Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No Liberty Tonight, Honey, I'm Tired

The Volokh Conspiracy and I are on a break.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I advocate reading, and politely participating in, blogs by people you disagree with politically. Though this approach doesn't always work, I did find that the Volokh Conspiracy, a site run by more than a dozen right-wing libertarian law professors, was open to outsiders with dissenting views, and that it had, and sometimes even enforced, a policy on civility. I have on several occasions used discussions I took part in there as a starting point for comments here. In fact, I found the whole thing a bit seductive.

The main reason I'm now taking a break is that I'm a slow typist, and it was eating up huge amounts of time. But I also had to ask myself whether it was really worth it, given how hard it was to really engage anyone in debate. One expects that most people who come to these sites do so to see their own views confirmed, and that faced with a good contrary argument or some hard facts, they are not going to slap their foreheads and say, "Of course! What a fool I've been!" But it was a bit wearing at times to have a long exchange with someone, and then have them change the subject or start name-calling when the going got tough. Both the right and the left tend to have their talking points, and stick to them.  I also got tired of people telling me what people like me really wanted (e.g., more bureaucracy for its own sake, the power to tell everyone what to do).

Still, I'm thinking of this as a break, rather than a breakup. To ease the separation, I want to discuss a few common libertarian arguments that come up a lot at VC. These are so deeply rooted in the right-wing libertarian worldview that you probably have run into them. Let's start by distinguishing a reasonable argument from others that are not.

Reasonable Libertarian Argument:

Activities of government involve compulsion, which limits freedom. Therefore these activities should be kept to a minimum.

This argument is reasonable if you make two important assumptions.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Not Ready for Uranium Mining on Mars

Given that the Japanese have built robots that do this:

why, one might wonder, do they have humans standing in radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi? Turns out, according to this article, there a few problems with using a robot at a damaged nuclear power plant.

  1. It's hard to communicate with them through thick reinforced concrete.
  2. They have trouble negotiating complicated terrain and avoiding obstacles.
  3. Their brains get fried easily by radiation.
One would naively think that people would be building robots to do things that people can't do, rather than things that people can do better. But at one time people naively thought that television would be a great tool for educating people.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

More Than You Wanted on Libyan Linguistics

Wrong again. The name of Gadhafi's tribe is القذاذفـة, which I, consulting a Wikipedia article on the Arabic alphabet, read as Al-Gadhadhfah ("dh" like the first sound in "this"). So "Moammar El-Gadhafi" (which, you will recall, should really be "El-Gadhdhafi") means "Moammar of Al-Gadhadhfah tribe." Apparently rendering the definite article as "el" rather than "al" is another regionalism that's not considered standard Arabic, which is why we don't study elgebra and drink elcohol. I may be inconsistent in using "al" with the Libyan G. This tribe's home is in the Sirte region, which is where the next big battle is coming up.

Insanely obscure linguistic fact of the week: although Icelandic has a letter (ð) that's pronounced like the first sound in "this," the newspapers spell his name Gaddafi, not Gaððafi.

STILL MORE 3/30/11: The New York Times spells the name of  the tribe Qaddafa. According to Wikipedia (which uses "Qadhadhfa") the name means "those who spit out or vomit." He would never get elected in a democratic system: "Hi, I'm Fred Puker."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Letter from a Friend in Pakistan

I asked if I could post this and my friend said, "You are welcome to post anything I've written to you as long as it's clearly stated that I'm offering opinion rather than Truth As We Know It." I'm actually not sure what the difference is between those two things, but never mind. For those of you whose attention has been on other parts of the world, Raymond Davis is the American contractor (but with, apparently, diplomatic immunity) who fatally shot two people in Pakistan.

March 17, 2011

Well, Raymond Davis made his exit from Pakistan last night, after 6 weeks of high dudgeon all around. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

The whole thing makes me sick. One hardly knows where to start, and since it’s really a vicious circle, it probably doesn’t matter where. So let’s start with the fact that U.S. taxpayers are paying top dollar—through the privatized outsourcing by which our government now conducts so much of its business—for inept spies conducting questionable business with little to no result. Spies are supposed to blend into the landscape, remain anonymous. How could this man have been quite so tone-deaf to his environment? And why do we continue paying premium prices for goods and services that don’t actually get delivered?

Then there’s the Hypocrisy Factor of Pakistani public sentiment surrounding this case. It is not, in fact, exactly unheard of in these parts for thugs to approach a fancy car stopped at an intersection for the purposes of looting its passengers, or for calamity to ensue therefrom. In fact, a close friend was telling me just this morning that a man living in Defence (a very posh suburb of Lahore) was approached in just this way about a year ago, and when he, ensconced in his vehicle, drew a weapon—who knows whether it was legally licensed or not, this being relevant only because the media here has made much of the fact that Raymond Davis’s weapons were “illegal”?—even though the would-be miscreants turned and ran, the driver chased them down and shot them. Nothing much was made of this, no hue and cry was raised, certainly nobody heard of the killer being arrested, much less prosecuted. But then, he wasn’t an American spy, just your average wealthy citizen who, because of privilege, lives above the law.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Whose Vision?

My niece took part last summer in a program in the Balkans sponsored by a group called "Abraham's Vision," which describes itself as "a conflict transformation organization that explores group and individual identities through experiential and political education. Examining social relations within and between the Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, and Palestinian communities, we empower participants to practice just alternatives to the status quo."

Unfortunately, the transformation and empowerment appear to be somewhat unequally distributed. Here's one comment from the group blog of the people that were in the program with her:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Too Weird

Those of you of an age to know the Deep Purple song "Smoke on the Water" may enjoy the bizarre spectacle (literally) of the former German defense minister handing over power to his successor. Apparently he wanted AC/DC, but the band drew the line at that. Even so, he seems in the video to be having a difficult time containing his glee. I think Alice Cooper's "School's Out" might have been a better choice, but de gustibus. Note the glockenspiel.

The ceremony is called a  "Grosser Zapfenstreich," and looking that up led to the discovery of one of the creepiest group hobbies I've ever come across. Haven't these guys ever heard of bowling?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Decline of Western Civilization

I recently stumbled on a site that will list all the New York Times bestsellers for the week of your birth. Here are the fiction bestsellers for my week in 1955:

2   AUNTIE MAME Patrick Dennis
3   ANDERSONVILLE MacKinlay Kantor
5   THE TONTINE Thomas B. Costain
6   CASH McCALL Cameron Hawley
7   THE DEER PARK Norman Mailer
9   A CHARMED LIFE Mary McCarthy
10 BONJOUR TRISTESSE Francoise Sagan
11 HERITAGE Anthony West
12 THE PROPHET Sholem Asch
13 BAND OF ANGELS Robert Penn Warren
15 THE SMILING REBEL Harnett T. Kane
 16 PAPA'S WIFE Thyra Ferre Bjorn

And what about for the current week in 2011? Of the top ten hardcover fiction bestsellers, five are mysteries or thrillers and one is a Star Wars novel. Of the remaining five in the top fifteen, one involves vampires and one is a Harlequin romance. Possibly this means that the reading audience is broader than ever before. More likely, it just means we're getting dumber.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The most affecting images I have seen of the results of the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan are these interactive before-and-after satellite photos from The New York Times.

On Wisconsin

The Wisconsin senate has now passed Gov. Walker's bill on unions. They were able to do this with a simple majority, by removing from the bill any pretense that it had anything to do with the current budget. As always, "cramming it down our throats" is in the eye of the beholder.

But what about the budget crisis? Let's just review some key points. First, states are having a lot of fiscal stress now, as they did last year. Second, the reason they are having so much stress is that we're in the middle of the biggest recession since the Depression, causing revenues to fall. I haven't figured out how to upload an Excel chart to this page, but here are the figures on state and local revenues, in millions of dollars, for each year. (To make a fair comparison, I'm omitting fourth-quarter revenues in each year, because the Census Bureau doesn't yet have Q4 for 2010. As you might expect, the big quarter for revenues is the second, since it includes April.)

 2005   809,523
 2006   869,539
 2007   915,604
 2008   949,095
 2009   885,665
 2010   907,631

Note the rather dramatic dropoff between 2008 and 2009.

Third, if the recession is to blame for the shortfall, who is to blame for the recession? That's a complicated question, but I'm pretty sure it's not teachers and garbage collectors.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Update on Libyan Linguistics

I was wrong. A New York Times blog connects to this explanation by the AP of the different spellings of Qaddafi's name. Contrary to what I guessed, the first consonant in Qaddafi (to use the Times spelling) is indeed the same Q as in Al Qaeda or Qatar, one pronounced like an English k but further down in the throat. This is distinct from what is usually  transliterated as K, which is more or less the same as in English.

So why all the different spellings of the name? The first complication is that while this is the pronunciation in Classical Arabic, in the Libyan dialect that letter is pronounced as a g. I don't know if it's pronounced like an English g or further down in the throat; I suspect the latter. Next, the second consonant is doubled, which doesn't affect pronunciation in English but does in other languages, including Arabic. It's really pronounced like two letters, which basically just means you hold it longer.

Finally, the second consonant should be transliterated as dh, which is pronounced like the first two letters in "this" or "that," as distinct from the sound in "thick" and "thin." But writing "dhdh" looks silly, so some people, like the Times, have gone with "dd." As it happens, a lot of Libyans pronounce it dh as d anyway (like "dis" and "dat" in certain American cities).

In the end the AP decided to go with how he spells it himself, in accordance with "general policy," and found a letter where he called himself "Gadhafi." So that's what they use, and I guess what I'll use from now on.

Actually, he called himself "Moammar El-Gadhafi" which means "Moammar the Gadhafi." I would guess, though my guesses haven't been too good thus far, that "Gadhaf" is either a place or a clan.