Tuesday, August 31

In the dark all cats are grey

I hadn't realized "In the dark all cats are grey" was from Benjamin Franklin's Old Mistresses' Apologue (nor did I realize there was a sexual connotation). At least this guy credits Franklin. Was Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 reading that? 不管白猫黑猫,会捉老鼠就是好猫。(It doesn't matter whether it's a black cat or a white cat; as long as it catches mice it's a good cat.)

In his comment to the story 驅怪 in Liaozhai 聊齋, Pu Songling says, 黃狸黑狸,得鼠者雄. ("It does not matter whether a racoon dog is yellow or black, as long as it catches rats.") I'm not the only one to see the similarity with Deng's pronouncement.
In a subscriber-only article, the Economist argues that aside from Bush's foreign policy and pursuit of big-government spending, he worringly
...has increased the power of the presidency at the expense of other branches of government...

In January 2003, the White House sent Congress a proposal for reform of the health-care system. The price tag, it said, was $400 billion. The real cost was $534 billion. Medicare's chief actuary was told not to answer congressional questions on pain of dismissal. After the House and Senate passed different versions of the proposal, the Republicans began work to reconcile the two. They refused to let five of the Democrats nominated to the process take part in deliberations—and rewrote the bill.

Even then, they fell short of a majority when voting began, at 3am. Defying precedent, the House leadership held the vote open for three hours while arms were twisted. The bill finally passed just before 6am. Norm Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called it the ugliest breach of congressional standards in modern history...

Even if you think the ends are good, the means have inflicted institutional harm on Congress. The committee system for amending bills has all but collapsed. Bills are now written by the leaders and their staffs, in concert with the White House. Debate is often cut off: many controversial measures are voted on under a “closed rule”, which bars amendments. The conference stage, when different versions of a bill are reconciled, has been turned from an occasion for compromise into yet another opportunity for partisan gain. Sometimes the conference committee does not meet at all. Sometimes Republicans have ignored the rule that says the committee can only iron out differences, and have fundamentally altered bills at the last minute. The budget process is in tatters.

As for Congress's other main job—oversight of the administration—that has declined too, with a few exceptions (the Senate Armed Services Committee held useful hearings on the Abu Ghraib scandal). Serious investigation has been left to special commissions, such as the one that looked into the September 11th attacks. The responsibility for this lies largely with congressional Republicans: they are reluctant to investigate one of their own...

The power of the president is limited not only by the might of Congress but by a host of smaller laws and administrative rules: freedom-of-information requests, the power to classify documents, and civil-service procedures. Partly in response to domestic security worries, the discretionary power of the executive has increased substantially in these areas.

The best-known examples come from the Patriot Act, which boosted law-enforcement powers and surveillance. That act, at least, was passed by Congress and is subject to congressional review. More commonly, the administration has increased its powers by asserting them. Soon after September 11th, Mr Ashcroft issued new guidelines on freedom-of-information requests. The attorney-general reversed the Clinton-era policy of rejecting such requests only if to allow them would cause "substantial harm". Public-interest groups complain that requests are now often denied, even over matters that seem to have nothing to do with security, such as pollution or car safety.

According to figures from the National Archives, around 44m documents were classified in the first two years of the current administration—as many as in the whole of Mr Clinton's second term. More officials—including, for some reason, the secretary of agriculture—have been given the power to classify materials...

A subset of this reaction against scrutiny is the use of what might be called government by small print: slipping additions into law at the last minute or tinkering with the wording of rules that implement laws. As a recent series in the Washington Post argued, such changes often appear minor but can have a big impact. By changing the word “waste” to “fill” in a rule governing coal-mining, for instance, the administration allowed an increase in strip-mining in West Virginia. By adding two sentences about scientific evidence to an unrelated budget bill, it gave itself increased authority to rule in regulatory disputes.

Perhaps the most disturbing way in which the administration has increased its power has been through its public-relations machine. Thomas Jefferson said long ago that a well-informed electorate is the most important constraint on government. By issuing partial and sometimes misleading information, the Bush administration has hampered such scrutiny.

Consider for instance the arguments for tax cuts. Here, Mr Bush made claims about the cost of the cuts and their distributional impact that he should have known were misleading. In 2000, he claimed the first round of cuts would cost $1.6 trillion over ten years, a quarter of the budget surplus at that point. On his own figures, the share was a third, not a quarter, and he arrived at the figure only through outrageous accounting gimmicks that he is now campaigning to forbid.
Meanwhile, Amity Shlaes argues that Bush's economic plans move the U.S. from an entitlement society to a stakeholder society. OK, but what about Bush's deficit? On the other hand, who knows what Kerry's going to do.

NPR's liberal slant

NPR just cited a report about the pay of executives at companies that have engaged in outsourcing. Since this is a "news" item, it's not hard to guess what that pay is going to be. The report is from what NPR calls the "non-profit" Institute for Policy Studies, but it doesn't tell us about their liberal slant.

Monday, August 30

Our non-candidate candidates

Mike Lawrence writes on Lloyd Karmeier and Gordon Maag. He says they
have been obligated to wear the Lady of Justice's blindfold. Now the two southern Illinois jurists, competing in what is likely the hottest race ever for a state Supreme Court seat, are donning muzzles.

Welcome to an Alice-in-Wonderland world where judicial aspirants are essentially compelled to campaign without acting like candidates. They must contend without contentiousness, discuss issues without committing, build campaign treasuries supposedly without knowing the identities of major benefactors and carry Republican or Democratic banners without waving them...

Nevertheless, there is too much at stake in their 5th Judicial District face-off for the candidates to monopolize the messages. Because the district includes Madison County, widely considered a haven for those filing personal-injury lawsuits and a hellhole for their targets, combatants in the tort reform war are choosing favorites and preparing for combat. The outcome will either embolden Maag-backing lawyers depicting themselves as warriors for victims' rights or energize Karmeier-boosting business leaders blaming the Supreme Court for knocking down laws that discourage frivolous lawsuits and unreasonable damage awards. Moreover, a Republican victory would give the GOP another spot on the Democratic-dominated tribunal, which occasionally referees highly partisan fights.

Republican Karmeier, a circuit court judge, must ponder every public utterance; so must Democrat Maag, an appellate court justice. But business groups and health-care providers won't hesitate to tag Maag as an ally of greedy attorneys who have been chasing doctors out of southern Illinois, and trial lawyers won't blush at labeling Karmeier a tool of big, bad business.
Here's a rating of the two of them by the Illinois State Bar Association.

unfair, impolite, unsubtle, unwise, obnoxious, tendentious, and maddeningly self-contradictory

In Critical Reception: The Meaning of 'Fahrenheit 9-11', Irfan Khawaja writes,
Moore’s film, we’re told, is unfair, impolite, unsubtle, unwise, obnoxious, tendentious, and maddeningly self-contradictory — all [A.O.] Scott’s terms, not mine. And yet, Scott insists, Moore is a "credit to the republic" for having made the film despite this. It seems not to have occurred to Scott that once you concede that crap like Fahrenheit 9/11 is a "credit to the republic," you’ve already conceded that the republic is itself a piece of crap — at which point it seems futile to insist that the film is but "a partisan rallying cry, an angry polemic, a muckraking inquisition into the use and abuse of power."

When you boil down the posturing of the Moore-boosting genre, you find at last a very strange and hypocritical exercise in special pleading and excuse-making. What Moore’s quasi-defenders are telling us is that an illogical, dishonest and tendentious film offers an inarticulate indictment of an evil Administration. The trouble is, if we take this morally confused verdict at face value, we reach not an indictment but an equivalence — not the intended conclusion that Moore’s film is "worth seeing and debating" but the rather different conclusion that Michael Moore is morally on par with George Bush, and that his film has all of the moral credibility of an ad for the Bush campaign. Is that really where these people want to go?
via Will Wilkinson.

The Chinese Invented Computers.

I actually saw a gizmo in Taiwan once that had both an abacus and an electronic calculator. This image is from here.

The Voice Behind Me

There is a lovely little horror story about the peasant who started through the haunted wood--the wood that was, people said, inhabited by devils who took any mortal who came their way. But the peasant thought, as he walked slowly along,

I am a good man and have done no wrong. If devils can harm me then there isn't any justice.

A voice behind him said, "There isn't."
I hear that voice all the time. This anecdote starts off "A Voice Behind Him", by Fredric Brown (1906-1972), reprinted in Carnival of crime.

Sunday, August 29

Bye-bye, Taiwanese independence

Across Asia, Beijing's Star Is in Ascendance By JANE PERLEZ
China's presence mostly translates into money, and the doors it opens. But more and more, China is leveraging its economic clout to support its political preferences.

Beijing is pushing for regional political and economic groupings it can dominate, like a proposed East Asia Community that would cut out the United States and create a global bloc to rival the European Union. It is dispersing aid and, in ways not seen before, pressing countries to fall in line on its top foreign policy priority: its claim over Taiwan....

Among the most nervous is Singapore. China publicly scolded the new prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, before his inauguration in August, for visiting Taiwan, where Singapore trains its soldiers, even though his father, Lee Kwan Yew, had visited Taiwan many times. China said it would delay trade talks as a punishment.

The gravity of the threat was not lost on Mr. Lee. In his first major speech in August, the new prime minister hastily reaffirmed Singapore's support for a "one China" policy on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province....

Most countries in the region, like Thailand, are already on board with China's claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, and some in Australia worry that China is quickly chipping away at the last holdouts.
I'm not saying this is a good thing, just what looks like happening. And some of the Asians are going to regret this, unless they learn how to play the Chinese off against the Americans.
Even as America's position erodes, its policies - on Iraq, North Korea, weapons proliferation - have tended to push China and its neighbors together. Not least among the shared interests is a "mutual concern about the unilateralism" of current American policy, said Muhammad Noordin Sopiee, chairman of Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

"They need regional friendship, we need regional friendship," he said of the Chinese. "They need time to develop their economy, so do we. They need protection from the United States and so do we."
Unilateralism? Wait'll you see how the Chinese behave.

Nothing new

Tracking Down Cheap Air Fares By SUSAN STELLIN
In general, you can often find lower fares by traveling on Tuesday or Wednesday, when planes are less crowded and cheap seats are more likely to be available....

For learning about special sales, SmarterLiving.com is a good Web site....Most of the Web specials are for travel within two weeks of purchase, so they are best for last-minute escapes, but SmarterLiving does track other airline sales.

...most Web sites don't make it easy to search for flights into or out of several airports. One that does is www.itasoftware.com, which lets you search airports at distances ranging from 25 to 300 miles of your first choice.
She also mentions Orbitz and Expedia but not travelocity. What? no commission?

Black hyphenization

'African-American' Becomes a Term for Debate By RACHEL L. SWARNS
...in the 1960's after changes in federal immigration law led to increased migration from Africa and Latin America, have been accompanied in some places by fears that newcomers might eclipse native-born blacks. And they have touched off delicate musings about ethnic labels, identity and the often unspoken differences among people who share the same skin color...

Sociologists say foreign-born blacks from majority-black countries are less psychologically handicapped by the stigma of race. Many arrive with higher levels of education and professional experience. And sociologists say they often encounter less discrimination...

"We've suffered so much that we're a bit weary and immigration seems like one more hurdle we will have to climb," said [Bobby] Austin [an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia], 59, who traces his ancestors back to slavery. "People are asking: 'Will I have to climb over these immigrants to get to my dream? Will my children have to climb?'

"These are very aggressive people who are coming here," said Dr. Austin, who is calling for a frank dialogue between native-born and foreign-born blacks. "I don't berate immigrants for that; they have given up a lot to get here. But we're going to be in competition with them. We have to be honest about it. That is one of the dividing lines."

Mr. [Barack] Obama says such arguments do not reflect the views of black Americans who have joined forces over the years with Africans and people from the Caribbean to fight colonialism and poverty.
So fighting colonialism takes precedence over dealing with the corrupt thugs that govern former colonies?
...The term African-American has crept steadily into the nation's vocabulary since 1988, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a news conference to urge Americans to use it to refer to blacks.

"It puts us in our proper historical context," Mr. Jackson said then, adding in a recent interview that he still favored the term. "Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity."
I'm not sure I understand, but I think "ethnic group" is a code word for minority--if it's not, Americans of British ancestry ought to see themselves as Anglo-Americans, and I don't think we do. As a matter of fact, I'm not so sure every third- or fourth-generation Italian- or Irish-American cares much about their ancestry. As a matter of fact, I know a few Chinese-Americans who care less about Chinese culture than I do.


A recent study about a possible link between sugary drinks leading to obesity and then diabetes concludes,
our findings suggest that frequent consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages may be associated with larger weight gain and increased risk of type 2 diabetes, possibly by providing excessive calories and large amounts of rapidly absorbable sugars. Public health strategies to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes should focus on reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.
This sounds a little odd to me. How can they be sure it's just the sugar, and not the diet as a whole?

Ruth Kava from the American Council on Science and Health points out
Rather than attributing the increases in weight and diabetes occurrence to the increase in calories from drinking additional sugar-sweetened beverages, the authors seem to blame the sugar in the drinks. Women who increased their sugar-sweetened beverage consumption from less than one per week to more than one per day added over 350 calories to their average daily energy intake. No matter where those calories came from, they would lead to additional weight. An important comparison is lacking here: the authors should have compared the weight gain and cases of diabetes in women who had an equivalent increase in calories from eating foods.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. C.M. Apovian noted that the women who had higher intakes of sugar-sweetened soft drinks also tended to have other lifestyle factors that could have contributed to their weight gain and increased disease risk. Such women tended to be less physically active, to smoke more, and to have higher total calorie intake and lower intake of protein and fiber. In other words, their overall lifestyle was less healthful than that of women who didn't increase their soft drink consumption.
Apovian's editorial is subscriber-only, even though the Journal of the American Medical Association claims its mission to be "To Promote the Science and Art of Medicine and the Betterment of Public Health". By keeping info out of the grubby hands of the public, I guess.

Iain Murray links to The Economics of Obesity, a fascinating article in The Public Interest by economists Inas Rashad and Michael Grossman on the causes of American obesity.
Obesity and sedentary lifestyles accounted for approximately 400,000 deaths in 2000 compared to 435,000 from cigarette smoking, 100,000 from alcohol abuse, and 20,000 from illegal drug use. Obesity costs more in annual medical care expenditures than cigarette smoking — around $75 billion in 2003 — because of the long and costly treatments for its complications. A large percentage of these costs are borne by Medicare, Medicaid, private health-insurance companies, and ultimately by the population at large rather than by the obese....

According to the economists Darius Lakdawalla and Tomas Philipson, declines in the real prices of grocery food items caused a surge in caloric intake that can account for as much as 40 percent of the increase in the body mass index of adults since 1980. Technological advances in agriculture caused grocery prices to fall, the authors show, and these declines caused consumers to demand more groceries. Government policy only heightened the effect by encouraging overproduction. Journalist Michael Pollan points to a shift in the early 1970s toward direct farming subsidies as another source of the rise in caloric intake. The old system, an agricultural-support arrangement designed to discourage overproduction of corn and other storable commodities, had much smaller effects on producers’ decisions. But the new system "free[d] them to dump their harvests on the market no matter what the price."

Important technological changes in the home kitchen seem to have fostered more caloric intake, too....Microwaveable meals and other foods that are easy to cook are desirable because they are quicker to prepare; they are also fattier and higher in caloric content...

Other factors that have contributed to the growth in obesity include the decline in physical activity and urban sprawl. Physical exercise has declined since 1980, and that decline is a proximate cause of the increase in body weight.

[However], eating out at fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants seems to be the most important factor in explaining the rise in obesity.

...as much as two-thirds of the increase in adult obesity since 1980 can be explained by the rapid growth in the per capita number of fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants, especially the former. It’s not hard to imagine how the explosive growth in these restaurants could fuel the obesity epidemic. Food served in these restaurants has extremely high caloric density, and almost certainly has contributed to obesity...

Indeed, the economists Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, and Phillip B. Levine find that the rise in average hours worked by mothers can account for as much as one-third of the growth in obesity among children in certain families. In part, the rise in obesity seems to have been an unintended consequence of encouraging women to become more active in the workforce.

We have also unmasked a second and perhaps more surprising culprit in the alarming rise in obesity: the crackdown on smoking via tax increases. Higher cigarette taxes and higher cigarette prices have caused more smokers to quit — but these smokers seem to have begun eating more as a result. According to our research, each 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes produces a 2 percent increase in the number of obese people, other things being equal...

Our findings underscore the idea that social action can have unintended consequences: Oftentimes, there is a tradeoff involved in achieving goals that society favors, such as increased food production, more workforce participation by women, and fewer smokers. Lower real food prices have significantly increased living standards. Expanded labor market opportunities for women have increased families’ command of real resources and increased equality of opportunity. Cigarette smoking is still the largest cause of premature death among Americans; pushing smokers to quit will have obvious health benefits. But our results and those of other economists also suggest that these efforts contribute to the rising prevalence of obesity. Whether public policies should be pursued that offset this ignored consequence of previous public policy to discourage smoking, increase market opportunities, and make cheaper food available depends on the costs and benefits of these policies...

...the non-obese do subsidize the obese. Health and life insurance premiums paid by the latter do not fully reflect their higher medical care costs and their higher probability of death.
Their solutions?
Raising premiums for the obese could correct this externality, but would raise considerable equity concerns given that obesity has such a large genetic component. Imposition of taxes on “junk food,” fast food, or food with a high caloric content might be viewed as a substitute, since the consumption of these types of food is a conscious choice made by individuals. But this policy imposes costs on people who consume these types of food in moderation, too...

Giving benefits to people who exercise and subsidizing facilities and programs for them might be a more promising approach...

Would the people of the past, who toiled through their workdays and often did not have enough food, have predicted this problem? Would those who once dreamed of ending poverty and supplying enough food for all have even imagined that being too fat would become the predominant health risk nationwide?

The main message of contemporary research is that there is no free lunch, that with benefits come costs. Positive changes such as increases in technology, reduced smoking, and increased female participation in the labor force have also carried unforseen negative consequences. Was the anti-smoking campaign a mistake if it also encouraged obesity?
Murray also links to a profile of Soso Whaley, who
imposed a limit of 1,800 to 2,000 calories when she started her diet April 1. But her intake would increase up to 3,000 calories "when I gave myself the day off," she said.

She dropped 10 pounds from her 5-foot-3-inch frame in the first month of her experiment, slimming down to 165 from 175. Her cholesterol level fell to 197 from 237 by the beginning of May.

Like Mr. Spurlock, Ms. Whaley said she tried every item on the menu at least once. But she spent about an hour doing moderate exercise three times a week.

Although she did have salads, Ms. Whaley said she stuck with sandwiches, fries, diet sodas and shakes.

"I actually had a much tougher time when I got back in the real world [in May] because I was so used to controlled portion sizes" at the burger chain, she said.
But don't forget GINA KOLATA's The Fat Epidemic: He Says It's an Illusion
Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, an obesity researcher at Rockefeller University, argues that contrary to popular opinion, national data do not show Americans growing uniformly fatter.

Instead, he says, the statistics demonstrate clearly that while the very fat are getting fatter, thinner people have remained pretty much the same...

Dr. Friedman points to careful statistical analyses of the changes in Americans' body weights from 1991 to today by Dr. Katherine Flegal of the National Center for Health Statistics. At the lower end of the weight distribution, nothing has changed, not even by a few pounds. As you move up the scale, a few additional pounds start to show up, but even at midrange, people today are just 6 or 7 pounds heavier than they were in 1991. Only with the massively obese, the very top of the distribution, is there a substantial increase in weight, about 25 to 30 pounds, Dr. Flegal reported...

Over the years, Dr. Friedman says, he has watched the scientific data accumulate to show that body weight, in animals and humans, is not under conscious control. Body weight, he says, is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height. Genes control not only how much you eat but also the metabolic rate at which you burn food. When it comes to eating, free will is an illusion.

"People can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range," Dr. Friedman said. But expecting an obese person to decide to simply eat less and exercise more to get below the obesity range, below the overweight range? It virtually never happens, he said. Any weight that is lost almost invariably comes right back.

The same goes for gaining weight in general, Dr. Friedman argued. A person who has the genes to be thin is not going to get fat because portion sizes increase. It makes no scientific sense, he said.

But isn't it true that we can decide to eat or not, choosing to skip dinner, say, or pass up dessert? Isn't that free will? Not really, Dr. Friedman said. The control mechanisms for body weight operate over months, even years, not day to day or meal to meal.

"People live in the moment," he said. "They lose weight over the short term and say that they have exercised willpower," but over the long term, the body's intrinsic controls win out. And just as willpower cannot make fat people thin, a lack of it does not make thin people fat.
But a word of caution. As the article notes, Friedman discovered the gene for leptin, whose absence made mice grow massively obese. In other words, he wants to believe that genes are the culprit.

Friday, August 27

Trey Parker and Matt Stone for President

Sharon Waxman on their new puppet movie.
After 9/11, they, like many others, could not understand why people around the world seemed to hate America, nor why so many liberals seemed bent on criticizing everything it does. Three years later, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone say they hate the war in Iraq, but suspect it might be necessary. They think President Bush is stupid, but they can't stand John Kerry either. "We hate both of them," Mr. Parker confirmed. "They're both retards. We have to choose between a" — four-letter word — "sandwich and a" — same four-letter word — "sandwich." O.K., so they're not exactly nuanced.

But they know their own limitations. The filmmakers are trying to knock piety off the moral high ground. But they would never try to take its place.

"An actor convinces himself he's doing something important to the world," said Mr. Stone, who is 33 and has yet to work with one. "You're an actor; all you do is read lines. And here's Janeane Garofalo on CNN: `We are being silenced.' I can't turn on the TV without hearing Michael Moore's voice. And he's being silenced?"

"We never get silenced," said Mr. Parker, 34. "People are always throwing money at us. I wish someone would silence us so we could take a frigging vacation."...

Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone approached every scene with a WWJBD ethos: What Would Jerry Bruckheimer Do? The puppets bleed when they are shot. In the middle of every huge action sequence, there is a moment — complete with a soundtrack of tender, swelling strings — when two Team America agents confess their love, just before one gets killed. And when the Sphinx cracks in two, it falls directly on the bad guys' jeep — crushing a young boy in the process.
I may never see the movie, though. I'm not a fan of puppets.

Right wing can be wrong

Jeff Jarvis writes
I've long been amazed at Bush's insistence on playing to his right wing. He certainly wasn't voted by a mandate! He did not have a right-wing revolution behind him. He gained strength across the board because of 9/11. If he had played to the center, he might have had a chance of getting votes he never could have gotten before (see: me) but he turned away those voters by swinging further right by appointing Ashcroft and lately by pushing the edge on gay marriage, stem-cell research, and by not pulling back his Vietnam attack hawks ... well, you know the list. I used to think this was ideology but now I wonder whether it is odd political paranoia: a chronic need to "solidify the base."
Yeah, I don't get it, either.

Thursday, August 26

There's Something About Kerry

...that I don't like, not just his dubious use of statistics but also his stance on outsourcing. Who knows if he really means it or not? The fact that he's presenting himself as a chest-thumping veteran, and suggesting this is a necessary qualification of a US leader (so Clinton didn't really deserve to be president after all?) strikes me as silly, and also annoying, since he's trying to present himself as the anti-war war hero. But it's a typical Kerry straddle--all things to all people.

Even though I don't buy the arguments the swiftboaters are making, either, I think it's hypocritical of the Democrats to criticize the Republicans after they themselves stood cheek by jowl with Michael Moore, not to mention their connections to move-on ork.

Still, it's sad that as Joe Gandelmanpoints out, negative campaigning works. Look at the Iowa Electronic Markets.


Link Nicoll recounts her trauma:
Last week on our summer vacation, my husband and I did the unthinkable: We spanked our three-year-old son. We are baby boomers. We are not supposed to spank. That was something our parents did to us. No, we, the enlightened generation, are supposed to nurture our child's inner desires. We're supposed to allow him to get in touch with his true self.

The problem is our son has been getting a little too wild...

We got back on the highway and for the first time in hours, our child was still. Two hours later, when we reached our destination, we realized that the rest of our trip had been unusually cheerful. The spanking had not hurt him, and it had not hurt us. The hard part was realizing that maybe, just maybe, a type of discipline once used by our parents had actually worked.


While deciding to forgive the visit of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to what Reuterscalls "the self-ruled, democratic island" of Taiwan, since Lee said he wouldn't support Taiwan if China attacked in response to a push for formal independence,
China also expressed deep concern over Taiwan Premier Yu Shyi-kun's unscheduled stop on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa on Wednesday when the plane that was taking him home was diverted because of a typhoon.

"We are resolutely opposed to Taiwan leaders engaging in political activities under any pretext in countries with diplomatic relations with China," [Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan] said.

"The Chinese side has expressed deep concern to the Japanese side and asked the Japanese side ... to handle this issue appropriately," he added.
So they're not even allowed to make an unscheduled stop.

Tuesday, August 24

Not Even a Dime's Worth of Difference

The title is Alexander Cockburn's, who goes on to say,
Kerry goes from bad to worse. Last week he dropped Saddam's non-existent WMDs as a campaign issue.

...absolutely nothing separates Kerry from Bush's positions on Iraq except he claims he would have lied more efficiently and somehow wheedled the UN and NATO into giving support...

So Bush, a lousy president but ludicrously over-demonized, is bracketed by a Democratic candidate, Al Gore, who was calling for immediate war on Saddam back in 1999, flanked by all the neo-Cons who subsequently flocked to Bush, and by Kerry who now says he holds exactly the same position, rationalized by the same neo-Cons.

If the war on Iraq bothers you, a vote for Kerry is a vote thrown away.

How about the plight of ordinary working people? No succor in sight from Kerry here either...
"Ludicrously over-demonized"--I guess you'd call that fainting with damn praise. Cockburn's article was via Ken Layne, who writes,
Last week, when Kerry came out and said he would've authorized the Iraq invasion even knowing there were no WMDs, I thought it was a shockingly stupid error. No longer. It's all part of the seemingly successful plan to paint Kerry as a born killer, somebody who would not only invade Iraq or any other country for no reason at all, but a guy who would insist on going himself for a few Glory Kills. And, holding life & death in his hands, he says he'll send other nations' troops to be slaughtered in Iraq while choosing to give life to some of the U.S. troops. That stiff demeanor and long, cruel face is beginning to look like something else entirely. It's beginning to look like a God of War, a total monster who kills for the sheer pleasure of it, and saves lives for the pure enjoyment of watching a puny human whimper below him in quivering gratitude, giving tribute, sacrificing animals and the first born to His power and whims...

It took three years for the hard-core Bush lovers to completely fall in line. As recently as 2002, many of them were still asking questions about "homeland security," Saudi Arabia, etc. Now, all doubts are gone and all doubters are exiled. What's interesting is how much faster this has happened with Kerry ... even though most Democrats saw him as a Dull Loser earlier this year, it has only taken a few months for him to become flawless in the eyes of his party (except for a few cranky old socialists like Cockburn). An increasing percentage of those in the political middle are starting to think Kerry is bulletproof, too. The anti-war protests are forgotten, as the War God has willed it. After all, he is a trained and savage killer who could care less if he's shooting the enemy or twisting off the head of a three-year-old orphan just to amuse the guys on the Swift Boat.
There's a little perspective for you.

Some prefer homelessness

I happened to see the scene in "Pay It Forward" where the woman finds the homeless junkie in her garage, whose life has been turned around by her son, whose gift of money allowed him to get new clothes, which enabled him to find a job. Maybe "paying it forward" can work, but this reminded me of Jeff Tyler's Homeless Economics report, which interviews a skid row alcoholic who concedes the amenities available to him are like a "real nice hotel", but says that he's just not ready to be sober, that he already has everything he needs; he prefers living in a tent on the street. Food is easily available, and clothes are so easy to get, "I don't even wash clothes any more, just take them off and throw them away, and put on something else." He gets clean clothes from charities. To get cash for beer, he does odd jobs, or buys junk food that he resells to the other homeless after the stores close.

OK, this anecdotal, it's Los Angeles, and "everything he needs" is damn little--I admire him for his lack of materialism (Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth...). Still, "new clothes" is not necessarily what everyone needs--or wants.

I had forgotten I mentioned Tyler's report earlier. I need some kind of index connecting my mind and my blog.

Monday, August 23

Why not ask a linguist?

Wendy Lesser recruited 15 writers whose mother tongue is a language other than English but who now write in English. Amy Tan
cites "Eskimos and their infinite ways to say 'snow,' their ability to see differences in snowflake conflagrations, thanks to the richness of their vocabulary."

Tan seems not to realize that this old canard about the Inuit having 32 different words for snow, or whatever the number, is pure myth.
Not exactly. See Anthony C. Woodbury's Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide, which points out that
Eskimo languages are inflectionally so complicated that each single noun lexeme may have about 280 distinct inflected forms, while each verb lexeme may have over 1000.
But he still comes up with some terms that don't really exist in English.

Tan also
quotes from an article in the New York Times Magazine that said the Chinese were so "discreet and modest" they didn't even have words of "yes" and "no." Was she wishy-washy, Tan wonders, because of linguistic programming rather than some innate aspect of her personality?
In "THERE'S MORE TO CHINATOWN", the novelist D. Keith Mano wrote in the NYT Magazine on April 24, 1988,
So discreet and modest are Chinese that, strictly speaking, there aren't even Cantonese words for "yes" or "no."
Anyway, she points out that there are equivalents for yes or no in Chinese. They depend on the grammatical context.

Still, why go to Amy Tan for advice about Chinese? I'm still laughing at her efforts to use romanization in her first novel. There was something like yi ta fa duo for yi ta hu tu 一塌糊塗 (even in Cantonese the last two are wu4tou4).

How are your decisions actually motivated?

According to Laura Spinney, Wolf Singer, head of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, extends the thesis that free will is an illusion, and "[his] claims have brought howls of outrage from academics across the sciences and humanities". Get it? Wolf? Anyway, he
argues that the human brain has to be complex to compute all the myriad variables that influence each decision we make - genetic factors, socially learned factors, momentary triggers including commands and wishes, to name a few. And because it considers most of those variables at a subconscious level, we are not aware of all the factors that make us behave in a certain way, just as we are not aware of all the elements of an object that are processed separately by our visual brains. As humans, however, we are able to extract some of those factors and make them the focus of attention; that is, render them conscious. And with our behaviour, as with the world we see, we yearn to build a coherent picture. So we might justify our decisions in ways that have nothing to do with our real, subconscious motivations...

One important implication of his argument is that treatment meted out to offenders should be less about revenge and punishment, and more about assessing their risk of re-offending, given the brain they have. Of course, this already happens. If a woman has been driven to a crime of passion after severe provocation, having otherwise lived an exemplary life, she is considered less of a danger to society than a man who has frequently abducted teenage girls, raped and murdered them. Another corollary of Singer's ideas that he recognises will be harder for people to swallow, is that the consequences of a crime should be considered less important than they are, since an individual can only control his own actions and not those of others. For example, a driver seen running a red light should be treated the same way whether or not he hit the child who, unseen from the wheel, stepped into the road at the same moment.
So much for rationality. It's more a question of rationalization, which isn't necessarily rational at all.

Vegetables are good for you

Pamela Constable's Some Afghan Women Find Economic Freedom, Dietary Benefits in Vegetable Crops:
In Hazarajat, in Afghanistan's central highlands, a
casualty of the region's remoteness and chronic deprivation is nutrition. The picturesque river valleys meandering through Hazarajat are blanketed with wheat and potato fields, but farmers grow virtually no other crops. The daily diet of most families consists of bread, potatoes and tea, and U.N. studies have found that nearly one-third of Hazarajat's children suffer from stunted growth...
By growing cabbage, radishes, squash and other vegetables,
the women in Fuladi went from being the neediest members of their community to being among the top income earners. They developed farming skills unknown to local men, learned how to prepare and cook vegetables for their children, and discovered their own stamina improving in the process. The changes were radical and, perhaps unavoidably, suspect...

"They saw us bending over and taking stones from the fields. They saw us growing things that were not in our tradition. They said it was shameful for us to register with a [foreign charity]."

[A lackey of the evil imperialist West] plans to break another cultural taboo by opening a women's vegetable stall in the Bamian market. The Fuladi women appeared uneasy but excited about the plan, and they laughed nervously when asked to pose for photographs with their produce.

"You can send my picture to the world, but please don't show it in my neighborhood. That would be too shameful," Gul [27, a mother of six] requested, proudly opening her apron full of newly picked cucumbers.
Oh, the shame!
The Economist on China's problems with pollution & poor health care:
Still, solving these problems cannot be fast, easy or free of cost. One way or another, the government needs to claw back some of the gains that people have made in the boom years. Instinctively, people do appear to understand that in the new China, the ability to get rich carries greater individual responsibilities: the savings ratio has shot up to over 40%, one of the highest in the world. But as they are increasingly asked to pay—through higher taxes, medical fees and insurance premiums—for things the state used to provide, citizens will surely want a greater say in how their money is spent. China's Communist leaders may be on the way to tackling health care and pollution, but how they cope with growing calls for accountability remains to be seen. The courts, and increasingly-assertive media, can do a certain amount. But of democracy—the best form of accountability—there is so far not the slightest sign. Booming China has $470 billion of foreign reserves stashed away, and cash can soothe a lot of growing pain. But the demand for votes will grow.

Makes you sick

The Economist on China's health care system
In the long run, what China needs most is a health-insurance system that works. This should include insurance for private treatment (now non-existent), giving patients a bigger choice of facilities and stimulating private investment in hospitals. It would also need to ensure that those who contribute little or nothing to the system still get some coverage. In other words, the government needs to spend a lot more, particularly in the countryside and among rural migrants to the cities.

...In poor areas, including much of the countryside, the government will need to remain the primary provider.

Achieving this will involve changing priorities. Prestige projects may have to be abandoned. And there will have to be a fairer allocation of resources to address the current imbalance by which cities currently enjoy 80% of health resources despite having only 35% of the population. And to make sure it all works, there will need to be an effective system of oversight which China now sorely lacks. The idea of good corporate governance is novel enough in China, but in health care it is non-existent. A sea change is needed in everything from hospital management to the way central and local governments spend their money. Even so, slowly and reluctantly as it may be, China is beginning to discover that market forces alone cannot produce good health care.
So this is really going to happen?

Dirty joke

The Economist on China's pollution:
...progress on pollution is unlikely to be as rapid or uniform as the government and environmentalists desire.

Nor should it necessarily be. China's need to lift so many people out of poverty (the country's average annual income per head has only just breached $1,000), holds the edge over long-term considerations like sustainable development. The priorities of environmental activists, both foreign and Chinese, almost never reflect this. Greenpeace lobbies for China to invest in wind farms, an unrealistic answer to the country's power needs, while environmentalists from rich countries naively tell aspiring Chinese to eschew their new cars and air-conditioners...

Per head, China's water resources are among the lowest in the world and concentrated in the south, so that the north and west experience regular droughts. Inadequate investments in supply and treatment infrastructure means that even where water is not scarce, it is rarely clean. Around half the population, or 600m people, have water supplies that are contaminated by animal and human waste...

...According to the World Bank, China has 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities. Estimates suggest that 300,000 people a year die prematurely from respiratory diseases.

The main reason is that around 70% of China's mushrooming energy needs are supplied by coal-fired power stations, compared with 50% in America. Combined with the still widespread use of coal burners to heat homes, China has the world's highest emissions of sulphur dioxide and a quarter of the country endures acid rain. In 2002, SEPA found that the air quality in almost two-thirds of 300 cities it tested failed World Health Organisation standards—yet emissions from rocketing car ownership are only just becoming an issue. Hopes that China will "leapfrog" the West with super-green cars are naive, since dirty fuel messes up clean engines and the high cost of new cars keeps old ones on the road. Sun Jian, the second-ranking official at Shanghai's environmental protection bureau, estimates that 70% of Shanghai's 1m cars do not even reach the oldest European emission standards.
So those Tough Fuel Economy Standards won't make that much difference.
"The legacy of the old, centrally planned economy is that electricity and water are treated as free goods or goods to be provided at minimal cost," says the [Asian Development Bank's Bruce Murray]. Since the utilities cannot pass on the costs of cleaner water or lower power-station emissions to consumers, they fight any drive for higher standards and conservation tooth and nail. Even the central government is unwilling to impose price rises in basic services that could spark public unrest.

Water is an example. While customer tariffs have been raised in showcase cities, such as Beijing and Dalian in the north-east, water remains stunningly cheap in China. According to the World Bank, water for agriculture, which makes up three-quarters of the total used, is priced at 0.03 yuan (0.4 cents) per cubic metre, or about 40% of cost. More than half is lost in leaky irrigation systems. Meanwhile, the cost of more modern services, such as Guangzhou's solid-waste disposal, is entirely borne by the government.

Olympic silliness

Christina Larson points out the problems with a new venue every four years for the Olympics
The 1984 Olympics were notable for another reason: Under the guidance of Peter Ueberroth and with substantial corporate sponsorship, they were the first to turn a profit for the host city. Suddenly, the prospect of hosting the Olympics seemed not only an honor, but also an economic growth strategy--feeding the idea that it is right and fair to move the games around. Over the past three decades, a sub-industry of consultants and economic forecasters has worked with local chambers of commerce to perfect Olympic bids, urging municipalities to propose larger stadiums, and more lavish monuments, more extensive media facilities in order to beat the competition.

Alas, few cities have managed to repeat L.A.'s success: According to a 2002 audit, the government of New South Wales (the Australian state where Sydney is located) spent $2 billion Australian ($1.5 billion U.S.) to subsidize the 2000 Olympics, and has since taken in only a third that sum in tax revenue attributed to the games. In Sydney and elsewhere, some projects prompted by the Olympics--for example, improvements to roads and public transportation--may prove wise investments over the long haul. On the other hand, Olympic cities around the globe are now dotted with giant concrete stadiums and velodromes that sometimes strain for post-Olympic purpose.

Also, it was at Hitler's 1936 Olympics that the Germans introduced the Olympic torch; the first Olympic torches bore the logo of Krupp, the German munitions giant.

Monkeys like looking

According to Paul Glimcher, a leading neuroscientist at New York University,
Monkeys...have a rudimentary concept of economic choice, and researchers have discovered a medium of exchange-Berry Berry fruit drink-that can usefully stand in for money in a monkey's mental life.

To illustrate how monkeys make economic decisions, Glimcher's former colleague Michael Platt, now at Duke, has investigated how they value status within their troop. Male monkeys have a distinct dominance hierarchy, and Platt has found they will give up a considerable quantity of fruit juice for the chance just to look at a picture of a higher-ranking individual. This is consistent with field observations, Platt says, which have found that social primates spend a lot of time just keeping track of the highest-ranking troop member. It isn't known exactly why monkeys do this, but the finding might help explain the behavior of human beings who pay $1,000 just to sit in a hotel ballroom with the president. You can draw whatever conclusion you choose from Platt's finding that there is no quantity of juice sufficient to get a male monkey to look away from the hindquarters of a female in estrus.

The thing that's even more disturbing is in humans whatever is the sexual fetish is to a large extent social programmed, like the ancient Chinese fondness for bound feet, or the modern Western fondness for large breasts.

Control tightens anyway

Chinese Advocates of Reform Seek Help From Deng's Spirit By JOSEPH KAHN. Commie
party elders have used the 100th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's birth to emphasize the urgency of one great endeavor that Deng never embraced: overhauling the one-party political system.

In party political journals and interviews as the Deng centenary has neared, several retired leaders made unusually direct pleas to allow more media freedom and to introduce at least a measure of democracy, though all described their proposals as a way of improving rather than replacing Communist Party rule.

China's retired elders often are given latitude to explore delicate topics that incumbent leaders shy away from. But these comments by former leaders appear to reflect mounting internal pressure for Hu Jintao, the president and Communist Party chief, to put forward at least modest proposals for fighting corruption, introducing greater accountability and reducing censorship...

China has become something of a kleptocracy, with tens of millions of government and party officials using largely unchecked political powers to enrich themselves. Top leaders have called corruption a cancer that is eating away at the party's legitimacy and posing the greatest challenge since the street protests of 1989.

...the former party chief of Guangdong Province wrote, "Hasn't the central leadership repeatedly stressed governing according to law and protecting human rights?....But if we have laws and don't follow them, there can be no talk of the rule of law."

Nearly all of the recent commentaries on political change praised Mr. Hu as a potential standard-bearer and implicitly blamed Mr. Jiang for stifling change, both during his formal rule and now during his extended reign of influence.

Yet either out of caution or because he does not favor broad changes, Mr. Hu has tightened controls on the news media. He rarely allows discussion of sensitive issues, much less challenges to party policies.
It's not "replacing Communist Party rule". Well now my heart is at ease.

Sunday, August 22


Cut-and-Paste Propaganda Infiltrates Opinion Pages, By Paul Farhi starts with a warning about letters to the editor that are campaign talking points (as if the man in the street doesn't swallow all that stuff without thinking). Then he goes on to ask,
Remember all the spin and counter-spin about how much bounce in the polls, if any, Kerry would get from the Democratic National Convention?

Well, national polls haven't shown anything dramatic, but statewide polls are another story.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign has surged in a few of the states that will probably determine the electoral college winner, according to Realpolitics.com, which polls the polls.
Of course it's only a few states that matter, but when I try to go to Realpolitics.com, I get taken to www.amerika.com, which hardly seems non-partisan.

Is religion really at fault?

After Sam Harris presents an argument against the Christian Bible (although isn't it actually the Old Testament?) to write laws, he blames the Koran for terrorism:
President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed — for the moment — to bring the Constitution into conformity with Judeo-Christian teachings. But even if they had passed a bill calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, that would have been only a beginning.

Leviticus 20:13 and the New Testament book of Romans reveal that the God of the Bible doesn't merely disapprove of homosexuality; he specifically says homosexuals should be killed: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death."

God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents. While they're at it, members of Congress might want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because it turns out that God approves of slavery — unless a master beats his slave so severely that he loses an eye or teeth, in which case Exodus 21 tells us he must be freed.

What should we conclude from all this? That whatever their import to people of faith, ancient religious texts shouldn't form the basis of social policy in the 21st century. The Bible was written at a time when people thought the Earth was flat, when the wheelbarrow was high tech. Are its teachings applicable to the challenges we now face as a global civilization?...

Of course, the Bible is not the only ancient text that casts a shadow over the present. A social policy based on the Koran poses even greater dangers. Koran 9:123 tells us it is the duty of every Muslim man to "make war on the infidels who dwell around you." Osama bin Laden may be despicable, but it is hard to argue that he isn't acting in accord with at least some of the teachings of the Koran. It is true that most Muslims seem inclined to ignore the Koran's solicitations to martyrdom and jihad, but we cannot overlook the fact that some are not so inclined and that some of them murder innocent people for religious reasons.

The phrase "the war on terrorism" is a dangerous euphemism that obscures the true cause of our troubles, because we are currently at war with precisely a vision of life presented to Muslims in the Koran. Anyone who reads this text will find non-Muslims vilified on nearly every page. How can we possibly expect devout Muslims to happily share power with "the friends of Satan"? Why did 19 well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed, on the authority of the Koran, that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so easily explained. And yet, many of us are reluctant to accept this explanation.

Religious faith is always, and everywhere, exonerated. It is now taboo in every corner of our culture to criticize a person's religious beliefs. Consequently, we are unable to even name, much less oppose, one of the most pervasive causes of human conflict. And the fact that there are very real and consequential differences between the major religious traditions is simply never discussed.
As a non-believer I'm annoyed by the gullibility and irrationality of religious believers, but they don't have a monopoly on those qualities. Yes, they sometimes outrightly inflict harm. But on the whole they're harmless, and frequently do a lot of good. Besides, it's only a small minority of religious believers that engage in this kind of behavior. I think religion is just a tool populist rabble-rousers like to use against their enemies. Consider, for example, ethnic conflicts, which often little or no religious element.
In the eyes of most of the civilized world, the United States is now a rogue power — imperialist, inarticulate and retrograde in its religiosity. Our erstwhile allies are right not to trust our judgment. We elect leaders who squander time and money on issues like gay marriage, Janet Jackson's anatomy, Howard Stern's obscenities, marijuana use and a dozen other trifles lying at the heart of the Christian social agenda, while potentially catastrophic problems like nuclear proliferation and climate change go unresolved.
Good luck with that, given the standing of atheism in the US.

Risk sharing

Virginia Postrel on Timur Kuran's Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism (Princeton University Press):
In the 1940's, he said, nobody really knew what Islamic economics was. Historically, Muslims did not have distinctive economic practices.

In recent decades, Islamic economics has come to mean three things, all supposedly rooted in the "golden age" of seventh-century Arabia...

If you read an Islamic bank's charter, Professor Kuran said, "you will say, 'What a magnificent institution this is -- exactly what the Middle East needs.'" Islamic banks are supposed to act like venture capital funds, investing in good ideas from people who do not have the connections or collateral to get loans from conventional banks.

But Islamic banks learned the hard way that risk sharing does not work in countries where businesses keep false accounting records. "Many people came to borrow money with wonderful ideas, and they just walked away with the money," Professor Kuran said. The banks could not reliably audit the books, and if they took a client to court, the business would just claim a loss.

Consequently, the banks all started charging what amounted to interest for loans.

The most common way around the interest ban is known as murabaha. The bank buys a capital good, a computer, say, for a client, who agrees to buy it back, with a markup, at a particular time in the future. In effect, the markup represents interest.

Islamic economics, he writes, "has promoted the spread of antimodern, and in some respects deliberately anti-Western, currents of thought all across the Islamic world."

Strangely, the Islamist version of history eliminates everything from the mid-seventh century to the colonial period. Islamists ignore the many examples of advanced Muslim societies.

Saturday, August 21

Happy fiftieth birthday to me!

In the Analects 論語 Confucius says,

At fifteen I had the will to study; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew Heaven's fate; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desires without transgressing the norm.
(based on Charles Muller's translation). Whether Confucius meant knowing one's fate in the sense of accepting one's lot in life, this is how 知命 has come to be generally used.

I don't like to be pigeon-holed any more than lots of other people, but ironically I came to know my fate in this sense (which is actually pretty damn good) in my late 40's. During this past year I wrote an article that touched on this idea. It should come out in my fiftieth year.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Via Arts & Letters Daily: Anthony Daniels on a book published in 1910 by one Berkeley Moynihan, "one of the great surgeons of his day":
Reading Moynihan in the light of present knowledge, one has the same bittersweet sensation that one experiences on moving among the ruins of a wonderful but dead civilization: all that human effort set at naught, just as one’s own efforts (and passions) will soon be set at naught.

... everything that Moynihan thought he knew, earned at the cost of tremendous effort, was of trifling significance compared with what an idle medical student of today knows.
Don't believe the title I put up there--that's wrong, too.

Natural disasters and the rise and fall of governments.

I once saw someone who had an analog watch with the days of the week that could be adjusted to either English or Japanese; the Japanese days of the week had a single character 月 (Moon) for Monday, 火 (fire-Mars) for Tuesday, 水 (water-Mercury) for Wednesday, 木 (wood-Jupiter) for Thursday, 金 (metal-Venus) for Friday, 土 (earth-Saturn) for Saturday, and 日(Sun) for Sunday. At first I thought that this was copied from the Western names for the 7-day week, but then I found out that this arrangement had been mentioned in a very early text, so even if Japanese modernizers were influenced by the Westerners, there was still an ancient Chinese basis for this. While these are all the visible "planets", did the Egyptians and the Chinese arrive at the same order independently? Patrick Moran explains.

Anyway, I never got that watch. I wanted a self-winding watch, and all they had available when I changed planes in Hong Kong was English and Spanish.

Minus the Sun and the Moon, we have 5 items 五行 that have a whole bunch of other correspondences, and the term 五行 is also used in Chinese astrology. Many of the dynastic histories have chapters titled 五行記, which record unusual or freakish occurrences that are interpreted as signs of natural imbalance related to political upheaval. So the highly unusual weather or birth of a freak or even outrageous human behavior (a woman taking over a man's role, or someone wearing clothing that is just wrong) may be a sign of approaching rebellion, or even bad government.

All of this was prompted by the daily ablution's item on blaming Bush for Typhoon Charley. Similarly, there's a Chinese item here blaming "Jiang XX" for Chinese natural disasters.


Instapundit, for one, is laughing at Kerry for his talk of "searing". I probably have some verbal tic myself that people find enormously irritating. Oh, yeah? Well, stop reading!

Friday, August 20

No picture, unfortunately

This morning it was warm & drizzling, so I was wearing a tank top on my morning walk today, and twice I ran into Mike Lawrence who was doing a slow jog. He was wearing yellow goggles and a purple tank top. I thought he looked a little funny, but who was I to laugh in my bright blue tank top. Too bad no one got a picture of us 2 old (I'll be 50 tomorrow) queery looking guys.

How Outsourcing Creates Jobs for Americans

Bruce Bartlett says,
increased economic globalization has caused jobs to move to the United States as well as away from it. And because of the higher, increasing productivity of American workers, the jobs that move here pay more than the ones that leave.
(via Xander Stephenson via pejmanesque)

Thursday, August 19

The massacre was unavoidable?!

China Ex-PM Moves to Wash Hands of 1989 Massacre, by Benjamin Kang Lim cites Li Peng on the 6/4/1989 massacre:
"Putting down that political disturbance ensured the long-term stability of the country and provided indispensable conditions for China's future development and improvement," Li said, echoing a view shared by a growing number of Chinese.

An increasing number believe the massacre was unavoidable and paved the way for the stability and breakneck economic growth that have followed, but many still feel the authorities overreacted by sending in troops with tanks.
So you see, censorship accomplishes something.

Wednesday, August 18

Quick work!

Just days after Edward Cody writes an article celebrating Huang Jingao 黄金高's battle against corruption, he writes another describing the removal of his letter, originally posted on the People's Daily website, and how the commmie party's national publicity department, which is in charge of official censorship, ordered newspapers and broadcasters not to report anything more on him.
Fuzhou city authorities, with jurisdiction over nearby Lianjiang county, announced that Huang, by denouncing corruption, had committed a serious breach of party discipline that could help China's enemies abroad and weaken stability within. Party and government authorities in Fuzhou reached their conclusion at a meeting Friday about the same time Chinese readers were learning of Huang in their newspapers and cheering him on in a flood of Internet postings.
This is NOT what it's like under the Bush administration, OK?

Is Kaohsiung really ready?

Kaohsiung looks to Athens games for sports lessons--like what if hardly anyone shows up? Not to mention the public money they're going to pour away on this.

Who's right?

The Marketplace Morning Report for 6:50 had a report (starting at 3:32 minutes into the broadcast) about wind power, mentioning some opposition, but then cited a defender saying that 80% of the British support it. However,
Ministers may be right when they argue that wind power is the only renewable energy source that has even a theoretical chance of meeting the government's targets. Given the costs and technical uncertainties, perhaps it would be better to abandon those targets altogether.

"Social" or "economic" reforms?

NPR's Emily Harris reported on what Linda Wertheimer calls "unpopular social reforms" in her introduction. I'd call them economic reforms. Harris reported
Unemployment across Germany has been above 10 percent for more than five years. Jobs are less of an immediate worry in Sindelfingen since a new labor agreement with DaimlerChrysler guarantees several thousand manufacturing positions at the local plant for the next eight years. But that deal also reflects the growing pressures in Germany. Employees agreed to longer hours after the company threatened to move the work to other plants, including overseas.
She really needs to read the Economist to put those longer hours in context. The Economist reports Daimler had sought an increase from Germany's standard 35-hour working week to a 40-hour week, but did not even get that. Even French Socialist Party officials admit
putting the 35-hour week into law was a mistake. It is holding back economic growth and the competitiveness of French firms, scaring off foreign investors and killing job creation.

In Germany the 35-hour week, introduced in the decade before 1995, is one of many factors that have raised labour costs to levels that have stifled growth and dulled productivity.
Why is the 35-hour week such a bad idea? Because
Symbolically significant as it became in its own terms, the 35-hour week was also part of a wider European approach to sclerotic labour markets that can now be seen to have comprehensively failed. In many countries besides France, the cure for high unemployment has been sought in the encouragement of shorter working hours. Another common response to growing insecurity about jobs has been to increase job protection and make it harder to fire people. And a widespread reaction to growing global competition that has lowered pay at the bottom end of the market has been to entrench high minimum wages.

As many pointed out at the time, these measures made little sense. The notion that there is a fixed amount of work to be shared out, so that shorter hours for all must mean more jobs, is widely derided by economists as the “lump of labour” fallacy. Making it harder to fire people serves mainly to discourage hiring them in the first place. And high minimum wages translate not into better-paid workers but into more people without jobs. These observations are no longer just matters of theory: the recent experience of France, Germany and other continental European countries shows that they apply in practice too. As the OECD's recent Employment Outlook noted, the empirical evidence points to a clear correlation between high levels of job protection and high levels of unemployment.

Belatedly, Europe's governments are realising this, and coming round to the need to free up their labour markets, not tie them down in even more red tape. Indeed, they have begun to grasp that excessive regulation of labour markets, far from being a sensible response to slower growth, is actually a significant cause of it. Deregulating labour markets need not mean sacrificing all the protections of Europe's social model: countries such as Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands have shown that generous welfare systems and a strong safety net can be preserved even while allowing market forces to play more freely in the demand and supply of labour.
Harris also states that "Unemployment benefits have also been cut," but offers no figures. Germany's welfare system
has become a giant insurance policy, designed to cushion living standards. It has proved costly and counter-productive: a large chunk of the unemployment rate reflects the fact that the jobless have little reason to return to work.

Even compared with those in other generous countries...out-of-work Germans are well protected. People who lose their jobs get unemployment benefit of 60% of their previous earnings (or 67% if they have children) for up to 32 months. After that, payments drop to between 53% and 57%, but have no time limit.
Earlier, they presented this Long-term unemployment chart

And they explained:
When Americans become unemployed, relatively few stay jobless for long. That is not the case in several European countries such as Italy and Germany. This is one reason why their labour markets are malfunctioning. The longer that people are out of work, the less effectively they compete with those in employment, so overall unemployment has to be higher in order to keep wage inflation under control.
Perhaps someone's going to concede that even it's an economic reform, there are social costs. The trouble is, current policy also has a social cost. Yes, I know the people who established the 35-hour week did not intend to raise the unemployment rate, but that's what they did.


Also from the Economist
According to a new study from the McKinsey Global Institute, every dollar of corporate spending shifted offshore by an American firm—mostly, now, to India—generates $1.13 in new wealth for America's economy. However, when a German firm moves a euro to a cheaper place to buy services, its home economy is on average 20 cents worse off...

The biggest difference emerges when workers who have been fired in the offshoring process look for new work. In America, McKinsey estimates that around 70% of workers ousted in favour of offshore alternatives find new work within six months. In Germany, however, the re-employment rate is only around 40%. The reason? Above all, Germany's thicket of labour laws, which discourages firms from hiring workers who may prove a hard-to-shed liability. Admittedly, these same laws—which are increasingly under fire (see article)—also make it harder for German fims to shed workers to take advantage of efficiency-enhancing offshoring. The lesson: offshoring may be an easy target for politicians, but if they have flexible labour markets it may actually be a good thing, not just for big firms, but for everyone.

Tuesday, August 17

At last!

Mister Donut Shops to Open in Taiwan
TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan's President Chain Corp. and Japan's Duskin Co. signed an agreement Tuesday to form a 50-50 joint venture to start a Mister Donut chain in Taiwan.

The first store of the venture, called Mister Donut Taiwan Co., will open in Taiwan's capital, Taipei, in the fourth quarter of 2004, the companies said in a joint statement...

President Chain, a unit of Uni-President Enterprises Corp., operates 7-Eleven shops, Taiwan's largest convenience store chain. It also operates Starbucks coffee outlets.

Duskin owns Mister Donut stores in Japan and also makes household cleaning products, ranging from mops and deodorizers to air purifiers.

The President-Duskin partnership expects to open 100 Mister Donut stores in Taiwan within the next five years, said C.Y. Kao, chairman of Uni-President Enterprise Corp.
Several years ago the bakery in the basement of the 大力 Isetan dept. store in Kaohsiung made some delicious things something like a cake donut but without the hole. They were absolutely delicious. I keep going back there hoping to find them; no such luck. I hope Donut Sensei donuts are the cake type and not the glazed type, and don't taste like household cleaners. As for crispy creme donuts, they're a little disgusting.

Mean bastard

I just heard NPR's program arguing that lower calorie diets were not available to those with less money.
In the battle against obesity, it's not just what you eat, but what you can afford. Studies of adjoining rich and poor neighborhoods show obesity rates can differ drastically across economic lines. We look at the dollar and the fight against obesity.
The assumption seems to be that a low-carbohydrate diet is the way to go. So how come hi-carb eaters (South & East Asians) are so much thinner than Americans? One woman they interview says that salads are too expensive--$4 a pound. So why not bring your own salad? Make your own sandwich? Bring your own fruit!


Michael Powell's Contraband (1940) was OK, but nothing special, even if, as Jeff Ulmer says,
What makes the film unique is that Powell uses the confusion and blackout conditions as a tool for his characters to move around in...
Clearly the reason the library has it is just because of the famous director.

The director is again the reaon for having Joseph Losey's lousy Eva (Eve; 1962). We watched the DVD with the original uncut version (poorer quality and with Finnish subtitles), which could have had almost the whole first hour cut. It's nearly unwatchable.

The Lathe of Heaven (the 1980 TV version). Like most science fiction has a good idea that doesn't go much of anywhere. And the plot had an enormous hole in it; if the dreamer could change the world, including the doctor's memory of it, how could the doctor ever figure that out? OK, he witnesses the change once, but after that he apparently remembers what he shouldn't be able to. Still it's interested to see Bruce Davison in something other than the creepy roles I'm used to seeing him in, like The Practice.

We found Ride with the Devil (1999) watchable, even though some critics disliked it because it did not take a stand against slavery. Roger Ebert similarly can't figure out why a former slave would fight on the southern side, even though the film makes clear it's out of personal loyalty. It seems to me as if both he and J. Hoberman didn't much like the movie because they couldn't find any symbolism or irony to make themselves look clever. Or one could say that the movie wasn't deep enough for them. The language I found overly quaint; it makes you wonder if Ang Lee has a tin ear. And then I kept expecting Tobey Maguire to turn into Spidey.

Speaking of other roles, it's a good thing I didn't watch The X Files much, because Gillian Anderson plays the lead role in The House of Mirth (2000). It's a good movie, but I can't help but feel that Anderson's Lily Bart brought it on herself by gambling.

Monday, August 16

Democratic hypocrisy

Christopher Hitchens in the NYT Book Review gives us this quote from Kerry:
If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president, in effect, who already had the votes and who was obviously asking serious questions about whether or not the Congress was going to be there to enforce the effort to create a threat.
Was that ever a Kerryism of the Day? Hitchens also wonders,
To hear Kerry speak in Boston, you could draw the conclusion that past military service is not just a good qualification for the presidency, but the equivalent of a necessary condition. If this is true now, why was it not so true in 1996 or 1992?
Yeah, it's pretty funny to see many Democrats insisting on how military experience is indispensible in a president. Both of these points have occurred to me before, but merely suggest that Kerry is not much different than Bush.

What is Liberal Studies?

The NYT (above) identifies Hitchens as,among other things,"a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School University". What is Liberal Studies? The New School University explains,
The Liberal Studies curriculum offers graduate training in intellectual history, cultural studies, and the art of fine writing, bringing together students of social thought, philosophy, the arts, and current affairs who wish to work on the quality of their prose while simultaneously learning to master new modes of serious inquiry, both academic and journalistic. Among the program’s faculty are distinguished writers as well as accomplished scholars. Special attention is paid to the main currents in Western thought—and also to the cutting edge of modern critical and multicultural theorizing.
Not so different from Bartleby.com's definition of liberal arts
Academic disciplines, such as languages, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, and science, that provide information of general cultural concern
or as m-w.com defines it,
the studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills
I've got to say I'm more and more concerned about the lack of skills involved, not to mention the fact that "the cutting edge of modern critical and multicultural theorizing" does not, in my experience, contribute anything to enhancing developing reason and judgment--rather the opposite. A lot of modern theory seems aimed primarily at either celebrating certain historically oppressed or marginalized groups, mainly limited to the categories of race (anything but white), gender (which usually seems to mean something connected with women or gays), or class (working class), or castigating their oppressors (white heterosexual upper- or middle-class males) while ignoring other avenues of analysis.

Saturday, August 14


"The quality of your product compensates for other shortcomings", or words to that effect. Apparently it's a fairly recent mainland saying.


Sniping from China and DPP legislator drives out TV host
Popular talkshow host Wang Ben-hu (汪笨湖) quit his job at the Chinese Television System (CTS) late last night after accusations by Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Shen Fu-hsiung (沈富雄) that his program was sparking ethnic conflict.

Wang issued a statement announcing he had resigned from the show, Taiwan Advancement, also citing China's new ban on entertainers appearing on CTS as one of the reasons.
By China, they clearly mean CTS, unless commie China's regulations now apply to Taiwan.
CTS canceled long-running soap operas to give the valuable 8pm slot to Wang's political commentary program.

"Since I started the program here, I have caused CTS president Chiang Hsia (江霞) a great number of problems. I am willing to resign in order to restore harmony [to CTS]," he said in a statement.
"Resigned", Ha! I bet he was pushed.

Aside from the bad habit of stirring up ethnic hatred that some pan-green people have, and aside from the question of the DPP's (backed by Chen Shuibian) using CTS to further its political influence over the media, it looks like Chiang Hsia may have decided not to run the station into the ground. Surprise, surprise. Or maybe rules count for something in Taiwan. That would be a bigger surprise.

Friday, August 13


In Chen Chien-jen upbeat on his posting to the EU, Melody Chen writes,
After announcing the cancelation of former foreign minister Eugene Chien's (簡又新) appointment as representative to the EU, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Chen (陳唐山) confirmed late on Wednesday night that Chen Chien-jen would fill the vacancy...

Asked whether the canceling of Chien's appointment was a result of the UK representative office's blunder in issuing a passport and legal documents to Yeh Hsiu-chen (葉秀貞), wife of fugitive murder suspect Andrew Wang (汪傳浦), Mark Chen said: "I don't know. I cannot say."

Mark Chen's comments seemed to contradict his position on Wednesday, in which he strongly hinted that there was a link.

The foreign minister apparently did not indicate to Chien that his appointment had been canceled prior to his announcement at the press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Learning the information from reporters, Chien phoned Mark Chen after the press conference but the minister was said to have missed the call.
It sounds like he's being hung out to dry. And none too soon. Earlier a Taipei Times Editorial wrote,
When Taiwan's representative office in Britain issued a new passport and documents authorizing real estate transfers to Yeh Hsiu-chen (葉秀貞), the wife of Andrew Wang (汪傳浦), who is wanted for his involvement in the Lafayette scandal, it caused a political storm.

The entire country is now wondering how such a mistake could occur, not once, but twice.

Pan-blue legislators have raised tough questions that suggested the scandal was not just a mistake, and the Taiwan Solidarity Union's (TSU) legislative caucus has reported the issue to the Control Yuan, asking it to investigate the officials handling the matter: Tien Hung-mao (田弘茂), Taiwan's representative to Britain, and former foreign minister Eugene Chien (簡又新).

...before becoming foreign minister, Chien had to resign from his post as transportation and communications minister in connection with corruption surrounding highway construction projects. However, coming from a respected Taoyuan family adept at manipulating private relationships with high-level leaders, Chien was still trusted and given important posts by two consecutive presidents, even after his resignation. He advanced quickly in rank....
That's pretty negative. Let's see if the DPP resurrects him again. I hope not, but if they did, it wouldn't be the first time. As to Chen Chien-jen, the Taipei Times elsewhere admits that both Taiwan's new de-facto ambassador to the US, David Lee (李大維) and Chen are "stalwart Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) member[s]" and conceded that David Lee "was chosen because of his wide-ranging diplomatic experience and expertise". Well, I hope these two aren't corrupt. Certain DPP elements despise the KMT so much, they won't trust anyone from there...except Lee Teng-hui.

Thursday, August 12

The Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism

Niall Ferguson suggests that Europeans work less because they're atheists.
You see, the most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity, both in terms of observance and belief.

According to the Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes (conducted in 1999), 48% of people in Western Europe nowadays almost never go to church; the figure for Eastern Europe is just a little lower at 44%. In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than one in 10 of the population now attends church at least once a month. Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland does more than a third of the population worship once a month or more often.

By contrast, more than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more.
Bollocks! Correlation is not causation. (Not that I have anything against atheism--or sloth.)

Irony I

I found Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) overblown. According to Roger Ebert, many elements of the movie, such casting half out of the closet Rock Hudson as one of the male leads are supposed to be snarky commentary on American society:
...surely Sirk was smiling when he directed it; he's subverting the very lifestyle he celebrates. His use of artificial and contrived effects, colors and plot devices is "a screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of American family and business life," says film critic Dave Kehr, and encompasses deliberate distancing "that draws attention to the artificiality of the film medium, in turn commenting on the hollowness of middle-class American life".
If that's the case, then what about All That Heaven Allows (1955), similarly brimming with "artificial and contrived effects", but where Rock Hudson plays the free spirit, and promotes Thoreau's Walden? Isn't that making fun of people who give up the middle-class life? Oh, I see: when it's the bourgeoisie, he's making fun of it, but he would never ridicule the sainted bohemians. The other thing about both movies is even though Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Rock Hudson were all around 30 in the later movie, the two women looked too old. On the other hand, Jane Wyman was about the right age for her role in the earlier movie.

Irony II

We saw the DVD of The Sand Pebbles (1966). It was interesting to see if we could recognize anything in Taiwan, where it was filmed. Some of the river scenes looked like Tamsui, but the director Robert Wise and the actors interviewed (Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, and Mako) identified one setting as Tamsui one time and Keelung the other. Of course Candice Bergen in particular wanted to make it all about Vietnam. Despite big talk about what great friends everyone was, Mako was the only one to mention the actress who played the Chinese girl Maily, saying she kept to herself.

It turns out that she is Maryat Rollet Andriane (aka Emmanuelle Arsan), and had already written Emmanuelle as we see from this site, which shows her topless on a couple of book covers. Yep, if the gossip on the web is right, she's the Thai, possibly Eurasian, who married her husband, Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane (at one time Special representative of the Director of the International Council of Monuments and Sites of UNESCO) when she was sixteen, and later went on to create the Emmanuelle franchise. I guess her fellow actors were embarrassed by that or something else she did while they were filming in Taiwan. She didn't have much of a role, but she did OK with it.

If we can laugh at homosexual Rock Hudson playing the hetero love interest in the fifties movies, maybe we can laugh at the fact that even when she played the good girl, she got to show a little skin (when the baddies lifted her shirt, which showed her bra).

Why did he kill them?

Public Access (1993) Directed by Bryan Singer and co-written with Christopher McQuarrie (who were also resposible for The Usual Suspects) was an incoherent mess.

Commies vs. Christians

In Soothing Hong Kong With Symbols: Bible Exhibit Is Latest Gesture by Beijing Since April Decision to Stifle Democracy, Edward Cody writes
The two antique volumes were among dozens gathered by China's officially sanctioned Christian churches and put on display in Hong Kong's sleek harbor-side convention center. It was the Communist government's latest gesture to reassure this former British colony, particularly its 600,000 Christians, that being ruled by Beijing is nothing to fear.
Unless they are members of the independent church, as CHRISTOPHER BODEEN wrote in Chinese Sentence Three Church Activists:
A Chinese court on Friday sentenced three activists in the independent Protestant church to up to three years in prison for leaking state secrets, a court official and overseas church activist said.
The crime? They were declared
guilty of passing on information to an overseas magazine about a court case involving another member of the independent church...[and] of passing on information about the destruction of unofficial churches outside Hangzhou in a crackdown last year....
Well, that's reassuring.