Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"

The trial is now in the penalty phase, and I can't think of anything to say. So I'll talk about linguistics and orthography.

Looking at his name, you can tell he's from a country in the former Soviet Union. First, it's obviously a non-Russian name, but it has the ov/ev ending common in Russian names. The president of Kazakhstan is Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the president of Uzbekistan is Islam Karimov. I don't know whether the intent was to seem Russian or just to make it fit into Russian grammar better.

The real giveaway, though, is the first name. Like many languages, Russian does not have the English "j" sound as in joy, jam, Juliet. But it does have a "zh" sound, like the "s" in "pleasure" or the "z" in "azure." So it transliterates the "j" sound as "dzh." Try saying it. (Incidentally, "dzh" doesn't look quite as awkward in Cyrillic, where it's only two letters:  дж)

In French, as you may know, the letter j is pronounced "zh". They transliterate our "j" sound as "dj". Thus we get Django Reinhardt, who was born in Belgium. Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding, I'm certain that there never was an American slave named Django; Americans would have spelled it Jango.

Djibouti is only one of the many places where French orthography has left its scar on the map of Africa. My favorite is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, which under the British Empire would've been called Wagadugu. Other than that, I don't know whether Africans were worse off under the French or the British, though apparently the Belgians were the worst.

Another sound French lacks is the English "ch" sound in "cheese," which it writes "tch" ("ch" is pronounced "sh"). Chad managed to escape calling itself Tchad, which is what it's called in French. But poor Tchaikovsky somehow ended up that way in English, instead of Chaikovsky

Oh, and the "kh" in "Dzhokhar" is of course the German "ch" sound. For Americans, he pronounced that as an "h".

On second thought, I do have one comment about the trial. There may be good arguments for putting Tsarnaev to death. That he gave the finger to the camera in his cell is not one of them. The prosecution is being shamelessly manipulative, and not very truthful. This is a serious business. Take it seriously, Department of Justice.

Monday, April 20, 2015

On the Question "When Does Human Life Begin?"

When does an oak tree's life begin? I am not asking this frivolously.

I would say: An oak tree begins life as an acorn.

But an acorn is not the same thing as an oak tree. Then when does an oak tree become an oak tree? That's a much harder question.

The question is not, When does human life begin? That's easy: at conception. The question is, When does a human become a human? That's a much harder question.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Israeli Elections II: Bibi's Last Rabbit?

Benjamin Netanyahu used to be known in Israel as "The Magician," and there did seem to be something paranormal about how he saved himself in last month's election. Trailing by four seats in the polls four days before the election, his Likud party ended up on top by six seats, for a big increase over the previous election. Here's that chart from Wikipedia again:

Zionist Union786,31318.6724+3
Joint List446,58310.6113+2
Yesh Atid371,6028.8211–8
The Jewish Home283,9106.748–4
Yisrael Beiteinu214,9065.106–7
United Torah Judaism210,1434.996–1

So how did he do it? Did Israel suddenly shift to the right?

Not noticeably. Here's the above chart, as recalculated by me:

Votes %
Right 1,484,224 35.2% 44 +1
Center 686,962 16.3% 21 +2
Left 1,150,937 27.3% 29 +2
Ultra-Orth. 451,756 10.7% 13 -5
Arab 446,583 10.6% 13 +2

Looked at this way, there's been almost no change. What Netanyahu apparently managed to do was scare people enough that they deserted the other right-wing parties and voted for Likud. That made Likud the biggest party, giving them the first chance to put together a coalition. But overall, there wasn't much change in the proportion voting for each group.*

If not for the shift to Likud from other right-wing parties, the Zionist Union would have won; then it can easily put together a center-left coalition that, with passive support from the Arabs, could get a majority of more than 60.**  But Bibi pulls out the win!

The question now is what the cost will be to Netanyahu in the long run. Certainly his Election Day appearance on Facebook, warning that Arabs were coming out to vote "in droves," and were being bused in by leftist organizations, did not make a favorable impression among Americans, who quickly translate it to: "Come out and vote, because liberals are driving busloads of blacks to the polls!"  Polarized though American politics has become, that hasn't been a conceivable statement by an American  politician in at least forty years. (Netanyahu later apologized, but I don't think anyone was mollified.)

More problematic still was Netanyahu's statement that there wouldn't be a Palestinian state on his watch, followed after the election with a "Ha, ha, just kidding!" This was about the last straw for the Obama administration, which seems to feel liberated now that it is no longer obliged to believe that Netanyahu is sincere. I think it's possible that Bibi's bag of tricks is now empty.

* In fact, probably less than appears-- one of the ultra-Orthodox parties didn't make the new higher cutoff and so is not counted above, resulting in a small gain in seats for everyone else.

** You can't get over 60 with the ultra-Orthodox parties instead, because then you lose one of the centrist parties.

Friday, April 10, 2015

How To Solve the California Water Crisis

The California water crisis is all over the national news, thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown's imposition last week of mandatory cuts in urban water use averaging 25%. This has resulted in a lot of finger-pointing, as people blame their pet peeves.

For example, we're told that, in the middle of a drought, fracking (the controversial new technique for oil and gas extraction) used up 70 million gallons of water last year. But when you do the math, this turns out to be about five millionths of California's water use. Then there's the attack on Nestlé for bottling and selling California's water. You can say, with some justification, that bottled water is a waste of money, plastic, and energy. What you can't say is that it's a waste of water-- I mean, people are drinking it. (OK, Nestlé may be shipping some of it out of state.)

To my surprise, though, a lot of the finger-pointing this time has focused on the real issue: Brown's restrictions apply only to urban water use, but that represents just 20% of California's water use (around 10% to households and 10% to business and industry). The other 80% goes to agriculture. So a 25% reduction in urban use, a pretty drastic reduction, saves about the same amount of water as a 6% reduction in agricultural use.

And the fingers are pointing pretty hard. Ten percent of California's water goes to almond farming-- in other words, as much as goes to all household use. A hundred billion gallons a year goes to alfalfa exported to China.

Here we come to the fork in the road that divides most people from people with some background in economics. The former say, "That's outrageous! Maybe we should ban almond growing in California. Maybe we should make people aware of how much water is going into those almonds they're eating." The latter say, "Boy, the farmers really aren't paying enough for water."

Enter the famous "miracle of the market." We don't need to decide whether growing almonds is worth it, where they should be grown instead,  and what crops, if any, should replace them. We raise the price farmers pay for water, charging them a price comparable to the wholesale price of water in Los Angeles, and let farmers figure that out. Maybe they should continue growing almonds but not alfalfa, or vice versa. Maybe they should raise vegetables. Maybe they should install more efficient irrigation systems. Maybe they should pack it in and move to Palm Springs. In any case, consumers don't have to decide whether or not to feel guilty about eating almonds.

Unfortunately, this particular miracle of the market leaves quite a bit of damage in its wake. Many farmers probably go out of business, and the ones who don't are a lot poorer than they used to be. A lot of people may not like that result, especially the farmers themselves. What then?

Suppose we keep the price of water to farmers where it is, but allow them to wholesale some of their water (or water rights) to the cities. What happens? Clearly the farmers are no worse off; they can always decide not to sell.  But now, for every gallon (or million gallons, or acre-foot) wasted through inefficient irrigation or overly thirsty crops, the farmer loses the opportunity to make serious money. Now farmers have the same incentive to conserve as if they had to pay a higher price, without being impoverished. Maybe they grow almonds, maybe alfalfa, maybe something else, maybe it's off to Palm Springs (which they'll now be able to afford). End of problem.

Of course it's a little trickier than that. To allow farmers to sell their water means untangling the complexities of Western water law, under which, for example, you can lose your right to water if you don't use it, and some farmers have rights that are senior to other farmers'. But most of this is state law, so California could fix it if the pressure gets intense enough. Also, you need a good regulatory system for groundwater, which California is just putting into place; otherwise farmers just pump the aquifers dry and sell the water. But basically, end of problem.

Wait! say the Greens. What about all those huge lawns in Los Angeles? Actually, per capita use in LA has been going down, as people install more low-flow bathroom fixtures, xeriscape their yards, and fill their pools with Pinot Grigio (well, in Beverly Hills). But maybe even with the farmers using less, we still need to cut back on urban use.

So we could go the Jerry Brown route and impose a mandatory cut, making everyone use only 75% as much as they do now. Or... consider this: Suppose we make the first 50% free. Then we triple the price of every gallon thereafter. Now people who use 75% pay the same as they would have with the mandatory cut. But those who feel they've just gotta have more water for their pet beluga whale can do it, at a steep price. And perhaps more important, people have an incentive to conserve below 75% if they can, because it saves them a lot of money. Those people come out ahead financially. In particular, poor people probably come out ahead.

It's remarkable how many problems can be fixed by getting the prices right. Like global warming. But let's not get into that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Israeli Elections I: What's With the Arabs?

Israeli Arabs were pretty excited about this election, but not because there were unusual issues. A change in the election law had raised the vote threshold for representation in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), threatening the elimination of the three small Arab parties. The result was that they overcame their differences and ran on the same ticket, which they called the Joint List. Arab voters were excited because for the first time it it seemed possible that there would be a large Arab party in the Knesset.

And so it turned out. Here's a chart from Wikipedia:

Zionist Union786,31318.6724+3
Joint List446,58310.6113+2
Yesh Atid371,6028.8211–8
The Jewish Home283,9106.748–4
Yisrael Beiteinu214,9065.106–7
United Torah Judaism210,1434.996–1

The Joint List ended up the third-largest group, with 13 seats out of 120. In testimony to the enthusiasm of the Arab electorate, they got two more seats than all three combined had in the last election.

So with this new big party, how much power will the Arabs have in the new Knesset? 

Well, basically... none.

You see, the right-wing Likud won the election, and now should be able to put together a coalition of the right and the ultra-Orthodox (everyone from Kulanu through United Torah Judaism in the chart above). As long as the coalition holds together, it doesn't need the Arabs. And the coalition includes some pretty anti-Arab people. As for a Palestinian state, forget it. 

Now let's imagine a different scenario: suppose all the Arabs vote for the Zionist Union. The ZU ends up with, conservatively, 35 seats. It has no trouble putting together 61 seats for a coalition. Arabs represent about a third of the votes for the largest party in the Knesset. Under which condition do Arabs have more power, that or the actual one?

So why didn't they do that? What's with them? First, in Israel there doesn't seem to be much concept of power within an existing party. Rather, if you have a political agenda, you form your own party. As a former colleague of mine at Haifa put it, Israel doesn't have interest groups, it has interest parties. If U.S. politics were like Israeli politics, we would have a party for Hispanics, a party for evangelical Christians, and so on.

Second, and probably more important, Arab leaders seem to prefer principles to power. The Arabs are against the idea of a Jewish state; they want "a state of all its citizens." The Arabs (or the Arab elite) are so attached this principle that they could never vote for any Zionist party, let alone one with "Zionist" in the name.

Indeed, the quest for purity of principle goes further than this: the Joint List said before the election that if the left won, they would support it, but wouldn't accept a cabinet position. One might think that if your goal is to improve the conditions of Israeli Arabs, it would be helpful to have a member of your party as, say, Minister of Housing and Construction. Or at least to have a vote at cabinet meetings. But no; apparently that would be too craven a compromise with the system.

Arabs are certainly entitled to try for a non-Jewish state if they want. They won't get it, because the overwhelming majority of Jews are against it, but they can try. The question is, does refusing to taint themselves with governing make it more likely that they will succeed? Not that I can see. It just makes them powerless in the meantime.