January 2, 2004

Yes, I'm still here

Sorry - I've been studying for my Chinese exam next week. If I manage to make enough progress, there's half-finished book review I intend to put up later.


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January 5, 2004

The Tainted Source

A book review at A Fistful of Euros.


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Why there's been so little blogging lately, and why I'll never complain about Belgian taxes

I've been doing very little blogging, and not very much blog reading, since early September. I realise that this has cost me readers. But, since I've been nominated for a Koufax award, I still seem to have a few readers who like what they saw and want to see more.

So, this is my New Year's resolution: more writing. Also, I feel that everyone is owed at least a bit of an explanation why I sort of had to drop out of cyberspace.


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January 6, 2004

The headscarf: Radical Islam's greatest secret weapon

My latest over at A Fistful of Euros.


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January 12, 2004

Exam Week

I have exams this week: Russian tonight, Chinese on Thursday, my Russian oral on Friday, then the Chinese oral next Wednesday. Consequently, slow blogging. I have been fairly active on A Fistful of Euros rather than here, but I'm going to put up a fairly political post here soon. Since it's rather to the left of AFOE, I thought this would be a better venue.

I'm not prepared for my Russian exam. Frankly, the textbook is the major problem. There are, according to the prof, no good Russian texts in Dutch, so she picked the least bad of a crappy lot. That means that she departs from the text a lot, and since the text doesn't have vocabulary lists after each chapter, there is no fixed lexicon that I can just study. I have to use my frequently disorganised notes.

That isn't that way I like to study language. Language is something you sort of muddle through until you get a feel for it. Anyway, we'll see how it goes this evening.

I'm much better prepared for my Chinese exam, or at least I think so. The "luister exam" - listening test - didn't go that well, but I did okay. That means I'll have a little time between tonight's exam and Thursday's. So, with some luck I'll get to this big post I have in mind tomorrow. There are a number of threads that I think I can incorporate into something useful: Marx' On the Jewish Question (discussed here), the headscarf issue in Europe (look here and here), this post over at Crooked Timber, and some of the ideas behind Islamic law.

Update: The Russian exam went okay, I think. There were only two questions out of 50 that I had no idea about, and one where I just guessed. Can any of my Russophone readers tell me when the right answer was to this one:

Fill in the blank:

Он _____________, Она бабушка.

[If the Russian hasn't come through in readable form:

On __________, Ona babushka.]


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January 13, 2004

Brad Delong's blog makes me want to cry

This and this in particular, although this and this aren't exactly uppers either.

The entry on the failures of free international capital movement is awful when you realise how many lives and how much misery it implies, but there are at least alternatives. The failures of the neoliberal regime to create the growth its supporters usually quite sincerely desire can at least serve as the backdrop to some new synthesis. The same can be said of the collapse in employment growth in the US.

The Mahar Arar case is infuriating and threatening, not for the least reason because my passport was issued by the same people as Arar's. His case is pushing me more and to a decision I've been putting off: to end my legal relationship with the US Immigration service once and for all and not go back. I had hoped to procrastinate about it until November.

But the Benny Morris interview is too depressing for words. This bit is the bad one:

[M]y feeling is that [Israel] would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country - the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion - rather than a partial one - he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations.
My... well, disappointment isn't strong enough... new-found disdain and repulsion for Morris does not come from merely stating that a full expulsion might have left a more secure Israel. As a statement of historical and political judgment devoid of moral judgement it may, in fact, be true. What turns me against him completely is stuff like this:
"Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here."

"But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands."

"A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on."

"Remember another thing: the Arab people gained a large slice of the planet. Not thanks to its skills or its great virtues, but because it conquered and murdered and forced those it conquered to convert during many generations. But in the end the Arabs have 22 states. The Jewish people did not have even one state. There was no reason in the world why it should not have one state. Therefore, from my point of view, the need to establish this state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them."

"The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."

Benny Morris' analysis confronts him with a clear choice between his nation and his humanity, and he has chosen his nation. I find that unconscionable. There are other analyses of Israel's circumstances that do not force such a choice, but Morris' puts it in as simple terms as I have ever seen. His claim that "[r]evenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture" without ever talking about how many Israeli reprisals are rationalised as "an eye for an eye", going on to make "Palestinian society" an actor in this conflict in order to justify expulsion, and painting Arabs as barbarians who must be kept at bay is just small potatoes for someone who has put his decency below his state.


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What I love about Ken MacLeod's blog

Go take a look at this post. First, I read this guy in part to connect to some grand radical leftist tradition which, if I am to be fully honest about it, I have only a very fleeting connection to. The closest I ever came to participating in an organised political movement was arguing for - not joining - the Canadian NDP when I lived in Montreal. The NDP has never been further to the left than Labour was in the 70's, and in Montreal stood less chance of winning than Pat Buchanan had of taking San Francisco, so there wasn't much of a local party for me to join.

I did know about the SPGB, but free-thinking Stalinists are a new one on me. I'm not sure I regret living in a time and place without much in the way of radical grouplets, but it does sometimes sound like it was a lot of fun.

But, the real gem here is the quote at the beginning:

'I vote Labour, always with the same deep misgivings. My life has been entirely lacking in excitement or incident apart from the time I attached a PAVEMENTS ARE FOR PEDESTRIANS sticker to the windscreen of a scarlet Ford Sierra illegally parked on the footway of Walker's Way, Penge, and my seven years as a Maoist guerilla in Peru.'

- Ellis Sharp, The Aleppo Button


How do you top that?


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Kudos to Matthew Yglesias

...for standing up for the the real body piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.


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January 18, 2004

Hacked

Some pissant script kiddie hacked my workstation at home today. I don't know how the little fucker got through the firewall - I assume it has a bug that I don't know about since it isn't supposed to let folks walk through it. Anyway, the asshole ran the SunOS rootkit, but fortunately wasn't competent enough to recognise that he was running one designed for a different version of Solaris. So he screwed up. If he had had the brains of a gnat, I would never have even known he was there.

However, since login and xlogin aren't working right anymore, I have to reinstall the OS in order to use the machine outside of single-user mode, and my install disks are still packed up from the move. Since I still haven't got furniture to unpack it all to, I haven't been able to find the disks. I can probably borrow a disk at work, if not I'll find it later at home.

But for the moment, that means I'm stuck - again!!! - without my own computer at home. Between spammers attacking blogs and making my e-mail useless, and now this little shit running his rootkit, I'm beginning to wonder how much future this Internet thing really has.

Update: I found how the little fucker got in. I had left a port open from back when I still lived in California. Some little dick scanned an entire block of numbers for a login propmpt and found me. Great - I did leave the door open. I still want the little shit to die.


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January 22, 2004

The Secular Ijtihad

This post has been coming for a while, but the recent discussion on AFOE about Marx' On the Jewish Question and the headscarf issue in Europe is what has sort of crystallised it. It's about a contradiction - a fairly subtle one - in something I feel fairly strongly about.

I'm an advocate of secular government, and I believe secular government can only be a success when religious people demand it as something in their own best interests. But Bruno Bauer - the author of the book Marx is arguing against in On the Jewish Question - highlights a contradiction in the kind of religious freedom offered by the French Revolution:

The Jew, for example, would have ceased to be a Jew if he did not allow himself to be prevented by his laws from fulfilling his duty to the state and his fellow citizens, that is, for example, if on the Sabbath he attended the Chamber of Deputies and took part in the official proceedings. Every religious privilege, and therefore also the monopoly of a privileged church, would have been abolished altogether, and if some or many persons, or even the overwhelming majority, still believed themselves bound to fulfil religious duties, this fulfilment ought to be left to them as a purely private matter.
This is very much in line with the kind of secularism associated with the French revolution, as we can see in this speech by the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789:
But, they say to me, the Jews have their own judges and laws. I respond that is your fault and you should not allow it. We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation... In short, Sirs, the presumed status of every man resident in a country is to be a citizen.
Clermont-Tonnerre is arguing for the legal equality of Jews and Bauer is arguing against it, but ultimately they are both advancing the same thesis: The secular state demands an allegiance which may conflict with religious duties, and that the state should come first. Marx has some problems with this, and I think rightly so. As an advocate of secularism in public policy, I have to admit that this obligation for the citizen of a secular state to advance secular values even when they contradict deeply held beliefs is incompatible with my conception of how things ought to be.  
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Done with exams...

...finally. Now back to work, and hopefully back to blogging. Still haven't managed to fix my machine at home, so it's only slow, delayed blogging from work and in those moments when the wife will let me have the iBook.


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January 23, 2004

The word of the day

Today's word is lumpenprofessoriat, found on Cosma Shalizi's blog. The lexicological division here at Pedantry whole-heartedly encourages the adoption and use of this term. Presently, Google only finds three pages containing the term, two of which are a Wikipedia page and a Wikipedia clone.

As for the rest of the content of his post, I have an ideological predisposition to view computation in general and stomatal aperture adjustment in plants both as forms of goal-oriented action, so I'm inclined to respond by nodding and saying: "See, there is a more productive underlying abstraction than computation." So: Neener, neener, neener on the whole "the mind is software" school of cognitive science.

The good bit - the one that is going to force me to blow more of my exceedingly small book budget on scientific literature that I ought to be getting free at a university library - is this:

The motivation for the EvCA work was that there are some computations which are very easy if you have a centralized processor or memory, but very hard for decentralized systems. Suppose, for instance, I give you a string of random bits, and ask whether most of the bits are 0 or most of them are 1 ("density classification"). This is easy, if you can count and store your results in a central place; it's very hard if you can only do local operations, looking at, say, a bit and its immediate neighbors in the string.
One of the things my once fairly simple idea for a PhD project has evolved into is a recasting of computer science to take this sort of thing into account. I have my own nefarious reasons for casting my net in that direction, reasons that come from the humanities rather than computing theory pur et dur. The biggest barrier to actually doing this PhD - besides having a job and paying the bills - is that I am woefully underread in just this sort of thing.

Ignorance can be bliss. As long as I don't know what kind of related work is going on, I don't have to face the mountain of reading my own asperations inevitably lead to, and Cosma is making that much harder for me.
 


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Around the world...

Desbladet has tracked down a website that will draw a map of the world for you highlighting the countries you've been to. Since he put up his, he asks to see other people's. Here's mine:



create your own visited country map
or write about it on the open travel guide
 


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January 26, 2004

At least I'm not the only one

It's often quite scary to tread ideological ground that is new to you. This post, for instance, has only gotten responses from Russell Arben Fox and from Seth Edenbaum. Unlike Seth, I fear less from the idea that "Islam is becoming the new Judaism" - indeed, at least two days out of every five I would welcome it - than from the idea that Judaism is becoming the new Islam. We create our enemies, and in the Middle East that aphorism seems to cut both ways.

I expect the main reason though is that hardly anybody reads me here. Links on other blogs don't get updated, but also, I haven't commented terribly often on other blogs lately. I get about half of my hits from search engines. Really, I need to get around to e-mailing the blogs that link to me. Also, I could post a bit more.

I'm going to let my readers in on a little secret. Sometimes, I advocate positions to see if I can get away with them. If I can, sometimes I keep them. Not always mind you, but sometimes. But taking this approach always means wondering if this time I've gone too far.

However, the thing that encourages me right now is the discovery that someone else has tread very nearly the same ground as me. Does anybody know anything about this Chandran Kukathas person? I know he's argued against Brian Barry's anti-multiculturalist arguments, but that's about it. He - I think it's a he - goes one step further than I did and actually targets an element of the orthodox liberal consensus:

Given its nature and traditions, then, there is nothing in Islam that should give us cause for concern if our interest is in the flourishing of a democratic civil society marked by diversity. This is not to say that Islamic political movements have not, or will never, pose any danger. For any political movement can be dangerous. But it is to say that Islam as a creed is not the problem, and may even hold within it some of the resources that supply a solution. Most important among these resources is the tradition of toleration; but not less significant may be the fact that, in the end, it is also distrustful of nationalism.

If all this is true, the real question which ought to be addressed is not so much the problem of reconciling Islam with modern democracy and civil society as the prolem of what model of democracy is most suited to modernity. If the considerations presented in this paper are sound, what should give us most concern is the emergence of models of democratic governance which seeks to extend the power of democratic authority into supra-national institutions, ordered in hierarchical fashion. If democratic institutions are to work to preserve the diverse order of civil society, they will have to look away from models of centralization towards those traditions which are ready to embrace norms of toleration. In this regard, however, the threat comes not from Islam, even though it may at times come from those to misuse its name.


I have an alternative target for some critical review - centralism is something I find it easy to be moderate about. What I have in mind is actually someting far nearer and dearer to liberalism - both in its leftist and rightist forms - than the ideology of centralism and hierarchial government. Liberal ideology has always been somewhat indifferent to the actual structure of administration, seeing it as a realm of pragmatism. I'll put forward my case one of these days when it'll be interesting to see if I can get away with it.
 


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January 27, 2004

A brief history of Bakongo

Once again, I'm going to take a short break from Grandpa's autobiography to expand on some of the background of the events around him. I did this early on with a brief discussion of Mennonite history, but this time the topic does not just place Grandpa in his historical context, it is also a little closer to current events. History is important to understanding things, and to make the history of Africa start with Grandpa's arrival would both make his circumstances harder to follow and the present-day Congo harder to understand. The last instalment is here and for any new readers, the whole series can be read from this page. I'm going to talk about the history, culture and linguistics of the Congo region in two or three (relatively) short posts before going back to Grandpa. I expect to do the whole thing in a week or so, so this won't be spread out over a couple months or anything like that.

The history of the Kingdom of Kongo - Bakongo in the Kikongo language - is, like much of African history, a tragic tale of a clash between local culture and external forces of change. It is a story with many parallels in the modern era when we are again reopening ancient debates about the consequences of intercultural contact.


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January 30, 2004

The New Economy and the Death of the Proletariate

The crew over at Crooked Timber are reviewing Doug Henwood's new book After the New Economy. There are also some productive posts on it at Bred Delong's blog and over on Calpundit.

I haven't read the book yet. I'm still in the process of finishing my review of European Integration: 1950-2003. With some luck, it'll be done before business closes in Europe today, and maybe I'll try to score a copy at Waterstone's tomorrow. I like Doug Henwood's stuff, at least what I've read, and if he's debunking the utopian capitalist rhetoric of the new economy wonks, well, it's because it deserves it. I worked in the trenches of said new economy, and it is a good deal less than advertised.

But, one of Kevin Drum's remarks on the book struck me:

I'm not going to try and make the whole case here, but I'll add my — not my two cents, perhaps, it's not worth that much — I'll add my one cent to a particular facet of the debate. I do believe that advances in computer technology are revolutionary and are likely to become even more revolutionary over the next few decades as increased computing power finally makes artificial intelligence genuinely feasible. Unfortunately, I also think that one of the results of this will be to increasingly marginalize unskilled and semiskilled workers in a way that has never happened before: they will be permanently marginalized. There will be no new industries for them to move to.
It occured to me to wonder if the same wasn't once said about the peasantry. Like Kevin, I do think there has been a change over the last generation or so in the most economically advanced countries, and I think it's a substantial change. As symbolic as computers are of this brave new world, I'm not convinced that they are the principle cause. Enormous increases in manufacturing productivity preceeded the computer, and their role in undermining traditional employment patterns strikes me as a more important factor in what is going on.

The thing is, this is the same transformation that took place in agriculture a century ago, just much slower. What happened to the peasants? In the end, they were marginalised, and the then-new economy had no place for them.

Unfortunately, that thread on Calpundit has been colonised by a bunch of free-market wankers and technotopians who will always tell you either that artifical intelligence will make labour unnecessary or that it's the government's fault in the first place, and reading von Mises and Hayek would make you realise this apparent truth. So, except for Matt Young's comments, there's not much more of use there.


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Learning from Dan Quayle

Ampersand has a post up drawing attention to this unintentionally funny little piece of reactionary fluff over at The Claremont Institute Review of Books. The essay is by one Terrence O. Moore, formerly of the US Marines and now a school principal.

Having not only grown up with a working father at home but also having had several ex-service men, including a Marine officer, among my teachers, I suspect Mr Moore would find me quite disappointing. However, if I were to take him on point by point, I would just be repeating the excellent work being done over at Alas, a Blog.

Ampersand comments: "But Principal Moore doesn't address this history - in fact, there's no reason to think he's aware of the history of his views." The failure to learn from history is something of a cliché, but we need not go back to the Gilded Age or the Roaring 20's - as Ampersand has - to find that Mr Moore isn't much for historical analysis. He builds the essay from a castigation of the fictional sit-com character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock, and ends with a description of the non-existent child now. Apparently, Moore is aware that this same line of criticism helped make Dan Quayle look like an idiot, but doesn't seem to realise that it is having the same effect on him.
 


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Does the declining marginal utility of money justify progressive taxation?

I'm having a slow day, which I ought to be spending finishing up this book review rather than surfing the blogs, but I'm surfing the blogs anyway.

I found this over at the Blog Delong, which does prove that not everyone over at the Volokh Conspiracy is completely loony, but that wasn't what I found interesting. It was this comment from Jonathan Goldberg, down almost at bottom, that struck me:

I've often heard claims like:

"If nothing else the bracket system stinks just on principle."

I've never understood them. I've always favored progressive taxation on a straight 19th century declining marginal utility of money/equality of pain/the wealthy benefit most from government arguement, with a little 20th century Rawlsianism and equality of opportunity thrown in. I've yet to see this (quite simple) reasoning even confronted in any plausible way (I have seen attempts, but they were obviously dishonest). Would anyone like to do so, or even provide a pointer (NOT to Nozick, please).


I'm going to take a shot at it, but not as an argument for lower incomes taxes. This is going to be an argument that the "declining marginal utility of money/equality of pain/the wealthy benefit most from government arguement" really doesn't justify enough taxation.


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