Friday, July 11, 2003
$3.9 billion a month

Today here at Pedantry, we're going to do something we haven't done in a long time. Long, long ago, back in March to be precise, I regularly posted about the estimated costs of the Iraq war, which I would then, in the spirit of Bush's tax cuts rhetoric, divide by the estimated 72 million households in the US so that I could tell what it was going to cost on a per household basis.

Now, according to the Pentagon, the occupation of Iraq is actually costing $3.9 billion per month. This is $54.17 per American household or $650.04 annually. And remember, this is probably a low-ball estimate for the future and is not included in the existing $400 billion annual budget deficit. This means that your household's portion of the net federal deficit comes to $6361.11.

Furthermore, that is just the Pentagon's share of the costs. The civil administration, humanitarian aid and reconstruction expenses are also not included, but the article says that some $7 billion have been allocated for non-military costs, or roughly seven weeks of military expenses, and that the money will run out around year's end.

Now, the NY Times article does mention the possibility of extracting $15 to $20 billion in oil from Iraq. If the whole sum went to pay the military bill - which as I understand it is a violation of the Geneva Convention and most people's idea of fairness - there would still be $25 to $30 billion that the budget would still have to cover. That means that the US taxpaying household will have to cough up $372.22 annually for as long as the occupation lasts under the most optimistic conditions.


First, I would like to wish a happy Flemish National Day to all my Flemish readers (hi, Vincent!). I only found out that today was a state holiday after showing up at work this morning to an empty office. Let this be a warning to all of you: If you move to another country, be sure to check regularly on what days are holidays, because they may well be different from the ones wherever you come from. Anyway, today is the celebration of the Battle of the Gulden Sporen in the 13th century, in which the army of the Duke of Brabant defeated a French invasion and, not wanting to spoil his winning streak with any more battles, promptly surrendered.

I will be taking today to try to catch up on some of the projects I've been meaning to post.

But first, a different topic. I note that Max Sawicky has been praising William Greider, one of the more widely published figures in the anti-globalisation movement. I should place this next to George Monbiot's recent article in the Guardian in which he declares himself to be in favour of global trade. What do these men have in common? Well, one is that it would be hard to say that they are anti-globalists. A more cosmopolitain view of the world has been a traditional mark of the left, and localism is very difficult to make compatible with an ideology of equality. ATTAC, the human rights movements, even the "fair trade" movements - these are hardly against trade or the free circulation of people and ideas, and generally don't believe that people should shut themselves up into nation-states and have less to do with the outside world.

The title of this post comes from a French word which I encountered for the first time a couple weeks ago in the French language edition of the Belgian daily newspaper Metro, where it was used to describe José Bové, who was recently found guilty of trashing a McDonald's in France. Since then, a Google search shows the term to be growing in use in the French press. Instead of meaning anti-globalist it means something more like alternative globalist, suggesting that one is in favour of "globalisation" in some fashion, but against the kind of globlisation taking place.

Alter-mondialiste strikes me as a good deal more apt than anti-globalist, so I am officially declaring my support for the term and encouraging its use. However, what I don't have is an English translation. Alter-globalist appears 11 times in Google's database but it's an awkward term since the "alter-" prefix is less common in English than French. Global-reformist is the best I can think of, but ideally it should be something that directly attacks the notion of being "anti-" the way "alter-" does. I just can't think of a prefix in English that carries the meaning of "alternative."

Any ideas?

Thursday, July 10, 2003
When it doesn't suck to be Canadian

As someone who tends to discourage nationalism in general, I don't generally feel much pride in being Canadian. It's not like it was something I had much choice about, really. Nonetheless, occasionally, I see something like this, found via Alas, a blog, that manages to stir up some vestigial pride in my nominal homeland, even though I've only lived in it three of the last 22 years.

Gay newlyweds embrace Canadian marriage

We are among the hundreds of gay couples who have wed in Ontario since that province's highest court opened the institution of marriage to us on June 10. Canada's federal government is now drafting legislation to make marriage available nationwide to all loving couples regardless of sexual orientation. [...]

Joyce and I have both been surprised by how changed we feel. After exchanging vows, we spent the weekend in Toronto, giving us a chance to test drive being newlyweds in a wonderfully accepting city. We stopped calling each other "partner" and began using "spouse." When shopkeepers, cab drivers, hotel clerks and waiters asked why we were visiting Canada, we explained we had come to marry -- and everyone cheered.

Toronto's welcome to gay Canadians and foreigners who'd come to marry could not be warmer. City Hall had a gay pride flag flying alongside the bright red Canadian maple leaf. Marriage clerks took turns saying congratulations and taking our photographs. "You need more photos of the two of you together," one said, as she borrowed my camera and told us to keep smiling. And the town's newspaper seamlessly began saying "his husband," "her wife" and "the newlyweds" in articles.

I remember how, during the Mulroney government, there appeared to be a growing convergence between Canadian and American attitudes and policies, or rather a growing acceptance in Canada of American values which were not meaningfully influenced by Canada at all. However, over the last decade or so, it seems that the divergence between the two has been growing. I have to ask myself if this isn't a sign that Canada is now quite different from the US, coming as it does after so many issues where they have not been aligned. Perhaps the tide has now turned so far that if there is to be any new cultural convergence between the two states, it will have to come from America adopting Canadian values?

Wednesday, July 09, 2003
Blogging in the Age of the Superblogs

It looks like the example of the Volokh Conspiracy is beginning to spread. First Not Geniuses and now Crooked Timber have put together some serious power, creating the blogging equivalent of bands like Yes, Genesis and Supertramp. Their first day's work is pretty awesome so far, and if this is at all representative, Crooked Timber is going to be a pretty big blog.

Frankly, superblogs are a good idea. Between school being out, the war in Iraq moving into the past (sort of anyway), and in my case, a lot of very slow posting, my hit count's gone way down and I suspect I'm not alone. A lot of bloggers are going on hiatus or reducing posting, and the superblogs are likely just as much a consequence. I started a blog because, well, it was what all the cool people were doing, and because I thought I needed to keep writing if I was going to keep the skill up. Alas, superblogging is probably not in my future. Even if I wasn't a bit nuts, I'm not reliable enough to join a collective.

It isn't easy to keep up a blog when real life keeps interfering. My backlog of things to write is just getting longer, and I just had another big project dumped on me at work, messing with my main goal of finding new and creative ways to make natural language processing that much harder for my boss to understand. And, of course, there is something in Belgium that blooms at night in July and that I am acutely allergic to, neatly preventing me from getting any sleep and making me increasingly irritable. I don't comment much on other blogs lately for the same reasons I've been so slow to put stuff up.

So, I have a mass book review coming up as soon as I manage to get a decent night's sleep. It will cover several books I've read in the last couple of weeks with some (rather remotely) related themes: Engine City by Ken MacLeod, The Telling by Ursula Le Guin, Coming Up for Air by George Orwell, Is there life on Marx? by Benjamin Kuras and, yes, J.K. Rowling's latest proof that there are still celebrity authors, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. What themes do they have in common? Well, that would be telling. The real surprise will be finding out if I can post it at the new blog, or will I have to break it up into bits for Blogspot?

There is still a long promised post coming on collectivism, which will contrast Vygotskyan cultural and tool driven thinking with a sort of Latourian-Hobbesian vision of collective enterprise and intelligence and ultimately find a normative political philosophy in the difference between the two. And lastly, I have not neglected Grandpa Dick. I never intended to keep up an intended three posts about him for this long, but I want to get up a post on the ultimate fate of Apanlee's inhabitants before returning to Grandpa in the 1940's.

It's a tall order unless work slows down soon, and it may take some time to do if I can't get any sleep, but I will get to it. So, stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003
Pedantry's trip to the Wild East

Well, I'm back. Prague has certainly changed since the last time I was there - Fall 1989 - and while the toilets are a lot cleaner, the rest is a bit of a mixed bag. The good news: Prague's many historical places and structures have been very well restored, and the damage from last fall's flooding seems to be minimal. The bad news: The new Prague has all the esthetic appeal of Reno on a Saturday night. You have to get well outside of the centre city to find anything that isn't an international brand name or designed for tourists. There are seven McDonald's - at least seven that I saw - within ten blocks of the Charles Bridge. The biggest bank seems to be Belgium's KBC, rebranded as CSOB. While tearing down all the red stars and hammer-and-sickles on Vaclavska Namesti is understandable, replacing them with Skoda logos and Samsung in ten foot letters is very faint improvement.

My first night in Prague was the first time in years I've been accosted by a hooker. There are still people who whisper to you on the street "Psst! Wanna change money?" The Czech crown has been a fully convertable currency for seven years, and you get the commercial rate if you use the ATM's. Tourists don't get scammed the way they do in Beijing - only the most minimal level of tourist caution will do you more than well enough - but it certainly isn't a place where you're likely to feel completely safe.

Prices are decent, although Prague's reputation as super-cheap is no longer so well deserved. Only the beer is cheap. It starts at 10% alcohol - the equivalent of Belgium's legendary Duvel - and the smallest size they sell is the half-litre. Food is reasonably priced, but only maybe a third to a half less than in Brussels. Coffee is sold at Starbucks prices or worse, although if you get Turkish coffee, you pay a good deal less per milligram of pure caffeine than in western Europe. Czech food is something that has to be sought out if intend to try it. You can get decent bagels in central Prague more easily than goulash and dumplings. The only genuine Czech food I found is greasy fried sausages and steamed wieners which gave me a vicious case of gas. Apparently, Czechs eat them twice a day.

The city is covered with loud, drunk Brits. The "ugly American" doesn't even compare. Aussies in Bali are better behaved. There is apparently an entire infrastructure in Prague designed to pour alcohol into Brits and extract their currency, with discount airlines funnelling them into the cities' bars.

Okay, end of the bad news for this post. I have some book reviews for tomorrow (hopefully) which will delve a little deeper into the heart of Bohemia. There is some good news. There are bookstores everywhere. I can't read Czech, but I did manage to score a Tanya Grotter novel in hope that it will motivate me to get back to learning Russian, and because I'm afraid they might disappear off shelves soon. I managed to pick up a few other books in English.

Also, there is certainly clear evidence, at least in Prague, that people's standards of living have meaningfully improved since 1990. We went to the outer suburbs, where Stalin Gothic is still the default architecture, and the cars look no more beaten-up than in, say, Sacramento. What the buildings lack in colour is slowly being restored at least to their occupants. Streets are clean and business space seems fully occupied. There was some begging on the streets but no more begging than I might have seen in Brussels. There were bars on lower floor windows, but none of the evidence of armed paranoia I've come to expect in America. I don't think integrating the Czech Republic into the EU will be especially difficult or troublesome, at least no more so than Greece, Spain and Portugal were.

And, there were a few surprises. It's not exactly surprising that German and English were more or less equally widespread in the tourist core - there were at least as many German-speaking tourists as all others combined. Rather, it was surprising that Russian and Hebrew appeared on so many signs.

The prevalence of Russian as the third language of tourism in Prague was a big surprise to me - I expected hatred and resentment and a desire to "westernise" as quickly as possible, or at least that's what reading the New York Times would lead you to believe. I asked around a bit, and it seems Prague is the favourite hangout of Russia's criminal and business classes. Making distinctions between Russia's crooks and it's legitimate businessmen is apparently against Czech state policy, and fairly hard to do under the best of circumstances. Although English appears to be the favourite first foreign language of many Czechs, Russian is apparently still thriving in the country's second language schools if its bookstores are a good measure. Tanya Grotter has an audience in Prague.

As for Hebrew, its presence wasn't to hard to explain once I started looking around. It appears that there is a fairly big effort to encourage Jewish tourism in Prague. The Jewish quarter has been recently restored, and is just covered in plaques and landmarks of various kinds. There is a fairly large complex of Jewish-oriented tourism facilities in the area around the Old New Synagogue, and the books on the legends of the Golem, collections of Czech Jewish literature (usually translated from German) and stories from Rabbi Löw are on sale pretty much everywhere. Prague did house a large Jewish population before WWII and I imagine there must be many Jews with a parent or grandparent who lived in Prague. I can't blame the Czech government for wanting to encourage family history and nostalgia tourism - money is money.

However, I should note that there is no mention of how Prague Jewish communitiy was thought of as part of the intermittently hated and politically dominant German minority, nor is there any discussion of the less than rare incidents of anti-semitism among Czech nationalists. There is also no mention anywhere of what happened to the Czech Republic's large German population after WWII. There are a few signs of former German inhabitation in Prague, if you know where to look. A few streets have clearly Slavicised German names, and you don't have to look to hard to find a few German last names, written with Czech spellings instead of German ones.

Still, as big a deal as they make about Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Mozart and Sigmund Freud, there is little mention of the simple fact that these men never identified themselves as Czech at all, and only Rilke had any visible sympathy for Czech nationalism. Alongside Prague's many German-speaking notables, there is an effort to promote Czech figures. Masaryk, Mucha and Kundera (who isn't even dead yet, I think) are all subject to the kind of promotion usually reserved for better known figures. Frankly, I hated The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I thought Mucha's grand Slavic epic was a load of romantic crap that wouldn't even qualify as kitsch nowadays. (I will grant that Mucha deserves to be much better known, but I am a big fan of Art Nouveau and may well be biased.)

The de-Germanisation of Prague continues, even as German tourists and German investment money pour into the country. Frankly, it's a bit like Montreal that way. But, I have some more on the topic of historical denial for later.

I should also not neglect the Roma, the source of my need to get a visa before going to Prague. I encountered exactly one Roma - the hooker who was trying to proposition me. It disturbed me that they were so little in evidence, and I am suspicious that local police use aggressive "racial profiling" to keep them away from the tourists.

The other big surprise was the presence of a substantial African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrant community. In the outer suburbs, there are open-air markets that appear to be entirely run by Asian immigrants. The pattern I saw at the markets is utterly classic: the father who smiles and handles the money, the mother who packs and unpacks the goods for sale, and the young son or daughter who actually speaks Czech. Closer to the inner city (but not in the centre itself), Turks, Kurds and Arabs run kebab shops that look identical to the ones in Belgium. And, apparently African students have been flocking to Eastern Europe's universities because they are a good deal cheaper to attend than western Europe's or America's.

Eastern Europe is someplace one thinks of people coming from, not going to, and seeing the tide turn is a positive change. I expect that the excessive commercialism is somethat that will also pass with time.