Friday, September 30, 2005

Berlusconi's extraordinary countenance

This is hilarious. I have long argued that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a genius. Considering that for a whole host of reasons he should be unfit to lead a Western liberal democracy, that in domestic policy he has been an unmitigated disaster, and that his foreign policy, which I mostly agree with, is very unpopular among Italians, it is incredible that he still retains significant popularity among his subjects.
So you can imagine my relief when I discovered that a scientific explanation for this phenomenon has finally been found! Apparently Berlusconi affects a different part of our brain from all the other people we interact with on a regular basis. The findings appear in an article that is to be published in the scientific journal Cortex (via Corriere della Sera):
A patient (V.Z.) is described as being affected by progressive bilateral atrophy of the mesial temporal lobes resulting in semantic dementia. Vis-à-vis virtually nil recognition of even the most familiar faces (including those of her closest relatives) as well as of objects and animals, V.Z. could nevertheless consistently recognize and name the face of Silvio Berlusconi.
(There are no permalinks, so to find the abstract - at this time - click on "Papers in Press" in the left-hand column and scroll down to "How Berlusconi Keeps his Face: A Neuropsychological Study in a Case of Semantic Dementia" by Sara Mondini and Carlo Semenza.)
So I was right after all - Berlusconi has figured out how to etch himself into our brains even more permanently than our closest relatives and loved ones. If that is not a stroke of genius for a politician, I don't know what is.


I have the impression that a lot of Europeans continue to think that only countries that were involved in the Iraqi War have been and are going to be subject to terrorist threats, and that while terrorism is mostly unacceptable, it serves these countries right for getting involved in this imperialistic enterprise. This is total bollocks as Australian Prime Minister John Howard forcefully argued a while back, and here is further proof of this (via Instapundit):

The 7/7 bombings were all about the Iraq war, right? Ah, but alas the French don't appear to get a pass as a result of their noble non-interventionist policies...

As Winston Churchill said: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile - hoping it will eat him last."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Bureaucracies kill people and other complaints

Tim Worstall has a riveting article that underscores the gap between common perceptions and reality when it comes to the idiocy of how UN and EU aid-programs are administered:

So the World Food Program, that part of the United Nations that deals with such things is right on the case, yes? They have acted promptly? They have correctly identified the problem as a lack of purchasing power, not a lack of food? They have shipped in money so as to encourage local production in the future rather than dumping food? They have, in short, done us proud alleviated starvation as fast as possible and with the least possible future side effects?
No. Unfortunately not. They appear to have done exactly the opposite of all of those things.

Do read the whole thing. The damage is such that it is incredible to me that these policy disasters aren't the talk of the day. Here is an interesting page that tries to assess another scandalous "environmentalist" idea that is causing death and havoc across the developing world. Eurocrats and German environmentalists should be ashamed of themselves for letting this happen without protest, while whining about Bush.
Finally, in what for me is a rare exercise, I would also like to commend the BBC News website for this balanced article (via Junkscience) on the hurricanes and global warming:

The latest to succumb was the British newspaper The Independent, which screamed on its front page: "This is global warming", above an alarmingly portentous graphic of Hurricane Rita's projected path.
But is it global warming?

See here for approving comments from an eminent skeptic. On the other hand we have this article, with the headline: "Arctic ice 'disappearing quickly'", which, to say the least, does not present a complete picture.

International Freedom Center finally blocked

After a vigorous campaign on the part of many families of the September 11th victims, with the help of the New York Post and the blogosphere (in particular Michelle Malkin), the International Freedom Center has been finally moved from the WTC site:

Governor George Pataki said today he will direct development officials to drop plans for a museum of freedom at the World Trade Center site, saying it has stirred "too much opposition, too much controversy."
The International Freedom Center would have been put in a cultural center adjacent to a memorial for the Sept. 11 victims, and was part of the master plan for redeveloping the devastated 16-acre site of the nation's worst terrorist attack.
In the last several months, some victims' families, groups of firefighters and police officers and public officials said the center, which would feature historical exhibits expressing the worldwide struggle for freedom, would detract from the Sept. 11 themes and provide a possible forum for anti-U.S. messages.

It is a relief to hear that the site will not be used to distract from memorializing the victims and events of September 11th and I find it surprising that anyone could have thought such a thing appropriate in the first place. Here is the Wall Street Journal editorial by Debra Burlingame (the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, pilot of American Airlines fight 77, which was crashed at the Pentagon on that day) that explains why the IFC would have been a bad idea. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Nuclear waste storage

Now here is an interesting proposal:
A former Australian prime minister has proposed that the country offer to store the world's nuclear waste in its vast desert interior and use the money earned on environment and social welfare programmes.
Bob Hawke, who led a centre-left Labor government from 1983 to 1991, stunned political and business leaders when he made the proposal at an informal debate, widely reported in local media on Tuesday.
"What Australia should do in my judgment, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world's nuclear waste," Hawke said.
"Australia has ... geologically the safest places in the world for the storage of waste," he was quoted as telling a gathering of Australian alumni of Oxford University.
Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley said the plan was not party policy but Tony Abbott, the conservative government's health minister, said it was a good idea even though the government was not considering importing nuclear waste.
"It is a visionary suggestion but unfortunately there are a lot of politics in this," Abbott told Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) radio.
We absolutely need to have a more thorough public discussion of what risks are inherent in nuclear waste (both in dealing with the waste itself and regarding potential terrorist attacks) and what current and potential solutions are being considered. One often hears there are big problems but rarely is there any constructive debate on how these could be overcome.
Here is an interesting article on how dangerous radiation actually is:
The massive (some might say hysterical) reaction to the explosion in Chernobyl has its roots in the year 1958, when radiation scientists concluded that any amount of radiation could be dangerous and thus should be avoided. They had their data from the consequences of the nuclear bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had calculated the doses that the people in different circles around Ground Zero had received and correlated those with statistics of disease and death. A straight line emerged, which seemed to confirm a dose effect relationship: the more radiation one receives the higher the chance of death.
Not completely, however. Some people had received an amount of radiation that was about 50-100 times the normal, natural, background radiation that the rest of the Japanese receive (about 2.5 milliSieverts/year). In this group of so called Habakushas (bomb survivors) they could not find enough cancer deaths to create a decent statistic that showed radiation is carcinogenic even at these low doses. So the straight line of dose and effect suddenly stopped. The graphic should have read: No more data available but instead the scientists simply assumed that the dose-effect relationship would continue: any amount of radiation is dangerous. There is no level below which radiation is safe (a threshold) it was claimed, and they called it the LNT-hypothesis for Linear No Threshold. So soon after the devastating explosions of the two bombs this reasoning may be understandable, but even at the time several scientists protested it. A scientist bases work on data, not on assumptions, they said, but they were ignored. The LNT-hypothesis still has no scientific basis, but it is nevertheless the rule and the major cause of the disaster that Chernobyl ultimately became.
In the past half century it became clear that there are many places on earth where background radiation is 50, 100 or more times higher than the sea level average of 2.5 milliSievert. Parts of Iran and India and China, the beaches of Brazil, parts of Central Europe, the southwest of France, Norway. In all these places epidemiological studies were started and they produced a remarkably consistent picture: the people there have either the same or a slightly lower chance of cancer compared to their less-irradiated countrymen. They live just as long or a little bit longer.
Studies among radiologists and workers in nuclear factories gave similar results: a little extra radiation is either harmless or beneficial. And the same goes for studies of accidental exposure: high levels are dangerous, lower levers are harmless or are even beneficial. Researcher Sohei Kondo found in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that some people have a higher life expectancy after the bomb and a lower chance of cancer. And in Chernobyl it is shown again: the thousands of liquidators -- the firemen and emergency workers -- have the same chance of cancer as the average Russian population (somewhat lower, though not significant). This is why Jaworowski is convinced that the 4,000 radiation-induced cancer victims will never materialize in Chernobyl.
Do read the whole thing. It is important to realize, as the author points out further on, that spending money on anti-radiation measures, where this level of radiation is not harmful, takes away money from other more effective initiatives:
Research has shown that the average amount of money a hospital in the US spends to save a life is $44,000. That implies that if you waste a billion dollars you do not have enough money to keep more than 20,000 people alive. These are the real ethics of radiation protection (or protection against any other risk). If you spend your money on small risks you have nothing left for the big risks. And that is exactly what radiation scientists have forced us to do. The rescue operations in Chernobyl saved lives at a price of $2.5 billion each, according to Jaworowski.
No doubt the numbers can be haggled over, but just to get a general idea, for each person saved we gave up the possibility of keeping alive 50,000 people in the US, or any other number of projects around the world that could have saved more lives. Maybe we need to rethink our priorities...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant"

That is a comment made by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and the blogosphere certainly provides sunlight. It was argued recently that the blogosphere simply could not compete with the MSM over the hurricane coverage:

This week showed a major weakness in the blogosphere. While good things are being done all over for the victims, blogs were pummeled by the MSM as a whole and TV news in particular.
Blogs can't compete with this onslaught. While the blogosphere is a major part of the information wagon train, they are much better with slower moving issues such as the Dan Rather affair or the Trent Lott kerfuffle.

It turns out that the faith placed in most of the MSM was unjustified, again (via Instapundit):

I was wrong. I bought into the media hype about rapes and murders when I should have known better. The media was dead wrong with regard to all of these stories.

See here:

After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide.

Also see this roundup. And obviously we are talking about the media in the United States. Most of the European media doesn't even try to represent reality anymore (see here and here).

Always available?

My father sent me this cartoon from the New Yorker.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Megan McArdle links to this post by Michael O'Hare (on Mark Kleiman's blog) on the barbarity of boxing.
For those who don’t know, boxing is an exercise that uses two remarkable devices in a very odd way. One of them is a servomanipulator of incredible versatility, delicacy and precision, a gadget that can play a violin or caress a cheek or fix a watch or carry a suitcase. The other is a computer with capacities we still haven’t exhausted. It’s small enough to carry around at all times, and it can write a sonata for the violin, do rocket science and every other kind of science, and give advice to children. Try that with your laptop. Oh yeah; this computer is capable of love…the real thing, not reciting a script.
What’s truly amazing about boxing is how these wonders are used. You might think the computer could be hooked up to instruct the servo to make something incredibly cool, but you would be wrong. In boxing, the game is to take the servomechanism and use it like a hammer to whale on the computer until its little lights go out and it stops working. Usually the computer can be rebooted after this abuse, but it loses something every time and eventually winds up with dementia pugilistica, mumbling and bumping into things, cadging free drinks in cheap bars. If this isn’t substance abuse, I don’t know what is. It’s right up there with using a big Rubens painting as a tarp over your woodpile, but especially blasphemous in its trashing of God’s most remarkable creations.
A century ago the guy swinging the servo had to be careful not to break it on the computer case, but not enough lights got put out for good business, so we now wrap it up in padding that allows super-destructive, full-force whacks, and everyone watching has a good chance of seeing some real damage.
Should this be legal? Probably; the boxers are grownups and have to be allowed to manage their own lives. What I can’t understand is how this savagery can even be discussed by people who claim to be civilized, much less sold for money and treated like a sport. I know, people get hurt in all sorts of sports, but this is the one where the whole point is to hurt people, and not just arms and legs but the part that makes us human. Sure, there’s lots of cant about the science of defense and tactical blows to the body, but it’s the KO that sells the tickets. See the camera linger over Rocky Balboa’s bloody, blind, weaving face in the movie: sport? skill? Give me a break.
I must say that, though I don't agree with most of the ideas expressed on that blog, I find this statement resonates with me. There is no taboo-less human activity that I can think of that revolts me more than a boxing match.
Megan doesn't really say anything about it but there is a lively and eye-opening (at least for me) discussion in the comments. Many of them are in favor of boxing and most of the comments (except for the boxing/B&D comparison thread - what the hell?) make excellent arguments both for and against.
While it would clearly be hard to justify a ban (and I am certainly not calling for one) because the contestants and the spectators are willing adults, and it can even be argued that there is a nobility in the skills and discipline needed for this sport, not to mention how it can help channel a person's destructive impulses, I still feel it is an unseemly and uncivilized spectacle. Possibly this has more to do with the crazed looks and screams of the spectators and the (purportedly) distorted representation of boxing in the movies.
At any rate, I think this comment illustrates the issues most clearly:
People like me, who box and practice martial arts, [appreciate] the sport for its grace and skill. We can [see] which of the two contenstants in the ring is the better boxer at a glance, long before the 15th round or a knockout. We admire footwork, speed, and conditioning. I can watch boxing all day.
But people who actually know how to box represent a vanishingly small percentage of the people who watch boxing on TV. Probably 95% of people watching a typical PPV match know absolutely nothing about boxing and have never stepped into the ring in [their] entire lives.
Think of the guys at the frat house, or at the local sports bar, who show up to watch the Tyson fight. Why do they do it?
Personally, I think the explanation is twofold. First, a lot of them like to see a couple of guys beat the snot out of one another. To me, this is wrong. It's no different than watching Christians fight lions in the arena. There is something primtive, uncivilized, and sadistic about wanting to see men spill blood and suffer pain for no reason other than entertainemnt.
Second, a lot of guys think of the big fight as a male bonding ritual. They show up to watch it with their buddies becuase they think it is something that guys are supposed to do. This is okay, if a little pathetic.
Only 5% of the spectators have experiene with boxing and actually know what is going on.
I don't think boxing should be banned, but I do think there is something unseemly about the sport in its current form. It does cater to people's ignoble instincts.
Some of the commenters argue in favor of boxing along these lines:
Point three - LIFE IS NOT ALL PEACHES AND CREAM, BUDDY. There is a place in this world, a revered place, for people who are physically and mentally tough. It strikes at something deep in the human soul to see two men, in prime physical condition, fight to the finish. Its a part of human nature that predates our humanity. And it calls to the brave and powerful part of you that makes you stand up nose-to-nose with the bully and say "If you want to get to him, you're going to have to get past ME." And mean it.
My last point is not really an argument at all, more of an expression of a personal attitude. And, to be honest and fair, [it's] not right for me to judge other people, especially people who I don't know. That being said, no one has ever accused me of being perfect. So, now I must add that my impression of men who don't like boxing has always been that they are cowards. They denigrate it because it points right at an imortant part of them, and finds them wanting. They know that they would never have the guts to step into the ring against another man, and so they hide behind a facade of criticism. "I would NEVER fight anyone - not because I'm SCARED, but because its WRONG." Well, I'm sorry, but [it's] not wrong, and you are scared. And, because you are a coward, I hold you in contempt, and sincerely believe that you are less of a human being, and less of a man, than I am.
At the risk of being branded a coward, I would like to say that I have the feeling that violence can have a noble aspect only if it is targeted using intellectually sound reasoning. For example, I support the US troops and their activities abroad, but this is predicated on the idea that they are sent there by people who, while lacking their physical abilities, have developed intellectual, philosophical and moral arguments and received the public legitimacy to make those decisions. Otherwise violence is just violence and is at best, when engaged in willingly and responsibly, entertainment (and one of dubious value, in my view). I never wonder how I would measure up to a boxer: I wonder how I would measure up to these people.

Wishing for a surplus

Many Europeans absurdly think that the United States government is too limited and that Bush should expand its involvement in a range of areas, from healthcare to pensions and unemployment benefits. Unfortunately the problem is quite the opposite:
The startling bottom line on Bush administration profligacy is this: At $22,000 per household, federal spending is at an inflation-adjusted post-World War II high and set to go still higher soon as the Baby Boomers start drawing Medicare and Social Security. Reforming those entitlements will be tough enough. And voters will have good reason not to want to entrust that task to a party that can't even admit the wastefulness of bridges to nowhere in the wake of the new century's worst hurricane.
This is the one area in which I think President Bush has been seriously remiss, though Congress has played its part. Now there is a laudable effort by internet activists to counter this trend, called Porkbusters (more info here), and it is getting a lot of media attention.
Here is an excellent post by Chicagoboyz (via Instapundit) that almost makes me wish for an enlightened despot: no haggling, compromise, re-election worries or special interests - just a $347.47 billion surplus! Keep on dreaming.
Ronald Reagan memorably said in his first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." I hope the grassroots pressure will bring lawmakers back to their senses, otherwise they deserve to be booted out of Washington.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Today I went to see this touching movie about the last days of Sophie Scholl, a member of the Weisse Rose. A number of years ago I had the great privilege of meeting a gentleman (whose name I don't recall), who at the time was a teenager and helped out the Weisse Rose by delivering packages for them around Munich. He was one of the few involved who survived the war and I remember how fascinating and exciting it was to hear about the events, and those incredible people who risked (and gave) their lives for the universal principles they held dear, from someone who knew them and was part of their enterprise. The acclaim which their story has reached is their best vindication.
In Mussolini's Italy (which, fascist and brutal though it was, never reached the heights of folly of the Nazi regime), there was a somewhat similar (but less wrenching) story. When in 1931 all university professors in the country were forced to swear allegiance to Mussolini's regime, 12 heroic individuals (out of 1,250) refused to do so with the legendary phrase "Preferirei di no" - I would prefer not to (swear allegiance), and with that gave up any possibility of working in Italy.
However one of the most incredible stories of heroism during World War II that I have ever heard is that of Giorgio Perlasca. When I was a child I had the incredible honor of meeting him too, before he died in 1992. He was pleasant and lively and I remember being completely mesmerized by his account of the last time he saw Raoul Wallenberg (with whom he collaborated, and of whom I had just read a biography) before Wallenberg was (presumably) abducted by the Soviets and never heard from again. The Banality of Goodness is an excellent book that tells his inspiring story (the original Italian version can be found here).

Shabbos encounters

On Friday night I went to this event organized by the ECJS and the UEJB, and I met the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yona Metzger, which was quite interesting. He spoke eloquently and it was a very pleasant Shabbos dinner. I also met some friends and I made the acquaintance of several fascinating people: the head of the Transatlantic Institute, an editor at the European Jewish Press, the press officer of the third largest parliamentary group in the European Parliament, an assistant to a Polish MEP (member of the European Parliament) and many more. We had a lot of stimulating discussions and my head is still spinning from it all.

The company they keep

There has been a lot of talk about yesterday's Washigton DC protest march against the war in Iraq. Not the right talk, however:
The media have pushed the idea that the demonstration this weekend at the White House was an "anti-war" gathering. What they didn't say was who was behind it.
No doubt, many fine, sincere people demonstrated this weekend against the U.S. liberation of Iraq. Being Americans, they're certainly entitled to do so.
Maybe they even endorsed the view of those who organized the demonstrations. On Thursday, the organizers ran a two-page ad. On one, they called the Bush administration liars. On the other, they ran the names of all those who have died in Iraq.
But we'd be surprised if those well-meaning folks understood whose banner they were marching under, because the media aren't reporting it. For the record, the lead organizer is ANSWER, which the media routinely refer to as an "antiwar group."
It is nothing of the sort.
In fact, ANSWER is a front group for the Stalinist Workers World Party. And any group that qualifies for that epithet in front of its name deserves special scrutiny, since Josef Stalin was responsible for the murder of as many as 25 million human beings.
Well, you might ask, does it really matter? It sure does.
Imagine for a moment it was a different group that sponsored the demonstration — say, a neo-Nazi group. Think The Washington Post and other media would report that? You bet they would.
After all, Adolf Hitler and his thugs were some of the worst mass murderers of all time. We would expect — no, demand — media to report that a demonstration attended by hundreds of middle class moms, concerned fathers and pacifist students was in fact organized by Brownshirts.
So why do communists — particularly those who march under Stalin's flag — get different treatment? And why do thousands of average people feel comfortable marching arm in arm with them?
Instapundit has roundups here and here. There seems to be some slight argument about the turnout. Was it 2,000 or 300,000? Well, see for yourself (via memeorandum). I am always rather skeptical about the figures: I once went to a rally in Milan, which was attended by no more than 500 people - I could see this with my own eyes - and the organizers told us to our face, to wild applause, that we were 10,000.
Whatever. The important thing is that Bush follow this path (instead of what the protesters want).

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Business as usual

Even I, ever the cynic, did a double-take when I saw this headline on BBC News:
Katrina prompts charity not change

[...] The real question - putting it baldly - is whether there is going to be a revolution.
Will the American social and economic system - which creates the wealth that pays for billionaires' private jets, and the poverty which does not allow for a bus fare out of New Orleans - be addressed?
What?! I didn't know the BBC had become Schroeder's mouthpiece. See Instapundit's roundup. Incredibly even NPR's ombudsman was moved to comment on the BBC's bias and lack of taste:
I am sure that the BBC is not inventing these interviews. But the effect is that it sounds less like reporting than like caricature. Public radio listeners likely understand what is going on -- that BBC cultural assumptions about the United States remain mired in a reflex European opposition to American foreign policy. But what comes through the radio sounds mean-spirited and not particularly helpful; it probably evokes knowing glances and smirks among editors and producers back in London.
I say abolish the BBC licence fee - European media need more competition!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Heating up (no, not another post on global warming)

Italy is in a shambles at the moment (or rather, in more of a shambles than usual). Nonetheless I am quite happy with the government today:
Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said Bank of Italy governor Antonio Fazio's continued stay in office is 'incompatible with national credibility'.
Berlusconi was speaking after a meeting of government party leaders, who unaminously named deputy prime minister Giulio Tremonti as economy minister to replace Domenico Siniscalco, who resigned last night.
'In the course of the meeting, the conviction emerged that the stay in office of the governor of the Bank of Italy is no longer opportune, nor compatible with the international credibility of our country,' said Berlusconi.
Took them long enough, but I'm still happy. Too bad the finance minister, who was rather good, had to resign.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

There is still no connection

Here is an excellent article which debunks recent claims in Science and Nature that there is evidence that there is a higher incidence of strong cyclones correlated to global warming.
A scientific team led by Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology today published findings in Science magazine. The team claimed to have found evidence in the historical record of both more tropical cyclones, such as Hurricane Katrina, but also a higher percentage of more intense ones.
This follows on the heels of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kerry Emanual proclaiming in the Aug. 4 on-line edition of Nature magazine that he had found evidence that global warming in the last 30 years was producing more intense cyclones.
The conclusion many draw from papers such as these is that anthropogenic global warming from the burning of fossil fuels by humans is causing more lethal storms. A closer look, though, reveals not human actions but rather natural cycles are the primary cause.
Much has already been written concerning the findings of Emanuel, and their potential shortcomings, both by myself and others. So, in this article, let's focus on the results this week in Science.
Do read the whole thing. With all the vile talk there has been about global warming and how it is a fitting punishment for the US, it is important to dispel these myths, which are ultimate proof that the looney left is incredibly hypocritical: when no evidence is found of presence of massive WMD programs in Iraq it is certain that there were none but when there is no evidence that anthropogenic carbon emissions cause global warming and stronger hurricanes it is suddenly certain that this is the case.

Universal warming?

This is frankly hilarious. After finding out recently that it is not carbon emissions that cause global warming but global warming that causes carbon emissions, we now discover (via Instapundit) that there is warming on Mars:
And for three Mars summers in a row, deposits of frozen carbon dioxide near Mars' south pole have shrunk from the previous year's size, suggesting a climate change in progress.
Don't you just hate those disrespectful Martians driving around in their SUVs? Well maybe not - aren't the Americans at fault, as usual?
At any rate it is a further indication that at least part of the trend is not caused by humans.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

German muddle

The situation in Germany is a total muddle. Jeffrey Gedmin, the director of the Aspen ­Institute Berlin, has an interesting editorial about the issues in the Financial Times.
For a start there is the intricate Chinese puzzle that everyone is trying to solve. Will the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens join the Liberals to form a new government? Will the Greens join the Liberals and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)? Could the SPD and Greens make common cause with the new Left party, a mix of communists and SPD defectors? Or perhaps we will get a "grand coalition", with the CDU and SPD working together – which raises the question of who becomes chancellor and whether Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schröder can survive the coming weeks. No matter what the outcome, the new government is likely to be unstable and short-lived.
At the moment, Germany is looking a little like Italy. Alas, the stakes are higher.
Do read the whole thing. Meanwhile, Bill Emott, the editor of The Economist, says (link in Italian) that he estimates that there is a 50% chance of a new election in Germany within three years and a 30% chance of new elections within three months - which at this point I think may be the best option.
Die Welt, a German daily, has an almost touching article (in German) about Bad Dürkheim, where the local government is the only one in Germany composed of a Jamaika coalition (as Germans call a coalition between the Greens, the Liberals and the Christian Democratic Union), which since the election has emerged as a fascinating option to create a viable government at the national level. Apparently, not only do they make it work in Bad Dürkheim, they even go out to drink beers together! Unfortunately that's less likely to happen in Berlin.

Charged, at last?

While speaking at a conference in Paris, the European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Charlie McCreevy, mentioned that the yearly fees for an average account at an Italian bank are the highest in the world (at €252) and more than double the world average (which, excluding Japan, is €108). The Italian Banking Association's predictable rejection of these figures (which seem to be based on this Cap Gemini study) sounds rather dodgy. All I can say is that my personal experiences with banks in Italy have been infuriating compared to the excellent and cheap (at times even free) service I received in the US and in Belgium.
It is therefore a pleasure to learn that the person most responsible for this scandalous state of affairs - the governor of the Italian central bank, Antonio Fazio - seems to have been charged (I know, in Italy things are never clear) with abuse of office.
Antonio Fazio, the governor of the Bank of Italy, will be charged for alleged abuse of office by Rome-based public prosecutors in an investigation regarding a takeover battle for Banca Antonveneta SpA, the daily Il Corriere della Sera and other newspapers said.
It is too bad that the Italian judiciary, because of its notorious activism and politicization, does not have the credibility to actually solve this institutional crisis. However, I do hope it can give Fazio's credibility the fatal blow that will force him to resign.

Tony Blair digs Kyoto's grave

I simply cannot believe this hasn't gotten more coverage in the MSM - it seriously deserves to be considered front page news:
Onstage with former president Bill Clinton at a midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was going to speak with "brutal honesty" about Kyoto and global warming, and he did. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had some blunt talk, too.
Blair, a longtime supporter of the Kyoto treaty, further prefaced his remarks by noting, "My thinking has changed in the past three or four years." So what does he think now? "No country, he declared, "is going to cut its growth." That is, no country is going to allow the Kyoto treaty, or any other such global-warming treaty, to crimp -- some say cripple -- its economy.
Looking ahead to future climate-change negotiations, Blair said of such fast-growing countries as India and China, "They're not going to start negotiating another treaty like Kyoto." India and China, of course, weren't covered by Kyoto in the first place, which was one of the fatal flaws in the treaty. But now Blair is acknowledging the obvious: that after the current Kyoto treaty -- which the US never acceded to -- expires in 2012, there's not going to be another worldwide deal like it.
So what will happen instead? Blair answered: "What countries will do is work together to develop the science and technology. There is no way that we are going to tackle this problem unless we develop the science and technology to do it." Bingo! That's what eco-realists have been saying all along, of course -- that the only feasible way to deal with the issue of greenhouse gases and global warming is through technological breakthroughs, not draconian cutbacks.
Blair concluded with a rhetorical question-and-answer: "How do we move forward, post-Kyoto? It can only be done by the major players coming together and pooling their resources, to find their way to come together."
I have always had great respect for Tony Blair and his mix of idealistic pragmatism appeals to me. It is clear to me that the best way forward to protect the environment and make this world a better place is to get rid of the Kyoto Protocol (and certainly not to renew it when it expires in 2012) and to strongly encourage the development of technology.
Meanwhile Michael Portillo makes the case for nuclear energy.
But the real question is this: is West Virginia the next Kuwait?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Discovering ancient Roman villas

This is rather cool:
Using satellite images from Google Maps and Google Earth, an Italian computer programmer has stumbled upon the remains of an ancient villa. Luca Mori was studying maps of the region around his town of Sorbolo, near Parma, when he noticed a prominent, oval, shaded form more than 500 metres long. It was the meander of an ancient river, visible because former watercourses absorb different amounts of moisture from the air than their surroundings do.
His eye was caught by unusual 'rectangular shadows' nearby. Curious, he analysed the image further, and concluded that the lines must represent a buried structure of human origin. Eventually, he traced out what looked like the inner courtyards of a villa.
Mori, who describes the finding on his blog, Quelli Della Bassa, contacted archaeologists, including experts at the National Archaeological Museum of Parma. They confirmed the find. At first it was thought to be a Bronze Age village, but an inspection of the site turned up ceramic pieces that indicated it was a Roman villa.
This discovery (and the way it was made) generated so much interest that he had to open a new website dedicated to archaeology. See here for the images.

Simon Wiesenthal

After a truly full and productive life Simon Wiesenthal has died.
Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice, has died. He was 96.
Wiesenthal died in Vienna today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement.
The Jewish hunter of the Nazi regime's most elusive war criminals spent almost six decades collecting information on those considered most responsible for the killing of 6 million Jews during World War II. Wiesenthal said he had helped track down 1,100 Nazis by the time he retired in April 2003, according to Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.
"My job is done," Wiesenthal told the Austrian magazine Format after his retirement. "I found the mass murderers I was looking for. I survived them all."
One of his successes was to locate Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps in Poland, who was hiding in Brazil. In 1967, Stangl was sentenced to life in prison, where he died.
Wiesenthal also played a central role in tracking down Karl Silberbauer, the Nazi officer who arrested Anne Frank, the German Jewish teenager who wrote a diary while hiding in an Amsterdam apartment. Silberbauer, who was a police officer in Austria at the time of his arrest, corroborated Frank's story, helping to discredit claims that "The Diary of Anne Frank" was a forgery.
See here for more about his extraordinary life.

Monday, September 19, 2005

They know where you are and what you are saying

Yesterday I met the head of InSafe, an internet awareness network which was established by the European Commission, and we had an interesting chat. As we were talking about internet security I mentioned this Financial Times story that I had read a while back:
Once police or the security services know the mobile phone number of a suspect, they can ask the mobile operator to track the individual.
As long as the handset is switched on the telephone can be tracked across any mobile network in real time.
By using no more than three mobile telephone masts or base stations - a process known as triangulation - it is possible to pin down the location of an individual in high density urban areas to between two and three metres. Crucial to this triangulation is the proximity to each other of the three base stations, but on average the standard deviation is no more than 25 metres.
If ordered to do so, mobile telephone operators can also tap any calls, but more significantly they can also remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its owner is not making a call, giving security services the perfect bugging device. "We have inadvertently started carrying our own trackable ID card in the form of the mobile phone," said Sandra Bell, head of the homeland security department at the Royal United Services Institute.
The UK security services have used mobile telephone records to trap IRA terrorists in the past and the police have been helped in solving high-profile murders and abductions too.
The usefulness of these methods is underscored by the fact that the British and Italian police forces were able to catch Hamdi Issac, one of the London bombers, this way. The InSafe head also told me of a recent event that shows these tools are even more far-reaching. Following an incident at a soccer stadium in the Netherlands, the police, which was looking for witnesses, contacted 1,400 people via text messages, to ask them to come forward. The only way they knew these people had been there at the time was through their cell phone records. So not only can they pinpoint where you are at the time of the investigation, but they can even find out where you have been in the past.
It is somewhat worrying to know that everything we say can be recorded and our exact position and past movements can be pinpointed as long as we carry a cell phone. It seems to me that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand I don't want to impede investigations, catching terrorists, criminals and the like. On the other, I am apprehensive about potential abuses and lack of awareness among the general population. I think governments need to put in place legislation that allows the police - subject to permission from the judiciary (just like with bugging and detaining criminals) - to benefit from this new tool that significantly aids investigations, while at the same time imposing strict limits on how this information is handled, especially since it is gathered not by the police directly but by the phone companies who own the telephone masts.

Germans have made their bed. Now what?

Yesterday's parliamentary election in Germany was an utter disappointment (except for the FDP).
Germany was plunged into uncertainty last night when the leaders of the two main parties claimed they could become chancellor after neither won a majority in the general election. The result was a blow to the conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, whose party started the campaign with a 21-point lead. Although Mrs Merkel could still become the country's new leader, she can now probably only do so as part of a "grand coalition" with Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic party.
However this now seems unlikely as Schroeder has ruled a grand-coalition out. It would also make the CDU/CSU look bad when it results in minimal reform and gridlock. Absurdly every party seems to swear off every conceivable coalition, so unless there are new elections someone is going to have to do some backpedalling. John Fund has an excellent analysis.
The results mean that in retrospect Germany might have passed a tipping point about the time the country unified with its lost eastern states in 1990 after the collapse of communism. One out of five people in the new Germany now lives in the east, a region that massive subsidies and government intervention have failed to revive. The angry and frustrated voters there make different political choices than their western counterparts.
The Left Party, an amalgam of former East German Communists and erstwhile Social Democrats disaffected by Mr. Schroeder's tentative reforms of the welfare state, won over a quarter of the vote in eastern Germany. But neither major party is willing to go into coalition with them. So the nationwide showing of 8.5% by the Left Party has created the gridlock that leaves neither party able to form a coherent parliamentary majority to pursue its program. Without the votes cast in eastern Germany, the conservative coalition of the CDU and the pro-market Free Democrats would have won a clear majority.
The Christian Democrats thought they might appeal to easterners by putting forward Angela Merkel, a former physicist who grew up in East Germany and then became the rare outsider to climb to the top of national politics when much of the rest of her party's leadership was discredited in a campaign finance scandal in the late 1990s. But it turned out that many easterners viewed "Angie" not as the hometown girl made good but as a traitor for wanting to free up the country's barriers to laying off workers and also offering incentives to long-term unemployed workers who take low-paying jobs.
The result was a qualified disaster for the CDU. The Free Democrats, who did indeed advocate flatter tax with three rates of 15%, 25% and 35%, won their best result ever, taking 10% of the vote. But undecided voters swung away from Ms. Merkel. No poll during the campaign had had her party winning less than 41% of the vote, but the CDU wound up with only 35%, three points less than it had won in its losing 2002 race. It squeezed out the Social Democrats for the spot as the largest party only because the SDP lost even more votes to the splinter Left Party. The end result was no clear mandate for any party.
German voters may not again get quite as good a shot at installing a government that can bring about real economic reforms. Voters balked at real change at the last minute. In the words of economist Norbert Walter, "they wanted someone to wash their fur, but at the same time not get it wet." Most Germans understand that their country has to modernize in the long run, but, says Thomas Kielinger, a writer for the newspaper Die Welt, "when push comes to shove many are reluctant to go for the candidate who tells it like it is."
At this point, if I was German, I would hope for a CDU/CSU, FDP and Grüne coalition, though it would be very awkward to balance all their interests (and the Grüne have ruled it out). However I firmly believe that people deserve what they ask for and in this case a coalition of SPD, Grüne and Die Linke would be the ideal punishment (though the SPD has said several times it will not form a coalition with Die Linke). This would presumably return Schroeder to the Chancellorship while causing a left-wing lurch in his policies - as a result of Die Linke. Things need to get much worse in Germany before they can get better and no coalition promises economic disaster more than this one.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Around Brussels

This weekend in Brussels we had the annual Journées du Patrimoine (heritage days) during which all museums are free and a lot of important buildings that are normally off-limits are open to the public. I took a long walk around town with a few friends and we dropped in to see some of the sights like the Palais de Justice, the Bourse and the European Parliament.
Here is a picture we took of the Mont des Arts.

And here we are in the Parc du Cinquantenaire.

This is a view from the top of the arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire.

The weather was incredible - sunny and breezy and we had a lot of fun.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Two kinds of Democrats

It is sad to see the total breakdown (via Different River) of Cindy Sheehan. At the same time it makes her radicalism, which the press has been trying to mask, plain for all to see:
George Bush needs to stop talking, admit the mistakes of his all around failed administration, pull our troops out of occupied New Orleans and Iraq, and excuse his self from power. The only way America will become more secure is if we have a new administration that cares about Americans even if they don't fall into the top two percent of the wealthiest. (emphasis mine)
Is she nuts or what?
Meanwhile Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's presidential election campaign in 2000, shows (via Drudge) that, despite the disagreements, Democrats and Republicans can still work together without losing their heads.
On Thursday night President Bush spoke to the nation from my city. I am not a Republican. I did not vote for George W. Bush -- in fact, I worked pretty hard against him in 2000 and 2004. But on Thursday night, after watching him speak from the heart, I could not have been prouder of the president and the plan he outlined to empower those who lost everything and to rebuild the Gulf Coast.
What a relief.

The BBC is "full of hatred of America"

Glenn has an excellent post on recent (totally justified) BBC bashing for its disgusting coverage of the Katrina disaster from Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Sir Howard Stringer (CEO of Sony and former head of CBS) and various editorial pages. Keep up the good work!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Environment and technology

When Russia signed up for the Kyoto Protocol, making it go into effect, Putin won praise from across Europe for having taken the responsible stance and saved us all from disaster (while the US greedily and wantonly destroys our precious environment). As was pointed out at the time, and most Europeans are clearly too naive to see, Russia signed up because it is set to make a tidy sum out of the treaty. Now an official of Unified Energy Systems, Russia's state-owned energy monopoly, confirms how much they hope to make:
Russia will be able to receive $1.5 billion between 2008 and 2012 by selling its emissions credits for carbon dioxide emissions to other Kyoto protocol countries, an official from Unified Energy Systems (UES) said Friday.
How could anyone doubt that they signed up just to save the environment?
Meanwhile the National Center for Policy Analysis has released an interesting study (file in pdf) comparing the cost and effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol and the cost of adapting to the warming that is taking place.
The projections underlying this study are from researchers who are sympathetic to mitigation. However, their conclusions show that adaptation is preferable. Cost estimates are based on reports from various United Nations-affiliated organizations. The findings:
·By 2085, the contribution of (unmitigated) warming to the above listed problems is generally smaller than other factors unrelated to climate change.
·More important, these risks would be lowered much more effectively and economically by reducing current and future vulnerability to climate change rather than through its mitigation.
·Finally, adaptation would help developing countries cope with major problems now, and through 2085 and beyond, whereas generations would pass before anything less than draconian mitigation would have a discernible effect.
The Kyoto Protocol will cost participating countries about $165 billion annually. Kyoto, however, will not stabilize, much less reduce, atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Stabilizing atmospheric levels of CO2 at 550 parts per million (much higher than today’s levels) would cost several trillion dollars. Halting climate change, if that were possible, would cost many more trillions of dollars. Focused adaptive measures to reduce or eliminate the risks posed by malaria, hunger, water shortage, coastal flooding and threats to biodiversity, by contrast, would cost less than $10 billion a year. Moreover, these measures can be implemented now.
I think it is also important to keep in mind that developing technology has the potential of dramatically changing the situation, and money wasted on the Kyoto Protocol is money not spent on developing new and exciting technologies such as this:
Filling up your car with hydrogen fuel at the local filling station might not be too far off in the future, thanks to a team of researchers at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
Harnessing the energy of hydrogen has been considered a way to stem the rampant production of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion, which is believed to contribute to global warming. Using hydrogen, in contrast, merely produces water vapour upon combustion.
Scientists’ efforts to tap the lighter-than-air, inflammable gas as an energy source have gone unrewarded for years. The researchers at DTU found a way, however, to store hydrogen in a tablet form, overcoming the challenge of storing the volatile fuel.
"The last 20 years, researchers worldwide have tried to find a practical way to store hydrogen. We have found the way," said Claus Hviid Christensen, professor of chemistry at DTU.
"Before, the amount of hydrogen needed to fuel a passenger vehicle for 500km occupied the same space as nine passenger vehicles. With our pill, the same amount of energy can be contained in a normal 50 litre tank," said Christensen.
The discovery has the potential to open a new chapter of Danish innovation in the energy sector, similar to the leading position enjoyed in the wind energy sector.
Applications for the discovery include supplying batteries in portable computers or mobile phones, according to Ulrich Quaade, a professor at DTU who worked on the project.
Sounds promising. It is too bad that projects like this one are overshadowed by absurd, overly expensive and ultimately ineffective schemes like the Kyoto Protocol. (Several links via JunkScience.)

Barbara hits the nail on the head

Recently the President's mother, Barbara Bush, came in for a lot of criticism for her comments on the victims of hurricane Katrina:
The former first lady, after touring the Astrodome complex in Houston on Monday, said: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." She commented during a radio interview.
At first, this does seem like a rather callous and out-of-touch comment to make, and the liberal-leftwing media was gleefully quoting it as proof that the Bushes are racists and don't care about poor people.
However Gerard Baker points out in the Times that this is nonsense and Barbara Bush is actually right:
Another lucky group of New Orleans evacuees has been housed not far from where I live in Washington at the DC Armoury, the local headquarters of the National Guard. This week, along with the truckloads of food, water and clothes, came something that will, in the longer term, be of even greater assistance, a group of eager employers looking for workers.
Forty-two local businesses participated in a job fair for the new homeless at the Armoury on Tuesday; more wanted to take part but couldn’t because there was limited space. Twenty of the 150 or so evacuees were hired on the spot. An official at the District of Columbia government involved in organising the event said that more were expected to be offered jobs in the next few days. The exercise was such a success that employers are demanding another one. If there’s anyone left still to hire it will take place in the next couple of weeks.
The story is being replicated across the country. The victims of Katrina are getting new opportunities. Some of it comes from an immense outpouring of compassion by Americans in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable contributions and unquantifiable help in housing families and schooling children. Some of it comes from the unsentimental compassion of the free market: the unerring capacity of the capitalist system to match those who have something with those who need it, whether it be labour, capital, goods or services.
Both tell us far more about the way this country works, the strengths of its values and people, than the bureaucratic bungling in Baton Rouge and Washington.
Of course you will almost certainly not have read or seen much about this, especially outside the US. The world has indicted America once again on charges of ineptitude and racism and has moved on to more important matters such as Britney Spears’s baby. For a variety of reasons this good news about the response of ordinary Americans is of little interest to the media. First, no self-respecting reporter wants to waste his time with insights into the better angels of human nature. No one ever won a Pulitzer or a Bafta recounting banal tales of man’s humanity to man.
Secondly, it really doesn’t fit too well into the stereotype that entrances most of the world these days. Anything that doesn’t show Americans as stupid, selfish, warmongering, religious bigots, half of them living in pampered luxury in garish purpose-built Italianate mansions, the other half downtrodden in the ghetto by Halliburton stock-owning fat-cats, isn’t going to make it to the front pages or the Ten O’Clock News.
This is the combination of American good will and market capitalism at its best. It is a shame that Europeans and assorted lefties are too biased, blind and desperate to score political points to see this inspiring phenomenon for what it is, an attitude that is exemplified by the (hopefully) outgoing German Chancellor's idiotic argument that the bureaucratic problems with the hurricane relief prove that more big-government would be a good thing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Have we gone blind?

In the past few days I was in Milan and I saw the translation of this article by David Frum in yesterday's Foglio (a serious and rather snobby atlanticist Italian "opinion daily"). I found this passage rather amusing:
The topic for debate: "Is the United States a superpower with feet of clay?" The program was dominated by Emmanuel Todd, a French intellectual who has made a large reputation for himself in France with lip-smacking predictions of an imminent collapse of American power.
The effect of Todd's warnings was spoiled a little by the commercials that punctuated the show. One moment there was Todd, a handsomely coiffed French writer in a splendidly tailored shirt urging the nations of the world to join together to reject American hegemony.
The next minute, a big glass of orange juice is being poured as Louis Armstrong sings "It's A Wonderful World" in English. Immediately after that, five young people chant "one, two, three, four, five" in English as they pile into a new Honda. Now it's an advertisement for ring tones for your mobile phone: a choice of the best of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, and other American rappers. Once the commercials end, it's time for the evening's movie: Rocky IV.
One of the best books I read this summer was Philippe Roger's The American Enemy, a history of French anti-Americanism. With immense scholarship and shrewd wit, Roger argues that French anti-Americanism has very seldom had very much to do with America as it exists: Indeed, many of the most celebrated of France's anti-American intellectuals have known little if anything about the United States.
They may talk about America, but they are thinking of France.
As Jean-Francois Revel says, anti-Americanism is an irrational obsession.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Oh, what chutzpah!

A great post at Davids Medienkritik, which takes a critical look at an article that recently appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, reminded me of an utterly absurd idea I often hear from the people around me:
Hard to believe but true: Many in Germany's media "elite" believe that George W. Bush has intimidated the US media into docile submission. They believe that, for the most part, the American "mainstream media" has become a willing servant to the Republican agenda.
Do read the whole thing. All over Europe one comes across people who - either out of ignorance or out of indifference - have never had more than passing exposure to US media and still have the incredible gall to go around saying that it has no backbone etc. No doubt the SZ article (and the others quoted by DM in his post) are part of the reason why many people here feel this way.
The fact of the matter is, however, that the media in the US are among the most independent, powerful and inquisitive in the world. My parents, who are both journalists in Italy, were simply flabbergasted by the incredibly lively, healthy and dynamic media culture they found in the States, when they lived there for two years (1998 - 2000). In the decade I have been assiduously following US media (among others), I can confirm that all these things have only gotten better, particularly since the blogosphere came of age.
This is not to say that the media can't improve or that all the harping that goes on in the blogosphere about the MSM is unjustified. However it has little to do with these intentional misrepresentations of the US media (and I assume intentional because it takes an open-minded and informed person of average intelligence - who has no political agenda - about five seconds to realize the absurdity of these claims). This sophism is particularly galling coming from the European media. Media here (and particularly in Italy) are often inaccurate - and I mean total falsehoods/mistakes and no corrections, very biased and rarely independent - in the sense that the political and business ties of many media in Europe would make Americans blanch.
Oh, the chutzpah is simply infuriating!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

America the greedy? You wish!

Crooked Timber has a post that perfectly illustrates the pathetic need a lot of Europeans seem to have of convincing themselves, in the face of all evidence, that everything is worse and more barbaric in America. As a European I am firmly convinced that this attitude is partly the fruit of misinformation and partly of an inferiority complex and frustration.
At any rate, Megan McArdle has an excellent dressing down of the despicable rant:
I am second to none in my horror of what happened in Katrina, and I too was shocked that such a thing could happen in America. But to compare inept emergency management to a deliberate campaign of raping and killing members of an ethnic minority reveals a moral imagination so beggared as to be useless. And to imply that it happened because George Bush hates black people and cares more about Wal-Mart's stock of televisions than he does about the occupants of the 9th Ward is simply grotesque. There have been colossal screw-ups from the level of the police department all the way up to the head of the Department of Homeland Security, and some of those are Bush's fault for appointing the people he did. But to suggest that this is part of some sort of campaign against the poor, organized or otherwise, is ridiculous. The worst you can say about George Bush's poverty policy is that it is unambitious; despite liberal rhetoric, he done very little at all in the realm of poverty policy, for good or ill.
Do read the whole thing. And see this too. That incredible outpouring is also borne of racism and greed, no doubt!
I can confirm that these absurd ideas are unfortunately shared by many Europeans and I am increasingly worried about the lackadaisical approach that the US takes in facing this serious problem, as is starkly underlined by the way American ambassadors are chosen (via Davids Medienkritik):
Faced with such a hostile environment, surely the president is sending his most apt campaigner to the arena? Enter William R. Timken, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany. His appointment is a reward for generous contributions to Mr. Bush's presidential campaigns. We are not fond of this fact, but we understand that this is a long-standing tradition and part of the American system.
However, in today's fast-paced battle of information and ideas this is a practice the United States can no longer afford. As the natural focus point for the media, the ambassador should be thrown into the public debate. But Mr. Timken is a successful businessman, not a proven intellectual combatant. He does not speak German. I fear he is likely to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, who, as far as I am aware, never appeared on Germany's most popular political talk show reaching a weekly audience of five million. What a wasted opportunity.
The German case is symptomatic for failure on a greater scale. At a time where its foreign policy lacks the legitimacy that a broad coalition of democracies could provide, the American contribution to fostering pro-American sentiment is feeble.
There is simply no way to overstate the incredible importance of changing this damaging policy and sending qualified, talented and dedicated individuals to represent America abroad, who will contribute all their energy to fighting this daunting battle of the minds and hearts.

Gaza progress?

I am quite happy that the Gaza pullout has been completed. I did not really expect any positive signals from the Palestinians, but this is rather disappointing - and underscores the enormous change in attitude and culture that will be necessary if there is ever to be actual peaceful co-existence.
Before dawn yesterday, Palestinian gunmen climbed on the roof of the Netzarim synagogue and raised flags of militant groups. They chanted, "God is great," and "We don't want anything to remind us of the occupation."
They then set the Netzarim synagogue ablaze.
Palestinian police stood by and watched, admitting they were outnumbered by the crowds and had little motivation to stop them. An officer who refused to give his name said, "The people have the right to do what they are doing."
See a video here. Can you imagine the outrage and mobilization there would be in the international community if Israelis, G-d forbid, did something remotely like this to a mosque?
Not that such an event is at all likely, since the vast majority of even religious Israelis utterly and forcefully reject any such sentiments:
As videos beamed across the world showing the desecration of synagogues in Gaza, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Monday evening that he would consider ostracizing any Jew that damages mosques in retaliation.
"I and other rabbis are considering putting a Cherem [ban] on any Jew that desecrates Mosques or other holy places. "What right do Jews have to hurt the places of worship of other faiths? It is a good thing that the peoples of the world pray to God."
When a Jew is put in cherem he cannot join other Jews in prayer or in meals and other Jews cannot come closer than 2 meters from the ostracized. No business transactions can be done with him beyond what he needs for his substanence.
Rabbi Amar said he did not believe a Jew would dare desecrate a mosque but added, "there can always be a hotheaded person that gets carried away and loses control. So I am warning clearly and loudly that desecration of mosques or the holy places of any religion is absolutely prohibited."
I should note that I think there is a significant difference between the planned and orderly demolition of an unused synangogue by non-Jews in order to build something else in its place and the jubilant burning of other people's houses of prayer.
In the end I feel this whole episode, and other recent events (particularly ironic given this), underscore a positive result that could emerge from pulling out of the West Bank too. Putting the Palestinians in charge gives them an incentive to create a successful society, and gives the lie to the illusion that Israel is to blame for all their misfortunes - making it sound hollow and untrue even to themselves. That is a first step that is necessary if peace is ever to be achieved.

Monday, September 12, 2005

An Enlightenment

Salman Rushdie has an engaging editorial in the Times:
Reformed Islam would reject conservative dogmatism and accept that, among other things, women are fully equal to men; that people of other religions, and of no religion, are not inferior to Muslims; that differences in sexual orientation are not to be condemned, but accepted as aspects of human nature; that anti-Semitism is not OK; and that the repression of free speech by the thin-skinned ideology of easily-taken "offence" must be replaced by genuine, robust, anything-goes debate in which there are no forbidden ideas or no-go areas.
Reformed Islam would encourage diaspora Muslims to emerge from their self-imposed ghettoes and stop worrying so much about locking up their daughters. It would emerge from the intellectual ghetto of literalism and subservience to mullahs and ulema, allowing open, historically based scholarship to emerge from the shadows to which the madrassas and seminaries have condemned it.
There must be an end to the defensive paranoia that led some Muslims to claim that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks and, more recently, that Muslims may not have been behind the 7/7 bombings either (a crackpot theory exploded, if one may use the verb, by the recent al-Jazeera video).
Not so much a reformation, as several people said in response to my first piece, as an Enlightenment. Very well then: let there be light.
Do read the whole thing, including his recounting of positive (and heartening) reactions he got from Muslims all over the world in response to his previous article.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Let's not forget

On the fourth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Mark Steyn has words that are worth repeating and remembering:
On this fourth anniversary we are in a bizarre situation: The war is being won -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, the broader Middle East and many other places where America has changed the conditions on the ground in its favor. But at home the war about the war is being lost. When the media look at those Bush approval ratings -- currently hovering around 40 percent -- they carelessly assume the 60 percent is some unified Kerry-Hillary-Cindy bloc. It's not. It undoubtedly includes people who are enthusiastic for whacking America's enemies, but who don't quite get the point of this somewhat desultory listless phase. If the "war" is now a push for democratization and liberalization in Middle East dictatorships, that's a worthy cause but not one sufficiently primal to keep the attention of the American people. You'd have had the same problem in the Second World War if four years after Pearl Harbor we were postponing D-Day in order to nation-build in the Solomon Islands.
And, as the years go by, it becomes clearer that the war aspects -- the attacks in New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, London -- are really spasmodic flashes of a much more elusive enemy. Although Islamism is the first truly global terrorist insurgency, it shares more similarities with conventional terror movements -- the IRA or the Basque separatists -- than many of us thought four years ago. Terror groups persist because of a lack of confidence on the part of their targets: the IRA, for example, calculated correctly that the British had the capability to smash them totally but not the will. So they knew that while they could never win militarily, they also could never be defeated. That's what the Islamists have bet.
Only a tiny minority of Muslims want to be suicide bombers, and only a slightly larger minority want actively to provide support networks for suicide bombers, but big majorities of Muslims support almost all the terrorists' strategic goals: For example, according to a recent poll, over 60 percent of British Muslims want to live under sharia in the United Kingdom. That's a "moderate" Westernized Muslim: He wants stoning for adultery to be introduced in Liverpool, but he's a "moderate" because it's not such a priority that he's prepared to fly a plane into a skyscraper.
As with IRA killers and the broader Irish nationalist population, these shared aims provide a large comfort zone in which terror networks can operate. And it enables the non-violent lobby groups to use the terrorists -- or the threat of terrorists -- as part of a good cop/bad cop routine. Thus, the Islamic lobby groups pressure governments to make concessions to them rather than to the terrorists -- even though both elements share the same aims. You can pluck out news items at random: In London, a religious "hate crimes" law that makes honest discussion of Islam even more difficult; in Ontario, the moves toward sharia courts for Muslim community disputes; in Seattle, the introduction of gender-separate, Muslim-only swimming sessions in municipal pools. The 9/11 terrorists were in favor of all these things.
So four years on we're winning in the Middle East and Central Asia, floundering in Europe and North America. War is hell, but a war that half the country refuses to recognize as such staggers on as a very contemporary kind of purgatory.
Do read the whole thing.

Europe never fails to disappoint

Here's the latest idiotic European idea:
BP Plc, Europe’s largest oil company, and Total SA, the largest refiner in the region, said they would drop pump prices by 2 to 3 cents at their French service stations, after the French government threatened a windfall tax on “exceptional” profits and enforced increased investment in renewable energy.
Europe's finance ministers, meeting in Manchester in the UK on Friday, were expected to step up the attack on Saturday, urging the oil industry to increase refining capacity, and calling for greater transparency in the oil market to tackle speculation.
The ministers want the industry to take its responsibility for the spike in oil prices, which Jean-Claude Trichet, European Central Bank president, said was “clearly a risk” to the economy.
Although they want lower prices at the petrol pump, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the 12-member single currency eurogroup, suggested it was oil companies rather than governments which should bear the cost.
Therefore, when the price of oil is high the oil companies and not the states (who account for about 60% of the price of gas in Europe) have to give up on profits (instead of investing in innovation), and when the price of oil is low, presumably it will be the states that bail out the oil companies that risk going bankrupt.
EU Rota, who I am very sad to say is abandoning the blogosphere, has an excellent post on the subject.

Friday, September 09, 2005

What was I thinking?

My recent assertion that things in Italy do, after all, get resolved turns out to have been rather naive. The governor of the central bank, Antonio Fazio, has not yet resigned and there seems to be no indication that he will do so anytime soon. As much as I blame the current Italian government for not taking a sufficiently unified and forceful line on Fazio, I am starting to be very annoyed about Jean-Claude Trichet's coyness and elusiveness on this issue:
Whatever the fate of Antonio Fazio, the rumpus over the head of the Bank of Italy’s handling of bank takeovers by foreigners has exposed potential weaknesses in corporate governance at the European Central Bank.
The ECB code of conduct, signed by all governing council members, imposes “a special responsibility to maintain the integrity and reputation of the European system of central banks”.
Yet, although Mr Fazio’s actions might well have risked the reputation of eurozone central banks, there has not been any sign that Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, considered this to be a real threat.
Part of the problem is that national central banks have a big role at the ECB, providing most of its 18-strong governing council. At the very least, there could be a perceived tendency to protect one of their own.
But who should keep an eye on the central bankers, given that so much value is attached to preserving their independence? When Ernst Welteke, former president of Germany’s Bundesbank, ran into controversy last year after accepting corporate hospitality from a bank he was regulating, the ECB expressed confidence in Bundesbank procedures. That was fair enough: the Bundesbank is collegiate and its president can be outvoted. At the Italian central bank, Mr Fazio has absolute power – the person is the institution.
In absence of all else, I guess we can at least be proud of having brought Europe-wide attention on the ECB's governance flaws. Additionally, the government recently did propose some reforms, though not very effective ones, considering that the governor will continue to be able to overrule the governing council. One consolation: if we get another gangster at the helm of the central bank he won't be able to do damage for more than seven years.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Barefaced lie exposed

Melanie Phillips links to an article that appears in this month's Commentary, one of my favourite journals:
A stunning article in Commentary by Nidra Poller exposes what might eventually come to be regarded as a racial libel on a par with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in both its malevolence and its contribution to the history of racial hatred. The defining image of the second Palestinian intifada was the television footage of 12 year-old Mohammed al Dura being sheltered by his father as they cowered under a hail of bullets fired by Israeli soldiers in a gun battle at the Netzarim junction on September 30 2000, at the very beginning of the violence. These pictures, shot by a France 2 cameraman, instantly achieved a lethal iconic status. The image of Mohammed al Dura slumped in death in his father’s lap like an Arab pieta was used on countless occasions to recruit human bomb volunteers for the jihad against Israel. As Poller says, his death scene has been replicated on murals, posters, and postage stamps, even making an appearance in the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading.
Testifying under oath before the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, the cameraman Talal Abu Rahmeh alleged that Israeli soldiers had intentionally murdered the boy and wounded the father. There had been, he said, a five-minute exchange of fire between Palestinian policemen and Israeli soldiers. This was followed by fully 45 minutes of gunfire coming exclusively from the Israeli position and aimed directly at the man and the boy crouching desperately behind a concrete barrel. He had captured on film a total of 27 minutes of this fusillade, risking his own life in the process.
From the start, however, many smelled a rat and several journalists have suggested that this event was not what it seemed. Now, Poller reveals information that strongly suggests the whole thing was a cynical and evil fraud. She has obtained hours of out-takes from film shot by dozens of cameramen at the Netzarim junction that day. What was recorded on these films were two types of activity — real attacks and crudely staged, entirely confected battle scenes.
Do read the whole thing. It is quite amazing how most people are simply not interested in discovering the truth about such incidents. Melanie says it best:
Israeli officials who have privately said from very early on that the al Dura footage was faked also say that there is no point opening up this affair to public scrutiny because the magnitude of this lie is so great, and so deeply has Europe absorbed the wider big lie of Israel’s ‘oppression’ of the Palestinian Arabs, that even to raise a question about the death of Mohammed al Dura is to invite further opprobrium. Faced with a world that has taken leave of its senses and suspended normal conventions of journalism, evidence and reason over the war against Israel, the despairing fatalism of the Israelis is understandable. But it is wrong. Whatever reaction it provokes, there is an obligation to history to unmask an apparent lie of this magnitude and establish the truth. Commentary has performed an important service.
I absolutely agree. All means must be used to rectify such lies and make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the truth. Part of that responsibility lies with the Israeli diplomats, and though the task is not easy, I have the impression they could be doing a lot better.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Dangerous environmentalists

If it was at all necessary, here is further proof that environmentalists (at least those who are against nuclear energy) are both irrational and dangerous. According to the IAEA the damage wrought by the worse nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl disaster, is much more limited than previously thought and has resulted in relatively few victims (which would have been even fewer had the Soviets not colossally mishandled the crisis):
The number of people killed by radiation as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident, is so far 56, far lower than previously thought, the U.N. said on Monday.
A report compiled by the Chernobyl Forum, which includes eight U.N. agencies, said the final death toll was expected to reach about 4,000 -- much lower than some previous estimates -- and that the greatest damage to human health caused by the incident was psychological.
The disaster occurred at 1:24 a.m. on April 26, 1986, when an explosion at Reactor 4 of the Ukrainian power plant spewed a cloud of radioactivity over Europe and the Soviet Union, particularly contaminating Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
If one subscribes to the idea that Hurricane Katrina, which may have killed up to 10,000 people, was caused by global warming (which is total bollocks) and that global warming in general causes untold natural disasters (which is far from clear) then opposing the development of nuclear energy, whose safety has vastly improved since Chernobyl and which is the only realistic way to lower carbon emissions and to otherwise improve the environment, means that environmentalists (according to their thinking) are condemning hundreds of thousands of people to die in order to avoid rather remote and solvable safety problems inherent in nuclear energy. Shame on them.