Battlepanda: July 2006


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Social advice for new college freshmen

In my last post, I offered some academic advice to new college freshmen; in this post, I'll offer a bit of social advice.

My first bit of advice is intended for straight men. There may be some analog that is applicable for straight women, gay men, or lesbians, but I don't know what it is.

Always be really nice to the women in your class. They're taking notes on your behavior, and they're sharing them. If you make a total jackass of yourself, you'll that find your pool of potential dates will shrink drastically.

My second bit of advice is more generally applicable, but for straight men, this bit of advice relates back to my first.

Your freshman year of college will probably be the first time in your life that you've had pretty much unrestricted access to alcohol, so you probably don't know how much you can handle. Take it easy on the booze until you've figured this out. Straight men should note that consuming more alcohol that you can handle makes it more likely that you will make a total jackass of yourself, and so find your dating pool drastically shrunk.

For example, if you consume most of a fifth of Absolut vodka, and then throw up in the social room of the freshman women's dorm, you will never live it down, and you will probably be relegated to dating women who go to some other college in the same town.

Trust me on this.

Academic advice for new college freshmen

Well, it's about that time of year when slightly-bewildered freshmen will begin to arrive on America's college campuses. In case any of them are reading this blog, I have a few bits of advice. In this post, I'll dispense a bit of academic advice; in a later post, a bit of social advice.
  1. Take some economics - this will help you recognize when politicians and pundits are full of shit.
  2. Take some psychology - this will help you recognize when economists are full of shit.
  3. Take some philosophy - this will help you recognize when psychologists are full of shit.
  4. Unfortunately, the only way to tell when philosophers are full of shit is to take more philosophy; and I'm not going to advise you to do that, lest you end up like me with an ABD.

Richard the Whale

(An excerpt from my 5th-grade reading workbook, The Scratch Papers, now out-of-print. Previous excerpts: one, two, three, four, five, six.)

On their trip Professor Scratch and Howling Jack took Wilbur, Lance, and Little Darla back to the year 1850. The Professor parked his time machine on a big beach. "That is the Atlantic Ocean!" he declared.

"Why come here whey we could have gone to Dodge City?" Howling Jack complained.

"I want to talk to some whales," the Professor said. "One or two, anyway. There aren't so many around anymore, you know." He was frowning and scribbling in his black book.

About that time a fat white whale flopped up on the beach and introduced himself. "Hiya, hiya," said the fat white whale. "My name is Richard."

"What a silly name for a whale," said Little Darla.

"It's a good enough name," said Richard, spouting pleasantly. "One little fellow with a beard even came down here and asked me questions all the time."

"That man," Professor Scratch shouted, "is going to write a book about you and make you famous!"

"I doubt that," said Richard. "I got bored with his questions and swallowed him a couple of weeks ago."

"Well, spout him out!" said Howling Jack. "You can't go around swallowing people!" And with that the whole gang took to thumping madly on Richard, causing him to have such an Upset Tummy that the bearded man popped right out of Richard's mouth.

The bearded man was in good spirits and invited them all, even Richard, into town for a nice fish dinner. They went, all except Richard. He was feeling ashamed for swallowing someone who was going to make him famous, and he sulked around on the beach for the rest of the day.

What your waitress can teach us about the EITC

I've already written about the inefficiencies and perverse incentives associated with the EITC. However, while commenting on Greg Mankiw's recent post, in which he favors the EITC as an alternative to the minimum wage, I came across a splendid analogy to illustrate my point:

If you decided to give your waitress a particularly generous tip, it it would probably bring a smile to her face. "Gee, Mr.," she might say, "I wish everybody tipped like this." However, if all the customers everywhere in America really did start tipping as much as you did, the same tip will probably no longer bring the same pleased reaction. Is it because the waitress got greedy and entitled? No. It's because as soon as the increased tippage started to make her lot appreciably better, her job became more desirable, and her employer would soon be able to decrease the base wage for her position and still be able to field plenty of applicants. Thus despite getting more in tips, our waitress' overall financial position is not much improved. Right now, the base wage for waitstaff in the U.S. is what, three dollars something on average? Even lower in some establishments. I feel compelled to tip even if the service is on the bad side of mediocre, because if I don't, I'm taking bread out of the server's mouth -- his tip is his pay.

The EITC, in effect is our government attempt to re-destribute income by "tipping" low-waged workers out of the tax-payer's purse in an effort to alleviate poverty. One can see how a analogous, though not entirely similar, dynamic might be at play. Since a certain amount of unemployment has always been with us, and probably will be until the end of time, there is always competition for jobs. The employers will be able to drive the wage of the least-skilled worker down to what the worker needs to live on. However, with the EITC supporting part of the worker's expenses, the amount of wage he or she needs to live on just went down. In the short-run, this means the worker has a surplus of money. In the long-run, her wage will tend to adjust down until she is not really much better off. All on the government's dollar.

But what do I know, right? Greg Mankiw is the guy who literally wrote the book I used in the only class in economics I've ever taken. And he thinks the EITC is the most targeted and efficient way of distributing income. I guess I'm just glad that he feels enough of the egalitarian impulse to keep some form of income redistribution on the table.

I obviously think that the minimum wage would be a better solution, so stay tuned for "What Starbucks can teach us about the Minimum wage". Hint: the lesson is not going to be what you think it might be.

The Naggy State

Ah, Taiwan. Land of the cat-fighting legislators and the soft-serve ice-cream served in a miniature ceramic toilet. Now something possibly even less essential has come along -- a warning sticker system on coffee to help the consumer gauge if he or she is going over the recommended 'ffeine limit -- three cups of Joe a day on average.

I'm sure I'm going to be using the system to weed out the wimpy coffee drinks with inadequate levels of the stuff. Take that, Department of Health. Your attempt to moderate my caffein intake is going to have the opposite effect on me.

Son of "Shoot and Cry"

It's "bomb first, apologize later"

Or to be more precise, "bomb first, keep bombing as rescue workers remove the broken bodies of children from the rubble, apologize later."

The right-wingers are insinuating that Hezbollah might have blown up the building themselves opportunistically, to make bad PR for Israel, undoubtedly twirling their (Hezbollah's, that is) waxed mustaches as they did so. Like all conspiracy theories, I find this one unlikely. First of all, if the Israelis wuz framed, we would have heard the IDF cry bloody murder by now. Instead, we have one either extremely cautious or weaselly statement from the IDF that the gap between the time of the strike and the building's collapse is "unclear", leaving the right-wing blogisphere to play Nancy Drew andconnect the dots. Besides, Hezbollah might be evil, but it is not stupid. It's continued survival depends on the goodwill of at least segments of the Lebanese population. Besides, pulling a stunt like this is hardly necessary when Israel are killing plenty of civilians elsewhere anyhow. Occam's razor, my little wingnuts, Occam's razor.

Puppycide and mass-puppycide

They're Man's Best Friend, furry balls of love, loyalty and companionship. Yet it seems if they get in the way in even the most marginal way, we pop them like...well...dogs.

The Agitator finds more instances of dogs killed by cops. The owners had let 32 parking tickets accumulate over his broken-down vehicle and the cops were serving a warrant for his arrest. Instead, two of his three dogs bought it.

Our second case of puppycide today is on a much larger scale. The Chinese government has decreed that all the dogs in Muding county of Yunnan be exterminated in an attempt to curb a rabies outbreak that has killed three people. That's more than 50,000 dogs!
Owners were ordered to kill their pets or face having teams of local police and other enforcement officers kill them, it said. Even the 4,292 dogs in the county that had been immunized against rabies were ordered put to death, as authorities said the immunizations were not 100 percent effective, the report said.

From January through July, 360 people in the county had been bitten by dogs, with the three human deaths occurring since April, the Beijing Times said. Some owners have used methods including hanging their dogs, electrocuting them and clubbing them to death, while others used drugs, the Beijing News said.
Yes, the immunizations are not 100% effective, but I bet it's close. There is no point quibbling with the infinitesimal chance of vaccine failure, because any extermination is unlikely to be complete anyhow. There are bound to be hidden family pets and strays who escape the extermination, not to mention all those non-canine while animals who can carry rabies. But even if every single rabid animal in Yunnan was killed, the extermination will still be a fatuous effort because there are lots of rabid animals elsewhere in China. The leviathan panicked and the result was mass-puppycide.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A ride on the Scratch machine

(An excerpt from my 5th-grade reading workbook, The Scratch Papers, now out-of-print. Previous excerpts: one, two, three, four, five.)

Wilbur took Lance and Little Darla to the garage. Professor Scratch was tinkering around in the time machine, but Howling Jack seemed glad to see them. He had been lying on his cot eating a banana. He introduced himself and tried to look very muscular.

"Why is your first name Howling?" Little Darla asked him.

"We'll cover that later," Howling Jack said vaguely. "Here comes the Professor."

The Professor walked up, busily writing in his black book. He peered over his glasses at the kids. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"I'm Wilbur!" Wilbur said. "I was here yesterday!"

"So you were," the Professor said. He scribbled some more. "Who are these other two?" he asked finally.

"These are my friends," Wilbur said proudly. "This is Little Darla, and this is Lance."

"Too many kids are finding out about the time machine," said the Professor. "We have to keep this quiet!"

"I won't tell anybody else," Wilbur said.

"And I," said Lance, "don't believe it's really a time machine anyway."

"Sure it is," said Howling Jack. "The Professor will take you for a ride, won't you, Professor?" Howling Jack was hoping they would go back to 1875 so that he could see his girl friend, Yolanda Lagoon.

"Perhaps I will," said Professor Scratch. "But don't tell any more kids! It's going to get crowded on that thing!"

So they all went on a trip. They wound up in 1850. Everybody was very happy except Howling Jack. It was a few years too soon to see Yolanda.

You say "hate crime", I say "terrorism"

Call it a hate crime or call it terrorism. The shooting in Seattle by a Muslim gunman was both a tragedy and an outrage. What's interesting to me, though, is how the bloggers have fallen into line both left and right -- the righties want to call it "terrorism", while the lefties, by and large, thinks this is a "hate crime." One group wants to lay this at the door of Islam. The other group sees it as a "bad apple" incident. Michelle Malkin even went as far as to put together a hit parade of American Muslim killers, from Haq to John Mohammed to Rashid Baz in 1994. Never mind that one Timothy McVeigh killed more than all of them put together. "It's the Jihad, stupid."

OK, Michelle and co. Let's call it the Jihad. Let's put all this "individual responsiblity" stuff you right-wingers are always yammering about away and look at collective responsibility instead. Let's assume that he was a cell of the enemy attacking America in the GWoT. How does this square with your "we'll fight them over there so we won't have to fight them at home" crap, bitches?

Unless of course, Michelle is softening us up for her next book, In defense of Internment: II, round up the ragheads edition. It'll fit in just fine with J-Pod's new book "The problem with U.S./Israel: Too nice to commit mass-murder of civilians".

Big Brother is Marching with you

Two worrying stories on the civil-rights front. Firstly, we have the charming fact that the police are no longer content with merely infiltrating demonstrations and acting as riot bait. They are actually leading the demonstrations and planning the routes . Perhaps soon all our protests would consist wholly of police officers. (HT: L.Krub)

While the ability of police officers to spy on us seems to know no bounds, our ability to turn the tables in the most desultory manner is being violently challenged -- a man was arrested in Philadelphia for taking a picture of a big police drug bust that was happening in his neighborhood...right in front of his property.
Cruz said that when he heard a commotion, he walked out of his back door with his cell phone to see what was happening. He said that when he saw the street lined with police cars, he decided to take a picture of the scene.

"I opened (the phone) and took a shot," Cruz said.

Moments later, Cruz said he got the shock of his life when an officer came to his back yard gate.

"He opened the gate and took me by my right hand," Cruz said.

Cruz said the officer threw him onto a police car, cuffed him and took him to jail.

A neighbor said she witnessed the incident and could not believe what she saw.

"He opened up the gate and Neffy was coming down and he went up to Neffy, pulled him down, had Neffy on the car and was telling him, 'You should have just went in the house and minded your own business instead of trying to take pictures off your picture phone,'" said Gerrell Martin.

Cruz said police told him that he broke a new law that prohibits people from taking pictures of police with cell phones.
It's not like Cruz busted in on some covert scene. This was happening on his street. If this is how the police treats a curious kid who wants a cool picture to show his friends, I guess budding citizen journalists who might be tempted to take pictures of actual police wrongdoing better watch out.

"What are you looking at, sugar tits?"

I don't know, Mel. Maybe the nice officer was staring at you and thinking "OMG Mel Gibson looks just like Saddam Hussein!"

It'll only a matter of time before we get pictures of him in his cell writing romance novels and washing his tighty-whities...

The Three (or more) Faces of Glenn Greenwald

As painful as it is to see one of our most earnest and eloquent lefty bloggers thusly exposed, one cannot but hold a grudging respect for Patterico's relentless takedown of Greenwald's sockpuppetry. There's no real point trying to give Greenwald the benefit of the doubt -- check out this comment by "Ryan":
I e-mailed Greenwald yesterday about this, pasted BumperStickerist’s accusations, and asked Greenwald if it was true. This is what I just received in response:

“Thanks for sending that.

I worked at Wachtell, Lipton as a Summer Associate after my second year at NYU, as a pre-Bar Associate during my entire third year at NYU and once I graduated, and then as a practicing Litigation Associate once I was admitted to the New York Bar.

Anyone who says that I did not practice law there after I passed the bar is lying — and deliberately so, I would think, since nobody who says such a thing could possibly have any basis for knowing that.

In any event, I can’t imagine what point anyone thinks they’re making. Wachtell is known to be the most selective law firm in the country. What point do they think they’re making, exactly?”

You people are morons, seriously. You run around claiming things without having any idea if there true. And then when you get exposed as liars, you slink away and repeat the next lie. we're expected to believe that somebody from Greenwald's IP address had to email Greenwald to get the lowdown on Greenwald's practice history. Isn't that kind of like me faxing my husband to get him to grab me a glass of water from the kitchen? And don't try and blame it on the boyfriend. As Patterico said (in bold!): "Wouldn’t you think the boyfriend would step forward to take the heat?" if he was indeed the one landing Glenn in disgrace?

Glenn, I love ya, but for the sake of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, come clean already! You're caught with your hand in the cookie jar. You're nabbed with your pants around your ankle. The Cherry Tree is down and you have the ax in your hands. You've been stupid, vain and dishonest in a venial but highly embarrassing way. And you have given the other side a chance to make a meal of you fair and square without having to confront your highly eloquent arguments. There was only one way for you to make things better -- admit you've been bad, and promise never to do it again. The rending of garments would have been optional. But instead you've decided to deny everything in the face of clear evidence, counting instead on your friends to take you at your word. This many of them have done, because they esteem you. And you have betrayed their trust. Your enemies, on the other hand, are gleeful, because now they've not only exposed your dishonesty, but they've made everybody who tried to blindly defend you look like a fool.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Word-Gobblers

(An excerpt from my 5th-grade reading workbook, The Scratch Papers, now out-of-print. Previous excerpts: one, two, three, four.)

Professor Scratch had an archenemy named Moog the Merciless, who also had a time machine. Moog lived somewhere far under the ground. When he wasn't doing mean things, he was fond of playing an electronic organ.

Moog also had some slaves. They were fat, pink things that looked like large wads of bubble gum with eyes. They were known as Word-Gobblers because all they ate were books and magazines. Once upon a time they ate fern-herbs. But there hadn't been any fern-herbs since 1736. That's why they were slaves to Moog the Merciless. He kept promising to ride his time machine back to 1736 to get them some fern-herbs.

The W.G.'s, as Word-Gobblers were called, really were a decent sort, but they didn't have much education. They ate all the books before they could read them, and so they didn't learn very much. That's one reason they had to go one working for Moog the Merciless.

Sometimes it's hard being an atheist...

...'cos every time I read about this guy, I really want to believe in Hell.

God Bless Oceania

Surreal. Bush seems to have forgotten that Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are all Sunnis. I guess while Israel works Lebanon over, it's the Shiites who are the Bad Muslims of the Month:
White House aides have said they consider the Lebanon crisis to be a "leadership moment" for Mr Bush and an opportunity to proceed with his post-September 11 plan to reshape the Middle East by building Sunni Arab opposition to Shi’a terrorism. Yesterday Mr Bush cited the role of Iran and Syria in providing help to Hezbollah.
Lest you blame the unnamed aide for the above for the truthilicious propaganda, here's some more howlers from the POTUS with the mostest himself:

In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors are willing to kill, and to use violence to stop the spread of peace and democracy -- and they're not going to succeed.[snip]

There's a lot of suffering in Lebanon, because Hezbollah attacked Israel. There's a lot of suffering in the Palestinian Territory because militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy.
Here, Bush made the simple and understandable boo-boo of getting "democracy", the political process in which people choose their leaders through elections, messed up with Happy Purple-fingered Puppy Time.

Yglesias lays it out for y'all to play it out: "There are many things you can say about Hamas ("trying to destroy Israel," perhaps), but trying to stop the advance of democracy? Recall there was a time when Fatah was in charge of the Palestinian Authority. At that time, the Bush administration said there was no need for Israel to negotiate with the PA until it agreed to hold free and fair elections. Eventually, the Fatah-led PA agreed to do this. At which point . . . Hamas won the election. How afraid of the Bush democracy initiative are they supposed to be? Does Bush even remember this sequence of events?" I'd just like to add that Hezbollah also did quite well in the elections after the splendid Cedar Revolution. And that Maliki, the elected PM of Iraq, hails from the Dawa party, which helped Hezbollah set up shop in the 80s. Keep holding your breath for that condemnation of Hezbollah from Maliki, guys.

The good thing is, the people of America are never going to stand for this willful and self-appeasing disengagement from reality for very long. Oh, wait...

Has anyone seen Straight-talkin' John?

The campaign-finance maverick is M.I.A.
On Wednesday, [Feingold, Meehan, and Shays] introduced a bill to revive the crumbling system for public financing of presidential campaigns. The bill is largely identical to a measure all four men introduced in 2003, but this time around Mr. McCain is not on board.

A spokeswoman for Mr. McCain, Eileen McMenamin, did not return calls seeking comment for this article, but several people involved in discussions about the legislation said the senator's absence was related to his widely expected bid for the presidency in 2008.

McCain 2008: Because the appearance of integrity is almost as good as the real thing!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Somehow it brings to mind Nero and his fiddle...

Sorry. Just feeling a little catty this morning.

Ann Coulter, psychoanalyst

I don't usually blog about Ann Coulter since she's such a bizarre joke. But this exchange was so...Dali-esque...that I had to do a John Stewart style eye-rub to make sure that I'm not hallucinating:
DEUTSCH: …a former president of the United States, and just saying, `You know what? I think he has latent homosexual tendencies.’

Ms. COULTER: No. I think anyone with that level of promiscuity where, you know, you — I mean, he didn’t know Monica’s name until their sixth sexual encounter. There is something that is — that is of the bathhouse about that.

DEUTSCH: But what is the homosexual — that’s — you could say somebody who maybe doesn’t celebrate women the way he should or just is that he’s a hound dog?

Ms. COULTER: No. It’s just random, is this obsession with his…

DEUTSCH: But where’s the — but where’s the homosexual part of that? I’m — once again, I’m speechless here.

Ms. COULTER: It’s reminiscent of a bathhouse. It’s just this obsession with your own — with your own essence.

DEUTSCH: But why is that homosexual? You could say narcissistic.

Ms. COULTER: Right.

DEUTSCH: You could say nymphomaniac.
Ms. COULTER: Well, there is something narcissistic about homosexuality. Right? Because you’re in love with someone who looks like you. I’m not breaking new territory here, why are you looking at me like that?
That's right. Ann Coulter thinks Bill Clinton is one of teh Gay because he played hide-the-wiener with a plump but comely female White House intern. By this latest application of Coulterian logic, I guess Hugh Hefner is the Gayest Gay of them all.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Peepshow returns?

It's been five years since issue 13 of Joe Matt's autobiographical comic book Peepshow was published. Matt was one of the best artists during the heyday of autobiographical comics in the 1990s, and Peepshow is a hilarious, voyeuristic, and often disturbing look at his life.

Now, according to the Drawn & Quarterly blog (permalinks fubared -- scroll down the page), issue 14 will be published soon.
"I end up erasing more than I can pencil...if anything, it's always one step backwards." That's Joe Matt explaining the near five-year drought in between issues of his comic book, Peepshow . Things are starting to look up for Joe, or for his work habits at least. Last week we received the cover for Peepshow #14, and he promises that the rest of the issue will be here in a couple of weeks (just a few touch-ups in the backgrounds are left, along with the second color overlays and letters column). This issue also brings to a close a story arc ("the embodiment of the decade I spent in Toronto," says Joe) and will be published early next year in the book Spent.

Little Darla's Birthday

(Yet another excerpt from my 5th-grade reading workbook, The Scratch Papers, now out-of-print. Previous excerpts: one, two, three.)

One of the worst days of the year for Wilbur was Litte Darla's birthday. Every year Lance Lugfarm gave her a rotten present that she oohed and aahed over, and every year she forgot even to open Wilbur's present.

But this year on her eleventh birthday Wilbur had bought Little Darla a present that was so big she couldn't forget to open it. It was a big box of bubble bath. He had read somewhere that girls like bubble bath. He had also written a poem to express his deep devotion. It went like this:

Roses are red; violets are blue;
I love you more than a kangaroo.

But, alas, while carrying her many presents through the lunch line, Little Darla accidently dropped Wilbur's into the tomato soup. All the kids had great fun trying to pop the tomato bubbles. But Wilbur, who told them he wasn't hungry, just went out and sat on top of the jungle gym.

Panorama of destruction

This gives one a sense of scale.

UPDATE: I just threw this up last night. John adds good commentary:
It seems to me, however, that the wrong lesson to learn from images like this would be "the Israelis are bastards". Rather, this is what happens when you apply airpower or artillery of any kind to a dense urban area - whether it's Beirut or Baghdad.

One of my ongoing gripes about both the rhetoric from American leaders, and the media coverage of the American military, is the illusion of "precision" in warfare. It allows both the leadership, the military generally, and individual soldiers to evade moral responsibility for their actions.

Any American liberals who are now decrying the "disproportionate" use of force against Lebanon ought to be positively disgusted at their own use of force in Iraq.

A shocking charge

Kofi Annan didn't mince words: “I am shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defence Forces of a UN observer post in southern Lebanon." It's a deeply serious accusation, and both John Cole and Michael Stickings have condemned Annan for raising it.

Well, given the details that have emerged, details which Annan must have known at the time, I don't think he went too far at all.
PEACEKEEPERS spent six hours begging Israeli commanders to halt multiple air bombings near a United Nations observation post before a missile killed four unarmed observers there, it emerged last night. [snip]

The bombs were falling on the heads of our guys for six hours,” a Unifil officer told The Times. “We kept telling the Israelis that our men had been lucky so far, but next time there was going to be a tragedy and could they please correct their targeting. We were begging them to stop.” [snip]

“He warned the Israelis that they were shelling in very close proximity to the post, and his warnings were very specific, explicit, detailed and stark,” said Suzanne Coogan, a spokeswoman for Willie O’Dea, the Irish Defence Minister. “Obviously those warnings went unheeded.”

She said that Unifil secured safe passage for two armoured personnel carriers, which arrived at 9.30pm and found the shelter collapsed and severe damage to the rest of the position. Despite the agreement, she said, Israel attacked the carriers.

Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister, said that Israeli troops fired on the Egyptian UN soldiers sent to dig out the bodies. “(It) raises questions about whether this was an accident,” he said.

The facts as they are currently known is this: Israel hit a U.N. building they were repeatedly told not to hit. The probability that the Israelis up and down the chain of command are all the blameless victims of fate are vanishingly small -- it's gross negligence at the very least from somebody, somewhere. It's up to Israel to explain how this dire turn of events could have occured beyond "shit happens" and shrugged shoulders. I don't mean condolences and apologies, I mean heads rolling -- who was the liason? Who did he pass (or not pass) the U.N. message on to, and why? When the pilots squeezed the trigger, were they aware of the U.N. building in the vicinity? How high up did the knowledge that U.N. personnels are begging for their lives go?

The presumption of inncence protects the accused in our criminal-justice system. It is not Israel's perogative just because it is a U.S. ally. With the evidence looking this bad, it will have to fact serious questions, and yes, serious accusations. You can't really blame Annan for not keeping schtum until definitive evidence comes out. Sometimes, as with the Belgrade Chinese embassy bombings, the truth takes years to establish, far beyond the point where it could be of relevance in the proceedings.

Remember. Kofi Annan didn't state catagorically that it was a deliberate attack. He said, "apparently", meaning "incredible as it is, this is what the facts seem to show. Please show me that it could be otherwise and I will be much relieved." But the bottom line is, when the bluebonnets turn up dead on their turf, Israel have got to provide a satisfactory explanation. It's not reasonable that they are shielded from unpleasant charges because "not all the facts are known yet."

Draft the Chinese?

Why not? It's the only suggested foreign army so far that I can see that has the capacity keep both the Israeli and Hezbollah side in check with deadly force if necessary without suffering a shitstorm back home (can you imagine a German soldier shooting at a Jewish soldier without it becoming some sort of international incident?) Even better, China seems to have been playing its cards right diplomatically speaking around the world lately (exception: with Japan), making it a better fit for the "honest broker" role that is called for.

Just the fact that it won't happen doesn't mean its not a good idea. Rob Farley has more:
The problem is that while deploying a peacekeeping or peacemaking force to Lebanon is a good idea in the abstract, no one knows where the troops will come from. The US cannot supply peacekeepers, and wouldn't want to even if it could. The Europeans seem reluctant. An Arab-led force seems to me a bad idea; there's little reason to believe that Egyptian or Saudi forces will take the initiative in controlling or disarming Hezbollah. This leaves relatively few options (although Indonesia and Malaysia have both offered troops).

In this context, a Chinese led mission looks attractive. The PLA has massive ground forces that aren't doing anything particularly important right now. The Chinese also have relatively good relations with all of the parties concerned, including Israel, Lebanon, Iran, and the Gulf monarchies. With logistical support the Chinese have the capacity to carry out the operation, and can plausibly play the role of honest broker. That's the upside.

Then there's the downside. Why would China ever want to do this? The PLA has engaged in several other peacekeeping missions, including Lebanon and Haiti, but none of a magnitude approaching what would be necessary in southern Lebanon. The capability of the PLA to carry out what might turn into a counter-insurgency operation in unknown. On the one hand, the PLA was born as an insurgency. On the other, Mao's been dead a long time. Moreover, a country retains its status as an "honest broker" by staying as far away as possible from any controversial subject. Beijing might lose diplomatic cred through an extended Lebanese deployment. Finally, there's likely to be considerable Pentagon nervousness about extending the diplomatic and military reach of China, nervousness that might lead the administration to kibosh the whole operation.

Still, it's a thought. The PLA could use some experience in a large operation and, if Beijing is interested in stepping up on the world diplomatic stage, this would be a way to do it. I also doubt that Beijing is as casualty averse as many of the European governments.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oh yeah, Iraq.

Still going to hell in a handbasket.

Not that I've blogged about it much. In case you guys haven't noticed, I seem to be on a one-panda mission to make up for the supposed deficit of blogging from the Liberal blogisphere on the Israeli/Lebanon crisis. There are reasons for this -- first of all, I think it's a positive thing when bloggers get stuck on one topic (as long as it's not taken to ridiculous extremes). No individual blog claims to give its reader everything they need to know. I think the quality of my postings improve when I follow one story fairly closely than when I try to hit all the issues all the time. Secondly, Lebanon is a rapidly developing story while Iraq is festering along an all-too-predictable trajectory. The paths taken and not taken in those initial days and weeks can potentially have repecussions years down the line and all over the region. Thirdly, Lebanon was a bright spot, dammit. In a region full of basket-cases, it had somehow shucked off dire crisis to gain a precarious foothold on normality and hope. Iraq fell from one circle of hell to another; Lebanon was working on crawling her way out when somebody stepped on her fingers.

Yep, the Iraqis have it way worse than the Lebanese. And the Refugees in Dafur have it way worse than the Iraqis. It's good to remind ourselves of that fact, even if we don't always ration our attention according to the magnitude of their sufferings.

No more Air Conditioning for you, naughty Lebanese!

According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of the campaign is to "create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters." The message to Lebanon's elite, he said, is this: "If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land."

Yes, I know that it's a retired Colonel speaking, but it does that Israel is letting the fig-leaf of hitting strategic Hezbollah targets which just so happened to contain civilians slip. If you substitute "normal life to continue" for "air conditioning to work" and "live without fear of being incinerated by an Israeli missile" for "fly to Paris for shopping", you've probably got a pretty clean, bald statement of the Israeli mission. We have a not-nice word for people who inflict death and misery on random civilians to accomplish their goals.

The Israelis have always claimed that something fundamental separated them from their enemies -- that there is something especially loathsome about the suicide bomber because his actions were focused on killing and spreading fear among civilians. I now no longer see this bright, clean line. Sure, the Israelis will drop some leaflets telling civilians not to be in the area before bombing them, even as they attempt to flee their homes. They're careful to raise the theoretical possibility that every single target they hit could have contained a Hezbollah hiding among complicit civilians. But if it is their stated goal to hurt the Lebanese until they cry uncle, those theoretical possibilities are just elaborate exercises in hypocritical Cover-Your-Ass. As for cloaking the destruction of a country in euphemisms like "fly to Paris for shopping", that is nothing short of obscene.

The Panda Motto

(From the BBC.)

Whose boots?

There seems to be a rough-and-ready conventional wisdom emerging that the thing to do is to get some international forces in. This way, Israel can get the hell out of Lebanon without having it look like Hezbollah won. Now the question is, whose boots? Nobody's gonna invite the Turks. The Americans and Brits are already overstretched. The Germans'll go in -- if Hezbollah says it's OK. France just does not think the timing's right. Russia...I don't know. Russia is washing its hair or something. In short, everybody agrees that it would be a Good Thing to have some international forces in Lebanon...

“They only had one small condition — for the force to be made up of soldiers from another country,” Mr. Barnea wrote. “The Germans recommended France; the French recommended Egypt, and so on. It is doubtful whether there is a single country in the West currently volunteering to lay down its soldiers on Hezbollah’s fence.”
This is terrible for Israel, of course. And for the Lebanese too, since getting International forces in seems to be the quickest way of getting the Israeli's off their back. But excuse me if I can't get too worked up about most European countries' lack of enthusiasm for coalition 2.0. Scott of A Fist Full of Euros puts it in rather blunt terms:
Make no mistake -- deploying an international force to Lebanon, or at least any international force likely to have US and Israeli support, is backing Israel. The only grounds under which I would support it would be if it also had a mandate to defend Lebanon against Israel - to bomb Israel if Israeli planes or ground forces cross the border no matter what Hezbollah does. [German soldiers potentially firing at Israelis? Sounds like a PR disaster waiting to happen -- ed.]

There are reports that this attack was planned far in advance, and that the justifications given for it are little more than pretexts. This SF Gate article is making the rounds. Worse still, if true it suggests that no one briefed Bush on it - or at least that’s what his little open mike gaffe suggests. To send in NATO now would turn the alliance into nothing more than an arm of US foreign policy. It would make our nations no different from Britain - America’s lapdogs.[snip]

Considering the deflation of Israel’s stated goals in Lebanon over the last few weeks - from “crush Hezbollah” to “get Lebanon to crush Hezbollah” to“stop Hezbollah from firing rockets into Israel” to the current “reduce Hezbollah’s arsenal by up to 50%” - they’ve clearly bitten off more than they can chew. Ehud Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister in a long time who was never an IDF general. He also appears to have as much sense for military strategy as George W Bush. If Palestinians can be punished for voting for Hamas, I see no reason to spare Israel the consequences of having voted for this fool.
I think he's being unfair to Olmert -- who's to say that Ariel Sharon wouldn't have been just as hasty and foolish? As for European forces, I can see how they might do the situation a power of good. Check out the comment thread associated with this post -- NATO has probably got the best skills-set of any group to deal with the post-war peacekeeping and rebuilding duties. They need not be American lapdogs if they make it clear going in that they're cleaning up Israel's mess, not fighting Israel's war for them.

Having said that, what's in it for all the countries who would be contributing their best boys and girls to the NATO force? I would say, precious little.

Now 14% more collectively stupid!

How is this possible? How is it possible that, after some slow progress, we're getting collectively stupider again?
Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003 -- up from 36 percent last year, a Harris poll finds. Pollsters deemed the increase both "substantial" and "surprising" in light of persistent press reports to the contrary in recent years.
Meanwhile, the Harris poll offered some positive feedback on Iraq. Seventy-two percent of respondents said the Iraqi people are better off now than under Saddam Hussein's regime -- a figure similar to that of 2004, when it stood at 76 percent. In addition, 64 percent say Saddam had "strong links" with al Qaeda, up from 62 percent in October 2004. Fifty-five percent said that "history will give the U.S. credit for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq."

I don't understand. Did Rick Santorum's ridiculous lipstick-on-the-pig parade of scary, scary mustard gas really convince 14% of Americans that Iraq had WMDs after all? How is it that we're still having this conversation? How, with about 100 Iraqis dying violent deaths every day on average, are people still convinced that we saved them from that bad, bad man Saddam? I wonder if future researchers will find that American Public opinions are actually tied to sunspots or other celestial forces.

Because they certainly aren't tied to actual facts on planet earth.

Yeuck. Maybe I'll just move to Canada one day instead back to the U.S. Oh wait...

I know...obviously, as it were...

What do people really mean when they say "as it were"? There seems to be two usages for this curious construction. You can use it to be snide about something without actually resorting to quotation marks, of course. The other, more commonly British usage, is as a kind of semi-apologetic verbal placeholder of nervous embarrassment. One can imagine Hugh Grant firing off a few "as it were"s during the course of his questioning after he got hauled off Sunset. With Tony Blair's accidental open mike though, it seems he wasn't merely embarrassed, but mortified:
When Tony Blair offers himself as a Middle East peace envoy, he is casually rebuffed by the American President between bites on a bread roll. Told by Bush that 'Condi is going', the normally fluent Blair is reduced to inarticulate jabbering. 'Well, it's only if, I mean, you know, if she's got a... or if she needs the ground prepared as it were... Because obviously if she goes out, she's got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.' Yeah, just talk.

It was awful for Tony Blair to be caught asking for permission to go to the Middle East. It was dire to hear George Bush saying he wouldn't let the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom go out - not even on a pointless trip. It looks even more humiliating when the French Foreign Minister is going.
Poor Blair. Well, to salve the agony of being so summarily put in his place, at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that Bush really liked the Burbery sweater Blair got him for his birthday:'I know you picked it out yourself.' Ah, the warm fuzzies.

Of course, I haven't actually seen Bush wear the sweater, so he's probably just saying that to make you feel better, Tony.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

You gotta be fucking kidding me

Tell me this is some kind of hideous mistake. Please. Not "oops!" or "We thought there might have been some hezbollah types in there...", but "we're gnashing our teeth and rending our garments as we speak for committing such an egregious error." I'm not counting on it though.
In Sunday's attack, Chaalan was thrown backward while the other medics rushed to pull the wounded from the smashed vehicle. As they pulled the child out, the Israelis struck again, blowing up the second ambulance.

"I felt like I was dying," Chaalan said Monday, after his release from a hospital. "I thought, 'I'm dead.' "

Fortunately, he was only stunned and needed three stitches to close a wound on his chin.

After the attack, a Red Cross volunteer reached the organization's headquarters in Tyre, which relayed news of the assault to the International Red Cross headquarters in Geneva. After nearly two hours of negotiations, the Israelis guaranteed safe passage for the volunteers and the wounded back to Tyre.

Despite a donation of blood from Chaalan, the wounded man, 40-year-old Ahmed Mustafa Farwaz, lost his right leg below the knee, while his son Mohammed Farwaz, 14, remained in serious condition with shrapnel wounds to his abdomen. The elder Farwaz's unidentified mother suffered severe nerve damage to her legs.
But hey, I'm sure they dropped some leaflets telling people to not be in the area and to be sure to blame Hezbollah if they don't like being picked off on while on the run like pheasants in one of Dick Cheney's hunting trips. Hezbollah wouldn't have had the decency to do that much.

UPDATE: You've gotta be fucking kidding me, part II. Israel kills 4 U.N. observers, including a Canadian, a Chinese, an Austrian and a Finn. Kofi Annan is calling the attack deliberate.
Annan said in his statement the post had been there for a long time and was marked clearly, and was hit despite assurances from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that UN positions would not be attacked.

"I call on the government of Israel to conduct a full investigation into this very disturbing incident and demand that any further attack on UN positions and personnel must stop," Annan said in the statement.
It's a shocking accusation. If true, it's a shocking indictment. I can't believe bring myself to belief that Israel would be this stupid. Who's going to want to bail Israel out with boots on the ground if this is how the IDF treats citizens of other countries?

Proportionality? What are you, a bigot?

Richard Cohen wonders if those who don't think Israel should flatten the country of Lebanon in retaliation for two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah might be hiding something:
The dire consequences of proportionality are so clear that it makes you wonder if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel sentiment in general. Anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows that proportionality is madness. For Israel, a small country within reach, as we are finding out, of a missile launched from any enemy's back yard, proportionality is not only inapplicable, it is suicide. The last thing it needs is a war of attrition. It is not good enough to take out this or that missile battery. It is necessary to reestablish deterrence: You slap me, I will punch out your lights.
As John pointed out in derision, it's the same approach that worked wonders in Iraq, right?
The only way to ensure that babies don't die in their cribs and old people in the streets is to make the Lebanese or the Palestinians understand that if they, no matter how reluctantly, host those rockets, they will pay a very, very steep price.
Nice. Israeli babies die in their cribs, but the Lebanese merely "pay a steep price." Kind of like how those who cancel their holiday plans at the last minute gets their deposit taken.

But wait! Cohen saves the best for last. Here he is, airily rationalizing away the injustice suffered by the Palestinians...
Israel is, as I have often said, unfortunately located, gentrifying a pretty badneighborhood. But the world is full of dislocated peoples, and we ourselves livein a country where the Indians were pushed out of the way so that -- oh, what irony! -- the owners of slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea. As for Europe, who today cries for the Greeks of Anatolia or the Germans of Bohemia?

Who indeed! I guess history is just all water under the bridge for Cohen, right?
These calls for proportionality rankle. They fall on my ears not as genteel expressions of fairness, some ditsy Marquess of Queensberry idea of war, but as ugly sentiments pregnant with antipathy toward the only democratic state in the Middle East. After the Holocaust, after 1,000 years of mayhem and murder, the only proportionality that counts is zero for zero. If Israel's enemies want that, they can have it in a moment.
That's right. Your eyes doth not decieve you. A mere two sentences after he suggested that the Palestinians should just get over being kicked out of their homes already (a sentiment I'm somewhat sympathetic to), Richard Cohen had the temerity to drop the H bomb. Not to mention the 1000 year of oppression the Jews suffered at the hand of (mainly) the Christians. Remind me again, how does this relate to Israel's right to turn the clocks back 20 years in Lebanon? I just don't see it. Maybe I should just STFU if I don't want Richard Cohen to think that I'm an a-a-a-anti-semite (notice how Cohen cleverly never used that term in his column...yay for plausable deniability.)

Oh, I forgot. It's the rabid anti-Israel left that's been "intimidating moderates into silence."

Stupider humans

Continuing the theme of scientific experiment telling us what we don't want to hear about ourselves, here's a study showing what we perhaps suspected all along: partisans see bias, even where there is none.
There was only one thing on which pro-Israeli and pro-Arab audiences agreed. Both were certain that media coverage in the United States was hopelessly biased in favor of the other side. [snip]

Partisans, it turns out, don't just arrive at different conclusions; they see entirely different worlds . In one especially telling experiment, researchers showed 144 observers six television news segments about Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon.

Pro-Arab viewers heard 42 references that painted Israel in a positive light and 26 references that painted Israel unfavorably.

Pro-Israeli viewers, who watched the very same clips, spotted 16 references that painted Israel positively and 57 references that painted Israel negatively.

Both groups were certain they were right and that the other side didn't know what it was talking about.
Kevin Drums dubs this "the hostile media syndrome", which I think is apt. Of course, those in the media well-knows this phenomenon, hence the old, maddeningly smug and truthy adage that if you're catching flak from both sides, you must be doing something right. Frankly, following this "fair-and-balanced" approach frequently results not in true neutrality, but a kind of vapid he-said she-said brand of reporting, always frightened stiffed of the charge of "bias!" I much prefer the system in England where you've got many newspapers and you know where they're coming from. The Daily Telegraph is not called the Daily Torygraph for nothing; the Guardian makes no bones about leaning left; and the Sun is objectively-pro topless girls on page 3.

How Sir Harold can help us help the GWDs

Global Warming Denialists often like to reference scientists who went against the herd and turned out to be right, like Galileo. This enable them to feel pleasantly brave and truth-teller-ish even as they wallow deeper in their delusion. Well, here's a good reposte to that talking point.
To be sure, there are a handful of scientists, including MIT professor Richard Lindzen, the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, who disagree with the rest of the scientific community. To a historian of science like me, this is not surprising. In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values.

....A historical example will help to make the point. In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.
It goes without saying that neither heliocentrism or plate tectonics have anything to do with global warming. You can find any number of examples of scientists going against CW and turning out to be right, or wrong. Still, it's depressing how often the perception of who "wins" a conversation hinges on rhetorical points. This is a good one.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Wilbur and Lance

(This is another excerpt from my 5th-grade reading workbook, The Scratch Papers, now out-of-print. Previous excerpts: one, two.)

When Professor Scratch and Howling Jack took Wilbur for his first ride, those three wound up at a hot-dog stand in Chicago in 1956. They all three had a hot dog, which Howling Jack enjoyed so much that he immediately ordered two more and some onion rings. Meanwhile, Professor Scratch stood around making mysterious notes in a little black book.

Wilbur had a very good time and, sure enough, they came back to the very moment they had left: 4:02 P.M. Wilbur shook hands with Professor Scratch and Howling Jack and told them they had some fine machine there.

They told Wilbur to come back anytime. Wilbur said good-bye and went back through the hole in the fence. When he stepped out onto the old sidewalk, Lance Lugfarm was there. Lance was trying to carve "Little Darla loves Lance" into the fence with his penknife. He was having a tough time spelling "Little," much less "Darla," so Wilbur helped him out some.

Then Wilbur told Lance about the time machine.

"Nuts," Lance said. He was a boy of few words.

"It's true," Wilbur told him. "We went all the way back to 1956."

"Nuts," Lance said again. "Let's see it."

Wilbur said, "It wouldn't be polite to go back right now. But I could take you tomorrow if you don't tell any of the other kids."

Then Wilbur had an idea. "But you could bring Little Darla with you," Wilbur suggested. He hoped this would be his chance to impress her.

"We'll see," Lance said. "We'll see."

Stupid humans

(Via LGM)

Are we doomed to repeating the same cycles of increasingly deadly tit-for-tat by our psychology?
In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

Perhaps just as disturbingly, as soon as both sides convinced themselves that the other side started things, the next step is escalation, even when our parties are acting "in good faith".
The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

I guess human beings are the same everywhere, either in a lab or in hell's handbasket.

I am a strong believer in the human capacity to use knowledge to modify our behavior in beneficial ways. So, it can only be hoped that these experiments will add to our store of self-knowledge and thus improve our decision-making process. However, this might be unduly optimistic of me. After all, the basic cognitive biases are all well-researched and (to some extent) understood, yet we have hardly banished them from human behavior.

It's not a by-catch, it's a delicacy

Ohhhh mannn!

Apparently, there is a surfeit of squid in the Pacific Northwest this year. It's called a "by-catch" there, and described as "unusable". Imagine, all that squid going to waste...

C'mon, guys. Have some imagination. I'd rather eat a nice roasted squid over pollock (the main catch) any day. Even better, it could be eaten raw as squid sushi or sashimi. Or if you're too squeamish about it, cut up into rings to be fried as calamari. Want something exotic, use the ink to color pasta. Dried like jerky, they are a popular snack here in Taiwan, and almost all protein. No insult to octopuses, but there is no tastier and more versatile cephalopod the squid.

Have Pageants, not wars

(Via Sully)

Why does it make me so happy that there is a Mr. Gay Vatican? I mean, it's just such an unlikely juxaposition...oh wait.

Mr. Gay Lebanon, Mr. Gay Israel and Mr. Gay Iraq have also made it to the finals.

Of course, in the end there can be only one Mr. Gay (International). If I remember to revisit this site in September I will be sure to put in a vote for Mr. Gay Venezuela.

Monday Book Blogging: Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Trusse

A panda walks into a bar and orders a sandwich. After he finishes the sandwich, he pulls out a shotgun and fires twice before heading to the door. The owner called after him, "why did you do that for?" "Look it up for yourself," the panda said as he tossed a battered old copy of a Wildlife Guide. Under "Panda", it said "Large bear-like mammal from China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

How a misplace comma can wreck havoc...hyuk hyuk.

I'm teaching the SATs right now, so several points in the book were actually useful to me. In particular, the book helped me convince some doubtful students that it really is OK to use a comma to imply missing information as in this sentence -- "Fear prevents some people from speaking out against prejudice; ignorance, others; a lax sense of morality, only a few." -- no errors here! Really!

You'll know from a couple of pages in whether you will find this book hilarious or insufferable. I belong to the first camp, but I can't help but think back to what I learnt in psychology class about how kids find jokes in which the punchline hinges on a piece of knowledge that was only recently grasped especially humerous. Thus with 4-year-olds everything with poop in it is funny. Well, for me, this book is funny because it contained a number of "lightbulb" moments. I had been kind of anxious about my rampant semi-colon habit; after reading this book, I feel like one of the cool kids instead.

I won't ever become a stickler a la Trusse though. Punctuation is a means to an end -- I appreciate hints that will make my own writings easier to read, but I don't think I'd feel right hectoring somebody else about their punctuation (unless I'm being paid to do it). Besides, they'd probably turn around and hector me right back at my terrible grammar. Alas, Ms. Trusse has written no similarly light-hearted and informative guide to grammar.

Lies, Damned lies and "If...then" statements

Libertarian Guy comments:

If Hizbullah and other hate-filled organizations weren't hell-bent on destroying Israel... then Israel wouldn't be bombing anyone.
Of course, it's too simple to say that. Sad, isn't it?
Erm, yes. It is. In fact, strip away the emotional hyperbole, and you're left with a practically meaningless statement: "If the other side would only do what we want, there would be no need for war." If only the Indians collectively jumped into the river, there would have been no need for the colonialists to distribute the smallpox blankets; if only Taiwan would voluntarily put itself under the rule of China, there would be no need for so many nasty missiles to be aimed at us from the mainland...

Note how LB implies that everything would be coming up roses for everyone if only the hateful Muslims would stop hating. Really? So if all Palestinians embraced peace tomorrow, Israel is going to give them back their land, let the refugees home and let everyone get on with their lives? Is it really that simple? Lawrence of Cyberia describes Jericho:

Jo-Ann Mort had an article in this week’s Forward, about a recent visit to
Jericho, where she interviewed Saeb Erekat, head of the PLO Negotiations Affairs
Department. Jericho is unusual among the Palestinian cities, in that it is the
least visibly affected by the intifada and the only one never to have produced a
suicide bomber. The Forward is apparently quite taken with what an outpost of
peace and tranquility it is, and suggests that if only every Palestinian would
act like Erekat and all their cities like Jericho, then Israel and the
Palestinians could be living in peace.
If Erekat had his way, Hamas would accept Israel's existence and let
Abbas — and Erekat — negotiate a permanent peace with Israel. "If the current
government accepts Abu Mazen's program," he said, using Abbas's nom de guerre,
"I don't think we have any problems, simply because negotiation with Israel is
not the affair of the government. It is the affair of the PLO. The government
and the [Palestinian Legislative] Council have no jurisdiction over me as the
head of the negotiating department."

Of course, Erekat cannot
act independently. In a way, he resembles the city he represents. Jericho, too,
could reach its own modus vivendi with Israel if were left to its own devices.
But it is not an independent player.

Well, pardon my French
but really, what a one-sided, self-serving steaming pile of crap. I’m glad there
is little overt violence there beyond the occasional IDF "incursion", but is she
really suggesting that if only all Palestine was like Jericho, everything might
be just hunky-dory between Israelis and Palestinians? As if the only thing
stopping peace breaking out all over the Levant is Hamas and its “violent
attacks on Israelis”, and once their violence stops relations would be normal.
As if there is no context for Palestinian violence, no underlying conflict,
definitely no military occupation, no illegal settlements encroaching on the
land Palestinians need to survive, etc. If they’d just stop making a fuss and
play nice like Jericho, everything would be fine for the Palestinians...

But that’s not true, is it? Whether it resists militarily or not,
Jericho is under a foreign military occupation that gives the occupier all the
rights and the occupied none. Whether it resists or not, Jericho and its
farmlands are relentlessly encroached upon by the expansion of the Maale Adumim
super-settlement to the west and the settlement of Vered Jericho to the north.
Whether it resists or not, Jericho’s agricultural hinterland in the Jordan
Valley has been earmarked for annexation by Ehud Olmert, who is building new
settlements there like Maskiot (some of whose inhabitants were among the
settlers removed last year from the illegal Gaza settlements, and are now trying
their luck in the illegal settlements of the West Bank). And I’m sure Jo-Ann
Mort had a lovely lunch with Erekat, but I bet he didn’t invite her for a picnic
on his family’s land, because he can’t. Because Israel confiscated it. And no
matter how nice he plays, Israel doesn’t show any inclination to give it back.

And that’s the point. Jericho’s renunciation of violence hasn’t made
things normal there. Israel dispossesses and displaces the Palestinians of the
Occupied Territories regardless of whether they want to talk peace or not, and
denies them equal rights not because of anything they do, but simply because of
who they are.

Let's be brutally honest here: the existence of Israel was predicated on a land-grab that was horridly unjust to the Palestinians. I'm not trying to be judgemental -- no country in the world right now came into existence without kicking somebody else off their "rightful" land in process. ("Rightful" is in quotes because I'm sure in their turn the dispossessed were once the disposessers). As a Taiwanese-American, I'm certainly in no position to throw any stones, seeing as how the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan and America were horribly persecuted to "make room" for the Han Chinese and European settlers respectively. Israel exists now, that's the way it is, and the Palestinians need to suck it up -- they're outgunned, and all the petty misery they can inflict on Israel shall be returned to them tenfold. There will be no right of return because the Israelis won't allow it. Israel, meanwhile, needs to be honest to itself about its real role in this conflict -- It has been, and continues to be, the aggressor. It shouldn't need to think real hard to realize why it is hated. It cannot keep doing this Kabuki dance where it was minding its own business until it was provoked into action. If it's been planning the current war with Lebanon for years, don't pretend that the two captured soldiers are anything other than a pretext, m'kay?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Introducing Lance and Darla

(This is another excerpt from my beloved 5th-grade reading workbook, The Scratch Papers, now out-of-print.)

Wilbur was no good at being dumb. He practiced being stupid for hours at a time. No matter how much he practiced, though, he would always get discouraged when he saw someone like Lance Lugfarm. Lance had no trouble being stupid at all. He didn't even have to practice. Lance could do anything he wanted and still be as stupid as ever.

There was a girl in school with Lance and Wilbur named Little Darla Wentworth. She was ten years old, just as they were. Darla would cheer for Lance at baseball games and such. But she didn't like Wilbur at all, even though Wilbur couldn't see anybody but Darla. Lance wasn't interested in much of anything except himself and sports.

Two things happened to Wilbur on Valentine's Day that made him feel very bad. First, he got his shirt caught in the pencil sharpener just as Lance Lugfarm was coming to sharpen his pencil. Wilbur always tried to act very cool and tough around Lance. But it is hard to act cool and tough when your shirt is caught in the pencil sharpener.

Lance didn't pay much attention to Wilbur, though. All he said was, "Tough luck, kid," and went off to use some other pencil sharpener.

Later, Wilbur sneaked a special valentine into Little Darla's desk. He had written this special poem on it:

Roses are red; violets are blue;
I hope you don't get a cold
or the flu.

Hiding behind trees so she wouldn't see him, Wilbur followed Darla after school. About a block from her house Darla dropped Wilbur's valentine by accident, and Wilbur found it in the street. He felt very sad. It also started to rain about that time, and he was all wet before he got home.

In shells we trust

It's a sad image -- an Israeli child scribbling messages on shells destined to plow into Lebanon. She probably has no concept of the damage these shells might do to homes, to bodies. She merely sees them as the solution to the shells that have been falling on her homes, aimed at her family. Which just makes the image more terribly poignant -- it captures perfectly our naive faith in the power of destruction, of how innocently we can begin to hate.*

But what are the actual probable effects of those shells? Christopher Allbriton reports from Beirut:
In March, I settled [in Lebanon] for the foreseeable future. I have a wide variety of friends, not just upper-crust Christians, and while I’m not a polling company, I think I have a decent grasp of the zeitgeist here.

Before this damn war, Hizbullah was losing support. It wasn’t draining, but it was ebbing. The political process was stuttering along, but it was moving. Many people here hated Hizbullah… Many people also loved it. The society was split but there was a consensus the problem had to be settled judiciously and politically because no one wanted another civil war.

When the first Israeli bombs fell, some Shi’ites even blamed Hizbullah. I met a guy in the southern suburbs last Saturday, just four days after things started. He’s a Shi’ite from Nabatiyeh in the south and hated Hizbullah. He thought they’d screwed up big-time. These days, when I talk to him, he says he hopes Hizbullah rips the Israelis apart. Another friend of mine, one of those upper-crust Christians, told me last night that as much as he hates Hizbullah, he hates the Israelis even more now.

The Lebanese are closing ranks in the face of an external threat, just like people all over the world do — with the exception of Spain, I guess. They’re no different from anyone else, and the same thing happened in the initial days of Iraq. The same pattern would play out in Iran, too, if this war gets that far east. The West has no monopoly on unity, patriotism and nationalism.

That said, unity rarely lasts. In the case of America, it led to a polarized public where the public debate seems to involve screaming “traitor!” when someone votes for a Democrat for the school board.

In the Middle East, things rarely stay at that level. Once that unity breaks, we’re left with civil war. (See, Lebanon, 1975-1990 and Iraq, 2003-present.) And in civil wars, lots of people die and the situation that needed to be fixed is usually worse. (Does anyone think Iraq is a more stabilizing force than it was?)

* Lisa Goldman argues eloquently for a more nuanced and forgiving interpretation of the photograph. I understand, those children have been through a lot. So has their counterparts in Gaza and Lebanon. If suffering makes hatred OK, then both sides have earned the right to hate each other until the end of time.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Whose afraid of the big, bad, ghosts?

The Taiwanese, apparently.
In Taiwan, ghosts are rarely a laughing matter. On TV, in daily conversation, at temples and in the deepest recesses of the unconscious, they maintain a firm grip on island society. Taiwanese are ghost-crazy — or rather, crazy to avoid them. A recent survey of Taipei college students found that 87% were believers, and some say that could be on the low side.

"I'd say the other 13% would probably hedge their bets if you questioned them closer," says Marc Moskowitz, an anthropologist at Lake Forest College in Illinois who has studied Taiwan's spirit beliefs. "Many Taiwanese feel it's best not to anger the ghosts, just in case they do exist."
I find this phenomenon fascinating. It just goes to illustrate how members of a society that has drank deeply out of the beneficial cup of science can neverthless hold deeply irrational beliefs. However, unlike evangelical christians, whose faith compells them to deny evolution, ghost-belief in the Taiwanese seems to be a completely discrete parallel paradigm. Believing in ghosts was no barrier to the enthusiastic acceptance of western science; but conversely, their adaptation of western science did not undermine their belief in ghosts. This leads to some amusing contradictions -- I've known a biologist whose lab holds yearly baibais (or spiritual services) for the rats they kill in their experiments, so that the soul of the rats would not return to disturb future experiments!

I've also had a Chinese teacher, a slim, coiffed, middle-aged Taiwanese lady; just about the most sensible, no-nonsense person you can imagine. Except for the fact that she also considers herself uncommonly sensitive to the world of the spirits. With a matter-of-fact manner, she related how the ghost of her Father-in-Law came back to her house a few days after he died. "The doorbell wouldn't stop ringing. We got a repairman, and he couldn't fix it," she said, "...then I realized that it was Dad. We had to open the door, greet him properly and let him in every night when he rings the bell. He finally left us for good 49 days after he passed." I didn't know what to say. I could hardly question the veracity of her account, neither could I credit it. Was there really a doorbell malfunction at her house that triggered this story? Or was it an embellishment to make the return of the Father-in-law more tangible? Either way, Mrs. Jiang spoke with absolute conviction.

Anyhow, we are all entitled to our harmless irrational beliefs. I might not believe in ghosts, but I have a horror of killing spiders. I believe that all the spiders in the world are connected to a giant spidey-hive-mind, so that if you kill one of them, more spiders in the vicinity will gang up and get you. Don't ask me how this notion got planted in my head, or why known spider-killers have gone without their punishment. I know this belief is not rational. But like they say with the ghosts, better safe than sorry, right?

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Scratch Machine

(This is an excerpt from The Scratch Papers, my fifth-grade reading workbook, now out of print. A bit of navel-gazing follows.)

None of the other kids liked Wilbur, because he always won the spelling contest on Friday afternoons. Since he didn't have anybody to play with, he took long walks by himself.

One cold Friday afternoon, just for an adventure, Wilbur crawled through a hole in an old fence. Inside the fence were tall weeds. And on the other side of the weeds was a window from which an awful racket was coming.

When Wilbur peeked in, he saw a crazy professor. Wilbur could tell because the man looked like all the crazy professors on television. He was cranking away at a large machine that looked something like a big orange pumpkin. Standing beside the professor was a very handsome fellow with a lot of muscles.

"Blast and drat!" Wilbur heard the professor say. "I need to tighten that one little bolt down there, and both of us are too big to get at it."

Wilbur saw a chance to be helpful; so he tapped on the window. The men looked up. The handsome guy came over and opened the window and lifted Wilbur in. "Hi," Wilbur told them. "Can I help you?"

"Possibly," the crazy professor said. "My name is Scratch. This is my friend, Howling Jack Wolfbane."

"Why is his first name Howling?" Wilbur asked.

"More about that later," Howling Jack said vaguely. He pointed. "Can you crawl under there and tighten that bolt for us?"

Wilbur looked. There was just enough space under the big pumpkin for a kid. "Sure," he said, and once he was given a wrench, he did.

"Thanks for fixing my time machine," Professor Scratch said. "Get in, and I'll take you for a ride."

"It's very nice of you to invite me," Wilbur said, "But I have to be home in time for dinner."

"You will," Howling Jack said. "We always come back to exactly the same time and place we left."

So all three got into the time machine. You'll soon find out what happened next.
Reading over this now, 25 years later, it's obvious to me why I was so enamored of this book. I strongly identified with Wilbur, because I was the kid that always won the spelling contest, and I often took long walks by myself because I had no one to play with.

I doubt that my academic talents had anything to do with my childhood social problems. I usually played by myself because I was bad at the sort of games that other boys liked to play, viz. kickball and other sports. I wasn't the kid who was always picked last -- that was Bill, the fat kid -- but I was always picked second-to-last.

So I often played by myself, off in an imaginary world I constructed from various cartoons and science fiction TV shows. When I did play with other kids, it was usually with the girls. That was okay with me, because they played the sort of games of imagination that I did (although without the science fiction trappings). And besides, I always liked girls. But more on that next time, when we meet Wilbur's crush, Little Darla Wentworth.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Childhood nostalgia bookblogging - The Scratch Papers

Two weeks ago, I posted a bleg for the title of my 5th-grade reading workbook, which I had adored. Thomas Knapp provided the clue I needed in comments to find the title: The Scratch Papers.

It's out of print now, of course, but I managed to track down a gently-used copy via Academic Book Services.

So over the next few weeks (months, perhaps), I'll be posting artwork and excerpts from The Scratch Papers. You'll travel through time with Wilbur, Professor Scratch, and Howling Jack Wolfbane; you'll meet Prof. Scratch's arch-enemy, Moog the Merciless and his strange bubble-gum-like slaves, the Word Gobblers; and learn the history of the lost kingdom of Tabletenia, which sank into the sea in 1569.

And perhaps it will help you forget, just for a few minutes, about wars in the Middle East, our nascent police state, and the fact that we still have two and half more years of the Bush presidency to endure.

Quote of the Day

It's writing like this that proves that Kevin Drum deserves his place near the top of the liberal blogosphere.
It is, often, not so much war itself that people long for, but the moral certainty that comes with it; thus the venom directed even toward those who are skeptical of war, let alone those who are resolutely opposed to it. It's not that the skeptics prevent the hawks from getting the war they want — they usually don't — but that they deny them the moral certainty they so desperately yearn for. And that cannot be tolerated.

Kantian Nihilists!

Walter Sobchak: Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings says exactly what I wanted to say about Chris Muir's bizarre display of philosophical ignorance in his paradigmatically unfunny right-wing comic strip, Day by Day. (One, Two.)

The Just-in-case War

I don't know what the latest body-count is, but what is unlikely to have changed since I last checked is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dead in Lebanon have been innocent civilians. Many have suggested that this ratio be excused by the fact that Hezbollah have been known to fire rockets in civilian homes. I disagree. If the Israelis have concrete info that rockets are being fired from a civilian home, that's one thing. If they are using the fact that there could be hezbollah rockets to fire on random civlian homes, that's something different all together. Given the scale of the bombings and the very low number of Hezbollah killed, I'd say that they've been doing more of the latter than the former. Here's Juan Cole:
That kind of broad gauge approach is not allowed by the modern laws of warfare. If you have good reason to think that a truck is carrying weaponry to Hizbullah, you can bomb it. But just bombing any old civilian truck is a war crime.

So, the Israelis could have attempted to surveil trucking and where they had good reason to think that a truck was transporting weapons, they could have hit it. But just blowing up random trucks is criminal.

Israel has fought a lazy war, both morally lazy and militarily lazy. It is work to surveil enemy shipments. So, you just blow up the airport and the ports and roads and bridges, regardless of whether you have reason to believe that any of them is used by Hizbullah for their war effort. Just in case. It is a just in case war. You bomb Shiite villages intensively, just in case they have military significance to Hizbullah. Maybe they don't, and you've just blown up a civilian neighborhood and killed whole families. Where blowing up things has no immediate and legitimate military purpose and harms innocent civilians, it is a crime. It can be prosecuted, especially in Europe.
Maybe they feel like they are in something of a supermarket sweep of bombing campaigns -- they have a limited time window, they have to hit as many targets as possible in that time frame -- and they don't have to pay at the checkout.

What kind of tax would a libertarian economist endorse?

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution writes today about the Arizona Voter Reward Act, which, if passed, would reward Arizona voters with a lottery ticket for a chance to win a million dollars.

Now I happen to agree with the USA Today editorial that Prof. Tabarrok links to:
[I]t's a tawdry idea. It cheapens one of the most important things a citizen of a democracy can do. It amounts to bribing citizens to vote. It reduces the act of voting to the equivalent of buying a Powerball ticket. It says it's less important to weigh candidates, and issues such as the war in Iraq, than to simply show up for a chance at the prize.
But that's not what bothers Prof. Tabarrok:

Frankly, too many people vote already. I know, that's heresy against the great religion of democracy - i.e. worship of the mob - but other people voting is an externality on me and in this case I will side with Pigou.

For those of you who don't know the economic jargon that Prof. Tabarrok uses, I'll explain.

In economics, an externality is an effect, positive or negative, that one's action have on another person, which one does not take (fully) into account when deciding whether or not to perform that action. Externalities are one of the things that can cause inefficiencies in a free market economy.

For example, by driving one produces both pollution and traffic congestion. Pollution and traffic congestion are negative externalities of driving. These effects on others are not fully taken into account by drivers, so we end up with more air pollution and traffic jams than the optimal amount (from an economic point of view).

Prof. Tabarrok is saying that voting is an action that has (negative) effects on others, and these effects are not fully taken into account by others. This leads to a more-than-optimal amount of voting.

Arthur Pigou was the economist who developed the economic concept of externalities. He also proposed a mechanism by which the market inefficiencies produced by externalities could be remedied: activities which have negative externalities, such as driving, can be taxed. (And activities that have positive externalities can be subsidized.) This causes actors to "internalize the externality," and so produce the optimal amount of the activity (from an economic point of view).

So what Prof. Tabarrok is endorsing is a poll tax, a tax on voting. Unfortunately for Prof. Tabarrok, the 24th amendment stands in the way of his preferred policy:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
Do you suppose that Prof. Tabarrok (Canadian by birth) is unaware of the history of the poll tax in the U.S.?