Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Soviet Red is the New Black

Radley Balko has a strong dislike for Soviet Chic, as should any reasoning person.

The afternoon's drama came toward the end of the panel, with this skinny kid sitting in the front row, who happened to be donning a bright red t-shirt with the Soviet hammer and sickle. I wanted to call him out from the start. I just felt a little crass about it. But as the panel wore on, it continued to gnaw at me. It dawned on me that I or the lefists on the panel would have had no problem calling the kid out if he'd been wearing a t-shirt with neo-Nazi regalia. And he applauded vigorously when the lefties spoke, and sat on his hands when the rest of us spoke, meaning of course that he wasn't wearing the shirt with any sense of irony.

So when he finally raised his hand during the Q&A, I decided that --what the hell -- I might as well point out how silly he looks advertising a belief system rooted in slavery and murder. He asked an unrelated question, which I think the Green Party guy answered. I then chime din, recommending to the kid that he read Anne Applebaum's Gulag, the Pulitzer winning book which documents the horrors of the Soviet work camps. He didn't seem to get it.

So I added, "I know Soviet chic is hip right now, particularly on college campuses. But you really ought to think about the message you send by wearing that shirt. It has all the charm of a swastika."

With that, Hillsdale poly sci Professor David Bobb added, "you're associating yourself with the deaths of 100 million people..."

The kid then interrupted Bobb, with obvious agitation, "Yes, I know all about the history of the Soviet Union."

To which Bobb replied, "Oh, so you know that you're being insulting."
We live in an age in which Che Guevara is a sex symbol, when by all rights he ought to be enjoying the ignominy afforded the likes of Horst Wessel.

Epicycles on Epicycles

Although the Ptolemaic system is often condemned in the history and science books on the basis of Occam's razor, for having required the heaping of epicycle on epicycle to approximate the motion of the stars, it's recently occurred to me that I've yet to see anywhere a demonstration that the problems with such an approach don't go any deeper than that. Is it really the case that with enough epicycles, one can approximate the elliptical motions of the planets to an arbitrary level of accuracy? Or, in mathematical language, do epicycles constitute a basis for a space in which all celestial motions can be shown to be embedded, in an analogous manner to that in which sine and cosine functions constitute a complete set for Fourier series?

My suspicion is that the Ptolemaic system of epicycles would indeed have been workable had the ancients enjoyed the facility with infinite series we do today, and in fact I have good reason to believe that the Ptolemaic epicycles-on-epicycles are little more than a disguised version of Fourier analysis, the key item linking the two theories in my mind being the function eix. While I don't have time to work out the mathematics in detail, I don't imagine that it should be all that difficult to do: the essential thing to keep in mind is that the motions of the planets are periodic, and as such, ought to be amenable to the methods of harmonic analysis.

What Was That About "Root Causes?"

Could someone please explain to me what possible action by the Nepalese government could have prompted this slaughter? How was the cause of "freedom" against "illegal occupation" advanced by this?

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A militant Iraqi group said it had killed 12 Nepali hostages and showed pictures of one being beheaded and others being shot dead, the worst mass killing of captives since a wave of kidnappings erupted in April.

The announcement of the killings, made in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site on Tuesday, came as France intensified its efforts to save two French reporters held hostage by a separate group as a deadline set by their captors neared.

The Nepalis were kidnapped earlier this month when they entered Iraq to work as cooks and cleaners for a Jordanian firm.

The killing of men from a tiny country that has had nothing to do with the invasion or occupation of Iraq will send shockwaves through foreign companies doing business here.

"We have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalis who came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve the Jews and the Christians...believing in Buddha as their God," said the statement by the military committee of the Army of Ansar al-Sunna.
Ah, that explains it - they were "infidels", and therefore clearly deserving of death, though last I heard, Jordan was a predominantly Muslim country, wasn't it, so what's this talk of serving "Jews and the Christians?"

I can't believe that anyone with a shred of decency could indulge in the invention of apologies for such psychopaths. These scum obviously love killing for the sake of it, and they don't really care one way or another who they kill, whether Iraqi or foreigner, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim.

UPDATE: Here's an Iraqi blogger with more info and pictures. Warning: don't click on the link unless you have a strong stomach.

Giving Ordinary Iraqis a Voice

A fascinating article on the emergence of talk radio in Iraq.

AGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 26 - A housewife calls to talk about a broken sewer pipe. A student calls to talk about a lost love. A shopkeeper calls to say what he thinks of the violent insurgency that has swept his country.

The callers have reached Iraq's first talk radio station, Radio Dijla, which opened in April and has been putting Iraqis' opinions directly on the air, mainlining democracy from a two-story villa in central Baghdad for 19 hours a day.

In all, about 15 private radio stations have sprung up since the American occupation began, but Dijla, Arabic for Tigris, is the first to serve only talk. The station is one of the most listened-to in Baghdad, according to its employees, a claim that appears to have merit, judging by its broad following among the city's taxi drivers, housewives, students and late-night listeners, who tune in to a night talk show about relationships.

The station receives an average of 185 calls an hour, far more than it can handle, according to its owner, Ahmed al-Rakabi, who said he planned to purchase more telephone lines to accommodate callers.

Most calls are about the nuts and bolts of life. Many public services have not recovered since the American occupation began more than a year ago. Daily power failures persist. Piles of trash are heaped on city streets. In poorer areas, leaky sewage pipes taint water supplies.

"Iraqi citizens have big problems, but nobody listens to them," said Haidar al-Ameen, 34, a businessman, who listens to Dijla while driving. "If I have no gun, there is no one who is going to listen to me. The government has no time to listen."

The station forces the government to make time. Local and federal officials come as guests and are grilled by listeners. The talk shows result in uncomfortable situations, which would have been unheard of in the time of Saddam Hussein, when government officials were royalty and ordinary citizens were mere supplicants who were easily ignored.
The following bit is something I wish some people would pay attention to, as much as it disagrees with the take on things they find ideologically agreeable.
Beyond easing the frustrations of daily life, the station provides a real chance for Iraqis to talk publicly about politics for the first time in decades. Listeners' calls open a window onto the lives of Iraqis, whose opinions often go unheard in the frantic pace of bombings, kidnappings and armed uprisings.

"After 35 years of people not being able to say what they wanted, we need something that can translate our feelings," said Imad al-Sharaa, a news editor at the station.

One such program was broadcast June 30, the day before Mr. Hussein first appeared in court. The program director and host, Majid Salim, asked listeners what they wanted to see happen to him. The answer was something of a surprise for Mr. Salim.

"Most people wanted him executed," Mr. Salim said.

Another time, he asked listeners what they thought about the insurgency that has roiled Iraq, claiming most of the energies of the new interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and putting the American occupation in danger of failure.

"We asked them, is it terrorism or is it resistance," he said. "A very large proportion, almost 100 percent, said terrorism. They did not like it."
(emphasis added)
"The Iraqi people have spoken, the bastards!" It looks like I might have been unto something with my "anecdotes", doesn't it? How it is that people who claim to be "liberal" insist on taking the Iraqi masses for fools unable to see terrorist intimidation for what it is, I don't know. The persistence of the delusion that the angriest and most anti-American voices are necessarily the most "authentic" reminds me of nothing so much as the fond daydream of many antiglobalization "activists" that theirs is a voice which speaks for the Third World masses; in both cases, Westerners with axes to grind with their own societies confuse their grievances with the concerns of the people for whom they claim to care.

The Enemy Within

Another swarthy male goes on trial. Just goes to show why only Real Americans™ can be trusted, doesn't it?

Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson
A US soldier has gone on trial accused of trying to give away secrets to undercover agents who he allegedly thought were Islamic militants.
Ryan Anderson, a Muslim convert serving in the US National Guard, is charged with trying to pass information to the al-Qaeda movement.

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

Mr Anderson, 27, is alleged to have signed on to extremist internet chatrooms in order to contact al-Qaeda operatives to offer services and information.
Maj Jenks said he had evidence from various sources, including text messages and email, showing Mr Anderson wanted to help enemy forces, Reuters reported.
Mr Anderson is also accused of providing agents posing as al-Qaeda representatives with documents providing some specifics about army equipment.
"This is a case about betrayal," Maj Jenks told a panel of commissioned officers on the opening day of the court-martial.
"Betrayal of our country, betrayal of our army and betrayal of our soldiers."
Chalk up another glorious success for racial profiling! Where would we all be if we listened to these namby-pamby Liberals Who Hate America and went about harrassing all-American boys-next-door while swarthy foreigners are allowed to roam unwatched?

Monday, August 30, 2004

Demographics, Immigration and Social Security

Tying into a long-running theme of Edward Hugh's, the Wall Street Journal gives coverage to a speech by Alan Greenspan in which he warns of the dangers posed to the solvency of the US Social Security system by a development that otherwise would be cause for cheer - the ever increasing life expectancy of the American workforce. The solution he proffers is much the same as the one I have long recommended.

In 2001, Mr. Greenspan said the acceleration in underlying U.S. economic growth that he was among the first to spot in the mid-1990s could keep Social Security solvent for much longer than expected. But on Friday, he warned against looking to such growth as salvation: "History discourages the notion that the pace of growth will continue to increase."

Instead, Mr. Greenspan, who is expected to retire in 2006 just short of age 80, believes that more people should follow his example. He noted that life spans have increased, people stay healthy longer and work is less physically demanding than a century ago. Despite this, Americans have been retiring earlier, he said. He predicted this would reverse due to concerns about retirement income and a scarcity of experienced labor. Mr. Greenspan suggested Social Security and Medicare benefits be made less generous, such as through later qualifying ages, to discourage early retirement. He predicted that as "an ever-increasing proportion of the electorate is...essentially barred from continuing to work" because of age, political pressure will mount to permit later retirement.
Unfortunately, life isn't as convenient as Greenspan and I might wish it to be, as voters tend to be insistent on their right to expect 2 + 2 to equal 5.
But the idea has critics. Many employers force older workers to retire to make way for younger, more-productive workers. Harvard University President Lawrence Summers said that since mandatory retirement was abolished for university faculty in 1994, Harvard professors now retire on average at age 72: "I view this trend with terror."

And evidence appears to contradict Mr. Greenspan's prediction of political support for later retirement. Politicians have criticized his previous calls for making benefits less generous, such as pushing back the retirement age. The French ruling party was clobbered in regional elections in March in part over raising the qualifying age for state pensions. Unlike Mr. Greenspan, many people don't like their jobs and look forward to retirement. "It's easy to be a professor at 75; it's not so easy to lift heavy objects," said Princeton University economist Alan Blinder.

The popular belief that rich countries could ease the strains of aging via immigration from younger, developing countries fared badly at the conference. Most participants agreed the level of immigration needed to offset the aging of Western populations is politically impossible.
Which leaves us between a rock and a hard place. If later retirement, reduced benefits and increased immigration are politically unacceptable, what alternatives are left to policy-makers? In the end something will have to give, and my feeling is that the way out will require a little bit of each of the three aforementioned options, whatever voters might prefer to the contrary.

There is one part of the article that sticks especially in my craw, however:
Others suggested it may be unfair to the developing countries that, thanks to dramatic declines in fertility and mortality, will in a few decades face an age crunch of their own, but with far weaker finances. "For the rich countries to cherry-pick skilled international migrants to finance their own retirement...seems almost unbelievably shortsighted and self-serving," said John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia.
Mr Helliwell, how do I despise thee, let me count the ways ... I keep running into arguments like this one, and each time I do I get the same feeling of nausea and incredulity at the gall of those who make them. It would be one thing if they came out and said they just didn't want any non-white immigrants, however skilled, but to hide their nativism behind a mask of concern for the poor developing Third World countries is really too much.

Arguments like Mr. Helliwell's are nonsensical not just because they treat the skilled workers of the developing world as if they were mere tools to be disposed of by governments as they please, rather than as individuals with wills and legitimate ambitions of their own, but also because they ignore three important facts:
  1. That these workers are often not doing anything in their home countries with the skills they possess, a reality I can attest to at least in the case of West Africans. What point is there in being an engineer, a doctor or a chemist in a country like Nigeria or Ghana if an absence of suitable jobs leaves you running a threadbare grocery?
  2. That, as with all goods and services, there is a supply response to demand for skilled labor: the very fact that plenty of one's countrymen are going abroad sends a powerful signal to the young that higher education is worthwhile, a signal that would be lacking were all those expatriates sitting at home doing nothing with their learning.
  3. That those citizens of developing countries who leave their homelands to earn a living abroad don't just better their own lot, but are also all that stands between starvation and well-being for large numbers of people who stay behind. Where would the Philippines be without the remittances of its expatriates, for instance?
It would be one thing if this "stealing precious Third World workers" crap were coming from economically-illiterate activists and opinionizers, but Mr. Helliwell is affiliated with the University of British Columbia, and as a Professor of Economics at that. In his case the ignorance excuse simply doesn't apply, and one must attribute his deceptive argumentation to malice.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Randy McDonald injects some sanity (along with a healthy helping of old-fashioned things like facts) into the whole "HBD über alles" line that a certain GNXP commenter has relentlessly pushed for what seems like forever. More power to him, and here's hoping for more along such lines from GNXP contributors going forward.

NB - It's amusing to see the ignorance of the realities of apartheid revealed by the various commenters who've rushed in to knock down Randy's argument. I've done my fair share of writing on this topic and don't feel like rehashing it all again, but anyone who's interested can search my archives easily enough - just see the searchbar above. One has to be an extremely bigoted ignoramus to make silly claims like "blacks and Indians were given the same opportunities under apartheid."

Back in Action

Mrs Tilton is back from a voyage into the heart of Dixie, and tells us coastal types that yes, things really are different down South.

Just back from my tour of the American hinterland. From the very beginning it was clear that this place is different. The pick-up trucks; the difficulty of buying beer; the Cowboy Jesus music from most of the radio stations. And that was in northeastern Pennsylvania. Deliverance Country is but a stone's throw west of the Hudson.

That's unfair, of course, and a bit exaggerated. (Except for the part about pick-up trucks. On the northeastern seaboard, all vehicles are either SUVs or minivans. In the backwoods, some of them are pick-ups.) But if your experience of the USA is of New York or Boston, it can be a bit of a shock to discover how much of the country is, well, Southern--even the parts that fought so bravely and effectively in putting down the treacherous 'Confederacy'.
A funny thing - despite spending many years living in the United States, the furthest South I've ever been has been Virginia, by which I mean of course the DC metropolitan area. New York and environs, California, all of New England, fine, hey, even a trip to Colorado, but the South remains for me as unknown a country as Ultima Thule - physically speaking of course.

Looks like Quiggin Might Get His Wish

Moqtada al-Sadr appears to be coming round (subs. reqd.) to the idea that his best route to power will be through the ballot box, rather than by sheer might of arms.

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr called his followers across Iraq to end fighting against U.S. and Iraqi forces, a Sadr aide said.

"[He] has called for a halting of all military operations in Iraq, and we are studying the idea of joining the political process," said Naim al Kaabi, an aide to Mr. Sadr in Baghdad.

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

"This latest initiative shows that we want stability and security in this country by ending all confrontation in all parts of Iraq," said Sheik Raed al Khadami, Mr. Sadr's spokesman in Baghdad. "Al Sadr's office in Najaf will call within the next two days to join the political process."
I'd have preferred the man dead myself, but even this much represents some sort of progress, as Sadr's position had formerly been an outright rejection of the electoral process itself. To the extent that his recent close brush with death helped change his mind, the siege in Najaf can't be dismissed as having been in vain.

State Power and Family Life

In a more serious vein, this article shows that the misuse of marriage laws to prevent the immigration of "undesirables" under the guise of paternalism is by no means restricted to the Danes.

He has a driving license and the right to vote, but the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) claims the 19-year-old from Drammen is too immature to get married.
Aleksander Thonander, 19, from Drammen said he feels discriminated because the UDI claims he is too immature to get married. His 20-year-old wife is denied entry to Norway because the authorities claim the two of them have a pro forma marriage.
«I feel that Norwegian authorities do not accept the choice I have made,» Thonander said to the Norwegian television channel NRK.

Married for a year and a half
The 19-year-old has been married to Anmol, an Indian national, for a year and a half. The two of them got married December 17, 2002, in her village in India, but the visa applications were denied, and Anmol was forced to remain in India.

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

Karl Erik Sjøholt, department director in UDI, agreed that it may not have been a problem if Thonander had married a Norwegian girl.
The Norwegians don't even have the "Islamische Gefahr" excuse to lean on here, as it is most unlikely that an Indian family of Muslim extraction would allow a daughter of theirs to be married off to some foreign infidel from Norway. This is mere prejudice in action, and Mr. Sjøholt admits as much.

Porn to the Rescue

Who says pornography has no redeeming value?

But, But ... We're On Your Side!

This Financial Times article on the French reaction to the Iraqi kidnapping of two of its citizens leaves one bemused at the refractory nature of certain delusions.

Jacques Chirac, the French president, on Sunday night called for the release of two journalists taken hostage by an Iraqi militant group as he refused to bow to their demands to withdraw a law banning Islamic headscarves from state schools.

Michel Barnier, foreign minister, was on Sunday sent to the Middle East to reinforce diplomatic efforts following widespread condemnation of the kidnapping by politicians and Muslim leaders. The kidnapping of Christian Chesnot, of Radio France Internationale, and Georges Malbrunot, of the Le Figaro daily, has shocked many in France. They had hoped that the country's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq would spare it from being a target of terrorists and other militant groups. The fact that there are no French forces in Iraq and that the invasion was vehemently opposed by the establishment has raised hopes that a deal may be possible. (emphasis added)
This candid admission of an attitude of appeasement has been reflected in virtually every single article I've seen thus far on this hostage taking, regardless of the country of origin, suggesting that it isn't just the misguided impression of a few reporters. When I said as much with regard to Zapaterror's* craven surrender to Islamist demands in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings, I received a great deal of harsh criticism from a lot of people, but here I am vindicated in the end. The French, the Germans and the Spanish should have taken to heart Churchill's old saw about appeasers and crocodiles, but it seems some people are slower on the uptake than others.

*No, that wasn't a typo.

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience

Andrew Sullivan is back, and still clinging to the hope that Bush will repudiate the authoritarian-statist drift of the GOP in favor of the Goldwater vision of old. I say he's wasting his time: we've had 4 years to see what Bush had to offer, and there's no good reason to imagine the man will change his spots should he be given a second term. Why should he, when he can interpret such an outcome as a vindication of his governance? It's become more than clear that all that matters to Bush is getting out "the Base", by which is meant the Christian evangelicals for whom the very existence of the likes of Sullivan constitutes an abomination.

The Disappearing Hordes

The New York Times finally catches up with what most sensible people have known for quite a long time now - that the doom and gloom scenarios painted by those who like to speak of "brown" and "yellow hordes" who are breeding "like rabbits" are largely a fiction of a few demented Western minds.

REMEMBER the population bomb, the fertility explosion set to devour the world's food and suck up or pollute all its air and water? Its fuse has by no means been plucked. But over the last three decades, much of its Malthusian detonation power has leaked out.

Birthrates in developed countries from Italy to Korea have sunk below the levels needed for their populations to replace themselves; the typical age of marriage and pregnancy has risen, and the use of birth control has soared beyond the dreams of Margaret Sanger and the nightmares of the Vatican.

The threat is now more regional than global, explosive only in places like India and Pakistan. Ever since 1968, when the United Nations Population Division predicted that the world population, now 6.3 billion, would grow to at least 12 billion by 2050, the agency has regularly revised its estimates downward. Now it expects population to plateau at nine billion.

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

"On a farm, children help with the pigs or chickens," explained Joseph Chamie, director of the United Nations population division. Nearly half the world's people live in cities now, he said, "and when you move to a city, children are not as helpful."

Beyond that, simple public health measures like dams for clean water, vitamins for pregnant women, hand-washing for midwives, oral rehydration salts for babies, vaccines for youngsters and antibiotics for all helped double world life expectancy in the 20th century, to 60 years from 30.

More surviving children means less incentive to give birth as often. As late as 1970, the world's median fertility level was 5.4 births per woman; in 2000, it was 2.9. Barring war, famine, epidemic or disaster, a country needs a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman to hold steady.
Isn't it interesting that rather than drawing the lesson that one ought to be sceptical about talking as if population growth were a definite problem, this reporter simply shifts to talking about "regional threats?" The idea that all growth in human numbers is by definition bad dies a hard death. But let's turn our attention to what Ol' Jeremiah (aka Paul Ehrlich) himself has to say about his falsified prophecies.
Half the world's population growth is in six countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh and China (despite its slowed birthrate). That makes doom-saying trickier than it was in 1968, when Paul R. Ehrlich frightened everyone with his book "The Population Bomb." Fertility shifts in individual countries are notoriously unpredictable, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a population expert at the American Enterprise Institute, so one might just as well use a Ouija board to predict the fallout.

Local changes can be even harder to anticipate. Calcutta, for example, once the epitome of overcrowding, is starting to shrink, Mr. Eberstadt said.

The father of the population bomb, Dr. Ehrlich, a professor of population studies and biology at Stanford, says he was "pleasantly surprised" by global changes that have undermined the book's gloomiest projections. They include China's one-child policy and the rapid adoption of better seeds and fertilizers by Third World farmers, meaning that more mouths can be fed, even if just with corn porridge and rice. (He notes, however, quoting United Nations figures, that about 600 million people go to bed hungry each night.) But Dr. Ehrlich still argues that the earth's "optimal population size" is two billion. That's different from the maximum supportable size, which depends on the consumption of resources.

"I have severe doubts that we can support even two billion if they all live like citizens of the U.S.," he said. "The world can support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots."
That final sentence says it all really - the arrogance and the misanthropy of the man just come oozing out. Where on Earth did he pluck his 2 billion number from, I wonder, and if he believes it, why hasn't he done his bit to lighten the world's burden by shuffling off his mortal coil? After all, as a well-paid Stanford professor, he's one of the very worst offenders in the consumption stakes. The real idiot here is Ehrlich, even more so than the "Hummer-driving" masses he's so contemptuous of.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

A Conundrum for Anarcho-Libertarians

If the lack of government is supposed to promise heaven on Earth, why is it that the Somalis are setting about erecting a new government? Perhaps Hobbes' description of anarchy as the "war of all against all" just might have something to it?

Somalia has moved closer to establishing its first central government in more than 15 years.
The first step in the process, creating a parliament, came nearer to completion when 64 members were sworn in on Sunday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
The move means that 258 members of the 275-member assembly are now in place, with the remaining 17 to be appointed later.
The new body is expected to elect a president to be based in Mogadishu.
Somalia's central government fell apart in 1991, after dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was forced out by warlords.
The ensuing fighting between clans led to famine and disease, which resulted in the deaths of up to one million people.
Hardly seems like paradise to me. No wonder they're willing to surrender some of their liberty in order to preserve the rest of it.

Martialis

A blog devoted to the epigrams of Martial. Below is one charming example which I won't dare to translate ...

uxorem habendam non putat Quirinalis,
cum uelit habere filios, et inuenit
quo possit istud more: futuit ancillas
domumque et agros implet equitibus uernis.
pater familiae uerus est Quirinalis.
As Mel Brooks might have said, "It's good to be the boss!"

Stupid, Stupid Editorial

I wouldn't have believed that the NYT could sink to such depths had I not read this piece of idiocy with my own eyes: abolish the Electoral College? Do the fools on the Times' editorial staff not know what the term "federalism" means? Is the "States" in "United States" a foreign word to them? Has any of them ever read the Federalist Papers?

When Republican delegates nominate their presidential candidate this week, they will be doing it in a city where residents who support George Bush have, for all practical purposes, already been disenfranchised. Barring a tsunami of a sweep, heavily Democratic New York will send its electoral votes to John Kerry and both parties have already written New York off as a surefire blue state. The Electoral College makes Republicans in New York, and Democrats in Utah, superfluous. It also makes members of the majority party in those states feel less than crucial. It's hard to tell New York City children that every vote is equally important - it's winner take all here, and whether Senator Kerry beats the president by one New York vote or one million, he will still walk away with all 31 of the state's electoral votes.

The Electoral College got a brief spate of attention in 2000, when George Bush became president even though he lost the popular vote to Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes. Many people realized then for the first time that we have a system in which the president is chosen not by the voters themselves, but by 538 electors. It's a ridiculous setup, which thwarts the will of the majority, distorts presidential campaigning and has the potential to produce a true constitutional crisis. There should be a bipartisan movement for direct election of the president.

The main problem with the Electoral College is that it builds into every election the possibility, which has been a reality three times since the Civil War, that the president will be a candidate who lost the popular vote. This shocks people in other nations who have been taught to look upon the United States as the world's oldest democracy. The Electoral College also heavily favors small states. The fact that every one gets three automatic electors - one for each senator and a House member - means states that by population might be entitled to only one or two electoral votes wind up with three, four or five.

The majority does not rule and every vote is not equal - those are reasons enough for scrapping the system.
What a moronic comment: of course the majority does not rule in America. The United States is a republic, not an Athenian democracy, and long may it remain so. Just because the Electoral College means that Kerry can't swan his way to victory by catering to the coastal populations alone doesn't mean that it ought to be abolished, and how does it help to "make every vote count" by essentially nullifying the electoral weight of the less populous states?

This ridiculous, shameless partisan puff-piece of an editorial only goes to show how uncommitted so many on the left have become to the principles on which America is founded, in their eagerness to win political power at all costs. Disgusting.

Identity Politics

An intriguing article today in the New York Times on the vexed question of what it means to be "African-American", especially now that a greater proportion of the US black population is beginning to consist of African immigrants.

SILVER SPRING, Md., Aug. 27 - For a moment, the Ethiopian-born activist seemed to melt into the crowd, blending into the sea of black professors, health experts and community leaders considering how to educate blacks about the dangers of prostate cancer. But when he piped up to suggest focusing some attention on African immigrants, the dividing lines were promptly and pointedly drawn.

The focus of the campaign, the activist, Abdulaziz Kamus, was told, would be strictly on African-Americans.

"I said, 'But I am African and I am an American citizen; am I not African-American?' " said Mr. Kamus, who is an advocate for African immigrants here, recalling his sense of bewilderment. "They said 'No, no, no, not you.' "

"The census is claiming me as an African-American," said Mr. Kamus, 47, who has lived in this country for 20 years. "If I walk down the streets, white people see me as an African-American. Yet African-Americans are saying, 'You are not one of us.' So I ask myself, in this country, how do I define myself?"

That prickly question is increasingly being raised as the growing number of foreign-born blacks in this Washington suburb and elsewhere inspires a quiet debate over who can claim the term "African-American," which has rapidly replaced "black" in much of the nation's political and cultural discourse.

In the 1990's, the number of blacks with recent roots in sub-Saharan Africa nearly tripled while the number of blacks with origins in the Caribbean grew by more than 60 percent, according to demographers at the State University of New York at Albany. By 2000, foreign-born blacks constituted 30 percent of the blacks in New York City, 28 percent of the blacks in Boston and about a quarter here in Montgomery County, Md., an analysis of census data conducted at Queens College shows.

In recent years, black immigrants and their children have become more visible in universities, the workplace and in politics, with Colin L. Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, serving as secretary of state, and Barack Obama, born to a Kenyan father and an American mother, leading the polls in the race for a United States Senate seat in Illinois and emerging as a rising star in the Democratic Party.

The demographic shifts, which gained strength in the 1960's after changes in federal immigration law led to increased migration from Africa and Latin America, have been accompanied in some places by fears that newcomers might eclipse native-born blacks. And they have touched off delicate musings about ethnic labels, identity and the often unspoken differences among people who share the same skin color.

This month, the debate spilled into public view when Alan Keyes, the black Republican challenger for the Senate seat in Illinois, questioned whether Mr. Obama, the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, should claim an African-American identity.

"Barack Obama claims an African-American heritage," Mr. Keyes said on the ABC program "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. "Barack Obama and I have the same race - that is, physical characteristics. We are not from the same heritage."

"My ancestors toiled in slavery in this country," Mr. Keyes said. "My consciousness, who I am as a person, has been shaped by my struggle, deeply emotional and deeply painful, with the reality of that heritage."

Some black Americans argue that black immigrants, like Mr. Kamus, and the children of immigrants, like Mr. Obama and Mr. Powell, are most certainly African-American. (Mr. Obama and Mr. Powell often use that term when describing themselves.) Yet some immigrants and their children prefer to be called African or Nigerian-American or Jamaican-American, depending on their countries of origin. Other people prefer the term black, which seems to include everyone, regardless of nationality.
The article also goes into detail about some possible causes for the friction that exists.
Bobby Austin, an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia who attended the meeting in Washington, said he understood why some blacks were offended when Mr. Kamus claimed an African-American identity. Dr. Austin said some people feared that black immigrants and their children would snatch up the hard-won opportunities made possible by the civil rights movement.

Several studies suggest that black immigrants and their children are already achieving at higher levels than native-born blacks. A study based on 2000 census data conducted by John R. Logan and Glenn Deane at SUNY Albany found that African immigrants typically had more education and higher median incomes than did native-born blacks.

And earlier this year, officials at Harvard pointed out that the majority of their black students - perhaps as many two-thirds - were African and Caribbean immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples. Sociologists say foreign-born blacks from majority-black countries are less psychologically handicapped by the stigma of race. Many arrive with higher levels of education and professional experience. And sociologists say they often encounter less discrimination.

"We've suffered so much that we're a bit weary and immigration seems like one more hurdle we will have to climb," said Dr. Austin, 59, who traces his ancestors back to slavery. "People are asking: 'Will I have to climb over these immigrants to get to my dream? Will my children have to climb?'

"These are very aggressive people who are coming here," said Dr. Austin, who is calling for a frank dialogue between native-born and foreign-born blacks. "I don't berate immigrants for that; they have given up a lot to get here. But we're going to be in competition with them. We have to be honest about it. That is one of the dividing lines."
(emphasis added)
This viewpoint seems to me to be very much mistaken, as the assumption appears to be that there are only so many jobs to be had by black people, and consequently native born blacks and immigrants are necessarily in a zero-sum struggle for them; it seems not at all to occur to Dr. Austin that both groups might be able to flourish simultaneously, which goes to show that the "Crabs in the Bucket" mentality is far from dead.

When all is said and done, I find it difficult to comprehend how anyone can tell African immigrants with American citizenship that the label "African-American" doesn't apply to them, even while the very same label is brandished as a means of identifying with the "motherland"; if you reject the people who come from that land, what exactly are you identifying with in it, the trees and the wildlife?

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Two Frenchmen Kidnapped in Iraq

The Iraqi "freedom fighters" (or is that "Minutemen"?) just can't be bothered to differentiate between friends and foes, it would seem. Flippancy aside, it's interesting that the kidnappers aren't using their deed to press for changes in Iraq, but to have an effect of French domestic policy - in particular, to get the French ban on headscarves in schools reversed.

Islamistische Extremisten haben laut al-Dschasira im Irak zwei französische Journalisten entführt. Sie verlangen, dass die Regierung in Paris binnen 48 Stunden das Kopftuchverbots-Gesetz zurückzieht.
Translation:
According to al-Jazeera, Islamic extremists have kidnapped two French journalists. They demand that the government in Paris reverse the law banning headscarves within the next 48 hours.
Barring a heroic rescue attempt, I'd say that these two Frenchmen are certain to die soon, as there's no way that a French government of any hue would ever capitulate to such a demand. One of the funny things about the French is that for all their posturing over the last 2 years where Iraq's concerned, few Western countries have been as ruthless in dealing with Islamic extremists, a point Algeria's FIS well understands.

Speaking personally, I continue to think the ban on headscarves was ill-advised, but the last thing I'd endorse would be a revocation that came about only under the pressure of terrorist action, and I suspect that there are many others who feel the same way as I do. If this action was meant to get the French to rethink the wisdom of banning such expressions of Islamic piety, it looks certain to backfire spectacularly.

White Men CAN Jump

So much for another stereotype.

The US men's basketball team have been ousted in the Olympic semi-finals by Argentina, beaten 89-81.

The Americans had been gold medallists in every Olympics since 1992 when NBA players started competing in the Games.

Argentina had a 43-38 half-time lead and never surrendered their advantage as the Americans tried desperately to get back into the game.

They now face the Italy, who stunned unbeaten Lithuania 100-91 in Friday's second semi-final.
I wonder if the usual suspects (aka Jon Entine et al) will take this as evidence of the "innate" physical superiority of Italians and Europeans, or is it only blacks who get to win through "innate" prowess?

Viva la Revolucion!

Via Tacitus, we learn that Hugo Chavez, invigorated by his referendum victory, is now ready to move his beloved masses along on the path to ultimate victory over the running dogs of capitalism:

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez said the country's economy must move away from capitalism and large land holdings must be eliminated. "I call on private businessmen to work together with us to build the new economy, transforming the capitalist economic model into a social, humanist and equality economy," Chavez said during a televised speech in Caracas. "The time has come to accelerate the transformation. The revolution has just begun."
Anarchists rejoice as capitalism is smashed in Venezuala! We'll see in a few years if all those who were rooting for a Chavez victory will be eating their words or (more likely) blaming the inevitable economic collapse on an American conspiracy.

Germany's Place in the Sun

The Economist is carrying a story (subs. reqd.) on Germany's push for a bigger place in the international arena as befits its economic might. I myself am not so enthusiastic about such a prospect, but not for the reasons one might expect.

CAN the world trust Germany, and can Germans trust themselves? Nearly 60 years after the second world war, such questions must seem almost insulting. Yet Germany is still not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. And it is one of the few big democracies not to allow referendums. Now change is in the air on both fronts. The German government is campaigning hard for a permanent Security Council seat. And, after the British and French decisions to hold referendums on the European Union constitution, the pressure is building for Germany to follow suit.

Neither issue is new. Ever since reunification, German governments have expressed interest in being on the Security Council. But even Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who thinks Germany is a big country that should be treated as such, has not pushed hard. Yet now that the idea of a common seat for the European Union is receding, he is more insistent on one for Germany. His foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, is lobbying around the world.

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

Germany has a good case for a permanent voice among the world's powers. Only America and Japan contribute more to the UN budget than Germany (see chart). Japan is also lobbying for a place at the top table. And, with 8,600 soldiers now on duty across the world, Germany is also among the leading contributors to UN-mandated missions. Yet such figures count for little in the power struggle over UN reform.

Instead of new permanent members, the panel working on UN reform seems to want a new class of semi-permanent members, elected for five years, a solution that would not satisfy Germany. What is more, some permanent members are not keen on Germany joining them. France and Britain are said to be in favour, but probably only to fend off demands to turn their seats into a single EU one. The Italians are against there being a seat for Germany, but not for Italy. More important, Germany's recent actions as a non-permanent member are seen in Washington as unhelpful, not just on Iraq but also over such issues as the International Criminal Court.

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

Some critics denounce demands for a place on the Security Council as “left-wing nationalism” and a shift away from European integration. Meanwhile proponents avoid all the hard questions. Would a permanent seat not entail spending more on defence, and sending soldiers on real combat missions?
My aversion to Germany being granted a place on the UN Security Council has nothing to do with whether or not Germans can be "trusted": I see no evidence whatsoever that a Fourth Reich is on the horizon.

My real problem is hinted at by that bit about Germany's "unhelpfulness" over Iraq and the International Criminal Court, as well as in the final quoted paragraph; the Germans have proven themselves more than willing to play the role of spoilers when it comes to international initiatives, but whenever there's a risk of bleeding, they're never anywhere to be found. We've seen this repeatedly not just with Iraq but also with the Congo, with Darfur, with the Ivory Coast, with Haiti and with several other places around the world where Australian, British, French and Canadian troops are currently risking their lives to maintain order.

If Germans don't think the troubles of faraway countries of which they know little have any real bearing on their own lives, other than to make the odd cash donation, and that only when pressed, then I don't see why they're in the least deserving of a place at the big boys' table. Let them play at being a giant Switzerland if they wish, but they must also expect to be treated like a Switzerland, i.e, as a nation to be ignored other than on matters of trade.

An Iraqi's Take on the Najaf Incidents

Go here for a different take on the events in Najaf than you're likely to get from reading the likes of the execrable Juan Cole (by the way, when is this noted humanitarian and lover of oppressed peoples ever going to get around to mentioning Darfur?) and those who take his every word as gospel, even while they dismiss the reports of those whose opinions Cole presumes to know as "anecdotes."

The sheer arrogance of assuming that some Marxist-sympathizing professor typing away from his comfortable armchair in the US can know what Iraqis think and feel better than they do themselves never ceases to amaze me: some people are all too willing to swallow the worst sort of nonsense just as long as it confirms their anti-American prejudices.

Liberalism in Egypt

Hit & Run is carrying an entry by Charles Paul Freund about a liberal party called Hizb al-Ghad ("Party of Tomorrow") that's just been formed in Egypt. Among the ideas the party stands for are

"a free-market economy, respect for the rule of law, good governance, women's empowerment, freedom of expression and an open relationship with the West."
I'd hope Westerners of any mainstream political persuasion would be willing to get behind a party like this one. What's more interesting still is that one of the founders is actually a woman, which I think an extremely positive thing given the exclusion of women from public life in much of the Arab world.

Unfortunately for those of us who would like a culture of peaceful political competition to emerge in that part of the world, however, there are still some mighty obstacles in the way of this party actually getting to participate in the electoral process:
Unfortunately, Egypt's political parties must be licensed by the state. That country has been under "emergency" rule for nearly 25 years, and is not interested in licensing a liberal party.
I'm sure there are any number of Republicans and Democrats who'd love to institute a similar regime in the United States, the better to exclude "illegitimate" voices like those of Ralph Nader and Michael Badnarik.

Anyway, US politics aside, the stranglehold that Mubarak has been able to place on Egyptian politics for more than two decades gives the lie to any claims made that he's some sort of American "puppet"; surely nothing would please the US government more than that liberal, pro-Western parties like Hizb al-Ghad should emerge and flourish on the Egyptian scene at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood and the old-time Nasserists. The truth is that people like Mubarak and the al-Sauds are playing a double game, using the fear of Islamic extremism to squelch American complaints about their heavy-handed rule even as they use America and Israel as scapegoats for everything that goes wrong under their watch.

Here We Go Again

The "Elders of Zion" conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this story:

(CBS) CBS News has learned that the FBI has a full-fledged espionage investigation under way and is about to -- in FBI terminology -- "roll up" someone agents believe has been spying not for an enemy, but for Israel from within the office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon.

60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports the FBI believes it has "solid" evidence that the suspected mole supplied Israel with classified materials that include secret White House policy deliberations on Iran.

At the heart of the investigation are two people who work at The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

The FBI investigation, headed up by Dave Szady, has involved wiretaps, undercover surveillance and photography that CBS News was told document the passing of classified information from the mole, to the men at AIPAC, and on to the Israelis.

CBS sources say that last year the suspected spy, described as a trusted analyst at the Pentagon, turned over a presidential directive on U.S. policy toward Iran while it was, "in the draft phase when U.S. policy-makers were still debating the policy."

This put the Israelis, according to one source, "inside the decision-making loop" so they could "try to influence the outcome."
This story has all the ingredients to get the likes of Pat Buchanan, Justin Raimondo and the Indymedia brigade slobbering: AIPAC, a fifth columnist within the Pentagon, Israel ... Just look here and you'll see that the usual suspects are being brought up as likely serving two masters - Feith, Perle and Wolfowitz.
So, Bush appoints Feith, Bush appoints Perle, Bush appoints Wolfowitz... and you can't fault Bush that one of his appointees hired an Israeli spy?!

That's like saying Eisenhower wouldn't have been responsible for Soviet espionage had he hired former members of the Communist Party to oversee the military.

Let me quote a few of those articles for ya...

"In 1970... An FBI wiretap authorized for the Israeli Embassy picked up Perle discussing with an Embassy official classified information..."

"In 1978, (Wolfowitz) was investigated for providing a classified document on the proposed sale of U.S. weapons to an Arab government, to an Israel Government official, through an AIPAC intermediary."


Wow. Wolfowitz?! Gee, that incident sure sounds familiar somehow.

Yeah, sure glad that the president isn't at fault here...
posted by insomnia_lj at 7:29 PM PST on August 27
I'd prefer to wait until I see some evidence before jumping to any conclusions myself, but that said, I don't really find this story all that surprising, as one tends to take it for granted that in the amoral world of foreign intelligence, even ostensible allies are bound to spy on each other (isn't that what the European outcry about Echelon/UKUSA was all about?). Indeed, the very story detailed by the conspiracy theorist quoted above indicates that the United States also does its share of spying on Israel. It's easy to make too big a deal of what is really standard operating procedure in the intelligence business, and the only thing this piece of news reveals is that the much-vaunted Israeli intelligence seems to be getting rather sloppy, a suspicion bolstered by the recent New Zealand debacle.

That I find this news less than groundshaking doesn't mean that I hope the perpetrator of this deed gets off lightly however: on the contrary, I hope he gets the Jonathan Pollard treatment, i.e, life in jail without a prayer of parole. Murder's an everyday occurrence too, but that doesn't mean those who commit it should be allowed to get off with a slap on the wrist.

How Good are You at Estimating?

Yup, it's that time of year again, and Chris Lightfoot's come up with yet another quiz, this time testing one's ability to guesstimate, or to be more precise, one's fund of knowledge about obscure facts in combination with said ability. Various Crooked Timber readers reveal their scores here. I managed a measly 44%.*

* My results are available here. Don't look if you're planning to take the quiz, though, as the scoresheet gives the answers away.

Friday, August 27, 2004

What (Some) Bloggers Love and Hate

Hmm, I see I've been mentioned in the "Can't Stand" column of this charming little entry, but I don't get a likes and dislikes entry of my own, which is most unsporting I must say. Or should I take it that this implies that I'm just too serene for all that "love" and "hate" stuff, considering it beneath my dignity? Actually, I guess I like that interpretation of things ...

As far as being hated goes, it seems to me that being hated by certain kinds of people is actually a badge of merit - if closet neo-nazis like a certain IQ obsessive were fond of me I'd know I really had something to worry about.

Integration in France

Today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article (sub. reqd.) about a French-Moroccan comedian who goes by the name Jamel Debbouze. As interesting as Mr. Debbouze's career is, what is of greater interest to me is why France should have failed so abysmally at assimilating its immigrant population despite operating officially color-blind policies.

COLMAR, France -- The most popular comedian in France today is a short, 29-year-old man with a lame arm and a sharp tongue.

"I have two handicaps," says Jamel Debbouze: "I'm Arab, and I have my arm."

In France, a country at the forefront of the Western-Islamic divide with its large minority of Muslim citizens and immigrants, racial tensions are an urgent issue. French politicians are only just starting to question whether the nation's long-held official doctrine of ethnic colorblindness works, in the face of mounting evidence that France has failed to assimilate its Muslim populace, estimated to be Western Europe's largest. A spate of attacks on Jews -- largely attributed to Muslim extremists -- has stirred concern among the country's leaders.

But Mr. Debbouze is packing French people of all colors into halls and stadiums around the country with his edgy ethnic humor. His main shtick: jabbing away at France's failure to integrate its substantial population of Arabic and African immigrants and their descendants.

Mr. Debbouze, who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and who lost the use of his right arm at age 14 when a train hit him as he was playing on railway tracks, is an unlikely star in France. Although an estimated 8% or so of the country's 60 million people are Muslims, the French-Arab and French-African communities boast no representatives in the national Parliament, no ambassadors and no heads of major companies.

Alone on stage recently in front of a sold-out hall of 7,000 spectators here in eastern France, Mr. Debbouze brought down the house when he impersonated an earnest, white high-school career counselor talking to French-Arab kids, who, like he did, grow up as second-class citizens in the grim housing projects around large cities such as Paris. "So you want to get into medicine?" he asked. "Well, the only way is to get an appendectomy."

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

Mr. Debbouze is hardly the first Arab comedian to use his ethnic origins to raise laughs and examine sensitive social issues. Arab and Muslim entertainers in the U.S. and Britain have used similar material, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Mr. Debbouze's success is especially significant in France because open acknowledgment of racial differences has long been a taboo here.

In stark contrast to the U.S. and the rest of Europe, France doesn't officially recognize race, maintaining that national identity overrides ethnic or racial differences. That means there are no official data available on the racial makeup of the French population and no social programs targeting specific racial groups. Even the business community says it doesn't target consumers by race. Eve Magnant, public-relations director of advertising giant Publicis Groupe SA, says there is no marketing research based on ethnicity in France. "We are less advanced in this than in the U.S.," she says.
The French failure to assimilate non-white immigrants is especially disturbing for someone of libertarian persuasion like myself, posing as it does the question of whether it is indeed realistic to expect a laissez-faire approach to do the trick. Before jumping to such a conclusion, however, I do think that there is one major issue that also needs to be taken into consideration, and it has to do with state interventionism rather than a lack of it: the issue I have in mind, of course, is the rigidity of the French labor market.

As common as it is to remark upon the disproportionate impact France's high unemployment has on its Muslim immigrants, it is often forgotten that the reason these immigrants came to France to begin with was to fill job openings that were going vacant; had the rosy economic performance of the "trente glorieuses" era continued to have been the case, there would have been far less unemployment than there is today, and even if non-white immigrants had continued to be "last hired and first fired", as is often the case in the West, they'd still have been in a much stronger position to make the climb into the mainstream way of life, as I'm sure the greater number would have preferred to, had they been given a chance. Nothing lasts forever, and there was nothing any French government could have done to prevent growth from slowing once the oil shocks of the 1970s hit, but the ever-escalating mandates imposed on employers by the government certainly didn't help matters even when the global economy returned to a pattern of growth in the '80s and '90s. One symptom of the aversion to hiring that ails France's economy is the much-vaunted high productivity of the French worker, higher even than that of American workers: a rarely mentioned fact is that said productivity comes about largely through greater capital investment by French employers, which is a sign that companies feel hiring robots to be cheaper than human labor, rather than a hitherto unknown indicator of the French love of technology.

The way in which a nation's highly-rigid labor markets can end up marginalizing immigrants who don't share the majority's ethnic and religious background is a typical example of the sorts of unexpected consequences that can arise as a result of supposedly enlightened policy-making. Would so many of those who supported the job-destroying policies that have helped keep France's Muslims in their banlieues have been quite so eager had they known what the end-result would have been? Then again, perhaps I'm being too optimistic in thinking they'd have minded, even had they known; after all, those left-wingers who pressed most fervently for ever more employer mandates were both white and of predominantly Christian stock, so it wouldn't have been their axes which would have been gored, nor those of any whom they could easily have identified with.

An Old Workhorse Retires

After many years of glorious service, he US Navy is finally going to part with the venerable F-14 Tomcat, the real hero of a certain movie which happened to feature some guy called Thomas Mapother Cruise in a supporting role.

After this summer, the Tomcatters are to deploy once more from the U.S. East Coast, then head to the great aircraft retirement home in the desert, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz.

“It’s still the best fighter jet in the world,” said Lt. Andrew McLean, a VF-31 Tomcatter with three years’ experience at the F-14 controls. “It was built during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was our major military threat. It’s one of the last aircraft built intended to have overwhelming force, and they built these jets without cutting edges … the best engines were put in them, the best radar, the best missiles … It was designed for fleet defense, and did its job well,” the pilot said.

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

Throughout its long career, the F-14 has performed many different missions, Gall said, making it “a true workhorse of naval aviation ... air supremacy, or ‘dog fighting,’ to reconnaissance and putting bombs on target.”

The Navy has moved to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, more a multipurpose jet praised for its versatility, rather than the F-14’s pure speed and maneuverability in a dogfight.

“Today, we’re all seeking to do more with less, so with the new jets, there are some compromises,” said McLean, whose pilot call sign is “Lick.” “They are still great, but the F-14s were built as fighters and they were the best fighters.”

The pilot said eventually VF-31 would transform into a squadron of F/A-18s, airplanes he’s had the opportunity to fly.

The F-14, he said, “is more like what you think of as a muscle car ... they have this sort of aura about them ... the F-14s are like that.”

“With the Super Hornets, you kind of get that ‘new car smell,’ like with a new Mercedes. It’s got power, but not overwhelming power, and has a lot of the luxury items and amenities,” he added.

“And the F-14s, being older, tend to take more maintenance. You’ll have Super Hornet guys working 9-to-5 shifts, when our guys are regularly working 12-hour shifts and longer just to keep the Tomcats working at top level,” he said. “But when both planes are up and running at the top of their game, there’s a lot of things the Super Hornet just can’t replace that the Tomcat can do.”
Putting aside the fluff for the moment, the retirement of the F-14 really does mean a sizable reduction in the US Navy's operational capabilities, as the F/A-18 simply doesn't have the same combat radius, the same thrust or the ability to use the AIM 54 Phoenix missile. The aging F-14's burdensome maintenance requirements meant that it had to go at some point, but the Super Hornet can at most serve as a stopgap, given the availability on the export market of aircraft like the Rafale, the Gripen, the Eurofighter and any number of Sukhoi designs.

What is happening with the F-14 Tomcat is symptomatic of a larger problem that pervades America's aerial forces; although the F-15 Eagle is also getting rather long in the tooth, Congress has proven unwilling to procure in the numbers originally specified, pushing up the flyaway cost per plane, which is then used as an excuse for further cuts in procurement. One can only hope that American politicians have the foresight not to cancel the Joint Strike Fighter programme, or a lot of US Navy pilots might end up disappearing into Davy Jones' locker in coming years.

Tacitus Was Right

Tacitus pegged the Russian aircraft collision as likely to have been a terrorist incident, and now it appears he's been proven correct. No prizes for guessing which group is behind the incident ...

Back in Action

Thanks to an unexpected power surge, hat should have been a simple RAM upgrade ended up as a forced upgrade of my power supply, motherboard and CPU, which explains why I've been quiet over the last 24 hours; this was expenditure I did not need to make at this point in time.

Looking on the bright side of things, at least I managed to update my hardware in the process, as I got myself an AMD64 3000 and a new motherboard with Firewire, Serial ATA, hardware RAID and Gigabit Ethernet support; it's almost enough to make smug Apple G5 owners give a nod of respect - almost.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Bush as "Worst President Ever?" Hardly

In another of his Socratic (or more properly, Platonic) dialogues, Brad DeLong lays out the idea that however terrible Bush may or may not be as a president, there's no good reason to dispute that Andrew Jackson has a much better claim to the "Worst President Ever" title than he does. What is more, the institutional framework of the United States is so much stronger in our era than it was in the early days of the American Republic that even a truly terrible president is now able to do much less harm than would once have been possible. Or, in the words of one his imaginary interlocutors:

Thrasymakhos: ... You asked, "How stands the Union?" The Union stands strong, sir. The Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible: the mightiest, freeest, and most powerful civilization the world has ever seen, in this or in any age. There is much ruin in a nation. George W. Bush and company have drawn our account down more than I would have believed possible in less than four short years, but our balance is still very high.
An eminently sensible conclusion at which to arrive, even if one loathes Bush and his policies. No Virginia, the sky is not falling just because Bushitler™ is in power.

Of Madmen and Magazine Polls

Over at The Head Heeb, Conrad Barwa is incensed at the results of a poll of the "100 Greatest Africans" conducted by a magazine called New Africa. In particular

The London-based New Africa magazine published the results of a poll conducted amongst its audience on the 100 Greatest Africans and shockingly the third place went to Zimbabwean old war-horse and Dear Leader Robert Mugabe ... I have to say this is a real shocker, to me at least. I know that Mugabe might still be able to command some residual loyalty for his role (which when put into context wasn’t the most prominent and retrospectively hardly vital) in Zimbabwe national-liberation struggle but after the mis-management of relations with Nkomo and ZIPRA, the Matabeleland killings, suppression of internal dissent combined with the more well publicised recent deterioration of Zimbabwe’s political scene and economic position wouldn’t even guarantee Mugabe a place in the top 100, never mind third place; especially given the realities of everyday life and governance nobody in the region can be unfamiliar with what living under a Zanu-ocracy must be like (for non-supporters of the regime at least).
This would indeed be very worrying if it were some sort of representative cross-section of the African populace we were talking about here, but the very fact that it's a write-in survey ought to be enough to suggest that the anxiety might be a tad overdone. For one thing, the people who get to even hear of the survey aren't going to be a random sample to begin with, as every publication in a marketplace will necessarily skew to one demographic or another: to illustrate, although I've long known of the existence of the magazine, I myself am not a New Africa reader, and I doubt very much that I'll ever become one unless the magazine's quality improves radically in the future, an attitude I suspect is commonplace amongst many Africa-watchers who are so situated as to have a choice of better reading material.

Nor do the problems with magazine polls stop at the inevitable slant in the interests and worldview of those who read the magazines, as another complicating factor arises when we stop to consider the sorts of people who bother to send in replies. All indications are that this was a printed survey, and I cannot recall myself ever taking the time to respond to a single survey ever issued in a printed magazine, simply because I've always thought my time and energy better spent on other activities; one has to wonder what sort of person would have so much leisure time to spare as to write up his or her own top hundred list, find an envelope to seal it in, go buy a stamp and then take it down to the local postbox or post office - certainly, few people with an influence on public policy or opinion would fall into said category. But leaving aside the time/money issue, there's also a question of personality type at work here, in that the sorts of people who are most eager to respond to surveys like this just might be the very sort most fascinated by notoriety, however it is earned, and how much more notorious than Robert Mugabe can one get these days?

Another issue I'd like to touch upon is the vulnerability of all non-randomised, write-in polls to manipulation, whether the polls in question be of the online or paper-and-pen variety. Given the constraints on most people's free time, and the lack of any tangible reward for responding to most magazine polls, the response rates to such things are likely to be minute in terms of the percentage of the readership; were I to hazard a guess I'd say that a 3% response rate would be considered a roaring success. What the indifference of the vast majority translates into in practical terms is that should there exist some small fraction of the readership that has an axe of some sort to grind, then it is relatively easy for said faction to collectively act in such a manner as to effectively rig the outcome, the better to use the bandwagon effect* to shape public opinion to their advantage. One sees this at work all the time with the denizens of Free Republic, who've gotten so accustomed to doing this sort of thing with online polls that they even have a standard term for it: to "Freep", as in "Freep this poll!" What's important to note here is that the smaller a magazine's circulation is, the more vulnerable it's likely to be to this sort of organized campaign, and as it is very doubtful that New Africa reaches more than a rather marginal audience, it could take only a handful of ZANU-PF supporters to rouse their friends and associates to action, and - voila! - Mugabe's a shining star of the African continent.

The final possibility I'd like to mention is one that isn't so much a problem with polling as such, but with human nature in general - there's no way of knowing whether or not the magazine's staff didn't just cook up the poll results while knocking back a few cases of Newcastle Brown Ale. This kind of thing is hardly unknown even with august institutions like the New York Times, and as this isn't a news story that can be cross-checked with other reports, establishing the falsity of the poll results is essentially impossible unless some insider decides to come forward - but again, in light of the marginal circulation and low profile of the publication in question, who'd care even if someone did?

In summary, while I don't doubt that Robert Mugabe has more than a few admirers amongst the semi-literate classes of Africans who are willing to cheer on any "big man" who seems to be "sticking it to the West", just as Saddam had (and still has) no shortage of ignorant Arab admirers everywhere but within his own country, and while I'm also sure that there are quite a few of the usual disgruntled left-leaning types amongst the more educated classes on the continent who have also bought into the conspiratorial "anti-imperialist" mindset that is so familiar here amongst the Grauniad reading set, a write-in survey carried out by a low-circulation, low-profile magazine isn't the way to establish that these people constitute some sort of worryingly large fraction of the African reading population.

*I.e, the juvenile tendency of so many people to want so badly to be on the "winning" side of any public argument that they'll jettison their own well thought out beliefs in order to do so. A better though less polite name for this tendency would be to call it "Lemmingology."

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Dr. No

P.Z. Myers encounters a quiz on religious belief in which he is forced to play the refusenik on every single question; Andre Gromyko would have been proud.

More interesting is the set of assumptions revealed by the questions asked in the quiz: it seems simply not to occur to whoever designed it that one could be anything other than religious in inclination. I bet that sort of unquestioning assumption of religiosity (token or otherwise) is likely the norm amongst Americans rather than the exception, one of the few respects* in which Europeans win out on the likeability column. Someone ought to remind all American politicians who love to flaunt their religious faith about the contents of Matthew 6, verses 5 and 6:

"5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."
*Their relative lack of deeply ingrained stereotypes about supposedly universal "black" cultural and socioeconomic traits being another.

Dear God, No!

Three* abominations are enough!

Star Wars creator George Lucas could be poised to make three sequels to the original space opera trilogy, according to insiders at Lucasfilm.

According to fan site Theforce.net, employees at Lucas's company Industrial Light and Magic have all been made to sign non-disclosure agreements to promise not to talk about the possibility of episode's seven, eight and nine being made.

Now industry insiders are predicting the director will make the follow-ups, which pick up where 1983's Return of the Jedi left off, despite insisting he would never be lured into filming them.
The horror, the horror! This had better be a groundless rumor. Lucas' prequels are vivid illustrations of the warning "be careful what you wish for, or you just might get it."

*"Three?" you may ask, but can there really be any doubt that the third installment is going to be as bad as the first two? All that money has bloated Lucas' ego to such an extent that there's no chance he'd have submitted his script to someone with decent writing skills to scrutinize.

What Marx Got Right

Wouldn't you figure that it would take a libertarian like Tyler Cowen to mount the strongest defense yet of what the Marxist vision had to offer?

1. Capitalist systems, especially before reaching contemporary times, can produce less autonomy than small scale production. Standards of living do rise from industrialization. But I look at many of my rural Mexican friends. They could earn somewhat higher wages in factories, but they prefer to paint ceramics at home. It is more fun and they control their time to a large degree. At some point industrialization can undercut the cultures and networks of suppliers that makes such a choice possible. Marx directs our attention to a certain indivisibility of systems.

2. Marxism promotes an alternative idea of freedom, namely freedom from the market. Anyone who has chosen life as a tenured university professor should not claim that such an idea is complete nonsense. Smith thought in terms of marginal tradeoffs. Marx, above all, focused on inframarginal and systematic effects.

3. The benefits of industrialization take a long time to kick in. Reforming postcommunist economies took fifteen years or more. Poland did most things right and people there are still unhappy. So how long should it take to reform feudalism or other preindustrial structures? Forty years? I take seriously the idea that the industrial revolution did not make people better off right away, so did Marx.

4. Being happy at work is one of the most important things in life. Marx saw the importance of this more clearly than did many of the classical economists. And he saw the importance of inframarginal systemic factors.

5. A growing division of labor can make some people unhappier at their jobs.

To sum up, we all know that capitalism brings a "creative destruction," to use the phrase of Schumpeter. This is all for the better, but Marx saw how strong both the positive and negative sides of this process would be. And he knew that the relevant problems went deeper than just looking at whether people make rational tradeoffs at the margin. That being said, he overestimated the negative side of the market and underestimated how well capitalism could solve its problems concerning the distribution of income.
Which goes to show that there are at least a few people who appreciate the wisdom of the refrain "Know thine enemy." Lest anyone think Cowen's "gone native", he closes with the following statements:
Of course marxism, as a political program, remains dangerous nonsense. Marx's blind spots were enormous, and I still cannot understand how generations of the intelligentsia were taken in by the whole thing.
To which I can only give my wholehearted agreement.

Naming Names

Languagehat has an interesting post on the complications that can arise when transcribing the names of people and places into different languages. As an aside, for some reason I can't put my finger on, I never cease to be amused by the realization that the names "Emile" and "Emily" are derivatives of "Aemilius"; Rome lives, even if not as a state.

What is the Evidence Against Tariq Ramadan?

Scott Mertens has just noted that Tariq Ramadan, who was slated to teach at the University of Notre Dame this year, has had his visa revoked under the Immigration and Nationality Act as modified by the provisions of the PATRIOT Act. My first inclination was to be suspicious of the claim that Ramadan's visa revocation was worth getting upset about, but the problem is that as much as I've looked for evidence to indicate that the man's been guilty of what is described below

The US Department of Homeland Security claims that Ramadan’s visa was revoked because of a section of US law affecting people who use a “position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity” as well as “public safety or national security interests.”
I've yet to find any real evidence that Ramadan is guilty of any such thing, only insinuations from the likes of Daniel Pipes and the usual "Islam is a disease" types that he must be guilty of something, seeing as he's the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; by that measure, one could bar entire nations from entry into the US simply for the misdeeds of their ancestors.

If anyone can point me to some meaningful evidence that Ramadan's been guilty of supporting terrorism, rather than simply of espousing an interpretation of Islam that isn't sufficiently emollient to assuage the delicate sensibilities of a few loudmouths, I'll be glad to have it, as so far I haven't really seen any forthcoming.

All Hat and No Cattle

Seeing as many people have been going on and on about the incipient Iraqi Army's lack of courage under fire, it's rather interesting to find that the much vaunted "Mahdi Army" of "fanatical resistance fighters" is no better when the heat is turned up. It seems Iraqis, whatever their professed loyalties and whoever their paymasters may be, just aren't cut out for Wehrmacht/Red Army/Imperial Japanese style fighting to the last man.

Mahdi army fighters loyal to the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had largely abandoned Najaf's Imam Ali shrine yesterday before American forces launched a massive offensive, which was under way last night.
Sources inside the resistance movement said the majority of the militiamen slipped out of the complex after a secret order by Mr Sadr five days ago.
The cleric was no longer in the area immediately around the shrine, which was encircled by American tanks, they said.
"He is 100% not there," one source said. "We are cleverer than the Americans think. Anybody who stays behind is likely to be killed." He added: "We need these people."
A nice bit of empty braggadacio mixed in with a generous dose of candor; Al Sadr does indeed "need these people", not as fighters against a professional army, but as thugs and Sturmabteilung-style block enforcers, which is all his rabble is fit for.
Mr Sadr's aides insisted the cleric was still in Najaf, but many of his fighters appeared to be regrouping in the neighbouring town of Kufa, having been told that the battle for the shrine has effectively been lost.
Someone ought to tell that to the left-leaning side of the blogosphere, where the general opinion seems to be that it is America facing a debacle here, rather than Muqtada al-Sadr.

I think we can see a pattern at work here: to the extent that chancers like al-Sadr appear to have any real strength, it owes more to the American desire to obtain goodwill by showing restraint, and the Western media's need to puff up these opportunists to paint a picture of titanic opposing forces, rather than to anything substantive about the men themselves. Restraint is undoubtedly a good thing, but in the hands of enemies who lack a sense of decency it can also be a weapon.

PS: Also see this report, which suggests that the struggle for the Imam Ali mosque is indeed in its final throes.

Water, Water Everywhere ...

In response to my earlier complaint about the quality of the music that dominates the airwaves, Frank McGahon suggested that the problem wasn't so much that the quality of music had gone down but that the sheer variety of outlets now available made it difficult to point to a single canon of "greats":

The old model consisted of a relatively small number of bands promoted by record companies whose income derived from sales of singles and albums. There were fewer radio stations, fewer sources of information about bands. The lack of choice of music, information and of methods of consuming music meant that there was a more or less homogenous "canon" of pop music. There tended to be a consensus as to who the best bands were. In such a model, the charts meant something. To consume music was to buy a single. Higher record sales combined with fewer number of artists means, (apart from richer bands) that the number one single of the day was a reasonable approximation of most people's favourite tune.

Fast forward to today, there is a dizzying array of music available for consumption, there is no real "canon" and there are other ways to listen to music other than buying cds. Everybody thinks of downloading but what people often omit to consider is the range of radio stations currently available, particularly on the internet. Buying a niche album 20 years ago was the most effective way of ensuring you could listen to it. Today you can listen to a niche record station to hear it. This has led to a babelisation of musical tastes and a different method of consuming music towards which record companies simply are not geared.
This is an interesting observation, and it strikes me as being largely correct, but it also raises the "57 channels and nothing on" question: how one is supposed to go about finding the good stuff when there are so many outlets to choose from?

It's clear to me at least, looking at the sorts of loopy recommendations Amazon tends to provide me with, that automated recommendation systems are not the answer. It's hard enough as it is for information retrieval systems to deal with relatively straightforward textual queries, but when we venture into a realm like music in which the subjective factor reigns supreme, the odds of making headway become vanishingly small.

One suggestion Frank made was to look at a site called AllMusic, which appears to be a completely hand-maintained guide to new music curated by a paid and carefully chosen editorial staff. This, I think, provides the real key to what the future of music will have to look like; where record companies once undertook the spadework required to find new acts and then worked to promote them, online aggregators and tastemakers will play the predominant role going forward, acting as trusted gatekeepers for their respective audiences, and I can even see a future in which there are aggregators of aggregators, i.e, operators who select the best picks from the most trusted tastemakers, and then serve up these "best from the best" for those who don't have the time and energy to learning about which little indie review site constitutes the last word on some narrow niche of the musical spectrum.

When Skin Color Does Matter

Brad DeLong links to an article on Slate that suggests that contrary to expectations raised by the fortification of various food items, Vitamin D deficiency does continue to be a problem for darker-skinned individuals who reside in Northern Latitudes. In fact, it seems to still be a problem even for pale-skinned individuals, or at least, for those of them who avoid getting sufficient exposure to sunlight for whatever reason.

Amanda Schaffer writes in Slate about how a surprisingly large number of people who live her in the northlands far from the equator need more vitamin D. I am very surprised that this is controversial. When we Cro-Magnon types came out of Africa 60,000-100,000 years ago, none of us were white. Now practically all of us the bulk of whose ancestors stopped for long in northern Europe or northern China are remarkably pale indeed. I have heard no reason advanced for this other than that melanin in your skin blocks some vitamin D creation. If true, then there must have been a hell of a lot of selection pressure for low-melanin skin, which replies a hell of a large health cost to blocking even a small amount of sun-mediated vitamin D creation:
It has long been known that vitamin D is crucial for healthy bones. The presence of vitamin D in the small intestine aids in the absorption of dietary calcium—people with vitamin D deficiency are able to absorb only a third to half as much calcium as those with sufficient levels—and calcium is vital to the hardness of bone. The two diseases traditionally associated with severe vitamin D deficiency—rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults—are characterized by deformation or softening of bone. And chronic vitamin D deficiency is strongly linked to osteoporosis, a disease defined by loss of bone density and associated with increased risk of fractures.

The common assumption has been that with the fortification of milk, instituted in the United States in the 1930s, and casual exposure to sunshine, most people get all the vitamin D they need. But a small resurgence of rickets in the last few years, particularly among African-American children, has caught the health-care community off guard. As studies have probed the issue, it has become clear that vitamin D deficiency (usually defined as blood levels of less than 15 ng/mL [or nanograms/milliliter]) and insufficiency (less than 20 ng/mL,) are far more widespread than researchers had expected. The elderly, who often receive little sun, are at particular risk, as are African Americans and other dark-skinned people, since skin pigmentation, which protects against damage by UV rays, also interferes with vitamin D production. (Those with dark skin need to spend more time in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D.) Infants who are exclusively breast-fed are also at high risk since breast milk, for all its virtues, contains almost none of this vitamin.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, has been the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among women of child-bearing age—particularly African-American women—and among healthy children and adolescents. Dr. Catherine Gordon, an adolescent-health specialist at Children's Hospital in Boston and an expert on vitamin D, told me that calling it a "hidden epidemic" would not be an overstatement. While severe cases early in life result in rickets, less-pronounced deficiencies may slip under the radar because they do not cause noticeable symptoms. Gordon and other doctors worry that for children and adolescents, insufficient vitamin D can prevent proper bone development and increase the risk of disorders such as osteoporosis later in life.

Vitamin D deficiency can easily go undetected in adults as well. In one study, published in 2003 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers in Minneapolis tested vitamin D levels in patients suffering from chronic, non-specific, musculoskeletal pain: 93 percent of them turned out to be vitamin D deficient—a condition very likely (though not conclusively) related to their symptoms. And of the East Africans, African Americans, and Hispanics in the study, 100 percent were vitamin D deficient. As a result, the authors argue, all patients with such pain should have their vitamin D levels tested because osteomalacia may turn out to be the underlying cause.
I suspect that one factor that tends to aggravate the issue of Vitamin D insuffiency for people of African descent is the inability to tolerate lactose, which makes milk-drinking uncommon amongst those who aren't of European origin. As most cereal is consumed with milk, this automatically rules out two of the main food items which undergo Vitamin D enrichment. I myself am constitutionally lactose intolerant, but what many people don't realize is that one's level of tolerance can be raised a fair amount simply by undergoing long-term exposure; I'll never be one of those types who reaches for the milk bottle in the way the rest of mankind might reach for a carton of orange juice, but at least I'll be able to go some way to meeting my dietary requirements for calcium and Vitamin D without needing to live under a sweltering sky. Getting outdoors when the sun is out and about also helps, though here the vagaries of employment make this impractical for most adults.

The converse of all of the above is that there also still seems to be quite a bit of selection pressure for darker skin as one heads towards the tropics: in particular, pale-skinned people tend to have the folate bleached right out of them, which can lead to anemia, reduced sperm fertility and pregnancy complications. If one could somehow freeze both human technology and population movements where they are today and then wind the clock forward 40 generations or so, I have a feeling that the descendants of today's Canadians and American Southerners would seem to each other to be different "races", even if they were all of common European descent to begin with.