Saturday, March 31, 2007


It brightens my day to read something like this:

LEFT-WING MSP Tommy Sheridan is to host a night of subversive stand-up comedy in the Capital.

The Solidarity leader will compere a show next Thursday at the Liquid Room on Victoria Street, featuring comedian Mark Steel...
Subversive? You're a fixture on the BBC, Mark. You're mainstream, have been for decades.

I hate to break this to you, but Radio 4 almost requires membership of the SWP before they'll commission a comedian. Linda Smith, Jeremy Harding - the pillocks on the Now Show who seem to think it's edgy to make jokes about George Bush being stupid. People called "Marcus" who think of themselves as fighters for the proletariat... it's become as British as vicars cycling through the rain to find a pub where they can drink warm beer.

They've become the comedy equivalent of The Archers - something reassuringly familiar and comfortable, but best turned off as soon as the theme tune begins.

It is funny, though. I'll give you that. Thinking it's subversive...


Algor is Latin for "coldness". Really.

Inheritance tax

Chris Dillow has compared attitudes to slavery apologies/reparations and inheritance. It's an interesting point:

If we shouldn't impose costs upon people because of something they are not responsible for, why should we tolerate them getting benefits?
I think that's an unfortunate way to phrase it, though. It's trying to balance state intervention in one matter (imposing costs) against state non-intervention in another (untrammeled inheritance). In fact, the natural situation in both cases is state non-intervention, which gives neither apology nor reparation for slavery, and does not interfere in inheritance. You have to make a case for state action, not for state inactivity.

The argument is really that if good things must, morally, pass down the generations, then so must bad things. If assets can be transferred from one generation to the next then so can liabilities. Therefore if there is a liability for slavery then that liability falls on the present generation.

None of this makes the slavery apology/reparation campaigners any less fatuous. Their case would fail even if assets and liabilities properly passed down the generations. But they do not.

We have no moral claim to the products of our ancestors' labour. While people are alive they have absolute moral claim to the products of their own labour and can dispose of them as they see fit, including disposals that benefit their children. But when you're dead, you're dead. No dispositions of your assets will, ultimately, be honoured (just ask the Pharoahs) and there's no reason why they should be. The dead have no claim at all over the world of the living.

This means that while income tax is a form of theft, inheritance tax is more like the disposal of unclaimed bank accounts or lottery tickets.

Dillow argues the case on principle: it's wrong to benefit from past injustices, and these can't be disentangled from any inheritance. He's right. Claiming inheritance without liability for past wrongs is as flaky as claiming rights without responsibilities. But there's also a practical point.

Inheritance is a dead weight on us all, it's a blanket laid across the country, suffocating us all. It's a dreadful, dreadful thing, in practice. The most vital and active countries in the world are relatively unburdened by inheritance - Australia and the USA, for one reason or another, are places where it is within living memory that assets were still freely available for the most enterprising, who naturally put them to the best use.

People talk about economics not being a zero sum game, and that's patently true. But it is a massive brake on society and the economy when most - more than 50% and as much as 80% depending on who you believe - of all currently available assets are held by those whose sole purpose is to keep hold of them and pass them on to the next generation as unchanged as possible, and not to exercise them in any economically useful way whatsoever.

And since there's no moral reason why the dead should be able to dictate what happens to what were once their assets, and since nobody has any moral claim over the fruits of other people's labour, not even relatives, the auctioning off of 100% of the assets of all estates above, say, £500,000 would have no obstacles in principle, would place assets in the hands of the most productive members of the current generation, and would provide voluntary tax revenues to allow cuts in compulsory ones.

UPDATE: Tim Worstall argues persuasively that leaving assets to your children is just a form of delayed consumption. At a stretch, he argues:
While growing up the consumption of the family has been limited by the savings being accumulated. It seems a little odd to insist that delayed consumption must be taxed, while current consumption is not.
This is fair enough, although I think it is still worth repeating that when you're dead you're dead and you can't expect to control any assets beyond your own lifetime.

But this is why I think there should be a highish threshold beneath which no inheritance tax at all is paid, and above which the tax rate is effectively 100%. In the post above, I suggested £500,000 but I'd have no problem with a figure twice that. The point being that you can still trace faint outlines of the Norman Conquest in the landholdings of the English aristocracy, and by now you should not be able to. That's one hell of a period of stagnation: coming up to the millennium mark.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reminds me of my youth

Plus ca change...

In 1999, bombs exploded in apartment buildings in Moscow, killing more than 100 people. The Russian authorities promptly accused Chechen separatists of carrying out the attacks, and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Chechnya, sparking the Second Chechen War. These actions, taken in the name of counterterrorism, enhanced Putin's popularity and contributed to his win in the presidential election in 2000.

Mikhail Trepashkin, a defense attorney, became a consultant to a special public commission set up by prominent human rights activist and former Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalev to investigate the circumstances of the 1999 bombings. Mr. Trepashkin had worked for the Federal Security Service (FSB) and brought his insider knowledge of the agency to the investigation.

During the investigation, Mr. Trepashkin revealed evidence of FSB involvement in the Moscow bombings. This included an interview with the landlord of the apartment building, who said he had been coerced into identifying a Chechen as the culprit. Also, two weeks after the bombings that shook Moscow, local police found another bomb in an apartment building in the city of Ryazan. Suspects were apprehended and later released when they turned out to be FSB agents.

The investigation came to an abrupt end when the co-chairman of the Commission, Sergei Yushenkov, was murdered in front of his home. One Commission member died of food poisoning, another was brutally beaten, and two other members were removed from their seats in the legislature.

Mr. Trepashkin was hired by Tatiana and Alyona Morozova, the Russian-American daughters of a woman who was killed in the 1999 blast, to represent their interests during the prosecution of the Chechen rebels accused of transporting the explosives. The first day of the trial was scheduled for October 24, 2003. Just four days before he was set to appear in court to represent the interests of his clients, Trepashkin was stopped on a roadway outside Moscow by the police. The police searched Trepashkin's car and declared they had found a pistol in his trunk. Trepashkin denies having a gun in his car and claims that the police fabricated the charges.

On October 22, 2003, Trepashkin was jailed.
And he's in trouble:
In recent months a number of complaints about his conduct in prison have been filed with the authorities. These complaints appear to have been fabricated by the authorities or to be based on complaints from other prisoners that were apparently coerced by threatening them with the withdrawal of privileges, such as depriving them of family visits if they refused to submit a complaint against him. It is worth recalling that Trepahskin was granted parole on the basis of his good conduct in prison in August 2005.

On March 9, 2007, a district court in Nizhny Tagil ruled that Trepashkin should be transferred from the penal settlement, to a nearby prison colony of general regime, where the conditions of confinement are harsher than in the settlement. At this hearing the judge refused to accept a request from the Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Lukin, that Trepashkin be transferred to a prison hospital to receive treatment for his severe asthma. The bar association of the city of Moscow, of which Trepashkin was a member, submitted an appeal questioning the legal basis of Trepashkin's continued imprisonment, which the judge also declined to consider.

The troubling background to Trepashkin's prosecution and continued imprisonment suggests that he is being singled out for punishment for his activities as a lawyer representing his clients, who, in the course of those duties, exposed evidence that casts doubt on official explanations for a series of bombings that took place in Moscow in 1999.
Why, yes it does. So let's make sure this receives as much publicity as possible.

Let's make repression counterproductive.

Holiday reading

Back from Egypt, a case study for anyone interested in how a mixture of totalitarianism, socialism and religion can transform a regional powerhouse into a third world country in half a century.

Every Egyptian seems to have a story about their youth, or maybe that of their father... set sometime before the 'sixties when Egypt was no less developed than any other Mediterranean country.

Now, there are live electrical cables dangling down the side of the sentry post at the airport, rigged into a rats nest of insulating tape, twine and a bare unattached faceplate so they can charge their radios. I shifted the bed in our hotel room, and exposed an open mains socket, without faceplate but with live wires twisted together and taped off. The thought of how a British health and safety inspector would react made me leave an especially generous tip when we left, that and the nagging suspicion that multi-lingual graduate-caliber people shouldn't be cleaning hotel rooms...

And a wonderful, friendly people they are too, though from a first glance at the streets you'd have to guess that 97% of the population is male. I had some interesting chats about Kifaya in particular and democracy struggles in general. If they do ever get a liberal and free country to live in, we'd better start shaping up.

Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing to do anyway.

I bought three books at the airport. I prefer to buy new books when travelling but on this occasion they were a mixture of old and new. I hadn't read To Kill a Mockingbird since I was at school. The same simple line blinded me with tears again, 30 years later:

Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives.
James Watson's DNA: The Secret of Life was new to me, and is a clear explanation of an area of science I wanted to understand in at least this much detail. It succeeded for me where other accounts have failed.

The second world war saw the science of genetics shift from the left-wing obsession with eugenics to a preoccupation with the mechanism whereby genetic information was transferred from one generation to the next. By 1946, people thought chromosomes were the stagecoach, but what was the mail sack? DNA was too simple a chemical to transmit such complexity of information, so the scientific consensus ran. Therefore, people who suggested that DNA carried the genetic code were threatened with death and "Nuremberg style tribunals", refused publication for their ideas, and had entire websites set up to refute and confront their denialist ideas.

Ah... no. I'm thinking of something else. But there were still problems. Genetics is the most astonishing success in the science of the past half century. To have moved from a basic, tentative identification of the structure of the DNA molecule in the mid-1950s to the successful, complete sequencing of the human genome fifty years later is mind-bogglingly, awesomely, amazingly wonderful.

And yet genetic science has been fought for thirty years as a "Frankenstein" technology by the same drivelling maniacs who make papier mache puppet heads to protest against Bushitler, and who now confront climate change realists with death threats and foamings about "Nuremberg style tribunals", contributing to an environment wherein papers are not published and entire websites are set up to "refute" basic sceptical science.

And I bought the complete novels of George Orwell. I'd like to be able to say that I found new parallels between, say, Animal Farm and NuLabour, but I won't insult anyone's intelligence by suggesting there are any similarities between John Prescott and a pompous, deceitful pig in a suit.

Instead, I'll quote a passage quoted in The Principles of Newspeak - the appendix to 1984. Apparently, this can't be translated into Newspeak:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it and to institute new Government...

Monday, March 19, 2007


Will be away for a week. Posts are possible, if I see anything interesting.

There is, of course, the chance that I will spend most of my time looking through either at live fish through a facemask or at grilled fish through the bottom of a wine glass, depending on the time of day. As the snow falls outside my window (has the Weather God paid a surprise visit to the UK?), I hear it's 100 degrees where I'm going. Heh.

Scary stuff

This has been linked to from various places; I saw it at the ASI, but it is worth repeating in case any reader here has missed it.

Schools were soon used for ideological indoctrination, and the whole educational system was greatly expanded. Universities were founded right and left ...

Initially, cultural policy was content with limited objectives. It was impossible to remove all 'bourgeois' scholars and teachers from academic institutions at a stroke, as this would have virtually put an end to learning and education. The universities were more subjected to political pressure than the research institutes ... There is naturally less strict control over bodies that are not engaged in teaching the young. ...

Professorial chairs were assigned to politically reliable individuals ... The enrolment of students was subjected to class criteria so as to exclude 'bourgeois' applicants, i.e. children of the old intelligentsia or the middle class. Stress was laid on 'vocational' education, in opposition to the old idea of a 'liberal' university with a fairly flexible curriculum. The object was to prevent the creation of an intelligentsia in the old sense, i.e. a class of people who wished not only to be skilled in their own profession but to enlarge their horizons, to acquire an all-round culture and form their own opinions on general topics. ...

The intensity of political pressure varied in different fields. At the outset there was practically no coercion as far as the content of natural science was concerned; in the humanities it was strongest in ideologically sensitive areas, namely philosophy, sociology, law, and modern history. (Leszek Kolakowski on developments in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol.1, pp47-48.)
Now read this.

The emphasis is from the source blog, mediocracy, which should be added to every feed reader immediately.

What they want

300 the movie continues its surge at the box office:

... the battle epic "300" took the No. 1 spot for the second-straight weekend with $31.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The Warner Bros. movie, the story of vastly outnumbered Spartans defending against Persian invaders, shot past the $100 million mark after just a week in theaters, bringing its total to $127.5 million.
Note to British film industry - make a fucking action film.

Blimey - BBC denial

Via Matthew Sinclair, a BBC report on the Stern Review:

When the Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change came out last year, it was showered with praise.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called it, "the most important report on the future ever published by this government".

But expert critics of the review now claim that it overestimates the risk of severe global warming, and underestimates the cost of acting to stop it.
Richard Tol is a professor at both Hamburg and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and is one of the world's leading environmental economists.

The Stern Review cites his work 63 times; but that does not mean he agrees with it.

"If a student of mine were to hand in this report as a Masters thesis, perhaps if I were in a good mood I would give him a 'D' for diligence; but more likely I would give him an 'F' for fail.

"There is a whole range of very basic economics mistakes that somebody who claims to be a Professor of Economics simply should not make," he told The Investigation on BBC Radio 4.
Matthew comments:
There is a brilliant bit rebutting Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, who says we can see global warming in Britain in the Thames Barrier being raised so much more in the last five years than in the five years previous. The reporter actually goes to the Thames Barrier and finds that the truth is the opposite. However, truth has been made hostage to politics. Chris Huhne's over-confident ignorance encapsulates what makes much of the global warming debate so unimpressive.

Bong hits for editors

It's a pleasure to read reports of the Bong hits for Jesus proceedings in the US Supreme Court:

Scores of students waited outside the Supreme Court on Monday for a chance to listen to arguments in a test of student speech rights — a high school senior's display of a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

"I would never do it, but at the same time, it's free speech," said Chaim Frenkel, 17
Apart from the amusement value, it's almost liberty porn, for someone in Europe, to see a country that takes rights of free speech so seriously that their highest court will deliberate over whether or not a student should be allowed to hold up a silly sign - and that raises 17 year olds who will contest the issue and whose friends will stand outside the court in his support.

Meanwhile, as though further proof were needed that the editors of The Independent newspapers have been toking so hard they've started hallucinating, we read yesterday that:
More than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction
Cannabis isn't physically addictive, but authoritarianism clearly is.

Just not getting it

Blair has today announced plans for website-based user ratings for schools, like some successful internet sites:

Tony Blair promised to give parents, pupils and patients a greater voice in the running of public services, proposing a user-ratings system like that used on Amazon and eBay.

The Prime Minister, flanked by his likely successor Gordon Brown, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt and Education Secretary Alan Johnson, today unveiled plans for user reviews to help families identify which schools are most suitable for their children.

Websites could also provide up-to-the-minute details of pupils' achievements under the proposals announced at a school in Hackney, east London.

Mr Blair said: "What we want is to keep these basic public service values, which are about access to quality public services irrespective of your wealth, but make sure those are truly personalised services where there's a much greater diversity of provider and the old ways of working are broken down."

The policy review claims that public services must be shaped by the taxpayers who fund them, and that there must be a much greater diversity of providers.

One of its suggestions is that people should be able to choose where they learn by using league tables which give satisfaction ratings for schools, including uncensored reviews such as those published on the Amazon or eBay websites.
(emphasis added)

I went off a bit half-cocked when I first saw this, and the present post is heavily updated.The eBay and Amazon guff is typical techno-fluff. Without parental choice, it would be meaningless; with parental choice - genuine parental choice about which schools to try to send their children to and, ideally, an equivalent choice (selection) whereby the schools can decide which pupils to accept - this would be the icing on the cake.

Choice is the cake, and it's good to see that in this suggestion. If the waffle about user ratings helps smuggle this past the Jurassic fauna on the Labour benches, it'll have served a purpose.

Where the action is

Adobe has released an alpha version of its new Apollo runtime code today:

Apollo, like the Flash Player, is a runtime, but one in which applications built using standard internet development technologies - such as HTML, Flash and AJAX - can run offline.
Indeed, [Adobe's] Lynch said Adobe and Microsoft are trying to solve similar problems, but approaching it from two different directions.

"What we're really focused on is to enable the web to have a greater presence on the desktop, so as a web developer you can create your application and have it be installable on the desktop," he said. "We're bringing the web to the desktop."

Microsoft, on the other hand, developed Windows Vista with the hopes that Windows applications will be able to get information from the web while they run with a standard Windows user interface. Microsoft also plans to link its Windows Live web-based services more closely with its Windows OS.

"We're coming from two different directions, but converging on the same space," which is to create a bridge between the web and desktop applications, Lynch said.
AJAX is a collection of technologies that make web sites function more like standard applications. Google uses AJAX extensively in gmail, google reader and its spreadsheet and word processing applications. An AJAX system will work on any type of computer, so long as it has a compatible web browser. As the quote above suggests, Microsoft's strategy has long been to use deliberate incompatibility between its systems and those of other vendors to try to force people to use only Microsoft software. This has worked well in the past, but has no long term viability in the face of these new technologies.

Google is also working on a mobile phone, probably based on Linux, and featuring strong integration with these technologies.

Here's what's happening. Microsoft has invested in constructing a computing world based around large, expensive desktop machines each of which runs a stand-alone copy of every piece of software you might use.

In fact, a networked computing environment is far more sensibly constructed around server-based applications and lightweight workstations that run a viewer application (like a web browser) that allows any application to run from the server(s).

Firefox is actually less a web browser than an application development platform with extremely strong network integration. The browser is actually an example of an application that can run within this. There haven't been many developments that use this potential, but to get an idea what it can do have a look at Celtx, a screenwriting program. Celtx is of course platform independent; it will run on any system that can run firefox.

Using this development model, the developers of an application like Firefox can concentrate on making their software run on as many platforms as possible (Firefox already runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD Unix and Solaris), while anyone developing for Firefox using any compatible technology (AJAX, Flash, the Firefox API) can know that their application will also work on all those platforms.

Ultimately, this approach is the only rational one and it is hard to see how Microsoft's model can survive in the longer term.

That nice Mr Hitler

The peace movement has a long and disgraceful history to live up to:

John Middleton Murry, editor of the pacifist journal Peace News during WWII, wrote in that magazine on 9 August 1940:
Personally I don't believe that a Hitlerian Europe would be quite so terrible as most people believe it would be.
In Peace News, 30 October 1942, [the Marquess of Tavistock] invoked the following rationalisation for Nazi aggression in Europe:
... the very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance when exploiting Germany's financial difficulties, by their associations with commercialized vice, and by their monopolization of certain professions.

on 3 May 1945, Vera Brittain maintained that the gas chambers were being publicised by the allies:
... partly, at least, in order to divert attention from the havoc produced in German cities by allied obliteration bombing.
Thus an ethical objection to war - grossly misguided, but not inherently ignoble - became a position indifferent to tyranny and genocide, uncomprehending of the moral imperative of combating evil, and even complicit in support of that evil.
The concluding words are Oliver Kamm's. The situation they describe continues.

An anonymous American peace campaigner has written to the President of Iran:
"Mr. President, we hate war as much as [we hate] Bush and his team. Many people here in America think like me. We cannot do anything to prevent Bush's stupid acts…but I write to you because I believe you are a rational and God-loving person," read a portion of the American woman's letter to the president.

"We do not consider George Bush as our [legitimate] President because he got the White House top job by cheating, which was illegal. Even many American mothers whose sons have not been sent to Iraq agree with me that Bush is an [expletive]," the letter continued.

The American mother wrote that Bush had forced her son to go to war in Iraq. Bush "took my son away from me forever," she wrote.

The Iranian President wrote back to the woman on his personal blog that "the ones who forced your son to go to war in Iraq must be held responsible for the shedding of his blood and that of other American soldiers who have met the same fate."

He wrote that Iranians respect all people, including Americans.

"Our religion does not allow us to harm the peace of mind and tranquility of any nation," the President wrote...

Via The Spirit.

The envy of the world

Starting the day with a reminder that even massive, vast, eye-watering spending levels can't cure the problems of industrial, soviet-style state healthcare. Dr Crippen wrote this a couple of weeks ago, quoting The Independent on Sunday:

  • 391 women have died in childbirth in the last three years, a 21% increase on the previous comparable period.

  • The UK now has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Europe, with 13 deaths per 100,000.

  • 17676 women have suffered physical harm on labour wards in the last three years – harm such as perforated bowels, necessitation temporary colostomies.

  • Maternity medical negligence claims are costing the NHS £1 billion a year

It is all due to lack of resources and, as Dr Crippen never tires of saying, dumbing down.
  • Midwives are doing work for which they are not trained; work that should be done by doctors.

  • Health care assistants are doing work for which they are not trained; work that should be done my midwives.

How is the government dealing with this?

The Independent quotes the Department of Health as saying:
“Giving birth is safer than it has ever been.”
That's a cut-out-and-keep Labour lie. But what is Crippen talking about when he mentions a "lack of resources"? In 2000, a piece in the BMJ called for a health budget increase of more than £36 billion - roughly equivalent to a rise of 10p in income tax. That's exactly what they got. The statistics in the quote above are the consequence of a government's policy that has included increasing spending from general taxation to the level that was asked for by the profession. But the overall effect of government policy, including spending increases, has been a worsening of the service, its effectiveness and the morale of its staff.

Crippen likes the noises Cameron is making:
But back to David Cameron. He talks of trusting the professionals, of treating doctors like human beings again.

It is a long time since anyone in government said anything like that.
Nice words for a doctor to hear and a good thing were it to happen, but no solution to the problem. The NHS isn't incompetently managed. The problems it is facing are actually intrinsic to any large, monopolistic government-run enterprise. Until Crippen and doctors like him are willing to advocate the only genuine solution - privatisation, customer choice - the problems will remain.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hold the front page

They're busy changing the headline for tomorrow's Independent. Iraq, an apology:

a survey of more than 5,000 Iraqis by Opinion Research Business, a reliable pollster, gives an utterly different view. It shows a country which is far more optimistic than anyone would have expected. By two to one, Iraqis say that life is better under the present system. There is, as might be expected, a clear Sunni-Shi’ite split. But even 29% of Sunnis, who had it pretty easy under Saddam, say things are better now. This result, when you take into account the fear, the bloodshed, the power cuts, the lack of water and the sheer struggle of everyday life, is remarkable. Nor was the poll conducted among people who have been shielded from the worst of the violence. One in four of those questioned has had a member of their family murdered in the conflict and a similar proportion have seen relatives displaced, many of them forced to flee abroad.

There is something else significant in the poll. Only a quarter of Iraqis think their country is in civil war. And they also believe, by two to one, that security will improve once American and British troops withdraw. This is a rejoinder to those who believe withdrawal would unleash an all-out struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis. The current American troop surge appears to have been a considerable success in reducing levels of violence, again contrary to conventional wisdom.

National Mind Your Own Business Day

Count me in.

In fact, how about setting a date? I suggest June 1st - enough time to get the word around. Any takers? I can picture it now.

"Fuck off, it's Mind Your Own Business Day."

Pray God they're not too late

From here via here.

Discouraging people smuggling

The Australian government has announced that 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted in international waters will be sent to Nauru:

The original plan had been to send them to Indonesia, from where they had initially set sail. Indonesia, however, refused to guarantee that they would not be sent back to Sri Lanka from there, which led Australia's immigration authorities to transfer them to Nauru instead.

"The government is committed to a strong border protection policy," Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews told reporters. "We are also committed to sending the strongest possible message of deterrence to people who would engage in the dangerous and unlawful activity of people smuggling."
That seems like a wise policy; it safeguards the refugees while denying them their desired country of destination, which undermines the horrendous people smuggling industry.

Parental support

Here are some parents who like to help their children get ahead. Or, indeed, give it:

Sunny Lee has some really supportive parents.

The 20-something gal has made a name for herself as the "Shirley Temple of Porn," thanks in large part to the help of her loving parents, ABC News reports.

Lee (not her real name) still lives at home with her parents, Mike and Shelby, who help her in every aspect of the business — from helping her create a doppelganger sex doll to bagging her dirty underwear for sale online.

"We're not kinky parents," Mike insists to ABC News.

Is it cos I ain't black?

Barak Obama isn't black. He's not an African American. He's an African African American.

Debra Dickerson is a good sport, it has to be said.

Via The Sandmonkey.

300 - the response

I blogged before about the difficulties that the movie 300 presents to Iranians. 300 is ostensibly a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, fought between the Persian and Spartan armies. In fact, it's a metaphor about the contemporary Islamist threat and the Western response to it.

If you're an expatriot, and patriotic Iranian, you're likely to be fiercely proud of your culture and history, and angry about the Islamic destruction of Persian culture. So you hate the Islamists, but can't exactly warm to a film that represents Persians as turbanned fanatics.

How do you respond? With great elegance, it turns out. The Spirit of Man has been tracking two projects, and remarks in passing:

Which shame is greater? Being mocked by movies like 300 or being actually a terrorist nation?
Visit 300 the movie for some stunning artwork depicting the ancient Persian empire, and check out Cyrus the Movie to see a work in progress that is being funded by donations.

University challenge

It seems Oxford and Cambridge universities take different lines on the question of free expression. When a student magazine at Clare College Cambridge published one of the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the reaction was:

In a statement issued by Clare College, senior tutor Patricia Fara said: "Clare is an open and inclusive college. A student produced satirical publication has caused widespread distress throughout the Clare community.

The college finds the publication and the views expressed abhorrent.

Reflecting the gravity of the situation, the college immediately began an investigation and disciplinary procedures are in train."

The Union of Clare Students also tried to quell the furore provoked by the publication.

Calum Davey, the union's president expressed his "deep regret" over the publication and offered his sincere apologies for the offence caused.
In Oxford, when a student refugee advocacy group began a campaign to oust a Don for his membership of Migration Watch, the response was different:
An Oxford spokesman said: "Freedom of speech is a fundamental right respected by the university. Staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges."
It's actually something of a mistake to expect principled responses from universities, especially these two ancient institutions. The only way they have survived the Reformation, Protestant versus Catholic violence, the Civil War and the social changes of the past century has been by being what one might charitably call "supple". They bend before the wind.

So these two incidents tell us something about the contemporary climate. Collecting statistics about migration is still within the pale, but the institutional capitulation to extremist Muslim demands is almost complete.


An interesting perspective on the Iraqi chlorine bombings, from Iraq The Model:

I've read at least two very optimistic reports from al-Almada in the last week about purported victories of the tribes and police over al-Qaeda in Ramadi and Fallujah. I was reluctant to trust the accuracy of the reports which sited unnamed sources but now seeing the reaction of al-Qaeda suggests that the action of the tribes was so painful that al-Qaeda retaliated in the way we see today.

Al-Qaeda's terrorists-whom AP insists on calling insurgents-expended three suicide bombers and precious resources against their supposedly sympathetic civilian Sunni hosts instead of American and Iraqi soldiers and Shia civilians; their usual enemies.
If this indicates anything it indicates that al-Qaeda's is reprioritizing the targets on the hit list. The reason: al-Qaeda is sensing a serious threat in the change of attitude of the tribes toward them and perhaps the apparently successful meeting of the sheiks with Maliki and the agreements that were made then was the point at which open war had to be declared.

The tribes in Anbar are stubborn and they have many ruthless warriors. That's a proven fact and it looks like Al-Qaeda had just made their gravest mistake—their once best friends are just about to become their worst enemy.

Fat saves!

It seems salad dodging brings at least one survival advantage:

A 35-year-old Orlando man can thank his 300-pound girth for helping save his life after he jumped off a cruise ship and drifted 20 miles for more than eight hours with a collapsed lung before rescuers found him in the Atlantic Ocean.
His 300-pound girth likely helped him float easier than someone leaner, said Richard Rotundo, a professor at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine specializing in cell biology and anatomy.

"Someone who is really overweight and has excess fat, their body density would be less than water," Rotundo said. Layers of fat also would insulate Mankamyer from the water, the professor said.
I guess this also provides an example of nominative determinism - a professor specialising in fat people, with the name 'Rotundo'.

Global warming roundup

The Reference Frame reports on an interview(mp3) given by Martin Durkin, director of Channel 4's Great Global Warming Swindle, and speculates about Professor Wunsch's position:

If I had to guess, I would guess that Prof Carl Wunsch is being blackmailed by the environmentalist advocacy groups right now. There is a lot of vague talk by Wunsch et al. about the impression one gives etc.

Jesus Christ, the main question is not about impressions - at least outside the anti-greenhouse religion, it is not about impressions. The main question is whether the set of hypotheses referred to as "man-made global warming" are right or wrong, whether the underlying facts are right or wrong
Also some interesting links and argument about the scientific method and a historical perspective:
Imagine that back in the 16th century they thought that weather events were supernatural and caused by special humans - witches - that had to be eradicated.
Tim Blair draws attention to Alaska's ice problem:
A frozen harbor is nothing new around Homer. In fact, Homer Harbormaster Steve Dean said it’s actually fairly normal. The difference this year, however, is how late the ice is sticking around ...
As Alaskans continue to endure frigid weather and blustery wind, March is headed to being one of the coldest on record, weather experts say.

If the cold hangs on, this year could beat 1956 as Anchorage’s coldest.
And makes fun of a group of global warming protestors and their struggles against icy conditions and snow drifts during their protest march.

City Unslicker reports on the BBC's sudden candour about scientific reservations:
Two leading UK climate researchers say some of their peers are "overplaying" the global warming message and risk confusing the public about the threat.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Gibberish watch

Via Butterflies and Wheels, an excellent source of links to post-modernist gibberish, comes this specimen:

In critical international relations theory, the idea that we need to move away from an exclusively human-centred politics is gaining ground. But what would it mean to theorise the international without a human subject at its centre? This workshop invites papers that critically explore the implications and possibilities of a post-human international.

Questions that could be considered include: Is a post-human international politics possible? What might this new international look like? How would a post-human focus raise new questions about international security, responsibility and ethics? What implications might a post-human imaginary have for questions of citizenship, rights and democracy? How does a post-human condition alter the relationship between self and other, inside and outside? Does it offer a different way of theorising the relationship between the domestic and the international? How can liminal figures such as the cyborg illuminate our categories of nature, culture, technology and society? How would a post-human focus alter the way we consider our relationship to animals, artificial intelligence, and the environment? If the idea of "man" is dead, then is the international already a post-human space? And finally, do these moves in international theory represent another attempt to rescue the modern subject, or do they offer new possibilities for an alternative international relations?
It's hard to pick a favourite sentence from that, but if I had to I think I'd choose: 'If the idea of "man" is dead, then is the international already a post-human space?'

The critical line, though, is this: 'But what would it mean to theorise the international without a human subject at its centre?' For the uninitiated, it would mean that a bunch of post-Marxist academics would have managed to construct a flimsy rationale for their pre-existing belief that their general world view can legitimately be imposed onto the field of international relations, however irrelevant its components might be to that field.

Incidentally, connoisseurs of sentences like 'The postpositivist approach can be described as incredulity towards metanarratives' should read the Wikipedia entry for critical international relations theory.

UPDATE: I wrote this in a hurry, but realise I should point out the full beauty of the sentence I chose as my favourite. The phrases 'post-human space' and 'the idea of "man" is dead' are both meaningless and equivalent. Post-human space is what you get if the idea of "man" is dead, in the intention of the writer. Yet, although they sound as though they might, and are syntactically correct, neither of these phrases has any meaning whatsoever. In other words, this sentence manages to be both devoid of content, and tautological at the same time.

Anyone who has studied post-modern language realises that this is the ideal, the pinnacle of achievement. Language should be as dense as possible, completely devoid of meaning and yet capable of being reduced to the triviality of 1=1. I can only salute the (anonymous) author.

Sinister delusions

Peter Tatchell writes in the most recent edition of Democratiya:

We have long been used to the hypocrisy of the political right. In the name of defending 'freedom', many Conservatives defended the very unfree regimes of Botha's South Africa, Franco's Spain, and Pinochet's Chile. What is new is that this selective approach to human rights is now being echoed by sections of the left, with their inaction against, and occasional open apologia for, the regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.
(emphasis added)

What a strange thing to say. Sections of the left have been ignoring human rights for decades. What is new is that as well as doing so in support of communist and socialist regimes (Cuba, Venezuela, even North Korea today, the USSR and its satellites before 1990) some sections of the left are now supporting deeply conservative, racist or theocratic regimes and movements.

The delusion on the part of the left that it is the fons et origo of political morality is one of the strangest phenomena of our time.

Six nations rugby

It's a bit of a foregone conclusion today: Italy to beat Ireland in Rome, Scotland to repeat their 1999 away victory in Paris, and England beating Wales in Cardiff by 30 points to win the tournament.

All very predictable.

PJ interview

A whole hour of PJ O'Rorke talking about Adam Smith. Whack the diddle oh, as they say in Australia.

I'm in withdrawal from radio, but just can't stomach the BBC any more. This'll help.

(Stolen shamelessly from J F Beck, who stole it from someone else.)

Friday, March 16, 2007


I hate to give you such a disturbing mental image, but I was in the bath the other day thinking, as you do, about religion. Children are saturated in superstition from birth. If they were given as much exposure to science as they are to mythology we'd have a better world, a more rational world but most importantly a world in which the vast majority of people were not standing on the wrong side of a chasm of ignorance, unable to participate in the great intellectual adventure of our times.

What would it take, I wondered as I reached for the shampoo (it's not strictly necessary any more, but I find it comforting), to bring about a revolution, so that children were brought up steeped in genuine knowledge? What earnest, well-meaning, educational initiatives could we introduce to make a better world?

I needn't have worried:

It's the equivalent of a new Beatles album for computer gamers: a $20 million sequel to the world-beating "Sims" franchise that lets players control life, their Universe and everything.
The game begins with a drop of water emerging as a single-celled organism.

Players then develop their cells to create their own species, build civilizations, colonize their planets and ultimately send missions into outer space.

Instigating people

is a criminal charge in Egypt. No, really.

Daniel Pearl was a hero

And his captors were diminished even more by Pearl's bravery:

He was held for two weeks before he was killed but made at least one escape attempt - according to the arrested men, just three days before he was murdered.

"He tried to scale the wall but couldn't do it because both his hands were tied," one told police.
On the day Pearl died, two of his Pakistani guards were present: Ali Khan, arrested just two weeks ago, and Fazal Karim, an employee of Saud Memon. One recently told interrogators how the Arabs tried to sedate Pearl, first by injection, then by doctoring his tea.

"I think he understood that he was going to be killed and refused to accept tea or to gulp pills. He even did not allow himself to be injected."

Sally Clark

Sally Clark, who was wrongfully convicted of killing her children, has died. It turns out she really did get a life sentence.

Ellee Seymour puts it well.

An American hero

It is hardly surprising that the Iraq War public relations battle is being lost in Britain, when we have no effective advocates in the government - unlike Australia - and no effective information stream from the military - unlike the US.

CENTCOM is one of the leading edges of America's media and internet information chain. Here they present a story of an everyday American hero:

On Feb. 22, 2006, Taylor and his intelligence team headed out to search for roadside bombs in a volatile region of Afghanistan. They had received word that a bomb had exploded in the area the night before, so his team – a combination of Afghan national police officers, Army intelligence personnel, and U.S. military police – planned to gather any information and evidence about the explosion. By studying the bomb’s components, they might be able to determine who manufactured it – and how to protect against similar devices in the future.

They climbed to the top of a ridge to scout the valley below, where the bomb was supposed to be. There were no civilians in sight, which instantly put Taylor on alert. The wooden box supposedly holding the shards of the bomb drew the team’s attention. Yet, instead of pieces of an exploded bomb, the box held a receiver for an anti-tank landmine – and a large rocket. Having hardly any time to think, Taylor grabbed the two Afghan police officers near him and jumped on top of them in a ditch, just as the weapon exploded. The flying shrapnel found its mark with Taylor – but his body armor protected him from serious injury. The Afghans had been wearing only flannel shirts, and so were saved by Taylor’s split-second decision. For his actions, he was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” on Jan. 6, 2007.
I'm not American, Taylor isn't British. But I'm grateful to him for what he is doing, and proud that people like him are helping Iraq move into a peaceful and democratic future.

I'd like to be posting similar stories about British servicemen. But the MoD needs first to remove the cork from its arse, and start presenting some information we can reproduce, to help us share the pride some of us already feel in the young men and women who are risking, and giving, their lives in order that we can sleep soundly in our beds.

At least, chez Risdon, sleep soundly until the mastiff downstairs starts snoring. These seventeenth century cottages are all well and good, but the ceilings are thin...

A Kammic interlude

Oliver Kamm can be very funny at times:

One other reason militating against an anti-nuclear trend in public opinion is - to be blunt about it - the nature of the anti-nuclear cause. I remarked earlier this week on the oddity that the chairman of CND, Kate Hudson, leads an organisation supposedly committed to anti-nuclear policies while she is herself a member of the Communist Party of Britain. I did point this out when I debated with Ms Hudson on Sky News a couple of days ago, and will do so again in any future encounters. The Party does, after all, declare its solidarity with North Korea, so is unlikely to be quite as exercised as I believe it ought to be by the prospect of nuclear weapons under the control of a vicious, corrupt and murderous totalitarian regime.

Here is Ms Hudson writing (last May in the newsletter of the Socialist Campaign Group) of the "supposed threats posed by Iran and North Korea". And here she is last November addressing the Communist University of Britain (not - amazingly - an educational institution but a caucus organised by Ms Hudson's party) alongside one Keith Bennett of the Korea Friendship and Solidarity Campaign. The Korea with which Bennett is friendly is the one you would expect. In 2000, he was the author of a stirring "Letter to Comrade Kim Jong Il on the Anniversary of the Passing of Comrade Kim Il Sung", which you can read here:

While recalling President Kim Il Sung’s tireless patriotic and internationalist efforts for the reunification of the country, the participants acclaimed with great joy and enthusiasm, the successful North-South Summit held in your capital city of Pyongyang last month, as well as the historic Joint Declaration signed by yourself and President Kim Dae Jung. We take this opportunity to once again congratulate you on these events, which we regard as tribute to the correct and far-sighted policies and principles laid down by President Kim Il Sung, and also as a vivid manifestation of your tireless and energetic leadership and wise guidance, that has successfully steered the ship of state in the DPRK through unprecedented trials and ordeals, so that a bright new vista has now come into view, shining clearly over the horizon and bringing a characteristic broad smile to the ever radiant image of President Kim Il Sung.

By bringing to the attention of Sky's viewers the ideological affiliations of the chairman of CND I naturally implied no value judgement upon them. I just thought they were interesting, which is why I'll keep mentioning them.
Please follow the link and read the whole thing - he is one of the most effective advocates of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

Clareification update

The Pub Philosopher has a couple of pages from the controversial Clare College student paper. What on earth is all the fuss about?

And full kudos to Steve. I reproduce them here, because since they've been banned, it's important to publish them as often as possible.

Gravy train derailment fears

The possibility that arts funding might be affected by the costs of the Olympics is worrying the National Campaign for the Arts:

Press release - 16 March 2007

Response to funding for the Olympics

Following the Secretary of State’s statement in Parliament today on the funding of the Olympics, Louise de Winter, Director of the National Campaign for the Arts said:

“We have always been supporters of the Olympics, seeing the potential opportunities to the arts community for a strong Cultural Olympiad. However, the proposed transfer of an additional £675 million from the lottery to fund the Olympics shortfall represents a “double whammy” for the arts and other good causes. That figure represents one and half times the budget to the Arts Council, a massive amount of funding to be lost to the arts.

“At a time when the Prime Minister has welcomed the valuable contribution our sector makes to Britain’s economic and social wellbeing, we are now looking to the forthcoming CSR to deliver at least an inflation-linked settlement for the arts.

“The arts can be a way of making the Olympics more meaningful, more memorable, more exciting. We see the Cultural Olympiad as central to the whole Olympic festival, so it should not be one or the other; the arts are at the heart of 2012 and were crucial to London's winning Olympic bid. ”

UPDATE: It's going to be interesting to track increased funding from general taxation for organisations and projects that would normally have received their finance from other sources, like the lottery, now being diverted to the Olympics.

A tall story

Melanie Phillips and LuboŇ° Motl have both reported on a debate about Global Warming that was staged on Wednesday in New York by Intelligence Squared. The motion was Global warming is not a crisis.

Before the debate began, the audience polled 57% against (it is a crisis) and 30% for (it isn't). After the debate, the figures has changed to 42% against and 46% for. So some minds were changed. Interesting.

A transcript of the debate can be downloaded here.

One of the people arguing that climate change is a crisis was Dr Gavin Schmidt of NASA and and he blogged about it later. Here's the remark that struck me (Crichton was one of his opponents):

However, this live audience were a rather select bunch, and so maybe this will go over differently on the radio. There it might not matter that Crichton is so tall...
Melanie Phillips picked up on it too. I think he meant it as a joke.

I certainly hope so. Unfortunately, the way he began his post was intended seriously:
First off, I'd like to thank the commenters for all of the suggestions and ideas to the previous post. They were certainly useful. In particularly, the connection with the difficulties faced by evolutionists in debates vs. creationists proved to be very a propos.
I don't remember any evolutionists threatening the lives of creationists, saying they should be subjected to Nuremberg-style trials or waffling about post-science science to justify their abandonment of the scientific method.

I don't remember any evolutionists trying to prevent scientific enquiry in their own field. I don't remember any evolutionists saying that their branch of science had basically come to an end and no new findings could ever be relevant.

It's perfectly clear that the climate has been warming. It's also clear that climate alarmists have completely lost the plot.


Tim Worstall has nominated me as a thogger - a blog that makes him think. According to the rules, I now have to nominate five blogs that make me think.

Tim's blog would be on this list if he hadn't nominated me, but I assume a reciprocal nomination would be redundant. So, here goes, in no particular order:

Another invisible peer reviewed paper

From The Reference Frame:

The regular weekly dose of climate deniers' peer-reviewed literature - something that according to Naomi Oreskes can't exist, yet it seems to appear almost every week. ;-)

A new, June 2007 issue of the Journal of Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics has a paper called

* Does a global temperature exist?

by Christopher Essex, Ross McKitrick, and Bjarne Andresen. They argue that the concept of a global temperature is ill-defined because it heavily depends on the choice of statistical methods. The choice of the methods is thus a political decision, not a part of the scientific method.

What have they been smoking?

At Open Market, a recent US court decision is put in its proper context. This is how insane the anti-cannabis hysteria has become:

In Raich v. Gonzales, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco held yesterday that there is no fundamental right to take medical marijuana, even when it is recommended by a physician to save life, and even when other drugs have failed.

The case involved Angel McClary Raich, who uses marijuana on doctors’ advice to treat an inoperable brain tumor and several other serious and excruciatingly painful ailments. Ms. Raich explains that the drug keeps her alive by relieving unbearable pain and stimulating appetite in a way that prescription drugs do not. California state law permits the use of medical marijuana on a doctor’s advice, but federal law does not.

The court’s decision was wrong. Recognizing a fundamental right to obtain a potentially life-saving drug with one’s own funds should be no more controversial than other rights that the Supreme Court has recognized, like the right to bodily integrity (Rochin v. California), the right to attend a private school (Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)), the right to procreate (Skinner v. Oklahoma (1941)), and the right to marry (Loving v. Virginia (1967)).

Unlike those rights, which are not even hinted at in the text of the Constitution, a right to live is alluded to in the Due Process Clauses of the Constitution, which speak of a right to “life,” “liberty,” and “property.” A right to live certainly has far more textual support in the Constitution that the right to abortion recognized by the Supreme Court’s deeply-controversial abortion decisions.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I liked this blog, but it's been quiet for a while. It's good to see some activity there again.

286% of Lancet editors hate Israel

Richard Horton, the Lancet editor and Stop the War campaigner, has a piece in the New York Review of Books. It's been reviewed by CAMERA - not the Real Ale people, the Campaign for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. Unfortunately, Horton's approach to statistical accuracy hasn't improved since he published the discredited report that gave an inflated figure for Iraq War casualties:

He cites an apparently shocking figure of forty percent of Gazan children having relatives who died during the second intifada. But the math poses problems. The total number of Gazans who died during the second intifada as a result of Israeli actions is 1,956 (PHRMG - through Jan. 31, 2007). The population of Gaza is approximately 1.43 million (CIA World Factbook). This computes to 1 person out of 730 killed in the second intifada over more than 6 years. How distantly related must these relatives be for 40% of the children to be able to claim a relative killed in the intifada. The statistic offered by Horton is provocative, but actually quite meaningless.


Business as usual at the UN:

Nearly two years after a FOX News story led to the discovery of widespread corruption in the United Nations’ multi-billion-dollar procurement department, revelations in a U.S. federal courtroom last week by one of the corrupt U.N. officials testifying against another show that the rot continues.

Signs of the problem spilled out in testimony that a gigantic Russian-based air transport company paid at least $700,000 in “consulting” fees to a United Nations procurement officer, in an arrangement involving at least 10 to 12 U.N. contracts awarded to the firm.

The value of the contracts is unknown — and the U.N. refuses to divulge it — but based on fragmentary evidence obtained by FOX News from U.N. Web sites and other sources, the total easily runs into tens of millions of dollars.

Both offering and accepting inducements of any kind is a violation of U.N. regulations, which supposedly results in punishment not only for the employee but also for the contractor, who is, according to the rules, liable to be cut off from further U.N. contracting.

Yet even after those revelations, delivered by the man who took the money, the company that broke those rules, Volga-Dnepr Airlines, can still be found on a list of firms currently authorized to do business with the United Nations.


This just about sums him up:

Mugabe blamed the Movement for Democratic Change of Morgan Tsvangirai for the outbreak of violence in the country, which began Sunday when police shot dead one opposition supporter and badly beat Tsvangirai and dozens of others when they tried to attend a prayer rally.
But for the first time there were signs of a change in the policy of the African Union:
The A.U. said armed attacks on opposition (Movement for Democratic Change) leaders and supporters in the capital, Harare, earlier this week were an embarrassment to the continent.
Not before time. The silence, up until now, of the A.U. has been an embarrassment to the continent.

Cuban dissidents

Human Rights First is campaigning on behalf of imprisoned Cuban democracy campaigners:

In March 2003, 75 human rights advocates, independent journalists and librarians were arrested, tried, and sentenced to up to 28 years in prison in the most severe crackdown on peaceful dissent the island has seen in recent years. Many of the imprisoned dissidents were organizers of the Varela Project, a constitutionally-based civic initiative that collected signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on democratic reforms and respect for basic freedoms.

The activists were charged with "disrespect" toward the Revolution, "treason," and "giving information to the enemy." The sentences and evidence strongly indicate that these individuals were wrongfully imprisoned solely for exercising basic rights guaranteed to them in both international and Cuban law. Immediately following the arrests, the international community, including foreign governments, the United Nations, and human rights groups, condemned the arrests as unjust. To date, 16 of the dissidents have been released on medical parole following international pressure; 11 of them currently live in Cuba and could be re-arrested at any time. Four currently reside outside of Cuba, and one, Miguel Valdes Tamayo, passed away on January 10, 2007, in a hospital in Havana.

Of the 59 who remain in prison, several suffer from extremely poor health and their conditions have been both triggered and exacerbated by an unhygienic environment, substandard care and inadequate medical treatment in prison.

Other people's money

The politicians who have allowed the Olympic budget to triple are likely to receive state funding because the electorate are so disillusioned with them, they won't make enough donations.

The invisible surge

What you won't be reading in the mainstream media, part 1,098,763,873:

January 13 - February 13 2007
Total U.S. Military Deaths During Period: 113
From non-hostile causes: 9
Combat deaths during period: 104

February 14-March 13 2007
Total U.S. Military Deaths During Period: 69
From non-hostile causes: 7
Combat deaths during period: 62

Decrease in combat deaths: 59%
The second period is the Iraqi troop "surge". They calculated the percentage wrong (it's 43%) but the point holds - combat deaths are down even though combat operations have stepped up.

To discover this information, I read the In from the Cold blog, which researched it after reading a news item from the Kuwait News Agency.

Strangely, the BBC seems unable to find space on its website for proper coverage of the surge.

little green blinkers

This illustrates what's wrong with Little Green Footballs posts, as opposed to comments (which can be disgusting but are deniable):

A school in Connecticut is having its students dress in burqas, the symbols of radical Islam’s brutal suppression of women, so that they can understand discrimination.
It’s hard to imagine a more inverted moral lesson. They’re so focused on teaching these kids “tolerance,” they don’t even see the blatant misogyny of the burqa.
They then quote a news item that includes the following:
“Hey, we rape your women!” one upperclassman said as he passed Caitlin in the hallway. “I hope all of your people die,” another sniped.

“You’re probably going to kill us all” and “Why do they let people like this in the country?” were other remarks she heard on Feb. 1.
It's fair to say that lgf is so focused on the (undoubted) misogyny of the burqa, they don't even see that the reported abuse the wearer received was horrific.

Comment spot syndrome

Jonz points out another example of the BBC's manipulation of spot comments in their "have your say" pages, where a spot comment says "We should not waste billions renewing Trident", but:

... the forum overwhelmingly supports the Trident nuclear replacements

New tricks

After learning that leopards can change their spots, I'm going to spend some time with my elderly labrador and a unicycle.

300 - more seriously

It's hard to like the film 300 if you're Iranian. Have a look at Azarmehr's blog to get an idea why. He made a very important point in the comments:

How stupid is it to be concerned about Islamic extremism and then pick a bone with a civilisation that got destroyed by Islam!!!
We really do have to remember that.

Learning as much as we can about what Iranians really think is a step in the right direction. The blogs kept by Azarmehr and The Spirit of Man provide insight. Here's The Spirit on what he describes as "the biggest nightmare of the Islamic regime of Iran", the pre-Islamic festival of Chaharshanbe Suri - a tradition that can be traced back to Zoroastrian Persia.

Fuelling inequality

It struck me, after I posted the piece about prosperity, population and property rights yesterday, that one of the lessons of the situation that led to the introduction of sumptuary legislation is that a falling population decreases social inequality - property values fall and labour values rise, which narrows the gap.

The corollary of that is that when the population rises you get the opposite - increasing property values that favour the most wealthy, and decreasing labour values that harm the poorest.

It's odd, then, that the people most concerned about bringing about a more equal society are invariably also those who argue in favour of the main cause of this source of social inequality: immigration.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What's in a name

Is Muslim "insurgent" really the way to describe these people?

Muslim insurgents attacked a bus in Thailand and killed nine people, Thai police said Wednesday.

The militants attacked a commuter minibus in the province of Yala, and then proceeded to execute three men and six women by shooting them in the head point-blank. According to officials, the bus slowed down, and then the militants opened fired, leading the vehicle to veer off the road. The attackers then shot each passenger, all of whom were Buddhists going about their daily lives in a predominantly Muslim region.

Holding up a mirror

The Arabist reports:

we have early warning in this case, and we should take advantage of it. A list of the URLs the judge is asking the government to censor follows. Since a court has yet to rule on whether these are libelous, archiving them in Egypt may be risky. So people outside of Egypt who might be interested in hosting mirrors, here are the urls. They include the sites of some of the most prominent human rights organizations in Egypt
I'm happy to mirror them in my rack in a London data centre. What I'm less able to do is afford the extra bandwidth and, possibly, machines myself (I generally host anything on at least two replicated machines, for load bearing and redundancy).

Anyone care to contribute? The donate button is on the sidebar.

Whose problems?

Tim Blair finds this doozy:

If you’re already getting burglarized, do you really want to add to your problems by confronting a desperate criminal with your own loaded weapon?
I'd have thought this would add to the burglar's problems.

And the answer is "yes".

Restorative justice

Cherie Booth is said to favour restorative justice schemes. What do these consist of?

In the Radio 4 programme Lent Talk, she will say tonight that “restorative justice”, in which offenders meet those whose lives have been effected by their crimes, should be used as a matter of routine in cases involving assault, robbery and stealing.
In what sense is that restorative?

Restorative justice would surely consist of the offender restoring to the victim what they had taken or, in the case of assault, paying a compensatory fine direct to the victim. And it's certainly possible to see how that might help.

What Booth is proposing is a system of confrontation that might make the victim seem fully human to the offender and bring home the consequences of their crime. That might help too, but it isn't restoration.

Personally, I'm in favour of both, but I'd like to see more honest language used to describe them.

Dyson and the vacuum

The great scientist Freeman Dyson (wonderful first name too) has been interviewed by Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University. The interview ranges from Dyson's first science fiction story, written at the age of 9, though the colonisation of space:

My optimism about the long-term survival of life comes mainly from imagining what will happen when life escapes from this planet and becomes adapted to living in vacuum.
He also expressed his concerns about the increasing rigidity of science, the role global warming orthodoxy has in this, and the contributions that can be made by amateurs:
Benny Peiser: In the first chapter of your new book, The Scientist as Rebel*, you write that the common element of the scientific vision "is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture," and that scientists "should be artists and rebels, obeying their own instincts rather than social demands or philosophical principles."

Contrary to this liberal if not libertarian concept of scientific open-mindedness, there has been growing pressure on scientists to tow the line and endorse what is nowadays called the ‘scientific consensus’ - on numerous contentious issues. Dissenting scientists frequently face ostracism and denunciation when they dare to go against the current. Has Western science become more authoritarian in recent years or have rebellious scientists always had to face similar condemnation and resentment? And how can young scientists develop intellectual independence and autonomy in a bureaucratic world of funding dependency?

Freeman Dyson: Certainly the growing rigidity of scientific organizations is a real and serious problem. I like to remind young scientists of examples in the recent past when people without paper qualifications made great contributions. Two of my favorites are: Milton Humason, who drove mules carrying material up the mountain trail to build the Mount Wilson Observatory, and then when the observatory was built got a job as a janitor, and ended up as a staff astronomer second-in-command to Hubble. Bernhardt Schmidt, the inventor of the Schmidt telescope which revolutionized optical astronomy, who worked independently as a lens-grinder and beat the big optical companies at their own game. I tell young people that the new technologies of computing, telecommunication, optical detection and microchemistry actually empower the amateur to do things that only professionals could do before.

Amateurs and small companies will have a growing role in the future of science. This will compensate for the increasing burocratization of the big organizations. Bright young people will start their own companies and do their own science.

Benny Peiser: In a Winter Commencement Address at the University of Michigan two years ago you called yourself a heretic on global warming, the most notorious dogma of modern science. You have described global warming anxiety as grossly exaggerated and have openly voiced your doubts about the reliability of climate models. These models, you argue, "do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in." There seems to be an almost complete endorsement of the world's scientific organisations and elites of these models together with claims that they reliably epitomize reality and can consistently predict future climate change. How do you feel belonging to a tiny minority of scientists who dare to voice their doubts openly?

Freeman Dyson: I am always happy to be in the minority. Concerning the climate models, I know enough of the details to be sure that they are unreliable. They are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behavior in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

Benny Peiser: In a chapter about the scientific revolutions in modern physics and mathematics, you describe the deep intellectual confusion in Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. You portray a society troubled by a mood of doom and gloom, a milieu that was conducive for scientific revolution as well as political upheaval. Unmistakably, the Great War set off a major shift in German thought, from the idea of progress and technological confidence to cultural pessimism and apocalypticism. As we know, the consequences of this mood of despair was calamitous. Do you see any comparison with the gloomy frame of mind that seems to be on the increase among many Western scientists today?

Freeman Dyson: Yes, the western academic world is very much like Weimar Germany, finding itself in a situation of losing power and influence. Fortunately, the countries that matter now are China and India, and the Chinese and Indian experts do not share the mood of doom and gloom. It is amusing to see China and India take on today the role that America took in the nineteen-thirties, still believing in technology as the key to a better life for everyone.
The full interview is here.

Via the very excellent Reference Frame.

Sumptuous commons

My university scholarship exams were in mediaeval economic history, but I have hardly looked at the subject since. Several recent posts on blogs I read have talked about things that ring bells, notably sumptuary legislation and the "tragedy of the commons", and this has set me pondering.

Sumptuary legislation was found in a number of ancient societies but appeared in England in the last half of the fourteenth century, and basically it sought to preserve class differences by preventing lower social orders from wearing certain types of cloth, or cloth that had been prepared with particular dyes. I think some dietary restrictions were also imposed. Carbon rationing or increased taxation for, say, flights have been compared with this, on the grounds that they will have the effect of reserving for the better-off privileges like frequent air travel, driving on certain roads or in certain areas. This has of course started to happen, with the congestion charge in London.

The tragedy of the commons is the idea that when a resource is held in common, it is abused. Common land in England was used by the inhabitants of villages for grazing livestock. Land can be over-grazed, so the maintenance of commons in good order depended on people restraining themselves from putting more than their share of stock on commons. It was suggested in a 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin, and later explained by the idea of the prisoner's dilemma, derived from game theory, that people will tend to break these requirements of self restraint and put more than their share of stock on commons. When enough people do this, the resource is ruined. This, it is argued, is what is happening with the European Common Fisheries Policy.

The problem with the theory of the tragedy of the commons is that there wasn't a tragedy; commons existed for centuries and were not over-exploited. Hardin's essay, and some economic comment based on it, is predicated on a sort of idealised commons that has never existed, not could it because of human behaviour. The "iterated prisoner's dilemma" (same link as above) provides a theoretical understanding of why this is. But even without this explanation, people notice if a resource is being abused, and take action if they have a stake in the resource. Over time, what started as disputes recorded in manorial rolls, where Fred has been putting too many sheep on the commons, there is a complaint and he is ordered to remove some, became the system of "stinting", whereby ownership of property gave specific, limited rights to use of the commons. In other words, rights in commons rapidly became linked to other property ownership, even though they remained invested in a common resource.

Analogous arrangements for fishing rights in areas of the western Atlantic seaboard have seen stocks rally; indeed, fishing - and rights of hunting animals with a range of movement that exceeds limits of individual property - is an area that requires such arrangements. Only in the complete absence of property rights are resources over-exploited, as might have happened to large fauna in Europe, North America and Australia when nomadic humans first appeared there. Over time, even with nomadic societies, social rites tend to emerge that limit, if not eliminate, this over-exploitation.

Where I live, the commons were not enclosed and livestock still grazes every summer. They are not over-exploited. The problem with the European fishing policy can be expressed in one word: governments. The enclosures were simple theft of common rights of ownership by the wealthy, in an era that saw the Corn Laws and Parliamentarians arguing for the preservation of slavery. Large property owners took land from small property owners, exploiting the fact that their land use was vested in unusual arrangements.

On the face of it, sumptuary legislation was also something the nasty rich did, but it's a bit less simple than that. The fourteenth century depended on social stratification in a way that the eighteenth didn't; the fourteenth century was feudal. This wasn't entirely to the benefit of the fourteenth century, of course. Technological progress was exceedingly slow and where commercial activity did progress, it was driven from areas like the plains of Lombardy, where social stratification was less pronounced - it's still amusing to read the outrage of some 12th and 13th century German chroniclers on this subject.

The first half of the fourteenth century had seen repeated bad harvests succeeded by the first importation of plague. European population fell by 30% to 50%. Sumptuary legislation followed this. Falling population had two effects: the value of property was reduced, the value of labour was increased. Some marginal agricultural land abandoned during this period did not come back into cultivation until the nineteenth century.

Property down, labour up - huge social mobility and increased prosperity for the masses. The lower orders could afford the best, and the knights were annoyed.

Compare this, out of interest, with the present philosophy of growth and immigration. Property goes up in value, labour down, we see decreased prosperity (albeit in a bigger overall economy), people working longer hours for less, and social mobility at an all time low. Comparisons of the living standards of mediaeval peasants and modern employees are not to the benefit of the modern, when you strip out anachronisms. Fewer hours were worked, for more, by the peasants. In the thirteenth century - before the population decreases - the average landholding of an English freeman was a half yardland, about 7 acres.

There was a fashion in the 1970s for comparing the thirteenth century with the twentieth. Economic systems, it was argued, have ceilings, though these are most clearly seen in hindsight. Calculations were made of the ceiling of the economy at different times (I had to perform such calculations for the thirteenth century). The thirteenth century saw unprecedentedly high populations throughout Europe, large scale migration from the country to cities; cities became increasingly violent and lawless; ill-health became more common. Life expectancy fell. And the economy had reached its ceiling. No further growth, it was argued, was possible with the very static technology of the day.

Not all this is analogous with the present, but some is. A collapse, it was argued, had become inevitable. Such a large population was more vulnerable to the effects of a series of bad harvests than a smaller one would have been. Crowded urban environments were ideal breeding grounds for diseases and concentrated populations were ideal for spreading them. By 1300, it was just a question of what the collapse would be caused by, not whether it would happen.

Doomsters argued that the technology of the twentieth century was mitigating it, but that a larger problem was developing, that the problem was analogous to that of the thirteenth century, and a collapse was again looming. This might not have been right, but it wasn't as silly as Malthus and his fans. There really had been a calamity in the past and this was an attempt to explain it and extrapolate from it.

Today, immigration, not birth rates, is driving population rises. Strip that out, and you'd have a gently decreasing population. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that we have massive immigration today, migration controls are very recent. Up to the First World War, people could pretty much travel where they liked without passports. Yet there wasn't this large scale migration (when there was, it was called "invasion"). Why?

Partly because of technology. It's easier to travel nowadays. But I don't think that explains it. The lure of richer pastures is overwhelming and people could travel, just more slowly.

It comes down to property rights. You couldn't just move into a village and start grazing livestock on the commons in the past. You had, in effect, to be invited into the complicated web of rights, duties, obligations and tenures that existed. People who lived in an area owned that area, far more than they do today.

The problem again is the governments that have stripped property rights from individuals. The enclosures were a part of the beginning of this problem, not a welcome move to a more rational use of land based on ownership. The example of the context wherein sumptuary legislation began in mediaeval Europe shows that significant benefits can derive from a dwindling population. Technology actually makes this even more the case, reducing the need for labour and multiplying the consequences of an individual's actions. A technological society could see an economy growing overall while the population contracts slowly - unlike the pattern in the past - which would mean an even greater enrichment of individuals living in that society.

The really big driver today for population growth is the problem of pensions. While these are catered for by the state, growing numbers of young tax payers are needed. Change this to a pattern of individual provision, and everything else could follow.

In all this there seems to be a blueprint for a better society. One with no restrictions on migration, but far less immigration because property rights have been restored to their rightful owners - individuals. A slowly contracting technological society sharing a growing pot between fewer people. Marginal land becoming wild and green again, increased abundance of wildlife in these areas.

This would be the consequence of the implementation of the libertarian ideal of individual freedom and property rights, and it would be the entirely inevitable consequence, with no management or overall government policy driving it. It isn't a utopian ideal. It isn't even a vision of a sort of rural idyll; people are going to continue, largely, to live in cities. It's just cause and effect.

But I don't think it's the effect every free-market or libertarian advocate foresees.