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Saturday, August 31, 2002

This Modern Life

I wanted to ask Niles his opinion on this Independent story on Brasenose College (cited below).

He was working on his computer on the other side of the room, perhaps ten feet behind me, so I emailed him the URL. But in order to do that, I had to log on to my computer account in Australia, and of course he retrieved it from his computer account, which is at his workplace downtown, 20 miles away.

I could have just written the URL on a paper wad and thrown it at him, but it was more convenient for it to make a 17,000 mile round trip.

Survival of the Fittest(-In)

First we must have a little background.

Anastasi Fedotova, a profoundly deaf Russian immigrant, applied to and was rejected by the comically-named Brasenose College of Oxford University. This despite having 6 As in her A-levels (the final tests English students take when they complete high school).

This has produced a little flutter in some corners of the Blogosphere. Iain Murray grumps at an indignant Independent editorial (is there another kind?), which I didn't think was that bad except for its insinuation that Fedotova would be a prize for any university primarily because of her disability and immigrant status (and possibly gender), and not because of her brains.

Natalie Solent notes this article with approval, which is entitled "A grades don't work at Oxford. It's whether the dons like you".

Natalie says, "Carr makes a good point that Oxbridge selection, like all personnel selection, is often and justly more concerned with how the selector will get along with the selectee than with actual cleverness."

Yes, well.

I was explaining this point to a young man in Australia a couple months ago. He was upset (I don't know the proximate cause) at some preferences given to, say, women. His argument was that jobs/fellowships/etc should only go to "the best". Now, this young man is very bright, and has a very high opinion of himself. He thinks he is "the best", and so naturally he feels threatened by any sorts of considerations that undermine a strict meritocracy.

I had to break it to him that there is no such thing as "the best".

I routinely apply for jobs for which the job description is thoroughly satisfied by maybe ten people. On the planet. And once you get to that point, there is very very little daylight between "the best" and "the rest". If you find an applicant who is head and shoulders above even the best of the others, then you know that person isn't going to take the job; he's going to take a better one.

(Unless of course there are no better ones out there, in which case you've turned him down knowing that he'd be "unhappy" working with you, when in reality he finds unemployment a lot less happy.)

So when you have a hatful of what seem like equally good candidates, you can only decide between them by unquantifiable methods---which one will fit best into your group. This is no different than a lucky applicant with multiple offers taking a job in an area he likes rather than one he does not, if everything else is equal.

Maybe one applicant seemed really friendly---and you're turned off by perkiness. Or one seemed really self-confident---and reminded you of a used car salesman. Sometimes it happens that one candidate who isn't quite as well-qualified, technically can have strengths in other areas that lead you to choose him.

So far, it sounds like I'm agreeing with Simon Carr and Natalie---you can't just add up the A grades, throw in some extra consideration "for past wrongs", and come up with a definite winner. Making the choice can be very difficult.

But really I'm not agreeing with them. I'm wondering if they've forgotten the days when "not fitting in" was a given for members of some groups. Blacks, women, etc wouldn't "fit in", except in their own little academic ghettos. The US armed forces were integrated over the objections of people who argued that white men---southerners in particular---simply could not take orders from a black superior. Actually, any number of groups---blacks, gays, Jews, women---have been obstructed from joining organizations like the military, police, and firefighters. The argument here has been that the need for unit cohesion, for trust in your comrades, is so high that the presence of a member of these groups would destroy it. The objectors ask, "Who would trust a ____ to back him up?" My question has always been, "Where does the need for homogeneity end?" Does every firefighter in a given station have to be a red-headed Irish Catholic man? Would the introduction of Protestants or Poles or blonds disrupt the group? Could the members not learn to adjust, or are we supposed to accept their prejudices as immutable?

I've always been a little surprised at those who believe that group preferences are given to "right past wrongs" (it ain't gonna---they're past, and unrightable). I believe they exist to provide a disincentive to employers who would use the "fitting in" excuse. (Minority scholarships are a slightly different idea; I've written three long versions in reply to Den Beste's post the other day, and not liked any of them well enough to post it.)

In the comments section of Iain Murray's blog, his wife Kris writes:

It's [ethnic or gender preference] a sure fire way to destroy a country's competitiveness (although they [proponents of preference] probably think competitiveness is a dirty word).

But as Steven Den Beste noted the other day:

What many businesses are finding is that not only are those kinds of hiring policies [i.e., discriminatory ones] unfair, incorrect, (and illegal!) but they're also unwise. Good people shouldn't be wasted; there are never enough of them...The greatest ally that the Civil Rights movement has had is human greed. That's even more powerful than clannishness or hatred. Inclusive social policies have turned out to be more profitable.

Right, but many organizations had to be dragged to this realization, kicking and screaming all the way, by pesky government regs. They just didn't wake up one day with this vision of greater profits through inclusiveness.

I've always taken it for granted that one day there'd be no need for affirmative action programs, because essentially no one would think of turning down a qualified candidate on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. I don't think that day has come yet, but at least it's something to argue about. People who argue that those policies have never been needed are fooling themselves.

But back to Brasenose College...I have more personal interest in this situation because, many years ago, my boyfriend Niles was rejected from Brasenose College. He took five A levels and got four As and a B. He was turned down despite being male and fish-belly-white. In an incident a couple years ago which is similar to the Fedotova one, the BBC reported: [Oxford head] Dr Lucas rejected suggestions that the admissions process favoured confident, smooth-talking public school pupils.. But that's exactly why Niles thinks he was rejected---not confident and smooth-talking and public school enough. ("Public" school, in Britain, actually means a private school, like Eton or Rugby.)

Poor baby had to go to Bristol, where he did so well he was awarded an inflated ego.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

There's nothing worse than ruining a satisfying screed with extraneous text after the end, so I'm not adding this to the end of the previous post.

In case anyone's interested, here are the books assigned for the UNC Summer Reading Program for 2001, 2000, and 1999.

1999: There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz.

"Kotlowitz tracks two young boys...and what it is like in parts of contemporary urban America by focusing on life in a tough public-housing project on Chicago's west side over a two-year period. We get to see how real, good people, in a terrible environment, are affected by social problems and social policies at ground level."

(Was on the Oprah list, according to its Amazon entry.)

2000: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.

"Tony Horwitz raises issues important for all of us who will call the South home for the next several years. The book...provokes readers to consider the centrality of the Civil War for Southern culture and identity, the importance of race in shaping our worldviews, and the enduring significance of regional differences."

(I had an opportunity to buy this book cheap in Australia, and didn't, and have regretted it ever since. I was fascinated by the cover, but more by why the small Randwick bookstore had so many copies of a book about the American Civil War.)

2001: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. This is a book about a Laotian girl with epilepsy, and her parents' and doctors' struggle to treat her. Basically, it's about the conflict of Western medicine with the beliefs of other cultures. From the UNC website:

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores urgent yet painful questions of medical ethics and cultural difference...

Is there such a thing as "too much" cultural difference? How can science coexist respectfully with competing conceptions of the universe? What should be the role of law in defining the best interests of children when parents and doctors disagree?

Be sure to read the Amazon reviews for this one, especially the one from a Hmong-American who says, "...westerners are very rigid about their beliefs and have a sense of superiority in regards to other cultures..."

So, OK. If I were a fire-breathing right-winger I would describe these books as 1999: America bad, 2000: America racist, 2001: America insensitive, 2002: American gets what's coming to it for being bad, crazy, and insensitive.

All right, that last is rather over the top. But why these books each in particular, and why these books as a set? Each book is, in its own way, about cultural differences in America. Does UNC have some sort of fetish on this topic? Why not one of Paul Davies's impenetrable books on the interface between science and religion (I will accept "they're not very good" as an answer), or, No Way: The Nature of the Impossible? Hell, if you want cultural differences why not The Education of Henry Adams? or C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image---books about cultural differences in time, rather than geography. (I recommend the Lewis book; Henry Adams tends to ramble.)

Maybe Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things would be appropriate.

If I thought anyone was reading this blog, I'd ask for examples of thought-provoking books that are either not directly about cultural differences, or ones that show American culture in a positive light. I should be able to think of more myself, but most of my books are packed away.

Thomas Friedman's Saudi America

Good old Thomas Friedman, always ready to be a complete ass. Here he cautions us against copying Bin Laden by restricting religious freedom. He paints the uproar about the University of North Carolina's assignment of Approaching the Qur'an as being due to "conservative Christians" and "book-burn[ers]" (no mention of bibliophilic atheist bloggers).

He notes that other religions are forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and accuses the US of trying to mimic that.

The problem with the world today is not that American students are being asked to read the Quran, it is that students in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim lands are still not being asked to read the sacred texts of other civilizations

Let's see, in the US, individuals are questioning the wisdom of a state agency (UNC) requiring the study of religion, in particular a religion in whose name thousands of Americans were slaughtered last year. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the state prevents you from exercising another religion, on pain of death.

Yup, seems equivalent to me!

I understand that some people feel it's not right that terrorists kill 3,000 Americans -- in the name of Islam -- and then we go out and make the Quran a best seller to try to figure out who they are. But that doesn't bother me as an American. It would bother me, though, if I were Muslim. It would bother me that people have been awakened to my faith by an outrageously destructive act perpetrated in its name -- rather than by some compelling attractiveness...

I hardly know where to begin here. "It would bother me that people have been awakened to my faith by an outrageously destructive act perpetrated in its name...." No doubt it would bother Friedman. But it doesn't bother the people who perpetrated the act. It doesn't bother Bin Laden. It doesn't bother millions of Muslims. I'm assuming---I'm hoping---that many (that most) Muslims feel exactly as Friedman does. It's hard to tell though, because the American Muslims you see in the media are too busy being outraged that non-Muslims see them as terrorists, and many of the foreign ones are too busy baying for more blood.

But one of the---shall we call them---"problematic" aspects of Islam is that it doesn't matter how you come to the faith---through rational reflection, or a spiritual calling, or at the point of a sword. Muslims are explicitly exhorted to convert people by force, if they cannot win them by other means. And while there are some troubling sections of the Bible which most modern Christians tend to politely ignore, great swaths of the Muslim world still believe literally in the call to jihad.

Back to Friedman:

The freedom of thought and the cultural and political perspectives we offer in our public schools are what nurture a critical mind. And it is a critical mind that is the root of innovation, scientific inquiry and entrepreneurship.

You could try a little critical thinking yourself here, Tom.

Right after 9/11, the majority of books on's top 100 best-seller list were about the Middle East and Islam. But there has been no parallel upsurge in interest in American studies, no new intellectual ferment in the blinkered, monochromatic universities and madrasas of the Arab and Muslim worlds...

I suspect not. But what is really conspicuous by its absence is an upsurge in American studies in American universities. Instead we get more attempts to "understand them" like the one I noted yesterday.

Friedman then tries to make a link between the Borgias, cuckoo clocks, and the Arab world which really doesn't work (must not be a Swiss clock). By his reasoning, the constant turmoil and ferment in the Arab world should be producing some great art, and the US should be turning out cuckoo (whippoorwill?) clocks.

Friedman adds, before winding up:

I would bet that Islam is taught in virtually every state university in America -- and was before 9/11. I first studied Islam and Arabic at the University of Minnesota in 1971.

I wonder if he really is this blinkered. I'm sure Islam is taught in most American public (and private) universities. I hope it continues to be taught, as part of a course in comparative religions, or as philosophy, literature, whatever. But it shouldn't be compulsory, and neither should any other religion.

But what really gets my goat about the North Carolina business is not that they are asking students to study Islam, or even requiring students to read Approaching the Qu'ran. It's the timing that makes me angry, and the implications of that timing. UNC is engaging in a preening, posturing, posing little act of New Age self-righteousness. By assigning this book they are in effect saying, "See how enlightened and holy we are. People espousing this faith have attacked our country in its name, and our response is not to lash out but to reach out, to try to understand them and why they felt the need to attack us. We are better than the unwashed mass of our countrymen. We have haloes. Our feet do not touch the ground."

If this were not the case, if instead the idea were the laudable one of examining the historical antecedents of Bin Laden and his cause, why not assign David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace or Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? or any number of other books?

It's this tang of smug self-satisfaction which turns the UNC assignment from a genuine search for enlightenment into an exercise in cultural self-flagellation.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

UNC, Eat Your Heart Out

Well isn't this special. This past semester the University of Oregon offered a class in International Studies, entitled In the Wake of September 11th: Issues and Concerns.

Let's take a look at the course outline, shall we?

Week I: Introductory Class

Week II: A Primer on States, Politics and Economics of the Middle East

Week III: Islamic Attitudes toward Reform and Secularism: A Historical Perspective

Week IV: Globalization and Islamic Societies' Grievances with the Western Order Today

(The truth begins to rear its ugly noggin.)

Week V: Afghanistan, the Taliban and International Assistance, and Domestic Challenges in Pakistan & Links to Afghanistan and the Wider Muslim World

Week VI: Other States in the Mix: Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Yemen, and others

Week VII: International Law and Self-defense: Analyzing the Use of force in Afghanistan and other US options

Week VIII: The Media's Coverage of September 11th and Subsequent Events

Week IX: Effects of September 11th Events on US Foreign Policy

Week X: Effects of September 11th Events on Internal US issues

There are readings from the following authors: Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Ron Paul, Bill Moyers, and---to be fair---Bernard Lewis and David Fromkin, and a whole bunch of people I've never heard of.

(The media section is particularly interesting, since here the instructor---presumably---has provided gloss for some of the listed titles. "This is a rich source of information on media concentration and its implications for democracy." "This article briefly reviews the clash between the rise of world fundamentalisms and economic globalization, discussing how both trends undermine the possibilities for deepening world democracy.")

Conspicuous by its absence---or, at least, its proportionate absence---is the American view of things. That is, the view as the US government (if you can imagine such an continuous entity in a country where the administration changes every eight years at most) might see it. How did we get from there (the past) to here (September 11)? Most of the authors listed have their ideological axes to grind. If you believe that the US government has set out to deliberately consolidate its economic hegemony, or that it is run by oil companies for oil companies, or that it is simply a force for evil in the world, then you will find intellectual fellowship somewhere here.

But if you have a less hysterical, more balanced view---if you believe that at the very least no one of these things can be the entire explanation---then you would seem to have very little support in the readings for this class. You may take a tour of opposing and oppositional viewpoints, but I doubt you'll arrive at enlightenment.

In plain English---the instructor has weighted the class heavily in favor of September 11th being the result of harmful American foreign policy, and is choosing to cast American media and society as a whole in an unfavorable light.

(Here are a few things about the course instructor, Anita Weiss, who was in Pakistan on September 11. Here are her views on military action in Afghanistan (scroll down some). Before you click, guess what they are.

She was also present at this "Teach-In" (ugh---the Sixties are OVER, OVER do you hear!) at U. of Oregon. Googling for this course leads to a lot of similar courses or seminars at other colleges, but I didn't see any media attention.)

Perhaps the instructor expects that any American already has a naive (i.e. pro-American) view of the history of US-Arab/Islamic relations. Or perhaps she expects that a student of International Studies will already have covered that material in another class. Or possibly, this being International Studies, an American viewpoint is considered unnecessary, even disadvantageous.

If you look at the list of courses in the department, you see a heavy emphasis on the problems of "development", and a somewhat lesser emphasis on various aspects of cultural sensitivity.

While I have to resist the temptation to get carried away here, it looks as if students in this field are trained to be sensitive to others' expectations, without any thought of reciprocal effort on their part.

In other words, I don't see any courses on distorted images of the US in foreign political literature (whereas there is a class on distorted images of Southeast Asia in---presumably Western---political novels and films).

This must be where State Department employees come from.

Direct from His Tour of Hell...

It's Osama bin Laden!

Or so says Abdel-Bari Atwan, aka (for you Googlers out there) Abd Al-Bari Atwan, editor of a London-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi. Now this is fascinating, because Atwan was (is) a regular on the BBC's "Dateline: London" program. This is a show where your genial host and four diverse journalists sit in a strange immense "newsroom" and agree that the United States is responsible for every evil the world has ever seen, beginning with the partitioning of Gondwanaland.

(OK, not really. Sometimes they blame Israel too.)

An appearance on this show requires a high TPI---Total Pratt Index, which means that one must have a certain immunity to logic and a great deal of natural indignation and self-righteousness, plus a loud voice. I once saw an episode where about ten minutes was spent discussing the affronting arrogance of Americans---not just the Bush administration, but all Americans. Of course, each of the journalists (except the sacrificial American) displayed a ham-handed arrogance no American journalist could possibly hope to get away with, at home or abroad.

Anyhow, in this mix, Atwan stood out as one of the more reasonable people. Possibly it behooves a fellow to be more rational than a Guardianista on the BBC when in other venues you are comparing Bush to Hitler, defending Bin Laden on Al Jazeera talk shows (third item from the bottom), and calling Americans Masters of Destruction.

Or maybe it's just that terrorist mouthpieces are less rabid than Guardianistas. (Oops, that last link was a Guardian link.)

Also, according to MEMRI, Al-Quds Al-Arabi is "known to be affiliated with Iraq".

And this isn't the first time Atwan has allegedly been in contact with Bin Laden.

You'd think this character wouldn't be able to take a leak without wetting a CIA/MI5/Mossad agent by now.

Sure Sticks in Your Crawford

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Mrs. Bandar and the little Bandars are visiting with his Princeness and the Prez. One can't help wanting to be a fly on the wall there. Does Mrs. Bandar wear her burqa? Is Laura forced to cover her shameful whore-hair? Do the little Bandars wear their Baby Suicide Bomber outfits to dinner?

Ha ha. I make stupid bigoted jokes. I'm sure Mrs. Bandar's a neurosurgeon/fighter pilot, and the little Bandars thoroughly Westernized and meek as lambs until they get back to Saudi Arabia. After all, the Prince is a cosmopolitan man; according to Ari Fleischer (in the linked article), he "speaks English better than most Americans." Ya mean, like your boss, Ari? And his papa?

Anyway, the point is that it strikes me as odd that the happy Bandar family are all out at the ranch. Maybe they're going to defect. Maybe they're the first of the rats to leave the sinking ship. Remember, you heard it hear first!

Saturday, August 24, 2002

The Awful Human Costs of Globalization

Here's the "Hecker" column from the July 11 Sydney Morning Herald. The "Heckler" is a regular feature written by various people, and that day they turned over some of Australia's prime punditry real estate to a 17-year-old girl high school girl named Cayla Dengate.

It's about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and contains some fairly predictable crap about bull-running being the preserve of macho airheads, and how the lack of modern opportunities to stalk and kill mammoths leads men to exhaust their testosterone in foolish and pointless activities, which only highlights the sickness of contemporary etc etc etc. Actually, it's not quite as humorless as all that, but it is that unoriginal.

Possibly also unoriginal, but interesting, are these lines:

In our globalised world there is no longer a struggle for survival, food, or water.

...we are desperately trying to re-create a life that isn't governed by multinational corporations or the stock market.

And later, after mewling that we are too addicted to our creature comforts, etc:

So is our globalised world increasing the quality of life or hindering it?

While the whole article is just an exercise in Profundity 101 (Week 3: Write a hand-wringing essay about the direction Our Modern Society is heading.), the particular bogeyman she employs is telling. It's globalization that's draining the Precious Bodily Fluids of our young people, sapping their manly vigor by denying them opportunities to starve to death. Seems to me that would make globalization a good thing, and that a whole lot of countries where people still do starve to death would benefit from a good dose of globalization. They might even be willing to trade places with young Cayla and her friends, and risk the horrors of boredom and stupidity for the chance to eat three squares a day.

Unfortunately, she doesn't quite make this connection. But globalization as such doesn't really come into it, it's just the Evil du Jour. At some time in the past she might have inserted "alienation", or "materialism" (same gripe, different year), or (popular for a long time) "the threat of nuclear annihilation". "The constant threat of nuclear annihilation teaches our young people that they do not have a future, that they may as well go out and live now, because they will be dead tomorrow. Therefore they waste their lives on pointless activities such as drag racing, rock and roll, and sex."---That's the sort of thing you heard a lot of in the '50s.

Enjoy some other choice cuts from this brisket:

"...we are all victims of the TV dinner culture"

Remember, class, we are all victims. These things have been forced upon us, and we have no option to reject them. Our will is helpless in the face of the dread TV dinners! O Swanson! O Birdseye!

(Australian TV dinners suck, by the way. They taste OK, but Aussies are still safe from the awful burden of variety that plagues the American frozen food consumer. The Hot Pockets in the freezer oppress me.)

"Every year the running of the bulls will take place, and every year there will be countless people desperate to parade heroically in front of some poor bull who has become a victim...

More victims, class! There can never be too many victims!

She also offers this little nugget of information:

"...girls I know are 'getting back to their roots' through tacky farm experience bed and breakfasts, where you actually pay to shovel manure."

As opposed to getting paid to shovel it at the Sydney Morning Herald. Poor dumb dopes.

Thursday, August 22, 2002


Meryl Yourish links to a good response to Canadian wanker W.R. McDougall, who wrote a foaming anti-American screed the other day. Meryl marvels that the response came from Metafilter. I don't have much to say about the Canada-screed, or about the response Meryl mentions, but I was very much amused by some of the indignant children on Metafilter. In particular, there was one calling itself Hilfy who managed to distill every quasi-religious eco-doomsayer who ever lived. Even the other posters noted this, telling her (I'll assume it's a her; it sounds like a woman) that she sounds like she hates herself and every one else in the world. I shall paraphrase Hilfy's comments:

"How can you eat a Big Mac knowing that it contains hormone-soaked beef and genetically-modified wheat and pesticide-flooded lettuce and salt and sugar and fat and DHMO and that McDonald's purposely makes their food taste good so that you'll want more of it and they don't give a shit about you and they keep giving you more and more for less and less money just to hook you in just like drug dealers and you think it's cheap but it's not when you're 92 you'll feel everyone of those Big Macs on your body and your soul...

In fact how can you eat at all knowing that every morsel you take is snatched from the bleeding lips of the starving poor and yet you grow fat off it cause it tastes good food ought not to taste good it ought to taste horrible so that you gag and choke on it and hate every crumb you put in your mouth and when the hunger pangs come you can feel happy because this is how humans are meant to feel this is how 99% of the worlds humans feel all the time every day and you can laugh at the pain and sickness and feel glad that you are fulfilling your natural human purpose but not too glad because thats unnatural...

And how can you breathe knowing that every breath is ripped from the lungs of the poor unfortunates in Afghanistan who lie bleeding in the dirt because of the filthy actions of our criminally stupid government which took the peaceful green land of Afghanistan which had never known war before and turned it into a slaughterhouse that hitler could only fantasize about all because Bush and his cronies want the vast oceans of oil that lie under afghanistan and all the oil in the world besides...

I know how you eat and sleep and breathe its because you are all sheep you know nothing about these things you care nothing about the poor people whose lives our evil government has been torturing for centuries just so you can have your big macs and playstations and hula hoops and fax machines---you should be more like me i'm aware i know whats going on i've read things and seen things and i know all about what's going on behind the surface and how everything you think is wrong but we can't say that we're not allowed to say that because dissent is squashed in the country the constitution is a joke and there is no freedom of speech and i've been saying that for twenty years telling people over and over again but no one will believe me...

At least i'm doing something---i'm not going to some poor starved land foisting our western notions of agriculture and medicine and food and democracy upon them---but i'll sit at this computer and harangue you all until you admit that i'm right and holier and purer than you are because i care so much so very very much about all the poor poor people and that makes me better than you cause you're a bunch of pathetic snivelling sheep who grind the unfortunates of the world underneath your iron boots and WHY AREN'T YOU LISTENING TO ME YOU AWFUL HATEFUL MONSTERS I'M RIGHT AND YOU'RE WRONG AND DEATH HATE DEATH DESTRUCTION BLOOD DEATH PAIN DEATH AND DEATH!!!"

Come to think of it, that's exactly what McDougall wrote.

Blogger News Network

Ian over at Fierce Highway dreams about a cable news network filled with bloggers. Okay.

Pretty soon, you realize, we'll have webcasting capabilities that are sophisticated enough so that anyone could run a private TV show---or even an entire network---from the comfort of his home or office. I don't think this is what Ian means.

He suggests Stephen "Vodka Pundit" Green as anchor. He certainly has the hair for it.

Ian knows there needs to be a place for Lileks, but isn't sure what it is. Dammit---arts commentator! Instead of tiny elderly nuns with speech impediments revelling in the sexual imagery of Renaissance paintings (this always made me want to climb under the couch), Lileks could examine the influence of Moderne on locomotives or 1950s auto design, and trace the history of Art Deco in diners. With Lileks doing it, you know it wouldn't be boring.

In fact, Lileks might well be the first arts commentator who wasn't boring.

And this would be art you see in everyday stuff, art people could relate to, because you never knew it was art. Heck, maybe this is the way to teach art appreciation, by first appreciating artistry in everyday items. Then you could work backwards to classical antecedents, rather than imposing ancient works---some hideous to modern eyes---as masterpieces-by-fiat.

Of course, this idea dangerously approaches "relevance", the Official Education Fad of the 1960s, so it's probably a bad one.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Folk Tales

Bruce Hill---who is slightly younger than I---tells of the thrilling days of yesteryear: "...when I was a student politician - the main power blocs at the time were the Trotskyites and the Maoists...".

Just thinking about that gives me the giggles. I cannot imagine Trotskyites and Maoists being taken seriously, let alone as main power blocs.

I not only grew up in the capital of capitalism, I grew up in its insulated heartland, and I went to college there too. We were far from any coast on which nasty and absurd ideas about communism might make landfall. Our battle cry was not "Free Mumia!" but "Free Beer!" The two main power blocs at my university were the St. Pat's Board Reps and the Inter-Fraternity Council. The St. Pat's board thought the IFC was a bunch of pussies and the IFC thought the Board was a bunch of drunks, and unless you were in either group you didn't give a shit what they thought. UMR is an engineering college, and most of our time was spent sweating over books. The rest of it was spent drunk (being that there wasn't a lot else to do there).

I remember one genuine political protest while I was there, over the taking of American hostages in Iran. The students thought this was a bad idea, and gathered to say so. Let me be clear: the students wanted to tell Iran that they disapproved of Iran taking American hostages. It was my opinion that Iran would not be moved at the protests of American students, and so any demonstrations would be foolish posturing. Nobody asked my opinion, though, and I didn't bother to give it.

(It occurs to me now, though, that we probably had more Iranians just on our campus than the hostage-takers had Americans. We could've staged a counter-strike! Ah, but I was young and idealistic then...)

So Bruce seems like a grim survivor from a land we thought existed only in fairy tales, come to tell us of the epic wars between the Elves and Dwarves. Come, Unca Bruce, and tell again the tale of the time the vampire kiwis fought a bloody battle with the were-hedgehogs for control of the soapbox at the south end of the East Car Park...

Monday, August 19, 2002

Now It Can Be Told

This one's for Bruce Hill, because he says he owes me.

Right here on this very blog, I am going to reveal the secret behind the US's continuing support of Israel, in spite of the trouble it has caused with the oily rulers of oily kingdoms and their grubby off-shore fanatic lapdogs.

(Pant! Pant! Foaming at the mouth is hard!)

Drooling white supremacists and supercilious Euro-leftists assert that it's because of the obscene amounts of gold that the Vast Jewish Conspiracy pumps into the coffers of our elected officials.

Other Europeans warn darkly of the crazed snake-handling, tongues-babbling, American fundamentalist Christians, who take literally Biblical claims that the Jews are the Chosen People of God.

More moderate thinkers assert that the US's support is due to cultural sympathy between Israel and the US, like the fact that it is the only real democracy in a sea of warlords, kleptocrats, and supreme-ruler-for-lifes.

But none of these is the true reason. I have the true reason.

It's the bagels.

Yes! Bagels! Bagels make all the difference! America breakfasts on bagels, and love and respect for the chewy breads forms our attitudes toward Israel.

Rumsfeld practically lives on bagels. Condi Rice strengthens those big beaver teeth of hers by gnawing on bagels. That "pretzel" that Bush choked on a while back? A bagel. Now Laura won't allow 'em in the house. Dick Cheney sneaks them to him via sympathetic Secret Service agents. When Laura is too vigilant, they can't get through and that's when Wobbly Watch begins.

It hardly need be said that there is not a single bagel within Saudi Arabia. Arafat, in his youth, was dumped by a bagel-baker's daughter. He swore off bagels forever, and that has fueled his evil. It's true! He doesn't care about the girl, but the loss of the bagels has driven him mad! (That and the desire to be the beloved leader who brings his people victory through war.)

And the Europeans? Feh. Vedrine and Chirac are of course croissant men, no hope for them, ever. Chris Patten fell into strange and foreign ways during his tenure as governor of Hong Kong, and now eats bangers and eggs with a side of rice. I believe someone in the British military slips Tony Blair a bagel now and again, probably at lunch when Cherie's not looking.

This is where Bruce Hill comes in. He says he owes me a favor. Well, I no longer need this favor, but he can help out his adopted countrymen. Bring Bagels to Australia! Particularly to Sydney. When I was there I had the damnedest time finding bagels. Tortillas, no problem, but decent bagels were nowhere to be found.

Oh, they had objects sold as bagels---bits of Wonder Bread wadded into toroids and covered in what tasted like dampened kraft paper. Once Niles and I saw an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (that's before I knew enough to be suspicious of the rag) praising "authentic" bagel shops and identifying one in nearby Bondi Junction. So we went over there and found they were authentically baked twice weekly, and came in authentic stale plain, stale poppy, or stale sesame.

(This led to the ill-fated Randwick Experiment, in which Shiksa Schultz attempted to roll her own, so to speak. This resulted in hideous mutated bagels about eight inches across and half an inch high. It is thought that all the evidence from this nightmarish blasphemy was covertly disposed of---and surprisingly tasty it was, too, despite the deformed shape.)

Back to Bruce---he can advance the cause of right-thinking in Australia if he will only encourage the selling of decent bagels there. So come on, Bruce! Bagels for Bondi! Buy a bagel today! Get out the word! Better living through bagels!

Remember, the power of the Blogosphere is nothing compared to the power of the Bagelsphere!

Blogger Weirdness

Blogger? Weird? No!

You won't find me complaining (much) about Blogger/Blogspot, 'cause it's more or less free.

But at the end of my previous post I noted that there was some kind of archive bug. When going to most Blogspot sites, I would be redirected to an archive page that didn't exist. That just started happening this weekend, and I assumed it was some sort of bug that would right itself in the fullness of time. I have available to me Konquerer 3.0 and Netscape 4.75 on my machine, and Netscape 6.2, and IE (newish version) on Niles's computers. The problem only occurs with N4.75, which is of course what I always use, because I've never understood the concept of updating software that works just fine and replacing it with software that doesn't work quite the same and yet takes up more resources and is more annoying.

Therefore my computer also runs Windows 95 with Netscape 3.04. I should never have switched from Mosaic.

Anyhow, just in case there are more of you clinging to Netscape 4, the archive bug/feature/whatever can be defeated by turning off JavaScript. Remind me to tell you all someday about how JavaScript is Satan's Own Software. It sits at the right hand of IDL.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Those Horrid Americans

[Note: 3/27/03---Yes, after months and months, I have noticed that the man's name is Tim Robbins, not Tom Robbins. There is also a Tom Robbins, a writer. These sorts of things ought to be illegal. Anyway, Tim's the blithering fool. Tom's viewpoints are mercifully still unknown to me.]

Friends, I will freely confess to you that there are times when an American says something---sometimes at home, but usually abroad---which makes me writhe in embarrassment. Now your foreign types will probably think that this only applies to big-bellied Texans in huge Texan hats bellowing at French waiters in what passes in Texas for English, demanding to know why there is no chili on the menu, and by God my Daddy did not liberate you unwashed heathen from the godless Nazis in Dubya Dubya Two so that his boy could travel to your stinking city and not get a damned decent bowl of chili.

In my (admittedly limited) travels, I have never come across an American of this legendary stripe. But I sometimes wish I had. It would at least be refreshing.

No, what is causing my cultural cringe today is this gem of wisdom from noted intellectual Susan Sarandon:

The actress said one of the positive results of the September 11 attacks was that it gave America something in common with other countries who have fallen prey to terrorism.

"Afterwards, I said to my kids: 'We've joined the rest of the world now'," she said.

"You're so lucky in Ireland, England and Spain. Everyone there already knows what it's like to have inexplicable terrorist violence."

Let's have that zinger again: "You're so lucky in Ireland, England and Spain. Everyone there already knows what it's like to have inexplicable terrorist violence."

No comment seems adequate here. Surely compassionate Susan couldn't possibly have meant that terrorist-caused death and injury was a good thing? Possibly what she meant was that Americans have generally seen terrorism as a distant evil (oops, maybe not "evil"), and that September 11 has given them a new perspective. But surely, surely she didn't mean to imply that it was better for Americans to experience terrorism than for the Irish, English, and Spanish to be free of it?

The ineffable fool was quoted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she and hubby Tom Robbins are putting on a play called "The Guys". Tom plays an ordinary working stiff fireman, grieving for his buddies lost in the disaster. The Festival's website has bits of a press conference with the two foremost thinkers of our age. Highlights:


Q: Do you feel a responsibility as actors to help people come to terms with events of September 11?

Robbins: In LA we had people coming up saying thank you [for the play---A.S.] because right after [the event] people shut it off. We moved into an artificial way, people started to sell products off the event, to sell cars, trucks and weapon systems off the event.


Q: Do you think the entertainment industry is cashing in on the events?

Robbins: What about all the other industries? Lay off the entertainment industry. They're trying to reflect, to make some sense of the madness. It's a natural thing to do.

Sarandon: It's up to the public not to go [to a show] if they think it's exploitative. It's a part of human nature to be exploitative.


Q: Do you think it's too soon for dramatic interpretation of the events?

Robbins: I agree. It's too early to gain enough perspective before a metaphorical piece [can be developed].


Q: You have a reputation as being a politically active couple? What are American's views on the War on Terror and the events following September 11?

Sarandon: I think we're still trying to define who the enemy is. The Government is separate from the people. A lot of questions are being asked and they [the Government] need more information. I don't know that they have a lot of global perspective. You can't typify the American people. It's changing day by day.


In The Guys you are A-list Hollywood actors playing working class heroes. Is that part of its appeal?

Robbins: It's why we live in NY. We're trying to get away from the Cult of Celebrity. It's a more honest place to live.

Sarandon: First thing I said to my kids was "we've joined the rest of the world now". [Britons] are accustomed to terrorism.

Now obviously I've selected the ones which caught my eye. The conference contains a lot more stuff, most of it not extraordinarily foolish for an interview with major actors. But I don't think I have manufactured the oblivious hypocrisy of these people: It's wrong to exploit such a tragedy, except when it isn't. Except when it's us, because we're trying to place things in a bit of perspective. Of course it's too soon for perspective...

Note that they cling to the fantasy---many bloggers would call it a leftist fantasy, but I won't, because I've seen right-wingers use it often enough---of separating the government from the people. Since the government isn't following our wishes, it can't be following the wishes of The People.

Oh, and New York being a "more honest" place to live. Whatever "honest" means in this context, I'm sure that it describes much of New York. But living in New York will not turn tailored silk slacks into cheap blue jeans, you overpaid cretins. And I haven't a clue what question Sarandon thinks she's answering here. Does terrorism make you working class?

NOTE: I did some digging on this topic, and the only service to quote the "you're so lucky" remark was Ananova. Quite a few organizations had quotes from the press conference, including the Festival's official site, mentioned above. While the Ananova article quotes some of the reponses from the press conference, the "lucky" remark is unique to them. Where did they hear it?

Just when I am ready to mentally cast Sarandon and Robbins into the outermost pit of Hell, however, the Guardian comes to the rescue, by being even more obnoxious. Here the Guardian's Michael Billington sniffs that "The Guys" was "politically naive" because Sarandon's character (a journalist) does not lecture Robbins's character (a grieving fireman, remember) on the root causes of September 11. Well done, Guardian! Whenever I think we've hit bottom, you always show up with a shovel.

Ananova report via Tim Blair. Unfortunately, Blogspot is doing something peculiar today, by redirecting links to a non-existent archive page for some blogs. Hawkgirl and I aren't affected. It might have something to do with the way archives are handled. (Mine are handled stupidly, and I've been meaning to fix them.)

Of course, if you aren't reading this, you know I've been affected too.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Pillock Update

Iain Murray links to this Guardian article advising anti-war types on how to contain "American fundamentalism". It's by Dan Plesch.

Cast your eyes back to my post on the consistently-egregiously-wrong "pillocks" who served the BBC as commentators in the early days of the Afghan war. Dan Plesch is Pillock-in-Chief. He was on the Beeb nearly every single day, had nothing good to say about the American military, was wrong about 80% of the time, and yet was invited back again and again without being asked to explain why he was wrong the last time. At first I didn't note his name, and kept thinking, "Isn't that the little dark-haired guy who was so totally, irredeemably wrong two days ago?" Yep.

I was disturbed, when I first saw him, that he belonged to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. I know next to nothing about this organization, but it sounded like a genuine serious organization, and not some ad hoc loony think-tank. (Apparently it is genuine and serious, and Plesch's position on it makes Murray grumpy.) There were uncomfortable days when I wondered if a senior British defense analyst might not know something I didn't know about the capabilities of the US armed forces. Whew! Guess not.

His---obstructionism, I guess might be the word for it---on the BBC seems due to his own political agenda, and not driven by whatever actual facts he studies. This wasn't obvious in his BBC interviews, but it sure looks likely, given his clear stance in this Guardian article.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Grounding the Planes

Best of the Web links to these USAToday stories about the grounding of airline flights on September 11. The Washington Post ran a story sometime earlier this year, or late last, attributing that decision to Norm Mineta. The Washington Post ran a story sometime earlier this year, or late last, attributing that decision to Norm Mineta. I can't find it on the Post's site, but here it is in the Contra Costa Times. I later saw the decision credited to deputy FAA Administrator Monte Belger. But the USA Today story makes it sound as if it was the near-simultaneous decision of a bunch of people, beginning with air traffic control in New York. (And you might want to consider how that ties in with this Den Beste post; scroll down to the part about Thompson to get to the nut, then go back up and read the whole thing.)

Of course, once one person had made a decision, it was a lot easier for others to make the same one, thinking, "Well, they're closer and must know something I don't" or "Things must really be bad if they're doing that---I'd better do the same thing."

These articles raise questions (and answer a few) about what happened that day, when everything was happening so fast. For example, after Flight 93 had crashedthe media was still reporting a plane in the air, heading toward DC. Was this just that the implications of 93's crash hadn't filtered to the news desk, or was there another plane? This kept me up for a couple hours (into the early morning, Sydney time). Was it Delta 1989 (mentioned in the article) that fueled the reports?

I also vaguely remember reports of a hijacked aircraft over the Pacific, which was actually a wacky chain of errors that nearly led to a Korean airliner getting shot to shit over Alaska.

But there were other questions that the article didn't address. There were odd little incidents that supposedly took place that day, and then they were forgotten about in the general chaos and mourning that followed. Every once in a while I think of one of them, and wonder what happened. For example, one of the grounded planes landed in St. Louis, and two of its passengers took an Amtrak train from there, bound for San Antonio. Federal agents boarded the train and took off two men carrying hair dye, box cutters, and $5,000 in cash.

What happened to those guys? Turns out they were Indians, though they had Arabic names. One of them pleaded guilty to charges of credit card fraud. And why were they carrying box cutters? Well, it turns out (says that last link) that they had just been fired from their jobs at a newsstand. They needed box cutters in that job, and naturally when you are poor immigrants, you don't have the money to throw away necessary tools and so you take them with you when you fly cross-country. Enjoy the quote from the lawyer about how his client wasn't a terrorist, but was heading for a "new life" (of credit card fraud). Of course there are accusations of racial profiling.

UPDATE: Instapundit reader Gary Hudson says grounding the planes did more harm than good. He reasons that hijacked aircraft aren't going to obey orders to land, and so it doesn't do any good to land all the planes. Gary's hindsight is excellent; where was he with it on 9/11?

On 9/11 they didn't know how many planes had hijackers on them, including hijackers who had not yet made their moves. It's also possible, I suppose, that the terrorists didn't count on all planes being grounded, and had planned something for later in the day, maybe on the West Coast.

And any planes (and remember, we don't know how many there are) headed toward their targets anyway, on their regularly scheduled flight plan, will go off course with only minutes to impact---far too late to send an interceptor.

Furthermore, as the article makes clear, it was hard to distinguish (and I can't figure out how this is so) between Delta Flight 1989 and United Flight 93, right behind it. They thought they heard the hijackers talking on the radio on Flt 1989. It was only when the two had separated, because the Delta pilot obeyed an instruction, that they knew which one had been hijacked.

And finally, we just didn't know what the hell was going on. Everything was happening at once, and it sure seemed as if the sky might fall. The air traffic controllers couldn't know whether we were under threat of imminent military attack, or if the hijackings were it for the day.

Grounding the planes was a good decision (though I must admit it surprised me at the time). Now whether they needed to be grounded for three days afterward is another matter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002


My post directly below, which off-handedly noted that the Europeans could have built their own network, instead of using "ours", gave me a fit of nostalgia. And I'm going to inflict it on you all. So take my hand, as we stroll down Insufficient Memory Lane. Try not to step in the jargon. (It won't actually say much about European networks, alas.)

I got my first email account toward the end of the Second Age. That is, after the Great Renaming, and before the rise of the Dark Lords of AOL. In your tongue, late 1987. The Nets were many, and not yet One. There was BITNET, which I was on, and the Internet, another network entirely, which sprang fully-formed from the forehead of ARPANET. (I think there was a bit of a class structure here. Real Research Universities were on the Internet; lame-o universities had to make do with BITNET, I guess.) If I wanted to send email (a term which was probably carved in stone when I first heard it, but which I hated and resisted as long as I could) to someone at an Internet site, I had to send it through a gateway. The only one I remember was the one at CUNY. So, for example, I would send email addressed to

For years, we got little messages back every time mail was routed to another host. When you sent a message east, you would see it arrive (I'm making these routings up, but this was the general gist) at U. Illinois, then Ohio State, then Penn State, and so forth on to CUNY. Eventually we got on the Internet too, but there were still definite nodes. So if sent a message west, you could watch your mail hop from Illinois to Ohio MIT, say, and then it would magically hop all the way to California. Or sometimes it just went straight west to start with. Mail from our university to another in the same town sometimes had to go all the way to the east coast before coming back again. These little messages were annoying if your mail got delayed and they kept coming in hours after you'd sent it (as would happen if a host were down), but at least you'd see that your mail did get to the intended target, and you could start being irritated that he hadn't emailed you back yet.

But there were other networks besides those two. There was JANET, which was in the UK; EUNET and EARN in Europe; JUNET, which I believe was Japan, and there were several others, rather more specialized (like DECnet, which ran only on VAX computers, and had addresses like host::user, and required forms like "host::user"@gateway.domain to go across networks), and then there was UUCP. That stands for Unix to Unix Copy Protocol, and is (or was) a built-in function of Unix. (I just upgraded my Linux machine, and UUCP was still available. I was tempted to install it, just to see what I could do with it. But I didn't really have the time to fiddle.) UUCP addresses were backwards to everyone else's, so for example to send email from an internet site to a site using UUCP, you'd do something like this: primary!secondary!host!, where primary was a relay that sent the message to secondary that sent the message to host, where your user had an account. No, you wouldn't necessarily know what the names of the relays were, nor how many there would be. And, of course, if you wanted to send the email across three networks, you'd do something like primary!secondary!host! Something along those lines.

So sending an email message was not necessarily easy or reliable. I had guys in Ireland asking me (in Missouri) how to send messages to Hawaii.

For about three years our professional society published an addendum to the membership directory, which included not only email addresses but a long introductory section which explained how to send email across networks (similar to this guide). After that, the bottom fell right out of the "local email guru" market, and people stopped bringing offerings of cookies and live chickens. (Apparently O'Reilly used to have a whole book just on this subject.)

I am a complete packrat, but occasionally I get into "throw all the junk out" fits; I sure hope somewhere I have a copy of the addendum and aweful incantations that caused email to appear in our mailboxes.

More cures for insomnia:

The Jargon File.

A Brief History of the Internet.

The first email message. The first use of network mail...announced its own existence.

Ha ha! Check out this list of internet restrictions from 1990. Users are prohibited from using the AT&T Gateway to send messages between for-profit (e.g. Compuserve, Prodigy) networks, and the Internet. Also, no offers of goods or services for sale. Ah, the good old days.

What? 1984 Again??

Are we very sure this isn't some sort of troll? Other bloggers seem to think it's real. It's an essay by British tosser Bill Thompson, arguing for "local" computer networks, which could be locally (by which he means nationally) controlled (by which he means censored).

This guy picks almost all the meat off of it, but he only pecked at this bit:

Unfortunately today's Internet, with its permissive architecture and lack of effective boundaries or user authentication, makes it almost impossible to resist this technological imperialism.

Let me see if I have this straight: European Net users are being oppressed by the freedom of the net. More control means more liberty. Freedom is Slavery. Love is Hate. War is Peace.

He goes on to say, if I understand him correctly, that individual countries should be allowed to essentially wall themselves off, and---if they so desire---allow only "...trusted computers and secure networks to locate servers, hosts, networks and people within geographically-defined areas - or nation states as they are usually known...We can establish the rule of law, national sovereignty and local values in those parts of the network that fall within the jurisdiction of a particular country..."

Damn me if I know what's stopping them from doing this right now. Saudi Arabia tries to do it. But his concern here for national sovereignty and local customs does not jibe with his previous indignation over "...US companies like Yahoo! [which] disregard the judgements[sic] of foreign courts at will." And " US court would allow prosecution of a company in another jurisdiction when immunity is granted by US law."

In those and a few other passages his main complaint seems to be that the US thinks too much of its national sovereignity and its "local customs". It doesn't play nicely when other countries ask it to break its own laws. But, isn't that what he wants---a Net which respects the customs at its place of origin? That's what the US has; it's just that the rest of the world has adopted it as well. You could've developed your own protocol, you know.

So it seems to me that his main beef is that the US still respects its own quaint traditions, rather than play along nicely with the more enlightened Europeans. Surely it must have crossed his mind that restricted networks mean that the government can censor---not only Nigerian scams, viruses, and hate speech---but the opinions of Oxbridge dullards. Does he think this is OK? That it's unlikely? That Oxbridge dullards are going to be doing the censoring? Is this is whole objective, to build a Net where his kind rule?

For the answer, absorb this chilling bit of Eurowisdom: "An important factor in Europe's favour is that we retain a belief that governments are a good thing, that political control is both necessary and desirable, and that laws serve the people."

And he calls the US a place "...where any sensible discussion is crippled by the constitution..." "Crippled by the constitution". Pardon me while I writhe.

Thompson does seem to be trying to argue that it's far, far better for Europeans to wall themselves off in a Net all their own, where they won't have to come across anything not certified wholesome by the state. But more, he seems to be arguing that American hegemony of the Net is much worse than the resulting restriction of individual freedom. Just as the Palestinians supposedly would rather go hungry than accept American food, he wants the Europeans to imprison themselves rather than be poisoned by American-style freedom.

I wonder how many ordinary Europeans buy this daddy-knows-what's-best-for-baby crap. Or if it really matters to anyone.

UPDATE: Steven Den Beste takes on this guy in a long (but, as always, interesting) post touching on Thompson's essay, and contrasting its European mindset with the American one. He links this to the American talent for spontaneous organization. Wish we could see some of this organization in our government organizations.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

One Man's Varmint...

I promised something happy and fun, and was afraid I'd come up dry, but The Color of Thieves (huh?) comes to the rescue, with a picture of a prairie dog trying to keep cool on a Tokyo street. Naturally they want to know what a prairie dog is doing on a street in Tokyo. (Trying to keep cool, man, can't you read?) I wondered that myself. The Web is great. I can't think how we got along without it, when we probably never would have learned that prairie dogs are popular as pets in Japan.

This site is in Japanese, but you can see that it's part of a prairie dog web ring (the mind boggles). There are also apparently white prairie dogs (beware of sound---I don't have sound support enabled, thank god, so all I get is an annoying error message). Don't go to this site. No, no don't. Don't be tempted. I have warned you! The background will haunt your dreams. You will wake up screaming. Save yourselves!

UPDATE: Drat. The full horror of that last site does not appear if you are using Netscape 6.2. There's an animation that doesn't seem to run under that version.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

Butt-Ugly Fish

In the Bernard Lewis interview mentioned below, the interviewer, Michael Steinberger, states that Lewis orders mahi-mahi, "a kind of dolphin". No, it's a kind of dolphin fish, which does not look a bit like a dolphin to me, and boy, is it ugly.

I gather Steinberger has never been to Hawaii, where it's hard to escape mahi. Except for me; I do not eat creatures of the sea, because they all taste like crap. Something to do with badly wired taste buds, I expect (er, mine, not the fishes').

The blog has been too heavy with gloom and sourness, and needs to be lightened with goofy things. This will have to do for now.

Right Said Ed

This is an account of a lunch with Bernard Lewis, author of (among other things), What Went Wrong. I bought this book the other day but haven't cracked it.

It's just the interviewer and Lewis (except for the brief visit by Thomas Friedman), and they talk on the things you might want to talk to Lewis about. They talk about Edward Said. And then they talk about this...

In agreeing to an interview, Lewis...had warned me he would be reluctant to discuss the experience of being a Jewish scholar of Islam, and of being a Jew in a field traditionally dominated by ardent Arabists, because he was saving those reflections for a memoir.

This is interesting to me because of a dumb proto-argument I had with a colleague in Australia which made me think a lot less of him. I had watched part of the movie Kismet the night before. This is an MGM musical from the 50s, set in some mythical Arab kingdom. It has gorgeous colorful costumes and sets, comedy, and dancing girls. It also has a very sugary romantic take on slavery, corruption, misogyny, sex, and brutality. I won't condemn it for that, I just found it very interesting, and I'm sorry I didn't get to see the whole movie. I'm sure it also insults Islam up one side and down the other (unintentionally).

Anyhow, the next day at work I mentioned the movie to this one fellow---I forget why now---and said that I wondered if Edward Said had ever seen it. Surely it would make his head explode. (Said developed the theory of Orientalism, which, if I understand it properly, basically says that Westerners studying the Middle East have created some dream/nightmare Middle East, which they then react to, rather than the real Middle East. This seems to me to be a fairly likely thing to happen for the members of any culture studying the members of any other culture, so perhaps I have this wrong. I gather that Said considers the Western view of the Middle East---which includes not just fools like me but Western experts as well---to be somehow uniquely and dangerously wrong. In any case, I thought Kismet was a wonderful example of pop Orientalism.)

This led my colleague to tell me he could tell me anything I needed to know about Orientalism, because he had studied Said, etc etc etc. And for some reason I brought up the incident with Said throwing rocks and then lying about it. My colleague said that Said probably had to lie about it, because Middle Eastern studies were dominated by Jews, and if his colleagues found out he was so sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, not only would his career be ruined, but his personal safety would be at stake there on the campus of Columbia University, which is full of Jews.

I was aghast. For one thing, I thought it damned odd that any controversial scholar would want to keep his controversy quiet. I would have thought that orthodoxy, in these days, required challenging the orthodoxy. In any case, it's just a bit late for Said to keep his pro-Palestinian views quiet. And then there's a little point, as revealed in the Jeff Jacoby article cited above, that Said himself turned the photograph over to AFP. My colleague had no explanation for that one. But he did have an explanation for Said's lying about being a Palestinian refugee: Said was speaking for an entire people, he said, many of whom really were refugees. What did it matter if it was not actually Said who was one of them?

Remember, kiddies, a few lies do not matter if they are in the service of the Truth. And if the Truth is made up entirely of lies, then that's OK, because it's still the Truth, you see. This is the Truth an intellectual is bound to speak to power.

I was cold to my colleague---with whom I'd had disagreements, but only on professional matters---for days, though I'm not sure he noticed. I was having trouble digesting the nasty implication of the vast (violent) Jewish conspiracy menacing poor Said. And now, if Lewis's interviewer is correct, it isn't even true that most scholars of the region are Jewish (or if they are, they are pro-Arab Jews).

I look forward to Lewis's memoir.

Computer Upgrades Make Baby Ahmed Explode

You have just got to be wary of a guy who calls his blog "Seeking Truth". If I'd known about it, I may have called this one, "Avoiding Truth", or "Hiding from Truth", or "Slipping Out without Paying the Truth Bill". A title like that hints that the author is special, because he's actually seeking truth---no, make that T*R*U*T*H---unlike the rest of us, who are only seeking more efficient ways to lie, cheat, or steal.

If there is a prize for "Lamest Reason to Avoid War with Iraq", I think James Durbin has won it. As far as I can tell, he thinks people (like Hussein, I suppose) want to attack us because we're too rich.

Here's how he arrived at that conclusion: in 1999, Durbin was on his own for the first time in his life; he changed his lifestyle to a more "minimalist" one, and was vastly improved by it. Bully for him. But then he gets the bright idea that what's good for the Durbin goose is also good for the American gander...

"I believe personal parallels often illuminate certain truths about the world that can be applied to our actions on a regional and national basis."

Yeah, sometimes I believe that too, but I'm always sober by morning. Seriously, this is always extremely dangerous territory. Individuals are different enough that what works for one will not always work for another; it ought to be clear that you can't just tell a nation collectively to work on finding its inner child.

After a long and eclectic list of supposed ills and crimes that somehow connects postmodernism, prescription drugs and Teddy Roosevelt, he comes to the conclusion that terrorists attack us and suicide bombers blow up Jews:

"Because we are fat, lazy, prideful, and arrogant. We have three, four, even five televisions in our three bedroom homes. We bring home Blockbuster at night, despite paying $50 for cable..."

Blockbuster videos, Mr. Durbin, do not come from the Middle East. If I have extra fries this does not starve a child in Zimbabwe, say. The child in Zimbabwe is starving because the leaders of that country are greedy and obsessed with power.

"Maybe we take a step back and try to live more minimalist. Cut back on our spending. Cut back on our consumption." Ah, yes, consumption. I blame this on Christianity. Christian mythology is full of stories about rich men and camels and the eyes of needles, and this can provoke a sense of spiritual impurity in those who are materially comfortable. Christianity urges sacrifice (and for all I know, Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and Cthulu-worship do too), and a person who's not sacrificing may feel that he is somehow incomplete.

Actually, now that I think of it, this may be intrinsic to human nature. The Greeks told stories of people who were too rich/powerful/happy/beautiful, and this made the gods jealous. Perhaps this is Durbin's true problem: he thinks that by being wildly successful we will tempt Fate into crushing us. This is more than a little superstitious. Fate has been known to crush moderate and poor cultures just as easily as---more easily than ---rich ones.

The funny thing is, those who urge me (by urging us, collectively) to have a leaner lifestyle are nearly always much richer than I am. This makes me wonder---are we all supposed to cut back to some equal level, or are we all supposed to sacrifice equally? That is, if a fellow advocating a more "minimalist" lifestyle sells his boat in sacrifice, is that equal to my sacrifice of giving up my bi-weekly Pizza Hut indulgence? If he decides not to get that new sooper dooper $2000 digital camcorder, am I to contribute by getting rid of my 21-year-old 35 mm camera? And who would I give it to, anyway? (This happens to me a lot when I try to unload things on charities---I keep things until they're very old or worn out, and then even the poor and wretched don't want them.)

I've just come back from three years in Australia, where my already-rather-ragged lifestyle was cut back even farther, partly due to the low Australian dollar, and partly by my unwillingness to shell out money for things---heavy furniture, electrical things---that I wouldn't be able to bring back to the US with me. This did not make me spiritually more pure; it made me depressed.

I didn't have a car, and walked a mile to work (up a goodish hill) every day; this did not make me feel energized, it made my elderly feet hurt. I did not want a dishwasher because somehow I felt more plebeian without it; I wanted one because life is too short to stand over a damned sink doing dishes (especially in the summer). I didn't long for air conditioning or central heat because I wanted to lord it over the lesser beings of the earth; I wanted them because sweating or shivering makes it harder to work or read.

I could go on and on, and will if someone doesn't stop me. There are far worse places than Australia, I know. I didn't have to stand in some Soviet-style line for three hours every day, only to be issued a quarter-loaf of iron-hard bread which I carefully softened in furtively-gathered dew each morning. Australia's a perfectly good first-world country, and you can get most things you could get in the US, just not on my salary.

But I did long for home, partly because of the material comforts (and because I just wanted my old life back, dammit), and am glad to be back. (I've been preparing a post on this very topic for days now. I was going to go on about the wonder and glory of Fry's Electronics.)

Upon reading more of his blog, I see that Durbin is dismissive of claims of anthropogenic (just learned that word) global warming, the notion of the intrinsic evil of oil companies, and the posturing of Michael Moore. He doesn't seem to be the agonized young lefty who usually wrings his hands in this manner. I could understand if he thought that our consumption is actually doing some damage to the environment, or impoverishing others. I would not agree (probably), but his arguments would make more sense. But he seems to have absorbed the Australian "tall poppy" syndrome---best not to stand too tall, lest you get cut down.

Well, I'd spend a lot more time arguing against the application of personal aesthetic values and spiritual angst to national policy affection hundreds of millions, but Niles and I have got to go shopping. Let's see...bagels, Cheetohs, 128M RAM.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Passion Play

This is a powerful essay.

It is insightful, original, and best of all, agrees with me. According to the author, Lee Harris, the 9/11 attacks were not perpetrated to achieve any sort of political goal. Appeasement is no use because there is nothing (short, he says, of mass conversion to Islam) which will appease Al Qaeda. They don't want us to do anything, because we are irrelevant. We are only a prop in their production of religious theater, in which men whose hearts are pure strike at God's enemies. Even vanquishing the enemy is secondary to the point; the primary goal is simply to strike.

After 9/11, as we all know, a lot of people were trying to discover the "root causes" of the attacks. I resisted this at first, not giving a damn what they were, only what the response would be. But after a while I calmed down and figured "know thine enemy" is always good advice. So I tried to figure out exactly what response the perpetrators had envisioned.

We would give in to their demands.This was a bit problematic, since they hadn't made any demands. They hadn't claimed credit, and aside from some vague posturing about Chechens and Palestinians and the "tragedy of Andalusia", they didn't seem to have any ultimatums.

We would attack them in Afghanistan, get drawn into a Vietnam-style quagmire, and finally retire in humiliation. This seemed a likely option to me at the time. But I couldn't see how it would have helped Al Qaeda and their supposed goals. Our humiliation would be sweet to them, but in the meantime many of them, and many other Muslims, would be killed. I don't see how that benefitted anyone, unless it led eventually to...

We would nuke them. In those first days I feared this would be the response, sooner or later. Mostly I feared that Russia and China would believe we'd gone mad (and may have been correct), would respond in kind, and this would put a distinct crimp in civilization as we know it. Even if not, it would leave a pile of dead innocents on our collective souls for decades, maybe centuries. And radiation is bad for the lungs.

But I couldn't see how this would help Al Qaeda either. Amongst all the dead Americans, Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, there would be heaps and heaps of dead Arabs/Muslims. They'd get it first, and worst. What was this going to buy them?

The only thing I could figure out was that Al Qaeda was part of some sort of millenial death cult. The whole purpose of the September 11 attacks was to touch off the final apocalyptic war between the West and Islam. Every one---even Muslims---would be killed, but what does that matter? Who is dead who lives forever in Paradise?

I can see where one could read the Book of Revelations and come up with a theological justification for this (if you are a bit screwy), but I don't know if there is anything in the Koran which could serve as the foundation for this sort of thing.

Harris's essay is depressing, in a way. At least with the "root causes" theory there's something constructive you can do---end poverty, improve literacy, introduce democracy. Even most of the savage bloodthirsty warbloggers are for these things, once the preliminary ass-kicking is out of the way. But according to Harris this won't help, because the people who are the brains behind Al Qaeda (both large and small) tend to be well-educated, relatively wealthy men who have some small degree of influence in their cultures. There is nothing along those lines that we can do for them.

Harris argues there are things we can do to them---we can kill them. I concur, but it's going to be difficult to get the fanatics, without killing a large number of innocents. A fellow named Peter, writing on Charles Johnson's comments page, thinks that the number of Muslims willing to die for this "cause" is very large, and that we

will sooner or later face the horrible fact that the solution is too cruel to contemplate. I understand why the political leaders of the west are desperately trying not to look into that abyss.

This is what I fear as well.

Via Charles Johnson

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Mail Bag

Wow! The Instapundit link brought in some kind letters. No flames yet. Must try harder. One A. Mackay hopes that I am "immune to praise". Very perceptive! I am indeed immune to praise. No praise has ever harmed me in the least. Go ahead, all of you! Praise me! Throw all the praise you have at me! I dare ya! I double dog dare ya!

The J Bomb

According to the Independent, newly discovered documents reveal that the Japanese were "days away" from dropping their own bomb.

I'm a physicist with an interest in the history of the atomic bomb, and I've read quite a bit on the subject. The only place that I've ever heard it suggested that Japan was working on an atom bomb was on Usenet, from the kind of people who construct elaborate theories on how Roosevelt knew details of Pearl Harbor in advance, but let it happen to draw the US into the war so

I can't say I've read every book, nor remembered all of the ones I have read, nor that the truth is presently contained in some published work. But I have never read that the US was concerned about the possibility of a Japanese bomb. They were concerned about a German bomb, and that nightmare fueled the Manhattan Project. Beginning in 1943, a group of scientists under the leadership of Sam Goudsmit, called the Alsos project, investigated Axis laboratories in areas which had been taken by the Allies. Their mission was to discover the status of any German atomic bomb projects. I have never read of a comparable project looking for evidence of a Japanese bomb (of course, that would've been after the war).

However, I don't really go by what I have or haven't read, or remembered of what I've read, but of what I know of atomic science of that period. The men who were the founders of modern physics were overwhelmingly European, and quite a few were Germans. Americans and others had to go to Germany, particularly to Gottingen, to study quantum physics. The people who built the atomic bomb were all students and colleagues of those Europeans
(plus not a few of the Europeans themselves who had escaped/defected). While there were almost certainly Japanese there, they were relatively rare and obscure.

So I don't believe that Japan had the depth and breadth of talent---that is, people working right on the cutting edge---to make a serious start on a bomb project. This is especially true after scientific papers on these subjects were suppressed beginning quite early in the war (or maybe before it). This is how American scientists (individuals I mean) knew something was up---when German papers on these sorts of topics suddenly dried up.

Furthermore, you don't just build an A bomb out of materials you might find lying around the log cabin. When the Manhattan Project started, no one knew which approach was going to work, whether uranium or plutonium was going to be easier to produce and work with, and which uranium enrichment process (U 235 must be separated from U 238) was going to be faster or more efficient. So all of them were tried. This resulted in three huge facilities in three different areas of the country, plus the lab at Los Alamos.

If the Japanese had made a start on acquiring materials necessary for their own bomb, these facilities surely would have been discovered after the war. And their war ended rather suddenly, so there would have been less time---and less incentive---to destroy documents and labs.

The Independent says a "dossier" was uncovered, and later refers to a "document". You don't keep plans for an A-bomb in a "document"; any dossier you have is going to be mighty big, because there are a lot of details. A clue might be in the often-overlooked word "device". A "device" is not a bomb. A bomb has to be delivered somehow, in the present case by plane. A "device" in this context could be a nuclear explosive which was too large and clumsy to be actually put into a plane and dropped on a target. But even this sounds to me to be more than the Japanese could muster at the time.

It's possible that the Japanese could have been given a leg up by information shared by the Germans (although I don't see them being willing to part with secrets of that caliber). However, I believe the Germans had not made much progress on their own bomb. They had the talent, but policy decreed that any weapons whose construction would take longer than a certain amount of time (I think this was two years) would not be pursued. (See the very interesting Hitler's Uranium Club by Jeremy Bernstein, which draws on transcripts of recordings of discussions that captured German scientists held among themselves while in detention in Britain. They were quite surprised that the Americans and British had been able to progress as far as an actual working bomb.)

Now, it's possible that the Japanese were taking steps toward an atomic weapon of their own, and had outlined some broad principles and concepts, and those documents are what were recently uncovered (sort of a straight version of the "How to Make an A-Bomb spoof document supposedly found in an Al Quaeda house in Kabul, and taken seriously by the Beeb). But I'm not buying the idea that they had a fully-fleshed version nearly ready. If nothing else, if they were literally "days away", they would've found a way to use it, or at least demonstrate it, for leverage, or as a bluff.

Disclaimer: I googled up a couple of facts for memory refresher, but most of this was written out of my own memory, which has become very faulty lately. Therefore, don't be surprised if it turns out I'm completely wrong.

OK. I lied. I'll be very surprised if it turns out I was completely wrong.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Biased Broadcasting Corp

One of the few things I will miss about Australia is not having the BBC to kick around any more. But there is hope. First, I find that Houston's PBS station carries BBC World News (which is what I got in Oz) at 5pm, and secondly, there's a BBC watch blog.

As far as I can tell there's only one post on it, but it's good enough for a start.

Man, the Beeb. Possibly less biased than Fox News, but not by much (er, no, much as I enjoy Fox---I especially enjoyed it in Australia, as a little slice of America in my living room---they are not "fair and balanced"; at least, they're not balanced). The Fox News people shout a lot (I used to think of it as the Shouting Channel), but you don't have to talk loud to be biased. Distortion is still distortion if it's issued in calm tones and plummy accents.

The BBC anchors reporting from Pestholistan never shrink from inserting their own biases or omitting important information, and often overplay the situation so as to milk every bit of anguish from it, just like any cheesy tabloid. This reached its nadir during their coverage of the anthrax mailings. Their anchor stood in the streets wibbling earnestly into his mike about the panic sweeping New York, while behind him---right behind him as he said this---people strolled casually hand in hand, walked their dogs, fed ice cream to their children.

I doubted this "panic" because I didn't like the thought of Americans panicking---in a headless-chicken sort of way. I can see getting carried away and dropping a badly-placed nuke---that kind of panicking---but running pointlessly in circles just didn't seem our style. And it sure didn't sound like New Yorkers. I was reduced to emailing some people back home to learn the local mood (heavy concern overcast with occasional showers of anger, but panic-free).

But even before 9/11 the Beeb irritated me. They had a report on global warming that I must have seen thirty zillion times---always coming in at the same place. The voice-over said, "Even when global warming hit George Bush's home state..." The video showed the floods in Houston resulting from tropical storm Allison last June. It was a freaking tropical storm! We're on the Gulf Coast! We get tropical storms and it floods! Oh, but that never happened before the industrial revolution. When Coronado's men came through here in the 16th century, they reported tundra, and wooly mammoths.

The Beeb has a regular feature called Earth Report. The ads for it go something like this: "One world. Our responsibility. As [something] and environmental concerns ravage our homes[...]So we all live well today---who's taking care of tomorrow?"

(As you can see, I can't remember some parts. I always meant to write it down.)

No alarmism there at all, no sirree. Also, notice that it's the concerns that are ravaging our homes, not problems or difficulties. It'd be nice if the Beeb could find someone who could write in English. Unless they have a subversive mole who wants to imply that it's the concerns themselves which are doing the greater damage.

None of this would be worth a blog post if the BBC weren't still considered (by the uninformed) to be a bastion of fairness and accuracy.

Monday, August 05, 2002

Dead Dog

Ya gotta love this picture. That's George Michael, by the way. Seems his anti-American single "Shoot the Dog" isn't doing too well.

I don't know. Three thousand copies on the first day sounds good to me, as does number 12 on the charts, but the Sun thinks otherwise.

Via the Corner.