Sunday, September 30, 2007

Daily Deliberation #7: Has the "Edge" run its course?

This question will take some time to explain, so bear with me. I came to this question this morning through a meandering train of thought that began with a reply to a comment by David on "Objectively Moral'. David's question was whether I could name any successful atheist civilization. My reply included the comment that there have been many unsuccessful religious civilizations, and that the Jewish civilization has not proved all that successful. But mulling over that comment while filling in nail holes in the wood trim in my entryway, I thought of how successful Jews have been in inflencing American culture, especially the entertainment industry. You could argue that Jews are primarily responsible for the success of the industry today, expecially in the fields of comedy, musical comedy and cinema. They pretty much invented the genre of stand-up comedy, and Vaudeville, the predecessor of radio and television, was practically a Jewish invention.

So I started doing a really bad impression of Al Jolson singing "Swanee":

Swanee - how I love ya, how I love ya
My dear old swanee.
I'd give the world to be among the folks in D-I-X-I-E-ven though my mammy's waiting for me,
praying for me down by the swanne.
The folks up north will see me no more when I get to that swanee shore

Truthfully, I only remembered the first 2 1/2 lines. But then I thought to myself "Could a song like Swanee possibly be popular today?" There isn't the least hint of irony, of unconventionality, protest, or bending of boundaries. Of course it may have bent some boundaries in its day, but I wouldn't know that. It just seems like a happy, cheerful tune of the type that seems the epitome of popular music of that era, and the antithesis of popular music today. What it lacks, to summarize the quality that separates the two eras of musical taste, is an "edge".

Why does music today have to have an edge? Why were people back then satisfied with music that had no edge? Were those truly simpler times? Many would say yes, but an honest examination of the times would reveal that they were anything but simple. We have a Lithuanian Jew singing a musical ode to a southern river during a time when Jews couldn't get a room in a hotel in much of the south. He sang happy tunes in blackface during the era of Jim Crow. If anything the times were far edgier than today. So why is our music required to be so edgy?

You can trace the lineage of edgy music to white guilt over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, feminism and all the accumulated social baggage that led up to and followed in the wake of the 1960's counterculture revolution. The result of that counterculture was an increased sense of skepticism, suspicion, doubt, even paranoia regarding social values and institutions. All of it ruled by a detached sense of irony. Nothing is as it seems. Happy tunes belie dark realities. The only way "Swanee" could be sung in the atmosphere of '60s protest is with irony and sarcasm. With an edge.

But the '60s are long gone, yet musicians who were not even born until a decade after are still looking for the right edge. Here in Minneapolis there's an alternative music station called the "Edge". I listen to it sometimes, and most of the music is pretty dreadful. Looking to make it big in edgy music seems to be like drilling for oil in an exhausted field. Most of the wells turn up dry. The whole enterprise is so transparent. It's just a pose. Edginess today is an affectation looking for an excuse for outrage, or cynicism, or just to bend the boundaries. But the old musical boundaries demarcated good from bad, enjoyable from unenjoyable. There may be good hunting along the borderlands, but the odds of hitting an oasis by going where no artist has gone before are pretty slim. Yet some thought that abandoning tone could yield possibilities, and so we were assaulted with atonal dreck by the likes of Philip Glass.

I think for many young artists, the whole idea of edginess is disconnected from any real need to protest anything. They're just imitating those that came before, and it's getting really old. A perfect example is the way that young females like Britney Spears or Cristina Aguilera sing. They affect a gritty, raspy, atonal quality that is just dreadful to hear. I covered this topic in an earlier post about Mary Ramsey, who has a beautiful singing voice, but without any semblance of an edge.

So my question: has the "edge" run its course? Or am I just an old fogey?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Kinder, Gentler Atheism

That's what Carlin Romano wants:

Much of the believer/atheist debate, about God or sacred texts, takes place on printed pages, not at marriage receptions or in doctors' offices or during water-cooler conversations. We tend to be friction-averse in the latter settings. When we think, as intellectuals, of how atheists and believers should behave, or do behave, we often invoke the printed-page model of no-holds-barred assertion of truth and belief, of argument and counterargument, regardless of whether the heavens fall. But there's no obvious reason why the punch-counterpunch paradigm of the page should dominate our discussion of sacred texts.

Not all secularly inclined intellectuals agree. Berlinerblau, for instance, says the goal of his book is "to outline a coherent nontheological, nonapologetic paradigm for the study of ancient Scriptures," while making plain that "the peculiar way in which the Bible was composed in antiquity makes it far too contradictory and incoherent a source for public-policy decisions in modernity."

He seems to feel that such a goal requires an enormously aggressive critical spirit and focus on truth in sacred texts. He writes that "the secular study of the Hebrew Bible (or any sacred text) is animated by a spirit of critique. The motto of our enterprise might just as well be 'criticize and be damned!' We are bound by honor to cast aspersions on the integrity and historical reliability of holy documents. A scholarly exegete reads such work in heckle mode. He or she cannot accept that the Bible is the infallible word of God as mediated by mortals (as the secularly religious and most biblical scholars often contend), nor the distortion of the word of God (as some radical theologians have charged). The objective existence of God — as opposed to the subjective perception of Him — is not a legitimate variable in scholarly analysis. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is a human product tout court."

This strikes me, the bravura virtues of Berlinerblau's style aside, as machoism pretending to be scholarly integrity. Why can't atheists see sacred texts as sacred to them — to those believers over there — and behave respectfully when not provoked? It is simply not true, in a normal, etiquette-infused vision of life, that we think truth must be stated at every time and in every context. We tell Grandma that she's looking well when she's looking terrible. We tell Grandpa that he's going to be fine when we haven't the faintest idea how things will turn out for him. We lie to people in small ways every day to make interactions gentler and less tense, and to be kind to others. Indeed, in a wonderful against-the-grain philosophical book some years ago titled The Varnished Truth (University of Chicago Press, 1993), philosopher David Nyberg argued that white lies are the "glue" that hold the civilized world together. Why shouldn't a similar gentleness and desire to avoid hurtful comments inform atheists when they write about books that many hold sacred?

The most familiar rebuke to this rears its head regularly in the most scathing, sarcastic, and popular of the atheist wave, Hitchens' God Is Not Great. It is that believers in the God-given authority of sacred texts are "ultimately incapable" of leaving nonbelievers alone. Religion, writes Hitchens, "does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one. This is only to be expected. It is, after all, wholly man-made."

The cosmopolitan atheist of today — the well-educated secularist steeped in the histories of various faiths, as well as the carnage they've produced back then and now — can't easily toss off Hitchens's point. Polite respect ends when believers insist on sacred texts as God's authorization of those believers to regulate, suppress, or punish the behavior of nonbelievers. In such situations, the atheist's politeness goes out the window because the believer has thrown his politeness out the window first. Is there anything as impolite — a gentle word, to be sure — as forcing one's moral rules on another because they supposedly come from a divine being whose existence the other doesn't accept?

As a result, we get the predominant tones in which atheists have assessed sacred texts over the centuries — anger, disrespect, contempt, sarcasm, insult, dismissal, even pity. Consider three examples.

"The Bible," sighed Voltaire. "That is what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach, and young children are made to learn by heart."

"As to the book called the Bible," thundered Thomas Paine, "it is blasphemy to call it the word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book."

And, as nasty wrapper, there is A.A. Milne's point. "The Old Testament," he claimed, "is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written: It has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle, and golf course."

Harsh stuff. Yet the very sophisticated understanding of history and society that often justifies the atheist's snappishness in such remarks — the elegant scholarship, for example, of Taylor's and Lilla's books — should also lead him or her not to stir conflicts of believer and unbeliever unnecessarily. Because sophistication implies an equal grasp of etiquette and tolerance as a bulwark of civilized, nonviolent life together on the part of believers and nonbelievers. In that respect, Taylor, Lilla, and Roy's second wave of books — books as thoughtful as those of Dennett and Dawkins, but considerably less offensive — wisely pay little direct attention to sacred texts, focusing more on how believers have behaved than on their authorizing documents.

That's all to the good. In advanced, progressive, tolerant societies, we also don't go up to strangers and tell them that they're ugly, that their children are repulsive, that their clothes don't match, that they need a bath, that the leisure activity they're engaged in is stupid and a waste of time. In the same way, atheists should not, unprovoked, go on and on about how sacred texts lack God's imprimatur. And believers should not blithely go after atheists. If this sounds like the credo of an American — an odd creature of history who might be an atheist or believer — the plea is guilty. One can, of course, line up the bolstering high-culture quotations on this side too, against the belligerent atheists. Schopenhauer's proviso that politeness is "a tacit agreement that people's miserable defects, whether moral or intellectual, shall on either side be ignored and not made the subject of reproach." Even Eric Hoffer's lovely line that "rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."

The simple answer, then, to how atheists should respond to sacred texts is: politely, if possible, employing all the wry ambiguity book critics use when awkwardly trapped with the author or admirer of a book about which they have reservations. "It's really quite amazing," one might say, or, "You know, I was just reading it the other day — it's as good as ever."

But when believers start to use sacred texts to oppress, the atheist must attack and reject the "divine" aspect of their books, out of self-defense and because it interferes with the individual's freedom of conscience and behavior.

Some things, after all, are sacred.

I'm all for politeness, but not at the expense of self-censorship. At the watercooler and at social events, for sure, politeness should reign. But if one's true convictions cannot come out in print, then what sphere is left?

If believers are committed to knowing the truth, then the greatest service that an unbeliever can do him is to subject his sacred texts to as much scrutiny as possible. As the saying goes, what does not kill his faith will only make it stronger.

I'm not a fan of Hitchens or Dawkins argumentative style. It's possible to hate the delusion but love the delusional. But with the multi-century head start that religious polemicists have over their secular counterparts, I don't think that atheist authors will be able to pull even in the bile category with them anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Objectively Moral

In any discussion concerning religion's advisability, one of the weapons that features most prominently in the theist armamentarium is objective morality: without God's revelation, humans would suffer at least one of two consequences: the inability to determine right from wrong, or, granting that, no particular reason to choose one over the other.

The Euthryphro Dilemma paints that line of reasoning into a fairly difficult corner. But no matter. Let's take the argument as given.

This, then, is moral:
Over the last six years, hundreds of teenage boys have been expelled or felt compelled to leave the polygamous settlement that straddles Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Emphasis, at the risk of wholly unnecessary redundancy, added.

The problem occurs at the collision between math and revelation. In Doctrine & Covenant 132, God very clearly insists men must take multiple wives:
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also plurality of wives. HC 5: 501–507. Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831.
Straight from God's lips to Joseph Smith's ears.

Unfortunately, that revelation creates an irremediable parity error: men with multiple wives mean men without any at all.

Well, as it turns out, not so irremediable, after all:
... the [forced] exodus of males — the expulsion of girls is rarer — also remedies a huge imbalance in the marriage market.

Andrew Chatwin, 39, the uncle who took [expelled] Woodrow in, left the sect 10 years ago. He explained how the expulsions usually happen: “The leaders tell the parents they must stop this kid who is disobeying the faith and Warren Jeffs. So the parents kick him out because otherwise the father could have his wives and whole family taken away.”


The problem of surplus males worsened in the 1990s when the late prophet Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’s* father [current leader of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS)], took on dozens of young wives — picking the prettiest, most talented girls, said DeLoy Bateman, a high school teacher who watched it happen.

It must be said that the mainstream LDS church, without a hint of irony, rejects polygamy, and has excommunicated all FLDS members.

Getting past the misdirection, that amounts to the LDS rejecting clear revelation, thereby bankrupting theists' insistence upon revelation as the only source of morality. If that is so, then polygamy, and the contrived expulsion of boys, is just as moral as any other divine diktat: the argument is self-gutting. Revelation is meaningless when humans get to decide which to keep, and which to hurl into the deep blue sea.

This leads, inextricably, to the first defense theists mount when confronted with religions' manifest atrocities, which surely must include forcing mothers to dump their sons off on the sides of roads, as if they were Christmas puppies grown too annoying. Religious atrocities are due to bad religion, good religion would never countenance such things.

Unfortunately, from within the context of faith, there is simply no way of telling good from bad. All strictures and commandments have the same provenance. There is no scriptural argument that condemns the FLDS. None at all. It is the perfect inverse of the Incompleteness Theorem, which, simply put, states that there are true statements within non-trivial formal systems whose truth is unprovable.

Religion turns that on its head, posing a situation where statements can only be shown false outside religion.

In order to condemn polygamy (or any number of horrors trotted out under religious cover), only the symmetry argument, materalist to the core, suffices: if the table was turned, would Warren Jeffs be happy to find himself a teenager expelled from his family?

One thinks not.

Two recent anti-theist books have this revolting nonsense nailed.

Christopher Hitchens argues that religion, particularly of the monotheist stripe, is totalitarian: it demands complete submission to an all knowing, all seeing God. Or, more accurately, to those humans claiming privileged access to God. Which, in this case, emphatically means treating women as property, and boys as toxic waste.

Just so here: Mr. Jeffs exercised totalitarian control, beyond the North Koreans most optimistic dreams, bolstered by The Book of Mormon, over those under his sway.
Warren Jeffs, taking the mantle after his father’s death in 2002, adopted most of his father’s wives and married others, and also began assigning more wives to his trusted church leaders, former members say. Forced departures increased.
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris makes two primary points: Religious moderates provide top cover for "fundamentalists", and religion has unjustifiably placed itself above criticism.

The LDS failure to repudiate D&C 132 -- after all, how could it, without revealing the entire edifice to be built on quicksand -- provides all the cover needed for the FLDS to continue with its town of horrors.

This polygamy story is nothing new, of course. It has been going on, nearly unhindered, ever since the LDS rendered the doctrine "inoperative", preferring to jettison it in the quest for broader acceptance. Funded largely by welfare payments, the FLDS maintains its plural marriage with near impunity from legal hindrance, and astonishing quiescence from the mainstream church.

Should Mr. Harris or Mr. Hitchens try such a thing, they would be in jail in an instant.

One couldn't hope for a more thoroughgoing indictment of divinely revealed objective morality. There is no basis within Mormonism for condemning this behavior, and no means at all within the larger sphere of religious faith to conclude that one set of revelations is any way divinely preferred to another, mutually exclusive set of revelations.

For the anti-theist, unhindered by objective morality, calling BS in the face of this American Taliban is no problem whatsoever.

* Warren Jeff's was convicted today of being an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Four Brides for Seven Brothers

Rise in India`s female foeticide may spark crisis

Experts warn that fewer women will spark a demographic crisis in many parts of country.

"There already is this phenomenon all over the country where there is a lot of sexual violence and abuse against women and children across the country," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi based think-tank.

"But when there are less women in the population and more men of the same age group, there is certainly going to be much more demand for women for marriage, for sex and this pressure will certainly increase violence against women."

Experts say practices such as polyandry -- where several men, often brothers, share the same wife are already emerging in areas where there are fewer women.

Brides are also now being sold and trafficked by their parents to areas like Haryana and Punjab where bachelors are being forced to look beyond their own culture, caste and social grouping to find a wife.

Activists say these women have to adapt to an alien culture with a different language, diet, and social norms and are often treated as second-class citizens by the community who view their value based on their ability to produce male off-spring.

"There is this myth that fewer women will give them better status in society but this is a fallacy," said activist Sabu George.

"Women in India are already being treated as commodities to be bought and sold and their plight will worsen as sex ratios continue to decline."

Compared to this, the shortcomings of Western feminism are insignificant. But you wonder when the proverbial lightbulb will go off over the collective cultural brain of traditional India. In a global economy a daughter working outside the home or in the home can bring in income to the family, and is more likely than a son to support her parents, if given the choice. Even putting aside the stark inhumanity of their traditional social values, they are misusing and devaluing one of their most productive economic resources. There are some instances where creative descruction can't work fast enough.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ne Plus Ultra in Stupidity

In July, a doctor who missed his Northwest flight in Seattle allegedly called 911 three times to say there was a bomb on board, hoping the plane would return so he could make the flight, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle. The plane did come back, but the doctor was arrested for allegedly making a false threat against an aircraft.
I don't know why they threw in "allegedly" twice - Kou Wei Chiu admits that he made the calls.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wise Words

"No warning can save a people determined to grow suddenly rich." - Lord Overstone, Samuel Jones-Loyd

While it's quite true, it's also easy to say, for a person who inherited the equivalent of today's US$ 5 billion. It's also only half of the truth; the other half is "faint heart never won fair lady."

How many epidemiologists does it take to screw up a health policy?

In keeping with the Daily Duck's continuing attempt to throw the cold water of common sense on the best laid plans of experts and technocrats, I bring you this article by Gary Taubes on the sorry and dangerous state of that pseudo-scientific endeavor known as epidemiology:
At the center of the H.R.T. story is the science of epidemiology itself and, in particular, a kind of study known as a prospective or cohort study, of which the Nurses’ Health Study is among the most renowned. In these studies, the investigators monitor disease rates and lifestyle factors (diet, physical activity, prescription drug use, exposure to pollutants, etc.) in or between large populations (the 122,000 nurses of the Nurses’ study, for example). They then try to infer conclusions — i.e., hypotheses — about what caused the disease variations observed. Because these studies can generate an enormous number of speculations about the causes or prevention of chronic diseases, they provide the fodder for much of the health news that appears in the media — from the potential benefits of fish oil, fruits and vegetables to the supposed dangers of sedentary lives, trans fats and electromagnetic fields. Because these studies often provide the only available evidence outside the laboratory on critical issues of our well-being, they have come to play a significant role in generating public-health recommendations as well.

The dangerous game being played here, as David Sackett, a retired Oxford University epidemiologist, has observed, is in the presumption of preventive medicine. The goal of the endeavor is to tell those of us who are otherwise in fine health how to remain healthy longer. But this advice comes with the expectation that any prescription given — whether diet or drug or a change in lifestyle — will indeed prevent disease rather than be the agent of our disability or untimely death. With that presumption, how unambiguous does the evidence have to be before any advice is offered?

The catch with observational studies like the Nurses’ Health Study, no matter how well designed and how many tens of thousands of subjects they might include, is that they have a fundamental limitation. They can distinguish associations between two events — that women who take H.R.T. have less heart disease, for instance, than women who don’t. But they cannot inherently determine causation — the conclusion that one event causes the other; that H.R.T. protects against heart disease. As a result, observational studies can only provide what researchers call hypothesis-generating evidence — what a defense attorney would call circumstantial evidence.

Testing these hypotheses in any definitive way requires a randomized-controlled trial — an experiment, not an observational study — and these clinical trials typically provide the flop to the flip-flop rhythm of medical wisdom. Until August 1998, the faith that H.R.T. prevented heart disease was based primarily on observational evidence, from the Nurses’ Health Study most prominently. Since then, the conventional wisdom has been based on clinical trials — first HERS, which tested H.R.T. against a placebo in 2,700 women with heart disease, and then the Women’s Health Initiative, which tested the therapy against a placebo in 16,500 healthy women. When the Women’s Health Initiative concluded in 2002 that H.R.T. caused far more harm than good, the lesson to be learned, wrote Sackett in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, was about the “disastrous inadequacy of lesser evidence” for shaping medical and public-health policy.

As I argued in Fast Facts Nation, public health policy is more often motivated by preconceived and politically motivated biases than by scientifically proven facts. Epidemiological studies that are not backed up by conclusive clinical trials are worse than useless - they are often responsible for ill-conceived public health initiatives that cause more harm than good.

We need to rethink the role of government as well as the media in the formulation of health policy. The government too often is driven by political motivations to show some benefit to society in the form of policies and programs. The media is likewise driven by self-serving motivations to appear relevant in the lives of the public. Both are too impatient to wait for scientifically proven consensus to appear before declaring for a given policy. But oftentimes the motivation to help others actually acheives the opposite result.

Chutzpah Defined:

Dan Rather sues CBS, Viacom for $70M

NEW YORK - Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit Wednesday against the network, former corporate parent Viacom Inc., and three of his former bosses.

Rather's complaint stems from "CBS' intentional mishandling" of the aftermath of a discredited story about President George W. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard.

The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, also names CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, and Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News.

Rather is seeking $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.

So let me get this straight:
Rather collects some explosive documents from an anonymous source, neither he nor his producers find corroborative support, or do the very most basic kind of research that would have discredited the papers, the kind done IN A FEW HOURS by amateurs after the release of the material, and now he thinks that being fired for incompetence was too harsh ???

He got off easy in my opinion, CBS should have sued him for maliciously damaging their brand.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Justice Done

Suit against Cat over Israeli bulldozing dismissed

(Reuters) — Saying its role was not to criticize U.S. policy toward Israel, an American federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit on Monday charging that Caterpillar Inc. bulldozers aided killing and torture in the Palestinian territories.

Relatives of 16 Palestinians and one American killed or injured by Israeli demolitions sued the heavy construction machine manufacturer. They alleged that by selling bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes, Caterpillar was responsible for war crimes, cruel and inhumane punishment and other violations.

The U.S. government paid for the bulldozers, which were transferred to the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF sometimes uses engineering vehicles in operations aimed at curbing Palestinian militant activity.

A lower court dismissed the suit and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed that decision, saying that to render a judgment on the matter would interfere with American foreign policy...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Easy Come, Easy Go

Here is a article about millionaire households in America:

According to a report by TNS Financial Services, there were around 8.9MM millionaire households in America in 2005, or almost 8% of the roughly 114 million households in America, up from 8.2MM in 2004, and 6.2MM in 2003 (2003 & 2004 numbers).

The definition for "millionaire household" was "net worth, excluding principal residence", but the article goes on to say that "[a]lthough real estate is not their sole source of wealth, it remains a staple for many. Forty-six percent of those surveyed own investment real estate like a second home or rental properties," and fewer than 20% own "in whole or part a professional practice or privately held business", which might hold its value while asset prices decline.

Of the top five counties in the U.S. with regard to millionaire households, three were Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties in CA, and another was Maricopa County, AZ - greater Metro Phoenix area - plus at no. nine was Palm Beach County, FL - all real estate bubble epicenters.

Integrate all that info, and my guess is that by 2010, we'll be back to having 6MM millionaire households in America.

Hit 'Em Where it Hurts

Israelis ‘blew apart Syrian nuclear cache’
Secret raid on Korean shipment

Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv, Sarah Baxter in Washington and Michael Sheridan
September 16, 2007
From The Sunday Times

IT was just after midnight when the 69th Squadron of Israeli F15Is crossed the Syrian coast-line. On the ground, Syria’s formidable air defences went dead. An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way.

At a rendezvous point on the ground, a Shaldag air force commando team was waiting to direct their laser beams at the target for the approaching jets. The team had arrived a day earlier, taking up position near a large underground depot. Soon the bunkers were in flames.

Ten days after the jets reached home, their mission was the focus of intense speculation this weekend amid claims that Israel believed it had destroyed a cache of nuclear materials from North Korea.

The Israeli government was not saying. [...] The Syrians were also keeping mum. “I cannot reveal the details,” said Farouk al-Sharaa, the vice-president. “All I can say is [that we are as incompetent as we are belligerent.]” The official story that the target comprised weapons destined for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group, appeared to be crumbling in the face of widespread scepticism.

Andrew Semmel, a senior US State Department official, said Syria might have obtained nuclear equipment from “secret suppliers”, and added that there were a “number of foreign technicians” in the country.

Asked if they could be North Korean, he replied: “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that.” He said a network run by AQ Khan, the disgraced creator of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, could be involved.

But why would nuclear material be in Syria? Known to have chemical weapons, was it seeking to bolster its arsenal with something even more deadly?

Alternatively, could it be hiding equipment for North Korea, enabling Kim Jong-il to pretend to be giving up his nuclear programme in exchange for economic aid? Or was the material bound for Iran, as some authorities in America suggest?

According to Israeli sources, preparations for the attack had been going on since late spring, when Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, presented Olmert with evidence that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea.

The Israeli spy chief apparently feared such a device could eventually be installed on North-Korean-made Scud-C missiles.

“This was supposed to be a devastating Syrian surprise for Israel,” said an Israeli source. [...]

An expert on the Middle East, who has spoken to Israeli participants in the raid, told yesterday’s Washington Post that the timing of the raid on September 6 appeared to be linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying North Korean material labelled as cement but suspected of concealing nuclear equipment.

The target was identified as a northern Syrian facility that purported to be an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates river. Israel had been monitoring it for some time, concerned that it was being used to extract uranium from phosphates.

According to an Israeli air force source, the Israeli satellite Ofek 7, launched in June, was diverted from Iran to Syria. It sent out high-quality images of a northeastern area every 90 minutes, making it easy for air force specialists to spot the facility. [...]

According to Israeli sources, American air force codes were given to the Israeli air force attaché in Washington to ensure Israel’s F15Is would not mistakenly attack their US counterparts. [...]

Washington was rife with speculation last week about the precise nature of the operation. One source said the air strikes were a diversion for a daring Israeli commando raid, in which nuclear materials were intercepted en route to Iran and hauled to Israel. Others claimed they were destroyed in the attack.

There is no doubt, however, that North Korea is accused of nuclear cooperation with Syria, helped by AQ Khan’s network. John Bolton, who was undersecretary for arms control at the State Department, told the United Nations in 2004 the Pakistani nuclear scientist had “several other” customers besides Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Some of his evidence came from the CIA, which had reported to Congress that it viewed “Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern”. [...]

On August 14, Rim Kyong Man, the North Korean foreign trade minister, was in Syria to sign a protocol on “cooperation in trade and science and technology”. No details were released, but it caught Israel’s attention.

Syria possesses between 60 and 120 Scud-C missiles, which it has bought from North Korea over the past 15 years. Diplomats believe North Korean engineers have been working on extending their 300-mile range. [...]

As a bonus, the Israelis proved they could penetrate the Syrian air defence system, which is stronger than the one protecting Iranian nuclear sites...
[Emphasis added]

Well Isn't That Special

Poison suspect turns to politics
Tony Halpin
September 17, 2007
Times Online

The man accused of murdering Alexander Litvinenko looks certain to enter Russia’s Parliament after announcing his candidacy for an ultra-nationalist party yesterday.

Andrei Lugovoy said that he had been placed second on the electoral list for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) in elections that take place in December.

The nomination virtually guarantees him a place in the Duma and immunity from prosecution in Russia.

President Putin has refused to extradite the former KGB security guard to stand trial in Britain, citing a constitutional ban. [...]

The Crown Prosecution Service named Mr Lugovoy, a millionaire businessman, in May as the prime suspect in the murder of Mr Litvinenko, a dissident former security service agent and a vocal critic of Mr Putin.

The two men met at a hotel in London on November 1, the day Mr Litvinenko fell ill after ingesting radioactive polonium210...

Moscow revives history of silencing enemies
Russian exiles have always feared that the Kremlin would try to silence them, wherever they were living and the fears are growing.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are China's U.S. Debt Holdings a Trump Card ?

Brad Setser | Sep 13, 2007, on his blog

[All emphasis added; RMB = renminbi, Chinese currency]
China indicated back in 2004 that it wanted to rebalance its economy, and shift away from export and investment-led growth, [but] it is increasingly clear that the policies China has adopted to try to rebalance its economy have not worked.

The World Bank’s most recent quarterly update on China’s economy report notes that net exports will contribute as much to China’s growth in the first half of 2007 as in the last half of 2006. [...]

China’s current account surplus is projected to rise to $380b (12% of China’s GDP) – even with very high oil prices. That is an increase of $300b (and 8-9% of China’s GDP) since 2004. [...]

But China’s huge external surplus isn’t just an issue for China. China’s policy choices are shaping how the global economy adjusts to the US slump. That slump – and the associated weakness in the dollar -- has already pulled down the US non-oil trade deficit a bit. But the main impact of dollar (and RMB) weakness has been an increase in China’s trade surplus. [...]

The result: China increasingly is using lending the surplus it earns selling goods to Europe to the US, not just lending the money it earns selling to the US back to the US.

On current trends, China will run a $260b or so bilateral trade surplus with the US, and a $380b global surplus. It also will likely lend the US $350b or more of its $500b in reserve growth.

China will be lending the US significantly more than it makes selling to the US for the first time.

That, I suspect, is something that is likely to continue in the future. It has a corollary as well: The gains to China from financing the US are falling, while the costs China has to bear to support the US are rising.

The standard argument that China would shoot itself in the foot, financially speaking, if it stopped lending to the US is wrong. China would certainly shoot its export sector in the foot if it stopped lending to the US. And it is true that if China stopped lending to the US, the value of the RMB would rise relative to the dollar and the value of China’s existing US assets would fall. But China would still be better off, in the purely financial sense, if it took its lumps now.

Remember, China has to buy an awful lot of dollars to keep from taking losses now. It is has to do more than hold its existing position. It has to add to its position.

And the more dollars China holds, the larger its ultimate losses.

Every time China’s government borrows in RMB to buy another dollar – a dollar that is almost sure not to hold its value relative to the RMB – it shoots another hole in its balance sheet.

No doubt, those betting that China would be willing to pay an ever-growing price to maintain stability in the US bond market have made the right call over the past few years. But those making the bet are betting that China will continue to prioritize the interests of its export sector over its own long-term financial health, and perhaps domestic macroeconomic stability as well...

Manufacturing - China Faces "Long March" on Path to #1

US industrial production is not collapsing
By Michael Pettis, on his blog
August 29, 2007

I received an [email] that muttered darkly about how the current world structure, in which the US acts as a design and assembly platform while other countries, like China, do all the manufacturing, was unsustainable and would lead inevitably to the collapse of the US. I have heard this idea repeated in many different forums and ways. [...]

But all the thousands of stories about China's manufacturing buttons and toy trains doesn't mean that US manufacturing has crumbled. In fact US industry continues to produce a greater share of industrial value added than any country in the world, and it has been growing every year.

The confusion probably comes from two sources. Total value of US manufacturing has grown consistently over the decades, but other sectors -- research, design, services -- have grown faster, so that manufacturing's share of the US economy has declined. Also manufacturing productivity has grown quickly, resulting in a decline in the number of workers involved in manufacturing. But producing more and more with fewer and fewer workers is actually a sign of economic success, not failure.

On that note here is an article that was published in [the] Chicago Tribune:

Trade Fears are All Smoke
by Daniel J. Ikenson
Daniel Ikenson is associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

[U.S.] manufacturing is not in decline; it is thriving. By historic standards and relative to other countries' manufacturing sectors, U.S. manufacturing is firing on all cylinders.

In 2006, the sector achieved record output, record sales, record profits, record profit rates and record return on investment. American manufacturing performance has never been stronger. Nor was 2006 an aberration. Since the nadir of the manufacturing recession in 2002, all of those indicators have been trending upward. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve released its monthly report on industrial production, which found that U.S. manufacturing output has continued to rise throughout 2007. [...]

U.S. factories remain the world's most prolific, accounting for more than 20 percent of the world's added manufacturing value. By comparison, Chinese plants account for about 8 percent. Thus, for every dollar of product made in China, U.S. factories produce $2.50 of output. And not only is manufacturing thriving. It is thriving in large measure because of international trade. Manufacturing exports and imports hit records in 2006. [...]

While misguided (or disingenuous) politicians rail against the rising trade deficit, they fail to comprehend (or acknowledge) that U.S. producers are America's largest importers. In 2006, 55 percent of all U.S. goods imports were industrial products and components, the kinds of purchases made not by consumers, but by producers.

That statistic supports the strong correlation between manufactured imports and U.S. manufacturing output, which has been observed for decades. Imports and output rise and fall in tandem. Thus, policymakers who seek to restrain imports are effectively advocating a manufacturing recession. If their mercantilist worldview prevails, and imports decline, reports of idled factory equipment will not be far behind. [...]

While it is true that the number of workers employed in the U.S. manufacturing sector declined by about 2.8 million between 2000 and 2003, [...] declining employment in a sector that is producing record output is hardly credible evidence of doom. In fact, the two indicators taken together are evidence of soaring labor productivity, which is the source of long-term increases in living standards...
[Full article at blog.]

In N.C., A Second Industrial Revolution
Biotech Surge Shows Manufacturing Still Key to U.S. Economy
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post
Monday, September 3, 2007

PITTSBORO, N.C. -- Until the late 1950s, the low-slung brick building in the center of this minuscule town was home to the Kayser-Roth hosiery mill. Some 400 workers tended to clattering looms, churning out pantyhose.

"It was the best employer in town," said Nancy May, a former worker.

The hosiery mill is gone now, along with much of the Carolina textile industry -- a casualty of the global reordering that has concentrated production in Asia and Latin America. But the old brick building is still here and still making products -- albeit modern varieties that could scarcely have been imagined a half-century ago: Today, the site is occupied by a biotechnology company, Biolex Therapeutics.

Inside, 90 workers harness expensive laboratory equipment and a plant called duckweed, a bane to local ponds, to develop a drug for a serious liver ailment. Even the lowest-paid lab technician takes home far more than the seamstresses earned. If the start-up succeeds, its product will be substantially more lucrative than pantyhose.

As lawmakers pursue legislation aimed at softening the blow from factory closures, and as the downside of trade emerges as a talking point in the 2008 presidential campaign, it might seem that manufacturing is a dying part of the U.S. economy. But the retooling of this old brick building on Credle Street underscores how, despite its oft-pronounced demise, American manufacturing is in many regards stronger than ever.

The United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation -- three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry. Between 1977 and 2005, the value of American manufacturing swelled from $1.3 trillion to an all-time record $4.5 trillion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States is responsible for almost one-fourth of global manufacturing, a share that has changed little in decades. The United States is the largest manufacturing economy by far. Japan, the only serious rival for that title, has been losing ground. China has been growing but represents only about one-tenth of world manufacturing. [...]

[But] while American manufacturing is not declining, manufacturing employment has been shrinking dramatically. After peaking in 1979 at 19 million workers, the American manufacturing workforce has since dropped to 14 million, the lowest number since 1950.

A stark educational divide has emerged on the factory floor, as skills and training separate winners from losers. In 1973, more than half of all American manufacturing workers failed to complete high school, and only 6 percent attended some college, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. By 2001, nearly half completed high school and one-fourth attended some college. [...]

The textile industry has been particularly aggressive in replacing people with machines. A half-century ago, a typical North Carolina textile worker operated five machines at once, each capable of running a thread through a loom at 100 times a minute. Now machines run six times as fast, and one worker oversees 100 of them.

With machines increasingly occupying the center of production, manufacturers want highly trained, literate workers at the controls. To meet the demand and help workers secure jobs, North Carolina has beefed up course offerings at its community colleges.

Three years ago, it set up Bionetwork, a training program based in community colleges, to feed workers into the state's growing biotech sector.

"All of the skills are closely tied to the workplace," said Norman Smit, Bionetwork's recruitment director. [...]

Glen Raven Custom Fabrics was another Carolina textile operation whose future seemed in doubt. In the early 1990s, the company was still concentrated on products under siege from foreign competition -- pantyhose, luggage fabric and yarn for apparel. Throughout the Carolinas, other textile companies were vanishing.

Glen Raven managed to endure and prosper by refocusing on specialty industrial fabrics for outdoor furniture, boats and awnings -- expensive goods that require customization, high-end machinery and technical expertise.

Economists suggest this is the future for successful U.S. manufacturers: zeroing in on high-value products that tap America's technological advantages to offset high labor costs. This strategy has fostered a boom in exports of American-made industrial engines and machinery, aerospace gear and pharmaceuticals.

North Carolina has embraced this approach, aggressively pushing biotechnology development. In the past decade, the number of biosciences firms in the state has jumped to 386 from 131, and the number of workers has more than doubled from 20,000 to 47,000, according to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a government arm that promotes the industry.

At Research Triangle Park, a sprawling complex outside Raleigh-Durham, Biogen Idec has established one of the larger biomanufacturing facilities in the United States, making sophisticated pharmaceuticals. Entry-level workers with the necessary training earn $27,000 to $35,000 a year. Experienced production workers can make considerably more.

For Glen Raven, the focus on high-technology production has turned its factory floors into lonely expanses. In Norlina, N.C., a red-brick factory just down Route 1 from the town's lone traffic light, 225 people once made pantyhose, pushing baskets of nylon across the floor by hand. Now, 156 workers man computers that control acres of robotic arms and bobbins producing yarn.

The refashioning has positioned Glen Raven to profit from what many portray as the mortal threat to the Carolina textile industry: China now buys growing volumes of the company's products. Last year, North Carolina exported $52 million of textiles and fabrics to China, a fivefold increase from 2003.

Chinese factories increasingly use Glen Raven's fabrics to make sun umbrellas and upholstery for lounge chairs, sending many of these finished goods back across the Pacific to the United States.

The workers at these Chinese factories typically make less in a month than the price of a sun umbrella at an American retailer. Glen Raven's success allows the company to pay its American workers $10.50 to $22 an hour, plus benefits. Even at those wages, labor represents only 5 percent of the overall cost of turning fiber into fabric.

Put another way, the efficiency of the machines that have eliminated jobs at its plants has allowed Glen Raven to pay the remaining workers enough to afford cars, health care and homes. Some of those homes boast patios and lawns now shaded by sun umbrellas made in China using fabric woven just down the road.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Daily Deliberation #6

Are the Democrats overplaying the "get out of Iraq" card?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Nonsense, on Wheels

With regard to a recent series of events that had put on stilts, then proceeded directly to the macarena, Bret had this to say:
If too many people in society are unable to exercise reasonable judgement whether because of lack of critical reasoning skills, prohibition by statute on using that judgement, or fear of reprisals for using judgement, then eventually every possible interaction between people will need to be codified into law and civilization will sink and suffocate in the quicksand of legal detail and court proceedings, weighed down by the costs, both to our wallets and souls, of supporting such a legal regime.

Which reminded me of this:
Warning. Use this system only when traffic conditions permit. Safe vehicle operation is the driver's responsibility. For further details, see the owner's manual.

That is the verbage that greets me every time I start my car, with respect to the display used for a whole host of system controls, from tuning the radio to configuring turn signal operation.

Ignoring the wordiness -- traffic is a condition, for Peter's sake -- the statement of the blindingly obvious, and the failure to follow through -- where's the caution telling me to see the owner's manual only when traffic permits? -- we get straight to how this nanny-warning is implemented.

It only goes away after acknowledging the message; all other functions are disabled until you do so.

Including, oddly, the steering wheel button that turns the display off (my default option, and one you'd think I could tell the car to remember ...).

What is most ludicrous though, keeping in mind that the bar is now in nose bleed territory, is that the message remains displayed, no matter how fast I am going, and completely heedless of whether traffic permits my reading it: it puts itself in the position of encouraging me to do that which it supposed to discourage me from doing.

With all due respect to Peter, Shakespeare's advice regarding lawyers seems a better idea than ever.

Hmmm. You don't suppose that if I contrived to crash while reading the message warning me about reading the message while in traffic making reading the message a very stupid thing indeed, I could sue?

Mountains, Molehills and the Government

Do we need the government to step in and regulate the subprime mortgage market? Hell no, says Ken Fisher.

TCS: Let's talk about the current status of the subprime mortgage market. Are you worried?

KEN FISHER: The only thing I fear about the subprime mortgage market is what politicians might do, because fundamentally everyone gets this backwards.

TCS: You don't see major long-term economic consequences?

KEN FISHER: I think intuitively everybody knows that in the long term, this is not a big deal for the economy and the stock market. I don't think it's big enough to matter.

TCS: So what is the problem?

KEN FISHER: There is a different issue that is hugely important that I don't think is widely recognized. Let me walk you through this.
First, you have to understand that a subprime mortgage, from its origination, is the offering of a mortgage to someone who otherwise wouldn't qualify to buy a home.
If you look at the history of subprime loans, they tend to average about a ten percent default rate. Now we're up around 14 percent. So all this brouhaha is about the increase from that historic ten percent default rate to today's rate of 14 percent.
But a ten percent default rate means that 90 percent of the people who got these loans ended up owning homes that they wouldn't otherwise have been able to buy. The question is: Do we want more people to have homes or do we want fewer people to have homes? My view is more people owning homes is moral and good. Fewer people owning homes is immoral and bad.
We should be encouraging subprime loans. Because it's the way these people get homes.

Today government is about punishing the successful 90% in order to assuage the hurt feelings of the bottom 10%.

Go Here and Read This

Gamma-ray annihilation lasers.
Di-positronium, antimatter, "the same as the difference between a nuclear explosion and a chemical explosion", boldly going where no man has gone before...

'Nuff said.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

No wonder; ignoring the readily apparent is hard

Liberal brains more sensitive than conservatives

Recent research appears to show that progressives' brains are, well, just more spiffy than those of troglodyte conservatives.

In a study likely to raise the hackles of some conservatives, psychologist David Amodio and others found that a specific region of the brain's cortex is more sensitive in people who consider themselves liberals than in self-declared conservatives.

According to the article, this finding substantiates the conclusion of a 2003 study "that conservatives tend to be more rigid and closed minded, less tolerant of ambiguity, and less open to new experiences."

This study correlated the ability to correctly and quickly identify the letters M and W, with M appearing 80% of the time. Not only did self identified liberals perform more accurately, they also showed more activity on an EEG when the Ws appeared.

Regarding the EEG finding, I'm surprised the researchers did not re-attempt the test with, say, C and G, in order to eliminate the possibility the EEG was merely diagnosing BDS, as the liberals may well have been pfaffing over the W, whereas the conservatives viewed it as just another letter.

That aside, let's take the studies' conclusions as stipulated.

Progressives have some explaining to do. If liberals are so darn smart and flexible, and, oh, so spiffy, how come:
They got the Duke "rape" case so comprehensively wrong -- the kind of wrong that puts kick-stands on tricycles -- then failed to demonstrate their vaunted flexibility by, say, APOLOGIZING.

Their collective failure to grasp the obvious led them to stoutly resist welfare reform.

Liberals still can't master the law of supply and demand, as shown by their insistence upon a "livable" minimum wage; similarly, liberals openness to new experiences has seemingly created insurmountable antibodies to the conclusion that unions are nothing more than rent seeking cartels.
I have a theory -- laced with no small amount of irony -- about why liberals are more flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and, well, just more spiffy than conservatives.

First, liberals are often, maybe always, right brained. The evidence is that most actors and other arty, creative, types are clearly right brained, and nearly always liberal.

Consequently, liberals, are analytically challenged, as evidenced by their proclivity to rely on feelings based reasoning, and to wholly ignore discordant evidence, no matter how bright, loud, and repeated it may be.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have much less need for flexibility, since interpreting the evidence in the light of unavoidable entering arguments (particularly 1 & 4) places much more emphasis on actual results -- which have, after all, a pesky tendency to not be particularly flexible -- rather than those, well, spiffy feelings.

The reality based community, with their extra special, ever so spiffy, brains, rely primarily on emotion.

The faith based community, with their appeals to Cosmic Muffins and Hairy Thunderers, rely primarily upon reason.

How messed up is that?

Thursday Evening End of the Road

Monday, September 10, 2007

Roll over, Yoko

And tell Tiny Tim the news. There's a new diva in town, and she's aiming for that coveted mucical niche - singers so bad that they're actually compelling to listen to. Her name is Wing, and she hails from New Zealand.
Wing Han Tsang (曾詠韓), the singer popularly known as Wing, has in a few short years achieved world-wide fame and a cult following that transcends borders and languages. When Wing sings, you cannot miss her sincerity and the pure joy she has for singing. With her unique voice and determined spirit, she has achieved what many singers can only dream of doing....

Getting started
Soon after emigrating to New Zealand from Hong Kong, Wing began singing for her own pleasure, and subsequently began entertaining patients at nursing homes and hospitals in and around the city of Auckland where she lives. She was encouraged by the response to her singing to consider making a recording, and with a grant received from Manukau City Council she released a very successful debut CD titled MUSICAL MEMORIES OF Les Miserables and The Phantom Of The Opera, featuring the title song from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, along with a number of other popular songs.

If nothing else, Wing is fearless. What other middle aged Chinese woman has the nerve to cut a CD titled "Wing sings AC/DC". Just listen to a sample of her cover of "Highway to Hell".

Wing also has the honor of having been animated into an episode of South Park. Fly on, Wing! Fly on!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

What are men good for?

Lets face it, the public image of the male sex has seen better days. Now that women have broken down the barriers of entry into the male dominated spheres of business, politics and the professions, the question of why men are necessary for a functional society becomes less rhetorical every day.

Roy Baumeister asks the question, and delivers a very convincing answer. Men are the change agents of society. The risk takers, the innovators. With no apologies to the feminist sensibility, he makes the daring claim that men are responsible for culture. The following passage, summarizing his essay, makes a very convincing, if politically incorrect, assessment of the male legacy for human civilization:
To summarize my main points: A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others, less fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. Culture uses both men and women, but most cultures use them in somewhat different ways. Most cultures see individual men as more expendable than individual women, and this difference is probably based on nature, in whose reproductive competition some men are the big losers and other men are the biggest winners. Hence it uses men for the many risky jobs it has.

Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding the winners and crushing the losers.

Culture is not about men against women. By and large, cultural progress emerged from groups of men working with and against other men. While women concentrated on the close relationships that enabled the species to survive, men created the bigger networks of shallow relationships, less necessary for survival but eventually enabling culture to flourish. The gradual creation of wealth, knowledge, and power in the men’s sphere was the source of gender inequality. Men created the big social structures that comprise society, and men still are mainly responsible for this, even though we now see that women can perform perfectly well in these large systems.

What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they aren’t as lovable as women.

The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring.

The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.

Again, I’m not saying it’s right, or fair, or proper. But it has worked. The cultures that have succeeded have used this formula, and that is one reason that they have succeeded instead of their rivals.

The more important question is: will men continue to play this same role as the drivers of culture, or is that a role that women will be able to take over from men? Are separate roles for men and women now obsolete?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

With a Mild Apology to Mike Beversluis

Lifted from the Mike Beversluis blog.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Dream On

"If we are going to stop wars on this Earth, we are going to have to make war on hunger our number one priority."

~ David W. Brooks, circa 1980, a member of the U.S. Presidential Commission on World Hunger, established September, 1978.

How prescient was Mr. Brooks ?

Not very. While there have been a few conflicts since 1980 that were motivated by lack of food, or that used hunger as a weapon, (such as in Ethiopia during the 80s), a full generation after Mr. Brooks made his remark it's clear that lack of food is not a large initial motivating factor in international conflict, or civil wars.


'We're in post-production on the sequel and it's looking really good. Now we just need a first movie.'

Caption by Mark Anderson of Andertoons.

Turn Off the Lights and Load Your Firearms

From the toothpaste for dinner site archives.

Double Take

'Clowns Without Borders' group uses laughter to uplift poor Haitians
I was originally going to post this with a note saying that while it's definitely on the "good" side of the ledger, it's also nearly completely useless. Are CLOWNS what Haiti (and Sierra Leone, the Palestinian territories, and the Balkans) really need ?!?

But then I realized that the countless U.S., UN, Doctors Without Borders, and who-knows-what-all alphabet-soup agency missions have failed to bring lasting improvement to Haiti, Sierra Leone, or the Palestinians, so maybe it's not so absurd to send in the clowns. It's a surreal French film, come to life.


First gay couple married in Iowa
August 31, 2007

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - [T]he state's first legal same-sex marriage [was performed] Friday morning, less than 24 hours after a judge threw out Iowa's ban on gay marriage and about two hours before he put his own ruling on hold.

It was a narrow window of opportunity. Polk County Judge Robert Hanson temporarily cleared the way for same-sex couples across the state to apply for marriage licences in the county when he ruled Thursday that Iowa's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed marriage only between a man and a woman, violated the constitutional rights of due process and equal protection of six gay couples who had sued. [Hanson ruled that the state law banning same-sex marriage must be nullified, severed and stricken from the books, and the marriage laws "must be read and applied in a gender neutral manner so as to permit same-sex couples to enter into a civil marriage."]

County attorney John Sarcone promised a quick appeal and asked Hanson to stay his ruling until that appeal was resolved.

A dozen gay and lesbian couples were waiting at the county recorder's office when it opened at 7:30 Friday morning.

"This might be our only chance," said Katy Farlow, who waited in a lawn chair with fellow Iowa State University student Larissa Boeck.

Just after 11 a.m., about 20 gay couples had finished applying for marriage licences when Recorder Julie Haggerty announced she could no longer accept applications. Hanson told The Associated Press about an hour and half later that he had formally stayed his ruling.

The stay meant the recorder's office was not permitted to accept any more marriage applications from gay couples until the Iowa Supreme Court rules on the county's appeal. [...]

Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts, and nine other states have approved spousal rights in some form for same-sex couples. Nearly all states have defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman, and 27 states have such wording in their constitutions, according the National Conference of State Legislatures. [...]

Roger Kuhle, an assistant Polk County attorney, argued that the issue was not for a judge to decide...

Roger Kuhle is half-right. It's not for a judge to decide what is acceptable for society as a whole, but it is a judge's job to rule about whether or not what voters say that they want is compatible with the state and national constitutions.

So basically, the Iowa Legislature should pass a law allowing for gay civil unions, but denying gays the right to "marriage". That hair-splitting will please few fully, but it will please most people enough that Iowan society and gov't can put this issue to bed.

Same-sex unions ought to be legal, but the gov't shouldn't be in the marriage business anyhow, so I have no problem with denying gay couples the official title of "married", as long as they can participate fully in the benefits and responsibilities of legal union.

MORE: From Google Ads comes this:
Ibiza Wedding - [Whether] you wish to marry in a white-washed Church nestled on a hill top, receive a spiritual blessing on a luxury yacht as the sun set melts into the Mediterranean or exchange your vows beside the pool of a beautiful country hotel scattered with rose petals, [we can help]. [...]

Same sex couples will be pleased to learn that same sex marriages are legal under Spanish law. We are personally delighted to offer the full extent of Ibiza Wedding services to all couples both heterosexual and same sex. Those who are familiar with this beautiful island will already be aware that we are a welcoming and open-minded community and our visitors are highly unlikely to encounter prejudice of any type. [...]

This is Ibiza as it really is - the island where anything can and usually does happen...

But of course, your particular state or nation is under no obligation to recognize a same-sex Spanish wedding...