Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Temporarily, another stage

I'm afraid to announce that I may not do much blogging at The Middle Stage for the next few days. I'm going to Chennai in a few hours, and from there will visit some of the areas affected by the tsunami. I shall be blogging on my experiences, if I get internet connectivity, on my other blog, India Uncut. Do check that out, and rest assured, I'll be back at The Middle Stage soon. Thank you for your (hopefully continued) patronage.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Do you still believe in god?

Some readers of The Middle Stage have written in to me to ask why I'm not blogging about the disaster that has struck Asia. Well, I have posted a bit on it, but on my other blog, India Uncut, as it seemed rather more relevant there. But here's something which asks a broader question: Martin Kettle asks in the Guardian, "How can religious people explain something like this?"

The most common explanation, and one that I find repulsive, is that such natural disasters are punishment from God for something or the other. But as Kettle writes:

Certainly the giant waves generated by the quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims. Hindus were swept away in India, Muslims were carried off in Indonesia, Buddhists in Thailand. Visiting Christians and Jews received no special treatment either. This poses no problem for the scientific belief system. Here, it says, was a mindless natural event, which destroyed Muslim and Hindu alike.

A non-scientific belief system, especially one that is based on any kind of notion of a divine order, has some explaining to do, however. What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these peoples and not others? What kind of order is it that decrees that a person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for life?

Also read: Douglas Adams on atheism.

Butler attacked by bear

Well, not quite. We're talking the creators of the most famous butler and the most loved bear in literature. Here's James Parker on the rift between two great comic writers, PG Wodehouse and AA Milne.

Link via Arts and Letters Daily.

Monday, December 27, 2004

From independence to freedom

"For 14 years we have been independent. Now we have become free." - Victor Yushchenko declaring victory in Ukraine's presidential elections.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

George W Roosevelt

People often ask how history will remember our generation of leaders in comparison with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many comment that today's leaders look small compared with the giants of the past. This is, I believe, a misconception.

In their day, both Churchill and Roosevelt were frequently criticised, often savagely, by their countrymen, including legislators who had little knowledge of the behind-the-scenes reality of the war.

Martin Gilbert, renowned historian and author of a superb biography of Churchill, argues that if George W Bush and Tony Blair achieve their aims, they will eventually be regarded as highly as Roosevelt and Churchill. Writing in the Observer he elaborates:

Their societies are too divided today to deliver a calm judgment, and many of their achievements may be in the future: when Iraq has a stable democracy, with al-Qaeda neutralised, and when Israel and the Palestinian Authority are independent democracies, living side by side in constructive economic cooperation.

If they can move this latter aim, to which Bush and Blair pledged themselves on 12 November, it will be a leadership achievement of historic proportions.

Read the full thing.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Do they know it's Christmas?

In Darfur? Of course not, says Alice Thompson in the Daily Telegraph. And they couldn't care less.

2.7 million

That's the size of John Kerry's email database. Brian Faler wonders in the Washington Post quite what the Democrats will do with it.

Janet, not John

My belief that the Democrats chose the wrong candidate to take on George W Bush has been confirmed. Go to the Google Zeitgeist page, scroll down to Google News Queries and see who the "top public figures" of 2004 are. See what I mean?

Or maybe Kerry should have exposed a strategic nipple.

The real fascists

Here's Thomas Friedman in an excellent piece in the New York Times titled "Worth a Thousand Words":

As the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum so rightly pointed out to me, "These so-called insurgents in Iraq are the real fascists, the real colonialists, the real imperialists of our age." They are a tiny minority who want to rule Iraq by force and rip off its oil wealth for themselves. It's time we called them by their real names.

However this war started, however badly it has been managed, however much you wish we were not there, do not kid yourself that this is not what it is about: people who want to hold a free and fair election to determine their own future, opposed by a virulent nihilistic minority that wants to prevent that. That is all that the insurgents stand for.

Indeed, they haven't even bothered to tell us otherwise. They have counted on the fact that the Bush administration is so hated around the world that any opponents will be seen as having justice on their side. Well, they do not. They are murdering Iraqis every day for the sole purpose of preventing them from exercising that thing so many on the political left and so many Europeans have demanded for the Palestinians: "the right of self-determination."

Yes, Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2004

More Moore

Michael Moore is reportedly planning to make a film on the pharmaceutical industry, and he's going to call it Sicko. (No self-referential irony there, I fear.) And Big Pharm is worried, with six of the top companies in that sector apparently having issued a warning to their employees to beware of "a scruffy guy in a baseball cap".

I can already imagine the gags. Moore stalking senior executives asking them to pop one of the pills they make. Moore following a Big Pharm victim around and stooping with her to keep the camera on her face when she bends down to throw up. And so on. Frankly, I can't see what the companies are worried about. Moore's last target was George W Bush, and he ended up getting more votes than any US president in history. Pfizer's stock should be rising with this news.

More global warming

State of Fear, with a first printing of 1.5 million copies, resembles Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged – about 6 million copies sold since 1957 – as a political broadside woven into an entertaining story. But whereas Rand had only an idea – a good one (capitalism is splendid), but only one – Crichton has information. State of Fear is the world's first page-turner that people will want to read in one gulp (a long gulp – 600 pages, counting appendices) even though it has lots of real scientific graphs, and footnotes citing journals such as Progress in Physical Geography and Transactions – American Geophysical Union.

Crichton's subject is today's fear that global warming will cause catastrophic climate change, a belief now so conventional that it seems to require no supporting data. Crichton's subject is also how conventional wisdom is manufactured in a credulous and media-drenched society.

George Will on Michael Crichton's latest, and the hysteria around global warming, a subject I have blogged on in an earlier post ("Book causes global warming"). Also read Bjorn Lomborg's latest piece on the subject, "Let's first tackle hunger and disease", in the Australian.

The celluloid painter

Akira Kurosawa was a great film-maker, but that was not his only art. An ongoing exhibition at the Mori Art Gallery in Tokyo reveals that his storyboards, by themselves, were something to marvel at. As Julian Satterthwaite writes in the Daily Yomiuri:

Usually seen as a disposable part of the filmmaking process, storyboards here are elevated to an art form in their own right – and if they fall into any genre, Impressionist is probably it.

With more than a few nods to Van Gogh, Kurosawa's work is none the worse for its debt to the masters of the medium.

The director's interest in Van Gogh is most evident in the storyboards for his 1990 film, Dreams, in which a fictional Kurosawa steps back in time to watch the painter in action, and then walks through several of his paintings. In this, it offers a lesson in the circularity of artistic influences, with Van Gogh himself having been much inspired by the work of Japanese artists, particularly Hiroshige.

What stands out in the pictures shown here, however, is the filmmaker's love of movement and change.

Where painting is an unavoidably static medium, film celebrates motion, speed and action. And if Kurosawa's storyboards cannot actually move, they look like they might at any moment.

I wonder, if Kurosawa was born in the 19th century would he perhaps have been one of the great painters? What kind of films would Van Gogh have made? Sorry? No, no, I meant Vincent, not Theo. The guy who cut off his ear.

Link courtesy Chandrahas.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Why gifts and not money?

"Americans will spend billions on gifts this Christmas. Inquiring economists want to know why," begins James Miller's piece, "The Economics of Gift Giving", in Tech Central Station. Miller, the author of a wonderful book called Game Theory at Work, points out: "Most people have a better understanding of their own needs than you do and so would presumably rather have, for example, $50 in cash than a $50 gift."

So why do most of us still prefer to give gifts for Christmas and other such occasions? Read the full thing for some theories that attempt to answer that question.


Many articles have been written about how the popularity of texting, and the entirely new idiom it has given rise to, is bound to affect the literacy and writing skills of people growing up today. Well, a new study has found that these fears are misplaced. The Guardian reports that the study "comparing the punctuation and spelling of 11- and 12-year-olds who use mobile phone text messaging with another group of non-texters conducting the same written tests found no significant differences between the two." It continues:

According to the author of the research, the speech and language therapist Veenal Raval, the findings reflect children's ability to "code switch", or move between modes of communication - a trend familiar to parents whose offspring slip effortlessly between playground slang and visit-the-grandparents politeness.

WUCIWUG, by the way, means "what you see is what you get" in texting parlance. What this study proves, of course, is WUCINWUG

The more things change ...

A longtime correspondent, Wraye Wenigmann, writes in after reading my previous post, "The whore who can't sing", and says that the inability to understand irony is not new to the British. She writes:

About 100 years ago, Aleister Crowley wrote,

"I'd give all and more
in this Kingdom of boredom
for a girl who's a whore
and is proud of her whoredom."

The above poem referred not only to his own physical cravings, but also to the attitude towards female emancipation at that repressed time and even to certain political relationships (some might claim the Bush-Blair relationship to be a good example here and today).

The irony was lost then too.

As they say, "plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose". No-one sang.

The whore who can't sing

Tom Wolfe, who was recently awarded this year's Bad Sex Award for some passages from his latest book, I am Charlotte Simmons, has said that the sex scenes in question were meant to be ironic, not erotic, and the British judges just did not get the irony. Reuters has quoted Wolfe as explaining: "There's an old saying – 'You can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her sing.' In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can't make him get it."

As readers of this blog tend be rather, how shall I put it, sophisticated, I am certain that they will understand the irony in Wolfe's writing. So here's an excerpt:

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand, that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological (ears, nose and throat) caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right - Now!

Are you singing yet?

The scientific temper

I asked him whether he had any genuine enemies. I suppose it would have been more to the point to ask him whether he had any genuine friends.

‘You’ve got to have enemies, haven’t you, where I live,’ he said. ‘That’s why I never walk, I always creep.’

‘Do you ever get into fights?’ I asked.

‘I’m up for assault,’ he said, ‘because I get these violent mood swings.’

‘Whom did you assault?’

‘One of my mates.’

‘And why?’

‘Because I wanted to see how he would like it to be beaten up.’

A disinterested inquiry into truth, therefore.

From a column in the Spectator by that marvellous essayist, Theodore Dalrymple.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Ending poverty

In economic terms, the human race has never been richer, or better armed with the medical knowledge, technological prowess and intellectual firepower needed to beat poverty. In rich countries, it has been possible to shift the focus of domestic policy from absolute poverty (now a rarity) to the relative sort — a giant step forward. In poorer countries, too, the past couple of decades have seen an unprecedented rise in the income and standard of living of hundreds of millions of people, mainly in Asia, who no longer struggle just to survive from one day to the next.

From "Making poverty history", the Economist's argument that the world could take big steps towards eliminating poverty in 2005. (If you feel that inequalities are actually increasing in developing countries like India, please do read my earlier post on this subject, "The myth about the rich and the poor".) They identify three big policy areas that could accelerate this process, and the third one that they name is the most crucial: trade liberalisation. The more we cut down on tariffs and subsidies, the closer we'll get to eliminating poverty. But how long will it take?

Quick, think of something

Thought? Now go over to and let an artificial intelligence program play 20 Questions with you. I thought of three things, and it guessed them all within 15 questions. (And then I thought of “blog”, but it finally guessed “nightmare”, which some of my readers, I suppose, would say was close enough.) The remarkable thing about the programming is that it actually learns as it plays, entering each new game into its database and getting more and more efficient. Give it a spin.

And if you like it, buy it for Christmas! 20Q is now available as a battery-powered game, and it is one of the best-selling games this season. Unlike the website, the game is not attached to and updated by an online database, and so it does not learn on the fly as it goes along. But it’s still pretty darned good, and it seems to be a big favourite with kids this season.

For more, read reviews of the game by Business Week and Time magazine.

How to reach pasta heaven

Bill Vallicella, a fellow chess player who writes the fascinating blog Maverick Philosopher, turns his attention to food in an excellent little piece called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Pasta”. When he sees people commit Sin No. 7, he says, he is “tempted to make like al-Zarqawi and engage in an Islamo-fascist act,” so in the unlikely event that you dine with him, don’t chop the capellini on your plate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Imagine this

Two delightful riffs in the New York Times on imaginary situations. Maureen Dowd imagines Donald Rumsfeld (aka Rummy) wrestling with an angel who's come to help him. The angel, Clarence, shows him what "the world would have been like if you'd never been born." Read the full thing to find out what happens to Osama, Wolfie, Dick and, um, Mrs Rumsfeld.

On an equally entertaining note, William Safire imagines what would have happened if the Bush administration had not invaded Iraq. It's a superbly imagined chain of events, ending with the "Plot Against America, Part II" being foiled.


“John McCain is back,” says the Washington Post. Dana Milbank writes:

Just two weeks after the election, he renewed his opposition to Bush's policy on global warming and urged action against greenhouse gases. He went to Europe and promoted a harder line against Russian President Vladimir Putin than the administration has voiced, and he returned home to take a harder line against steroid use in baseball than the administration had done.

Then, last week, he took aim at Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying he had "no confidence" in Bush's defense secretary. "There are very strong differences of opinion between myself and Secretary Rumsfeld" on U.S. troop strength in Iraq, he said.

McCain is readying himself for a run for the presidency in 2008, the article says, by being “half point-man for Bush, half iconoclast.” His unflinching and vocal support for Bush during the recent elections helped endear him to the Republican base, which was responsible for his defeat to Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries. His independent and outspoken stand on so many other issues have endeared him to the moderates on each side, who warmed to him when he spoke out against the Swift Boat Veterans campaign, and when John Kerry all but asked him to be his vice-presidential nominee. Barring incumbent presidents, has there ever been such a favourite?

Monday, December 20, 2004

"Welcome to the female mind"

We always survey the room to see who is our competition. If you doubt me, watch women when they enter [a] room - or watch yourself, if you are a woman. I'm as guilty as the next person. I notice this especially at parties or at the gym. We take a casual glance around, looking to see who looks better than us, who is with someone and who is not. We look for wedding bands, frumpy clothing, bad hair, make-up applied with a palette knife. Then, if we find someone who may possibly be more attractive than us, we look for flaws: isn't her nose a hair too long? Her knees are knobby. Her teeth are unattractively crooked. Her laugh is horrifying. Then we immediately feel better about ourselves. However, if the woman is deemed more attractive than ourselves, we are immediately jealous and try to see more devious flaws that may not be obvious to the naked eye. Clearly she is married, but flirting with another man (she may just be asking for the time - but we don't care). Perhaps we know she has children (two kids and she has the nerve to look that good?!) and she is out late - lousy mother. Yes, gentlemen, welcome to the female mind.

From "Antics of Women", a post by Ally Eskin on her blog, Who Moved My Truth? The quoted bit was antic 1 of 5. Read the rest.

Discovered via Keith Burgess-Jackson.

"A tale of two Fridays"

Each week in Baghdad, sermons to the faithful offer a tale of two Fridays. Both sermons -- one Sunni, the other Shiite -- dwell on the issues that color Baghdad's weary life: the insurgency, elections planned for next month and the U.S. military presence. But the messages are so diametrically opposed as to speak to two realities and two futures for the country.

That's Anthony Shadid in the Washington Post, writing about how "[e]lections are subjugation at the Sunni sermon, liberation at the Shiite one. And at each, the community's patience, the preachers insist, is wearing dangerously thin after yet another provocation or slight."

Also read "A Political Arabesque" by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, in which he warns: "If there is not enough Sunni participation, the elections, rather than defusing civil strife in Iraq, will increase it, because all the spoils will go to the Shiites and Kurds, and the Sunnis will feel even more excluded." He continues:

For all these reasons, the Bush team should be working with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states and even Syria to use all their contacts with Iraqi Sunnis to embolden them to take part in the elections - and to make sure they have bags of money to get out the vote, particularly among the Sunni tribes. It is imperative the Sunnis be brought in, even if some have to be bought.

Of course, not all commentators think that involving the Sunnis is quite that necessary in Iraq, as I'd blogged on earlier ("Chess and ping-pong in Iraq"). Shadid link courtesy Chandrahas.

"A deeply foreign country"

I get off a plane, 17 hours out of joint, and tell naked secrets to a person I know I don't trust. A friend starts talking about her days - her plans, her friends, the things she wants to do - and tears start welling in my eyes, in a restaurant. I can't sleep at night (because I've been sleeping in the day), and so I try to go through my routine, as I might in the daylight world. But I write the wrong name on the uncharacteristically emotional letter. I shower the stranger with endearments. When the lady at the bank offers me a $3,000 credit for the $30,000 cheque I've given her (a large part of my yearly income), I smile and say, 'Have a nice day'.

All this is because of jet lag. Read this wonderful essay in the Guardian by Pico Iyer, in which he says, "I often think that I've travelled into a deeply foreign country under jet lag, somewhere more mysterious in its way than India or Morocco." And there is no one better than Iyer, one of the great travel writers of our times, to turn the "deeply foreign" into the oh-so familiar. We've been there too, but have we ever seen it like this?

Big media on blogs

Radio had its golden age in the 1930s. In the 1950s, it was television's turn. Historians may well date the golden age of the blog from 2004—when's most searched-for definition was blog. How long can it last? Who knows? Here's what we discovered about the new medium this year.

From Time magazine's "10 Things We Learned About Blogs".

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The real Islamophobics

The word "Islamophobia" is thrown at people who criticise some aspects of current Islamic thought. But "phobia" means fear, and I suspect that it is moderate Muslims who are, in that sense, Islamophobic, frightened of what the Islamists are turning their faith into. They cannot find the courage and the words to get to grips with the huge problem that confronts Islam in the modern world.

From "It is Muslims who have most to fear from Islamists" by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.

"The same standard of moral outrage"

If in the 1950s rightists were criticized as cynical Cold Warriors who never met a right-wing thug they wouldn’t support, as long as he mouthed a few anti-Soviet platitudes, then in the last two decades almost any thug from Latin America to the Middle East who professed concern for “the people” — from Castro and the Noriega Brothers to Yasser Arafat and the Iranian mullahs — was likely to earn a pass from the American and European cultural elite and media. To regain credibility, the Left must start to apply the same standard of moral outrage to a number of its favorite causes that it does to the United States government, the corporations, and the Christian Right.

From "Cracked Icons – Why the Left has lost credibility" by Victor Davis Hanson. Read the full thing.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Keeping the peace

In the corner of the tent where she says a soldier forced himself on her, Helen, a frail fifth grader with big eyes and skinny legs, remembers seeing a blue helmet.

The United Nations peacekeeper who tore off her clothes had used a cup of milk to lure her close, she said in her high-pitched voice, fidgeting as she spoke. It was her favorite drink, she said, but one her family could rarely afford. "I was so happy," she said.

After she gulped it down, the foreign soldier pulled Helen, a 12-year-old, into bed, she said. About an hour later, he gave her a dollar, put a finger to his lips and pushed her out of his tent, she said.

From a New York Times story by Marc Lacey. Old scandal, new details.

It’s interesting how, when the Abu Ghraib story broke, so many Democrats were calling for Donald Rumsveld’s (or even George Bush’s) resignation, and in the wake of all the recent scandals surrounding the UN, so many Republicans are calling on Kofi Annan to resign. Why do we apply our standards so selectively?

Library man hits out at Google

Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the American Library Association, is not impressed by Google’s plan to digitize millions of books, in association with five big libraries, in order to build an unmatched online resource. Writing in the LA Times, Gorman says:

I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge. I also favor digitizing such library holdings as unique manuscript collections, or photographs, when seeing the object itself is the point (this is reportedly the deal the New York Public Library has made with Google). I believe, however, that massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.

Gorman is building a straw man here. Google has never said that it intends to “supplant and obliterate” all previous forms of reading – instead, it is supplementing and enabling easy access to them. This is an especially valuable resource to someone like me, sitting in India, who does not otherwise have access to the best libraries in the world, and the books they contain. It will be a seminal service, like so much else that Google has done.

The internet’s biggest achievement, in any field, is to eliminate the middleman. Gorman, a librarian, is in many contexts the middleman between the books he guards and their readers. It isn’t surprising that he should feel threatened – but he need not worry. Google isn’t going to make him redundant, but is instead going to send more people panting to him, knowing just what they want and where to find it.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Godel and his walking companion

In the summer of 1942, while German U-boats roamed in wolf packs off the coast of Maine, residents in the small coastal town of Blue Hill were alarmed by the sight of a solitary figure, hands clasped behind his back, hunched over like a comma with his eyes fixed on the ground, making his way along the shore in a seemingly endless midnight stroll. Those who encountered the man were struck by his deep scowl and thick German accent. Speculation mounted that he was a German spy giving secret signals to enemy warships. The dark stranger, however, was no German spy. He was Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of all time, a beacon in the intellectual landscape of the last thousand years, and the prey he sought was not American ships bound for Britain but rather the so-called continuum hypothesis, a conjecture made by the mathematician Georg Cantor about the number of points on a line.

From a wonderful essay by Palle Yourgrau on the friendship between Gödel and “his walking companion” and great admirer, Albert Einstein. In their footsteps, writes Yourgrau, “can be heard an echo of the zeitgeist, a clue to the secret of the great and terrible 20th century, a century that, like the 17th, may well go down in history as one of genius.”

A study in contrasts

The best role for critics in the President’s second term will be not to scoff at the idea of spreading freedom but to take it seriously – to hold him to his own talk. The hard question isn’t whether America should try to enlarge the democratic order but how. It’s a question that the Administration seems to have thought about very little, yet it makes a big difference. Look at the two examples from the week’s front pages: where the approach has been subtle and collective, the outcome seems hopeful; where it has been noisy and unilateralist, it does not.

That’s George Packer in the New Yorker, writing about the contrast between the budding democracies in Ukraine and Iraq. The thrust of his argument: “[T]he United States did in Ukraine exactly what it failed to do in Iraq: it upheld international standards in conjunction with democratic allies.”

Read the full thing.

Expanding the circle

WEH Lecky, the 19th century philosopher who wrote the classic History of European Morals, once coined a phrase that fits in beautifully with our evolution as a moral species: “The Expanding Circle”. Imagine a circle that surrounds you, consisting of all the people you feel inclined to treat morally. We began, in prehistoric times, with perhaps just our family, and from there, this circle has steadily expanded, from the clan to the tribe to the nation to the race and so on, as categories of people who would earlier not have been the subject of our consideration have come into our moral circle. This is not a trivial expansion – a century ago women and African Americans were at the periphery of this circle, waiting for that centripetal force that would draw them in and make them equal members of society.

And now, spiralling inwards, are gay people. Michael Kinsley charts the rise of the movement for gay marriage, from 1989 when it first began as a provocative article in the magazine he then edited, the New Republic, to now, when it is on the verge of being legalised in Canada. Kinsley writes:

Such a development is not just amazing. It is inspiring. American society hasn't used up its capacity to recognize that it harbors injustice, and it remains supple enough to change as a result. In fact, the process is speeding up. It took black civil rights a century, and feminism half a century, to travel the distance gay rights have moved in a decade and a half.

This is also scary, of course, because there is no reason to think that gay rights are the end of the line. And it's even scarier because these are all revolutions of perception as well as politics. That means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans - but don't claim to be great visionaries - are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious, and we just don't see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.

Peter Singer, who invoked The Expanding Circle by writing a book with that title arguing that the circle was expanding to include animals, would no doubt believe that the gay black woman beheaded a chicken. But how that circle expands is hardly the issue. What is important is that it does expand, inexorably and irreversibly. Why does it do so? I have no idea. But isn't it a good thing?

Kinsley link via Daniel Drezner.

Speak up

Bowing to public demand, I have just enabled comments. My logic for not having them earlier was that I had been flamed too often while writing my cricket blog, 23 Yards, and wanted to avoid abusive/offensive comments. However, I also had some delightful interactions on 23 Yards, and many people convinced me that I was missing out by disabling comments. So here you go.

Be good, please.

Update (December 18) - Sorry, disabled them again because of tech issues. Bummer.

Big Brother is in your computer

Mike Wendland just lost a weekend to spyware, and the cumulative time most of us have spent to battle it amounts to far more than that. Wendland found 200 different spyware applications on his wife's personal computer, which, naturally, had Microsoft Windows as its operating system. Windows and Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, are notoriously susceptible to virii and spyware.

Ah, and in related news, Microsoft has bought Giant Company Software, a company that makes software to detect and remove spyware. Is that reason for hope, then? Um, my advice, just use Mozilla's Firefox. As uber-blogger Instapundit could testify, more and more internet users are doing just that. Not only is it lighter and quicker than IE, it's safer as well.

A season for Turkey

The European Union has set a date for starting talks with Turkey over membership in the EU. And Oliver Stone has apologised to Turkey for "over-dramatising" the screenplay of Midnight Express, which was set in that country.

Needless to say, the two events aren't related.

Are you lonesome tonight?

Try a lap pillow.


Timothy Noah's contribution to the world.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Pull, don't push

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon Brown, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a promise. The United Kingdom, he said, would buy up to three hundred million doses of a new malaria vaccine for the developing world. It was a welcome sign that the West is finally paying attention to the most important problem in global public health; namely, the spread of infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and aids. It was also something else: a dramatic innovation in the way those diseases are fought.

That’s because the vaccine that the U.K. promised to buy doesn’t exist yet.

James Surowiecki in the New Yorker about why Brown’s approach works better at inspiring innovation than “push funding”, in which “the government chooses among various options and gives its favorites a push.” Read the full thing.

And if you haven’t read it yet, Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, is one of the best books of the year. Check it out.

Sally Field? Not me!

Dick Cheney announced yesterday that making the tax cuts permanent would be a priority for the government, John Snow, the treasury secretary, confirmed that, and now the Wall Street Journal has endorsed those plans. In an editorial, they write:

[A]llow us to remind Republicans what happened last November: You won! Democrats said the nastiest things about your tax cuts, called you tools of the rich and stepchildren of Halliburton, and voters nonetheless chose . . . your tax cuts. Now is not the time to walk around like Sally Field asking whether they really do like you. They just told you they did.

And one reason is because the tax cuts at issue are precisely those that helped to lift the economy out of its doldrums after they passed in mid-2003. The quarterly GDP figures tell the tale. While the first round of Keynesian, phased-in Bush tax cuts in 2001 did little, round two focused on boosting the incentives that would invigorate the economy's animal spirits. We doubt Republicans would be sitting on larger House and Senate majorities if they hadn't passed those lower rates.

Pills like little people

Abigail Zuger writes in the New York Times about how “we all anthropomorphize pills.” He writes:

For patients, they can be saviors, or assassins. For doctors, the voodoo is even stronger. Medicines are our prosthetics, at once utterly foreign (we are unlikely to take them ourselves, and may not even know what they look like) yet so much a part of us that we can barely function without them.

Makes we wonder, will there be a day when some of our imaginary friends are pills, along with animals and little people?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The red and the green

The seemingly improbable partnership that has emerged in recent years between figures like Lynne Stewart and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman is the subject of David Horowitz’s new book, Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left. According to Horowitz, links that began to form between Islamists and American leftists at the end of the cold war have been cemented by 9/11 and the Iraq war. Calling this alliance the “Hitler-Stalin pact of our times,” he warns of its potential impact, especially in undermining the war on terror.

From “The Left and the Islamists”, an essay by Joshua Kurlantzick in Commentary. Kurlantzick goes beyond reviewing Horowitz's book in his piece, and examines the “red-green alliance”, telling us how these two sides, whose interests were otherwise hardly aligned, were brought together by the anti-globalisation movement. Read the full thing.

Book causes global warming

Michael Crichton’s new book State of Fear is a breath of fresh air, and for that reason, environmentalists hate it. At least some of them do – the ones who are bound by dogma and for whom, as Crichton would say, “environmentalism is essentially a religion, a belief-system based on faith, not fact.” It exposes many of the holy myths around global warming. As Ronald Bailey notes in his excellent Wall Street Journal review of the book:

Greenland's ice cap is in no imminent danger of melting away. It is well established scientifically that average temperatures in Greenland and Iceland have been falling at the rather steep rate of 2.2 degrees Celsius per decade since 1987. As for temperatures in most of Antarctica, they have been falling for nearly 50 years, and ice there has been accumulating rather than melting. And those sea levels? Nils-Axel Mörner, a professor of geodynamics at Stockholm University, has been studying the low-lying atolls of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. He has found "a total absence of any recent sea level rise" and has instead found evidence of a fall in sea level in the past 20 years -- a fact that Mr. Crichton has the good instinct to report in the course of pushing his plot forward.

And what about the trend in actual global average temperatures, a question central to the debate in "State of Fear"? According to satellite data, since 1978 the planet has been warming up at a rate, per decade, of 0.08 degrees Celsius. Simple arithmetic reveals that, if the rate continues, the planet will warm by 0.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That compares with an increase of 0.6 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. No catastrophe there.

None of this is news to anyone who has been following this issue of the last few years. Bjorn Lomborg, who was recently named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, has been busting the myths of the environmental movement for quite a while now, by marshalling the same facts available to and used by the greens, but demonstrating how they have been consistently misinterpreting and misrepresenting it. I first read Lomborg when I came across his brilliant essay for the Economist, “The truth about the environment”. His logic was impeccable, and the facts behind them were easily verifiable, and in the public domain. I urge you to read the piece.

When his first book, The Skeptical Environmentalist came out, it created a storm of protest from environmentalists, who questioned his credentials, launched vicious personal attacks, but could not answer any of his impressive arguments. The Washington Post summed it up by writing: “The Skeptical Environmentalist is the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962. It's a magnificent achievement.”

In the next few weeks there’s a going to be a fair amount of, ahem, global warming against Crichton’s book. Environmentalists will label him as a right-wing nut, scientists will question his credentials, and rhetoric will flood the air. But Crichton doesn’t matter.The facts in his books do, as do the facts in Lomborg’s book, because those facts affect us deeply. As Lomborg never tires of pointing out, there are other pressing problems the world needs to deal with urgently, like getting safe drinking water to the millions of people in third-world coutries who do not have them, like AIDS, like malnutrition. Recently Lomborg got together with a bunch of eminent scientists to debate a host of pressing issues that the world needed to spend its limited resources on solving, in an initiative called The Copenhagen Consensus. Global warming was at the bottom of the list of subjects that deserved priority. The conclusions are impressive, read them here (PDF file). And buy the book here.

For more on the subject, also read Ronald Bailey’s Global Warming and Other Eco Myths. Ronald Glassman has an excellent essay on this subject in Tech Central Station (“Global Warming Extremists on the Run”), and Mark Steyn’s take in the Daily Telegraph is also worth a read.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Are you smart?

Do you sometimes complain that so-and-so is too smart for his own good? Well, maybe he or she is not. “Smart” is a highly valued quality these days, in academics and literary criticism and so much else, more so than “competent” or “knowledgeable” or “conscientious”. Jeffrey Williams tells us how this has come about.

If only it were that simple

“How do you solve a problem like Maria,” asked some nuns once. Um, can Julie Andrews play Iran, please? Madeleine Albright and seven former foreign ministers have put their heads together to solve a problem called Iran, and here’s what they have come up with.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Um, have we met?

Roger Highfield of the Daily Telegraph writes about a new study that sheds light on how we recognise faces. The study reveals that the fusiform gyrus helps us "pin a single identity to a face", with a little help from the inferior occipital gyri and the anterior temporal cortex.

The author of the study is quoted as saying, "A face that is 60 percent Marilyn Monroe and 40 percent Margaret Thatcher will be identified as an older version of Monroe, while an image which is 40 percent Monroe and 60 percent Thatcher will be seen as the sexier side of Thatcher."

Read the full study, and also check out this rather neat optical illusion, on the same subject.

Power to the bloggers

It wasn't just Dan Rather who got busted by bloggers, but also Tom Daschle, says John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, in an essay on how "online journalism is transforming politics".

So how do you start a successful blog? Washington Post tells you how.

The turning point?

Fareed Zakaria says: “Fallujah altered the dynamic for the better. It's not simply that it was a military victory—everyone expected that. Far more important, the victory did not seem to generate a high political cost (something I was worried about). The uproar that was expected across Iraq in response to the operation simply did not happen. The Shia and Kurds did not complain, and even the ‘Sunni street’ was much quieter than anticipated.”

Read the full thing.

Meet my friend, Hobbes

Sixty-five percent of school-aged children have imaginary friends, reports Reuters. The story elaborates, "those with pretend companions tend to be better at seeing things from other people's perspective." And 40 percent of the imaginary companions are animals.

Philip Pullman would call them daemons.

Ok, kids, switch places

Michael Higgins writes in:

It is just chance that the liberals got stuck defending abortion and the conservatives got to attack it. It could have been the other way around. I remember in the 1970s many Republicans supported abortion rights because it fit their view of getting the government off of the backs of individuals (both father and son Bush supported abortion rights in the 1970s). Some liberals thought that the little fetus was a creature we must protect and defend like anyone else. But the NOW changed everything. They insisted on abortion rights because they didn't want society dumping on them. Their view on abortion was the NRA's view on assault rifles - they wanted the option and they weren't going to let politicians take away that option. The NOW was strong in the Democratic party - the rest is history.

Well, they can't switch places on abortion now, but what about the privatization of social security? Arnold Kling explains in Tech Central Station "Why the Left Should Favor Social Security Privatization (and the Right Should Oppose It)".

A determined minority

Thomas Friedman on "Iraq, Ballots and Pistachios":

The situation in Iraq is a microcosm of what is going on in the whole Middle East today. Everywhere you turn, the debate is over but the fight is not - because determined minorities are determined to thwart the will of majorities, and the majorities are too weak or divided to push back. The vast majority of Israelis want to get out of Gaza, but a determined, potentially violent, fanatical Jewish minority has been holding them back. Among the Palestinians, the debate is over, but the fight is not. Most Palestinians clearly want an end to the conflict with Israel and a chance to live a normal life, but a determined minority from Hamas has been resisting. Most NATO countries (I hope) would prefer a decent outcome in Iraq, but a determined minority, more worried about an American success than an Iraqi failure, is holding NATO back.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Sign of the times

Do Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182 and Pink know that they’re “Demigods of dysfunction”? Mary Eberstadt, in an excerpted essay from her book, Home-Alone America, theorises on why so many kids today listen to “deafening, foul, and often vicious-sounding” music. She concludes: “If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment. [Her italics.]”

Eberstadt continues: “The odd truth about contemporary teenage music — the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before — is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers.” And many of the top artists in this category, she says, “have their own generational answer to what ails the modern teenager … dysfunctional childhood.”

Read the full thing.

“A nude Greek slave on the governor's desk”

James Douglas, the governor of Vermont, is embarrassed by something on his table.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Fowl news

The chicken genome has been sequenced and, like the puffer fish, it turns out that a chicken has much less junk DNA than a human.

What scientists should now examine is if, like some humans, chickens also have a predisposition towards depression. How high, I wonder, would the serotonin levels of a headless chicken be?

Exactly like Caravaggio

Paul Johnson has his portrait painted.

Preparing kids for rock music

Modern toys can damage the hearing of little children, says a report in the Washington Post. Among toys, and other things little children use, found to be too loud are “three picture books whose play-along buttons emitted sounds or songs above 100 decibels at the speaker – the equivalent of a chain saw or pneumatic drill.”

Hmm. How about The Texas Picture-Book Massacre?

Enlarge your, ahem …

For all those who open that kind of spam, here’s some news that should please you. Do you, um, really need your left arm?

What about the day before yesterday?

Andrei Illarionov says in the Australian that the Kyoto Protocol is “just lots of hot air”. Illarionov says that it is based on “fraudulent science” and that “Assertions that global temperatures are higher today than any time in the past are completely false. Fluctuations in climate patterns have existed for millions of years -- for all earth history.” He continues:

Global temperatures were higher in the Roman times when grapes were grown on British islands and Hannibal's elephants walked through the Alps into Italy. They were higher in the medieval period when the Vikings found and colonised the island that they have called Greenland and when Norwegians grew grain on the fields that are 300m in altitude higher than it is possible to do today.

Temperature variations in the course of the earth's history have been much greater than the increase of 0.6 degrees Celsius estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the last century. In the past, the earth's climate was warmer, the global temperature rose faster, sea level was higher, floods were more severe, droughts lasted longer and hurricanes were more devastating than they were in the 20th century. Moreover, the best available temperature data from satellites show negligible temperature changes over the past several decades.

The sad part is that Kyoto has almost become an article of faith for many environmental activists, who are in denial about the treaty’s faults and treat any criticism of the treaty as an attack on the environment, which is certainly isn’t. There are many worthy environmental causes to fight for, and defending a treaty based on bad science does disservice to that cause, and to concern for the environment.

Why is it that so many of us like to believe in the worst. As Michael Hanlon wrote a few months back in the Spectator, “The Right points to our inexorable moral decay, promiscuity, the ravages of Aids and drug addiction, the decline in manners and standards. The Green Left berates us for our profligacy with resources, our rape of the environment, our failure to right the inequalities of wealth that are leading us to meltdown.”

Both sides “are utterly wrong”, he tells us, and makes a wonderful case for the headline of his story: ”There’s no time like the present”. Read the full thing.

Beware of left-handers

The Economist tells us why left-handedness is rare but not extinct. According to a new study, it’s because, in prehistory, left-handedness conferred an evolutionary advantage to those who possessed it, but only if there were few in number. As the report puts it, “the strategic advantage of being left-handed in a fight is very real, simply because most right-handed people have little experience of fighting left-handers, but not vice versa. And the same competitive advantage is enjoyed by left-handers in other sports, such as tennis and cricket.” The report continues:

As any schoolboy could tell you, winning fights enhances your status. If, in prehistory, this translated into increased reproductive success, it might have been enough to maintain a certain proportion of left-handers in the population, by balancing the costs of being left-handed with the advantages gained in fighting. If that is true, then there will be a higher proportion of left-handers in societies with higher levels of violence, since the advantages of being left-handed will be enhanced in such societies. Dr Faurie and Dr Raymond [the authors of the hypothesis] set out to test this hypothesis.

By trawling the literature, checking with police departments, and even going out into the field and asking people, the two researchers found that the proportion of left-handers in a traditional society is, indeed, correlated with its homicide rate. One of the highest proportions of left-handers, for example, was found among the Yanomamo of South America. Raiding and warfare are central to Yanomamo culture. The murder rate is 4 per 1,000 inhabitants per year (compared with, for example, 0.068 in New York). And, according to Dr Faurie and Dr Raymond, 22.6% of Yanomamo are left-handed. In contrast, Dioula-speaking people of Burkina Faso in West Africa are virtual pacifists. There are only 0.013 murders per 1,000 inhabitants among them and only 3.4% of the population is left-handed.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Are you infertile? It’s your laptop

A new study indicates that men who use laptops regularly could be damaging their fertility. The BBC reports that “[b]alancing it [a laptop] on the lap increases the temperature of the scrotum which is known to have a negative effect on sperm production.”

Um, you’re reading this on a desktop, I hope.

Challenging the US by invoking it

“'French CNN' to challenge US view of world affairs“, announces the Guardian. The report says that Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, has described their launch of a new channel called CII as “a long-awaited attempt to challenge the dominance of the American view of world current affairs”. The channel is already known in France as “CNN à la Francaise”.

But if they want to challenge the American view, why present themselves as the French CNN? Can their point of view be truly independent, then, if they are positioning themselves in opposition to “the US view”?

Food shortage in space

The two astronauts on the International Space Station are running short of food, and have been told to ration their supplies. They’re dieting up in space, so finish what you got.

Hey, look, there's someone up there!

"Famous Atheist Now Believes in God", the headline screams. The "famous athiest" in question is a British professor of philosophy named Antony Flew, and he now believes that "some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature."

God help him.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Heavy metal death

RIP, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott.

The new MTV

There was a time when success in the music industry depended on getting your video aired on MTV. From the 1980s onwards, platinum success depended on that kind of exposure, seen most spectacularly in 1991, when MTV put Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Buzz Bin rotation and unleashed grunge – a genre that had been around for more than a half a decade, languishing in local live circuits.

Well, move over MTV, gaming’s here. The new ticket to success for musicians is to get their songs included on the soundtrack of video games. Jose Antonio Vargas writes in the Washington Post of how the new hip-hop kid in town, the Game (real name – Jayceon Taylor), is trying onto the soundtrack of Madden NFL 2005, a follow-up to last year’s best-selling game, Madden NFL 2004.

Vargas writes, “The competition to get onto the game's soundtrack – a lineup of thumping, furious, go-play-ball songs – is fierce. Last year record labels sent more than 2,500 songs to vie for the game's 21 tracks, which included Hoobastank's ‘Same Direction,’ New Found Glory's ‘This Disaster’ and Yung Wun's ‘Yung Wun Anthem’.”

And it isn’t just new artists who need to get that break. “For artists as established as Green Day, whose 'American Idiot' has just been nominated for a Grammy as record of the year, winning a spot on Madden NFL's soundtrack is like having a 20-second commercial on ‘Monday Night Football’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’,” writes Vargas. “For an up-and-comer such as the Game, it's an even bigger deal, the kind of break that gives instant celebrity. For both, it's a new route to an old audience, as sure a bet as any when it comes to grabbing a prized demographic: 18-to-34-year-old males, 75 percent of whom play video games.”

Fooling cockroaches, calming chickens

A team of scientists at a university in Brussels have created an artificial cockroach, in order to study “collective intelligence”. John Schwartz reports in the New York Times that “[t]he researchers have found a chemical blend that smells roachish enough for the impostors to trick real roaches into believing they are part of the group, and even to modify group behavior by getting the roaches to follow them from dark to light places.

“The researchers say they are also making progress with chickens, which exhibit a destructive ‘panic behavior’ that might be calmed with poultrybots.”

Lashing out at the media

Big Brother is watching you, and you are watching Big Brother. That is because, according to Robert Kaplan, Big Brother is the media. In an essay titled “The Media and Medievalism”, in Policy Review, he writes:

As this is an age in which we are bombarded by messages that tell us what to buy and what to think, when one dissects the real elements of power — who has it and, more important during a time of rapid change, who increasingly has it — one is left to conclude bleakly: Ours is not an age of democracy, or an age of terrorism, but an age of mass media, without which the current strain of terrorism would be toothless in any case.

Terrorism would be toothless without the media? I was rather befuddled at that. Rather than explain that bit, Kaplan goes on to explain why the media is so powerful. “[T]he media have authentic political power – terrifically magnified by technology – without the bureaucratic accountability that often accompanies it, so that they are never culpable for what they advocate,” he says. “Presidents, even if voters ignore their blunders, are at least responsible to history; journalists rarely are. This freedom is key to their irresponsible power.”

Later, Kaplan writes, “If what used to be known as the Communist International has any rough contemporary equivalent, it is the global media.”

This is not an unusual strain of thought. In the left, particularly, the media (like “corporations”) is often characterised in this manner, as if it were one entity that spoke with one voice. But that is not the case. In the Communist International, power was centralised, but the voice of the media is dispersed and decentralised, and getting more so by the day. Sources of information have grown, audiences have been fragmented, and the media speaks in a myriad different voices. And even when one particular voice is louder than the other, as happened recently when most of the mainstream publications in the USA endorsed John Kerry, people don’t necessarily listen.

Kaplan goes off on various tangents in his piece, many of them arguable. At one point he writes, “Our preoccupation with promoting democracy is slightly misplaced. Freer, more historically liberal societies are emerging anyway. Even in the Middle East, the new generation of leaders will not have the luxury to rule as autocratically as the passing one.” By which he means, I presume, that had the US not invaded Iraq, a freer, more historically liberal society would emerge anyway, and Saddam and his psychopathic progeny would "not have the luxury to rule as autocratically"? Fat chance.

But who’ll listen to me? I’m only a journalist.

Chess and ping-pong in Iraq

From “This is their civil war” by Charles Krauthammer in the Guardian:

In 1864, 11 of the 36 states did not participate in the American presidential election. Was Lincoln's election therefore illegitimate?

In 1868, three years after the security situation had, shall we say, stabilised, three states (and not insignificant ones: Texas, Virginia and Mississippi) did not participate in the election. Was Grant's election illegitimate?

There has been much talk that if the Iraqi election is held and some Sunni Arab provinces (perhaps three of the 18) do not participate, the election will be illegitimate. Nonsense. The election should be held. It should be open to everyone. If Iraq's Sunni Arabs - barely 20% of the population - decide that they cannot abide giving up their 80 years of minority rule, which ended with 30 years of Saddam Hussein's atrocious tyranny, then tough luck. They forfeit their chance to shape and to participate in the new Iraq.

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan looks on the “Bright Side” in the New Republic. He writes:

The coalition has learned a critical tactic in neo-imperial governance: divide and rule. From the Romans to the Brits, it has long been a useful strategy. By working with the grain of Iraqi ethnic tension, specifically the pent-up hostility of Kurds and Shia toward the Sunnis, who for decades ran the country, the United States has been able to gain leverage against the largely Sunni insurgency. So as Sunni Falluja was pummeled, the Shia were quiet and Kurdish troops actually took part in the operation.

Should the elections be postponed till the situation is more stable, and perhaps till more of the Sunnis are won over? Mario Mancuso argues against it in the Weekly Standard. He writes:

As a matter of principle, delaying the elections would reward the brutal campaign of violence that has beheaded innocents, targeted Iraqi civilians (including children lining-up for candy), and sought to bury a promising Iraqi future before its birth. In practice, it would encourage more violence and demoralize innocent, fence-sitting Iraqis (including certain political elites) who would like to believe in a better future, but fear the thugs who run the illegal checkpoint down the street today. It would also feed conspiracy theories about American intentions in Iraq, and do nothing to satisfy those Sunni clerics who have pledged to boycott any Iraqi election while there are foreign troops on Iraqi soil.

Mancuso serves up a succinct summation of the task ahead. “Our fundamental challenge in Iraq,” he writes, “is that we have to play chess (keep our strategic interests in mind) and ping-pong (respond to daily events) at the same time.”

No label

A number of people emailed me after my post yesterday on liberals and conservatives (“Are you Tragic or Utopian?”), exclaiming that labels didn’t matter, and that they did not wish to be labelled as either liberal or conservative. On that subject, here’s Keith Burgess-Jackson on “The Importance of Labels”.

Clinton quotes Mao

Collin Levey writes in Tech Central Station, with relish, of how Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life, is being madly pirated all over Asia. (Someone tried to sell me a copy at a traffic signal at Worli a few hours ago, for Rs 175 – apprx. US$ 3.) But what delights Levey is not the piracy itself, but the manner in which it is being done.

“[T]he chronic misspellings, cheap materials and smudgy ink that mark the knock-offs commonly found in Asia are the least of the problem,” he writes. “Mr. Clinton's carefully chosen words have been murdered by additions and deletions wholly out of keeping with the original. Copies available in China have Mr. Clinton serially quoting Mao and extolling the feng shui of his hometown in Arkansas.”

So why does this give Levey any pleasure? Because it is “so redolent of the policies Mr. Clinton himself has supported in another arena of great demand and Western prices. That is, knockoff drugs to fight AIDS.”

Clinton’s Presidential Foundation, says Levey, is “a leading supporter of the use of knock-off pills, produced without permission or supervision by generics manufacturers in countries that do not recognize international patent rights. The companies, most notably Cipla and Ranbaxy in India, have long been favorites of the AIDS activist community because they pilfer technologies developed at huge cost by large Western research-based drugs firms.”

Clinton, thus, is “getting a taste of his own medicine”. The analogy breaks down, in my view, at one point. The transgressions of international patent rights that Clinton’s foundation is encouraging are for the purpose of saving lives, and the more this piracy succeeds, the more lives will be saved. Clinton’s foundation does not actually make any money from this (though Cipla and Ranbaxy do). The pirate publishers who are ripping off Clinton, on the other hand, are not exactly saving any lives.

I quite agree with Levey that intellectual property rights must be protected, but that needs to be done in a realistic manner. As a kid and a teenager, growing up here (in India) in the 1980s and ‘90s, I was a regular customer of pirated music. The reason for that was simple: all the music I enjoyed listening to, from much of Van Morrison’s catalogue to the Allman Brothers Band to REM to Television was not available here. The only way I could get hold of all the music that I loved, which was such a big part of my life then, was to get pirated copies of it, or to record it off friends. If the music I wanted was available in the market at a reasonable price, I would have no compunctions buying legit copies. (Luckily, things have changed here due to the liberalisation of the ‘90s.)

Levey, in his piece, points out that “more than 90% of students [in China] see no problem with buying the grey market versions [of textbooks]”. And why should they? If the pirated textbooks weren’t there, they would have no access at all to that learning. Patricia Schroeder, the president of the Association of American Publishers, was quoted by the Chronicle as saying, "Countries say to us: 'We really want education for our kids. You people [in the United States] are rich. Why do you want to stop us from copying textbooks?'"

Third-world pirates, it must be understood, often function in a vacuum. They fulfil a need that no one else is satisfying. If copyright and patent holders balk at this, there is only one way to stop it – to fulfil that need themselves. And they cannot do this by pricing their goods at the same price as they do in the developed world, for no one will be able to afford them. Just as American employers pay their staff differently according to their location, using different standards of living as a justification, they must also price products differently. This is already the case with many products here – books are marked down, in absolute terms, for the Indian market, though not enough.

This is not a moral issue, but a practical one – if producers do not follow differential pricing, they will never be able to stop third-world pirates. And if they do, they will benefit from a market they weren’t tapping earlier, or were tapping ineffectively.

And Clinton won’t be quoting Mao any more.

Here’s the cheese. Where’s the cow?

The Associated Press reports on a recent survey of 2000 moviegoers, with the question posed to all of them being: “What are your top three cheesiest moments in film?" The winner: "I'm the king of the world!" from Titanic. Here’s the list. My choice would be No. 6, there’s enough cheese there to shoot a hundred family portraits.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Why CEO pay continues to rise and rise

A century ago, JP Morgan said that the pay of the top worker in a company should not exceed that of the average production worker by more than 10 times. In America, in 1980, that differential was 40 times. By 1990, it had moved to 85 times. Today, it is more than 400. Even after the dotcom bubble burst, wiping out around US$8 trillion in shareholder value, and lay-offs spread through corporate America, CEO pay continued to rise. Why was this so?

The reason for this is what social scientists call the “Lake Wobegon Effect” (after the Garrison Keillor novel, Lake Wobegon Days, about a town where all the children are above average). Here’s how it works in the context of CEO pay:

When a vacancy comes up for a top post, the compensation committee, set up by the board to determine how much the CEO should be paid, asks its pay consultant to come up with an appropriate figure. The pay consultant cites a figure which is the average pay for that post. The compensation committee, because it has to act under the premise that its candidate is above average, has to pay above that figure. And as it does so, the industry average rises, ensuring that the pay consultant will cite a higher figure next time. The average, thus, is a watermark that continues rising regardless of the state of the economy or the stock market. And the self-sustaining feedback loop moves faster as the turnover of CEOs rises, as it has been doing in the last few years.

Thus, CEO pay functions in an entirely different sphere from the economy, and has virtually nothing to do with how a company may be doing or how the rest of management gets paid. You might think that this could be arrested if strong boards, with high standards of corporate governance, put their feet down and pay only what they deems reasonable. But this would only work if it happened across the board, simultaneously, and that is hardly likely. Also, as this Guardian report by Polly Toynbee indicates, non-executive board member’s renumerations have also been zooming madly in recent times, on a self-sustaining feedback loop of their own.

I am a fervent supporter of capitalism, free markets and globalisation. Such spiralling and disjointed CEO pay undermines capitalism, though, just as America’s farm tariffs, for example, undermine their rhetoric on free trade. No system works without checks and balances – as Toynbee sums it up, “Capitalism is the only system that works - but it only works when properly regulated by a benign state. And that must include controlling dysfunctional pay distortions at the top and bottom that corrupt society and demolish the government's hopes for social justice.”

Stressed about stress

You’re losing years when you’re under stress. Michael Lemonick of Time magazine, in an article titled “The Ravages of Stress”, writes about a new study that shows how “long-term, unrelenting stress on mothers can damage the DNA of their immune-system cells in a way that may speed up the aging process.” (Most of the subjects of the study were mothers who underwent regular stress because of looking after chronically ill kids, but the results are relevant to anyone.)

After correcting for factors other than stress, the scientists examined the peripheral blood mononuclear cells of the ladies, part of their immune system. They found that in the women who experienced the highest stress levels, “the cells had shorter telomeres — bits of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes. In lab experiments, scientists have shown that telomeres get a bit smaller every time a cell divides, and that when telomeres are worn out, cells can't divide anymore and ultimately die. In humans, older people tend to have shorter telomeres — and by this measure, the most stressed women in the study had cells that looked 10 years older than their chronological age.”

Lemonick continues:

The most stressed women also had lower levels of telomerase, an enzyme that repairs damaged telomeres. Again, reduced telomerase isn't necessarily the key to premature aging, but people with a rare genetic condition that reduces their telomerase production tend to show outward signs of premature aging and often die young of heart disease and weakened infection resistance.

Finally, the stressed women's cells had higher levels of free radicals, a type of highly reactive molecule that can damage DNA. One might argue that women whose children were born with those disorders already had something wrong with their DNA and that stress wasn't the cause. But that wouldn't explain another crucial fact: the degree of cellular damage was highest in women who had been caring for a disabled child the longest.

Stress affects not just ageing but also memory. Robert Sapolsky writes in the Scientific American Mind that “a little stress sharpens memory. But after prolonged stress, the mental picture isn’t pretty.” It’s a wonderful piece, adapted from his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, but the link I gave you has just a preview, and the full article isn’t available online. Bummer. Never mind, forget about it

Eating away the hours

My sleep patterns are irregular, and I’m putting on too much weight. I don’t get as much shut-eye as I should, and I get the urge to bite into something every couple of hours. Do my sleep and my hunger (and being over-weight) have a causal relationship? Scientific American reports that a new study has found that “Sleep Deprivation [is] Tied to Shifts in Hunger Hormones”. The findings:

[P]eople who consistently slept less than five hours a night had significant differences in the hormones leptin and ghrelin as compared with people who slept an average of eight hours a night. Leptin is produced by fat cells. Low levels of it are a signal of starvation and a need for a bigger appetite. Ghrelin, meanwhile, is produced by the stomach and is an appetite stimulant--the more ghrelin you have, the more you want to eat. The study subjects suffering a lack of sleep had 16 percent less leptin and nearly 15 percent more ghrelin than those who were well rested did. "In Western societies, where chronic sleep restriction is common and food is widely available, changes in appetite regulatory hormones with sleep curtailment may contribute to obesity," the team reports.

The study was carried out by the Public Library of Science: Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal that is, refreshingly, available online for free. Read the full report here.

I need to go get some sleep now. Wait, did you hear that fridge? It just called out my name!

The immigration couch

What is an acceptable price to pay to live the American Dream? For some Central American women it’s sex, writes Mary Jordan in the Washington Post.

Promoting crime

Instapundit links to a couple of pieces about the alarming rate of burglaries in Britain, especially “hot burglaries”, which take place when the resident is at home. Dave Kopel points out two reasons why “hot” burglaries are far more prevalent in Britain than in the US. One of them, of course, is that guns are legal in America. He writes:

[W]hen an American burglar strikes at an occupied residence, his chance of being shot is about equal to his chance of being sent to prison. According to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about half a million incidents every year in which an American burglar is scared away by a victim with a firearm.

Putting aside the issue of guns, the British homeowners are still at a terrible disadvantage. For example, if 300 pounds of what the British call a “yob” (or what Americans call “white trash”) kicks down a woman’s front door, and begins pummeling her with his fists, her only hope might be to fight back with a kitchen knife. In America, the woman’s use of the knife would be plainly legal. In Britain, the woman would be presumed to have illegally escalated the confrontation (the yob was just using his fists, and she escalated by using a deadly weapon). The government could put her on trial for attempted murder, and she would have to prove to the jury that she responded “proportionately” to the attack.

Mark Steyn, in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph, writes:

One of the key measures of a society's health is how easily you can insulate yourself from its underclass. In America, unless one resides in a very small number of problematic inner-city quarters or wishes to make a career in the drug trade, one will live a life blessedly untouched by crime. In Britain, alas, it's the peculiar genius of Home Office policy to have turned the entire country into one big, rundown, inner-city, no-go slum estate, extending from prosperous suburbs to leafy villages, even unto Upper Cheyne Row.

There is no columnist I enjoy reading, and agree with, more than Steyn, but I take issue with his first line here. Surely a better measure of “a society’s health” would be not how you can insulate yourself from its underclass, but the nature and extent of the underclass itself. And there, too, Britain’s welfare state has been a failure. No one writes on that subject better than Theodore Dalrymple, and here’s one of his finest essays: “The Frivolity of Evil”.

Are you Tragic or Utopian?

“One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues,” begins Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions. What causes such sharp and well-defined faultlines between liberals and conservatives? It is a common question, and I was reminded of it moments ago by a post on a libertarian blog, The Examined Life. Its author postulated that conservatives believe in “the fallibility of humans”, and all their attitudes flow accordingly.

Sowell’s argument was a more sophisticated version of this, and was summed up beautifully by Steven Pinker in his brilliant book, The Blank Slate. Sowell had argued that there were two “visions” of nature, which he called the Constrained Vision and Unconstrained Vision, and Pinker called the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision. Pinker wrote:

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. “Mortal things suit mortals best,” wrote Pindar; “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner.

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’; I dream things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” The quotation is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, “There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough”). The Utopian Vision is also associated with Rousseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, the jurist Earl Warren, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and to a lesser extent the political philosopher Ronald Dworkin. [Emphasis in the original.]

Needless to say, conservatives believe in the Tragic Vision while liberals believe in the Utopian Vision. Pinker says that these beliefs are hard-wired in us, “not … because attitudes are synthesised directly from DNA but because they come naturally to people with different temperaments”. He continues, “When it comes to attitudes that are heritable, people react more quickly and emotionally, are less likely to change their minds, and are more attracted to like-minded people.”

Isn’t that true?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Are you bored?

Arnold Schoenberg was, and look what happened. Stuart Buck tells us how boredom is driving down educational standards.

Cheeseburger by the sea

The Herald Sun reports that “dozens of seats on the world's most luxurious cruise liner have collapsed under the weight of obese American passengers.”

The story quotes “an unnamed former member of the ship's crew” as saying, “We do have many large passengers on the QM2 [the ship]. Most of the passengers are American. And we do have 10 restaurants on the ship, so if they are big when they get on, they tend to be bigger when they get off."

Can Islam and democracy go together?

Ian Buruma contemplates just this question in an excellent essay in the New York Times.

Kyoto equals communism

And Hayek spins in his grave. Hans Labohm takes apart the Kyoto Protocol.

Pirates and ships

In the days when there were pirates on the high seas, no one spoke of banning ships. Yet, so much of the debate around P2P networks centres around piracy, mainly of music, that one would think that was all P2P networks were built for. But they aren’t. As the Economist puts it (subscription link):

Imagine an ideal global information-storage system. It would have to be huge, capable of delivering any one of millions of files, some of them of enormous size, to anywhere in the world within moments. It would have to be self-configuring and self-healing, rather than centrally controlled, to ensure there was no single point of failure. And it would have to be secure, capable of supporting millions of users, while resisting constant assault both from physical attacks on its infrastructure and from malicious software circulated within the network.

“[T]his ideal system already exists,” the Economist informs us, “in the form of P2P file-sharing networks such as eDonkey and KaZaA.” Yet, because P2P networks have mainly been in the news for music piracy, the entertainment industry has run a relentless campaign to ban them, and a lot of people think of P2P networks and music pirates as synonymous.

“Musicians Sing Different Tune on File Sharing”, says the Washington Post, speaking about a new report that indicates that most artists are quite ok with P2P networks. This is not contradictory with the stand that the likes of Lars Ullrich have taken in the past against P2P networks like Napster. Ulrich has never spoken out against P2P networks in principle, only on the piracy that takes place on those networks, a distinction he understands, but one that many in the music business do not.

The report itself is fairly lucid. The findings are summarised thus:

Artists and musicians on all points of the spectrum from superstars to starving singers have embraced the internet as a tool to improve how they make, market, and sell their creative works. They use the internet to gain inspiration, build community with fans and fellow artists, and pursue new commercial activity.

Artists and musicians believe that unauthorized peer-to-peer file-sharing of copyrighted works should be illegal. However, the vast majority do not see online filesharing as a big threat to creative industries.

A couple of the reports of the findings are a bit muddled though, and confuse ships with pirates. The New York Times reports, “artists are divided but on the whole not deeply concerned about online file-sharing. Only about half thought that sharing unauthorized copies of music and movies online should be illegal, for instance.” For instance? “Online file-sharing” and “sharing unauthorised copies of music” are not synonymous, and “only about half” contradicts “on the whole”. Don’t believe the news reports that indicate that artists are quite happy to give away the fruits of their hard work for free – Read the report for yourself.

On a related note, here's a nice review of a book that argues for restrictions of copyrights: Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.

"The only naked creatures ... "

“The only naked creatures were the 3m bats streaming from the mouth of a cave and spectacularly blackening the sunset sky as the climax of his video Memory Bucket.” So says the Guardian about Jeremy Deller’s Turner Prize winning entry, in a piece headlined “Turner prize shock: out of four serious competitors, the best artist wins”.