Friday, June 29, 2007

Good news from the Great Satan

Both the amnesty (in "immigration reform" clothing) bill and the attempt to revive the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" have been defeated this week by the legislative branch in the US. Rare victories for sane politics south of the border.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Getting warmer

Some contrarian analyses of "global warming" here, here, and here.

Divine attribution

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have recently discovered a direct link between oral sex and cancers of the mouth and throat. Apparently, if you've been on the receiving end of more than five oral- sex partners during your lifetime, you increase your risk of developing such cancers by 250%. Needless to say, this got me thinking -- no, not about that, but about the idea of natural law and whether or not such a thing really exists.

For the past month or two I've been engaged in correspondence with an intelligent Catholic friend who believes that there is a "natural law" ordained by God which rewards or (more usually) punishes us for our behaviour. The original basis for our discussion was homosexuality: she is against it, in accordance with her faith, while I have no problem with it, seeing it as merely a natural variation. In support of her position, she has pointed to higher rates of depression and suicide among gays and especially to their higher incidences of infectious disease, up to and including AIDS. I've countered that self-destructive activity is a natural response to exclusion and prejudice from one's friends and community, but more importantly still that while there are very many patterns of behaviour that are proven to be hazardous to your health, few Christians seem to believe that God frowns upon the ones that don't involve sex. Athletic activity of any kind, for example, is more hazardous than sitting on your duff at home. Runners drop dead during marathons; skiers slam headfirst into trees. But I can't imagine that the Almighty has a particular moral problem with those who are doing their best to keep in shape. Good, rich food can clog your arteries, even if you don't eat to excess: all you need is an unfortunate genetic disposition towards the production of cholesterol and boom, you're dead of a heart attack at 45 through absolutely no fault of your own. And so on. Casual observation suggests that life is unfair, and that the good die young while the unjust live full and pleasurable lives -- even the Bible concurs on that, and isn't it supposed to be the ultimate authority?

Any supposed moral law derived from the recounting of personal disasters is going to be tainted by a tendentious selection of the facts. My friend has informed me that certain parts of the body are not meant to be used in the manner entailed by most homosexual activity, and I don't disagree that they are ill-suited to it. But consider the female anatomy during the act of childbirth. The infant's head is larger than the birth canal and turns 180 degrees during its descent; the disproportion between its dimensions and the mother's body almost guarantee that its birth will be a painful and hazardous process. Historical records confirm, in fact, that until comparatively recently maternal mortality was high. And yet, according to the proponents of natural law, the propagation of children is the fulfillment of God's will; its very absence is what is said to blight homosexual relationships. If we were creating our morality anew, from nothing, and were observing all of this dispassionately, wouldn't we conclude that there was something intrinsically immoral in a woman subjecting herself to the risks of childbirth?

Like "creation science", "natural law" is only a way of putting a more plausible, empirical gloss on ideas which one has already arrived at through faith alone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Scotland the craven

The Scottish Executive has found itself following in the illustrious footsteps of the Hanoverians in an attempt to regulate traditional dress: licences are soon to be required for sporrans, in order to prove that they were not made from endangered animals.

As a former Scot it breaks my heart to see the country of my birth using its new- found autonomy to turn itself into such a ridiculous nanny state.

Muzzling the masses

As a followup to a post I wrote last weekend, here's a Fox News transcript of US senators Trent Lott (Republican) and Dianne Feinstein (Democrat) expressing their support for measures to fix the "problem" of talk radio. The "Fairness Doctrine" Feinstein refers to was a previous attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to ensure equal time for opposing political opinions; begun in 1949 when there were only three major broadcasting networks, it was discontinued in 1987 as being incompatible with the spirit of the First Amendment. In addition to being a violation of freedom of speech, the Doctrine allows unelected regulators a large degree of control over the airwaves to enforce their subjective notion of what constitutes a "fair" balance. Since the vast majority of talk-radio in the US is conservative in orientation (especially since the demise of the left- of- centre and low- rated Air America), the proposal to revive the Doctrine amounts to a partisan desire to capture a listening audience by any means necessary. (This at least is the motivation for Democrats. For Republicans like Lott, the measure is more a way to exact revenge against a medium which has rallied widespread support against his immigration- amnesty bill.)

For a real nightmare, just imagine how this sort of thing would apply to the Internet. Proponents of "fairness" have suggested that political advocacy websites be forced to link to sites promoting opposing points of view. But there are more than seventy million blogs in the world, the majority of them based in the United States and a fair number of which concern themselves with political issues. To police these sites would require a vast expansion of FCC authority, so that the US could end up with a degree of internet regulation rivalling that of China. (Not that the FCC would mind, of course -- more jobs for the boys.)

If this kind of insanity can seriously be considered in the United States -- traditionally the nation which has been most committed to freedom of speech and property rights -- the rest of us who live in countries with even more government regulation have lots to worry about.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fashion victims

How many people do you have to murder to finally go out of style? If you're Mao Tse-Tung and only killed 40 million people or so, you can still inspire a Hollywood airhead to tote around a bag emblazoned with your wisdom.

Some Peruvians are upset that actress Cameron Diaz, who is visiting Machu Picchu, has chosen to bring along an olive- green bag sporting a red star and the slogan "Serve the People" written in Chinese. The article helpfully explains to its readers that Peru suffered for decades from the ravages of a Maoist insurgency which claimed 70,000 lives, but it makes no mention of the casualties that Mao himself was responsible for in China, which were about a thousand times greater. Since no Chinese person was reported to have been offended by Diaz's bag, a reference to the greatest mass murder in human history wasn't included even as background to the story: like, whatever.

It's shocking to realize the extent to which the political allegiances of most people are not held deeply and sincerely but are instead worn as accessories, whether literally or figuratively. To take the most well-known current example, it's obvious that nobody who travels constantly by air or lives in an enormous house can be honestly be said to be committed to the environment: what motivates celebrities to claim that they are ecologically sensitive, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is the desire to wear an elegant opinion. Green politics can be as flattering to the appearance as an expensive outfit, and no actual change in one's lifestyle is required.

Communism is another flattering accessory. Some dim idea that the communists were tough guys has filtered down to the consumer of the Che Guevara poster or Little Red Book or Mao bag; consequently a whiff of danger accompanies these items and supposedly rubs off on the person who buys them. As a bonus, they also carry an implied disdain of Western capitalism, which as all progressive people know is the real evil. (The latest variation on chic power- worship is the expression of sympathy with radical Islamists, which can go so far as the wearing of kaffiyehs or marching in support of terrorist groups.)

The greatest thing about using politics as a fashion statement is that you don't have to think deeply about what you believe; you simply go along with the other members of your peer group. Dubious opinions and erroneous assumptions always go unchallenged when everyone else around you believes in them (or claims to). And if that means lending your tacit support even to ideas which are directly responsible for the deaths of thousands or millions of people -- well, you know what your priorities are. History is in the past, but fashion is forever.

In their own words

The latest BBC whitewashing of Hamas comes from their reporter Paul Adams, who in the course of an astonishingly worshipful paean to the group makes the following claim:
The international community shunned Hamas because of its association with terrorism, despite being advised by many on the ground that constructive engagement might be a more profitable course of action.
It's worth having a look at the Hamas charter to see what that group really thinks of "constructive engagement":
"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it" ([Quote from] The Martyr, Imam Hassan al-Banna, of blessed memory).

The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: "The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him." The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.

The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"...

So, to summarize: Hamas believes that no part of Palestine must be surrendered, and that Israel must be destroyed; it finds inspiration in a brutal anti-Semitic forgery like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and looks forward to the day when, with Allah's blessing, all of the Jews will be massacred by Muslims. And just imagine: the Israelis believe that this group is somehow dangerous to them! Where on earth could they have gotten that idea from?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thought for the day

"You must either hate or imitate [the way of the world]. But both courses are to be avoided." (Seneca, from Epistulae Morales 7).

I like the paradox contained in this: you have only two choices, neither of which you can whole- heartedly opt for if you want to retain your integrity. So what do you do? You can only try to chart a tortuous (and tortured) course between the two, using both as a guide while surrendering to neither, only to end up being condemned in any case -- whether by yourself, or by others -- as a hopeless waverer! It only makes one feel slightly better to realize that the Romans had the same concerns...

Mind out of balance

Like a number of other rural people and/or antisocial shut-in types I belong to one of those DVD- by- mail services that deliver movies to the house two or three times a week. It's a simple concept: for a flat rate, you get to watch a certain number of DVDs at a time, and keep them for as long as you like. Instead of getting exactly what you want when you want it, though, you have to go to the company's website and assemble a list of things you'd like to see someday, and they'll send along to you whichever of those is available at the moment. Being a voracious cinephile my own list has gone wildly out of control and is now approaching 800 titles. Consequently I often get the surprise, sometimes pleasant and sometimes not, of receiving a movie in the mail whose title I don't recognize, and in which I can't remember ever having expressed an interest. Still, it's somehow strangely comforting to know that if I were to drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow these DVDs would continue arriving at the house for another three or four years.

I didn't recall having requested Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance when it arrived a few days ago, but I was at least familiar with the title, having seen it about twenty years ago on TV. At that time it just seemed like a random collection of hypnotic images depicting various aspects of urban civilization, speeded up using time-lapse photography and set to the bleak, repetitive music of Philip Glass; the kind of movie you'd ideally want to watch in college while smoking a bowl in the dorm room. Watching it the second time, though, left me with an entirely different impression.

It's not very often that a film leaves me feeling physically tainted, as if I needed to right away jump in the shower and wash it off somehow, but that's exactly the reaction I had after seeing Koyaanisqatsi. A film that demonized a particular group of people such as Jews or blacks would not even have been so repulsive as one that, like this, demonizes humanity as a whole. The rapid- motion shots of people commuting, eating, playing games -- engaging in normal human activity, in other words -- are intended to make them look like teeming insects, infesting the face of an earth which (as the movie clearly implies) would be much better off without them.

The title is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance", and we get to hear noble savages chanting their prophecies at various intervals. The sort of people who would scoff at a Biblical prophecy as the purest form of ignorance are apparently meant to be awed by the same sort of inspired guesswork when it emerges from the mouth of an exotic brown person. The prophecies themselves are conveniently of a sort to flatter the deepest anxieties of a white liberal audience: that Mother Earth is screaming when we dig stuff out of her and will eventually give us our comeuppance; and that burning ash will fall from the sky and scorch the earth (the film was made in 1983, at the height of the hysteria over nuclear winter). There's a further, third prophecy included, something about "cobwebs" being spun on "the day of purification", but it makes little sense either on its own or in relation to the film; presumably its hidden wisdom is lost on palefaces like me.

The cinematographic technique is pure agitprop: by showing one thing and then another, apparently different thing, you prove that those two things are connected. Brilliant! So a shot of Wall Street leads us right to a panorama of what looks to be the devastated South Bronx, proving that it is callous bond-traders who burn down impoverished neighbourhoods (rather than, say, local arsonists and vandals.) Masses of cars arrayed in a parking lot are juxtaposed with masses of tanks in formation, proving that war is the ultimate expression of industralized society. People shown moving quickly up escalators (once again using time-lapse) are followed by rows of wieners moving quickly down conveyor belts, proving that people (at least the non-Hopi ones) are really just mass-produced, undifferentiated tubes of meat. And so on. This is adolescent emotionalism at its best, a kind of political posturing no more sophisticated than that you would expect from, say, a whiny, self-pitying Goth kid in the suburbs.

And like most such posturing it is not only shallow but hypocritical, too. Spectators are shown swilling popcorn in a movie theatre; OK, so where was Koyaanisqatsi shown? Against a cliff-face or adobe wall in New Mexico? Cars are portrayed as choking the planet, but Philip Glass owns a summer home in Cape Breton; does he use teleportation to get there? Environmentalists may well have a hatred of humanity -- that much is evident from the film, and especially from the close-up shots of ordinary people (often visibly reluctant to be filmed) whom we are meant to find repulsive and inauthentic -- but they don't hate themselves, and they certainly don't expect to have to live up to the same standards they would like to set for everyone else. In our own day we have Al Gore telling us to reduce our "carbon footprint" while using twenty times the normal amount of electricity to run his own home, Prince Charles chartering a private flight across the Atlantic to pick up an award for his green sensibilities, and celebrities with private jets and multiple homes -- whose film and TV appearances use untold amounts of energy to produce -- hectoring us on the need to use less toilet paper or take the bus to work. This is a modern-day religion in which faith is an adequate substitute for works, and as in any other religion there is a priestly class which is happy to preach to the laity in return for special exemptions and amenities of its own.

Civilization as we know it would be inconceivable without industrialization. There is a terrible amount of waste in our society, but since a perfect balance between over- abundance and scarcity is nearly impossible to achieve, we should be grateful if we are erring on the side of the former rather than the latter. If we were to go back to living as the Hopi did before the arrival of Europeans in North America, we would find ourselves returning to a time of high infant mortality and low life expectancy, alternating periods of sufficiency and famine, and constant vulnerability to attacks from other tribes. Life would be a constant and unremitting struggle against hardship, want, and oppression. If this is what we want then we should at least have the decency to say so openly. Self- righteous preening, easy and agreeable as it might be, makes no difference to the planet at all.

"Superior skills and discipline"

Jimmy Carter, being both a devout Christian and a fan of Hamas, must be baffled by the news that a Christian church has been desecrated in Gaza. (Hamas for its part denies involvement, despite the presence of its members and some suspiciously heavy weaponry at the scene.) Needless to say, there is no mention of any of this at the BBC; like yesterday's story about the unarmed demonstrators being killed, it has apparently been deemed unworthy of your attention.

Perhaps it's a cui bono thing. Nobody benefits by Hamas being made to look bad; it ruins the narrative of Israeli culpability for each and every problem in the Middle East and casts serious doubt on the viability of Palestinian "statehood". Rather than casting gloom on everything, the BBC prefers to make a real difference in the Middle East, which is why for a couple of hours yesterday it asked its readers if they had observed any US troop movements in Iraq -- and if so, could they please publish them? Now that is news that you can use: or if not you, then at the very least that bearded guy over there with the rocket launcher.

The mainstream media has a curious selectivity when it comes to reporting incidents of sectarian hatred. A couple of years back Newsweek made a big very fuss about copies of the Koran being flushed down the toilet by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. Alas, it turned out that this never actually happened, although Newsweek didn't retract the story until rioting by angry Muslims in Afghanistan left 16 dead. The lesson is clear: a fake Koran is much more newsworthy than a real church. Perhaps they should start teaching that at journalism school.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Another buried story

Hamas opens fire on unarmed peace demonstrators, killing two and also killing two UN aid workers. This story was also reported in the Arab American News, so presumably it's not an Israeli fabrication -- why then can't it be found at major news outlets such as the BBC or the New York Times? Would the underwhelming reaction have been comparable had it been the Israel government shooting the peaceniks instead?

In related news, Jimmy Carter has called for increased support of Hamas, and is even upset that the brutal coup in Gaza has somehow failed to endear the organization to the rest of the world -- after all, he points out, Hamas's victory over Fatah highlighted their "superior skills and discipline"! And who could fail to admire superior skills when it comes to executing prisoners without trial? With every year that goes by it becomes more and more difficult to believe that this class-A idiot was ever leader of the free world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nursing their wrath

As an ex-British, ex-working-class guttersnipe I've never had any time for the idea of giving people titles. Robert Burns had it right when he said that "the rank is but the guinea's stamp", and even though he was referring to the hereditary styles used by the nobility in his day (as in ours), the modern honours given out by the Queen are still largely predicated on fame and financial success. The annual parade of rock stars, footballers, and actors lining up for their increasingly debased knighthoods is dispiriting proof that the British establishment continues to feel the need to define itself as a select class of people by exalting its members in rank above the common herd.

So in itself, the fact that Salman Rushdie has been made a Sir is of no interest to me; I stopped keeping track of knighthoods after Elton John's (or was it Mick Jagger's?) But the predictably incensed reaction among Muslims will prove to be of greater importance in the long run. It's been eighteen years since the controversy over Rushdie's The Satanic Verses gave us our first intimation that the West might have a serious problem on its hands with its sizeable and apparently radicalized Muslim population. That Ayatollah Khomenei had put a bounty on Rushdie's head could be construed as a belligerent act by a foreign power against a British national, but at least in this respect the mad mullahs in Iran were only living up to their fanatical reputations. What proved to be the real shock was the support given to the Iranian fatwa by many Muslims in the West. For years our political classes had promoted mass immigration while dismissing the concerns of the host population about cultural incompatibilities as paranoid race-baiting; now multiculturalism had arrived at its logical conclusion in the spectacle of a minority group espousing values that were not only different from those of the majority but actively hostile to them. Ever since then, the rifts between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain (as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden etc. etc.) have only gotten deeper, and their consequences more far-reaching.

Things today would not be as bad as they are had our political and cultural elites unanimously hastened to defend Rushdie when he was first threatened. Whatever one thought of the literary merits of his book, the principle of freedom of speech was much too important to forsake in the face of intimidation. Western artists had struggled for centuries against censorship from Christian authorities; having largely won that struggle, why should they have wanted to once again be subject to the dictates of clerics -- this time Islamic? Unfortunately, there was no unanimity on the issue, and in fact too many influential figures -- among them Germaine Greer, Roald Dahl, and Hugh Trevor- Roper -- expressed sympathy with the radicals, to their everlasting disgrace. Some of those who had spent years promoting multiculturalism were too heavily invested in the idea to admit that they had made a mistake in supposing every culture's values to be of equal validity; others made a great fuss about the need for "sensitivity" -- without ever admitting that this need was driven by fear of fanaticism -- or for "respect" -- without facing up to the fact that some beliefs are not worth respecting at all.

Since we have apparently learned nothing since 1989 we are condemned to repeat this whole sorry business again. Foreign protesters will burn the British flag and make gruesome threats; murderous Muslim governments such as that of Iran will express their outrage; and eventually, after a certain number of people die in violent demonstrations, there will come the inevitable apologies and recriminations as the West tries once again to appease the unappeasable. We should make no mistake about this: today it is Salman Rushdie, or Danish cartoonists, or the Pope; tomorrow it will be anyone who dares to express a contrary opinion of Islam at all.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pod professors

Over the past week or so I've been listening to the public-access lectures offered by the University of California at Berkeley, and I'd highly recommend them for anyone in search of stimulating MP3s to listen to while working or exercising. Courses currently available include computer science, chemistry, physics, biology, and economics. --At the beginning I downloaded a smattering of lectures from three or four different courses, just to get the feel for each lecturer's style and the suitability of each subject to the audio format. If you're many years out of university as I am, listening to these webcasts will bring back memories of awkward, socially inept professors making bad jokes to dead air, patronizing their students, and spending inordinate amounts of time on administrative matters ("did everyone get the handout? okay, if you did get it, please sign the sheet that's going around", etc.). But, if you're lucky, it should also remind you -- however distantly -- of the excitement that attended upon the first serious educational experience of your life, and of that liminal time when you felt you'd be happy to sacrifice what remained of your youth for the sake of the wisdom offered by maturity.

True or not, it's "hate"

The Local, an English-language newspaper out of Sweden, reports that a Swedish politician has been fined for remarking that 95 percent of the heroin in his country has come in from Kosovo. The punchline, according to former newspaper editor Svante Nycander: "when a member of the council asked the police whether Dahn Pettersson's claims were true, he was told simply that the claims constituted Agitation Against a National or Ethnic Group."

It should be apparent by now that so- called "anti-hate" laws can just as easily be used to suppress unpopular but factual opinions -- and in the future this may well come to be their primary function. Slandering someone as a racist (or xenophobe, nativist, Islamophobe, Nazi etc. etc.) is in most cases the most convenient way to shut them up and to silence debate on contentious issues. It is a kind of bullying that has to be resisted wherever possible.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Picture of the day

This AP photo shows Arabs fleeing the violence in the Gaza Strip by heading into... what, Israel? The Zionist apartheid entity? Don't they know that the Israelis are basically Nazis who will turn them all into soap? Dear me, how confusing reality can be sometimes...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Strictly for economists

A map of the United States, with each state renamed for a country with comparable GDP.

Want to go to Dickens World?

True, there is the theme park in Kent, but if you want something a little more realistic you could always try here.

Respect your betters

The conservative blogs in the US are abuzz at the moment about an ominous-sounding comment made by Trent Lott, the Republican's minority whip in the Senate, who told the New York Times that "talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.” The background to this is Lott's endorsement of the immigration reform bill currently being considered in the Senate, a bill which is widely unpopular with the general public for aiming to provide a massive amnesty to illegal immigrants without at the same time making an equal provision to secure the southern border. Despite the prevalent and very vocal opposition to the bill, there is a strong bipartisan effort in the Senate to push it through regardless of public opinion. Supporters of the Republican Party have already found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being dismissed by their own representatives as ignorant nativists who hate Hispanics. And now one prominent GOPer seems to be suggesting that the very media promoting opposition to the bill ought to be silenced as well.

I can't say I'm surprised by any of this. Politics, even in the democratic countries of the West, tends to nurture the type of person whose deepest desire is to remake society in his own image, whether society likes it or not. Although politicians are happy to claim popular vindication when their own views enjoy public approval, they are just as happy to ignore the wishes of the majority when they feel that they themselves know better. What democracy amounts to as a result is really a sort of plutocratic aristocracy whose members condescend to run for election every four or five years but, having once gotten past that tiresome formality, pretty much do as they like until the next election year rolls around. The problem is further compounded when there is a powerful judiciary -- normally comprised of unelected former lawyers -- who have the authority to approve or reject legislation based on their own (often very subjective) interpretation of their country's constitutional documents.

This is why, to take one example, you will never see the return of capital punishment in Western Europe or Canada: however popular it may be among the voters at any given time, politicians in the main are part of that more educated and affluent segment of society which regards executions as a barbarous relic. It's no different with immigration: polls in many countries suggest that native or host populations want tighter controls on it, but the superstition remains among the elite classes that their electorates are mostly made up of ignorant racists whose wishes on the matter they ought to ignore. (If the elites did not believe in the widespread racism of the public, they would have no need of the elaborate "anti-racism" bureaucracies which have sprouted up everywhere in the West.)

All of this being said, of course, I'd still much rather live in a democratic country, whatever its flaws may be. Politicians may be by and large a pack of hypocrites, but hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and God knows there are many other countries in the world where the rulers don't even pretend to have the people's best interests at heart. As Churchill (himself an imperfect democrat) once famously remarked, "democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." With some vigilance, we can at least keep our governments from becoming worse than they already are.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Doctoral candidate, heal thyself

Today's pointless exercise in sociology comes to you from researcher Francine Watkins at Liverpool University, who went "undercover" in an English village for three months only to discover -- wait for it! -- that rural life was marred by gossip, prejudice, and sexual tension. Academic life being almost entirely free of such things, one can only pity the thought of the innocent Watkins trying in vain to navigate the Machiavellian rat-trap of rustic living.

What Watkins discovered, in fact, was that rural communities were populated by fallible human beings no better or worse than those in the cities. Urban would-be sophisticates love to play this game of "stripping away the pretty veneer" of country living to expose the seething, churning ugliness underneath, but to me it all seems a little redolent of sour grapes: sure, the rural folks have the scenery, the peace and the quiet, low housing prices, clean air, safe streets and actually know their neighbours -- but they're inbred, racist troglodytes, so it's all wasted on them. No right- thinking person should live in the country anyway, of course, because the far- flung roads and scattered amenities are contributing to global warming; better both for our principles and for the planet for us to stick to our tiny, overpriced flats in 20-storey blocks on crime-ridden estates and enjoy the vibrant cooking smells in the hallway.

As a former resident of Toronto now living in a small village I can assure nervous urbanites that there are no social problems in the country that are not found on a much greater scale in the cities, especially prejudice. Francine Watkins comes from Liverpool, which ever since the Toxteth riots in 1981 has been a cauldron of racial tension; just two years ago, for example, a black honours student minding his own business was murdered by a racist thug with an axe. If that's the alternative, I think I can handle being gossiped about.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Simulation of the 9/11 attack

Researchers at Perdue University have created one of the most realistic simulations of the 9/11 attacks. The simulations that we saw on TV of the disintegrating buildings were not realistic enough apparently. The new simulations took almost 80 hours of high performance computing to calculate and represent the best engineering understanding of what happened that day.

6 years after the fact, civil engineers are still trying to understand completely the collapse of the two towers and there are still unanswered questions. Understanding what happened will help structural engineers design buildings to withstand or survive catastrophic failures.

Whatever the reasons given, it's chilling to watch. While conspiracy theorists will always cling onto their silly ideas, this should make it clear to any reasonable person as to what led the two towers to fall.

You can see the full 122MB animation of the simulation here.

A shorter version (9MB) can be found here.

The full press release can be found here.

Trudeau: idiocy unto the second generation

An appalling article in the Canadian Press offers us the sorry sight of yet another Trudeau whelp looking for his fifteen minutes of fame: this time it is Alexandre, who is currently busy in print with defending his father's absymal record of sucking up to dictators and whitewashing gross human rights violations, especially when they took place in China. Trudeau Sr. praised Mao, the killer of millions, for bringing "a wonderful system to his people", and wrote a fulsome book of praise for the Communist regime in 1960. Trudeau fils, writing a preface for the new edition, not only makes no apologies for his old man's moral blindness but actually attempts to justify it using the most weaselly of evasions:
His attitude was, Canadian society is a great society. But that doesn't give it a right to impose its values on any other society... He had this revelation (in 1960) that the West is not only just a part of the world, it's maybe only a small part of the world, and we have this outlandish sense of righteousness.
Apparently, this is why Trudeau Sr. refused to condemn the massacre at Tiananmen Square: because who is to say that, like, killing unarmed protesters is wrong, y'know? Funny thing, though: for a moral relativist who believed that every society has its own set of values, Trudeau Sr. seemed very down on the West for its "righteousness". By his own standards, who was he to impose his values on the West? --Then again, how else except through such rationalizations was he to justify to himself his support for murderous tyrants such as Mao, Ceausescu, and Castro? Perhaps his relativism was not so much a matter of sincere conviction as it was a psychological defence mechanism to allow him to sleep at night.

Pierre Trudeau, whose humanitarian and economic records in office were both equally disgraceful, is not only not reviled for these things but is in fact revered to such an extent that Canadians are willing to give an audience to his sons on the basis of their surname alone. What a parcel of fools in a nation.

Justifying the ways of government to man

"Ein' feste Burg ist unser Getränk"

As much as I love living in Canada, the prim and priggish nature of other Canadians is a constant source of annoyance to me. One of the trials of living in this country of wowsers is getting used to the puritanism surrounding the sale and consumption of alcohol. Most provinces(*) have a central agency which both monopolizes the retailing of booze and determines what will and will not be made available. I suppose the theory behind this is that private liquor stores, or even just the sale of beer and wine in corner shops and groceries, would lead to drunken riotousness and social breakdown on a grand scale; it's difficult to imagine what any other rationale could be, other than the desire to preserve jobs in the public sector.

The all-too-Canadian paternalism in this is very real, and can be taken to ridiculous extremes. I'm just old enough to remember a time when liquor stores in Ontario didn't allow you to peruse the shelves on your own; instead, you'd pick the brand you wanted out of a catalogue, write its serial number on a piece of paper, and hand that to a clerk who would fetch the item from a warehouse in the back. Presumably the sight of all the bottles at once would have incited the prospective customer into a frenzy. This has now thankfully been changed but, despite their having been made more user-friendly, liquor stores in Ontario remain thin on the ground. The city of Mississauga for example has eight locations serving a population of 700,000 people, making it very unlikely that the market is being adequately served -- especially when one takes into account the large numbers of immigrants who find they cannot import and sell their own favourite drinks from back home.

Here in Nova Scotia there is a much less diverse and/or adventurous customer base, so the selection is even narrower than in Ontario. Some major global brands are simply unavailable, or will suddenly appear only to be discontinued later on. In theory, you can make a request by phone for a certain brand to be picked up by the agency, but if you attempt to do so you may be asked to pay for enormous import costs -- this at least is what happened to me after I had the temerity to ask the NSLC (our provincial liquor commission) to stock a brand of German beer I found readily available at several private stores in the northeastern U.S.

And then, of course, there is the matter of prices. Since a monopoly has no competition, the NSLC uses something called a "social reference" to determine its prices -- "to discourage", in the provincial government's sanctimonious words, "the excessive consumption of alcohol." Of course this is merely the glib rationale for a tax grab, but even taken at their face value these words make no sense. A price increase merely punishes the moderate, lower- income drinker, while those who are more affluent (such as politicians themselves, or the brass of the NSLC) will hardly notice the increase. At the same time, no real alcoholic -- whatever his social status -- is going to be put off from committing slow suicide by a fifty-cent price hike.

You would never guess from listening to these words of the government that most people actually liked to drink -- to relax with a couple of beers after work or a bottle of wine over dinner -- rather than being driven to it by an addiction beyond their control; instead, you could only imagine that drinking is a highly unpleasant fact of life, and one only to be tolerated with the greatest reluctance and supervision. Such is the wisdom of the State.

Next time you are holding a glass, please raise a toast to privatization. Slàinte!

(* It has to be said that Quebec is at least a partial exception to this, for cultural and historical reasons of its own. Not only are the prices for beer, wine, cider, liqueurs, and aperitifs far more reasonable in la belle province, these items are also sold alongside food at corner and grocery stores (though the sale of spirits is still reserved to the government.) Quebec breweries such as Unibroue and micro-breweries such as Breughel in Kamouraska also produce world-class beers which, predictably, are unavailable for purchase in other provinces.)

Best of bloggers

A few of my favourites:

Language Hat. Exploring the quirks of the world's languages in a wonderfully dilettantish way.

100 Years Ago Today. News accounts from 1907 proving that there is, after all, not a damn thing new under the sun.

James Lileks. This man explores his (fairly average, suburban) life in exhaustive, mind- numbing detail every day, and yet somehow manages to call up enough wit and good sense to make it a compelling read.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mindless in Gaza

As the civil war in the Gaza strip heats up, with Hamas and Fatah members assassinating each other in hospitals and flinging each other off rooftops -- or at least when they aren't busy firing off rockets into neighbouring Israel instead -- it's salutary to take a look back and remember how strongly Israel was encouraged before 2005 to vacate Gaza in the name of regional "peace". It's especially worth remembering it now that the hapless Ehud Olmert seems about to enter into talks with Syria aimed at giving back the Golan Heights. Let's see: ceding a strategic height on its border to an enemy state which has attacked Israel twice before and which to this day funds a terrorist army aimed at Israel's destruction -- what could possibly go wrong with that?

Senseless as it is, though, Olmert will continue to pursue the chimera of land- for- peace in the Middle East at the behest both of his idealistic American sponsors and of the baying anti- Zionists in the EU and the UN -- and all because of the antiquated and schoolmarmish notion that all you need to do to solve any conflict is to sit all the parties down and tie their shoelaces together until they reach an agreement. Not only is there no recognition of the assymetrical balance of aggression of this situation, i.e. of the fact that Israel is only entity in the region whose very existence is threatened on a daily basis, there always remains the fixed and unalterable prejudice amongst much of the so-called international community in favour of the Arabs. Against such a hopeless backdrop no real progress is ever going to be made, and it will be up to Israel to continue to find its own way forward as it has already done for the past sixty years.

Adam Smith's Invisible Hand

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual value of society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations
One of the common misconceptions with regard to economics is that it is a man-made construct that we have created to serve us. One of the insights I had when studying economics is that nothing could be further from the truth. The law of supply and demand, of diminishing returns, and of comparative advantage are as fundamental as Newton's 3 laws. The reason is quite simply that the human race is faced with fundamental constraints - the most important being of time and of resources.

As both time and resources are limited, they have value. We use resources or we use time to maximize our benefit. How and with what efficacy we use these is what the study of economics is about. And like any really elegant scientific theory, from very simple principles come some impressive implications.

This is not to say that there is universal consensus. There are many economists, such as Jeffry Sachs and now Alan Bender who believe that some limits to globalization should exist. But these are all arguments of degree not of fundamentals. There are almost no economists worth anything who would question the fundamentals of economics.

So pervasive are these laws that even when every effort is made to suppress them such as in communism, they come back to bite. It wasn't the West that bankrupted the Soviet Union, it was the market. I personally have seen the destruction of an African country because they attempted to put a brake on free markets. The only thing that happened is that a flourishing black market opened up, prices shot through the roof, corruption became rampant.

There are those who believe that violence and corruption are endemic to the free market system. After all without any "guiding hand" from government, who would check on people's honesty? In fact, the opposite is true. Anyone who has lived in India at the time of the licence Raj can attest to the corruption of government officials. Even the US, which has one of the most open systems in the world, politicians routinely earmark massive budgets to pork-barrel projects. Give a politician or bureaucrat too much power and that power will be abused. In a market system, it is much harder to acquire such power because there are some natural checks and balances in place.

Markets rule. Businesses answer to their customers. Businesses need capital to invest in new projects and so they answer to shareholders or to banks. You can fool the markets for some of the time but you can't fool the markets all of the time. Cases such as Enron are more a confirmation of this idea than a refutation because the markets did catch up with them (and a few other companies) and hurt them badly. Shareholders soon caught onto the fact that the company was sitting on a house of cards. The Asian financial crisis of the 90s was the result of inadequate checks on loans to businesses, which precipitated a massive flight of investor capital. The markets keep people honest not because people are honest or well meaning but because if they weren't, after some time, they will be discovered and will find that either they lose their customers or that investors will shun them, leaving them without funding. Studies (Antunovich et al (2000)) have shown that companies with very strong corporate governance and oversight grow 50% faster than their less well governed competitors over a 5 year period.

Markets thrive on transparency. They wilt when there is too much corruption. This is a clear pattern around the world. As one Nigerian politician said - "In Indonesia, politicians pocket 10% and return 90%, whereas in Nigeria, they pocket 90% and return 10%". There is a strong correlation between the degree of a country's well being and the amount of corruption there is. Corruption eats up capital that could otherwise be put to good use. If you pay $100 to some corrupt official, that is $100 that could have been used to invest in useful machinery for a factory, which would have had a greater rate of return than what the politician would have used it on (such as luxury cars which actually depreciate over time).

Going a little further, there is also a correlation between the level of contentment and freedom in a country and the strength of its markets. A free and open market generates jobs which keeps people occupied, it destroys privilege by rewarding the talented and punishing the lazy. In India, the very system that was meant to help the poor hurt them instead because only the well off could afford the bribes and favours needed to get things done. The collapse of European aristocracy and the rise of the middle class was due to the growing strength of the businessman in Europe. The rise of the middle class could have been one of the early motivators for modern democracy.

On the other hand, suppression or distortion of markets leads to stagnation, decadence and social instability. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Arab World. Saudi Arabia has one of the most restrictive market systems in the world. They have benefited hugely from their oil wealth (and American investment) but Saudi Arabia has no free market and the consequences are clear. There is a 20% unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest welfare states in the world because they thought they could premise a successful system on patronage. A high unemployment rate for young men is one of the leading sources of social instability. Witness the burgeoning neo-Nazi movement in the states of former East Germany, or the rise of islamo-fascism in Saudi Arabia. As Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:

I think that one element that should be expedited as rapidly as possible is the democratization of markets. I think that expanding economic freedom is just as important--in some cases more important--in moderating societies than accelerated moves to political freedoms without the proper democratic institutions.

Trading is natural to human nature. We start trading from the youngest age. We constantly trade with our partners, our children and our friends. Relationships could not survive without the sense that we are getting something in exchange for us giving something. Our ideas of fairness, stemming from our trading instinct, are so fundamental that even the criminal world exacts harsh penalties for cheating. We cannot get away from the market, tame it or do anything else to control it, any more than we could pacify Newton's Three Laws. This is why Adam Smith's invisible hand will never lose it's potency.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thought for the day

"To love unsatisfied the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand."

(F.H. Bradley)

Welsh to me

As a student and proponent of Scottish Gaelic -- a language approximately equal in its global importance to (say) Police Motu, or Klingon -- I can't help but be sympathetic to the needs of all minority languages as they struggle for survival. Even so, I thought that this story out of Wales was more than a little overinflated. The travel agency Thomas Cook is happy to employ Welsh speakers at its Bangor office, and to provide service to its customers in Welsh. What it does not allow are business-related conversations in that tongue between members of staff, presumably so that everyone can be aware of what is going on in the office at any given time.

Since the vast majority of Welsh- speakers also speak English, but conversely few English- speakers know Welsh, it makes practical sense to let English be the default language; and in any case the company ought to have the final say in how its own internal operations are conducted. Dragging in the parasitic Commission for Racial Equality to adjudicate this dispute is not going to make things any better for speakers of Welsh. If a "right" to speak Welsh at work is fabricated out of thin air by the CRE -- or even if it is discovered lurking in the depths of absurd legislation such as the Race Relations Act -- companies will think twice about opening offices in north Wales, and the perception of minority-language speakers as grievance- mongering atavists will be reinforced.

Infidel bloggers tempt fate

Apparently following in the footsteps of Slate's engaging and irreverent "Blogging the Bible" series (written by David Plotz, a non-observant Jew), the conservative website Hot Air will be blogging the Koran one chapter at a time. Watch for falling fatwas.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Your tax money hard at work

(C) 2007 Rajeev Dutt

In case you wonder where your tax money is going, the BBC has reported that the UK government commissioned a study to examine the legal rights of robots. The conclusion? Robots could ask for welfare benefits and they will place a strain on our resources. On the plus side they could also pay taxes.

Considering the furor over immigration, we can just anticipate the outrage over cheap robot labour - just you wait. These robot scroungers will come in and steal your jobs and place a burden on our welfare system. Damn the machines!

The bull in the China shop

The other night I was reading Christopher Hitchens's essay "The Struggle of the Kurds" (from 1992; republished in his 2004 anthology Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays) and was struck by this sentence:

"...many outwardly advanced types have taken little from development except technology, which they have employed for barbarous purposes."

Wise words here. Barbarism plus technology does not equal civilization, which is foremost a matter of values such as respect for the rule of law and due process, the freedoms of speech and assembly and conscience, the toleration of minorities, and many others. I think that this is sometimes in danger of being forgotten when we extol the rise of countries such as China, which is aping the outward achievements of the West while its political culture remains in a primitive state. Recent scandals in that country such as the tainting of food for profit, the harvesting of organs from living prisoners and even the enslavement of workers should remind us that any country is more than the sum total of its infrastructure and its economic output.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Pyjama mamas

From my old neighbourhood in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, comes a story that last week embarrassingly ended up on the front page of the BBC News site: mothers dropping their children off at school have been asked by the school's headmaster not to turn up in their pyjamas. Apparently "as many as 50" women each day were dropping off their children while still in their nightclothes. The article goes on to say that in certain parts of Belfast wearing pyjamas all day has become de rigueur among women of a certain age and outlook, and that they carry this habit not only to the doors of their children's schools but also to the local supermarket, etc.

Although all of this is taking place a mere hundred yards or so from my granny's house, the neighbourhood in question is for sectarian and historical reasons entirely walled off from the one I used to live in. It's possible that the mothers have gotten so used to daily life in their fortified religious enclave that they don't expect to encounter the steely glare of outsiders, especially not ones from the BBC. And it's not as if there is a very high standard of fashion to aspire to in working- class Belfast generally. Still, it's fair to say that the mothers are only taking to a logical extreme the trend towards informality of dress now found in just about every Western country, courtesy of our egalitarian ideals and our pursuit of comfort at all costs.

Somewhat related is a report out of Toronto saying that a Catholic priest, Fr. William Swift of Holy Cross Catholic Church, drew widespread criticism after he asked his congregants to dress more modestly and less distractingly when they attended Sunday Mass. Swift emphasized that he had no intention of turning away those whose attire he objects to; all he has done so far in fact is insert a note in the parish bulletin asking that parishioners not try to "upstage God" and make themselves the centre of attention. This may seem a bit prudish to non- Catholics, who can't be expected to attach the same significance to the Mass, but even non- religious people must have noticed by now the prevalent habit of turning up in casual clothing even at solemn events such as funerals, and perhaps they too have wondered whether sartorial standards were collapsing.

To even raise this question is to risk being accused of being a fascist or hopelessly square. (Actually, I am hopelessly square, so I'm willing to accept that designation at least! And it's not as if I'm Mr. Style Incarnate myself: I tend to choose my clothing for its ability to deflect light.) This is another one of those situations where individual freedoms may lead to outcomes we find undesirable, which is the whole point of having those freedoms in the first place: the ability to choose what to wear means that you can choose to make a spectacle of yourself, if you like, and that other people can turn up their noses at you, if they like. The puritan-Islamic critique of Western clothing habits, which is now too often being taken seriously in the Western media, is wrong not necessarily in its assessment of what is objectionable but in its proposed solution of a uniform dress code. Even an endless pyjama- party would be better than that.

Friday, June 8, 2007

It's a funny old world

Quick quiz: which of the following statements is true?

a) Iran has threatened to annihilate Israel with its upcoming nuclear weapons;
b) Iran is arming both the Taliban and the insurgents in Iraq;
c) Syria and Iran are both re-arming Hezbollah in anticipation of the latter's next war with Israel;
d) The "moderate" Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel, whatever Fatah leaders may or may not say in public; and
e) A majority of Europeans believe that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace.

(Answer: all of the above statements are true.)

No Bono

Reuters reports that Stephen Harper (Canada's Prime Minister, for all you wacky foreigners) passed up a recent opportunity to meet the musician Bono at the G8 summit in Germany, saying that he was too busy. Note the derisive tone of the article, and the ad-hominem shot at Harper for being "wooden": apparently we are supposed to despise a politician who is too occupied with his work to stage a superficial photo-op with a celebrity -- and all the more so because that particular celebrity has appointed himself as saviour of the world's poor.

I'm sure that Bono's intentions are good, but so what? He has no original ideas for Africa's troubles other than to keep throwing more and more money at them, an approach which has been tried for decades and which has failed abysmally. I don't blame him for playing the role of Great White Father to the dark continent; he's rich and has lots of time on his hands, so anything that keeps him away from drugs or Scientology is all for the best. But in the end, he is a musician and nothing more. He has no innate expertise to offer based merely on the fact that he was in a famous rock band. And no matter how many people have bought his records, no-one has ever voted for him.

It's a sad testament to our pathetic adulation of celebrities that we instinctively turn to them for wisdom on matters they know little about, and that we are willing to dismiss as hopelessly square those of our democratically- elected representatives who refuse to turn politics into a mere appendage of the entertainment industry.

Pulp Shakespeare

I read recently that Salman Rushdie once made a parlour game out of re-working the titles of Shakespeare's plays to sound as if they were thrillers by Robert Ludlum. Test your knowledge of the Bard by guessing the originals:

The Elsinore Vacillation
The Dunsinane Reforestation
The Kerchief Implication
The Rialto Sanction

These are the only ones I'm familiar with... I wonder if Rushdie created any more of them (before or after he offended the Religion of Peace)?

A note on posting comments...

Being fairly new to this blogging thing, today was the first time I was offered the chance to moderate some comments. Formerly I wasn't even aware that comments needed my approval; I just assumed that having enabled them in the first place was all I needed to do. Since the readership of "The Bow and Lyre" seems now to have skyrocketed to half-a-dozen or so, I'd like to clarify that while comments from readers of all political persuasions are welcome, they do have to contain some sort of rational statement or intelligent counter- argument. If you happen to be one of the many internet Calibans whose only profit from having learned English is that you know how to curse, you are simply not interesting enough to be posted here. Sorry about that, but we're not in the sixth grade any longer; and in any case the world is full of bathroom walls more suited to your ageless wisdom.

Welcoming our new overlords

The travel website "Time Out" tugs its forelock to the impending domination of Islam, arguing that life in the majority-Muslim London of the future will be ever so much better than it is now. The author of this obsequious drivel, one Michael Hodges, plays it safe by giving Islam full credit for its achievements (such as its overrated artistic heritage, now rapidly receding into the medieval past), while blaming the problems of its adherents (such as their lack of education) on the racism of the dirty kuffar.

Hodges also tries, in a traditionally puritan-Left way, to argue for the superior health of an alcohol-free populace subsisting on what he calls a "south Asian" diet. Leaving aside the fact that life expectancy in the West is already greater than that in the Islamic countries, the argument being made here is that we will all be better off for having our personal lives and tastes micro-managed by some religious authority; this is exactly the same line of thinking of Christian theocrats in the US, who presumably the author would find much less congenial. I wonder: why did we bother having an Enlightenment at all, if we were only to re-submit ourselves in the end to the ignorant edicts of clerics? Does Hodges have any worries about the state of civil liberties in any country where the consumption of alcohol and of certain foods is forbidden by law? Does he feel a twinge of regret at the thought of the passing of Europe's rich wine culture, or of the incredible richness (non-halal, alas) of the cuisine it already possesses? Apparently not.

The last paragraph about there being no racism under Islam is merely laughable: just ask any African working in Saudi Arabia, or South Asian working in Dubai. But then, Hodges is notably careful to avoid discussing life under Islam as it already exists in Muslim countries across the world. He wisely refrains from openly attempting to persuade us that London's noblest aspiration is to become more like Jeddah or Tehran, rather than remain the chaotic and cosmopolitan world-city it is now.

Please God, I hope this article is a parody. But I very much fear that it isn't. There are those in the West who hate their own civilization so much that they've done all they can to destroy it from within. It's no surprise, then, to find them exulting so openly over their imminent success.

(Update: a biting satire of Hodges's article, by Iowahawk.)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The indomitable Hitchens

The brilliant polemicist Christopher Hitchens demolishes the warm and fuzzy relativist Chris Hedges at a debate in Berkeley. I'm not much given to hacker-speak, but the word "pwned" does spring to mind here. --The accompanying analysis on this website is also compelling: many on the Left have taken to defending religion out of a desire to appear tolerant of Islam, even though Islamic values are far more conservative than those of the fundamentalist Christians in the US who the Left have traditionally portrayed as theocrats and incipient fascists. Somebody has to point out this appalling hypocrisy, and nobody does it like Hitchens.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Philip Larkin on Parenting

One of the less endearing traits of humankind is the tendency of parents to foist their biases, bigotry and stupidity upon their children. So many dumb ideas get promulgated by parents who don't know any better (or do but are mean spirited enough to do so anyway). Philip Larkin expressed it quite bluntly in the following:

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

China Bashing

The US has an annual trade deficit of $186 Billion with China. The US cites the Yuan's low value as a major source of this deficit. The US criticizes China on human rights abuses as well as for building up their military and there are plenty of congressmen willing to jump on the anti-China bandwagon. And now to top it all off, there is criticism about China becoming the world's biggest emitter of CO2. Let's not get facts get in the way of hysteria.

Trade Deficit
The facts are as follows. Firstly, China is not the biggest source of imports for the US, Canada is. In 2005, China was responsible for 14.6% of US imports. Canada was responsible for 16.9%, Japan for 8.2% and Germany 5%. About 50% of the US imports from China were through US multinationals.
China has one of the lowest import barriers in Asia and is also one of the highest recipients of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Finally in areas where the US has been investing and is highly innovative, the US actually has a trade surplus - ; areas such as high-tech items, agriculture and aerospace. The dragon turns out not to be so fierce. It is also worth remembering that much of what China has earned from selling to the US has also been reinvested in US companies and assets.
This is not to say that a trade deficit is good but the reasons do not stem from an unfair China (in fact it is the US that keeps using thuggish state intervention to tame China such as Senators' Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) attempt to impose a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese goods.) but a US that has become less efficient of late, suffering from lack of investment and innovation in key areas. Much of this can be blamed on excessive protection given to US firms, strong unions and heavy handed taxation and regulation of firms. If the US is bad, Europe is far worse (in case the Europeans feel like gloating).
Instead of pointing fingers at China, US legislators should be reminded that the massive trade deficit is only a symptom of far deeper issues in the world's largest economy.

Finally, if we look at the current account deficit (of which trade is a part), then we come to two glaringly obvious conclusions - US consumers should start saving more and borrowing less and the US government needs to start going on a spending diet.

Currency Issues
Another red herring. The US has a trade deficit with Germany even though the $ has been devalued several times during this period against the euro. At the same time, China has moved away from pegging the Yuan against the US$ and has adjusted it more in the direction of its proper world price. It is estimated that even if China were to completely float their currency, this would not eliminate the US trade deficit with China.
China should be persuaded to float their currency but this is just a red herring used by China bashers.

Human rights and arms spending
China is guilty of egregious violations of human rights. It has the world's highest execution rates, condones torture, limits free speech, the list goes on. It is right to condemn China for these abuses but it is wrong to use it as a crutch to justify setting up massive trade barriers with China. One of the encouraging signs from China in recent years is that dissent is more openly tolerated. This is logical - as people become wealthier, they demand more rights and more power. People tend to forget that S. Korea was once a dictatorship but is now a thriving democracy.
Prosperity leads to democracy. I am hard pressed to think of a counter-example (although the opposite is definitely not true - India has been a democracy for over 50 years but is one of the poorer countries in the world by per-capita GDP).
I'm inclined to believe that a richer China will have more in common with the West than it will with Iran, for example.
In terms of military spending. A quick look at the CIA world fact book should set things in perspective. China spends about 4.3% of its GDP on military spending, which works out to about $108 Billion based on the official exchange rate. The US spends about 4% of its GDP on the military, which amounts to $528 Billion. $ for $, the US spends over 5x as much as China on it's military. If one adjusts to purchasing power parity, the difference narrows. China, based on a PPP adjusted GDP, spends about $403 Billion while the US spends $519Billion. But as the US produces most of its own military hardware and China imports much of it's hardware so the non PPP adjusted GDP figures are probably closer to reality.
There is room for concern here; namely, a potential flashpoint over Taiwan. But I think that as the two sides become more interconnected through trade, such a flashpoint is unlikely to materialize into open war.

Global CO2 emitter
In absolute numbers China will probably overtake the US in CO2 emissions very soon but let's not talk about absolute numbers. China has 1 billion people while the US has 300 million. The US (2003) produced about 5.762 Billion tons of Carbon while China produced 3.473 billion tons. On a per capita basis (which is one of the fairest ways to calculate CO2 emissions), the US produced about 19.2 tons per person while China produced about 3.5 tons per person. The US produces over 5x the amount of CO2/person than China. This puts the US at 5th place and puts China at around 80th (Qatar is the worst emitter). Of course China's rate of CO2 production is growing much faster than the US, which is a point of concern but for now we can safely conclude that China is not a CO2 monster.
Finally on the subject of the environment, people should remember that every country that became industrialized went through a phase when the environment suffered in the name of economic growth. It is unfair to single out China in this respect. If anything, China will benefit from modern technology by having factories that pollute less and are considerably more efficient than their counterparts in the West 100 years ago.

Saint Victor

A sketch from Monty Python's Contractual Obligation album:

And it came to pass, that St. Victor was taken from this place unto another place. Where he was lain upon pillows of silk, and made to rest himself upon sheets of muslin and velvet. And there stroked was he by maidens of the audience. For sixteen days and nights stroked they him, yea verily and caressed him. His hair ruffled they, and their fingers rubbed they in oil of olives and runneth them across all parts of his body for as much as to soothe him.

And the soles of his feet licked they, and the upper parts of his thigh they annoint with a balm of forbidden trees. And with the teeth of their mouths, nibbleth they the pointed bits of the top of his ears, yea verily and did their tongues thereof make themselves aquainted with his most secret places.

For fifteen days and nights did Victor withstand these maidens, but on the sixteenth day he cried out, saying, "This is fantastic. Oh. This is terrific."

And the Lord did hear the cry of Victor. And verily came he down and slew the maidens, and caused their cottonoule bugs to blow away, and their kleenex to be laid waste utterly.

And Victor, in his anguish, cried out that the Lord was a rotten bastard. And the Lord sent an angel to comfort Victor for the weekend. And entered they together the jacuzzi.

Here endeth the lesson.

Erythrophobia redux

There I was thinking that I had conjured the word "erythrophobia" out of thin air in last week's post, but if I had only bothered to run a simple Google search on it beforehand I would have found that it already existed and was in use -- albeit as a medical term used to describe pathological blushing.

Anyway, the BBC has weighed in on prejudice against redheads (which it calls "gingerism") with this quasi-serious article. One interesting little fact that didn't appear in the piece was that a British doctor with the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority was recently quoted as advising "genetic screening" -- i.e., selective abortion -- on the basis of hair colour, the rationale being that the aborted child would be spared years of schoolyard bullying (along with everything else that life has to offer, of course). The good Doktor doctor made no mention of the specific hair colour he had in mind, but I'm sure you can guess.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Local stars

Here's a link to an elegantly-presented map of the stellar neighbourhood, showing distances of up to 12 and 20 light-years from the Sun. It's especially interesting to see how many local stars lie off the galactic plane.

Enemy of the good

One of the very few times I found myself impressed by Bill Clinton was when he was quoted, in a profile in The New Yorker, as advising us not to "let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Later, though, I found out that these words were Voltaire's, and that Slick Willie was not necessarily the fountain of wisdom I had briefly taken him for. (Still, Bubba does remain immortal for the line "I feel your pain", not to mention "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is".)

Wherever it came from, the phrase "the perfect is the enemy of the good" is a tremendously powerful one in its implications. Ever since Plato started kicking around the concept of the Ideal, mankind has been in thrall to the delusion of perfectability, and nothing has made it unhappier. Everyone knows by now that countless lives during the twentieth century were needlessly sacrificed in pursuit of the unattainable "perfect society" -- the utopia that could only be realized through the elimination of those who were not ideal, such as Jews or bourgeois or gypsies or whoever else. Nowadays, though, the delusion is not manifested so much on the collective as on the individual level; we've turned away from gulags and gas-ovens and decided to torture ourselves for a change instead. How many of us simmer with resentment because we can't find the perfect job -- grow cynical because we can't find the perfect relationship -- or despise ourselves for not having perfect bodies? Even Bill Clinton, to bring things full circle, did not count himself lucky to have assumed the leadership of the free world on a fluke (and to have managed to get re-elected as well), but instead felt disappointed that he had left no greater legacy to humanity than Monica Lewinsky's little blue dress.

If we are ever going to love life, other people, or ourselves, we have to learn to get used to imperfection; we have to let go of the world as we would like it to be, and embrace the world as it is. I am not saying that this is easy: I'm far from having done it myself. But I am certainly saying that it is necessary.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Putin does the sabre dance

It appears that Russia is now threatening to target Europe with it's missiles. As usual, left wing demonstrators at the G8 meeting criticize the American missile defence system without saying a word about Ahmadinejad's thirst for WMDs that's prompting the creation of such a shield or about Putin's bellicosity that threatens to kick off a new arms race.

Gorbachev on the attack

Like a fading rock star, Gorbachev sometimes tries to make a comeback. This time, it is criticising the US for the current climate between Russia and America. Let's examine this shall we?

  • Russia has led a genocidal war against the Chechens leading to serious human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture. But surely we can't criticize Russia in case we disrupt our "friendly" relations with them.

  • A policy of assassination seems to be in effect against critics of the Russian government (the most publicised ones being the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, and Anna Politkovskaya). Again, America is in the wrong for daring to imply that the Russian government is regressing back to it's totalitarian past.

  • The crackdown on free press and the jailing of dissidents. America is at fault again because quite obviously these dissidents are just American stooges and not Russian citizens who are concerned about the disappearance of civil rights in Russia.

  • Russia bullying and intimidating it's neighbours (Ukraine, Estonia and Georgia) and launching massive cyber attacks against Estonia. Damn those Americans - it's their fault again (I'll think of a reason don't worry).

  • Russia revamping its nuclear arsenal and replacing their SS-18 (Satan) and SS-19 (Stiletto) ICBM systems to overwhelm any anti-missile system in a complete reversal of the disarmament trend for the last 20 years. This, obviously, is American belligerence not Russian! It's Russia's sovereign right to nuke the West.

  • Using oil as a political weapon to cower Europe. It's only because America is making life so difficult for Mr. Putin. Damn those Americans! If Europe would just accept Russian hegemony and it's right to claim back those evil countries that dared part company from Mother Russia, there wouldn't be any problems.

It is obviously madness to criticize Russia - only crazed right-wing nutsoids would want to do that. And the Czech republic is a warmongering country allied to "The Empire" to want to station a missile detection radar system on their soil (never mind the brutal suppression of the nascent Czech democracy movement by the USSR in 1968) and it's obvious that Poland is just an American puppet.

Yeah Gorbachev. You hit the nail on its head. All this time I was thinking that Russia was a bully and an extortionist but you cleared this up for me. It's all down to the Yanquis.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Doubleplustrue, even today

Words worth remembering:

"The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries."

(George Orwell, from "Notes on Nationalism".)

Tender mercies

A pro-abortion column in the "Times" of London elicits the following curious comment from reader Barbara: "There’s a 21-year-old girl next door who has three kids and she just doesn’t seem very interested. In some ways that’s even worse than a termination as she’s not offering these kids any kind of a life."

True, Barbara may be an atypically dozy bint, but her fatuous remark is really not all that far off from mainstream "pro-choice" thinking. Remember the slogan "every child a wanted child?" Because sometimes, you know, you have to kill the child in order to save it -- from disability, poverty, parental indifference, or other fates far worse than death.

Obviously yet another mistranslation from Farsi

Ahmadinejad reiterates his call for the annihilation of Israel: "The arrogant superpowers and the Zionist regime invested all their efforts during the 33-day war, but after 60 years, their pride has been trampled and the countdown to the destruction of this regime has been started by Hizbullah fighters... with the help of all the Lebanese and Palestinian fighters, we will witness the destruction of this regime in the near future." (Via Ynet).

Vision of inanity

An outfit calling itself "Vision of Humanity" has published a so-called Global Peace Index -- a colour-coded map of the world purporting to show the relative levels of peacefulness around the world. Canada gets top honours, predictably enough. But guess who's down near the bottom, beneath China, Libya and Egypt? Why, it's the good old USA.

The criteria for selection given are extremely woolly, but it is claimed that "peacefulness... within nations" is as important as peace between nations -- so presumably civil disorder and crime are being considered as of paramount importance. I have never noticed, in crossing the border between Canada and the US, that the latter was an anarchistic or violent country. There is certainly more urban decay in Detroit than in Windsor, or in Buffalo than in Toronto, but not so much that you'd feel you'd stumbled into a war zone. And most of the United States is not like Detroit or Buffalo in any case. Vast swathes of Middle and rural Americans live much the same way as their counterparts in Canada, and are also fortunate enough to be spared forced abortions, the torture of homosexuals, and prisons for rape victims -- institutions to be found in more "peaceful" countries such as China, Egypt, and Libya respectively.

This "index" is, then, obviously nothing more the latest NGO attempt to give Yankee-bashing a cover of legitimacy.


Here's a link to a fine piece by the BBC's Justin Webb, arguing that European fears of an impending theocracy in the US are greatly misplaced. In meeting with fundamentalist parents, Webb senses that they are "beleaguered" rather than triumphant, if only because the vast tide of American culture has become so secular, even profane. As long as Americans have the freedom to choose how to live, only a minority will opt for the Biblical way of life, and such a minority will have no power to impose that way of life on others.

This is the second essentially pro-US article by Justin Webb I've noticed on the BBC News website over the past few months; previously he offered a three-part series sharply criticizing the reflexive and infantile anti-Americanism that masquerades for enlightened thought in many places around the world. Wouldn't it be nice if the BBC were finally planning to abandon its traditional institutional hostility to all things Yanqui? One can only hope.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Hezbollah, masters of irony

Has anybody else noticed that the recent carnage in Lebanon is attracting approximately zero attention or criticism from those folks who tried last summer to make Israel into an international pariah? How can we draw some Jews into this conflict so that the world will finally sit up and take notice? --That said, I am impressed by the decisive actions of the Lebanese Army, who in the past have behaved more like a Dad's Army adjunct to Hezbollah.

Speaking of Hezbollah: a UN Security Council inquiry into the assassination in early 2005 of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri is finally moving forward. Syria is widely thought to be behind this killing and others like it, but political pressure from pro-Syrian elements within Lebanon is being exerted to try to block the tribunal from presenting its findings. The murderous Hezbollah, which is beholden to its masters in Damascus and Tehran for support in its ongoing efforts to destroy democracy in Lebanon, has amusingly denounced this investigation as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty.

Friday, June 1, 2007


Human beings, being the vicious little apes that they are, will always manage to find reasons to persecute each other; and if they can't find them, they will invent them instead. So this story out of England, detailing the persistent harassment of a red- headed (or "ginger") family, isn't really all that surprising. Presumably their neighbours have already exhausted the store of available Jews, blacks, Catholics, homosexuals, vegetarians and train-spotters; and with all the beer money spent and only repeats of "EastEnders" on the telly, what other way to alleviate the boredom?

My mother, who grew up in Belfast, told me that when she was young red-haired men were considered unlucky, and therefore undateable, whereas over in Scotland they are associated with a volatile or violent temperament. I suppose you have to have just enough red-haired people around in a certain region so that they lose their novelty value, but also few enough that they can be safely marginalized as a group: this could explain why there is antagonism towards gingers in Ireland and the UK, but not so much in North America. Here in Cape Breton, for example, my little red-headed daughter only ever attracts admiration for her hair colour, although of course that might just be because she is so strikingly lovely (and as her daddy I can be relied upon for my unbiased opinion.)

Anyway, since God allegedly never closes a door without opening a window, I'd like to propose the following. How about I set about making it my life's work -- and naturally, my livelihood -- to combat this insidious bigotry? Following the recent trend of portraying politically incorrect opinions as pathologies, so that those who express them can conveniently be classed as mentally ill, I will call this new prejudice "erythrophobia", or "fear of the red". Having identified and named this condition, I will collect all the anecdotal evidence about the prejudice that I can find, get it published with the aid of a think-tank or social advocacy group, and present it to the government with a demand for immediate funding to combat the problem. (If they refuse or hesitate, I will accuse them of not caring enough about the prejudice, or perhaps even harbouring it themselves.) With the funding, I will create a permanent bureaucratic institution to hunt down ongoing instances of erythrophobia (see? it rolls off the tongue) and appoint "officers" (unarmed, alas) to document these cases and punish offending erythrophobes with fines and compulsory diversity training; and all the while my lobby group will pressure the government to include "hair-colour" as a protected minority status, and to amend the Charter of Rights to reflect that. --I won't think it unreasonable, considering my exemplary public service, to ask for a salary comparable to that of other senior bureaucrats, along with the usual travel and meal allowances, etc.

And did I mention by the way that I am left-handed? Now don't get me started on that...