Monday, July 30, 2007

Truth or Bogosity

Over at American Thinker Rick Moran quotes an email he received:

So waiting for the Dolphin swim at Discovery Cove in Orlando, my daughter Nikki and I were seated with a Brit family--mom, daughter and son. After small talk about the great value of the pound vs the dollar etc, I mentioned that Churchill was one of my heroes. The son, no more than 16 countered that he really liked Hitler, and his sister Gandhi. I was stunned and sickened.

According to him, Hitler was a great leader and did great things for the German people. He brought them out of depression. His quest for land was only to provide "living space" for the German people. The reason for the London bombings was because Britain "carpet bombed" German cities. Hitler had to attack France, for they were a treat to his effort to gain land for living space. The atrocities of the Holocaust were attributed to the fact that he was "mad", so it wasn't his fault. In general, his intentions were noble.

In speaking privately with his mother after my discussion, she stated that this is the new curriculum in the British schools to combat "prejudice" against Germans. They teach the children not to "judge" Hitler.
This is so bizarre that it sounds like an urban legend. Is there anyone out there, preferably from Britain, who can confirm that this sort of history is now the norm in British schools?


Yep, it seems this is bogus. I'm surprised that Rick Moran would publish such a thing without a bit more research. On second thought, maybe I'm not so surprised.

Update II:

Or maybe not. James in the Samizdata comments:

It's riddled with factual errors.

For a start, 'British schools' assumes that there is only one curriculum, when there is not. The English curriculum varies not wildly, but enough to denote a difference to the Scottish one.

Perhaps the parent's exageration stems from the lack of contextual teaching in history. What is described isn't far off what I was taught in GCSE Modern World History not more than seven years ago. Combined with the simplistic nature of taught facts, the lack of context and lack of multi-dimensional thinking on behalf of most pupils leads many of them to reach naive conclusions.

I remember a number of people in my age group coming to the conclusion that, because he built roads, 'revitalised' the economy, 'stood up to' European bullies and helped drive up employment, he was somehow a 'great leader'- just with a 'flawed logic'.

A similar 'fluffy' picture is painted with the birth of the Soviet Union, also taught in GCSE Modern World History- the glory of the Five Year Plan and the Stakhanovite ethos. The brutal totality of the Soviet era is left entirely untouched.

You'll all be pleased to know that FDR was part of the syllabus, too...

I seems to me that James has made a good case that "riddled with errors" might, in fact, be wrong. I can see how a child could come to the conclusions in the letter if history is taught without context. Which raises the question, just how would one teach a youngster about Hitler and the Nazis? If you don't allow yourself to be judgemental and gloss over such things as the camps, is it not possible that Hitler and Stalin (and Mao) will appear as not such bad chaps? Somewhere along the line the idea that mass slaughter is an evil that trumps all could get lost in the rush to be fair.

Update III:

Or maybe the kid was winding someone up, J at Samizdata:

I say the kid:
a) is smart
b) was trolling you
c) has won

I remember my brother used to do the same:

"What do you want to be when you grown up then?"
"I'm going to be unemployed and sponge off the state."

Ah-ha, says I. I think that J is onto something.

Voices and Songs

The other day at Roger's Place there was a brief discussion thread about female vocalists. One of the commenters seemed to feel that voices which aren't earthshaking, merely pleasant voices, are unworthy of listening to or mentioning.

This weekend, on a whim, the Better-Two-Thirds and I went to see Linda Eder and Michael Feinstein performing together in their Two For The Road Tour.

I had never heard of either. Actually, in the case of Ms. Eder, I'd merely fogotten her. I'd seen her in Jekyll & Hyde. Apparently Mr. Feinstein is well known to afficionados of what has become known as The Great American Songbook. He hosted the PBS series which I have never seen but wish I had.

We almost left the show at intermission. I wasn't sure whether the problem was the sound system or the acoustics for the hall but the sound was not right and it was wearing upon my desire to listen. My bride, who has an infinitely more astute ear, said it was the sound system, the portion handling the band, and that it was improving, so we stayed. I'm glad we did. By the time intermission was over they'd fixed whatever the problem was. We enjoyed the remainder of the show enough to outweigh the initial dissatisfaction.

The lady can sing. I'll leave others to decide if her voice is suitably earth-shaking or not. I know I'll be picking up some of her CDs (well, I'll get the iTunes rather than the CDs, but it's all the same).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

There Will Come A Time—

An actor named Ulrich Mühe died last Sunday.

Sometime during the first five years of this century a writer-director working on his first feature film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, decided that Ulrich Mühe would play the character named Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in that film, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Because he played that character, Ulrich Mühe's name will appear on lists of award-winning movie actors for as long as those awards are given out and he will be seen as long as movies are ported to whatever medium in that era guarantees their continuing availability to potential viewers.

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) will be released on DVD on August 21st. I'll post my full review here sometime fairly soon after that provided I and here are still here.

My mini-review: I'd estimate that thus far I've seen somewhere close to one thousand movies released during this century. Right now, it's my favorite of the lot.

William F. Buckley went even further in his assessment when he reviewed it here. Alistair didn't go so far as either of us when he (an assumption) reviewed it here.

R.I.P. Ulrich Mühe. You'll be celebrated...and missed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Weekly Links

Iran, oil, inflation, Venezuela, Russia, and all the trouble in the world.

Why do they hate us?

The nano-mechanical computer.

The lies of women.

6 productivity tips.

Alternative energy of the vampire sort.

Yet another potential HIV vaccine.

Three chick flicks and their unintended message.

Housing woes in the prime sector too?

Hard truths about energy.

The taxonomy of fallacies.

Printed circuit board do-it-yourself guide.

Chinese foodstuff quality control in perspective.

24 real-life sea monsters.

Does man control the weather, or does the weather control man?

Is reality coming back from the future?

The 12 kinds of ads.

Liquids are more fun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Where is this?

Answer to last puzzle: New Orleans, overlooking the French Quarter at Jackson Square, almost exactly above Cafe du Monde, as Skookumchuk nailed totally.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Movie Mini-Review: The Decalogue, Part I

The Decalogue, Part I, is one of those "arty" films which does not deign to explain to explain to its audience what is being shown. In an opening scene we meet an apparently homeless man sitting in the cold winter on the side of a pond. Who is he? We never find out.

The basic story is that a father has a son and the mother is absent. Where is she? We never find out, though it seems that she has died and the son is concerned with the nature of death. His father, the rational scientist, tells his son that it is the end, that nothing happens, that life is over. His sister, the Catholic believer, tells the boy tales of God and heaven. The father is then punished by God for his belief in science with the loss of his son. Such stories rub me entirely the wrong way. The movie is as transparently manipulative of our emotions as anything Hollywood has ever produced, but rather than entertaining or uplifting us, it seeks to stuff a stern moral lesson down our skeptical throats. I do not believe in a God who believes that I should not think, that the rational human mind must be punished, and harshly at that. There's nothing like having repugnant religious sensibilities pushed down one's throat for discovering one's own religious beliefs. My God believes in thinking, in eternal laws, in progress, science, and the betterment of mankind. Not in primitive submission to His petty vengeance.

Give me Back to the Future any day of the week.

Movie Mini-Review: The Decalogue, Part I

Posted by Alistair.

Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue is a series of ten one-hour films inspired by the Ten Commandments. In the first film—loosely inspired by the commandment "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me"—a young linguistics professor teaches his son about the world. The professor (Henryk Baranowski) gives his son Pawel (Wojciech Klata) complicated physics problems, takes him to his class, and generally teaches his son about the hidden joys of the intellectual world. I have known several father and son duos just like the one depicted in the movie and Kieslowski gets it exactly right. He perfectly captures the mild discomfort the father faces when forced to deal with the world outside of his classroom. Likewise, Pawel is shown with the exact mix of aloof sadness and naivety that characterizes intelligent children. Although they may have their flaws, the characters really and deeply love each other and Kieslowski shows this love in all of its simple and powerful beauty. This is the best part about this movie, and if it had ended after the first thirty minutes in which the characters are introduced it would be more than worthy of its reputation.

Unfortunately it does not. It goes on to discuss God and how religion cannot be replaced by science. Maybe this stuff was novel at one point, but now it has become remarkably cliched. Particularly when we get the message from people who completely lack an understanding of the computer. Although I have only seen the first part of the Decalogue, it has so far failed to live up to its immense reputation. I hope the next nine parts improve upon the story put forth here. But the first episode of the Decalogue shows a brilliant understanding of family and a lack of spiritual or religious clue. Its a shame religion is the subject of this series and not fathers and sons.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


My one-word review of the seven books about the boy who lived and one-word description of their creator, Joanne (J. K.) Rowling.

Over 50 years ago and 29 days after the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, my favorite dramatic confrontation in a repeatedly-read series of six books published in three parts takes place and ends thus:

Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'

Today, I feel much the same as I did when I first read those words some 37 years ago—exalted.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

More Metrics

Ryan Crocker was grilled Thursday concerning his areas of responsibility within the 18 target areas which Congress established. In many respects, his main responsibility is tougher than that being handled by Gen. Petraeus. He's responsible for herding the Iraqi legislative cats in order to get them to start:

1) enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba’athification reform.

2) enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to all Iraqis.

3) establishing provincial council authorities and establishing a date for provincial elections.

There were two developments this week that will aid (hopefully) in the cat herding. Both the Sunnis and the Sadrists have returned to Parliament. My view is that both realize that the oil revenue is going to be divvied up very soon (item 2) and neither wants to miss out on getting their cut. There is a fair chance that all three items will be achieved before the end of August, although I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

The Iraqi Reconstruction Effort proceeds apace with 84% of the money spent and three of the seven major goals accomplished. It looks as if two more will be accomplished shortly. The Corps of Engineers just keeps chugging along.

Bill Roggio provides another comprehensive (and positive) roundup of surge results while Michael Yon files a dispatch containing the most positive tag line I have ever seen him use.

I would also note that the Chicken Little Congress has set a new record. Keep up the good work!

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Someone who is willing to feed my addiction sent me these. I'll put up s'more anudder time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Weekly Links

What evolution left behind.

10 quick tips to improve your self-esteem.

Baby mammoth found intact.

Anti-aliasing explained.

Painting with light.

Quantum random bit generator service.

Farscape returns.

Best and worst movies of 2007 so far.

6 people search engines.

Learn Haskell in 10 minutes.

Robots walking running on water.

10 articles all bloggers should read.

Periodic table of the internet.

Yahoo Pipes tutorial.

Submarines of the rich and famous.

A real-life transformer.

First hunter-killer unmanned aircraft deployed to Iraq.

Chameleon liquid invented.

10 ways to improve your life.

World's largest telescope up and running.

5 plants for your yard that repel mosquitoes.

Free Ivy-League courses.

The map of planetary disasters.

The color of birds.

The cure for fear.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Have you been following Ron Paul?


I apologize for my long absence. I have been very busy and also blogging a bit about politics over at my personal blog, where I recently posted excerpts of Washington's and Eisenhower's farewell addresses.

I wondered what has been going on over here and whether any of you had taken an interest in the most interesting candidate of this presidential race in either party. I browsed the last couple weeks of postings and performed a search of the YARGB archives and found no posts at all mentioning him.

Ron Paul is the most different, inspiring and electrifying candidate in the race. His internet-based grassroots organization is the envy of the big-money and also-running campaigns alike, especially within the Republican field. He is the only one of either party with the principled and correct position on the war. He now has more money than 7 of the other candidates combined and has no debt. He is a true fiscal conservative judging by his 20 year voting record and how he husbands campaign resources.

Where is the commentary on this man? Where is the discussion? With the current leading Republican candidate, "None of the above," and strong weaknesses in all the pre-selected front runners, it seems high time we get familiar with the only one who can light the grass roots on fire and bring those "Reagan democrats" back into the tent along with many Independents and most all the Libertarians. Of course, a Ron Paul nomination implies a reform of the party and an unmistakably clear rejection of the "neo-conservative" project in the middle east and elsewhere. At least the choice is clear. No mud here.

I just attended the Young Republican National Convention and I think this party is asleep. If the future of the party is in the hands of these people, we have to work to do. Hillary will win unless Republicans wake up and revisit their core beliefs and principles and maybe even find some new ones.

Check out Ron Paul's first real stump speech of the campaign, delivered appropriately enough, outside Google HQ in Mountain View, CA this Saturday. He is really starting to catch fire. Love him or hate him, you will have to deal with him and the thousands of people like myself he has brought into political activism. The Freedom Movement is alive. The revolution is on...

Part 1:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

And of course check out his interview for Google employees. What candidate can field questions as well and as instructively? The man is an educator as well as a statesman.

I am curious to hear what this group thinks of the man.

Michael Vick Indicted by Feds for Gambling and Illegal Dogfighting

Here is the 18 page indictment.

The charges include gambling over dogfights and abusing dogs which have traveled in interstate commerce. At least some are felonies.

To put this in perspective with something we have followed over the past few years, this is a much stronger indictment than the one brought against Lewis Libby.

A conspiracy case is difficult to defend because any one of the conspirators can bring down the whole group. Any it is not necessary for a defendant to have participated in any of the "purposive acts" in furtherance of the conspiracy.

I will be very surprised if Vick plays another down in the NFL.

The new commissioner has suspended "Pacman" Jones for the season, and he has not even been charged with a crime. It is inconceivable to me that he will allow Vick to play while he is under indictment.

While I am by no means convicting Vick without a trial, I predict it will be very difficult for him to win before a Richmond federal jury.

This is tough on the Falcon's new coach Bobby Petrino, on the owner, Arthur Blank, on the General Manager, Rich McKay, on his teammates, and on Falcon fans like me.

Metrics and Narratives

Gen. Petraeus is scheduled to report progress (or lack thereof) to the 110th (Copperhead) Congress on September 15. The basis of his report will be a set of benchmarks thoughtfully provided by the Copperheads themselves with an eye towards using them as pillars in their "all is lost, flee for your lives" narrative which is supposed to carry them to "victory" in '08. Unfortunately (from the Copperhead perspective) the initial report is not wholly negative enough to support the defeat narrative:
On the 18 Congressional benchmarks concerning the Iraqi Government:

1. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward forming a Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) and then completing the constitutional review.
2. The Government of Iraq has not made satisfactory progress toward enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba’athification reform.
3. The current status is unsatisfactory, but it is too early to tell whether the Government of Iraq will enact and implement legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to all Iraqis.
4. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions.
5. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward establishing an Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) Commission. The Government of Iraq has not made satisfactory progress toward establishing a provincial elections law. The Government of Iraq has not made satisfactory progress toward establishing provincial council authorities. The Government of Iraq has not made satisfactory progress toward establishing a date for provincial elections.
6. The prerequisites for a successful general amnesty are not present; however, in the current security environment, it is not clear that such action should be a near-term Iraqi goal.
7. The prerequisites for a successful militia disarmament program are not present.
8. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad Security Plan.
9. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.
10. The Government of Iraq has not made satisfactory progress toward providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions in consultation with U.S. Commanders without political intervention to include the authority to pursue all extremists including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
11. The Government of Iraq has not at this time made satisfactory progress in ensuring that Iraqi Security Forces are providing even-handed enforcement of the law; however, there has been significant progress in achieving increased even-handedness through the use of coalition partnering and embedded-transition teams with Iraqi Security Force units.
12. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress in ensuring the Baghdad Security Plan does not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of their sectarian or political affiliations.
13. The Government of Iraq ‑‑ with substantial Coalition assistance ‑‑ has made satisfactory progress toward reducing sectarian violence but has shown unsatisfactory progress towards eliminating militia control of local security.
14. The Government of Iraq -- with substantial Coalition assistance -- has made satisfactory progress toward establishing the planned JSSs (Joint Security Stations) in Baghdad.
15. The Iraqi Government has made unsatisfactory progress toward increasing the number of Iraqi Security Forces units capable of operating independently.
16. The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.
17. The Iraqi Government is making satisfactory progress in allocating funds to ministries and provinces, but even if the full $10 billion capital budget is allocated, spending units will not be able to spend all these funds by the end of 2007.
18. The Government of Iraq has made unsatisfactory progress in ensuring that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the ISF (Iraqi Security Force).

The score is 8 satisfactories, 1 split and 9 unsatisfactories. There is only a very small chance that any 'satisfactory' ratings will slip into the 'unsatisfactory' column prior to September 15 and a very good chance that items 2,3,5,10,11,15 and 18 can be moved to the 'satisfactory' column by the 15th, leaving only items 6 and 7 in the unsatisfactory column.

This potential for success provides some explanation for the histrionics occuring in the Senate at the moment. The Copperheads have staked their fortunes on defeat, just as they did in 1863-1864. They have nothing to show for their first seven months in the majority, other than the lowest approval rating attained by any Congress in the last 34 years and they are desperately trying to establish the defeat narrative prior to heading off for the summer break in the hope that the media will sustain them until Gen. Petraeus grabs the spotlight in September.

Bill Roggio and Michael Yon continue to provide an alternative view to that of the Copperhead press and this TIME report concerning Gen. Pace's view is a small crack in the MSM's defeatist monolith.

There is no question that US forces will begin to withdraw from Iraq next spring. The Iraqis continue to increase both the quantity and quality of their security forces and they have the income stream to maintain force levels until the internal threat is subdued. The key to Iraq's immediate future lies in passage and implementation of the oil revenue act. We might hope that the Iraqis would fight for freedom but we can rest assured that they (at least the sheiks) will fight for their share of a revenue stream. The present and immediate past proves that point.

UPDATE: Another Voice From the Field

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Physical Science behind Climate Change

Article abstract from : August 2007;Scientific American Magazine; by William Collins, Robert Colman, James Haywood, Martin R. Manning and Philip Mote; 10 Page(s)
For a scientist studying climate change, "eureka" moments are unusually rare. Instead progress is generally made by a painstaking piecing together of evidence from every new temperature measurement, satellite sounding or climate-model experiment. Data get checked and rechecked, ideas tested over and over again. Do the observations fit the predicted changes? Could there be some alternative explanation? Good climate scientists, like all good scientists, want to ensure that the highest standards of proof apply to everything they discover.

And the evidence of change has mounted as climate records have grown longer, as our understanding of the climate system has improved and as climate models have become ever more reliable. Over the past 20 years, evidence that humans are affecting the climate has accumulated inexorably, and with it has come ever greater certainty across the scientific community in the reality of recent climate change and the potential for much greater change in the future. This increased certainty is starkly reflected in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the fourth in a series of assessments of the state of knowledge on the topic, written and reviewed by hundreds of scientists worldwide.

From Climate Audit:
Pictures have been coming in to Surface Stations from many places. This one is from Fort Morgan, Colorado’s USHCN climate station of record. Fort Morgan is in the eastern plains of Colorado, about 100 miles northeast of Denver.

The good news is that more than 85% of the data collection points are better than Fort Morgan. There isn't much question that that humans are affecting the climate at this data collection point. The bad news is that climate scientists don't appear to be terribly concerned about which ones are which.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Saturday Movie Review: The Lives of Others

Posted by Alistair.

I was coerced into seeing The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) on the rumor that it was even better than Downfall (Der Untergang). It is not. Downfall did what few pieces of art aspire to, let alone accomplish. It took a man, universally despised and feared, and made him a human being. In doing so it opened up our own humanity for us to see; reflecting to us how we can be wonderful as well as despicable. Casting Adolph Hitler and the high-ranking Nazi officials that surrounded him in a sympathetic light is probably the hardest task that any writer can perform. Doing it with the understated and sadly realistic panache that Downfall pulls off is sheer brilliance. So I was not too surprised that the rumor turned out to be false. I was, however, surprised by how close it was to truth. The Lives of Others is a remarkably good film. And it, alongside Downfall, marks the coming of a brilliant new age for German cinema.

The Lives of Others has a lot going for it. It won the Academy Award for best Foreign Language film (one of the few categories of Oscar that occasionally goes to the movie that deserves it). And unlike Downfall, it tells us a story we have heard only in snippets—the story of the East German secret police. A lot of moviegoers will be horrified by the insane Orwellian logic by which the East German government ruled (the movie, after all, mostly takes place in 1984). I was far more horrified by its servants' intelligence and efficiency. The film begins with a secret policeman showing students in the academy the skills of his trade, how to correctly interrogate a suspect. With cold, dead eyes, the teacher—the film’s protagonist, agent Gerd Wiesler (the brilliant Ulrich Mühe)—plays for his class a tape of a successful interrogation and explains that a suspect may only give you the information you need after forty hours of solid interrogation. When a student asks if keeping someone awake for this long is not inhumane, he calmly marks an x next to the student’s name and explains that an innocent person will get irate after being questioned for so long, while a guilty man will become complacent and may cry. While you are busy reeling over the insanity of this, the movie progresses forward. Wiesler points out that the suspect has the exact same story forty hours into the interrogation as he had at its commencement—the same story word for word. Such a rehearsed story is the sign of a lie—an honest man can tell you the same event from several different angles, but a guilty one can only give the lines that he has rehearsed. This is, of course, true. And the cold logic of it hit me far harder than the brutality of sleepless torture. We immediately realize that the suspect has something to hide, and that Wiesler is more than capable of getting him to reveal it. A threat to the suspect’s wife and children are all it takes to crush the tired and broken suspect. Agent Wiesler calmly writes down the name the suspect gives him.

This scene sets the whole tone of the film. It depicts an insane world of drab streets, fearful citizens, and government bureaucrats more deadly than sharks. But a world that is populated by real people. Some of them are loyal believers in East Germany and socialism, some of these are hardworking and dedicate themselves to their system with a zealous belief in its good, and some of these—a very few—are even good men. The movie is about two such men, the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch)—the only East German writer who believes in East Germany and is good enough to be read in the West—and agent Wiesler, who is assigned to spy on him.

The plot of the movie is too good and is revealed too well to be restated here. Suffice it to say that the government’s motives in spying on Dreyman are less than the perfect betterment of the state. When Wiesler learns of the true reason he has been made to monitor another man’s life, his faith in the East German system is shaken. When he hears, from bugs in every room of Dreyman’s apartment, what a decent person his target is, his idealistic notions are shattered. As the story moves along at the pace of a Hitchcock thriller, Wiesler finds it harder and harder not to help the man he is supposed to be ruining. And as he begins to be swayed to the side of decency, we witness the same humanistic message that Spielberg gave us in Schindler’s List: human beings are good and worth fighting for.

Of course, The Lives of Others does not reach the grandiosity that was put forth in Schindler’s List, but its subtlety is its greatest strength. Excepting the fiendishly evil Minister Hempf, whose idea it is to spy on Dreyman, everything about this movie smacks of a realistic portrayal. The far more nuanced Grubitz—head minister of culture (“the state’s sword and shield”) and Wiesler’s direct boss—is far more convincing, and thus terrifying. He at first comes off as an idiotic bureaucrat, but we soon see how cleverly evil he is. When he begrudgingly eats lunch with low-level secret policemen, instead of the high level officials he is used to (“Socialism has got to start somewhere,” Wiesler tells him), he overhears one of them making a joke about the party’s leader. When the officer realizes he has been spotted he freezes in his tracks, but Grubitz eggs him on, urging the joke to its punch line. When it is delivered he laughs heartily and then demands the man’s name and rank. After a few seconds of fearful silence, Grubitz reveals that he is only joking. We are reminded of Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, who makes Ray Liota laugh and then threatens his life only to reveal that he is joking. As that film progresses, Scorsese reveals to us how serious he really was. As does The Lives of Others’ brilliant writer and director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who shows this same man, years later, working in the secret police’s lowest occupation—steaming open the letters of citizens. Although this man is not the focus of the scene, as von Donnersmarck retains his beautiful subtlety, we are chillingly reminded whom the joke is really on.

Grubitz is the perfect villain, able to laugh and joke, to fraternize with all the governmental bigwigs, while carefully monitoring everyone for weaknesses. He reads from a student’s paper which explains the five types of artists in East Germany and how to break each one. The student got a "B" (“You can’t praise them too much,” Grubitz tells Wiesler), yet Grubitz realizes the brilliance of his work. He explains that Dreyman is artist type 4, an “anthrocentric” who is best destroyed by utterly isolated captivity for eight months. “After which,” Grubitz says, amused, “he will no longer have the ability to write.” Knowing the kind of good, delicate soul that Dreyman possesses, we are sure that Grubitz is right. And we are sure what type he himself is.

The Lives of Others slips up at points. Its depiction of Hempf may be a little overdramatic, as may be its Deus Ex Machina-like conclusion of the Dreyman investigation. But the film does not end there. It goes on to tell the story of what happens to its characters after the Iron Curtain crumbles. How people return to their lives, and how the tired, injured creature called compassion lives on. The movie’s ending is once again subtle, but it brought tears to my eyes.

The Lives of Others has a better story than Downfall. It has more hope and redemption for its characters, and tells us a story that we do not yet know by heart. It captures in its magical 137 minutes what Downfall captured as well: the real and actual lives of people, pushed to their limits, in the face of a system of utter brutality and insanity. It shows us that it is the corrupt systems, leviathans which exist beyond the lives and powers of their human components, that are the true evils in this world and those things which cannot be stopped (I got the distinct impression that every single character in the movie, be he artist or bureaucrat, could be replaced by someone else and that the system would run just as smoothly). Like Downfall it never strays too far into the realm of the unrealistic and all of its characters—like the Nazis in Downfall—are horrifically understandable and, at times, even sympathetic. It is a slightly worse film, because it does not seek to achieve the impossible task that Downfall set for itself and is of far less historical and political interest. It is, however, a great movie and of the utmost interest to anyone who believes in the good of humanity and in letting other people live their lives.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Black Day for Arrogant Entrepreneurs (and those who gain opportunities from what they create)

The popular wisdom is that Conrad Back is an arrogant man who must be guilty because he shows contempt for ordinary people, their regulated lives and their (arrogant) envies, and he has an evident passion for power, wealth, and above all, status. This only begs the question of what is he guilty, if the kind of media business he made possible was only possible with such a man at its head, something the various grey-suited investment funds who now portray themselves as Black's victims must surely have known when they first bedded him. Is the world and its conflicts really very often reducible to clear-cut victims and victimizers, or does application of the postmodern scapegoating logic only create its own further losers? Nothing has done more to ruin investments in Black business than has Black's prosecution, raising the legitimate doubt that protection of shareholders, and not marketplace resentment, is at the heart of the matter. Protecting shareholders is not, admittedly, synonymous with upholding the law, but should we prosecute people when doubts about the existence of obvious victims is better mediated by civil litigation?

At first, Black's investors, largely anonymous corporate players, needed such a man, good at trading horses (though only good as long as he didn't have to wear and live the life of a grey flannel suit); but when they felt he crossed them, probably slept around, and wrangled more from their partnership than they thought he deserved, breaking or bending the rules of the horse track along the way, they found they could bring him down, with the help of the bureaucratic elite's favourite criminal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. But it turns out, somewhat like Scooter Libby, Black was really brought down, for obstruction of justice, by his apparent ass-covering actions after the prosecutorial process had commenced. Is he the business equivalent of an adulterer being criminally charged for beating his wife? More thoughts below on whether American justice is taking lessons from the Chinese Communist party.

Alykhan Velshi, writing in September 2006:
The trial by attrition of Conrad Black has exposed the dark underbelly of the legal system, where the government can ruin a man, take his property, his means of livelihood, and make him a social pariah – all without the hassle of securing a conviction. There is an insidious little worm that has crept into the legal system, an iconoclastic mentality that is distorting the rule of law. Focused less on securing justice than on bringing down the high and mighty, all the while pandering to the politics of envy, it affects the entire system of corporate governance.

This is highlighted by four developments in the law of corporate governance: the concentration of power in the hands of minority shareholders, the criminalization of technical regulatory violations, the abandonment of the rule of law in favor of aggressive prosecutorial tactics, and the entrenchment of a culture that penalizes success.
In 2003, just as his legal troubles were beginning, Black published a laudatory biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In it, Black acknowledged that the New Deal probably prolonged the Great Depression, but countered that it preserved the credibility of the market economy at a time when unemployment was more than 30% and there was a genuine crisis of capitalism. There is a certain cruel irony in Black's praise of the New Deal, because there is a direct line from the New Deal to Black's current woes.

The New Deal's creation of the regulatory state – where Congress delegated much of its law-making power to specialist executive agencies – has through the effluxion of time resulted in regulatory agencies making the rules, defining their scope and, in some cases, actually enforcing them. Conrad Black, whatever his views on the New Deal’s golden legacy, is today in the crosshairs of its golden shower: what would previously have been civil wrongs punished by a fine are now criminal offenses, and Black is a latter-day Joseph K.

For example, Black's decision to turn down a salary increase (which is taxable as income) and instead accept the payment of management and non-compete fees (which are, if arranged competently, not taxable as income) resulted in tax evasion charges being filed against him, as well as serious criminal charges for violating corporate securities laws. That is to say, a technical, and probably innocent, tax and disclosure violation suddenly became a Very Big Deal. Through the New Deal's looking glass, regulatory violations receive a similar punishment as serious crimes.

Some have argued that not punishing corporate criminals undermines faith in global capitalism; well, so do windfall profits, CEOs earning seven figure salaries, and high gasoline prices – yet we do not criminalize these things. Corporate crime, frankly, is often a matter of question begging, that is to say, the criminalization of things which ought not to have been crimes in the first place. There are many criticisms one can level at someone who manages his affairs to minimize tax liability and in the process neglects the fiduciary duties he owes to his company, but calling these actions criminal, and seeking to punish them with jail-time, is a massive overreaction. A good rule of thumb is that unless a CEO's conduct falls within traditional concepts of “fraud”, “embezzlement”, “larceny”, and so on, we should proceed with caution when creating new and vague criminal offenses.
Much of Black's troubles stem from the fact that he and his wife led a lavish lifestyle. Reading through the Hollinger reports that fault him for corporate mismanagement, this seems to be the source of most of the anger directed his way. However, this grievance is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Hollinger brand used to be. As David Asper, Vice-President of CanWest Global Communications Corp, once explained: “If Lord Black ever decided to sell his interest in Hollinger, it is he – and not Hollinger – with which we did not wish to compete.” Hollinger was merely a means for Conrad Black to exert influence over his newspapers – replacing staff, changing the editorial slant, and improving the overall quality of the writing and reporting.

This is why maintaining Black's public persona was so important: he harkened back to the good old days of grand newspaper proprietors, family dynasties, and concern for the value of the brand rather than vulgar things like day-to-day movements in share prices. In most publicly traded companies, there is no correlation between the success of the company and the extravagance of the chief executive. I do not know who the CEO of Lucent Technologies is, and even if I did, it would not bother me one way or another whether he liked Paganini or knew that Josh Bell could not play in tune on the violin.

Hollinger, by contrast, was more like Donald Trump's corporate empire. Success depended on the image it projected and the status of its chairman. It is precisely because Donald Trump maintains a lavish lifestyle, keeps an absurd coiffe, and has a wife that looks like the arm candy every sexless beta male lusts after, that Trump condominiums sell at a premium. Likewise with Conrad Black, that grand but somewhat dandyish social climber. Paul Fussell, author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, would have said that Black’s futile attempt to be “upper class out of sight” spoke to the deepest longings and insecurities of the middle class. The Hollinger brand was built around Black’s persona, which may be why, with Black no longer at the helm, it is nothing more than a holding company for a variety of underperforming newspapers.

It does not take a devotee of Ayn Rand's doorstop screeds to appreciate the dangers of punishing the creative entrepreneurial class in a company built around their success. In fact, as Rand would have predicted, nearly all ex-Hollinger publications have experienced some sort of decline, whether in quality or in circulation, since Black left the newspaper business.

It is too easy to liken Conrad Black to Ken Lay and Hollinger to Enron. However seductive, this comparison should be resisted. The Enron fraud resulted in a massive loss of shareholder wealth and the financial ruin of many families, and it was caused by a deliberate attempt to misreport financial statements to perpetrate a fraud. The Hollinger affair, by contrast, has resulted in no shareholder bankruptcies, was not based on a fraud about the company's financial health, and has only impoverished its former chairman. Like mistaking a donnybrook for a pogrom, we lose our sense of proportion when we compare Hollinger to Enron.

Black's mistake was that he ran Hollinger as if he owned it when, in fact, he only owned a controlling stake. Black ignored the fact that shareholders and directors owe special legal and equitable duties to one another, as well as to the company. But this mistake is not criminal, and it does not justify the punitive lawsuits being filed against him, the pre-trial seizure of his assets, or the damage being done to his reputation.
Mark Steyn, writing today:
There will be recriminations a-plenty over what was just announced on the 12th floor in Chicago. Conrad Black was found NOT GUILTY of racketeering, NOT GUILTY of tax fraud, NOT GUILTY of the CanWest scheme, NOT GUILTY on Bora Bora, the Park Avenue apartment and Barbara's birthday party, NOT GUILTY on the individual non-competes on US newspaper sales.

He has been found GUILTY in just two narrow areas - "obstruction of justice" re the security camera footage of him removing boxes from 10 Toronto Street, and three "mail fraud" counts relating to the APC non-compete agreement, in which (as the government argued) Black and Radler paid Black and Radler not to compete with Black and Radler. As I argued here and here, those were always the easiest charges to shoot for if you wanted to convict on something. It speaks very poorly for Black's legal representation that the best argument against the APC charges was made by David Radler and the best argument against the obstruction count was made to me over a cup of tea by Barbara Amiel.

The government alleged three schemes - the "US scheme", the "CanWest scheme", the "perks scheme" - and upgraded them to racketeering, and threw in tax fraud. They lost on racketeering and tax. They lost outright on two-thirds of the schemes. And on the remaining scheme - the "US scheme" - they lost on everything but the APC non-compete fee. Yet, absent successful appeals, four men could be spending the rest of their working lives in jail. The US Attorney's office might usefully adopt as its motto the IRA's message to Mrs Thatcher after the Brighton bombing, "You have to be lucky every time. We only have to be lucky once."

I oughta have some pictures

But I don't. This morning's Osprey Observations were just downright fun. An ospring, can't say if it was One or Two, but just one of them, was everywhere practicing his flying skills - stretching the young wings.

He got himself (or herself, what do I know?) over a large clearing and made three diving practice passes. The first was so tentative it was something similar to cute. From maybe eighty or a hundred feet up he folded his wings and headed earthward for maybe twenty or thirty feet. Then he circled and climbed again, folded those lovely wings, and headed earthward to within roughly ten feet above ground.

Up, up and around yet again... tuck those wings... dive... dive... skim the very top of the grass and then a joyous looking victory tour covering big distances, at treetop level, very quickly. And back to the tower for a rest. But he wouldn't rest long. Off again for more practice - he was everywhere this morning. Wish I had a way to thank him for that. I'm bettin' he was the one who dropped that hank o' fish I almost stepped on - clumsy yute.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"This I Believe"

I've recently returned from the Robert A Heinlein Centennial convention in Kansas City. Heinlein wrote the 600-odd words below in 1952, for Edward R. Murrow's radio series. This was before I was born, but looking at it, I don't think I've seen it said better.
Our Noble, Essential Decency

by Robert A. Heinlein

I am not going to talk about religious beliefs but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them. I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults.

Take Father Michael down our road a piece. I'm not of his creed, but I know that his goodness and charity and loving kindness shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike. If I'm in trouble, I'll go to him. My next-door neighbor's a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat—no fee, no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.

I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town, say, "I'm hungry," and you'll be fed. Our town is no exception. I've found the same ready charity everywhere. For the one who says, "The heck with you, I've got mine," there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, "Sure, pal, sit down." I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, "Climb in, Mack. How far you going?"

I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime. Yet for every criminal, there are ten thousand honest, decent, kindly men. If it were not so. no child would live to grow up. Business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news. It is buried in the obituaries, but it is a force stronger than crime.

I believe in the patient gallantry of nurses, in the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land. I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.

I believe that almost all politicians are honest. For every bribed alderman, there are hundreds of politicians—low paid or not paid at all—doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true, we would never have gotten past the thirteen colonies.

I believe in Roger Young. You and I are free today because of endless unnamed heroes from Valley Forge to the Yalu River. I believe in—I am proud to belong to—the United States. Despite shortcomings—from lynchings, to bad faith in high places—our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.

And finally, I believe in my whole race—yellow, white, black, red, brown—in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth—that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth—but that we will always make it, survive, endure.

I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching oversized braincase and the opposable thumb—this animal barely up from the apes—will endure, will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets—to the stars and beyond—carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage, and his noble essential decency. This I believe with all my heart.

Stop the presses!

Jim Morrison 'died in nightclub lavatory'

rather than in a bathtub. I thought you'd want to know ASAP.

Hot air

The full court press will not stop anytime soon. The best we can hope for is that over the next decade the Armageddonistas will switch to shrieking about an impending ice age.

Scientists have declared the Northeastern US all but finished!

The Union of Concerned Scientists released Global Warming Will Hit U.S. Northeast Hard Unless Action Taken Now; Long-term Severity Depends On Near-term Choices

The local fishwrap picks it up from the AP -
Scientists: Warming will devastate N.J., other states

Wilting heat, deadly storms, flash floods, coastal erosion, more days with unhealthy air — those are just some of the effects of rising temperatures on the Northeast...

NJ's Governor, fresh from having his head thumped around in a careening SUV, takes the bait and runs with it...

"We've got a real problem when it comes to climate change — there is a clear and present danger," Gov. Corzine said...

The article goes on to provide plenty of doom and gloom

..the multibillion-dollar coastal tourism industry will suffer from even a slight rise in sea level that will result from a global rise in temperatures, the scientists said. Less snowfall and more ice storms will adversely affect New Hampshire, Vermont and other states that draw winter tourists for skiing and snowmobiling...

...two of the state's premier crops, blueberries and cranberries, would be threatened if temperatures rise by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit by late century, as scientists predict will happen if fossil fuel consumption continues to rise at current levels.

...Boston and Atlantic City are projected to experience once-a-century flooding every year or two. Coastal flooding and erosion along the eastern seaboard is projected to occur regularly, costing billions.

And more! The print version provides a sidebar that gives ten suggestions for people to follow to help improve the dire situation. The fishwrap's weather dude, to his credit, has the good sense to wonder whether one of those suggestions will really reduce carbon dioxide output.

Like Lex Luthor, I'm looking forward to owning some oceanfront property!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mr. Miller

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Jim Miller's blog (all eight or twelve of Flares long term readers are surely aware of it). The amount of time I can devote to the net, and reading blogs, has fallen of a cliff over the past few months for several reasons, but I've never failed to check in at Jim's blog (or Flares for that matter).

Well... the man's been on a roll lately. If you go here you'll find yourself at the top of consecutive posts which do a great job (follow the links) of discussing bigotry and discrimination. Despite what many victims of modern public education believe they are not the same thing. Excellent examination of anti-semitism in Britain as well as the value of discriminating.

Jim also takes a look at some of the global-warming scepticism of Martin Durkin, the man who made The Great Warming Swindle. He points us to Durkin's website where he discovered a paper, An Economist’s Perspective on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, by Ross McKitrick. McKitrick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics, at the University of Guelph in Ontario. I know nothing of McKitrick or U. of Guelph other than that the latter has a reasonably good reputation (well, I shouldn't say I know nothing of Guelph - I do have a business aquantance - a lawyer - who graduated from there as, IIRC, a computer scientist, so I know an alumni; he's proud of the place). McKitrick I'd never heard of until finding his name on Jim Miller's blog.

I strongly encourage our more science and math literate contributors here at Flares to read the whole paper. But, as Jim Miller did, I'd like to point to a bit of it that strikes me as particularly interesting:

[P]roblematic is the collapse that occurred around 1990 in the number of climate monitoring stations around the world. Figure 2 (Peterson and Vose 1997) shows the numbers for the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN), graphed in terms of the number of stations with at least 10 years of reliable data (a) and the corresponding geographical coverage (b). In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the budget cuts in many OECD economies led to a sudden sharp drop in the number of active weather stations...

Figure 3 shows the total number of stations in the GHCN and the raw (arithmetic) average of temperatures for those stations. Notice that at the same time as the number of stations takes a dive (around 1990) the average temperature (red bars) jumps. This is due, at least in part, to the disproportionate loss of stations in remote and rural locations, as opposed to places like airports and urban areas where it gets warmer over time because of the build-up of the urban environment.

This poses a problem for users of the data. Someone has to come up with an algorithm for deciding how much of the change in average temperature post-1990 is due to an actual change in the climate and how much is due to the change in the sample. When we hear over and over about records being set after 1990 in observed “global temperatures” this might mean the climate has changed, or it means an inadequate adjustment is being used, and there is no formal way to decide between these.

Nevertheless, confident assertions are routinely made about ‘changes in the global temperature’ on the order of tenths of a degree C per decade. The confidence masks pervasive uncertainty in the underlying concepts and data quality.

Hmmm... curioser and curioser... Read Jim's post (or An Economist’s Perspective on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol) for a gotcha moment re: the UN's IPCC report. Last, but not least, Jim points, in this post, to the work being done by Don't miss it.

There's other good stuff there - Jim is, IMHO, a phenom.

Before closing I'd like to wander from Mr. Miller to another of my favorite sites, Arts & Letters Daily, where I found Reading the World Bank; Why it is vitally needed despite its flaws:

By its own account, the [World] Bank's billions all flow to the same cause—working for a world where hundreds of millions of people might aspire to "a future without poverty, disease, and illiteracy." The Bank sees itself as an instrument of hope in a world beset by tragedy, inequality, and disaster. "Every week," states its 2005 Annual Report, "10,000 women in the developing world die giving birth, and 200,000 children under age five die of disease. More than 8,000 people die every day from AIDS-related conditions, and 2 million people will die of AIDS this year in Africa alone. As many as 115 million children in developing countries are not in school."

To arrest and reverse these gross injustices, the Bank commits itself to the Millennium Development Goals of "eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education," promoting gender equality and empowering women. It seeks to reduce infant mortality for children under five by two-thirds by 2015. In addition to drastically reducing maternal death rates, the Bank supports the combating of diseases, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and increasing sharply the access of millions to safe drinking water. Not least, it affirms the Millennium goal of a reformed global trading system, especially in its impact on the world's poorest countries.

A scan of the Bank's reports and its programs reveals an extraordinarily eclectic range of activity in every corner of the globe: getting girls into school in Egypt and poor children to school in the Kyrgyz Republic; combating tb in Africa and malaria in Eritrea; managing forests in Southeast Asia and fisheries along rural coastlines; rushing emergency teams to Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2004 and rebuilding strife-torn Central Africa; killing agricultural pests in Central Africa and developing the garment industry in Cambodia; pushing for court reform in the Philippines and building the power grid in the Dominican Republic; creating housing reform in Mexico and road-building in Poland.

Not least, the Bank now combats the money laundering that could fuel terrorism. It demands transparency in governments and offers transparency for itself. Millions of dollars are committed to reducing government corruption and to building civil society groups. The World Bank Institute trains aid workers. The Bank teams up not only with governments but with the World Wildlife Fund and the Scout Movement for children, with Conservation International and the UN's Programme on HIV/AIDS.

How can this panoply of good works be read as anything else than a commitment to justice or a panacea to disease, disaster and despair?
I'm not convinced but I suppose it is good to see somebody defending the World Bank.

Weekly Links

This week I begin a new tradition in which links of particular value, which you might overlook otherwise, get the gold-star treatment.

Russia continues its venerable tradition of nukes for the dictators.

A non-running quantum computer that really works.

Floating windmills on the sea.

Boeing reveals the 787.

Apple's little problem with thievery.

Birdsong fashions.

Amazing new Taser gun.

British castles revealed.

A new computer virus capital of the world has been selected.

Oil at $85?

The rat-brained robot performs.

What a bad week looks like.

Piet Mondrian would be proud.

How to make quick important decisions.

Cheapest days to buy.

Robots of ancient Greece.

Police-state Britain seizes fun risky trampoline.

Saddam's ICBM program revealed.

The coming derivatives Armageddon.

10 essential habits of freelance workers.

First octosquid discovered.

Scott Adams on hypnosis.

Mass Soviet grave discovered near Kabul. "Hundreds were walled in alive." No Russian flag-burnings expected in Sweden, no protests scheduled in Washington Square.

Say what?!?

This morning was, to my way of seeing things, a glorious morning. It was stiflingly humid and not the least bit comfortable for the morning stroll. But who cares? There, up in the sky, was not Superman or a plane or even a bird. What was up there was three osprey: Momma, Poppa, and Ospring One.

They were conducting wonderous flying demos for Ospring Two. Sweeping loops, hovers, and landings. While one performed a demo the others would sit in nearby towers. Two just sat there, occasionally flapping his wings, apparently wishing they'd cut the crap and just bring another fish.

I could almost hear the tyke squawking, "You want me to do what?!? Why on earth would I want to jump out of a perfectly good 180 ft. tower? You have noticed the turkey vultures hanging around, haven't you? You do understand they're here for good reason?"

It's a shame work has to interfere. I'd have gladly stayed and waited until the Great Leap Earthward happened.

I'm embarrassed that I had such little faith in Momma and Pappa's ability to bring forth a couple (at least) flegdlings despite the whacky spring weather.

Michael Yon Again


I just wanted to beat Instapundit to the announcement. Michael's latest is Al-Qaeda on the Run: Feasting on the Moveable Beast.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Awake, Sleeping Beauty America

In a piece in the FT with the above title, ad whiz Maurice Saatchi lists a number of criticisms he says are commonly heard about the USA. I thought I would post them here by number and invite commenters to, er, comment on any or all of them:

1. It is too much in love with money – worshipping the god of the marketplace, the golden calf.
2. It has too much money, seven of the top 10 banks, eight of the top 10 companies etc.
3. It is too stingy, giving away less of its wealth than other countries.
4. It is vulgar, a rich barbarian.
5. It has a lowly culture yet practises cultural imperialism. It makes people dread “Americanisation”.
6. It is arrogant and condescending to “the little monkeys” from other cultures.
7. It is too religious, saying “God bless America” once too often.
8. It has too much power, spending more on arms than the rest of the world put together.
9. It is a hypocrite, disguising its wars of self-interest as humanitarian interventions and exporting democracy at the point of a bayonet.
10. It is inconsistent – agitating for “regime change” with some “un-democratic” countries, but with others giving arms, aid and trade.
11. It has an incoherent foreign policy – it abandoned the “no first strike” principle which kept the peace for decades; “pre-emption” replaced “deterrence” but has no basis in international law.
12. It is too close to Israel.
13. It resists multilateral solutions, preferring unilateralism, hegemony, a sheriff strategy – In Guns We Trust.
14. It has aroused the envy of Europeans, causing them to want to form a rival power bloc.
15. It has hit a brick wall, the Great Wall of China, where “state capitalism” works.
16. It has not solved the mystery of Islam.
17. And it is not even a democracy, as the 44 per cent turnout of its eligible voters in presidential elections proves.

Finally, he states, "The accusations against the US are endless."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Why Must the Taxpayer Pay?

Or, as P.J. O'Rourke once had it, is I-95 worth a gun against Grandma's head?

I was discussing the heat at a Fourth of July party and discovered that my interlocutors were putting up solar panels on their house. The cost? Only $64,000, but hey, because of Federal and State government subsidies, they only have to pay $12,000. What a deal.

Now, a quick seat-of-the-pants calculation tells me I spend about $100/month on electricity in round numbers, which comes to $1,200/year. So it would take me 10 years to earn back that $12,000, provided that I never had to use any of the electricity off the grid in the meantime. Which we all know is an unrealistic assumption. There are cloudy days, rainy days, snowy days, days of hail. Let's suppose I could eliminate two-thirds of my electric bill (seems pretty optimistic, but let's suppose). That takes us up to 15 years for a payoff. What about the cost of repair after the next hailstorm, or windstorm, or just plain wearing-out? Let's say 17 years. What about the opportunity cost of not investing that $12,000 in the S&P 500 (about 8-10%/year lost). I'm too lazy to calculate exactly; let's just say 20 years. And that's at the subsidized rate!

Does it make economic sense to spend $12,000 in this way instead of some other—if it makes you feel good, brother, then I'm a live and let live kind of guy—do it! But what about the cost to the taxpayer of that $52,000 stolen at gunpoint? Plus opportunity cost. People can do whatever foolish thing they want with their own money but when it comes to Grandma's money, keep your hands off, you have no right.

But, I suppose, it's not really about reality, it's about the latest fashion. Surely that's well worth stealing Grandma's hard-earned savings for.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sunday Links

I can't promise this as a regular feature, but from time to time when I have already collected more than sufficient links for the Weekly Links feature, I am going to bleed off some of the excess on Sunday.

Perpetual motion machine de la semaine.

The plight of legal immigrants.

Cramer vs. Cramer.

The propeller trike.

Ten politically incorrect truths about human nature.

Biodiesel beats ethanol.

Chinese slaves discovered in Las Vegas.

A's for Google.

When Greenland was green.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A Lincolnian interpretation of a Gil Bailie quotation

In the comments to the New Comrade post, I quoted Gil Bailie and MHA asked me to write a post to give a little explanation of the quote:
One of the West’s greatest shortcomings is its aversion to accurately assessing its own cultural uniqueness and especially the religious sources of that uniqueness. The key to the kind of pluralistic and politically secular polity that the West rightly cherishes is the parallel cultural coexistence of a religious tradition whose faithful are taught to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s and to recognize the dignity of the person and his or her right to follow the voice of conscience.
Well, it's one of those aphoristic passages that can suggest an awful lot, as I begin to explore below.

Buddy Larsen's comment provides a good jumping off point:
I think it means we westerners are on the whole selling our culture short.

Wonder why? Probably, nice manners. Mercy. The Golden Rule.

Are all of them out of place in the Jungle? We're gonna find out.
Buddy, in my understanding, which won't be exactly Gil's, we sell ourselves short because our tradition rests on something, sacred and powerful, that we are uncomfortable exploring and valuing (maybe because too much understanding would undermine the unspoken, unagreed things, the uncertainty on which we trade and trust - though when the exchange and trust is eroding anyway, we need to talk about it to renew it, which is my excuse today). The discomfort has to do with the paradox that our liberal openness to pluralism is only long sustainable within certain limits that are not themselves "liberal", in the sense that these limits emerged within one particular tradition, one that made claims to holding a truth superior to other traditions. Liberalism grows from Christ's admonition to separate church and state; but this may mean, for example, that on some fundamental level Islam, or what it can possibly become, will be incompatible with liberalism, or with Christianity, not that I think we have yet to definitively answer this question.

We are also uncomfortable with the question of whether, once we have established a liberal state, must we continually return to the religious source from which it emerged to renew the national liberal covenant, or is renewal equally accessible in strictly secular terms (keeping in mind that the secular order, with its fashions and fetishes, rationalizations and commitments, is really just another form of the sacred, not something entirely different from the religious, generallly speaking - but if this is correct, then the question is whether, in downplaying its "religious" sacredness, does the "secular" sacred become a second-rate sacred that is not really up to doing the job that we need our shared sacred signs and things to do, such as giving people a sense of membership, commitment and self-sacrifice to a multi-generational social and familial order, thus creating, in enough people, the resolve for hard things like raising families.)

I think Bailie is saying we cannot renew ourselves as a free and religiously pluralistic society, unless a good number of us continue in the Judeo-Christian faith whose presence helps us all, Christian or not, understand and justify our secular society and avoid falling into what the Pope calls "the dictatorship of relativism" where we get things like the EU bureaucracy trying to deny Christianity is somehow fundamental to European culture, and allowing it no public place, e.g. in schools, and trying to downplay all religions equally.

Why is this a dictatorship? Because it closes off new possibilities, while pretending to do the opposite. We cannot just rationalize and secularize what is of value in our cultural past (e.g. the separation of Christ and Caesar, church and state), and forever hold onto it by just repeating (ritualistically) our rationalizations. Our eventual need for new forms of the sacred, around which new forms of freedom will orbit, cannot emerge that way. This point is certainly open to debate, but this is how I see it.

What happens when we separate church and state and also kick all God talk out of the public domain is create an unstable vacuum in which a nonetheless powerful state and bureaucratic elite, interfering in all aspects of life, swears off all moral or ethical guidance from any substantial or widely shared form of sacrality. At least, they must swear off all that is tainted "religion" and follow only those more abstract "secular" forms of sacrality that we have abstracted from religion but whose religious origins we now downplay and ignore.

The bureaucrats deny themselves a source of fundamental religious cultural renewal, and so rely on expert rationality; but social scientific experts are only good at analyzing and institutionalizing, not at (re)creating human reality, since a new reality relies on many if not all stakeholders, and their good faith in politics, coming together to work through shared events. The secular state and its experts judge and institutionalize, but they don't create, or even often second the creative motions; and so, if lacking the shared faith of a self-ruling democracy, the state becomes increasingly arbitrary, relativistic, dictatorial. In the words of another Catholic writer, Jim Kalb, "Mindless utopianism is ... a direct consequence of the strictly pragmatic, skeptical and critical spirit of modernity when that spirit becomes a dogma, as it must when it becomes sufficiently dominant." (follow the link for the full argument)

I think Bailie's quote is saying it's not enough to value a free market: if you take certain kinds of players out of the market, you can destroy it or irrevocably change what it can do because not all the players know how to renew or reproduce the spirit and personnel needed for leadership in freedom (this is my opinion of today's liberalism which has become a ritualized form of an earlier, once innovative, liberalism and today can seemingly add nothing new - it's lost contact with the creative source - so its narratives are closed, their morals pre-determined, and Iraq is quickly judged "just like" Vietnam, Obama talks like LBJ, Bush policy is McCarthyism, yada yada). Many want to play in the free market, and rightly insist on their rights in doing so, but not everyone knows how to be a market maker and we can't go on forever without new makers when we face things like negative fertility rates and mass non-Western immigration with many angrily calling for a return to traditional, ritual-bound, forms of society.

Freedoms, in new politIcal markets, emerge as a product of shared revelatory events, like those memorialized by religion. For example, the story of the Biblical Abraham taught us to move beyond child sacrifice and so learn, or creatively dwell, in the paradox that God wants us to be both obedient to his will and free (of a social addiction to human sacrifice).

An abstract metaphysics, such as the formulations of the Enlightenment, may help us explain and institutionalize the freedom that emerges in such religious events, but it cannot create freedom or renew events simply by flooding the world with rational arguments. Renewal happens in real time. It takes shared acts of faith forged in events/crises - where we only really know the beginnings, the initial compacts created to avoid an impending crisis, not exactly how this new market in a shared God and/or nation talk that we are creating with a pact is going to play out. And these compacts need to be motivated by something other than a strict liberal vacuum. When an established political or social order erodes, as all in time do given new political/ethical situations and tensions, you can't simply rely on old abstract formulae to keep things going. As I say, you have to bring people together to find a way to extend your political tradition by finding new possibilities within it. And that means committing together to some sign of what is now sacred to the political community. For example, today in America we are in a post-9/11 period in which the old elites and the New York Times aren't going to be able to negotiate and define reality as its proper representatives. The present ethical crisis, in which all the old "realism" is breaking down under force of events (no established account of political realism has sufficient grip on the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism), will only be satisfactorily deferred by some new kind of political compact among a broader network of stakeholders who will eventually line up against whatever shared enemies cannot be included in the compact to promote a greater freedom or exchange in the interacting national and international systems. (Or, the present nation or international order will break up.)

Intellectually and spiritually this means being able to have an open-ended faith, open to new possibilities, while going back to fundamentals to remember what has allowed for new possibilities in the past, e.g., that keeping church and state separate works but only when people remain motivated by a personal faith that allows them to keep publicly active and also remain privately, spiritually strong (patiently awaiting their Creator) so that they are not tempted by secular utopias and may resist the corruption or closure of the state into a form of "mindless utopianism".

Radically new problems cannot be solved strictly by instrumental reason, but only by all parties in the state coming together, out of fear that chaos, civil war, etc., may shortly await them if they don't keep their faith in a shared political space going. This entails much exchange over what we each hold sacred that, among other things, leads people on a shared return to the sacred source or origin of their shared humanity and politics, a return whose goal is both to respect and minimize (or somewhat de-mystify) the social pre-requisites for making a political claim on shared sacred signs and their events/origins. One has to minimize the traditional dressings so that all sincere political players may partake in them and the origin may yet give way to a more complex society built with greater freedoms that allow us to defer the present crisis through a deeper, never fully examined, respect for the inexhaustible source that makes all this humanly possible.

Does all this have to entail Christianity in some good part? Gil Bailie thinks so; I would say, if not Christianity as it exists today, then something like it.

First of all, people need to want freedom and they need a religion that supports them in that. Second, they need at least to be in alliance with a religion that helps us all understand the sacred origins of our politics, and understand it in dogmatically minimal terms that maximize openness to a variety of players. In other words, we need to be at least in alliance with a religion whose history and traditions are not just a closed cult but a way of doing anthropology that we can all find useful. The key claim behind Gil Bailie's work is that Christianity is not just another arbitrary and irrational form of bonding that serves whatever needs religion serves just like other religions do; but rather, Judeo-Christianity is claimed to be a radical historical departure from more primitive forms of sacrificial religion, a departure that has entailed an unveiling of how religion previously worked through sacrificial violence, and that proposes a new faith that is anthropologically more sophisticated and true; indeed, it is claimed to be the faith that, to coin a term, maximally minimizes the difference between God and man - so that one becomes more open to seeing the Godliness in everyone and thus to minimizing the pre-requisites for making political claims (not that all Christians of course are good at performing this understanding of Christianity).

At the same time, one should not over-minimize; one must be at least in alliance with a faith that, while liberating man, keeps man from becoming an arrogant rationalizer who risks corroding the distinction between church and state in some secular will to power. When we forget the Christian origins of the separation of church and state, the "secular" power becomes more arbitrary, dictatorial, and eventually more irrationally sacrificial, and we might call the results neopagan: sex in the city and a victim on every page of the New York Times.

The free person must remain humble, deferring to the one God who is also the God of everyone else, so that all committed to the freedom God gives us may find a way to build and share open-ended, not yet very rationalized, political compacts. Needless to say, one also needs a faith that conveys the will to hold the line against those who would use one's freedoms to undermine the cause of freedom.

To sum up (and I apologize for any needless repetition): a free society depends on a faith in new beginnings being ever possible - people need to be open to conversion and forgiveness; such a faith cannot be entirely abstracted from our religious past and permanently rendered in strictly "secular", rational, language (though we need that language for other things). We need also people coming together and renewing the original religious revelations (not that in doing so they will look exactly like the old religions) that make possible secular political life and revelation, working through new kinds of historical events whose resolution will further human self-understanding and thus ultimately serve, and be served by, the understandings of those religions that are open-ended in some fundamental way. Gil Bailie, as you can see by perusing his great blog, claims Christianity to be such an open "religion".

Others should try to show how their faith compares favorably. Just keep in mind that the competition is to defend the basis for a common politics. If we can't do that, it's eventually war, separation, or death. While most of the time we can safely berate the establishment for not respecting us in our difference, sometimes the establishment does lose its grip, the center cannot hold, and we can no longer afford to be adolescents ranting against authority while knowing that dad will still be in charge and putting meat on the table. Today, argues Bailie, "dad" is losing his hold and we should only criticize his corruption with an eye to finding the renewal of "dad" that can really work, in the present event, at least for a while.