30 September 2006

Manned space flight

On this subject, I am compelled to disagree with the enthusiasts. We should not be sending humans into space at all. It is too expensive, too dangerous, and unnecessary. Very little in the way of actual scientific discovery has been produced by manned space travel. The Moon landings were essentially a national prestige project, designed to re-assert technological superiority over the USSR after the shock of Sputnik and Gagarin. Having made the point, the US has never again sent men to the Moon -- because there is no reason to do so. Since then, manned space flight has been confined to near-Earth orbit, accomplishing nothing of scientific or technological significance, and appears to be continuing mostly because NASA believes it is necessary to maintain public interest, and thus protect funding. During the same period, increasingly sophisticated unmanned probes have explored most of the solar system, delivering a wealth of scientific data at a fraction of the cost in money -- and none of the cost in human life -- of manned space flight. Far more such missions could be funded, were the space shuttle not consuming such a large share of NASA's budget.

It is sometimes said that we must keep humans in space in order to prepare for a manned mission to Mars. But such a mission would serve no worthwhile purpose either. Anything it might discover could be discovered at a fraction of the cost by unmanned probes.

It has even been argued that we must press ahead with space colonization as a sort of hedge against extinction in the event of some global catastrophe that wiped out the human race on Earth. It is hard to imagine a more unconvincing position. It would be a very long time before such a space colony was viable enough that it could permanently survive completely independently of Earth, let alone carry forward human civilization (where?) if Earth were out of the picture. The money and brainpower required to create such a colony would be far better invested in strengthening Earth's defenses against whatever disasters might threaten it.

Of course I believe that humans will spread outward from Earth eventually, when the technology exists do so at acceptable risk and to exploit other planets in a cost-effective way. But that time is not now. Today, we are sending people into space in dangerous contraptions at huge expense for no good reason. Space will still be out there fifty years from now. We need to learn how to walk before we try to run.


The future of Russia

A spirited discussion here.

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29 September 2006

Pay attention to the sensible center

Most Americans oppose the Christian Right's efforts to enforce religious taboos on abortion, stem-cell research, and modern contraception (scroll down to second-to-last paragraph).

Now all we need is for the Democratic party to figure out that most voters who support a rational and liberal society at home also support defending it effectively against fundamentalist Islamic terrorists from overseas.

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Something rotten in the state of Venezuela

A steaming heap of vile anti-Semitic ranting from the Chavez regime.

But Americans are taking a stand.

28 September 2006

Muslim intimidation in western Europe

Some awakening of resistance in Germany; none yet in Belgium.

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Sex vs. violence

I wonder whether this would work in the Islamic world. Probably not.

Quote for the day

"Everyone is normal until you get to know them. "


Atheism gains respectability

Typing that headline felt a bit like "disbelief in flying saucers gains respectability", but this is a start.

I loved the comment about the September 11 attack being "the ultimate faith-based initiative".


26 September 2006

Basic principles

Here are some of the essentials of what I believe in.

1. Freedom – individual self-determination, the state in which each individual can act as much as possible in accordance with his or her own will – is the highest value.

2. Personal freedom – control over one’s own body and immediate possessions, and the right of self-defense – is more important than freedom in more abstract senses.

3. The second highest value is order and security – the Rule of Law. Neither freedom nor any other good can long survive in a state of chaos or arbitrary despotism.

4. Technology, not ideology, is the main force working for the improvement of human life.

5. The only way to know and understand the world is to look dispassionately at the evidence. A factual claim about the world can be judged to be true or false only on the basis of the available evidence. Religious objections, political correctness, fears of offending people, fears of bad consequences if the idea were to be accepted, etc. are irrelevant to truth.

6. No one ideology can give correct or even sane answers to every question. Pragmatism and moderation must always temper our adherence to our belief systems.

7. The United States is a unique nation with a unique and vital role in the world.

8. The environment is not a subset of the economy. The economy is a subset of the environment.

9. Bigotry rooted in religious beliefs or in political correctness is not somehow better or more acceptable than bigotry rooted in anything else.

10. Man is fundamentally an animal – specifically, a species of great ape – and only secondarily a "rational being", a "spiritual being", an "economic actor", or anything else. Any attempt to understand human psychology or behavior which does not take our animal nature as its starting point is a waste of time.

11. Aesthetics is extremely important. Beauty is a major positive good and we should never feel ashamed to acknowledge and celebrate its power. Ugliness is depressing and painful to normal humans and should usually be avoided.

12. "Racial" differences are of no importance, but cultural differences are very important. Not all cultures can be considered equally developed or equally worthy of admiration.

13. There is no obligation to be bound by considerations of justice or legality in cases where doing so would be suicidal. An individual or nation under mortal threat is entitled to take action to guarantee survival even if such action cannot be judged "morally right" or legal.

14. A moral judgment is not a statement about the thing being judged, even if its grammatical structure makes it seem that way. It is a statement about the person making the statement. "X is wicked and morally wrong" simply means "I really hate X." This does not, of course, change the fact that such feelings can be well-founded.

15. The fact that our ethical systems are human-created, rather than dictated by God or deduced from some universal absolute principle, does not diminish their value or legitimacy. They are man-made tools, to be used, improved, or replaced as appropriate, just as other tools are.

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"Anti-life" conservatism

As awareness spreads through society of the coming revolution in life extension, one of the weirdest responses has been the emergence of a position that such technology should actually be renounced, and that it would be preferable to allow aging and natural death to continue as they always have in the past. Most of the people who take this position are self-described conservatives, though I doubt that most conservatives are "anti-life" in this sense. Here is an article discussing the phenomenon, and a more comprehensive response to some common objections to life extension.

As on most issues, I would say the solution is simply to allow individual choice to operate. Let the technology of life extension develop (no one can stop this anyway), and then let every individual decide how much, if at all, to avail himself of it. Those who believe that submission to the process of aging and natural death is somehow morally obligatory should be free to follow that route. The rest of us will make our own decisions based on our own values.

It does seem, though, that conservatives ought to welcome this, considering how much they lament the falling birth rates throughout the developed world. The gradual disappearance of aging and death would render this problem irrelevant. Of course, as the death rate fell to zero, we would eventually reach the point where even a very low birth rate meant steady population growth, but that's something that conservatives generally believe we can handle (and I agree).

To paraphrase advocate Aubrey de Grey: Would widespread use of life-extension technology lead to problems? Obviously it would. Would it lead to any problems as serious as continuing to have a hundred thousand people die every day (the status quo)? No.

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"The God Delusion"

Some excerpts from Richard Dawkins's new book, full of uncompromising common sense.


24 September 2006

Quote for the day

"Poor polluted, exploited, resource-depleted, population-pressured, deforested, and desertified [Third World] countries. And none of their problems are of their own making. None of their problems proceed from fatuous oligarchies, wild corruption, or whimsical economic rights; from notions of personal freedom borrowed from termite mounds; or from political systems that wouldn't pass muster in a tribe of Barbary apes. None of their problems are the result of fondness for violence or sloth or of social traditions such as treating women like dogs and treating dogs like lunch. None of their problems are caused by religious zealotry, fanatical nationalism, tribalism, xenophobia....."

P. J. O'Rourke

Saturday mornings at the clinic

In September 2003 I began volunteering as what is known as a "pro-choice escort" at a Portland abortion clinic. For about the next year I went every other Saturday morning, Saturday mornings being the time when the clinic is typically besieged by anti-abortion protesters and thus needs defending.

On any given morning there were typically anywhere from three to six escorts on duty. Most of them came when they could; the only ones who were there every Saturday were W. and S., the informal "leaders" of the team. We were always careful, by the way, to use only first names and avoid mentioning any identifying information which the protesters might overhear. We had once had a case where the protesters had somehow found out an escort’s home address and had sent him threats through the mail. (I am using initials here since I have no way of knowing whether they would care to be even that identifiable in an internet posting. W. was a man, S. a woman.)

The term "escort" is somewhat misleading. In theory an escort’s job is to stand outside the clinic and, if needed, shield clients from harassment by the protesters on their way into the building. In practice such cases seldom arise. Most clients park in a parking lot which is off limits to the protesters and enter through the back door, and even when a client uses the front door, the protesters rarely attempt to approach her. In fact, the role of the escort is a more subtle one. The aim of the anti-abortion protesters is intimidation – making the clinic’s clients and staff feel isolated and surrounded by opposing forces. The role of the escorts is to negate this, providing a visible positive presence to counter the protesters’ hostile one, making the environment more comfortable for clients who might otherwise feel they were in completely unfriendly territory. More than doing anything per se, one’s job is simply to be there. It seems very likely, for example, that protesters would routinely approach and harass clients if there were no escorts present. Knowing that the escorts are ready to intervene if they do so deters them from trying.

The protesters themselves were a varied crew. Most of them were regulars, and we knew their habits. Some of them just stood around holding signs. Some engaged in religious chanting or ostentatious praying. Some stood as close to the clinic as the law allowed and gave vent to long, bellowing diatribes which usually seemed to be more about God and the Bible and so forth than about abortion per se. One protester always carried a gun. He had a permit for it, so there was nothing we could do about this. Due to some previous incident, there was a standing police order forbidding him to be on the same side of the street as the clinic itself, so he stood across the street, scowling at us. Another protester seemed to have a bizarre personal fixation on S. He had once said to her, "Women like you deserve to be raped." I once heard a protester shout at a man who was accompanying a woman into the clinic, "Why are you letting that woman kill your baby? Be dominant, sir! Be a man!"

I never saw any actual violence, but the level of tension was sometimes considerable, especially whenever there was a new protester whom we hadn’t seen before. A new person was by definition unpredictable. As we all know, in other parts of the country there have been a few cases of abortion clinics being bombed and doctors murdered by Christianist terrorists, and there has been at least one case in which a volunteer escort was killed. So we were always on the alert for any sign of possible danger.

Why did I do it? I’ve always held individual freedom to be the highest value. If you allow others to encroach on your absolute freedom to decide what will happen inside your own body, then what freedom can you lay claim to? As for the others, W. was a libertarian who felt similarly repulsed by the protesters’ goal of suppressing self-determination on religious grounds, while S. had strong feminist convictions; most of the more transient defenders, as best I could tell, had similar motives. Incidentally, though most of them would generally be classified as leftist, most agreed with my own views on the dire nature of the Islamist threat.

It’s one thing to study religious fanaticism by reading books about it. It’s very different to come face to face with it. During my time as a clinic escort, I came to understand in my gut, not just in my head, what these people’s mentality is really like. They will not be satisfied until what you and I and everyone else can and cannot do is dictated by the moral constraints of their religion, backed up by the power of the law, as in Taliban Afghanistan.

Local people in that neighborhood would sometimes stop and chat with the escorts, bring us hot drinks on cold mornings or otherwise offering encouragement. On one occasion an elderly woman approached me and said, "I don’t agree with abortion, but I’m glad to see a man standing up for women’s right to make their own decisions." That’s what this is really about: the freedom of all of us to make our own decisions, not have them made for us by somebody else’s religion. That’s the freedom that requires our eternal vigilance.

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The West as uniquely evil

For a long time, it seems, some people on the left have been afflicted by an odd belief that only Westerners can originate evil. If Third World terrorists attack Westerners, it's axiomatic that the West must have done something to provoke them, which was the "real" cause. If two Third World countries fight a bloody war, the West must somehow have caused it, even if that part of the world has been full of war and violence for millennia. If a Third World dictator is brutal, the West is really at fault because it supports him (however small the role that support plays in his ability to hold power), even if his country has been ruled by tyrants for its entire history. If a Third World country is in poverty, it's because of Western economic exploitation, even if the country was always even poorer before it became integrated into the global economy. The West does not need powerful military forces because no one would ever make a truly unprovoked attack on us, even though the people who say this constantly insist that the West has repeatedly attacked others without provovation. The responsibility never stops on the head of any regime or cultural factor in the Third World. Everything has to be somehow the West's fault.

Westerners and Third Worlders are not biologically different. If you believe that Westerners can originate evil, why don't you believe anyone else can?

Canada shows backbone

Pictures from the huge support-the-troops rally in Canada here. Hamid Karzai was present.

23 September 2006

Liberals and the Islamic threat

Sam Harris gets it exactly right in this essay.

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Calendar clutter

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Ramadan, the Autumnal equinox (more or less), and for all I know it may well also be the Flying Spaghetti Monster's birthday. But to me it's just a day like any other.

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America as campaign issue

Nicolas Sarkozy, a leading candidate to succeed Jacques Chirac as President of France, favors reconciliation with the United States. Needless to say, he has come under fierce attack from the rest of the French political establishment for this stance.


"Dear Americans"

A letter from the President of Iraq.

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"Frigid and pitiless"

A critique of the authoritarian Christian "right to life" movement, by conservative writer John Derbyshire.

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22 September 2006

Ancient child

The fossilized skeleton of a three-year-old Australopithecus afarensis child who died 3,300,000 years ago has been discovered in Ethiopia. This article includes a reconstructed portrait.

Since the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees is estimated to have lived about 6,000,000 years ago, and the date assigned to the skeleton is about halfway between that point and the present, it's not surprising that the reconstructed face looks curiously intermediate between human and chimpanzee.



Here's PurpleThink, a site of "epinion" not limited by left-vs.-right thinking (thus "purple", not purely red or blue).

Maybe "purple" would be a good answer to this question.


Why I don't think Hillary Clinton should be President

It's tempting, I know. She inspires the same frenzied outrage on the right as President Bush does on the left. It would be so entertaining to watch their impotent, spluttering rage at everything she did for four years. Shoe on the other foot, revenge a dish best served cold, and all that.

But that's exactly the problem. The last thing we need right now is another polarizing figure who makes half the country feel completely unrepresented in the government. It would perpetuate divisions which we need to overcome.

And never forget that while American leftists and rightists are calling each other names and denouncing each other as Satan's spawn, there are people out there who want to kill all of us. 90% of conservative objections I've seen to the idea of liberals returning to power in government stem from the fear that liberals don't quite understand that we're at war, and would fail to pursue the struggle against jihadism forcefully enough. Sadly, this fear is not an unfounded one.

What we really need is someone who commands respect from both sides of the political spectrum, who fully recognizes the jihadist threat, and has socially moderate views on domestic issues rather than seeking to impose a fundamentalist agenda on the country. Here's my first choice.


Getting priorities straight

Indonesian Muslim leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir declares that there's one thing much more dangerous than terrorist bombings.

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More Islamic barbarism

Villagers in rural Pakistan objected to a young local woman continuing her education. When she persisted, they took forceful action to show her and her parents the error of her ways.


21 September 2006

Barbarians within the gates

In this earlier posting, I made a passing reference to "unassimilated Muslims [in western European cities], who are gradually transforming those cities into crime-infested hell-holes". It occurs to me that Americans who are unfamiliar with conditions in Europe these days may be baffled by this statement. Isn't it American cities that are awash in crime fueled by poverty and social breakdown, while western Europe's cities are orderly and safe?

That was certainly the case a decade or two ago. But while the US has been resolutely tackling this problem and getting its crime rates down -- most notably with Rudy Giuliani's tough policies which have made New York one of the safest major cities in the world -- western Europe has suffered the effects of what almost seems like a kind of barbarian invasion. France has been the hardest-hit, inevitably, since it has the largest Muslim population both in absolute terms and as percentage of total population, but in other countries and especially certain cities, such as Malmö in Sweden, things are also very bad. Please view this article, which starts off with a single recent incident and then provides half a dozen links to discussions of the general situation over there. Be warned: some of it's gruesome. And even this is only the tip of the iceberg of the problem.

And here's an especially sad and disturbing case from the Netherlands.

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When Europe's pendulum swings

An interesting article by Victor Davis Hanson.

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19 September 2006

More appeasement

I guess France can't actually indulge its urge to surrender since it hasn't been attacked yet, but it's doing the best it can.

A few postings back I speculated that the reason Russia has been helping Iran is that Putin knows full well that the huge threat represented by an Iranian bomb will be aborted, one way or another, by the US at some point, so the Russian government has nothing to lose by selling technology to Iran and letting the US take all the opprobrium which will come with eliminating the problem. It may well be that France is making a similar calculation. Why not win some brownie points with the Islamists by appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, when you know the US will take on the burden of making sure the mullahs never get their warheads?

In practical terms this is all meaningless, since there's no chance that a Security Council resolution or economic sanctions would have any effect on the Iranian nuclear program. But it does show, once again, that France is not one of the countries we can count on in a crisis.

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Today marks one month that I've had this website.

18 September 2006


A war begins with a shocking surprise attack on American soil, killing thousands. The US finds itself at war with a little-understood alien culture which systematically inculcates its people with religious fanaticism, so that its young men regard death in battle as glorious, even being willing to martyr themselves by flying aircraft into collisions with enemy targets. After some delay, the US responds with a massive military campaign. Americans make no effort whatsoever to "understand" the "root causes" of the enemy's hatred and aggression, much less address them; our sole concern is to retaliate as ruthlessly as possible. As time passes, the US becomes steadily less and less concerned with enemy civilian casualties, and bombs cities indiscriminately. Individual American bombing raids obliterate whole urban areas and kill tens of thousands. One raid kills more than a hundred thousand civilians. Eventually the US escalates to using nuclear weapons against civilian targets. Enemy offers of a negotiated settlement are rejected; only unconditional surrender will do.

I have, of course, just described the Japan-US conflict of 1941-1945. Now consider the results. The all-out military response didn't "just make them hate us more". It didn't turn a whole new generation of Japanese into terrorists. It solved the problem. Since 1945 Japan has posed no further threat of war or violence against us at all, and has in fact become an ally.

If we had responded back then with the cringeing half-measures and "understanding" that our present-day hand-wringers advocate for the jihadist threat, most likely the conflict with Japan would have dragged on indecisively for decades.

Obviously I hope events in the current war never force us to escalate to the kind of tactics we had to use to defeat Japan. But if they do, we should disregard those who constantly wail that any tough military action will only boomerang back on us. The world does not work that way. It has never worked that way.

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If you die rich, you are a loser, because you spent a certain fraction of your life working to earn the money you still possess when you die -- that is, to earn money which you never got to spend on things you would enjoy. Thus that portion of the paid work you did was wasted. If you die in debt, you are a winner, because you bought and enjoyed some quantity of goods and services which, in the final analysis, you never had to pay for.


On Samizdata

Cool -- I got a "quote of the day" on Samizdata.


It's often said that Third World immigrants are willing to do the boring and repetitious things that people in advanced countries no longer want to do. Here's an example.

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17 September 2006

A Muslim debate on violence

From TV: Two Muslims -- apparently well-educated, based on the refined form of Arabic being spoken -- debate the exact circumstances under which innocent Western civilians may legitimately be slaughtered.


16 September 2006

Travel info

To anyone reading this site -- if you have recently (within the last three years) visited or spent any time in any of the following cities:

Kiev, Ukraine
Lviv, Ukraine
Riga, Latvia
Tallinn, Estonia
Warsaw, Poland
Brno, Czech Republic
Bratislava, Slovakia
Bucharest, Romania

I would be interested in hearing from you about it -- please contact me at belay4365 (at) mypacks.net. I am especially interested in such issues as:

(1) Safety -- how common are robbery and other crimes against Western visitors, are the police trustworthy or are they corrupt

(2) Hygiene -- is the food in restaurants safe, are reasonably-priced hotels clean, and so forth

(3) General attitudes of local people toward Americans -- friendly or hostile

(4) "Unspoiled" character -- is the city relatively free of Western tourists and expats

(5) Cigarettes -- how easy is it to avoid cigarette smoke in restaurants, parks, shops, etc.

(6) Ease of communication -- do most people understand at least one of these languages: English, German, Russian

Any and all information is appreciated.


One-Handed Economist

A site with a lot of sensible observations. Be sure to watch this video about the war on drugs.

Liberal Girl Next Door

Ongoing discussion here and here.

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15 September 2006

Muslims outraged yet again (yawn)

Infuriated Muslims reject the Pope's claims that Islam is violent and intolerant of criticism -- by rioting and burning him in effigy.

This guy has their number pretty well, I think.

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More pop music

Here's Russia's Glukoza again, energetic as ever.

Here's Katya Lel, also from Russia (found via Evil Bobby, apparently also a fan of eastern European pop music).

And I liked this Israeli version of the same song.

On a rather different note, here's Laibach, a group from Slovenia, though they mostly sing in German. The obviously fascist-inspired imagery and lyrics such as "Amerika noch Feinde" (America still enemies) are disconcerting. Some say it's meant as parody.

Somewhat surprisingly, they also have a cover version of "Across the Universe".

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What part of "low bridge" did you not understand?

Pictures of what happened when one driver ignored the bridge clearance sign.


Secrets by mail

PostSecret is an original idea for a website -- people mail in personal secrets anonymously on postcards, and the site displays a sampling of them. It's a very mixed bag, with personal confessions ranging from the trivial to the disturbing. The site is updated every Sunday or thereabouts.

Extremism in Europe

The anti-Semitic extreme right is making electoral gains in Germany.

Note: the writing on the flag says "They were the best soldiers in the world."

To be fair, the three states mentioned in which these knuckle-draggers have, or soon will have, representation in the legislature are all in what used to be East Germany, which has considerably less experience of tolerance and pluralism than does the western part of the country (in fact, anti-Semitism remains a pervasive problem in much of eastern Europe). Unemployment, which always fuels radicalism and xenophobia, is also much worse in eastern than in western Germany. But unified Germany is getting on for two decades old now. If this kind of rancid bigotry can still attract sizable -- actually, growing -- numbers of voters, the society as a whole can't be held entirely blameless.


Technology at work

This prosthetic arm is a major step forward in the enhancement and repair of the human body. It is controlled directly by the brain via the nerves, just as a natural arm is. It can even "feel" heat and cold, and future versions will have a real sense of touch. Perhaps most remarkably, it costs only $60,000. The implications for amputees, and ultimately even for people suffering from paralysis, are vast.

And like all such achievements, this one is attributable solely to technology and to the science that makes technology possible -- not to prayer, crystals, faith healing, or any other form of superstitious nonsense.


14 September 2006

Blended people?

This is interesting, from a Pajamas Media poll in October of last year: "A full 43% of those responding felt that the liberal nor conservative labels did not really apply to them, a percentage vastly greater than those who identified with either polarity." It's not clear to me whether this means 43% of bloggers or 43% of the general public, but either way it's encouraging.

Moreover, most of these people aren't "centrists", according to the poll. Many of them held "leftist" views on some issues, while holding "rightist" views on other issues. For this reason, PJM refers to them as "blended people".

This designation, of course, assumes that the conventional rightist and leftist positions are themselves coherent and internally-consistent schools of thought, which I don't believe they are. In fact, the left and the right each seems to be a collection of positions which in many cases have no logical connection with each other, but have merely become associated out of long habit (and perhaps for unconscious psychological reasons, but that's a subject for another article).

I think my own viewpoint is coherent and internally consistent. I believe in individual freedom. Individuals should be able to choose abortion or own guns without harassing restrictions, engage in whatever kind of sexual activity they want with whomever they want (among consenting adults), say and write whatever they want regardless of whether it offends some favored group, have their incomes taxed at the lowest possible rate consistent with the government carrying out its basic functions, live however they want without being pestered by social engineering projects designed to encourage behavior some bureaucrat thinks is "better". As a pragmatist I favor tough and even ruthless measures against anything which threatens to destroy or undermine our free society, whether it's external enemies, violent crime within society, or out-of-control illegal immigration (for more detail, see here). I suppose PJM would call me a "blended person". I see nothing "blended" about it. It's the person who argues that individuals should be free to choose abortion but not to own guns (or vice versa) who is struggling to rationalize an awkward and self-contradicting mix --and yes, I've read quite a few of those attempted rationalizations.

PJM is holding a contest (click their link on the very first word of this posting) to come up with a good name for us non-pigeonholeable "blended people". The question's tougher than it sounds because such people don't share any particular ideology (someone exactly opposite to me -- who favored high taxes, censorship, open borders, unilateral disarmament, prohibition of sex outside marriage, and bans on both abortion and gun ownership, would also be a "blended person"). Why not give it a try? You could win a pair of pajamas which I'm sure will be quite fetching -- and contribute to overcoming the dangerous polarization of America between those annoying leftists and rightists.


13 September 2006

Insane restraint

If this is true, the war effort in Afghanistan is being crippled by mind-bogglingly irrational rules of engagement.

Apparently a large gathering of enemy leaders was observed, but not attacked, because the rules of engagement forbid attacks in cemeteries. By this logic, if the Taliban and al-Qa'idah held all their meetings in cemeteries, they would be immune from harm.

Killing these Taliban would have weakened the enemy and thus prevented some number of future American and allied casualties. Are the corpses in Afghan cemeteries more sacred than the living bodies of our soldiers?

News reports are sometimes erroneous or incomplete. I can only hope there is some rational explanation which somehow got omitted from the article.

Found via Conservative Fireman.

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It has been said that the United States is such an optimistic country because that's where all the optimists went. Whatever the reason, I think that our tendency toward optimism is part of the basis of our accomplishments.

Pessimism is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. It deadens motivation and creates paralysis. Why bother fighting if the cause is already as good as lost? Perhaps for this reason, pessimism seems almost comforting to those who would not fight anyway because they are weak or tired or don't really care. For the rest of us, it's a debilitating infection we should avoid catching.

No problem in history was ever solved by sitting around moaning and fretting about how bad it was. No conflict was ever won by a side which had convinced itself that its opponents were unbeatable. No one ever improved his situation by putting all his energy into complaining at the expense of action. The very act of writing off your cause as doomed will, in fact, doom it.

If you strive for what you want, you still might not get it. If you don't strive for what you want, you definitely won't get it.

12 September 2006

Religious debate

Stephen Colbert and Steve Carrell hold a "debate" on the relative merits of Christianity and Islam.

A lot of religious argumentation is actually like this, though with bigger words and longer, more complicated sentences.

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Our strength, their weakness

A good summation by Andrew Sullivan.


Tallinn, Estonia

An interesting report from what is undoubtedly the most successful of the fifteen now-independent countries which once made up the USSR.


11 September 2006

Personal stories

DHD has a thread for personal stories about September 11. See the "comments" thread for this posting.

The next posting here has a comments thread to talk about the stories.


The Islamists

This is the enemy.

More Muslim reactions.



It's five years now since the day the world changed -- or rather, the day when the real world burst through the façade of the dream world we had believed in.

The magnitude of that event was almost beyond words, but words are important. One word I am tired of hearing associated with September 11 is "tragedy". A tragedy, to me, is something like an earthquake or a tsunami -- not an act deliberately committed by anyone, but something that just happens.

September 11 was not a "tragedy" in this sense. It was murder.

The distinction is important because the word "murder" focuses our attention on an important fact which the word "tragedy" glosses over: the fact that there was a murderer. This event did not "just happen". Specific people did it.

The same applies to all the talk of "healing" and "moving on". That makes it sound as if the main thing we need to do is to come to terms with our own feelings. That's not unimportant, but what's really most vital is the ongoing task of dealing with the people who attacked us, and the people who supported them in various ways, and those like them who contemplate further such acts (or worse) in the future -- to ensure, by whatever means are necessary, that we will not be attacked again.


10 September 2006

The sole superpower

Anti-Americanism is on the rise in many parts of the world, notably among western Europeans (who ought to know better), and even some Americans are dismayed at how the US has wielded its unique power since the terrorist attack of September 11. To some extent, this is understandable. The spectacle of a single country -- especially when it isn't one's own -- holding such immense military superiority over all others is an intimidating one. During the Cold War, each of the two superpowers, by its very existence, exerted some restraint on the actions of the other; each also needed to heed world opinion to an extent, since that opinion carried some weight as a weapon in the struggle between the two rivals. Today, there are no such checks on the behavior of the US except insofar as it freely chooses to observe them. Russia still has a large nuclear arsenal, but is so outclassed by the US in every other way that it is unlikely ever to try to use that arsenal to deter us over any issue less vital than its own national survival (which the US has no interest in ever threatening anyway). No other country or institution has any plausible means of preventing the US from carrying out absolutely any action it chooses. We can't expect the rest of the world to feel entirely comfortable with this situation.

Nevertheless, to those who constantly criticize and bemoan the ways the US has used its power since it was so barbarically attacked five years ago, I would say: Get some perspective. What other country do you think would have behaved better, given such a monopoly of power? What other country would have behaved even equally well?

Here's a thought experiment. Try to imagine that the ending of the Cold War had gone the other way and that the United States had broken up and collapsed, leaving the Soviet Union as the world's sole superpower, with all the unrestrained freedom of action that implies. How do western Europeans imagine that they, or the rest of the world, would be faring today if that had happened?

I doubt that there would be Red Army troops occupying London and Paris. From the Soviet viewpoint it wouldn't be worth the effort. The Soviet ambassador in every capital city in the world would simply be a de facto imperial viceroy. The implicit penalty for disobedience on any but the most trivial issues would guarantee cooperation. Given the belligerence and irrationality of the Islamists, a few Middle Eastern capital cities might have to be Dresdenized before the remaining regimes got the idea. And overenthusiastic Soviet troops who improvised degrading abuses of captured enemies would be very unlikely to get hauled up in front of tribunals by their own government for doing so.

Such global domination might persist indefinitely. The Soviet regime, commanding the whole world's resources at prices of its own choosing, would finally be able to deliver a decent standard of living to its people, thus gaining domestic legitimacy. If the USSR became universally hated, that hatred would express itself only through words, not deeds, and even then only very quietly. Certainly there is no way the triumphant USSR would ever put up with the kind of obstructionism the French are always throwing at the US in the real world.

Would a world with the Soviet Union as its sole superpower really be that bad? If you're honest, I think you'll agree that it would be at least that bad.

It was probably inevitable that, sooner or later, some one country would end up dominating the planet. The critics and complainers should consider the alternate possibilities and be thankful that history's verdict turned out the way it did.

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"The Americans.....treated us better."

Hallelujah! Abu Ghraib is under new management. The evil, abusive, doggie-leash-wielding Americans have gone, and the Iraqi authorities are now in charge of the place. What a relief this must be for the poor, tortured, panty-terrorized insurgent mass killers who have suffered so much there at the hands of the infidel invaders. Why, no doubt they and their new Iraqi overseers are even now sitting in a circle together, holding hands, and singing "Kumbaya".

Or, uh, maybe not.

Who'd have thought things could get so bad that the incarcerated jihadists would actually wax nostalgic for Lynndie England and the gang? In hindsight, though, it's not surprising. The US military is the product of an advanced civilization and adheres to an elaborate tradition of civilized warfare, violations of which (such as the earlier abuses at Abu Ghraib) are sternly punished by the American authorities. How many armies could have kept 130,000 troops in a violence-wracked alien land for years and had so few cases of abuses against the indigenous people? In the Islamic world, by contrast, such traditions of self-restraint by those who wield power over others are -- to put it kindly -- not a prominent feature of the culture.

Installing a democratic system in a non-Western country simply means that the people of that country can choose their leaders and have a voice in how the country is run. It does not mean that those people or their institutions will suddenly start conforming to Western standards of behavior which are alien to their culture. Just ask anyone who's been in a Turkish prison.

Think Americans hate the jihadists? How do you think Iraqis feel about these fanatics who deliberately blow up crowds of children in the streets and are trying to wreck the country's once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish a decent government after decades of Saddam's ghastliness? When they get some of these monsters under their thumb, humane Western standards for the treatment of prisoners are the last thing that's going to be on their minds.

I've long believed that once the Iraqi military reaches the point where it can securely exert its government's authority throughout the country, the Iraqis will actually be able to fight the "insurgency" more effectively without our presence than with it. Iraq is not Minnesota or Denmark or even Serbia. The Sunni fanatics bedeviling the country probably can't be brought to heel without using tactics that we Americans could not allow ourselves to use, nor even tolerate the Iraqis using, if we were there to see up close what they were doing.

It can't come soon enough for me, because that will be the day when we can finally get our troops out of that nightmarish place and bring them home. As for what the jihadists suffer at the hands of their former victims, I won't lose any sleep over that.

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09 September 2006

The security situation in Iraq

Click here to view pictures of the utterly deserted streets of Karbala, Iraq, as residents cower indoors, terrified to venture outside due to the "chaos" and "civil war" gripping the country -- more proof of the failure of Coalition and Iraqi forces to make the Iraqi people feel secure.

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I don't like obscene language. Oh, I acknowledge that on rare occasions of extreme anger, it can be a legitimate and even therapeutic means of venting one's feelings. But casual use of it in everyday speech, or to ratchet up the intensity of an insult, is just tiresome.

I attribute this phenomenon largely to the pervasiveness and popularity of [c]rap "music" and its gangrenous influence on popular language, which has now spread to ill-raised people of all kinds throughout society, who give themselves a frisson of fake daring by publicly lacing their conversation with "forbidden" and "shocking" words.

The irony is that overuse of even the most potent obscenities quickly robs them of what power they might originally have been felt to have. Take, for example, a certain twelve-letter word beginning with "M" which is a staple of the "lyrics", if that is the correct term for them, of the above-cited "musical" genre. I will not sully my website by typing the word here, but suffice to say that if interpreted literally, it would refer to an individual whose relationship with his mother is far, far more intimate than our society finds acceptable. There was a time when this word was among the most shocking and agitating insults in the language. But as used in its "musical" context, it has become so common that it has devolved into a mere synonym for "person", often with no insulting intent at all. A similar casual usage also occurs in the speech of some m*****f*****s -- sorry, I mean "persons".

Thus the obscenity-laced conversation overheard on the bus or in the mall now has about the same effect as the sudden realization that the drunk sitting next to you has finally passed out and defecated in his pants. It is not shocking or daring or provocative. It is merely disgusting.

The write stuff

As a followup to the previous post, I'd like to point out one of the functions which standardized "correct" language has, in every culture -- a function most linguists won't tell you about. It provides a quick way for educated people to identify each other.

This is particularly useful in a culture like ours where education is not reliably correlated with any other, more easily-visible trait. Educated people don't necessarily dress a certain way. They don't necessarily make a lot of money (though they are seldom extremely poor). There are certain professions where they predominate, but many of them do not work in such professions. They don't typically drive a certain type of car or live in a certain area of town.

But they do tend to speak a certain way. Or, more exactly, their speech tends to be free of certain features, while manifesting certain others. They do not say things like "if I would have gone" or "between you and I". They can correctly form relative clauses in which the word "which" or "whom" is preceded by a preposition. They may even know and correctly apply the distinction between "who" and "whom", though this last feature has almost vanished from actual spoken English. Such forms of speech thus signal to one educated person that he is in the presence of another.

The same effect is present, and even clearer, in writing. When I receive a letter from a person with whom I have not previously corresponded, I know that it will usually take many subsequent exchanges before I can tell how intelligent he is. But I can usually tell from just the first couple of sentences how educated he is.

Modern technology has blessed us with an invention which has vastly increased the entertainment value of bad writing. This is the computer spell checker, which enables the semiliterate to imagine that they are producing correct English without the burden of reaching for the dictionary. In fact, spell checkers merely flag strings of letters which are not real words. They do not catch cases in which a spelling which would be correct in a different context is wrong in its actual context.

Thus at various times I have seen, in writing which was actually informally published without being professionally edited, such locutions as a person taking a "vile" of some substance from a medicine cabinet, criminals being condemned to a "grizzly" fate (suggesting that their punishment was to be eaten by bears), money being "dispersed" to its rightful recipients, efforts to "reign in" activities of which one disapproves, and the evils of addiction to drugs such as "heroine" (spelled thus four times in one paragraph). In that last case, I could not resist writing to the editor/perpetrator and mentioning that I had been a "heroine addict" ever since seeing Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

I have heard that there are now also computer grammar checkers, doubtless equally effective. I have not yet seen any obvious examples of writing produced with their benefit.

But I can hardly wait.


People that don't talk good

"Just between you and I, even if I would of knew that, I could care less. So their."

Is our language deteriorating? The claim is commonly made. We seem to be awash in bad grammar and worse spelling. The schools, it is said, are not doing their job. Compared to the elegant and correct style of English used in earlier times, of which so many examples survive in writing, ours must surely be the most inept generation ever in the use of language.

I'm not so sure. Compared with the very recent past (a few decades ago), this may be true, although I have my doubts even there -- older people complaining that things have declined since their youth goes back at least as far as ancient Athens, and probably back to a time when old guys sat around in front of the cave grousing that the younger generation of mammoth hunters just didn't have the same style as in their day. People tend to recall the past with rosy hues. Still, I'd be the last to dispute the view that many of our schools are, indeed, not teaching well. So I'll concede it's possible that the average standard of English usage in, say, the 1950s might have been slightly better than today, although frankly I see no hard evidence of it.

Overall, though, I would bet that on the whole people today use language better than in almost any previous era. Here's why.

In the first place, people are always more careless in speech than in writing. Most bad grammar occurs in speech. The same person who gets his syntax tangled up in conversation would probably hold himself to a higher standard if he were writing anything down. Here's an experiment. Get yourself a recording of some people you know to be well-educated when they are in lively conversation -- a bunch of political pundits in animated discussion on TV, say. Transcribe the conversation in writing exactly, word for word. You'll be startled at what the result looks like.

We can hear the conversational speech of our own time, but not that of earlier decades and centuries. All we have from the latter is their writing. It's comparing apples and oranges.

Second, even if we compare only modern and earlier written English, remember that universal literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until a century or two ago, only a minority of the population -- usually a very small minority -- could write. The samples of written English which we have from those times are the product of this small, well-educated, non-typical subgroup. Today, even what we consider the uneducated -- even the barely-educatable -- can write. So they do.

This is not an excuse. It is possible to educate virtually a whole national population to a high standard of literacy. Japan does (with a writing system much more difficult than ours). But until a century or two ago, the people who today write gibberish like the opening sentence of this posting wouldn't have been writing bad English. They wouldn't have been able to write at all.

Third, the mass production and distribution of writing was far more difficult in earlier times than today. Before printing, the production of multiple copies of a text could be done only by laborious hand-copying. Even with early printing technology, books had to be typeset, printed, and distributed in a much more labor-intensive fashion than in modern publishing. Numbers of copies were small by modern standards. Today, a few minutes after I type these words, I will use a single mouse-click to post them on the internet, where they will be available to any of the hundreds of millions of people who have access. I will require no active human assistance to do this, only some free software whose use is so easy that it could literally be mastered by a child in an hour or so. When mass production and distribution of writing required such an investment of effort, people naturally took a lot more trouble with the writing in which that investment was made; writing which failed to meet high standards was not published. Today, the effort involved is negligible, in many cases no one except the author himself need be involved at all, and the care taken with the content is correspondingly reduced.

Over the last century, the amount of bad writing has increased from almost zero to some large amount. The amount of good writing has probably also increased from a large amount to an even larger one. It's just that the former phenomenon, being more of a novelty, is more noticeable.

Awareness in "vegetative" brain

A remarkable case in which a woman supposedly in a "vegetative state" was demonstrated to be conscious, even if unable to respond to external stimuli in any visible way.

I've long thought that we don't know nearly as much about these types of conditions as we think we do.

08 September 2006

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

Yes, this is ridiculous -- but at least it's intentionally ridiculous. Conventional religion, on the other hand.....

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Climate change watch

80% of species in Britain have significantly shifted their ranges in response to steady warming.


The "town square test" in Britain

Testing freedom of expression, with an eye-catching fashion accessory.

I do think it's not quite fair to say that Britain is "failing the town square test". It sounds like the harassment Lulie received all came from one persistent individual.

Found via the Islamophobic blog.


Keeping watch on Islam

The Islamophobic blog is worth regular visits. Note the great Churchill quote at the top. My only cavil would be with the name; a "phobia" normally denotes an irrational fear, and this particular fear is not irrational at all.

Great BBC reports from 1943.


07 September 2006

Cool religion

Finally, a campus crusade I can get behind.

Further entertaining stuff here.

(Thanks to Mendip for the links.)

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06 September 2006

Eastern and western Europe

Eastern vs. western Europe. "New" vs. "old" Europe. Or, during the Cold War, simply "them" and "us". What's the difference, and where is the dividing line?

"Europe" as a geographical expression is fairly well-defined, and also essentially meaningless. It's bounded on the north by the Arctic ocean, on the west by the Atlantic, on the south by the Mediterranean and Black seas and the Caucasus mountains, and on the east by the Ural mountains. But this geographical area clearly is not a cultural unit. Most obviously, the Ural mountains are not a cultural boundary at all; they mark the eastern edge of "European" Russia, but there is only more Russia on the other side, so the culture on both sides is the same. One might as well declare the Mississippi to be a fundamental dividing line.

Everyone knows that this "Europe" contains two very different worlds. It's in defining the distinction and where it lies that things get murky.

It seems to be a common habit of people in several of the countries of eastern and central Europe to declare that they themselves are genuinely Europeans in a cultural sense, but that all the countries to the east of them are not. Many Ukrainians say this about the Russians, Romanians and Poles say it about the Ukrainians and Russians, Hungarians say it about the Romanians (most of my observation of this phenomenon over the years comes from personal conversation and writings that don't seem to be online, but I can assure you it is real), and of course we all know about the historical attitude of the Germans toward pretty much everyone to the east of themselves.

More objectively, in The Clash of Civilizations Samuel Huntingdon went to some trouble to define "the eastern boundary of Western civilization", a line he drew along the Croatian-Bosnian border, then along the Carpathian mountains to include Transylvania but exclude the rest of Romania, and finally northward through the Pripyat marshes to follow the eastern borders of Latvia, Estonia, and Finland (map here). This is basically the eastern border of the area which was historically Catholic and (later) Protestant. It has won favor from those who believe that the cultural character of "the West" as it exists today was largely shaped by a series of events including the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment in general, which took place to some degree in all of the societies west of this line, but not in the Eastern Orthodox and Muslim societies east and southeast of it.

How much importance we attach to this boundary depends on how closely we agree with Huntingdon's definition of what makes the West what it is (I believe the essence of Western civilization lies in its Roman origins, though the later events cited above were obviously important). One could also argue that this borderline reflects a division between those societies which received Roman civilization directly from Rome and those that received it via Byzantium -- Huntingdon makes a similar point, though he is talking about the spread of Christianity rather than Roman culture.

But how useful is this boundary, really? Its location is defined by religion, and religion is no longer a significant part of most Europeans' sense of identity, except in Poland; eastern and western Europe are both overwhelmingly secular. It is true that there were major cultural changes centuries ago which happened only to the west of the line, because at that time religious differences were formidable barriers to the transmission of such ideas; but there are also many cultural connections and influences which cross the boundary. Most obviously, five countries which are "Western" by Huntingdon's definition (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia) speak Slavic languages, a cultural link with non-Western Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia. Ukraine was ruled by Poland for much of the late Middle Ages, and Polish influence played a role in creating its identity distinct from Russia. Transylvania's population is now over 60% Romanian (non-"Western"), even though Hungarians ("Western") were predominant there as recently as two hundred years ago. The Baltic states, also classified as Western, have large Russian populations which settled there during the centuries of Tsarist and Soviet rule. And German cultural influence has been a huge factor throughout eastern Europe for centuries; it declines somewhat as geographical distance from Germany increases, but does not abruptly end at any arbitrary line.

Where can a meaningful line most usefully be drawn now?

I know that when I speak of "eastern Europe", I mean the area east of the eastern borders of Germany, Austria, and Italy (and Finland). This line may have no basis in the 16th century, but it does divide what, in 2006, seem like two different worlds.

Economically: the countries west of the line have living standards typically equivalent to around 60% to 90% of what we have in the US. East of the line, per-capita incomes are more similar to those of Latin America.

Linguistically: west of the line, people speak what we think of as "Western" languages, at least somewhat familiar to Americans, such as Spanish, French, German, and Italian. East of the line lies the realm of "strange" and "difficult" languages -- mostly Slavic languages and exotica such as Albanian and Hungarian (the latter of which is not even Indo-European). Romanian, a Romance (Latin-derived) language like Spanish or Italian, is the sole exception.

Politically: west of the line, independence and democracy are half-century-old (or more) realities, taken utterly for granted. East of the line, these things are fifteen years old at best, and recognized as not at all a foregone conclusion.

Psychologically: this is most important, if harder to pin down. Eastern Europeans mostly still seem to understand that civilization (whatever they consider that to mean) has dangerous enemies and needs defending. Western Europeans, with the notable exception of (some of) the British and the Danes, seem to have lost this awareness and live in a pacifist dream-world in which threats are not real and all problems can be solved by talking. In Iraq, for example, there is actually a Polish occupation zone between the British and American ones, and soldiers from other eastern European countries are present there alongside ours. Western Europe, except for Britain's enormous contribution, has done little to help, with France and Germany even seeking to obstruct American policy.

As a corollary to this, almost every major western European city has a large colony of unassimilated Muslims (immigrants from Muslim countries and their descendants), who are gradually transforming those cities into crime-infested hell-holes, intimidating and threatening the indigenous people with extremist rhetoric and public demonstrations, harassing Jews, and more or less openly proclaiming the aim of establishing Islamic domination. Eastern European cities lack this problem, partly because those countries are too poor to offer the generous welfare states and high wages that attract such immigrants. But it also seems very unlikely that Muslim minorities could behave in Moscow, Kiev, or Warsaw as they do in Paris, Brussels, and London, because the indigenous people simply would not put up with it.

Finally, throughout western Europe, vicious anti-American hatred is commonplace, even fashionable. The roots of this phenomenon are complex, but a good discussion of it can be found in the book While Europe Slept by Bruce Bawer (the book is also a good source on the problem of Islamic minorities in Europe, its main topic). In most eastern European countries, attitudes toward Americans are at least somewhat friendlier, even if some of the governments (such as Russia's) are not.

Westerners tend to think of eastern Europe as a backward place which needs to be Westernized as quickly as possible for its own good. It is true that geographical disadvantages, isolation from the sources of the Enlightenment, and the long periods of traditional despotism and Communist misrule have left eastern Europe poorer than the West. But the balance sheet suggests another side to the story. The easterners know a thing or two about how the world really works, about standing up to bullies, and about knowing who one's real friends are. Their western neighbors could benefit by learning from them, as much as vice-versa.

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05 September 2006

Absolutely disgusting

Certain "organizations" in Europe are compiling "evidence" to "charge" Israeli military officers and political leaders with "war crimes" related to Israel's recent efforts to defend itself against attacks by Hizbullah in Lebanon. (Found via Atlas Shrugs.)

These organizations do not appear to be affiliated with any government, but there have been cases in the past where Israeli officers were threatened with arrest, and Israel has cautioned its military personnel against visiting certain countries.

I have yet to hear of such organizations compiling evidence against leaders or fighters of Syria, the Palestinian Authority (long funded by the EU), Hizbullah, or Hizbullah's sponsor Iran, for all the kidnappings, rocket attacks on towns, suicide bombings targeting random civilians, placing of military equipment in civilian areas (thus endangering those civilians), and other atrocities for which they are responsible. No, they target the country which goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming enemy noncombatants while fighting back against the thugs who are trying to destroy it. As always, Israel is held to one standard and its enemies to another (if any).

I don't think there's any ambiguity about the reason for this. The revenant monster of anti-Semitism is stalking the old continent again, gaining strength with every slanted news article from the Middle East and every political speech or action obfuscating the distinction between the terrorists and their target. (This particular article is about Britain, but from what I've read, the situation in France, Germany, and some of the other countries is at least as bad.)

Any country whose police or courts actually harass or threaten Israelis on the basis of this nonsense needs to be publicly rebuked by the United States, and no American should spend his tourist dollars there.

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04 September 2006

Pardon my French

France, simmered to delicious perfection by Nidra Poller on Atlas Shrugs.


Russian pop music

It's Glukoza. Yay! Looks like it's still the seventies over there.

Here she is again, with a very different pace and mood, singing "Moskva". (Note: this sometimes downloads slowly. If it keeps getting stuck, click "pause" and give it a minute or so before playing.)

And here with "Verka Serduchka" (Andrei Danilko), Ukraine's answer to Liberace. I think the person who designed this set was working under the inspiration of something a little stronger than vodka.

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Imposing religion

Cox & Forkum hit the nail on the head with this cartoon about Katherine Harris's outrageous remarks.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from another Christian who has a better grasp of the separation of church and state:

"No president should ever try to impose religion on our society.....the great tradition of America is one where people can worship the way they want to worship. And if they choose not to worship, they're just as patriotic as your neighbor. That is an essential part of why we are a great nation."

President Bush

(Yes, he said that. See the White House website here. It's about one-third of the way down, in response to the question from "Terry".)

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Worst-case scenario

As time passes, I feel an increasing fear that the worst possible eventuality is actually going to come to pass in the Middle East -- that is, that the United States will fail to take action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The reality of the situation is stark. Sixty years ago, after the enormity of the Holocaust became clear, the civilized world said, "Never again." But today we have another thuggish regime controlling a major country, which openly proclaims its intention to do it again, and is working single-mindedly to acquire the technology needed to carry out its avowed aim. The president of Iran has publicly declared that Israel must be destroyed ("wiped off the map"), an action which would result in the deaths of millions of Jews. Just like last time.

If we allow this to happen, we will quite rightly never be able to forgive ourselves. Will we be able to claim that we thought Iran's rhetoric was mere hyperbolic bluster, or that we could not believe the regime would really be capable of such a horrific act? No. We already know, from what we saw sixty years ago, that sometimes dictators actually mean what they say, and that human beings are indeed capable of staggering evil, even in one of the world's most civilized countries.

So what will the United States do? Will we continue for months fiddling around with UN resolutions and economic sanctions, or will we actually do something about this problem?

Taking action would be far from simple. The prospect is daunting. The Iranian nuclear program is dispersed in many different sites around the country, some of them in cities. The destruction of even only the most critical ones would require a massive airstrike. A secondary strike would also need to destroy conventional missiles with which the enraged mullahs might retaliate against Israel, Persian Gulf oil shipping, or our troops in neighboring Iraq. Some argue that the Natanz nuclear facility is so large and so deeply buried that it could not be completely destroyed except with a small "bunker-buster" nuclear bomb -- though I assume US planners would make every effort to minimize harm to nearby civilian populations on the surface.

Certainly such an attack would kill many innocent Iranians. But the alternative, most likely, is millions of dead Israelis -- to say nothing of the possibility of further millions of Iranians being killed by a Samson-in-the-temple nuclear counterattack by what was left of the IDF. Some fear that a US airstrike on Iran would lead to retaliation against us by Iranian-backed terrorists (though I think it likely that the airstrike would also try to bring down the mullahs' regime at the same time it disarmed them). But the alternative is that someday those Iranian-backed terrorists might be supplied with nuclear bombs -- something we cannot risk, no matter how remote the possibility.

An odd thread in this story is the role being played by Russia, which is not only diplomatically obstructing US efforts to confront Iran, but has even supplied the mullahs with much of their equipment. Even if the Russian government is indifferent to the fate of Israel, it can hardly be comfortable with the thought that people like those who carried out the Beslan atrocity might someday get their hands on Iranian nuclear bombs. I suspect a rather subtle game based on expectations of American action. Why not make money by selling technology to the mullahs, knowing that the US will eventually destroy the threat before it materializes (and suffer all the inevitable opprobrium from certain quarters for doing so) and get the Russian government off the hook?

I'm not impressed by claims that the problem is not urgent because Iran is "years away" from actually building a bomb. Intelligence services have a very poor track record of estimating the exact status of technological development projects in unfriendly countries. The first Soviet nuclear test took us completely by surprise, just as the first Sputnik did.

One encouraging sign may, oddly, be presented by the recent ceasefire in Lebanon. Observers familiar with the history of Israeli military strategy were baffled when Israel accepted a ceasefire which left the goal of its Lebanon operation -- the crushing of Hizbullah -- only half-accomplished. The most widely-accepted explanation (even among the Israeli people, apparently) is simple incompetence on the part of the Olmert government. But it has occurred to me that accepting the ceasefire would also make perfect sense if the date of a strike against Iran had been fixed -- for the fall of the mullahs' regime (if that could be accomplished) would leave Hizbullah to wither away without its sponsor, just as most Communist insurgencies around the world withered away after the USSR broke up.

That is conjecture. The indisputable fact is this: we are about to find out whether "Never again" was mere empty words or a true commitment.

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The "Late Antiquity" myth

The evidence of history has always been clear that the fall of the Roman Empire constituted a disastrous retreat of civilization, characterized by massive population declines, collapse of long-distance trade, falling living standards, plummeting literacy, and the replacement of the enforced unity and peace of the Empire with a hodgepodge of petty dynastic states and tribes engaged in centuries of meaningless warfare. Yet in recent decades an odd sort of historical revisionism has emerged, trying to argue that the decline was not really much of a decline, and that the Dark Ages that followed were more of a continuation of Classical civilization than a relapse into barbarism -- a so-called "Late Antiquity".

A discussion (and refutation) of this phenomenon is here.

A further discussion emphasizing the purported implications for the modern United States (so often compared with the Roman Empire) is here.

I'm not going to waste space debunking the revisionist viewpoint. The linked articles above, and the book they discuss, do that job very thoroughly. But the question arises: why has such an obviously false view of history acquired such popularity? The articles argue that it has something to do with the requirements of certain modern groups' self-image. I think there may be several other, more influential factors at work.

(1) The rise of modern fundamentalist Christianity has led to a desire to "rehabilitate" the Dark Ages. Secularists have long pointed to the backwardness of that period as an example of why religious dominance over societies must be avoided. As far back as 20 years ago I was hearing arguments that the Dark Ages weren't really as bad as we think nowadays. The point then was to disparage the Enlightenment as being not such a great step forward, but by the same logic the fall of the Roman Empire has to be portrayed as not such a great step backward.

(2) On a related note, the Roman Empire was pagan for most of its history, while the Dark Ages were Christian. The identification of the former with civilization and the latter with barbarism inevitably strikes the modern Christian as somewhat jarring.

(3) Anti-Semitism has long been fueled by the view of Jews as "Christ-killers" because of their role in the death of Jesus in the New Testament. Nowadays everyone, including fundamentalists, wants to reject anti-Semitism, so there is a tendency to downplay this role and instead emphasize the culpability of the other villain of the tale, the Romans. This is then generalized to "the Romans were bad."

(4) For some reason we've developed a bias that, in any case where a smaller social group is in conflict with a big empire (usually trying to break away from its control), the smaller group is the "good guys". This bias is sustained even though in most cases it's objectively a bad thing when the empire loses. The end of the British Empire, for example, is generally considered a positive development even though it resulted in bloody chaos, oppression, and regression in many of the ex-colonies. We see the same pattern with the break-up of Yugoslavia. Even the fall of the USSR left Central Asia and the Caucasus worse off than before. Yet the general meme "empires are bad and their downfall is good" remains impervious to the evidence of what actually happens in the real world. It's inevitable that it would eventually be applied to the Roman Empire.

The fact that the fall of the Empire led to a fusion of Roman and Germanic cultures may also appeal to Americans who emphasize our country's identity as a fusion of people from many origins into one nation. In fact, this obscures a more subtle point -- the fusion of cultures usually only gives a good result when the more advanced culture is firmly in charge. The Roman Empire was already a mixture of many different peoples under a common government and a dominant language and culture. The massive influx of barbarian Germanic elements was a disaster at the time, even though the resulting fusion eventually led (in the very, very long run) to the West as it exists today. A similar Islamization of the modern West (a possible development which the article above considers analogous) would be equally disastrous, even if the resulting cultural mix produced an advanced civilization 1,000 years in the future.

The psychological needs of modern people cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that the fall of the Roman Empire was a terrible disaster for human civilization -- just as that of its modern successor, built on a continent the Romans themselves never knew, would be.

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Inept misogyny

Probably the definitive review of the new Wicker Man.


02 September 2006

The neurocircuitry of mysticism

Mystical and religious experience is a form of electrochemical activity in the brain.


Confronting illegal immigration

A new group is challenging those who hire illegal aliens, right here in Oregon.


01 September 2006

Anniversary of a massacre

Today is the second anniversary of the Muslim terrorist attack on School No. 1 in Beslan, Russia. With over 360 deaths, it was the second-bloodiest massacre of the modern barbarian onslaught on the non-Muslim world, after the September 11 attack itself. In one way Beslan was the most terrible case of all -- because the murderers specifically targeted children.

It's an event especially worth remembering as a reminder that the West is not the only victim of these barbarians. Any non-Muslim society is at least potentially a target -- and thus potentially an ally of ours.

And it is not disrespectful to hope that those who hold power in Moscow, too, will think back on that nightmare two years ago, and reconsider whether it is truly wise to obstruct America's efforts to stop the main state sponsor of Islamic terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons.

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Quote for the day

"The reasonable man accommodates himself to the ways of the world. The unreasonable man attempts to get the world to accommodate itself to his ways. Thus progress depends on unreasonable men."

George Bernard Shaw

Technology marches on

Gene therapy successfully used in humans to reverse cancer and macular degeneration.

At a much earlier stage of development, a more fundamental approach: telomere elongation by means of artificial DNA nanocircles, attacking one of the key causes of the aging process.


Don't mess with perfection

Aaarrgh! Most movie remakes are an embarrassment (The Fly and King Kong are the only really outstanding ones that come to mind), but if the original wasn't much good in the first place, at least no harm is done. Now we're being offered a completely unnecessary rehash of a cult classic.

Early signs aren't good -- the remake wasn't pre-screened for critics, and the director of the original wanted nothing to do with what sounds like an utter mess. (Not set in Scotland? Killer bees?!)

Sigh. Well, I hope it will at least lead to a renewed interest in the original.

Update: Yep, it's bad.

Threat or opportunity?

The internet allows anyone with access, anywhere on Earth, to make available pretty much any kind of content they want -- and allows anyone else with access, anywhere on Earth, to see it. Those who want to prevent you from seeing certain types of material because it undermines their power, or transgresses their taboos, suddenly find their job much harder. Whatever barriers they seek to impose, there is usually a way to work around them.

The world may be roughly divided into those who see this situation as a threat and those who see it as an opportunity. On the one side are, most importantly, regimes such as those of China and Iran, and also certain puritanical elements within our own society. On the other side is, pretty much, anybody who isn't a control freak and isn't thrown into an agitated frenzy by the thought of someone else holding different opinions or different tastes in entertainment.

I'm pretty sure I know which side is going to win.


Ukrainian pop music