May 2007

…and the interpreter replied—No

Have you ever seen the joke where two businessmen, an American and a Chinese are working out a deal with the assistance of a Chinese interpreter? The American businessman asks a question which gets interpreted through a great and lengthy process involving multiple conversations, a lot of symbolic writing on the palm of the hand, and many looks of consternation. After several minutes the interpreter turns to the businessman and simply says “no” —which is the answer to the question. While humorous, this is in fact a real phenomena as anyone attempting to do business in China can attest.

What we have here is a failure to communicate—not between the American businesman and the Chinese businessman, but between the interpreter and the Chinese businessman.

A little background is in order. China is a large country aggregated from multiple totally indigestible chunks–even for a maw as large as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There are two major languages, Cantonese and Mandarin, which are essentially incompatible with Cantonese having 9 tonal variants and Mandarin four. Within China it is estimated that there are over 200 dialects of Mandarin alone. Plus there are other essentially separate languages used in the autonomous regions.

A person from the north Chinese province of Xisang has little chance of being understood by someone from Shanghai. What is actually occurring in the parable above is that the two Chinese are attempting to converge concepts so that they may actually communicate.

When each draws on his hand, he’s referring to Chinese characters, each a symbol for a concept and each mnemonically stable over the various dialects. Once the question is properly framed, the answer become possible to elucidate.

As a result, ideas, innovation and commerce tend to be predominately local. However, there are a great many Chinese, even in a local area bounded by dialect. From outside this looks like either a great untapped market or the scariest thing since Japan reinvented the transistor radio. More optimistic (or scared) Westerners look at local markets and say things like

Oh Shandong Province has 90 million people, I can extrapolate this market to the entire Chinese population and get numbers in the potential billions of customers.”

.. or

This group in Shanghai is innovating like crazy. What the hell happens when the rest of the country does the same.”

A more astute observer wonders whether the people of China can become the engineering and dynamic powerhouse of the 21st Century when they cannot even talk to each other. The CCP has taken notice of this and has mandated that Mandarin be taught as the common language. Dialects are still a major problem.

And then there is the written language which resembles the paths of an ink-dipped drunken rooster. On the plus side, (upon further reflection) since it’s derived from pictograms, it’s stable across all these various dialects and languages. On the minus side, building vocab requires learning an ever increasing set of new characters. By some estimates, a minimum of 5000 symbols are required for family level discourse. 20,000 are required for an educated Chinese to read a newspaper on the level of the New York Times. To read the Wall Street Journal from front to back: 50,000-70,000 symbols. A paper in computer science or biotechnology has symbol sets in the 100,000 range per discipline. Cross-discipline or interdisciplinary research is off to a crashing halt—you need to learn the discipline specific set for yours and the additional set of your coworker. So basic research has a chance— integrated applications —eh—not so much.

Stangely enough, the common language (with its attendant symbol set) for engineering and research is de facto becoming English. Mandarin is not particularly suited for engineering and science as it forces both sides of the brain to work. Chinese learn English if they are going to be doing science and engineering because to not learn English is the equivalent of clamping on concrete overshoes at the start of a 100 meter race.

Enter St. George.

This gives the Western world a unique opportunity. In order to promote Democracy is China, we have only to insert some “viral memes”, perhaps as English ‘borrow words’. The French are always complaining about how English is tainting their ever-so-pure language, so let’s do it on purpose with the Chinese. Some of this is already happening—witness the CCP’s attempt to restrict Google search engine output, or restrict what terms are available in Microsoft Office’s built-in lexicon. The Western world should make every attempt to load up the scientific and technical disciplines with dual use connotations for essential engineering concepts. The CCP still views politics as independent of science and technology—a glaring flaw in their world view, as it is the free exchange of ideas that promote advancement in science.

The CCP’s position is essentially self-defeating anyway. What absurdity prompts them to sponsor thousands of students to Western Colleges where they learn the language, absorb and train in the technology; and yet expect them not to be exposed to democracy? The CCP will either have to allow the nasty democratic connotations or disallow English.

If they do the latter, they are hobbled and Chinese hegemony is no longer a threat—it becomes in fact a paper dragon. If they do the former, we also win, as the concepts the CCP wants to suppress are put to use, leading to increased awareness of the benefits of democracy and economic freedom.

The Angry Men are once again pleased to welcome a new voice of anger to the fold. In keeping with our belief in the healing power of anger, we present the Angry Virginian in his own words, writing about his recent epiphany:

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Once upon a time, I didn’t understand conservatives at all. I mean, what is it that they have against poor people? Why do they like violence so much? Why don’t they care about the future of our planet? They just seemed like a bunch of greedy and hypocritical old men to me.

Then, a funny thing happened that turned my view of conservatives on its head. It wasn’t George Bush’s election – He seemed like a harmless nitwit, and by himself, he didn’t do much to change my view on anything. It wasn’t even the September 11 attacks, as I’m the sort of person who believes that whatever was a good (or bad) idea on September 10 was still just as good (or bad) an idea on September 12. However, the United States’ response to the September 11 attacks, which has been inefficient at best and utterly terrifying at worst, dramatically changed the way I view politics, government, and international affairs.

First and foremost, I learned why so many conservatives don’t like big government. When you realize for the first time that your tax dollars are being spent on things that are stupid and unethical… well, you get mad. You get frustrated. You realize that when the government does something wrong, it does it on such a vast scale and with so much momentum that there is little (if anything) the private sector could do to counteract it. Previous presidents might have been sleazy or inconsistent, but they didn’t waste too much of my country’s time and money doing it. George W. Bush taught me just how wrong the government could go, and he made me wonder if maybe government is inherently bad after all. It’s a possibility that I hadn’t considered – Thank you, George, for pointing that out.

Speaking of evils that I hadn’t believed in before, how about some more government surveillance? I participated in a protest so that I could speak out against the invasion of Iraq – Does that mean I’m on a government watch list now? I mean, I have nothing to hide, but that shouldn’t mean squat. The idea that expressing one’s political views and participating in public debate could be punished by the United States Government is deeply and truly disturbing. All of those gun-toting libertarians who have been fretting about Big Brother don’t seem so paranoid any more.

There’s another area where Bush has made me more conservative. For many years, liberals (myself included) have favored increased federal power, as the states dragged their feet in providing many Americans with fair treatment and essential liberties. However, as the federal government now seems to be more in the business of discrimination and restricting rights than many of the states are, my attitude is shifting. As long as certain powers are reserved to the states (hey, it’s that Bill of Rights again!), then I will always have the option to leave my embarrassingly-red home state for somewhere more civilized and yet stay in the United States.

To sum it all up:

  • If my taxes are funding a pointless war, then I want my taxes to be cut.
  • If law enforcement is being directed to go after pacifist old-ladies, then maybe I really do to hide from the government and buy a gun.
  • If the federal government is going to be so stupid, then maybe some power needs to be given back to the states.

Living under the Bush administration has taught me that these conservative ideas make a lot more sense than I thought.

In an era marked by extremely divisive politics and deep partisan mistrust, truly bipartisan efforts are rare. But we were treated to one such wonder recently when Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Kyl (R-AZ), in league with the Bush White House no less, hammered out a bill on immigration which has truly bipartisan support, and truly bipartisan criticism.

The bill does many things, some of them not at all controversial. But it also does certain things which have stirred up a hornet’s nest on the issue of immigration:

  • Make immigration dependent upon accruing “points” for such things as: fluency with English, education, job skills, and certain family connections. (Currently it would seem that 28.6% of the yearly quota is allocated for “priority workers”. The bill would make that 95% and change some of the definitions involved.)
  • Regularization of certain illegal immigrants, allowing those here illegally to automatically get a “probationary” visa which does not allow them to apply for citizenship OR a regular visa if difficult requirements are met (returning to the country of origin, undergoing a criminal background check, paying a $4000 fine, paying certain other fees or penalties, and going to the back of the list of legal immigrants waiting for citizenship). [This last means that citizenship for former illegals will take 13-18 years, since there is a current 8-year backlog, and a 5-year delay after holding a valid visa before one may apply for citizenship.]
  • A guest-worker program, separate from normal immigration, which is easy to participate in but conveys no advantage in earning citizenship. Also, guest workers can work in the US for only two years and must then return to their country of origin for at least one year. After three such cycles, they could no longer participate in the program (total time in the US: 6 years over a 9 year period).
  • Require real border security work to at least begin before implementing regularization or temporary-worker portions. This would include border fencing, additional Border Patrol agents, and an employee-verification system.

Now, this hardly seems like the stuff of madness, and in fact seems like a pretty reasonable compromise, dealing with the two real dilemmas here. It prevents those who have broken our country’s laws from jumping in line before those who have obeyed them, and it deals with the reality of millions of undocumented workers who are hard at work in the United States. Naturally, this means it will satisfy nobody.

Some of the criticism of the bill has merit. Surely, Newt Gingrich is right when he points out that the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli “amnesty” law made very similar promises about border control, worker verification, and no future amnesty laws—and then utterly broke each and every promise. Businesses are right to worry about the what they might be required to do if a worker verification law is mandated. Various people were right to be outraged at the Bush Administration’s attempt to remove the requirement for former illegals to pay back taxes. (And their outrage paid off, since the provision to pay back taxes is still in the bill.)

But surely the general thrust of the bill isn’t worth some of the vitriol: secure the borders, deal with current illegal immigrants in a way that gives them a path out without cheating the honest applicants for legal immigration or letting them completely off the hook, and provide a reasonably sane way for workers who don’t really want to immigrate to live and work here in large numbers.

In short, on an issue over which passions run very, very hot, it has the coldly rational feel of an actual compromise: which satisfies nobody but maybe, just maybe, takes a few steps towards a solution. Only a few steps, naturally, since the bill leaves large issues unresolved.

For example: what about the many applicants for legal immigration still waiting for admission (the “line” behind which the new Z-visa immigrants must queue up)? Why not speed this process by raising the rates of immigration, at least for those already in the line? If millions of undocumented workers are (on the balance) good for the nation, why wouldn’t millions of fully documented, legal, and eager ones be?

More generally, the compromise misses the real problem: we have stupid immigration laws. When millions of people risk death, injury, robbery, rape, and deportation to come here to work low-paying jobs, we should realize that those people aren’t the problem. The laws that prevent reasonable immigration and that obscure the benefits of free immigration are the problem. Sadly, these laws have become treasured sacred cows of the Left and Right and reforming them will be very hard. Until we can muster up the courage to do just that, this compromise represents at least a first tottering step towards sanity.

[Beneath the political wrangling and the natural opposition to law-breaking by illegal immigrants lurk deep and dark currents. I’ll explore these currents, how they’ve led us away from the open immigration that catapulted our nation to world-power status, and how we might rekindle that spirit in an upcoming series. – AOC]

One of the hazards of living in this strange part of the country is the constant conflict of interests. This curious region is inhabited by both the very rich and the very poor. Despite their best efforts, the rich cannot seem to eradicate the working class from the county. This plays havoc on the local television stations who want to appeal to all of the people locally. While one might be sympathetic with their situation — trying to serve such a diverse crowd –it is unfortunately impossible when they constantly make such bad decisions.

The current trend seems to be to break into any show for “news” about any celebrity event, even when the station has no information at all, and much better information has been available for an hour online. They don’t just say the message and return to programming, but they keep the camera on their vapid talking head who makes a mess of trying to sound dramatic while repeating the same dull non-information over and over.

For instance, it evidently merited an hour of breaking coverage to inform the breathless world about the genetic ancestry of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. The anti-climatic end to a national game of “Mystery Date” in which all of the possibilities were “the Loser”. Does it really spike your channel’s ratings to be one of a hundred information outlets? Are there really that many nail salons and hairdressers all watching right now? Does anyone else care?

Television out here is delayed 3 hours from the time everyone else gets to see it. It makes the new push for having a show “web community” less effective here, since the forums and blogs all fire up talking about the latest episode hours before it even airs here. The added irony that makes me laugh is that the shows are mostly filmed out here, and the actually community of people who contribute to the show are kept from contributing to the “web community” by that wicked trick of the Earth’s rotation.

This can lead to utter disasters, such as the one that struck the Angry Fiancee. It has, much to her disappointment, been announced that this is the final season of The Gilmore Girls. This was announced with only a few episodes left, and watching those became a big priority for her. If the show were broadcast at the same time across the country, the episode would have aired here normally. However, since it was delayed three hours, the coverage was broken into by coverage of a local brush fire. She hoped that the break would take two minutes, then return to show, but they kept circling their helicopter over the fire for hours. The only news they had to say was “Griffith Park is on fire. If you live in Los Feliz and the fireman haven’t pulled you from your house already, please run away from the flames.” I’m sure the residents of that neighborhood appreciated this channel repeating that in a dull uninventive way all night, especially since their power had already been lost three hours previously.

I think the key for modern TV directors is to look in their book and read the whole “interruption” script. There are two lines:

1) “We interrupt this program to bring you this important announcement.”
This should now quickly mention things like ‘The President has died, the country has been attacked, or the Germans have unconditionally surrendered’. Short of that, any message should be run as a crawl on the bottom of the screen.
2) (This is the most important part) “We now return you to your regularly schedule program already in progress
Return me to my regularly scheduled program! I cannot understate how important this is! I don’t watch your channel to see a fire in Griffith Park. If I wanted to see that, I would walk outside and look at it myself. It’s on a big hill, and clearly visible to everyone.

This is why your channel gets zero ratings around here, and you have to beg Warner Bros to let you run the only decent show you schedule (which has now finished it’s run). This is why your channel couldn’t even sustain a tele-novella — the single most popular television format in the Western Hemisphere! Return me to my regularly scheduled program!

And so now I’m forced to deal with the other channels in town that, while not making quite the novice mistake of that particular channel, mix and match their programming in a way that guarantees that no single person watches their channel all day. For instance, they scheduled NHL hockey just before the Preakness. The current fad of cross-promoting your shows means that during the intermission breaks from top-level hockey — that most genteel of hobbies — they cut away to the rough and tumble blue-collar beer-chugging world of million dollar horse racing. Not so much the racing itself, but the discussion of the current crop of fashions that are on display around the track.

Since this particular hockey game ended in overtime, and there is no greater joy to a hockey fan than overtime hockey in the playoffs, one would expect the program manager to stay with hockey and switch to the Preakness once the sudden death goal was scored. Especially since the horseracing coverage consists of two hours of stalling before the actual two minute race. They couldn’t spare 10 minutes from their “tributes to past horses” and “interviews with a horse hair French-braid specialist” to let the viewers who have already invested two hours into the game watch the actual finish of it? Nope. On to the boring horse manure.

Of course, as I finish writing this, the channel did cut into the middle of an interview with “breaking news” showing the final 5 seconds of the hockey game. As if any hockey fans were still watching this channel, and hadn’t thrown a chair through their TV in frustration already anyway.

Recently a few things have gotten me thinking about credentials, in particular, academic credentials and its evil component, credentialism, the excessive attention to formal credentials. Credentials are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but excessive attention to them leads to some pretty serious problems which I will elaborate below. What put me on this train of thought? Pretty disconnected stuff, actually. First, it’s graduation time, so a lot of people are getting their degrees (congratulations if you are getting one). Second, it wasn’t all that long ago that students were choosing their schools, where they hope to get their degrees (congratulations if you got into a good one). Third, the case of Marilee Jones, former admissions director at MIT ousted for faking her credentials, has been in the news of late (sucks to be her). Finally, Rush released a new album, which, longtime fan that I am, I bought and have been rocking out to; get it if you like the band. This reminded me of the old claim that drummer/lyriecist and now book and magazine author Neil Peart had “a PhD in English” because he writes lyrics with lots of literary references. I’ll tackle these in reverse order.

(1) Neil Peart, “PhD” I’m not sure where the rumor that Neil has a PhD in English got started. Quite possibly it came about from a telephone-game style mutation of Neil’s early stage moniker “The Professor of Drums.” I remember hearing it (and possibly repeating it) back in high school (mid to late 80s). Neil’s obviously a very smart, highly articulate and well-read man but, as it used to say on his web page (I can’t find it anymore—sorry, but his Wikipedia bio has similar info as does Andy Olson), he’s a high school dropout who moved to London from Canada and back again while working odd jobs and playing in unsuccessful bands before hooking up with Geddy and Alex when he was in his early 20s. Then they worked their tails off for several more years touring and recording before making it big. So there was no time for finishing high school, much less college or a PhD in English, but plenty of time for reading tons and tons of books in the back of the tour bus, which is exactly what he did. Rather than spending all his time screwing groupies and sniffing coke, Neil read some pretty heavy stuff, starting with the works of Ayn Rand but branching out greatly from there (thankfully, if you ask me). Hazarding a guess, I suppose the rumor spread as a way of legitimizing one’s own tastes, particularly against parents and other adults like high school English teachers (“fascists” that they are, at least in the minds of high school students).

Of course, this is far from uncommon. By no means comparing Peart’s literary talent—I think Neil would remote-choke me from a distance Darth Vader style if I did—the longstanding debates about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote his plays are similar, the thought being essentially “How could a lowly commoner have written what he did?” Well… let’s just say that thirty years of writing, directing and acting in plays is a pretty strong education on what makes a good play. Mark Twain went through a similarly sordid set of careers, including deserter from the Confederate Navy, before finding success as an author, though no one doubts his existence or authorship. Again, no formal education. Writing is one field where credentials count for relatively little, it turns out.

(2) Marilee Jones was obviously good at her job and it turned out she had a degree, just not the ones she claimed (bizarrely enough she didn’t list the one she did have…). Fraud, at least when it’s been aired in public is something that MIT seems to be unable to deal with. Rather than let it turn into a circus, she did the honorable thing and resigned (possibly with help). I have to concur: for someone in the position of an admissions director, —even if you’re good at your job and have a good message—lying about your credentials is a pretty serious thing. It undercuts your authority to check on students’ credentials. If there was a real remedy for it short of termination, maybe, but I just don’t know what. In this day and age, an honorable resignation seems to be relatively rare. “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” —Voltaire, Candide Translation: In England it is good, from time to time, to kill an admiral to encourage the others. It refers to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757. (If only George W. Bush and his cronies would get the message.)

This seems to be the object of some disagreement, with very well-reasoned opinions like this arguing for something short of termination for dishonesty nearly three decades ago. Unfortunately, universities aren’t very consistent on this point. I recall reading a quote from someone at MIT basically saying “integrity is what we’re about.” I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, MIT has somewhat of a dark reputation among us researchers for being a place where you have to watch your back among your colleagues, who frequently appropriate your ideas for themselves. True? I don’t know since I’ve only interacted with a few people from MIT, but I definitely watch my back around people I don’t know aren’t thieves. This isn’t something I’m entirely happy about since the free exchange of ideas is thereby hampered. I do know from personal experience that cheating and plagiarism are rarely punished. Instructors know better than to take a plagiarizer or cheater to discipline committees, where the instructors get the third degree as often as not—we usually solve the problem by finding a way to give the offender a nasty grade, which is easier than you might think, since plagiarists and cheaters (at least the ones we find out about) aren’t usually top students. A co-author and I were plagiarized by someone (a faculty member at another institution) who copied about a page from one of our articles without quotation or attribution. When called on it, he said essentially “well I can’t be bothered to get my citations right.” (My co-author pursued it but I can’t recall the final outcome.) I know of another case of faculty plagiarism of a student’s thesis that eventually lead to a retraction in the journal. Student and former advisor no longer speak. So universities have no special claim to being ethical… welcome to the human race.

(3) The Super College Admissions Grind What Marilee Jones had become famous for was her stand—as admissions director of MIT—that the college admissions process was overheated and that students needed to cool it. Simply put, it’s not the end of the world to go to a “lesser” university like, oh, U of I, compared to an Ivy, or to go to ISU rather than going to U of I. A lot of what you get out of your education comes from what YOU put in, and finding a school that matches you is the best way to make that happen. Lots of small liberal arts colleges give first rate undergraduate educations, but aren’t on students’ minds because they’ve got their eyes set on Harvard (or U of I). Unfortunately for most high schoolers, college admissions is a time fraught with parental sticker shock and lots of pressure from peers, teachers, family, etc., for whom the success of the prospie becomes a vicarious personal success having more to do with parents’ and high schools’ bragging rights than what’s a good fit for students. It’s also the first real decision that most high school students make and many of them think it’s irrevocable (it’s not), which doesn’t help. Universities often ratchet up the pressure, too, with things like early admissions. So I applaud Jones for trying to cool it down, but still stand by my statement that she had to go for her decades-old fraud and thus did the right thing by stepping down.

(4) Degrees In a very real sense, it’s funny that a college degree is required for many jobs that require them. This is probably going to seem strange to many readers, but it’s true. The vast majority of jobs requiring college degrees do so for no really good reason that relates directly to job performance. So why is it the case that degrees are required? There are a few reasons. One was aptly analyzed by the 2001 Nobel laureate in Economics, Michael Spence, in his dissertation(!). Spence essentially attributes it to the asymmetry of information between employer and employee. Basically, it’s in the incentive of employees to lie about themselves to employers. (Employers, alas, also have incentive to lie to employees about the state of their organization and how well they treat their employees.) As a consequence, prospective employees need to send an expensive signal to prospective employers that they’re serious about the job, so serious they went into debt for a non-trivial amount of money and spent several years of their lives. A college degree also demonstrates some basic educability and stick-to-it-iveness, which is useful. They can’t just talk about how committed they are, because “talk is cheap,” but spending time and money demonstrates it. In all areas of human endeavor the rite of passage is different, but it’s there. Nowdays, a humble Bachelor’s degree ain’t much, since so many people have them, which devalues their role as a signal. Of course, we should expect degree creep. Intelligent organizations will find ways to avoid this treadmill by figuring out ways to let prospective employees regardless of their backgrounds “try out” for a while.

The second big reason is that credentials are used as a barrier to market entry in industries like secondary school teaching or psychotheraphy, just to name two. Here’s where credentialism comes in. There are good reasons for requiring a demonstration of proficiency, but the credentialing system gets hijacked by professional organizations operating as craft guilds and the state being pointlessly bureaucratic (what’s new about that?). Our culture is unhealthily ambivalent towards those of us with advanced degrees: it grants those of us with them an undue amount of respect and deference (why else would fraudsters append the title “Doctor” to their name? why else would there be degree mills letting you get a doctorate for some Benjamins?) but also devalues what we do know when we are seen not to be infallible. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium (well except here and here). It’s amazing how many people try to “gotcha” those of us with alphabet soup after our names, not realizing that relatively trivial knowledge at the top of our heads isn’t what a PhD is about. It’s a research degree that (hopefully) demonstrates one’s ability to undertake an independent line of inquiry, which is harder than most people understand but also requires less raw intelligence than many expect, too. Certainly it doesn’t make one universally competent, though there are plenty of people with (and without) PhDs who think so.

It’s always amusing when someone’s words and efforts come back to bite them in the ass and its especially gratifying when a politician spends millions on attack ads, succeeds in imprinting a memetic theme into the national lexicon, and then has it used against him.

In the last Illinois Gubernatorial election, Rod Blagojevich launched a year long, expensive, negative television campaign against challenger Judy Baar Topinka. These ads were characterized by black and white images of Ms. Trobinka with the video and words sufficiently out of sync to portray her as a recent stroke victim, with a sad “I don’t quite understand how she could have gone so bad” undertone, followed by the now immortal tag line:

What was she thinking?

Estimated to have been viewed over 200 times by the average Illinois citizen, Ms. Topinka’s public image suffered to the point where she was unable to recover. She lost the Governorship.

Now Governor Rod, in his effort to “support” (pay off) those who funded his re-election campaign (the Illinois Education Association, the American Hospital Association, and the Unions) has proposed the Gross Business Receipts Tax, and is bypassing the mostly hostile legislature by appealing to the people with slick ads (view ad). He has in support the Citizens for Tax Fairness, Health Care and Education who have been running their own continuous slick ads. A quick look at the structure of this PAC shows that the principle contributors are (surprise!) the Illinois Educational Association, The American Hospital Association, etc.

But this tax is so bad, that the business community has responded by creating their own Illinois Coalition for Jobs, Growth and Prosperity, which is issuing their response ads. Listening to one such ad on the radio, the mandatory paid for by the Illinois Coalition verbiage was followed by a woman asking:
“If Mr. Blagojevich were standing here right now, I would have one question for him.”

Mr. Blagojevich, What were you thinking?

[Quick Update: Between the time I wrote this, and its publication, the Illinois House held a “test vote” on the Governor’s Gross Retail Tax proposal. Total for the tax: 0; total against: 107; balance conveniently absent. Even more amusing, on the day before the vote, the Governor issued a statement suggesting that the representatives vote NO on his own proposal. Moral: Those at the vanguard of the charge should occasionally look behind them and see if anyone is following.

Now one has to wonder, given the cost of running a high impact television add campaign for several months, what better use the IEA, AHA, etc. could have made with that money (perhaps some paper for the school copy machine.) One can also speculate that if the various groups were confortable with the risk of investing that sort of capital, then perhaps the anticipated payback (payoff) was larger than what was actually made public.

As as for the Governor, his lament that the only recourse after the failed GRT will be to delete billions in services to reign in the budget—well that is what the blowdried, empty-headed troll should have done in the first place.

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

—Sam Cooke, “What a Wonderful World”

If only things were as simple as that. Feeling uncreative and inspired by the recent French election for president that returned a victory for President Sarkozy, I’ve decided to write some largely disconnected historical oddities that tug at the chains of some shibboleths about many Americans’ favorite country to hate—France. (Lacking a knee-jerk hatred of France, I often come across as a francophile, which simply ain’t true. I just believe in “fair and balanced” and find x-ophobia and assorted other tribalisms juvenile, akin, perhaps, to the average teenage girl’s “hatred” of her parents. This will not make me more popular with friends who like being x-ophobes but screw ’em.) Sarkozy’s election is truly a big thing, since he’s really not part of the traditional political elite and, furthermore, is the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant. Lest we forget, France was the center of European antisemitism before Deutschland stole that dubious mantle in the 1930s. Only time will tell….

The French Bailed Us Out in the Revolution Yes, this is true (doubtless in this day and age, many Americans forget or, even worse, never did know), and there were many Frenchmen, the Marquis de Lafayette being the most famous example, who served in or alongside the Continental Army. Lafayette, in case you forgot your high school history, was among Washington’s most successful tactical commanders along with Horatio Gates and, of course, Benedict Arnold* (before he turned his coat). The victory at Yorktown depended greatly on the French Navy having defeated the British Navy in the Battle of the Chesapeake (the only major defeat of the Royal Navy) just prior and imposing a blockade on Yorktown’s sea access. While many Americans had a warm fuzzy about France, the French crown, along with the Spanish and Dutch, supported revolution in America primarily to stick it to their rival Great Britain, who had defeated France in what is commonly referred to in the USA as the French and Indian War and in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. In truth it was the first globalized “world” war. In other words, from their perspective it was a good old fashioned proxy war akin to many bankrolled by the Soviet Union and the USA in the Cold War. Many of the Frenchmen who served in America went home radicalized and contributed directly to the French Revolution, so the French crown didn’t come out so well in the bargain, especially in 1791. By the 1790s, the USA and France were fighting an undeclared naval war.

Since much of our current relationship with France is loaded by memories World War II and the decade afterwards, here are a few entertaining moments:

The French Did Fight in 1940 While the defeat of France in the 1940 invasion is something the German Army is justly known for, the common French solider certainly did fight—about 100,000 of them died in roughly one month’s fighting, which simply doesn’t happen if you just throw in the towel. The Germans got some lucky breaks at crucial points and things could have been VERY different if a few relatively small battles had gone otherwise. Still, as Louis Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind” and the French generals of early World War II were certainly not prepared minds, unlike Rommel and Guderian.

The First Enemy The US Army Fought in Europe Was Not the Germans In fact, the first large-scale engagements occurred during Operation Torch in November 1942, where the US Army fought some fairly brief but bloody engagements with Vichy forces in Casablanca and Algiers. Naturally this was largely covered up afterwards….

112 Gripes About the French is an interesting read about problems American soldiers had getting along with the French in 1945 (thanks to AOC for the link to this a long time ago). Here is a story about it and a bit of digging turned up an HTML version (sadly full of typos) of it here.

The French Got Us Into Vietnam True enough, though we really dropped the ball in the 1940s when the colonial powers waved the red flag of communism in front of us and we squandered the ability to deal with nationalist leaders like Ho Chi Minh, basically giving them right into the arms of the Soviet Union. How did we do this? By backing colonialism in the post-World War II time as opposed to, say, indicating that most of the colonies needed to be put on a timetable for independence, much like we responsibly did with the Philippines before the war. Whatever else you might say, we sure can’t blame the French for our numerous sins of the 1960s, e.g., William Westmoreland’s ineptness as a commander in the crucial years of 1964-1968.

Now to more modern times:

The French Are Demographically Doomed. While it’s certainly the case that they have economic issues and serious social unrest (not dissimilar, perhaps, to problems the US had in the 60s through 80s), one thing the French don’t have is a demographic crisis like the rest of Europe, who are in for a rough time indeed as they literally run out of young people over the next few decades. Their Total Fertility Rate—the average number of children born per woman over her fertile lifetime—of 2.0 is only slightly smaller than the USA value of 2.1. This is a hair under replacement level. And, no, it’s not just immigrants having kids, though they do have a higher birth rate, much like immigrants in the USA. By contrast, the UK has a 1.7 and Germany has a 1.4. Very little compares to Russia, though, with both a TFR of 1.4 and a giant death rate, though I guess Japan’s downright amazing TFR of 1.2 might. These numbers all come from the CIA World Fact Book, rounded to one decimal place. This is a compendium of open source material on countries; TFR comes from the Census Bureau. So if they can get their economy jump-started, at least they’ve got enough people, many of whom are quite well-educated, to fill the spots. Obviously losing the sclerotic leadership is a must. (We should also not forget that our own employment numbers are artificially inflated by the large number of prisoners, who aren’t counted as unemployed.)

Now for food:

The French Did Not Invent French Fries The term french fries comes from “french-cut” which refers to slicing the long way. The french fried potatoes we all know and love were invented in Belgium, from what I understand. Freedom fries, on the other hand, were brought to us as a publicity stunt by former Rep. Bob Ney (R.-Ohio), who’s now in the clink for giving Jack Abramoff massages with happy endings.

McDonald’s Does Good Business in France See here. It seems that lots of Royales with Cheese get sold there. (Segolene Royale might have sold better avec du fromage.) Per capita, McDonald’s does better in France than in the USA…. Ah, the irony.

*Several days ago, when I was in the barbershop, they had Rush Limbaugh on because the cable TV was down and the traditional Price is Right was unavailable. Personally, Rush is a nitwit, but he was proving his general ignorance (or pandering to his sycophantic listeners’) by comparing Harry Reid to Benedict Arnold. Now one can complain about Harry Reid’s loose lips and disagree with his leadership or policy positions, but he sure isn’t a Benedict Arnold: one of the single most highly successful generals of his age and quite possibly the savior of the Revolution at the Battle of Saratoga. Alas his ambition and resentment got the better of him and he turned his coat. Suffice it to say, Arnold is a figure straight out of another time and has more in common with the likes of Alcibiades or some Byzantine general than a hack pol like Harry Reid.

Recently, Governor and Presidential Candidate Bill Richardson could not restrain himself from sharing his plan for resolving the terrible “Crisis in Iraq” (cue CNN theme music). Certain that his brilliance would be displayed for all to see, Gov. Richardson dazzled us with this bold and innovative plan to resolve this ongoing “problem of our time:”

Which boils down to (my gentle musings following in italics):

  1. Set a hard timetable to withdraw in 2007, and make sure all factions of Iraq know we’ll be leaving whatever happens.
    (Rise up in civil revolt? We’re leaving. Execute 10,000 Sunnis in a single a day? We’re leaving. Gas 100,000 Shias with Sarin during a festival? We’re leaving… After all, they’re only brown people. They don’t feel pain like we do, so the huge body counts won’t interfere with their rationally seeking a solution to the violence.)
  2. Remove all troops.
    (Including all those training the Iraqis. “Bye-bye, guys, and good luck—you’ll need it!”)
  3. Since Bush won’t do 1-2 for some reason, use the War Powers Act to force him. Which of course the Administration will take to the Supreme Court.
    (Perhaps that case will be resolved before 2008… In the meantime, since the only power Congress actually has is the purse, you can only “force” Bush by removing all funds for the troops, in the field, during a war. Good one, Bill, that’ll play well for you in 2008.)
  4. Have a nice conference to get the Iraqis to iron everything out.
    (I’m sure that will work. Especially because of #1! Tell me, Bill, just what incentives do the extremists and militias have to deal, given that the biggest barrier to more sectarian violence will be leaving by December? Oh, well, it’s only brown people!)
  5. Trust Syria and Iran to do the right thing. Really.
    (I’m sure we can trust them, because, well… Okay, I’m not really sure why Bill thinks that they will suddenly be overwhelmed with a desire not to meddle in Iraq. I mean, it’s not like Iran and Syria would be fighting over a hugely important country in a pivotal place in the region or anything. Oh, and perhaps the Turks will be happy to contribute to that peacekeeping force. Say, 500,000 “peacekeepers” for Iraqi Kurdistan. Of course they’ll have to forcibly disarm those pesky Kurds, but I’m sure dead Kurdish kids are a price he’s happy to pay for peace. I mean, heck, they’re only brown people…)
  6. Yes, let’s a have a fund raiser for Iraqi reconstruction.
    (Actually, this isn’t a bad idea. I’m sure lots of nations will promise billions, since they know they’ll never have to actually pay—since funds won’t be dispersed until Iraq stabilizes itself. So really, never, except perhaps a few billions to bury the 10 million dead when it’s all over.)
  7. Redeploy to, ah, somewhere. Kuwait is mentioned, because, you know, that isn’t right next to Iraq and kinda on the Arabian peninsula (depending upon which wackjob you ask).
    (I’m sure Al Qaeda, Iran, and Syria will be fine with a huge number of US troops permanently camped in Kuwait. You betcha! Also, Bill, what happened to “Bring the troops home. All of them.” Is it really a good idea to start breaking campaign promises at the start of the campaign?)

We risk being dazzled by the brilliance, of course, but Bill’s final summary deserves to be quoted verbatim:

We also must bring our National Guard home where they are needed for homeland security, and we must focus our energy and resources on real threats, such as nuclear proliferation, Al Qaeda, public health, and global warming.

If Bill had been running in 1952, I’m sure his platform would have been to get out of Korea, so that those nice Koreans could settle everything. We could relocate our troops to, oh, Japan, and concentrate on the real problems of the day. I’m sure that would have worked out really well, Bill!

I suppose Bill wanted to stake out the “unambiguous retreat in the face of hard struggle” position early. A good idea, really, given the general temperment of the Democrats these days. But not, I’m thinking, a sure-fire way to win the country in 2008. Somehow, I think this message will come off a bit inadequate in the face of a Giuliani or McCain. (I would have said “even in comparison to Her Dread Majesty”, but it looks like I would have been wrong about that.)

Tell me, Bill, whatever happened to “You broke it, you bought it” as the Dems liked to tell the Republicans after the 2003 invasion? Oh, yes, the Dems managed to get power in 2006 and no longer want a difficult war to worry about. Once again, I was thinking of the brown people as actually human and deserving decent lives. Stupid me.

Of course, persumably, Bill Richardson also believes that Iraqis shouldn’t be gunned down on the streets for taking the wrong position in a 1300 year old theological debate. Just not enough to think that they’re worth American lives. Or American time. Or American attention. Well, I’m sure that relying upon international consensus will work as well in Iraq as it has worked in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Bye-bye Iraqi liberals, feminists, and democrats—sorry you actually put faith in your liberal American brothers! Maybe, one day you’ll learn that the American New Left has only one word for their foreign brothers in the struggle when the going gets hard:


For the first time since it OK’d the likes of parental notification laws, the SCOTUS has agreed to allow some modicum of restriction on abortion. Pro-abortion advocates are, as usual, predicting the immediate destruction of Western civilization, since a tiny chink in the armor of death has been created by the SCOTUS. Pro-life advocates are dancing in the streets for “victory” over the forces of abortion, despite the fact that the partial-birth abortion (PBA) procedure is rarely used, and given Justice Kennedy’s comments, the law will be eviscerated by the Court in a few years’ time anyway.

The problem, from a legal perspective, with the PBA ban is the same problem the SCOTUS found with Nebraska’s PBA ban a few years back — there’s no legal exception for the health of the mother (a life of the mother exception is included). The framers of the bill left it out, because the “health exception” in US abortion law basically means “abortion on demand.” As it has been noted many times this is wide open for abuse. Thus, a law banning PBA with a health exception in it is completely meaningless.

The Court’s basic logic is that the PBA ban restricts a procedure and does nothing to effect the availability of abortion. This is true. Besides, during late term pregnancies where PBA is used, it’s much more common to dismember the fetus in utero, rather than than in the “partial birth” framework. So the lack of a health exception is no big problem, the court ruled, just do the dirty deed in utero, and you’re golden.

Despite the fact that Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, he’s already attached his own caveats to his ruling. An AP/Yahoo article notes, “[Justice] Kennedy said the court could entertain a challenge in which a doctor found it necessary to perform the banned procedure on a patient suffering certain medical complications.”

Translation: Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggest that he’s willing to leave the “health exception” implicit and keep the law for now (and entertain it in a challenge should when it comes up later). You can see Chief Justice Roberts’ influence on this ruling — it’s minimalistic and deals with things on an as-needed basis. When the challenge occurs, the SCOTUS would likely either ditch the law entirely, or carefully carve a “health exception” sized hole in it.

While the ruling injects a modicum of sanity into the abortion debate, it will likely change very little (especially if Kennedy’s invited challenge comes up soon). It is incredibly unlikely that the US will start taking the heath exception seriously (as an exception rather than a blanket permission) any time soon. To us cynics who called it in advance during the Roberts and Alito hearings, the new boss is looking a lot like the old boss.

To the pro-abortion lobby: Stop living, eating, breathing in sleeping your own ridiculous propaganda! Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who noted , “I am afraid the Supreme Court has just opened the door to an all-out assault on” Roe V. Wade, is a textbook example of this recto-cranial inversion. I know you need to rally your troops to stop even the slightest restriction on abortion on demand, much like the NRA does for even the slightest suggestion about restricting the right to own as many honking huge weapons as you could possible want, but please, SHUT UP! This ruling changes nothing and if you’ll stop believing your own propaganda for just a moment, you’ll realize that this changes nothing.

To the pro-life lobby: If this is a “victory” after 30 years of miserable failure in trying to stop abortion, then you really need to raise your standards. Jay Sekulow, the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, noted, “This is the most monumental win on the abortion issue that we have ever had.” If the rest of you feel the “victory” is as “monumental” as Mr. Sekulow does, then you are not just pathetic, but pathetically deluded. Germain Grisez realized that the pro-life movement had failed years ago and that a severe tactical shift was in order. When will the rest of you get a clue?

There seems to be a bit of national security camaraderie in the Nuclear Club. The United States, in the early years, worked out a number of procedures, like the two-man rule and emergency action messages (EAMs) to make the control and handling of nuclear weapons safer (presumably for the issuer, not the receiver). But alas, various events over the era of the Cold War showed that even the best of intentions are usually insufficient to overcome a really determined foe, especially if it’s your own military. This entire set of procedures was generated to insure that nuclear weapon release was under civilian control. In at least one instance, launch codes, established to insure that the National Command Authority was the only authority able to release weapons, were set to 00000000 for extended periods of time. The military did this because they were concerned that release authority would not be granted expeditiously in a real crisis.

So clever people got together and developed some clever techniques. Buried deep within US nuclear weapons is a system that enables “a significant yield”. Which essentially means that, yes—you can blow up the warhead, but without the system enabled, you can’t get a nuclear yield. At best you get a small explosion (and a lot of radioactive debris blown all over). This system is called a PAL or permissive action link. Its operation involves cryptology and interesting tricks to insure that a significant nuclear yield cannot occur unless NCA has authorized release.

Now the really interesting part is that when the Soviet Union clearly demonstrated that they were capable of designing and exploding nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, the United States designers met with and offered their USSR pals information as to how these things worked so that each country would have a high confidence that the warheads were under civilian control and that release could not be compromised. Similarly with the other Club members.

So the argument might apply to Iran, who seems actively engaged in developing such a weapon. Should the US or other countries exchange these techniques with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The answer is a resounding NO! No PALs for our pal Mahmoud. First of all, assuming that Iran does in fact develop a viable weapon, who is likely to control that weapon? (The Mullahs would be the equivalent of civilian control). The Iranian Revolutionary Guard will likely be tasked with actual release coordination. But one may ask — who is it that the Mullahs are most likely to fear? Aside from the usual suspect, it is the Iranian people. And anything the US can do to enable the Iranian people against the ruling regime should be considered. Let the Mullahs find out that owning weapons in Iran is like having a glass house with a $100,000 stereo system in Chicago’s south side. Maybe having a nuclear weapon will turn out to be a nice sharp two edge sword that keeps them looking inwards. So the US should only consider this technology transfer AFTER a intercontinental delivery system is developed . Until then the greatest threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons system will be to itself.

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