Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tony Benn of The Guardian needs more tinfoil

Here's his quotable from today's Guardian column.

Discussing the reasons Blair supported Bush on Iraq, and why Blair will agree to back a US strike on Iran:
And one of his reasons for doing so will be the same as in Iraq: namely the fear that, if he alienates Bush, Britain's so-called independent deterrent might be taken away. For, as I also learned when I was energy secretary, Britain is entirely dependent on the US for the supply of our Trident warheads and associated technology.

So it's at least partially due to the UK wanting to keep up it's independant nuclear capabilities.

The rest of the article is equally slapstick. But what else would you expect from something headlined "Bush is the real threat"?

Sheehan: I am the sine qua non of the peace movement

"I look back on it, and I am very, very, very grateful he did not meet with me, because we have sparked and galvanized the peace movement," Sheehan told The Associated Press. "If he'd met with me, then I would have gone home, and it would have ended there."

Somehow, I don't believe that bit about her going home if Bush had met her. But her gratitude is evident; who knew losing a son could be so personally rewarding?

BTW, nice level of hubris she's got going there. Had she gone home, the peace movement would have been neither sparked, nor galvanized.

Others glad the president didn't meet with her: the press, bloggers, and iced tea merchants. Full disclosure: this is my first post on la belle madame Sheehan.

Saw the article on Drudge.

Empire of the sums

The Guardian has a review of Peter Turchin's book that seeks to reduce history to a series of mathematical equations. Thus allowing one to predict the future as well as understand the past.

An explanation of his theory, called cliodynamics, is here.

I can't say I agree with the ideas behind it. They sound too much like Soviets lecturing the world about how they proved that the future is ours, comrade. Another book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, sought to explain history by quantifying natural resources, geography, animal populations, etc., and failed miserably in my opinion.

There are simply too many wildcards in history to allow anyone to make confident predictions.
[...] In September, ecologist Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut publishes War and Peace and War, a book in which he explains much of pre-industrial world history with his bold and controversial theory of the rise and fall of empires, using the same kind of maths that Turchin has used previously to study ecosystems.

Turchin believes that history can indeed be a science, with laws as inexorable as the law of gravity. He claims to have found the general mechanisms that cause empires to wax and wane - laws as true today as they were during the Roman or Ottoman Empires. According to this view, the world order is in a state of perpetual change and the global powers today will inevitably be replaced in the coming centuries.

Turchin's theory is anathema to some historians. When he presented the detailed mathematics that underpins his theory of empires in a book called Historical Dynamics in 2003, it met with stiff opposition. Some regarded his assumptions about human behaviour as simplistic. "Social theory is a minefield, even for those experienced in it", said Joseph Tainter, an American historian who has studied the collapse of civilisations. He dismissed Turchin's view of history, saying that "sophisticated mathematics will not improve naive social theories".

Others are opposed to the very idea that history has rules analogous to those in science, and that the historian's aim is to discover them. "History is our interpretation of past thoughts that happened to be written down or otherwise preserved," says historian Niall Ferguson. "We do not really study [historical] causes, but what people at the time thought were the causes. And our aim in retrieving their thoughts is not so much to explain how things happened as to understand how they seemed to have happened."

It is an old argument. In the second century BC, the Greek writer Polybius proposed that societies are like organisms, which are born, grow, age and die, leading him to predict the decline of the Roman Empire 600 years ahead of the event. The idea of a mechanical science of history became popular in the 18th century, in the wake of Isaac Newton's mechanical explanation of planetary motions, and by the 19th century such notions were held by most "progressive" thinkers. Turchin's title alludes to Tolstoy's speculations in War and Peace that history is deterministic, directed by "forces" such as those invoked by Newton.

And Karl Marx echoed Polybius's belief in cyclic history in his economic theory of why a proletarian revolution was inevitable. But others deplored this reduction of the richness and complexity of history to a clockwork caricature. What about the role of "great men" like Napoleon or Alexander, whose influence could never have been predicted? Nietzsche voiced an opinion shared by many historians today when he said "So far as there are laws in history, laws are worth nothing and history is worth nothing."

Turchin knows he is entering a battleground. But his experience in the mathematical modelling of animal populations such as lemmings, voles and forest insects has given him confidence that the complex processes of human interactions can be captured by such methods too. "History is not just a huge number of random factors interacting in very complex ways," he says. "There are some strong patterns that come out. And there are some reasonably simple explanations at work for these patterns."

Of course, human society is more complicated than vole communities. But Turchin thinks it is not necessarily too complicated for a scientific approach. "A good scientific theory does not need to include everything we know about the subject", he says. "It needs to include only the stuff that is necessary for getting the job done."

For example, Turchin argues that the fluctuations in population of pre-industrial societies can be linked to periods of political instability and civil war. His theory shows how population growth caused by increased prosperity can itself trigger such social instability, thus sowing the seeds of its own decline. This, says Turchin, is how civilisations and empires collapse.

But War and Peace and War is even more ambitious, for it attempts to explain some of history's grand narratives: the rise and fall of Rome, the expansion of medieval European powers, the Russian conquest of Siberia. Turchin believes that these empires were the product of one factor: social cohesion, or the willingness of groups to cooperate against their opponents.

However, to conquer, a society needs some combination of competant military leadership, new tactics, new technologies. Cohesiveness is also needed, but not nearly to the extent required in the times of the Greek and Persian Empires.
Turchin calls such solidarity asabiya, an Arabic word used by the 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun to denote "mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other". A courtier of several North African sultans, Ibn Khaldun was the first person to propose that asabiya is the fuel of empire building.

Using modern understanding of how cooperative behaviour develops in groups of organisms, Turchin's models suggest that asabiya becomes particularly strong on the frontiers of empires, where two civilisations confront one another. This, he says, was how a small group of Cossacks led by Yermak Timofeyevich was able to defeat a much larger army of Tatars in Siberia in 1582. Thus, the "meta-ethnic faultlines" between civilisations are "asabiya incubators" from which new empires spring. Here, either you unite or you die.

The happy consequence is that frontier peoples bury their differences and help one another. The downside is that they exaggerate factors that distinguish them from their foes, who become subhuman barbarians, heathens or infidels. It's us versus them.

Sounds familiar? Turchin points out how, after 9/11, a US radio host referred to Arabs as "nonhumans" and claimed that "conversion to Christianity is the only thing that probably can turn them into human beings". America has all the hallmarks of an empire, he says, and it is one in which asabiya is showing its dark side in nationalism and xenophobia. "Today the most violent clash of civilisations occurs on the meta-ethnic frontiers of Islam with the western, Orthodox, Hindu and Sinic civilisations," says Turchin. But if his theory is right, it will be in these conflict zones, such as the borders of Europe, that the next great empires will arise.
Anyway, the book sounds very interesting. It goes onto my wish list, pronto.

Europe's anti-biotech regulations doom many to hunger

Found this while reading that fellow who married Mrs. Reynolds's site. The links in blue are part of the article.

The European Union and fellow traveling anti-biotech activists may well succeed in bottling up the next wave of genetically improved crops that aim directly at helping poor farmers in the developing world. How? Anti-biotech European regulations are spooking the governments of poor countries into preventing their farmers from growing the new genetically enhanced crops. And that’s a shame, because researchers in laboratories and plant breeding stations around the world are endowing new biotech crop varieties with traits like disease resistance and improved nutritional value.
After a lengthy list of beneficial genetically modified foods, the discusses how the anti-GM campaigners harm many of the world's hungry.

Not surprisingly, the constituency of anti-biotech environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth is not poor African and Asian farmers and their families, but affluent and easily frightened European consumers. In response to ferocious pressure ginned up by the misleading campaigns of ideological environmentalists, EU politicians and bureaucrats have built an all but impenetrable wall of anti-biotech regulations around themselves. Wielding these onerous crop biotechnology regulations, the EU, on specious safety grounds, has essentially banned the importation of most biotech crops and foods. But these regulations do not only have consequences for European farmer and consumers.

The EU wants to export its regulatory system to the world, and it is offering "capacity building" foreign aid to persuade developing countries to adopt its no-go or go-slow approach to crop biotechnology regulations. Even more tragically, some developing countries are so afraid of the EU’s anti-biotech wrath that they are willing to risk the lives of millions of their hungry by rejecting food aid that contains genetically enhanced crops.

Activists usually blame the inaction of rich countries for killing people in poor countries. However, instead of outrage here, we get Greenpeace geneticist Doreen Stabinsky primly quipping in the Post-Dispatch, "Hunger is not solved by producing more food. We're the breadbasket of the world, and we have hungry people in the U.S."

Hunger may not be solved by producing more food, but it sure couldn’t hurt.

Zimbabwean civil rights: going, going, gone.

The BBC has the goods on Africa's latest megalomaniac and his plans to complete the transition from colonialism (hint: has something to do with getting rid of the whites and anyone who opposes him). It's a pity doing so requires the trashing of many basic civil rights.

Mugabe has a thing for land distribution. Probably ties into his old Marxist beliefs; doubtless he also enjoys the symbolic value of having the few remaining Whites being forced off the land.
Zimbabwe MPs have passed changes to the constitution to strengthen government control over land redistribution.

Another clause would allow President Robert Mugabe's government to confiscate passports of those deemed to pose a threat to national security. [...]

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said the amendments would bring to a full circle Zimbabwe's war against British colonial rule[,] "This amendment will conclude the third chimurenga [liberation war] and the process of decolonisation," he said.

Welshman Ncube, secretary general of the opposition MDC, described the bill as " the rape of democracy."

The bill has raised serious concerns among human rights groups and the political opposition, who are worried about how the draft puts certain actions of the government beyond the reach of the judiciary.

The government will now, for example, be able to expropriate land without being challenged in court.

This is being seen as a measure to smooth the government's programme of land redistribution from white farmers to the black majority.

One opposition MP raised the concern that vague wording meant it could affect someone growing cabbages in his back yard.

Another clause will give the government the right to withdraw passports or travel documents, again with no possibility of judicial appeal - opponents of the measure fear that it will be used to keep government critics on a tighter rein. [...]

President Mugabe has repeatedly changed the constitution during his 25 years as Zimbabwe's leader, but the latest changes are the most wide-ranging amendments ever put forward.

Most attention, though, has focused on the clause to deny the right of appeal to farmers whose land has been seized.

The government says it will conclude the land question.

The opposition says the move would further undermine property rights, deepening the country's economic crisis.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Armstrong case will go to cycling's governing body

Armstrong's reputation takes another hit. The Beeb notes that the UCI will have a look at the test results.

Given that Lance only managed to finish one Tour de France (out of three attempted) before being stricken with the big C, I have always found his purported drug-free transformation from domestique and one-day event rider into 7 time winner unbelievable.

No matter that his partisans claim French sour grapes motivated the recent disclosure of test results showing that he used the banned drug EPO back in 1999. These results were derived from his samples; there seems to be little controversy over that. Whether action can be taken on that basis remains to be seen.

Maybe this will encourage someone to come up with a method that allows blood and urine samples to be preserved for at least ten years. As tests for drugs are perfected, the samples can be tested.

I know of no more effective way to police the cycling world.

Chirac says Iran must halt nuclear activities

France and America united on a question of how to proceed against a Middle East nation seeking to posses WMD? Already unexpected. That France would move closer to the American position? Quelle surprise.

Behold the limits of EU-style soft power.
In a stark ultimatum, President Jacques Chirac of France warned Iran on Monday that it would face censure by the United Nations Security Council if it did not reinstate a freeze on sensitive nuclear activities under an agreement reached last November. [...]

"Today I call on the Iranian authorities to choose the path of cooperation and confidence by carefully examining this offer and resuming their commitment to suspend activities related to the production of fissile materials," Chirac said. He added: "There is room for dialogue and negotiation. We call on Iran's spirit of responsibility to restore cooperation and confidence, failing which the Security Council will have no choice but to take up the issue."

France's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, has also given Iran sharp warnings, but this is the first time that Chirac has clearly stated that Iran would face possible censure or even sanctions in the Security Council if it does not reinstate its freeze.

In taking such a tough line, Chirac sends a clear signal to Iran's newly elected conservative president and new nuclear negotiating team that France has moved closer to the position of the United States, which has long held that Iran's case belonged in the Security Council.
Of course, this might simply be a negotiating tactic designed to ensure a bigger payoff for France.

Progressive defense of British multi-culti: Requiring tolerance from the intolerant is intolerant

The benefits of a multi-culti society are dogma to progressives. When they see their goal of a world community under assault, they respond by claiming victim status, oppression, and intolerance. The occasional strawman argument also makes an appearance. Making today's argument in the IHT: James A. Goldston, the Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
[...] The notion that excessive tolerance toward ethnic minorities and immigrants has sown the seeds of terrorist violence would be laughable were it not so wrong. To be sure, a policy of "live and let live" may feed alienation when some communities enjoy markedly inferior opportunities for quality education and employment. Fostering enhanced integration of marginalized groups into British society should be a priority. But ending Britain's historic openness to others would be a grave mistake, and would do nothing to address the threat of terrorism.
First off, no one in a position of responsibility suggests that excessive tolerance led to the July terror bombings. Rather, it was the lack of integration (in many cases willful on the part of the bombers), combined with--admit it--Islam's own intolerance that led to the bombings. The author is correct that integration is part of the answer, but by integrating, these groups must necessarily give up some of their traditions and adopt some of Britain's' traditions.

Furthermore, no one is calling for the end of "Britain's historic openness to others". The demand is that the immigrant communities increase their efforts to be more British. One of the British values noticeably missing from these Islamo-terrorists is acceptance of other cultures.

The author also brings up the poverty as root cause theme. Most of the identified terrorists came from respectable households, not out of grinding poverty. Enough said.

Terrorism is not confined to countries that promote ethnic diversity; on the contrary, terrorists flourish in societies that suppress legitimate dissent and lack basic institutions of good governance. Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for example, have witnessed terrorist violence on their soil in recent years.
True, but this misses the point. Terrorism in Western societies is our concern, and by encouraging the adoption of Western mores, we seek to lower the likelihood of immigrants becoming terrorists. It's a pity he doesn't look at one the factors the nations he chose to populate his list with have in common. Large numbers of adherents of radical Islamic beliefs.

If the impoverishment and alienation of immigrant youth constitute a security risk (as well as a humanitarian concern), this may reflect not too much multiculturalism, but rather not enough antidiscrimination measures. [...]
Right. The British, by not being nicer to those who wish them harm, are to blame. If the immigrant communities would take it on themselves to mesh with the larger society, maybe there would be less discrimination. This is not to dismiss racism or discrimination, but other countries, notably France, have very high levels of both; this is not limited to the UK. Moreover, discrimination didn't produce these terrorists, the perverters of Islam did.
For more than three decades, Britain has led Europe in the adoption of antidiscrimination legislation - and to good effect. Persons of color have gained significant status, representation and recognition in journalism, business and the halls of government. But the persistent ghettoization of minority communities is evidence that more concerted efforts are required to combat prejudice, improve cross-cultural education, provide skills-based employment training and foster genuine economic promise. Loyalty to an adopted nation is instilled more effectively by equal opportunity than by citizenship oaths.
Improve cross-cultural education? What on earth is he talking about? What's wrong with immigrants learning how to be good citizens of their adoptive country. Expecting some movement on this question does not equate to discrimination.

But racial tolerance is not a policy preference exclusive to Britain. A European Union directive mandates that all EU members prohibit and effectively redress discrimination on grounds of racial or ethnic origin. And since 2000, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has been vigorously overseeing the transposition into national law of this equal treatment principle in all areas of economic and social life.
Gotta like his appeal to an extra-national governing body as the solution. Way to follow the stereotype.

It would be a shame - for Britain and others - were this long-standing tradition [rule of law, acceptance of minorities, etc.] to become yet another casualty of the misguided "war on terror."

In addition to his final parade of horrors if Britain changes point, many progressive arguments (read apologia) are deployed in this opinion piece. He even drags in the higher governmental body benefiting society theme. But no mention of the immigrants' responsibilities are seen, and no discussion of whether they are being met. Nor do we see a connection between Islam and terror made.

Britain's traditional tolerance allows pissants to preach and plot the destruction of Britain. The steps taken by the government to date are minor and perfectly correct. However, the author sees this all as an attack on the iconic status of multiculturalism.

His view: Requiring tolerance from the intolerant is intolerant. Irony level: off the scale.

Linked at Jawa Report, who is issuing fatwas as I type.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Quote of the day, French version

From Paris, we have today's quote from an immigrant who deals with the French on a level far different from what the world sees.
"From the outside, France is the country of human rights, but the inside is less pretty," said Korotoum, 31, who did not want her full name published for fear her work colleagues would learn where she lives. "The rights are not for everyone."
The article from which the quote is drawn discusses the shabby treatment immigrants receive from the French. It is well worth reading.

Vulcanism led to Permo-Triassic mass extinctions?

The evidence mounts. Many non-geologists are familiar with the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. But not many know of the even greater Permian-Triassic mass extinction that killed off some 85% of all species around 250 million years ago.
A computer simulation of the Earth's climate 250 million years ago suggests that global warming triggered the so-called "great dying".

A dramatic rise in carbon dioxide caused temperatures to soar to 10 to 30 degrees Celsius higher than today, say US researchers.

The warming had a profound impact on the oceans, cutting off oxygen to the lower depths and extinguishing most lifeforms, they write in the latest issue of Geology.

The research adds to the growing body of evidence that higher temperatures, rather than a giant space rock hitting the planet, led to the greatest mass extinction in history. [...]
The exact cause remains unknown, but evidence increasingly points away from a killer asteroid, and towards large scale vulcanism. Recent computer modeling shows that CO2 rates went through the roof over a period of several hundred thousand years, leading to temperatures high enough to kill off most species.
The latest data from scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, supports the view that extensive volcanic activity over the course of hundreds of thousands of years released large amounts of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the air, gradually warming up the planet. [...]

Their work indicates that temperatures in higher latitudes rose so much that the oceans warmed to a depth of about 3,000m (10,000ft).

This interfered with the circulation process that takes colder water, carrying oxygen and nutrients, into lower levels. The water became depleted of oxygen and was unable to support marine life.

"The implication of our study is that elevated CO2 is sufficient to lead to inhospitable conditions for marine life and excessively high temperatures over land would contribute to the demise of terrestrial life," Jeffrey Kiehl and colleagues write in Geology.
Volcanoes were known to be active at the end of the Permian, and could have accounted for the CO2 gases released. Asteroids as a theory seem to be on the outs for this extinction, as well as for the dinosaur kill-off; asteroid impacts, as currently hypothesized, would lead to a global winter scenario, rather than the global warming that seems to have occurred.

Vulcanism is also implicated in the great Dino kill-off. But that debate is very far from being settled. For what it's worth, I fall into the vlocano camp--it's more geologically sound.

Raging RINOs spotted in Big Cat Country

The Roaring Tiger who blogs at Big Cat Chronicles has this week's RINO carnival up. RINOs and big cats, they go well together. And this week the Tiger does a great job of making all the RINO submissions work together, as well.

See what her handiwork hath wrought.

Swiss support for EU labor accord in doubt

We Swiss (yes, I'm a dual-national) have an important vote coming up. A referendum on whether to allow the newest members of the EU free access to the Swiss labor markets is in trouble.

A vote acceding to the Schengen/Dublin border accords passed earlier this year (it makes travel to EU countries easier, and marked my first vote as a Swiss). However, soon after passing, the EU claimed it would not go into effect unless this upcoming vote also passed. Typically high handed approach.
[...] A poll published on Sunday found just 42 per cent would vote "yes" in September's vote on the issue. This is down from the 49 per cent revealed in another survey almost ten days ago.

Voters are due to cast their ballots on September 25 on whether to extend the free movement of people to mostly eastern European workers.

An accord has given the EU's 15 original members access to the Swiss labour market since 2002.

The survey, published in Le Matin dimanche newspaper and carried out by the Geneva-based Erasm institute, found that only 42 per cent of those asked would vote yes, with 39 per cent against and 19 per cent still undecided.

Commenting on the results of the Erasm survey in Le Matin dimanche, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said that previous polls on EU-related votes had also been close and that these latest results were not unexpected.

"We know that the Swiss have fears and that it's also easy for opponents [of the vote] to play on these fears," she said.

Calmy-Rey said that the Erasm survey revealed that the public was still not yet informed enough about the free movement of people and that she would take steps to rectify this.

She also pointed out that the ballot was on opening up the labour market and not about joining the EU.

The Erasm poll found that it was mostly young people between the ages of 18 and 34 who remained sceptical about the issue. Only 35 per cent would vote in favour with 43 per cent likely to vote "no".

Overall, support for extending the accord was most prominent in the French-speaking part of the country (47 per cent), among city dwellers (46 per cent) and among those with a university education (60 per cent) [...]
After re-reading this post, I award it the title of boring post of the day. Let me know if you find anything duller out there in blogoland.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Analysis of the EU's textile quota snafu: Politics to blame

Quelle Surprise! An analysis of what produced the EU's knee jerk quotas on Chinese textiles reveals that political considerations trumped reason.

By way of background: European textile manufacturers have been under increasing pressure from Chinese competitors. They went to the EU trade commissioner with their complaints, who responded with poorly thought out quotas two months ago. The quotas were meant to show EU responsiveness and aggressiveness.

Now the quotas are in a shambles. Goods are piled up in European ports, the owners have no access to them, and the EU has gone, hat in hand, to China to renegotiate. Bravo, EU, bravo. Further unintended consequences are in the final paragraphs.

Somewhere, a professor is planning to include this cautionary tale in her or his next textbook.
[...] As a team of European Union negotiators arrived in Beijing on Thursday for talks on what they described as an urgent and serious problem with the textile quota system established two months ago, European retailers are saying they do not understand how the European Commission and Peter Mandelson, the bloc's trade commissioner, failed to comprehend the basic workings of the European retail industry.

Retailers order their overseas products about nine months before they want them delivered. But according to some industry representatives, Mandelson's decision to bar imports of clothing ordered well before the implementation of the quotas altered the ground rules.

"You can't change the rules during the game, and this is what happened," said Alessandro Bedeschi, secretary general of the AEDT, an organization that represents 400,000 European clothing retailers. "The commission should have paid more attention to retailers' need for predictability," he said. Had the retail sector been given at least nine months' notice, they could have shifted their orders in time, he said.

The European Commission said that such advance notice was not possible. The political imperative to implement quotas almost immediately was exceptionally strong, coming at a time when European voters were citing job losses to low-wage countries as one reason for rejecting a European constitution.

Mandelson was not available for comment. A spokeswoman for the European Commission, Krisztina Nagy, said: "The Union had to take urgent action. It's not a question of the commission not understanding the ordering cycle. When you take trade defense measures there is no ideal time."
Yesterday, his spokesperson reflexively claimed that retailers had been provided ample notice.

That is not what Mandelson said two months ago, when he returned from Shanghai after making a deal with the Chinese government to limit the surging textile exports from China.

Under strong pressure from the textile lobby in Europe and the governments of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece - where most of the European textile industry is based - Mandelson had persuaded the Chinese that it was in their interest to voluntarily limit the number of textiles allowed into the EU and thus avoid a wider trade war.

He told an audience in Brussels that the deal was a "once-and-for-all overall agreement" that would prevent having to "indefinitely haggle over every product on a category-by-category basis at enormous cost to internal European unity, not to mention our relations with China."

"The agreement will give players on both sides clarity, certainty and predictability," Mandelson said in June.

Few of Mandelson's optimistic predictions appear to have come true.

Instead of a final deal, Mandelson was forced to send negotiators back to Beijing on Wednesday to re-open discussions.

The full political implications for Mandelson have yet to play out. But the situation shows that trying to redirect global trade flows from Brussels is often a no-win situation fraught with the danger that domestic constituencies - in this case retailers - will suffer unintentional damage.

There is also little evidence to suggest that the quotas have significantly helped or will help the European clothing industry. Large retailers say they have shifted or plan to shift their production from China to other non-European countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

What is more, some EU officials thought that acting against Chinese imports would deflect attention from the European Union's internal problems with ratifying its constitution and would show that Europe could protect its industries.

But Mandelson's quotas have left the European Union more divided, with northern countries firmly against them and southern countries supporting them as a way to protect their industries. The controversy over the quotas may reinforce a perception that Europe has difficulty in forging common foreign policies among its members.

This perception is true not only in the case of Chinese textiles but in reference to the recently collapsed negotiations with Iran on nuclear nonproliferation, negotiations that have been led by Europe.

Such a view could mean European trade negotiators carry less weight if their foreign counterparts perceive they lack complete support in Europe. [...]

It seems that everything the EU does these days turns somehow to dross.

Hillbilly carnival up at Don Surber

Don, who has Swiss blood, or at least a Swiss last name, has the latest Hillbilly carnival up.

He was kind enough to ask me to participate, knowing that Switzerland has it's iconic hillbillies, too. Think Heidi and Peter, two kids running barefoot through the hills. And don't forget William Tell, the proto-hillbilly, who had his own Boss Hogg (the local Habsburg bailiff) to deal with.

Anyway, he does his usual fine job. The result is worth reading.

Merkel and CDU looking good in Germany's elections

Notwithstanding Chancellor Schroeder's recent peace offensive designed to remind voters of how he stood up to the Americans, the voters look ready to give Angela Merkel an opportunity to be their next leader.

The only question remaining is whether her coalition can poll more than 50%, thus avoiding diluting their power.

The IHT's Richard Bernstein, gives Merkel good marks for how she is behaving, and more importantly, what she is saying. This is in marked contrast from his virtual paraphrasing of Der Spiegel's snarkiness two weeks ago. Thankfully, he notes the error of his ways, and will presumably look less to German media for his opinions and predictions in the future.
Lots of questions are being asked by lots of people about Germany's presumptive next chancellor, Angela Merkel, among them: Why did she choose a famous radical pro-flat-tax reformer, Paul Kirchhof, to be her shadow finance minister only to reject the idea he is best known for, taxes so simple that the needed forms would fit into a fortune cookie? [...]

[W]hile there was much talk in the past couple of weeks, including some by me, about Merkel's faltering campaign and the resurgence of her rival, Gerhard Schroeder, the Social Democrat chancellor, the CDU-led coalition (with the pro-business Free Democratic Party) has maintained its all-but-unbridgeable lead in the opinion polls.

Even the possibility that Merkel will not get a majority in Parliament in the Sept. 18 election, and would have to govern in a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats, seems to have faded. Most polls last week showed the CDU-FDP alliance (known as the Black-Yellow coalition) squeaking to just over 50 percent of the total vote.

The margin is too bare to be a sure thing, but what does seem as sure as things can seem in politics three weeks before an election is that Merkel will be chancellor, whether on her own or as the leader of a grand coalition with her rivals.

And that makes this the real, the biggest, the only truly important question to ask about Merkel: What sort of a difference will she make? [...]

[T]he VAT increase [proposal; from 16% to 18%] is not only extremely important in its own right, but it is also a hint of the far more far-reaching, even visionary program that is in the offing under a presumed Chancellor Merkel. The mere fact that she announced the VAT increase - in the face of the Social Democrats' more crowd-pleasing call for new taxes on the very wealthy - is perhaps not revolutionary exactly, but a big step in German politics.

"There's never been an election in Germany where somebody announced a tax increase and was elected," said Wolfgang Nowak, a former adviser to Schröder who now runs a research group tank at Deutsche Bank. "That gives me hope."

The VAT increase in this sense may seem more a fine-tuning of a deeply flawed system than an overhaul of it, but, in the view of Nowak and others, it was a logical place to start. Germany's deficit, at just below 4 percent of GDP, will violate the European currency stability pact for the fourth straight year, which makes bringing down the deficit, which Schroeder has failed to do, an urgent priority. [...]

But more radical things are probably in the offing. Merkel's appointment of Kirchhof, a former judge on the Constitutional Court, who favors a flat tax rate of 25 percent and a closing of all of the tax system's many loopholes, will not lead to a flat tax. But it will probably get radical tax reform on the German agenda in a way it never has been before. [...]

However much Merkel might change things, her rhetoric is moderate, even a bit dull, for a reason. Her supporters say that she has intentionally chosen a sober sort of facing of reality instead of a flamboyant making of promises, and she is doing this in part because alone among the candidates, she is almost sure to win. [...]

Thursday, August 25, 2005

More evidence the French are natural stinkers

Many people traveling to France return with horror stories of sharing public transport with Frenchmen. Having traveled to France many times, I can support the stories. The French simply don't wash themselves or their clothing frequently enough for our tastes. Lest you dismiss this as an American complaint, I note that European countries share this opinion.

Now we have evidence that at least some of that famed stinkiness may be genetic.

Anecdotal evidence that eating asparagus led to some people producing oderiferous urine dates back centuries. Asparagusic acid and its derivatives, probably bound in some form within the vegetable, may be the precursors of the urinary odor.

An entertaining 2001 review article on the subject is found in the PEEr-reviewed (sorry, couldn't resist) journal Drug Metabolism and Disposition. The article provides a background of asparagus use in Europe, and discusses efforts to isolate the chemical responsible for the smell. It also mentions studies linking citizenship to maloderous piss. To no one's surprise, the French were found to stink right down to their pee.

Studies have found that in the United Kingdom about half of the population produced the odor [46/115, 40%, 95% confidence interval (CI1) 31-49%, Allison and McWhirter, 1956; 346/800, 43%, 95% CI 40-47%, Mitchell et al., 1987], whereas the frequency was greater in Americans (15/19, 79%, 95% CI 61-97%, Sugarman and Neelon, 1985). This phenomenon was present in both male and female subjects, and limited pedigree information suggested that the odor-producing trait was characteristic of, and compatible with, being inherited in an autosomal-dominant fashion, with the heterozygous state giving rise to an affected phenotype (Allison and McWhirter, 1956; Mitchell et al., 1987).

One study on a French population is reported in a short letter and states
that all 103 subjects examined excreted graveolent urine, perhaps
indicating a genuine ethnic difference (Richer et al., 1989).

In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I have no French blood, and don't produce asparagus-smelling urine. I also point out that I love visiting France, and enjoy their unique culture.

More bad news for IDists. Dino-Bird link strengthened

Dinosaurs developed many features once thought exclusive to birds, which is more evidence of an evolutionary link. Intelligent Design proponents often--falsely--argue that large animal speciation events are unknown in the fossil record. This news should further confound them. Hard to imagine anything bigger than birds evolving from dinosaurs. The article is from today's IHT.
Want to know where birds come from? Go rent "Jurassic Park." Dinosaurs, most paleontologists agree, are the ancient ancestors of the robin in the tree branch outside your window. And the more researchers learn about dinosaurs, the more they are understanding the evolutionary path of birds.

"Dinosaurs are all around us today in a very real sense," said Patrick O'Connor, a paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, speaking from Tanzania, where he had been digging up dinosaur fossils. This ongoing search for new information on dinosaurs gives us a historical perspective about how birds came to be who they are, he said.

Such things as a bird's feathers, breathing system and light bones - thought to have evolved for flight - are also showing up in fossils of dinosaurs that never took to the sky.

"Feathers are for flight, right?" asked Farish Jenkins, a paleontologist at Harvard University. "Wrong."

Some small dinosaurs that did not fly had feathers - probably to keep them warm, rather than to fly, Jenkins said. "It is another example that things are not always as they seem," he said.

As evolution progresses, features that arose for a particular purpose in one species often end up serving a different purpose in another species.

The relationship between birds and theropods, the group of two-legged ground-walking dinosaurs that preceded them, "really illustrates well how evolution works," said Chris Organ, a researcher in the department of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard. "You have characteristics that accumulate over a time span that eventually become what we think of as the animal." He added that there is a "common sense that fossils are about dead things and biology is about living things, but we really need more of an integrated sense of where things come from."

O'Connor and Leon Claessens, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, published a study in Nature last month suggesting that the breathing systems of birds, once thought to have evolved to help birds fly, are quite similar to those of the Tyrannosaurus rex, a theropod that obviously did not get airborne.

The breathing system of birds consists of lungs that do not move - unlike those in humans and most other mammals - and air sacs in the bones that act like tiny bellows drawing air through the lungs. This is a system that allows fresh air to constantly move through the bird, in contrast to humans and other vertebrates that have no fresh air coming inside the body during exhalation. In this way, a bird's breathing is very efficient, Claessens said.

Finding that dinosaurs appeared to have a very similar type of breathing system is "a major step forward in deducing where the supposedly unique respiratory system of birds arose," Jenkins said. "It's the first really significant line of evidence that the avian, or bird, pulmonary system actually began to evolve in nonflying avian ancestors." It is interesting, he said, that a system always thought to be associated with flight is not, that it likely evolved for other unknown purposes.

One possibility, said researchers, is that this efficient system allowed an elevated metabolism so that predatory dinosaurs could be active for long periods of time during the day. This warm-blooded behavior is in contrast to cold-blooded animals such as the crocodile, which are relatively inactive as they store energy for short periods of activity. It is not known whether dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded.

It appears that T rex had a breathing system capacity much more in keeping with a warm-blooded animal than a cold-blooded, lizardlike creature, Claessens said. "Maybe it was in-between: 'dinothermic.' Not cold-blooded or warm-blooded."

Birds are warm-blooded, so a link between pulmonary systems in the extinct animals to that of modern birds may offer an additional way to fill in some of the activity over the millions of years of evolution between the Jurassic period, some 205 million years ago, and now. One conclusion is that birds' light bones evolved not for the purpose of flight but for thermoregulation.

Evolutionary changes "weren't happening so dinosaurs could give rise to birds," O'Connor said. Rather, the changes "gave an animal a particular advantage in day-to-day existence."

While looking at dinosaurs and comparing them with birds reveals similarities, even similar systems could produce markedly different results in the two very different types of animals.

For example, the researchers said that dinosaurs and birds both have air sacs running through their sinuses in the skulls. Still, dinosaurs most likely would not have sounded like birds,Claessens said. Instead, because of the size of some of the dinosaurs' heads, they may have sounded more like elephants, he speculated, the air pushed through the sinuses and emerging in an "impressive and scary loud roar." Theropod dinosaurs with a body size similar to today's emus or ostriches may have shared a similar loud shriek, he said.

O'Connor says his research is part of an ongoing story being told connecting dinosaurs with modern birds and helping scientists learn about both sets of animals. "This is another piece in the puzzle," he said. And unlike solving a crime on a forensic show, this examination of extinct animals is "put out there as a hypothesis, not a fact."

Falun Gong's threat to China's rulers

William Pfaff, never one who could be accussed of objectivity, is not one of my favorite columnists. He has lived in France for so long and parrots French opinions of America so diligently that he practically defines the Stockholm syndrome.

Today's effort, however, is entirely readable. The thesis: The Falun Gong movement is a larger potential threat to China's rulers.

Much is written about China as a soaring power that will one day rival the United States. But nearly all of it is based on the notion that sheer economic activity makes a superpower, ignoring other factors that threaten to undermine China's rise.

China is very busy processing goods designed abroad or manufacturing basic goods for sophisticated finishing elsewhere. But the high technology is not China's; China is the subcontractor, the role played by economies on the road to modernization.

Quantity does not automatically translate into quality in industrial performance, any more than in other realms, and China overall remains a poor and backward country, dependent on imported technology.

Demographic trends, internal migration and uncontrolled urban development, plus megalomaniac, environmentally disastrous infrastructure projects, all threaten sound development.

The scenario of China as future superpower also assumes continuing political stability, which is questionable in the light of popular unrest and the rivalries at work inside an ideologically dead and morally crippled Communist Party, whose brutal apparatus runs the country.

The increasing number of violent protests against social injustices greatly disturbs the leadership. The public security minister, Zhou Yong-kang, is reported to have told a closed official meeting recently that the number of "mass incidents" has significantly increased, last year involving several million people.

These events, though, are perhaps ultimately less threatening than a popular perception that the Communist government no longer possesses political legitimacy as China's ruler, or the moral legitimacy that radiates from an elite sure of its values. This government is intellectually exhausted.

The West conventionally sees the challenge to China's leadership as democracy. In its rulers' eyes the moral challenge to their legitimacy is perhaps more disquieting.

Another moral challenge, more significant in the context of China's civilization, is the desire for cultural authenticity. The new search for values from China's past is exploited by Falun Gong, a movement ordinarily seen in the West as a sect linked to rather mysterious traditional practices involving physical exercises as a source of well-being.

The Chinese government in recent years has paid more attention to Falun Gong than any other organized challenge to its power, cruelly repressing its followers, who nonetheless have been able to come out in tens of thousands in silent demonstrations against the government.

Even though it is not a peasant movement, and frames its claims in intellectual terms, Falun Gong resembles popular movements that emerged during the final decades of the decadent Manchu empire.

Falun Gong reproaches the Party for having attacked China's 5,000-year-old traditional culture, attempting to destroy its three ancient religious traditions, Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist. It accuses the Communists of being the only regime in China's history to have attempted to eradicate all three ethical systems, in the past considered the source of legitimate government in China, providing "the mandate of heaven."

This is a powerful and damaging attack on a Communist Party that has presented itself as the vehicle of modernity in China, first in its revolutionary stage, destroying the corrupt past in the name of a utopian vision of spontaneous popular democracy, which ended disastrously; and now as the sponsor of Western-style globalization of the economy, in the name of everyone "getting rich."

Since everyone is not getting rich, and the goal and slogan are themselves sterile and dehumanizing, Falun Gong's attack is potentially deadly, going to the moral core of the regime. Like its 19th-century predecessors, Falun Gong demands a return to the sources of the millennial greatness of Chinese civilization, to which the Communists - who would like to abolish the past - have no real answer.

Even after reading his column, I don't know why he feels the Falun Gong movement is such a threat, although it occurs to me that it's very exsistence may allow people to rally to it as a way of showing displeasure with the government. I don't see much in the ideology of Falun Gong that is per se attractive.

EU on their Chinese textile quotas: oops

Politically motivated decisions often have unintended consequences. Especially in Europe, where politics plays an outsize role in the decision making process.

The latest example: The EU, at the bidding of Italy and other textile producers fearful of in-roads the Chinese were making on their turf, rushed to impose import quotas.

European businesses, hoping to secure as much Chinese goods as possible before the quota limits were reached, ordered huge quantities, thus predictably triggering the quota limits.

The result: Europe backs down, China is emboldened, and free trade principles are vindicated.
In an embarrassing reversal, Peter Mandelson, the European trade commissioner, acknowledged Wednesday that a system of quotas the European Union imposed on Chinese textile imports had a "serious glitch," and he dispatched officials to Beijing to try to renegotiate a deal that has left 75 million Chinese-made sweaters, pants, bras and other garments piled up in European ports.

With his team scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Thursday, retailers warned that European shoppers could face shortages in stores if a new deal was not struck soon. The clothing has been blocked from entering the EU after retailers rushed to order in anticipation of the quotas, causing the limits to be hit quickly.

Mandelson, who pushed for the quotas as one of his first major projects in office, said in June that the new system was a "mutually acceptable solution that will manage and ensure a smooth transition" to a quota system. [...]

From the Chinese perspective, the possible unraveling of the trade deal is an important victory that shows the extent to which Europe and other developed markets are dependent on Chinese products.

A Chinese newspaper, The Beijing News, ran a cartoon in its Wednesday editions showing four half-naked Europeans standing on a dock holding a welcome sign as a Chinese ship loaded with clothes anchored off shore. [...]

The wider lesson for Europe, say those involved, is that attempting to change trade patterns through protectionist measures is a tricky business that can easily backfire. [...]
Not only did the EU impose poorly designed quotas, they seem to have sought to please the wrong constituency.

In the case of Europe's textile quotas, the European Commission sided with the manufacturing industry to the detriment of the service industry, a decision retailers have called shortsighted.

"Europe's future is certainly not in the production of T-shirts," said Ralph Kamphöner, a senior adviser for international trade at Eurocommerce, a Brussels-based organization that represents Europe's retail sector.

Kamphöner said his organization represents a total of 5.5 million companies, most of which are small and medium-size enterprises.

In total, the retail sector employs 26 million people, he said, although this includes many stores that do not sell clothing. By contrast, Europe's textile industry employs 2.5 million people and makes up 7 percent of Europe's manufacturing sector, according to Lakin.

The upside: More women going bra-less.

Like Sodoku? thank a Swiss

Apparently, sodoku is quite popular in the US now, where it is identified with Japan--the country where it first became popularized.

Turns out a Swiss genius, Leonard Euler, is the fellow who invented the idea two centuries ago.

Sudoku grids have a long, international and not always certain history, but one thing is definite: they are not Japanese.

The puzzles were in fact invented 222 years ago by a Swiss maths genius, Leonhard Euler, who dominated 18th-century mathematics and whose collected works fill 75 volumes.

Euler was born in Basel in 1707, studied at the city's university and left aged 19 to take up his first professorship in St Petersburg.The mathematician died in 1783, the year he devised his carrés magiques – magic squares. These 81-square grids were the proto-sudoku puzzles.

Although Euler never returned to Switzerland after leaving for Russia, the Swiss still proudly claim him as one of their own – he used to be the face of the SFr10 note – and a series of celebrations are being planned for the tercentenary of his birth in 2007. [...]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

French wrestle with art of political illusionists

For a nation that loves to mock what they see as the political naivete of Americans, the French are pretty much unsurpassed at not challenging their politicians on anything. But then, the French invented a post war history where they matter in the world and where they behaved noblely in WWII, so they are practiced in the art of self-deception.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the neat airless room that is political France may soon have it's windows thrown open.

One of my favorite columnists, Roger Cohen, explains:
[...] [A] country more attached to ideological debate than any other in Europe, yet operating in an environment where "left" and "right" are often almost meaningless labels and where governance tends to consist of saying one thing - the state is a force for good - while trying to do another - privatize. Running France is above all a conjuring trick.

It is perhaps because the art of the illusionist has lain at the center of French politics since 1945 - beginning with the depiction of wartime events and the Vichy regime - that it has been easier to maintain the various illusions that have preserved this country's strange political status quo.

But, as the political season begins again in France after the summer break, there are signs of increasing strain. To the left and right, pressures are growing for clearer political positions that would offer the French at least the semblance of a real choice between distinct ideas. [...]

If the "Non" campaign triumphed in the referendum on a European constitution, it was partly because Attac [an anti-globalization movement] and the forces of the left around it managed to portray the document as a paean to neo-liberalism. [...]

"The experience of hundreds of millions of people has been the failure of globalization and Anglo-Saxon capitalism, which has accentuated inequalities, dismantled systems of social protection and increased unemployment," said Jacques Nikonoff, the president of Attac. "These processes can be reversed."

A natural response might be: "Dream on, Jacques."

But the French are dreamers when it comes to politics, and the success of Attac's ideas, which include dismantling NATO, suggest that the appeal of the quasi-utopian is not about to die on the French left.

As a result, the embattled Socialist leader Francois Hollande and other moderates like former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not find it easy to unite the party around a clear message. [...]

Given the difficulties, the Socialists may end up fudging things yet again, conjuring a semblance of unity with a few ringing leftist slogans designed to provide the mask for a pragmatic economic program.

But my sense is that the French electorate is tired of such conjuring and wants politicians with the courage to make their views clear. Certainly, the success of Nicolas Sarkozy on the right of the political spectrum suggests the French are finding new merit in clear, declarative sentences of almost Anglo-Saxon ring.

Sarkozy, the interior minister, is trying to do something Chirac has always avoided: spell out what the right wants. He is moving carefully, for tactical reasons, but his influence suggests a time of political candor is coming.

If that happens, to left and right, France will move out of its political torpor. Other countries should then watch out: if France can achieve what it has through decades of conjured immobility, imagine what it could do once unbound.

World university rankings. California ueber alles!

The world's top universities have been ranked. To no one's surprise, eight out of the top 10 are in the US. The other two are found in Britain. Predictably, they are Cambridge and Oxford.

More humiliation for the Old World: California alone has 10 out of the top 50 universities. The continent of Europe has to reach down to number 67 just to beat California's total.

It gets worse. The continent's best universities account for only four out of the 50 in the world. This is a significant drop from last year, when the continent placed six in the top 50.

The top continental university (place 27) is here in Switzerland, while other Swiss universities also fare well in the rankings. My employer, the University of Bern, comes in tied for 57 for all of Europe and tied for 153 in the world. Not good, but the Law school and Med school are well regarded.

Small wonder the world beats a path to the US for university and post-grad education. Back in the 19th century, German universities would have dominated anyone's list of top schools.

Good news for German economy means bad news for Germany

Confidence in the German economy has hit a 17 month high. Great, you would think; people are likely to increase spending, companies will hire more, etc.

Well, not so fast. If Germans give Schroeder any credit, it may lead to a political stalemate. At the moment Schroeder and his allies are facing defeat in September's polls. Should he gain a few percentage points at the expense of Angela Merkel and her CDU, Germany may end up with a grand coalition, where the top parties enter into a power sharing agreement. Such a coalition would be powerless to institute basic and badly needed changes to German labor laws. Thus further delaying Germany's economic recovery.

More bad news that benefits Schroeder: flooding in southern Germany. He skillfully exploited flooding in eastern Germany last election, and can be expected to make hay from this more limited episode.

Finally, Schroeder is campaigning as the peace Chancellor. He is busy reminding voters how he "stood up" to Bush over Iraq and attempting to paint his opponents as Bush's lapdogs.

Of course, if I had his legacy of economic failure I would seek to turn the spotlight onto other areas as well. Unfortunately, the German media are his active allies in this.

That this guy, the second worst Chancellor in German history, has a chance to wield power in the future is amazing.

If you want in-depth coverage of the campaign, visit David's Medienkritik.

Bern, Switzerland is flooded

Thanks to several days of heavy rains, many trees were washed into the Aare river that flows around Bern (capital of Switzerland). The trees began damming up at a point where the river narrows, causing the Aare to burst its banks and flood the lower parts of the city. News reports showed the water to be waist high.

Other parts of Switzerland also suffered flooding and landslides. The tourist Mecca of Interlaken was partially underwater and rail lines to popular areas were cut.

This summer has been nothing short of a disaster weather-wise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Current articles on evolution and (un)Intelligent Design

A couple of worthy articles on the evo and ID debate.

First off, a lengthy piece in the NYT that rehashes the debate, and provides interesting examples of how, even though ID can't be tested, it's claims are based solely on wishful thinking. Importantly, and helpfully, the article raises many of the objections and claims of ID, and quickly disposes of them.

More from the NYT. This article focuses on some of the people and tactics behind the well-financed Intelligent Design public relations campaign. They have packaged their anti-science message into a series of attractive sound bites, which fit in nicely with many Americans' religious beliefs. With no chance of winning among the experts, the IDers have taken their arguments to the grassroots. And politicians are taking note.

By portraying this as a cultural battle, politicians will be drawn in on either side. As much as I agree with the Republican party on questions of national security, personal freedoms, and economics, I am dismayed that my party will end up on the wrong side of this fight.

Many articles dealing with evolution/ID in the NYT can be found here.

Creation and ID Watch has a new article discussing the attempts of IDers to refute evolution using probability theory. It's way more interesting than you might think.

Harsh judgment of European multi-culti

Short version: It's a failed policy. Read the long version in the IHT. Points to the writer for recognizing that Islam itself is part of the problem.
[...] This alienation [of Muslim immigrants] is cultural, historical and above all religious, as much if not more than it is political. Immigrants who were drawn to Europe because of the Continent's economic success are in rebellion against the cultural, social and even psychological sources of that success.

Many immigrant Muslims and their children remain unreconciled to their situation in Europe. Some find their traditional religious values scorned, while others find themselves alienated by the independence of women, with all its implications for the future of the "traditional" Muslim family. In response, many have turned to the most obscurantist interpretation of the Islamic faith as a salve. At the fringes of the diaspora, some have turned to violence.
Here in a nutshell is Europe's problem: They need warm bodies to keep paying for their generous social services. These warm bodies tend to come from former colonies or bordering nations that are Muslim. European countries have never sought to inculcate their values into the immigrants (in part because Europeans were so eager to shed any qualities that made Eurpoe, Europe).
Politicians talk of tighter immigration controls. Yet the reality is that a Europe in demographic freefall needs more, not fewer, immigrants if it is to maintain its prosperity.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has just proposed new British laws allowing the deportation of radical mullahs and the shutting of mosques and other sites associated with Islamic extremism. But given the size of the Muslim population in Britain and the rest of Europe, security services are always going to be playing catch-up. [...]
This is doubtless true, but even if it the policy is not entirely successful, it is a required step. Once several firebrand imans are deported back to an Islamist state to face possible torture or even the prospect of having to get a job, a fair bit of the anti-British talk will abate.
The multicultural fantasy in Europe - its eclipse can be seen most poignantly in the Netherlands, that most self-definedly liberal of all European countries - was that, in due course, Islamic and other immigrants would eventually come to "accept" the values of their new countries.

It was never clear how this vision was supposed to coexist with multiculturalism's other main assumption, that group identity should be maintained. But by now that question is largely academic: The European vision of multiculturalism, in all its simultaneous good will and self-congratulation, is no longer sustainable. And most Europeans know it. [...]

But Europeans can hardly accept an immigrant veto over their own mores, whether those mores involve women's rights or, for that matter, the right to blaspheme, which the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh so bravely asserted - and died for.

Figuring out how to prevent Europe's multicultural reality from becoming a war of all against all is the challenge that confronts the Continent. It makes all of Europe's other problems seem trivial by comparison.

Report: Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs

Caught. Sort of. American ueber-doper cyclist Lance Armstrong looks to have used the banned red blood cell producing drug EPO during his first Tour de France victory in 1999. This news comes on top of the old news that he was found to have used steroids in the same race (the Tour bought his explanation that the use was minimal and inadvertent).

Armstrong denies ever having used performance enhancing drugs, and this latest news isn't the same as being caught red-handed. However, the amount of circumstantial evidence against him is mounting.

In the interest of fairness, I note that the French media is convinced Armstrong is a doper, and will go to any length to dig up incriminating evidence. That said, I would like to know how reliable this evidence against Armstrong is, as the report is pretty weak on details.

French sports daily L'Equipe reported Tuesday that Lance Armstrong used the performance-enhancing drug EPO to win his first Tour de France title in 1999, a claim the seven-time champion immediately denied.

L'Equipe devoted four pages to its allegations, with the front-page headline ''The Armstrong Lie.'' The paper said that signs of EPO use were found in Armstrong's urine six times during the 1999 Tour.

''Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow's article is nothing short of tabloid journalism,'' Armstrong wrote on his Web site. ''I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs.''

The governing body of world cycling did not begin using a urine test for EPO until 2001. For years, it had been impossible to detect the drug, called erythropoietin, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.

The tests on 1999 urine samples were carried out in 2004 to help scientists improve their detection methods, the paper said.

L'Equipe said it matched up anonymous urine samples from that Tour with medical statements signed by doctors, claiming that there were ''characteristic, undeniable and consequent'' signs of EPO in Armstrong's urine tests.

The newspaper said the tests were carried out by the national anti-doping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry. An official at the lab declined to comment on the report.

I hate cheaters. I especially hate cheaters with a holier than thou attitude. Notwithstanding Armstrong's amazing return to the highest levels of sport after conquering cancer, he couldn't have done it without the help of performance enhancing drugs. Simple as that.

Armstrong is, in my opinion, a cheater and a liar. I hope some of his blood or urine from his riding days is preserved, along with a proper chain of custody so that it can be tested once new techniques are introduced and verified.

California Supreme Court notes the obvious: Lesbians are parents, too

The California Supreme Court has recognized that lesbian parents have the same responsibilities as heterosexual parents. This is a welcome step along the path to full legal rights for gays.

Since no one can stop gay couples from becoming parents, this ruling holds that parents are parents, regardless of who their partner is or how their children were conceived. In the end, the court is merely applying the same rules to all couples, and recognizing that all children from failed relationships are due the same protections.

Quote of the day:
"The court is now protecting the children of same sex parents in gay families in the same way children are protected with heterosexual couples in heterosexual families," said Jill Hersh, a lawyer for one of the women.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Fatwas R Us--now live!

Have a question about how Muslims are expected to live? Islamonline.net has frequent live fatwa sessions. Pose your question, get a fatwa; life is good.

A recent example:

Question: I am a Muslim man. I married a Muslim girl a year ago. Now, she has left Islam and has converted into Christianity. Is our marriage still valid? Do we need to marry again? Does she need divorce from me to marry another guy?

Answer: Islamically speaking, if you married a Muslim woman and she converted to another religion, your marriage is null and void. But for legal purposes, you must document this. Therefore, I advise you to get a court divorce. You should also write formal Islamic divorce through the proper Islamic channels in the city or country you are residing.

Allah Almighty knows best.

Here's another. I had no idea fatwas could be so steamy:

Question: I would like to know what are the situations that want to take bath before namaz (Prayer) for a woman. The problem is this, a liquid comes from secret part of my wife if we go to bed and doing love (kiss). But we didn’t make any sex. Is this situation needs to take bath before namaz or not?

Answer: If you only engaged in foreplay, and there was no penetration involed, then your wife need not take a bath before salah; rather, she needs only to wash her private parts before making wudhu'. However, in case of penetration, she ought to take a complete bath, regardless of whether it was accompanied by ejaculation or not.

Allah Almighty knows best.

RINO Sightings carnival is at The World According to Nick

Nick has the latest contributions from assorted RINOs posted. Stop by, there are plenty of interesting posts, and he did a very nice job of weaving them together, and writing something nice about them.

UK struggles to turn immigrants into proper Brits

Giving them bad teeth is a start. That'll help them blend in. The WaPo notes that Britain has been rethinking the whole multi-culti thing, and is taking steps to turn its many immigrants and second generation kids into non-fellow citizen murdering good citizens.

[...] This uneasy balance of cultural, practical and historical know-how has been widely ridiculed, but Crick's work represents an important if imperfect step toward establishing what it means to belong. And the need for heightened civic awareness isn't only among newcomers. Citizenship classes have already become a compulsory part of the school curriculum. For my niece in Cheshire, "citizenship" meant learning about the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (though when I spoke to her she didn't know what that had to do with being British); and for one of my nephews, it meant working on a building for children in the Cornish town where he grew up.

Now there is talk of some sort of coming-of-age citizenship ceremony for 18-year olds, as well as a national "Citizenship Day" to celebrate the bonds of Britishness (probably without parades and sparklers, which might be, uh, a bit too brash).

Old hat, Americans (or Australians) may say. But it's an essential new approach to belonging that is being developed in the Old World in response to what the New World knows well -- mass migration. Other European countries would do well to emulate it. After the bombings, Tony Blair said that "staying here carries with it a duty. That duty is to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life." The trouble is, those values have never been enshrined in the Old World's founding philosophy, leaving only the anything-goes message of multiculturalism.

Or almost anything. In its handbook for newcomers, "Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship," Crick's panel offers handy hints on how to act like a true Brit: In a pub, for example, "If you spill a stranger's drink by accident, it is good manners (and prudent) to offer to buy another." [...]

My advice? Take the advice of St. Augustine, who helped re-Christianize England.

His advice: Simple. Perform the acts of faith and faith will come. Meaning people will learn to be British if they are forced to act British. By itself it is not enough, but it is a start. And the technique worked well enough in the past.

The beer thing is good, though. With advice like that, we can all be good Brits.

Intelligent Design = Neo-Creo

The Evolutionists fight back. Although Intelligent Design has nothing to recommend it scientifically, it has been doing well in the media wars. First Bush, and now Frist have endorsed teaching ID in biology classrooms.

William Safire brings us the historical record of the phrase Intelligent Design, and an example of how scientists are fighting back against that pernicious doctrine.
The word creationism, coined in 1868 in opposition to what was then called Darwinism or evolutionism, had fallen on hard times. The proponents of a theory faithfully attributing the origin of matter to God were seemingly overwhelmed by the theory put forward by Charles Darwin and bolstered with much evidence by 20th century scientists. As a result, the noun creationism gained a musty connotation while evolutionism modishly lost its -ism.

Then along came the phrase intelligent design, and evolution had fresh linguistic competition. Though the phrase can be found in an 1847 issue of Scientific American, it was probably coined in its present sense in "Humanism," a 1903 book by Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller: "It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design."

The phrase lay relatively dormant for nearly a century. "The term intelligent design came up in 1988 at a conference in Tacoma, Washington, called Sources of Information Content in DNA," recalls Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, who was present at the phrase's re-creation. [...]

The marketing genius within the phrase - and the reason it now drives many scientists and educators up the wall - is in its use of the adjective intelligent, which intrinsically refutes the longstanding accusation of anti-intellectualism. Although the intelligent agent referred to is Divine with a capital D, the word's meaning also rubs off on the proponent or believer. That's why intelligent design appeals to not only the DNA-driven Discovery Institute complexity theorists but also the traditional God's-handiwork faithful.

This banner floating over two disparate armies challenging evolutionary theory has the Darwinist scientific establishment going ape. Leonard Krishtalka, a professor at the University of Kansas, lumped the armies together last month in a widely quoted definition of the intelligent design movement as "nothing more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo."

Media scorn piles on: the liberal pundit Jonathan Alter of Newsweek finds "the threat to science and reason comes less from fundamentalists who believe the earth was created in six days than from sophisticated branding experts and polemical Ph.D.s."

To counter the "sophisticated branding experts" who flummoxed establishmentarian evolutionaries with intelligent design, opponents of classroom debate over Darwin's theory have come up with a catchily derisive neologism that lumps the modern advocates of intelligent design with religious fundamentalists: neo-creo. The rhyming label was coined on Aug. 17, 1999, by Philip Kitcher, professor of the philosophy of science at Columbia University, New York, in a lively and lengthy online debate in Slate magazine with the abovementioned Phillip Johnson, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. [...]

Historical Swiss boulder stolen

This is a big deal in Switzerland. The stone is an important cultural totem for the Swiss.

A historical stone symbolising Swiss national unity has been stolen from a hotel in the central Swiss city of Interlaken where it was on display.

The 80kg (165lb) stone, called Unspunnenstein, had already been stolen once in 1984, by an underground group from the francophone region of Jura.

The group has not made an outright claim this time, but issued a statement in support of the theft of the boulder.

It was to be the centrepiece of a festival due to take place next month.

The festival would have marked the stone's bicentenary.

Well, not really. The original stone was lost. This stone is from the 1905 centenary festival.
The event, which includes yodelling, Alphorn playing, dancing and wrestling in lederhosen, revolves around and is named after the traditional stone-throwing competition. It first took place in 1805, at a gathering in Unspunnen near Interlakento assert Swiss national identity in the face of Napoleon's advances.

European level of research falling back

Europe is falling farther behind the US in research. I see it as mostly due to the attractiveness of the US. Ambitious, talented researchers flock to the US for its many competitive grants, relatively high salaries, freedom to study what one wishes, and a flexible and easy life. A Swiss Nobel prize recipient on how Europe stacks up against the US:
The brain drain [of European scientists to the US] is a problem of making competition an attractive aspect of life, and the US does that better then we do here in Europe. Our labour laws are less flexible than in the US. This is bad for science because you need to have flexible employment possibilities.

For science, the attractiveness of the sandpit to play in is the most important aspect. There, Europe has excellent possibilities. The brain drain can only be neutralised if Europe has attractive research units and cultural and living conditions that are more attractive than in US cities. [...]
Good point. For all the carping Europeans do about American culture, those who have worked in the US tend to return with fond memories. But he should also mention the amount of funding available in the US is larger. Who receives grants also tends to be less political, which he does note:

[...] If the politicians start defining what should be researched it will end up as a disaster. If politicians subsidise science they should decide on a lump sum and then let the scientists organise competitions. Although scientists do not always make good decisions, they are better educated to make reasonable guesses. [...]

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mugabe and persecution, soon to be synonymous

This guy seems determined to hound all who displease him. He's keeping up the fine tradition of African megalomaniacs.
The Zimbabwean government cleared out camps for those it made homeless in a so-called urban cleanup campaign, secretly dumping them in even worse conditions outside the capital, an international human rights group said Saturday. [...]

A week ago Zimbabwe's security forces prevented Tony Hall, a Rome-based U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies, from making a scheduled visit to Hopley Farm. Hall said he was quietly told the government did not want him to see conditions there, but that the official reason given was that the military ran the site and his delegation needed a special visitor's permit from the information ministry.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Proud Dad post

Warning: ego post about my family.

I took my eldest daughter to buy shoes today in Bern. At the train station, a mechanical bull, tricked out like a sheep, was set up. My daughter wanted to try it, but held back. So after shopping I encouraged (well, bullied) her to try.

Of all the kids we saw ride the sheep, she lasted the longest. She took my advice and leaned back against the pull of the rope she was hanging on to. She nearly came off a couple of times but fought to stay on. Must be the American in her that makes her such a natural rider.

She landed a good four feet from the sheep after finally being thrown off. For her efforts she received candy, gift certificates, and some other stuff. The best part was the pride she showed from staying on for so long. She burst through the door and told her mom and sister all about it when we arrived home.

Of course, I was pretty proud myself.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Dutch activists fight for debate on farm subsidies

The Dutch Farm Minister, a steadfast supporter of farm subsidies, is a beneficiary of the EU farm subsidies program. Small wonder as he pocketed nearly a quarter of a million dollars. It seems that many of the beneficiaries of the subsidies are large landholders or corporations. A little transparency is always a good thing in these cases.

A campaign to force European countries to divulge how they divide up billions of euros in farm subsidies has spread from Britain and Denmark to engulf the Netherlands, with the Dutch agriculture minister being forced to disclose publicly his personal farming interests.

The minister, Cees Veerman, it was revealed, received about 190,000 euros, or $233,000, last year for his farms in France and the Netherlands. He pledged this week to publish further details of public payments made to all Dutch farmers by early September. [...]

Europe is now consumed by a debate that is pitting farmers' longstanding claims for help to feed a hungry European public against the view that the policy is an antiquated system, agriculture is now of minor importance in the Continent's modern economies and that governments should be doing more to foster new 21st-century industries. [...]

In June, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, in a speech in the European Parliament, argued that governments had to reduce spending on agricultural subsidies radically and quickly and direct funds instead toward more modern industries, in order to win back popular support for Europe among the European public. But this brought him into conflict with President Jacques Chirac of France, who said the current subsidy system was fixed until 2013.

In the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende came out in support of Blair but was opposed by Veerman, who threatened to resign in protest.

The disclosure this week of the full nature of Veerman's farming interests has drawn accusations of conflicts of interest. But Murco Mijnlief, spokesman at the Ministry of Agriculture, said there was "no linkage between the farms and the proposals he is making for the restructuring of European subsidies." [...]

Jack Thurston, who was one of the leading British campaigners, said the Dutch data when released were likely to reveal a similar pattern in Britain. The British campaign revealed many high-profile beneficiaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. [...]

They now want to target other countries, principally Germany and France, that so far have not released details of farm payments, partly because of the strength of their lobbying groups.

Nils Mulvad, a journalist who led the Danish campaign in 2004, said: "I think we will soon have Sweden. Some of the information is already out in Estonia and Ireland. There has been some data released in Spain. No one has had the courage to tackle France yet."

I can imagine that France, with the most to lose, will be the toughest nut to crack. The article discusses much more than the debate over farm subsidies, and is worth reading.

Geologists making a difference in medicine

Way cool idea for this ex-geologist. The IHT has a lengthy article listing how geology--and the earth sciences in general--impacts health. At the moment, though, it's best uses seem to be limited to mapping areas of increased risk, and providing medical researchers with possible explanations for medical problems.
To Joseph Ayotte, the story of contamination in New England's drinking water began more than 500 million years ago.

Researchers have long known about the troubling presence of arsenic in well water across great swaths of the region, a problem that affects thousands of people. Even in trace amounts, arsenic can damage the body, delaying the development of the brain and causing cancer and other problems. Yet for a long time, nobody knew for sure where the arsenic was coming from.

Ayotte, who is now working on detailed maps of the arsenic threat, belongs to an emerging scientific discipline known as "medical geology." As distinct as the study of geology may seem from medicine, scientists are increasingly finding important connections between the two, from metals and minerals in drinking water, to dust carried around the planet by high-altitude winds, to the ways that rain, soil and climate interact to drive the spread of Lyme disease and the West Nile virus. With the new tools of modern geology - especially computer-aided mapping - these scientists, trained in the workings of granite and glaciers, are taking on a new role as public health workers. [...]

The journal Science recently featured an essay on the topic, written by a geologist working in Sri Lanka, summarizing medical geology issues arising throughout the developing world. The human body and the Earth are intertwined at the most basic level. The minerals that form in rocks are ground down to soil, and this is taken up by plants. The cells of the human body rely on elements such as phosphorus to perform the metabolism that keeps us alive, as well as for a wide variety of other tasks. The body itself courses with elements that once lay encased in rock - calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and many others. [...]

As his [Ayotte's] team has come to understand this process [how arsenic accumulates in underground reservoirs] better, it has made maps of the arsenic threat around the region, making it possible to warn those at greatest risk. The team is also cooperating with the National Cancer Institute in a study of bladder cancer in the Northeast. Ayotte hopes to be able to predict how much arsenic is in the wells so that epidemiologists can see if it is linked to the cancer.

Mapping geological features could also prove a key weapon against infectious diseases that are carried by animals, like Lyme disease, which is carried and transmitted to people by deer ticks. The ticks' fate, and thus the spread of the disease, is intimately tied to the environment, said Joseph funnel, a public health research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Eventually, funnel said, he hopes to devise a system that will make it possible to issue much more accurate warnings of the Lyme disease threats. This same approach could be used to study diseases carried by all kinds of organisms - from mosquitoes to bats - around the world, funnel and other scientists said.
This is a nice idea, but I doubt the range of many infectious diseases are controlled primarily by surface features. Most diseases have thrived due to their adaptability, so any warnings would be highly generalized and therefore of limited use to the public. In any case, these problems are more concerned with biology.
In the developing world, medical geology is even more pressing, for the simple reason that people live in more intimate contact with their environment, said Chandrasekara Dissanayake, a senior professor of geology at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, who recently wrote an essay on the topic for Science. He has examined the damage that fluoride does to teeth and bones when there is too much of it naturally in the water. He is currently investigating the mounting cases of kidney disease in Sri Lanka, which he suspects are related to fluoride and other substances in the drinking water. [...]
Again, nice to develop the knowledge, but it isn't as if people--especially those from the developing world--can move away. Medicine has known the causes of many debilitating diseases/conditions for years, but people persist in living in places at high risk.

Coming to Switzerland? Take this course (and piss off just about everyone)

Yodeling is as Swiss as Schwingen, Mutti, and cheese. This online course allows you to match vocal chords with the most obnoxious Swiss, German, or Austrian (the axis of yodeling).

More Zimbabwe, this time less hopeful

The previous post highlighted an op-ed from the IHT that speculated things in Zimbabwe were moving forward. I noted my distrust and pessimism.

Now I read this BBC article that Mugabe has proposed nationalizing all land, and eliminating appeals to the courts, much as I predicted just yesterday. Might this be Mugabe's final lashing out at the hated whites still in the country? It could be that Mugabe will now agree to go, having at least symbolically achieved a reversal of stations for the blacks and whites. Should he go, he can join a large club of former African tyrants who lived out their lives in comfortable exile.
Zimbabwe's government has tabled a constitutional amendment bill to speed up the acquisition of white-owned land.

The proposals would nationalise all land and stop appeals to the courts.

Some 4,000 white farmers have been evicted from their land since 2000, but the government says legal battles are slowing up the transfer of ownership.

President Robert Mugabe's party gained the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for constitutional change in March's disputed elections.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who introduced the bill to parliament, told the AFP news agency that the legislation would "conclude the land question".

Other proposed constitutional amendments include the creation of an upper house of parliament, the senate and bringing all schools under state control.