been ruled out of contention as "simplistic" and unacceptable "unilateralism", I fail to see just what the Europeans can do to bring the Iranians back to line: "Stop your weapons programme, or, or ... we'll warn you some more!" Sure, that'll work, no question.

War is an ugly, brutal business, and the threat of war isn't one to be made lightly, but a regime as loathsome as Iran's is among the last ones a sane person would wish to see in possession of nuclear weapons. What's scarier still is that they've also been hard at work on the delivery systems to get those weapons as far afield as London and Madrid: Iran's ambitions aren't just a matter of concern for a certain "shitty little country", as a certain sophisticated French ambassador once so euphoniously put it.

Given the choice between a short, sharp and limited campaign focused solely on annihilating all of Iran's nuclear facilities - let the Iranians take care of their own "liberation" this time, thank you very much - and the prospect of spending one's final moments on this Earth seeing the blinding flash of a nuclear explosion even through solid concrete walls, I'd hope most Europeans would make the right decision. Cheap Pollyanish rhetoric isn't going to get rid of Iran's nuclear programme, and only brute force will do the job.

The Not So Good Old Days

Via Prometheus 6, I came across this extremely interesting editorial about the lifelong efforts of various individuals to get the better of America's scheme of racial categorization.

Gladys Watt and Lydia Turnage Connolly had been friends for roughly 30 years — a decade of that as next-door neighbors in Greenwich, Conn. — by the time Mrs. Connolly died in 1984 at the venerable age of 99. Mrs. Connolly seemed to have no family; she relied on Mrs. Watt to take her grocery shopping and regularly ate Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at her best friend's home.

"I never saw a single visitor to her house. Not one," Mrs. Watt told me recently, adding that her friend had been tight-lipped about her origins. When she alluded to her family at all, it was only to say that her father had been "a wonderful man."

Mrs. Watt thought that she knew her friend pretty well. She then stumbled upon a startling secret. Mrs. Connolly had once let the secret slip to strangers but, for most of her life, she had apparently seemed intent on carrying it to the grave.

Mrs. Connolly, who had straight dark hair and swarthy skin, explained her appearance throughout most of her life by describing herself as Portuguese. The disguise began to crumble as she moved into her 90's and became too ill to care for the straight black hair — which turned out to be a wig. When it slipped away, Mrs. Watt recalls, the hair beneath was revealed to be short and coarse to curly. Combined with the darkish skin she had attributed to a Portuguese heritage, it gave her an African-American appearance.

This finally made sense when Mrs. Watt received her friend's meager possessions. They included old photographs, showing Lydia posed with family members. There was also a leather-bound book handwritten by Wallace Turnage, her father. It contained his account of his life as a slave in Alabama.
One can and ought to be profoundly grateful that the struggles of others have made the need to "pass" much less pressing today than it was when Mrs Connolly was growing up; even so, it's still not completely true that the "taint" of blackness is something socially ambitious people no longer need worry about. We'll know that happy day is here only when we see stars coming forward to flaunt their 1/32 black ancestry in the way individuals like Heather Locklear presently do their miniscule Native American heritage.

So, the Niger Uranium Story WAS Correct ...

Here's a shocking story from the Financial Times - the Bush Administration's claims about Iraq trying to buy uranium from Niger weren't made out of thin air after all!

Illicit sales of uranium from Niger were being negotiated with five states including Iraq at least three years before the US-led invasion, senior European intelligence officials have told the Financial Times.

Intelligence officers learned between 1999 and 2001 that uranium smugglers planned to sell illicitly mined Nigerien uranium ore, or refined ore called yellow cake, to Iran, Libya, China, North Korea and Iraq.

These claims support the assertion made in the British government dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme in September 2002 that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from an African country, confirmed later as Niger. George W. Bush, US president, referred to the issue in his State of the Union address in January 2003.

The claim that the illicit export of uranium was under discussion was widely dismissed when letters referring to the sales - apparently sent by a Nigerien official to a senior official in Saddam Hussein's regime - were proved by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be forgeries. This embarrassed the US and led the administration to reverse its earlier claim.

But European intelligence officials have for the first time confirmed that information provided by human intelligence sources during an operation mounted in Europe and Africa produced sufficient evidence for them to believe that Niger was the centre of a clandestine international trade in uranium.


According to a senior counter-proliferation official, meetings between Niger officials and would-be buyers from the five countries were held in several European countries, including Italy. Intelligence officers were convinced that the uranium would be smuggled from abandoned mines in Niger, thereby circumventing official export controls. "The sources were trustworthy. There were several sources, and they were reliable sources," an official involved in the European intelligence gathering operation said.
This obviously can't be true, as everyone knows that "Bush lied, People died!" No, what we're seeing here is clearly the effect of Brie-poisoning messing with the heads of Europe's intelligence agencies; to believe that Bushitler and his poodle actually got something right after all, well, that really would be asking too much, wouldn't it? Unlike the hateful Bush, Saddam's really quite a decent fellow, and there's no good reason to assume that he'd have pursued his nuclear ambitions given the slightest opportunity ...

Censorship in South Korea

Bravo Romeo Delta of Anticipatory Retaliation posts a letter that makes for very interesting reading. The author of the letter in question, a fellow by the name Kevin Kim, discusses the South Korean government's efforts to prevent its citizens from viewing the gruesome video of contractor Kim Sun-Il's beheading. I'm quoting the full entry here in keeping with the request made by the letter's author.

Fellow blogger,

I am sending this message to the bloggers on my blogroll (and a few other folks) in the hopes that some of you will print this, or at least find it interesting enough for comment. I'm not usually the type to distribute such messages, but I felt this was important enough to risk disturbing you.

As some of you may already know, a wing of the South Korean government, the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC), is currently clamping down on a variety of blogging service providers and other websites. The government is attempting to control access to video of the recent Kim Sun-il beheading, ostensibly because the video will have a destabilizing influence. (I haven't seen the video.)

Many Western expat bloggers in Korea are in an uproar; others, myself included, are largely unsurprised: South Korea has not come far out of the shadow of its military dictatorship past. My own response to this censorship is not so much anger as amusement, because the situation represents an intellectual challenge as well as a chance to fight for freedom of expression. Perhaps even to fight for freedom, period.

South Korea is a rapidly evolving country, but in many ways it remains the Hermit Kingdom. Like a turtle retreating into its shell, the people are on occasion unable to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them. This country is, for example, in massive denial about the atrocities perpetrated in North Korea, and, as with many Americans, is in denial about the realities of Islamic terrorism, whose roots extend chronologically backward far beyond the lifetime of the Bush Administration. This cultural tendency toward denial (and overreaction) at least partially explains the Korean government's move to censor so many sites.

The fact that the current administration, led by President Noh Mu-hyon, is supposedly "liberal"-leaning makes this censorship more ironic. It also fuels propagandistic conservative arguments that liberals are, at heart, closet totalitarians. I find this to be a specious caricature of the liberal position (I consider myself neither liberal nor conservative), but to the extent that Koreans are concerned about what image they project to the world, it is legitimate for them to worry over whether they are currently playing into stereotype: South Korea is going to be associated with other violators of human rights, such as China.

Of the many hypocrisies associated with the decision to censor, the central one is that no strong governmental measures were taken to suppress the distribution of the previous beheading videos (Nick Berg et al.). This, too, fuels the suspicion that Koreans are selfish or, to use their own proverbial image, "a frog in a well"-- radically blinkered in perspective, collectively unable to empathize with the sufferings of non-Koreans, but overly sensitive to their own suffering.

I am writing this letter not primarily to criticize all Koreans (I'm ethnically half-Korean, and an American citizen), nor to express a generalized condemnation of Korean culture. As is true anywhere else, this culture has its merits and demerits, and overall, I'm enjoying my time here. No, my purpose is more specific: to cause the South Korean government as much embarrassment as possible, and perhaps to motivate Korean citizens to engage in some much-needed introspection.

To this end, I need the blogosphere's help, and this letter needs wide distribution (you may receive other letters from different bloggers, so be prepared!). I hope you'll see fit to publish this letter on your site, and/or to distribute it to concerned parties: censorship in a supposedly democratic society simply cannot stand. The best and quickest way to persuade the South Korean government to back down from its current position is to make it lose face in the eyes of the world. This can only happen through a determined (and civilized!) campaign to expose the government's hypocrisy and to cause Korean citizens to rethink their own narrow-mindedness.

We can debate all we want about "root causes" with regard to Islamic terrorism, Muslim rage, and all the rest, but for me, it's much more constructive to proceed empirically and with an eye to the future. Like it or not, what we see today is that Korea is inextricably linked with Iraq issues, and with issues of Islamic fundamentalism. Koreans, however, may need some persuading that this is in fact the case-- that we all need to stand together as allies against a common enemy.

If you are interested in giving the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture a piece of your mind (or if you're a reporter who would like to contact them for further information), please email the MIC at:

Thank you,

Kevin Kim
(Blogspot is currently blocked in Korea, along with other providers; please go to and type my URL into the search window to view my blog.)

PS: To send me an email, please type "hairy chasms" in the subject line to avoid being trashed by my custom-made spam filter.

PPS: Much better blogs than mine have been covering this issue, offering news updates and heartfelt commentary. To start you off, visit:

Here as well, Unipeak is the way to go if you're in Korea and unable to view the above blogs. People in the States should, in theory, have no problems accessing these sites, which all continue to be updated.

PPPS: This email is being cc'ed to the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture. Please note that other bloggers are writing about the Korean government's creation of a task force that will presumably fight internet terror. I and others have an idea that this task force will serve a different purpose. If this is what South Korea's new "aligning with the PRC" is all about, then there's reason to worry for the future.

I am no fan of censorship, not even in a case like this one, but if there ever were a case in which hard political realities came close to justifying censorship, this would be it. Roh Moo-Hyun's government is stuck between a rock and a hard place; on the one hand it needs to deal with a populace which has known peace for so long that the very real threat posed by the North no longer seems at all real to a good fraction of the electorate, making the cultivation of ties of obligation to America seem patently unnecessary in their eyes; on the other hand, he has to accommodate the requests of an ally whose own potential commitment of life and riches to Korea's nation's security are far greater than anything the Koreans are actually being asked to contribute in Iraq.

Faced with such a dilemma, it must seem extremely tempting to the Korean government to opt for the old ways of the past, by trying to block off all access to a video with such potentially destabilizing political impact. Putting aside for the moment whether such a measure is actually justified, however, I am extremely doubtful that it can really be made to work in practice. No, I'll go further and say that what the Korean government is attempting is actually impossible; all it takes is one open proxy that hasn't been noticed by the government, or one email attachment that's been encrypted using public-key cryptography, and the Korean government's information barrier will have been irrevocably breached. I'd bet anything that this video is already in wide circulation within Korea, at least amongst those who know a thing or two about computers.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Trolling Your Way to Fame and Fortune

Matthew Yglesias writes about how the market for opinion seems to reward flagrantly biased and sloppy writing far better than it does moderate and well-researched material.

Thinking a bit more about Michael Moore, the tragedy is that we have a systemic bias in our media culture that rewards people who make over-the-top and/or inaccurate attacks on their political opponents. To take myself as an example, early on during my Prospect career I came across a Rich Lowry article on NRO unfairly castigating Bill Clinton's anti-terror policies. I responded with a Tapped post that, among other things, noted that if anyone was ignoring terrorism in the 1990s, it was The National Review. Normally, things would have just ended there. Fortunately for me, however, the post contained a factual error that, while not crucial to the argument, was a really clear case of error.

As a result, Lowry had a good hook to write a column in response to my post, noting the error and suggesting that the argument as a whole was every bit as slipshod as the one assertion. I then wrote a counter-response column, apologizing for the error, noting some problems with Lowry's argument, and making the (entirely correct) case that my point stood on the merits despite my mistake. The result was many readers for things I'd done and, in general, a raising of my profile.

Similarly, my "stab in the back" column employed some deliberately provocative rhetoric that was not, strictly speaking, essential to the point I was trying to make. As a result, at least one of the targets of my column, along with several fellow-travelers of the targets, took umbrage and wrote outraged blog posts in reply. Not only did I then get to reply, but several of my fellow travelers wrote posts (with links) backing me up. Traffic and notoriety, again, went up in a way that was to my benefit.

By contrast, I've written many, many, measured and (in my humble opinion) totally unimpeachable attacks on various folks out there that have simply died on the vine. The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you. And so they do. Maybe a person or two will recommend the story to their friends, but basically it vanished into the HTML ether. Something sloppy, offensive, over-the-top, or in some minor way inaccurate, by contrast, will provoke a flood of responses. If you're lucky, those responses will, themselves, be someone sloppy, and folks start defending you. Then you find yourself in the midst of a minor contretemps, and everyone gets more readers.
In the manner of a Mungo Park "discovering" the source of the River Niger, Matthew has alighted upon a phenomenon recognized many moons ago by the denizens of USENET - the less-than-subtle art of trolling.

In the world of opinionating, at least, trolling definitely works, and what's even better is that one can get famous for trolling while also making a decent living out of it. Considered objectively, what else should the likes of Michael Moore, Michael Savage and Ann Coulter be labelled other than trolls? What better description can there be for writing posts about nuking "Koranimals", how "Bush is WORSE than Hitler!!!" or "At least Saddam was elected!", other than to call such behavior trolling?

Let's face it, with a few upstanding exceptions, most of the highest-profile bloggers are trolls of one political stripe or another, and not very subtle trolls at that. There are few things easier in the world than to quickly dash off some nonsense about how all liberals are treacherous perverts, or conservatives are baby-eating fascists, but that sort of writing is almost always guaranteed to get you more hits and a higher profile than dispassionate examinations of ideas on their merits. Controversy sells, especially cheap controversy.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

VIking Massacre

I promised to refrain from making any more predictions during the course of this tournament, but here's one I can make with some confidence, even though the match still has about 30 minutes to run - the Danes are going home!

Denmark's never been a team known for its striking power, and now that the Czechs are ahead 3-0 the Danes simply haven't a prayer of recovering. If the Czech Republic doesn't carry the trophy at the end of this tournament it'll be a real surprise.

What's really surprising is how Milan Baros has come alive in this tournament after such an uninspired record for Liverpool over the last year; two goals in the space of 2 minutes! I'd say that Baros' remarkable campaign supports the notion that the real problem with Liverpool was manager Gerrard Houllier's inability to get the best out of his players, rather than anything wrong with the players themselves.

A Nice Bit of Cynicism

Seeing as he's doing such an ineffective job of keeping Iranian nuclear ambitions in check, it's really rather touching to see Mohammed ElBaradei ask Israel to go nuclear-free. Like the proverbial drunk who looks for his car-keys under the spotlight because that's the easiest place to search for them, ElBaradei would rather pester a country that acknowledges civilized norms of conduct. When's the last time anyone heard Israeli rabbis chanting "Death to Iran"? When has anyone even seen a rabbi actually head a government?

The head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, says Israel should start discussions on ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons.
He said such dialogue would help reduce frustration in the region about "what is seen to be a widespread imbalance".
Mr ElBaradei is scheduled to travel to Israel next month to discuss making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.
He said everyone knew that Israel had a nuclear capability - even if Israel has always refused to admit it.
"We need... to rid the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction," he told reporters on a visit to Russia.
"Israel agrees with that, but they say it has to be... after peace agreements.
"My proposal is may be we need to start to have a parallel dialogue on security at the same time when we're working on the peace process."


Israel has a policy of "strategic ambiguity" - neither admitting nor denying it has nuclear weapons - but analysts believe it has more than 100 nuclear weapons.
Its Arab neighbours have frequently accused the international community of double standards for requiring them to be free of nuclear weapons while doing little, in their eyes, about Israel.
Mr ElBaradei said it was "not sustainable in any region or even globally to have some [people] rely on nuclear weapons and others being told they should not have nuclear weapons".
What a load of codswollop. There are two very simple reasons why it's perfectly alright for Israel to have nuclear weapons while the Arabs don't:
  1. Israel has no aggressive intentions towards any other state, not even its Arab neighbors: were it otherwise, the Israelis would already have acted on them, as they've long had the military muscle to make good on any such ambitions, while one result of America's ongoing "Peace Vector" programme is that Israel's conventional military superiority with respect to Egypt only erodes with the passage of time.
  2. Israel, for all its bluster in the face of external criticism, is a state where political accountability isn't just an empty phrase, and Israeli governments know that their citizens are sensitive to such criticisms, however much they may feign indifference. One will never see footage of Israelis on TV happily slitting the throats of foreigners in the manner that seems to be the flavor of the year with Arab "militants", for the simple reason that Israelis view themselves as civilized, moral human beings, and also want to be seen as such in the eyes of the rest of the world. This is an attitude that a very large slice of the Islamic world quite obviously does not share.
I suspect that there's more to Mr. ElBaradei's sudden proposal than a disinterested desire to propitiate Arab states in the face of what they perceive to be "double standards." It's commonly the case that critics of current American policies like to point at the ethnic backgrounds of individuals like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle only to ask "Qui Bono", with the implicit assumption being that the individuals in question are working to advance the interests of a certain Middle Eastern nation to which they feel a greater loyalty; might not such a question be posed in Mr. ElBaradei's case as well, and with much stronger grounds for suspicion?

The man is an Arab, after all, and a Muslim to boot. What is more, he's also an Egyptian, with a long history of service in that nation's diplomatic corps dating back as far as 1964, meaning that for most of his career with the Egyptian Diplomatic Service he was accustomed to viewing Israel as the arch-enemy. Why anyone should expect objectivity from someone with a background like Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei's is beyond me, and I suspect that in the deep recesses of his heart nothing would please him more than a unilateral disarmament by Israel that would leave it all the more defenseless in the face of renewed Islamist aggression: if there's one thing for certain, it's that Iran will not cease to try to obtain nuclear weapons whatever Israel may or may not do.

Kill all the Lawyers?

Jason Soon's been covering William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth, a book I recommended a while back, and in his latest entry he asks - can an economy have too many lawyers?

In Chapter 4 of The Elusive Quest for Growth, William Easterly debunks the idea that more 'human capital investment' (i.e. education spending) alone can be a solution to the problem of economic development in poor countries ... Easterley has an interesting passage in Chapter 4 on the 'human capital fad' that also has implications for developed economies like Australia:
One clue as to why education is worth little more than hula hoops to a society that wants to grow comes from what the educated people are doing with their skills. In an economy with extensive government intervention, the activity with the highest return to skills might be lobbying the government for favours. The government creates profit opportunities by its interventions ...
He then notes that one whimsical piece of evidence supporting this theory is that economies with lots of lawyers grow more slowly than economies with lots of engineers.

The paper cited is by Murphy, Schleifer and Vishny. Here is the abstract:
A country's most talented people typically organize production by others, so they can spread their ability advantage over a larger scale. When the start firms, they innovate and foster growth, but when they become rent seekers, they only redistribute wealth and reduce growth. Occupational choice depends on returns to ability and to scale in each sector, on market size, and on compensation contracts. In most countries, rent seeking rewards talent more than entrepreneurship does, leading to stagnation. Our evidence shows that countries with a higher proportion of engineering college majors grows faster; whereas countries with a higher proportion of law concentrators grows more slowly.
This raises an interesting question. Given the volumes of legislation passed in developed economies like Australia every year, would unrestrained or even partially restrained competition in the legal sector still lead inevitably to an 'arms race' scenario whereby rent-seeking opportunties are created not just in the area of lobbying governments for favours (the traditional focus of Public Choice economists) but also in the area of common law development? ... might there be a second-best case for general restrictions on the legal profession after all?
Thought-provoking stuff, and I expect/hope that it will provoke a forceful responce or two from some of the practitioners of the legal profession out there. It is clear enough from looking at countries in which the rule of law does not obtain that there can be states with too few lawyers; what isn't so clear is whether the opposite extreme might also be the case. Certainly, the evidence on the face of it doesn't seem to speak clearly one way or another on the issue, as by far the wealthiest country of any real size is also by a great distance the most litigious - the United States of America.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Holland Wins!

Yet another clifffhanger, and so many squandered chances! I feel sorry for the Swedes - they played well and this was a fairly even match - but I confess some partiality to the Oranje. If it were possible I'd really have liked both of these sides to go through, but if someone had to go home, this was as honorable a way to do so as any. Larsson, Ljungberg and company can hold their heads up high after tonight's performance.

Barring a total collapse by the Czech side tomorrow, the Danes will do well indeed to hold their opponents to penalties in the manner that their follow Scandinavians did the Dutch. The real "Thrilla in Manilla" (or rather, Lisbon) will be the Holland v. Holland match next Wednesday, as I fully expect the Greeks to be beaten by whoever they get to play against; then again, given my poor record of predicting these things thus far, that prediction of mine just might be the harbinger of Greece's procession to the finals.

Anyways, enough football blogging for now - time to get around to doing some real work for a change!

Friday, June 25, 2004

Another One Bites the Dust

Unbelievable but true - the French lost to Greece! Today's performance by Les Bleus was even more jaw-droppingly bad than yesterday's by England, and I'm from here on out I adamantly refuse to venture any predictions. The French seem to have come into the match thinking it was won even before play had gotten underway, and they reaped the just results of their complancy.

Coach Otto Rehhagel has done very well getting this much out of his team, and I hope the Greek fans enjoy their victory while it lasts, because if there is one prediction I'm still willing to venture, it's that it won't last; it wasn't so much that the Greeks played well (though they did play their hearts out) but that their opponents played so abysmally.

I'm still trying to come to terms with the reality that all of the big football powers are now out of the competition. Not one of the countries left in the competition has a population greater than 20 million: does it mean anything, and if so, what?

PS: Frank McGahon was right - David Trezeguet sucked! Why did Santini bother playing him instead of Louis Saha, as one last act of sabotage against his old employers?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Too Stupid For Words

Matthew Yglesias has a quote up from an article on the National Review website which really has to be read to be appreciated in its full idiotic splendor.

What the senators and media don't get is the basic equation that defines the role of government deficits in the economy: The federal government deficit = non-government savings (of net financial assets). That's fact, not theory, a.k.a. an "accounting identity." Non-government savings include that of both residents of the U.S. and foreigners. If the federal budget deficit of $450 billion about equals the current account deficit, it means that all the net financial assets added by the deficit are being saved by foreigners, who desire to hold all those dollar-denominated U.S. financial assets and are willing to net export to us in order to get them.

This data indicates is that the federal deficit is too small for the U.S. domestic sector to save anything! Domestic savings are low because the budget deficit is too low. Low and unobtainable savings means low demand, excess capacity, and low levels of employment. In other words, to get adequate demand from a healthy economy, a much larger federal budget deficit is needed. Unfortunately neither political party sees the light on this one, and both proclaim a sincerity to balance the budget -- which would totally choke off what growth we do have, as it would actually drain domestic income and savings and further reduce demand.
Where does NRO get morons like the author of this article from? Hasn't anybody in that outfit ever taken an elementary macroeconomics class? Budget deficits are not a means for boosting domestic savings, and not even the most ardent of Keynesians would ever maintain that they are. Far from it, deficits actually work to crowd out potentially more productive private investment, and as such are to be discouraged over the length of a fiscal cycle - this is particularly the case when one has a "healthy economy", i.e, just the sort of time this ignorant individual suggests a bigger deficit is needed.

I've never taken my advice on finance or economics from the National Review, but an article as patently ridiculous as this one leads me to think that either no one there has the slightest clue about economics, or the editors are willing to compromise all intellectual standards for the sake of partisan wagon-circling. It's obvious what the motivation behind this sort of stupidity has to be - trying to make Bush's fiscal record look far less problematic than it actually is.

England Goes Home

And in oh so predictable fashion too. What is it with this team and the tendency to sit on a lead once a goal ahead? Why try to execute a catenaccio strategy that has repeatedly failed a much more talented team? And where was the highly overrated David Beckham throughout the match? Let's face it, England deserved to lose this game.

I warned yesterday that the English reliance on Wayne Rooney was a dangerous thing, and once Rooney's injury forced him off the pitch the English attacking spirit just seemed to collapse for the rest of the game. It was only a matter of time before Portugal's superior possession would tell, and surely enough it did with a goal by Postiga; the scoreline at the end of regular time was extremely flattering to an England team that allowed itself to be run ragged for the better part of 60 minutes.

Now, looking to tomorrow, I don't see that there's much room to doubt the outcome - Les Bleus are going to give the Greeks a thrashing; I expect much the same on Sunday, when the Czechs should dispatch the Danes. More interesting will be the Sweden v. Holland game on Saturday, which the Dutch would win if this were a matter of raw talent; their perennial underachievement means that the likely outcome isn't at all clear, however.

NYT - Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?

At last, here's an article that touches on something I've long noticed - that a disproportionate number of the black students enrolled at the most competitive colleges in America aren't actually of African-American heritage in the strictest sense of the term.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At the most recent reunion of Harvard University's black alumni, there was lots of pleased talk about the increase in the number of black students at Harvard.

But the celebratory mood was broken in one forum, when some speakers brought up the thorny issue of exactly who those black students were.

While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them — perhaps as many as two-thirds — were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.

They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves. Many argue that it was students like these, disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools, who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admissions.

What concerned the two professors, they said, was that in the high-stakes world of admissions to the most selective colleges — and with it, entry into the country's inner circles of power, wealth and influence — African-American students whose families have been in America for generations were being left behind.

"I just want people to be honest enough to talk about it," Professor Gates, the Yale-educated son of a West Virginia paper-mill worker, said recently, reiterating the questions he has been raising since the black alumni weekend last fall. "What are the implications of this?"


Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania who have been studying the achievement of minority students at 28 selective colleges and universities (including theirs, as well as Yale, Columbia, Duke and the University of California at Berkeley), found that 41 percent of the black students identified themselves as immigrants, as children of immigrants or as mixed race.

Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton sociology professor who was one of the researchers, said the black students from immigrant families and the mixed-race students represented a larger proportion of the black students than that in the black population in the United States generally. Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College, says that among 18- to 25-year-old blacks nationwide, about 9 percent describe themselves as of African or West Indian ancestry. Like the Gates and Guinier numbers, these tallies do not include foreign students.

In the 40 or so years since affirmative action began in higher education, the focus has been on increasing the numbers of black students at selective colleges, not on their family background. Professor Massey said that the admissions officials he talked to at these colleges seemed surprised by the findings about the black students. "They really didn't have a good idea of what they're getting," he said.

But few black students are surprised. Sheila Adams, a Harvard senior, was born in the South Bronx to a school security officer and a subway token seller, and her family has been in this country for generations. Ms. Adams said there were so few black students like her at Harvard that they had taken to referring to themselves as "the descendants."

The subject, however, remains taboo among some college administrators. Anthony Carnevale, a former vice president at the Educational Testing Service, which develops SAT tests, said colleges were happy to the take high-performing black students from immigrant families.

"They've found an easy way out," Mr. Carnevale said. "The truth is, the higher-education community is no longer connected to the civil rights movement. These immigrants represent Horatio Alger, not Brown v. Board of Education and America's race history."
In fact, this tendency is even noticeable within the top schools, once one begins to look at things like SAT scores and GPAs - the more impressive the numbers, the greater the odds that their possessor is an African immigrant: in my years in college, virtually every single one of the black students I knew with SAT scores above 1400 was an African.

Now, one ought to keep in mind when talking about Affirmative Action that foreign students do not get to benefit from it - and in reality, at most elite colleges the foreign student body is of a much higher calibre than the rest of the students - so one shouldn't jump to the conclusion that all Africans are occupying AA spots that ought "rightfully" to have been taken up by the descendants of the victims of American racism. Even so, it still is true that of the permanent residents and US citizens who do get admitted to schools like Harvard and Yale, a very large proportion are individuals whose only real tie to the African-American experience is that they too just happen to be of the same skin color.

Whether a situation in which a program originally intended to benefit the descendants of the victims of American slavery and Jim Crow ends up primarily boosting the academic opportunities of the children of recent immigrants is acceptable depends greatly upon what one thinks Affirmative Action's intended effects ought to be. If the goal is to be able to say that there are black graduates of Brown and Stanford who are doing well in the larger world, so that they can serve as role models for black Americans of all origins, then such a situation is perfectly fine; if the goal remains to directly lift the descendants of America's exploited black citizens to a higher level, then the current state of affairs will likely seem far more problematic.

The Free Market at Work

Here's a textbook illustration of the dynamics of competition. Slashdot has a story up indicating that, following Yahoo's response to GMail, Hotmail will also be increasing user storage limits dramatically, from the current stifling 2MB to 250MB for free users, while paying users will go from 10MB to 2GB. Ask Jeeves is also expected to follow in Hotmail and Yahoo's shoes, by upping user storage limits to 125MB for free accounts. None of this would have happened had Google not shown the way forward.

There's a point raised by a Slashdot commenter that I think is worth keeping in mind when considering these upgrades, and it has to do with the size of the user bases of the various free email providers, and what that implies in terms of the cost of meeting the challenge offered by Google.

GMail's rollout ... [forces] other e-mail providers into costly capital expenditures. remember, 1gb of space initially for a couple thousand invitees is still less than 250 mb for millions of users. MS and yahoo's teams will no doubt be prodded to recoup their capital expenditures for all users, while gmail can stay lean and mean as long as it wants, while at the same time dictate the market structure.
Now, in the long term this is less important than one might think, as Google has every incentive to grow its market share to the fullest extent once its service is made available to the general public. In the short term, however, the raising of storage limits by the other email providers will have a significant material effect on their balance sheets - if you've been restricting 100 million users to only 2MB of storage and suddenly increase that limit to 250MB, you can confidently expect to see their utilized storage suddenly double or even quadruple in the space of a few weeks. Assuming you've been operating a lean infrastructure, what that means is that you're suddenly going to have to spend a lot of money upfront to avoid a marked deterioration in the service you provide. While this new capital investment can be written down over a number of years, the impact on cash flow is likely to be immediate and severe. While Microsoft has the deep pockets to handle this without breaking a sweat, I'm extremely doubtful that most of the other email providers do.

There's something else to keep in mind with the new storage limits being announced by Yahoo, Hotmail and the like: why might ask oneself why it is that these companies don't bother to go all the way and actually match Google's storage limits, byte for byte, instead of doling out 100MB, 125MB, 250MB or some other such allotment as to leave GMail looking an attractive proposition? There are two reasons I see at work here, the first and more trivial one being that GMail isn't actually available to the general public yet, even if invitations can now easily be had by those who know where to look. The second and far more important reason is that there are substantial switching costs associated with email addresses, and these tend to be all the greater the longer one's had a particular address; as such, even the prospect of 4 or 8 times more storage from Google might not be enough to lure one away from one's present provider if it means tracking down every last soul one's given one's email address to in order to notify them of one's change of provider. This rationale for staying put is especially powerful for those whose storage requirements are unlikely ever to approach even the less substantial limits provided by alternative services like Hotmail. As I've said, all of this is textbook economic theory, and it works out just as the textbooks say it should.

Now, for those who've persevered through this entire post, here's an offer: anyone want a GMail account? I have two invitations to give out. If you're interested just email my GMail account [natürlich] and I'll send one your way - this will be on a first come first served basis only, so please don't complain if you're too late to come to the party.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Germany is Out!

And Holland goes on to the next round! For once talent told! I'm absolutely ecstatic. I do feel a twinge of pity for Rudi Völler, who made the best of the material he had to work with, but I'm not so sorry for him that my pleasure at the outcome of today's results will be dampened overmuch.

What's most amazing about the Germany-Czech Republic game is just how well the Czechs played. How is it that a country with so few people was able to field a team of such quality that even their B-team was able to defeat the (admittedly unusually mediocre) German first-choice squad? This definitely puts weight behind the notion that Italy's exit from the championships had nothing to do with any demographic changes going on in that country - with such an exceptional squad I'd say the odds are very good that the Czechs will end up winning the competition.

Now it's time to start looking forward to tomorrow's contest between England and Portugal. Neither of these teams is a pushover, though the English expectation that Wayne Rooney will carry them to victory gives one cause for doubt, while on the Portuguese side the disappointing 2002 World cup campaign means I'm not about to be blinded by the presence of players like Louis Figo in their squad. Anything can happen tomorrow, and I'm not about to make any predictions of the outcome.

Will This Never End?

Everyone's favorite shakedown artist is at it again; surely there ought to be a statute of limitations at work here or something?

An $18bn (£10bn) lawsuit has been filed against Germany, accusing the country of making money by keeping artworks stolen from Holocaust victims.
The legal action, by the Association of Holocaust Victims for Restitution of Artworks and Masterpieces (AHVRAM), is a first step against several countries.
Speaking outside the German finance ministry, lawyer Ed Fagan accused the government of retaining 2,000 artworks.
He said: "We are here because the thefts started here."
The civil action alleges that consecutive German governments from World War II to the present day have profited from artworks taken from Holocaust victims.
It names current finance minister Hans Eichel as a defendant.
The AHVRAM claims governments in Berlin benefited from trafficking in the stolen art, failed to take reasonable steps to find the true owners and did not give artworks back to Holocaust survivors' groups.
"It is not the business of government to steal or retain wrongly expropriated property," said Mr Fagan, a prominent US lawyer.
Austria, France and the US are also to be targeted by legal action on similar grounds, AHVRAM said.
Frankly, my patience is exhausted by these sorts of antics, and that despite my deep loathing of Nazi misdeeds. It's simply too irritating to see one more complaint buried with a payoff only for yet another to emerge from out of nowhere soon afterwards. How many angles can one hit the German government from in search of yet more money?

It takes a heck of a lot of provocation to make me sympathize with the German government against those protesting the crimes of the Nazi era, but Fagan has just about managed the impossible: what he's doing here is working a protection racket, not seeking "justice" for victims of Nazi thuggery. For the cause of justice to truly be served, all of Fagan's outstanding lawsuits would be summarily thrown out of court, and the man himself permanently disbarred.

The Truth Will Out

The Russians are finally coming clean about the real motives behind the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Those who imagined that this was really all about "cleaning up" corruption are likely to be disappointed.

A senior Russian government minister has told the BBC that political reasons have played a role in the prosecution of the country's wealthiest man.
Economy Minister German Gref said the case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky had "a certain political element".
The trial of the oil billionaire, who is charged with tax evasion and fraud, will restart on 12 July.
Mr Khodorkovsky had been funding political groups opposed to President Vladimir Putin.
The case has disturbed foreign investors worried about state interference in the legal process.
The BBC's Jonathan Charles in Moscow says the Russian government has now admitted what many of its critics have long been alleging.

'Easy target'

Mr Gref told the BBC that Mr Khodorkovsky's company Yukos had been involved in "political activities".
The minister indicated he saw this as disloyal to Mr Putin and that Mr Khodorkovsky had then made himself an easy target by allegedly trying to evade taxes and to commit fraud.
Reading between the lines, the message here seems to be that it would have been fine with Putin and company if Khodorkovsky'd stuck to dodging taxes and committing fraud, just as long as he had the good sense to keep his nose out of politics.

Putting Mosquitoes Before People

Whenever I've said in the past that many environmental activists are actually pleased at the ubiquity of trypanosomiasis and malaria on the African continent, seeing it as a good thing for wildlife conservation, I've been accused of either lying or engaging in exaggeration. Now here's a New York Times article in which just this sort of reasoning is laid out for all to see:

Step outside the anthropocentric view of life and one possible value of mosquitoes is population control. Mosquitoes have historically kept human populations down worldwide, and still do in much of the third world. The problem is that they do this by facilitating pestilence and death, so this is not going to enhance their status, among human beings at least.

Mosquitoes may also keep some other animal populations down by spreading disease - something we might be able to see the value of. And other creatures - some fish, frogs birds and bats - eat them. It's possible that if we were able to wipe out mosquitoes, some other species might either suffer from lack of food, or explode in numbers because the burden of disease was lifted.

Another value of mosquitoes, perverse to some, obvious to others, is that they "keep out the riffraff," meaning human beings. Concentrations of pests offer protection to wilderness areas. The tsetse fly, which causes livestock disease as well as human sleeping sickness, has kept humans away from some wildlife refuges and has been called "Africa's best conservationist." Of course, this view has been described by others as ecological imperialism.
It's nice to see that NYT reporters can take such a detached, neutral approach to evaluating the pluses and minuses of mosquito eradication, seeing as it does serve as such an effective means of keeping the numbers of the Third World "riffraff" in check. How anthropocentric of all those swarthy types to put their lives above those of other organisms just because they don't belong to the same species! As we all know, "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy", and this is no more obviously true than when it's a poor black boy slowly dying of cerebral malaria because there's a colobus monkey colony close by in need of protection.

A Clever Quip

Jon Udell has a an interesting quote of statements supposedly made by Sergey Brin at Infoworld's 2002 CTO Forum. Brin's response is really very clever.

When asked about the Semantic Web and RDF at InfoWorld's 2002 CTO Forum, Sergey Brin said:
Look, putting angle brackets around things is not a technology, by itself. I'd rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write, than by forcing humans to write in ways computers can understand.
Now, I said Brin's response was clever, but what I didn't was that they were correct, and indeed I believe that to a substantial degree they aren't.

Brin is undoubtedly correct in stating that XML in and of itself doesn't do much to enable machines to reason more intelligently about the stuff that's on the web, and he's also correct in noting that relying on ordinary individuals to change the way their output to conform to the demanding requirements of machines is a recipe for failure. In a way, these criticisms buttress my own recent statements about why I think WinFS is unlikely to come near to meeting the hype that's been made on its behalf. All that said, I still don't agree that XML, RDF and all the other W3C Semantic Web initiatives are a waste of time.

On a slightly chauvinistic note, it's interesting that Jon Udell praises the work of Kingsley Idehen as exemplifying the combination of the Semantic Web and text-indexing approaches to best effect. I say it's interesting because Kingsley Idehen, as you might have guessed, is actually of Nigerian extraction, and what is more, he's spent a substantial portion of his life in the country, having graduated from the University of Benin in 1986. What did I tell y'all about Africans and I.T? Nigerians especially are everywhere!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Give Sabre-Rattling a Chance

You know the Iranians are in serious trouble when even the New York Times is willing to recognize that it's well past time to take a more resolute stance against their nuclear ambitions. Now is not the time for European-style "constructive engagement" with the Iranian regime.

If international treaties to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons have any power, now is the time to flex it on Iran. Last week the United States, Europe, Russia and China jointly condemned Iran's refusal to explain how it got blueprints and equipment usable for making nuclear bomb fuel. That criticism must be followed up with concerted pressure to keep Iran from joining the growing list of states armed with nuclear weapons.

Tehran has been defying the spirit, and probably the letter, of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in order to acquire the technology and fuel needed to build nuclear weapons. If it is allowed to continue down this path, it could begin building bombs in two to five years. If Europe, Russia and China now toughen their stands, as Washington is urging, Iran, unlike North Korea, can probably still be stopped.

Tehran has been concealing suspicious nuclear activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency since at least 1985, testing how far it could go in developing the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium while insisting it was only interested in low-enriched uranium for power reactors. Its deceptions were discovered more than a year ago. Last fall Tehran promised Britain, France and Germany that it would suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and cooperate more fully with the I.A.E.A. The nation's active reform movement, with a solid parliamentary majority, encouraged hopes for further dialogue. Since then, conservative clerics have crushed the reformers, taken over Parliament and hardened Iranian policies. In recent days, Tehran has threatened to resume work on uranium-enrichment equipment.

In light of this new belligerence and Iran's failure to cooperate with the I.A.E.A., Europe should overcome its qualms about referring the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council is designed to deal with threats to international peace and security. A potential Iranian breakout from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty clearly qualifies.
Unfortunately the NYT continues to cling to its multilateralist hopes well after they've been discredited by 11 years of inaction over Iraq (and ongoing inaction over Darfur). It is simply nonsense to say that "The unhappy experience of Iraq showed that unilateral military action is not a very useful antiproliferation tool"; as Israel's 1981 strike on Osirak demonstrated by delaying Saddam's nuclear ambitions for an entire decade, unilateral military action can be extremely effective if done right. Besides, whatever other challenges Iraq may present for the immediate future, one consequence of the recent war is that a clandestine nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programme will not be one of them.

What form might military action take against Iranian nuclear ambitions? It's true that the American military is too stretched at the present time to undertake another Iraq-scale operation, but military action about Iran's weapons programme need not mean an all-out invasion. An air campaign seems to me to be the best bet: while an Osirak-style single strike is clearly out of the question, as Iran's nuclear programme is scattered over several sites - some of which are heavily reinforced against bombing - the fact is that American troops currently are just across the border, which eliminates many a logistical obstacle that might have otherwise stood in the way of a sustained delivery of B-52 heavy ordinance. The Iranian air-force would be quickly wiped out once the shooting started, and once the US owned the skies Iran's nuclear facilities could be bombed so sustainedly and so heavily that the country's nuclear programme would cease to exist as anything more than a nostalgic memory in the minds of a few mullahs. If any good can come of the Iraq war, the destruction of Iran's well-advanced nuclear hopes would clearly be one worthwhile accomplishment.

Reductio Ad Absurdum

As if to prove the futility of the modern penchant for reparations, it appears that a group of alleged victims of South African apartheid have set out to sue the current government headed by former anti-apartheid activist Thabo Mbeki!

The South African government is being sued, along with major corporations, by alleged victims of the apartheid era.
The suit, filed in New York, seeks $10bn for "genocide, expropriation and other wrongful acts" by the firms under apartheid, said the US lawyer Ed Fagan.
Controversially, it also demands another $10bn from the post-apartheid government for "continuing to allow companies to exploit victims".
The government plans to defend itself, but would prefer it resolved in SA.
The lawsuit targets mining firms Anglo-American and Goldfields; US computer giant IBM; UBS Bank of Switzerland and local petroleum company Sasol.
"At the end of the day these companies were strategic partners of the (apartheid government)", Mr Fagan told a news conference.

'Win-able case'

He said President Thabo Mbeki's government was also being targeted "because of its failure to fulfil its obligations and its conspiracy with specific companies to violate these people's rights".
Mr Fagan said the action demanded that the government and the companies should pay a $20bn "humanitarian fund".
Words fail me at this point. Perhaps someone else can make better sense of all this than I can; I'll make do by saying that the successful effort by Jewish activist groups to get the Swiss government to pay reparations in the late 1990s has unleashed a trend that is likely to cause headaches in all sorts of unexpected places. These alleged victims of apartheid are likely to do severe economic damage to their fellow countrymen (most of who were also presumably victims of apartheid) in pursuing this thoroughly wrongheaded lawsuit, but one must admit that their stance holds up well by analogy with the Swiss example.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, like the civil actions against Microsoft for "overcharging", the real motive power behind this lawsuit lies not with the victims supposedly being "represented" by Ed Fagan and his accomplices but with the lawyers themselves; a bunch of sharp Ivy League law-school grads cotton on to some piece of plausible grimcrackery to hit the financial big-time and then set about rustling up victims they can use to further their legal entrepreneurialism in court. And short of a certain Godwin's Law invoking ideology, what more appealing cause could there be to ride to legal riches than apartheid?

Even if they were actually to win this lawsuit, I'd bet anything that most of the plaintiffs would never see more than a pittance of any settlement that would come about. That's how it usually is with these sorts of cases, whether we're talking Microsoft, the Erin Brockovich case, the tobacco lawsuits, or even (apparently) the Swiss government settlement, the proceeds from which more than a few actual Holocaust survivors were recorded* as not having seen a single farthing of.

*See, for example, the article by Gabriel Schoenfeld in the September 2000 issue of Commentary magazine, or this Forward article.

Monday, June 21, 2004

He Would Say That, Wouldn't He?

An English football "fan" deported from Portugal for allegedly organizing violence claims that he was nowhere near the riots; the thing is, that's what English football louts always say. Either they claim that they were miles away when the violence occurred, or that they were "provoked" by the "heavy-handed tactics" of the local police, as if there were a conspiracy afoot between the policemen of all foreign lands to seek out drunken English "fans" in particular to harrass.

A England fan handed a two-year jail term for rioting in Portugal has said he is innocent and was victimised.

Garry Mann, claimed he had had "a thoroughly unfair trial" and was subjected to "sleep deprivation and beatings" by police in Albufeira.

He was speaking at the offices of the Fair Trials Abroad group in London.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said he wanted to "nail" Mann, a 46-year-old firefighter from Kent, after he was freed on his return to the UK.

Mann, who will not serve the custodial sentence here because of a legal loophole, is appealing his Portugal conviction with the backing of Fair Trials Abroad.
It ought to be obvious that I don't believe a word Mr. Mann is saying; were the Portuguese not so eager to get rid of him, he'd have been serving an almost certainly thoroughly deserved two-year custodial sentence by now.

Anyway, my concern here isn't so much with Mr. Mann, but with what he illustrates about the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the English character. How can it be with a nation famed for the frosty reserve of its citizens and their punctilious respect for etiquette can at one and the same time be the reservoir from which the football hooligans and the drunken, obnoxious carousers who haunt Ibiza and Faliraki manage to spring forth? Nor is it entirely a matter of class, either, as members of the well-to-do classes are well-represented amongst the ranks of the troublemakers - one football thug recently sentenced to prison turned out to have been a highly-esteemed 38 year old schoolteacher with a wife and children in the suburbs.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Not All Ethnic Cleansings are Equal

Glenn Reynolds links to a post on Cronaca about a supposed plan by Mugabe to rid his country of its white population. In response to this Reynolds asks

Will the world care? The track record of the "international community" with regard to such things has been poor.
The answer to this is obvious: of course they'll care, just as they've cared a hell of a lot more about the sufferings of this small minority than they have about the depradations visited upon a far larger proportion of Zimbabwe's populace, and for an exceedingly simple reason: those under threat of expulsion happen to be white.

Mugabe is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and I wouldn't put the rumored expulsion plan beyond him, but I have to admit that there's a certain perverted logic to his thinking. To see what I mean, take a look at this snippet of the article quoted by Cronaca:
A source privy to discussions within the CIO said Mugabe believed the removal of the whites would draw the international spotlight away from Zimbabwe. “This comes right from the top,” the source said. . .

“In Mozambique, where there are no whites, the government can get away with whatever it likes and the world doesn’t bother. Mugabe would like Zimbabwe to be like that.”
As nice as it would be to imagine that Mugabe was wrong on this score, it really can't be denied, can it? There are far worse rulers on the continent, above and below the Sahara, but nobody ever gives them the coverage the Western press has devoted to Mugabe over the last few years. Where are the sanctions against the rulers of Tunisia or Equatorial Guinea?

Mugabe's gamble is logical enough - there'll be a big hue and cry about the expulsion if it goes through, but once it's over and done with, Zimbabwe will fall back into the obscurity reserved for all the brutal tinpot dictatorships who don't have white minorities for folks at home to identify with. He could literally eat his enemies for lunch and no one would care then: after all, that's just the sort of thing "those people" do to each other, isn't it? The attitude in the aftermath will be "Let Africa Sink", just as one white South-African emigré/self-proclaimed "Old Africa Hand" infamously put it.

Security Analysis

For those wannabe Warren Buffetts who aren't deterred by my previous post, I'd recommend reading one other book if before all others: Benjamin Graham and David Dodd's Security Analysis: (1940 Edition). Although the most current version of the book is actually the 5th Edition which was published in 1988, I'd still recommend this one before it, especially to those without a strong background in finance.

The names of the companies analyzed may sound quaint and old-fashioned to modern ears, the analytic techniques employed in the book remain at the core of financial practice today, and this older edition is refreshingly free of the modern jargon that tends to obscure the basic concepts at issue in more recent treatments. Does a business earn sufficient income to cover its interest payments several times over? What are the maturities of its outstanding debts? Does the cash flow of the firm support or undermine the assertions of robust growth seen on the income statement? Are there promises of equity grants hidden deep within the financial statements that threaten to dilute the earnings of common stockholders to meaninglessness? Is the company paying dividends, and if not, why not? These sorts of questions have no time limit on their relevance or importance, and here is a book that teaches one how to go about answering them oneself.

I still say stock-picking is a bad idea for most people, but if one is determined to do so, there are better and worse ways of going about it; learning from the mentor of Warren Buffett is far from being the worst road to follow.

A Fool and His Money are Soon Parted

Some people are constitutionally incapable of learning from history. The day traders are back.

EIGHT rows of men sit facing north, shunning the morning sun in favor of watching the pulsing computer monitors lined up, three to a man, in front of them. Occasionally, the hush is broken by the thump of a fist and a muttered profanity.

These men are not video game fanatics. They are day traders, at work one recent morning at the Fifth Avenue office of the Schonfeld Group.

Day traders, that species of investor who tries to profit from short-term movements in stock prices over a few days, hours or even minutes, were a fixture in the city in the late 90's. But when the market tanked, their dreams of riding the soaring Nasdaq to a life of affluence - preferably on their own private island in the Caribbean - vanished. Chastened, they went back to their jobs as construction workers, teachers, pharmacists and mail carriers.

Now they have returned. Although the number of day traders is nowhere near what it was at the height of the dot-com bubble, defectors have gradually started to return, thanks to the relative strength of the market over the last 18 months.


With the renewed interest comes the individual spirit of these "active" traders, a term many of them prefer so as to distance themselves from the excesses of the 90's.

"What is risk in life?" asked Gene Bonnano, who worked for I.B.M. for 22 years before becoming a full-time trader three years ago. "Working for Enron and having your pension taken away? Working for a big corporation like I did and not being able to spend time with your family?"


Critics say such trading is basically gambling; on its Web site, the Securities and Exchange Commission warns investors, "Day trading is extremely risky and can result in substantial financial losses in a very short period of time."

Parts of the industry have been rife with abuses, and some have been the targets of legal actions by the government. But, in addition to offering the independence that day traders typically desire, advocates say day trading is safer than long-term investing and is an easy field to enter. All someone really needs to start is a chunk of cash, time and a willingness to learn.
That highlighted sentence is the proof in the pudding that those who engage in day-trading must suffer from a dismal combination of madness and stupidity; according to what financial theory has "buy and hold" ever been a more dangerous investment strategy than day trading?

The reality of stock picking is that most "active" traders will do worse in the long term than anyone who, conscious of his ignorance, simply plumps for an index fund, and not just because they aren't the Warren Buffett clones they'd like to imagine themselves to be: for one thing, each trade one makes generates brokerage fees that serve to raise the returns one needs to simply break even, and the big funds have the financial muscle to get much better terms than Joe Average ever will.*

Anyone who engages in day-trading as anything other than a sophisticated form of gambling for pleasure is quite simply a fool. Those who'd like more information about the right and wrong ways to go about investing than can be provided in a blog post could do worse than check out Burton G. Malkiel's "A Random Walk Down Wall Street"; it won't promise to make you an insta-millionaire, but then again, it isn't likely to lose you your life's savings in a few afternoons either.

*Even so, most mutual funds would also be better off with a "buy and hold" approach that simply consists of replicating the portfolio of some popular stock index, as Malkiel clearly points out. Stock picking is a fool's game, and the only reason it's popular with Wall Street hustlers is that they need people churning their portfolios to generate fat brokerage fees.

UPDATE: This old Slate article ought to be of interest. In particular, the following tidbit ought to initiate a few doubts in the minds of those who still think day trading might be a good idea.
Most estimates suggest that 80 to 90 percent of all day traders lose money. And that's in absolute terms: These people leave their day trading careers with less money than they had when they started. Those statistics say nothing about how many day traders lose money in relative terms, which is to say underperform the S&P 500. (If you do worse than an index fund, you're effectively losing money, because you can invest in an index fund with no labor or opportunity cost at all.) It's probably safe to say that less than 5 percent of day traders are successful, even without considering the opportunity cost of all the time and energy they have to put into their trading. (emphasis added)
An honest pitch for day-trading would be "Lose Money Fast!"