Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Name to Remember: Gao Zhisheng

Gao Zhisheng is an astonishingly courageous man, a lawyer who has stood up to defend "Falun Gong practitioners, “house church” activists, and other targeted citizens." Doing this, of course, he painted a bullseye on himself and has been imprisoned and brutally tortured. Since encouraging his wife and children to flee the country for the U.S., he has been "disappeared". Jay Nordlinger makes some poignant remarks on the letter his wife has sent the U.S. Congress:
My friends tell me that this great nation of the United States, which regards human rights as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, would never just sit and watch my husband suffer and do nothing.
I’m afraid her friends are wrong: terribly, grievously wrong.

Thus they encouraged and advised me to write to you to seek help. I remember that, when my husband was still free, whenever major human rights cases arose in China, he would always look towards the United States. He always said: The United States is the cornerstone of world freedom, human rights and social order; the United States would not tolerate despotic rule and the wanton abuse of the weak and the masses.
Does the United States deserve such beliefs about it, such faith in it?
Does it? Do we? After all the times people standing against tyranny have looked to us, only to see us wipe our hands and walk away?

I pray that the Congress will take a stand. I know there's precious little that can be done against a Chinese government that holds all the cards. In the meantime, we can remember the name of Gao Zhisheng.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Pigs and Panic

While the WHO raises the H1N1 situation to level 5 of 6, signifying that a pandemic is imminent, others blow it all off as a media-driven panic. And then there's the guy who argues that panic is precisely the right response.

It's an interesting argument. Panic is a negative word because in most scenarios, panic causes a person to make foolish and possibly dangerous decisions. In the case of epidemic disease, however, panic is precisely the correct response. Everything an irrational fear of disease leads us to do -- avoid personal contact and close quarters, practice extreme personal hygeine, and avoid public places in general -- are all actually effective at preventing the spread of disease. Besides, people don't change their behavior very easily. The overwhelming majority of Americans are responding to this story, if at all, by washing their hands more. This is, of course, precisely what they ought to be doing, and exactly what they wouldn't be doing if all they'd heard was a calm and reasonable statement from the CDC. Even the small percentage who are truly panicked about swine flu are maybe going to pull the kids of school for a week, avoid unnecessary trips, and wear surgical masks in public. The opportunity cost of a disease panic is pretty small, and it pales compared to the cost of a serious pandemic.

Time for the flip side. You've noticed that I'm agreeing that panic on the part of individuals doesn't hurt, and could actually help a lot if the pandemic turns out to be severe. Panic on the part of governments, on the other hand, produces exactly the sort of results one could expect. Egypt has enraged their Christian population by declaring a complete cull of the nation's swine herd, despite assurance from the WHO that swine flu has nothing to do with pigs. Other governments have recommended against travel to the New World and some are mulling full travel bans. See, influenza's a nasty disease, and one of the nastiest things about it is that it's most highly contagious well before it shows any symptoms, making quarantine of the sick pointless. Complete quarantine is the only surefire protection, but such a move could, if the SARS epidemic is any guide, be devastating to a world economy already struggling.

Black Carbon

Black carbon. As opposed to what, diamonds? Anyway, I'm intrigued by this story that climate researchers have only recently begun to address the effects of "black carbon", i.e. soot, which darkens and warms the ground where it settles, particularly when it settles on otherwise reflective snow and ice. The study quoted suggests black carbon could be responsible for fully half of recorded Arctic warming in the last century. I have no doubt that this effect could be significant; I've seen it firsthand in the Cascades, the windward slopes of which are visibly besmirched with soot blown clear across the Pacific from China. It also seems like this could also help explain the discrepancy of glaciers and ice receding even in areas without measurable warming.

It does make one wonder exactly how the climate gurus are going to incorporate a vast and heretofore overlooked climate mechanism into their vaunted models. See, before they settle out of the atmosphere, particulate aerosols including soot also have a shielding effect that cools the Earth, though only temporarily, (as in the extreme case of the "year without a summer" that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora). So this is me suspecting that precisely modeling the effect of airborne soot that shades the earth and seeds reflective clouds versus glacier-darkening soot that raises ground temperatures is probably a lot more difficult than they're going to make it seem.

That aside, it's a no-brainer that less soot would be a good thing. It's unhealthy and unsightly. I guess that's why nations tend to take care of their heavy soot problems as they get rich enough to afford to, with or without particularly environmentalist motives. Yet another argument that pressuring third-world countries into adopting misguided "green" policies would not only be profoundly immoral, it would also likely fail to achieve the intended "green" objectives.

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Orthography

The People's Republic of China is has announced they will make changes to Simplified Chinese characters to make them easier to understand. By making them more complicated.
Some characters will have more strokes added and thus be brought closer to their earlier, more complicated forms. But officials insist the move does not mark the start of a campaign to scrap simplified characters. China, they say, need not move back toward the traditional forms, nor further along the path of simplification. It simply needs to “standardise” things.
An expat, Jacob von Bisterfeld, argues in the Shanghai Daily News for Mao's linguistic goal, the alphabetization of Chinese. He raises a valid point: the switch to simplified characters has already relegated all pre-20th century texts solely to the purview of scholars and the elderly, so Chinese might as well become alphabetic.

Not so fast. Alphabets do offer considerable advantages. They're shockingly easy to learn and teach, comprehensible to foreigners, and compatible with technology. They also enforce linguistic homogeneity, which I'm sure had something to do with Mao's enthusiasm. I'll illustrate by comparison with "Arabic", which like "Chinese" is a political construct rather than a language. Politics aside, we'd talk about "the Chinese languages" and "the Arabic languages" the same way we talk about "the Romance languages" or "the Germanic languages", but historical, cultural, and political forces have shaped the idea of the unity of "Arabic" and "Chinese" as something distinct. Both cases exhibit diglossia, in which educated speakers function in both a standardized archaic form of the language (Modern Standard Arabic and Standard Mandarin) and their own native language. Modern Standard Arabic "works" precisely because it is fully artificial; it is nobody's native language. Spelling is standardized and predictable because "proper" pronunciation is universally recognized and strictly taught in school. Moreover, the fact that MSA is heavily modeled on Koranic Arabic gives it remarkable cultural authority. Arabs use their alphabet to write their dialects phonetically in comic books and text messages, but nobody's arguing this should expand beyond those uses. The usefulness of MSA is self-evident.

Chinese is a very different story simply because Mandarin is a first language for many Chinese. But while they might have a slight leg up on learning Standard Written Mandarin, speakers of other dialects aren't really disadvantaged. The logographic writing system works just as well for every different regional pronunciation as it does for the "standard" pronunciations. In a gross oversimplification, most of the world recognizes that 8 means 8, whether we call it eight, acht, ocho, huit, thamanya, or whatever. The logogram signifies a great diversity of spoken words, which you simply can't do with an alphabet. Switching to a phonological alphabet for Chinese would require designating a prestige dialect as the model, which would certainly be spoken Mandarin. Where would that leave the other languages? Do they come up with their own orthographies, precipitating the breakup of Chinese the way Medieval Latin broke into the Romance languages? Or do they continue to read the same Mandarin words and pronounce them in their own language, doing what they've always done just with the added confusion that the written language is expressly Mandarin?

If you haven't gathered already, I think that Chinese characters seem to work pretty well for writing Chinese. The technological difficulties quite evidently aren't insuperable. Even the education argument, that it's just too difficult to teach all those characters, doesn't seem well-supported. Literacy in Chinese doesn't seem to be any harder to achieve than anywhere else. Non-mainland Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Chinatowns worldwide certainly don't seem to have any particular trouble. I've also read good arguments that the logographic system has a much longer but far flatter and more forgiving learning curve than an alphabet, in which learning to read tends to involve a "Eureka!" moment that far too many people never reach. In every other case in history, logographic writing systems were replaced by alphabets within a few generations of exposure to the concept. The anomalous survival of Chinese suggests this is a writing system supremely well-suited to its language. As to the announced de-simplification: the characters have been simplified, standardized, de-simplificated, and recomplified for three millenia. I suspect they'll survive.

So, if all this talk about logograms and phonology has you thinking I might have some thoughts about the way we write and speak English, you'd be correct. But that's a topic for a whole 'nother post.

*This breaks down a bit when we're talking true logograms: the use of 8 in "have a gr8 day!" is only comprehensible to English speakers. Apparently Chinese does quite a lot of this sort of internal punning, so that dialect speakers do at least need familiarity with spoken Mandarin to fully parse the written language. An alphabet would still make the situation worse.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

American Stonehenge

Okay, I've already 'fessed up that I'm a sucker for the totally random roadside monuments that add a delightful quirkiness to these United States. SPAM Museum? Been there. Wall Drug? I know it well. World's Largest Ball of Twine? It's on the list. So I'm appalled, appalled to find out that I have lived my life in blithe ignorance of the Georgia Guidestones. Five sixteen-foot granite steles, inscribed with vaguely creepy multilingual New Age advice to the survivors of civilizations' collapse, towering over the hills of northeast Georgia. Built for the psseudonymous client R.C. Christian, a transparent reference to Christian Rosenkreuz, the founder of the mysterious Rosicrucians. How did I not know this existed?? Well, my ignorance has been remedied, and unless something far more compelling comes up (unlikely!), I'll be driving up to Elberton next weekend to see these in person. I'll post some pictures.

To get a bit more serious, what really excites me about this monument are the multilingual inscriptions in granite. No matter the zaniness of the text, these could be very useful to future archeologists. I just wish they had chosen a broader spread of linguistic families for the main text. English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian break down to just four language families. I do like the touch of incorporating the ancient scripts as well, although a longer and less abstract text would really be a favor to the Michael Ventrises of the future.

Maybe I'll make a lifelong hobby out of engraving multi-lingual texts on stone and burying them for the benefit of future classicists. Hey, there are sillier hobbies out there.

UPDATE: Really, considering my previous post, I can't believe I didn't draw the connection. I guess I'm just in an apocalyptic end-of-civilization sort of mood. My griping post on the misuse of the word "apocalypse" will wait for another day.

There's Bad News...

... and more bad news. What a depressing news day. If you believe there's a glimmer of hope for the economy, you're not just hopelessly wrong, you're probably making it even worse. The Taliban are within striking distance of Islamabad, and Pakistanis just can't bring themselves to care. Oh yeah, and the swine flu will surely kill us all. On the off chance it doesn't, of course, worldwide food riots and geomagnetic storms should do their part in the next few years to help ensure the end of civilization. Good riddance.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On Schadenfreude

I posted recently that there's a reason the word sabotage is from the French. Apparently, it's also no accident that the word schadenfreude is from the German.

Whose Interest?

President Obama has continued to spin his decision to declassify and release the Department of Justice "torture memos" as a decision based on the national interest, even on national security. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with a continued campaign against the Bush administration. Because of course, the Obama administration is about "post-partisanship".

Right. The Washington post publishes an account of the 11th-hour deliberations over the memos' release, in which the President compelled his staff to participate in an academic-style debate. Those supporting the release of the memos argued it would "focus public attention on the coldness and sterility of the legal justifications for abusive techniques" and "demonstrate that the nation lost its "moral bearings" in the Bush years" Those arguing to keep the memos secret, on the other hand, feared their release "would spark a national security debate with conservatives that could undermine Obama's broader agenda." So the debate was entirely about which course of action would be more beneficial to the administration; the national interest never came up. Or, on the other hand, it was the center of the debate, since the administration's interest is the national interest as far as these people are concerned.

UPDATE: (HT PowerLine) Stephen Hayes comments in the Weekly Standard on the selective redaction of the details on the intelligence value of the controversial interrogations, as well as the suspicious editing of Admiral Blair's statement on the matter:
It is possible, I suppose, that a series of fortunate coincidences has resulted in the public disclosure of only that information that will be politically helpful to the Obama administration. It is also possible that Dick Cheney has taken up synchronized swimming in his retirement.

Grab A Roller, Let's Get Started

So painting roofs and parking lots white has immediate cooling effects by reflecting sunlight while also reducing the amount of energy used for air conditioning, both directly in the affected buildings, and indirectly by reducing the urban "heat island" effect. Pretty cool (no pun intended). So why aren't we doing this yet? If we're going to be throwing money around at labor-intensive projects in the name of stimulus (and it's quite clear we're going to be doing quite a bit of that), we can at least lobby for comparatively commonsensical projects. Painting a roof white is a lot cheaper than installing solar panels, for instance. I'd be curious to find out how the energy produced by a solar roof stacks up against that saved simply by a white one.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ahh, France!

It's no historical coincidence that the word sabotage comes from the original French. It's a culture addicted to the strike, and if a work stoppage intended to show how invaluable and undercompensated you are falls a bit flat when nobody really notices that you're not doing your job, then you just make darn sure they do notice. The union's representative:
"We’ve been on strike for three weeks but at first no one paid any attention at all. It was only when some of the guys started cutting the electricity and gas that things got moving."
I'm sure. So what are the workers' demands? Bread and circuses, mostly. More money and de-privatization.
"Now is the moment to push back the capitalist logic which has crept into the company."
Yes, that evil capitalist logic, always asserting that money has to come from somewhere before it can be given to someone. A les barricades!

Two Quotes

"I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it's also a sacred union. You know, God's in the mix."
"I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody there, but that's how I was raised and that's how I think it should be — between a man and a woman."
Two nearly identical responses to a question on the definition of marriage. Carrie Prejean has of course been reviled for her response and lost the Miss America pageant because of it, while Barack Obama's answer was broadly ignored by his supporters, and he remains beloved of gay-marriage advocates. How can they hate Prejean's statement and shrug off Obama's identical assertion? Quite simple: they know he's lying.

I Want One: Fluorescent Puppy

South Korean scientists have bred a beagle puppy with genes from a sea anemone that cause it to produce fluorescent proteins in its skin that glow red under a blacklight. Now he can chase around that fluorescent cat.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Credit Where Credit Is Due: President Obama Pushes Colombian Trade Agreement

One of the things I promised myself this past election night was that I would do my level best to give President Obama credit where credit is due. His announced commitment to champion the long-stalled free trade deal with Colombia, along with his promise to visit Colombia and his offer of a state visit for President Uribe are by far the most substantive fruit of his otherwise ill-starred visit to the Summit of the Americas. His warm embrace of Hugo Chavez and abdication of American history before Daniel Ortega still grate, but further extending the long geopolitical alliance with Colombia into the economic realm is a poke in the eye to both leftists, and sound policy besides. Bravo, Mr. President.

Who Said That?

The point of death is that Christ took the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.
That, my friends, was Bono, interviewed in Rolling Stone, no less (via Strange Herring). Now, I'm as cynical as they come when it comes to celebrity opinionating. Perhaps a bit too cynical, as I'm proven to be when some global celebrity goes and shares this theologically sound Christian witness.

Best Thing Ever (Yet): Laser Cannon Dreadnought

Well, probably not. It still makes for a pretty awesome story, even if it is just the usual defense-contractor "just pretend you want to do this so what you've been planning to do the whole time will seem more reasonable" proposal. And it really does make a lot of sense. The first really effective laser cannon will be huge and power-hungry, so it makes a lot of sense to put it on a destroyer that has a) plenty of room and b) megawatts of power to spare. That actually makes so much sense that I'm really starting to wonder who first had the idea to mount the thing in an airplane.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kids and the Environment

Nowhere in American society is "green" orthodoxy pushed more stridently than in our schools. Green activists have admitted that indoctrinating children to hector their parents about environmental issues is a key plank in their plan to mold an envirorthodox society. We see the result now in a survey that shows a third of American preteens fear an "environmental apocalypse" and over half believe they will grow up to a world less healthy than they enjoy now. (I'm sure the parents of the remaining sixth will be getting concerned phone calls any day now). The survey's a bit hard to read much into, as the article on doesn't break down the actual questions or responses. It's still clear that America's youngsters are fully indoctrinated into the Left-environmentalist dogma that we're on a downward ecological spiral. The irony, of course, is that the environment of North America and Europe has been getting cleaner and healthier for decades, and even carbon emissions per person have been more or less level. There's a simple reason, too: we've gotten richer. John Tierney argues in the New York Times that in light of the historical evidence showing that societies inevitably get greener as they get richer, the best thing we can do for the world is to help poor countries develop faster. I couldn't agree more. Nations pass through stages of development that simply cannot be skipped. One of those stages is pretty dirty, and half the world's population is at or just about to enter that stage. Nothing is going to keep them from digging up and using the cheap energy at their disposal. Even if it were feasible -- and it isn't -- deceiving or strongarming the world's poor into pursuing some rich man's vision of "green development" will only trap them longer in poverty and its attendant environmental consequences.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I don't know which makes me happier, seeing 20 world leaders and diplomats walk out of the room, or hearing the thunderous applause when they did.

The Lost Symbol

Anthony Sacramone has somehow gotten his hands on an advance copy of Dan Brown's just-announced DaVinci Code sequel and kindly shares a summary:
The Catholic Church has a rogue monk/priest/canon lawyer/legion of Mary tractarian out to kill a select group of Masons who possess the key that unlocks the code that reveals the secret of the ancient riddle that solves the mystery that will uncover the conspiracy that hid the truth about the cabal that obscured the meaning of the cryptic script that when deciphered will unveil the face of the man who died to protect the arcanum embedded in the Masonic symbols, which, if made public, will shake the very foundations of the Catholic Church, rendering the papacy a spent force and reduce several hundred million Catholic laypeople to mainline-Protestant status.
Of course, they've already got the movie deal.

Just Sayin'

You know, there was a time not too long ago when strategists contemplating a strike on declared enemies of the U.S. would not have had to concern themselves overly much that the killing of treasonous American citizens who had joined them would cause a "political nightmare". Just sayin'.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Some Things Never Change

I suppose one's interpretation of the significance of this 1934 cartoon's relevance would depend entirely on one's perspective toward the New Deal (via Professor Bainbridge).

(Click to embiggen.)

Truthers and Birthers

What is it that attracts people to conspiracy theories? What motivates a person to believe that the moon landings were faked? I sort of understood -- though I still can't accept -- why some might want to believe that the our government was behind the 9/11 attacks. What I really don't get is how many of those very same people have shifted gears and are now ranting about President Obama's birth certificate. I guess there's just a certain personality type that desperately needs to believe they're part of the tiny minority that knows the truth.

Smart Diplomacy

The cultural performances down in Trinidad must really be something. Even after listening to a 50-minute anti-American diatribe by the Sandinista Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, Hillary Clinton could only comment on how marvelous the cultural performance had been.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored two questions about Ortega's speech, instead offering lengthy praise of a cultural performance of dance and song opening the summit.

"I thought the cultural performance was fascinating," Clinton said. Asked again about the Ortega speech, Clinton said: "To have those first class Caribbean entertainers on all on one stage and to see how much was done in such a small amount of space, I was overwhelmed."
I'm sure you were, Madame Secretary, I'm sure you were. At least you're out front in demanding Iran release Roxanna Saberi, you know, like State Departments generally do when their citizens are convicted in foreign kangaroo courts? Oh, right, not so much. Now Ahmadinejad swoops in heroically to promise fair treatment and hint that clemency might be in the cards. John Hinderaker nails what happens next:
Iran takes a hostage; the State Department says Iran will be rewarded if it goes easy on the hostage; Ahmadinejad urges judicial authorities to reconsider. Three predictions: Iran will relieve Ms. Saberi of some or all of her sentence; Iran will be rewarded; American newspapers will praise Obama for his "smart diplomacy."

The mullahs are playing Obama like a violin.

So This Is Odd

So the Tea Party protesters are outraged at the irresponsible, unaccountable, and opaque spending of hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts. So is Jon Stewart, though I doubt he and his audience have the self-awareness to realize they're outraged at many of the same things as those crazy right-wing yahoos.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 1
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The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
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Stewart quotes his guest Elizabeth Warren, regarding her misgivings about the bailouts, "capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell". Astute, but many Americans seem to think both can work.

And of course, Stewart can't help himself but to throw out a strawman attack at the end, as if sensible regulation of the financial sector is what opponents are calling "socialism". Regulation isn't the issue, the issue the manipulation and control of these businesses without the honesty of nationalization. It's forcing businesses to accept bailouts, and refusing to allow others to pay theirs back, precisely to maintain that control. And to be fair, nobody should be calling that "socialism", because it isn't. The term is "state corporatism", and it's far worse.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Disappointing Handshake

There are a few different angles to our President's warm embrace of the autocrat Hugo Chavez. From one, Obama embarrasses himself and sells out America when he accepts left-handed compliments and pointedly ironic "gifts" from leftist thugs. But I like William Jacobsen's point best:
When are those who fantasized about Obama being an agent of hope in the world going to realize that in Obama's quest to be liked by those who hate us, he is throwing freedom-loving peoples under the bus. Obama doesn't need to invade countries, or even attack them. But he could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the hopes and aspirations of Venezuelans, Iranians and others, instead of with their oppressors.
Too true. Nothing President Obama has yet done has disappointed me more than this legitimization of despicable regimes.

I'm Not Sure "Disappointed" Cuts it, Madame Secretary

"Disappointed"? Really? That's the strongest language our Secretary of State can conjure in her statement on Iran's conviction of an American journalist on trumped-up charges of spying? Oh, sorry, she's "deeply disappointed". Good grief.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Graduate-Recruits

Tom Ricks remarks on the increasing number of Ivy League graduates choosing to enter the military after graduation:
What is going on here? I think two things, one negative, the other historical.

The negative trend is, I think, that a significant portion of students are finishing at our best universities feeling let down and unfulfilled by the experience. Ultimately, they tell me, they didn't feel challenged to be more than themselves, intellectually or morally.

The historical moment is that these young men are from the 9/11 generation... they are deciding that al Qaeda's attack and its consequences are becoming the defining event of their lifetimes, and they want to be part of that.
Now, I didn't go to one of our nation's "best universities", but rather, one of its best universities, if you'll grant me the distinction. I came out of St Olaf looking to be part of something bigger than myself not in reaction to my education, but to a large degree because of it. The Army became that something, for reasons I've explained in the past. That aside, none of it undermines Ricks's broader point, as the number of Oles entering the military has increased along with that of the Ivy Leaguers. The recordkeeping is a bit haphazard, but the only alumni survey (class of 1999) that broke out military as a distinct category listed 0 students. The more recent records break down a half-dozen different volunteer corps, but military service presumably gets lumped with "government". In any case, from 0 in 1999, to a half-dozen from my graduating class, and certainly more who've enlisted or gotten commissioned in the years since, there's a pretty clear increase.

Whatever it says about the state of our Ivy Leagues, it's a good thing for our country. The history of the all-volunteer military has been one of its gradual momentum toward an endogamous caste in American society. Year after year, the percentage of "legacy" recruits, to use academia's term, grew higher and higher. For vast swathes of American graduates without military backgrounds, military service just wasn't on the radar, and the number of Americans with absolutely zero contact with military servicemembers was growing. I suspect that the changes in recruitment patterns after 9/11, OEF, and OIF have reversed that trend. If this is true, it's one piece good news for the future of the armed forces, and for the health of American society.

I Want One: Atomic Coffeemaker

I mean, espresso drinks really aren't even my thing, I usually prefer classic drip. But this is just too cool.

And it's "atomic", so you know it's good.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Arab Civilization

With remarkable timing, after my post on the Crusades and the Arab world, John Derbyshire points to this clip from Al-Jazeera of Algerian author Anwar Malek decrying what Arab civilization has become (subtitled by the invaluable MEMRI-TV):
Anwar Malek: The Arabs are afflicted with fantasies and obsolete bravado... the Arabs believe they can go to the moon. If you asked your viewers whether the Arabs would be able to reach the moon by 2015, they would say: "Yes, the Arabs will get to the moon." By Allah, the Arabs will not go more than a few hundred kilometers from their doorsteps. These are empty words...

Interviewer: Look what small resistance movements have achieved, by means of very primitive weapons, in confronting aggressors and enemies. Can you deny this? This completely refutes what you say.

Anwar Malek: What resistance are you talking about? If you are talking about the resistance of Hizbullah – Hizbullah has destroyed Lebanon, in the framework of a Persian conspiracy. I say this point blank... The reality of the Arabs is one of defeat, hitting rock bottom. We are defeated, politically and militarily, and economically, socially, and even psychologically. We have a discourse of conspiracy, and we blame everything on others...

Interviewer: Didn't Egypt win several wars?

Anwar Malek: No. The 1973 war was not a victory. It was another defeat... No Arab country has won a war in modern times. There has been no victory worthy of mention. All we have are defeats, which we package as victories.
The 1973 war is rather famously the war that both sides won, and the Egyptian "victory" is one of the great sacred cows of the Arab history of the 20th century. This whole interview is a great example of how Arab media is far more open in some ways than our own.

Last Tea Party Post, I Promise

We've seen that the media just don't get it. Safe to say then that many Americans have been mislead about what the Tea Party thing has been all about. IndianaJane explains better than I ever could. Excerpt (my emphasis):
What they are about is spending. They are about bailouts, whether for Wall Street, GM, or the neighbor down the street who refinanced, bought that big screen, and now can't afford his mortgage and owes more than his house is worth. They are about unbridled spending under the guise of rescuing the economy, and passing an ever-growing debt on to our children. They are about politicians passing spending bills when they don't know what's in them.

They are about concerns that our constitution is being shunted aside by a federal government that insists that states and companies take funds they don't want and that seems almost daily to stretch the limits of its power. They are about the printing of more money, more foreign ownership of our debt, and the devaluation of our currency and inflation that many economists believe is coming.
Precisely. A friend commented that it was a poor choice to connect the Tea Parties to April 15, because the message ended up getting mixed. People aren't upset about taxes per se. They're upset about a level of government spending and interventionism they see as dangerously irresponsible. And then there are the crazies, but if the Left isn't held responsible for their crazies, it's ridiculous to hold us answerable for ours.

Crusade Tirade

Apparently there are those in Spain who believe that their government should apologize to the Moors for the Reconquista. Yes, you read that right, the Spaniards should apologize to their colonizers for having liberated themselves. This is via Gerald Warner, who thinks it's a load of hooey, along with the great fashion for national historical apologies in general. No points for guessing that I agree.

There's an insidious interplay of forces at work here. In the West, there are those (mostly academics) who desperately want the opportunity to apologize for Western Civilization. Many of them have absorbed to various degrees the ideology of a generation of Arab Nationalist intellectuals who painted the history of Europe's relations with the Arab world as an unending litany of oppression and malfeasance. Despite the waning relevance of Arab Nationalism, this narrative of victimology has lingered on, even blossomed, as a foundational precept of Islamist geopolitics. This brings us to the present day, when Western intellectuals and the majority of the Muslim world can slowly shake their heads together in sorrow over all the injustices perpetrated on Muslims by Europeans in ages past, the greatest of which is, of course, the Crusades. "Oh! The Crusades!" they wail, "how horrible, how barbaric! What monsters we were!".

I'm just going to throw this out there: the medieval Arabs didn't seem to take the Crusades very seriously. The Crusaders were never anything close to an existential threat to the Caliphate-- unlike the Mongols or the Turks -- and prior to the 20th century, they were little more than an interesting historical anecdote and a backdrop for the heroism of Salah-al-Din. It wasn't until the Arab Nationalists realized they could use the narrative as a club to beat at the West that the Crusades were recast as the pivotal tragedy of Arab history, on which everything else turns. And with few exceptions, we swallowed the narrative hook, line, and sinker.

Despite the fact, of course, that it doesn't make any damn sense. The Crusades occurred very shortly (historically speaking) after the Muslim Arabs had conquered and subjugated fully half of the Christian world by area, and all the greatest Christian centers of population and prestige except for Rome and Byzantium. From a broader historical perspective, the various attempts to recapture the Holy Land were nothing more than a rather pathetic and shortlived pushback against the Muslim expansion, after which positions were consolidated for a few centuries. But before, during, and for centuries after the Crusades, the Arabs and then their Ottoman successors never stopped trying to conquer Europe, right up until the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate after World War I. Yet we're supposed to beat ourselves up that some European nobles conquered a few measly bits of Palestine and held Jerusalem for a few years, nearly a thousand years ago? Spare me.

I don't mean to suggest that the Arab world never suffered at the hands of Europe. But this is history, everybody did terrible things to everybody else. Apologizing for it accomplishes nothing.

New Book Smell!

Now I can finally buy a Kindle! (via Cyberbrethren)

CNN in Chicago

And this is the state of American media today, a "reporter" contemptuously badgering a "tea party" demonstrator, cutting off the point he was making so she can get on her own soapbox, and then commenting on the "threatening tenor" when other demonstrators tell her to let the guy speak. Appalling. (Via HotAir).

I think my favorite part is where she interjects, as the man is explaining how Lincoln stood for self-reliance and individual responsibility, that Illinois is going to receive $50 billion in stimulus funds, as if that somehow rebuts his point. They just don't get it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

There's Something About American Idol...

... or in this case, Britain's Got Talent, that I just have to support. Something about these shows brings a primeval authenticity back to celebrity, creates a forum where people stand out for what they can do, not just who they are. I don't really know an objective reason why having a beautiful voice should be more virtuous than simply having a beautiful face. But if untold seasons of reality singing competitions have taught us anything, it is that the public values the former over the latter far more than the record companies would have ever believed. And with that intro, Susan Boyle.

It Is Time We Remembered the Subjunctive

Geoffrey Pullum learned something new about the English language today. The idiomatic construction "it is time that noun verbed" is increasingly showing up in the vernacular as "it is time that noun verbs". This particular instance is new to me, too, but I don't exactly see why such a distinguished linguist is so surprised. "It is time that ____ were true" is just a variant of "would that ____ were true!" or "I wish that ____ were true!", which is to say, it's an introduction to a subjunctive clause, one expressing wish or possibility. Thing is, the subjunctive mood is disappearing all over the place, even in its most formulaic extances. "I wish I were ___" is sounding positively quaint these days. Part of me really wants to rail against this linguistic sloppiness, but I know there's no hope. I can shake my tophat and cane and glare disapprovingly through my monacle all I please, but linguistic prescriptivism gets us nowhere. Sadly.

On Demonstration and Radicalization

Apparently I'm a dangerous right-wing radical. There's a better-than-even chance, dear reader, that you are, too. Do you favor local or state authority over federal authority? Do you have strong feelings about abortion, or illegal migration? Then you, dear reader, might just be a right-wing radical. But don't worry, so am I. On two counts, no less, on account of being a "disgruntled veteran" ready to "swell the ranks of white-power militias". Oh, and so are the legislative and executive branches of the government of the state of Texas. So you're in tolerable company.

Oh, and if you read all the way through the Washington Times piece, on page three they've got the parts where the authors of the report explain that this is actually a fairly standard report, similar reports referring to threats from left-wing extremists have also gone out recently, and the concern about veterans was only that their combat skills would be valued by extremists, so law enforcement should be aware that veterans might be specially targeted for recruitment. Huh. That's not nearly as fear- and hatemongering as the lede. Good thing I and everybody else who saw the story read the whole thing, right? Right?

The media are pushing the "scary dangerous right wing" meme as hard as they possibly can, because they so desperately want it to be true. The reality is a bit different, as we've seen today with the Tax Day "Tea Party" protests around the country, in which thousands of anti-big-government "extremists" milled around with signs for a few hours, listened to some speeches, and then went home. Practically Nuremburg 1938, I know. Despite dire warnings and whisperings whether we'd need to bring out the Guard, the closest thing to drama was the dispersal of the White House Tea Party after a "suspicious package" went over the fence. It turned out to be, go figure, a carton of tea.

This brings us to the issue that's been bugging me all week, with all the buzz leading up to today's demonstrations. How is it that the American Left, so enamoured of mass demonstration, is so aghast at the idea that conservatives would dare to embrace the technique? I don't know how many variations of "you lost, deal with it!" I've heard in the last few days, as if the opposition is supposed to sit quietly in the corner until the next election. Because, you know, that's what the Left did during the Bush years, so it's only fair, right? Right? For that matter, the message of these demonstrations is directed as much at the Republicans as at the Democrats. RNC Chairman Michael Steele's offer to speak at the Chicago Tea Party was turned down rather sharply, with the suggestion that he'd be welcome to attend and LISTEN: "This is an opportunity for Americans to speak, and elected officials to listen, not the other way around."

I should add, not all the Left is displaying their irrational hostility toward the Tea Party movement: some are channeling it into pure snark, and pretty low-grade snark at that. I get the joke, Rachel Maddow, teabag = degrading sex act. Ha ha ha. And I got it when you used it again. And again. And every ten seconds or so for the next seven minutes. Thing is, the demonstrations are being called "tea parties", not "teabaggings", as you prefer it, and if the phrase "tea party" has you and your audience thinking of scrota rather than Boston 1773, well, I guess that's a personal problem.


I know I've got some pretty crafty readers, in all senses of the word. Thought you might be interested to see this, the woman who knit the miniature garments for the movie Coraline (via BoingBoing):

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Want One: Soviet Nuclear Detonator Control Console

Console Detonator
Originally uploaded by Mark Pitcher
Seriously, Russia. You don't need this anymore. It's just taking up space. And think how happy it would make me.

On Military Privatization

[Just found this post from a few weeks ago orphaned in my 'drafts'. Thus the out-of-date news story.]

I've got some mixed opinions about military contractors in Iraq. I think it's manifestly clear that the unaccountable triggerhappiness of some of the mercenaries private security contractors has made the task of victory tougher and more dangerous for constitutional American forces. On the other hand, the privatization of many support operations to contractors like KBR has raised the standard of living at US bases in Iraq to unimaginable levels. I lived and ate better in Iraq than I could even dream of on a base in the US. Behind the build-your-own panini line, Mongolian barbeque and ice-cream sundaes, however, some truly worrisome safety issues have come to light (from CNN, via hilzoy).
Thousands of buildings at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have such poorly installed wiring that American troops face life-threatening risks, a top inspector for the Army says.

"It was horrible -- some of the worst electrical work I've ever seen," said Jim Childs, a master electrician and the top civilian expert in an Army safety survey. Childs told CNN that "with the buildings the way they are, we're playing Russian roulette."

Childs recently returned from Iraq, where he is taking part in a yearlong review aimed at correcting electrical hazards on U.S. bases. He told CNN that thousands of buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan are so badly wired that troops are at serious risk of death or injury. He said problems are "everywhere" in Iraq, where 18 U.S. troops have died by electrocution since 2003.

Most of these bases were built by the much-maligned KBR, which has been such a liberal punching-bag I instinctively want to defend it. But I've seen how they operate, and so this story is all too believable. KBR keeps costs low by employing "third-country nationals" or TCNs, mostly from South Asia and the Philippines. I've got no problem with these guys cooking my dinners and cleaning my bathrooms, in fact I'm quite grateful for it. But if they're going to be wiring my hooch and plumbing my showers, KBR ought to be expected to hold them to first-world safety standards. And the contractor's non-apology makes sympathy difficult:

What is important to remember is the challenging environment in which these issues exist.

The electrical standards in Iraq are nowhere near those of Western or U.S. standards. Add to this the challenges that exist in a war zone. We have been and remain committed to fully cooperating with the government on this issue.

Except that we're talking about bases that KBR has built from the ground up, powered by grids built by KBR and fed by generators supplied by KBR. I don't honestly know what they're trying to pull.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Potemkin Photo Op

What to make of these reports floating around that the President's reception with the troops in Baghdad was "staged"? My verdict: non-scandal. One: of course it was staged. Nothing the President does isn't. It's sort of part of the job. Two: if you've got to choose a pretty small group of soldiers to meet the President, why on Earth wouldn't you pick from those who are his enthusiastic supporters? There's a high-minded constitutional argument that meeting the President is meeting the President no matter what you think of him, and that is true. If it had been a ceremonial setting, selecting only Obama supporters to fill the formation would have been seriously crass. But for a face-to-face meet-and-greet photo-op, why let someone who would have enjoyed it miss the chance and leave some die-hard conservative to grit his teeth and smile for the cameras?

I don't think anyone who knows a thing about the military believes for a minute that Obama is as popular among the troops as Bush was (for that matter, is). At the same time, the military is a fairly representative sample of America, and there's nothing monolithic about troops' opinions, political or otherwise. So let's not read too much into this.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

America 1, Pirates 0. Also: Terrorism?

Yay for America. Boo pirates. And I'm tired of hearing about it already. The captain seems a stand-up fellow, so hopefully he'll resist the siren song of the cable "news" circuit and endless inane interviews recounting minute-by-minute how he was feeling throughout the crisis.

All this talk of pirates, (with the requisite jokes about peglegs, eyepatches, and parrots) has of course awakened a desire among some to give them a more 21st-century name. They're terrorists! after all. Maritime terrorists!

Count me with Yglesias in saying: puh-leeeeze. These guys board ships to either steal the booty outright or ransom the ships and crews. They've not expressed a moment's interest in advancing any particular ideology, and how their activities could possibly do so is beyond me. They're not attacking civilian populations with the intent to further their political goals. They don't meet any coherent definition of "terrorists" other than that we don't like them and they happen to be Muslim. Then again, that's uncomfortably close to what passes for a definition these days.

"Terrorist" is one of many words in danger of being overused into meaninglessness. There are plenty of terrorists in the world. And there are also Muslim extremists fighting us who are not terrorists by any reasonable definition. Most of the Shia militias in Iraq that fall under the Jaysh al-Mahdi/Sadrist umbrella, for example, are guerilla fighters who targeted uniformed soldiers of the enemy (us) and took reasonable care to avoid civilian casualties. By definition they are not terrorists, and it confuses the issue to conflate them.

For the Children

Yes, it's for the sake of the children that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has axed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, just weeks after this year's cohort had been informed of their acceptance into the program, and well after the deadlines to apply to D.C.'s better charter schools or for transfers out of the district. See, since Congress will be debating the program sometime within the next year, it's not in the students' best interest to let them into a program that might get cut for next year. Of course, in geopolitics this is what we call creating "facts on the ground". I fully understand that as a successful voucher program in our nation's worst education district, and right under the government's nose, this program absolutely had to be killed. But when you're throwing 200 students to the wolves to reward Big Education for their unwavering support, spare me the pretense that you're doing it for the students' sake.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's Fun to be Aggrieved

The layers of hostile ignorance on display in this training video put out by Penn State University's Counseling and Psychological Services office are beyond my patience to dig through. This is also a must-see for anyone who doesn't believe it's seriously unhealthy that significant portions of our society are completely insulated from contact with military servicemembers.

James Taranto fleshes out the complete absurdity of the vignette. Here's the crux: a veteran student believes he's being treated unfairly because of his service. The narrative of the video tries to present this as completely unreasonable for him to believe, and yet here's the opening dialogue between his professor and her supervisor:
Instructor: Actually, I kinda wanted to talk to you about something else? Um, I'm still having problems with that student I mentioned.

Chairman: The Veteran.

Instructor: Yeah.
There are so many more angles to look at this, but I just get too depressed or angry thinking about it. It's probably my PTSD making me unpredictable and vaguely threatening.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday: Love Unknown

Ecce Homo ("Behold, the man"), by Antoni Ciseri 1821-91

My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they saved,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
That He His foes from thence might free.

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

--Samuel Crossman, 1664

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't Believe Your Lying Eyes

That wasn't a bow. Also, these are not the droids you are looking for. Relevant non-bow starts at about 0:50 or so.

Freedom and Security

The Obama administration continues to double down on the Bush Department of Justice's legal cover for warrantless wiretapping and "sovereign immunity" from prosecution, expanding their scope far beyond that of the previous administration. As I've said before, this is why conservatives ought to have opposed these measures when they were introduced, something I myself am only belatedly realizing. While I might once have considered security justifications to outweigh the encroachment on individual freedoms, I no longer believe they do. Did these measures help keep us safe from terrorist attacks over the last 7 years? Quite possibly. But is that security worth several turns of the ratchet toward Panopticon?

If we have no degree of acceptable risk, if any posited successful attack is presupposed as a negligent "failure" of our intelligence community, what incentive do they have but to seek to know everything about everyone? We failed to "connect the dots" before 9/11, so now our agencies are coached that the "need to share" is as important as the "need to know". But the potential capabilities of a unitary intelligence agency are truly worrying: it takes at most 33 data points to identify a person statistically through mining of open-source data. A nation with a unitary intelligence agency mandated to prevent any conceivable security threat is on a dangerous road to becoming a police state.

And to what end? Should we really be letting the threat of terrorist attack define our society? Nuclear terrorism alone is the one threat toward which we should be putting greatest effort, but we can't seem to get our act together to deal seriously with the world's most dangerous proliferators. Instead, we spend billions on meaningless security theater. John Goekler nails it:

The only things that can truly make us more “secure” are not things. They are the courage to face whatever comes with dignity and intention, and the strong relationships that assure we will face the future together, and find comfort and meaning in doing so.

Imagine, then, what might happen if we simply quit listening to the scaremongers and those who profit from our paranoia. Imagine what the world could look like if we made a conscious choice to live out whatever time we have with courage, compassion, service and joy.

Terrorism is an act of the weak. But so is walking through the airport in our socks.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Faking French

Learning a handful of conversational phrases and some everyday vocabulary can get you a long way in a foreign country, if only as a gesture of goodwill. Learning them too well can put you in an awkward spot, when it finally becomes clear that's all you know:

Being fluent in a language with few second-language learners presents the opposite problem, where for the first few minutes of smalltalk everyone assumes you just know the stock phrases, and five minutes into the conversation, your acquaintance excitedly exclaims, "Wow, you speak ____!!" Well, yes, we've been speaking it for five minutes now.