Saturday, December 30, 2006

When you put it that way, I'm terrified

I'll never drink again, honest:
According to studies, drinking about 250 milliliters of an alcoholic beverage causes the body to expel 800 to 1,000 milliliters of water; that's four times as much liquid lost as gained. This diuretic effect decreases as the alcohol in the bloodstream decreases, but the aftereffects help create a hangover.

The morning after heavy drinking, the body sends a desperate message to replenish its water supply -- usually manifested in the form of an extremely dry mouth. Headaches result from dehydration because the body's organs try to make up for their own water loss by stealing water from the brain, causing the brain to decrease in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull, resulting in pain.

Friday, December 29, 2006


A really dismal view on the retreat of globalization from Foreign Policy in Focus:
From today’s vantage point, globalization appears to have been not a new, higher phase in the development of capitalism but a response to the underlying structural crisis of this system of production. Fifteen years since it was trumpeted as the wave of the future, globalization seems to have been less a “brave new phase” of the capitalist adventure than a desperate effort by global capital to escape the stagnation and disequilibria overtaking the global economy in the 1970s and 1980s. The collapse of the centralized socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe deflected people’s attention from this reality in the early 1990s.

Many in progressive circles still think that the task at hand is to “humanize” globalization. Globalization, however, is a spent force. Today’s multiplying economic and political conflicts resemble, if anything, the period following the end of what historians refer to as the first era of globalization, which extended from 1815 to the eruption of World War I in 1914. The urgent task is not to steer corporate-driven globalization in a “social democratic” direction but to manage its retreat so that it does not bring about the same chaos and runaway conflicts that marked its demise in that earlier era.
A Marxist historian would point to the breakdown of the first era of globalization (I'd argue with that count, but not now) as the cause of the first two World Wars, so the idea that we're entering another era of chaos and disequilibrium is not exactly comforting. Even a non-Marxist could see that period of transition from one hegemonic power to a period of disorder are the most prone to devastating systemic wars.

So, um, happy new year.

Sequentially-ordered cellulose rectangles

Probably light blogging for a bit - the demands of holidays continue, and I suddenly have about 6 books out from the library, including (finally!) Fiasco by Tom Ricks, so I'll be doing this thing called "reading" from these obsolete vessels called "books".

I've been reading a lot of histories of the Vietnam war lately, because it has absolutely no relevance today whatsoever. I'm in the middle of Dereliction of Duty, and it's fantastic. Let's just say that if you got a positive impression of Bob McNamara from watching Fog of War, you should really read this book.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

6 degrees of Celine Dion

Because I hate you all.

Meat Loaf doing "It's all coming back to me now", which isn't quite her song, exactly, but she popularized it.


Republicans: The anti-pizza

(Cross-posted at Ezra's.)

I have no idea who first joked about sex being like pizza, but the passing of Gerald Ford shows us that Republican Presidents, even when they're not insanely awful, are still pretty horrible. Let me echo Greg Saunders' sentiments wholeheartedly:

Ford's presidency began by pardoning a criminal scumbag. It wasn't "closure", it was driving the getaway car.

When he took office, Ford famously said that America was "a government of laws, not of men." Less than a full month later he used the executive privilege of pardon to prevent America's justice system from investigating and prosecuting a criminal. Ford always maintained he wanted to help heal America, but it makes a mockery of the concept of the rule of law if our governments are so fragile that a leader cannot be held accountable for his crimes. It's similarly laughable to claim that impeachment alone - without any further penalty - is enough to punish rogue leaders.

Nixon's "punishment" for his abuse of power was about as severe as Augusto Pinochet's - he was allowed to leave office and live out a long life in affluence and influence, and died peacefully of old age. Surely America should have a higher standard than that.

I think Ford was sincere in his belief that such a trial would be traumatic for America - I just think he was wrong. Even if the trial was traumatic, it would also have been cathartic for America, and would have been a shining example for the rest of the world - a brilliant demonstration that in America, no man is above the law.

Instead, Nixon never paid for his crimes, and refused to even admit their extent.

I'm open to arguments that Ford's 800-odd days in the White House are underrated. Certainly, the worst parts of his Presidency were not really matters of his own making - from Watergate to Vietnam to the economic quagmire of the mid-70s, Ford faced serious problems beyond his control. And he does genuinely seem to have been an honest caretaker. But Nixon's pardon was a huge mistake, and a blot on Ford's record.


Celine Dion singing AC/DC's "You shook me all night long".

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Further fanboy squeeing

Galactus is coming!

Debate Question

Gerald Ford is dead, and the only memorable thing he did while President, aside from support Indonesia's genocidal war against East Timor, was pardon his predecessor Richard Nixon for any and every crime he had ever committed. Given the crimes we know about, this is quite a broad pardon indeed. There are undoubtedly more crimes to be revealed when Kissinger dies, and some crimes we will simply never know about.

Ford's pardon of Nixon laid the groundwork for the Reagan/Bush I-era pardons of people like Elliott Abrams and Cap Weinberger. (Abrams continues to be employed by the current White House, even though his felony conviction would bar him from voting in most states.)

So a question for the audience: Should a democratic government continue to hold the power of pardon? Should this power be vested in the executive, where it's most prone to abuse?

My personal thought is the pardon should be abolished. To say it's necessary to correct injustice in our, um, justice system is to answer your own question - the system should be reformed, not have an executive privilege bolted on in the hopes that it will be used fairly. Moreover, as the Ford, Bush I, and (inevitably) Bush II pardons show, it's positively harmful to a democratic state when a ruler can buy his co-conspirators silence with a promise of immunity.

Besides, pardon and clemency are really a relic of the monarchy, when the King wanted to protect his cronies. Plus ce change...

Shorter The Good Shepherd

Avoid this movie. Seems to me a good spy movie should be either a) fast-paced, b) unpredictable, or c) both. There is a fourth option, d) neither, but this does not in fact produce a spy movie that is, as the kids say, "good".

A movie where little actually happens, and what does happen is entirely predictable, is not something that gets the Dymaxion World stamp of approval.

Back to not-work

Hope everyone had a lovely holiday. Mine was wonderful.

Gerald Ford died, eliminating the one living example of a successor George W. Bush can hope for.

Oh, and the American government is apparently aiding and abetting another invasion of a Muslim country, just for fun. Whee!

Anything I missed?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Good for them

The New York Times runs the Op-ed the White House doesn't want you to see - with all the redactions, in black lines, the White House wanted.

It's a bit jarring when you see those thick black lines on the screen - I can only imagine what it's like actually holding the newspaper.

Obviously, the NYT has caved on Bush admin demands before now. But I imagine it's rare that American readers get exposed to exactly the kind of control the national security state has over their daily reading. Even though it would have been ballsier for the NYT to run the op-ed without the redactions, this might have the same effect.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Paul Wolfowitz: Still wrecking stuff

Although in this case, he's wrecking the World Bank. Which means I don't know who to boo louder. Boo Wolfowitz, or boo World Bank? So confused!
Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz faces mounting criticism from directors of the international lending organization who say he relies on a coterie of political advisers with little expertise in development while driving away seasoned managers....

The changes under Wolfowitz are unprecedented in the calculated manner in which inexperienced or ideological replacements are being placed in senior positions," said Kapur, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Oh God, I'd hate to have a President who relied solely on a small cadre of advisors hand-picked for ideology instead of competence! That would be the worst thing, like, ever!

Come to think of it, that DOES make sense

My parents belonged to the Baby Boomer generation, which means I was born into a family of annoying hippies who eventually became annoying former hippies. But I try to be charitable: if you grow up being told that the way to survive a nuclear war is to hide under a wooden desk, it sort of makes sense to think you can end war and usher in utopia by not bathing for awhile.

More robot news!

The British government is filled with the spirit of Chamberlain, those pantywaists:
The paper says a "monumental shift" could occur if robots develop to the point where they can reproduce, improve themselves or develop artificial intelligence.

The research suggests that at some point in the next 20 to 50 years robots could be granted rights.

If this happened, the report says, the robots would have certain responsibilities such as voting, the obligation to pay taxes, and perhaps serving compulsory military service.
And you thought gay marriage was a threat to the traditional way of life. What happens when Robots get to vote? I'll tell you:

Think about it people!

Turkmenbashi, how we missed you

People loved Borat, but for my money the country that truly deserved mockery is Turkmenistan, not Kazakhstan. Ruled by a - let's be honest - totally batshit crazy "former" Communist with delusions of Stalinism, Turkmenistan would be totally screwed if not for the vast deposits of oil and gas. Turns out dear leader - who had a real name, but I'll always remember him as "Turkmenbashi" - died last night. Expect unpleasantness to follow:
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan: President Saparmurat Niyazov, who controlled vast energy reserves and lent support to Washington's war on terror, was a deeply eccentric dictator who fostered a personality cult that included making his countrymen call him "Turkmenbashi" — The Father Of All Turkmen.

He died Thursday at age 66 after two decades in power, leaving behind a power vacuum that could destabilize a volatile and strategic region of significant interest to Russia, Europe, China and the United States....

Among Niyazov's decrees were bans on lip-synching, car radios and the playing of recorded music at weddings. He once ordered doctors to stop taking the Hippocratic Oath and swear allegiance to him instead.
Oh, and dude renamed the month of January after himself.

All you need to know

...about the really, really bad idea to dribble troops in to Iraq. Fred Kaplan:
The upshot is that Kagan's[/Bush's/McCain's/Lieberman's - J] surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind....

Either way, where are they coming from? It's worth emphasizing that Kagan calculates that at least 150,000 combat troops will be needed to secure Baghdad alone. In all of Iraq, he estimates, the United States has only 70,000 combat troops now. [Emphasis mine.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Damn you, Stephen Colbert

Now I'll never get the image of Henry Kissinger saying "It's time to rock" out of my head.

In other news, the blogroll is restored!

Motion Pictures

More than meets the eye. [Insert fanboy squee here.]

300. Seriously, I have the suspicion that every good bit in the movie is already in the previews. Still. It's gonna rock. (Background info here.)

You may have already seen it, but Justin Timberlake has a present for you...

It's not Putin's fault

Putin is incorrectly described as having strangled Russian democracy. The problem with this view is twofold.

1) By 1998 "Democracy" in Russia, perversely, had zero democratic legitimacy. Not only did many Russians miss the heady days of the USSR, but the Russian state had clearly failed to generate or even maintain any standard of living. So while Russians today regularly say they support "democracy", they really have no love for what democracy did and how it performed.

2) The illusion that Yeltsin's rule was democratic really needs to be squashed once and for all. Here, Stephen Cohen writes excellently in the Nation:
As for Yeltsin's role, even the most event-making leaders need supporters in order to carry out historic acts. Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union in December 1991 with the backing of a self-interested alliance. All of its groups called themselves "democrats" and "reformers," but the two most important were unlikely allies: the nomenklatura elites that were pursuing the "smell of property like a beast after prey," in the revealing metaphor of Yeltsin's own chief minister, and wanted property much more than any kind of democracy or free-market competition; and an avowedly prodemocracy wing of the intelligentsia. Traditional enemies in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet system, they colluded in 1991 largely because the intelligentsia's radical market ideas seemed to justify nomenklatura privatization.

But the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals, who played leading roles in his post-Soviet government, were neither coincidental fellow travelers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s, they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on a recalcitrant Russian society by an "iron hand" regime. This "great leap," as they extolled it, would entail "tough and unpopular" policies resulting in "mass dissatisfaction" and thus would necessitate "anti-democratic measures." Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia's newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had brutally imposed economic change on Chile, they said of Yeltsin, now their leader, "Let him be a dictator!" Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the US government and mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia's popularly elected Parliament in 1993.
I'm listening to Cohen now on the podcast for Open Source (an excellent NPR program) and one of the things he points out is that when Gorbachev agreed without complaint to the reunification of Germany, and the inclusion of that reunified Germany within NATO, the US in the person of James Baker promised that NATO would not move a single inch closer to the USSR.

The constant drumbeat of the American press - wailing constantly about Russia's reversals, but unwilling to admit to any of America's broken promises - puts me in a pretty foul mood some days.

America never forgives the correct

A fascinating debate at Tapped (here, here, here, and here) about how to keep the Democratic Party from being blamed for the end of the Iraq War. Frankly, I don't know if there's a way out of this trap. The Democrats were elected partly on the belief they would do Iraq "better" somehow, but while Americans theoretically support withdrawing troops from Iraq, they seem to oppose any specific Congressional act to force Bush to withdraw. Cutting off funding or forcing a timetable is much less popular than the vague "withdraw troops within X months" poll question. I don't know how close those polls are to reality, but it's clear those are the numbers Dem pols are acting on.

I think Scott's got the long-term problem exactly right:
If the stylings of Glenn Reynolds have taught us nothing else -- and they certainly haven't -- it's that precisely because they're unfalsifiable tautologies "stab-in-the-back" arguments can be deployed irrespective of the evidence on the ground or what the Democrats do. (After all, it's not as if the narrative was a plausible explanation of Vietnam either.) There's simply no question that the Republican Party and its lickspittles will blame everyone but the people responsible for conceiving and executing it for the failure of the Iraq war, and whether the narrative will have political force is dependent on factors (press coverage, future election results, etc.) that are both unforeseeable and not fully within the Democrats' control.
Fundamentally, America is never going to forgive the people who were right about this war. If anything, they'll be blamed for not clapping harder. If you have any doubt of this, please take a look at the continuing treatment of European nations in American discourse. The execrable Anne Applebaum:
BERLIN -- On the day James Baker's Iraq report was published, I gritted my teeth and waited for the well-earned, long-awaited, Franco-German "Old Europe" gloat to begin. I didn't wait long.
By "gloat", she means "accurate assessment":
"America Faces Up to the Iraq Disaster" read a headline in Der Spiegel. In the patronizing tones of a senior doctor, Le Monde diagnosed the "political feverishness" gripping Washington in Baker's wake. Suddeutsche Zeitung said the report "stripped Bush of his authority," although Le Figaro opined that nothing Baker proposed could improve the "catastrophic state" of Iraq anyway.
Sounds about right, actually. What's your beef, Anne? After years in Washington, don't know what reality looks like?

The whole column reads like a child wrote it - sure, every other major power in the world (sans the UK) warned the US not to invade Iraq. Sure, America ignored and ridiculed their advice. Sure, it's turned out to be a perfectly predictable disaster. Obviously, that means Europe needs to help America out! After all, Iraq is closer to Europe! QED.

What Applebaum has yet to grasp is that "helping America" and "fixing Iraq" are not the same thing. Indeed, they may be mutually exclusive, unless America changes course.

Finally, we get the inevitable "Europe has no alternatives to America" line beloved by the imperial mindset:
Maybe now the Germans, and even the French, will finally come to realize that there is no alternative to the transatlantic partnership, no better international military organization than NATO, no real "role" for any of us outside the Western alliance -- even if only because all the alternatives are worse. Maybe the Old Europeans will find inspiration to support and contribute further to the alliance, diplomatically and ideologically if not militarily. Maybe the United States will come to the same realization, too.
Riiight. Can we finally, at long last, begin to dismantle the "Transatlantic Community" myth? There is no Community - there's America and everyone else. This was obvious during the Clinton years, for God's sake. Britain has exactly zero "special relationship" with the US, and the same is true for the other 100-odd countries on the planet. (Something Canadians should remember.) When Thatcher asked Reagan for help with the Argentinians, she was rebuffed. Believe me, the Thatcher/Reagan relationship was at least as close as the Bush/Blair one. America has allies and interests, but no friends.

As if we needed clear evidence of this fact, Chatham House said this week:
LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign policy has failed because of his inability to influence Washington and his successor must carve out a leading role for Britain within Europe instead, a report said on Tuesday.
This is a pretty Tory-friendly, Euro-skeptic think tank, and still they recognize that Britain is best served by parting with the US and concentrating on Europe instead. Why? For the same reason European countries won't be rushing to help America out of Iraq - America doesn't reward it's friends. Tony Blair has been as slavishly devoted to Bush as one can be and still have a separate spinal cord, and he's been rewarded with nothing.

So ask yourself: If Blair hasn't managed to influence American thinking under Bush, why in God's name would Chirac, Merkel, or any other European leader join up? Why would our own Prime Minister Harper decide to do so? Is he as stupid as Tony Blair? Does he want to end up as pathetic and as humiliated?

Soldiers aren't enough

I have, on occasion, written posts about Afghanistan that try to explore how many troops NATO would really need there if we wanted to stabilize the situation. I write these posts not because I really, really want to see 150,000-250,000 men and women put in harm's way, but because I think it's incumbent on those of us who aren't calling for immediate withdrawal (which is most of the Canadian spectrum, actually) to understand exactly how paltry our means are, when compared to the ends we've set ourselves.

We want a Taliban-free Afghanistan. Excellent. I agree 100%, notwithstanding the reality that the Taliban now have an apparently-permanent home in Pakistan. But Canada is only willing to put 2,000 soldiers there, and NATO is only willing to put 35,000 soldiers in. By contrast, the USSR put 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and still lost. And even if we could put in, say, 500,000 soldiers (conjured out of the ether, I suppose) there's no evidence that, on it's own, would help matters. Example from the Prospect today, though they're talking about Iraq:
In 1972 the British had 42,000 troops in Northern Ireland (equivalent to the United States having 750,000 troops in Iraq) to mediate the simmering conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Yet, even with much greater intelligence and situational awareness then the United States has in Iraq (they all spoke English after all), the heavy-handed tactics of the British forces resulted in an escalation of violence. Today, the United States could put a soldier on every street corner in Baghdad, but unless there was a political reconciliation process it would not make a bit of difference. Through no fault of their own, our soldiers and Marines lack the training, language skills, and cultural knowledge to operate in the ways that are being proposed.
Now, maybe we're not as plain ignorant of cultural issues as the Americans are in Iraq. Are we as knowledgeable as the British were in Ireland? I doubt it.

The first rule of foreign policy should be "the ends need to be within the means". Here, Stephen Harper has managed to be completely incompetent, by pretending that the status quo is working, despite all the evidence. (And yes, to say "stay the course" is to claim that no changes are necessary.) To dishonestly claim that all we need is for the existing NATO countries to take the leash off their soldiers will not help matters. To claim that all we need is for the US to leave Iraq and send those troops to Afghanistan - even if it were likely, which I doubt - still might not be enough.

And if we aren't willing to change the means we're putting in to Afghanistan, then we need to change our ends. That could mean anything up to and including leaving altogether, but the point is not which choice we make so long as it's actually achievable.

I tire of the Harper/Bush comparisons, but in one sense at least, they've sung from the same hymnal: They've used the rhetoric of war without actually governing as if they were at war.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Gr. Boo on early late adoption.

Note to self: When upgrading blogger, remember to save a copy of your template.

I had my blogroll laid out just like I wanted it. Now it's all... gone.

Harper continues to not understand

He's going to move Prentice to Environment, replacing Rona. Fine, do it. But is Jim Prentice going to actually be allowed to form decent policy? No.

It's a mistake to blame Rona Ambrose for the policies of this government, though of course she is responsible as Minister. We all know that Prentice will be no more able to make a sensible green pitch than Ambrose was, and that's it.

Playboy was really a Communist plot

I say this with all the sensitivity I can muster, but really: Is any woman, anywhere, so clueless as to believe this is actually true?
The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.

But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.
I'm more than willing to believe that the proliferation of free porn has added to the worries of women, in so far as sexualized images of women always have impacts when it comes to body images, etc. But please. The idea that porn has made men less attracted to actual sex? You'd have to be insane, or Naomi Wolf apparently, to believe that.

Real slowly now. Porn is not new. Porn may very well be as old as the human ability to sling mud on a cave wall. (Seriously.) Masturbation is much, much older than that. I think it's safe to say that if either were capable of proving more alluring than actual sex with the actual opposite sex, the human race wouldn't have made it out of Africa.

Note to CNN: Stop. For the Children.

Or as August puts it:
We have a bizarre, and highly sexist, fascination in this culture of stalking women and then publicly shaming them to degrees I've never seen placed on male celebrities. I couldn't give a damn that Miss USA has a sex life beyond the fact that I'm not part of it.
Only in America could Donald Trump [!!!] be an arbiter of appropriate ethical conduct.

The Joint Chiefs Stand Up, Finally

Good news from the Washington Post this morning, as it seems the uniformed Pentagon is finally telling Bush that no, he cannot have more troops to waste in Iraq just for appearance's sake.
Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public....

The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.
It's clear now that people who thought Bush would be woken up by the ISG report were deluding themselves - and I count myself among those who were hoping that would happen. I wasn't optimistic, but I hope every day that something, somewhere will wake this White House up.

At this point, when absolutely everyone with any independence has rejected Bush, the only people left who can end this disaster are the Joint Chiefs. Let's hope they can make Bush see the light.

Monday, December 18, 2006


...because he's absolutely 100% right on this.

He's reacting to this story from the Boston Globe:
WASHINGTON -- Iraq Study Group member Leon E. Panetta believed that his panel's unanimous bipartisan recommendations about a new way forward in Iraq would give President Bush the political cover needed for a dramatic policy shift. So the former chief of staff to President Clinton has watched with alarm as Bush this week signaled that he may reject suggestions about diplomacy and withdrawing most US troops from Iraq by 2008.

Bush has even criticized the idea that the group was providing a "graceful exit" from the war -- which is what Panetta and other panel members figured Bush most wanted.
So you've got to ask yourself what, in Bush's many many public utterances on this matter, would convince you that he wanted America to leave Iraq?

This is the contradiction at the heart of the whole ISG project - they got a bunch of Wise Old Men to think up a political solution that would be palatable to them if they were in power. But they aren't in power, and Bush isn't one of them. Bush is, always was, and always will be a radical - in intent if not in practice. Not a particularly bright one, mind you, but nobody said that was a requirement.

We've been given copious evidence that the Iraq War was going to happen no matter what, and the most plausible explanation so far amounts to "because we can." Bush and company wanted to upend the table and show everyone that America was kicking ass and taking names. That's still the dream, and Bush hasn't given up on it, though most of the dreamers have given up on him.

What's bizarre is that America was as strong as it's ever going to get in 2002 - after Afghanistan, pre-Iraq. America actually was kicking ass and taking names, and there was no immediate reason to believe that would end, short of a disaster. But the neoconservatives believed the "unipolar moment" needed to be seized. Even though America was and remains by far the most powerful player in the international scene, the neoconservatives acted like America was one of the Polands of the world - surrounded by more powerful countries trying to strangle its potential.

Consider the repetitive incantation that America needs to stay in Iraq or risk "looking weak to the enemy." You can, if you're as dumb as Jim Baker or Leon Panetta, take that as a rhetorical flourish or partisan mudslinging. Or you can accept the reality that Bush believes it. Bush believes it because its true: America will look weak after leaving Baghdad. And because the whole point of the project was to make America look invincible, the only way the project is confirmed as a total disaster is when it ends in an American retreat.

If he could stay past 2008, Bush would keep the war going past 2008 - until victory, as he's said multiple times. This isn't about the GOP, or even about him anymore. He believes if the war ends, America will have lost it's chance for a "place in the sun", as a man once said.

America needs to lose this war, and lose it quickly.

Like the speed of light, my dislike of Michael Ignatieff is a constant

You won't be surprised to hear that I'm disappointed in Stephane Dion. He's named Michael Ignatieff Deputy Leader, and most everyone in the Liberal Blogs is acclaiming this a wonderful move - with a few notable exceptions.

Most Liberals seem to be applauding this because it shows party unity, or something. Essentially, the argument seems to be that Ignatieff deserved this post for losing.

Let's think this through, though. Quite apart from the number of other well-qualified MPs who could serve, Ignatieff is the one sore thumb. He was a walking, talking disaster during the leadership race, and he's mused publicly more than once about leaving the Commons if his career doesn't take the course he wants. You may dismiss those musings, but they did happen. (Remember "depends who's leader"?)

Is he necessary for the Liberal Party? I would say absolutely not. I honestly can't think of a single bloc of voters that Iggy brings to the table that Dion can't get another way. Quebec is already back in play (thank you, national media, for being wrong again) and Dion's playing it cool with Afghanistan. If anything, Iggy's a liability. He's got zero ability at message discipline, even when it's his own career on the line. Do Liberals want to gamble on what he's going to say - as their deputy leader, remember - during the next election? Remember, Harper lost in 2004 because his caucus wouldn't stay muzzled. Don't think it can't happen to you.

And the issue of party unity is misunderstood. If Ignatieff and his followers are unwilling to work in a Liberal Party led by Dion without having his ego stroked, than he doesn't belong in the caucus, much less the Deputy Leader position. Meanwhile, if he is willing to work in the Party led by Dion without reservation, than this trifle is unnecessary. In fact, rewarding a dissident party member with a position of prominence can lead to disaster - as the Liberal Party of Canada should know, if they've read any history of the Chretien-Martin wars.

Now, with all of this said, I'm going to adopt a wait-and-see approach on this one, because frankly "Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition" is not what you, I, or the kid who serves me coffee at Tim Hortons would call a position of power and influence. Hell, even for the actual Government Deputy Leaders aren't wildly important. So if this is where Ignatieff's career goes to die, I'll be happy.

Obviously, I'm a confirmed NDP voter and blogger, so you don't need to take my advice Grits. But a basic knowledge of your own history would be a good start.

(And why not a dame, huh?)

I was wrong, but I was kind of still right

I have, over and over and over, lamented the fact that Americans generally seem unable to accept the idea - not even a fact, yet, but just the idea! - of America being anything other than the #1 power in the world. I have generally criticized American leaders most of all, for perpetuating a form of American nationalism while criticizing other countries for their own nationalism. Today, I have to make an exception to that: This quote is from Bill Clinton, in 2003:
"A lot of respectable opinion," he allowed, backs the conservative idea that America should act like "we're the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. 'We've got the juice; we're going to use it.'"

Then Clinton gave his point of view. "But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we are no longer the only military, economic, and political superpower in the world, then you wouldn't do that. It just depends on what you believe..."
This would be the same Bill Clinton who ignored Kyoto, tried to scuttle the ICC, and who remained hostile to the Land Mines treaty, but whatever. I have to concede that Clinton's hands were tied by a psychopathically-hostile Senate. Nice to see someone in the American leadership grapple with the fact that yes, America's relative power will decline and yes, America has an opportunity now to make the rules of the game fair for all players - an opportunity that won't re-occur.

And what happens when someone else gets the whip hand? Do you seriously think that Beijing, or Brussels, or whoever will be more inclined to be sympathetic to America's interests? Clinton apparently understands that a truly liberal world order - one with America as member, not Presiding officer - is America's only hope for stability in the 21st century.

Now, in the title to this post I say that I was still kind of right because, Clinton notwithstanding, it's clear that these simple facts aren't gaining any traction in the punditocracy right now. I pulled that quote from this article (which deserves another post unto itself) which I found courtesy of David Brooks in the NYT op-ed:
I have to say, I’m as pessimistic about the Middle East as the next guy, but most of this broader existential gloom about America is absurd. The U.S. is in extraordinarily strong shape economically and socially. And whatever their short-term strengths, the Sadrs of the world simply do not have a social model that large numbers of people will want to live under.
To quote the Vietnamese, "That may be so. But it's also irrelevant." We're talking power politics here, not who gets better television.

How's that going? Let's see. In Afghanistan, the US has begged for more troops. They aren't coming. In Iraq, the US is reduced to asking-while-not-asking Iran and Syria to pretty please stop funding insurgents. In Lebanon, the Chinese are busy protecting the state of Israel from Hezbollah. And meanwhile Iran and North Korea are either in possession of or building nuclear weapons, without fear of US reprisals.

But never fear, everyone, because David Brooks says all we need to do is "Buck up." What an idiot.

Progress in China

The middle class in the Middle Kingdom is starting to flex its muscles.
When residents here in southern mainland China's richest city learned of plans to build an expressway that would cut through the heart of their congested, middle-class neighborhood, they immediately organized a campaign to fight city hall.

Over the next two years they managed to halt work on the most destructive and problematic segment of the highway and to force design changes to reduce pollution from the roadway. Their actions became a landmark in citizen efforts to win concessions from a government that by tradition brooked no opposition.

And it was no accident that the battle was waged in Shenzhen, a 26- year-old boomtown that was the first city to enjoy the effects of China's explosive economic growth and that has served as a model for cities throughout the country.
It's exactly these kinds of groups that herald the beginnings of real, organic change in China. Grand principles to defend are nice too, but NIMBYism is what builds movements. Look at the effect Jane Jacobs had in Toronto for one example.

Blair/Brown cont.

If there's a figure in 2007 who will have the presumptive crown for "Most disappointing leader" it's going to be Tony Blair by a country mile. Here's a guy who walked in to a landslide victory over the John Major Conservatives to the cheers of reform and New Labour, and will leave office having left a smoking crater of his party and having achieved little (though not zero) of lasting positive impact.
Labour has no chance of winning the next Election because voters think the Government is a shambles - and there is little Gordon Brown can do to stop David Cameron becoming Prime Minister.

That is the devastating verdict of a secret Downing Street memo drawn up for Tony Blair by his senior advisers and obtained by The Mail on Sunday.
The memo also says Blair is thinking about dumping Brown for a younger, new Labour leader. Check out the whole article. Labour might actually be at a lower point now than at any time since Maggie Thatcher left office. Blair is actually more unpopular than she or John Major ever was.

Just to clarify, when I wrote below about people desperate to hang on to their jobs, I wasn't actually talking about the Chretiens and Blairs of the world, though there's plenty to write about that. Rather, it amazes me that both Martin and Brown stood in the wings for about a decade each as their predecessors used up just about every last bit of political goodwill the public had for their parties. When the inevitable departure finally comes, men like Martin and Brown are left with an impossible situation. But this is politics - leaders don't leave early, and the runners-up in the world have to know that. So why stick around for sloppy seconds?

President rejected in mid-term elections

A lot of that going around lately.
The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of Iran faced electoral embarrassment today after the apparent failure of his supporters to win control of key local councils and block the political comeback of his most powerful opponent.

Early results from last Friday's election suggested that his Sweet Scent of Service coalition had won just three out of 15 seats on the symbolically important Tehran city council, foiling Mr Ahmadinejad's plan to oust the mayor and replace him with an ally.
But wait a minute...
Reformists hailed the poll - billed by many as Mr Ahmadinejad's first electoral test since taking office - as a "major defeat" for the president, but they also warned that the slowness in declaring returns could indicate an underhand attempt to rig the outcome. The interior ministry, which is in the hands of Mr Ahmadinejad's supporters, oversees the counting of ballots.

The Deal/The Queen

Two pieces of motion picture, both by Stephen Frears, both starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, both originally produced for British Television, and both very, very good.

The Queen in particular would be useful for many people to see - it harkens back to a time when Her Majesty Elizabeth II was in the middle of the worst PR crises of her reign - the death of Princess Diana - while Tony Blair was beloved. How things change.

Speaking as someone who never understood the big deal about Diana, it amazes me that her death, of all things, would spark such an outcry against the monarchy in Britain - newspapers calling for the Queen to kneel to the memory of a woman she loathed, and republicanism (is that even a word?) polling higher at that time in Britain than ever before or since.

Frears, as a director in both pieces, is pretty clearly anti-Tony Blair, though not to the detriment of his work. It's less obvious in The Queen, but you can still see it in the way Blair is slowly transformed from the nervous but passionate reformer to the ardent monarchist. In The Deal (about Blair's deal with Gordon Brown over leadership of the Labour Party) Frears is explicitly pro-Brown, casting Blair as a thoughtless betrayer of promises and principles.

Of course, there's a moment in The Queen where Liz the Two says to Blair something to the effect of "Don't think they won't come for you some day, Mr. Blair." She's talking about the shattering experience of having the public and the press turn on her so vehemently post-Diana, but it's clearly Frears giving us a little poke about Blair's current unpopularity. More interestingly is the climactic scene in The Deal, when Brown asks Blair what happens after Labour wins a second term, something Brown was confident of. Blair says "Well I certainly won't make the same mistake Thatcher did, staying on too long."

The Deal ends with a bit of on-screen narration: "Gordon Brown is still waiting."

You wonder what it is about these jobs that makes people so desperate to hang on. There's the obvious allure of power and influence, but consider the story of Paul Martin - loses resoundingly to Chretien in the Leadership race, goes on to serve for more than a decade, and when he's finally handed the reins, he totally blows it. This, I would think, should be a lesson for all runners-up in politics. I wonder if Brown's been following Canadian politics.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The missing elephants

Yesterday's opinion piece by Daniel Drezner on America's next Grand Strategy is an interesting summary of the main contenders for an organizing principle for American foreign policy. There are two rather important omissions. Both are understandable, given the constraints of a newspaper. But both are also clearly important.

First, there's precious little mention of Iraq. Specifically, it would be nice to see American thinkers point out the obvious - America's foreign policy options are damn close to zero until the US military recuperates from the disaster in the land of two rivers. There's a note that all of the contenders apply to a "post-Iraq" world, but a brief paragraph stating the fact that none of these ideas matter a whit until the US military leaves Iraq would have been nice.

The other problem is more fundamental, in my mind. There's really no grasping with the question of what American power is supposed to be for in the 21st century. Basically, most of the theories Drezner mentions agree that open markets and continued globalization is a good thing, but none of them seem to have a purpose beyond that. Meanwhile, the purpose of the much-lauded containment doctrine was simple to grasp - it's right there in the name, after all.

All of these theories acknowledge that America has plenty of challenges ahead, but there's no sense, from Drezner's precis, that Washington needs to pick a threat and concentrate on it. It should be clear that depending on the threat America chooses to prioritize, different strategies should be followed. To pick an obvious example, if the US decides tomorrow that in an age of terrorism nuclear proliferation is the country's top concern, it would pursue a wildly different Grand Strategy than if it's decided that China is the next threat - America could find itself once more arming and training terrorist groups in proxy wars against a Communist power. For thinkers living in the shadow of Kennan, there's a need for clarity at least, even if simplicity on these matters is impossible.

Who is America guarding itself against in the 21st century? Terrorism? China? Russia? The EU? Anyone? Everything? There's no consensus on this question, so it's impossible for a consensus to form on the solution. Meanwhile, Bush's policies have made American power seem terrifying instead of benign, and have dramatically broadened the circle of nations who are trying to build a "multipolar world." Countries who once believed they had a place in an American-led liberal order can now be forgiven for being suspicious, and even after 2008 it will be hard for any President to rely on the trust that America had built up during the 1990s.

Even if you think that America's potential rivals are pissants now, a reasonable grand strategy for the future needs to think about who will be challenging America, why, and what the proper reaction will be. And sometimes - as in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII - the proper response is going to taste bitter indeed. Will Americans, and more importantly America's leaders, be willing to accept that in years to come?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sea level rise estimate larger than expected

OSLO (Reuters) - The world's oceans may rise up to 140 cms (4 ft 7 in) by 2100 due to global warming, a faster than expected increase that could threaten low-lying coasts from Florida to Bangladesh, a researcher said on Thursday.

"The possibility of a faster sea level rise needs to be considered when planning adaptation measures such as coastal defenses," Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research wrote in the journal Science.

His study, based on air temperatures and past sea level changes rather than computer models, suggested seas could rise by 50-140 cms by 2100, well above the 9-88 cms projected by the scientific panel that advises the
United Nations.

A rise of one meter might swamp low-lying Pacific islands such as Tuvalu, flood large areas of Bangladesh or Florida and threaten cities from New York to Buenos Aires.

A Wall, and more troops, for Afghanistan

I keep going back and forth on Afghanistan. On the one hand, I really don't want to see this all end with nothing of any permanence accomplished, which is the reasonable expectation of a Taliban revival across Afghanistan. On the other hand, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that a) "success" is possible, or b) NATO, including Harper, are willing to commit resources in the same way they commit rhetoric.

We all suspect that much of the support for the Taliban forces in Afghanistan is coming from Pakistan. Even if much of the manpower is indigenous, they're suspected of getting training from Pakistan's ISI, and a number of voices within Afghanistan have described the war there as essentially NATO vs. Pakistan.

So why not an Israeli- or Mexico-style wall? The Israeli experience, as controversial as it is, shows that walls can be effective at reducing, though not eliminating, illegal border incursions.

Well, a few obvious difficulties present themselves. The cost alone would certainly be prohibitive for Afghanistan alone - you're probably talking about $10 billion for the entire border, if that were necessary. (See some numbers in this story about the Mexican proposal.) The cost is probably why Musharraf has proposed land mines instead - cheap, effective, land mines. Oh, yeah, but it would also dramatically increase the region's stump-to-limb ratio. You don't expect a military autocrat to care about such trifles, do you?

The more fundamental problem is that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan - created by the British foreign office in 1893 - is not accepted by the Afghan population as legitimate. The Durand Line permanently divided the Pashtuns of the region, something they see as a colonial-era injustice. So putting a permanent wall on the Durand Line would be seen as formalizing the division of this tribe, something the Pashtun won't abide.

This presents NATO with a problem. Musharraf may decide to mine the border with or without anyone's permission - drug smugglers, you understand - which probably won't do much to control the border. You can be sure that if the cooperation between the ISI and the Taliban is that close, they'll know exactly where the gaps in any minefield are.

(A question for the audience: What's Musharraf's game here? Is his willingness to mine the border an acknowledgment that the Taliban are getting support from Pakistan, and this is all he can do to stop it?)

So it's probably going to be in NATO's interests to control what kind of barrier gets made, and where. NATO could also easily afford the costs of even a wildly-expensive wall - hell, Canada could swing it if we needed to, but obviously it's best if the financial load is spread. If we see the same results in Afghanistan that the Israelis saw with the West Bank (and remember: controversial as the Durand Line is, it's far less controversial than the West Bank wall) we can expect a 90% reduction in illegal traffic.

If the Taliban forces in Afghanistan are dependent on Pakistan for support, that kind of reduction in support could cripple them, allowing NATO forces to calm down the southern provinces. But the obvious problem is this: formalizing the Durand Line with a wall would mark Karzai as a turncoat to his people in a tangible, visible way. He would have sold out the Pashtun for his NATO masters, or at least that's what will be said. There's no wonder, then, that Karzai is one of the most vocal opponents of a wall, minefield, or any kind of tangible barrier on the border.

Yet another one of the dilemmas for NATO in Afghanistan - one idea that could reduce the danger to NATO troops in the south, and allow them to focus more on construction and development, is totally politically unacceptable to Afghanistan's people.

The big worry in any plan for a wall is simply this: what if we're wrong? What if the forces we're fighting can be sustained domestically, without outside help? Then all we've done is exacerbate tensions with the Pashtun.

It's worth saying that even in the presence of a wall, there's very good reason to be skeptical of our troop levels in Afghanistan. Historical examples show that you want a soldier/civilian ratio of about 1:50. That kind of fraction implies a force of 20,000 for Kandahar province alone, with about double that for the other provinces on the southern border (from Kandahar to Khost.) So if the historical examples are any indication, the total would be 60,000-70,000 just for the south. Interestingly, 70,000 is the target goal Karzai has set for the size of the Afghan national Army. But until the warlords are finally pacified in the North (where there's been good progress) I'm not sure we can rely on the ANA in any numbers.

Meanwhile, you've got to wonder what the political effect would be of this kind of move. Permanently dividing the Pashtun people and flooding their community with alien invaders - not to mention alienating the current head of the Afghan state - would be an incredibly risky maneuver, even if you were confident the wall would work and you could smooth over relations with the Pashtun. Given the notorious xenophobia of the Pashtun, this sounds like you'd be asking for a lot of trouble.

But if we want to achieve some meaningful progress there we need to control the border, and we need to stabilize the security situation. Nobody can seriously argue those two points. Does anyone have a better idea?

What if Quebec goes?

Blast Furnace Canada has an interesting post about a recent prank by the Belgian national broadcaster that went awry, and raises the question of what Canada would do if Quebec unilaterally declared independence. Would Ottawa be able to rely on the Quebec divisions of the Army? Would it matter - would a military response be possible/likely/necessary?

In this discussion, I'd simply point out that there's an immense amount of trouble that Quebec could cause as an independent state. The Quebec government has, on occasion, "accidentally" published maps showing the wrong borders with Newfoundland and Labrador. If you assume Quebec nationalism was in full flower (naturally, this would be necessary for a declaration of independence) all of the sudden a certain irredentism among Quebeckers is not out of the question. "Rescuing" the francophone parts of Ontario or New Brunswick would almost certainly be raised as a possibility.

So what's the nightmare scenario? Assume Quebec did leave, how bad could it get?

I miss the waves down in Africa

Things in Somalia keep getting worse:
BAIDOA, Somalia -- Somalia's president said Friday that peace talks with the country's Islamic movement are no longer an option because the group's leaders have declared war on his government.

"They are the ones who effectively closed the door to peace talks and they are the ones who are waging the war," Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf told The Associated Press from his office in Baidoa.
Every mention of Yusuf should put scare-quotes around the word "President" (just like that!) The Islamic Courts Union controls the majority of the country, and the "Government" recognized internationally is entirely dependent on foreign support. The "Government" is based in Baidoa, is heavily dependent on Ethopian military aid, and Ethiopia is getting military training and advisors from... the United States. Wonderful.

The US, for its part, is widely assumed to have started supporting the Baidoa government not because they love those guys (who are largely the same guys the US was fighting in Mogadishu lo these many years ago) but because Bushco assumed that any Islamic force in Somalia would, by definition, end up allied with bin Laden. A stupid assumption, but hardly the first for this crowd.

So we're looking at a regional war between Ethiopia, the ICU, and even little Eritrea, which are all a short distance from Darfur, where the Sudanese government seems to be coming down hard again. In response, Tony Blair is proposing a no-fly zone for Sudan.

I'm entirely unconvinced with the proposals to put boots on the ground in Darfur, mainly because I don't think the troops exist. A no-fly zone has the obvious benefit of not amounting to a land invasion of an African country, but the question is where it leads. It's all to easy to go from a no-fly zone to a Kosovo-style bombing campaign.

The Kosovo precedent is relevant in another way, because the Sudanese government believes that international pressure is essentially trying to cleave Darfur away from Sudan's sovereignty. Which, you know, we pretty much did in Kosovo despite early and explicit statements to the contrary. Whether you think that was a good thing or not, you can't blame Khartoum for being suspicious.

Meanwhile, the French are busy actively fighting in support of the Central African Republic, and the African Union is saying "In Central African Republican and Chad, with a heavy heart, we are just spectators of a tragedy unfolding there."

So there's no a lot of good news in Africa these days. But it is there, if you look for it. For one thing, the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo have more-or-less been a success, with Kabila being accepted as the legitimate winner. The DRC is still desperately poor, but it seems that for now we might get the return of some order there.

Meanwhile, across Africa, various regional organizations are finally tackling the most tangible, enduring legacy of colonialism - the integration of national and regional economies. During the colonial and most of the post-colonial era, economic development was geared solely towards exports, meaning that in most African countries all roads lead to the ports, and there's almost zero integration of national economies, much less regional economies. So you get absurd scenarios like this:
Poor road infrastructure is a constant source of frustration for Doxa Worldwide Movers when it transports goods from Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and other points all the way to Niger. “It’s the nature of the job,” Mr. Ackun says.

Business has grown since the company’s birth 10 years ago, but so have the headaches. Mr. Ackun told Africa Renewal that to get to Liberia, containers often have to go to sorting hubs in Europe first, and then retrace their way back to Africa. Social unrest, little competition, poor roads and multiple checkpoints, he says, are partly responsible for the steep cost of moving goods within the region.

“It costs $1,000 to ship a 20-foot container to the United Kingdom,” Mr. Ackun said. “You need $2,300 to transport the same container just next door to Liberia.
In west Africa, the NEPAD program has helped construct a highway system that is finally connecting the economies of the Guinea Coast. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the continent, the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (with Burundi and Rwanda signing on later in 2007) have begun the process of economic integration with a customs union, which is supposed to eventually lead to currency union and even a regional parliament in the future.

The East African countries are only one example of the regional groups in Africa who are trying to integrate their economies within the African Union framework. These regional pillars, the theory goes, will eventually be tied together (some time in the 2030s or so) in to one continent-wide African currency, customs, and political union. But the process of integration is already paying dividends - Mozambique has posted Chinese levels of growth, due in large part to the lowering of trade barriers with South Africa.

So record growth is coming from liberalization of trade - sounds like the Washington Consensus, right? Wrong. The IMF/World Bank policies of the 1980s and 1990s were entirely unconcerned with national or regional integration. Roads were built continuing in the colonial policies of export-focused growth. Tariffs were reduced with the world's most advanced economies, leading to incredible disruptions in the Third World, while tariffs between African countries remained high. A more intelligent policy would have been to, beginning immediately after decolonization, begin what we're only starting now in the 21st century.

So why didn't the Africans figure this out early? Well, they did. The earliest post-colonial leaders, like Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah, were staunch Pan-Africanists. But neither the Soviets, the Americans, nor the old colonial mother countries had any interest in a united, assertive Africa. Lamumba in particular was immediately set upon by the CIA, his own army, and Belgian colonials who wanted to retain their privileges. Throughout the Cold War, any African leader who tried asserting any control over their countries, much less try for an assertive foreign policy, quickly found themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.

I certainly don't want to glamourize Nkrumah or Lumumba more than they deserve - both men had problematic aspects, to say the least. In particular, Nkrumah followed the tragic African pattern of national-liberator-to-strongman. The point is that we in the west wasted two generations of African development by insisting on "development" policies that were not materially different from the old colonial model. These policies failed miserably to produce any real growth - from 1980 to 2000, many African countries saw their GDP shrink.

We're finally seeing a reversal of this trend from a combination of rising commodity prices (thank you, China!) too-limited debt forgiveness, and exactly the regional and continental integration that the early pan-Africanists advocated but the west opposed.

I wonder if Africa will ever forgive us.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bill Gates: I don't want your money. No, really. Why are you laughing?

Gates didn’t get into what could replace DRM, but he did give some reasonably candid insights suggesting that he thinks DRM is as lame as the rest of us.

Gates said that no one is satisfied with the current state of DRM, which "causes too much pain for legitmate buyers" while trying to distinguish between legal and illegal uses. He says no one has done it right, yet. There are "huge problems" with DRM, he says, and we need more flexible models, such as the ability to "buy an artist out for life" (not sure what he means). He also criticized DRM schemes that try to install intelligence in each copy so that it is device specific.

His short term advice: "People should just buy a cd and rip it. You are legal then."
And yet Microsoft just rolled out a revamped online music store, with, you guessed it, souped-up DRM for the music sold. Apparently, Bill Gates is capable of holding the following thoughts in his head, at the same time:

1) DRM doesn't do any of the things we want it to. (He doesn't say this in the interview, but if he believes it's effective, he's a total and complete moron.)

2) DRM just inconveniences and harms honest customers.

3) DRM-wrapped music, invented in the 1990s, is plainly inferior to the Compact Disc, patented in 1979.

4) Because 1, 2, and 3 are true, people should "just buy a CD and rip it."

5) Microsoft should sell DRM-wrapped music.

Suddenly, the shitty nature of Microsoft products makes a lot of sense.

Now this is an interesting debate about nationhood

I've been trawling through the Head Heeb's archives, and this link from June has me fascinated: an argument for a non-religious conversion to judaism - what another nation would call citizenship. At the moment, to become a Jew means to convert to the Jewish religion, but it wasn't always so:
The Jewish people are not racist. We have always been open to accepting members of other nations, as in the biblical story Ruth, who was a convert and the grandmother of King David.
So, back during the time of the original Kingdom of Israel, you "became a Jew" in much the same way you "became French", or Roman, or whatever - you learned the language, maybe served the king, and pledged allegiance to the same God as the king. Citizenship in the era before border controls. Today, other nations that have states will ask you to learn the language and serve the sovereign, but you don't necessarily have to follow the same God.

There are plenty of secular Jews in Israel, and I've seen at least one poll showing that Israel has a higher proportion of self-described atheists than all but three other countries. (Can't remember them all, but Russia topped Israel.) But - and here I confess my abject ignorance - it seems that the immigration controls in Israel are inherently religious, with people forced to convert to the Jewish faith before being issued citizenship.

Now, because the Jewish people lacked any kind of political community for quite some time, it's perfectly natural for them to have defined themselves in terms of the religious community. But Israel exists now. How does this change the calculations of what it means to be Jewish? I know at least one Chinese Jewish convert, so the ethnic argument isn't ironclad. If you can be an Atheist Jew, why not - to pick the weirdest possibility - a Muslim Jew? Is the preference of a different God (I know, "abrahamic faiths", work with me) directly antithetical to Jewishness in a way that denial of any God isn't?
The absurd result of all this is that Israeli citizenship is left in the hands of thousands of rabbis around the world, including many non-Zionists and individuals who oppose the State of Israel, whereas the state itself has no parallel, independent mechanism of its own...

The secular stream of Judaism is the central and most important one in Israel, but in the absurd world of this country it is the only one to which entry is blocked.

We need a secular alternative for welcoming newcomers into the Jewish people in Israel. We must set criteria for joining the Jewish people, such as a knowledge of Hebrew and the traditions of our people, the lack of a criminal past and the ability to contribute and a willingness to blend into our society, and to fulfill responsibilities (such as serving in the army).
Actually, the question of a Muslim Jew - aside from being absurd in the present - is interesting, because the contrast with the Jewish state and Muslims is that there is no single, recognized community for Muslims to call home, or to look for guidance. There was the Caliphate, back in the day, and today bin Laden keeps hope alive. Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but nobody pretends that Saudi Arabia is the natural community of the Muslims except for the House of Saud itself.

The idea of a unified, Muslim polity that could be a "homeland" in the sense that diaspora communities use the word might terrify us. But should it? In the most recent issue of Democracy, Peter Bergen and Michael Lind make the argument that much of the grievances the Muslim world has against the west stem not from economics, but from pride. Bin Laden and his ilk are explicit that Dar al-Islam has been crushed by the west, and the Muslim community needs to be re-formed (though not reformed!):
Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s chief strategist, concluded his 2001 biography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, with the following observation: "Liberating the Muslim nation, confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances."...

Bin Laden sees the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, as the beginning of Arab humiliation. For bin Laden, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, like the Versailles agreement for Hitler, is a humiliation that must be avenged and reversed: "We still suffer from the injuries inflicted by … the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France which divided the Muslim world into fragments," he said.
One thing worth pointing out was that it was not the colonial powers but the fanatically-westernizing Kemal Attaturk who abolished the Caliphate. Even with Sykes-Picot, if it hadn't been for Attaturk some rump Ottoman Caliphate could have survived. I'm not sure that we can expect men like bin Laden or Zawahiri to see the difference. Bergen and Lind again:
the American occupation of Iraq is now inspiring jihadists in the way that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, Russian control of Chechnya, and Indian rule over Kashmiri Muslims long have done. Ending the humiliating occupation of Muslim populations by non-Muslim nations will remove some of the major grievances that jihadists use as a recruiting tool. Conversely, to perpetuate these deeply resented occupations in the name of fighting "Islamofascism" will only help the jihadists.
Draw your own conclusions for what that means for Aghanistan.

The question for Muslims is whether modern nationalism is compatible with the impulse to build a religious polity. Will the Egyptians, for example, deign to live under the same rule as Saudis? If anything, that's the easiest match in the region. If the Caliphate is to be restored in some meaningful way, maybe the proper example is not Israel or the Islamic equivalent thereof, but rather the Vatican. After the unification of the Italian kingdom during the 19th century - under a King, by the way, who didn't speak Italian - the Vatican was left untouched, though the Pope refused to recognize the King's power over them. Italy (under Mussolini) eventually recognized the Vatican as a separate state with authority over other holy sites in Italy.

This, then, was the final (so far) settlement between European nationalism and political Catholicism - recognize the Catholic Church as it's own, highly-limited polity.

The political authority of the Caliph is gone, and isn't coming back. But if there's a shakeup in Saudi Arabia (out of the question, I know!) a purely religious Caliphate restored along the models of the Vatican City, encompassing Mecca and Medina, might be a possibility. Something that would pacify those Muslims who want to see the return of a pan-Islamic identity, without threatening the national governments that currently exist.

I mean, Muslims in the west are already suspected because of their faiths. Frankly, if they were only subjected to the same discrimination that Catholics had to endure for the last 200 years or so, that might be an improvement.

English was good enough for Jesus, wasn't it?

The Economist:
Nearly a quarter of the world's population speaks some English. That includes around 400m who speak it as their mother tongue and about the same number who speak it fluently as their second language. English is the global language of academic research, and perhaps 1,500 master's degrees are taught in English in countries where the language has no official status. It provides the vocabulary for some specialised fields, such as air-traffic control. And it is the working language of a growing number of international companies—a big reason why so many of them choose London for their headquarters....

In China 180m students are learning English in the formal education system, and more than a fifth of Japanese five-year-olds now attend classes in English conversation. Countries as diverse as Chile and Mongolia have declared their intention to become bilingual in English over the next decade or two. And this year English was added to the curriculum studied by Mexican primary-school children, who are learning the language along with 200,000 teachers. According to David Graddol of the British Council, a cultural organisation, “within a decade nearly a third of the world's population will all be trying to learn English at the same time.”

At first sight this means that things are about to get even cushier for native English speakers; they needn't lift a finger to learn other people's subjunctives. But there are two catches. The first is that they will lose the competitive advantage that once came with being among the relatively few to speak the world's most useful language. Competent bilinguals, many of whom have travelled in the course of acquiring English, can offer everything that English monoglots can—as well as an extra language and an international perspective.

More subtly, as native Anglophones are increasingly outnumbered by people who speak English as a second language, the future of their own language is passing from their hands. Jean-Paul Nerrière, a Frenchman who retired as vice-president of IBM, has written two books about a version of English he calls “Globish”. With a vocabulary of just 1,500 words and no idioms, abbreviations or humour, it focuses on the essentials and leaves out everything that makes cross-cultural communication difficult. He developed this “decaffeinated English” after noticing how much easier the Japanese and South Korean employees at IBM found it to communicate with him and his compatriots than with their British and American colleagues.

Kinda sick today

Trying to kill a cold before it overwhelms me. Lots of fluids. Less blogging.

Some things to read:

Vues D'ici on Equalization, and the 0% chance of the provinces agreeing to anything. This means the Feds will impose a plan. Being a person who supports Ottawa actually, duh, exercising it's constitutional powers, I say to thee, Jim Flaherty: Go for it. Establish the principle that Ottawa can kick a little ass in the national interest, and we'll clean up your mess when you're gone.

Paul Krugman on inequality in the US. Guess what - Canada is a more class-mobile society than the US. Horatio Alger goes to Tim Hortons, suckers.

Oh, and some housekeeping: Pinochet is dead, we should all be happy he's dead, and could we please stop supporting horrible dictators simply because we agree with their economic policies, please. We're looking at you, Islam Karimov.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Gay Marriage: There were two free votes, people

Okay, this might be stretching the definition of "free votes", but no more than the mandatory-homophobia party has already tortured the English language.

Last year, the Parliament of Canada decided that the word "marriage" could apply to any two people, not just a man and a wife. That vote left the Liberal Party free to vote their conscience, so long as an MP was not a member of Cabinet or a Parliamentary Secretary. Why this should matter, when other parties (like mine) whipped their MPs, has always been a mystery to me. But whatever.

Meanwhile, last month, Prime Minister Harper whipped his caucus for the Quebec nation motion. Michael Chong, obeying his conscience, resigned his position as Intergovernmental Affairs minister rather than vote for the motion.

So exactly where were the Liberal MPs who left their cabinet posts rather than vote in favour of equal marriage? The first SSM vote was actually far more free than the Quebec Nation motion - Liberals actually had the option of voting against the motion, not merely absenting themselves. And if there was no rash of MPs leaving their cabinet posts, why not? This is, we are told, a matter of grave importance to preserve our discriminatory way of life.

So either a) no Liberals were so committed to this issue they were willing to resign a cushy job that wasn't long for this world anyway, or b) it was, but all of them were voting their consciences anyway. Either way, it means holding a second vote was totally unnecessary, and in no way was it "the proper process." All it did was add to the concerns of same-sex couples that Canada might not be as welcoming the next day.

We didn't go anywhere, dumbass

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered the news about his Senate reform initiative with an election-style pep talk to his Conservative caucus.

"Our economy is strong. Our administration is clean. Our country is united and the world is spreading the word, Canada is back," he said Wednesday...
Dude, you've been in power for less than a year. You haven't done anything anyone cares about. And you're ten points behind in the polls. Bite me.

"Canada is back." What an ass.

The Cylons are coming!

Bill Gates, not content with trying to extract a nickel from every link you click, now wants to risk the inevitable nuclear war that we all know follows the proliferation of robots. But I think Bill misses the point entirely when he says this:
Although a few of the robots of tomorrow may resemble the anthropomorphic devices seen in Star Wars, most will look nothing like the humanoid C-3PO. In fact, as mobile peripheral devices become more and more common, it may be increasingly difficult to say exactly what a robot is. Because the new machines will be so specialized and ubiquitous—and look so little like the two-legged automatons of science fiction—we probably will not even call them robots.
Sure, a lot of the new robots will be something like the Roomba vacuum. But there's a perfectly obvious reason why some humanoid robots will be made in large numbers - the world is currently built for humanoids humans. Compatibility matters, something Bill Gates of all people should know really well.

The reality is that robots have already replaced human workers to a huge degree in industry, wherever possible. So the big pool of labour left to be automated is in services - fast food, retail, and the rest. That's the market for automation, something that's already happening to some extent with e-commerce. People might not buy a book from a robot's recommendation, but the robot will probably be able to find a book in a Borders or Chapters quicker, especially when every book has a built-in RFID tag. And I'd wager my customer service experience at McDonalds would get much, much better with robots.

Moreover, if the evolution of the personal computer shows us anything, it's that people prefer a more expensive, but more general-purpose, machine to a cheaper, more specialized one. And when it comes to general-purpose labour, the human form is pretty good, especially for the things we want labour to do. Sure, give it night vision and an extra set of arms if you like. Maybe a tail - for balance. Or coolness.

There's also the issue of cultural expectations, of course. If you've perfected the domestic robot, my suggestion would be to license the image of C3PO and the voice of Anthony Daniels. You'd make a mint from the early adopters who, let's face it, are going to be heavy on the nerd factor.

So assume we nerds get our wish, and cheapish robots proliferate, with a variety of skills available. Where are they going to be used? The answer to that question is pretty simple - anywhere they can be. Here we have the last 30 years of economic history as a guide - robots replacing any workers they can. But that's the crucial question - where will we let them be used?

You'd think that some of the most labour-intensive skills left in our economy (education, health care, the military) would be good candidates, but all three cases are highly regulated and have been captured by the incumbents in the market. As much as the US government could use robo-GIs in large numbers right about now, you only have to look at the institutional hostility the Air Force has displayed to unmanned aerial vehicles to see how well that will fly. And the idea of parents letting their children be taught by a robot tutor doesn't strike me as likely, certainly not in the beginning. Too much Frankenbaggage.

The robot butler/maid is a staple of SF fiction, but there's a pretty good economic rationale for it coming early - its something most middle-class households could use, and if it's got any kind of decent lifespan, the costs could be well less than hiring the human variant. Moreover, it's a relatively free market. I think the more interesting question will be how we would adjust our regulations and laws to accommodate robots? Do we give them driver's licenses? Why not - they're bound to be better drivers than all but the best humans. (An interface with the raft of sensors new cars already have would be incredibly useful.) Besides, how else will they do the grocery shopping?

The other big area where I could see a lot of use for cheap, multi-purpose robots is in agriculture and meatpacking. It's no secret that fruit and vegetable growing in North America is heavily dependent on illegal (cheap) labour, and meatpacking is one of the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs around. Not only would automating those jobs mean fewer miserable jobs in the world, but probably fewer dead people.

(As a side-note, some of the most environmentally friendly, super-efficient forms of agriculture are also the most labour-intensive. Farm robots could dramatically raise food output without sacrificing the environment.)

But robots would have to be really, really cheap for us to get to this point. For general industry, North American workers are already in competition with existing robots, not to mention 12-year old Chinese girls in Shenzhen. Agricultural labour is so cheap it's literally criminal - something that has spread to plenty of other industries across the US, like homebuilding and waitering. I can't imagine why anyone would adopt machines unless a) they were qualitatively better than human workers (plausible to likely) or b) they were substantially cheaper, and easily substituted.

Oh, and now I'm ashamed for my country

A Canadian professor says he gladly accepted an invitation from Iran's hardline Islamist government to speak at an international conference questioning the Holocaust.

But Dr. Shiraz Dossa, a soft-spoken political science professor at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University, said he doesn't put himself in the same category as some of the "hacks and lunatics'' attending the event.
Dr. Dossa actually does sound like he's genuinely not a racist - but seriously? You went to Tehran for a conference on the Holocaust, and you're surprised at the audience? Talk about dense.
Dossa told The Globe he was alarmed to discover that Holocaust deniers played such a visible role at the conference.

"I did not know exactly who was coming to the conference, and frankly, I think these people are hacks and lunatics," he said. "I frankly wouldn't even shake hands with most of them."
Yes, I'm sure that was an easy mistake to make. Who would expect virulent anti-semitism in the Middle East?

Wednesday Morning Creepiness

In case it needs to be said, the super-Christianization of the US military is possibly the most terrifying aspect of modern life. Salon has an interview with a Jewish former JAG officer who's trying to shed light on the dominance of scary evangelicals in the planet's most efficient killing machine:
I talk to senior members of the military at the flag-level rank -- I don't know if you're familiar with what that means, that means admiral or general -- that have looked at me and said, "Come on, Mikey, what's your problem? We have the cure to cancer. If you had the cure to cancer, wouldn't you want to spread the word?" They don't realize when they say it, they don't have the mental wherewithal to understand that to a person who isn't an evangelical Christian, you're calling our faith a cancer.
Let's just hope the good doctors don't decide to resort to radiation therapy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Damn you, media.

You've done the impossible. You've made me sympathetic to Lindsay Lohan.
NEW YORK -- Lindsay Lohan says she's been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for a year, but hasn't talked about it because "it's no one's business."...When asked why didn't she say so until recently, she replies: "Well it's no one's business. That's why it's anonymous!"
You can understand the Associate Press' confusion. I mean, they've treated celebrities' lives with such tact and civility before now.

Seriously, do they even have dictionaries at the AP anymore? How much do you suck as a journalist when you're getting basic english language lessons from Lindsay Lohan?

Hybrid cars and V2G

Yesterday, the US Department of Energy announced that an upcoming report has found the US electrical grid could power up to 85% of the existing US fleet if those cars were replaced with electric vehicles. My latest post at Gristmill is about it, and the potential for electric cars to be a massive rolling reservoir for intermittent renewable electricity (wind, solar, etc.)

People sometimes mistake my enthusiasm for new automotive technologies as enthusiasm for the automotive lifestyle - a strike against me in the usual environmental scorebook. The funny thing is I don't own a car and have no desire to. Nevertheless, the reality is that people in western economies like their cars, and especially like the freedom of movement that cars give them. And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm easily sold on policies to reduce the use and necessity of cars - gasoline taxes, more mass transit, whatever. But the United States is guaranteed to have at least 150 million cars for the foreseeable future. That being the case, we need to think of ways to make those cars as friendly as possible.

A slightly fresher lake, III

The arctic: Ice-free in the summer by 2040. Unlike previous estimates, this model takes in to account the effect of warm ocean currents traveling further north than usual, helping to break up the ice even more than general warming.
Researchers assessing the impact of carbon emissions on the world’s climate have calculated that late summer in the Arctic will be ice-free by 2040 or earlier - well within a lifetime.

Some ice would still be found on coastlines, notably Greenland and Ellesmere Island, but the rest of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole, would be open water.

The Nasa-funded US team of researchers said the ice retreat is likely to remain fairly constant until 2024 when there will be a sudden speeding up of the process....

Their finding may, however, already be out of date and something of an over-optimistic forecast, said Professor Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey....

"The study findings may be an under estimate of when the Arctic summer ice might be all gone," he said. "It could well be their assumptions are more optimistic than they might be."

Monday, December 11, 2006

How does Energy Secretary Thomas Friedman sound?

Because watching this, I want President Al Gore to name him something. A few more years, and I might even forgive Iraq. Saving the world, after all, is a pretty big deal.

Two years

Boy, it seems like forever that I've had this blog. It's kind of shocking that it's only been two years today.

Does this mean my blog is going to start teething and throwing tantrums in the produce aisle?

Blame the furriners, but for God's sake bar the door

Upcoming excuse for Americans wanting to distance themselves from the Iraq Catastrophe:
It wasn't our faults precious, it was those filthy, tricksy Iraqises.
Meanwhile, the US government won't accept refugees from Iraq in any large numbers for fear of the embarrassing image it would cause the Bush Administration: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis "staying the course" right the fuck out of Iraq.

Even now, the decisions of American national security policy still manage to make me nauseous. I wonder if that part of my brain will burn out eventually.

Electoral reforzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I know, nothing more exciting than weighing the pros and cons of various balloting methods. Are you a pure list PR partisan? An IRV man? Favour the German system?

Democratic space has submitted a proposal to the Ontario Citizen's Assembly for a mixed-member PR reform. I'm very impressed, and only partially because it closely mirrors my own thinking.

That said, it's very, very important to remember that proportionality is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Rather, we want PR because it adds democratic legitimacy to our governments that usually lack it. (Bizarrely, Canada's last two governments may be the most "legitimate" we've had in a while.) The other way to add legitimacy to a government is some kind of ranked ballot.

In the simplest system, IRV, voters rank their choices. The lowest ranked candidates are removed, the votes are re-tallied based on that candidates' voters second choices, until a candidate comes out on top with 50%+1 of the vote. If we had this today in Parliament, I can honestly say I have no idea of how many seats any party would have. The point is that each and every one of our 308 MPs would have more than 50% of the vote in their ridings.

I actually think that IRV might be more realistic in the short term for Canadian politics, in that it requires the least change to the makeup of Parliament - no Province needs to lose a seat, and I suspect you might be able to bring it in without any kind of constitutional change, if you were smart about it.

When we say "equality", you hear "lowest common denominator".

In their desire to show they can deal with male politicians with all the pettiness and shallow vapidity that they usually reserve for female politicians, the Globe and Mail goes all Queer-Eye on Stephane Dion.

Olaf has the details.

Why America needs the UN

Kevin Drum links to this review of The Best Intentions, a book about Kofi Annan's years at the UN, especially the time since 2002-03, when the US explicitly rejected international law and the UN process and attacked a sovereign state that posed no threat to America.

It's telling that all of the criticisms of the US come from it's strength - the overweening pride of wealth, the cavalier militarism of the well-armed - while all the criticisms of the UN come from it's weaknesses - unable to stop the genocide in Rwanda or the atrocities in Bosnia, unable even to control the corruption of the oil-for-food program (which was dramatically overplayed, but real.)

The solution to both is as simple as it is unrealistic: the UN, or it's successor, needs several degrees of independence from it's strongest member states. We've already accepted this in principle, with the Korean War: The UN intervened against an ally of the Soviet Union to uphold the UN Charter. I'm under no illusions as to the Cold War power plays involved in 1950, but the principled argument hold up nevertheless.

Imagine, for a moment, that in the early winter of 2003, Kofi Annan was head of the UN, but instead of being powerless to stop the US invasion of Iraq, he was able to place tens of thousands of peacekeepers on the Kuwait-Iraq border. Impossible in the real world, of course. But if it had worked, wouldn't the US be better off today?

This is the point about building an independent multilateral organ of global governance - whether it be the UN or some new body. Even in the worst-case scenario for the Americans (such as the above hypothetical) America is still better off with the UN than without one.

Matthew Yglesias is one of the few writers I've seen who truly understands this, which is why I tend to link to him rather copiously. The point of the UN is not to be some kind of super-NATO. It's not to ensure that the US gets its own way in the world, every time. The UN is there to ensure that, even when America doesn't get it's way in the world, the world (including America) is still better off.

The corollary to all this is that people who complain that, yes, undemocratic regimes in the UN have just as much say as democratic regimes are missing the point, inadvertently or otherwise. The UN's role is not to represent the people we like. It's there to govern the world, and the reality of global politics means that the UN gets all of the toughest, least forgiving jobs (Darfur, Rwanda, AIDS, etc.)

The US could, if it liked, be like Japan in the 1930s and leave the UN and go it's own way, but the disaster would not be for the UN alone. Ask the Japanese how well it worked for them.