Thursday, March 31, 2005

Lies, damned lies or statistics?

I don't know what to make of this article on the BBC News website, as the report apparently has not been released yet and I haven't seen much discussion of it in the MSM. At any rate it seems safe to take it with a grain of salt. Don't miss the comments... (via Instapundit)
I am incredibly sorry for those children who are suffering, and I find it sad that they should be used for political purposes.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Confusing ideas

I have not written about Terri Schiavo because I don't feel I can add anything to the debate. However this post from the generally stimulating Andrew Sullivan is so outrageous that I feel compelled to say something.
Andrew has managed to conflate a slew of issues which have absolutely no bearing on the case at hand to make a few raving accusations, for example:

It's been clear now for a while that the religious right controls the base of the Republican party, and that fiscal left-liberals control its spending policy.


When conservatism means breaking up the civil bond between a man and his wife, you know it has ceased to be conservative. But we have known that for a long time now. Conservatism is a philosophy without a party in America any more. It has been hijacked by zealots and statists.

I am Jewish, I believe that gays should be allowed to marry like anyone else (by the way, it's unbelievable how gay issues wiggled into this debate from left field...) and I am conflicted about euthanasia. At the same time I have great respect for the people who have expended enormous amounts of energy to ensure that Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube not be removed. This depends on the fact that there seem to be fundamental differences in this case that make the removal profoundly objectionable:
  • The removal causes Mrs. Schiavo to starve to death over about two weeks. I suspect this fate is more painful than the state she is in right now.
  • She did not leave a living-will, therefore noone knows what she would have wanted to do in this case.
  • Her husband, who wants the tube removed and whom I sincerely feel for, clearly has ulterior motives (wants to close this chapter of his life, wants to remarry etc.) which, any fair minded person would recognize, cloud his judgement on whether this was his wife's real will.

In this particular case, running the gamut of legislative and judicial options to extend this woman's life, even contrary to her husband's will, seems to me the right option. See this and this. I suspect that nonetheless Congress should not have gotten involved. However I believe Andrew's hate for the religious right (whose policies I often disagree with) has blinded him to the fact that this is not a case of gay marriage, or euthanasia of a person who is able to express her will. The zeal with which the removal of this helpless woman's feeding tube is advocated in some circles is, to put it mildly, in extremely bad taste.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Chilling wind from abroad

This article (via Instapundit) brings to mind a discussion I had a few weeks ago with my (British and Spanish) flatmates, during which they claimed that in the US there is no real freedom of the press. Oh, the irony! How is it possible that an advanced democracy like the UK should have such draconian defamation laws? Is this what you call freedom of expression: having to be able to prove in a court of law the truth and basis for any statement that may offend anyone - or else risk punishment for defamation and libel?
And while freedom lovers wait for the UK to wise up, such scurrillous attempts to restrict freedom of speech, by plaintiffs who do not want to have to prove they were wronged (by suing in the UK, on "speech" that did not even occur in the UK!) have to be stamped out without mercy.
That does not mean that any and all speech must be acceptable. See this article for a cogent and stimulating argument on why speech that directly incites to and encourages violence should be restricted (through courts - with proof!).

Friday, March 18, 2005

Gender feminist exposed

I am a big fan of Christina Hoff Sommers and her book Who Stole Feminism?, so I was fascinated by the recent Estrich/Kinsley spat that everyone is talking about. For the story see this, this and this (via City Journal).
See Anne Applebaum's latest witty offering in the Washington Post (via Instapundit). And here is a great post (via Asymmetrical Information) with all the latest and links to interesting articles. What stood out particularly for me was this wonderful piece by Heather Mac Donald which closes with this interesting point:

Depressingly, Estrich’s crusade, no matter how bogus, will undoubtedly bear fruit. Anyone in a position of power today, facing accusations of bias and the knowledge that people are using crude numerical measures to prove his bias, will inevitably start counting beans himself, whether consciously or not. Michael Kinsley could reassure every female writer out there that Estrich has not cowed him by publishing only men for the next six months. It would be an impressive rebuff to Estrich’s blackmail. I’ll happily forgo the opportunity to appear in the Times for a while in order to get my pride back. (emphasis mine)

A noble sentiment indeed, which underlines the absurdity of Estrich's claims that she is out to help other women.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Political astuteness or Egg on his face?

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, whose outrageous statements and actions have long entertained supporters and opponents alike has apparently made another one of his blunders. Yesterday he claimed on national TV that Italy had set September 2005 as the date to begin withdrawing the Italian troops in Iraq, in agreement with Great Britain. Says the BBC:

Mr Berlusconi told Rai state television: "In September we will begin a progressive reduction of the number of our soldiers in Iraq." He said the exact numbers would depend on the Iraqi government's ability to deal with security. "I've spoken about it with Tony Blair and it's the public opinion of our countries that expects this decision."

Tony Blair has denied these assertions in the House of Commons, and has forcefully reiterated Great Britain's commitment to seeing the Iraqi operation to its natural conclusion, when the Iraqi security forces will be able to take over.
On first sight it seems Berlusconi has gotten himself in trouble again. However, I suspect that is not the case, and the Times (of London) has gotten the wrong end of the stick. Berlusconi knows exactly which side his bread is buttered on and when it counts he needs to give these people satisfaction. There are upcoming regional elections, and following the Sgrena/Calipari snafu and another recent military casualty he needs to distance himself somewhat from Iraq. Therefore he gave the mass audience of the popular Porta a Porta program the impression that Italy is withdrawing from Iraq, period, in September 2005 (mentioning briefly that Iraqi security forces will be ready to take over by then) and this is really all that counts. Blair will have to extricate himself from the false impression these statements give of his government's policy, the newspapers will cry foul because Berlusconi made explicitly false statements on TV (the withdrawal was not agreed with the UK), but the mass of Italian voters will only remember that he said the troops are coming home (he actually said they will start coming home), and that is all Berlusconi really cares about. In this regard it is a stroke of political genius. He has often made outrageous and often demonstrably false claims, but countering a statement made on prime-time TV is never as effective as the statement itself. What he is actually planning on doing he certainly won't tell us on national television. Years of Berlusconi rule should have taught all of us a lesson: never underestimate his marketing abilities.
It should also be noted how the anti-war Anglo-Saxon mainstream media is downplaying Blair's statements. The BBC says "Blair plays down Italy troop move"; at the moment My Way, the New York Times and the Washington Post don't even mention it. Blair isn't downplaying anything: he is explicitly contradicting what Berlusconi explicitly said. See the Italian papers: Corriere della Sera says "London corrects the prime minister," and La Repubblica says "Blair denies Berlusconi statement." It is funny how the lefty Anglo-Saxon media will do anything to put the American effort in a bad light, even play into the hands of one of their sworn enemies: Berlusconi, while the Italian lefty media hate him so much that they will focus more on making him look bad.

Who's better: Summers or Babangida?

There has been a public outcry in the blogosphere, as well there should be, following the symbolic vote of no-confidence that Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed against Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president. See this interesting and thorough post by an associate professor* who voted against the measure (via a comment to this post [read all the comments: they're great! My favourite: "Leftist academics never progressed beyond the social dynamics of a kindergarten class"]; via Instapundit).
As I love pithy quotes I can't help but mention this paragraph from Powerline:
Let us now recall the words of the great Willliam F. Buckley Jr.: "I would rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book, than by the Harvard faculty." The wisdom of Buckley's statement is proving timeless.
What I find worrying is not so much the patently absurd and unhinged-from-reality positions commonly held by many faculty members of prestigious universities in the US. Rather, what is most dangerous is their zeal in suppressing any opinion or idea they don't agree with in the most childish way. Surely, they honestly believe their opponents to be wrong, but it is breathtaking to see the limited horizons of their imaginations: that they cannot seem to conceive that there are opinions other than their own, that deserve to be aired and that there is a remote possibility that some of these opinions may be valid. I wonder how high they have set the bar for evidence that would force them to change their mind on anything. Let's hope that the increased public scrutiny of the faculty's positions and behaviour will be salutary for Harvard and the system as a whole.

*CORRECTION: as he notes himself in the comments he is actually an assistant professor. Which by the way underscores the courage of speaking out - as I understand it is easy to make enemies in academia and they can make life difficult at promotion time...

Sunday, March 13, 2005

At last, some honesty!

Eurochambres, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce, has announced an incredibly blunt report which claims that in economic terms Europe is 20 years behind the US (via Tim Blair).
The incredible thing is that in a whole number of critical indicators it will take Europe decades to catch up even if there is serious reform. However it is glaringly obvious to any observer of current attempts at economic reform that they are going nowhere. In Germany, France and Italy, just to name a few, in the past months timid legislative efforts were consistently watered down, and whole areas in urgent need of serious discussion (such as pension reform, and the flexibility of labor markets) aren't even brought up.
Reform will only be possible when the European population recognizes the shortcomings and inefficiencies in their economic systems. As many of these problems have been addressed in the US, it would be a good example to follow. However, until the media in Europe (with the tacit and active consent of the educated elites, who should know better) give the masses the patently false impression of the US system as inhuman and cruel, these self-same elites will be hard-pressed to find political support to save the European ship from sinking evermore behind.
The question is, how far must Europe sink before it can muster the strength and will-power to do something?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Are the roots of the meritocracy being poisoned?

This week's Lexington column in the Economist makes an interesting argument about the US education system and the SATs. The argument is twofold:
  1. The SATs engendered the most radical revolution in US higher education by laying the foundations for meritocracy: students were exclusively judged on their grades. However nowadays

    Universities discount test results when it comes to admitting star athletes. Or else they give a “slight advantage” to the children of alumni or professors. Or else they admit minority students with lower SAT scores, only to see a disproportionate number of them drop out because they can't cope.

    In order to return to the meritocratic ideal US universities should stop these practices and consider only grades and test scores in the application process.
  2. The actual content of the SATs has changed this year to include an essay, more algebra and reading comprehension and less analogy questions. This is bad because it actually puts minority or poorer candidates at a disadvantage, by requiring more notions (which are harder to glean from underprivileged schools) and testing less for innate talent.

While both arguments have their merits, I think the first point is absolutely fundamental, and it is for that reason that I think the time has come to abolish affirmative action. I cannot think of a rational reason to practice something as radical as discrimination, according to the above mentioned criteria, in this day and age. However I am not as convinced by the second argument. I have not seen the new tests, but I took the old version, and I feel that math, writing and reading comprehension were not stressed enough. I have the feeling that at the moment US colleges are forced to invest significant resources in teaching subjects and skills, such as written communication and math, that more appropriately should be dealt with in high schools and that the admittedly patchy US high school system is failing to provide. This new version of the SAT may channel the focus towards these subjects within high school curricula and, while I recognize the risks of fiddling with such a successful system, I think that it will probably turn out to have been a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Not only are they deadly enemies of ours, they are also weirdos! What on earth could Al Qaeda possibly want with Russell Crowe? Don't they know he is one of the most spoilt stars around? He'd probably give them a run for their money!
Anyway, the only logical step to take now is to make a Hollywood movie about a star who is targeted by a terrorist network. How's that for nombrilisme?

Exciting new technology

The United States is developing a non lethal weapon, designed to inflict pain and incapacitate without causing permanent damage (see here and here; I first saw this mentioned here). This would be an incredible breakthrough, enabling the US Army to intervene in crises, possibly even in combat, without causing casualties. The sooner it is available for use the better.
One would think that such a development would be hailed by all those pacifists who supposedly care so much for the preservation of human life. Instead we have eminent scientists coming up with these nuggets of wisdom:

Andrew Rice, a consultant in pain medicine at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, said: "Even if the use of temporary severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are unknown."

Isn't this guy incredible? Maybe he should analyze "the long-term physical and psychological effects" of death, amputation, paralyzation or bullet wounds!
We also get this extremely useful comment:
According to John Wood of University College London, an expert in how the brain perceives pain, both Richardson and Cooper and all those working on the PEP research project should face censure because any weapon resulting from the programme "could be used for torture."
You must be kidding me! Almost any sharp object can be used to kill someone, let alone torture them! If you are worried about torture you should focus on what actions are permitted by law not on limiting scientific and technological advances that have the potential of saving millions of human lives.
I would also note that this seems to me (though I have no technical knowledge in the matter) to be the ideal weapon against insurgents and terrorists in guerrilla warfare situations, as one of their strategic advantages with respect to armies is that they are difficult to identify and try to dissimulate themselves among (usually) innocent civilians.

Before and after: no change

Zacht Ei has translated part of an article that appeared in a Dutch daily paper by a journalist who met Giuliana Sgrena while travelling to Iraq (via lgf).
What I find most striking is how Sgrena's attitude doesn't seem to have changed by one iota after the traumatic events she went through. I wonder if she is even aware that it is her naïveté that caused this tragic episode.

Monday, March 07, 2005


I have translated the interview of Giuliana Sgrena I mentioned in the previous post.

“My kidnappers? Never did I consider them enemies”
Marco Imarisio
Corriere della Sera. March 7, 2005.

While she speaks her gaze is turned towards the television, where the lasting images flow. She, who in the morning unsteadily got off the ladder of the airplane, President Ciampi who in the middle of the night caresses the coffin of Nicola Calipari (tr. note: the Italian secret service agent who was killed while accompanying Sgrena to Baghdad airport). Giuliana Sgrena has not understood yet. She has not comprehended that each of her words, now, will be analyzed under a microscope and read in all their possible interpretations.
Seeing her on the hospital bed, listening to the speed with which she expresses her thoughts, one notices that she herself needs to speak. To exorcise, to attempt a personal accounting.

Q: You have said that you were treated well by the kidnappers.
A: That is correct. Why?

Q: In your first video you seemed desperate.
A: I was. I had not managed to spill a single tear up to that moment and I cry often. When I spoke of Pier (tr. note: her boyfriend), I started crying.

Q: What had the kidnappers told you?
A: They had asked me to dramatize. It was a difficult moment, because I was in an phase in which I was angry. I was upset and litigious. I did not understand their motives.

Q: What were your feelings towards them?
A: I never felt I was an enemy of theirs. It was not easy; I was in a submissive position. But I tried to understand them through the sentences we exchanged.

Q: And what did you understand?
A: They said they were fighting for the liberation of Iraq, they claimed they were at war and therefore forced to use all means available. They defined themselves Iraqi resistance. But they were not throat-cutters like Al Zarqawi or those of the car bombs.

Q: Is there a difference?
A: Sure. They would indicate throat cutting with their fingers and say: “We are not like them.”

Q: Not that kidnapping someone is a praiseworthy enterprise.
A: I have always supported the Iraqi civilian resistance. But in war, I can understand that one can reach certain excesses.

Q: Are you referring to kidnappings?
A: Sure. To clarify: Al Zarqawi is not resistance. It is terrorism. The car bombs are terrorism. There is an armed resistance that uses unacceptable methods.

Q: You consider this kidnapping a sort of defeat.
A: I lost and it is the reason for which I will not be going back to Iraq. Not now, at least. I wanted to tell of the devastating effects of this occupation. But to them now there is no distinction between soldiers and civilians, Italians or French.

Q: According to Pier, your boyfriend, you had information that could have annoyed the Americans.
A: I think he was misunderstood. I have no reserved information, though I wish I did. But it infuriates me to hear talk of a “tragic accident.”

Q: You have spoken of a “rain of bullets.” But Calipari was killed by a single bullet.
A: I remember that on the seat next to me there was a pile (tr. note: literally, “mountain”) of bullets. I couldn’t say how many. But I can say that in one moment all the car windows were shattered.

Q: What is your opinion?
A: I don’t know the whole truth. I think, but this is only a hypothesis, that the success of the deal could have annoyed someone. The Americans are against this type of operation. For them war is war and human life counts for little.

Q: There are those that accuse you of being anti-American.
A: It’s not a crime. The debate on these themes is conducted by people who have never set foot in Baghdad. I challenge anyone to actually go and see what happens in Iraq and not to be anti-American.

Q: Has this incident changed you?
A: It has not changed my personal beliefs on (the) war and on what is happening in Iraq.

Q: Are you not worried of being seen as ungrateful, as happened to the two Simonas (tr. note: two Italian hostages who were freed a few months ago and who subsequently praised their captors)?
A: It would hurt but I cannot rule out that it will happen. It would be a little hypocritical. It’s true, I do have my opinions. But even before I was freed they were well known.


Unfortunately, as an Italian, the occasions to be ashamed of one's fellow countrymen are far too common. The latest instance of this is Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist for the communist daily Il Manifesto, who was kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq and wounded by American soldiers while being brought to Baghdad Airport after she was freed by the Italian secret service. An Italian officer was killed in this incident. See this for an overview.
On the one hand we have Sgrena, who after reaching Italy said:

"The fact that the Americans don't want negotiations to free the hostages is known," the 56-year-old journalist told Sky TG24 television by telephone, her voice hoarse and shaky. "The fact that they do everything to prevent the adoption of this practice to save the lives of people held hostage, everybody knows that. So I don't see why I should rule out that I could have been the target."

The situation is simply surreal. Sgrena and the driver of the car have claimed that all levels of the US command were informed of their movements. However it is now emerging that the US forces were not informed at all, for fear that they would block the payment of the ransom (see here and here).
At the same time Sgrena claims this same opposition of the US to freeing hostages as the proof that they targeted her.
Can you please make up your mind? Was the US opposed to the ransom or not and was it informed or not? You can't have it both ways! According to this thinking, if it was informed (which now seems unlikely) the US would have blocked the transaction, and would have had no need to target Sgrena. If it was not informed (as seems to be the case) they could not have targeted Sgrena, because targeting by definition implies intention - and US forces weren't even aware that she had been freed!
On the other hand we have the Italian government which allegedly payed millions of euros to free Sgrena from her hostages. There are even rumors that the money actually came from the personal fortune of the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi (the richest man in Italy).
All this while Sgrena is declaring to all who will listen (see this absolutely incredible interview, in Italian, with Corriere della Sera, Italy's largest daily paper) that her kidnappers were not her enemies and that she was treated very well (apparently she even had access to cable news). I wonder how good a continental breakfast was served? Maybe a tour operator could take up the concept: "See Iraq the real way: be a hostage for two weeks!"
At any rate, what I don't understand is, if she was having so much fun with her insurgent buddies in Iraq, why did the Italian government go to such lengths to free her? (That's a rhetorical question: the answer obviously is that if the government had seemed less than keen to free her it would have suffered at the polls).
So in the end I guess this is a rant against Italian public opinion that encourages the government to act in an irrational and counterproductive way. I believe it goes without saying, and all rational people ought to recognize it: if you deal with the terrorists who kidnap people and demand something in return you are validating kidnapping as a means to an end. Kidnappers need to be hunted down and punished, not payed. If the insurgents knew that no government would ever even consider ceding to any demand in order to save a hostage there would be much less hostage-taking.
By the way, isn't it peculiar how these insurgents, with lofty ideas of freeing their suppressed nation from foreign occupation by kidnapping people, will forget about all that as soon as they are offered money? I suspect these may be just a few smart guys who have discovered an easy way to make a buck.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

This should make your blood boil.

In recent times, thankfully, public attention has increasingly focused on so-called "honor killings," a despicable and hair-raising practice in which Muslim girls are murdered by their own family members if they "stain the family honor." Apparently the practice is condoned in many countries in the Muslim world and is very difficult to catch, let alone root out, in the West because many members of close-knit Islamic communities have great respect for the perpetrators.
A great article to start with (via Instapundit) appeared in Tech Central Station. Also see this in Der Spiegel on a by-now famous case that took place recently in Berlin. Another chilling account can be found here in the Daily Telegraph.
In a related vein there was an outstanding article in February's issue of Commentary about what happens when Muslims try to convert to another religion. (See here for an exerpt.) Some of the statements by respected, visible and apparently Westernized Muslims quoted in that article simply boggle the mind - this is a must read!
I am all for multiculturalism and tolerance but this is a nauseating practice that must be stamped out and eradicated with the full force of the tools at our disposal: the perpetrators must be hunted down and punished, and the accomplices and silent bystanders must be prosecuted and given maximum sentences. Western states must step in and provide a safe haven for the potential victims and most of all the public must be made aware of the sickening acts that have been allowed to take place in our midst. I cannot imagine anybody, from any shade of the respectable political spectrum, countenancing such barbarity and it is for this reason that I really hope that the increased interest of the public will snowball into real and actual solutions.