L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

02 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Blogging for fun, fame and fortune

As a fairly unsuccessful blogger (hits average 100/day - occasional Instalanches and other linkagery) I might seem the wrong person to opine about this - other than as an example of how NOT to do it. However I'm going to anyway having been inspired by James at Nourishing Obscurity who wrote about me twice over the weekend.

Firstly to make it clear - I'm not blogging for money - I've got various google and amazon ads and so far I've made a bit under $600 from them - almost all of that during the frantic week or two at the end of January/early februrary that I was number 1 in google for "Mohammed Cartoons" and other related search items. This pays the hosting bill (more or less) but entirely fails to keep me in any state that I wish to become accustomed. Secondly and likewise fame: given that I have received very few major hits other than for my Mohammed cartoons page, if I'm in it for fame and glory then I'm clearly failing at that goal too. Fortunately I'm in this lark for fun and hence I'm quite happy with my 100 or so readers per day but it seems unlikely to grow suddenly to produce massive readerships, toothsome book deals or inteviews with the BBC or other media outlet.

Anyway if you want to blog for fame or fortune then it looks like best advice comes from author John Scalzi's recent post where he analyses the different sorts of traffic increase he gets from different sorts of recomemndation, and you may find his earlier port about the top N blogs interesting too. In that post he points out that the top blogs are mostly group efforts and generally speaking have a single focus.

I suspect that the same is true, to a large extent, to many of the medium sized blogs too. To expand slightly on his points, multiple bloggers help by increasing the number of posts and single topic focus helps by attracting readers who are interested in a particular area. It also helps, of course, with advertising revenue because the advertisers know what they will be advertising on, and of course it helps get ads targetted to the readership. So yes, to some extent, you can become rich and famous from blogging, but it seems to require treating the blog as a job. If you do this and write well then your blog will either make you money directly (because you get ad revenue or paypal donations) or indirectly because people like your writing and ask you to contribute paid articles or write books. And it may well, also, make you famous, particularly if you manage to perform some genuine news reporting and add value and information rather than just comment on stuff produced by others. But it is potentially a grind.

On the other hand if you want to blog for fun then all this can be safely ignored. This blog is done for fun and therefore I discuss politics around the world, science, books, photos, olives and pretty much any thing else that takes my fancy. It gives me pleasure and I hope it gives some of you pleasure too. And if by some mischance you end up learning something from it all the better.

02 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Blogs, Town Planning & Local News

The Marmot's Hole links to a NY Times article about Shomikitazawa, Tokyo which reports on the feeble but slowly growing movement to protest unsightly developments. I think the article is, in many ways, a classic of MSM drive-by reporting because, in my opinion, from an aesthetic point of view Shimokitazawa, as with much of the rest of greater Tokyo, is an eyesore that would be extremely hard to make look worse. Although when I say that I realize that I'm dealing with the Japanese government and pork funded construction companies, a group of people who have regularly managed to lower the tone of the most ugly neighbourhood further than expected even when taking this rule into account. From inappropriately twee and plasticcy fake wood railings to abuse of bathroom tiles to mock-mock tudor skyscrapers, not to mention bridges that make Alaskan senators look fiscally responsible, the combination of compulsory purchase, government money and developers and land owners out to make a quick buck has resulted in the Japanese suffering from crimes against human sensibility which ought to be banned by UN treaty.

However to step away from aesthetics debate, the Times article makes some excellent points about following the money as a way to identify how people support or oppose the development and hints at the power local government has in allowing or blocking these changes. Something that the Marmot's Hole points out would also apply to Korea where, it seems, similar forces seem determined to knock down as many historic buildings as possible in the name of progress.

One thing I would disagree with is the statement about covering rivers with highways and replacing tile roofed dwellings with concrete buildings. Tokyo is a massive earthquake waiting to happen and, as we know from the Kobe earthquake, the most deadly buildings in an earthquake are the little wooden tile roofed ones because first the roof collapses onto the occupants or passers by and then the building burns down taking the injured and trapped with it. Likewise covering the moats and rivers with highways has been a fairly good way to avoid knocking down masses of buildings and has also had the benefit of reducing the noise and polluiton impact. It isn't perfect and perhaps in an ideal world Tokyo in the late 1940s should have taken advantage of the general destruction to have done a major rationalization and built large boulevards as Paris did in the 19th century but its hard, IMO, to argue that if you are as anti-road and anti-car as the NYT writer appears to be.

The good news about Japan is that people are finally beginning to get serious about preservation of buildings, views etc. something that has tended to be rather haphazard and subject to monetary incentive in the past. There are on-going scandals about overlarge buildings near Okayama (IIRC) castle and Matsue, as well as vocal protests about the new Italian cultural centre in Tokyo - a truly vile red carbunkle. This is a subject that is barely touched upon in the article.

Critically the article also misses a point which is that the opposition to the Shimokitazawa scheme is being organized on line with a webpage (English), that includes a petition for people to sign and lots of information. Whether or not it will be successful it is, I have no doubt, a harbinger of things to come

Indeed here on the riviera the internet is being used by both sides in a rather contentious debate about Ikea's desire to build a store in "Mougins". The pro-Ikea campaign has this blog and the anti-Ikea group has this one. As with Tokyo a lot of the heat and fire can be predicted if you just "follow the money". In particular the sleazy mayor of Mougins is all in favour of the Ikea scheme because he gets all the tax revenue from the proposed commercial development and fails to suffer from many negative consequences becuase the development is placed at the very borders of Mougins. On the other hand the mayor's of Mouans Sartoux (where I live) and La Roquette are firmly against it because they get no tax revenue but do get almost all the anticipated increase in traffic. I am personally somewhat ambivalent because I do think the store would benefit the locality but on the other hand I'm fairly sure there will be some horrible traffic jams because the proposal seems to have failed to figure out how people leave the store and get back onto the highway to take them back wherever they come from. The debate has even spread across the English language riviera sites with a huge thread at angloinfo and mentions in other Anglophone places which is interesting because, most of the time, the Anglophone community is pretty quiet about these sorts of things.

All in all the internet seems to be doing a great job in allowing people to organize to protest things - its practically an army of davids against the goliaths of corporate/government interest. Someone should write a book about the phenomenon...

03 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Variable Star

When RAH died it turned out he left, utterly forgotten in a desk drawer, an outline to a book he had never done anything else with. In 2003 it was discovered and Spider Robinson was asked if he would mind taking this outline and turning it into a book. The result has now been published by Tor, Amazon France has just shipped me my copy and I've just spent an enjoyable afternoon reading it.

Verdict - mostly good. While not perfect, its a book I am happy to recommend

Many reviews, not to mention the blurb on the back cover, seem to focus on the interpretation of RAH's bare outline by Spider Robinson. I think that this is, in general, a bad mistake. The blurb says "...The result is vintage Heinlein, faithful in style and spirit to the Grand Master's original vision" which is a flat out lie, it may be vaguely faithful in general principles but the style and spirit is nothing like the "Grand Master's". Treat this book as no more than a Spider Robinson homage to RAH and you will be happy, it is a perfectly good book with lots of the same attention to scientific/engineering/mathematical detail as in many a Heinlein book and it is definitely a fun read but it isn't a Starship Troopers or Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Expect to see another gem from the master and you will disappointed - but then the majority of Heinlein fans were disappointed with the last two or three genuine Heinleins too, and this is far, far better than those.

I found much resonance with other Spider Robinson books particularly the Stardance trilogy recently reissued in one megabook by Baen, a book which I greatly enjoyed and which I plan to review sometime after I get my brain around figuring out how to praise properly it with faint damns. But back to Variable Star. There are many echoes of classic Heinlein plots and characters as well as quotes from the master and I'm sure that Spider has deliberately embedded a whole bunch of throwaway references to other Heinlein books in the names used and so on. It will no doubt repay the dedicated Heinlein fan to reread carefully because I have no doubt that many of these references will only become clear after the second or third time. Since the book will deserve rereading simply for fun, those rereads will not be a chore you have to do to get the last drop of Heinlein in your system.

The outline appears to have been intended to be for a young adult/juvenile, in the spirit of, say, Citizen of the Galaxy but it is clear to me that Spider Robinson (and/or the others involved in the project) thought that the result would be better if it grew up a bit, hence the rather cloying nobility of some Heinlein heros who forswear love and the heroine (think Starman Jones) is used more as a foil for ironic comment than as a model to be followed. The book can still be read by a teenager without serious warping of a young mind - it lacks explicit sex for example - but it probably isn't a book to give to precocious preteen to suck them into the wonderful world of SF. We see mention of the more complex marital (and extra-marital) arrangements that featured in later Heinlein and it kills off a number of fairly important characters on screen; both of which may be considered a little more advanced than you'd like for your 10 year old. On the other hand I think that given that RAH himself bitched about the amount of sex he had to cut out of his juveniles, not to mention changing the original ending to Podkayne, it is true to the sort of young adult book Heinlein probably wanted to write but couldn't because his publisher wouldn't let him. If it were a film I'd give this book a PG-13 film rating rather than a U one.

Although the book manages to mention some very clear Heinleinian beliefs about marriage - you get married to produce children and you only do that when you have the resources to support them - and there is a certain Heinleinian notion about the value of earned vs unearned income, not to mention the requirement for noblesse oblige, the majority of the book is not a Heinlein one. I recall a Lazarus Long quote about religion being a prop for the weak but this book has the fascination with (Zen) Buddhist thought that is classic Spider Robinson. The tale starts off in truly excellent style with the sort of beautiful derailing of standard plans and plots that is a true joy and it continues to be, for the most part, a classic "coming of age" novel where Spider's experience with musicians and other performers is well used to present the challenges of a musician finding his artistic core. I found the hero to be both interesting and sympathetic and the much of the scientific and political background to be good, although there was a certain harping on about how man had outgrown wars which I found irritating, especially given some of the events in the latter parts of the book.

There is only one really bad moment, the truly bizarre anti-Bush rant at page 264 which is completely and utterly gratuitous and which really does nothing except annoy those of us who feel that the Spider Robinson view of current events is wrong. Also somewhere around that point the plot does flounder for a short while looking for a deus ex machina, something that I noticed more than I might otherwise because of the gratuitous political rant, but there is a satisfactory conclusion afterwards and some very nice comments on intelligence which must be Spider's and just about redeem him for his rant. There is even the vague possibility of a sequel, although if one is written I think it should not be Spider that does it because it is going to need someone rather less dedicated to pacifism to get it done.

All in all it's well worth the money you plunk down for it, and it has enjoyable Heinlein echoes. But it is not going to be ranked among the classics of Science Fiction and despite the publisher blurb shouldn't be confused with a book written by Heinlein.

04 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Linguistically Challenged Experts

In one of those serendipitous events that makes blogging fun, Chris over at Buyo drew my attention to a new vintage of Martin Jacques article on Japan, at the same time that the Marmot's Hole points out a very interesting article at Coming Anarchy about whether or not you need to be able to sling the lingo to be an expert on a country.

Let me start with Prof Jacques. As Chris points out this article is subtly different from the usual Jacques formula, a formula that permitted Chris to create a "write your own Martin Jacques article flowchart" last year. Oh it's not massively different - I said last year that:

You see in Jacques' world, Japan can only achieve nirvana through perpetual grovelling apology a.k.a. "coming to terms with its past". The result is that poor communist superpower China is a perpetual victim destined to suffer forever for the rampaging invasions of Japan until Japan commits national seppuku to expiate its shame.

and this still basically holds true, however there are differences. Chris claims that the prof's columns have been accidentally exposed to the real world, I propose a different explanation: what we are seeing now is a new vintage. Japan has a new prime minister so Prof Jacques feels that he ought to come up with a new improved formula, along the lines of new "squeezy marmite" or "new coke". Will "new Jacques" be more successful a makeover than "new coke" or will we see a return to the original formula?

One of the reasons why we find Prof Jacques' columns so trite is that they add very little to our understanding of the countries they are discussing. His column last week could effectively be summed up as
  1. New PM Abe is quite nationalistic
  2. China wants more apology from Japan
  3. But Japan is becoming more assertive not more apologetic
  4. China and Japan are the 3rd & 2nd largedst global economies
  5. So any rise in tension will affect the rest of the world
As a moderately informed resident of France who speaks very poor Japanese and has been in the PR China precisely once, I could have written this column. It makes the drive-by reporting of the NYT that I commented on a couple of days ago look good, and it is precisely because I find this level of superficial knowledge so infuriating that I read blogs written by Japanese and Korean residents and speakers and I would suggest that Grauniad readers who actually want to know what the average Japanese on the Yamanotesen is thinking would do better to do the same rather than rely on experts like Prof Jacques who seems to show no ability to communicate in any Asian language.

And this of course leads me to the Coming Anarchy post and the Marmot commentry thereon. Curzon concludes with:

Which brings me to my final point. If you want to study Japan, guess what—most of the novel research on Japan is done in Japan, by Japanese people, in the Japanese language. Only a fraction of it is translated. That’s true regardless what the topic is, whether it’s business, politics, culture, history, law, economics, or anything else. And it’s true not just about Japan, but the world in general. Experts in the West who build their career on knowing a region had better know the language if they want to be taken seriously, and as consumers of the analysis we should be wary of who and what we read.

As a general principle I would agree with this. Until we get to the sort of machine translation that is depicted in SF books, the only way to read books etc. written in a foreign language is going to be learning that language to a sufficiently high level, and if you can't read the books etc. in a particular langauge you can't tell what people who speak that language are thinking about unless you have a very good interpreter that you can trust. We have seen the disastrous effects of precisely this inability in the abysmal MSM coverage (and apparently in CIA and other government agency knowledge) of the Middle East. One of the major attractions of MEMRI is that it simply translates Arab media output into English so we can see for ourselves what they are talking about. I find it fascinating that many of the MEMRI critics claim that it is selective in its choice of stuff to translate but none of them seem to be interested in supporting an alternative that provides translations of other stuff:

As far as relations between the west and the Arab world are concerned, language is a barrier that perpetuates ignorance and can easily foster misunderstanding.

All it takes is a small but active group of Israelis to exploit that barrier for their own ends and start changing western perceptions of Arabs for the worse.

It is not difficult to see what Arabs might do to counter that. A group of Arab media companies could get together and publish translations of articles that more accurately reflect the content of their newspapers.

It would certainly not be beyond their means. But, as usual, they may prefer to sit back and grumble about the machinations of Israeli intelligence veterans.

However the Marmot points out that linguistic competence is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for regional expertise.
If I didn't think the same, to some extent, I wouldn't be so willing to comment on Japan or indeed anywhere outside the Anglosphere along with the French and German speaking parts of the world. And god knows the number of French people I know who can speak perfectly good English but who express a view of Anglophone politics that is, at best, naïve. And going back to the middle east two of the best commenters on events there - the two Michaels - speak practically no Arabic or other relevant language despite having travelled there a lot.

I think the critical point is to recognise the potential biases and errors that abound and attempt to avoid them. The fact that the frequently MSM seems unable to do so is just one more reason why the intelligent person will treat MSM reportage as just one element in his search for knowledge and understanding. 

04 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Booky Bits and Bobs

Campbell Award winning author John Scalzi has decided to raise lots of dosh for the John M Ford Book Endowment by auctioning off a very limited edition version of his upcoming book "The Lost Colony". Bidding is currently up at $5000.

Another author - Jo Walton - has decided to get in on the act and is offering a number of inducements for people who donate.

The Baen model of giving the first book away for free electronically in order to drive paper sales of it and subsequent books has been taken up by Dilbert author Scott Adams:

God’s Debris is still free for download. No strings attached.


So far, my clever marketing scheme of giving away my book so people will buy the sequel has garnered literally dozens of new sales. Apparently there’s a strong crossover between people who love provocative thought experiments and people who are cheap.

Oh and seeing as I've been reviewing a number of books recently I though Prof Mary Beard's thoughts on academic reviewing to be interesting.

I submitted a short story to Clarkesworld. It hasn't been rejected yet - if it is I may inflict it on all and sundry anyway by self publishing it here. I rather enjoyed the submission guidelines about things they dislike - maybe I can find a way to write a story involing all of them:

Though no particular setting, theme, or plot is anathema to us, the following are likely hard sells:

The bit I wrote last week about Petite Anglaise and her apparently wonderful book deal seems to be remarkably popular - mostly because I put a link to it on the blog of soon to be made redundant Torygraph reporter Colin Randall. He's now got a brand spanking new blog where he will no doubt be only too keen to receive offers telephone number sized advances for his memoirs.

Finally Baen author and fellow inhabitant of France (albeit about as far away from me as it is possible to be), Chris Dolley, has discovered 5 terribly cute kittens and can't advertise to give them away as French law requires that the ad include either their tattoo or that of their mother - since they'd been dumped this is not as simple as it might seem. Oh and PS they are incredibly cute.

04 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

EU News

I was going to write a bit about events here in France - the usual selection of strikes, worries about loss of jobs, whining about the slightly politically incorrect and the usual theft* politicians posing and primping but then I decided I really couldn't be bothered as none of the items are any more than confirmation that the usual practices are occuring.

In Europe on the other hand the BBC has a bunch of stories that, while also being mostly confirmation are slightly more surprising.

To start with the least surprising France and Italy 'worst bribers':

French and Italian firms were named as the worst culprits for paying bribes in low-income countries.

TI said its survey showed that efforts to introduce anti-corruption laws had yet to slow the problem.

"It is hypocritical that OECD-based companies continue to bribe across the globe, while their governments pay lip-service to enforcing the law," said TI chief executive David Nussbaum.

"The enforcement record on international anti-bribery laws makes for short and disheartening reading."

French and Itlaina firms pay bribes back home in France and Italy too so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to discover that they do the same abroad. This is news about as surprisng as the Pope admitting that he is a Catholic.

Then we have the fact that the EU has decided that it was completely OK for it to try and frame a journalist who thought EU curruption in Brussels was newsworthy:

A European Union court has rejected a claim for damages from a journalist who says he has been persecuted by the EU anti-fraud office, Olaf.

Hans-Martin Tillack was arrested by Belgian police and his files were seized after he exposed wrongdoing at the EU statistics agency, Eurostat.

He claimed damages from the European Commission, arguing that Olaf had triggered the Belgian police action.

But the court said there was no "causal link" between Olaf and his arrest.

Or, in other words, we managed to bury the papertrail well enough that he couldn't prove it. Neener Neener Neener

Next up is the wonderful news that the EU has decided that its wants to make its citizens pay more for shoes and keep the poor struggling European (primarily Italian) shoemakers in business.

Imports of leather shoes from China and Vietnam to Europe will continue to face steep punitive tariffs, under a deal reached by EU governments on Wednesday.

In future, imports from China will face tariffs of 16.5%, and imports from Vietnam will face a 10% levy.

The agreement is a triumph for Italy, which claims that unfair competition from manufacturers in both countries is driving its own shoe producers out of business.

But retailers have responded angrily, and claim that consumers will end up paying more for their footwear.

It seems that EU consumers - being disorganized - have far less clout and lobbying influence than manufacturers.

Finally, and in a shock blow for common sense, it seems that EU employers are entitled to pay longer serving staff more to reward their greater work experience:

Employers have welcomed a European Court of Justice ruling which they say will allow companies to continue to reward workers for long service.

The court rejected an appeal by health and safety inspector Bernadette Cadman that it was wrong to pay more to male staff who had been in the post longer.

Ms Cadman said that because women were more likely to have breaks from work, this amounted to sex discrimination.

But the court has left leeway to appeal in certain individual circumstances.

However in its general ruling the court said experience was an acceptable way of setting somebody's pay.

But you just have to love the final comment:

The president of the European Women Lawyers' Association, Leena Linnainmaa, said that the situation could only be more equal if men were encouraged to take paternity leave.

"The fact that women take maternity leave is a great burden on their careers," she told the Times.

*Following the "Pride of lions" and "Murder of crows" I think a "Theft of politicians" is pretty accurate - at least in Europe, in the US perhaps a "Legover of pols" would be more accurate given recent news.

05 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Implosion of the Tantrum-Throwing Child of Asia?

Thanks to this, that and the other, the attention of US politicians and news media is not focussed on East Asia. Neither, for various reasons, is the attention of anyone else; in Europe, for example, we've got immigrants and Afghanistan to worry about, not to mention our dynamic economy and the health of our national champions.

This is a pity because it means that the world really isn't paying any attention to the increasingly desperate attempts by North Korea to get world attention. We do not, of course, know what is going on inside N Korea (other than that in general terms its pretty dire), but such reports as are available seem to indicate that the sanctions imposed by the USA, Japan and others, not to mention the banking crackdowns by even friendly nations such as China, are having a negative effect on the leadership. If you are the leadership in such a country then this situation is bad - very bad - because the only way you can survive is to buy sufficinet foreign luxuries (with foreign currency) to keep those of you just below you happy.

Hence I suspect the recent threats by the DPRK about a nuclear test. The problem is that, as the BBC reports, such attention as is being paid to events in that corner of the globe are not, so far at least, providing the usual bribes to shut up and keep quiet. In fact rather the opposite is occuring with just about everyone saying that you really really do not want to do this. From the outside the timing of this announcement seems rather odd. America is busy worrying about its mid-term elections and Japan has just produced a new PM who has made somewhat bellicose statements about N Korea and Japan's possible militarization.

In fact given the upcoming visits by Abe to China and S Korea, where pressure might be expected to be placed on Abe's views on Yasukuni etc., a nuclear test could well combine to make Abe's visit focus on other things and provide Japan with the sort of diplomatic cover it needs to actively start remilitarizing. [It should be noted that experts reckon that Japan can build a nuclear bomb and a delivery missile within about 6 months to a year of deciding to start making one.] Indeed the AP reports that this seems to be precisely what is happening with China and S Korea being rather more supportive of Japan than they were in July:

The cooperative efforts displayed by Japan, China and South Korea marked a sharp contrast with the fractured reaction to a series of North Korean missile tests in July. In that incident, China and South Korea accused Japan of overreacting.

On Wednesday, China — the North's main ally and key benefactor — appealed to Pyongyang to show calm and restraint, issuing an unusually pointed statement that referred to North Korea by name, instead of its usual appeals for all sides to remain calm.

Japan, China and South Korea announced a series of summit meetings over the next week to repair damaged ties and coordinate a strategy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Monday. Roh will then visit Beijing for talks with Hu and other officials on Oct. 13.

Indeed Korean newspapers report that threatening such activities makes the Roh government of S Korea very unhappy

Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear test threat will likely add to a chill in the inter-Korean relationship, according to the analysts.

It came as the two Koreas' relations have dropped to their lowest ebb due to the North's missile tests in July, since the leaders of the two Koreas held a historic summit in Pyongyang in 2000.

Seoul has cut its regular food and fertilizer aid to Pyongyang since the missile tests, although it shipped a one-time aid package to help the communist regime recover from flood damage in the summer.

"We express grave worry and concern because North Korea's position that it will carry out a nuclear test is a fatal threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula and has a decisively bad influence on the inter-Korean relationship," said Yang Chang-seok, spokesman for the Unification Ministry.

The immediate victim of the nuclear test threat is likely to be inter-Korean economic projects such as the Gaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Geumgang tourism resort, the analysts said.

The threat will spook potential South Korean investors away from the industrial complex and the number of tourists to the scenic mountain will likely decline because of security concerns.

In other words a rational observer would think that N Korea had far more to gain from being nice than being nasty right now. So given that N Korea is making these increasing desperate attempts to get attention I think it is likely that the regime is in deeper kimchee internally than has been hitherto believed. In other words we could be about to see N Korea implode, collapse etc. etc. I have no idea what the N Korean harvest has been like this year (i.e. has it been catastrophic or just merely dire) and what other drivers might be present but it would not surprise me to learn that the closing down of much of N Korea's money laundering, counterfeiting and drug smuggling has severely impacted the living standards of the appartchiks who would normally be supportive of the leadership.

Maybe the likely selection of a S Korean head of the UN will turn out to be particulalry useful in getting the world to contribute to the reconstruction of the rememnants of N Korea next year?

05 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Progressive Morals and Brains

I wrote last week about the ridiculous analogy that certain so-called progressives a.k.a. liberals (a.k.a. moobats) had between dressing in a bikini in private and complaining about the over sexualization of public TV. Well it gets better and better.

Firstly a wee update via Michelle Malkin - the ladies who had their photos (and bodies) stolen to make the photoshopped "scanadlous" images have been identified and have written about how pissed off they are at the photoshopping. Needless to say no one has bothered to reply (let alone apologise) to them - or even, as far as I can tell, acknowledge that they are real people.

But then of course there is the whole Foley situation. I'm buggered if I understand all the details but I'm fairly sure that, while Foley does indeed appear to be a perfect candidate for the british Liberal Democrat party, the actions of some other republicans are not quite as scandalous as the progressives would have us believe. Indeed it seems that as we look closer at the story the more of a put up job it seems to be, and it only looks really bad because the MSM seems unable (or unwilling in this case) to comprehend the difference between email and instant messaging - one wonders what will happen when the democrat equivalent of Mr Foley is exposed, will the MSM explain the nice difference between emails, IMs, IRC chats, blog comments etc. etc..

But it gets more surreal. Allegedly some progressives have received a list of homosexual republicans and are debating whether or not they should release the list and out these people. I have a problem understanding why people who are normally in favour of privacy and gay-rights should even consider the possibility of outing homosexuals. Amazingly the discussion seems to be more about the political benefits (or damage) that might acrue rather than whether it would be ethically or morally acceptable:

Just as troubling are concerns among some House Democrat staff that there are potential scandals lurking of a similar vein for them. According to another Democrat source, "I've been warning my people to stay away from this story because you just don't know what will come back to bite you."

Which leads me right back to the questions I posed about the bikini affair. Why would anyone with half a brain think that being a closeted homosexual was similar to being (apparently) a possible paedophile?

Then there is the femministe, gawker etc. shock at the Fox attempt to buy off the Phelps sickos by giving them an hour of other air time instead.

The controversial anti-homosexual Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has canceled its plans to stage a protest at the funerals of the five Amish girls executed in their Pennsylvania school, a church official said Wednesday.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of church's pastor, told FOXNews.com the group canceled the protests in exchange for an hour of radio time Thursday on syndicated talk-show host Mike Gallagher's radio program.

"We're not going to any of the Amish funerals — that's the agreement we're making — that we won't go to any of them," Phelps-Roper told FOXNews.com.

Now I think that this may turn out to be a tactical error because it may embolden the phelpsites to try this sort of blackmail again but I also think that it has the chance to be a rather shrewd move to utterly discredit the phelpsites. Why? two reasons. Firstly I'm about 99% sure that their raving will end up alienating a large number of potential sympathisers who may share some misgivings about homosexuality and feel that the phelpsites are a misunderstood and persecuted group but who, after listening to them, will realize that they are total scum. Secondly, hencefore it will be easy to make the argument that the phelpsites are unprincipled publicity hunters and therefore that the media need no longer pay any attention to them whatsoever. In other words this hour broadcast by Fox is likely to be the last publicity they get on any "right wing" media outlet and will guarantee that they will be treated with utter contempt even by other "homophobic fundamentalist" christians.

Unfortunately the sort of logical analysis I'm making here seems to be beyond the progressives who combine bizarre conspiracy theories with an inablity to perform strategic analysis or, in some cases, basic logic...

06 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

The overly ripe olive problem. Our local mill is off on its hols until October 22 and will not I believe be accepting olives for crushing until at least a week after that. Unfortunately while we still have quite a few green olives we also have a fair number of rather riper ones.

Will the ones on the left surfive until it is time to pick them?

As always click on the image to see it enlarged and don't forget to look at other photos in the series if you missed them - I'm now up to 101 different olive tree photos!

06 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

(Ig)Nobel Prize Time

In Europe, the Royal Swedish Academy of Chefs Sciences has been awarding Nobel prizes for nepotism, big bangs etc. In America the Annals of Improbable Research have been awarding Ignobel prizes (Igs) for a variety of research topics:

A device that repels teenagers has won the peace prize at this year's Ig Nobels - the spoof alternative to the rather more sober Nobel prizes.

Welshman Howard Stapleton's device makes a high-pitched noise inaudible to adults but annoying to teenagers. [...]

This year's winners included:

While amusing, the ignobles do have some very worthwhile goals and this year they are offering a 24/7 series of lectures in which the lecturer has to get across the critical information about his topic in firstly 24 seconds and secondly 7 words.
I wish I were there. Unfortunately my trip to Boston will be next week for the far less interesting WiMAX world forum.

06 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Pick on Polly Time

In the Grauniad Polly Toynbee does her best to defend big government and claims that the Tories won't dare to actually cut anything for the chattering classes. What I love is her conclusion which rather lets the cat out of the bag:

Labour's failure to embed its social programmes in the public imagination may some day make them vulnerable. Had Labour wrapped its spending around a bolder narrative of social justice, it would be so much easier now to demolish the "rolling back the state" rhetoric.

Might one suggest that the social programs are not embedded because any competant observer can see the waste and jobsworthness of these programs. As TimW points out perhaps the best comment on her screed is this in the feedback below:


October 6, 2006 07:56 AM

I understand that a paper would employ jounalists to provide Comment and Opinion, but what is the point of a Random Thought & Unsupported Hypothesis section?

To be slightly more creative, Tim suggests cutting the DTI and leaving the EU to provide a swift £13billion in savings. I can't disagree and neither do I find it hard to argue with the commenter (because I suggested the same thing at Tim's post) who says:

Cameron might just as wel[l] start with cutting the thousands of non-jobs that were advertised in 'Society' and the health pages of the Grauniad over the last eight years, including the condom outreach and diversity co-ordinators. [...] Gordon's biggest waste is the thousands of these useless non-jobs on the public tit.

I'd add that a rationalization of tax policies - such as unifying income tax and national insurance, removing corporation tax and inheritance tax, and raising the threshold for the lowest band of income tax to something like a living wage (say £1500/month = £18,000/year) would probably save a huge amount becuase we could also remove all those tax credits and the clashing incentives they present to people who approach the top end of the tax credit scheme - such as those who work more than 20 hours a week at minumum wage. I'm not sure of all the savings this would make - but I am reasonably sure that it would result in a significantly smaller requirement for inland revenue personnel.

What else would I do? look to reduce income tax even further by  calculating how much central government contributes to local government and remving both that subsidy and the tax that supports it. Councils could then raise property taxes to support themsleves but because corporate taxes have gone and personal income taxes been reduced so much the increasse would probably be acceptable. Note as a halfway house I might look at the possibility of ring-fencing a certain amount of income tax as earmarked for local government and migrate to a situation where counties could vary the rate of income tax they set.

Finally Polly suggests that a Tory government would not cut middle class tax breaks but go after the working stiffs. A sane Tory party would continue along the lines I'm hinting at and go after those who are dependant on the state while rewarding those who can do things themselves.To pick some examples - I'd make the BBC license fee voluntary. Make it easy for the BBC to receive funding from individuals (and possibly make any BBC donation partially tax deductable but not fund it through government (note I might modify this slightly and fund some world service activity). Of course since we've withdrawn from the EU there will be no CAP and no farm subsidies so we might as well go the whole hog and fire 90% of DEFRA including canning most of their pointless inspectors. The only ones we might keep are a few health and safety inspectors and some of the planning inspector types - but they'd be moved to local authority control.

Hitting the middle-class? Well how about revising the university funding scheme? I'd support certain subjects only - primarily scientific ones. I might even provide grants for students of English, Maths and Physics in exchange for a year of teaching. What else?

Want something more radical? How about solving two or three problems at once - legalise drugs but require that sellers be licensed (similar to pubs, offlicenses and/or pharmacies) and cut the price of heroin by buying up most of the Afghan poppy crop for the next two to three years and supply it via some privatised entity (or heck let the alcohol/tobacco companies do it under license). You'd get quality control, opiates available for pain management without a problem and a valuable re-export since IIRC pain management drugs suffer from a lack of offiical opiate supply in much of the world.

06 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

The BBC Omits...

I doubt this comes as any surprise to anyone really. But it is a sad commentary on the way the BBC fails to mention certain things that might upset certain people - you know people who are believers in a "religion of peace".

Here's part of the BBC article:

Police patrols have been on alert after three nights of violence targeted a Berkshire dairy owned by Muslims.

The Medina Dairy in Windsor was hit by a suspected petrol bomb on Wednesday evening, on the third night of unrest.

Police increased their patrols in the Dedworth area, but said there had been no incidents of violence on Thursday night and no further arrests.

Three people were arrested on Tuesday and one was later charged with being in possession of an offensive weapon.

Police had said they would use "robust policing tactics" to bring the situation under control.

'Verbal dispute'

Police have said another two petrol bombs were found near the dairy.

The disorder started on Monday evening following what is believed to have been a minor verbal dispute between a group of youths and another person.

Notice the bit I have italicised and underlined? Any idea of the identities of the "group of youths" or the "another person". Do you think maybe it was a bunch of skinheads taunting the poor muslim owner maybe? well it could be because you don't have any further information do you?

Fortunately Ranting Stan is able to point to the Daily Express (front page) article on the same topic:

The outbreak of disorder began after a mother and her daughter were set upon by a gang of 20 Asian youths armed with baseball bats, iron bars and pitchforks.

The shaven-headed thugs – all dressed in white robes – launched the attack after pouring out of a former office building which is being used as an unofficial mosque.

They attacked Karen Hayes, 46, and her 18-year-old daughter Emily before turning their weapons on the teenager’s car. The pair had gone to help after Karen’s 15-year-old son Sean and a friend were beaten up by the gang. Police have said it is unlikely the mob will be brought to justice.

So now we know that the gang were from the "religion of peace", who seem to have picked on the wrong people to try and put the frighteners on. Is it just me who thinks that this is a rather critical bit of information?

Update: From the Biased BBC comment thread comes this excellent article with much background info:

There are accusations that members of staff from Medina Dairy have been intimidating people as they cut through Shirley Avenue from the recreation ground next to St Edward's Royal Free Ecumenical Middle School.

Lorna Habgood, a mother of two, from Dedworth said: "The security guards from the dairy are aggressive and abusive to mums collecting their kids from school. They won't let anyone down Shirley avenue because they say it's their land."

Argument has raged for more than two years over the dairy's use of Shirley Avenue - a public road - which residents say is often blocked by the dairy's workers and lorries.

Further anger has erupted over Medina Dairy's application for an 'Islamic education and community centre' in one of their buildings in Shirley Avenue.

Now it seems outrage has hit boiling point with the property already being used as a prayer room without hearing the outcome of the application to use it as one.

Linda Bund, from Vale Road, owner of Take a Break cafe on Dedworth Road said : "I am not opposed to anyone learning or practicing religion, but using premises off Vale Road causes chaos.

"It's all very well having a disagreement over planning issues but attacking women and intimidating people is not on, it's disgusting. We are not prejudice at all in my family but it is outrageous and I don't like the bad feeling it's creating."

Cynthia Endacott, (Clewer north: West Windsor Residents' Association) said: "They do not have permission to use that building as a prayer room. The police have done nothing and the council have done nothing either.

"I am very concerned about there being a permanent prayer room. It is a residential area and I would not be in favour of any sort of place of wor-ship in such a place."

Sardar Hussain, managing director of Medina Dairy, claimed it was his security guard who was initially attacked and said: "I want to work co-operatively with the West Windsor Association. I wish to be more involved in the community here in West Windsor if given the opportunity.

"I have friends and colleagues of many religions. I am a strong believer that people of all religions should try to co-operate and play their part in communal life."

Slough MP, Fiona Mactaggart said: "At any time Islamophobic attacks are unacceptable. In this holy month of Ramadan it is particularly distressing for the Muslim community to be victims of hatred.

"I am determined that all other commmunities in this area should stand by them.

"I have contacted the local police to ask them to make tackling the dangerous violence and anti-social behaviour a top priority."

Mind you, you begin to understand why these Muslims seme to think they can get away abusing planning laws when it seems that the police and politicians are more concerned about "Islamophobia" than anything else.

06 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

The Veil / Head Scarf Thing

As many of my UK readers are aware Jack Straw has been a little insensitive according to the usual suspects. Harry's Place has links to the Grauniad's reprint of Mr Straw's column, its own sensible comments and the overblown "Comment is Free" response by someone who, according to her Grauniad profile, is very keen on head scarves and palestinians. The HP post makes the sensible point that:

[...] if he's trying to curb anything, it's how people dress in his office, which he's entitled to do. Choosing how you dress in Jack Straw's office isn't really a basic freedom, is it?

Meanwhile the CiF column has one of the best responses ever from someone who identifies as a british Muslim lady:

I'm a British Muslim female, and while I don't like Jack Straw, I think his argument and be summed up as such:

You wouldn't throw a barbecue in downtown Jeddah serving a big fat roast pig.

Fact is, regardless of who you are and what you believe, you have to integrate when you move to another country, otherwise you will offend your hosts and do yourself no favours. He isn't calling for the abolition of veils, I think his request is perfectly reasonable.

I note that the CiF column contains a couple of odd sentences that are worth highlighting for their contradictory nature:

On the point of community relations, the face veil is worn by millions of women around the world and their societies function perfectly well and they are able to conduct their daily affairs without any problems. Though their communities don't have the same freedoms as we have in Britain, I do not buy Mr Straw's argument that they have less social cohesion because of the face veil.

The face veil is worn by Arabian women (primarily Saudi Arabia) as well as women in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not worn, as far as I know, anywhere else. I wouldn't class the socities of any of these countries as ones that "function perfectly well [where women] are able to conduct their daily affairs without any problems". In fact I'd call all of them dysfucntional oppressive intolerant societies and in the case of Saudia Arabia the statement that women can conduct their daily affairs without problems is a joke - women can't do anything outside their home without a male relative in attendance. This is then tacitly admitted by the second statement which denies that this has anything to do with the veil. I agree, and I doubt Mr Straw disagees either, because the veil is not a cause of a lack of social cohesion etc. etc. but a visible indicator of the dysfunctional non-cohesive nature of the society.

I see no reason to waste any more time on the senseless column of outrage, however although I have to say that trawling CiF replies tends to be a depressing task, I'm surprised by the generally sane comments on offer in this case. Another good one, immediately below the one I quoted above, says in part:

The hijab, I don't have a problem with at all. The veil, however...hmm. One estimate from a UCLA study is that 93% of communication is non-verbal. I think we can all agree that most of that non-verbal communication must be cut off if a woman is wearing what is effectively a tent.

And these questions are indeed sensible ones that the more extreme Muslims need to answer:

Three questions for Ms Akhtar and her supporters:

1. Jack Straw has said that covering the face is "a visible statement of separation and of difference." Is this or is this not true? Whether such a statement is a good or bad thing is not the point. Is covering the face such a statement. If not, what is it?

2. Ms Akhtar says that Straw "has abused his position of power when making the request" for women to remove the niqab. When Muslim imams, fathers, husbands and brothers suggest that it may be better for their womenfolk to wear the niqab, are they abusing their own positions of power within the community and/or family group? If not, why not?

3. If someone came into Straw's surgery wearing a T-shirt bearing a racist or anti-Muslim slogan, should he ask them to remove it? If so, why?

Although we know the answer to 3 - insulting Islam is so bad that the wearer of the T Shirt should be beheaded

(from Michelle's post on the subject)

07 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Lust for Laughs

Moonage Webdream links to a great list of stuff required by the band Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Its 18 pages long and every page is worth reading. But some will appeal more than others to particular groups of readers, for example I suspect any Korean reader will appreciate page 18.

07 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

More Booky Bits and Bobs

The magnificent Miss Snark, a lady whom I am not worthy so much as to be used as carpet under her stillettos, has two great links. The first, which slightly redeems my view of Gawker, although just possibly it moves them into the stopped clock category, explains why you don't want to be an editor, and how to behave towards them if you are an author:

Why do editors do it, anyway? They make less money than any other college graduates they know, their jobs are backbreaking and stressful and impossible to leave at the office, and their career trajectories tend to involve lingering on (or clinging to) the same rung of the corporate ladder for year after frustrating year. And even though teaching a retarded child how to write her own name isn't really so different from working on your average celebrity memoir, that doesn't mean editing qualifies for 'noble calling' status. There must be something that keeps editors from throwing in their red (actually, often blue) pencils, and it can't be the office camaraderie.

I know - it must be the authors. The chance to work with great minds - to be an important part of the creative process for some of the most revered thinkers of our time - is such an enormous privilege that it makes any number of other indignities tolerable. Right?

Uh, maybe, for the gradgrinds who still believe everything they learned at the Columbia Publishing Course. For everyone else, authors are a cross to bear somewhere between 'creepy messenger guy' and 'can't even afford a new coat from H&M" on the job-dissatisfaction scale. Because, with a few glowing exceptions, authors are the craziest, meanest, strangest, cluelessest people you've ever met.

Just in case you ever become one, please remember this tip: Just as you treat the diner waitress respectfully in order to avoid loogies in your coleslaw, it behooves you to make nice with the people on whose enthusiasm the success of your book depends. So don't : ...

It has also been noted by the ill editor alg as well and heartily recommended.

The second is an author's rant about the mail, electronic or regular, that her readers send her and how you really need to avoid certain topics or habits if you expect a response. One of those lists of things that you would think would be obvious but which apparently aren't to some people. Unfortunately I'm fairly sure that these people are precisely the ones who won't read the list.

Moving on from Snarkdom, I cam across a publishing house that seems to be emulating the Baen trick and releasing some of its work - in this case a graphic novel - for free on line. Never heard of the book but it looks interesting so maybe I'll see if I can find it in Bahston next week.

On that note I'm also anticipating buying Lois M Bujold's latest book - The Sharing Knife (vol 1) - while I'm there. Review to come shortly I expect.

08 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Science Bloggy Thoughts

From time to time I like to spend a while reading a number of the scientific blogs and magazines to see what I'm missing. One thing that spurred me on to do this again this weekend was the Gene Sequence X Prize.

On October 4, 2006, the X PRIZE Foundation announced the launch of its second prize — the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics. The $10 million cash prize has been created to revolutionize the medical world. The launch was attended by visionaries and entrepreneurs from around the globe who recognize the significance and impact that the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics will have on the fields of medicine and research.

What I found most interesting is why this is still a problem. I mean we sequenced the human genome back in 2000 yes? Well Gnxp has a crisp explanation of why that lay asumption is WRONG.

One broader question overall is: why do we need a new method for sequencing? Sanger sequencing has gotten us this far, shouldn't a little more miniaturization and automation get us where we need to be? The answer, in a word, is no.

As I see it, the problem with both 454 sequencing (one of the top candidates to be the next major sequencing technology) and Sanger sequencing is their ability (or lack thereof) to handle large repeats. Here's what I mean:

First, note that sequencing is not the same as looking at a DNA molecule and reading on down. Sanger sequencing gets you about 600 bases at a time, so you first need to break the genome up into pieces of that size, sequence them all, then put them back in order. In 454 sequencing, you break the genome up into piece of about 1000 bp, but you only can read about 200 of them. Note that the human genome is composed of somewhere around 3.3 billion bases.

Now imagine you have a stretch of 3000 bases on chromosome 5, and another identical stretch on chromosome 11. If you're sequencing 600 bases, you have no idea that there are two copies of that sequence in the genome-- all you see is a bunch of identical sequence. The only thing you can do is sequence the same genome over and over again and hope that one of your 600 bp reads overlaps both some unique sequence from one chromosome and some of your repeat, allowing you to anchor it down. Of course, there are computational methods for resolving repeats that have gotten much better in the past few years, but the larger the repeat, the harder it is, and you still have to generate a lot of sequence-- off the top of my head, I'd guess you need something like 10X coverage (meaning for a 3.3 billion bp genome, you have to sequence 33.3 billion bases) to successfully resolve most repeats. That's a lot.

Although given this sort of problem with current technologies John Hawks' question "how are they going to test the accuracy of the reconstucted genomes?" is rather critical.

Other fun bioscience related news includes the Pinker/Lakoff grudge match, ably commented on here, and a couple of examples of dodgy use of facts, one by the Intelligent Design (ID) iots and one by a paleontologist who ought to know better.

Moving on from biosciences to physical ones and there are a numebr of straws in the wind that, IMO, make it increasingly likely that the world's "oil addiction" can be cured. Firstly Popular Mechanics highlights an improved hydolyzer i.e. the production of hydrogen by electrolysis of water:

Bourgeois's prototype electrolyzer cuts the equipment cost of using electricity to grab hydrogen from H2O. The key was replacing tooled metal with a moldable, high-tech GE plastic called Noryl, saving on materials, manufacturing and assembly. The result? A kilogram of hydrogen — the energy equivalent of roughly a gallon of gas — that costs $3 instead of the current $6 to $8. "I could imagine a small box that sits on-site making hydrogen for a factory," Bourgeois says. "Eventually, even filling stations may make their own hydrogen."

Combine this with recent improvements in solar cells (economist article summarizing) and you get a way to store solar power in a useful form that can be readily transported.

Finally the space race seems to be heating up which is interesting, and, critically IMO, it is becoming mroe and more of a private sector challenge. That isn't to deny the dangers of space travel though as slashdot highlights the atmosphere does provide us with a lot of protection.

11 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Over-priced "Services"

I'm currently in Bahhhston for a trade show. One of the reasons I am attending (with colleagues) is to present a new product to potential clients. Since we didn't want to exhibit at the expo (for confidentiality reasons primarily) we needed a room in a nearby hotel where we could entertain and wow our clients. We've booked the room for a day and in the process discovered that if we wanted to rent a projector and screen for our powerpoint presentation that would be an extra $690 for the privilege. You can buy a projector fo that money. If we provide the projector ourselves the basic electrical+screen package i.e. laying a powerstip down to the middle of the table and putting a 2m screen up at one end is $140 (IIRC), which, if you do the sums means that it costs $550 for renting the projector.

$140 is quite a sum for about half an hour's work max and the rental of a powerstrip worht maybe $10 and a screen worth maybe $150. But there doesn't seem to be much of an alternative so we just get it and count it in the cost of room rental.

We have however balked at the projector rental. The projector is large and posh so it cost perhaps $2000. In other words after four rentals the hotel is making 100% profit on its investment. Hotels next to convention centres rent their rooms out to people like us maybe 50% of the year and, in these days of laptops and death by powerpoint, the vast majority of these rentals will also involve the showing of a powerpoint presnetation via a projector. So it seems likely that the projector would be demanded maybe 100 times a year in a particular room. That means the Hotel stands to gain about $55,000 in projector revenue if people use its projector.

This is what is known in the trade as a nice profit margin or, if you are the sucker invited to pay, a rip off. Not being suckers we have decided to seek an alternative choice.

Curiously if you go to Best Buy or Staples here in Bahhhston you can buy a very nice projector for $699 + tax. You can also return it no questions asked within 14 days for a full refund. Yesterday we bought ourselves a projector for today's entertaining. Tomorrow we will almost certainly return the projector (there has been some debate about keeping it because it is actually better than the one we left behind in Europe) giing us a rental charge of whatever two cab fares to Staples are - maybe $50 tops. In order to assuage our consciences we may buy an electronic gadget or two at Staples as well :)

It seems to me that if the hotel charged rather less for its equipment rental (maybe $250-$300 for the whole package) we wouldn't bother doing this so congratulations hotel - you have just lost revenue from us. I don't know how many others will do the same thing but I'll guess that a significant chunk of people who rent the room will also balk at this pricing...

14 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

One use for pruned olive branches is as firewood. They smell nice and, when dry, burn very well and because the wood is so hard its good exercise to saw them up by hand. Since it takes more than a year for the wood to dry out enough to burn without excessive hissing these logs, the last from this year's pruning, are for next winter....

As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and go here to see earlier pictures in the series.

14 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Armenian Massacres Not Genocide

This blog is now in danger of breaking the law in France.

There can be no doubt that the Ottomoan empire killed over a million Armenians from 1915 onwards. The question is whether this is genocide or not. In France the parliament has passed a law stating that it is and that anyone denying this (or as I understand even questioning it) is breaking the law if this law also passes the senate (which it probably won't).

I declare that genocide requires the death of at least two million. Most estimates of Armenian deaths in are 1.5 million. Hence the event was not genocide. Hence I am breaking the law.

[ Note that I am not denying that the deaths occured, merely that they constitute genocide. If any French authority wants to argue this with me I'll change my defnition of genocide.]

However, under my definitions both the USSR under Stalin and the PRC under Mao are guilty of genocide under my definition, but I bet that stating either of those claims in a widely read/watched/listened place would result in howls of protest from many of the people who proposed the Armenian Genocide bill

14 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

North Korea Gets More Sanctions

The North Korean nuclear test seems to have been rather less impressive than it first appeared and been rather counter productive.

The BBC reports that most observers now seem to think the explostion was less than 1kT which implies more of a fizzle than a bang. Combine this with the equally fizzly rocket testing earlier this year and it looks a little like the DPRK has managed to call its own bluff. In other words the North Koreans have demonstrated clear intent but failed to demonstrate ability. It may be cynical but the only clear beneficiaries of the North's fizzled attempts at blackmail are Shinzo Abe and his colleagues in Japans LDP

My hypothesis has been that the North Koreans conducted the test as a way try and blackmail other countries to give it stuff and that it is doing so because the current sanctions are really hurting it. Unfortunately for North Korea, it seems to have failed to read the reactions correctly: countries such as the USA and Japan have increased sanctions on the state and its leadership and got the UN to pass a resolution implementing sanctions. Critically China seems likely to go along with them, or at least not flout them, which means that North Korea is indeed in trouble. Or rather the current leadership is indeed in trouble. Only more ostrich parts of the S Korean governing party seem willing to keep on paying the Danegeld game and even they may be constrained by the possiblity that their own trade may be impacted if it is considered to be connected to the North.

The question is what happens next. I am fairly sure that some individual N Korean scientists and engineers are going to be receiving a certain amount of re-education for their part in these failures. This seems likely to be counter-productive if the N Koreans want their weaponsmakers to improve and can only be a good thing for global security. If I am correct and the North Korean leadership is losing control of lower parts of its government then we could well see regime collapse. This is likely to be a major issue for China and S Korea who could well be flooded with refugees, but it ought not to be beyond their ability to provide large refugee camps on the borders and also start providing food and other aid throughout the North thus reducing the refugee problem. Thus in the shorter term the collapse of the current N Korean regime need not be the total catastrophe that China and S Korea fear.

Unfortunately I'm in the pessimist camp with regards to the longer term. I'm not so sure that all the lessons of East Germany will apply. N Korea is far less industrialized so simply giving ts villages some of the benefits of the green revolution ought to make a big difference in terms of getting the country to feed itself. But feeding itself is more of a interim stage than an end goal and building up N Korean infrastructure and industry could be a very long task. This is unlikely to be asissted by the likely mental degradation of those who were children or teenagers during the famines of the last ten or more years.

The other question is what happens to/in Iran. One lesson the Iranians can learn is that a nuke or missile test is only effective as a threat if it is successful and that, as far as I can tell, Iran could well face sanctions if it actually tests a bomb either way.

15 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

The Kim Point of View

A few years back I was a dedicated Kuro5hin reader. These days, I regret to say, I am not, primarily because it looks like most of the good writers have buggered off who knows where. However every now and then a good post shows up there and this one on Korea is one of them. In it it makes the point that while obtaining a nuclear bomb seems pretty stupid for those of us on the outside, if you are Dear Leader Kim then it makes a good deal of sense since it seems to be the only way to keep yourself in luxury goods and the other trappings of being a dictator.

Consider the world from the vantage point of the North Korean government. It is a poor country which cannot feed its people reliably. Its economy has not been functioning for many years. In the old days, it was dependent on handouts from ideological friends and allies; but those days are gone. North Korea stands alone, perhaps with Belarus, Cuba, and Tajikistan, as the last struggling outpost of the vast Stalinist empire. The superpower which sustained it is gone. The remaining superpower loathes it. The regional power it is closest to pretends to be its friend but instead uses it as a pawn in regional power struggles. Its neighbor to the south is ideologically committed to its destruction and tolerates it merely because it is terrified of the economic effects of its collapse. The other states in the region dislike and distrust it. And, to make matters worse, it is the only state in the world which has ever been attacked by forces which were (a) operating under the auspices of the United Nations and (b) committed to its elimination as a state.

North Korea is an extremely weak state, which continues to exist almost entirely because it (a) holds Seoul hostage and (b) is threatening both of its neighbors with severe economic and humanitarian crises if it collapses. Not only does it have no friends, there are virtually no states  which do not viscerally dislike it; it has been an international pariah for more than a decade. It believes itself to be isolated and threatened, and to have very few resources with which to defend itself.

If you look at it this way then getting a bomb makes sense in a twisted illogical way. After all the bomb deters external folks from thinking of regime change (as if having gazillions of guns pointed at Seoul didn't do that anyway) and hence ought to make it safer.

[ Unfortunately though it looks like, as the article notes and as I have commented earlier, the bomb has presented its one sorta ally - China - with some rather nasty geopolitical calculations. On the one hand China quite likes having NK around as a sort of nutter that it can claim to influence in exchange for other favours, but on the other hand NK's bomb may drive Japan (and S Korea) into getting their own and/or spending a lot more money on arms, and since theoretically both threaten China to some extent if they rearm that really threatens China. On the gripping hand if the regime collapases then China and S Korea are going to have to pick up the pieces somehow and that could be really nasty. ]

The problem is that, IMO, all these sorts of analyses assume that Kim is a rational player. The Marmot's Hole links to a must read NYT opinion piece that suggests that Kim & co are rather less than rational:

These long-term diagnoses of Mr. Kim’s psyche are a roundabout way of saying that because he is not a fundamentalist Muslim, he is unlikely to do anything really crazy.

This sort of cultural profiling, however, can get us into real danger. Japan’s emperor during World War II, Hirohito, was neither religious nor suicidal, and he led his nation into a war that no rational leader could have hoped to win. The point is relevant, because although journalists persist in calling North Korea a Stalinist state, its worldview is far closer to that of fascist Japan.

Like the Japanese in the 1930’s, the North Koreans trace the origins of their race back thousands of years to a single progenitor, and claim that this pure bloodline makes them uniquely virtuous. The country’s mass games — government-choreographed spectacles with a cast of more than 100,000 — are often mistaken by foreign journalists as exercises in Stalinism. They are in fact celebrations of ethnic homogeneity. “No masses in the world,” the state-run Cheollima magazine reminded readers in 2005, “are purer and more upright than our masses.”

And it concludes with this mother of all troubling thoughts:

While the North Koreans could kill a lot of people, they do not pose as great a threat to world security as imperial Japan did. Never have they shown any interest in forging an empire. All the same, the irrationality of their worldview is such that we should, at the very least, stop assuming that they would never use their own weaponry.

While Kim may not be suicidal himself, he shares Hirohito’s penchant for encouraging this quality in his people: “Defense until Death” is an increasingly popular slogan. In 2003 a colorful poster was disseminated to the foreign press showing a fat missile in flight with a suicide-readiness slogan on it: “Yankee, take a good hard look.” That isn’t bad advice.

As the Marmot says, it may in fact be the case that Kim doesn't believe this racial superiority claptrap, but it is entirely likely that many of his fellow countrymen do. What if they decide to have a coup becuase they think Kim has been too weak? In other words in the short term it could be better to stick with Kim than hope for an internal putsch to remove him. And such a viewpoint could make picking up the pieces after a regime implosion even worse.

I hate to say this, but it could be that the only way to convince the North Koreans of the fallacy of their racial superiority could be a overwhelming military defeat. Which means not just aggressive sanctions but actual air-raids and invasions by the rest of the world, despite the likely consequences of such moves for the inhabitants of Seoul.

15 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Health Warnings

Apparently the British Nanny-staters, impressed by the massive success of cigarette health warnings to stop smoking and the smashing american success at stopping drinking the same way, are trying to do the same thing and put health warnings on booze. I have to agree with the Black Quill:

Why doesn’t the government go to the root of the matter, namely the fact that consistently bad and lying government is driving us all to drink? More so with the erosion in the quality in life their stupid asinine policies bring. An Englishman’s home is not so much a castle as a breeding ground for prying social workers.

Next step will be to copy the Massachussets nanny-staters. Last week I was utterly amazed to see that in Baahston the restaurants all seemed to have a health warning about "partially cooked and uncooked food" possibly containing lurgies (I forget the exact wording). Not that it stopped me from having rare steak or salad and not that warnings of botles of booze that "driving or operating machinery while becoming pregnant" is a bad and dangerous thing.

15 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

The Teflon Taxman

Back in 1966 the Beatles had a song called "Taxman" with some great lyrics including:
If you drive a car, I'll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I'll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet.
Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman
And you're working for no one but me.
Not a great deal seems to have changed in 40 years, except that things have, if anything, got worse. In the UK the taxman is not only able to tax almost anything he feels like, if he makes a mistake then he isn't liable for any damage this causes. This was higlighted in the recent Neil Martin case where Mr Martin saw his business driven into bankruptcy because the tax folks couldn't give him the documentation he required to conduct his business legally. But it gets worse. He has just released a Press Release showing that the Revenue maanged to repeat this process with his newer company:

The agency called in their account with Neil Martin Limited and this business was forced to cease trading. The Martin Group was then established by Neil Martin. When it applied for a CIS certificate in 2002, the Revenue suffered what was later described as “technical problems” and the picture on the CIS certificate was blacked out. This lead to problems with clients who could not make payments, because the identification of Neil Martin could not be referenced to the CIS certificate.

The Revenue then took four months to replace the CIS certificate with a clear one. Against all odds, the business managed to trade until a fresh application had to be made for a new certificate in 2003.

Because of the catalogue of past Revenue disasters, Mr Martin delivered his form to the Revenue in person and obtained a signature from a member of the Revenue staff confirming receipt of his application. Not surprisingly, given the past history, this application form was lost by the Revenue within their own internal postal system and Neil Martin was forced to submit a further three application forms, each of which were also lost by the Revenue.

When it was almost too late these forms came to light and CIS certificates were then processed. On this occasion the time delay from submitting the first application form until the receipt of the CIS certificate was not 52 days, but a staggering 76 days from start to finish.[...] The business could not survive this and it was closed with losses of over £250,000.00.

However, lest anyone claim that HMRC were incompetant insensitive scumbags they did investigate this series of cockups:

An inquiry was set up by the Revenue in 2004. Neil Martin received an “official apology” and he was offered compensation payment of £55.00.

Wonderful. I hope Mr Martin sets up again only this time he avoids HMRC and co and employs a load of Polish builders paid in used fivers.

And for those of you who like big government and schemes like the ID card, consider what the government's likely response will be when one of their civil servants or contractors flogs your ID data to some crimnals who then clean out all your accounts and sell your house from under you. With inflation you might get a massive £60...

16 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Governments and Monopoly Sex Abuse

I am about as rabid a free trader as you get, although I suspect Tim W (recently profiled by Norm) is even rabider and has the economics background I don't to make the arguments better (and likewise Mr FM himself). One of the larger problems that we FMers have is with monopolies because, as a general rule monopolies bugger up free trade. Since it is, as a general rule, the government that creates or permits the monopoly it is up to government to police it properly. And, needless to say, frequently they don't do this right.

For example one monopoly is the right for registered licensed pharmacies to sell drugs that others may not and for only registered licensed doctors to proscribe certain medicines. This is a completely artificial monopoly based purely on the idea that licensing ought to prevent incompetants and/or would be poisoners from proscribing/selling drugs to the rest of us. Feministe and other feminist bloggers are extremely annoyed at some US doctors and pharmacies who seem to think that they can decide whether or not to sell a particular drug to a particular person. This is, in my opinion, completely outrageous and a total abuse of the monopoly power granted to pharmacies. It is of course less of an issue in large cities where there are many pharmacies but it can be a major problem in more rural areas as the blogger Biting Beaver discovered:

Long story short: an adult woman with several children in a committed relationship was not able to obtain emergency contraception in time (due to some serious backwards actions on the part of several doctors and nurses) and became pregnant against her will. Now she must pay for an abortion she really can’t afford.

[Aside: You may justifiably argue against abortion, indeed I have considerable qualms about late term abortion, but I have no qualms what so ever about the morning after pill because it is highly unlikely that the egg has been fertilized until some hours or days after intercourse so this is not actually about killing a living human (yet). In fact it is failure to produce the pill makes it likely that a human becomes conceived and hence if aborted becomes the death of a human. Only if you are against all forms of contraception does this kind of thing make sense and I don't think there is any human country anywhere where the (vast) majority of its citizens - as opposed to their political or spiritual leaders - oppose contraception.]

It seems to me that, given that the morning after pill is approved by the relevant medical authorities, then its prescription under the ciscumstances described are in fact routine and precisely when the drug is supposed to be used. Hence it would seem to me that nor proscribing (or if a pharmacy selling) a drug like this is actually an abuse of your monopoly rights as licensed by the government. I mean why is this different to a decision to not proscribe statins to a heart patient? do you think a doctor or pharmacy would be allowed to continue if it refused to provide statins or other similar heart medicine to clinically obese people simply because the doctor or pharmacist felt that clinically bese people should go on a diet first?

Yet when it comes to sex it seems the US government will let doctors and pharmacists deny certain medicines. It doesn't seem to matter whether it is the morning after pill, condoms or the HPV vaccine or whatever, doctors and pharmacists are allowed to plead a conscience and not provide what their patients want/need even when it is perfectly legal and normal to provide such a product. This is a flat out abuse of a government licensed monopoly position and as far as I am concerned is one that should result in the doctor or pharmacist concerned having its license taken away and/or being liable for the legal and medical expenses incurred by anyone who fails to obtain said products.

I had assumed that this kind of sexual prudishness was a purely US phenomenon, unfortunately the Torygraph reported on a case last week in the UK:

A Muslim chemist repeatedly refused a mother the "morning after" pill because of his religious beliefs.

Jo-Ann Thomas, a school crossing patrolwoman with two children, was told that even though the item was in stock she should go to her doctor for her supplies.

When she was denied the pill at a Lloyds Pharmacy near her home in Thurcroft, Rotherham, she asked why and says she was told the pharmacist was a "deeply religious Muslim".

She said: "I am a 37-year-old woman, not a daft girl who doesn't know what she's doing, and the chemist has no right to tell me whether I can or can't take the pill.

The article ends with a statement that this is perfectly accpetably as part of the ethics guidelines of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. I decided to have a look on the website and, while I didn't see that statement in the ethics pdf I did find it in the emergency contraception guidelines pdf in section 4.6:

Pharmacists who choose not to supply EHC on the grounds of religious or moral beliefs should treat the matter sensitively and advise women on an appropriate local source of supply available within the time for EHC to be effective (i.e. within 72 hours of unprotected sex).

The problem here is that there may not be a local source of supply available or at least not easily obtainable so I think this is a weaselly cop out. If Pharmacists are unwilling to stock (or in this case to stock but not dispense) these sorts of perfectly legal drugs that do not (in the UK) even require a perscription then there seems no reason why they should be limited to pharmacists. If they are stocked in Tesco then anyone can buy them and the pharmacists don't need to get their weaselly ethics in a twist.

16 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Mushroom Porn

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I are both dedicated fungi fans. One of the attractions to going to Japan in the autumn is to eat dishes with maitake, shiitake or occasionally matsutake (the truffle equivalent of Japan) or some of the other varieties. E.g. the maitake soba and the assorted mushrom soup pictured below
My in-laws live in deepest rural Japan and one advantage of living there is that my father-in-law regularly goes on matsutake hunts. Matsutake is hard to find, impossible (so far) to cultivate and has a very distinctive taste and aroma. Indeed one of my abiding pleasures was to open up a matsutake rice ball on a train and see how the aroma spread and tantalized all the other passengers.

However this year we're staying in Europe for the autumn so there will be no matsutake-gohan. Fortunately though that doesn't mean no mushrooms because the French are very keen on them too and hence the shops are filled with interesting mushrooms. We found some "Trompettes de la Mort" in the shop and decided that they would be suitable for a few dishes to satisfy our mushroom cravings. SWMBO made the Italian equivalent of matsutake-gohan - "risotto con funghi" last night based on a BBC recipe she found but with modifications

I made omelettes. The astute observer will note that the two final editions are slightly different, that would be because we had two different omelettes on different days:

Oh and did I mention the Truffle cheese I picked up in Milan? no? well we've had some of that too. So we're mushroomed out until we go shopping tomorrow

Interestingly enough it turns out that "Trompettes de la mort" are apparently known in English as either "Black Trumpets" or "Horn of plenty" aka "Cornucopia" (their latin name). This is rather suitable as I have just bought and read Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith.

17 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Gaza: Reductio ad Gentem

Thanks to James at Nourishing Obscurity I've been reading a fascinating account of Gaza and its descent into tribalism and anarchy. It is all very reminiscent of Somalia, Afghanistan and Waziristan. Now one could possibly draw some terribly racist conclusions here - think R Kipling style "the natives are little children" - but what I find interesting is to wonder why "the west" has somehow managed to avoid such tribalism - or at least minimized it.

 suspect that piecemeal urbanization via industrialization is a large factor behind this - in an urban society that has formed through people moving to the cities in search of (better) jobs families will tend to get split up and groups and tribes tend to intermingle so that one tribal identity gets lost. Of course it doesn't always disappear - think N Ireland - and some tribes - e.g. Jews - seem to resist assimilation in some societies (not saying its the Jews fault just saying they tend to keep to themselves for both internal and external reasons). But for the most part people tend to identify with larger items than their close genetic relatives - hence we see nationalism and religious affiliation being more important than being related to someone. And the logical outcome of this is a sort of transnationalism where we see ourselves as part of the human race rather than part of a bit of it. I don't think many humans are real transnationalists - even the ones that claim the title mostly seem to me to be more loyal to a secular religion of statist interference than the world as a whole - but most of the west is able to function without taking into account the tribe. The "West" by the way would also include the "far East" as well by this measure since China, Korea, Japan and, for the most part, Indochina are also non-tribal societies.

This is emphatically not the case in other societies. Arab society puts great store by the tribe and most of Africa does likewise. Indeed I recall an article which explained that the expectation that one should look after one's less fortunate relations as one major reason for African lack of progress. It's not just the nepotism and cronyism, it is also the fact that the incentives for success are lower because if you become successful you have to feed 101 idle distant cousins. I don't know how true this is but is makes a kind of sense. In other words perhaps the best thing the west could do for the tribal areas would be to encourage selfish behaviour and mass migration.

Something else that the west could usefully do in Gaza at least is continue to not provide aid. Gaza seems to produce nothing worth trading and little food so why are its people still alive and able to spend all their days fighting each other? The mantra of "Trade not Aid" would seem to be the perfect way to provide proper incentives for the Gazans to reform themselves. As it is they have no real incentive to not remain the unproductive drones of the global economy that they are today.

The article also makes something very clear: the west produces much better fighters. For example:

In scenes reminiscent of Lebanon's multi-sided civil war, checkpoints were set up on the street to mark where one family's turf began and another's ended. At times, hundreds of gunmen on both sides took part in prolonged battles, firing from homes and sandbagged positions across the empty lot that divides east and west Beit Hanoun.

Two bystanders were killed in the crossfire, and one member of the Kafarneh family was executed in front of his wife and children. After that gruesome killing, the mukhtar, or leader, of the Kafarnehs finally sued for peace.

"It was a war, not just a fight. Sixty days of war," Mr. el-Masri said. "We fought the Kafarnehs like they were the Israelis."

Obviously the reporter skips a few details in this description but it does begin to illustrate why the enormously asymmetric body counts seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and historically pretty much wherever the British Empire fought the natives occur. The west, particularly in its the professional or mercenary armies, emphasizes aimed fire, discipline, tactics and the acceptance of limited casualties in an assault. Critically the el Masri's and the Kafarnesh fought each other in the same way that they fight against the Israelis. Neither side fought in the way that the Israelis fight against them. The Israels identify the leaders and take them out with targetted killings, they manoever to attack from the sides and so on. In Lebanon where Hezbollah did, in some places, fight the way the Israelis fight, they were relatively successful. In Gaza the tribes are totally unsuccessful. If you have "hundreds of gunmen" in prolonged battles you ought to have dozens of casualties, however casualties were near zero despite the fact that both sides have RPGs as well as assault rifles and RPGs can piece most walls.

18 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

To Know a Veil

I've written before about the Moslim veil thing, something that has elicted much comment in the last week or two thanks to Mr Straw. For the most part what we are seeing in the responses is some sort of competitive victimhood where sexism vies against cultural (in)sensitivity and so on. However there are good thoughtful comments to be found here and there. Firstly there is Jill at Feministe who points out that legally banning the veil (or for that matter any item of clothing) may end up harming those it is supposed to liberate:

Bans on headscarves, veils, burqas, hijabs, or chadors turn particular classes of women into prisoners of their own homes. It confines them to the private sphere. It blocks them from public participation in the name of “modernism.” It only hurts women and girls, and therefore is no great victory for women’s rights.

A bar on headscarfs in public doesn’t have the effect of women leaving their scarves at home — it means that women who believe they have a religious duty to be covered will not participate in the public sphere. It means they won’t go to school. They won’t run for public office. They won’t work.

I think that this is an excellent point. In most cases we do not want to coerce people to do things they do not want to do voluntarily and if we forbid something that could be a voluntary choice that harms no one else around them then we are stepping down the road to tyranny that we are trying to avoid.

However what she doesn't come quite out to say is that it may not be the woman who makes the decision about whether she leaves her home without a veil or whatever. In fact I would say a large part of the problem we, in the West, have with headscarves, veils, burqas etc. is that in many cases they are forced on women by their menfolk. Wearing one of these items is not something that a woman in those cultures have much of a choice about. If they want to avoid violence from their relatives and neighbours they have to wear them. This is a very touchy subject because it is hard, if not impossible, to tell whether a woman feels coerced or not. Evidence from around the world suggests that given a free choice most women prefer not to wear the more restrictive sorts of burqa or veil.

Mary Beard wrote about the controversy at her blog and received this excellent comment from a reader:

I am a muslim woman in my experience wearing a veil is the same as wearing a mask, in other words it is difficult to have a dialogue with a person on the other side of the door!

Where as there is an obligation to have hair covered for Muslim women, there is no obligation to have the face covered. In that respect, in opinion the veil in this country is a symbol for many of us, as segregation/oppression not Islam.
My solidarity is with the women of the world who, are forced to choose between the niqab or death. If a choice is embedded with conditioning, conforming and a history of blood shed, then it is not a choice, it is a reaction!


We are of Muslim background and have daughters we can speak for ourselves. We do not wish to see OUR daughters walking DOWN the streets with BLACK SACKS OVER THEIR HEADS, IN ORDER TO FEEL CONFIDENT, OR, TO BE RESPECTED. WE DEMAND RESPECT AS HUMAN BEINGS![...]

Just like racism is institutionalised so is women's oppression. When young women want to change how they look, with the thinking this will change how they feel about themselves. (Plastic surgery e.t.c)We question the society we live in, that forces women to such drastic actions. Likewise, when women want to cover themselves in veils (especially the younger generation) we should be questioning the society that informs people psychologically, to go to such extreme lengths. (Not shouting the race card!)

To suggest that women wear the veil because it prevents men lusting over them is to degrade men. Secondly, many women who wear the veils in this country have family that has originated from countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Take a visit there. There is hardly a veil to be seen.

Wearing the veil is also banned in Mecca and also many other Muslim countries. Have they banned it because they are racist?? It is banned because it represents subjugation of women. To say it makes a women feel near god is utter rubbish and distortion of Islam. It is a Dark Ages abusive cultural practice.

I am Muslim myself. I do not support the state in legislating, what people wear or don’t wear. However, I welcome the debate on the veil, long time over due in my opinion. I find the veil offensive and I find women who support it misguided. (because I live in England I can have an opinion, however if I were to say this in a strict Islamic country, I would face being stoned to death or prison!!) [...]

This is of course where the problem lies. In an open tolerant society we have to require a degree open and tolerant behaviour from all residents. Unfortunately it seems clear that some groups of Moslems are grossly intolerant of any other religion or culture and refuse to tolerate others chosing to do as they please. The veil issue is, in my opinion, just another symptom of the underlying problem, namely a culture that attmepts to enslave women and to treat them as possessions. There have been a number of cases where Moslem girls who have attempted to have non Moslem boyfriends/husbands have been killed to satisfy family "honour" and this is just another aspect of the same sick intolerant culture.

I don't know what the solution is but I'm absolutely certain that robust refusal to let their culture control things is one way to do it. Other things one could consider would include a lack of support for the devout from social security - in other words you show up wearing a veil (not a headscarf) and your entire family is removed from the list of people eligable for social security, housing assistance etc., deportation of those who advocate violence against their host culture or who seek to overthrow the rule of law and replace it with their own sharia one and most definitely a refusal to permit segregation of the sexes at any government funded place or event.

20 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Rain soaked rotten over-ripe olives fallen to the ground and lying on our driveway. Just hoping most of them stay on the trees for another week or 10 days.

As always clicking on the image shows a bigger version and don't forget to look at the rest of the series if you missed them

In other news the new gardener we got to help us with the basic jungle taming is a local with extensive olive tree knowledge who promises to come back and pruen the trees properly in March. He has a great local provençal accent - the swear word "Putain!" turns into "Puteng!" and I think that sounds so much better :) 

20 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Blair Sings The Clash


27 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

We've been on our holidays - staying with some friends in Belgium. Yesterday we visited Antwerp and growing in a pot in the main square - the "Grote Markt" - was this Olive tree. The second most northerly one I have ever seen (I saw one rather sad specimen in Colchester).

As always click on the image to see in enlarged and click here to see the rest of the series.

30 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

A Visit to Antwerp

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I spent last week in Belgium (with additional stops in the Jura and Beaune) to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and have a holiday. Hence, as my readers no doubt noticed, a dearth of posts on this blog.

Although we were basically tourists, due to the people we stayed with and the observations of my eyes I was able to come to some rather depressing conclusions about the future of Belgium. Mind you all this is anecdotal so YMMV etc. etc.

The first little anecdote was what we observed while sitting outside eating lunch in a reasonably busy but non-touristy street. Pretty much every woman who passed our table and who was wearing a headscarf was also pushing a pram, stroller or otherwise carrying a baby or small child. There were (out of perhaps 40 or 50 women) no more than two or three exceptions. By contrast out of the far larger number of non-headscarf wearing women there were no more than a dozen who seemed to be similarly encumbered. This may illustrate the demographic challenge of fecund immigrants and sterile Europeans but it need not be so as it is entirely possible that many of the non-headscarf wearing women have children but that they were being left at home with a babysitter or in some other childcare facility. What it obviously does not illustrate is the opinion of some that Islamic immigrants force their women to stay at home in their ghettos. On the other hand I think it does illustrate that headscarf wearing women have trouble getting jobs, because women who are at work during the day do not usually walk around at lunchtime with their babies or young children. This could be for a whole range of reasons from racism to large families to a lack of affordable childcare, but no matter what the cause it is bad news for Antwerp society because a lack of immigrant women working at full time jobs means that these women will not be getting to know let alone making friends with people from outside their own community.

Secondly there are all the stories about the diamond business, probably a major contributor to Antwerp's economy. However we can't be too sure how much of a contributor because the whole trade seems to operate on a cash basis with little or no reporting of statistics. The interesting thing here is that the Belgian tax authorities seem relatively content with this situation, only raiding the most blatently black economy traders and leaving the rest to continue with their 90%+ cash based trading. The problem for the tax guys is this: there is no reason why so much of the diamond trade needs to occur in Antwerp, its major players are Hasidic Jews (long term Antwerp residents) plus newer Lebanese and Indian traders. Many of these players could (and would) move elsewhere at the threat of an industry-wide tax investigation and the departure of the hundreds of diamond traders and their thousands of relatives would take millions of Euros out of the the local economy as demand for basic service industries such as schooling, home and garden care, new cars, shopping etc. would plumet.

Interestingly enough the diamond business does seem to regulate itself fairly well despite having little or no recourse to official law enforcement. This is possibly because it is very much a family/community business where reputation is critical to being able to do business and where everyone knows each other. Allegedly there are also some rather drastic measures taken against those who do defraud the rest - apparently such people tend to leave the country rather abruptly to visit their family back "home" and then have a tragic but fatal accident in Mumbai/Beirut/... and/or become a (concrete) pillar of the community. Also interestingly the certificate of provenance to prove that the diamond you just bought was not funding some African war is reportedly more of a private tax levied by the industry on the gullible than any useful way of tracing the origin of the diamond. Yes you pay more for a diamond with a "certificate" but what you are paying for is the effort involved to make the certificate and provide a paper trail rather than any actual proof of origin.

To go back to the black economy. It was amazing (well not really) to note how many places in Belgium (not just Antwerp) failed to provide a real receipt when the customer (i.e. me) paid cash. Restuarant bills tended to be handwritten on stationary that omitted key details such as the name of the resturant or its VAT number and the hawkers of souvenirs seemed averse to providing any receipt at all. It was only when you paid by credit/debit card that any "paper" trail appeared. I have no idea what proportion of local and tourists pay cash for janitors, taxis, horse-drawn tours, snacks, souvenirs etc but I suspect that it is quite large and hence I'm absolutely positive that the Belgian economy is severely understated in official figures. I saw that Belgium appeared to be trying to get people to move to some sort of electronic cash card system and I suspect that this attempt will fail because it would severely constrict the black economy.

30 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

What I Read This Month

I spent most of the first week of October on the plane, in airports and / or suffering from jetlag. This gave me much time to read. And the fact that I passed through London on the way to Baahston meant good selections of English language books to read. I went on a bit of a spending spree as it happens. Amusingly though three or four of the books turned out to have some interesting links.

The first book I read - or rather started to read - was Neil Gaiman's "Anansi Boys". I've never read anything else by Gaiman but I've heard him recommended so I thought I should try one. I never quite finished the book though because to be honest I lost interest. I can't say there is anything wrong with it and I may well restart, but I'll be honest I lost interest and failed to maintain the required suspension of disbelief. So I went to sleep on the plane and when I arrived in Baahston I bought something else before I had time to restart. There is a tenuous link to my next book in that the Eos blog where that book's author writes about this and that has Anansi Boys as its Featured Book at present.

The second book - the link to all the others - was Lois Bujold's "The Sharing Knife: Beguilement" (TSK1) and it was truly excellent. I read it in one night having been awoken by the dreaded jetlag at 4am. This book is the start of a tetrology (or rather two stories of two volumes each) set in a brand new world and because it is really volume one of a single two volume story, although it has an ending, it leaves you waiting hungrily for volume 2. Aspiring authors (among whose numbers I include myself), would benefit from reading this work simply from the crafts(wo)manship shown. Lois creates her world and characters in a way that I think can only be compared to the best impressionist painters. By the end of the book you learn a lot about the world she has imagined, about the characters and so on, yet there is no more than a page or two of "data dump" and even that, since it shows up during the recovery from some rather dramatic events slips by you with while your heart is still recovering from the excitement and while you, the reader, is utterly fascinated to know why the victory was possible.

There are some interesting echoes from previous Bujold works; this is, I think, at least the third book where a man who is middle aged and a younger teenaged girl fall in love (although one of the books which I thought was like that - the Hallowed Hunt - turns out not to be so according to Lois' fascinating interview here - I think Ingrey just appears older) and one can see certain territorial similarities with Barrayar such as blighted land, cities that have been destroyed and the need for pioneering on new land. Indeed the hero, Dag, is reminiscent in much (other than height) of Miles Vorkosigan: both characters have had mostly offstage tough times before we encounter them, both have an incredible drive and both are more unforgiving of themselves than of anyone else. For that matter there are certain echoes of Ekaterin in the heroine, Fawn, both exhibit considerable personal courage and are extremely smart but are kept repressed by their families before the hero arrives on the scene. All in all however the echoes are more the sorts of things that we Bujold devotees will enjoy picking at rather than overt hints that require one to have read a previous work to comprehend. In fact I would say that if there is one thing that Lois does superbly it is to make each book in a series stand alone and, while this book is clearly merely vol 1 or 2 it does stand alone very successfully. I suspect she will fail to make vol 2 so independant but I have no doubt that the second two-volume tale will stand alone just fine without need for readers to knwo about events or world details from this tale.

The story is, at heart, a romance and at Baen's Bar one of the commenters went though a sort of mental checklist of attributes of story, hero and heroine and noted how Lois seemed to hit almost all of the critical points. Of course this isn't just a romance, it is also a fantasy, and the same commenter also noted how Lois managed to hit almost all the critical points of succesful fantasy too. That commenter found a few actions at the start to be a little contrived, but I'm not sure I agree. The book starts right in the middle of trouble and the hero has to make some fairly difficult choices, none of which can be called "right", under a good deal of pressure. As it turns out his choice is not perfect and has some unfortunate consequences which end up helping the story along in ways that are convenient for the author but I don't see it as the sort of thing that is implausible.

One of the more interesting links is between this book and the new Dick Francis book "Under Orders". The books share a number of interesting points in common e.g. both heroes - Dag and Sid Halley - have a missing hand and both have a new romance and a heroine who is perhaps more independant than she should be. I have seen comments around the place, in the guise of sympathy for the death of Mary Francis, seemed to say that Dick could never write on his own - claims that seemed to be driven more by envy/jealousy than any foundation in fact. The implication apparently being that as an ignorant jockey he was dependant on his wife for all the hard bits of actual writing and he just attached his name to the cover. I am glad to say that Under Orders contradicts the naysayers, it is not perhaps the best Dick Francis book ever written but it is far from an "also ran". As with TSK1 it starts off with a certain amount of action in the classic "Show don't tell" format that writers are supposed to aspire too because it gets the reader hooked good and proper but unlike TSK1 it comes to a good solid conclusion so if Sid Halley does ride investigate again it will be a totally different plot. Amongst the more surprising shared features of this book and TSK1 are some thoughts about data analysis and a consideration of genetics / DNA. With regards to the data analysis parts of both books, what turns out to be important is not so much what is present but what is absent, a lesson that could usefully be learned by the touters of many conspiracy theories. In this book the science of DNA analysis and genetics is key to unveiling the criminal, but it also plays in the background because the heroine is research the genetic causes of cancer. In TSK1 it is the heritablity of "groundsense" - a kind of magic - that is of interest. It seems to me that the fact that mainstream fiction works can use our current knowledge of DNA, genetics, evolution etc. as fairly minor supporting elements of world building means that despite their best efforts, the Intelligent Design crowd have lost the war of ideas.

I also read Terry Pratchett's new discworld bok for children "Wintersmith", another book with surprising links to TSK1. Pratchett's book is the third one to feature Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle and it is just as appealing to adults as well as younger readers. In fact I do, on occasion, wonder what children make of Pratchett's books for them since they seem to cover topics that the standard Disneyfied ones don't. In other words they are very good books for children because they help educate the child through parables. One of the nice things about the Nac Mac Feegle books is the concept of personal responsibility and how even a child must face up to the consequences of her actions. I'm hesitant to bring this up because I'm fairly sure that the Nannystate crowd would object to exposing children to this sort of message. I'm sure that tyrants, propagandists and marketeers worldwide would prefer that Pratchett stop going on about Headology and (in this book) "Boffo" because by reading about these discword concepts a child can begin to see through the hype and propaganda churned out to try and hoodwink the masses.

The link between Wintersmith and TSK1 is very much due to magic. In the Discworld a large part of the problem of using magic revolves around the fact that its use tends to attract the attention of extradimensional things that seek to possess life but, because they don't really understand what it is, cause great harm to the world if they are ever allowed in. This is not at all disimilar to the behaviour of the "Malices" in TSK1. However while this similarity in evil enemies is striking what I find mroe interesting is that both the witches of the discworld and TSK1's Lakewalkers share a lot in terms of their acceptance in larger society. Both perform tasks that others cannot and which the majority of inhabitats have no idea are a problem, both groups are feared and misunderstood by those they protect and both echo the Rangers and Wizards of Tolkien in that they seem to think that it is better that the majority fear them than that they should understand what it is they do and what monsters they fight. Both groups, as a result, are viewed with a mixture of respect, fear and distrust, although it seems to me that the witches, thanks to the power of Boffo, are more respected and less feared than the Lakewalkers. This might seem to mean that the witchers are better off but on the other hand the lakewalkers have an entire society so they are unlikely to suffer from the "cackling" - that is to say when the unfortunate witch does the Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader thing.

Finally I've read the Baen omnibus "The Free Bards", whcih is first three of Mercedes Lackey's Bardic Voices series in one handy volume. I'll be honest these stories, while a fun read, simply lacked the intellect behind the others. The book is enjoyable but it suffered by being read just after the others because it lacks the depth of world building that the others possess. The first book in the series "The Lark and the Wren" is available as a free eBook and is, in my opinion, the best tale of them all. The others build on some of the problems first discovered in that book but aren't really as enjoyable because they don't show the same sort of development of the characters. Admittedly these stories are sort of fantasy whodunnits and in the mystery genre you don't get as much character development, however it has always seemed to me that the best whodunnits, from Dorothy L Sayers to Dick Francis, do in fact also include heroes and heroines who develop and who evoke the reader's sympathy. One reason why I've never reread a single Agatha Christie is that her detectives are so unattractive and unchanging and while the protagonists of the Free Bards are rather better than Miss Marple or Hercule Poirrot they don't grab my interest in the same way that Sid Halley or Lord Peter does. This is a pity because book 4 (5?) in the series - "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (also avalaible as an eBook) - did develop the hero's character quite nicely and made me curious to read the intervening books.

31 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

A Stern Panglossian

Lots of hoopla about the Stern review - best critiqued I think by Tim W here - and hoopla well described by the other Tim here. Here is my really really simple take on the whole issue. Technology is already solving the problem so the only thing to do is to modify tax rates to help this process along. Oh and if you really think that oil consumption is the major cause then you could do far worse than invade Iran or some other scummy oil producer and cause major prices rises in the cost of a barrel of oil.

I should note that Steven Den Beste's old essay on Biofuels and some of his other related discussions are probably still true, however I believe he partially missed the point in terms of oil dependancy. I believe that a significant reduction in greenhouse gasses and fossil fuel usage is possible but that there will be no single "magic bullet" to solve all the probelms nor will there be  a "change over date" anymore than there was a single solution of day day when the world decided to switch over from steam trains or telegrams.

I'll note a few trends.

Firstly despite the growth in electronic gizmos the power consumption of said gizmos is falling. This is partly because it seems to be easier to reduce power consumption than increase battery capacity - and the recent Sony exploding battery mess is a great example of why there are challenges to the latter. Reduced power consumption also means less heat and that is something that we really like when carrying out portable gizmos around. One really simple trend is the development of LCD and other related display technologies. In simple power terms an LCD display uses about 50% less power than a CRT and hence replacing the latter with the former, something that is happening more and more as the prices of the LCDs drop, makes a big difference in power consumption. Similarly a move from incandescent lighting to flourescent and now white LEDs as a light source as the prices of the latter drop makes an enormous saving.

Secondly the price of local alternative power generation is also falling. Small scale solar (and wind) generation is becoming much more affordable as the price of solar cells etc. drop and their efficiencies rise. This doesn't mean that all power will move to solar but it does mean that solar becomes highly attractive for a number of applications such as airconditioning (the correlation between days when solar power canbe used and when airconditioning is desired is very high) and the recharging of remote emergency/intermittent use equipment - combined with the lower power of lighting this means that road signs, emergency phones, emergency lighting systems can be powered completely off grid - indeed in France a trip down any autoroute in the south of the country will show that this is precisely what is happening.

Thirdly, and directly related to the availability of gizmos and the cost of oil, the ability and acceptability of working remotely is increasing thus reducing the amount of travel required (not to mention the reduction in paper and postal usage thanks to email). Shifting electrons is a low producer of pollution compared to shifting physical matter so the more we work (and conduct our leisure activities) electronically the less pollution we create.

I could no doubt go on, but I think it is worth simply repeating the point above, capitalism and the development of new technology is capable of reducing emissions and will do so as long as there is an incentive for waste (of energy or resources) to be reduced.

31 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Riot Rinse Repeat

Last year at about this time I wrote a post contrasting Newcastle with Nice and England with France. I was reminded of this because it turns up as hit #8 in google for the phrase "scanty halloween costumes" as I discovered by taking a look at my referer logs today.

Given that we are having more fun and games in the banlieues this year - and given that, despite the French being ever so proud of their 8.9% unemployment rate for September, for the residents of the banlieues nothing much has changed, I thought it might be worth suggesting that it be reread because I suspect that the ladies of Newcastle upon Tyne will be venturing out in sexy halloween costumes tonight in a way that won't be happening in France. However, though, I do wish to point out to any N American readers that, contrary to what you may read at Ed Driscoll, Gates of Vienna or Michelle Malkin, France is not in fact burning down or collapsing into anarchy. In the overwhelming majority of France you could take a bus, park your car or walk around in a skimpy halloween costume and be completely unmolested, the biggest problem is that you'd also be almost entirely alone in your fancy dress except for a few other merrymaking expatriates. There are disturbances in a few suburbs, primarily around Paris, and a significant motivating factor this year (as last) seems to be Sarkozy's attempts to crack down on drug dealers and other sorts of petty crime, so if you want get raped or have your car burned you can do it - but you are going to have to work at it and I reckon you could get equally mistreated parking or walking in select quarters of a number American cities.

If you don't read all of last year's post, at least take a gander at the conclusion as it is still true:

However my deeper point, and I'm getting to it finally, is that there is one other difference between England and France and that is that, despite attempts by the multicultis and the police, people in England persist in fighting back when they see others trashing their property or their friends. Furthermore, as we have seen in now and again, while English people are generally law abiding and tolerant, there is a long history of fighting which means that immigrants who want to have a riot get attacked by native rioters who are just as deadly. I do believe that on the whole England will not suffer from the French disease even if the rest of Europe succumbs. The threat of retaliation, unfortunately demonstrated in the increase in "paki-bashing" after July 7th, is also key. If the "muslim community" in the UK starts burning things outside its own ghettoes it will face a spontaneous response that will require that the police actually defend the immigrants.

I think the key difference is that the English don't fear their immigrants and do value their contributions, from curryhouses to cricket, in a way that, despite the presence of Zidane et al, the French do not. A national that likes a scrap and likes a curry bought from its immigrants is unlikely to find any reason to block them up in a ghetto. And a country that offers everyone the opportunity to work and get ahead, buy their own house is simply not the sort of place that makes it easy for an immigrant community to feel discriminated against.

I note that the statement I made there as part of the conclusion about the English fighting back has been thoroughly vindicated by the events last month in Windsor. However, despite that, and despite my basic feeling that Britain is doing relativey well in terms of assimilation of immigrants I am rather saddened by the excellent post found at last Sunday's Britblog round up about the way that racism still goes on in the UK:

...When the police refused to turn up when a mob was smashing in our door with a metal girder, I was still integrated and never wanted anything more than tolerance. I didn’t want them dead. I didn’t want them to move elsewhere. I wanted to be accepted. Not liked. Not loved. Just accepted.

I went to a church school. I sang the hymns. I played the recorder. I was the only kid in my primary school to play the tenor recorder and I played “Once in Royal David’s City” solo to the entire school. In fact, when carol singers came to my door in Fulham a couple of years back, I gave them a few quid to sing “Once In Royal David’s City”.

I went through decades of my classmates and some friends being deliberately, or inadvertently racist. I was never attempting to assert any kind of individuality or profile. It was not me who asked for special consideration. I just asked for the right not to eat pork, not to drink alcohol, not much to ask.

When my kid brother was thrown into thorn bushes and scarred by racist thugs on our estate, we still were not listened to, the police were still not interested. “Just grin and bear it” was their advice....

There is a problem when Britain can make people like this gentleman, a person who sounds like he ought to be the ideal candidate for a successful life in England feel like he is uner threat for his religion and/or his skin colour. This gentleman is the guy we need to have on "our" side fighting with the rest of "us" against the people who pervert the tenets of his religion and try to kill innocent strangers indiscriminately. Unfortunately we seem to be losing him and we seem to be doing so, IMO, because of the abysmal behaviour of the media and the politicians who fail to make the clear case for who we are fighting and why they are bad.

31 October 2006 Blog Home : All October 2006 Posts : Permalink

Treek ou Treet?

One of those "Why did I forget to bring the camera?" moments just occured. Our house was just visited by a giggle of French teenage witches celebrating 'Allo'een.
Fortunately before I could do much more than complain to She Who Must Be Obeyed about my stupidity the giggle returned and I managed to snap this rather blurry photo. It seems that I'm the only person in the quartier who understands trick or treat and gave them anything so they thought I might be good for a second round... Anyway I told them to go bother the other Anglais at the top of the hill so maybe they got more treats.

I'm not sure if this proves or disproves the BBC story about the death of Halloween in France. It is true that the supermarkets were concentrating on more important things like foie gras and mushrooms but it looks like the youth of France is keen on the idea even if it is terribly American.

By the way these four young ladies were out on their own with no parental supervision what so ever. I wonder how many trick or treaters from across the pond are similarly unaccompanied?

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin