Sunday, February 27, 2011

Protests in Oman

You have to expect to be the last in line when your name is Sultan Qaboos.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hypocrisy Watch III

Heard all the Republican moaning about how Wisconsin's missing state senators should do their jobs and show up for a vote? Guess what: the Republicans in the state senate have 58% of the seats... and yet can't pass this bill. Sound familiar? Remember health care? Remember all the talk about  it being "crammed down our throats"?

Obviously, what the Wisconsin senate needs is a rule that nothing can happen without the support of 60% of the senators. Then the Democrats could show up and everyone would be happy, except perhaps the Republicans. Just think of what's happening in Wisconsin as a filibuster.

Let's At Least Aspire to Futility

It's not just that the world doesn't seem able to do anything effective to stop the violence in Libya; they don't seem able to do anything ineffective either.

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Libya's Butcher." After saying, "We have no doubt that what he really meant is that he will butcher and martyr his own people in his desperation to hold on to power," the editorial continued:

The Security Council should impose sanctions on Colonel Qaddafi, his family and other officials responsible for the repression, including a freeze on their overseas assets and a travel ban. If the government does not immediately halt the killing, the United Nations should re-impose a ban on all arms sales to Libya.

Huh? Demonstrators are being strafed by fighter jets and helicopters, and the Times recommends a freeze on Qaddafi's assets and a travel ban? And then, if that doesn't work, a ban on arms sales? You mean while this is going on, selling arms to Libya is perfectly OK? As if that horse hasn't left the barn already.

The editorial concludes with a  sentence that is anti-climactic to the point of self-parody:

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights says Colonel Qaddafi’s use of lethal force may constitute crimes against humanity. We agree. There needs to be a thorough investigation.

Take that, butcher! In six months, we'll issue a report that'll singe your eyebrows.

As pitiful as these suggestions are, none of  them has been implemented yet. The UN Human Rights Council did manage to kick out Libya, the Times reported. It's hard to see Qaddafi being deeply wounded by that; on the other hand, given that the UN Human Rights Council includes Angola, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Gabon, Saudi Arabia, and, until now, Libya, I guess you could say that if you get kicked out of that group, you must be really, really bad. (In fact, the Times said that "Arab and African states had opposed suspending Libya’s membership from the 47-member Council, fearing it would set a precedent.")

I admit that it's hard to know what to do. I doubt the world is waiting eagerly for another U.S. takeover of an oil-rich Arab country in the name of democracy. But even if all we can do is make gestures, let's at least do that.

Incidentally, I'm taking no position on how to spell his name. As I understand it, the initial letter represents a sound that doesn't exist in English, but not the one represented by "q" in "Qatar" or "Al Qaeda." If you know any Greeks, ask them how they pronounce a gamma.

Oh, and this link is pretty amusing, especially if you read the links. There's even a comment about Wisconsin.

UPDATE 2/26/01: The Security Council has voted to impose sanctions on Libya and refer it to the International Criminal Court for a war crimes investigation. Obviously it won't have any direct effect on what's going on, but it might possibly encourage more defections from among his remaining supporters.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Don't Get It-- Or He Doesn't

There's been a glaring omission in the public discussion of Obama's new budget proposal, and in the proposal itself. No, I'm not talking about entitlements. That subject is missing from the proposal, but not from the commentariat's discussion of it, in which no article would be complete without using the "e"-word five or six times. No, what's missing is the "t"-word. That's right, taxes.

Yes, there are some tax increases in Obama's budget. He tries again to let the Bush tax cuts expire on people making over $250,000 a year, trims deductions a bit, and eliminates some corporate tax loopholes. But he is apparently setting in stone the principle that top marginal rates may never exceed 39.6 percent.

The budget is supposed to reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion over ten years. (Does anyone else find this whole "over ten years" business confusing? It sort of sounds like the deficit ten years from now will be $1.1 trillion lower, but that's wrong-- actually it's the debt that will be $1.1 trillion lower.) $1.1 trillion is a nice number, but here's a nicer one: $2.5 trillion. Why not really put some pressure on the Republicans? They're going to have to match that, don't forget, without new taxes or cuts in defense spending.

Team Watson Begs to Differ

A reader writes:

I’m part of the team that worked on Watson. I’d like to respond to a comment you made:

But there still has to be a lag of a tenth of a second or so for a human between seeing the light and moving one's thumb; Watson obviously didn't have this lag. The result was that the humans were able to ring in first only when Watson didn't know the answer.

In fact there were many times in the televised game in which Watson was beaten to the buzzer, that was plainly visible to viewers. On several occasions you could see Watson’s answer panel showing the correct answer yet Brad or Ken got the buzz.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Libertarians of Bahrain

“The uneducated people of Bahrain, or the world, you have kids to support and you pull the kids out of school to sell water at the roadside, you cannot blame the government.”
--Ahmed Zainal, 27, a Bahraini public-relations executive and Sunni

Well, maybe not completely libertarian:

“I like how things are. I have a job. I have a house. I have free health care.”
--Rayyah Mohammed, 32, a Bahraini art project director and Sunni

The New York Times, February 17, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not to be Missed

I don't have much of a provenance on this video, but it seems to be an authentic Iranian government product, judging from the characters' accents in Farsi (joke). I'm baffled by how John McCain ended up as a senior White House official, but possibly the writers just thought this was an American-sounding name, as with CIA Iran expert Bill Smith.

George Soros is of course the guy hated by Glenn Beck for his habit of supporting alternatives to repressive governments. Sound crazy that Glenn Beck should find himself on the same side as Iranian mullahs? Yes. He is. It's no crazier than labeling Soros an evil leftist for his role in helping bring about the fall of Communism.

Gene Sharp is the mild-mannered academic who became an overnight sensation when it turned out the Egyptian kids had read his book on non-violent overthrow of repressive governments. So far I think he has escaped the attention of Glenn Beck, though that could change any day now.

Make sure you stay tuned for the live-action part, which gives you an idea of what would happen if the makers of a 1960s high-school movie on venereal disease had worked for Joseph Stalin.

Is Humanity in Jeopardy?

By now you've probably heard how IBM's Watson computer defeated two human Jeopardy! champions by a pretty decisive margin. There are two things to be said about this.

First, it's definitely an impressive performance by IBM. They selected Jeopardy! as a problem because it requires a degree of natural-language processing hitherto (or is it "thitherto"?) unattainable by computers. It requires understanding puns, double meanings, sly allusions and so on. Watson was able to do that with fair reliability, though there were occasional weird glitches (in the second day's Final Jeopardy round, for example, when there was a question about airports in the category "U.S. Cities," Watson guessed Toronto).

Second, the final score in no way represented the relative abilities of the humans and Watson. Contestants are required to ring in, and are not allowed to do so before Alex Trebek has finished reading the clue (I believe there's some sort of light that goes on, though it's not visible to the TV audience). They gave Watson a mechanical ringer to even the odds. But there still has to be a lag of a tenth of a second or so for a human between seeing the light and moving one's thumb; Watson obviously didn't have this lag. The result was that the humans were able to ring in first only when Watson didn't know the answer. So all the scores really proved was that an electric eye is faster than a human muscle, which isn't really a very striking result.

So I'd like to see the scores with a different mechanism-- say, choosing randomly among everyone who rings in. Still, good job, IBM. Please don't start working on Skynet.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Right and Egypt

As you may recall, I often spend time at right-wing websites. It has been striking how much discomfort the libertarian right  has shown with the revolution in Egypt.

After all, libertarians are supposed to be against tyranny, right? That seems like a pretty basic requirement. And the Tea Party arm is always talking about "taking back our country." Yet here are Egyptians doing just that, and libertarians have trouble supporting them.

The obvious problem is that Egyptians are mostly Muslim. Not that the right is intolerant. No, no, no, no, no. It's just that, according to the right, Muslims are intolerant. Also violent and lacking the traditions necessary for democracy. So we need to be careful. Accordingly, a few months ago voters in Oklahoma passed a remarkably silly ballot measure barring judges from considering sharia law in their courts. This, in turn, came a few months after the morally decayed Newt Gingrich (just so you know, I'm going to start using that as a sort of Homeric epithet, like "the wine-dark sea" or "the rosy-fingered dawn") proposed a Federal law to the same effect to apply nationwide, as a barrier against the "stealth jihadis."

So what about Egypt? People on the right explained, to those who had forgotten, that Iran had had a revolution, and look what happened to them. One blogger at the Volokh Conspiracy explained that he hadn't taken a position because it was too soon to know whether the revolution would make things better or worse. (I asked whether by the same logic he would be voting for Obama in 2012.)

Meanwhile, Glenn Beck raised my opinion of his ethics by moving from "probably an unscrupulous demagogue" to "probably mentally unhinged." He's now developed an elaborate theory in which the Muslim Brotherhood establishes a caliphate (it became the #3 search term on Google) with the collusion of leftists, and ends up divvying up most of the world with China and Russia, leaving North and South America  as the last holdouts.

That's the obvious problem that the right has with the Egyptian revolution. The hidden problem is that it makes the right's rhetoric about America look ridiculous. Tyranny in Egypt is arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture, state control of the media, rigged elections. Tyranny in America is having to pay a tax penalty if you don't buy health insurance. Lucky Egyptians-- they don't have to buy health insurance! In fact, most of them don't even have health insurance! Taking back your country meant, in Egypt, going out into the street to demonstrate peacefully and facing thugs throwing Molotov cocktails. Taking back your country in America means going to Town Hall meetings and shouting down the speaker. The nerve of those Egyptians-- who do they think they are?

Some Belated Thoughts on the State of the Union (the speech, that is)

Well, it certainly wasn't the one I would've given.  Or, slightly more plausibly, would've written.

All in all, it was probably pretty astute politically . Obama was optimistic and not too partisan, leaving Republicans to play Chicken Little on the deficit, a role that didn't work too well for Mondale in 1984. At the same time, he made a case for government actually trying to accomplish things, rather than simply withering away.

Still, I have been advocating, as you may recall, what I call fact-based politics-- the idea that democracy functions better when people are not fundamentally mistaken about the facts. No one else has the weight the President has to challenge people's mistaken beliefs-- there's no Walter Cronkite any more.