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PHOTON COURIER
 
Tuesday, January 28, 2003  
PROFOUND THOUGHT, POLITICAL SUBDIVISION

Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. In a recent speech, he said that he was running because he didn't like "extremism," and went on to say that unless President Bush is defeated, "Next thing, girls won’t be able to go to school in America. You watch."

He said that about George W. Bush...a man who has arguably put more women in positions of high authority than any other President in U.S. history. I won't bother to name them--you know who they are. And surely, he knows who they are. So why would anyone say such a thing?

A clue may be found in the writings of Arthur Koestler, the novelist and one-time Communist. Koestler says that under the spell of a strong ideology, an individual can be so totally wrapped up in its worldview that he can't see what lies right in front of his very eyes--and provides a vivid example from his own experience. Touring the Soviet Union during a time of widespread famine, he was so ideologically-entranced that the starving people made little impression on him--his mind was instead focused on the new model villages and hydroelectric dams.

Obviously, I'm not saying that Dean is a Communist. I am saying that he may be so blinkered by an ideology that his viewpoint--which is evidently that Bush wishes to suppress women--is far stronger in his thinking than any actual evidence he sees.

But there may be another explanation, also suggested by Koestler. Communist propaganda, Koestler says, painted the world in vivid primary colors--the "good" side pure and golden, the "bad" side darker than night, with no possible redeeming virtues. This was believed necessary, even by Communists who themselves were sophisticated thinkers, in order to make the proper impression on the uneducated masses. Is this Dean's viewpoint--that Americans are so unsophisticated that no nuance can be allowed--that the political opposition must be painted as utterly evil, even to the point of contradicting the clearly obvious facts?

Dean also discusses the terrorist attacks, saying "What happened on September 11 ... is mostly a product of the enormous disparity between those who have everything and those who have nothing."

Well, no. It's mostly a product of the thinking of people who don't want girls to be able to go to school, among other things, and presume to make those decision for all of us as well as for all other societies in the world.

Note what's going on here. In dealing with an American political opponent, Dean takes a good-and-evil, black-and-white, utterly Manichean approach. But in international affairs, in dealing with murderous totalitarian terrorists, he is quick to explain and to search for nuance. It's an approach that seems to be increasingly ommon among those who call themselves "progressives." When dealing with a bin Laden or a Saddam, mock anyone who attempts to discuss them or their movement in moralistic terms. But when dealing with a Republican or even a Democrat of the wrong persuasion, moralize away--even at the expense of truth.


4:18 PM

Monday, January 27, 2003  
PROFOUND THOUGHT, JOURNALISM SUBDIVISION

Columnist Molly Ivins writes as follows:

"Did you hear the Bush administration finally found a conection between Iraq and al-Qaida? They both have the letter Q. The evil, evil Q."

How cute. I guess if she'd been around in 1941, right after Pearl Harbor, she would have opposed declaring war on Germany as well as Japan, while treating us to the following quip: "Did you hear the Roosevelt administration finally found a conection between Germany and Japan? They both have the letter N. The evil, evil N."

(Yes, I'm aware that Germany declared war on us first. Does anyone think that if they had failed to do so, we should have adopted a Japan-only strategy?)

Real lives of real human beings are at stake here, and--regardless of the decision on war--bad things are going to happen to a lot of people. Even in the most serious situations, there's certainly a place for humor, but not for this kind of sneering derision. Whether or not Iraq has been involved in specific al-Qaida operations, it is certainly not irrational to be concerned about Iraq-sponsored terrorism, as implied by Ivins' joke ("the evil, evil Q.") The issues are too serious for the kind of flippancy.

3:28 PM

Sunday, January 26, 2003  
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
End of the Road?

In the UK, a rather unusual advertisement recently appeared in a local newspaper:

"Claims that Frampton Country Fair earlier this year was hijacked by the pro-hunting lobby are being investigated by Stonehouse Police. Countryside campaigner Robin Page was accused of bombarding visitors with pro-hunting propaganda during his commentary at the Country Fair in September. Sgt. Geoff Clark of Stonehouse Police would like to hear from anyone who was offended by the commentary. He can be contacted on 0845 090 1234."

Robin Page, the man accused of "bombarding visitors with pro-hunting propaganda" was in fact actually arrested as a result of this incident. His specific crime? In a speech, he insisted (rather flamboyantly) that "country people should have the same rights and protection under the law as other minority groups in multicultural Britain."

When Brits fought for freedom at Dunkirk, in the Battle of Britain, and on D-day, it's unlikely that very many of them had this outcome in mind. But this is, sadly, not an isolated incident. Freedom of speech is under persistent attack in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. And Americans should not feel too smug. In our universities, there have been case after case of suppression (actual or attempted) of free speech rights. It is only the very strong language of the First Amendment, combined with two centuries of legal precedent, that has kept this movement from spreading into the broader society. But what of the future? When a person lives for 16 or 20 years in an environment of regulated speech, as he does in so many of today's educational environments, what are the chances that he will become an adult with the courage to exercise his own free speech rights and defend those of others? And remember: it's not a very long way from jailing people for "offending" fellow citizens to jailing people for "defaming the government."

For several hundred years in the West, the right of free speech has been (with local exceptions) steadily increasing. But in the last 15 years, freedom of speech is under attack everywhere. And intellectuals--historically the defenders of free speech--today are often numbered among its most dedicated opponents.

What is behind this reversal? I have some thoughts, which I plan to write about in the future. I'd also like to hear your ideas: photoncourier (at) yahoo (dot) com.

Thanks to Natalie Solent for the link.

8:55 AM

 

STRAIGHT OUT OF THE 1930s

Here is a picture from the demonstrations now taking place against the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Demonstrators are wearing masks with the faces of Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld; the latter is wearing a six-pointed yellow star. They are carrying a large "Golden Calf."

Would anyone like to claim that this image is "anti-Israeli" but not "anti-Semitic?" And would someone like to explain how any person of good will can participate in demonstrations such as this?

8:11 AM

Friday, January 24, 2003  
THE RALLIES - ONE LAST TIME

Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory has published a fawning review of the DC demonstrations under the title A River of Peaceful People. She referred to the demonstrators as "polite and peaceful," "well-groomed" and "well-educated." She was particularly impressed that "the majority...carried signs such as 'No Blood for Oil,' " which she apparently thinks is profound political thinking, and not "those wounding personal messages that drove Johnson and Nixon into paroxysms of self-pity and paranoia."

The Disgusted Liberal attended the same rally. He saw signs comparing Bush to Hitler, and one particularly odious sign that demanded that the: "JEW$" leave Palestine. Some people might consider those to be wounding personal messages.

Were such signs a majority? Probably not. But such sentiments appear to be common enough at these rallies that one wonders why a respected journalist like McGrory would not even mention their existence.


3:01 PM

Wednesday, January 22, 2003  
ENGLAND SWINGS (NOT)

The park in Great Somerford, Wilts (UK) is getting rid of its swing set. It seems the swings violate a complicated set of EU regulations (European Standard BS EN 11 76).

The swings have been there for 25 years without any incidents more serious than skinned knees. You can look at this dangerous piece of equipment here.

Are there any aspects of human life that the EU does not aspire to control?

Once upon a time, the British explored the world, forced their King to sign the Magna Carta, spearheaded the industrial revolution, fought alone against Nazi Germany. Will future generations, which have been stripped over the most elementary control over their local and personal affairs, be capable of such feats?

5:19 PM

Monday, January 20, 2003  
MORE ON THE RALLY

From Marm: "My friend D just came in from the rally, and she's still trembling with disgust from some of the things she saw there. Her overall impression was that she couldn't believe how much hate she felt from the crowd..." She also saw a sign with a picture of the American soldier in Somalia who was killed and dragged naked through the streets. The sign said: "You get what you deserve."

Tacitus has put together an eloquent post ("useful idiots") assessing the ideologies of some of the groups involved in the rallies.

5:58 PM

Sunday, January 19, 2003  
PEACE RALLY OR HATE RALLY?

Lee, at right-thinking.com, went to the SF "peace rally" to see what was up. Among other things, he reports that: "Anti-Semitism was rampant at the protest. I heard the phrase "f___ Jews" uttered by at least ten different individuals. I also heard a number of people discussing how the Israelis had infiltrated our government to commit genocide against the Palestinians." He also took a picture of a sign which one of the protestors was carrying: "I want you to die for Israel. Israel sings 'Onward Christian Soldiers.' "

There are countries that expect the U.S. do their fighting for them, but Israel is certainly not one of them...as any fair-minded person should know.

Continuing his description of the rally, Lee says: "I would have expected this type of message from a Klan rally, or maybe some skinheads. I wasn't necessarily surprised to hear it from a bunch of left-wing anti-war folks, I was just surprised at how open they were with it." In addition to the anti-Semitism reported by Lee, there were many other unpleasant forms of opinion and behavior on display at the rally.

I'm sure that there are some sincerely well-meaning people who attended this event--they should be considerably more selective about who they associate with. As Jane Galt writes: "Would you go to a fundraiser for abandoned puppies organized by the Klan? Please do not bother trying to convince me; of course you wouldn't. You'd donate money to a shelter, or adopt a puppy, but no matter how good the cause was, you wouldn't stand up to be counted alongside the guys in sheets." Is it any better to stand up to be counted alongside anti-Semites, sympathizers with regimes such as that of North Korea, and advocates of violence in America? Coalition politics is legitimate up to a point; in this instance, that point has been passed.

Those who are opposed to war in Iraq, but who are not (anti-Israel/anti-Semitic/anti-American/anti-Western Civilization) should give serious consideration prior to participating in any of these mass rallies.

Anyhow, I've never understood what stilt-walking, face-painting, etc have to do with rational debate about policy.

UPDATE: Mean Mr Mustard also went to the rally. On the subway, he overheard a conversation between two people bound for the protest, including the following profundities:

"Ok, like Saddam isn't evil. Darth Vader is evil, ok? Like, Sauron is evil. Saddam isn't evil, dude. That isn't a term you can even apply to like, real people, ok? It's like completely beyond any concept of reality...And like, calling Saddam evil just so perfectly illustrates that Bush is like, so incapable of any kind of logical thought, you know? It's also uh... totally racist, too."

When Mr Mustard got there, "there was some woman who at least styled herself a poet at the loudspeaker, reading some freestyle poetry that would make Amiri Baraka jealous. She claimed the war in Iraq was a Zionist conspiracy to expand Israel until the Jews took over the entire region. She said that the US government wanted to install a new Saddam Hussein of their own choosing and that they were going to gobble up every country in the Middle East until it was one big American colony. She ranted about 'indigenous peoples' rising up and expelling the illegal immigrant white-eyes. She proclaimed that they would take back 'Palestine" (all of it) and that 'the Intifada will continue!' "









4:15 PM

Saturday, January 18, 2003  
WHAT WOULD DIETRICH DO?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian theologian and an opponent of the Hitler regime. Today's Washington Post reviews a new film about him, and raises the issue of how he would have dealt with today's issues.

"I suspect that if Honhoeffer were an Iraqi he would be part of a dissident movement opposing the Hussein regime," says scholar Victoria Barnett. "At the same time, because he was a pacifist, he would seek a peaceful solution to the conflict."

The historical Bonhoeffer, however, reached the conclusion that Hitler should be killed, as the same article notes. "A Christian should not kill..." says Bonhoeffer's friend Eberhard Bethge, "But there are times you are responsible for human beings around you, and you have to think aout all means to stop that man who is killing."

Bonhoeffer continued to believe that murder -- even the killing of Hitler -- was a sin. But he was willing to take that sin on his head. So it's not obvious to me that he would have been counted among those who automatically oppose war in Iraq, regardless of the circumstances or the alternatives. Indeed, the latter group of people is more reminiscent of certain other German resistants. These were people who opposed the Hitler regime -- but were also opposed to killing the man. Their religious and philosophical convictions convinced them that the prohibition against murder was an absolute, and they were unwilling to bloody their own hands even if doing so would save the lives of millions. It should be noted in fairness that many of these people showed great courage in opposing the regime and lost their own lives in doing so. But the German resistance would have had a much greater chance of success if fewer of its members had been possessed of this excessive delicacy of thought.

I'm sure Bonhoeffer would have anguished over the prospect of war in Iraq. But he were convinced that there was no other alternative to keeping WMD out of Saddam's hands and ending the oppression of the Iraqi people, isn't it possible that he might have supported such action...even while believing it was a sin?

Comments are solicited, especially from those who've read Bohnoeffer and are familiar with his opinions concerning the justice of the Allied military effort in WWII.

Please note that my comparison of today's anti-war protestors with the second category of German resistants only goes so far. It took a lot more courage to oppose Hitler in 1940s Germany than it does to oppose war in Iraq (or anything at all) in 2003 America.

UPDATE: The Rev Donald Sensing had this to say: "Bonhoeffer also repeated Luther's admonition that sometimes it is necessary to 'sin boldly.' What we need to understand is what Dietrich came to understand, that in the present crisis there are no sin-free choices. Therefore our real quest cannot be for peace or nonviolence, because the entire situation is already war and violent."



9:28 AM

 
LIONS 1, CHRISTIANS 0

When Saeed and Nasser Salamah, Arab brothers and residents of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, converted from Islam to Christianity, they didn't know it would cost them their homes, their friends – possibly even their lives. (From WorldNet Daily.)

Saeed was in fact an active member of Fatah when he converted. According to reports, his conversion led to his imprisonment and torture. It's also been reported that one of the brothers was facing a death sentence.

But they escaped from a Palestinian jail and sought refuge in Israel. They have now been accused by Fatah of being Israeli "collaborators." Their sister has vanished without a trace, and they fear that she may have been murdered.

Have you seen any criticism of this atrocity from mainstream American Christian denominations? Or are they all too busy this weekend protesting "Bush's War?"

American Jews are often criticized for being too concerned with the fate of their bretheren in the Middle East. Maybe American Christians could learn something from them, and show more concern for their own co-religionists.

9:06 AM

Thursday, January 16, 2003  
A BLOG FROM 1759

It turns out that a blogger is posting in the year 1759! I say "is" rather than "was," because the posts are appearing on a daily basis, with a lag of 244 years. Apparently, some serious system problems have been going on to cause such a severe delay. You can read the blog here.

9:57 AM

Monday, January 13, 2003  
TEACHING KIDS ABOUT THE MARKET
Why and How?

According to The New York Times Magazine, the Securities and Exchange Commission is planning to spend $85MM (from a $1.4B settlement with 11 Wall Street firms) on developing investing courses for high-school students. The Times (Walter Kirn) is predictably cynical: "The idea, it appears, is that secondary schools have done such a consistent, bang-up job of equipping pupils to earn big incomes that they now should now move on to the task of teaching kids to parlay them into fortunes."

No need to be snide, Walter, the idea makes sense. First, an increasingly broad spectrum of Americans are now participating in the market. What's wrong with arming them with knowledge that will help them in their investing? A significant part of NYT's core readership apparently consists of people who have inherited their money rather than earning it; these people can presumably afford to hire professional money managers. So why object to education for the vast majority of Americans who will need to make their own investment decisions? Second, even if a person never invests a dime, understanding how markets work is an important component of being a good citizen--specifically, of being able to form intelligent opinions on economic matters.

But what's the best way to teach high school students about the markets? Many high schools have adopted an "investing" game where students make imaginary investments in real companies, then track these for several months to see how they do. This approach can arguably do more harm than good. The time frame is so short that it's not helpful in developing an understanding of the real forces that make the markets work--indeed, the kid is likely to come out of such an experience believing that the market is just a big casino, and also carrying a full complement of market superstitions. This outcome may be avoidable given a particularly talented teacher, but such teachers are by definition rare.

A better approach might be a role-playing simulation. Some of the students are entrepreneurs, running imaginary businesses. Others are investors, making decisions as to the funding of these companies. This approach would allow many years to be compressed into a few months, allowing students to develop a much better feel for the way things work--for example, how a dividend stream 10 years out can affect the value of a stock today. Such a simulation should not be terribly hard to develop.

This should ideally be supplemented by an investment game dealing with real stocks, but over a period of years rather than months. Make your initial investment decisions in the 10th grade, tend them over time, and see how you do by the time you graduate. This is likely to be institutionally very difficult, of course, given the rigid quarter-by-quarter nature of the curriculum at most schools.

And all of this should include the bond market--which seems to be a great mystery to many people--as well as the equity markets.

(Thanks to Martin Kimel for the link.)


2:56 PM

Saturday, January 11, 2003  
DUISENBERG'S LATEST

I've written before about Gretta Duisenberg--wife of the Dutch head of the European Central Bank--and her virulent attacks on Israel. Now this:

"The Holocaust excepted, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is worse than the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands," she was quoted as saying (by the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad.)

"The cruelty of the Israelis knows no bounds. For example, it's not unusual that they blow up Palestinian houses. The Nazis never went so far during the Dutch occupation," she was quoted as saying.

By saying "The Holocaust excepted," she seems to be implying that Jews are outside the mainstream of history and that their sufferings do not matter. But ignore this unforgivable implication (for the moment) and focus on the experience of non-Jewish Dutch people. How did this compare to that of the Palestinians?

The Germans invaded Holland in May 1940. The Dutch Army put up a brave fight, but was quickly crushed. Although armistice negotiations were already in progress, the Germans bombed Rotterdam, killing 900 people and leaving over 70,000 homeless. So, relative to Duisenberg's comment about "blowing up houses"--the Germans not only blew up houses, they blew them up with their occupants inside them.

You can read about Holland under the German occupation here. It included most of the standard features of a Nazi occupation, such as the execution of innocent hostages in retaliation for acts of resistance. It also included massive starvation ("the hunger winter") resulting from German confiscation of food as well as the disruption of the transportation system.

By making the above statement, Duisenberg has insulted and betrayed her own country. She has insulted every Dutch soldier who stood fast in the hopeless battle; every Dutch man and woman who continued the resistance after the occupation; every member of the government and Royal Family who remained resolute in exile.

Westerners who despise Israel, it has been observed, are often really giving voice to their disrespect for their own societies. Duisenberg's comments confirm this point of view.

7:56 AM

Monday, January 06, 2003  
BOOK REVIEW: The Forging of a Rebel
Arturo Barea.....Rating: 5 Stars

We had to fight them. This meant that we would have to shell or bomb Burgos and its towers, Cordova and its flowered courtyards, Seville and its gardens. We would have to kill so as to purchase the right to live.

I wanted to scream.


The Spanish Civil War is more relevant to Americans than it might have seemed a few years ago. In the aftermath of 9/11, it is easier to imagine the reality of a Madrid under sustained shellfire. In the environment of hysterical political correctness which exists on so many campuses, it is easier to understand how a casual remark could land someone in front of a firing squad. And in a time of suicide bombings, the slogan "Long Live Death" (first adopted by the Spanish Foreign Legion and later by the Fascist movement) becomes even more chilling.

This book is "about" the Spanish Civil War, but it is not conventional military or political history. It is the story of Spain in the first half of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of one man. The writing is so rich, dense, and vivid that reading it is like finding yourself inside someone else's dream. more

10:12 AM

 
INTRODUCING THE BOOK REVIEW SECTION

I'm going to be periodically posting book reviews--especially of books that I think deserve a wider readership than they're getting. Logistically, I'll post the full text of the review over at Photon Plaza, with only the first couple of paragraphs posted here to give you the general idea. Then, if you're interested, you can click "more" and read the whole thing.


10:08 AM

Wednesday, January 01, 2003  
PROFESSOR, PLEASE
Misquantifying Terrorism

An "e-salon" known as Edge advertises its mission as "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and ask them the questions they are asking themselves." As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Edge asked leading scientists and humanists how they would respond to a request from President Bush as to "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, recommends scrapping "the whole 'homeland defense' thing" as "cost-ineffective." According to the WSJ, Minsky calculates that the cost of preventing each terrorist-caused airplane fatality will be around $100MM, and that "we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures."

Is Minsky perhaps writing tongue-in-cheek? There's no hint of this in the WSJ article, so perhaps he's really serious. I've heard the same thought expressed by others. It's difficult to believe, though, that an individual as highly-educated and intellegent as Minsky could fall into the clear intellectual fallacies which seem to me to be displayed in this analysis. At least in the capsule version published in the WSJ, Minsky ignores the key concepts of trend and positive feedback.

Calculations of probability and cost-effectiveness must be based on the assumption of a trend or lack of a trend. If probabilities of a particular phenomenon are changing over time, you can't just snapshot the phenomenon at one point in time and extrapolate those probabilities into the future. Suppose that for a particular model of car, there are 2 million vehicles on the road. In a particular year, 2 of these cars encounter complete steering failure. How much of an issue is this? A simplistic statistical analysis might conclude that there is only one chance in a million of encountering the failure in any given year--representing a fairly small increase in the risk of driving--and hence, from a cost-effectiveness standpoint, money would be better spent on other aspects of automotive safety.

But a more sophisticated analysis might show that the failures are occuring at about the point where the car has 50,000 miles on it (as might occur if the problem is due to metal fatigue or the failure of a seal). We may now have a much more serious situation, in which most or all of these vehicles will encounter steering failure as they reach the critical mileage range. The entire risk and cost-effectiveness equation changes completely. If one believes that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 may represent the leading edge of a broader phenomenon, then the situation is like the second example above, not the first. A static statistical analysis is meaningless, and so are any cost-effectiveness numbers drawn from it.

Furthermore, terrorist attacks are not a natural phenomenon like metal fatigue; they are caused by deliberate decisions of human beings. Thus, the success of one terrorist attack may well encourage others, as will lack of an effective response to these attacks. This is a simple example of a positive feedback loop. Again, this phenomenon makes static statistical analysis meaningless. As a distinguished professor of computer science, Prof Minsky is certainly familiar with the concept of positive feedback. Why does he not apply it in this instance?

Millions of ordinary Americans understand the above logic in its essence, even if they are unable to articulate it precisely. Why should such things be less-well understood by so many denizens of college campuses?

Eric Hoffer once said, famously, that he would rather be governed by the first 100 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. When confronted with analysis like Professor Minsky's, it's hard to conclude that he didn't have a point.

The actual text of Minsky's letter is supposed to be up on Edge on January 6.

8:13 AM

 
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