Saturday, July 26, 2003
More time wasting from Quizilla

You are Neo
You are Neo, from "The Matrix." You
display a perfect fusion of heroism and

What Matrix Persona Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

God, it's Saturday night, I'm sick, I'm at home, I'm watching Have I Got News for You on BBC2 and I must be bored out of my mind.

Is this the end for Christiania?

Via Beatnik Salad, it seems Denmark's centre-right wing government wants to close Copenhagen's 30-year old experiment in hippie ideals.

Pusher Street dealers face up to the shove

Walking through the totem pole-style gateway into Christiania, a familiar smell hangs in the air. The pungent, earthy, unmistakable scent of marijuana thickens along the leafy path to Pusher Street, where everyone, including the local dog flat out in the middle of the road, seems to be affected by the fumes.

Pusher Street, in the heart of this Copenhagen suburb, is Scandinavia's largest open soft-drug market, a cobbled lane lined with about 15 stands where dealers display lumps of top quality Moroccan hashish, bags of skunk and masterfully rolled "super joints", all neatly labelled with handwritten price tags like cakes at a summer fair. [...]

But all is not quite as chilled out as it seems. By a fence near the entrance a young Christianite stands guard, walkie-talkie in one hand, spliff in the other, watching for approaching police. The sale of drugs, however soft, is illegal in Denmark and the new centre-right government has a mission to shut down the hash market and clean up the area.

Narcotics police, backed by riot forces, have raided Pusher Street several times in recent months, arresting any of the dealers who do not pack up and run fast enough when the walkie-talkie alert goes out. They say they are afraid there would be riots if they tried to close down the whole street.

But the hash market - thought to turn over at least £100,000 a day - is not the government's only gripe. [...]

[T]he new government says Christiania is an eyesore, a security hazard and an unruly community which must be made to step into line with the rest of the country. That has become one of its priorities.

It plans to close down the hash market, destroy 98 illegal buildings and build or upgrade hundreds of others, to "give the area a lift".

"Christiania's days as a hotbed for hashish are numbered," the Conservative party law and order spokesman, Helge Adam Moeller, said.

Ulrik Kragh, a deputy in the centre-right party Venstre, said: "Graffiti is destroying everything there. We cannot turn a blind eye any more to this dirty and dangerous area. It's like hanging out your dirty laundry for all to see."

Half Christiania's economy was supported by the hashish trade, without which it would collapse, he said. And illegal building in recent years was ruining a national heritage area. [...]

"They hate us because we like to be different," said Peter Post, a former postman and the community's elected representative. "They say we are naughty. But we have a right to live this way. Our houses are not illegal, they are like flowers: where one grows, others sprout.

"They want to put state-of-the-art flats here, like in neighbouring bourgeois areas. But they know we won't be able to afford that. How can we old hippies afford to buy our own houses?

"I am afraid this is going to end in a confrontation. I'm not looking forward to it. There are people here who are ready to barricade themselves in and fight like the Red Indians in America to defend their homes."

Other residents say the new government does not know what it is taking on in threatening to force Christiania to change.

"They are out of touch with reality," said Consolata Blanco, an Italian who has been selling handmade leather shoes, at £600 a pair, in Christiania for the past 28 years.

"They are likely to end up with 800 court cases. We are going to have fun."

Gitte Christensen, a blacksmith who makes metal ornaments and tools for clients all over Denmark, said: "What this is all really about is the price of land. This area has become too valuable - they cannot bear to let us poor people live here any more."

Oscar Meldgaard of Nybolig Erhverv, one of Denmark's biggest estate agents, said: "Christiania is on one of the most attractive areas of Copenhagen. It is three kilometres from the centre of town, it's a green area on the waterfront. Land there has more than doubled in value in the past five years." [...]

"The Danish people like us being here," said an ex-pusher and tour guide calling himself "Joker".

"Everybody has a hippy inside them somewhere. We have never asked the politicians to go barefoot, smoke hash and grow beards. But we have a right to be different. We will not let them change us."

In America, weapons of mass destruction get you the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Via, this week's What's New:

Weapons of mass destruction are hard to find in Iraq, but in this country, contributions to methods of mass fatality are recognized with the Medal of Freedom. Recipients this week included: Edward Teller for the H-bomb, Charlton Heston for the Saturday-night special, and Dave Thomas for Wendy’s square hamburger with fries.

Confirmed by Voice of America.

Friday, July 25, 2003
My carefully considered and well earned aversion to Noam Chomsky

Several people have written posts critical of Chomsky lately. I don't think I've ever posted anything about Noam Chomsky here. It is likely that a few of my readers know that I hold him in a fair amount of disdain. Of the principles he advanced in linguistics, nothing remains. Even among Chomsky's advocates, universal grammar has been replaced by an amorphous "language instinct." The separation of syntax from semantics is now viewed as a deeply foolish, if not outright contradictory position to hold. Phrase structure grammar is a meaningless formalism if you add headedness to it, and modern theories of grammar are almost without exception lexicalist theories. Virtually nothing remains of the competence/performance distinction. And, that isn't even the worst of it. Chomsky's rise actively discouraged work in empirical linguistics, valence theory, and any sort of lexical semantics - all the fields I work in now.

His principles ultimately produced nothing, and may well have set linguistics back decades. The day will come when his legacy is compared to Skinner's, and when historians of the social sciences will debate which one ultimately caused the most damage.

The thing is, I earned the right to say that. I took ten semester-hours of Government & Binding coursework, and God-only knows how much pablum about the formal properties of natural language in other classes. NP, VP, X-bar, move-alpha and the hierarchy of grammars were a sizeable chunk of my existence for about a year and a half. I believed in it all, for a while, until I got to my first dependency grammar class, and watched an unfortunate young woman go completely ape-shit when the prof said that there was no such thing as an NP. That was the day when it first occurred to me that there might be problems with Chomskyan linguistics, that it might have decended into a political position divorced from any actual linguistic phenomena. I spent roughly five years unlearning Chomsky, bit by bit.

This is why I swear I will go postal the next time somebody tells me how revolutionary his linguistics has been just before going on to slag his political writings. The great irony of Chomsky is that among linguists - who tend to be fairly leftish sorts of people like so many other social scientists - his reputation is exactly the opposite.

The flaws in Chomsky's linguistics are equally apparent in his political work. Notably, a failure to cite his oppenents honestly, to entertain alternative arguments, to provide adequate context to the events he describes, or to develop or even think it necessary to develop a theory to explain how his interpretation of events could come to pass. These things are all quite serious flaws, and yet, they just aren't compelling reasons for blanket condemnation.

Had Chomsky destroyed active, functional schools of political science or media theory, as he did in linguistics, I would be more inclined to condemn his poitical works. But that is simply not the case. As far as I can tell, he has had very little impact on either of those fields. He is an advocate of a political stance, and like most advocates he is not the most trustworthy person to evaluate the accuracy or completeness of his work. Chomsky is inclined to jump to conclusions about past events, and sometimes those conclusions border on the insane. He should not be read in isolation from other accounts, nor is it safe to draw conclusions from his work alone.

And yet, in the general dishonesty department, I am ill-inclined to view him unfavourably when compared to a great many folks. I find Pinker's work - both public and academic - easily worse than Chomsky's in terms of dishonesty, pretentiousness and poor basis in fact. I find it far more dishonest to advance any opinion that can be summarised with the words "the problem with Arab society is..." than anything I've ever read from Chomsky. Chomsky at least restrains himself to jumping to conclusions about government officials, not whole peoples. To Chomsky's knee-jerk revulsion to US foreign policy, one must balance the simple truth that US foreign policy has been quite repulsive quite frequently, and that the promoters of US foreign policy are not themselves on the whole any more honest than Chomsky, and often far less careful about their facts.

So, I no longer read Chomsky, on language or on politcs. And yet, I have no desire to waste my breath bothering to condemn his politics. It seems pretty pointless.

In most any argument over Chomsky, one eventually finds his opponents and his supporters sound identical, each claiming the other has dishonestly read them. The argument quickly decends into a pickiness over small quotes and textual context that leaves you uncertain what has actually been said at all. The first one to turn to name calling loses, and in 99% of cases, it will not be anyone personally close to Chomsky.

That is part of Chomsky's gift and power, and it is why his most vocal detractors are complete suckers for him. In almost every instance, Chomsky's defenders actually have the case with more merit because Chomsky is always very careful with words.

The trick is to pay attention to his use of hedge words. (Yes, Professor Delong, I mean you.) For example. Chomsky is frequently charged with claiming that presumed anti-Semite Robert Faurisson is a “relatively apolitical liberal." Chomsky, of course, said no such thing. He said "As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort." Note the words as far as I can determine. This shifts the burden of proof onto his opponents, who must not only show that Faurisson is, in fact, an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser, but must also show that Chomsky's conclusions were impossible given the materials he chose to read and the standards he might reasonably apply to them. This is more or less impossible.

However, taking that route misses the whole point. It is not Chomsky's words that damn him but his actions. Chomsky agreed to write a preface for a book that by his own admission he had not read, by an author about whom he claims to know next to nothing. Chomsky's name added credibility to the work, even if Chomsky denies that that was his intent. That is pretty irresponsible.

It is the same argument against Chomsky in linguistics. Chomsky denied no one a grant, refused no one a teaching position and said virtually nothing directly about empirical linguistics (offering instead his "introspective" methods), valency (which goes away if you believe in an independent syntactic competence anyway) or lexical semantics (which he locates outside linguistics altogether). But the result of his rise to popularity was the near disappearance in the United States of those fields of study for a period of some 20 years.

Chomsky's primary tool in doing this was to shift the burden of proof onto his opponents, just like the use of a hedge in his statement about Faurisson shifts the burden of proof. Consider, for exmaple, the "poverty of stimulus" argument. Chomsky offered nothing in support of this notion - not one observation or empirical study. He simply said that it seemed quite obvious that language was too complicated for a child to learn. Since then, it has been very difficult to fight back against this shift in the burden of proof, even after it could be shown that there exist huge statistical redundancies in language even when extracted from a meaningful context, and that neural networks are readily able to pick up on those redundancies.

By focusing on Chomsky's words, you will almost always lose or end in a draw, because once you have taken out the carefully hedged claims, you will find little left of Chomsky except innuendo. This is what makes standard methods of criticism so frustrating in his case. You are better served by concentrating on actions - Chomsky's wherever possible - and his conclusions when they are far fetched. The weak point in a Chomskyan argument will usually be the shift in the burden of proof. At some point, you will be asked to accept an account of events deemed "plausible", even when it lacks any evidence from primary sources, and then the burden of proof will fall on those who disagree with that account.

The other approach is to simply ignore him. His methods are more worrysome than any of the opinions he actually advances.

There was some more stuff I was going to say about Cambodia. There's something about that country that seems to drive its students mad. I mean, I've seen academic fights in regional studies, but I've never seen the level of bile Cambodian studies seems to generate. I have read exactly two serious books on Cambodia, far too few for me to make any real judgements of the positions various people have taken on the country's history. One of those books, Michael Vickery's Cambodia: 1975-1982, is both the more thorough and to me the more plausible account. It is, however, sympathetic to Chomsky and nonetheless appears to be well respected among scholars of Cambodia. Even Sophal Ear, who is hardly a defender of Chomsky and even less sympathetic to efforts to downplay the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, seems to take Vickery seriously enough. The biggest serious criticism I could find was the claim that Vickery is biased by his sympathies for Cambodia's peasants over their urban cousins. That doesn't bother me in the slightest since Vickery more or less admits it in his book.

Yet, Vickery considers Chomsky's contribution valuable. Vickery's point is fairly clear: It was wrong to come to the conclusion that the Khmer Rouge was undertaking mass murder on a scale of hundreds of thousands of lives at the time when most people came to that conclusion, and Chomskly was right to call the conclusion into question when he did. I don't know if this is an accurate assessment of Chomsky's writings on Cambodia and I have only Vickery's arguments that it accurately reflects the information that was available at the time, however, it is exactly the kind of carefully hedged conclusion I can imagine Chomsky coming to.

Even today, it is impossible to find a number of dead untainted by someone's politics. My tour guide in Cambodia claimed that three million had died and that the Khmer Rouge executed everyone with an education. I decided that I couldn't take her figures too seriously since she had not five minutes earlier told me that her mother had been a school teacher in Phnom Penh, that she herself was in the lycée in 1975, and how neither one of them had been killed nor threatened with death, nor knew anyone who had been.

It appears that there are mass graves in Cambodia, yet I have not been able to find any source (admittedly, I could look harder) able to say what percentage of those found in the graves died violent deaths. I doubt that the figure is 100%. Is it 50%? 20%? That a lot of people died in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is undoubtedly true, but it seems unlikely that they were all, or even mostly, executed, even if they were buried in mass graves. That a regime executed tens to hundreds of thousands and saw a million or more die of starvation, disease and overwork is not an endorsement of a regime, but it legitimately debateable whether it constitutes genocide, or merely incompetence and brutality on the part of a thoroughly nasty regime.

The difference it makes now is purely rhetorical, but Chomsky is a rhetorical figure. I'm afraid trying to nail Chomsky for his words on Cambodia is no more likely to work than it does with the Faurisson affair.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Europe's unions go left?

Between Bill Hayes editorial in yesterday's Guardian, and the appointment of Juergen Peters to Germany's IG Metall a few hours ago, I'm beginning to wonder of it isn't possible that there is still some life in Europe's unions? Yesterday's post mentioning the value of coordinated wage rounds has sensitised me a bit to the notion.

Is it possible that we are on the brink of a new model of European syndicalism, one built more on the Dutch and Irish model than the British or German ones?

To whoever found my site by searching for "asian smelly pussy"

It's pedantry, not pederasty.

A draft for polyglots?

Via Silt, I see that the Pentagon is considering expanding the draft to a few new categories. I was dimly aware of the Health Care Personnel Delivery System, but, as so many conservatives allege, give the government a little power and all they want is more. According to the Charlotte Observer, "At the Pentagon's direction, the [Selective Service] also is examining whether that plan for a "special skills" draft could be adapted to address critical shortages that might arise for military linguists, computer experts or engineers."

And remember folks, if you are in an affected category (as health care workers already are), you are not exempt just because you're older than 26. You are eligible until you're 45 and you can't get out of it by being a woman either.

English without anglophones

Via Universal Language (which, in turn, comes via Language hat but is now on the blog roll), an article on the state of English today.

English Is Language of Business, but Americans Aren't Fluent

Mac Watson saw the future of the English language aboard a jet about two years ago.

On a flight from Tokyo to Bangkok, an Indonesian woman speaking fractured English couldn't make herself understood to an American flight attendant.

But a Japanese passenger could tell what the Indonesian woman was saying.

She relayed the request in a form of English that the flight attendant could understand, Watson recalled.

The two non-Americans then joined with a Thai woman seated nearby to discuss -- in English -- what had just happened.

More evidence, he thought, that English as a second language has gained the upper hand. While English is the international language of business, it's no longer the U.S. version that everybody strives to speak. [...]

When Americans do business overseas, the burden to conform is now more on them, Watson said. If not, one non-native English speaker will find solace, and perhaps a business deal, with another non-native speaker.

Watson recalled when a Japanese bond trader came to Baldwin-Wallace so he could learn better English and thus better communicate with his American supervisor in Tokyo. But the bond trader and his Japanese associates had no problem doing business over the phone in English with Koreans, Thais and other Asians at their trading desks.

"The person that needed the training was the American," Watson told a small class on intercultural communication earlier this month at the college. "Not the Japanese." [...]

I have seen exactly the phenomena described here. English speakers don't generally realise that the power they derive from being native speakers of the world's most politically and economically important language is not a power they can necessarily keep. It is quite easy to imagine a world full of creole Englishes that bear more power and prestige than more standard dialects.

I have some issues with this article, for example, the following:

Watson also cautions against using absurd assumptions, such as "suppose you were me" as a preface to a statement, because it's difficult for ESL speakers to form a mental picture of something contrary to fact.

That is not true, ESL speakers are no less capable than anyone else of manipulating contrafactual notions. Instead, it is important to understand that contrafactuals are one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of language. Even within a single language community, there are often quite sharp distinctions in the way a contrafactual situation is described and the kinds of things it's used to express. Contrafactuals are hard to communicate clearly across a language barrier.

Otherwise, the advice offered seems sound enough. It also offers a reason for anglophones to learn a second language - it enables you to both understand the limitations of second language speakers and to get a leg up on people who need to use "Business English" wherever they go.

It's Krugman's fault

Via, well, the man himself's website, the Internet Weekly Report:

Greenspan Blames Krugman For Sluggish Economy

Washington (IWR Satire) - Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan today put the blame for the U.S. recession squarely on the shoulders of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

"The blame for the current recession that began in 2001 should not be placed on the failed policies of the Bush Administration. Instead, that dubious honor should go to that liberal economist Paul Krugman and his bad attitude.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003
More juicy rumours for the rumour mill

I haven't seen anyone else blog this except Shadow of the Hegemon, but then, I haven't been paying full attention.

It seems that Judicial Watch did manage to spring a few documents from Dick Cheney's now forgotten March 2001 "Energy Task Force." The documents released contain "a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as 2 charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and 'Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.'"

Although this is hardly enough to prove that the entire war in Iraq was concocted on behalf of the oil industry, it is enough to make a nice juicy rumour to spread around.

Santa is from Greenland -- not!

According to the Father Christmas World Congress, Santa Claus is a Greeenlander. The deciding argument, according to Reuter's: "We have lots and lots of reindeer in Greenland. Didn't you know that?"

I have difficulty believing all this, since everyone knows that Santa has a Canadian address. The annual Christmas-themed convention seems to have ignored what every Canadian has known since childhood and remains the subject of Canada Post commercials all through December. You really can send your Christmas lists to Santa at:

Santa Claus
North Pole, Northwest Territories, Canada
H0H 0H0

Notes from a distant timezone

Now that it's getting to be circa 11am on the East Coast, the American bloggers are starting to wake up with a few interesting posts.

  • Ikram Saeed on how the American Democratic Party's problems bear a distinct resemblance to problems every Canadian is familiar with.
  • Juan Cole's Monday update reports on an editorial in London's al-Hayet newspaper concerning the future administration of Iraq:

    Ibrahim Khayyat writes in al-Hayat that Wolfowitz's visit to Baghdad was in part for the purpose of "closing the file" on the Defense Department's involvement in the civil administration of Iraq. He says that Wolfowitz told his loyalists, seeded in the civil administration earlier, that the State Department is now taking over, and that things may be hard for those who remain behind (many, Khayyat says, are leaving). Also imperilled are some members of the Governing Council who were picks of the Pentagon, like Ahmad Chalabi.

    Khayyat speculates, however, that Bush may not leave Bremer himself in place. Bremer is talking about Iraqi elections in late 2004 or early 2005, and Bush is said to want them out of the way before the US presidential election, so it can be portrayed to the American people that the US has handed off Iraqi sovereignty to an elected government. If Bremer looks like he can't get the job done that fast, Khayyat thinks, the Bremer himself may be dismissed in favor of someone more agile.
  • Dr. Andrea Boltho in this month's New Left Review discusses What's wrong with Europe. I got this link from someone, only now I've closed the window and no longer remember who it was. I can't claim to agree with all of Boltho's analysis, although I think he has, in the main, gotten right the idea that GDP's failure to take into account value destroying economic activity undermines claims of vast economic superiority over Europe in the English-speaking world. This in particular doesn't jive with my experience:

    Finally, and in this author’s view most importantly, ageing has a longer-run, indirect negative effect on the growth of both output and productivity of a non-economic nature. Old people are, on the whole, opposed to change and dislike new ventures. Old people are surely less innovative and less entrepreneurial than the young. Thus, America’s advance in the new technologies may also have been helped by the relative youth of its population (both native and immigrant). Europe, in other words, may be slowly turning into a conservative continent, in which a growing share of the population shuns change and frowns on new initiatives.

    As a veteran of the dot-com boom, I didn't see the creativity of youth nearly so much as the orgueil and general cluelessness of youth. The firms I worked for were not run by young people, nor were the new technologies they produced much the labour of youth. Although there were kids dropping out of college to found billion dollar firms, these companies did not add a lot of value to anything. The real gains seemed to be driven by access to easy capital, which I see is a big problem in Europe although not quite as big as I expected it to be; a lot of hype about computing and the Internet driving spending, hype which seems to have not been so strong in Europe; and incremental improvements in software and hardware manufacturing produced largely by late 30 and 40-something engineers.

    What I find really interesting, and ought to take a better look at, are some of his claims about the Netherlands' recent economic success.

    Indeed, two of the most successful Eurozone economies over the last decade, Ireland and the Netherlands—neither of which, and especially not the latter, are models of unfettered liberalism—owe much of their spectacular results in reducing unemployment from erstwhile very high levels to precisely this factor: coordinated wage rounds. Both countries, by engaging in that ultimate corporatist sin, incomes policies, agreed upon by the various social partners, achieved rapid output growth, a strong profit and competitive performance, and also rapid rises in employment levels and in real wages. (Dutch unemployment, recently the lowest in the OECD area, was also reduced by a very successful drive to encourage part-time employment. This now accounts for as much as one-third of the country’s workforce.) Conversely, New Zealand, a country that, far from sinning, fulfilled with almost religious fervour all the orthodox prescriptions of labour market deregulation, had a macroeconomic and employment performance that can, at best, only be described as mediocre.

    I knew that the Netherlands had encouraged part-time work, but its reliance on income policies is new to me. Can anyone explain to me exactly what "coordinated wage rounds" means? It's a new term for me and the web isn't very illuminating. Must write a post on the Netherlands and cyberpunk sometime soon.

  • Lastly, comments system from is not working very well. It's been flacky for a while. It seems that there is a reason:

    There have been a couple of failures of the comment counter in the last week caused by what appears to be a suspect chunk of code on the user forum which has caused the database sync to stop. We will upgrade the forum software this week.

Bush "cares deeply" about Africa

Yet another international faux pas from the people in the White House. First, from the State Department's transcript of Powell July 8 interview on BBC:

Bush "Cares Deeply" About Africa, Powell says

The many initiatives that President George Bush has championed for Africa "shows that he cares deeply about Africa," Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed July 9.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) from Pretoria, South Africa, Powell said Africa is a large and important part of the world.

"Africa is a priority," Powell told the BBC. Ever since George Bush became president, Powell said, "he made it clear that he wanted us to devote a lot of attention to Africa..." and programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the Millennium Challenge Account or the president's $15 billion HIV/AIDS program.

Powell is traveling with President Bush on his five-nation January 7-12 trip to Africa, which began in Senegal. President Bush will also visit Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria before heading home.

And now, via The Head Heeb, a first person account of Bush's speech on slavery:

A Letter from Senegal

As you probably know, this week George Bush is visiting Africa. Starting with Senegal, he arrived this morning at 7.20 PM and left at 1.30 PM. Let me share with you what we have been through since last week: More than 1,500 persons have been arrested and put in jail between Thursday and Monday. Hopefully they will be released now that the Big Man is gone; The US Army's planes flying day and night over Dakar; The noise they make is so loud that one hardly sleeps at night; About 700 security people from the US for Bush's security in Senegal, with their dogs, and their cars. Senegalese security forces were not allowed to come near the US president; All trees in places where Bush will pass have been cut. Some of them have been there for more than 100 years; All roads going down town (were hospitals, businesses, schools are located) were closed from Monday night to Tuesday at 3 PM. This means that we could not go to our offices or schools. Sick people were also obliged to stay at home; National exams for high schools that started on Monday are postponed until Wednesday. [...]

Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, and before them, Nelson Mandela, the Pope, and many other distinguished guests or ordinary tourists visited [Ile de Gorée] without bothering the islanders. But for "security reasons" this time, the local population was chased out of their houses from 5 to 12 AM. They were forced by American security to leave their houses and leave everything open, including their wardrobes, to be searched by special dogs brought from the US. The ferry that links the island to Dakar was stopped and offices and businesses closed for the day. [...]

In addition to us being prevented from going out, other humiliating things happened also. Bush brought his own armchairs, and of course his own cars, and meals and drinks. He came with his own journalists and ours were forbidden inside the airport and in places he was visiting.

Our president was not allowed to make a speech. [...]

We have the feeling that everything has been done to convince us that we are nothing, and that America can behave the way it wants, everywhere, even in our country.

Believe me friends, it is a terrible feeling. But according to a Ugandan friend of mine, I should not complain because in Uganda Bush does not intend to go out of the airport. He will receive the Ugandan President in the airport lounge.

That's the sort of diplomacy that got the world so whole-heartedly on America's side in Iraq.

North to Alaska

According to NBC Alaska affiliate KTUU, John Ashcroft doesn't have too many friends in Anchorage:

Ashcroft says 'perseverance' key to fighting terrorism

[...] Ashcroft addressed the subject of the controversial Patriot Act, which passed Congress just days after the terrorist attacks. The legislation is now under the microscope for perhaps being too intrusive. [...]

The Alaska Legislature also passed a measure urging changes in the act, and the Anchorage Assembly voted 6-3 for a resolution that vowed not to let local officials enforce it. [...]

Apparently, Alaskans just aren't that kind of Republican.

What threat to the Bush administration are you?

Yet another Quizilla link, via Alas, a Blog.

morally deficient
Threat rating: Medium. Your total lack of decent
family values makes you dangerous, but we can
count on some right wing nutter blowing you up
if you become too high profile.

What threat to the Bush administration are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I was hoping for something higher than "Threat rating: Medium." Of course, all you have to do is answer "yes" to the first question to get:

Middle East
Threat reating: Extreme. You see that black sedan
outside your window? Big brother is watching...

What threat to the Bush administration are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Keep on smokin'

From my Sitemeter referrals, I see that Pedantry is both the number 1 and number 2 hits on AOL Search for "high and bored."

Europe and its so-called demographic crisis

I've been meaning to blog something on this for a while, but since last week's Economist covered it and has been linked to by many bloggers, I thought I ought to put something up.

First, let me point out that the folks who seem to be drawing the most dire conclusions from long term projections of European population growth are also those who are usually the first to say that long term climate predictions can't be trusted. Among the guilty on this count: the editors of The Economist themselves who have routinely rubbished global warming claims as the product of short term data series taken out of context. Indeed, if we looked at European birth rates over the last 1500 years instead of the last 20, we would find little support for the notion that Europe faces a demographic crisis at all, although the global warming data for the same period are a bit more frightening.

There are, in fact, an entire series of classic conservative arguments that could be deployed to mitigate claims of a demographic crisis. Here's an old favourite of mine that I got it from Conrad Black, but I doubt that it is original to him: Which would be better, a society where everyone had exactly the same amount of money, or a society where the poorest people had twice what they would have under the first scheme, but the richest people would have ten times as much? The claim that generally follows is that by letting the free market operate, and letting income inequalities increase, everyone's life is improved, albeit at different rates. Let's set aside for a moment whether or not any of that is true and consider an alternative formulation of the same problem. Which is better, a society where virtually everyone works, e.g. very few pensioners, housewives, unemployed or handicapped; or a society where only a third of the population works, but they are six times as productive as the first? The reasoning that lead to choosing the second option for income distribution is identical to the logic that would prefer the second option in the latter case.

There is a very simple argument that there is no problem. Even if taxes have to increase in order to maintain Europe's elderly, if productivity increases fast enough then everyone still comes out ahead. I have the impression that long term productivity trends in Europe are adequate to meet this challenge. Since there is no upper limit to efficiency (Julian Simon's argument against fears of resource depletion), there is no upper limit to productivity, and so there is no problem.

Of course, Simon's argument against resource depletion and overpopulation is a load of crap based on - you guessed it - assuming that short term trends will continue on the long term. Rapid productivity increases are a fairly recent phenomena and it is difficult assess how long they will hold out.

Europe does have demographic problems. I am ill-inclined to see imminent disaster in them, considering that Europe already has quite serious unemployment problems and that its already diminished working population is able to sustain pretty high standards of living for everyone. I am always surprised by those who see Europe's unemployment as a long term structural problem (like the editors of The Economist) and forsee labour shortages just a few years down the road.

No, just as the polyannaish views of the anti-environmental movement are based on a very narrow analysis of trends, carefully ignoring any factors outside of time-series data, the demographic problems of Europe are worth worrying about. Why? Because no matter what the productivity numbers suggest, it sucks to be young in a world full of old people, and it sucks to live in a nation of youth and poverty when there are lands of age and wealth.

There are some other issues worth visiting. Europe's demographic problems are unevently distributed, with some states enjoying quite reasonable growth rates, and others already in negative territory. The 2002 OECD data are quite illuminating in this respect. France is growing 35% more quickly than Germany, 67% faster than the UK and a whopping 700% faster than Italy. So, I want to remind those who see disaster in an ageing Europe to always remember: seeing a crisis in European demographics means predicting a Europe that is ever more French.

Insert foot A in mouth B

Via Eschaton and MSNBC:

"I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq."

-- U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, 21 July 2003

Clearly, thinking before speaking is not Dr Wolfowitz' strong suit.

Monday, July 21, 2003
More on French language laws

Folllowing an exchange of e-mails with Eugene Volokh, I think I ought to put up a post specifying exactly what French law requires. The relevant language law is la loi du 4 août 1994 and there is an English translation on the Ministry of Culture's website.

The law requires the use of French in a number of contexts, mostly matters concerning activities commissioned or undertaken by the government or done using government funds and some matters like employment contracts and outdoor signs. It does not require any particular terminological choices - i.e., it does not forbid the use of the word "e-mail" in French - except under two narrowly defined conditions:

Article 5.

Whatever the substance and form, contracts signed by a public corporate body or a private person on a public service assignment must be drafted in French. Such contracts may neither contain expressions nor terms in a foreign language where a French term or expression with the same meaning exists and is approved under the conditions provided for by the rules relative to the enhancement of the French language.

These provisions do not apply to contracts entered into by a public corporate body managing activities of an industrial and commercial nature, the Banque de France or the Caisse de dépôts et consignations when such contracts are to be wholly performed outside the national territory. [...]

Article 14. I.

It is strictly forbidden for public corporate bodies to use a trademark, trade name or service brand made up of a foreign expression or term when an equivalent French term or expression with the same meaning exists and is approved under the conditions defined by the provisions of the rules relative to the enhancement of the French language.

This proscription also applies to private corporate bodies on a public service assignment during the performance of this assignment.

The term approved under the conditions defined by the provisions of the rules relative to the enhancement of the French language means the publication of a recommended alternative term in the Journal officiel, as occurred last month with "e-mail" and "courriel" and in 1997, when the translation "courrier électrique" was proposed. This law does not require anyone, anywhere, at any time to use the word "courriel." It does forbid the term "e-mail", but then only under two conditions:

  1. In legal contracts undertaken by the government, by government owned companies and by private companies operating on assignments from the government - i.e., doing government work. This does not apply to any contract of a commercial nature - which I take to mean anything that qualifies as normal business activity, which means that France's government owned corporations can continue to use whatever termniology they like in their contracts.

  2. In the use of trademarks and brand names by the government, by government owned companies and by private companies operating on assignments from the government.

So, there is no law in France that forbids anyone unassociated with the government from using the word "e-mail" under any conditions. The obligation the government has placed on itself only applies to private entities when they are doing work contracted by the government. There is no law forbidding the use of the term "e-mail" even in government documents, except in trademarks and brand names and in legal contracts except those undertaken by state-run companies.

The French government is actively promoting the use of French by mandating its use in a variety of places, but it only forbids foreign borrowed words under very narrow and rare circumstances, and it doesn't require specific terminology to replace that foreign word under any circumstaces.