Saturday, February 01, 2003

The Velvet Curtain Falls

Playwright, defiant anti-communist dissident, hero of the peaceful Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist regime of Gustav Husak in Czechoslovakia--Vaclav Havel was all that and more. He went on to become the first president of the post-communist Czechoslovak government and then the first president of the Czech Republic when the Slovaks split off. Now, his era ends as Vaclav Havel is stepping down as president on Sunday. Read the article and you will see that so far Mr Havel has been literally irreplaceable. He will be missed.

Friday, January 31, 2003

Win this War First, continued

My readers will recall I have made something of an obsession the fact that the United States is about to embark on a second war in Iraq when we have not properly finished the first war in Afghanistan. You would think that Bush 2.0 would be sensitive to this fact, considering unfinished business was the major foreign policy blunder that dogged Bush 1.0 right up through his election defeat in November 1992. Nevertheless, as Mr Bush presses on against Iraq, we find that our terrorist enemies in Afghanistan have struck again, this time with an anti-tank mine that murdered 18 people.
(Rahimullah) Yusufzai (a leading Afghan expert based in Pakistan) said the escalation of attacks on U.S. and other targets in Afghanistan in recent months was a sign that small groups of extremists were becoming increasingly bold.

"It has been happening more and more frequently over the last few months," he said. "A year or so after U.S. military operations began, maybe the fear of the Americans is receding."

Various sources are disputing whether the attack was the work of Al Qaeda networks or Taliban resistance fighters, still battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan. However, this dispute strikes me as something of a distinction without a difference, considering the close ties--familial as well as ideological--between those two groups. In any case, the fact remains that Afghanistan does not have a stable government anywhere outside of Kabul and the country has most definitely not been pacified.

Just imagine what Baghdad is going to be like.

Judge William Young in his own Words

While sentencing Mr Richard Reid--the infamous 'shoe bomber'--to spend the rest of his life in prison, presiding Judge William Young spoke these words to the defendant and I thought them eloquent enough to include here:

We are not afraid of any of your terrorist co-conspirators, Mr. Reid. We are Americans. We have been through the fire before. There is all too much war talk here. And I say that to everyone with the utmost respect.

Here in this court where we deal with individuals as individuals, and care for individuals as individuals, as human beings we reach out for justice.

You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view, you are a terrorist.

Well spoken, Judge Young.

Man v. Machine: Does it Matter?

The estimable CalPundit has been following the man v. machine chess match between Gary Kasparov, the world's top-ranked chess player, and the IBM computer Deep Junior. It is an interesting story to follow, but what does it really tell us about the relationship of human beings to their mechanical creations? Less than one might think, according to The Economist:
Deep Blue, Deep Junior and their sort are human creations. The real victors, if Mr Kasparov loses again, will not be machines, but the humans who designed and built them. Since machines are—so far, at least—unable to design and build improved versions of themselves, there is no need to worry about the world being taken over by chess-mad robots.

The second, more important reason is that we now know that chess-playing skill does not, in fact, equal intelligence. Nobody minds that cars can outrun the fastest athlete, or that cranes can lift heavier weights than the strongest man. Playing chess, it turns out, falls into the same category, despite its outward complexity: it is possible to get a dumb machine to do it better than any human. The equation of chess-playing with intelligence is centuries old, but it is time to lay it to rest.

That sounds about right to me. The magnificent achievements of machines say more about Man's ability to create useful and efficient artificial servants than the machines themselves. If enough human effort is put into designing and manufacturing a machine to perform a human task, eventually that machine will be improved to such an extent that it can perform that task as well or better than any human being on Earth. Nevertheless, the machine does only what its creators, those same human beings, design and compel it do. No matter the machine's seeming greatness or the wonder of its accomplishments, those accomplishments truly belong to humans themselves. The most sophisticated chess computer in New York City enjoys the same status as a humble plough in southeastern China: contented slavery.

Bushism of the Day

"The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorize himself."
—Grand Rapids, Mich., Jan. 29, 2003

Thanks to Slate.

The Ultimate Comeback

Wiped out in India by over-hunting during the British raj, the cheetah may rise from the grave in the subcontinent. The Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad has asked the government of Iran to loan it two cheetahs so that the Center can clone them, returning the species to India more than 50 years after their disappearance. Iranian cheetahs are identical to those that disappeared from India during British rule.

While the political and emotional debate over human cloning seems to get all the attention, the advantages this technology holds for the animal kingdom should be obvious. If the Hyderabad center is successful it will have done a great service to India and the world. Furthermore, it will pave the way for other regions of the world to be repopulated with endangered animals that have been wiped out in certain areas, but still exist elsewhere or in zoos. Animals like the Sumatran tiger are threatened by over-hunting, farming, and encroaching civilization, but if cloning technology can reverse the mistakes mankind has made in the recent past--or at least make up for those mistakes--human stewardship of the planet will look somewhat less disastrous than it does right now.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Warbloggers, Don't Get Your Hopes Up

Today I met with senior diplomats in the British and Australian governments and both told me that the State Department is trying to dampen expectations that Secretary of State Colin Powell has some sort of impressive smoking gun linking Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Powell is scheduled to present his 'evidence' to the United Nations on Wednesday February 5, but apparently little new evidence will be brought to light. Instead, the administration merely plans to make more claims of a Iraq-Al Qaeda alliance and then resume a public relations campaign on that subject.

I simply cannot be the only one who finds this entire mess more than a little unseemly.

Wall Street v. The War, continued

And more on the topic of how Mr Bush's war is punching our fragile economy in the stomach. Weak GDP growth and fears about the Iraq war sent the Dow tumbling 166 points, a loss of about two percent of the market's total value. The Nasdaq dropped 2.6 percent and Standard & Poor's 500 fell 2.3 percent. Over the past 11 trading sessions, the Dow has lost almost 900 points.

The GDP grew at a snail's pace of 0.7% in the last three months of 2002, even slower than the anemic 0.9% analysts had predicted. It was a huge drop from the 4% growth in GDP the United States enjoyed in the third quarter of 2002. However, the dismal economic growth is not Wall Street's main concern:
...the larger issue remained the market's concern that a war with Iraq would further suppress an already weak economic recovery. ``That's at the top of the anxiety list for investors,'' said David Sowerby, chief market analyst at Loomis, Sayles & Co. in Detroit.

[A]nalysts said investors are more concerned about the prospects of war with Iraq than they are with economic data about previous months, which they already expect to be dismal...``You can't separate the two,'' said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. ``Geopolitically, we have this overhang of war, and fundamentally what that causes is high prices for oil and high demand for gold and for bonds but none for stocks.''

It is almost hard to believe how poorly the Bush administration has handled monetary and economic policy in this country.

Here Comes the Hot-stepper!

Leave it to the fashion industry to perfectly capture our clown of a president.

And while we're on the topic of morons...

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Put Me On That List!

As noted below in the 'Quick Hits' post, the telemarketing lobby is trying to kill or water down federal legislation to create a national 'do not call' list. However, the angels might be winning this one. Consider:
Legislation to fund a national "do not call" list for telemarketers was expected to win approval by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and to proceed to the House floor. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana, the panel's chairman, decided to back language similar to the Senate's version, a spokesman said, making it likely that the registry will come into being by summer.

Quick Hits

The Origins of the Cyclops Myth: Elephants?

Buy it Your Own Damn Self: How long before this chick is in hock to Visa again?

Clear Evidence the Devil Exists: Die, you vicious bastards! Die!

Iraq Bounces, Economy Does Not

A new ABC poll of the GOP-leaning audience of the State of the Union speech has good and bad news for the White House.


A nice little story from Reuters about the funniest and smartest show in the history of television. The best news:
Earlier this month, the network announced that it had renewed the series for two more years, through May 2005, meaning "The Simpsons" will stay on the air for at least 16 seasons. By then, they will have easily eclipsed the real-life Nelson family on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" as the longest-running weekly comedy series on TV. The Nelsons left ABC in 1966 after 14 seasons on the air.

Wall Street v. The War, continued

Bush speaks, stocks fall.

Grow the Deficit Pie Higher

The Congressional Budget Office is predicting deficits of $199 billion this year and $145 billion in 2004. Sounds pretty bad, eh? Well, that's probably the rosy scenario. because the CBO is one of the more optimistic fiscal prognosticators. For example, in August 2002, the CBO projected deficits of $145 billion in 2003 and $111 billion in 2004--$54 billion and $33 billion less than they predict today. In other words, expect these latest CBO deficit projections to be increased in the months to follow.

Furthermore, the new CBO deficit projection does not include the cost of Mr Bush's Iraq war, which could cost anything from $50 billion to $200 billion. (Meaning that nobody has any good ideas how much the war will cost, only that it will cost a lot.)

The article ends on this cheerful note:
Many Wall Street economists expect the fiscal picture to get bleaker still. Investment bank Salomon Smith Barney has predicted the 2003 deficit may rise as high as $400 billion. Some private-sector analysts warn that, after surpluses between 1998 and 2001, big deficits could be back to stay.

Nobel Laureates Denounce Iraq War

Forty-two Nobel laureates have signed a declaration condemning Bush's planned attack on Iraq.

Israel Moves Hard to the Right

The Israeli elections have apparently brought victory to the ruling right-wing Likud party, a result that surprises absolutely no one. Likud may now have lapped the liberal Labour party in parliamentary representation. The real story of this election, however, is the rise of the robustly secularist Shinui (Hebrew for 'change') party to third-largest in the Knesset. Shinui campaigned on promises to separate synagogue from state and finally compel ultra-Orthodox citizens to get jobs and serve in the military like everyone else in Israel. (Currently, the ultra-Orthodox are not drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces and all receive stipends from the state merely for being ultra-Orthodox.) Shinui also favors some sort of negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that physically separates them from Israeli Jews. (Some wag will soon dub Shinui the 'Separatist' party for its religious and political views.) Shinui has vowed to never join any government also represented by any of Israel's many religious parties, such as the right-wing Shas.

Labour leader Mr Amram Mitzna has wisely ruled out any Labour participation in a Ariel Sharon-led government. Labour alienated many of its supporters by making itself complicit in Sharon's hard-line policies, while failing to convince conservative voters that it is sufficiently muscular enough to deal with Palestinian terrorists. In other words, Labour screwed itself. Mr Mitzna campaigned on a peace platform based on negotiation, withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, and physical separation from Palestinians. Although Mr Mitzna knew his campaign was doomed to a terrible defeat, he wisely stuck to those policies, knowing that Mr. Sharon offers nothing but more of the same--endless and murderous retaliantion between Israelis and Palestinians. Eventually, the fearful Israeli public will tire of this and turn to someone else. When that happens, Mr Mitzna does not want to be part of Mr Sharon's government.

Now, Labour should seek some form of informal alliance with Shinui to create a loyal and vigorous opposition to Mr Sharon's government. By sticking together and steadfastly refusing to join the government, Labour and Shinui can force Mr Sharon to do what he wishes to avoid---form a narrow government of right-wing parties committed to expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories and removing whatever freedoms Palestinians in those areas now enjoy. These policies will turn ever-greater numbers of foreigners against Israel and when that course fails to crush the Intifada, Mr Sharon and his party will be discredited in Israel.

That, at least, is the theory. I think it is correct. We'll see.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

While you're watching tonight's State of the Union address, think back to last year's State of the Union address and the various promises Mr. Bush made back then. What happened to that 'small' deficit? What happened to Osama? What happened to all those new jobs? Now, have a look at the latest from Paul Krugman, who has it all figured out.

A Chicken in Every Pot,
A Hybrid in Every Garage

Electric/gasoline hybrid automobiles are catching on. Even staunch industry skeptic General Motors has conceded the future of motoring belongs not to blazing hydrocarbons, but to cleaner and greener technologies. Today and in the near future, that cleaner and greener technology is the hybrid auto.

As James E. Press, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. (maker of the best selling hybrid on the market, the Prius, comments:

"What's the cost of fuel?" he said. "It's not $1.80 a gallon. It's how much does a war in Iraq cost? How much does the fact you've got 75 years of this stuff left on the planet cost? And then what's the cost of pollution? At some point, the industry has to recognize it."

Beyond that, motorized travel will be ruled by fuel cells, the same technology used in our lunar landing crafts. Bring on the future.

Unfinished Business

It is a fool's errand to start a second war before you have finished the first war.

Saddam Hussein is a sitting duck, holed up in his ramshackle country, unable to threaten his neighbors, much less the United States of America. He's a horrible person and should be removed from power, but there is a time and place for everything and now is not the time. Finishing the job in Afghanistan and crushing Al Qaeda and Hezbollah should be our top priority. Once we are more secure against stateless terrorist actors, we can turn on Saddam Hussein with a vengeance and burn him out of Baghdad.

Your NBA All-Star Teams

Jordan made it.

National Zoo Shaken by Animal Deaths

A spate of recent animal deaths at the wonderful National Zoo in Washington, D.C. has led to an organizational shakeup at the zoo. Like many other zoos, the National has a rat problem and as part of an aggressive campaign to kill the rodents, planted highly toxic poison in a red panda enclosure. Two male red pandas died quickly from inhaling poisonous fumes. Most recently, a pygmy rhinoceros died under mysterious circumstances. Also in recent weeks, a lion died soon after a medical examination, a mother giraffe perished after a brief illness--leading the zoo to re-examine its care of giraffes and a gray seal died after a long illness.

Having spent so many long days at the National--mostly as a visitor but also as a teenage employee--I am greatly saddened by this sudden spate of animal fatalities at zoo. I had come to associate the National only with happy memories, something that will be more difficult to do now.

Celebrating the Second Amendment

Guns don't kill people--bullets do.

The Real Threat to America

The story about Algerian allies of Al Qaeda is now supplemented with this story from the BBC, confirming what has long been suspected: a murderous alliance between Al Qaeda and radical Islamists in southeast Asia who massacred almost 200 people in a single bomb blast in Bali, Indonesia last year. These groups are the real threats to the United States. They are still active, they have not been gravely weakened, and they are clearly the most urgent national security threat America faces.

And that's why Mr Bush is going after Iraq.

Let them Eat Cake. And Fries. And Pudding. And...

Italians call it the 'Culo Americano'--the American Butt. It's big. It's ugly. And there are more of them than ever. Mr Timothy K. Smith of Fortune magazine tells the ugly story of how we became Fatass Nation and what might be done about it.

And it's Catching...

Call it a most unusual form of 'war fever.'

Monday, January 27, 2003

The Hard Left Embarrasses Itself--Again

Nonsense like this makes it abundantly clear how important it is for true liberals to distinguish themselves from the Hard Left and to never allow the Republican smear machine to link the two ever again.

Al Qaeda's New Friends

Radical Algerian Muslims with ties to Al Qaeda are turning up in places like Great Britain, France, and Spain, notes the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor has a great story on how the newly-discovered link between Algerian extremists and Al Qaeda is particularly worrisome for western Europe and the United States.

Hunting down and exterminating these vermin is what the United States should be concentrating on--not pursuing this vindictive obsession with the largely-toothless and almost completely isolated Saddam Hussein.

Inspired by Fictional Events

I wonder what the self-appointed guardians of public morality will make of this. Perhaps you can hear James Gandolfini whisper 'do it' if you play an episode backwards.

Further Evidence That...

Wall Street does not want war with Iraq.

War Fears Hurt Wall Street II

You will note that on Friday, January 24, 2003 I wrote in this space that war jitters are hurting Wall Street and perhaps if we're going to have this damn sutpid war we better get on with it and get the worst damage out of the way. Well, here is more on that.

And Now...A Word from the Idiots

Me no happy. Me smash things!